Marx, Hayek, and Utopianism

Thu Oct 6 13:49:43 MDT 1994

     I'd like to comment on the posts of Alex Trotter and
Donna Jones with regard to my recent discussions of Marx and
the Soviet Union.

     Alex asks:  "to what extent were the Soviets really
utopians?  I thought the Bolsheviks were very practical, even
cynical, men in a lot of ways.  The wild fantasias of a
Fourier were anathema to them."

     I would certainly agree that the Bolsheviks were not
utopians in precisely the same sense that Fourier was a
utopian.  But, by virtue of their given existential
conditions, one can view them as "utopian."  Let me expand a
bit on the meaning of "utopianism."

     In my forthcoming book, MARX, HAYEK, AND UTOPIA (SUNY,
1995), I argue that utopianism is not a substantive
commitment to certain progressive ideas or goals, but a non-
radical, non-dialectical METHODOLOGICAL orientation.  Both
Marx and Hayek recognized that utopians, in their blueprints
for the "ideal" society, exhibit a pretense of knowledge.
They fail to take account of the social and historical
context of the society that exists.  They reify human
rationality, abstracting it from its social and historical
specificity.  They act AS IF there is no distinction between
human purposes and the unintended consequences of social
action; they act AS IF they can construct a political
resolution without any deleterious effects.

     For Marx, the utopian pretense of knowledge could be
transcended historically.  Donna is correct to suggest that
Marx did not dismiss as utopian ANY attempt to make history
consciously.  For Marx, systemic, unintended social
consequences were tied inextricably to pre-communist social
formations.  Everything about capitalism, for instance,
according to Marx, takes place "behind the backs" of people.
Donna notes correctly that Marx does not banish conscious
human subjects from making history.  But for Marx, there is a
dialectical relationship between people and their history;
people make history, even as they are made by it.  The second
stage of Communism, in Marx's view, brings about the genesis
of true human history, in that for the first time, human
beings will consciously create the conditions of their

     Hayek would agree with Marx that the utopian exhibits a
pretense of knowledge.  But for Hayek, the Marxian historical
projection implies a transcendence which is ultimately
impossible to human beings.  People are indeed, PARTIALLY
knowing social actors.  But they can never achieve the
virtual omniscience it would require for them to become
complete masters of their own destiny.  People will never be
able to completely master all of the sophisticated
complexities of social life.  They will never completely
transcend the gap between articulated and tacit knowledge, or
between conscious purposes and unintended social
consequences.  Those who attempt to fully bridge these gaps
(rather than merely trying to shift the tacit coefficients of
human action), inevitably rely upon the statist construction
of alternative institutions.  Their methodological utopianism
becomes the basis of an existential dystopia.

     Leaving aside for now Marx's and Hayek's divergent
perspectives on the knowledge question, we can see, at the
very least, that both thinkers grasp the tie between human
epistemic potential and real, concrete, material conditions.
Since it is clear that the Bolsheviks LACKED the advanced
capitalist material conditions that Marx projected as the
basis for communism, I think that we might view them as
"utopians."  They were utopians in the sense that they had
neither the knowledge nor the means nor the existential
conditions to implement their socialist blueprints.

     I will not address at this stage all of the points
raised by Donna in her recent summary of my various postings.
(She did summarize many of them quite accurately.)  Needless
to say, each of the points can become the basis of animated
discussion.  I would like to give a cheer to Gene Holland
however, for supplying us with that great Marx quote on
peaceful revolutionary change.

                              - Chris

Dr. Chris M. Sciabarra
Visiting Scholar, N.Y.U. Department of Politics
INTERNET:  sciabrrc at
  BITNET:  sciabrrc at nyuacf


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