Utopian socialism refers to socialist tendencies which advocate a socialist society organized according to generalized ideals, with the foundation of this socialist development being based in what is morally “right”. Utopian socialists tend to argue in favor of socialism by claiming it is how society “should” be organized in order to be more “just” and “fair”. In order to evaluate this tendency, we must examine its historic form, its modern iterations, and the Marxist response and alternative to it, that of a scientific analysis of capitalism and identification of the tendencies of its development that favor socialism.
The first form that the socialist movement as we know it took was utopian socialism. As early capitalism arose, the development of a highly distinct division of labor, the proletarianization and pauperization of the population, and disintegrations in moral norms in the lifestyles of the proletariat led to a response from bourgeois and petite-bourgeois social reformers. The most radical among these were the utopian socialists, whose theory was moralistic and whose practice focused on convincing the bourgeoisie to aid in the creation of a new society by peaceful means, in particular by seeking to set positive examples through the establishment of utopian communities. The most prominent among these utopian socialists were the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen, who established New Lanark in Scotland, the French author Charles Fourier, who sought a de-industrialization of society as a solution to capitalistic development, and the French author Saint-Simone, who believed that the “producers” of society, including the bourgeoisie, would unite against the “idle” of society, such as the aristocracy, in order to create a more “just” society. While these utopian socialists contributed much to the analysis of capitalist society, despite their moralism, their practice was deeply lacking. The utopian communities they established tended to last very short lives as communes, and inevitably degenerated into capitalistic communities. These failures, however, served to teach the socialist movement that the bourgeoisie could not merely be convinced to aid in establishing a socialist society, and that capitalist society could not merely be reformed. Further, the contributions the utopian socialists made to the analysis of capitalistic society, such as the difficulty of expanded reproduction in a finite world, the specialization of labor, and, most importantly, the production of surplus-value, were deeply important to the socialist movement. Out of the utopian socialists rose the early revolutionary socialist movement, wherein scientific socialism would be born with Marx and Engels. With the rise of scientific socialism, utopian socialism became increasingly irrelevant in the movement, save for the occasional utopian whom the scientific socialists continuously combatted. The age of utopian socialism was over, and scientific socialism took its place.
However, though its day in the world-historic sun is long gone, utopian socialism still sees itself as a continuity in the modern day socialist movement, especially in the imperial core, where the petite-bourgeoisie and labor aristocracy saturate the movement. Modern utopian socialism takes varying forms, though there are three which are predominant: anarchism, which I have already dealt with at length in another essay, ethical idealist socialism, and pseudo-materialist ethical socialism. I will deal with the latter two in particular. Ethical idealist socialism refers to those who take an explicitly utopian approach to socialism, and often outright refer to themselves as utopians. These utopians are delineated from historic utopian socialists in that they tend to advocate revolution rather than reform, though many so-called “democratic socialists” also fall into this category along with those who advocate ridiculous things like “fully automated luxury communism”. They are identified by rhetoric fixating on decrying capitalism on entirely moral grounds, analyzing according to its “injustice”, and advocating a socialist state of affairs according to it being the fulfillment of a “just”, “fair”, and “equal” ideal. They do not identify any real tendencies of material development which tend toward the trajectory of this “ideal” society, and believe that merely entirely rejecting present capitalist society somehow creates a tendency toward socialist society. Apparently this is superior to Marxism’s identification of tendencies in capitalist development toward preconditions for socialism, such as the contradiction of socialized production and private appropriation, the anarchy of social production, and the growth of the proletariat as a revolutionary class. The pseudo-materialists, by contrast, may fancy themselves materialist, but still hold a tendency to analyze and organize on ethical grounds, such as making an ideal of democracy, decrying capitalist social ills as unjust, and generally identifying traits of capitalism as “immoral” and socialism as “moral” while holding an otherwise materialist analysis, even considering themselves Marxist. Generally, modern utopian socialists make distinctions among themselves according to what they “want”, or think “should” (both in a generalized rather than conditional sense) be done, particularly in how an “ideal” socialist society should be organized. Those among them who fashion themselves communists see communism as a perfect utopia to be established, one made superior by its moral perfection (ironically, this description of communism is exactly what anti-communists decry we Marxists as supposedly seeking). Having identified the forms modern utopian socialism takes, let us elaborate the Marxist response, and identify exactly why they are inaccurate and impotent.
