John Marshall

Passports to Utopia – II

(December 1934)

Source: New International, Vol.1 No.5, December 1934, pp.145-147.
(John Marshall was a pseudonym of George Novack.)
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novak Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

“WHAT, THEN, to sum up the whole in a few words, does your Reporter now propose to his fellow-creatures? ... He offers to exchange their poverty for wealth, their ignorance for knowledge, their anger for kindness, their division for union. He offers to effect this change without subjecting a single individual even to temporary inconvenience. No one shall suffer by it for an hour; all shall be essentially benefitted within a short period from its introduction; and yet not any part of the existing system shall be prematurely disturbed ...”

These words, with which Robert Owen concluded his famous report to the Gentlemen of the County of Lanark in 1820, remain the classic statement of Utopian Socialism. Owen’s cooperative community and its host of successors failed to conquer capitalism. Capitalism, on the contrary, swallowed them all; waxed great; and today rules supreme everywhere in the world except the Soviet Union.

There the foundations of the socialist society that Owen dreamed of were laid only after a World War, two revolutions, and three years of violent class struggles. Nevertheless, the Utopians are still among us, with their artful schemes for bringing universal peace, prosperity, and brotherhood to mankind by outwitting the capitalists and building a socialist society behind their backs. Not all of these worthy people, unfortunately, live in capitalist countries.


Before the collapse of 1929, “permanent prosperity” was the fondest illusion of the American middle class. The crisis shattered this Utopian myth beyond repair. New illusions were needed. In the darkest days of the depression at the end of 1932 along came Technocracy to inflame the imaginations and revive the hopes of the petty bourgeoisie.

The oracles of this up-to-date American model of Utopia cloaked their revelations in an impressive garment of pseudo-scientific jargon, embroidered with charts, formula; and graphs. They spoke with the magistral authority of scientific investigators, who had been engaged for ten years at Columbia University in a survey of the energy resources of North America. The theoretical conclusions of these engineer-economists were extremely bold and radical.

On the one hand, the Technocrats informed the world that capitalism was on its death-bed. Modern technology and power production had dealt “the price system” one smashing blow after another and would shortly dispatch it entirely. Meanwhile, unemployment and mass misery would increase at a rapid rate.

On the other hand, the Technocrats brought forward the results of their survey of “the continental capacity of production” to prove that either the existing or potential plant (they did not state which) could manufacture enough goods for everybody. Poverty was an anachronism. America stood upon the threshold of a New Age of Plenty, in which no-one need work more than four hours a day and all would have an increase equal to twenty thousand dollars a year.

Surely the average level of economic life could be raised to unprecedented heights, once the fetters of capitalism were struck from the nation’s productive forces. But the particular cases cited by the Technocrats, and their estimates as a whole, were grossly exaggerated, vague and incomplete. Their statistics were promptly riddled by technical experts, and, when it was thought that they advocated the abolition of capitalism, the Technocrats themselves were disavowed by the Columbia authorities.

The ideas of the Technocrats were of the same shoddy character as their statistics. They attempted to explain the course of history and the causes of great social changes by a simple-minded technological determinism: the dominant mode of motive power in production was the motive force of history. They enthroned one factor among the forces of production and submitted the whole historical process to its sway. This enabled them to set aside any consideration of the social relations of production and the class struggles issuing from them, and to give easy answers to the most complex historical questions.

They explained the inevitable collapse of capitalism, for example, by pointing to four salient features of its decay: the disparity in the rates of growth of population, production and debt; the steady decrease in the number of man-hours per unit produced, manifested in technological unemployment; the mounting burden of debt claims upon industry, and, finally, the progressive tendency toward further mechanization, rationalization and electrification of industry. To a Marxist all these phenomena are aspects of that historical tendency of capitalist accumulation in which, under the spur of competition, constant capital increases at the relative expense of variable capital. To these petty bourgeois ideologists, however, they appeared as revolutionary discoveries, and were used by them as a weapon to beat the bourgeoisie.

The practical proposals of these radicals were tame and lifeless. They repudiated political action and announced that they were preparing for the automatic collapse of capitalism. When Doomsday arrived (and it was close at hand), the representatives of the people would dispossess the owners of industry and call upon the Technocrats to take charge of production for the common good, instead of for the profits of the privileged few.

