Neo-Utopian Socialism

It is really hard to believe, but adherents to rival utopian visions can have nasty splits just like "Marxist-Leninists". Evidence of this is contained in the most recent copy of "Democracy and Nature", a journal formerly known as "Society and Nature". The International Managing Editor is Takis Fotopoulos.

In the "Dialog" section of the issue, the editors air their dirty laundry. Murray Bookchin, a member of the advisory board along with other luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Andre Gunder Frank and Cornelius Castoriadis, is tendering his resignation. Bookchin is the guru of the social ecology movement, which --crudely put-- is a mixture of anarchism and environmentalism. He lives in Vermont and posts jeremiads against capitalism to his followers near and wide.

"Very disturbingly, Takis and I have even drifted apart on the issue that long held us together, libertarian municipalism. (I now strongly prefer the word 'libertarian' over 'confederal' municipalism because 'libertarian' has a revolutionary political content, rather than merely a structural and logistical one.) His current advocacy of a personal voucher system and an 'artificial market' (whatever happened to a libertarian-communist moral economy?), and his notion that libertarian municipalism could somehow creep up on the bourgeoisie and erode the power of the state are highly disturbing to me. These notions divest libertarian municipalism of its confrontational stance toward the state in the form of a revolutionary dual power. I did not propound this theory of politics to see it mutate into Bernsteinian evolutionary social democracy."

Bookchin's "libertarian municipalism" is offered as an alternative to the Marxist vision of a transformation of society led by the working-class. "Social ecology would embody its ethics in a politics of confederal municipalism, in which municipalities cojointly gain rights to self-governance through networks of confederal councils, to which towns and cities would send their mandated, recallable by delegates to adjust differences."

Okay, let's see if we can get this right. Capitalism will be replaced by a more humane system through the incremental replacement of capitalist chunks of real estate by new egalitarian units. Today we have liberated Putney, Vermont and Madison, Wisconsin. Next week we have a shot at taking over Dallas, Texas. When all the towns and cities have been become liberated zones, we then celebrate our victory by eating dishes of Ben and Jerry's ice cream.

What is that Takis Fotopoulos believes in that so exercised Bookchin? (Don't let it go beyond PEN-L, but I've heard rumors that Bookchin is in a permanent snit and almost anything will set him off.) The fight is over models and nothing else. Bookchin clings to one model, while Takis to another.

In his "Outline of an Economic Model for an Inclusive Democracy", contained in the very same issue, Fotopoulos makes a sales presentation for this breakthrough in model-creation. He starts off by trying to parry the thrust that he knows I have in store for him:

"Although it is up to the citizens' assemblies of the future to design the form an inclusive democracy will take, I think it is important to demonstrate that such a form of society is not only necessary, so that the present descent to barbarism can be avoided, but feasible as well. This is particularly important when the self-styled 'left' has abandoned any vision that is not based on the market economy and liberal 'democracy', which they take for granted, and has dismissed an alternative visions as 'utopian' (in the negative sense of the word.)"

Hmmm. I think that there is a problem of utopianism, but his definition of the 'left' would seem to exclude me since I am opposed to the market. In any case, the notion that "feasible" visions of socialism is the world is waiting for certainly does appear "utopian" to me. It is the same vision that Schweickart, Pat Devine, Cockshott-Cottrell and Hahnel-Albert share. Each is vying with the other to present a model that works on all planes: economic, political and ethical. The problem, however, is that class struggle will dictate the contours of a new socialism, not excellent working models.

Fotopoulos takes swipes at Hahnel-Albert in his article, who are of course rival utopians. He believes that their schema invites bureaucracy because it provides for some state agency that invites people to state what their consumer "needs" are. Agencies, as we know from bitter experience, can turn into utter monstrosities. One day they will ask you whether you want pleats in your trousers or not. The next day they will be sending you to prison for stating the wrong preference.

Fotopoulos' schema revolves around the issuance of vouchers.

"Basic Vouchers (BVs) are used for the satisfaction of basic needs. These vouchers, which are personal and issued on behalf of the confederation, entitle each citizen to a given level of satisfaction for each particular type of need that has been characterized as 'basic', but do not specify the particular type of satisfier, so that choice can be secured."

Eureka! Choice can be secured. All across the planet a mighty roar can be heard. Basic Vouchers are the answer to consumer demand under a postcapitalist system. Why didn't the Nicaraguans think of this. I can just see Fotopoulos putting his papers across Carl Oquist's desk and declaring like Ross Perot that there is "no problem" in satisfying consumer demand. Just issue BV's. Of course, BV's are not very useful in a wartime economy and during economic blockade, the exact circumstances of Nicaragua and all postcapitalist societies since 1917.

In a couple of days or so, I want to try to get a handle on why all these utopian schemas have proliferated over the past 5 years or so. Obviously, they are related to the collapse of the USSR but there is a lot more going on that would be useful for scientific socialists to understand when considering this new outbreak of utopian socialism.

Louis Proyect

These are some final thoughts on the utopian socialism question. What Marx and Engels saw as its three of main features of utopian thought were:

1) Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.

2) Moralism What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.

3) Rationalism The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.

As Engels said in "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific", "To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered."

All of these themes are present to one degree or another in the projects of market socialists like John Roemer or their new left rivals Albert and Hahnel.

