Socialist Utopia

Howie Chodos howie at
Sat Jul 1 15:25:00 MDT 1995

Some thoughts about the nature of utopias (which also constitutes elements
of a further rsponse to Leo, who argued that Marx's vision of communism was
categorically utopian). I agree with both Tim and Justin that we need some
vision of an alternative if we are to convince people to act to change the
present. I don't think it can be repeated often enough that a central
difference between Marx's time and ours is that we have the legacy of
historical communism to answer for, however we choose to assess it. In this
sense it is not utopian to talk about the nature of our future cookshop: we
are in fact faced with the task of renovating an existing, or recently
imploded, one, or explaing why that model was flawed from the outset. This
imposes definite responsibilities to come up with real answers to the
difficulties posed by that history. I think it is therefore possible to
distinguish two meanings of utopian. One, negative, namely that something
cannot be realised, and the other, positive, namely providing an ideal to
strive for, one which can at some point be attained.

In thinking of "socialist" utopias and the Marxist tradition I think that it
can be useful to go back to Marx's formulation of the nature of communism,
and to think about in which sense it is utopian. Can we conceive of a
society that can inscribe on its banner "from everyone according to their
ability, to everyone according to their needs"? There is (at least) one
interpretation of this ideal that that does seem to me to be utopian. I
think that we cannot interpret the goal of need satisfaction as depending on
a near-total abundance of material wealth. Unless we hold off on meeting
people's needs until Star Trek type replicators become available that can
alchemistically transform molecules at will, we are faced with the finitude
of material resources and the ecological costs of their deployment. The
notion of exponential, unlimited growth coming about as soon as the fetters
of capitalist relations are sundered seems to me to be dubious at best.

But without abundance can we have communism in Marx's sense? Before trying
to sketch the beginnings of an answer I think that a first thing to notice
about Marx's formulation is that it posits two different logics for
participation in social activity, on the one hand, and remuneration for that
participation, on the other. People contribute "according to their ability".
I would want to understand this as indicating that all contributions to the
social good are to be treated equally as long as people strive to contribute
to the maximum of their capacities. At the very least, entitlement to
remuneration must not be based on the size or type of one's actual work, but
on the fact that one behaves as a socially-responsible individual and puts
into the collective pot as much as one is able. This strikes me as a
feasible, reasonable, approach to comparing widely differing contributions
that does not reproduce various forms of privilege.

People are remunerated "according to need". In Marx's formulation in the
Critique of the Gotha Programme remuneration according to need is seen as
the only way of overcoming "bourgeois right", that is paying people with
varying needs the same thing. Marx argues that equal pay for work of equal
value is still "bourgeois" justice, because the people receiving the equal
pay are themselves different, with different needs and so on. Is it really
fair to pay someone with special needs the same thing as someone else? Is it
really fair to pay a single person living at home the same wage as a single
mother of three?

The question is how do we define fairness with regard to remuneration
according to need. Who decides? My inclination is to think that a solution
to this problem has to start from the recognition that individual need has
to be self-defined. No one should be allowed to impose their understanding
of what another person needs on that person. In other words, the vision of
communism that I find congenial is one where people freely take from the
available socially-generated resources that which they deem necessary to the
meeting of their individual needs.

This is where the problem of abundance comes back. If we rule out having
enough to satisfy everyone's needs, how can we envision a process of
individual decision-making regarding the use of resources that will not lead
to chaos and the strong prevailing over the weak? There is only one answer,
I think, and it is that we are dealing with a different type of individual,
one who is able and willing to take into account the state of the available
social resources in deciding what to draw from the collective pool for
her/his own satisfaction. I would imagine that the community would still
retain the ability to censure people who consistently abused their right to
take as much as they themselves found appropriate, but that on the whole
there would exist a climate of trust (rooted in the mutual self-interest of
achieving the highest possible level of need satisfaction for the entire
population) that would allow everyone to meet their own needs as they saw fit.

It is, of course, a long way from where we are to such a state of affairs,
and there are many questions that such a formulation poses, not the least of
which is the question of what a transition to such a communist society might
look like, since if the key is the development of an acute sense of social
responsibility, there is much that will have to be unlearned before we get

Howie Chodos

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