G.V. Plekhanov

Anarchism and Socialism

The Point of View of the Utopian Socialists

The French Materialists of the 18th century while waging relentless war against all the “infames” whose yoke weighed upon the French of this period, by no means scorned the search after what they called “perfect legislation,” i.e., the best of all possible legislations, such legislation as should secure to “human beings” the greatest sum of happiness, and could be alike applicable to all existing societies, for the simple reason that it was “perfect” and therefore the most “natural.” Excursions into this domain of “perfect legislation” occupy no small place in the works of a d’Holbach and a Helvetius. On the other hand, the Socialists of the first half of our century threw themselves with immense zeal, with unequalled perseverance, into the search after the best of possible social organizations, after a perfect social organization. This is a striking and notable characteristic which they have in common with the French Materialists of the last century, and it is this characteristic which especially demands our attention in the present work.

In order to solve the problem of a perfect social organization, or what comes to the same thing, of the best of all possible legislation, we must eventually have some criterion by the help of which we may compare the various “legislations” one with the other. And the criterion must have a special attribute. In fact, there is no question of a “legislation” relatively the best, i.e., the best legislation under given conditions. No, indeed! We have to find a perfect legislation, a legislation whose perfection should have nothing relative about it, should be entirely independent of time and place, should be, in a word, absolute. We are therefore driven to make abstraction from history, since everything in history is relative, everything depends upon circumstance, time, and place. But abstraction made of the history of humanity, what is there left to guide us in our “legislative” investigations. Humanity is left us, man in general, human nature – of which history is but the manifestion. Here then we have our criterion definitely settled, a perfect legislation. The best of all possible legislation is that which best harmonizes with human nature. It may be, of course, that even when we have such a criterion we may, for want of “light” or of logic, fail to solve this problem of the best legislation. “Errare humanum est,” but it seems incontrovertible that this problem can be solved, that we can, by taking our stand upon an exact knowledge of human nature, find a perfect legislation, a perfect organization.

Such was, in the domain of social science, the point of view of the French Materialists. Man is a sentient and reasonable being, they said; he avoids painful sensations and seeks pleasurable ones. He has sufficient intelligence to recognize what is useful to him as well as what is harmful to him. Once you admit these axioms, and you can in your investigations into the best legislation, arrive, with the help of reflection and good intentions, at conclusions as well founded, as exact, as incontrovertible as those derived from a mathematical demonstration. Thus Condorcet undertook to construct deductively all precepts of healthy morality by starting from the truth that man is a sentient and reasonable being.

It is hardly necessary to say that in this Condorcet was mistaken. If the “philosophers” in this branch of their investigations arrived at conclusions of incontestable though very relative value, they unconsciously owed this to the fact that they constantly abandoned their abstract standpoint of human nature in general, and took up that of a more or less idealized nature of a man of the Third Estate. This man “felt” and “reasoned,” after a fashion very clearly defined by his social environment. It was his “nature” to believe firmly in bourgeois property, representative government, freedom of trade (“laissez faire, laissez passer!” the “nature” of this man was always crying out), and so on. In reality, the French philosophers always kept in view the economic and political requirements of the Third Estate; this was their real criterion. But they applied it unconsciously, and only after much wandering in the field of abstraction, did they arrive at it. Their conscious method always reduced itself to abstract considerations of “human nature,” and of the social and political institutions that best harmonize with this nature.

Their method was also that of the Socialists. A man of the 18th century, Morelly, “to anticipate a mass of empty objections that would be endless,” lays down as an incontrovertible principle “that in morals nature is one, constant, invariable ... that its laws never change;” and that “everything that may be advanced as to the variety in the morals of savage and civilized peoples, by no means proves that nature varies;” that at the outside it only shows “that from certain accidental causes which are foreign to it, some nations have fallen away from the laws of nature; others have remained submissive to them, in some respects from mere habit; finally, others are subjected to them by certain reasoned-out laws that are not always in contradiction with nature;” in a word, “man may abandon the True, but the True can never be annihilated! Fourier relies upon the analysis of the human passions; Robert Owen starts from certain considerations on the formation of human character; Saint Simon, despite his deep comprehension of the historical evolution of humanity, constantly returns to “human nature” in order to explain the laws of this evolution; the Saint-Simonians declared their philosophy was “based upon a new conception of human nature.” The Socialists of the various schools may quarrel as to the cause of their different conceptions of human nature; all, without a single exception, are convinced that social science has not and cannot have, any other basis than an adequate concept of this nature. In this they in no wise differ from the Materialists of the 18th century. Human nature is the one criterion they invariably apply in their criticism of existing society, and in their search after a social organization as it should be, after a “perfect” legislation.

