Is Socialism Utopian?

“Utopian” has almost become a put-down or a suggestion that one is being unrealistic, if not naive. But I would argue that socialists must be utopian, not in the sense of expecting fundamental change instantaneously, but in the sense of holding in their very being the deep desire for the realization of a world completely unlike our own. It is that for which generations have fought and it is that ideal that has kept many a freedom fighter going despite tremendous adversities.

What is especially interesting about the history of capitalism is that with its rise there also emerged the impulse towards alternatives. These alternatives were not necessarily elaborated as eloquently as were the theories behind capitalism and, specifically, democratic capitalism, but they were nevertheless important. The oppressive and often criminal nature of rising capitalism brought with it revolutionary movements that challenged either the system itself or components of the system. These revolts took various forms, such as the slave revolts that spanned the entire period of the African slave trade.

Peter Linebaugh’s The Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic offers a glimpse into the world of the North Atlantic and the development of capitalism. It was a world of significant resistance carried out by men and women; slaves and the free; mutinies and worker conspiracies. And in most cases there was a deep desire, sometimes elaborated, toward a not-always-defined freedom from the exploitation and oppression that accompanies capitalism.

With this as a backdrop, one can see that the desire for a utopia has always been a component of progressive and revolutionary anti-capitalism. Utopia was not simply a dream, but it represented the ideological and spiritual outlines of the ideal alternative. It became something for which movements fought. For many, that utopia took the name “socialism.”

In the 19th century, there were two diametrically opposed approaches to the question of socialism. On the one hand, there were the formations of local communities based on ideal socialist principles, such as equality and shared work. These were generally referenced as examples of “utopian socialism.” These communities attempted to live side-by-side with capitalism, hoping to demonstrate a viable alternative. Yet in their failure to tackle the system itself, these communities were strangled by the ever-growing amoral beast of capitalism.

In contrast, there were revolutionary movements, initially based in Europe, that sought to gain power for workers through struggle. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were only two of those associated with this approach. These movements also co-existed (and usually not very well) with revolutionary anarchists who envisioned the immediate end of not only capitalism, but any governmental/state system.

It was also during the 19th century that the first great experiment in the creation of a worker’s state took place during the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871. This urban uprising of the dispossessed shook the world and suggested that worker power was more than a slogan.

Paris Commune barricade

The 20th century was the moment for the great socialist experiments, beginning with the Russian/Soviet Revolution in October 1917, and continuing on with China, Vietnam, Cuba and numerous other locales. Time and space do not permit anything approaching an exhaustive look at the twists and turns of the socialist experiments of the last century and the many conclusions that we could draw. For the purposes of this essay, let us say that revolutionary transformation proved to be far more difficult than the overthrow of a particular state structure.

Among other things, capitalism is not simply about a ruling class of capitalists, but about toxic practices, many of them day-to-day, which people have learned over generations and, as the great Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci would say, have come to be accepted as “common sense.” These practices and expectations operate like the ghostly hands of demons in a graveyard reaching out and placing often unexpected constraints on the ability to break free of such haunted spaces.

We also discovered that socialism was about far more than economics. It must be about the expansion of democracy and the actual control over the lives of working people by the workers themselves. This means that there will be mistakes, setbacks, and detours. But the people themselves need to take these on, since there is no omnipotent individual or organization that can ensure success in a process that knows no guarantees.

Socialism, then, is not a utopia but a step in a process that takes us in the direction of an idea- that is, a society free of all exploitation and oppression, and with the elimination of all oppressing and oppressed classes. For me, it is summarized not in the text of a great socialist treatise, but, ironically perhaps, in the words of a fictional character, Captain Jean Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise, in the film Star Trek: First Contact. In explaining to someone from the 21st century the economics of the 24th century, he says, “The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves…and the rest of humanity.”

Resistance to oppression is NOT futile.

Such an era, however, is a very long way off, and humanity will have to earn admission to that new historical epoch through the trials and tribulations associated with transforming the way that we live our lives and the way that we treat the planet.

Each day we must struggle to get one step closer.

This post is also available in: Spanish

Bill Fletcher Jr

About Bill Fletcher Jr

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a long-time racial justice, labor and international activist and writer. He has been a socialist since before he understood what that meant. And, quite obviously, he is also a Star Trek fan.
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2 Responses to Is Socialism Utopian?

