Saturday, November 07, 2020

Bellamy, Socialism and Utopia

For as long as there has been human oppression there have been dreams of the oppressed. Oppressed people have not usually had access to the means of recording their dreams, so too many of them have been lost. Nor have they had the power to communicate their dreams as widely as the powerful have been free to spread theirs, so all too often such visions of what could be have been relegated to an area outside of “serious politics”, derided as the literary yearnings of unimportant masses, or neatly filed away under the heading of “impossibility” — a heading which is made to measure the needs of the ruling class of the day, as Mannheim clearly showed in his book, Ideology and Utopia.

The politics of Utopia begins with the visions of those who see beyond the way life is. Utopia — which derives from the Greek words for good place and no place — is never compatible with the mistaken certainties about how society must always be which all ruling classes in the history of class society have sought to perpetuate. Utopias smash through the barriers of “reality” (our rulers’ reality) and project a new form of existence.

Early Utopias reflected naive and physically unrealisable wishes of the oppressed majority. For example, the 14th century poem, The Land of Cockaygne, depicts a world where geese fly around ready-roasted calling out to be eaten. This was no realisable scheme of how society could one day be, but it did reflect the impotent desires of hungry serfs, just as the American folk song. The Big Rock Candy Mountains (originally a Norwegian Utopian song, according to the folk music historian, A.L. Lloyd) tells us something about the dreams of the American hobo when it depicts its land of soda water fountains, lemonade springs, streams of alcohol trickling down the rocks, and lakes of stew and whiskey too which you can paddle all around in your own canoe.

Not all Utopias have been fantasies. Many have constituted genuine critiques of the existing social order. In The Politics of Utopia by Goodwin and Taylor it is contended that we should take what have been labelled as Utopian ideas seriously; instead of pushing them aside to a discarded limbo between political science and mere literary criticism, those interested in politics should find time to recognise the important contribution of “utopian” thought:

Consciousness of the difference between existing reality and a non-existent, but potentially existent, future — a morally desirable future — was one of the most important ingredients of this quest (for the good life). Unless we feel absolutely confident that we have now reached the limits of our capabilities and creativity, that we have advanced to perfection already, to dispense with utopianism would be to renounce a large part of what it is to be a political animal.

Our present rulers, be they avowedly conservative or allegedly radical, do feel confident that with the present social system we have reached our human destination: reform it, perhaps, but scrap it: impossible, it’s utopian.

Capitalism, with its big promises of liberty and rewards for hard work and freedom, and the mean reality of what the system has been in experience, has given rise to utopian thought. Never was such thought more expressive than in the decades of disappointment which followed capitalism’s hour of glory, the French Revolution. Schemes were drawn up by men who believed that they alone had the blueprint for The New Social Order. These men — Fourier, Owen, St Simon, Babeuf, Weitling — were “utopian socialists”. Much of what they dreamed about would not be dismissed by socialists today, either in terms of their political ends, such as the abolition of government and money or their poetical impulse to destroy the pompous claims of property-based civilisation. To be sure, much of what they envisaged seems crazy now — some of it must have done then — but that is the price to be paid for the idealistic act of constructing a blueprint for the future.

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels began to construct their theory of revolutionary socialism at a time when to be socialist was regarded as an act of futuristic utopianism. Most socialists in the 1840s were followers of one blueprint or another; in America the Utopias had become more than blueprints and embryonic Utopian socialist communities had sprung up in their thousands.

Marxism (that rather inadequate term which we use to sum up the essential theories of Marx and Engels and those who think in their tradition today) is a materialist theory of history. Its starting point is not based upon the moral imperative of what should be or the ideals of blueprints which start and finish in the realm of human consciousness, but upon the material recognition that in order to transform society we must revolutionise its material (productive) base. We should not be surprised, then, that the advocates of such an outlook would find themselves at odds with the utopians of their day.

