Why “Utopian Socialism” Can Be More Scientific Than “Scientific Socialism” … Or, Why Engels Was Wrong!

What has science got to do with revolution?  Given that the scientific method is the best way of producing reliable knowledge, wherever possible revolutionary programmes ought to be informed by science.  If we care about values such as logic and evidence – as most radical-progressives seem to – then that should go without saying.  But what kind of science are we talking about here?  In what domains or fields of enquiry should we be looking?

Broadly speaking, within the tradition of socialism, there have been two approaches to organising for social revolution.  The first has been what is called “scientific socialism”.  The second is what has been called “utopian socialism”.  Marxists came up with both terms.  The first refers to their own methodology, which as the name suggests, is considered scientific and therefore superior.  The second is a kind of put-down to approaches to revolutionary organising that are inspired by idealised visions of a good society.  Utopian socialism is understood by Marxists to be unscientific and therefore inferior and naive.  I think that the opposite is true.  Let me explain why…

Before going any further I want to say something about why this is important.  This is not just an academic exercise!  Given that Marxism was incredibly influential during the 20th Century we can assume that ideas, like those being discussed here, had consequences that impacted on many peoples lives.  Furthermore, for those of us who are interested in radical-progressive social transformation for the 21st Century, we need to learn from past events – and the consequences of scientific socialism were truly tragic.

What I want to argue here is that utopian socialism can be more scientific than so called scientific socialism – or that the man who coined the terms (Frederic Engels) was wrong.  If correct this should clearly have an impact on how 21st Century revolutionaries think and go about organising for social transformation.

The crucial thing to understand about the differences between “scientific” and “utopian” socialism – as approaches to revolutionary organising – is that they are based on very different theories of human nature.  In turn, these theories are grounded in incompatible assumptions about the nature of the human mind/brain.  These incompatible theories constitute one of the great debates within the history of ideas.  Typically these two competing positions are distinguished from each other by philosophers with labels such as “empiricist” and “rationalist”.

However, it is sufficient for us to understand the difference between these two positions in very simple terms.  So here is the bottom line.  One position holds that the mind/brain is empty of content and that knowledge and understanding (including consciousness relating to social justice) is the product of the external environment.  This position is usually associated with the empiricist philosophy of mind and is the theoretical basis of scientific socialism.  Scientific socialism therefore claims to be scientific by focusing on the objective facts of social reality that determine the continuities and changes of history – such as the incompatible interests of different classes within the capitalist system.   The second position holds that the mind/brain already has content prior to contact with the external environment. This position is usually associated with the rationalist philosophy of mind and is, or can be, the theoretical basis of utopian socialism. In contrast to scientific socialism, utopian socialism is typically justified by appealing to innate drives that are either understood as God given or endowed by nature.

To clarify these two competing positions further, it might be helpful to think about them in terms of innate needs.  Strictly speaking, for scientific socialists there can only be socially constructed innate needs – an expression of the design of the dominant institutions within society.  For utopian socialists, however, innate needs can be grounded in our biology – an expression of our DNA.  What is important to note here is that for scientific socialists there are no innate needs that are independent of specific social conditions and conditioning.  In effect there is no intrinsic human nature.

From this perspective it makes sense to dismiss utopian socialism as unscientific and to focus on trying to identify the objective social forces that drive history, such as class conflict.  This has typically been the Marxist way.  However, if we stop and think about it, this makes no sense.  After all, if people have no intrinsic needs that run deeper than those that are socially constructed, then how could there be any genuine conflict of interests between competing classes?  Claims of social injustice, such as class oppression and exploitation, only make sense if innate needs, grounded in our very nature, exist.  Without innate human needs talk of social justice is simply meaningless.  And it is from this insight that utopian socialism has the potential to trump scientific socialism at its own game.

Furthermore, the philosophy of mind that underpins the utopian socialist methodology (i.e. rationalist) gained a great boost in the 1950’s as a result of the cognitive revolution.  This intellectual revolution resulted from a growing body of evidence that showed that the human mind/brain must have intrinsic capacities and innate needs that are grounded in, and expressions of, our genes and therefore represent crucial aspects of human nature.  A major figure in this intellectual endeavour has been Noam Chomsky who, on a number of occasions, has argued for the need to conceptualise a form of social organisation that best accommodates fundamental human needs (for example, see his Language and Freedom).

To be fair, not all Marxists reject the utopian socialist methodology.  For example, writing in the 1950’s, Erich Fromm talked about the need to develop a vision of a sane society that would be compatible with our innate needs for psychological and emotional well-being.  In doing so, however, it seems to me that Fromm is undermining the argument, presented by Engels and expounded by most Marxists, for scientific socialism.  Grounded in a rationalist philosophy of mind – what he called “normative humanism” – Fromm’s argument is effectively pro-utopian socialist.

Clearly, the project articulated by Chomsky, Fromm (and many others) represents an incredibly challenging and ambitious undertaking that almost certainly has no definitive end point.  This is an important point because we need to keep in mind that we cannot wait for a perfect science of human nature before engaging in revolutionary organising.  The stakes are simply too high and in any case real life is never that tidy.  That aside, the point that I have been trying to make, and want to finish on, is that so called “utopian socialism” can be more scientific than so called “scientific socialism” and that the utopian socialist methodology should be used to inform revolutionary thinking and action in the 21st Century.

The best examples of such efforts that I know are the Radical Theory and Participatory Vision and Strategy – available to explore online for free here, or under the heading of Fanfare for the Future – in book form here.


