Socialist Utopia

James Devine JDevine at
Tue Jun 27 10:10:53 MDT 1995

concerning utopian novels Will Brown writes:
>>Do others think such work is relevant to the
struggle? Or is it irrelevant (perhaps petit bourgoies?)
fantasising? Should we restrict our reading to the
collected works of Marx and Lenin?<<

Others have already listed the best left utopias
available, so I won't repeat them. It's the last issue
that I think is important.  No we shouldn't restrict our
readings to Marx & Lenin. (Did they ever restrict their
reading?)  I think socialist utopianism has a positive
role to play, as did Marx and Lenin. On the latter, I
don't know what to call THE STATE AND REVOLUTION but a
utopia.  On the former, Ruth Levitas (in THE CONCEPT OF
UTOPIA) writes that "The real dispute between Marx and
Engels and the utopian socialists is not about the merit
of goals or of images of the future but about the process
of transformation, and particularly about the belief that
propaganda alone would result in the realization of
socialism" (p. 35). See also Geoghegan's UTOPIANISM AND
MARXISM (1987: ch. 2) and Hal Draper's KARL MARX'S THEORY
OF REVOLUTION (1990: ch. 1). It should be remembered that
the title of Engels' famous work on the subject was
"Socialism: Utopian and Scientific," rather than
"Socialism: Utopian _versus_ Scientific." According to
Draper, Engels really liked the utopian socialists, so
that Marx had to argue with him to tone down his praise.

I think that the difference between utopian socialism of
the sort that Marxists should oppose and that which Marx
and Engels liked is as follows. The first involves
preaching to workers, saying "if you follow me, we can
set up this utopia. Here's my blueprint." Often this
meant going off to the hinterland and setting up a
commune under the dictatorial leadership of the Thinker.
This was very common in the 19th century, so that the US
is the site of a lot of utopian colonies.  Edward
Bellamy's LOOKING BACKWARD is a good representative of
this kind of socialism from above, though he wanted it to
be nation-wide (and in fact called it "nationalism"
rather than "socialism").  (I think that this book had a
tremendous influence that is often ignored. It was
translated into many languages. I bet that the Bolsheviks
had read it, and since Marx didn't provide blueprints,
some latched onto Bellamy, who sketches a dictatorial
planned economy. I don't have any evidence for this
hunch, however.)

The second involves workers discussing among themselves
(perhaps with input from petty-bourgeois intellectuals
like me) about how _they_ want to run things when they
take power. I think that William Morris' NEWS FROM
NOWHERE is a good book with this socialism-from-below
perspective. It's a response to Bellamy, by the way.
(It's boring at times, however, partly because there's no
conflict in utopia and conflict is interesting.)

It used to be that a lot of people on the left used the
USSR or China as the utopia: "look how good it is, and we
can do better."  But that's gone, so it's quite important
for people to engage in utopian theorizing. We need to
have some idea of what we want if we are to ever get it.

for socialism from below,

Jim Devine      jdevine at
Los Angeles, CA (the city of emphysema)

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