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Full Marx Do Marxists believe in utopias?

Idealistic visions of the future should not obstruct our understanding of social reality as it exists and our efforts to bring about change, says the MARX MEMORIAL LIBRARY

NEITHER Marx nor Engels spent much time describing in any detail what a future, communist society might be like.  

Their efforts — like those of subsequent generations of Marxists — focused on analysing the workings of existing society and then trying to build a movement to end the exploitation, of people and of the planet, which is central to capitalism.  

Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific was written in answer to would-be socialists who spent their time painting what he and Marx saw as fanciful visions of some ideal society which would be achieved without struggle and needed “only to be discovered to conquer the entire world by virtue of their own power.”  

Utopia is derived from the Greek, meaning “no place” or “nowhere.” The Marxist historian AL Morton in The English Utopia identifies utopia as an island, like Britain, but “in the head,” divorced from the real world.  

As a previous article in this series has suggested, predictions of utopia — including the spate of recent books suggesting that some form of “post-capitalism” is already upon us so we don’t need to do anything to secure it — can be positively disabling.

Does this mean that utopias have no place in Marxism? As predictions of what a communist society might be like, yes — they’re pretty useless.  

As Marx might have said, the problem is to change the world, not to dream of a utopia.  

And while all socialists probably have some notion of what we are working towards in the long term, our individual visions are probably all very different, conditioned by who we are, where we live and a host of other factors.  

Yet inevitably people do dream and since the invention of the printing press and particularly in an era of mass media, those dreams, turned into utopian fiction, can have a role.  

Like religion, they can be a refuge, a comfort in bleak times, a shelter from the world.  

But in sketching alternative futures they can also raise issues for debate and inspiration.  

A hugely influential science fiction utopia, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward from the Year 2000, published in 1888, has its hero waking after a century of sleep in Boston, Massachusetts, to find a totally changed world.  

A socialist United States (if only!) has nationalised production — “the nation is the sole employer and capitalist” — and has automated manufacturing. 

Most domestic activities have been collectivised (people eat in public kitchens) and what little “menial” work remains is (like housework) performed by a well-paid “industrial army” working reduced hours. 

Shopping involves remote selection of goods paid for with credit tokens (this is almost a century before the internet, credit cards and online shopping) which are delivered almost instantaneously.  

Electricity is the main source of power; air travel has unified the world which has a single, universal language.  

And the “revolution” has been achieved without struggle — “the result of a process of industrial evolution which could not have terminated otherwise. 

“All that society had to do was to recognise and co-operate with that evolution, when its tendency had become unmistakable.”

Looking Backward proved to be one of 19th-century US’s most commercially successful books, pipped only by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Ben Hur.  

“Bellamy Clubs” sprang up throughout the US (and Canada) to examine the failings of North American society against Bellamy’s utopian vision.  

Bellamy himself came to be regarded “almost as the inventor of socialism and to be accepted as the leader of a political party whose objective was to turn the fiction of Looking Backward into a reality.” 

In Britain, William Morris, the communist artist, designer, entrepreneur and writer, found Bellamy’s vision of a regimented, mechanised society so appalling that he produced his own utopia.  

In his News from Nowhere (first published in serial form in the Socialist League’s journal Commonweal in 1890; Eleanor Marx, daughter of Karl, was a regular contributor) a socialist Britain has abolished wage slavery, money — and marriage.

Hand-craft production has become commonplace again, though “all work which would be irksome to do by hand is done by immensely improved machinery.”

Creative work is valued for its own sake as a contribution to society — it is no longer merely a means of survival.

Moreover the change wasn’t automatic, or peaceful. For Morris “it was war from beginning to end.”  

Piecemeal attempts to introduce what Morris called “state socialism” were “resisted at every turn by the capitalists […] without providing anything really effective in its place.  

“The result was growing confusion, great suffering among the working classes, and, as a consequence, great discontent. 

“For a long time matters went on like this. […] At last came a great crash.”  

Demonstrations against the government were ruthlessly repressed resulting in a general strike followed by a protracted civil war in which, a united popular socialist movement eventually prevailed.

Today both Bellamy’s and Morris’s utopias seem dated (despite the former’s predictions of automation, the internet and credit cards).  

Morris’s Nowhere also embodies the prejudices of most males of his time — women do the housework because it’s what they like doing — as well as a sentimental medievalism.  

But its value is that it represents such a different view of a communist future from Bellamy’s — one in which the state has indeed “withered away” and with it the distinction between work and leisure.  

Other fictional utopias range from mediaeval visions of “Cockaigne” (the “promised land” flowing with milk and honey) through Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), HG Wells’s A Modern Utopia (1905 and its 1908 successor, Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star, a dystopian sci-fi novel about a communist utopia on Mars) to more recent sci-fi of progressive writers such as Ursula Le Guin or Isaac Asimov.  

All can provide food for thought as well as some relaxation from work and struggle.

Alongside the above there have always been practical attempts to build utopian islands within capitalism — from Winstanley’s True Levellers (or Diggers) during the English civil war, through the efforts of Robert Owen (whom Engels admired) to establish co-operative enterprises and markets based on labour value, to more recent (and mostly equally unsuccessful) attempts to establish self-sufficient communities which prefigure the future.  

We probably all have our hopes, dreams and visions of what an ideal society would or could be like.  

But it is important that such visions should not obstruct our understanding of social reality as it exists and our efforts to bring about change.  

Morris himself saw it as a task of all socialists (and his own priority) “to help people find out their wants, to encourage them to want more, to challenge them to want differently, and to envisage a society of the future in which people, freed at last of necessity, might choose between different wants.”

So although there is a lot about socialism in the Communist Manifesto, most of it is critical of utopian schemes and there is very little on any post-capitalist future beyond the fundamental propositions that exploitation will have been done away with, the state will have “withered” and “in place of the old bourgeois society with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.”

And that is surely something worth fighting for.  

In the process, as the commitment and self-sacrifice of key workers from NHS staff, carers, teachers, warehouse, delivery and supermarket workers to cleaners in the current Covid-19 pandemic has demonstrated, we begin to recognise how much we depend on others.  

We begin to understand our true potential as individuals and we get a glimpse of what might be possible in a future, socialist society.  

And, as socialists, individually and collectively, we can perhaps begin to think of ourselves as prefiguring the future — being part of the change we want to see.

Previous Full Marx answers (this is number 69) can be found on the website of the Marx Memorial Library and Workers School together with details of the library’s programme of online courses and events:


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