'Cook-shops of the future'?
Why we need to think about socialism
by Stephen Shenfield, Special Contributor
Strange as it may seem, I do not expect all socialists to appreciate a website devoted to the future society to which socialists aspire. In particular, I do not expect approval from many who call themselves Marxists. They will say – if they deign to comment at all – that socialists should not waste time and effort speculating about the future but focus on analyzing and assisting current struggles by working people. They may quote Marx’s dismissive remarks about ‘ready-made utopias’ and ‘recipes for the cook-shops of the future’ or perhaps Engels’ assurance that the people alive at the time of the revolution ‘will know what to do.’
I have great respect for Marx and Engels. Their thinking has had a considerable influence on mine. But I would say the same of some other 19th-century thinkers – for instance, the Russian geographer, scientist, and anarcho-communist Peter Kropotkin. I am not a ‘Marxist’. I do not regard the words of Marx – or of anyone else – as holy writ. I do not regard a quotation from Marx as a way to clinch an argument. Marx’s statements must be viewed in their historical context, not revered as truths for all time.
The process by which Marx’s ideas were turned into a quasi-religious doctrine began while he was still alive. When he first learned that some people were calling themselves ‘Marxists’ he dissociated himself from them with the remark: ‘I am not a Marxist.’ The process accelerated after Marx’s death, eventually giving rise to rival quasi-religious doctrines all bearing the ‘Marxist’ label.
In what context then did Marx and Engels express a dismissive attitude toward ‘utopias’?
First, they wanted firmly to establish their own brand of socialist thought. That led them to draw the sharpest possible contrast between themselves and the socialist thinkers who preceded them. They portrayed these thinkers – the best known of them were Wilhelm Weitling in Germany, Robert Owen in Britain, and Henri de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon in France – as impractical utopian dreamers.
In his book Utopianism & Marxism, Vincent Geoghegan shows that Marx and Engels exaggerated the contrast between their own ‘scientific’ and ‘materialist’ approach and the ‘utopianism’ of their precursors. On the one hand, the ‘utopian socialists’ did more than speculate about a future society: they too attempted a ‘scientific’ analysis of social development. On the other hand, Marx and Engels owed a great deal to the ideas of the ‘utopian socialists’ – an intellectual debt that Marx especially was reluctant to acknowledge. It can also be argued that their thinking retained utopian elements.
Second, the crucial task that Marx sought to accomplish was the formation of a broadly based and united international workers’ movement. According to one historian (whose name I forget), they discouraged any in-depth discussion of the future socialist society because such discussion would highlight divisions and complicate unification of the workers’ movement. Before Marx much of the workers’ movement had consisted of rival sects of followers of different ‘utopian socialist’ theorists with divergent visions of the future society. (For example, the free communes that Fourier called ‘phalansteries’ were at odds with the authoritarian values of Saint-Simon, whom one scholar has even dubbed the first totalitarian.) The leaders of these sects had to be discredited and the barriers between them removed.
Third, the socialist revolution seemed a distant prospect to the mature Marx and Engels. They could not foresee the conditions that might have emerged by that time. Discussion of the problems that might face those who undertook the task of organizing a socialist society therefore appeared premature. It was not their generation that would face those problems. ‘We in the here and now’ and ‘the people who will make the revolution and organize the new society’ were separate categories.
These reasons for not discussing the future society may have made good sense at the time. However, they were of passing significance. The first two reasons became moot with the disappearance of the utopian sects, while the third reason gradually lost its validity as capitalist relations matured. So, the whole issue could and should have been considered afresh from time to time. But that is not what happened. With the degeneration of Marxian thought into a quasi-religion, what may originally have been a rational policy congealed into an irrational though universally respected taboo, uncritically transmitted from each generation to the next. Thus, between 1882 and 1914 Neue Zeit, the journal of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), contained not a single article dealing directly with future society (there was one article with an indirect bearing on the subject).
The result was that ‘we in the here and now’ and ‘the people who will make the revolution and organize the new society’ remained separate categories. Even when the rapid growth of the socialist movement raised the possibility of socialist parties coming to power within another few years, the taboo remained almost as strong as ever. True, in 1902 the SPD theorist Karl Kautsky delivered a lecture (later published as a pamphlet) entitled The Day After the Revolution – but still no one ventured to talk about the week or month after the revolution, let alone the year, the decade, the century...
This was surely an important factor – not the only important factor but one such factor – underlying the process by which over the years of the late 19thand early 20thcenturies the international social-democratic movement, despite impressive quantitative growth, became increasingly reformist, culminating in its ignominious collapse in 1914, when almost all the social-democratic parties of Europe supported the fratricidal slaughter of imperialist war. Without the leaven of ‘utopian speculation’ the socialist goal had shrunk to the ritual repetition of abstract formulas on special occasions. And once that had occurred was it not quite reasonable to conclude, as did the ‘revisionist’ German social democrat Eduard Bernstein, that ‘the final goal is nothing; the movement is everything’?
And then, when the social upheaval in the wake of World War One did perhaps finally place socialist revolution on the near-term agenda, the long hiatus in thinking about how to organize socialism was surely an important factor underlying the dual defeat of the revolutionary sections of the working class – from without, by agents of the capitalist class, in Germany and northern Italy, and from within, by the nascent Bolshevik party-state bureaucracy, in Soviet Russia. When workers’ councils temporarily took over enterprises in various industrial centers in these countries they had little or no idea what to do next and soon lost their chance, for it was not long before the councils were violently suppressed (by the Freikorps -- gangs of former soldiers turned vigilantes -- in Germany and by Mussolini’s fascist blackshirts in Italy) or deprived of autonomy and incorporated into the reborn state machine (by the Bolshevik bureaucracy in Russia).
Any possibility that the socialist movement might recover after the defeats of 1914-21 disappeared as the great majority of surviving revolutionary socialists were channeled into the so-called ‘communist’ movement and came to identify ‘socialism’ with the newly arisen bureaucratic class society in Russia. Here too the absence of sufficiently clear ideas and images of the future socialist society played a major part, making it extremely difficult for people to distinguish between genuine and fraudulent versions of socialism. Innumerable devoted revolutionaries learned too late what they had been fighting for and ended tragic lives in disillusionment and despair.
And so humanity descended into the horror of fascism, Nazism, Stalinism, then a second world slaughter – a period that Victor Serge evocatively called ‘midnight in the century’ (the title of one of his novels).
How can we avoid similar outcomes the next time round? Neither the working class nor humanity are likely to survive major new defeats.
Of course, there is no point in trying to equip the ‘cooks of the future’ with ‘ready-made recipes’. There must be ample scope for maneuver and improvisation in the light of unforeseen circumstances. But we need some preparation, some anticipatory thinking, even some provisional planning if we are to succeed in carrying through the socialist revolution and establishing a well-functioning socialist society. We need to prefigure possible variants of a genuinely socialist society in our imagination and seriously discuss the problems that we are likely to face. The new world must be constantly enlivened in our minds and hearts if it is ever to emerge into the light of day.