The following piece, written by the late Pieter Lawrence, is the third chapter of his 2006 work, 'Practical Socialism - Its Principles and Methods'.
The Conflict Between Utopia and Practical Socialism
Socialism has often claimed to be “scientific”. This may be an ideal or an exaggerated view. It is doubtful if any political or economic theory could claim the status of, say, the natural sciences. Even so, at its best, socialist theory does provide an analysis of the capitalist system that explains how wealth comes to be produced and distributed and who gets what from the pool of social production. It is able to place this in an historical context showing the development of its productive relationships from past systems. It is also able to define the economic limitations of political action within the system and reliably predict the results of various political policies. It is this body of knowledge that can reasonably claim to be scientific socialism.
But then again, over the past two hundred years, socialism has also provided a meeting ground for various dissenting ideas. So, as well as the disciplines of socialist criticism the many people who identify themselves as socialists also include tendencies towards sectarianism, anarchism, radical reformism, and a strong element of utopia.
Socialism has attracted more than those who have been convinced by its intellectual rigour and its ability to clarify the workings of society. Its opposition to the existing state of things has been taken up in a sectarian way as a rationale for dissociating from life or for living in negative defiance of the world. Then again, anti authoritarian attitudes, which arise in socialism from equality and democracy can blend easily with the anti authoritarian attitudes of anarchists which come from a very different tradition. Anarchists begin with the autonomous individual whilst socialists begin with the relationships of social individuals. Socialists aim at democratic society whilst anarchists will always view democracy with distrust for it means that the individual may be compromised by having to concede to the decisions of a majority. The attitudes of sectarian socialism and anarchist socialism tend to congeal as sterile postures and as perverse features of the status quo. Their main function is the therapy of providing a spiritual home for the socially disaffected. They have little interest in presenting a positive or practical alternative to existing society.
A further outlook which can also be in conflict with practical socialism comes from a tradition of utopian ideas. It is important to make a distinction between utopian socialism and practical socialism but this is not necessarily for the purpose of choosing one and entirely disregarding the other. These two outlooks should complement each other and in their different ways widen our social possibilities.
Ideas of utopia, which may be said to be socialist, arose long before Marxian criticism. Out of the inequalities and miseries of even pre-capitalist societies they arose from a desire for an ideal way to live. Utopians construct ideas of a future perfect society in the hope that one day, society will adapt itself to these visions. Thus the utopian imagination has enjoyed the freedom to indulge without limits any proposal that may come to mind, and which could be part of a perfect world. We may well be inspired by such ideas but we should also recognise that society does not move forward in this way. Utopian socialism can become a problem when its futuristic visions are imposed on the ideas of socialism as a rigid dogma. In this way, socialism can seriously lose credibility.
In fact practical socialism is not focused on future society. It is entirely focused on how we could move forward from where we are now. Its proposals arise from the practical ways we could solve our social problems by taking society forward on a socialist basis. This means applying the principles of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for use in proposing how people in socialism could be organised as a world community. It means the ascendancy of all the useful things of life in place of the economics of the profit system. It also means that the conditions for that forward movement are entirely given by present circumstances. This determines the framework of both the freedoms and the limitations within which practical socialism may be sensibly proposed and argued.
The methods of practical socialism must be consistent with the actual ways that society moves forward and history is made. Within the constraints of this method its ideas may not be plucked arbitrarily out of a utopian blue. Practical socialism certainly proposes a rapid development of all useful aspects of society for the needs of all people but its starting off point must be and can only be the existing world.
The Future in History
The part played by utopia in the past is ambivalent. Seen in one light, utopian ideas have been a reminder of humanity’s best qualities and best possibilities. Its ideas have kept sight of the better things we could do in a better life. Despite the horrors and miseries of every age, utopia has upheld the belief that we could all live in peace, security and happiness. Without utopia there would be less hope. It was well said by Oscar Wilde that “A map of the world that does not include utopia is not worth even glancing at.”
Nor is it surprising that most visions of the ideal life have been based on equality and co-operation. It would be difficult to be inspired by propertied society to write a utopia of class, competition, economic exploitation, or profit. There may be one or two literary nightmares written along these lines, but not utopias.