  1. Ibrahim Hublou April 30, 2015 12:21 pm 

    Very refreshing to read someone trying to get the soul of revolutionary spirit back from underneath the pile of hardcore scientific socialist theories that dominated the 20th century.
    One can wonder what an effect this fresh sprout will have on matter as “Revolutionary Violence” and “The Dictatorship Of the Proletariat”.

    Intellectualists can argue whether “utopian socialism” is one and the same as “libertarian socialism” but no one can argue that Socialism did not pretend to stand for liberating man from exploitation and oppression and that the implementation of ‘scientific socialism’ in the 20th century has barely contributed to more liberty.


    It seems more likely that diverse, inclusive and grass-rooted progressive social-change initiatives will be able to avoid the horrible approach authoritarian regimes that claimed to work in the benefit of “worker’s liberation’ imposed and that largely failed in improving all but an elite’s position.

    “In order to save everything, we need everyone”

    Like social-revolutionary Henriette Roland Holst, later turned religious-socialist, seems so well have understood when reading her poem (in Dutch) “The gentle forces will surely overcome” I witness that there is more potential in seducing part of the elite to help to effectuate social change than in shouting in front of bayonets “Kill the rich!”. Creative thought is closer to utopian socialism than it ever can be to doctrinaire ideologies.

    “Hasta la victoria siempre!”
    “Until eternal victory”
    – Che –

    — A try to translate the poem from rather archaic and prosaic Dutch —

    The gentle forces will surely overcome
    in the end – this I hear as an dear whisper
    inside me: if it were to silence all light would be obscured
    all warmth would become rigid inside.

    The powers who still cling on to love
    will she, inchmeal cover, overcome,
    then can the great beatitude commence
    when if our hearts attentively listen

    in all tenderness murmuring hear
    as in small shells the large sea.
    Love is the sense of the live of planets,
    and men’s and creature’s. There is nothing that can disturb the rise towards her. This is certain knowledge: to perfect Love all rises along.

    Henriëtte Roland Holst-van der Schalk

    Source: Verzonken grenzen (1918)
    (“Sunken borders”

    ——– The original in (old) prosaic Dutch ———

    De zachte krachten zullen zeker winnen
    in ‘t eind – dit hoor ik als een innig fluistren
    in mij: zo ‘t zweeg zou alle licht verduistren
    alle warmte zou verstarren van binnen.

    De machten die de liefde nog omkluistren
    zal zij, allengs voortschrijdend, overwinnen,
    dan kan de grote zaligheid beginnen
    die w’als onze harten aandachtig luistren

    in alle tederheden ruisen horen
    als in kleine schelpen de grote zee.
    Liefde is de zin van ‘t leven der planeten,
    en mense’ en diere’. Er is niets wat kan storen
    ‘t stijgen tot haar. Dit is het zeekre weten:
    naar volmaakte Liefde stijgt alles mee.

    Henriëtte Roland Holst-van der Schalk (1869-1952)

    Uit: Verzonken grenzen (1918)
    Uitgever: W.L.& J. Brusse, Rotterdam


  2. John Goodr April 27, 2015 8:52 pm 

    If it’s science you want, consider that Moore’s Law assures that humans will achieve human level in artificial intelligence/computing speed by the early 2020s and then zoom way past human capabilities.
    That may well be the last invention of humanity and it certainly marks the end of all human labor by sometime around 2030 utilizing the super-human capabilities of this soon-to-be AI combined with sci-fi-like robotic capabilities .
    There is no competitive manufacturer who can resist replacing a far more expensive and less efficient human with this new technology.
    This means the end of capitalism and, as a consequence of the new technologies any hope for a worker-led society.
    This does also mean a great abundance of all the necessities of the world’s people and, likely because of very advanced teaching methods based on the ongoing brain-mapping projects here and in Europe, a universal understanding of the need for democracy and a return to a mutual-aid society.
    Noam Chomsky agrees that advanced technologies and robots will take all our jobs but, because he doubts the long term validity of Moore’s Law, thinks that eventuality will take place a few hundred years from now.

    So …is Moore’s Law likely to hold up?
    Those in the field say that by the time the silicon chip reaches the end of its useful life, 3D chips or carbon-based nanochips will become the new paradigm; this after AI has surpassed human levels of computing (1000 petaflops ) in the next ten years.

    I would most sincerely like to be shown where I am incorrect in any of this and with as much detail as you’d care to provide.
    Sources or references most welcome.

  3. Richard Bu April 26, 2015 12:19 pm 

    This is very good, but don’t forget that however scientific the author attempts to be his views are not necessarily held by the current scientific establishment. It would be fair to say that “actually existing science” serves the capitalist world-system, and that the majority of experts in the social science of economics do not oppose capitalism or support some kind of socialism. This is a minority view, “alternative science.”

    Those who now are up in arms about the above, posing as “defenders of science and reason,” or irked at an asumed put down of Mr Evan’s views should take a look at history. This would show that the historical record of science is one of exploded orthodoxies, overthrown by theories that were once derided as pseudo-scientific heresies, that then came to be the reigning paradigms. Challenging the ‘actually existing scientific establishment’ is ultimately the way science itself progresses and improves.

    ‘Alternative science,’ very good, keep it up! Just don’t forget, that until this becomes the reigning paradigm, that it remains alternative. Pretend otherwise, and basically you are telling me that I was crazy to ever take you seriously.

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