Title: Anarchism: Utopian or scientific
Author: Wayne Price
Date: 2006
Source: The Utopian Vol. 5 (2006), p. 62. Retrieved on 2020-04-07 from www.utopianmag.com

Together with the revival of anarchism in the last decades, there has been an increased interest in Utopia. This is largely due to the crisis in Marxism, long the dominant set of ideas among the radical left. After the Soviet Union imploded and China turned to an openly market-based capitalism, Marxism became discredited for many. This resulted in a revived interest in Utopia from two apparently contradictory directions, for and against. What these views have in common is that they take utopianism seriously. Utopianism must be taken seriously if socialism is to get out of the dead end it has reached through established Marxism, but what revolutionary socialists need is much more than simply a return to Utopia.

On one side, there has been an increased desire to find utopian aspects of socialism, including Marxism (Geoghegan, 1987). This includes looking at the the work of Walter Benjamin or Ernst Bloch. There is a greater concentration on Marx’s critique of alienation and of his scattered hints of what a communist society might look like, as in his Critique of the Gotha Program. More and more, socialists refer to the utopian meanings of their socialist faith, the original vision of a liberated humanity. From this point of view, the failure of pseudosocialism in the Communist-run countries was supposedly due to their downplaying utopianism.

Recognition of the value of utopianism was made by the reformist Marxist, Michael Harrington: “Utopian socialism...was a movement that gave the first serious definition of socialism as communitarian, moral, feminist, committed to the transformation of work, and profoundly democratic. If there is to be a 21st century socialism worthy of the name, it will...have to go 200 years into the past to recover the practical and theoretical ideals of the utopians” (quoted in Hahnel, 2005, p. 139).

Especially interesting has been the revival of the utopian project, that is, the effort by radicals (influenced by both anarchism and humanistic Marxism) to work out how a libertarian-democratic socialism could work—what a post-capitalist society might look like without either markets or centralized, bureaucratic, planning. This includes the “libertarian municipalism” of Murray Bookchin and his “social ecologist” followers (Biehl, 1998; Bookchin, 1986) and Michael Albert and Robin Hahnel’s “participatory economics” or “parecon” (Albert, 2003; Hahnel, 2005).

On the other side, there are those disillusioned ex-Marxists and ex-socialists, who blame the totalitarianism of the Marxist states on a supposed utopianism. The goal of Marxist socialism was of a classless, stateless, cooperative, society, with production for use rather than profit, without alienated labor, without national boundaries or wars—the realization of solidarity, equality, and freedom. This goal (which is the same as socialist anarchism) is condemned as an impossibility, a Utopia, which contradicts inborn human nature. Humans are supposedly naturally competitive, aggressive, and unequal. Attempts to force them to fit a cooperative, benevolent, society, it is said, can only be done by totalitarian means. Therefore, by this view, the failure of socialism was due to its utopianism. So this anti-socialist trend also focuses on the inherent utopianism of socialism.

Political critics have denounced me as a utopian myself, perhaps because I write for a journal titled The Utopian. And indeed I am a utopian...among other things. My earliest political influences were such books as Paul Goodman’s Utopian Essays and Practical Proposals (1962) and Martin Buber’s Paths in Utopia (1958), and other works on Utopia and utopian socialism. These works started me on a path toward anarchistpacifism, and then to a libertarian-democratic version of Marxism, and finally to revolutionary anarchism (in the libertarian socialist or anarchist-communist tradition, which has been refered to as “socialist anarchism”).

In common speech, “utopian” means ideas which are fantastically unrealistic, absurdly idealistic, and impossibly dreamy. The anti-utopian spirit is expressed in the movie “Rudy,” when a priest sneers at Rudy, a working class youth who wants to play football for Notre Dame University (I quote from memory), “You’re a dreamer. Nothing great was ever accomplished by a dreamer.” Actually, nothing great was ever accomplished except by dreamers—even though dreaming, by itself, is never enough.