First, let us deal with the question of morality, the central body in the analyses and practice of utopian socialists. They say that socialism will be established because it is moral and just, and capitalism will fall because it is immoral and unjust. This is not only inaccurate, as capitalism will fall according to its internal contradictions while socialism will rise due to its preconditions being in capitalistic development, but fails to properly understand morality. There is no such thing as an objective morality. No two societies across space and time have the same moral systems, nor is anything inherently and generally “good” or “bad”, “right” or “wrong”, “just” or “unjust”. How a given person engages in these value judgements does not simply come from within them, either. Morality neither falls from the sky nor emerges forth from the heart. Morality is most often a reflection of the dominant ideology, that of the ruling class. As Marx says in The German Ideology:
“The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i. e., the class which is the ruling material force of society is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has the means of material production at its disposal, consequently also controls the means of mental production, so that the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are on the whole subject to it. The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relations, the dominant material relations grasped as ideas; hence of the relations which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance. The individuals composing the ruling class possess among other things consciousness and therefore think. Insofar, therefore, as they rule as a class and determine the extent and compass of an historical epoch, it is self-evident that they do this in its whole range, hence among other things rule also as thinkers, as producers of ideas, and regulate the production and distribution of the ideas of their age: thus their ideas are the ruling ideas of the epoch. For instance in an age and in a country where royal power, aristocracy and bourgeoisie are contending for domination and where, there therefore, domination is shared, the doctrine of the separation of powers proves to be the dominant idea and is expressed as an ‘eternal law’.”
In capitalist society, the bourgeoisie controls the means of communication (newspapers, publishing companies, radio broadcasting, television channels, even, to an increasing degree, the content of internet content creators). Further, through their ownership of capital, it is easiest for them to distribute their own ideas than it is for the proletariat, who own no capital. Due to this state of affairs, with the bourgeoisie as the ruling class, the dominant ideas of modern society are the ideas of the bourgeoisie, including modern morality. What the majority of people see as “right” or “wrong” tends to be the bourgeois conception of what is “right” or “wrong”. For example, people tend to view expropriation of private property without compensation as “unfair”, clearly being influenced by bourgeois conceptions of “fair” and “unfair”. When morality does not reflect this dominant ideology, it is merely an immature and abstract expression of the interests of the laboring classes. For instance, when a proletarian says that the bourgeoisie’s appropriation of their surplus-value is unfair, is theft, they are expressing in a slightly abstracted way the irreconcilability of the interests of the bourgeoisie and proletariat. The bourgeoisie wants to increase surplus-labor and decrease necessary labor-time (time taken to reproduce the value of the wages of the proletariat) as much as possible, while the proletariat seeks the opposite. The aforementioned proletarian’s moral decrying of capitalism is not what leads them to oppose capitalism. Rather, it is their interests in contradiction to the bourgeoisie that leads them to find capitalism immoral. It would be far more effective and helpful for them to analyze capitalism as it is, and identify what tendencies within the particular capitalist society they live in favor a socialist outcome, and what they must do in order to organize for this society. In essence, if they seek success, they must use the tool of scientific socialism.
Having critiqued the moralism of utopian socialism, let us deal with the proclivity to view varying tendencies within socialism as being identified what each “wants” to, or thinks “should”, happen or be done. This view is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the basis of socialism, and how this basis shapes the development of socialist society. It does not matter what one’s preferences are if they are not favored by existing trajectories of historic development. One cannot affect the world in any manner they please. Marx correctly identifies in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte that:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
We cannot merely analyze capitalist society, theorize socialist society, and engage in practice according to what we want to happen unless it is in accordance with the trajectory of historic development, unless it is conditional to the context that this desire is being expressed in. All these varying desired ideal systems among modern utopian socialists are meaningless, simple phantoms, as far as they are not already precluded by capitalist development. Socialist society will not be in accordance with anyone’s ideals. This brings us to our next and final point.
Socialism is not a utopia organizing itself in accordance to moralizing ideals, nor will communism be. These utopians decry real, existing (or formerly existing) socialist states for not acting in accordance with ideals like broad democracy, individual freedom, “fairness”, decentralization, localization, etc. They do not understand that these socialist states did not arise on conditions of their own choosing, and were thus affected by the circumstances of their birth. And their birth was in conditions that were capitalistic, semi-feudal, and/or colonial, with all the issues that such conditions come with. This means underdeveloped productive capacity, a society which is usually more peasant than proletarian, a hostile settler mass, a more pronounced gendered division of labor, extreme poverty, and so on. Marx discusses this in the Critique of the Gotha Programme thusly:
“What we have to deal with is a communist society, not as it has developed on its own foundations, but, on the contrary, as it emerges from capitalist society; which is thus in every respect, economically, morally and intellectually, still stamped with the birthmarks of the old society from whose womb it emerges.”