The Technocrats talked while American capitalism slid downhill. It hit bottom when the banks closed on March 4, 1933. Alas for the Technocrats! On the very day American capitalism came to a standstill, Technocracy disappeared. Instead of turning to the Technocrats, the incoming Democratic administration beckoned to the big bourgeoisie and its agents. Between them, the New Deal was improvised – and the hullaballo about Technocracy was drowned in the ballyhoo for the New Deal.

A new Messiah approached in the person of President Roosevelt; a new rainbow on the horizon in the shape of the New Deal. The pragmatic middle classes hastened to forget the pipe-dreams of Technocracy to follow the pied-piping of the President. And, as a final touch of irony, the only class that dared to challenge the capitalist control of industry was the aroused working class, whom the Technocrats had contemptuously dismissed as economically obsolescent and politically powerless.

Utopia, Incorporated

The New Deal gave monopoly capital its long-desired opportunity to control production and fix prices by suspending the anti-trust laws and encouraging “self-rule in industry”. It gave the working class an impulse to organization through Section 7A of the NRA. To the discontented urban middle classes it gave nothing more substantial than fresh hopes and new illusions.

These found expression in an efflorescence of Utopian schemes and cults on a mass scale. Los Angeles, the home of every conceivable aberration of the human mind, became the center of these cults. Los Angeles is the capital of the petty bourgeois. The proletarian population is comparatively small in Southern California and composed of oppressively exploited and disfranchised Mexicans in its lower strata. The overwhelming majority of the people consists of small farmers, merchants, pensioners and rentiers from all over the United States, social parasites of every kind. There are, in addition, over 380,000 people in Los Angeles county alone on relief.

Out of this soil there sprang up overnight, independently of each other, the Townsend Old-Age Revolving Pension Fund, the Utopian Society, and the EPIC crusade of Upton Sinclair. The Old-Age Revolving Pension Fund, the invention of a Dr. Townsend, offered all Americans over sixty $200 a month on condition that they withdraw from work and spend the entire sum within the month. By subtracting ten million old people from industry and adding twenty-four billions to the annual national income, the doctor promised to multiply prosperity fourfold. Since the scheme requires that the twenty-four billions be raised by taxation – a blow that would completely cripple American capitalism – we can safely leave the Old Age Pension plan revolving in the heads of Dr. Townsend and his patients.

The Utopian Society is Technocracy, stripped down to Utopian essentials; mixed with ideas derived from earlier Utopians, Plato, More, Bellamy, etc.; and organized along the lines of a secret society. The Utopians aim to abolish the profit system and replace it by a system of production for use, They look forward to voluntary labor of a few hours a day, old-age, sick, and disability insurance, no taxes, no mortgages, no debts, no poverty – in a word, no capitalism.

They dramatize their doctrines very effectively by conducting candidates through a series of pageants, portraying the pilgrimage of the petty bourgeoisie through capitalist to Utopian society. They depict the middle class Mendicant’s exploitation by the Merchant; the enslavement of both by the Money-lender; their imprisonment by the Magistrate; and their timely rescue by the Hermit Reason, who frees them from economic superstitions and leads them into the Promised Land, administered under communistic principles.

This combination of Masonic secrecy and showmanship enabled the Utopians to grow in a few months from a handful to over half a million dues-paying members. Although they claimed to be nothing more than an educational organization, a society of half a million zealots, dedicated to sweeping social reforms, was a powerful political force. Without concluding a formal alliance, the Utopians became the backbone of Upton Sinclair’s EPIC campaign, which marked the entrance of the Utopian movement into the political field.

Sinclair’s EPIC Plan

Upton Sinclair has always been a Utopian Socialist. It is hardly surprising that, under the spell of the New Deal, he should have quit the socialist party and run as Democratic candidate for governor on the slogan: “End Poverty In California.”

The EPIC Plan can best be described as a malicious petty bourgeois caricature of Stalinism. The Austrian socialists attempted to build socialism in one city; the Russian Stalinists are straining to build socialism in one country; Sinclair is out to build socialism in one state. lie has a Two-Year Plan, which is to abolish poverty in California. This is to be followed by a second Two-Year Plan, at the end of which capitalism will be abolished.