Originally, “Utopia” was the title of a 16th century book by Thomas More, which presented an ideal society, partly seriously and partly humorously. It comes from the Greek words for “no place.” The idea is the same as Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, a picture of an ideal society whose name is “nowhere” spelled backwards. It is as if the utopian authors agree that such an ideal social system does not exist anywhere and perhaps will not exist anywhere. But the word is also close to “eutopia,” which means “the good place.” It took the horrors of the twentieth century to produce negative-utopias, or “dystopias,” such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 , or Jack London’s even earlier The Iron Heel.

Utopia may be rejected as a program for a perfect society, without conflicts or mistakes, managed by perfect people. There never will be such a society; humans are inheritantly finite and fallible and will always be so (and right after a revolution, a new society will have to be built by people deeply marked by the distortions of the old one). However, it is possible to think of Utopia as a program for a society which makes it easier for people to be good, which makes their selfinterest be in relative harmony with that of others, and which limits the opportunities for people to become corrupted by having power over others. Utopia may be a vision based on trends and possibliities which exist right now in society and which could come to fruition under different social circumstances. If we wish people to risk their lives and families for a fundamental change, socialist-anarchists have to be able to present a vision of a new society which is possible, workable, and worth risking everything for.

Marxism and Utopianism

Much confusion has been caused by the Marxists’ use of “utopian” in a specialized way. This was first spelled out in The Manifesto of the Communist Party (or Communist Manifesto) by Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels (1955) in the section on “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism.” Their concepts was elaborated in Engel’s Anti-Dühring: Herr Eugen Dühring’s Revolution in Science (1954). Parts of this book were taken out during Engels’ lifetime and made into a famous pamphlet, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific. Sentences and paragraphs which Engels added to the pamphlet were then typically placed in brackets in later editions of Anti-Dühring. (There has been a controversy over this book, with some Marxists being embarrassed by the mechanical flavor of Engels’ exposition of dialectics; they claim [absurdly in my opinion] that Engels did not really understand Marxism, or not as well as they [the critics] do. In fact, Engels went over the whole of the book with Marx beforehand, and Marx wrote a chapter for it, which he would hardly have done if he had disapproved of it. This is not to deny that Engels was a different person from Marx, and more of a popularizer of their joint views. But the mechanistic aspects of Marxism which appear in Anti-Dühring are a real aspect of Marx’s thinking.)

Marx and Engels claimed that, at the beginning of capitalism’s take-off, there were a few brilliant thinkers who had insights into the evils of capitalism and the possibilities of socialism. Such thinkers included Henri de SaintSimon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen. Because the class struggle of capital versus labor had barely begun, these could not have had a wellrounded theory of how society operated. But, said Marx and Engels, they could and did have sharp insights into the evils and problems of capitalism. They developed their insights into systems of thought, which their later followers organized into closed, quasi-religious sects. Unable to make a fully “scientific” view of the world, they tended to start from moral precepts and then work out how a society might be built on such ethical rules.

By the mid-19th century, Marx and Engels argued, capitalism had developed much further. There was now a large industrial working class (the proletariat), engaged in class struggle, and a new, industrial, technology which potentially made possible a world of plenty for all. It was now possible to have an objective, “scientific,” analysis of how capitalism worked, how it would develop, and how the working class would replace it with socialism. In this view, the earlier socialists had been “utopian,” not because they were idealistic but because they were premature, unable (yet) to make a scientific analysis.

It has been often noted that Marxism is a synthesis of three traditions: German (Hegelian) philosophy, British economics, and mostly-French socialism (the utopian socialists and also Proudhon the anarchist). Readers of Marx are often surprised to discover that he did not condemn the so-called utopians for their advocacy of ideal societies in their time. On the contrary, Engels and he praised them as pioneers of socialism. They praised Saint-Simon for raising the end of the state, which he discussed, in Engels’ words, as “the future conversion of political rule over men [note] into an administration of things and a direction of the processes of production” (Engels, 1954, p. 358; this formulation has problems which I will not get into). They praised Fourier for his condemnation of capitalist “civilization”, for his”dialectical” approach, and for his criticism of the oppression of women under capitalism. “He was the first to declare that in any given society the degree of woman’s emancipation is the natural measure of the general emancipation” (same, p. 359). (They did not go on to discuss Fourier’s support for homosexuality and other sexual variations.) They praised Owen for his materialist philosophy, his vision of communism, and his criticism of marriage under capitalism.

