Marxism, Utopianism, and Modern Urban Planning. (Essays)

By Paden, Roger | Utopian Studies, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Marxism, Utopianism, and Modern Urban Planning. (Essays)


Paden, Roger, Utopian Studies


I. Introduction

DESPITE THE EXISTENCE of a number of self-professed "Marxist" urban planners and "Marxist critics of urban planning" (Dear and Scott; Foglesong; Harvey, The Urbanization of Capital; and Scott and Roweis), as many writers have noted, the very idea of Marxist urban planning seems to be something of an oxymoron as there seems to be an essential conflict between Marxist theory and the necessarily normative stance that must inform the practice of urban planning. As a result, according to Peter Hall, Marxist urban planners are caught up in a

   ... dilemma. Either [Marxist] theory is about unraveling the
   historical logic of capitalism or it is about prescriptions for
   action. Since the planner-theorist-however sophisticated--could
   never hope to divert the course of capitalist evolution by more than
   a millimeter or a millisecond, the logic would seem to demand that
   s/he sticks firmly to the first and abjures the second. In other
   words, the Marxian logic is strangely quietistic; it suggests that
   the planner retreat from planning altogether into the academic ivory
   tower (Cities of Tomorrow 339, emphasis added).

Along similar lines, Norman and Susan Fainstein argue that

   Marxist theory and radical planning practice have lived uneasily
   with one another, in part because Marxism cannot provide a
   completely satisfactory guide for what planners do and still remain
   planners, and in part because seemingly radical planning activities
   have themselves been demystified by Marxism. Thus Marxism points to
   the severe limitations of ... planning activities.... The ...
   Marxist paradigm ... cannot tell practicing planners what to do....
   [Indeed,] Marxist theory cannot do much ... for the practice of ...
   planners ... (New Debates in Urban Planning 397-400, emphasis
   added).

In another article, the Fainsteins suggest that the reason for this uneasy relationship lies in the radical nature of the Marxist critique of bourgeois society and its planners, arguing that because Marxist theorists "are very concerned with ... fundamental questions [of social power and legitimacy, they have], for the most part, ... not provided prescriptive theories of planning ...." (City Planning and Political Values 273). Similarly, Robert Fishman has argued that the fundamental problem for Marxist planning theory lies in the structure of Marxist theory, itself:

   In an important series of articles collected under the title, The
   Housing Question, Frederick Engels maintained that urban design was
   part of the "superstructure" of capitalist society and would
   necessarily reflect that society's inhumanities, at least until
   after the socialist revolution had succeeded in transforming the
   economic base. He concluded that any attempt to envision an ideal
   city without waiting for the revolution was futile and, indeed, that
   any attempt to improve the cities significantly was doomed so long
   as capitalism endured. The working class [therefore] must forget
   attractive visions of the future and concentrate on immediate
   revolution after which the dictatorship of the proletariat would
   redistribute housing in the old industrial cities according to need.
   Then and only then could planners begin to think about a better kind
   of city (Urban Utopias of the Twentieth Century 17, emphasis added).

According to this--call it the "received view"--there is an essential tension between Marx's deterministic theories of history and society and the practice of urban planning. These theories undermine that practice by calling into question, not only the power of urban planners to effect social change, but, more importantly, the legitimacy of the normative theories needed to justify those efforts. It follows that, the practice of urban planning, at least at this point in time, cannot be justified.

Against this view, I will argue that Marx's theories do not necessarily undermine the practice of urban planning. …

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