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Why We are Not "Utopians"

As a follow-up to my entry on science, I want to talk about utopianism.  More specifically, I want to interrogate the charge that communism is a form of utopianism––the product of some naive "idealist" thinking, the opposite of the scientific mindset that I have claimed is essential to marxism.  Indeed, communism is accused of being utopian, imagining that "human nature" is essentially "good", and often treated as fantastic ideology.

Although it is true that some communists might be utopians, it is important to note that Marx and Engels established the revolutionary communist project by delineating themselves from utopianism.  They were not interested in idealist moralizing, in abstract notions about returning to some root human essence, or in defending the necessity of communism according to abstract philosophical arguments.  Rousseau, after all, was a utopian and Marx and Engels, though influenced at one point by Rousseau's philosophy, had already turned their back to this approach by the time they finished writing The Holy Family.  And in Engels' Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, a work that betrays its rejection of utopianism in its very title, the distinction between the communist and the utopian project is made clear:
"We know today that this [utopian] kingdom of reason was nothing more than the idealised kingdom of the bourgeoisie; that this eternal right found its realisation in bourgeois justice; that this equality reduced itself to bourgeois equality before the law; the bourgeois property was proclaimed as one of the essential rights of man; and that the government of reason, the Contrat Social of Rousseau came into being, and could only come into being, as a democratic bourgeois republic.  The great thinkers of the eighteenth century could, no more than their predecessors, go beyond the limits imposed upon them by the epoch."
Meaning that Rousseau's utopian dreams of a state of nature realized in the social contract, of a properly reasonable and just society, was a bourgeois fantasy.  It was nothing more than the idealization of class relations, imagined as perfectly equal and just, without any understanding of the mode of production that produced these relations in the first place.

Point being: Marx and Engels initiated the communist project as a rejection of the utopian thinking evident in Rousseau, or Saint Simone, or Fourier, or Owen.  They were not interested in arguing for the moral reasons for a classless society, or producing imaginative philosophical texts that could only inaccurately specify this classless society, but in explaining the scientific necessity for such a society.  Morality and ethics came after this scientific point, though perhaps the ghost of a future morality looking back on their present was prefigured in their science.

Robert Owen's attempted utopian socialism of "New Harmony" (itself dependent on settler-colonialism)

Those who claim communism is utopian generally do so because they believe that communism asserts some notion of human nature that is good and unselfish.  This is the root argument behind the banal axiom that "communism is good in theory and bad in practice."  Good in theory because it desires a classless society; bad in practice because it finds the justification of this classless society in the essential goodness of human nature.  The pro-capitalist skeptic, after all, believes in a Hobbesian state of nature where humans, left to their own devices, would prefer to slaughter each other.

But neither Marx, nor Engels, nor any of their antecedents believed that humans were essentially good––they found the entire idea of an essential goodness or badness nothing more than fantastic philosophical moralism.  Both Rousseau and Hobbes, after all, fantasized a state of nature that could never be proven and then, because they were both utopians in different ways, used this state of nature to justify the social relations they wanted to see justified.  In the Introduction of a Critique of Political Economy (which was also the introduction of the Grundrisse), Marx even mocks the attempt to project modern notions of human nature back upon the past: it is always, he points out, an isolated individual even though this is a fiction––humans have always been social, animals who produce themselves and their societies in given concrete circumstances.

Still, we are told, communists are utopians who believe that humans are essentially good and this is the main reason why communism failed.  (The corollary, of course, is that humans are essentially greedy and this is why capitalism is the end of history––and this, for some reason, is not considered utopian although this is precisely what it is!)  Communism, we are told, is a utopian because it is founded on the principle that humans are essentially good and unselfish.

But Marx and Engels did not argue for communism based on some moral notion of humanity's innately good nature.  And since they were not utopians, they did not waste time attempting to define the social structure of communism, as if they were Plato describing the Republic.  When they spoke of communism, it was mainly a demand: a society of each according to their needs, each according to their abilities; to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner…  If they were utopians they would have given us more––they would have written books that described communist society, rather than hinting only at the necessity of overcoming society, as well as writing, like Rousseau or Plato, philosophical treatises on why their imagined society was rational and moral.  And yet they did not waste time with these fictions because they were not interested in fiction: they were interested in what existed in history, in making sense of the motion of history, and explaining the necessities this motion produced.  Moral questions were produced by the same necessity, were always historically mediated, and never a priori.

For communists who accept the science initiated by Marx and Engels, humans are neither good nor evil: they are nothing more than social/historical animals who produced and were produced by society––messy, confusing, and not essentially anything but social and historical.  A random sampling of humans from a hunter-gatherer society will treat each other differently than a random sampling of humans from a capitalist society.  If social being tends to determine social consciousness, then it makes no sense to speak of moral notions of human nature.  Humans aren't naturally altruistic or greedy or even rational; they are simply social.

And yet those who accuse communism of being utopian seem to believe that communists are under the impression that communism is inevitable because humans are essentially "good" and all we have to is shrug off the "evil" of our social circumstances in one beautiful moment of insurrection.  While it may indeed be true that some communists, especially those too focused on the young Marx, might be committed to this utopian version of communism, it is a rather ahistorical interpretation of communism as a whole.  For if communism found its entire foundational strength on some moral doctrine of humanity's essential "goodness" then why would the great revolutionary movements have wasted so much time arguing about imposing the dictatorship of the proletariat and struggling to keep it imposed?