Engels and Marx noted that both Fourier and Owen had proposed the end of the current division of labor, replacing it with a variety of occupations for each person, making labor attractive, and developing everyone’s productive potentialities. Similarly, the two utopians had raised the goal of an end to the division between city and countryside, proposing the spread of industry across the country, integrated with agriculture, in communities of human scale. Engels noted the ecological implications: “The present poisoning of the air, water, and land can be put an end to only by the fusion of town and country...” (same, p. 411). Like anarchists, he believed that this could only happen in a socialist society; unlike anarchists, he believed this required centralized planning, needing “one single vast plan” (same).

However, Marx and Engels critiqued the earliest socialists because they did not (and could not yet) base their programs on the struggle of the workers and oppressed. Instead they looked to upper class saviors to come along and aid the workers. The infant class of workers existed for them as a suffering class, not as a class capable of changing the world. Along with these criticisms of the utopians (with which I agree), Marx and Engels also, unfortunately criticized them for their moral appeal. Rather than making an appeal to the self-interest of the workers, Marx and Engels complained, the utopians made broad appeals to justice and moral values, which could attract anyone from any class. Marx and Engels rejected moral appeals. “From a scientific standpoint, this appeal [by the utopians—WP] to morality and justice does not help us an inch further; moral indignation, however justifiable, cannot serve economic science as an argument, but only as a symptom” (Engels, 1954, p. 207). In their voluminous writings they never say that people should be for socialism because it is good, just, and moral. Indeed, they never explain why anyone should be for socialism at all.

The Marxist Hal Draper accurately summarizes Marx’s views: “Marx saw socialism as the outcome of tendencies inherent in the capitalist system...whereas the utopians saw socialism simply as a Good Idea, an abstract scheme without any historical context, needing only desire and will to be put into practice....

“Marx and Engels habitually stated their political aim not in terms of a change in social system (socialism) but in terms of a change in class power (proletarian rule)....For Marx the political movement was in the first place the movement of the working classes to take over state power, not primarily a movement for a certain scheme to reorganize the social structure”

(Draper, 1990, pp. 18, 44; his emphasis).

But if socialism is just a matter of class interest rather than the vision of a better world, then the interest of the capitalists is as justifiable as that of the workers. Why should anyone from the capitalist or middle classes go over to the working class (as did Marx and Engels)? Why should not individual workers go over to the side of the capitalists (as so many do, such as union leaders)? Why should workers risk a revolution without some moral (and political and economic) goals? Why should they fight for “class power” (let alone “to take over state power”!) without the goal of “a change in social system (socialism)”?

Contrast the Marxist view with that of Kropotkin: “No struggle can be successful if it does not render itself a clear and concise account of its aim. No destruction of the existing order is possible, if at the time of the overthrow, or of the struggle leading to the overthrow, the idea of what is to take the place of what is to be destroyed is not always present in the mind” (Kropotkin, 1975, p. 64).

Engels justified “proletarian morality” because “in the present [it] represents the overthrow of the present, represents the future...” (Engels, 1954, p. 131). But why should we automatically support something just because it leads to the future? How do we decide that the future will be good, will be what we should want? Engels declares that it will only be in a classless society that “a really human morality” will be possible. This may be so, but it again begs the question: why should we commit ourselves to the goal of a classless society of freedom and equality, of really human values? None of this makes sense unless we accept, in some way, the historical values of justice, compassion, and kindness, as well as equality and freedom.

Instead, the founders of Marxism argue that their “science” tells them that socialism is inevitable and therefore, they imply, should be accepted. The Communist Manifesto declares, “What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable” (Marx and Engels, 1955, p. 22). To advance beyond the utopian socialists, Engels wrote, “...it was necessary...to present the capitalistic method of production...and its inevitableness during a particular historical period and therefore, also, its inevitable downfall...” (Engels, 1954, pp. 42–43).

Marx’s determinism, or (as I will call it) “inevitabilism,” is defended by his claim to have created a “scientific socialism.” Some excuse Marx’s scientism by pointing out that the German word which is translated as “science” (Wissenschaft) means any body of knowledge or study, including not only chemistry but also philosophy and literary criticism (Draper, 1990). While this is true, it is also true that Marx and Engels repeatedly compared their theories to biology or chemistry, saying that Marx’s discoveries were comparable to those of Darwin. Engels’ Anti-Dühring (1954) itself is the best-known example of this equation of Marx’s theories with the natural sciences.

