Week 6: Utopian Socialism

Guest Lecture by Jerry Phillips, University of Connecticut


The ambiguity at the heart of the concept of Utopia was evident in the text that inaugurated the modern tradition of envisaging ideal societies, Thomas More's Utopia (1516). For More, Utopia was both "no-place" and "good place." Utopia was the good place that nowhere existed, but it was also the good place that can never exist. Utopia was both a real critical ideal and a wildly impossible fantasy. To be "utopian" was either to be a radical visionary or a romantic naif. The ambiguousness of the term Utopia has long affected thinking about the socialist tradition, and its foremost "utopian" version, Marxism.
At this writing neoliberal society is viewed by many as the natural condition of the human species ("There is no alternative," said Margaret Thatcher); the richest 1% of the world receives as much as the bottom 57%, or in other words less than 50 million richest people receive as much as 2.7 billion poor (Left Business Observer 93); the collapse of the Soviet Union is widely regarded as conclusive proof of the impossibility of communism; and postmodernists tell us that "grand narratives" are no longer viable or even desirable. In this context must we view Marxism as "bad utopianism," as romantic naivete; or can Marxism be defended as "good utopianism," concrete radical critique of really-existing capitalism? I don't pretend to be neutral on these matters. I still believe that the good utopianism of Marxism is not only theoretically and practically warranted, but is also morally and politically necessary if humankind is to have much hope of a civilized future.

It has been commonplace among Marxists, following Marx and Engels, to dismiss socialists like St Simon, Charles Fourier and Robert Owen as "bad utopians," naifs who fantasized improbable schemes or blueprints of social regeneration. In contrast, Marxism has been viewed by Marxists as the "scientific" study of concrete history; and while the communist ideal has been held out as the goal of practical activity and theory, detailed descriptions of communism are few and far between. Many Marxists have renounced ancipatory imaginings for fear of being charged with idealism ("bad utopianism"). "Communism," said Marx and Engels in The German Ideology, "is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established as an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things." Marxists have typically avoided the tactic of the utopian blueprint, the description of a future ideal "to which reality will have to adjust itself." But one can question this evasion from a number of angles.

First, is it really true that Marx and Engels avoided "the politics of dreaming," the social poetics of anticipatory imagination? Can one separate the ideal from the real in a scientific fashion? Is it possible to mobilize people to fight oppression without a future "state of affairs" for consciousness to fasten on? Scattered throughout the Marx/Engels ouevre are numerous references to life in communist society. And these anticipatory imaginings function as an ethical normative standard of the truly human by which to judge the failings of class society. Which is to say, utopian visions of communism are presented as powerful critiques of actually existing capitalism.

Marx and Engels differed from the utopian socialists not in terms of their visionary goals, but on the basis of theoretical paradigms about how such goals might be achieved. The socialists were "utopian" (in the bad sense of the word) in the way that they believed socialism might come about. Engels' critique of the socialists is apt to mislead a little. Readers have drawn from his text a ban on anticipatory imaginings in revolutionary theory. In fact, Marx and Engels were generally in agreement with such projections as projections. They disagreed with, say, Fourier, that such projections could be broadly realized without class struggle, and that ideal projections could come real in capitalist society. For Marx and Engels, as worthy as such communal experiments might be, projections like Brook Farm or Owen's New Lanark were doomed to eventual failure. At the heart of the disagreement between Marx and Engels and the utopian socialists is the matter of theoretical method in analyzing history and society, specifically, the significance of what has been termed Marxist immanent critique.

In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels points out that early socialists were Enlightenment rationalists who sought not "to emancipate a particular class, but all humanity at once." Thus, the revolutionary theory of Fourier is largely without a concrete revolutionary agent to carry out the revolution! (St Simon was explicitly counter-revolutionary. He did not want to "excite the poor to acts of violence against the rich and government." See St Simon: Selected Writings). Engels observes that the socialists were wedded to an abstraction called "Man," and that, in effect, their critique of capitalism came from without the logic of capitalist social relations. (In their ideal societies both Fourier and St Simon made concessions to social hierarchy and private ownership, even as work is communalized.) Because it departs "the realm of actual history"; because it comes into being "without any real party interests"; and because it descends "from heaven to earth" (The German Ideology), utopian socialist critique is essentially ethical wish-fulfillment applied to the workings of class society. It is "the subjunctive mood in politics" (Terry Eagleton)--the carrier of "wouldn't it be nice if" fantasies. For Marx and Engels, the utopian socialist critique is too quick in making the leap from "the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom." It makes of "reflective reason" and voluntarism the progressive engines of History. It makes subjective desire the only authentic force in moving the world. Like Hegelianism, it makes the Idea primary and thus stands the world on its head. As Engels puts it, for utopian socialists, "socialism is the expression of an absolute truth, independent of time, space and human historical development."

