Frederick Engels on Dühringian vs. Marxian Socialism: Production

In the antepenultimate chapter of his book Anti-Dühring Engels explains the differences between the “socialism” espoused by Professor Eugen Dühring and the socialism of Karl Marx and himself. Dühring thinks the ideas of Marx are “bastards of historical and logical fantasy” and he seeks to replace them with his own views which are, naturally, the true historical and logical ideas which socialists should adopt.1

Engels will compare his and Marx’s “bastard” progeny with the “legitimate” progeny of Herr Dühring with respect to economic production in this chapter. Dühring rejects any notion of the capitalist production system which claims that economic crises are due to the very nature of the structure of capitalism itself. That is a Marxian fantasy.

For Dühring, Engels says, “crises are only occasional deviations from ‘normalcy’ and at most only serve to promote ‘the development of a more regulated order.'” The Marxists maintain, au contraire, that crises are caused by over-production and this is a structural fault within the capitalist system itself. But Dühring rejects this and writes that the real reason for crises is, in his words, “the lagging behind of popular consumption … artificially produced under-consumption … with the natural growth of the NEEDS OF THE PEOPLE (!), which ultimately make the gulf between supply and demand so critically wide.”

To this Engels replies that the masses have been forced to under-consume throughout history and in every economic system based on class exploitation, therefore under-consumption is not some artificially produced phenomenon but something all class societies share — i.e., that the exploited class never has the value of its yearly production returned to it at the end of the year. The crises of industrial capitalism, however, only date from the the first quarter of the nineteenth century.

Thus, Engels concludes, it is under capitalism that periodic economic crises come into the world and while under-consumption of the masses is a PREREQUISITE it is not the CAUSE of crises. And knowing this, he says, “tells us just as little why crises exist today as why they did not exist before.”

Dühring, in fact, does not think mass markets are all that important anyway. He himself says that capitalist production happens to “depend for its market mainly on THE CIRCLES OF THE POSSESSING CLASSES THEMSELVES.” His confusion becomes only more apparent when he follows up on this by claiming that the most important industries (this is the 1870s remember) are cotton and iron production. But, Engels points out, the production of these two is entirely dependent on a mass market and the possessing class make up only an “infinitesimally small degree” of its market.

Engels then points out that capitalism, by it very need to grow and expand, brings about crises. He says, for example, in England there is just one small town (Oldham) that from 1872 to 1875 doubled its production of spun cotton [the number of its spindles went from 2.5 to 5 million] and this is just one of a dozen small towns around Manchester. Oldham, by the way, produced as much spun cotton as ALL of Germany (including Alsace). This was happening in towns all over Great Britain.

It thus shows “deep-rooted effrontery” on the part of Herr Dühring to blame the English masses for under-consumption rather than the capitalists for over-production when it comes to “the present complete stagnation in the yarn and cloth markets.”2

Engels ends his critique of Herr Dühring’s views on crises but gives a few quotes that demonstrate that Dühring has no idea about capitalism as an economic system but sees everything in terms of the behavior of individuals. If over-speculation and the unplanned building of private factories are responsible for crises we must see that as simply “the ordinary interplay of overstrain and relaxation” of the system and look closely at “the rashness of individual entrepreneurs and the lack of private circumspection” as one of the causes.

The only “rashness” here, Engels maintains, is the habit of turning the facts of economics into “moral reprobation.” This is a problem of our times as well, not just the time of Engels. How often do we hear talk about our current crisis as a product of “greed” on the part of Wall Street bankers and that they should pay their “fair share” of taxes and such rubbish as if the decay of capitalism is a moral disorder on the part of the ruling class instead of a structural disorder that requires the replacement of the system rather than remedial Sunday school classes for the capitalists.

But all this has been treated of in the previous chapter of Anti-Dühring and Engels wants to move on (Cf. “Frederick Engels on the Theoretical Development of Modern Capitalism” in the November 2011 Political Affairs). Engels will now turn his attention to Dühring’s new system of viewing socialism which is called “the natural system of society.”

Dühring bases his system of socialism on what he calls the “universal principle of justice” which applies everywhere and is independent of historical and economic facts. This is enough to disqualify it as idealistic nonsense but Engels wants to philosophically pepper spay Dühring for having the gall to attack Marx for being unclear and fuzzy as to what type of socialism he believes in. It appears that the demands made in the name of the workers in the Communist Manifesto are “erroneous half measures” far inferior to Dühring’s ideas which represent “a comprehensive schematism of great import in human history.”

Marx, according to Dühring, thinks of socialism as “nothing more than the corporative ownership by groups of workers … an ownership that is both individual and social.” Engels is upset because this is far from anything Marx has suggested and in truth actually applies to the system that Dühring has concocted.

Dühring advocates a federation of independent economic communes which compete with one another and which have absolute freedom of movement from one commune to another. In this crazy system the wealthy successful communes will out compete the poorly run communes which will become defunct as the people will all end up moving to the well run ones.

Production within the communes stays the same as production in the past — i.e., the communes are still capitalist in nature even though controlled by the workers. So the greatly touted natural system of justice and the new socialism amounts to the fact, Engels says, that “the commune takes the place of the capitalists.”

What are Dühring’s views on the most basic form of all hitherto existing methods of production — i.e., the division of labor? With respect to the primary division, that between TOWN and COUNTRY (or industry and agriculture) he has little to say beyond some common place remarks about its “inevitable” nature and the possibility of overcoming it in the future. Thin gruel from Engels’ point of view.

