Idealism, Materialism and Socialism

In Socialism:

Utopian and Scientific Engels points out that in Hegel’s idealist philosophy there was no scope of socialism because his main concern was absolute idea or world spirit. The evolution of history through dialectic will culminate in world spirit or absolute idea.

But according to Engels this does not portray the real picture of society because materialism has no link with absolute idea; it is connected with real situation, the sorrows and sufferings of ordinary people and their attempt to emancipate them from the miseries and sorrows. Thus though the relationship between dialectic and socialism is quite logical, socialism is not directly related with dialectic.

It is evident from Hegel’s philosophy. Hegel dealt with dialectic but not with socialism. Hegel had freed history from metaphysics—he had made it dialectic, but his conception of history was essentially idealistic. But now idealism was driven from its last refuge, the philosophy of history, now a materialistic treatment of history was propounded…. Socialism was no longer an accidental discovery of this or that ingenious brain, but the necessary outcome of the struggle between two historically developed classes—the proletariat and the bourgeoisie.

Two points are clear here. One is after capitalism socialism is the inevitable consequence. The other point is the workers—or what Marx and Engels have called proletarians—will have to intensify the conflict between the two major classes of capitalist society. Therefore, behind the setting up of socialism there is a positive as well as revolutionary role of the proletarians.

Old and New Socialism:

There is a difference in Engels’ assessment between old socialism and new (Marxian) socialism. The adherents of old socialism or socialism of the Utopian thinkers were pained at the sight of growing impoverishment and misery of the working class and they were confident that only socialism could give relief. But they could not proceed from this. They left the emancipation to the mercy and goodwill of the capitalists.

The propounders of new socialism (Marx and Engels) entered into the deep of the various aspects of socialism. They investigated the causes and suggested methods. The capitalists were making abnormal profit through the sale of product produced by the workers and the workers were paid minimum wage simply to maintain their day to day lives.

The difference between the price of the commodity and the cost of production was so high that the capitalists were not only able to earn fabulous amount of profit the productive system was so arranged as to build up a citadel of wealth. Marx called this exploitation. This is also known as unpaid labour.

This type of exploitation was not fully understood by the earlier socialists. The rising volume of surplus value was also another reason of the misery of the workers. Engels writes: “These two great discoveries—the materialistic conception of history and the revelation of the secret of the capitalistic production through surplus value we owe to Marx. With these discoveries socialism became a science”. Socialism of the past period was primarily based on imagination. It could not explain materialistic aspect with reason.

Two Phases of Socialism:

The analysis so far made beyond any shadow of doubt reveals that “socialism is the product of the laws of development of capitalism. The form or forms which socialism might take would only be revealed by the historical process which was still unfolding”.

In other words, socialism is nothing but the product of social, economic and political conditions created by the capitalist development. Marx’s most important text containing his basic conception about socialism is the Critique of the Gotha Programme (written in 1875 and published in 1891 eight years after his death).

In his book he distinguishes between two phases of socialism or two stages of a communist society. The first phase of the communist society is the one that has emerged or developed from the capitalist society. So the first phase of communist society bears in every respect the birthmarks of the old society that is the capitalist society, from whose Womb it has come.

The main feature of the first phase of the communist society is that it will carry with it all the marks of capitalism. But Marx has convinced us that the first phase of the communist society cannot be a permanent system.

It slowly but steadily converts itself into a better and perfect form of society. He does not assure us how much time the transition would take. But he was sure that the first phase will turn into final form of socialism. His confidence lies in the fact that there are contradictions in the first phase and dialectic will bring an end to it.

Features of the First Phase:

Marx has pointed out some features of the first or lower phase of communist society.

Some of them may briefly be stated here:

(1) The first phase will not be free from the shortcomings of the capitalist society and according to Marx this is inevitable.

(2) The means of production will no longer be private property of individuals. These will be collectively owned by the society as a whole.

(3) Everyone will have to work and in exchange of his work he will receive consumption goods which we may call remuneration.

(4) Every worker will receive from the common fund as much as he has given to the society.

(5) This involves equal right and it is the main (Marx calls it supreme) feature of the first phase of communist society.

