Magazine article Monthly Review

In Defense of Utopia

Magazine article Monthly Review

In Defense of Utopia

Article excerpt

Many socialists have a knee-jerk reaction against the word "utopian" that comes from not quite comprehending the Marxian critique of the utopian socialists. Marx and Engels disputed not their vision of life in socialist society but their unrealistic belief that propaganda alone would bring it about. In their time the word "utopian" was synonymous with "unrealistic." But like many words in a living language, "utopian" has taken on new meanings since then.

To title his book in 1516, Sir Thomas More coined the word "utopian" out of the Greek ou-topos, meaning "no-place," a pun on eu-topos or "good place." Utopia pictured an imagined city-state of ideal order and dignity where institutions and policies were entirely governed by reason, in contrast to the polity of divided Europe of More's time governed by greedy feudal-commercial capitalist classes feuding over power and riches. More imagined a society rigidly controlled by rewards and punishments, creating material abundance by industrial production. Intuitively recognizing the social and technological changes emerging out of the craft production relations of his time he forecast, by way of fiction, the emergence of industrial capitalism.

Utopia thus became the ancestor of a new literary genre, the utopian novel. Many writers since More followed his example depicting a variety of desired futures, among them William Morris in his News from Nowhere and Edward Bellamy in Looking Backward forecasting, in late 19th century, a cooperative industrial society. These two classics in the utopian genre have imaginatively shown that there is nothing in human, social, and natural environments that cannot be ordered in ways to bring about material abundance, social security, and personal happiness.

Over time, lingual usage endowed "utopian" with new synonymous meanings: "wonderful," "romanticist," "hopeful," "daring," "something unattainable under present conditions," and lastly "a realistically possible social order that has not yet been tried." It is this last synonym of "utopian," implicit in Marxism, that seems to need a new defense and affirmation.

In Marxist literature of the nineties one notes a growing volume of thought given to changes in the economic structure of contemporary capitalism, less to those in its ideological superstructure, still less to changes in the working class, and least to what has been called the utopian aspect of Marxism - the cinderella of the socialist ball. Yet precisely the utopian vision implicit in Marxian theory had in the past drawn millions of the world's oppressed to socialist movements. Although their hopes have been dampened by recent reverses, they haven't been drenched. The ambers of the red fires that singed capitalism in the dawn of this century are kept alive by the gasses of its own decay, threatening to consume it the next time around. To tend and fan the smoldering hopes of oppressed humanity, we need to put across our socialist ideal in more inspiring ways than we have of late. We need to pierce the seductive bubbles and babble of dominant ideology better than we have. It is long time to make explicit the full brilliance of the utopian promises implicit in Marxism.

When one thinks of the great gifts they hold for humanity, one wonders why they have been kept modestly veiled. Just think of the immensity of these gifts to millions and millions of oppressed humanity:

Abolition of the right to exploit human labor for private profit and the end of demeaning subjection in the workplace;

The end of alienation from one's work, work turned into creative, fulfilling labor;

The end of male domination over the female half of humanity and recognition of women's special function and needs in society;

Full economic, political, and cultural equality to oppressed peoples and races in a cooperative world;

Full and equal health, education, and cultural opportunities to the world's children and youth everywhere on Earth;

Healthful and beautiful cities amid revived nature for all humanity's habitats;

Full political empowerment to all people ruled by despots or made fools of by a sham democracy. …

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