A Socialist Utopia?
Among the many arguments against socialism you will commonly hear, one of the most common is the claim that socialism and Marxism are Utopian. Those making this claim will often readily admit that capitalism is “far from perfect,” but as socialist society is allegedly Utopian, capitalism remains not only practical, but the best system we could possibly have.
In order to argue that socialism is indeed possible, one must first dispel the myth that scientific socialism, the theory of Marx and Engels, is Utopian in nature. This of course cannot be accomplished without first defining Utopia, and then contrasting the theory of Marx and Engels with the various socialist ideas which indeed were and are Utopian.
Utopia is defined as an ideal political, economic, and social system. This is not to say that such a system guarantees total happiness, or completely prevents any sort of conflict or disagreement, but in general everything “works” as it is planned. Throughout history, and indeed to this very day, many groups of people have constructed communes so as to put their ideals about society into practice. Both Marx and Engels analyzed some historical Utopian societies, in particular those of Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen.
Engels would go on to examine these societies and criticize their shortcomings in his work Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, wherein he set out to draw a line between their Utopian ideas and the scientific ideas of socialism developed by Marx and himself. These differences may seem insignificant at first, but their influence is paramount, as we shall see.
The key difference that Marx and Engels noted was that Utopian socialists created lofty goals about what an ideal society should look like, and then set about trying to sell their ideas to the population at large. Class was largely dismissed in favor of the power of the idea, that is to say that once enough people, class notwithstanding, were convinced of the rationality and superiority of a particular organization of society, the population as a whole would set about creating such a society. So the ruling class, in spite of their own interests as a class, could theoretically come to its senses and realize that someone’s proposed system for society was far more just, equitable, sustainable, etc., beyond a reasonable doubt, and thus there would be no need for class struggle and revolution.
The idea that a particular society, which allegedly does away with class differences, can be constructed without struggle and with the willing sanction of the ruling class is a defining feature of almost any Utopian idea. If one first acknowledges the existence of class, it logically follows that any elimination of class differences will be a detriment to those who derive their privilege and power from such differences. At no time in history to we see a ruling class as a whole giving up its power. Those members of a particular ruling class who do so as individuals, typically expect to join the new rising ruling class, such as a member of the landed nobility going into business as a capitalist, or a member of the late-Soviet bureaucracy turning into a modern capitalist.
History, as it were, is another factor which Utopian socialists typically disregard. The plans for an ideal society are presented as though they were always possible; it was only a matter of someone finally stumbling upon them and putting pen to paper, so to speak. Marx and Engels, by stark contrast, based their ideas about socialism on a rigorous analysis of human society throughout the ages, and particularly capitalist society. Whereas others would see problems with capitalism and start proffering solutions based on how things ought to be, Marxism acknowledges that socialist society was not possible prior to the dawn of capitalism and its ideological offspring, liberalism. Socialism became a possible post-capitalist society only because of conditions which capitalism had brought into being, such as the socialization of production, the centralization of the population, and industrialization and modernization of the means of production. Capitalism stripped feudal serfs, free peasants, and artisans of their means of production and subsistence, but by concentrating them in cities and workplaces they gained class consciousness. That is to say that their power as a class, their position as the foundation of the whole capitalist system, becomes readily apparent only with the concentration and socialization of production.
Because they did not want to be like the many Utopian socialists of the 19th century, neither Marx nor Engels devoted much time to describing what a socialist society would look like. Real world socialism would be based on real world conditions before, during, and after a revolution. Marx was able to analyze the first real workers revolution, the Paris Commune of 1871, which provided very important lessons to socialists in the late 19th and early 20th century. Obviously in our time, we must observe and analyze the success and failures of socialism in the 20th century. In any case, we can make predictions and projections about what a future socialist society might look like, but only to a small degree. With modern technology we can even model a socialist economy long before a revolution ever occurs, but no model could ever predict exactly what conditions will exist in a particular country where and when a revolutionary scenario breaks out. The line separating the scientific, realistic socialists from the Utopian dreamers is the admission by the former that some things are simply out of our hands. We can learn from mistakes of the past but we cannot possibly predict every eventuality of the future. As capitalists cannot do this either, and seeing as how capitalists have demonstrated their incapability at solving existing problems as well as future problems they know will happen, the inability of Marxists to divine the future ought not be held against them.
Thus far we have examined two key differences which set Marxism apart from Utopian socialism. The first is that of class contradiction, class struggle, revolution, and counter-revolution, in short, the understanding that radical social change, though it might benefit all of humanity in the long run, will appear as a severe detriment to the ruling class, which incidentally is the very class possessing the resources and authority to suppress any attempts at overthrowing it. The second difference is that Marxism is not simply a set of ideas about an ideal society. Marxist-Leninist theory allows us to study history and the present, and via analysis we can draw certain conclusions about the future. However, whatever predictions we make about the future must be broad and flexible, simply because we cannot predict where we will be when revolution strikes. If this is the case, what then do Marxists say about a socialist society?