When it comes to the modern division of labor in trade and industry Dühring is very vague and only says that we have an “erroneous division of labor” and that all will be remedied in the future “as soon as account is taken of the various natural conditions and personal capabilities [of the workers].” Engels doesn’t say so, but Dühring’s views here are suspiciously similar to those of Plato in the Republic and very far from the socialist analysis of Marx to which Engels now turns.

Marx tells us that in all societies where production springs up “spontaneously” (including capitalism) we discover the means of production dominate the people not the other way around. The first great division of labour saw the development of towns and cities surrounded by peasant agriculturalists. This division has doomed rural people for thousands of years, Marx says, to “mental torpidity” and enslaved the town dwellers to their own specialized trade. This “stunting” of humanity increases with the increase of the division of labor.

Under capitalism the workers become tied to their machines and to one specific function and one tool. Capitalism, Marx says in Das Kapital “converts the laborer into a crippled monstrosity. by forcing his detail dexterity at the expense of a world of productive capabilities and instincts…. The individual himself is made the automatic motor of a fractional operation.” How much this has been alleviated by the modern day union movement varies from country to country and in proportion to the percentage of workers who are unionized. The large number of working people in the US for example, that vote Republican shows that “mental torpidity” is not confined to the rural populations of Texas, Iowa or Alaska (to name a few).

It is not just the workers who suffer under the present day division of labor but also, Engels says, the “empty-minded bourgeois” chasing after profits (Donald Trump comes to mind), the lawyers dominated by “fossilized legal conceptions” and so-called “educated classes” of society plagued by “local narrow-mindedness” and “mental short-sightedness”– just think of the tribe of Sunday morning news pundits paraded before the public by all the major TV networks, or the platoons of professors giving advice about everything under the sun and hardly agreeing on anything other than that capitalism is still the best of all possible economic formations.

But how are we to overcome this division of labor and the consequent alienation of humanity from its potentials and possibilities? One way only says Engels: “in making itself the master of all the means of production to use them in accordance with a social plan, society puts an end to the former subjection of men to their own means of production.” In other words, socialism based on central planning and most importantly — a feature historically absent in 20th century socialist societies due to their premature appearance in economically backward conditions — planning democratically controlled and carried out by the working people themselves. The former alienating division of labor will be done away with as “society cannot free itself unless every individual is freed.”

Engels says that this is not just a “fantasy” or a “pious wish.” He maintains that the state of industrial development in the 1870s is so advanced that society could “reduce the time required for labour to a point which measured by our present conceptions, will be small indeed.” This figure needs to be actually quantified — but the point is all the goodies needed to live and thrive could be created with people just working a few hours a week and with no one being chained to any one boring and unsatisfying job. The growth in productivity since Engels’ day must make this even more true today.

Engels quotes Das Kapital: “The employment of machinery does away with the necessity of crystallizing this distribution [of labor-tr] after the manner of Manufacture, by the constant annexation of a particular man to a particular function. Since the motion of the whole system does not proceed from the workman, but from the machinery, a change of persons can take place at any time without an interruption of the work….”

Modern capitalism with its constant crises and dislocations of industrial centers and working people and financial catastrophes makes, Marx says, it necessary that we posit as a “fundamental law of production, variation of work” so that modern workers have to be ready to change jobs and learn new skills or leave the labor market. This disrupts lives and threatens widespread social disorder. Only socialist planning and a system that puts people before profits can prevent society from self destructing under the contradictions generated by the present capitalist world market which, in the name of profits first and people last, fragments both human individuals and their social relations with others which inevitably results from the private appropriation of socially created wealth.

Engels also says that the abolition of capitalism and the development “one single vast plan” which harmoniously “dovetails” industry and the means of production so that the differences between town and country are overcome is a prerequisite to overcoming environmental degradation and “present poisoning the air water and land.” To this must be added the current disaster of human induced global warming which simply cannot be dealt with as long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system. This problem was not seen in Engels’ day and now, despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of impending doom, the various capitalist powers are unwilling to take the drastic regulatory measures needed to deal with the problem.

Engels maintains that none of these claims he is making is “utopian” but that they are logical conclusions of scientific central planning and the abolition of the difference between town and country. It looks as if the towns, or rather the great cities (such as New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Beijing, etc., etc., will have be abolished as well! Engels says that it “is true that in the huge towns civilization has bequeathed us a heritage which it will take much time and trouble to get rid of.” But, “the great towns will perish.”

No, this is not Pol Pot, it is Frederick Engels and he is saying this because he envisions a complete redistribution of the population under socialism in order to get the “most equal distribution possible of modern industry.” So the abolition of the separation of town and country means the abolition of the cities. They must and will be eliminated “however protracted a process it may be.” This might just be a little too “utopian” and perhaps with the progress of science and communications since the 1870s, especially the growth of the internet, the contradictions between town and country can be resolved without offing the Big Apple.

In any event, leaving the abolition of cities aside, the point Engels wants to make is that Dühring’s view of socialism leaves out of account that building socialism will necessitate “revolutionizing from top to bottom the old method of production and first of all putting an end to the old division of labour.” Dühring thinks that the state can just take over production as is and harmonize it to people’s “natural appetites and personal capabilities.” He also thinks the division between town and country is natural and inevitable and has no plan for putting an end to the alienation and crippling of human capabilities that result from this division.

So much for Engels’ critique of Dühringian socialism’s handling of production. In the penultimate chapter of Anti-Dühring Engels will discuss the problems of distribution.

  1. Anti-Dühring Part III Chapter III “Production.” []
  2. Engels is referring to an economic crises of the 1870s. []

Thomas Riggins is currently the associate editor of Political Affairs online. Read other articles by Thomas.