The Limits of Marxist Inevitablism

Sometimes this inevitabilism is modified by statements that there is an alternative, either socialism or the degeneration of society, the destruction of all social classes. The Communist Manifesto states in its beginning that historic class struggles “...each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes” (Marx & Engels, 1955, p. 9). They were probably thinking of the collapse of the Roman Empire; however, that these alternatives exist is not repeated in the Manifesto. Engels declared, “...if the whole of modern society is not to perish, a revolution in the mode of production and distribution must take place, a revolution which will put an end to all class distinctions” (1954, p. 218; my emphasis). Rosa Luxemburg summarized this as the alternatives of “socialism or barbarism.”

In this day of economic decline and the worldwide spread of nuclear weapons, these probably are the alternatives. For example, to a great extent the economic crisis of capitalism has turned into an ecological and environmental crisis. One report concludes, “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing” (Kolbert, 2005, p. 63). It may still be possible to permanently reverse this biological self-destruction, if we replace capitalism with a cooperative social system. But this is a choice, not an inevitable future. It is hard to see how it can be addressed without an appeal to the very moral standards which Marx and Engels had ruled out.

From the beginning, the Marxist view of utopianism and scientific socialism had certain limitations. For one thing, with all his rejection of moral appeals, Marx’s writings breathe with a moral indignation, a deep love of freedom and justice, and a burning hatred of suffering and oppression. This does Marx credit, but it makes his objection to moral appeals into hypocrisy. This weakness of Marxism, its lack of an explicit moral viewpoint, has often been pointed out, by supporters and opponents of Marxism, on the right and on the left.

For another thing, these early socialists did not call themselves utopians. They emphasized that they were being scientific and materialistic. Saint-Simon is usually recognized as one of the founders of modern sociology. “The utopian socialists saw themselves as social scientists. ‘Utopian’ was for them a pejorative term....Time and again in their work they asserted their hardheaded, scientific, realistic, and practical approach to society....The description of their work as ‘utopian’ is therefore a retrospective judgment and not a self-definition” (Geoghegan, 1987, p. 8).

Anarchist thinkers, who were politically closer to these early socialists than were Marx and Engels, also emphasized how scientific they were. Proudhon insisted he was being scientific. Unlike Marx, Kropotkin tried to develop a naturalistic ethics. But Kropotkin (who had been a geologist) also claimed that anarchism was the conclusion of scientific understanding of the world, as he wrote in his essay “Modern Science and Anarchism.” “Anarchism is a world concept based on a mechanical explanation of all phenomena, embracing the whole of nature....Its method of investigation is that of the exact natural sciences” (Kropotkin, 1975, p. 60). Therefore he rejected describing anarchism with “the word ‘Utopia’” (same, p. 66).

Malatesta was to criticize Kropotkin for this very scientism, which he felt left out the importance of will and consciousness. “Kropotkin, who was very critical of the fatalism of the Marxists, was himself the victim of mechanistic fatalism, which is far more inhibiting....Since, according to his philosophy, that which occurs must necessarily occur, so also the communist-anarchism he desired must inevitably triumph as if by a law of nature” (Malatesta, 1984, pp. 263, 265). So, rather than being simply utopian, anarchists were just as capable of scientism and inevitablism as Marxists, although there were some, such as Malatesta, who opposed this approach.

The Rejection of Scientific Socialism

The revival of moral and utopian thinking has been based on a rejection of Marxist “scientific socialism.” Robin Hahnel, co-inventer of “parecon,” has concluded, “...New evidence from the past 30 years has weakened the case for scientific socialism even further and greatly strengthened the case for utopian socialism...” (2005, p. 390). It has been argued that Marx’s supposedly scientific predictions did not work out as he expected, that his so-called science has been a bust. The capitalist countries have (it is said) become prosperous and stable, with attenuated business cycles and a well-off working class—at least in the industrialized, imperialist, countries. The working class has not become revolutionary. There have been no workers’ revolutions. The revolutions led by Marxists which did happen, became miserable totalitarian states, oppressors of their workers, and nothing like the socialist democracies Marx and Engels had envisaged. These criticisms of Marxism have led many to accept capitalism and others to look for alternate approaches to socialism—including the present spread of anarchism.

