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Utopian Dreamers

By Alan Johnstone

27 April, 2014

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one

---- John Lennon

Is it possible to mobilise people to fight oppression without fashioning models for a socialist economy for people to fasten on to? The capitalist slogan ‘There is No Alternative’ was answered by ‘Another World is Possible’. We need to know and say much more about this other world. Socialist thought has to deal in prediction, but only in broad terms. We live in dark days. One often has to aim at objectives which one can only very dimly see. Socialism is a vision of the future, while its advocates are actively at work in the present.

Socialists have typically avoided the tactic of the utopian blueprint. One reason for this was that no matter what your utopian vision is, you won’t be able to achieve it under capitalism. The other reason was that after capitalism is overthrown, it will be up to the people to determine how to run their society. Some people may prefer a return to Nature. Other people may want robots tending to their every need. Why should one person’s lifestyle preference determine how society should be run for everybody else?

Marx and Engels also avoided ‘the politics of dreaming’ yet scattered throughout their works are numerous references to life in communist society. Marx and Engels differed from the utopian socialists not in terms of their visionary goals, but on the basis of how such goals might be achieved. The ‘utopian socialists’ were ‘utopian’ in the way that they believed socialism might come about. For Marx, capitalism does not collapse thereby necessarily bringing about socialism. Marx's breakthrough was to wed such utopian visions to a concrete, scientific analysis of the dynamics of capitalism and class struggle. As Marx observed, no society has imagined itself into existence, which is to say, women and men do not set out to build their society according to some pre-conceived blueprint. The social relations resulting from human action appear to us in later times as the pre-conceived ideas of the creators of those social relations when, in fact, the ideas never existed until the social relations had already come into being.

In their critique of utopian socialism, Marx and Engels made two charges. First, that the method was wrong: a socialism imposed from above, reliant on altruistic benefactors. Second, that it was not sweeping enough, that it failed to recognise the need to replace the system as a whole. They disagreed with Fourier that a new society could be broadly realised without class struggle, and that ideal projections could come real in capitalist society. In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels points out that early socialists were Enlightenment rationalists who sought not 'to emancipate a particular class, but all humanity at once.' Thus, the revolutionary theory of Charles Fourier is largely without a concrete revolutionary agent to carry out the revolution. Claude Henri Saint-Simon was explicitly counter-revolutionary. He did not want to 'excite the poor to acts of violence against the rich and government.'

Most utopian philosophers differed greatly in their ideals, but they all strove to create a world that is utopian in its nature, a paradise for people to live in. For Marx and Engels, as worthy as such communal experiments might be, projections like Owen's New Lanark were doomed to eventual failure. They were propagators of political and economic fantasies. of the "...wouldn't it be nice if..." type. Robert Owen wanted compassionate capitalism with some collectivity. He built a neighbourhood in and around New Lanark in Scotland, which had schools to train the young and a place where the older generation could retire. Owen went on to set up small communities of workers’ co-operatives such as New Harmony in America. Unfortunately, these co-operatives were not economically self-sufficient and were dependent on the rest of the world economy, which was still based on capitalism. The result was that the co-operatives either collapsed or abandoned their ideals. This same problem has affected such movements as the kibbutzim movement in Israel.

Marx gives many guidelines to achieve the ultimate goal that he writes about. He teaches not only of the happy ending, but the work to be done in between. Socialism comes about through revolutionary struggles, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans. The main difference between scientific socialism and utopian socialism is the 'getting there'. The utopians do not think of the long term, or how difficult it will be to create the worlds that they envision.

