Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Utopian Thinking and its Role in Marxist Theory

Political Affairs Magazine print edition
Utopian Thinking and its Role in Marxist Theory
Annals of Ideology
by Thomas Riggins [First appeared on line on the website Selves and Others]

Not in Utopia— subterranean fields—
or some secreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,— the place where, in the end,
We find our happiness, or not at all.
William Wordsworth,
The Prelude

What is “utopian” thinking and why should we be concerned about it today? The word was coined by Sir Thomas More (from the Greek meaning “no place”) for his 1516 book Utopia, an imaginary island in the South Pacific which had perfect laws and social conditions. To refer to ideas today as “utopian” is to dismiss them as impractical. It has a somewhat negative connotation.

Utopian thinking is not, however, completely without its practical uses. There is a good utopian way to think as well as a bad. That this is so may be illustrated by a quote from the Marxist philosopher Domenico Losurdo (Nature, Society, Thought XVI:1 [2003]) who says, “Utopianism, on the one hand, inspires the enthusiasm of the masses, which is necessary to break the stubborn resistance of the old regime; on the other hand, it makes the building of the new society more difficult.” More difficult because of unrealistic plans— the “Great Leap Forward Syndrome.”

One of the earliest discussions of utopian thinking is to be found in the section “Critical Utopian Socialism and Communism” in The Communist Manifesto (1848). Marx and Engels state the earliest struggles of the working the class to liberate itself were defeated due to the low development of the productive forces. The literature, in which these early struggles were reflected, was “utopian” because it proposed impractical and impossible to realize solutions for the problems facing the working class.

Marx and Engels said this literature “had a necessarily reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social leveling in its crudest form.” The three greatest early utopians were St. Simon, Fourier, and Owen. These three produced systems, based on the underdeveloped forces of the new capitalist economic formations, which could not properly solve the problems raised by the exploitation of the workers.

Marx and Engels said this is because “the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with the development of industry” and industry had not developed enough to generate the level of class antagonism to challenge the power of the capitalists in a non-utopian way.

It seems they were mistaken about the “even pace” part, because even today in “the highest stage” of capitalism the level of class antagonism has not kept up with the development of industry. This means utopian ideas are still widespread.

The early utopians replaced historical action by the workers with schemes and plans to reorganize society “specially contrived by these inventors.” These thinkers saw the workers as passive and “reject all political and especially all revolutionary action.”

But all is not negative! Their writings contained “a critical element” insofar as they pointed up the injustices and exploitation inherent in bourgeois society. “Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.”

This is an interesting analysis from the Manifesto, and it suggests since the level of class conscious antagonism to the capitalist system has, apparently, not been evenly paced to the development of capitalism, that some “utopian” thinking may still be of value with respect to “enlightenment.”

Engels took up these issues again some thirty years later, in his “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”, three chapters culled out of his 1878 book Anti-Duhring and published in 1880 as a separate pamphlet.

He begins by stating that modern socialism is the result of the class struggle, the anarchy of production, and , in its theories, “ostensibly” as a continuation of the ideas of the “great French philosophers” of the Enlightenment. He especially mentions Rousseau but we can think of a few others: Condillac, Diderot, Voltaire, Montesquieu, d’Holbach and Condorcet to name a few.

These thinkers readied the consciousness of the French people for the great Revolution that broke out on July 14, 1789. Many were themselves “extreme revolutionists.” They judged everything by Reason and “recognized no external authority.”

However, the “Reason” they spoke of turned out to be, in reality, only the ideals of the bourgeoisie. The self-conscious working class had not yet differentiated itself as an independent class. This class, not yet fully conscious of itself, instituted the Reign of Terror (led by Robespierre and St. Just). The bourgeoisie, realizing that the embryonic new class was a threat, ultimately intrusted the revolution to Napoleon.