Anarchists are committed, rightly or wrongly, to the belief that humans are naturally good and cooperative beings who are only held back by anti-human social circumstances.  Revolutionary communists, however, argue that it is not simply enough to transgress the anti-human limits of the capitalist mode of production.  Rather, we need to impose a class dictatorship in order to build the circumstances for a consciousness that is also transgresses capitalism; we also need to struggle against capitalist socialization that lingers and will continue to make us messy and selfish creatures.

The history of actually existing socialism, after all, should demonstrate a communist obsession with reforming human nature rather than a simplistic acceptance that humans are naturally good.  The great upheavals, successes, and failures have all been driven by the fact that communism is founded primarily on necessity and not morality.  That is, we are not communists because it is morally good––an idealist, utopian demand––but because it is historical necessity.  Or, as Engels puts it in Anti-Duhring:
"if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions. On this tangible, material fact, which is impressing itself in a more or less clear form, but with insuperable necessity, on the minds of the exploited proletarians––on this fact, and not on the conceptions of justice and injustice held by any armchair philosopher, is modern socialism's confidence in victory founded."
Rosa Luxemburg, of course, succinctly summarized this statement of Engels in her famous aphorism "socialism or barbarism".  The logic of capitalism––of surplus, of overproduction, of endless accumulation––is a logic that is unsustainable and, because it is unsustainable, produces the necessity for revolution.  Social freedom lies in our pursuit of this necessity rather than arguments about justice and morality.  Crisis after crisis, and now the immanence of environmental catastrophe, is the telos of capitalism.  If we want to see the human species and the world survive and flourish, rather than persist in some utopian fantasy that capitalism and its invisible hand will eventually equalize people within the magical vicissitudes of its market, then we must pursue a revolutionary project.  If there is a morality to this position, then it is on a higher level––a meta-ethics.

The final charge of "utopianism" levelled against communism is its supposed teleology of progression.  Communists are utopians, it is said, because we believe that history progresses from barbarism to civilization, growing ever more "good" and "free", and so communism is historically inevitable.  Indeed, we can see how such a charge can be made simply by looking at the above statement by Engels and taking its last part out of context: "modern socialism's confidence in victory".  Aha! says the anti-communist, Engels is arguing for an inevitable victory of communism!  Of course, to assume that this is what Engels was actually arguing would mean that we would have to ignore the conditional logic of the entire statement: it begins with an if, and a pretty big if, at that.  Modern socialism, therefore, can only be inevitable and victorious if, and only if, it pursues "a revolution in the mode of production."  This is where it must found any confidence in its victory, rather than in moral concepts of "the good" and "justice", and this confidence is raised against the terrible possibility that modern society might indeed perish.  A revolution must take place to transgress the logic of capitalism: this is an imperative, not a prophecy.

Communist literature is filled with innumerable statements that, when taken out of context, appear to endorse a utopian teleology of progression.  Lenin and Mao, for example, were wont to speak of the inevitability of world capitalism––of how the bourgeoisie would be judged backwards by history and the progress these great revolutions had released––but this is because they were speaking from the high-points of revolutionary movements.  There was always a rhetorical tone to these statements (and it is important to note that the vast majority of times there is talk of socialism's "inevitability" it is in speeches and polemics) and one should always be careful of context.  For Lenin and Mao also spoke of the danger of capitalist restoration, just as frequently as they spoke about socialism's inevitability, and the necessity of people to organize and fight to overthrow capitalism rather than simply assume it would fall for them.  Indeed, if they truly were "inevitabilists" they wouldn't have bothered to struggle in revolutionary movements; if they really did believe in the inevitability of socialism then what need would there be to fight for it––and to spend a great deal trying to figure out how to fight for it––in the first place?

Moreover, the assumption that Marx and Engels, and thus all of historical communism, believed that history progressed from "barbarism to civilization" in a utopian manner where every change in the mode of production also meant moral production is completely wrong.  Since they were not utopians, Marx and Engels did not believe that there was progress from bad to good anymore than they believed there was a progress from good to bad.  History was neither a moral progression or retrogression; rather, history was simply a progression from simple to more complex forces and relations of production.  At its root, there is no morality to this claim about the simple to the complex: you get enough people living in one place, encountering enough people living in another place, developing their society (and societies) collectively and things grow more complex.  The emergence of different social classes and property relations definitely add a level of complexity, but it is not as if Marx or Engels thought that the obvious complexity of class conflict was better than periods in history where there was less class conflict!

Once again, all we have to do is glance at Engels' Anti-Duhring (and I have been using this because at one time, since it was edited by Marx and promoted as the "best summation" of his ideas, it was considered the primer of communism for aspiring revolutionaries) to see that Marx and Engels did not think that what they meant by historical "progress" was moral or immoral.  "Each new advance of civilisation," he writes, "is at the same time a new advance of inequality.  All institutions set up by the society which has arisen with civilisation change into the opposite of their original purpose."  So civilizational advancement, which can be liberating, is often and at the same time oppressive.  Capitalism, for example, might have demystified the world but it did this in the midst of colonialism, slavery, and eventually reaching a stage of global imperialism.

In any case, communism has not historically drawn its justification from bland appeals to utopian idealism.  Instead, in attempting to articulate itself as a science, it has striven to produce a non-utopian approach to revolution.  Whether or not this approach is correct, or whether it is properly scientific (and here, again, I mean what I meant by "science" in my previous entry, linked above), is worth questioning.  Claiming it is "utopian", however, is a gross misunderstanding of communism.