Why Was Karl Marx So Disparaging Of

The Utopian Socialists Essay, Research Paper

In order to answer the question posed, I will examine what is meant by the term Utopian Socialism. With reference to this question I will conduct a brief biographical study of one of the great utopian socialist thinkers, Robert Owen. This will include an examination of the accomplishments of Robert Owen. The essay will then move on to examine the central criticisms of the utopian socialists as levelled by Karl Marx.

The term Utopian Socialism as defined in the Dictionary of Politics highlights Utopianism as “An approach to social or political theory based upon the design of a perfect society”. (Robertson, (1993) pg 479) Such thinkers as Owen and St Simon dreamt of “class unity rather than the abolition of classes”. (Marx and Engels, (1848) pg 73) Marx was highly critical of the belief that there could ever be such a situation that would promote class unity. Marx went on to argue that “the utopians dreamt of class unity rather than the abolition of class. The utopians are belated enlightenment idealists who think their blueprint could simply be imposed on the world”. ( Marx and Engels, (1848), pg134).

Robert Owen in order to test his political theory purchased a huge spinning mill at New Lanarkshire. His experiences and experiments would prove to make him famous and spawn his many ideas of socialist/communal living. After becoming owner of the mill Owen became aware of the awful conditions under which many of the workers lived. The mere fact that Owen was the owner of the factory brought much scorn from the likes of Marx and Engels. Marx argued that “in the formation of their plans, they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interest of the working class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them”. (Marx and Engels (1848, pg 73) It us clear that Marx was to use the fact that Owen was a member of the bourgeoisie to deride Owen’s utopian blueprint.

Owen’s political theory was instrumental in the instigation of improvements within the following areas: housing, reduction of working hours, child employment, education and raising living conditions. This led the utopian socialists to argue that is was possible to witness a peaceful and productive industrial community. Marx however argued that due to the dawning of a new industrial era “society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat”. ( Marx and Engels, (1848), pg 33)

Owen became convinced that the advancement of humankind could be furthered by the improvement of every individual’s personal environment. He reasoned that since “character was moulded by circumstances, then improved circumstances would lead to goodness” (Web page, A Web of English History, 11/04/02) This was a far cry from the revolutionary ideals of Marx and Engels who argued that the advancement of human kind would only be seen when the “workers of the world unite” (Marx and Engels, (1848) pg 72)

One of the most crucial components of Owen’s political theory is that of morality. This attitude manifests itself in several ways. In its philosophical outlook of the world Owen believed that one’s surroundings at birth would determine how an individual would behave. In other words, “society creates the character of the individual and he is at its mercy. Men do no wrong; they are impelled by their surroundings”. (Sargant, (1971), pg 4) Marx would argue that man, far from being impelled by his surroundings “can and must liberate himself”. (Marx and Engels (1848, pg 41)

In terms of political change Owen and many of the utopian socialists argued that the working class would not take part in political agitation. “Owen was convinced that through representative government that was tolerant, prosperity and happiness would be achievable by all”. (Pollard and Salt, 1971, pg 42) Marx and Engels were critical of Owen’s belief that governments could be tolerant and representative. They argued that in order that, “classes with conflicting economic interest, shall not consume themselves and society in fruitless struggle, it became necessary to have a power seemingly standing above society that would moderate the conflict and keep it within the bounds of ‘order’; and this power, arisen out of society but placing itself about it and alienating itself more and more from it, is the state”. (Engels, (1884), pg 205-6) It is clear to follow Engels’ view that far from a representative government instigating happiness and prosperity, as the government consisted of the bourgeoisie, it would be the bourgeoisie that prospered yet again at the expense of the proletariat.

Another criticism by Marx of the utopian ideology was that he did not see the utopian ideology as being scientific. He believed that the utopians constructed ideas through thought, believing that if man could simply accept the utopian ideals then society’s problems would be solved. This approach which “consists of working out in one’s head the

Student ID No 11039772

Modern European Thought

Why was Karl Marx so disparaging of the utopian socialists?

answer to the world’s problems” (Eddy, 1979, pg 88) was totally rejected by Marx. He saw socialism as a science that came about as a result of conflict from within existing forces in society. He argued that only through society progression would any solutions for the major social problems that existed be found.

In their book, “The German Ideology”, by Marx and Engles, they stated in direct contradiction to the utopian way of thinking that, “It is a matter not of setting out from what men say, imagine, conceive, nor from men as narrated, thought of, imagined, conceived, in order to arrive at men in the flesh; but of setting out from real, active men, and on the basis of their real life process demonstrating the development of the ideological reflexes and echoes of this life-process”. (Marx and Engels (1848) pg 43) Here Marx and Engels are arguing that it is not sufficient to just believe in a theory or think of a theory. There has to be empirical evidence that will give a good indication of the way forward. Marx as a journalist and a political agitator was committed to his belief that “the efforts to understand the social processes, which were afoot, and the political efforts to create such a society, required a rigorous scientific study of man and society. (Fletcher, (1971) pg 341)