At first blush, John Roemer seems an unlikely utopian since he couches his schema in hard-headed microeconomics. In "Market Socialism, a Blueprint: How Such an Economy Might Work", he says that "it is possible to use markets to allocate resources in an economy where firms are not privately owned by investors who trade stock in them with the purpose of maximizing their gain, and that the government can intervene in such an economy to influence the level and composition of investment should the people wish to do so."

This doesn't sound particularly 'visionary', does it? What is particularly utopian about the schemas of Schweickart, Roemer et al is not that they have the redemptive and egalitarian power of Saint-Simon or Robert Owens, but that it is based on an ahistorical notion of how socialism comes into existence.

Specifically, there is no historical agency. Roemer shares with the 19th century utopians a tendency to present a vision that is detached from history. Since history play very little role in Roemer's thought overall, it is understandable why he would devote himself to utopian schemas. Furthermore, since AM is based on removing one of the key aspects of the Marxist understanding of capitalism --the labor theory of value-- it is difficult to see how any historical agency can carry this social transformation out. Once the class-struggle is removed, the socialist project becomes an exercise in game-playing by rational actors. Since rationalism is a cornerstone of utopian thought, market socialism would have an appeal because it is eminently rational.

Answering the question of whether his schema will work, Roemer offers the following assurance:

"Is it possible for a market system to equilibrate an economy in which profits are distributed as I have described and in which the government intervenes in the investment behavior of the economy by manipulating interests if the managers of firms maximize profits, facing market prices, wages and interest rates? My colleagues Joaquim Silvestre, Ignacio Ortuno, and I have studied this question, and the answer is yes."

My, isn't this reassuring. There is only one problem. The difficulties we face in building socialism are not on the theoretical front, but in the application of theory. The reason for this of course is that such applications always take place in the circumstances of war, economic blockade, internal counter-revolution, etc., where even the best laid plans off mice and men often go astray.

Furthermore, one has no idea how Roemer's theory can ever be put into practice since it is not really addressed to the working-class, the historical agent of change in Marxism. Who will change the world, the subscribers to "Economics and Society"? Roemer's proposals are directed toward the narrow, insular, academic world of "dueling blueprints". I suppose if one was to be given a choice of utopian worlds to identify with, a much more palatable choice would be that of their new left rivals, Albert-Hahnel.

Turning to their "Looking Forward", we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody's question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

"I look at history and see even one admirable person--someone's aunt, Che Guevara, doesn't matter--and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person's social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society's dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure."

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan "if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem." With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert's [and Hahnel's] enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgement on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated "one-man management". Lenin was also guilty because he argued that "all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management."

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called "participatory planning" described in "Looking Forward":

"Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via 'facilitation boards'. In light of each round's new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals."

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be besides the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon's Geneva letters appeared, "the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed."

Isn't this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the word's population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like "Looking Forward" being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.

Another cause of utopian thought is the collapse of the Soviet Union and its allies. Except for North Korea and Cuba, there is not a country in the world that doesn't seem to be galloping at full speed into the capitalist sphere. As this anti-capitalist reality becomes part of history, it is tempting to create an alternative reality where none of the contradictions of "existing socialism" existed.

This is fundamentally an ahistorical approach and will yield very little useful new political guidelines about how to achieve socialism in the future. These answers will not come out of utopian fantasies, but in further analysis of the historical reasons underlying the collapse of the USSR. In-depth analysis by serious scholars such as Moshe Lewin focus on the structural problems, not on statements made by Lenin and Trotsky made on management wrenched out of context.

The biggest problem, of course, is the socialist project itself. What sense does it make to think in terms of scientific socialism when the working-class as we know it is not the same class that created the Paris Commune. If we had something like the Paris Commune in the last 50 years or so in one of the advanced capitalist countries, left economists would be thinking about ways that such an experience could be replicated. Since we lack such an example, we console ourselves with fantasies of a good society instead.

My goal in writing this is not to stop people from continuing with their utopian dreaming. I have been thinking about the issues since 1979 when an old friend of mine from my Trotskyist days mentioned to me that one of our leading theorists (a big fish in a little pond) by the name of Les Evans had resigned and entered graduate school. Apparently he had become disillusioned with Trotskyism and wanted to study alternatives. One of these alternatives, according to my friend, was market socialism. He had come to the conclusion that some element of individual ownership of property was necessary to forestall dictatorship. My response was to simply state that this would seem to go against the grain of history, in which all private ownership was being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. I remember thinking to myself at the time, "how utopian".

When I discovered the Internet about 3 years ago, I ran into an incredible firestorm of utopian thought. There has not been a month that I have not been on PEN-L or a Spoons list that I have not heard a defense of Cockshott-Cottrell, Albert-Hahnel, Schweickart, etc. I always accepted this debate as differences within Marxism.

I no longer do. With all due respect to the good people who are involved in these projects, I now regard them as being involved with utopian thinking. Jim Devine is correct. Marx and Engels did respect what they were doing since utopian publications, with their "hatred for every principle of existing society", are full of "the most valuable materials of the enlightenment of the working-class." I would continue to urge people to read Cockshott-Cottrell's "Toward a New Socialism", my favorite utopian exercise. What I would no longer do is classify them as examples of Marxist thought, which has its object the critique of capitalist society in order to facilitate its destruction.

Louis Proyect