Rehabilitating utopia and saving the future

By Ben Courtice

August 29, 2010 -- Blind Carbon Copy [BCC] -- Socialism was conceived as a creative and idealistic movement, but lost its way for most of the 20th century. Recapturing this imaginative energy can help find solutions to such huge threats as climate change. This article started as a short impromptu speech I gave to launch the third edition of the Australian Socialist Alliance's Climate Charter.

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Socialism used to be a rallying point for idealists, utopians, dreamers and those who were simply hopeful. It carried an almost millenarian promise of redemption and salvation. More importantly, it allowed its advocates to exercise their imagination. If socialism was to democratically realise the wishes of the common working people, why should they be restrained in their wishes?

There are pitfalls in utopian imaginings. George Orwell once said that “'Socialism' and 'Communism' draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist and feminist in England.” Inevitably, some utopian visions have been codified (and ossified) into cult dogma.

When the left banished utopia

But the 20th century left did not in the main succumb to utopian cults. Rather, it lost most of its creative imagination. The state socialist countries of the Eastern bloc as much as the social-democratic and labour movements in the West all succumbed to (or promoted) a grey economic reduction of the socialist vision.

Admittedly, even among the most authoritarian of the Stalinist parties, they never truly killed off creativity. The Communist Party of Australia had workers’ theatre. The USSR had Shostakovich and the Bolshoi Ballet and more. But the creative urge was de-coupled from the political project: it became a pressure relief valve for the masses. In the west, union campaigns for shorter work hours were probably the most creative movement, but the liberatory potential of freeing people from work was largely negated by the greater focus on wage rises and the related growth of consumerism.

The culture and dreams of working people have thus been privatised by the old, official “left”. State socialism and social democracy sought to out-compete the capitalists in economic growth and consumerism - without success. Clearly, if the aim was to enable working class people to be overweight, bored couch potatoes in front of a very big TV, capitalism won that competition.

Che Guevara’s example

The outstanding exception in the 20th century left’s retreat from creativity and humanism was Che Guevara’s economic theories. Fortunately there is now a detailed English account of Guevara’s practice as a government minister in Cuba, Helen Yaffe’s excellent Che Guevara: the Economics of Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Che based his ideas on creating the new “socialist man” (person) who would be motivated by solidarity and community, not personal advancement. For a long time it was generally assumed that this idea was another facet of the romantic idealism that was seen as the total of Che’s contribution. But the real Che was no naïve romantic. He was a scholar of Marx and heir to Marx’s profound humanism.

Che’s idealistic programs such as encouraging voluntary labour were backed up by a creative, yet thorough system of economic management. His system was developed in opposition to, and as a critique of, the dominant system of management in the Soviet economy. Che predicted that the market mechanisms that were corrupting Soviet socialist planning would inevitably lead to a restoration of capitalism.

Sadly, although the Cuban revolutionaries have never forgotten the lessons that Che discovered, they have not yet been able to put them fully into practice either. Nor have these ideas been spread among the international left as they deserve.

A new urgency

The failings of economistic 20th century leftism have allowed capitalism and consumerism to run rampant to the extent that the biosphere of the planet is beginning to experience a catastrophic breakdown, best known in the form of climate change (although broader than that most pressing problem).

Climate change and the ecological crisis are demanding a reinvigoration of the left’s imagination. No longer can workers settle for demanding pay rises and economic advances. No more can the left settle for reactive campaigns calling to stop this or that crime, or to save this service from cutbacks. These are the defensive posturing of a movement that has put their visions of a better future off indefinitely as impractical or impossible just now.

Climate change demands action now. It demands solutions. They are feasible, and we can fight for them, but they are a radical departure from the consumerist life. This life is what the Western working class knows. It is largely what the third world masses aspire to. It is the dominant mass ideology. It’s a powerful ideology because it gives the appearance of having left behind the grim poverty of yesterday, and it gives the appearance of some return on the hours of workday drudgery that pay for it.

But at heart, consumerism is truly a hollow ideology. Even the commonplace sayings of the consumer era refute it. Consumerism says “you are what you buy” – but everyone knows, as the Beatles sang, “money can’t buy me love”. It can’t buy very much happiness either. There is an intrinsic gap in the ideological hegemony of the consumer ideal.

Forward to utopia!