The reason for the current upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century. There was a lot of change, and a lot of societal growth. The utopian thinkers, for the most part, were responding to a social disconnect, and a society that no longer held traditional values. The industrial working-class were not a powerful actor in politics. Engels observed when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared in 1802 ‘the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.’ The revolutionary capacity is not there to execute ideals which have been represented abstractly. Isn’t this in a way similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalised working-class in the advanced capitalist countries. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemes are bound to surface. In the absence of genuine struggles, modern re-hashed utopian fantasies, of which there are many, are seductive. The utopians are still among us, with their artful models for bringing universal peace, prosperity, and brotherhood to mankind by outwitting the capitalists and building a socialist society behind their backs. They have to construct the outlines of a brave new world out of their own hearts and heads rather in the real world of real struggles and we read them on numerous Left websites, in articles by the likes of Richard Wolff and Ger Alperovitz.

That being said, while there are dangers in utopian thinking, there also exists a danger is their absence. The truth is that we don’t 'talk Utopia' nearly enough. We need the attraction of a possible future as well as being repulsed by the actual present. If people are to make the sacrifices required by any struggle for social justice, then they need a compelling idea of the world they’re fighting for. Utopias provide a perspective from which the assumed limitations of the present can be scrutinised, from which familiar social arrangements are exposed as unjust and irrational. We need utopian thinking if we are to engage successfully in the critical battlefield of ideas over what is or is not possible, if we are to challenge what are presented as immutable economic realities. Without a clear alternative – the outlines of a sustainable society – we cede the definition of the possible to those with a vested interest in shutting our eyes to a better future.

Utopias tend to be the target of derision. And yet, despite being subject to dismissals, Utopia never goes away, partly because the criticism of the present draws on the notion of a future which has eliminated the conditions of the present that make life so difficult, sometimes impossible, and unfulfilling for so many. Here Utopia operates in disguise, not going by its own name but providing a resource against which to measure a present that fails to match up, either to its own ideal expression of itself or to the inspiring visions of the future for which people have struggled throughout history.

You cannot simply interpret people's consciousness from their material conditions, or really understand people unless you understand their particular utopian projections -- because such projections, while they are not material, are a real component of people's lives, part of the ‘now’ in which they live. The materialist philospher, Josef Dietzgen, frequently stated ideas are concrete. The ‘utopian’ tendency provides us with an understanding of those visions of a better world that people have been fighting for and will continue to fight for. We can draw on a rich tradition of history going back to the Diggers and Gerald Winstanley, William Morris and even John Lennon.

Utopian visions of communism are presented as powerful critiques of actually existing capitalism. Projecting the communist future from existing patterns and trends is an integral part of Marx's analysis of capitalism. Marx knew that something would come after capitalism and he made some projections about what it could be like, and those are very famous pieces but they're very small compared to the majority of his work, which is just about understanding capitalism. Marx constructed his vision of communism out of the human and technological possibilities already visible in his time

Marx never actually provided a blue print for how a communist community was supposed to look like. He did not even impose some necessary model of the unfolding class struggle on the class struggle. He decried sectarianism within the working class movement, which he described as those who, 'demanded that the class movement subordinate itself to a particular sect movement.' By not leaving a blue print, Marx thought that people would be able to create a communist community free from the prescriptions of an antiquated era, that people would eventually evolve away from capitalism once it had reached its peak and instead search for a better way of living.

For now, capitalism reigns, but a collective consciousness changes things. In the past some ideas seem far-fetcheded. The idea that civilisation would reach a point where slavery was not commonplace may have seemed unlikely. The thought of having civil liberties and not living under an autocratic monarch was once far-fetched, but humanity evolved. The idea of basic civil rights for women and minorities was also unimaginable. But a gradual, historical shift in consciousness changed things. One of our last hopes for a better planet in the future may very well rest in a maturing, developing human consciousness. In light of changes in class consciousness, we may one day find a socialist society on the immediate agenda. What is important to see is that the fact that many of us prefer capitalism does not give capitalism any greater credibility.

A socialist is of necessity social – hence the name. We wish to be social – that is, to live in a society formed of social beings like ourselves. Socialism means a reconstruction of society. It is a product of social evolution. We have had slavery, feudalism, capitalism and – socialism is the next stage. Marx and Engels did not see revolution as the inevitable triumph of a would-be ascendent class. Sometimes revolutions issue in ‘the common ruin of the contending classes’ whether it be by nuclear annihilation or ecological suicide. Socialism, for Marx and Engels, was not inevitable but very possible. It's never over until it's over, as it is said.

