We all remember—even if only dimly—that Marx and Engels had some fairly hard things to say about ‘Utopian socialism.’ And we’re all aware that bourgeois commentators like to present the whole socialist project as chimerical, visionary, Utopian—a pleasing daydream, certainly, but quite out of place in the real world. So it’s only natural that ‘Utopia’ should have become something of a dirty word in many Leftist circles. We’re not Utopians, dammit, says the revolutionary militant: now let me give you a leaflet about the Tobin tax.
It’s natural; but it’s unfortunate. For one thing, it was never the extravagance and radicalism of the Utopians’ plans that Marx and Engels held against them. In Marxist literature, the term ‘Utopian socialists’ refers pre-eminently to a number of writers and thinkers who flourished in the early part of the nineteenth century. They did not form a political party, although groups were organized to promulgate the ideas of Claude Henri Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and of Robert Owen (1771-1858). Neither of these writers can justly be called ‘Utopian’ in the sense of boundless and unrealistic perfectionism; and Owen in particular will scarcely be thought unpractical. Admittedly, Charles Fourier (1772-1837)—the youngest of the three great Utopians, the most interesting, and in many respects the most insightful—did sometimes allow his imagination freer rein: he famously argued that, in the future society, the seas would taste of lemonade and the Northern Lights would be permanent. Even these elements of zaniness, however, did not form the burden of the Marxian critique. As Engels wrote, having in mind the Utopian tradition as a whole,
We can leave it to the literary small fry to solemnly quibble over these fantasies, which today only make us smile, and to crow over the superiority of their own bald reasoning, as compared with such ‘insanity.’ For ourselves, we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their fantastic covering, and to which these Philistines are blind.
When Marx and Engels attacked Utopian socialism, it was not because its visions were ‘stupendously grand’: that, for them, was solidly a point in its favour.
The problem was something different. In a word: Utopian socialism was arbitrary. Each Utopian writer sat down and invented an improved social order; and each hoped that, if only the new society could be presented attractively enough and in sufficiently meticulous detail, people would be persuaded to try it out. Initially this would perhaps take the form of small communes or colonies of volunteers, outposts of the future established on the edges of nineteenth-century capitalism—but the obvious success of these pioneer experiments would soon lead more people to join in, and the movement would sweep the globe. How to organize society so that people should be happy, creative, and free was an intellectual problem; its solution had hitherto been unknown, so people had mostly lived in misery; but now, at last, the answer had been found, and nothing remained but for people to take it up. It was therefore all to the good if the new society, now that it had been invented by a solitary genius, could be elaborated on paper in the most specific and definite form possible. So Fourier was not content with the general point that each kind of work should be done by someone who would enjoy doing it: he also felt it necessary to lay down the dimensions of the rooms they would do it in, the design of the workbenches they would do it at, and a thousand other minor stipulations. Small children, he thought, would enjoy shelling peas. Maybe they would. But Fourier has worked out a whole shop floor for them in advance, with special jobs for children aged two years and eleven months, with easier jobs for those aged two years and six months, with three different grades of pea (of which only one is suitable for using to make peas and bacon), with sloping tables arranged so that the peas will roll down into hollows before being transferred to baskets… One does not have to read very much Fourier to understand why Marx was always so reluctant to write ‘recipes for the cook-shops of the future.’
As against the Utopians, Marx and Engels described their socialism as scientific. This word, too, is apt to be misunderstood today. There is a colloquial usage, in English, whereby ‘science’ means something that is done in laboratories by people wearing white coats, and ‘the sciences’ (in the school curriculum) are grouped together as something different from ‘the humanities.’ This usage is entirely alien to Marxism. When Marx and Engels write that socialism must become ‘a science’ (eine Wissenschaft, in German), they mean that it must become rigorous, disciplined, and objective; that it must proceed from an analysis of the facts, rather than from the imagination; that it must be based not on intuition but on a serious understanding of society as it is. This is why Marx’s major work is not a description (in Fourieresque detail) of how production might be organized under socialism, but a painstaking study of how it is actually organized under capitalism. Fourier, the Utopian, wrote The New Industrial and Social World; Marx, the scientist, wrote Capital. The Utopian socialists had thought that a new society could be invented in the study and then imposed on the world by persuasion; Marx and Engels argued that socialism was implicit in the contradictory development of capitalism itself, and could be realized through the actual historical process—the class struggle.
It will be clear that there is no necessary opposition between being scientific, in this sense, and being Utopian in the sense of advocating change that goes far beyond the confines of bourgeois ‘common sense.’ If anything, there is a necessary connection. Common sense, that encrustation of prevailing and outmoded ideologies, might see a classless and stateless society as a pipedream: in just the same way, common sense in the past would have laughed at the idea of abolishing slavery or limiting the powers of the monarchy. And all the while the inexorable reality of the economy is making it more and more obvious—to the eye of science, at least—that private property is a hindrance to technological development, that the ‘free market’ can’t organize a mortgage in a high street bank, and that state monopoly capitalism can only sustain itself through a systematic squandering both of material resources and of human potential. In fact, it is the seemingly reasonable and commonsensical demands that often prove to be Utopian, in the bad sense of being purely arbitrary constructions without foundation in a scientific analysis of reality. In this sense the demands for a Tobin tax, or for the renationalization of the water industry, or for an end to the public-sector wage freeze, are purely Utopian.
But there is also the positive sense of ‘Utopia’, the sense of ‘stupendously grand’ visions for a radically different society. And here—while the excesses of the old Utopians must still be avoided—there is a case for being a little less reticent, a little more ambitious, than we tend to be. The ruling class’s favourite slogan, after all, is ‘there is no alternative’: it would be a shame if socialists, out of a misplaced reluctance to sound Utopian, ended up appearing to endorse it.
(Written for the Communist Corresponding Society, 2013)