False Defences of Utopian Thought

‘There is a strange paradox in Marx’s approach to revolution. Generally speaking, when Marx speaks of material creativity, he speaks of “production”, and here he insists, as I’ve mentioned, that the defining feature of humanity is that we first imagine things, and then try to bring them into being. When he speaks of social creativity it is almost always in terms of revolution, but here, he insists that imagining something and then trying to bring it into being is precisely what we should never do. That would be utopianism, and for utopianism, he had only withering contempt.’ — David Graeber, The Revolution In Reverse

In this example David Graeber is suggesting that it is Utopian to imagine a better world in the future, before achieving it.

In ‘A Discussion on “Listen, Marxist!”‘ Bookchin writes of Marx:

‘No less serious is the rejection of Utopian thought—the imaginative forays of Charles Fourier and William Morris. What Martin Buber called the “utopian element in socialism” is rejected for a “hardheaded” and “objective” treatment of “reality.” ‘

Bookchin is suggesting, citing Buber, that to be Utopian is to be overly imaginative and lacking hard-headedness and “objectivity.”

Now clearly, lacking objectivity could be drawback, but could Marx really have objected to imagination and for-sight? I don’t claim to match the scholarship of Graeber or Bookchin, so I wont hazard to prove what Marx really believed about Utopian thinking, but for me, both the above defences, which are unfortunately common ones, are completely missing the point.

The issue is not so much objectivity, vision, nor imagination, it is the belief that society can be changed without conflict, that oppressed classes can end their oppression without overcoming the ruling classes, often just by merely suggesting another system is possible. I have complete confidence that  Graeber and Bookchin also reject such socialism, simply using other words.

Perhaps the most of famous of Marx and Engels’ rejection of Utopianism comes from this passage of the Communist Manifesto:

“The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favored. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see it in the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?. Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.” — Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto

It seems plain that what is being rejected here is not a vision for the future, nor imagination. Although ‘their own surroundings’ is mentioned as a cause, there is hardly a strong argument being made on the basis of a lack of objectivity. The criticism of the rejection of Utopian thought presented by Graeber and Bookchin seems to miss the mark.

Utopians are those activists who deny class struggle, who reject all political and revolutionary action, who appeal to the oppressors themselves, instead of placing their hope in the revolutionary potential of the oppressed masses; “they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see it in the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?”

That is Utopian thinking.

Class society does not exist simply because nobody has been clever enough to think-up a better system. Class society evolved over time, under force, to serve the interests of the most powerful. Who, as a predatory class require a productive class to exist and serve them. The control and oppression of the productive classes is not an accident, it is the purpose of the system.

The representatives of the predatory class will not abandon their privilege, they will fight to the death to keep it, and even bring down the whole society, if they can, to prevent losing their privilege.

Rulers would rather see everything they have lost, their own children slaughtered, and the greatest works of their society destroyed and undone, sooner than fall into the lower classes and accept their servants as their equals.

What makes certain thinking Utopian is denying conflict, imagining the economic and social structure of society can be overturned without conflict, thinking that we can go from a society of class stratification to a society without classes without conflict among the contesting classes. Such thinking is rightfully to be rejected.

Thinking is Utopian when it has no political program, no revolutionary theory, when it doesn’t address how the balance of power will be changed so that a new society is possible, when this issue of power is in fact the primary issue we must address to achieve a society where “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” 

A social theory is not Utopian because the future society it envisions is unrealistic, but rather because it fails to answer, or often even consider, the issue of how we could possible get there and achieve such a society, how we can overcome the resistance of those who would lose privilege and power in such a society. This lack makes such work not so much political thought, but better filed under Speculative Fiction.



  1. MatthewTA

    Great piece! I know enough of Bookchin’s Marx-allergy to expect the most mechanical Marxism to be represented. But calling Marxism a rejection of the Utopian thought of William Morris is just bad scholarship – William Morris was a Marxist, not a utopian socialist.

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