A socialist society’s characteristics are shaped by the conditions it was born from, and it must fight to change these in the course of its socialist development. Further, it must organize itself taking into account these conditions, and provide a response based on a realistic analysis rather than a moralizing rejection of these conditions. A socialist society cannot survive by merely morally decrying the conditions it faces, it must recognize them as they are and act accordingly. The Soviet Union did not enter the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact out of a preference, but because it was seeking to delay war as long as it could so it could continue in the development of its productive capacity and survive as a socialist society. The Communist Party of China did not enter an alliance with the Nationalists during WWII because it desired this in a generalized manner, but because this was called for by the conditions of Japanese imperialist invasion. We socialists cannot simply act according to what we want to do in a generalized way, we must act according to what is necessary in a particular context if we seek the victory of socialism. We socialists cannot afford to degenerate our theory and practice back into the moralizing of the utopian socialists. Again, socialism is not a utopia. Not even communism is a utopia. Communism will not develop because it is an ideal society, nor will it be organized as such. On the development of communist society, Marx says, in The German Ideology:
“Finally, from the conception of history set forth by us we obtain these further conclusions: 1) In the development of productive forces there comes a stage when productive forces and means of intercourse are brought into being which, under the existing relations, only cause mischief, and are no longer productive but destructive forces (machinery and money); and connected with this a class is called forth which has to bear the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages, which ousted from society and forced into the sharpest contradiction to all other classes; a class which forms the majority of members of society, and from which emanates the consciousness of the necessity of a fundamental revolution, the communist consciousness, which may, of course, arise among the other classes too through the contemplation of the situation of this class. 2) The conditions under which definite productive forces can be applied are the conditions of the rule of a definite class of society, whose social power, deriving from its property has its practical-idealistic expression in each case in the form of the state and, therefore, every revolutionary struggle is directed against a class which till then has been in power. 3) In all previous revolutions the mode of activity always remained unchanged and it was only a question of a different distribution this activity, a new distribution of labour to other persons whilst the communist revolution is directed against the hitherto existing mode of activity, does away with labour, and abolishes the rule of all classes with the classes themselves because it is carried through by the class which no longer counts as a class in society, which is not recognized as a class, and is in itself the expression of the dissolution of all classes nationalities, etc., within present society; and 4) Both for the production on a mass scale of this communist consciousness and for the success of the cause itself, the alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary, an alteration which can only take place, a revolution; the revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”
Communism can develop only when socialism fulfills the preconditions of developing productive capacity in an even way (abolishing the distinction of town and country, and rectifying the global division of labor created by colonialism and imperialism), abolishing class distinctions (a task which the proletariat alone can complete by eliminating the bourgeoisie, the imperialist and colonial orders, and the gendered division of labor), and developing the management of society as a habit among the mass of the population in a manner where, taken with the other preconditions, the state will become entirely redundant and wither away. Utopian socialists of course decry socialist states for failing to reach the stage of communist development, not understanding that a highly developed communist society cannot come about until the entire world is developed in a socialist manner, as the isolation, sabotage, and endless war inflicted by bourgeois nations on socialist ones holds development back. Further, their claim that the Marxist conclusion that the state begins to wither away once the proletariat seizes it is a lie, that Marx, Engels, and Lenin merely said this as an excuse to seize absolute power, is unfounded and based on an inaccurate understanding of Marxism. Lenin discusses this in The State and Revolution by stating that:
“Until the “higher” phase of communism arrives, the socialists demand the strictest control by society and by the state over the measure of labor and the measure of consumption, but this control must start with the expropriation of the capitalists, with the establishment of workers’ control over the capitalists, and must be exercised not by a state of bureaucrats but by a state of armed workers.”
To claim that the Marxists have said otherwise is an out-and-out lie. The state can only wither away entirely when the preconditions for communist development have been met. The state cannot merely be abolished because one’s ideals despise it. Again, no aspect of material relations and conditions springs from the head or the ideals residing within. The reality is the other way around, and we socialists must recognize that and combat the upside-down perspective in order to succeed. Marxism remains the most correct tendency of socialism, and has proven this by organizing the most successful and long-lasting revolutionary societies out of any socialist tendency. We should not abandon it in favor of a return to utopianism, and we must combat any tendencies of the socialist movement which seek a return to utopianism, whether through purges, education, or other means called for by the particular context at hand.