A society based on scientific socialism must take into accounts the development of capitalism, the history of mankind and the history of the particular people who would make up a socialist society, the specific level of development for the society in question, and a host of other factors. In analyzing capitalism, we must acknowledge first and foremost that capitalism, despite its undeniably bloody, savage, and exploitive nature, has brought into this world many positive things, most positive at all, the conditions and forces which make the abolishment of capitalism, as well as class-based society, possible. If we were to boil these positive aspects down to two key developments, they would be the creation of a large class of producers, who possess the potential to both produce their own means of subsistence while administering society via a democratic process, and the development of advanced, socialized means of production which can produce an abundance of most goods. Without these having been brought into existence, socialism would be unthinkable.
Socialism is not a zero-sum game. It does not appear or disappear simply because some element of capitalist society, such as money or wage labor, still exist, nor does it appear any time a major industry is nationalized by some government. Like capitalism, which emerged out of mercantilism and developed into neo-liberal globalism, socialism develops as well. This is not to say that there are only two stages of post-capitalist development, socialism and communism; it is unrealistic to believe that after a revolution some nation will achieve an ideal socialist society, absent of virtually all major features of capitalism, and then one day this society will suddenly proclaim that it’s time to switch to communism, a society without class, division of labor, money, or a state, and where distribution is based solely on individual need.
Some general features of socialism would be the absence of exploiting classes, that is those who earn their income via the exploitation of others’ labor and those who collect interest or rent, production based on central planning and the needs of society as opposed to the profit motive, labor power would not be a commodity, meaning that workers would have job security and there would be full employment, means of production would not be commodities to be bought and sold, and lastly, the working class would administer its affairs either directly or via its elected representatives. These are merely some basic criteria which were present at least for some time in every existing socialist society. While these factors were responsible for many of the successes of existing socialist societies, they were not always implemented to their full potential, and in many cases they were sabotaged or abolished in favor of market-style reforms which not only caused serious reverses, but eventually snowballed into the crisis of the 80’s which saw the downfall of a by-then bastardized, revisionist interpretation of Marxism and socialism.
Neither Marx, nor Engels, ever promised that socialism would be immediately successful. Both men lived to see the violent suppression of the first socialist experiment, the Paris Commune. Based on the analysis of the Paris Commune, which lasted but two months, Lenin and Stalin would go on to found a state which changed the face of the world, lasting for seventy years and progressing despite suffering the most horrific war in human history and several decades of economic and political sabotage by the hands of leaders such as Khrushchev. It is clear that if we engage in a realistic, dispassionate, and thorough analysis of 20th century socialism, as well as developments since then, there is a very likely possibility that an even greater socialist society can be established, one which will eventually displace capitalism as the dominant mode of production.
Let us be absolutely clear, however. In this day and age there are many snake-oil salesmen who wish to sell the workers ideal, Utopian societies. Some adopt a progressive character offer a “mixed” system based on free-market principles plus prudent government regulation so as to create and preserve a large, satisfied “middle class” while simultaneously delivering hefty profits to the capitalist class and social welfare benefits to the poorest. Others of a more right-wing variety promise that the elimination of virtually all government regulation will lead to widespread prosperity, an idea which is not much more ludicrous than the previous.
Lastly, populists of all stripes offer us Utopian future communities based on automation and energy accounting, with little explanations as to how they will be achieved. Still others offer us specific lifestyles which supposedly allow us to “drop out” of capitalist society, and a few put these ideas into practice in special communes. Though these commune-dwellers practice what they preach, the existence of such societies and communes has yet to put a dent in capitalist global domination. Marxism offers none of this. Socialism has suffered defeats in the past, and it will only triumph via struggle, the same way every new and progressive social organization came into being. After a socialist revolution, the victorious workers still emerge from a womb of capitalist society, with many of its ideas, morals, prejudices, and fears intact. Experience and development has made a much greater “leap” toward communist society possible, but we cannot make assumptions about where we will “land.”
Finally, even if mankind were to achieve a more ideal form of socialism or even communism, we should not assume that such a future society would be without conflicts between people or without serious problems that will tax our energy. Socialism and communism don’t make all problems disappear; they only solve those problems which stem from class-based society and specifically, capitalism. Mankind already faces many challenges which are not a direct result of capitalism, yet cannot be solved because of capitalism’s peculiarities. Socialism does not automatically solve these issues, but rather it merely removes the barriers to solving them. Taking all these factors into account, we can understand that while Utopian socialist ideas still exist, under various names, Marxist socialism, scientific socialism, is anything but Utopian.