The recently issued “Faber Book of Utopias” edited by John Carey includes over a hundred references to writers who have imagined in different ways an ideal future and which the editor accepts as being part of the utopian tradition. Though many would say that the inclusion of Adolf Hitler and his dream of a future Aryan paradise is surprising.
The list for socialists is quite short. John Ball, the ‘first socialist’, dreamed of a world without property, based on equality and co-operation at the time of the Peasant’s Revolt in the 1380’s. Thomas More, who invented the word, issued his “Utopia” in 1516. Gerard Winstanley was one of the organisers of the Digger Movement at the time of the English Civil War. The contemporaries, Fourier and Saint Simon published utopian works in the early 19th Century. These were criticised by Marx and Engels. Perhaps the best read socialist utopia after Thomas More’s “Utopia” is “News From Nowhere” by William Morris, published in 1890. The “nowhere” in “News From Nowhere” continues a play on words begun by Thomas More when he combined the words from classic Greek, ou-topos meaning no-place and eu-topos meaning a good place. From this he constructed the word utopia. Some utopian socialists still accept “News From Nowhere” as their guide to how socialism would be organised. For the most part, all these forward thinkers agreed that the best way to live could only be in communities of free and equal men and women who co-operate to provide for each other’s needs and who organise their affairs democratically.
Though William Morris has come to be known as a utopian it is not the intention here to in any way diminish his importance as a great socialist. William Morris was in fact a very practical socialist who was surely entitled to write a visionary book about future socialist society without being categorised as a Utopian. Just as Marx sometimes speculated about what he called “the higher phase of communism”, William Morris also made a distinction between “the morrow of the revolution” and “the fully developed new society.” This clearly indicates that Morris was aware that socialism would be a developing society, different as a mature society from its beginning. Indeed, the very first paragraph of “News From Nowhere” is as follows, “Up at the (Socialist) League, says a friend, there had been one night a brisk conversational discussion, as to what would happen on the Morrow of the Revolution, finally shading off into a vigorous statement by various friends of their views on the future of the fully developed new society.”.
It should also be noted that “News From Nowhere” is partly a manifesto on behalf of the aesthetic movement, The Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. For example, Collier’s Encyclopaedia says, “His prose tale News From Nowhere (1891) shows a post revolutionary Utopian England in which his political convictions, his craftsman’s tastes, and his Pre-Raphaelite ideas are miraculously reconciled.” Hence, for example, the costumes of the characters. “His dress was not like any modern work-a-day clothes I had seen, but would have served very well as a costume for a picture of fourteenth century life: it was of dark blue cloth, simple enough, but of fine web, and without a stain on it. He had a brown leather belt round his waist, and I noticed that its clasp was of damascened steel beautifully wrought.” So far as I am aware, our modern utopians have not yet suggested that people in socialism will be mostly wearing medieval dress.
It is doubtful if Morris would have approved of the way the details of “News From Nowhere” are now sometimes expressed as a dogma about daily life in socialism. It is simply a work of futuristic fiction which should not be dogmatised as a bible of the future. His is surely a case of the reputation of William Morris having to be saved from the follies of some of his admirers
The utopian tradition is ambivalent because whilst it urges us to remember the best ways we could live it has also had its dark side. The idea of a future, perfect world has been used by various regimes to justify their acts of repression and cruelty. Millions of people were killed or sent into forced labour in the name of advance towards “pure communism”, the regimes of Stalin and Pol Pot being infamous examples. The mention of Adolf Hitler is a reminder that the psychopathic Nazi regime exterminated more millions in the name of an idyllic, romantically inspired paradise to be lived by an Aryan “Volk”. The Inquisition justified its tortures in terms of a perfect eternal life. This reminds us that the father of English utopians, Thomas More, was a catholic Chancellor of England, an agent of the Pope, who had heretics burnt at the stake. There was not much utopia for those folks, not in this life anyway. Experience shows that whenever a leader or a political vanguard has stood for the promised land, the record of success has not been good.
But the distortion of language and the use of fine ideals as a cover for repression and exploitation has long been part of politics. This does not detract from the values of equality and co-operation that have been upheld for centuries as part of the utopian tradition.