Practical solutions to climate change open up vast arenas of possibilities for future social organisation. If we can’t afford to continue industrial agriculture, we will have to return to more localised, community based agriculture. How will it be run? Cooperative community gardens? Or individual plots? Will it be shared? Bartered? Food is a vital part of our inherited culture and recreation, as much as it is a simple necessity. A ration of bread or rice might go a long way to solving basic needs, but why would people settle for just that?

The popularity of garden shows, home gardening and so on is attested to by the growth of home improvement stores, the home make-over TV shows. They are trying to cash in on the desire of some people for a little control over their food, and a recreational pastime that is unalienated because it also serves a practical purpose.

Look at the food industry as it is now. For one small example, supermarkets sell two or three varieties of apple, just those that are easy to store, pack and market. Growing these monoculture crops is ecologically unstable, if not outright damaging. But in history there have been thousands of fascinating varieties of apples. For an orchardist there is a wealth of options for learning and experimenting and discovering.

For those whose inclinations and inspirations do not hinge on gardening or food, there are other areas of creative endeavour that are just as important. If we are mostly phasing out private motor cars, what will happen to the popular petrol-head culture? The quasi-hippy gardening subculture might suggest they can get lost and good riddance, but this would be mistaken. Enthusiasts for machinery and engineering are valuable.

We have to re-invent our transport system without fossil fuels. What mix will there be for electric, biofuel or pedal powered propulsion? Already, there is a market for high performance, lightweight (and still expensive) bicycles. It is marketed as another form of conspicuous consumption, but if we re-connect it with the real reason for bicycles – the cleverest method of transport yet invented – then this, just as much as high-speed trains, or electric car racing, is a field of discovery and creative competition for mechanically minded people. Will we build new electric vehicles, or convert old combustion-powered vehicles to electric drive? That could keep a lot of mechanical enthusiasts very busy for some time!

How can we re-imagine the urban environment? Without so many cars, what will happen to all the wide asphalt road spaces, the endless car parks and driveways? Could we see fast-food drive-throughs renovated as community kitchens, the carparks turned into gardens? Would children and pets be able to run and play on roads once again?

More broadly, without so many expensive commodities, what could happen to the work day? On average, people would not need to work so long either to produce, nor to pay for, all those SUVs, plasma TVs, double-door refrigerators, turbo-charged gas barbecues and other items of conspicuous consumption that clutter modern marketing. What an incentive: who would choose a plasma TV over a three-day weekend?

A modest beginning

The urgency of the environmental crisis means we have to be radical. And to be as radical as the reality of this threat is to be radical indeed. The science of climate change is grim and scary. That threat provides some motivation, but it’s not enough. Nuclear war was a terrifying threat for decades but it did not motivate the world’s people enough to disarm the warmongers.

A utopia, or if you like, a creative vision of what we want, is essential. We can’t be defined by what we are against.

It must be a practical utopia. There must remain a thread connecting even the mundane concerns of the worker/consumer of today with the vision we propose. In this respect, something as simple (and traditional) as the demand for the shorter working week is a valuable lever of struggle (and the victories in obtaining a 36 hour working week for many construction workers in recent years is a small victory to point to already).

Equally, demands for comprehensive public transport networks have a dynamic that acts against the auto industry (which is the quintessential consumer industry).

The Climate Charter of the Socialist Alliance, with its 10-point climate action plan, is one attempt at a road map to a new society. It goes well beyond simple opposition to evils of the current system. It proposes transitional demands (to use an old term) that are logical and sensible at face value – but which fundamentally undermine consumer capitalism if they are implemented.

The climate charter is now in its third edition. As one of main initiators and contributors to the first edition, I am convinced it should not be read as a finished document, as the ultimate solution to the environmental crisis. It is a summary of the problem, and a working plan to begin solving it. As such, it should be taken as a starting point for launching campaigns and for researching more detailed and creative solutions (or policies) to campaign for.

As the famous Joel Pett cartoon asks (see above), what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?

The workers of the world still have a world to win; it is not worth saving it otherwise. Practical utopianism will be the future of progress, if there is to be a future worth having.

[Ben Courtice is a Melbourne-based climate activists and member of the Socialist Alliance. This article first appeared at his blog, Blind Carbon Copy.]

The following well-known discussion of the Utopian Socialists comes from The Communist Manifesto (section III) of Marx and Engels. The reader should also consult Engels' essay, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880)

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We do not here refer to that literature which, in every great modern revolution, has always given voice to the demands of the proletariat, such as the writings of Babeuf and others.

The first direct attempts of the proletariat to attain its own ends, made in times of universal excitement, when feudal society was being overthrown, these attempts necessarily failed, owing to the then undeveloped state of the proletariat, as well as to the absence of the economic conditions for its emancipation, conditions that had yet to be produced, and could by produced by the impending bourgeois epoch alone. The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat had necessarily a reactionary character. It inculcated universal asceticism and social leveling in its crudest form.

The Socialist and Communist systems properly so called, those of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen and others, spring into existence in the early undeveloped period, described above, of the struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie.

The founders of the systems see, indeed, the class antagonism is, as well as the action of the composing elements, in the prevailing form of society. But the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.

Since the development of class antagonism keeps even pace with a development of industry, the economic situation, as they find it, does not as yet offer to them the material conditions for the emancipated of the proletariat. They therefore search after a new social science, after new social laws, that are to create these conditions.

Historical action is to yield to their personal inventive action, historically created conditions of emancipation to fantastic ones, and the gradual, spontaneous class-organization of the proletariat to the organization of society specially contrived by these inventors. Future history resolves itself, in their eyes, into the propaganda and the practical carrying out of their social plans.

In the formation of their plans they are conscious of caring chiefly for the interests of the working-class, as being the most suffering class. Only from the point of view of being the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them.

The undeveloped state of the class struggle, as well as their own surroundings, causes Socialists of this kind to consider themselves far superior to all class antagonisms. They want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favored. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people, when once they understand their system, fail to see it in the best possible plan of the best possible state of society?

Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary, action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, and endeavor, by small experiments, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social Gospel.

Such fantastic pictures future of 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 their full of the most valuable materials for the enlightenment of the working-class. The practical measures proposed in them -- such as the abolition of the distinction between town country, of the family, of the carrying on of industries for the account of private individuals, and of the wage system, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the functions of the State into a mere superintendence of production, all these proposals, points solely to the disappearance of class antagonisms which were, at that time, only just cropping up, and which, in these publications, are recognized in their earliest, indistinct and undefined forms only. These proposals, therefore, are of a purely Utopian character.

The significance of Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism bears an inverse relation to historical development. In proportion as the modern class struggle develops and takes definite shape, this fantastic standing apart from the contest, these fantastic attacks on it, lose all practical value and all theoretical justification. Therefore, although the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects. They hold fast by the original views of their masters, in opposition to the progressive historical development of the proletariat. They, therefore, endeavor, and that consistently, to deaden the class struggle and to reconcile the class antagonisms. They still dream of experimental realization of their social Utopias, a founding isolated phalansteries, of establishing "Home Colonies," of setting up a "Little Icaria" -- duodecimo editions of the New Jerusalem -- and to realize all these castles in the air, they're compelled to appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois. By degrees they sink into the category of the reactionary conservative Socialists depicted above, differing from these only by more systematic pedantry, and by their fanatical superstitious belief in the miraculous effects of their social science.

They, therefore, violently oppose all political action on the part of the working-class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel.

The Owenites in England, and the Fourierists in France, respectively, oppose the Chartists and the Réformistes.

I am aware of the classical utopians and their shortcomings as analysed by Marx and Engels. I think it was after reading "Socialism: Utopian and Scientific" at the age of about 16 that I decided I wanted to be a Marxist. I'm just not sure that this long historical quote has much relevance to the creative political practice that I wrote about in my article and (rightly or wrongly) described as practical utopianism.

This is a comment on the comment.

I did not know Marx and Engels were not only still alive but checking out Links for utopian deviations. Pls let me know their e-dress or URL so I can consult them on the myriad of flinching cowards and fearful traitors with whom the True Faith is increasingly confronted.

This is a poverty-stricken response to a serious argument which connects the environmental movement with the labour movement (actually a set of labour institutions profoundly incorporated into the consumer capitalist dystopia).

Confronted with an increasingly dystopian capitalism, or with conservative, reactionary and consumerist utopianism, we are - as Boaventura de Sousa Santos says - condemned to being utopian.

Marx says somewhere something like this: Communism is not an idea in the minds of theorists, not an existing or future state of affairs. Communism is the real social movement that changes the present nature of things. The conditions for this movement are now in existence.

'This movement' (which he thought was a revolutionary and internationalist industrial proletariat) did not come into existence except in exceptional and short-lived moments. 'This movement' is coming into existence today. It is a diffuse but widely-spread alliance of all those (including, now animals and pachamama (Mother Earth), suffering exploitation, oppression, marginalisation, alienation. It cannot now (because of the failed Communist and Social-Democratic utopias), it cannot right now, be called Communism or Socialism (tho' Cs and Ss are welcome aboard). It needs utopian aspirations. The piece by Ben Courtice reminds us of this. It returns to us the power of 'the principle of hope' (Ernst Bloch).

I agree with Peter that the long quote from the Manifesto was an inappropriate response to Ben‘s article, although it does contain material of substantial merit. That particular method of response merely presented this valuable contribution - without any further effort - presumably to negate the essence of Ben’s contribution. But to my mind it did not. The essence of Ben’s contribution, as I understand it is two-fold.

1. To argue that the Bolshevik/Stalinist vision of post-capitalist society, denied and severed, humanism and creativity from the lives of working people. In that he is correct. The top-down five-year plans, allied to Lenin’s admiration for Taylorism, ensured that initiative and creative solutions to problems faced by workers, were not only placed off-limits, but were severely punished.

2. That the present profit-driven consumerism of capital is now so vast and productive it is destroying the ecology and climate of the planet and at the same time promoting the illusion that ‘retail therapy’ can indefinitely satisfy the holistic needs of human beings. In this he is also correct.

3. That much of the ‘left’ trail in the wake of capital. They simply react against its restless movements which frequently leave workers unemployed and underpaid. Such defensive campaigns, do not really address anything other than the short-term and short-sighted concerns of some privileged layers of workers (often at the expense of foreign workers). They do nothing to address the future of the planet and the consequences for humanity - the bulk of whom are working people. Again this is correct in my view.

Ben’s use of ‘Forward to Utopia’ I took as a tongue in cheek invitation to consider the wider picture, as in fact he demonstrated a critical understanding of utopian limitations. However, his later use of the term ‘practical utopianism‘, if it was not a conscious contradiction in terms, could lead to the charge of inconsistency. A possibility he recognises and corrects. The manifesto extract, whilst being an inappropriate response to Ben’s article, does remind us that utopians ‘attack every principle of existing society’ and their criticisms contain ‘valuable materials’. In this they are progressive. However, they have a tendency to suggest empty proposals, which are often made by people who stand apart from the real class struggle and seek only to ‘reform‘ the capitalist system - and only in the area of their own primary concern.

Where both Peter and Ben are wrong, in my opinion, is that they both appear to be emphasising and promoting utopian aspirations, rather than practical unity against the present capitalist system. Utopian aspirations are easy to conjure up from the comfort of one’s armchair or desk, but the difficulties of overcoming in practice, the combined effects of left and worker disunity against the power of capital are much harder and more protracted. In addition, the failed attempts at post-capitalist social formations still need rigorous and detailed criticism, from the stand-point of the working classes, not a series of casual, easily made dismissals. In this particular context, the shared ideological assumptions of Utopianism, Stalinism, Religion and Fascism, which emanated from the strands of Greek politics and philosophy (Plato and Aristotle - ie the desirability of ‘intellectual leaders’ and wished for progress toward an ‘elite envisioned end‘) should be seriously considered.# It also needs to be repeatedly stressed that the humanist (as distinct from any current consumerist) aspirations of working people are not at all utopian, but practical, and potentially realisable. Shorter working periods, control of production, suitable living conditions, equitable distribution etc. They will, however, be incredibly difficult to achieve given the power of capital and the current potency of confusion and disunity. Utopian conceived aspirations, however well meant, can seriously detract from the practical requirements of the struggle against the system which generates the manifold symptoms of environmental decay and over-productive decadence. Whilst recognising that creativity and practical solutions are a pre-requisite of the ongoing struggle, to my mind, they should not be automatically and confusingly linked in this way to the concept of utopianism.

R. Ratcliffe

I don't disagree with Roy Ratcliffe's comments in general but perhaps I'm using a different definition of the word "utopia".

I guess most Marxists use it to mean an imagined future that is idealist, both in the common and philosophical senses of the word, dreamed up with no real connection to the present. Certainly this has been the norm for utopians such as those criticised by Marx and Engels. However, as Roy has noticed, I use the term "practical utopianism" to define what I'm talking about as something different.

If you want to avoid the term "utopian" altogether that would be fine, you could use terms like "creativity" instead, but I don't think it's necessary to do that.

The word Utopia originally meant "nowhere". It is important to look beyond the day-to-day struggles, as Roy notes quite succinctly. Anyone who wants a better world already has some at least partial utopian thoughts in their head: they are imagining a state of affairs that they would prefer to the present, a state that does not yet exist, a "nowhere". This is not automatically an idealist pipe dream. When thinking up utopias and promoting them simply on their merits becomes the guiding strategy, then we slip into idealism. But every class struggle militant needs a bit of utopianism - practical utopianism.

"Beneath the cobblestones, the beach!" This was the revolutionary utopianism expressed by the Situationists during the May 1968 revolt of the French masses against bourgeois society. At one level it expressed a practical call to action: ripping up the paving stones to create the barricades necessary to stop the forces of repression, and underneath the stones was a layer of sand which as all stone workers know, is the medium used to set things right. At the other level, that of the intersection of the everyday and of the possible revolutionary future, the slogan expressed the desire, the felt dreams of the revoltees for a radically different future. It highlighted the revolutionary potential found in the everyday, that is, the contradiction between liberation and repression, between collective freedom and wage slavery.

It is this kind of revolutionary and practical Utopianism which lays at the heart of the transitional methodology used by all successful revolutionary movements: by words and deeds creating a bridge to the future, the content of which is filled by the desires and dreams of all of humanity for a better future. It is that methodology which allows the masses to struggle for a new society: whether it is the Sandanistas struggling against the oligarchy and their army of the American Empire; whether it is the South African masses struggling against the neo-liberalism of the "their" government, and the betrayals of the SACP; or whether it is the exploited workers of China in the state capitalists/state owned/foreign owned firms revolting against their oppressors, the desire is the same: FREEDOM!

How can this revolutionary methodology be applied at a practical level? Let me use the example of Cuba. The Cuban revolution is at a dangerous cross roads. The recent statements by Raul Castro are an attempt to find solutions to real problems facing the Cuban masses. Unfortunately, his proposals have no revolutionary democratic forms/forums where these proposals can be discussed. As these proposals have a direct bearing on the future of the Cuban people, there is a need, a felt desire to deal with these proposals at a national level.

For example, Raul is proposing that a million workers be "moved" (removed) from the state sector and find employment in the "private sector". This of course, implies a radical growth in the "private sector" at a rate which can absorb these workers. Given a methodology of the Cuban leadership which accepts as a given that the Cuban economy must be structured within a state capitalist framework, based on "traditional, ""Soviet""-style mechanisms at the point of production, his proposals have a certain internal logic.

However, this does not have to be. The very concept of "underemployment" is a concept from the recipe book of bourgeois economics. Against the bureaucratic attempt to release the fiscal pressures of the Cuban state apparatus through "restructuring", why not propose a reduction in the working week to 3 days. As a former Cuban ambassador said in a private conversation: "After all, we did not make a Revolution to work harder".

"We did not make a Revolution to work harder" Think about it, how it cuts deep into the heart of the psyche of the spirit of Capitalism, how it struts its reality in the face of Stalinist concepts of work, how it kicks the mental conditioning of the labour bureaucracy and its social democratic allies.

"We will not make a Revolution to work harder!"

This is the revolutionary Utopianism which the revolutionary left of the 21st Century must grasp. This is the revolutionary methodology by which the consciousness of the masses can be impacted: linking the potential of the future to the contradiction between what appears to exists, and what actually exists: the transitional methodology.

Lenin once defined socialism as "Soviet power plus electricity". This was not an attempt to reduce the Russian revolution to a slave of capitalist technique, as Roy Radcliffe would have us believe. Far from it, it was an exaltation of the need for the masses to take the power into their own hands, that the form of socialist direct democracy combined with modern technology can create the conditions necessary for the communist future of humanity.

This is where the practical part of Ben's "practical Utopianism" appears to lie: to work to build movements of mass struggle from which organs of direct democracy: factory and community councils, committees of resistance to repression, committees for socialist democracy in the case of Cuba and China and Vietnam and North Korea. This I believe is the practical Utopianism towards which we all are grouping to find.