Ernest Mandel

The Place of Marxism in History

IV. The supersession of utopian socialism

One of the most notorious commonplaces used against socialism is the claim that “it goes against human nature.” Private property, it alleges, is “innate” in the human species. Rich and poor have always existed and will always exist.

Anthropology, archaeology, prehistory and ethnology all teach us that this claim is groundless. Human beings lived for several million years without private ownership of the means of production, without a market economy and without a class-divided society. Homo sapiens, their most physically advanced type, did so too for tens of thousands of years. In fact, private property and class-divided society have probably existed for less than ten thousand years, during most of which only among a tiny fraction of the human species, in other words, for only a minute span of human life on Earth.

The apologetic thesis of the inevitability of social inequality is also disproved by a phenomenon that emerged after the division of society into classes, namely the fact that social inequality has been constantly challenged within class society itself.

These recurrent challenges can be interpreted in a variety of ways. They can be seen as the expression of the objective interests of the exploited, even though the latter – and their spokespeople – did not always understand their own revolts in that light. They can be seen as the manifestation of one of the innermost drives of our anthropological nature, the instinctive tendency to inter-human co-operation without which social labour and the survival of our species would be impossible. One can explain that the thirst for justice – and therefore the rejection of social injustice – are the equivalent at the level of individual psychology, of this social need, and make their way towards consciousness, at least among certain individuals, according to the vagaries of their individual histories (particularly what happened to them in their childhood). One can also propose a balanced combination of all these factors.

Whatever interpretation is chosen, the fact remains that class-divided society has been challenged repeatedly for at least 5,000 years, not merely by ideological critics, literature, and the vision and projection of a classless socialist society, but also and most importantly, in practice, by periodic revolts of the oppressed and exploited. These range from the first strikes and peasant revolts of Pharaonic Egypt, to the slave revolts of ancient Greece and Rome, the most famous of which remains that led by Spartacus in the first century BC. These were followed by the powerful slave movements that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire, those of the Bagaudae in Western Europe and of the Donatians in North Africa.

The history of India and especially classical China is dotted with innumerable peasant revolts, several of which were victorious and gave birth to new imperial dynasties. During the Tokugawa period in Japan, between 1603 and 1863, there were over 1,100 peasant rebellions, Tsarist Russia also experienced many peasant uprisings, including the most famous, that of Pugachev in the Ukraine in the 17th century.

In the Spanish and Portuguese colonies of the Americas, the Indians driven into serfdom and the slaves organised repeated insurrections. The most famous is that of the Peruvian Indians led by Tupac Amaru in the mid-18th century. There was the victorious revolt of the Black slaves of Haiti, the Black Jacobins, at the end of the 18th century. There were numerous revolts of Black slaves in North America in the 19th century, notably that led by Nat Turner in 1831.

In Western and Central Europe, an almost uninterrupted chain of peasant rebellions (including the French jacqueries, and the English Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 led by John Ball) and uprisings of craftsmen and journeymen against the reign of the nobility and rich merchants extended from the 13th to the 16th centuries. It led right up to the great bourgeois revolutions, those of the Netherlands, England, the United States and France, with which it intermingled, introducing into them deep contradictions, including an embryonic dynamic of permanent revolution.

All the religious and ideological challenges to class society, including utopian socialism, correspond in the last analysis to these real movements of revolt of the oppressed, whether free peasants subjected to state corvées or the payment of tribute, slaves, serfs, craftsmen and journeymen, or the first wage-earning and semi-wage-earning ancestors of the modern proletariat.

Many of the voices who rose from this long chain of revolts to speak out against social inequality with greater or lesser passion, harked back to the memory of a more egalitarian society. The myth or legend of a “golden age,” a “fraternally united society,” believed to have preceded the division of society into groups fighting each other, inspired the ancient Greek poet Hesiod, in the 7th century BC. The same theme recurs in the mythology of many peoples.

