utopian socialism

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utopian socialism

early forms of modern socialist thinking (including the ideas of SAINT-SIMON, Fourier and Owen) criticized by MARX as ‘utopian’ (see UTOPIA, UTOPIAN COMMUNITIES) since they were seen by him as based on an inadequately scientific conception of the dynamics of capitalist society and the necessity of class struggle.
Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Utopian Socialism


the projects and doctrines that express the longing for a radical transformation of society according to socialist principles but are not based on knowledge of the laws of social development and of its driving forces. Utopian socialism was named after T. More’s Utopia (1516). In Lenin’s words, “Early socialism was Utopian socialism. It criticised capitalist society, it condemned and damned it, it dreamed of its destruction, it had visions of a better order and endeavoured to convince the rich of the immorality of exploitation. But Utopian socialism could not indicate the real solution. It could not explain the real nature of wage-slavery under capitalism, it could not reveal the laws of capitalist development, or show what social force is capable of becoming the creator of a new society” (Poln. sobr. soch., 5th ed., vol. 23, p. 46).

The longing for a new order contained the embryonic elements of socialist ideas and represented the toiling masses’ reaction to the rise of private property, class inequality, and exploitation; it expressed the masses’ dreams of liberation and, at the same time, their ideological and political impotence. The intelligentsia played a major role in the more conscious formulation of the exploited classes’ ill-defined aspirations. Over the course of many centuries, progressive members of the intelligentsia had sought to validate the ideal of a just society without class oppression and exploitation; such attempts, however, were based on idealism, moralism, voluntarism, or religious—sometimes messianic—ideas.

The idea of Utopian socialism can be found in embryonic form among all peoples: it is the legend of a former “golden age,” representing an idealized version of the communal social order in which equality was the rule. Such imaginary descriptions are found in folklore and social thought among the peoples of ancient Egypt, western Asia, India, China, and Southeast Asia. In ancient Greece the legend of a golden age appears in various contexts—for example, in philosophical discussions dealing with social inequality, the “natural” state of society, the leveling character of the Spartan system, or the social reforms of Solon in Athens, as well as in Plato’s Utopian idea of “caste communism” and in the legendary tales about the lands of the golden age, such as the islands in the Indian Ocean described by Euhemerus and Iambulus.

An important influence in the development of Utopian socialism was the social doctrine of early Christianity, which advocated universal equality and brotherhood and preached the evangelical ideal of a patriarchal communal system including the practice of consumer communism in everyday life. But as the Christian gospel increasingly called for reconciliation with the evil in this world and promised otherworldly rewards to compensate for social injustice, Utopian thinking was channeled into religious Utopia; thus Christianity hindered the development of socialist ideas.

In the Middle Ages the millenarian expectations of heretical religious sects served as ideological cover for the struggle of the laboring lower strata of society against exploitation. Such sects, which included the Waldensians, the Cathars, the Lollards, the Taborites, and the Anabaptists, denounced the church and the ruling classes for their abandonment of the early Christian ideals, proclaiming such apostasy to be the source of oppression and social inequality. Even when these sects’ religious communism merged with the antifeudal revolts of the peasants, the urban poor, and the workers of the late Middle Ages, the communist ideal proclaimed by the movement’s ideologists (such as T. Munzer) remained a barren and backward ideal that was divorced from the actual process of history.

By the 16th century, a new element can be found in Utopian socialist ideas—namely, the beginnings of a profound critique of the emergent bourgeois society, together with the realization that a truly humane, or communist, society is a prerequisite for the practical implementation of humanist ideals. Utopian socialism took a very important step forward with More’s and Campanella’s communist Utopias, moving from the idea of communal consumption to that of social ownership and the organization of the economic life of society as a single entity; from the ideal of a closed patriarchal community, Utopian socialism moved to the ideal of a large-scale political formation such as a city or federation of cities and the gradual recognition of the extremely important role of state authority in laying the firm foundation of a rational social order.