Marx was adamant in his belief that it was a scientific fact that socialism would be a conclusion to a track in history whereby slave society led to a feudal society, feudalism led to a capitalist society and capitalism would eventually lead to socialism. This idea was challenged by the utopians that argued that even if capitalism did lead to socialism then it would not necessarily be scientific. They argued that if capitalism did indeed collapse, then it did not automatically follow that socialism would be born from that. They construed that although the workers could revolt as predicted by Marx, that they could revolt in support of new rulers “who denounced the old set of rulers and clamped down their own rule, their own exploitation of the workers”. (Eddy, 1979, pg 100) Marx goes on to argue that “what the utopiasts have never grasped, namely that socialism must be the outcome of a historical evolution, and that this evolution must be brought to pass by a self conscious and independent movement on the part of the working class”. (Eddy, (1979), pg 91)

Owen and the utopian socialist movement were at the forefront in the organising of the early Trade union movement as well as the co – operative societies which were working class based organisations. Owen was fundamental in promoting the interests of the working man. After selling his shares in New Lanakshire, Owen realised that although his ideas were not highly regarded by the middle and upper classes that they were spreading amongst the working classes and within the new trade union movement. His ideas of the co-operatives were being more widely accepted and shops and work shops were opening around the country. The reforms that Owen had been fighting for, for over 20 years, such as shorter working hours and the fight against child labour were being adopted and in 1832 Owen proposed that the unions should unite and in “1834 the Grand National Consolidated Trade Union was formed.” The ethos behind the Trade Union being that : “National arrangements shall be formed to include all the working classes in the great organisation” (Web Page, Robert Owen, 18/04/02)

During the birth of the Trade union movement Marx initially appeared to be in favour stating that “Unions are ramparts for the workers in their struggle for social revolution against employers.” (Web Page, Hymen, 18/04/02, pg 6) However, Marx later began to criticise trade unions implying that the “trade union movement was in the hands of leaders who were corrupt in a material and ideological sense. (Web Page, Hymen, 18/04/02 , pg 9)

Whilst it could be argued that Marx placed much emphasis on the organisation of the working class it would appear that his criticism of the utopians in their failure to promote class-consciousness is somewhat unfair. Indeed, it could be argued that the membership of the trade union movement within Britain alone could challenge the membership for any Marxist revolutionary movement. In Britain in 1999 there were 7.9 million people that were members of trade unions. (Web page, Number of Trade Union Members, 18/0402). By any stretch of the imagination, these figures would seem to be over and above the number of supporters of the Marxist movement. During the course of my research, I contacted the Revolutionist Communist Party of Britain in order to give comparative figures, this is the replay I received. “Thanks for your interest. We are a relatively small force, but we don’t think the obsession with who is large and who is small is very productive. Some organisations grow, some shrink. The main issue is whether an

organisation addresses the concerns of the masses of the people, or whether it is focuses on the narrow concerns of a few. Our Party is concerned to end its marginalisation from political affairs, in the sense that this marginalisation represents the sidelining of the concerns of the masses of the people and their collectives. Meanwhile the prevailing

Student ID No 11039772

Modern European Thought

Why was Karl Marx so disparaging of the utopian socialists?

agenda is set by the rich and powerful. We encourage everyone to join in, in ending their own political marginalisation!” (Roger Nettleship for National Office RCPB, 20/04/02)

In concluding this essay, I have come to realise the importance of one’s political beliefs and values and how, to some of us it is not just important to have a voice but also to attempt to make our voices heard in practical ways. As a complete novice to the works of men like Marx and Owen I have found this assignment to be extremely thought provoking. Not only have I examined the theories of Marx and Owen and men like them but I have also delved into the depths of my own moral consciousness to try and determine if I agree with one particular theory or another. In examining Marx disparagement of the utopian socialists I found myself being somewhat critical of both.

On the one hand I can fully appreciate Owens dedication to improving the conditions of the working man. I can understand his thinking that if we change the environment around us that we can therefore change our lifestyle. However, this is not scientific fact and my criticism with the utopian approach would be that this gradualist approach has failed to bridge the huge chasms that exist within our society. Equality in my opinion only exists within a utopian ideal.

On the other hand, even though I can agree with the ethos behind Marx’s revolutionary ideology, and I can see that his theories are based on scientific fact I have determined that the majority of society is so socially conditioned to living within a capitalist society that the revolution that Marx predicts will never manifest itself because people of all classes are too content to live with the comforts which capitalism provides and are either conditioned to ignore, or choose to ignore the hardships and poverty that goes hand in hand with capitalism. Therefore they will never be capable of discarding the chains which Marx believed binds them. I do however feel that I can safely conclude that Marx’s disparagement of the utopian socialists can be justified.

Word Count 1874

Modern European Thought

Why was Karl Marx so disparaging of the utopian socialists?


Eddy W.H.C, Understanding Marxism, Basil Blackwell Ltd, (1979) Australia

Elster J, An Introductin to Karl Marx, The Press Syndicate, University of Cambridge, (1995) Cambridge

Gamble A, Marsh D and Tant T, Marxism and Social Science, Macmillon Press Ltd, (1999) Hampshire

Marx K and Engels F, The Communist Manifesto, (1848)

Payne G, Social Divisions, Macmillon Press Ltd, (2000) Hampshire

Sargant, W.L Robert Owen and his Social Philosophy, (New York AMS Press, (1971) New York

Smith Roger, the Fontana history of the HUMAN SCIENCES, HarperCollins Publishers, (1997) London











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