Defiance of the existing social order was often expressed in religious garb. The first Fathers of the Christian Church were fervent “distributionists,” enemies of private property and advocates of a common wealth. The famous formula “Property is Theft” often attributed to Proudhon, who borrowed it from Brissot, a member of the French revolution’s Convention, originated in fact with the bishop of Byzantium, John Chrysostom (“John of the Golden Mouth”) who lived in the third century of our era. These Fathers of the Church were the direct heirs of radical Jewish sects like the Esseans, which thrived in Palestine after the Roman conquest, and were themselves in the continuity of the most radical Hebrew prophets.

Later on, violent denunciations of social inequality emerged in the dissident sects of all the great religions, Particular mention should go to the Donatians in North Africa and the Mazdekeans in Iran.

During the Religious Wars of the 15th and 16th centuries, the condemnation of social inequality was particularly vigorous among the Hussites of Bohemia and the Anabaptists of Germany. During the English revolution of 1640-1688, many voices, notably those of the Levellers and Diggers, rose to denounce the continued exploitation of the poor despite the extension of political rights.

It would be inaccurate to present this socialistic tradition in the most general sense of the term, stretching over millennia, as the product of some “poor people’s subculture” which allegedly can be found in each class society side by side with the rich people’s culture. In the first place, most of the authors cited were not really poor people – who tended to be illiterate in those societies – but originated rather in fractions of the propertied classes, or intermediate groups of intellectuals (scribes, priests, philosophers, scientists). A more accurate formula would describe them as ideologies of the successive exploited classes developing throughout history parallel and in opposition to the ideology of the propertied classes, limited to a small minority of society.

But these cries of protest and revolt gradually gave way to more systematic proposals and models for the reorganisation of society based on collective property. The Republic, written by the Greek philosopher Plato, can be considered the ancestor of all these models. Nevertheless, the actual prototype of these “utopias” is the work of Thomas More, the Chancellor of England executed by King Henry VIII in 1535 and later sanctified by the Catholic Church. Precisely entitled Utopia, it describes a country of that name in which a communal society has grown up.

Inspired to one extent or another by that first utopia, other social thinkers subsequently wrote variants on the theme. Among the more prominent in the 17th and 18th centuries were Tommaso Campanella’s Civitas Soli (The State of the Sun) in Italy; James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana in Britain; and Fénelon’s La Télémachie (The adventures of Télémaque), Jean Meslier’s Le Testament (The Testament) and Morelly’s La Basiliade (The adventures of Basil) and Le Code de la Nature (Nature’s Code) in France. The latter two were probably the most significant, notably because in his Code de la Nature (1754), Morelly described a stateless society in which economic conditions explicitly determined political conditions. The Frenchman Mably, writing in the same vein, directly inspired the 19th century utopian socialist Charles Fourier.

From More to Mably though, all these authors confined their approach to describing a better society on a purely literary level. Only after Morelly and Mably, did utopian socialists, properly speaking, appear and move beyond that level. They combined literary descriptions of a new society with a practical struggle for its realisation. The most important figures of this new generation were:

It is clear from this brief overview that neither these authors, nor utopian socialism in general, deserve the reproach of having their heads in the clouds, being detached from the social and economic reality of their time and lacking any practical concerns. Quite the contrary, they were lucid critics of bourgeois society, who grasped the main features of its long-term evolution and contradictions, and farsighted anticipators of the transformations that would be required to establish a classless society. Marx and Engels owed them a lot. They learned a lot from them. They took over and developed many of their ideas.

Nevertheless, utopian socialism was flawed by severe contradictions. The main weaknesses of utopian socialism that the founders of scientific socialism had to overcome were the following:

(a) The project of a socialist society was simply counterposed to existing bourgeois society, without reference to the advances and contradictions of the latter. For Marx and Engels, to the contrary, the advent of classless society would result from economic sources (the development of the productive forces, the socialisation of labour) and social and political sources (the maturation and organisation of the proletariat, the unfolding of the struggle between Capital and Labour) which flowed precisely from these advances and contradictions.

