Books of the Month

Socialist revolution is ‘historical mission of modern proletariat’

September 9, 2019
Garment workers in Heze, China, in 2018. The industrial workforce is “the class that is the foundation and special product of capitalism,” writes SWP leader George Novack. It is also “destined to take charge of the economy and remodel society from top to bottom.”
Imaginechina via AP ImagesGarment workers in Heze, China, in 2018. The industrial workforce is “the class that is the foundation and special product of capitalism,” writes SWP leader George Novack. It is also “destined to take charge of the economy and remodel society from top to bottom.”

Socialism: Utopian and Scientific by Frederick Engels is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for September. Engels was the lifelong political collaborator of Karl Marx in founding the modern international communist movement. This title was first published in 1880. The excerpts are from the 1972 introduction by George Novack (1905-92), a leader of the Socialist Workers Party. Copyright © 1972, 2008 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.


The material source of the conflict between capital and labor is their ceaseless struggle over the division of the social surplus product in the form of the new value that is added to the total wealth produced by the laboring population. The profits of the capitalist stand in inverse ratio to the wages of the workers.

Competition among the owners of capital is the driving force of the system’s progress, of the unprecedented development of its productive energies, of its restless expansion, and of its anarchy. The bigger and more powerful capitalists crowd out or gobble up the weaker and smaller ones. Engels clearly discerned how freedom of competition was giving way to its opposite, the extension of monopoly, as the inexorable outcome of the centralization and concentration of capital.

Capitalist competition on home grounds was complemented by fierce rivalries between national capitalist interests in the international arena. These exploded periodically in armed conflicts between the great powers for the possession of colonies, fields of investment, and supremacy in the world market.

All these tendencies of capitalism, from monopolist domination to imperialist wars — which Engels viewed from the vantage point of the end of the nineteenth century — have attained their consummate development in our own time.

So long as the capitalists owned the means of production and operated them for private profit, either directly as individuals and corporations or indirectly through the state they controlled, all the evils of the system — exploitation, unemployment, crises, poverty, wars, discrimination, and inhumanity — would not only persist, but grow worse, said Engels. The massive productive forces summoned into being by modern science and technology had outgrown the national boundaries and the capability of the capitalist class to manage them. They called for a different kind of organizer and a better social planner.

The new social power destined to take charge of the economy and remodel society from top to bottom is the class that is the foundation and special product of capitalism as well as its victim and main opponent. That is the industrial work force.

The working class goes through its own special processes of economic, political, and cultural maturation. Competition for jobs is no less severe among the workers than competition for markets among the capitalists. The principal weapon used by the bosses against the workers is unemployment, which intensifies the divisions among the workers. The only means they have to protect their vital interests is collective organization. Capitalism brings together, unifies, and disciplines the workers for its own mercenary purposes and then compels the workers to combine in self-defense against the employers’ attacks upon their wages and working conditions.

They first band together into trade unions and later form their own political parties. Through these agencies the masses of workers seek to make their situation more tolerable under the rule of capital. However, the miseries, insecurities, crises, and wars of the system keep pitting them against its upholders. Socialist understanding heightens and clarifies their class consciousness and enters as a more and more active factor in shaping the class struggle. Once the majority of workers come to realize that reforms do not suffice to meet their needs and satisfy their aspirations — and the ruling class bares its teeth in reaction and retaliation — they have no recourse but to rise in rebellion.

The proletarian revolution is the inevitable outgrowth of the economic processes and irrepressible conflicts within capitalism. It provides the only enduring and progressive solution of the contradictions between socialized production and private appropriation, between the mode of production and the form of exchange, that underlie the crises of capitalism.

The world revolution for socialism is the historical successor to the earlier revolution that enabled the capitalists to achieve global domination. “To accomplish this act of universal emancipation is the historical mission of the modern proletariat,” concluded Engels. “To thoroughly comprehend the historical conditions and thus the very nature of this act, to impart to the now oppressed proletarian class a full knowledge of the conditions and of the meaning of the momentous act it is called upon to accomplish, this is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, scientific socialism.” …

The profound insight into the dynamics of the class struggle contained in this brilliant little book logically issues in a call for organization and action. Capitalism is an indispensable but transitory stage in the onward march of humankind, asserted Engels. This social formation has changed from an accelerator of progress into a baneful brake upon human culture. The working class has no alternative but to conquer power in order to eliminate the twin curses of private property and the wage system.

Only the triumphant proletarian revolution can clear the road to a classless society. Then, at last, long-suffering humanity will be the master of nature and its own social organization, and its full creative capacities will be released to beautify a bountiful world. This will mark “the ascent of man from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom.”