There is a great deal of truth in these criticisms of “Marxist science.” World War II was followed by a capitalist boom, up until the late sixties. The great revolutions of Russia and China, as well as others led by Marxists, ended up with new bureaucratic ruling classes, rather than human liberation (although they did not become a new type of society but were, rather, statified versions of capitalism). There have been no successful working class revolutions, since the ambiguous Russian revolution of 1917. There is no longer a working class with a significant revolutionary movement, anywhere, certainly not in the United States.

However, there is also a great deal of untruth in these common views. In particular, the post-World War II boom has been over for some time. From the seventies onward, the world economy has been going downhill—with fluctuations up and down, and with lopsided and uneven development in different parts of the world. But the overall direction has been negative. Writing about the decline of the U.S. economy, the editorial page of the New York Times, the voice of a major wing of the U.S. ruling class, predictes a general worsening of the U.S. economy. Under the headline, “Before the Fall,” it wrote about the weakening of the dollar and the U.S. economy, and predicted, “The economic repercussions could unfold gradually, resulting in a long, slow decline in living standards. Or there could be a quick unraveling, with the hallmarks of an uncontrolled fiscal crisis. Or the pain could fall somewhere inbetween” (April 2, 2005). One libertarian Marxist, Loren Goldner, has written of the breakdown of capitalism in our time, “If there is today a ‘crisis of Marxism,’ it cannot be in the ‘analytic-scientific’ side of Marx’s prognosis of capitalist breakdown crisis, wherein current developments appear as a page out of vol. III of Capital” (Goldner, 2000, p. 70).

The image of a fat and happy capitalism with a fat and happy working class comes from the fifties and sixties (and was not fully true even then). It became the dominant conception of the left during the radicalization of the sixties. It justified the liberalism and reformism which was the main trend among U.S. leftists. It also justified the Stalinist politics of the many who became subjectively revolutionary. These revolutionaries admired Cuba, China, and North Vietnam. In these countries middle-class intellectuals led revolutions in which the workers played minor roles at best, and then established the leaders as new, bureaucratic, classes who exploited the workers (and peasants) in a state-capitalist fashion. These radicals regarded themselves as Marxists, as did such theoreticians as Herbert Marcuse, while more or less consciously abandoning any belief in a working class revolution in either the industrialized nations or the oppressed countries.

While the image of a perpetually prosperous capitalism has been shown to be false, this does not “prove” that “Marx was right.” However correct Marx was in his “analytic-scientific analysis” of capitalism, it should now be clear that socialism is not inevitable. There is no way to be absolutely sure that socialism will come before nuclear war or ecological catastrophe or perhaps a perpetual capitalism that grinds on and on until it produces “the common ruin of the contending classes.” At best we are dealing with probabilities, which are almost irrelevant in terms of making commitments to one side or the other. “Marxist scientific socialism” is not the issue, in the abstract, but whether or not to make a class analysis of current society and to commit to working class revolution for a better social system. Loren Goldner concludes that the real crisis of socialism is not in terms of Marxist science. Rather it is “...a crisis of the working-class movement itself, and of the working class’ sense, still relatively strong in the 1930’s, that it is the class of the future” (Goldner, 2000, p. 70).

A Revival of Utopian Socialism and Its Class Limitations

The rejection of “scientific socialism” has often led to a socialism which claims to be based essentially on moral principles, on a universal appeal for a better society, rejecting appeals to class self-interest. This is a return to utopianism. In rejecting the weaknesses and strengths of Marxism, these thinkers revive both the strengths and weaknesses of utopianism. Such views have been developed by theoreticians with Marxist backgrounds, sometimes giving themselves good-sounding names such as “post-Marxists,” “pluralists,” or “radical democrats” (there is a thorough review in Wood, 1998). Similarly, the theoreticians of “participatory economics” start with abstract moral principles and develop an economic system which would fulfill them, without any discussion of how such a society would develop out of capitalism (Albert, 2003). I have heard Michael Albert presenting his system (at a workshop at the Global Left Forum 2005), beginning by describing “parecon” (he rejects the label “socialism”) as happening “after the bump.” The “bump” is his term for the change of systems, covering reform or revolution or whatever. How the change happens is not important to his vision.