Marxist immanent critique is made within the logic of capitalist social relations: it begins not with the abstraction "Man," but with the world of "real active men and on the basis of their real-life process" (The German Ideology). An immanent critique is the dialectical method of inquiry applied to history and political economy to get at radical potentiality--the sense of a future possible reality contained within present reality. It is an attempt to discover the transcendent within the mundane, or more specifically, the potentiality of communism within the concrete contradictory processes of capitalism. In short, immanent critique looks for the seeds of revolutionary transformation in the soil of the capitalist system. "The conditions of [the real movement toward communism]," wrote Marx and Engels "result from the premises now in existence" (The German Ideology). As pointed out by Lukacs in his History and Class Consciousness, the essence of immanent critique is therefore dialectics, the philosphy that "everything is and also is not for everything is in flux" (Engels). The ceaseless, contradictory exchange between identity and non-identity, between a principle of being and a principle of becoming, is at the heart of the Marxist analysis of capitalist society. The two key measures of the dialectic at work in capitalist society are the contradiction between "social production" and private ownership, and the contradiction between the productive forces and the extraction of surplus value from living labor. We can address these complex matters in more detail in our correspondences. For now, I want to elaborate on the method of immanent critique.

Historical materialism is at bottom a theory of historical necessity, as determined by the structural interaction of objective and subjective factors in economic life. In this respect, Marx and Engels did no more than follow Hegel, who also dismissed the role of will and accident and arbitrary subjective desire in determining historical process. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel denounced the categorical imperative of the "ought" which utopians were wont to set against the "is" of the world that people find themselves in: "What is universally valid is also universally effective; what ought to be, in fact also is, and what only ought to be without [actually] being has no truth. The instinct of Reason...rightly holds firmly to this standpoint and refuses to be led astray by figments of thought which only ought to and as 'oughts' are credited with truth, although they are nowhere met in experience." The right-wing tendency of this arugment is self evident. But Marx and Engels drew from Hegel's counsel a deep skepticism towards adventurist, sentimentalist and voluntaristic attempts to evade historical necessity. Contradictions in the material world had to be met head-on, lived through, and finally transcended by leave of practical activity. As Marx put it: "In order to abolish the idea of private property, the idea of communism is already completely sufficient. It takes actual communist action to abolish actual private property" (1844 Manuscripts). Thus if one says that the class struggle ought not to exist, one is still a long way from ending it. For the class struggle exists as long as production and exchange are mediated through the bourgeois form of private ownership. The only authentic critique is one that grasps the laws of motion attendant to contradictory human activity (i.e., the class struggle). Said laws of motion are the means by which practical activity remains bound to certain conditions of possibility. As a revolutionary theory, Marxism addresses itself to the critical moment when strictures on possibility are finally transcended (or "negated"), creating new areas of experience for human activity. In terms of the class struggle under capitalism, the revolutionary moment comes about when the conflict between social production and private ownership can no longer be satisfactorily resolved in the eyes of the proletariat.

Immanent critique emphasizes that the transcendence of historical necessity is a vexed process. In a famous letter to J. Bloch (21 Sept, 1890), Engels remarked that the historical event is the outcome of innumerable intersecting forces," of which the economy is ultimately the lynchpin. Thus an immanent critique must address itself to the tension between tendencies and laws, which itelf is productive of historical movement. In Aristolean philosophy (which influenced both Hegel and Marx), the notion of entelechy describes the condition of a being whose essence is fully realized. A historical tendency for Marx is an entelchic category: a historical tendency is a complex of forces seeking to realize itself against the negative power (or "fetters") of a prevailing law. The tendency is usually of one mode of production, the law of another. Which is to say, a historical tendency is a historical law whose day has not yet arrived. Let me give two brief examples:

1) In the antebellum south, some slaves were permitted to hire themselves out and earn their own money. This might be seen as a historical tendency in the sense that wage labor was the more typical form of exploitation in post-Jacksonian America. However, the dominant law of the time was black slavery; thus black slavery was a fetter on the full emergence of the wage form in 19th century America.

2) Markets have existed in many societies throughout the ages, but it is only under capitalism that fetters on exchange are entirely removed, thus permitting the market to become the logic of social organization. Immanent critique hits upon the non-identity that is already present within identity, the negation that is contained in what positively exists. And this negation is not accidental or non-contingent, but is fundamentally necessary or integral to the world as it is. Thus Marx and Engels focused on the proletariat as the "gravediggers" of capitalism, whereas utopian socialism remained at a loss as how to concretize its categorical imperative. A quick note on necessity and determinism. Marx and Engels subscribed to a deterministic outlook to the degree that they accepted the Hegelian model of necessity. However, determinsm is not identical with inevitability or teleology. As Marx and Engels saw it, necessity provides for certain possibilities within relatively fixed bounds; it does not prescribe definite or absolute outcomes. Notice, for example, that Marx and Engels did not see revolution as the inevitable triumph of a would-be ascendent class. Sometimes revolutions issue in "the common ruin of the contending classes" (The Communist Manifesto). Communism, for Marx and Engels, was not inevitable but very possible. Essentially, Marx and Engels were Enlightenment optimists who believed that in the long struggle between reason and barbarism, reason was likely to be the winner. It is this faith in the rational, transformative power of the human species that led Marx to write: "From the standpoint of a higher economic society, private ownership of the globe by single individuals will appear quite as absurd as private ownership of one man by another" (Capital Vol III). Thus, when we think of the present hold of capitalism over our lives, we need to keep in mind the wisdom of the radical abolitionist who did not lose faith after the Dred Scott decision of 1857 which effectively nationalized slavery, but quietly said to herself, to steel herself for coming greater struggles, "it's never over until it's over."

I look forward to your questions and comments.