Morelly, Fourier, Saint Simon, Owen – we look upon all of them today as Utopian Socialists. Since we know the general point of view that is common to them all, we can determine exactly what the Utopian point of view is. This will be the more useful, seeing that the opponents of Socialism use the word “Utopian” without attaching to it any, even approximately, definite meaning.

The Utopian is one who, starting from an abstract principle, seeks for a perfect social organization. The abstract principle which served as starting point of the Utopians was that of human nature. Of course there have been Utopians who applied the principle indirectly through the intermediary of concepts derived from it. Thus, e.g., in seeking for “perfect legislation,” for an ideal organization of society, one may start from the concept of the Rights of Man. But it is evident that in its ultimate analysis this concept derives from that of human nature.

It is equally evident that one may be a Utopian without being a Socialist. The bourgeois tendencies of the French Materialists of the last century are most noticeable in their investigations of a perfect legislation. But this in no wise destroys the Utopian character of these enquiries. We have seen that the method of the Utopian Socialist does not in the least differ from that of d’Holbach or Helvetius, those champions of the revolutionary French bourgeoisie.

Nay, more. One may have the profoundest contempt for all “music Of the future,” one may be convinced that the social world in which one has the good fortune to live is the best possible of all social worlds, and yet in spite of this one may look at the structure and life of the body social from the same point of view as that from which the Utopians regarded it.

This seems a paradox, and yet nothing could be more true. Take but one example.

In 1753 there appeared Morelly’s work, Les Isles Flottantes on la Basiliade du celebre Pelpai, traduit de l’Indien. Now, note the arguments with which a review, La Bibliotheque Impartiale, combatted the communistic ideas of the author:– “One knows well enough that a distance separates the finest speculations of this kind and the possibility of their realization. For in theory one takes imaginary men who lend themselves obediently to every arrangement, and who second with equal zeal the views of the legislator; but as soon as one attempts to put these things into practice one has to deal with men as they are, that is to say, unsubmissive, lazy, or else in the thraldom of some violent passion. The scheme of equality especially is one that seems most repugnant to the nature of man; they are born to command or to serve, a middle term is a burden to them.”

Men are born to command or to serve. We cannot wonder, therefore, if in society we see masters and servants, since human nature wills it so. It was all very well for La Bibliotheque Impartiale to repudiate these communist speculations. The point of view from which it itself looked upon social phenomena, the point of view of human nature, it had in common with the Utopian Morelly.

And it cannot be urged that this review was probably not sincere in its arguments, and that it appealed to human nature with the single object of saying something in favor of the exploiters, in favor of those who “command.” But sincere or hypocritical in its criticism of Morelly, the Bibliotheque Impartiale adopted the standpoint common to all the writers of this period. They all of them appeal to human nature conceived of in one form or another, with the sole exception of the retrograde, who, living shadows of passed times, continued to appeal to the will of God.

As we know, this concept of human nature has been inherited by the 19th century from its predecessor. The Utopian Socialists had no other. But here again it is easy to prove that it is not peculiar to the Utopians.

Even at the period of the Restoration, the eminent French historian, Guizot, in his historical studies, arrived at the remarkable conclusion that the political constitution of any given country depended upon the “condition of property” in that country. This was an immense advance upon the ideas of the last century which had almost exclusively considered the action of the “legislator.” But what in its turn did these “conditions of property” depend on? Guizot is unable to answer this question, and after long, vain efforts to find a solution of the enigma in historical circumstances, he returns, falls back “nolens volens,” upon the theory of human nature. Augustin Thierry, another eminent historian of the Restoration, found himself in almost the same case, or rather he would have done so if only he had tried to investigate this question of the “condition of property” and its historical vicissitudes. In his concept of social life, Thierry was never able to go beyond his master Saint Simon, who, as we have seen above, held firmly to the point of view of human nature.