(6) Another feature has been pointed out by Marx in the above book : “With an equal performance of labour and hence an equal share in the social consumption fund, one in fact will receive more than the other, one will be richer than another”.

(7) In the first phase there shall prevail equal right and this equal right is certainly bourgeois right which like every right presupposes inequality.

Marx, in the light of the above features, says that these defects are inevitable in the first phase of communist society because it has emerged after the prolonged birth- pangs from capitalist society. We have already noted that these are the contradictions.

These will clear the way for another revolution and that is why Joseph Stalin urged for permanent revolution. What Joseph Stalin emphasised was that only one revolution was quite incapable of setting up a communist society, a series of revolutions were required.

Features of the Higher Phase:

In order to throw light on the higher phase of communist society we shall quote a large passage from the Critique of the Gotha Programme:

In a higher phase of communist society after the enslaving subordination to the division of labour and therewith also the antithesis between mental and physical labour, has vanished, after labour has become not only a means of life but life’s prime want— after the productive forces have also increased with the all-round development of the individual and all the springs of cooperative wealth flow more abundantly—only then can the narrow horizon of bourgeois right be crossed in its entirety and society inscribe on its banners: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.

In the higher phase of communist society there shall not exist any state, it will wither away, because the necessity of state lies in its ability to suppress the proletarians and foster or favour bourgeois class. In the capitalist system’ the state acts as an instrument. In the communist society since there will not be any class, there will not be any state. If there is no state freedom will have its new dimensions.

Marx, Engels and Lenin firmly believed that state and its functions were opposite to individual liberty. “So long as the state exists there is no freedom, when there will be freedom there will not be a state”. In a higher phase there will not be any sign of antithesis between mental and physical labour.


Marxian brand of socialism has failed to garner unequivocal support from all quarters of society. Marx and Engels collected materials from the well-developed capitalist society of Britain because British capitalism was matured (at least partially) when Marx and Engels were writing. But, ‘unfortunately, socialism of Marx could not spread its roots in British system and the main reason suggested by many is the British working class did not lend support to revolutionary socialism.

In Britain there has developed a long tradition of parliamentary form of government. In this tradition there is practically no place of militant agitation, class struggle and revolution. People are accustomed to democratic methods of agitation and naturally this system cannot accept insurrectionary ways of dislodging the government. The result is though the workers in Britain are exploited by the capitalists their interests in revolutionary way of changing the system is almost nil.

Marx himself admitted that revolution or class struggle would not fall from sky. Though the emergence of socialism is, to some extent inevitable, workers must organise themselves and make preparation for revolution. But the workers of most of the countries are not prepared at all for such preparation. This in the past stood in the way of revolution.

The psychological preparation of all workers and other people (who are exploited) is another precondition of revolution and it has been found that this has not happened. Workers, it is alleged, are not psychologically prepared. Moreover, for any revolution, sacrifice is necessary.

In all the capitalist states the counter-revolutionary forces are so powerful that it is very difficult for the revolutionaries to fight with them and achieve success. The capitalists, through their pervasive controlling machinery, control the civil society and the superstructure. This enables them to resist any attack from the revolutionaries. In other words there is a perceptible imbalance of power between the pro- revolutionaries and anti-revolutionaries.

The capitalist forces control all the organs of the government and chiefly because of this the revolutionaries could not succeed. Because of the hegemony of the civil society the idea of revolution or class struggle even could not crystallise in the capitalist countries. Gramsci thinks so. Even Ralph Miliband in his The State in Capitalist Society subscribes to this argument.

Some believers of democratic methods of agitation think that revolution disrupts the normal life and flow of social living which is not approved by many and these, people prefer the policy of gradualism or go-slow.

The spread of revolutionary thought among the people is another precondition. The high percentage of illiteracy in the Third World states has blunted the sharpness of revolution. The philosophy of revolution has failed to ignite the thought of people.

There is a lack of firebrand leaders in many countries. People participate in the revolution but it is the duty of the leaders to imbibe people. How many states have leaders like Marx, Lenin, and Castro etc.?

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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