These initial rationalist aspects of Utopian socialism gained in strength during the early capitalist period. In the era of Enlightenment, French Utopian socialism based its criticism of bourgeois society on the demands of reason and “natural right”; a communist society was called for—a uniquely rational society that would provide all people with equal access to freedom and the good things of life. This was the Utopian socialists’ version of the golden age, and it was advocated in the Utopian travel fiction of the time, which described societies of “noble savages” practicing a natural system of “communal property.” A clearer and more convincing presentation of such ideas can be found in the communist tracts of the 18th century. Testament, a materialist and atheistic work by the French Utopian communist J. Meslier, called for revolutionary action on the part of the peasants to overthrow feudalism, the rule of kings, the nobility, and the clergy, in order that society might be reorganized. Other rationalist proposals, appearing in the mid-18th century, were those of Morelly and G. de Mably, whose projected communist societies were to embody the principles of the “absolute equality” of all people and the right to work, as well as the idea of work as an obligation for all members of the society.

The current of “workers’ egalitarianism” emerged from the egalitarian ideology of a “socialism of equality” advocated by certain petty laboring proprietors and from the petit bourgeois constructs proposed by J.-J. Rousseau and his followers. This current was fed by the illusions of certain elements in the rural and urban protoproletariat—namely, those who still nourished the hope that the exploitative wage-labor system could be abolished through the leveling means of land redistribution.

The French Revolution had the effect of revolutionizing those Utopian socialist ideas that had a direct bearing on the struggle of the lower strata of urban and rural working people. The ideologists of the mass egalitarian movements now took up the demand for a universal redistribution of land on the egalitarian principle; they were similarly favorable to a program of egalitarian restrictions on trade and industrial ownership and general limitation of property rights, which were to be subordinated to the interests of society and subject to stringent social controls. Such measures were advocated, for example, by members of the Social Circle, the Enragés, and the Jacobin left wing.

A decisive breakthrough in the development of communist ideas was made by G. Babeuf, who worked out the program of the Conspiracy in the Name of Equality; Babeuf’s goal was a communist revolution, and he was the first to justify the idea of revolutionary dictatorship on the basis of necessity. His point of view was primarily representative of the ideology of the preindustrial proletariat; accordingly, Babeuf and his followers portrayed their ideal communist society as an agrarian and handicraft society with small-scale production based on manual labor, and they advocated a crude egalitarianism, the general practice of asceticism, and a negative attitude toward intellectual work and those who engaged in it.

It was in the early 19th century that Utopian socialism was raised to its highest and historically most significant level by the great Utopian socialists C. H. Saint-Simon, C. Fourier, and R. Owen, who most forcefully expressed the disillusionment of the most progressive members of the bourgeois intelligentsia with bourgeois society. These writers set a new course for critical-Utopian socialism and communism; they brought to light the anarchy of production prevailing under capitalism, the contradiction between the interests of private property and those of society, the predominance of parasitic over productive elements in society, the falsity of proclamations about “human rights” that fail to guarantee man’s right to a job, the moral decay of the ruling classes, and the destructive effect of capitalism on the individual.

In spite of its arbitrary and fanciful historical constructs, critical-Utopian socialism established on firm grounds the concept of objectively determined laws that govern the changing forms of ownership, as well as the corresponding forms of production, in the progress of mankind; the primary task of social transformation was understood to be the establishment of a large-scale social production system based on free labor and on the planned application of scientific and technological advances. Critical-Utopian socialism moved beyond the concept of a socialist system based on ascetic and leveling principles; what was proposed instead was the socialist principle of distribution “according to ability,” and the society of the future was depicted as a society of abundance that would ensure the satisfaction of all human needs and the full flowering of the individual.

While many of their conjectures show the marks of genius and represent the embryonic conceptions of materialist historicism, Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, and their disciples remained grounded in their idealist world outlook. In their view, change in the religious and moral ideas of society constitutes the mainspring of social and historical development; failing to understand the historical importance of the popular masses’ class struggle, they considered the proletariat to be merely a victimized class. The revival of religious ideas on the part of critical-Utopian socialism was an attempt to strengthen the collaboration between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. In the words of Marx and En-gels: “The significance of critical-Utopian socialism and communism bears an inverse relation to historical development. In proportion as the modern class struggle develops and takes definite shape, this fantastic standing apart from the contest, these fantastic attacks on it, lose all practical value and all theoretical justification. Therefore, although the originators of these systems were, in many respects, revolutionary, their disciples have, in every case, formed mere reactionary sects” (Soch., 2nd ed., vol. 4, p. 456). Such sects include the followers of Saint-Simon (for example, B. P. Enfantin and St.-A. Bazard), of Fourier (V. Considérant), and of Owen.