According to Engels, this is the historical background to the systems of the three great utopians we discussed from the Manifesto. After the Terror the bourgeoisie lost confidence in Reason. It was up to the utopians to figure out how to solve the social problems presented by the new class and its obvious exploitation in a society that was premised on universal rights and freedom. Since to “crude class conditions corresponded crude theories” the solutions to the problems addressed by the utopians had to await the further advancement of capitalism and the theory which corresponded to this development—i.e., Marxism.

It would seem that, according to this presentation, the highest theoretical development of Marxism should have been found in France, England and Germany towards the end of the nineteenth century. What happened in Russia was an historical anomaly— the socialists coming to power in a crudely developed rather than an advanced capitalist state. The problems associated with what is now understood to be “Stalinism” were the result of a crude and vulgar form of Marxism having developed (with utopian ideals of toughening it out against the whole capitalist world) in an environment with a crudely evolved industrial base. This seems to fit in with Engel’s analysis. [Cf., also Sartre’s Critique of Dialectal Reason, esp. Vol !!.]

“Maoism” would have been an even cruder form of Marxism— based on the peasantry not the workers at all due to the extremely low level of capitalist development in China. Maoism, just as Stalinism, might be explained as the result of utopian schemes being concocted in societies without the advanced industrial bases to support correct Marxist positions. Pol Pot’s “Marxism” was so primitive it fell off the radar and crash landed into a barbarism which subjected his own people to the same kind of treatment the US regularly doles out to third world peoples. He butchered almost a third the number of people that the US did in Vietnam, for example. [Cf., my review of Phillip Short’s book Pol Pot.]

With the development of Marxism in Western Europe in the nineteenth century, utopianism should have come to end. Its survival within Marxism can have detrimental effects. But can the effects also be beneficial?

Herbert Marcuse, for example, in his book Soviet Marxism, maintained that even though the Soviet Union was, in some cases, not living up to its ideals, impossible given the hostility of the West and its internal problems, nevertheless it still proclaimed those ideals to its own people and to the world. They may have seemed “utopian”, given the real state of affairs, but they kept those ideals alive.

Lenin also has something to say on this issue. In 1912 he wrote, but did not publish, a brief article entitled “Two Utopias” (CW:18:355-359). He recalls a dictum by Engels: “What formally may be economically incorrect, may all the same be correct from the point of view of world history.” This dictum was made in reference to utopian socialism. “Engel’s advanced this profound thesis”, Lenin says, “in connection with utopian socialism: that socialism was ‘fallacious’ in the formal economic sense.... But utopian socialism was right from the point of view of world history, for it was a symptom, an expression, a harbinger of the class which, born of capitalism, has by now, in the beginning of the twentieth century, become a mass force which can put an end to capitalism and is irresistibly advancing to this goal.”

In Russia there were two types of utopianism in vogue in Lenin’s day (1912), namely a peasant utopianism demanding democracy and by- passing capitalism towards an equalitarian peasant based society, and a liberal capitalist utopianism demanding a constitutional monarchy and a peaceful transition from the Czarist autocracy to something like the bourgeois democracies of France or Germany.

The utopia of the liberals dampened the revolutionary fervor of the peasants as it was really a ploy to convince the Czarist ruling class to share power with the liberal bourgeoisie at the expense of the peasants.

The peasant utopia was also an impossible dream— but it was neverthe- less progressive because it was “an expression of the aspirations of the toiling millions of the petty bourgeoisie [peasants] to put an end altogether to the old, feudal exploiters....”

Lenin was of course against “utopianism” in principle but realized the difference between “good” and “bad” utopias. He thought Marxists had to discover the “valuable democratic kernel” that was at the core of the “husk” of this peasant utopia. He also thought that a similar type of utopianism was in place in many Asian countries that were set to undergo bourgeois revolutions in the twentieth century. Deconstructing these utopian revolutions is still a task for Marxists in our own time.

Lenin ended his 1912 article by reflecting on the “old Marxist literature of the[eighteen] eighties” and how it had tried to systematically analyze the peasant utopia in Russia. “Some day,” he wrote, “historians will study this effort systematically and trace its connection with what in the first decade of the twentieth century came to be called ‘Bolshevism’.”