There are also many who come out of the anarchist tradition who reject a “scientific” approach for one based solely on morality and abstract values. Perhaps the purest example is the “social ecology”/“libertarian municipalist” program developed primarily by Murray Bookchin. These views are clearly summarized by Chuck Morse (2001). Writing in opposition to reformists within the global justice movement, he rightly proposes a revolutionary perspective. However, he also rejects the class perspective of “many anarcho-syndicalists and communists” who accepted “the analysis of capitalism advanced by late 19th century and early 20th century socialists,” presumably Marx as well as the anarchist-syndicalists. They believed, he claims, that “capitalism creates an industrial proletariat that must, in turn, fight for its interests as a class...not only...for immediate benefits but also against the social order that has produced it as a class...” (Morse, 2001, p. 26).

Instead, “it is possible to imagine revolution in a democratic populist sense, in which people draw upon shared values (as opposed to class interests) to overthrow elites. This vision of revolution is not premised upon the exacerbation of class conflict, but rather the emergence of a democratic sentiment that rejects exclusive, non-participatory social institutions ... focusing on the ideals, not class positions, of activists within the movement.... This value-based approach is a precept of any revolutionary democratic politics” (same, pp. 27, 29).

As Morse says, the views of Marx and the anarchist-syndicalists were indeed developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Therefore they bear the imprint of their time, including their scientistic and determinist concept of social science. Nevertheless, the social system which they first analyzed, at the time when it took off, remains the basic social system of today—despite its development and changes. Morse still calls it “capitalism” rather than calling it some new form of society (such as “neo-feudalism”) or claiming that the problem was not capitalism but something else (such as “industrialism” or “civilization”). This is not to deny that the analysis of capitalism has to be expanded to cover later developments and must be integrated with analyses of gender, race, sexual orientation, ecology, and other areas. But capitalism remains as a system of commodity production, market exchange, competition of capitals, the law of value, the selling and buying of the human ability to labor (treating working capacity as a commodity), and the use of workers to produce a surplus for the capitalists (that is, exploitation). In its essence, capitalism, as capitalism, remains the capital-labor relationship as it was analyzed a century and a half ago.

Morse notes that this 19th century theory postulated a working class “that must fight.” The “must” is the important point. Implicitly but correctly, he is criticizing the dominant interpretation of Marxism (one rooted in Marx’s work) that it is “inevitable” that the workers will come to fight for socialist revolution. It is not inevitable. Such determinism is essentially authoritarian. How can an oppressed class create a self-conscious and self-organized society through the automatic processes of history? To fight their exploitation, the workers need to want something new. If they are to be free, they must cease to submit to the laws of history and become conscious of what they can achieve.

This does not mean a rejection of all objective analysis, however, Sailors may take a sailboat to different ports, depending on their goals, but only by using their knowledge of wind and seas, not by ignoring this scientific knowledge. But the seafarers’ knowledge does not decide their goal.

Marxist analysis (consistent with anarchist goals) may be interpreted (or re-interpreted) differently than in an inevitablist manner. It could be said that Marx demonstrated that there is a tendency for workers to rebel against their exploitation—what else? But there are also counter-tendencies. For example, better-off workers tend to become bought off and to accept the system. Poorer, worse-off, workers tend to become overwhelmed and demoralized, to give up. Bookchin argues that factory discipline itself teaches the workers to accept hierarchy. Which tendencies will win out: struggle, to the point of revolution, or acceptance of capitalist authority? We do not know; it is not inevitable. As Morse writes, “many anarcho-syndicalists and communists” have believed that it is inevitable that the workers “must fight,” and eventually make a socialist revolution. Others, such as Bookchin, argue that it is inevitable that the workers, as workers, will not make a revolution. Both are wrong. It is a living choice for the workers.