(b) For the utopian socialists, the essential driving force of the advent of the new society was education and propaganda, that is overwhelmingly individual and superstructural phenomena. Inasmuch as they hoped that individual commitment would result in larger numerical results, they conceived of this process as “propaganda of the deed,” a notion later picked up by Anarchist and terrorist revolutionary groups. Hence the importance that utopian socialists laid on the immediate creation of “cells of the future society,” co-operatives, communist colonies, etc.

For Marx and Engels, to the contrary, bourgeois society could only be abolished as an entity, not factory by factory, village by village or farm by farm. Its abolition therefore required the active participation of the majority of the population. Although Marx and Engels never challenged the demonstrative value of these communist experiments – which confirmed that a society without bosses, without commodity production and without money was possible –, they contended that they were doomed to failure (to being reabsorbed by bourgeois society) as long as they remained isolated.

(c) The utopian socialists exaggerated the role of reason (and in the case of Fourier of reason and the passions) in determining the action of broad masses. They did not sufficiently understand that what can be decisive for individuals taken in isolation, is quite likely to be neutralised when a large number of individuals act together, if only as a result of the laws of probability (of the largest number). Divergent passions and divergent arguments cancel each other out as factors determining such actions. That is why Marx and Engels based themselves on the common interests of individuals belonging to a social class called upon to become the majority in bourgeois society: the proletariat; this was the force that would open the road to the advent of socialist society. But their approach negated neither the importance of propaganda and education, nor that of reason, nor that of a series of emotional feelings in the fight for socialism, insofar as all these motivations facilitate to one degree or another the gradual awakening of the proletariat to its class interests, the achievement of class consciousness.

(d) The main weakness of the utopian socialists flowed from all the previous weaknesses and explains why they were doomed to failure. This was the fact that classless society appeared in their doctrine as granted to consenting masses or even imposed upon recalcitrant masses by essentially authoritarian, and sometimes even tyrannical or despotic regimes. From Plato’s Republic to More’s Utopia and Cabet’s Icaria, the philosophers, sages, scientists or educators ruled society as masters, sometimes even as explicit dictators. Repression, punishment, even prisons, armies and war subsist in their utopia. Only Fourier’s phalansteries, Owen’s co-operatives and Tristan’s vision constitute an honourable – at least partial – exception to this rule.

Marx and Engels to the contrary, conceived the advent of classless society as the result of the real movement of self-organisation and self-emancipation of the great masses. “The emancipation of the working class must be conquered by the working class themselves; proletarians of all countries unite!” That, in a nutshell, was what was newest and most revolutionary in Marxism’s contribution to human thought and history, what represented the most radical break with all the other doctrines.

To understand utopian socialism, its roots, its advances and its flaws, one must explain its class nature. Utopian socialism essentially represented the ideological expression of a revolt against class society, against social inequality, by pre-proletarian social classes who did not yet have the sufficient material economic force and social cohesion to insure the lasting victory of a regime without private property.

Again, class-divided society was not challenged only at the level of ideological criticism. It was mainly challenged in practice, as we have seen, by the periodic revolts of the exploited and oppressed. These were not scattered movements of small groups of desperados. They were powerful mass movements mobilising thousands, even millions of people, that were sometimes victorious against all odds. But the fate of these victories is most revealing. Despite the courage, dedication, idealism and extraordinarily bold social vision that distinguished many of these movements, they failed in the sense that they were not able to establish durably a classless society. They either lost power to their enemies, after holding on to it for several years (as the Hussites at Tabor, the Anabaptists at Münster, etc); or keeping their grip on power, they eventually ended up re-establishing a class regime fundamentally similar to that which they had set out to overthrow (Han and Tang dynasties in China).

