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John Passant

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June 2011
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Is socialism utopian?

“Socialism is a great idea, but I can’t see it happening,” is a phrase that socialists regularly hear from people who are appalled by capitalism, but think it’s utopian to believe that another world is possible.

But socialism is not an idea that’s been invented by a bunch of intellectuals seeking to impose their wish-list on the world. Today’s theory of socialism, a legacy of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, among others, has been developed out of real struggles of the working class, the clashes of social forces that have taken place whenever masses of people resist the bitter material realities of austerity and oppression that capitalism imposes.

Before the growth of the working class across the globe, ideas of socialism were just utopian dreams. Nineteenth century utopian socialists such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier set up “ideal” communities based on notions of equality between men and women, common ownership and cooperation, and the right to education.

Inevitably these small, rarefied communities – islands of “socialism” in a capitalist world – were unable to sustain themselves. But they did inspire a degree of admiration, as well as sharp criticism, from Marx and Engels who thought that although these early social experiments were fatally flawed, they at least “correspond[ed] with the first instinctive yearnings of [workers] for a general reconstruction of society”.

The utopians, however, never saw workers as anything more than “the most suffering class” – they rejected Marx’s analysis of the working class as collectively powerful and the first class in history with the potential to create a world free of exploitation and oppression.

By 1848, when Marx and Engels published The Communist Manifesto, those who wanted to operate only in the utopian realm of ideas were left to wilt as the world, and socialists’ theory and practice on how best to change it, moved on.

Marx and Engels argued that socialism was never achievable by small groups of the “enlightened”; it is instead the rightful project of masses of ordinary working people whose labour fuels society and who become capable through their collective struggles of creating a new, genuinely democratic world.

And working class struggles are not a set of disparate, spontaneous eruptions throughout history, but rather a product of the material contradictions of capitalism – an insane system of chaotic, competitive production answerable only to the demands of profit, and never to people’s needs. To survive, to live decent lives, to exercise any control at all, workers have to struggle together. Understanding this dynamic is key to understanding how the working class has the capacity to move beyond just ideas about changing the world to actually start changing it.

In Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, his classic explanation of Marxism, Engels explains historical materialism, the Marxist view of history which asserts that social changes happen because of the interaction of real forces in society, and not solely because of changed ideas about the world. Historical materialism, says Engels,

seeks the ultimate cause and the great moving power of all important historic events in the economic development of society, in the changes in the modes of production and exchange, in the consequent division of society into distinct classes, and in the struggles of these classes against one another.

Today the legacy of Marx and Engel’s ideas are not a set of crumbling blueprints for a “perfect” world that gather dust in history books and museums. They are a practical framework that can still explain why we live in a world defined by economic crisis, continuing war, and a new round of vicious attacks on working class living standards – and that point to what we can do about it.

Engels’ explanation of capitalist crisis, written more than a century ago, seems eerily prophetic in today’s bleak economic climate:

In every crisis, society is suffocated beneath the weight of its own productive forces and products, which it cannot use, and stands helpless face to face with the absurd contradiction that the producers have nothing to consume, because consumers are wanting.

But Marx and Engels were not prophets – they simply knew that they needed to analyse and confront the grim reality of capitalism, and understand its characteristics, in order to figure out how it could be smashed. In this process they discovered three important things that still resonate today.

They discovered that capitalism’s insatiable appetite for growth and accumulation transforms production, creating a powerful global working class that has the capacity to challenge the demands of the system.

They discovered that capitalism is always prone to crisis and never able to provide for everyone’s needs, which means that workers are sometimes forced to act collectively and struggle to defend their interests, regardless of whether socialist ideas are popular or current.

And they discovered that workers’ struggles can quickly lead to glimpses of a new world, so that a society which seems utterly impossible one day can shift to within our reach the next. 

This article, by Alsion Hose, first appeared in Socialist Alternative in Decemebr 2010.



Comment from Arthur
Time June 5, 2011 at 12:44 am

I’m not a complete idiot.
I’m reasonably aware of what, up front in the public view, you do for a living.
I have, after all, read your resume’.
I’m also aware of what, most likely, you must not reveal – all of what you ‘have to do’ for a living.
There are and have to be, shall we say, certain strings attached with any employment situation as a public servant and an academic these days in dystopian/totalitarian Oz.