The ideas of critical-utopian socialism were taken up by succeeding currents of Utopian socialism, which was marked by an increasing differentiation between the bourgeois and the proletarian point of view. In addition to the schools that were offshoots of Saint-Simonism and Fourierism, many other related currents of bourgeois and petit bourgeois socialism emerged in France during the 1830’s and 1840’s. These conservative and reactionary schools of Utopian socialism, which were critical of capitalism, proposed various Utopian schemes to restore a precapitalist economy or to unite the small proprietors in opposition to large-scale capital. The proponents of such positions, which met with a favorable response among the petit bourgeois elements of the working class, included those who defended the working class from a petit bourgeois standpoint and called for the gradual and peaceful transformation of society—either by means of producers’ associations (as advocated by P. Buchez, L. Blanc, P. Leroux, and C. Pecquer) or through associations for the “fair” exchange of goods on the basis of equivalence (favored by J. Gray and P. J. Proudhon). In contrast, it was Utopian communism that expressed the revolutionary aspirations of the progressive elements in the working-class movement. Utopian communism proclaimed the need for the immediate and fundamental transformation of society as a whole, based on the principle of “common ownership.”

The secret revolutionary organizations of the 1830’s and 1840’s gave birth to neo-Babeuvian communism, with its concept of a “global” communist transformation of society by means of revolution and through a revolutionary dictatorship (advocated, for example, by T. Dézamy, L. A. Blanqui, and W. Weitling). Another idea that gained great popularity in working-class circles was E. Cabet’s proposal, which called for a communist society by peaceful transformation. The Utopian communist theoreticians of the 1830’s and 1840’s formulated the major principle of communist distribution—“from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” On the whole, however, Utopian communism—like the Utopian socialism of that time—was unable to overcome the religious legacy within social thought, and Cabet, Weitling, and Esquiros frequently invoked the traditional evangelical communism; at times, open conflict broke out between rival sects. It was in Russia that the materialist current of Utopian socialism made its furthest advance, as manifested in the views of A. I. Herzen and N. G. Chernyshevskii.

Utopian socialism sought to construct a perfect social system by proceeding from the abstract principles of reason, justice, liberty, equality, and brotherhood, “instead of deriving their science from a critical knowledge of the historic movement, which itself produces the material conditions of emancipation” (K. Marx, ibid., vol. 16, p. 27).

Socialist and communist ideas were revolutionized by Marx and Engels. Marxism transformed socialism from Utopia into science by demonstrating that socialism is not the realization of abstract principles of justice and reason but rather the normal and logical result of the historical development of society and the class struggle of the proletariat—a proletariat that joins together all those who labor. Utopian socialism was a towering achievement of social thought; it was one of the most important ideological sources of scientific communism, which at the same time went far beyond it.

With the emergence of scientific communism, Utopian socialism lost its previous historical importance. Subsequently, however, as newly formed strata of the working class were drawn into the revolutionary movement, the attendant revival of new ideological forms of Utopian socialism brought with it a repetition of its errors and illusions. A parallel process that took place as capitalism reached maturity was the further impoverishment of the nonproletarian strata of the working class and the emergence of new intermediate strata of the population in the capitalist countries; inevitably, this led to the revival of the various backward and reactionary ideas of Utopian petit bourgeois socialism.

Contemporary bourgeois ideologists often take a position that is an outright apologia for pre-Marxist Utopian socialism, representing an attempt to undermine the power of attraction of Marxism-Leninism and to reverse the course of socialism—from science back to Utopia. Lastly, in our own time, certain Utopian socialist ideas are emerging in the developing countries as well. Such ideas reflect the mental attitudes of the petit bourgeois and semiproletarian population as well as these countries’ anti-imperialist aspirations and hopes for national liberation; various elements of scientific socialism, Utopian socialism, nationalism, and religious belief are eclectically combined in these ideas. In many cases such constructs reflect the revolutionary frame of mind of the masses and the progressive intelligentsia—their goal being the final struggle against imperialism and for noncapitalist development. Theirs is a Utopian socialism that is capable of absorbing the ideas of scientific communism; it can thus move toward and gradually change into scientific communism itself.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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