  1. Howard Rotman says:

    Bill…

    My “utopia” is socialism, also. I have been a socialist activist since my college years in the 60s, and labor leader, in AFSCME, and currently 1199SEIU, at Boston City Hospital – (now merged as part of Boston Medical Center) – since 1972. I have linked my union organizing internationally, as a delegate of my union opposing CIA mining of (Sandinista) Nicaraguan Harbors; and as a union delegate opposing US supported death squads in El Salvador. I am involved in many campaigns, nationally, and internationally, in solidarity with worker struggles, and indigenous peoples struggles against machine gun totting oil company “personnel” in the rain forests of South America.

    However, I am also VIGILANT not to be fooled by “socialist looking” international front organizations of monopoly capital, that “appear” to be “grass roots globalist organizations”, but are actually led by banking interests, such as the Rockefeller Family, and many other corporate interests that currently rule the world. The web pages of these front groups are very appealing to progressive minded people- including me- but digging below the SURFACE, I have long ago discovered the banking/ corporate interests pulling the strings of these “grass roots globalist socialist looking” front groups.

    In fact, many of the same arcane/ esoteric circles from which the “MASTER race” ideology of the Third Reich sprung from, is very much active in these “utopian looking” globalist organizations that claim they have a “PLAN” for building a more centralized economic, political, military, and spiritual worldwide novo ordo. These arcane/ esoteric circles operate at many levels; and there are many progressive – knowledge seeking- people at the lower levels. But I am also aware that at the higher levels these “MASTER race” circles have not mellowed since the days of the Third Reich, and I know that the “MASTER race” goals of these circles are EXCLUSIONARY of the “99%” ….a population…the inner circles say…must be drastically REDUCED…to “save”…”MOTHER EARTH”.

    I am strongly for the IDEAL society. That society, for me, is socialism. This kind of society is what I am working towards.

    But in “these days”, where the President of the USA signs off on a law- on the day before NEW YEAR of 2012- authorizing “mandatory” or “optional” indefinite detention without trial… for “terrorist” …”SUSPECTS”…or “AFFILIATED GROUPS”…anywhere in the world…including the USA…we must be very careful not to follow [blindly] a pied piper.. playing sweet music… leading millions to detention camps… or DEATH.. rather than “utopia”.

    Howie Rotman
    Union Leader in 1199SEIU at Boston Medical Center

  2. Mike says:

    Bill, I am impressed & inspired by your article. Ever since I visited Cuba on the Venceremos Brigade in 1970 as a young Anti-War activist, I have believed that (to turn a 1960′s slogan around), “Socialism is healthy for children & all other living things”. I completely agree with your point about essential value to keep a ‘Utopian’ vision clearly in front of us. This has helped sustained my involvement since that time.
    That experience where I met people engaged in struggles for freedom from a dozen ‘third world’ nations made it clear to me of the significance of the struggle for Socialism for the human race. But it was spending just a few days with a delegation of Vietnamese (remember, my government was bombing the hell out of their country at this time) who were warm, supportive to me and also vividly engaged in a life & death struggle against the US military that helped me understand what internationalism actually means. I have tried to educate co-workers about the global interconnectedness of the struggle for a better world.

    I have spent these past 40+ years in the Anti-war & Labor Movements in AFSCME in NY City and plan to continue fighting for a better world. I find great hope and encouragement in the focus & creativity of the ‘Occupy Movement’. Establishing the slogan of the “99% Vs the 1%” is absolutely brilliant (in a digression–I believe this concept originated with a March 31, 2011 article in Vanity Fair by economist Joe Stiglitz) as it has given recognition to the vast inequality that exists, especially in this country.
    As you eloquently state in your last sentence “Such an era, however, is a very long way off, and humanity will have to earn admission to that new historical epoch …”. I plan to continue to be a part of this struggle. I also feel that Howie Rotman’s warnings are worthy of consideration.
    Being an ardent Star Trek fan your quote from Jean Luc Picard is insightful & engaging. I believe that the all-embracing arms of Karl Marx would endorse the statement as well.

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