Elaborating on the ideas of Bookchin, Morse, as quoted, rejects a working class orientation. Instead he calls for a “vision of revolution...premised upon...the emergence of a democratic sentiment...focusing on...ideals, not class positions...” (same, p. 27). As stated here, this is rather vacuous, but this would not be a valid criticism, since Bookchin has elsewhere worked out a utopian vision of a post-capitalist, (small-c) communist, society—a federation of communes managed by directly democratic assemblies (Biehl, 1998; Bookchin, 1986). This is done in much greater detail than Marx or Engels ever did. Bookchin deserves credit for this.

However, the social ecologists’ ethical approach, as described here, has certain weaknesses. To begin with, it has no study of how capitalist society works, what are its contradictions and conflicts. This is not a matter of reviving the mechanical “science” and determinism of the worst of Marxism. It is making a theoretical analysis of society, including economic and other factors (race, gender, ecology, etc.), laying the basis for a strategy for bringing utopian goals into reality. It is true that Bookchin has made an analysis of society in terms of a supposed conflict, the remnants of town and community versus the national state, but it is hard to take this seriously as the basic conflict of society.

Lacking a social analysis, the ethical vision approach lacks a strategy for implementing its (worthwhile) goals. More specifically, it lacks an agent, a social force which could overturn capitalism and replace it with a new society. All it has are people who are idealistic, of every class and sector of society. From this point of view, there is no reason why socialism could not have been implemented at any time in human existence, from hunter-gatherer society until now, since people have always had moral values and visions of a better world. Bookchin has argued that a free society is possible now since it is only now that we have the technology to possibly create a society of plenty for all, including enough time without toil for people to participate in the managing of society (a view which was raised by Marx). However, this still leaves the question of who will make the revolution.

As opposed to this vague appeal to idealists, Marx and Engels, and later the anarchist-syndicalists as well as most anarchistcommunists, looked to the struggle of the workers. This did not necessarily mean ignoring the struggles of other sectors of society, such as women and “racial” groupings. I have already noted how Engels valued the utopians’ criticisms of the oppression of women. In the same work, he commented, “It is significant of the specifically bourgeois character of these human rights that the American constitution, the first to recognize the rights of man [note], in the same breath confirms the slavery of the colored races existing in America; class privileges are proscribed, race privileges sanctioned” (Engels, 1954, pp. 147–148). Not that Marx and Engels had a sufficient analysis of either gender or race, but it is now possible to see the interaction and overlap of racial, gendered, and other forms of oppression with the economic exploitation of the working class.

However, the working class has a particular strategic importance for revolutionaries. Of all the oppressed groupings, only the workers can stop society in its tracks, due to their potential control of the means of production. And only the working class can start society up again by occupying the workplaces and working them in a different way. This does not make workers, as workers, more oppressed than, say, physically disabled people, or women, as women (two categories which mostly overlap with the working class). It just points up the workers’ potential strategic power.

Unlike the capitalists or the “middle class” managers who work for them, the workers (that is, most of the population, when they go to work for some boss) do not have anyone under them to exploit. They do not live off of the exploitation of others. The workers have a direct interest in ending the system of exploitation—that is, the pumping of wealth from them to the capitalist rulers. Ellen Meiksins Wood argues against the views of certain ex-Marxists who have rejected a working class orientation in favor of an ethicalonly approach similar to that of Morse and Bookchin (Bookchin himself being an ex-Marxist who has rejected a working class orientation):

The implication is that workers are no more effected by capitalist exploitation than are any other human beings who are not themselves the direct objects of exploitation. This also implies that capitalists derive no fundamental advantage from the exploitation of workers, that the workers derive no fundamental disadvantage from their exploitation by capital, that the workers would derive no fundamental advantage from ceasing to be exploited, that the condition of being exploited does not entail an ‘interest’ in the cessation of class exploitation, that the relations between capital and labor have no fundamental consequences for the whole structure of social and political power, and that the conflicting interests between capital and labor are all in the eye of the beholder.