Even more, today, in the beginning of the twentieth-first century, we will have to systematically trace the connections of utopian thinking throughout the last century in order to understand where we are today with respect to fallacious versus correct Marxist understandings of current reality.

Another thinker who tried to work out the differences between “good” and “bad” utopian thinking was the German Marxist Ernst Bloch (1885-1977). How can one tell the difference between, on the one hand, the kind of utopianism that ends up in cloud-cuckoo-land (the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s vision of peasant socialism, the nostalgia for the days of Stalin in the USSR and movements (reactionary) to bring them about again are a few of many examples), and on the other hand, that form of utopian thinking which, even if at present it seems totally unrealistic, contributes to laying the ground work for the future emancipation of the working people and the establishment of socialism?

In his book, A Philosophy for the Future (1963), Bloch (echoing Engels), says the early utopians, because of the level of social production, “had to construct the outlines of a brave new world out of their own hearts and heads.” I can agree that this is better than nothing and by holding an ideal future this kind of utopianism can motivate people to action. The bad part is, as in the examples I gave above, when the leadership of a people’s movement irresponsibly tries to skip stages when they find themselves confronted with an immature social reality. When they attempt to construct a social reality that is only possible in the advanced stages of economic development in a society at a lower level then social, political, and human mayhem results

With respect to this kind of situation, Bloch writes: “All the worse then, if a society that will no longer be reconciled in an abstract-utopian manner, but demands the way to the thing itself, errs on the way--- and errs dangerously.” I am thinking here that this is what Bloch might consider forced marches to socialism by an impatient leadership, premature collectivization of agriculture, and in general attempting to “build socialism” when your society is either still basically feudal or only barely beginning to be capitalist.

“All the worse,” he continues, “if the revolutionary capacity is not there to execute ideals which have been represented abstractly, rather than to discredit or even to destroy with catastrophic means ideals which have not appeared in the concrete.” This does not just apply to the third world cases I have used as examples. The daily struggle here in the United States could just as easily have been cited. In the foreseeable future the most important political goals that will objectively further the class struggle is to oust the ultra-right clerico-Republican reactionaries from power. Is it “utopian” to think this can be done by a broad progressive people’s alliance which also includes center and left elements of the Democratic Party? Is this an “abstract utopian ideal?”

Or should we, on the contrary, take a maximalist position to the left of where the majority consciousness is now and try to. as a magnet attracts iron filings, slowly attempt to draw the masses in our direction? Some small parties on the Left have exactly this sort of program. In the long term there may be a dialectical unity in these positions, but at the given moment it seems to me much more “utopian” in the “bad” sense to be on the side lines waiting for magnetic attraction to bring about change than it is to be in the midst of the struggles where the masses of people are actually to be found.

This, by the way, is how I interpret the position of Sam Webb the CPUSA national chairman, which he recently put forth at the Global Left Dialogue in New York City. His topic was “Imaginings of Socialism” (a fruitful ground for some utopian thinking). Webb is quite clear in rejecting a “go it alone” ultra-left stance in the fight to advance socialist values in the US. He puts the working class at the center of the struggle but it is firmly allied with what he calls other “core constituencies” and oppressed segments of the population (women, youth,ethnic and racial minorities, the poor, etc.).

There is nothing “utopian” in this idea of a broad based people’s struggle as a necessity in order to confront the power of capital. He ends his presentation, however, with an example of what I have called “good” utopianism— a vision of what the world, or at least our country, might one day be like where the skies are always blue and “pollution free”, toxic dumps have been rendered into gardens, there is no homelessness, no unemployment, no discrimination (sexual or otherwise), women will getting more of those Nobel prizes in science, there will be empty prisons, and no more war, almost too good to be true. This kind of motivational “utopianism” is in the finest traditions of the socialist movement. Bush may be running the show, or trying to, but the future belongs to the people.

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can reached at

No comments: