Marx's Critique of the Utopian Socialists

By Paden, Roger | Utopian Studies, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Marx's Critique of the Utopian Socialists


Paden, Roger, Utopian Studies


I. Introduction

BECAUSE MARX AND ENGELS used their critique of the "utopian socialists" as a means to develop and refine their own theories, an examination of it might play an important role in unraveling some of the complexities of these theories. Unfortunately, due in part to their seemingly ambiguous and changing attitude toward utopianism--which Steven Lukes once characterized as an "anti-utopian utopianism"--their critique is not entirely clear (Lukes 155). As a result, it is open to--and has been given--a number of different readings. In this paper, I examine four existing readings and suggest a fifth. I argue that, while none of these readings is entirely satisfactory, a systematic examination that considers all of them together can provide some important insights into Marx and Engels's ambiguous relationship both to the utopian socialists and to utopian thought more generally. Moreover, such a reading can help clarify their critique of bourgeois society and their views as to its possible alternatives.

II. The Utopian Socialists

One of the difficulties in understanding the Marxist critique of the utopian socialists is that the utopian socialists do not form a natural class. Marx and Engels adopted the term, "utopian socialism," from other writers who used it to refer indiscriminately to the ideas of Henri Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen (and sometimes to Etienne Cabet, as well), despite the fact that these men held many contradictory views and were mutually unsympathetic. Marx and Engels further muddied the waters by attempting to fit the utopian socialists into a classification scheme they developed to explain the history of socialist thought in terms of their own theory. According to this scheme, various socialists were grouped together on the basis of the supposed class origins of their ideas. Thus, there were various types of "reactionary socialists" whose ideas reflected a feudal worldview, "conservative socialists" whose ideas reflected the interests of the emerging bourgeoisie, and communists whose ideas reflected the position of the proletariat (Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto 491-99). Unfortunately, the utopian socialists did not fit comfortably into this scheme. Like the communists, the utopian socialists were progressives who wrote in opposition to the bourgeois order, however, writing too early in the modern period to understand the nature and role of the proletariat, they could only criticize the emerging bourgeois society on what Marx and Engels took to be highly questionable moral grounds. As a result, they failed to reflect clearly the interests of any class, but instead adopted ideas from a variety of classes including the proletariat, the bourgeoisie, and even some feudal classes. Consequently, it was difficult for Marx and Engels to apply just one of their standard criticisms to the utopian socialists and, thus, their critique was somewhat confused.

Insofar as they shared anything in common, the utopian socialists could be described as theorists who combined "a rationalist faith in science with a radical critique of individualism" to argue that society should be radically reorganized to promote social harmony (Lichtheim 4). They did not emphasize political activity (as that phrase is normally understood), but focused instead on devising plans to make society more cooperative, production more efficient, and distribution more fair (Cole 4-5). For example, to realize their vision of social harmony, they proposed educational programs to strengthen various 'socializing' influences and to weaken competitive and individualistic attitudes and beliefs. In addition, they proposed a variety of changes involving such things as the public ownership of the land, the rationalization of industry, the end of class distinctions, and the redesign of cities and towns. They combined these proposals into internally consistent and tightly integrated visions of the ideal society.

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