(Wood, 1998, p. 61)

Contrary to the middle class myth of working class quiescence, workers do stuggle against capital. Every day there is a tug-of-war, a guerrilla conflict, in every workplace, sometimes breaking out into open rebellion but mostly kept at a low simmer. From time to time there have been great eruptions when workers rose up and demonstrated the possibility of overthrowing capitalism and its state, of replacing these institutions with the self-management of society. I will not review the history of workers’ revolutionary upheavals here, but workers have shown more ability to struggle in the brief history of industrial capitalism (about 200 years) than any other oppressed class in history. Without slighting other oppressions, the struggle of the workers should be a major focus of any revolutionary strategy.

Utopianism or Science...or Both?

In Utopianism and Marxism, Geoghegan concludes, “The distinction between utopian and scientific socialism has, on balance, been an unfortunate one for the Marxist tradition” (1987, p. 134). He demonstrates how both wings of Marxism—social democracy and Leninism—have been affected by their mechanical scientism and their rejection of visionary utopianism. He recommends that Marxists look into the alternate tradition of anarchism, as well as other traditions, such as democratic liberalism, feminism, and Gay liberation. However, it seems to me that a Marxism which accepts utopianism and the insights of anarchism, radical democracy, feminism, and Gay liberation would cease to be Marxism, even if much remained of Marx’s project (especially his class analysis). That is, the particular synthesis of ideas which Marx created would be drastically reorganized. Anarchists too have historically sometimes been too scientistic or have more often been anti-theoretical and anti-intellectual. But it is anarchism which has been more open to both a moral vision and a theoretical analysis of capitalism. However, there is a great deal of overlap between class-struggle anarchism and libertarian Marxism.

I reject having to chose between either utopianism or science (using “science” to mean an analysis of society, done as realistically as possible, and not an attempt to treat society as if it were chemistry). I will not chose between raising moral issues and appealing to the self-interest of oppressed people. I reject the alternatives of either a moral vision or a practical strategy. I refuse to chose between Utopia and support for workers’ class struggles.

What is the Utopia of socialist anarchism? It has many interpretations, but some things seem central: It includes a cooperative economy with production for use, which is planned democratically, from the bottom up. It means the end of the division (in industry and in society as a whole) between mental and manual labor, between those who give orders and those who carry them out. This would be part of a complete reorganization of technology to create an ecologically sustainable society. It includes an economy and polity managed by direct democracy, in assemblies and councils, at workplaces and in communities. It has no state, that is, no bureaucractic-military machine with specialized layers of police, soldiers, bureaucrats, lobbyists, and politicians, standing above the rest of the population. If defense of the people is needed,this would be done by the people— the armed people—in a popular militia. Instead of a state, local councils would be federated at the regional, national, continental, and international levels, wherever needed. In this freely federated world, there would be no national borders. The socialist vision has always been that of a classless society and the most exploited class has an interest in winning this. Whether the working class will seek this vision remains an open question, in my opinion—neither a guaranteed outcome not a guarantee that it will not. It is a choice, not an inevitability.

In his Paths in Utopia, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber (1958) compares two types of eschatological prophecy. One is the prediction of apocalypse, an inevitable end of days which is running on a strict timetable. God and the devil will fight and God will win. Human choice is reduced to a minimum...people may decide individually to be on the automatically winning side or to be on the guaranteed losing side. That’s it. Such a view is presented in the Left Behind novels, expressing a conservative interpretation of Christianity. In a secular fashion, it also appears in the mainstream interpretation of Marxism (and also in aspects of Kropotkin’s anarchism). In comparison, Buber says, the prophets of the Old Testament presented the people with a collective choice. Disaster was looming, the prophets warned, but it could be averted. To do so, the people would have to change their ways and follow an alternate path. Prophesy was a challenge, not an inevitable prediction. Human choice could make a difference.

Leaving theology aside, today there is a prophetic challenge. It is both “utopian” and “scientific.” Humanity faces probable disasters: increasing wars (including eventual nuclear wars), ecological and environmental catastrophe, economic decline, and threats to democracy and freedom. But an alternate society, a utopian goal, may be envisioned, with a different way for humans to relate to each other—if not a perfect society than one that is much better. There exists the technology to make it possible. There exists a social class whose self-interest may lead it to struggle for this goal, alongside of other oppressed groupings. Those who accept this analysis, and who believe in the values of this goal, may chose to take up the challenge—and to raise it for others. It is a matter not only of prediction but of moral commitment.

June 2005


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