The example of the brilliant Saint Simon, a man of encyclopaedic learning, demonstrates more clearly perhaps than any other, how narrow and insufficient was this point of view, in what confusion worse confounded of contradictions it landed those who applied it. Says Saint Simon, with the profoundest conviction: “The future is made up of the last terms of a series, the first of which consist of the past. When one has thoroughly mastered the first terms of any series it is easy to put down their successors; thus from the past carefully observed one can easily deduce the future.” This is so true that one asks oneself at the first blush why a man who had so clear a conception of the connection between the various phases of historical evolution, should be classed among the Utopians. And yet, look more closely at the historical ideas of Saint Simon, and you will find that we are not wrong in calling him a Utopian. The future is deducible from the past, the historical evolution of humanity is a process governed by law. But what is the impetus, the motive power that sets in motion the human species, that makes it pass from one phase of evolution to another? Of what does this impetus consist? Where are we to seek it? It is here that Saint Simon comes back to the point of view of all the Utopians, to the point of view of human nature. Thus, according to him, the essential fundamental cause of the French Revolution was a change in the temporal and spiritual forces, and, in order to direct it wisely and conclude it rightly, it “was necessary to put into direct political activity the forces which had become preponderant.” In other words, the manufacturers and the savants ought to have been called upon to formulate a political system corresponding to the new social conditions. This was not done, and the Revolution which had began so well was almost immediately directed into a false path. The lawyers and metaphysicians became the masters of the situation. How to explain this historical fact? “It is in the nature of man,” replies Saint Simon, “to be unable to pass without some intermediate phase from any one doctrine to another. This law applies most stringently to the various political systems, through which the natural advance of civilization compels the human species to pass. Thus the same necessity which in industry has created the element of a new temporal power, destined to replace military power, and which in the positive sciences, has created the element of a new spiritual power called upon to take the place of theological power, must have developed and set in activity (before the change in the conditions of society had begun to be very perceptible) a temporal or spiritual power of an intermediary, bastard, and transitory nature, whose only mission was to bring about the transition from one social system to another.”

So we see that the “historical series” of Saint Simon really explained nothing at all;they themselves need explanation, and for this we have again to fall back upon this inevitable human nature. The French Revolution was directed along a certain line, because human nature was so and so.

One of two things. Either human nature is, as Morelly thought, invariable, and then it explains nothing in history, which shows us constant variations in the relations of man to society; or it does vary according to the circumstances in which men live, and then, far from being the cause, it is itself the effect of historical evolution. The French Materialists knew well enough that man is the product of his social surroundings. “Man is all education,” said Helvetius. This would lead one to suppose that Helvetius must have abandoned the human nature point of view in order to study the laws of the evolution of the environment that fashion human nature, giving to socialized man such or such an “education.” And indeed Helvetius did make some efforts in this direction. But not he, nor his contemporaries, nor the Socialists of the first half of our century, nor any representatives of science of the same period, succeeded in discovering a new point of view that should permit the study of the evolution of the social environment; the cause of the historical “education” of man, the cause of the changes which occur in his “nature.” They were thus forced back upon the human nature point of view as the only one that seemed to supply them with a fairly solid basis for their scientific investigations. But since human nature in its turn varied, it became indispensable to make abstraction from its variations, and to seek in nature only stable properties, fundamental properties preserved in spite of all changes of its secondary properties. And in the end all that these speculations resulted in was a meagre abstraction, like that of the philosophers, e.g., “man is a sentient and reasonable being,” which seemed all the more precious a discovery in that it left plenty of room for every gratuitous hypothesis, and every fantastical conclusion.

A Guizot had no need to seek for the best of social organizations for a perfect legislation. He was perfectly satisfied with the existing ones. And assuredly the most powerful argument he could have advanced to defend them from the attacks of the malcontents would still have been human nature, which he would have said renders every serious change in the social and political constitution of France impossible. The malcontents condemned this same constitution, making use of the same abstraction. And since this abstraction, being completely empty, left, as we have said, full room for every gratuitous hypothesis and the logical consequences resulting therefrom, the “scientific” mission of these reformers assumed the appearance of a geometrical problem; given a certain nature, find what structure of society best corresponds with it. So Morelly complains bitterly because “our old teachers” failed to attempt the solution of “this excellent problem” – “to find the condition in which it·should be almost impossible for men to be depraved, or wicked, or at any rate, ’minima de malis’.” We have already seen that for Morelly human nature was “one, constant, invariable.”

We now know what was the “scientific” method of the Utopians. Before we leave them let us remind the reader that in human nature, an extremely thin and therefore not very satisfying abstraction, the Utopians really appealed, not to human nature in general, but to the idealized nature of the men of their own day, belonging to the class whose social tendencies they represented. The social reality, therefore, inevitably appears in the words of the Utopians, but the Utopians were unconscious of this. They saw this reality only across an abstraction which, thin as it was, was by no means translucent.


Last updated on 19.7.2004