The main criticism levelled against utopians by Marx (and, with greater force than in any other work, by Engels in Socialism: Utopian and Scientific) was their lack of a theory of history: Who was going to construct their Utopia? The answer of the Utopians was, We are — we who have had the unique foresight of seeing life as it could be. For Marx and Engels that was the arrogant nonsense of philosophical idealists who imagined that Ideas make History. The working class, which constitutes the majority of humankind, must be the creators of the new social system. If the workers are to create socialism (or communism; Marx and Engels used the words interchangeably) they must want it and desire it. The utopians had no time to wait for the workers to be brought in on the act of their own emancipation. This was a crucial reason for hostility between Marxism and utopianism, just as it is for the battle between modern socialists and the Leninists and other vanguardists who like the Utopians believe that they, as exclusive possessors of the revolutionary ideal, must lead the witless masses to the New Jerusalem — which all too often comes to look something like East Berlin or Gdansk.

Marx and Engels refused to prepare recipes for the cook-shops of the future. The only statements which they could make about what socialism would be like were made upon the materialist basis of what was then possible. Of course, time has rendered some of these projections obsolete, and, as good materialists, Marx and Engels would be the first to admit the outdated nature of some of their comments about socialism which came out of 19th century conditions, but are still advocated religiously and unhistorically by 20th century utopian leftists. For example, the view of Marx that labour vouchers could play a role in the distribution of goods in the early days of socialist society before enough for all could be produced, has been superseded by developments in technology which make the move to a moneyless world society an immediate result of the socialist revolution to come.

So, we can see that the utopian outlook, which we began by praising as the innocent child of oppressed desire, met the wrath of science and became perceived as a hindrance to revolutionary change. In short, it is precisely when “Utopia” becomes practical that Utopians become obstacles to the achievement of the new way of living. We need to dream when we are unfree to act.

Marxism left the task of transforming society to the workers. For historical reasons too complex to enter into here, the workers did not jump to the task. On the contrary, capitalism survived the scientific theory of its destruction, just as it had outlived the utopian desire for the same end. Socialism and Marxism came to be dirty words and those seeking change began to look in new directions.

Edward Bellamy, the son of a strict Baptist Minister and a frighteningly puritanical mother, a journalist of some ability, born in Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts on 26 March, 1850, set himself the task of writing a utopian novel which would show the world how different society could be from the rottenness of American capitalism. That he did well depict the absurdity of the capitalist way of organising society is demonstrated by the passage from Looking Backward which we re-publish at the end of this article. That his novel did have an impact is clear from the fact that approximately half a million copies of it were sold in the few years after its publication in 1888. It was, according to Goodwin and Taylor, “probably the most widely read fictional utopia ever written”. In addition to being read it was acted upon: the novel gave rise to a Nationalist movement, seeking to put into practice the vision of Bellamy’s novel. According to Cyrus F Willard (who was one of the movement’s leading figures), the Nationalist Clubs had over 6,000 members and 500,000 “believers”. He wrote that:

We have fifty or more papers and magazines unreservedly advocating Nationalism. (The Nationalist, II, No. 1, December 1889)

The Nationalist movement’s principles were based upon those in Bellamy’s book and the book was a bestseller, so the obvious question remains, what did it say? The novel tells the story of Julian West, a prosperous resident of Boston, who, unable to fall asleep, has his butler hypnotise him and . . . then, one hundred and thirteen years later when he wakes up, he finds himself in a fundamentally transformed Boston, the social details of which are explained to him by the rather tedious Dr Leete and his daughter, Edith — with whom, of course, Julian falls in love during his trip to utopia. What is Bellamy’s utopia like? The following features, supported by some quotations from Bellamy’s own summary of the novel in the Dawn of 15 September, 1889, define the new system:

1. The entire nation of the USA has become “a general business partnership, in which every man and woman is an equal partner”.
2. All people in the new society are part of the “army of industry” which they must serve in some form between the ages of 21 and 45. The argument is that just as capitalism conscripts labour for destructive purposes in times of war, the new system conscripts labour for peaceful, productive ends. There is, incidentally, a special corps of the “army” for professional people and even one for the disabled.
3. No wages are paid for working, but people receive vouchers (in fact, an elaborate credit card system operates) which allow them to have what they need from the common store. If some fields of work are less attractive than others, then the hours of work are shortened.
4. The feminine corps of the army is “devoted to the lighter classes of occupations”.
5. At the age of 45 all people are discharged from the army of labour and are “free to occupy themselves as they will for the remainder of their lives”.
6. There is no money (in the old sense) and credit cannot be stored by individuals, so creating economic inequality.
7. There is virtually no crime: “Robbery, theft and fraud of every sort are without a motive in a society where all have abundance, where covetousness is not stimulated by different degrees of luxury, and where equality of resources is annually renewed”.
8. Much more wealth is produced than under capitalism because waste is avoided and science is properly used for peace and not war.