A particularly striking case is that of the Don and Crimean Cossacks. Originally, they were run-away serfs who reconquered their freedom and reconstituted an independent, egalitarian tribal society that fiercely resisted every attempt of the Tsars to bring them into subjection. Nevertheless, they ended up becoming the main instrument used by Tsarism to subordinate and oppress the tribal societies of the Caucasus and Siberia.

The historical failure of all these revolts against social inequality was explained by Marx and Engels on the basis of the materialist interpretation of history. In the concrete conditions in which these revolts took place, the insufficient development of the productive forces only opened the following two alternative paths: either a “communism of poverty” which would be brought to an end by the first new economic advance; or the replacement of one privileged owning class by another. Only the expansion of the productive forces achieved by capitalism provide for the first time in history the material possibility to establish durably a classless society based not on poverty but abundance (saturation of the basic needs).

The flaws and contradictions of utopian socialism therefore reflect in the last analysis the immaturity of the material (economic and social) conditions in which the pre-proletarian oppressed classes fought their battle for a classless society. Ultimately, the label “utopian” ought to be applied not to the goal these socialists sought to achieve, but to the conditions under which they tried to achieve it.

Does this mean that historical materialism disapproves these revolts of the exploited, these movements of the lower classes of the past, or that it considers them at best as useless, because utopian, that is unable to establish a lasting classless society?

Such a mechanistic version of vulgar “Marxism” does not correspond, even remotely, to the opinion of Marx and Engels – a fact recognised by the many critics of Marxism who claimed that it created a contradiction between Marx and Engels “the scientists” and Marx and Engels “the moralists with a passion for revolution.” In reality, there is no contradiction between the unconditional and undeniable support which Marx and Engels gave to Spartacus, the Jacqueries, Thomas Münzer, Babeuf, the Tai-Pings and Sepoys, and their recognition of the impossibility of a lasting victory of these revolutionary movements.

In the first place, only a severe case of intellectual short-sightedness would hold that the seizure of power alone influences history durably. Even defeated revolutions have been able to change the course of history and impose the implementation of their goals on the victors, when these goals corresponded to historical necessities, particularly economic ones, and to the interest of the majority of society, and when the vanquished fought energetically and obstinately for these goals. The abolition of antique slavery despite the defeat of slave revolts and the achievement of German unification despite the defeat of the 1848 revolution are two striking examples of this fact.

Moreover, massive revolts and popular revolutions give ideas – and therefore the project of an egalitarian classless society – an infinitely greater resonance and striking force than mere oral and written propaganda. Even when they failed, past popular revolutions enriched humanity’s socialist heritage to a degree that the efforts of philosophers and philanthropists alone could never have achieved. Without these revolts and revolutions, the development of utopian socialism, the development of scientific socialism and the development of proletarian class consciousness would have been considerably delayed.

Finally, the task facing the modern proletariat is the most difficult task that any social class in history ever had to perform: building a new society without ever having exercised either economic, political, or cultural and ideological power before. The achievement of this goal would be even more difficult if the proletariat’s emancipation struggle was not perceived as the legitimate heir and executor of toiling humanity’s multi-millennial emancipation struggle, a struggle that left behind not only vanquished fighters but many real social advances.

In the last analysis, what underpinned this understanding of past revolutions and utopian socialism held by Marx and Engels, was a conception of historical progress that was not linear, purely economistic and mechanistic, but complex and dialectical. This interpretation implies a moral commitment.

The fact is that the exploited and the oppressed have rebelled, are rebelling and will rebel against their unbearable conditions, whatever the ideologues might think and the “educators” predict about their chances of success. The duty of every socialist, of every man and woman who loves humanity, is to fight with them and try and increase to the utmost their lucidity and chances of success. There is nothing romantic about this commitment. The only alternative would be to tolerate exploitation and oppression as a lesser evil to the emancipation efforts of their victims.


Last updated on 22.7.2004