What would the genuinely socialist society of tomorrow look like? The Utopia that any group of people project depends to some extent upon the exact material conditions in which they exist. Trying to predict what socialism would be like in the future to that of a serf on his Lord's manor in feudalistic times trying to think of what capitalism would be like. If we want to play the role of the serf on his lord's manor predicting what the next stage of history would be like, socialism could very well end up looking a lot like capitalism. We might see skyscrapers and mass-transit systems as we do today. This would be like how a late-feudal society might look a bit like an early-capitalist society. Later on, a socialist economy may look completely different with very different other structures, just like how our contemporary society looks very different from the 1600s in Great Britain. Just as the serf would have probably been unable to see highways, automobiles, and computers, there are, of course, probably other elements to the next epoch that we are missing.

We lack a meaningful sense of the future, and as a result we lack hope, because hope demands a future envisioned as an achievable immediate possibility on which may be realized. Utopia is not the 'no-place' of the word's Greek origins, but rather something present in the here and now, although available only in glimpses. The power of utopian images radiate. Urban industrial and office workers may be attracted by the escapist fantasy generated by peasant modes of life, even though they themselves certainly cannot simply take up a peasant life. The oft-derided pleasures of window-shopping provide people with a fragmentary access to those greater pleasures and fulfillments only to be realised in a post-capitalist, post-scarcity world. In so far as these pleasures are enmeshed within capitalism, they are irrational. We need to find ways to connect to the utopian yearnings that move millions of people, and which the advertising industry know too well how to exploit. We have to offer something more participatory, that will be a process and a journey. By describing how people would live if everyone, utopian socialism does two things: it inspires the oppressed to struggle and sacrifice for a better life and it gives a clear meaning to the aim of socialism. However, the main difference between socialists and utopians is the getting there. The utopian socialists do not think of the long term, or how difficult it will be to create the worlds that they envision.

The media have gone out of their way to present socialists in an unfavourable light as dangerous dreamers. It is claimed that socialists are unrealistic dreamers for imagining that things will change overnight and people work together for the common good without being made to.

'We who once were fools and dreamers, then shall be the brave and wise.' said William Morris. He also explained that 'At the risk of being considered dreamers therefore it is important for us to try to raise our ideals of the pleasure of life; because one of the dangers which the social revolution runs is that the generation which sees the fall of Capitalism, educated as it will have been to bear the thousand miseries of our present system, will have far too low a standard of refinement and real pleasure. It is natural that men who are now beaten down, by the fear of losing even their present pitiful livelihood, should able to see nothing further ahead than relief from that terror and the grinding toil under which they are oppressed.'

It was Eugene Debs who said that 'The men and women who have had visions, who have dreamed dreams, have led in the world’s progress toward higher and better things. These prophets and seers — for such they have been — have always been regarded in their day as dreamers and enthusiasts, visionary and harmless, and but little attention has been paid to their visions and dreams until in a latter day and generation they were triumphantly realized.'

It is as Helen Keller stated 'I may be a dreamer, but dreamers are necessary to make facts!'

A look at history and we find that the 'impractical dreamers' have been shown to be realistic, and the 'realists' have been shown to be impractical dreamers. We hold that the co-operative comonwealth cannot be reached till capitalism is overthrown by the workers. Poets and dreamers alone cannot make a revolution but the day is not far distant when the dreamers of the world will reap their reward.

The world socialist movement has to take a maximalist position accepting and understanding where the majority consciousness is now and try to, as a magnet attracts iron filings, attempt to draw the masses in our direction. It declines to outline exactly how the revolutionary transformation would take place, or what the new society would be like, because it is the workers who are the revolutionaries. They will create the socialist society themselves.

For additional information listen to this talk by Glenn Morris


Alan Johnstone is a member of The Socialist Party Of Great Britain



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