Marx and Utopia
Karl Marx was both admiring and critical of the utopian writers who were the main representatives of socialism in the early 19th Century. These included Fourier and Saint Simon. Fourier’s vision of social co-operation influenced anarchists, syndicalists and the co-operative movement. Saint Simon published “The Industrial System” in 1820 which set out a program for a technocratic society with a planned economy based on co-operation. Also important at this time were the ideas of Robert Owen.
In recognising the value of these ideas in the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels said, “Such fantastic pictures of future society, painted at a time when the proletariat is still in a very undeveloped state and has but a fantastic conception of its own position, correspond with the first instinctive yearnings of that class for a general reconstruction of society. But these socialist and communist publications contain also a critical element. They attack every principle of existing society. Hence they are full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working class.”
But then, in criticising these writers, Marx and Engels set out a clear distinction between utopian socialism and practical socialism. They recognised that such writers as Fourier and Saint Simon relied too much on putting forward ideas for great social change without proper consideration of whether they were realistic in relation to the development of society. The ideas of the utopians could not provide the principles of action for a practical, revolutionary socialist movement, mainly because, at the time they were writing, the conditions did not yet exist for such a movement.
Nor could history be made by a group of well meaning individuals thinking up ideas for an ideal society and then causing society to change in line with their scenarios. The utopians were idealist in the sense that they assumed the primacy of the idea in causing social change. The materialist approach required that proposals for change advocated by practical socialists must be constructed in line with the actual social conditions that make them possible.
This was put by Engels in “Socialism, Utopian and Scientific, “The historical situation dominated the founders of socialism. To the crude conditions of capitalist production and the crude class conditions, corresponded crude theories. The solution of the social problems, which as yet lay hidden in undeveloped economic conditions, the utopians attempted to evolve out of the human brain. Society presented nothing but wrongs; to remove these was the task of reason. It was necessary then to discover a new and more perfect system of social order and to impose this upon society from without by propaganda, and whenever it was possible by the example of model experiments. These new social systems were foredoomed as utopian, the more completely they were worked out in detail, the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure fantasies.”
Engels insisted that credible proposals for a new society had to correspond with social conditions that make them possible. “Since the historical appearance of the capitalist mode of production, the appropriation by society of all the means of production has often been dreamed of, more or less vaguely, by individuals, as well as sects, as the ideal of the future. But it could become possible, could become a historical necessity, only when the actual conditions for its realisation were there.”
This materialist approach was also emphasised by Marx in “The German Ideology", “Communism is not for us a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”
In their critique of the utopians, Marx and Engels argued that the conditions for the establishment of socialism had not been present at the beginning of the 19th Century but later in the century Engels noted great changes that in his view made a difference to the question. He said, “The possibility for securing for every member of society, by means of socialised production, an existence not only fully sufficient materially, and becoming day by day more full, but an existence guaranteeing to all the free development and exercise of their physical and mental faculties- this possibility is now for the first time here, but it is here.” (Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.)
Engels argued that in the 1820’s the way to construct a new society lay hidden in the undeveloped conditions of the capitalist system, but that later the way forward for practical socialism had emerged mainly as a result of what he called the enormous expansion of “the modern means of production.” In line with this there had been the development of class divisions. Engels concluded that the conditions for the establishment of common ownership had matured and that for the first time in history, socialism was possible.
He expressed this view in 1877 and in retrospect we are surely bound to say that he was too optimistic. The limitations of undeveloped conditions that applied to the earlier utopians applied as much to Marx and Engels, certainly in 1848 .Whatever the case, we are now more than a hundred years further on and there can be no doubt that with the massive developments, not only in the means of production throughout the world, but also in transport, communications and useful institutions, our more scientific outlook and technical culture, socialism is not only materially possible but long overdue. This also means that the work of proposing how the present structure of useful production and administration could be adapted and developed for needs on a socialist basis is also long overdue. It may be due in part to the many distortions and diversions suffered by socialist ideas during the 20th Century but the state of the world and its recent history shows that the vital work of practical socialism has suffered catastrophic neglect.