These features provide only a rough summary. For example, Bellamy devised an elaborate scheme for electing officers for the national army, giving the vote only to those over the age of 45! We shall not bother ourselves here with the more obviously outlandish features of Bellamy’s vision. Its most important contribution to the thinking of the time was its vision of a moneyless, wageless, classless society — although, as will become clear, those conditions were somewhat equivocal in Bellamy’s scheme of things. His utopia showed workers a society where life could be different — better, happier. That is what socialists must be doing. The influence of Bellamy upon the American working-class movement was considerable. The foremost Marxian thinker of early 20th century America, Daniel DeLeon, was quite evidently influenced by Bellamy. (Indeed, DeLeon maintained some of Bellamy’s non-socialist utopian features within his own vision of socialism even after he ceased to be a Nationalist.)

Like all Utopians, Bellamy lacked an historical theory of social transformation. By far the weakest part of his book is that which describes the coming of the new order: it came because people saw that it was a good idea, so they let it be, capitalists collaborating with workers, without any violent resistance, without any political action. Indeed, Bellamy goes out of his way to state that socialists were a counter-productive influence upon the great utopian change. But history does not change like that. The class struggle will not collapse into a utopian act of national goodwill. And Bellamy’s utopia was an historical non-starter. The Nationalist movement, which sought to bring about the utopian change simply by the moral preaching of educated persons of goodwill did not take long to fall to pieces, now utterly forgotten except by historians.

So, the first criticism which socialists must make about Bellamy is that he was utopian, not in the sense of being a visionary (which all revolutionaries are), but in the sense of rejecting a scientific or materialistic idea of change. But it was not only the lack of a means of achieving socialism (and Bellamy refused to call his utopia that in case it might offend Americans) for which socialists criticise Looking Backward. The very depiction of socialism presented is unsatisfactory. The idea of such a change occurring in one country is an impossibility, given the global interdependence of the capitalist system. The state-capitalist sense of the nation being organised as a huge business corporation, with all the people as its conscript employees, does not inspire those of us seeking a truly liberated society. The abolition of the wages system (a quiet common socialist demand in American history) is spoilt by the picture of everyone having to live in a society of credit cards. The sexism of the role of women is unattractive to socialists, as indeed is the potentially eugenicist notion of creating a perfect human race which follows from Bellamy’s ideas on marriage. The new social order (and you will need to read the book to get the sense of this) is over-concerned with consumerism, technology and the pleasures of living an ordered existence. That crucial element of socialist vision which is about the unity of work and art, values beyond immediate consumption, and life being more than a process of individual satisfaction, is too often missing from Bellamy’s outlook. No wonder that it was William Morris, a socialist who embodied all of those broader notions of what it is to be a revolutionary socialist, who was amongst the first to attack Bellamy’s novel. Indeed, it was Morris’s disgust at reading Looking Backward which led him to write his infinitely better novel about what socialism might be like: News From Nowhere.

Looking Backward, published a century ago, is a novel worth reading, if only for the kind of penetrating critique of capitalism typified by the extract which follows. His rather less interesting book. Equality, written in 1890 and lacking the literary quality of Bellamy’s magnum opus, pursues the same corporatist vision, showing clearly the link (one which is often a source of embarrassment to the state-loving Left) between state-capitalism and fascism as corporatist ideals of economic organisation.

A century after Looking Backward came off the press the oppressed are still entertaining visions of what could be. Those of us who seek to pull from the roots the rottenness of what our rulers say must always be are still derided as utopians. But then, as Thomas Muntzer, the anabaptist revolutionary of the Sixteenth Century, pointed out, history belongs to those of us who “possess the strength to realise the impossible”.

Steve Coleman

world socialist no7 winter 1987-8

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