The EPIC program contemplates no alterations in the existing capitalist economy. The new competitive socialist society is to be set up wholly outside the unregenerate capitalist regime. The state authorities will take over all idle land and factories where the unemployed can work and live under ideal conditions. Through a system of mutual exchange, the state farms and factories will constitute a completely self-enclosed and self-sustaining society.

This part of the plan was for the unemployed, but the middle classes and the workers were not forgotten. These were promised $50 a month pensions; tax exemptions on properties assessed under $3,000: heavy taxes on large incomes, inheritances, and public utilities; repeal of the sales tax; and the release of Tom Mooney.

At first sight the EPIC appears to be a clever scheme for establishing socialism peacefully and gradually. Capitalism is not to be overthrown by assault (these are Russian tactics), but undermined by “the current of cooperation” until it crumbles to pieces (the American way).

Nevertheless, the problems involved in the seizure of power and the overthrow of the capitalist class are suppressed only to reappear elsewhere. The EPIC plan is supposedly to be financed by taxation and bond issues. In other words, Sinclair is asking the California capitalists to pay for the rope that is to hang them. The example of Fascist Germany should warn him that, before the capitalist class will consent to its own execution, they will finance Fascist parties to crush their hangman.

Suppose the California capitalists should agree to their expropriation. There are still factories and farm colonies to be constructed and operated and millions of dollars of materials to be purchased outside the state. California is not, and cannot be, self-sustaining on either a capitalist or socialist foundation. These. could be paid for only by confiscating the private property of capitalist producers. If the California farmers today in the Imperial Valley use armed force against Mexican workers who demand a few cents more a day, will they resist less when all they have is endangered?

At every step Sinclair’s EPIC involves the use of force, interference with industry, expropriation, extension to a national scale – all of which it was designed to avoid.

If the Epicites do not see this, their opponents do. At the Democratic convention, Sinclair was forced to eliminate all the “socialist” features of his platform. His revised “Immediate EPIC” retained only the barter arrangements and the self-help cooperatives, which are already in existence elsewhere without undermining capitalism an iota. What was hailed as an advance towards socialism turned out in reality to be a step backward to the primitive economy of pioneer days. One can safely say that Sinclair’s cooperative tent colonies will resemble Hitler’s labor camps more than the garden of Eden.

Sinclair’s program antagonized many workers, who feared the loss of their jobs from the influx of unemployed, as well as large sections of the propertied middle classes. The forces of reaction were solidly against him and mustered every means that a four million dollar campaign fund could buy to discredit and defeat him. They succeeded by a narrow margin. The first assault of the Utopians upon the citadel of capital had been beaten back.

The Utopian crusade has been checked, but by no means crushed. Today, the Utopians constitute the left wing of the Democratic party. They cling to the skirts of the New Deal and look to the Great White Father in Washington to realize their dreams. Tomorrow, as their movement gains momentum and support from the millions of unemployed and other discontented elements among the masses, the demands of these radicals will collide head-on with the defensive policies of the Democratic leadership. A split between the two sections of the party is inevitable. Whenever the break occurs, it seems not unlikely that the issues around which Sinclair’s campaign was waged will be the major issues of the 1936 elections.

The Commonwealth Plan

Not to be outdone by Sinclair, who had not only deserted the socialist party but had also taken a majority of its members with him, Norman Thomas, the head of the socialist “Militants” and Paul Porter, secretary of the LID, have put forward their own blue-print of Utopia, the Commonwealth Plan. It is, to be sure, more realistic in its approach to the political problem and in its details than the other Utopian documents. But it suffers from the same defects.

More significant than the plan itself, which anyone with pen, paper, and a vivid imagination could outline in a few hours, were the statements of these socialist leaders about it. The plan is not visionary or Utopian, asserted Porter, because the United States is ripe for socialism.

“The exceptional support Upton Sinclair has been obtaining for his EPIC – naive though both he and the plan are – emphasizes the importance of stating a genuine socialist program as a unity which can be widely comprehended.”