Utopian socialism is defined as the practice of asserting an ideal vision of future society in the hope that the world will one day adapt itself to this vision. In its modern version how is this expressed? The question is not easy to answer because mostly, utopia asserts itself as the absence of things rather that the existence of things. There will of course be the relations of common ownership, democratic control and production solely for needs. But from this there flows a long list of negatives.
In Britain, Parliament will be abolished together with county, district and parish councils. Apparently, all these features of the state must go. Democratic practice will not be representative but direct, which means that every person will be able to vote on all matters. The entire machinery of government will be abolished. There will be no civil servants or ministries of any kind. No Health, Housing, Transport or Planning ministries. No planning law. No Ministry of Agriculture or Department of the Environment. No Energy Authority.
With no property relationships there will be no crime or anti social behaviour. This means there will be no law, police, courts, judiciary or public powers of restraint of any kind. Marriage and the family will be abolished. There will be no schools; no examinations or professional qualifications. There will be no legal right of occupation of any house and with no property there will be no locks or keys. Production will be less technological and more handcraft. Big cities will no longer exist. Communities will be smaller with local production for local consumption. There will be free access to any goods or services that any person might wish for and this will be determined solely by the individual.
It might be said that this list mainly of negatives is an exaggeration or a caricature of utopian socialism; it is not. These have, however, all appeared in utopian literature at one time or another. Although this list of things that will not exist may appear to be about future society this is illusory. It is not about the future at all. It is merely a negation of the present, projected as a vision of the future. Even utopia must think within the present even if only in terms of its absence. But this has nothing to do with practical ways for moving society forward on a socialist basis.
It is certainly reasonable to assume that in time, socialist society will develop to a point where any great social problems will have been solved. The result will be that pressures of necessity will be lifted and people in socialist communities will enjoy wide options about how to live. But that cannot be on our agenda. The work of practical socialism is aimed at removing the economic constraints of the capitalist system so we may apply all our useful resources to our problems. It follows that our proposals for how socialism could be organised cannot be selected arbitrarily as a matter of free choice. Necessity requires that they must be shaped in answer to the question, “What will people in socialism have to do to solve the world’s problems?” Unfortunately, this practical question seems never to have arisen in the minds of our modern utopians.
According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (UNO), over 800 million people are seriously undernourished. This has doubled since 1974 when the number was 435 million. 40,000 children below the age of five die every day from hunger or hunger related disease.
This annual number of child deaths remained more or less constant throughout the last quarter of the 20th Century giving a horrifying figure of 365 million preventable child deaths. In socialism this problem would require world food production to be greatly expanded.
Also, countless millions of people live in shanty towns, slums or sub standard housing. This would require an enormous world building programme together with services such as sanitation, piped clean water, supply of electricity and the consumer goods that are now accepted as basic to our standard of life. Such a building programme would have to be preceded by an equally massive expansion of means of production.
Over the past century, the depredations of the profit system have cause relentless damage to our world environment. People in socialism would need to take emergency action to stop this damage. It is widely agreed that we must avoid the risks now being taken with the natural systems on which all our lives depend. This would mean the construction of a safe world energy system together with and many other policies aimed at saving our environment.
Capitalist states have massively increased their powers of government. These have grown into elaborate and wasteful bureaucracies that rule over the lives of citizens. To replace these pervasive structures, people in socialism would need to put in place a minimal but efficient system of democratic administration.
These are just some of the great projects that communities in socialism would need to undertake to put right the destructive chaos of capitalist society. There are many more urgent things to do and together they add up to action on a world scale. This will necessitate decision making, planning, co-ordination, and allocation of resources in an order of priorities. These projects would have to be organised in ways compatible with democratic practice. These are the compelling pressures of necessity that would determine the organisation and actions of socialism as it sets out to solve problems.
This is the challenge of practical socialism. No doubt utopia can provide a signpost to a better future but it serves us best if it inspires us carry out the practical work of proposing how problems can be solved on a new social basis. As this work develops by applying a sound method it will surely begin to close the gap between the ideas of socialists and other persons who may be concerned about the state of things but who may not have yet considered the practical socialist alternative.