So part of your job is this blog?
I don’t mind.

What you send the masters, or what they reap from the internet, of what I say on your pages must eventually get read; leastways by someone.
If I send it along to them myself it inevitably gets trashcanned, filed vertically, or whatever.

My best option, therefore, is to send what I want to say along to someone like you.
That way I have a fair expectation that what I write does, eventually, get read.
Mind you, it’s the ‘filed away for future action’ bit that worries me.

Then again, maybe you are so completely gullible that you truly believe your own comments and those of your contributors are so below the event horizon of our political masters that nothing we say is worthy of notice.

If you truly believed that, then why would you bother pumping out all these articles?
So come on fella, tell us. Are we wasting out time by writing you – or is someone out there taking account of what we write?

Hell. After all in the USof A they even take notice of Larry McMurtry.

Comment from Terrance
Time June 5, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Are you refering to Larry McMurtry, the American author? If there is someone else with this name, please ignore the rest of this. But if so, take a good look in the mirror, then wrap a brown paper bag over your head and hibernate for 12 years.

Larry McMurty, besides winning the Pulitzer Prize, has written some of the finest essays to come out of America in recent years. Try ‘Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen’ or ‘Roads’, his analysis of literature of the American West, his Academy Award winning screenplay for Brokeback Mountain or his 3 volume memoir.

Then compare that to the cow manure you ferment online.

Sorry if we are at cross purposes here Arthur, but you like to attack just about everyone and yet you seem barely coherent in your argumemts. You bag out a website where you air your linen and then put down one of the finest authors of the past 40 years.

Your first line, where you suggest to John P that you are not a complete idiot … can we put that to a vote?

Comment from Arthur
Time June 6, 2011 at 3:16 pm

Terrance –
What you say about McMurtry is indeed true.
That’s precisely why a lot of seppos don’t like him (seppos – US citizens, believe Larry’s sentiments mostly lie south of the Mason Dixon Line)

As for attacking everyone. Please go back and read again.
Here – a précis might help.
1 – I spoke of what the author of this weblog does for a living – that I had checked out his resume which being that of a person in academia is available for all in the public domain.
I appreciate him having his resume available. He knows that I know he has his resume available.
He, by the way has a damned good resume.
2 – I go on to insinuate in my usual smarmy fashion that I believe (rightly or wrongly) that Mr. Passant may use the product of the blog (including comments) as a resource.
If I was working in academia having to make sociological assessments, I would do that.
3 – I also suggest that if he doesn’t then our political masters most certainly do. (and that is plain fact of everyday Elint gatheringwhether you, me, or anyone likes it or not.)
4 – I mention that some of that may get filed away for future action. I am aware that governments are a bit like that. I am aware that a few key words on the internet have them sucked in, in a flash.
5 – I infer that commenting on weblogs is therefore a much better way of lodging something and having it noticed in the halls of power than snail mailing them a treatise.
(Treatises usually being filed vertically as a result of the usual excuses)
6 – I suggest that even so it may still be futile to attempt raising important issues in an age where our masters simply do not give a continental about what citizens think or would desire.
7 – In saying “if you (Mr. Passant) truly believed that” (to be the case) I suggested there must be a reason for all the work of compiling the blog – else why bother.
8 – Are you sure you are not slightly guilty of glossing over what is written and therefore coming to the wrong conclusion?

Last but not least – not everyone is always on the ball all the time.
I was indeed suggesting that academics have to balance ideals with employment expectations. It has always been that way. Ask Socrates.

Comment from mhab
Time June 8, 2011 at 11:08 pm

You say that Marx and Engels are not a set of crumbling blueprints for a perfect world. No – they are blueprints for totalitarian tyranny, and concentration of power, together with mass-murder on the largest scale in history. They may not have intended that, but at least nowadays most of the world know enough history to know it. Any political project that is connected to these ideas is finished before it starts.

Comment from John
Time June 9, 2011 at 8:42 pm

Thanks mhab. The Marx and Engels equals Stalin argument is easy to rebut. and the demands of the masses in the Arab spring for food and freedom constitute a real basis for the start of the second revolution in Egypt, the sort of democratic society Marx and Engels envisaged.