Without doubt, the United States is ripe for socialism, so far as its objective economic development is concerned. What delays the coming of socialism is not the lack of carefully worked out schemes of socialist reconstruction (these can easily be elaborated after the seizure of power by the working class), but the absence of the most elementary means for overthrowing the capitalist masters of America. These are, first and foremost, a class conscious proletariat and a strong Marxian revolutionary party, deeply rooted in the masses. A step towards this goal has been taken in the formation of the new Workers party. But, without these indispensable prerequisites, the most perfect paper plan cannot hasten the arrival of socialism by a single minute. Certainly, not ail the naivete on this score is confined to Upton Sinclair.

Norman Thomas’ variations on the same theme exhibit an equally appalling childishness.

“The Sinclair victory and a number of related events,” he said, “is at once encouraging and discouraging. It is enormously encouraging because people in California have waked up to the fact that they must have certain changes. But they are trying to accomplish them with one man rather than with it revolutionary party. That is a blow to socialism and it is brought about by the desire of the American people for short cuts. We offer an entire plan, rather than one man’s ability, to obtain a socialist program and prevent Fascism.” (My emphasis – J.M.)

A ludicrous business! Thomas chides the American people for chasing after Sinclair’s short cut to socialism – and then offers them a short cut of his own, a bigger and better plan for the nation as a whole. But Sinclair cannot be beaten at this game. He later raised Thomas and took the crackpot by announcing an EPIC Planet, “End Poverty in Civilization.” Thomas asserts that Sinclair’s EPIC must fail because it is not a party, but a one-man, enterprise, But Sinclair was the Democratic party candidate and polled almost as many votes for Governor as the socialist party did for President at the height of its influence. If the number of mandates secured at the polls is the test of advance towards socialism, Thomas’ criticism is simply the sulking of a disappointed suitor of the electorate. His statement that the socialist party is a revolutionary party is an empty phrase. A revolutionary party aims at the overthrow of capitalism, not its reform.

Thus the leaders of the socialist “Militants” reveal themselves to be petty bourgeois Utopians of the same stripe as Sinclair. Apparently, only the lack of a suitable opportunity has so far prevented them from following his course. The heads of the European social democratic parties had at least an acquaintance with the realities of the class struggle through their close connections with the trade unions and parliamentary activities. Their American counterparts have nothing better to offer the working class at this critical stage of its political education than an outline of Utopia in competition with half a dozen other panaceas. And some erstwhile revolutionists see in such people the leaders of the future revolutionary party in the United States!

The Utopian crusade is a heterogeneous, confused movement, led by the radical petty bourgeoisie but including the unemployed and large sections of the workers in its ranks. To describe it as Fascist or social-Fascist, as the Stalinists sometimes do, is nonsense. The Utopians direct their attacks against the big bourgeoisie, not against the working class.

The radical section of the middle class has always been the leader of the American working class in its political struggles. The proletariat has yet to appear upon the political arena as an independent agent. Two facts will suffice to prove this point: the predominant influence of the farmers in all the major political contests since the Civil War and the absence of any working class party in this country equivalent to the English Labour or European socialist parties.

The progressive political role played by petty bourgeois radicalism during the upswing of American capitalism is at an end. The conditions of capitalist decline forbid another extended period of reforms and concessions but provide instead the preconditions for class conflicts of unprecedented dimensions. Such movements as the Utopians can imitate but cannot carry through an attack upon monopoly capital. At most, they may give a stimulus to the politically backward working class, propelling its most advanced sections farther along the road to independent political action.

A turning point is at hand in American history. The working class is beginning to awaken from its long slumber. It has already tested its strength in severe industrial conflicts. These labor struggles must soon thrust themselves into the political arena. If the workers find a party that will speak clearly and decisively in their own behalf, the political relations between the two classes will quickly be reversed. The workers will become the leaders, and not the followers, of the lower middle class. The history of the forthcoming period will be shaped in no small measure by the ability of the new party to formulate and voice these working class demands; knit together an alliance with the most radical sections of the petty bourgeoisie; and influence events in a revolutionary direction.

This can be done only by pursuing an independent working class policy in respect to the petty bourgeois parties, not by clinging to their tails and mimicking their confusions à la Norman Thomas.

The danger of Fascism will arise not from the Utopian movement but from its failure. The Fascists will win over the demoralized lower middle classes only if the vanguard of the working class proves itself incapable of taking up the struggle against the masters of monopoly capital and convincing the petty bourgeoisie that its only salvation lies in overthrowing their exploiters and establishing a workers’ republic in the United States.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006