More on Utopianism

Fri Oct 7 10:56:26 MDT 1994

     Louis Proyect questions my characterization of the
Bolsheviks as "utopians."  He states:

     "Bolshevik rule was characterized by improvisation:  if
`war communism' fails, then try NEP.  . . . But nothing in
Lenin's career evokes utopianism.  Most importantly, Lenin
never projected that `communism' would be able to be
constructed in the USSR by itself; he regarded the USSR as a
beachhead. . .  .  Bolshevik rule was totally at odds with .
. . utopian schemes in which every aspect of social and
economic life was dictated by a set of rules for a perfect
society.  A careful reading of early Soviet society would
show that it was one of the least constrained societies in
the history of the world."

     I've already addressed the very last point in a previous
post.  If early Soviet society was one of the "least
constrained" in world history, that's news to me.  I would
say that, to the extent that it was without constraint, this
was IN SPITE OF Bolshevik rule (since they had not yet
consolidated their power in the early period).

     On the broader issue, let me say that Proyect is correct
to note that my use of the word "utopia" functions "more as
an epistemological category than what it has meant
historically."  The ONLY reason why I have applied it in an
historical context, is because several commentators here have
DEFENDED the Soviet Union, including the Stalinist period, AS
socialist or communist.  I tried to explain that the USSR was
most definitely NOT socialist or communist IN THE ORIGINAL
MARXIAN SENSE.  Since Soviet planners could not possibly
transcend the "knowledge problem," due to either historical
prematurity (Marx) or existential constraints (Hayek), their
attempts to actualize ANY part of Marxist ideology was not
merely futile, it was postively reactionary and DYSTOPIAN in
its consequences.

     Of course, the "knowledge problem," recognized by both
Marx and Hayek, does have historical implications.  It has
historical significance because real people in concrete
circumstances have acted AS IF they possessed knowledge which
they did not have.  For Marx, it is knowledge which they
CAN'T have, given the fact that their actions are
historically premature, i.e., actions taken on the basis of
existential conditions which are not materially advanced.
Such people act politically AS IF their plans will have no
unintended social consequences or deleterious effects.  To
the extent that the Bolsheviks and the later Soviets did
these things, they WERE utopians, at least epistemically.
They acted under the "cover" of Marxist ideology in the
absence of those material conditions which are necessary, in
Marx's view, for genuine success.

     Please understand however, that this is an improvised
projection of how Marx MIGHT HAVE viewed the 20th century
movements in his name.  Hayek, who lived to see the 20th
century "Marxist" movements, was not nearly as "optimistic"
as Marx.  He believed that the knowledge problem was endemic
to the human species, and that the kind of totalistic vision
projected by Marx COULD NOT EVER BE ACHIEVED, precisely
because human beings cannot completely transcend the gap
between their articulated and inarticulate knowledge, between
their conscious intentions and the unintended social
consequences of their actions.

     And this is an interesting point.... for if human beings
will NEVER be able to transcend epistemic strictures, then
ANY ATTEMPT to actualize the Marxian vision will be doomed to
fail.  Remember that Marx projects a two-stage development
toward communism.  Since it is only in the SECOND stage that
people will transcend unintended social consequences, it is
quite possible that those who try to actualize Marx's vision
will NEVER master the unintended effects of their implemented
political plans.  Perhaps it is, as Hayek suggests, a pure
fantasy to believe that we will EVER be able to achieve such
virtual omnipotence.  Or perhaps it is, as Marx suggests, an
epistemic inability that is historically specific, and not
transhistorically valid.  Personally, I find myself in
agreement with Hayek, though I do believe there are things
which people CAN do (and have done) to shift the tacit
coefficients of their knowledge and social practices.  We'll
leave that for another time.

                              - Chris

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


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