Friday, November 21, 2014

Utopia (2012)

Book Review from the August 2012 issue of the Socialist Standard

Searching for Utopia. The History of an Idea, by Gregory Claeys. Thames and Hudson, London, 2011. £24.95.

Gregory Claeys has provided an extensive and lavishly illustrated survey of utopian thought. In its early chapters it ranges from ancient origin myths through to the classic texts of Thomas More. It then moves on to look at the modern era; it includes visions of model communities by Robert Owen and others, and comes right up to date with modern science fiction and dystopian views of the future. Claeys’ definition of utopia is broad and covers the exploration in a plausible way of “the space between the possible and the impossible”. The role of utopia, for Claeys, is crucial to the process of social change as it transcends the distance between this world and the ideal described. Utopia can be used as a literary means of closing the gap in our imaginations between where we are and where we want to go.

Claeys, however, goes much further in his claims for utopia, without which, he argues: “humanity would never have struggled onwards towards betterment. It is a pole-star, a guide, a reference point on a common map of an eternal quest for the improvement of the human condition” (p.15). In a rather bleak concluding chapter the future of humanity is proffered as hinging on the success of a “realistic utopianism”, which is liberal, forward-looking, scientific and tolerant.

For Claeys it is the idea, the vision of society depicted, which drives change. There is no explanation offered as to why ancient societies looked back to religious or mythical origin-myths or why utopia became more and more anchored in this world. Nor is there an exploration of why some utopias fail to connect with wider society whilst others add fuel to rapid social and political change. Claeys points out that ancient and medieval utopias assumed scarcity and hierarchy but that this changed in the modern era as utopias came to stress the possibility of abundance and equality: “The decline in religious belief accompanying modernity has …displaced the search for equality in the afterlife by an enhanced desire to achieve it in this life” (p.13). He does not, however, discuss how these changes in ideas about human potential relate to the material world in which the ideas emerge.

The treatment of Marx suffers for the same reasons. Claeys’ approach results in a skewed perspective as it searches for Marx’s ideas of what a socialist future would look like. There is an attempt to see Marx “as the greatest of all modern utopian writers”because he projected “the utopian scheme”of community of property to a large audience. It is argued that in the Communist Manifesto Marx (and Engels) proposed “a highly centralized system of economic administration in which credit, transportation and the method of production generally were to be managed by the state” (p.145). This is taking some proposals in the Communist Manifesto and using them to make conclusions about Marx’s thought that are grossly distorted. In 1848 Marx and Engels envisaged state control of industry as a means of developing further the means of production to allow the possibility of communism –a proposal Marx did not think necessary later in his life as by that time the means of production had vastly expanded.

In fact, Marx was loath to lay down ideas of a future socialist society beyond its broad character of bringing class exploitation to an end (of which the end of money and the state would be consequences). His contribution to socialist thought was not to propose ideas of what socialism might look like but to further understanding of the social and economic processes that created its possibility and necessity.

Claeys’ book is a wide-ranging primer on the history of utopian thought.  For the socialist reader it highlights the still useful distinction made by Engels between utopian socialism and scientific socialism. The former seeks to implement an idealised plan of society which would spread by force of example. The latter seeks to develop an understanding of the underlying material forces operating in society, now and in the past. In so doing it aims to build a consciousness of class exploitation and the need for a revolutionary transition to socialism based on working class social and political consciousness of this economic exploitation. The idea of socialism as a plan of an ideal society has little relevance to scientific socialism because the future society emerges from class conscious revolution moulded in the process of working class self-emancipation and not derived from a prior blueprint.
Colin Skelly

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