The perfect society is an illusion. Tomáš Sedláček

Utopia or Bust

Unless a complex order distinct from liberal capitalism becomes conceivable for masses of people, the left can only propose a leap in the dark. But a movement with no imaginable design in view is unlikely to win the strength to accomplish the unimaginable.

Capitalism is compounding inequality, courting environmental disaster, and reducing democracy to pantomime. Even so, neither fundamental criticism of the system nor campaigns against it are credible without the idea or at least the intuition that a different and better order may emerge before too long or—better, perhaps, in our era—before it’s too late.

For a long time, communism designated the utopia of the revolutionary left. One question today is whether the name is worth retaining. A more important question is whether the transcendence of capitalism can become conceivable enough to orient a mass movement toward that end. Societies that establish just and efficient economies and substantive democracy on a durable ecological basis may call themselves whatever they like.

Left theory and revolutionary politics converge in their utopian vocation. But the Marxist principle of uniting theory and practice cuts both ways. The severance of theory from practice saps both. If it would take a practical movement to lend plausibility to a theoretical program, so would left politics draw strength from visions of a post-capitalist world. At the moment, no mass movement of the left exists, in part because most people can’t imagine an alternative to capitalism except in terms of a defunct state socialism or some future collapse. This gives left theory a rare, maybe unprecedented importance today.

Communism dismantled itself

Utopian thought shuttles between detailed programs of transition and the blank principle of absolute difference. Communism, as Marx and Engels wrote in The German Ideology, is “not an ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.” But communism lacked much intellectual content or political allure if it was merely a fated, and otherwise faceless, destination. Marx’s positive notion of communism, vague enough but not empty, included such features as an economy run by “the associated producers”, public self-administration along the lines suggested by the Paris Commune, and even something like what today is called environmental sustainability.

More from the strength of the movements invoking it than from the clarity of the idea, communism probably claimed its greatest number of adherents sometime in the 1970s. By the end of the twentieth century, it had forfeited its good name through the ineffectiveness of communist parties in Western Europe and the economic incompetence and political crimes of one-party state dictatorships elsewhere.

The practical failures exposed the shortcomings of theory. Did the “planned application” of the means of production “to priorities determined democratically by the mass of workers” or “the demise of commodity production and money relations”—to quote the revolutionary summons concluding Ernest Mandel’s Late Capitalism (1975 )—mean anything both conceivable and desirable? Visions of market socialism from the 1980s and early 1990s came too late to prevent the public from identifying capitalism with the virtues of markets, as real as they are limited, and socialism with the defects of central planning.

Anything but capitalism

If, after the 1970s, the tide ran out for communism, it’s no longer at its lowest ebb. In 2007, the French philosopher Alain Badiou published an essay vindicating “The Communist Hypothesis”. The following year, the deepest capitalist crisis since the 1930s broke out. Though not many academics and activists call themselves communists today, their numbers are greater than before the crash. Still, the promise of this communizing current, in the term of the indispensable new journal “Endnotes”, seems curtailed by at least two factors. The record of communist parties in the twentieth century will limit the appeal of any movement calling itself communist for at least a generation or two.

A second difficulty is the abstractness of what the new communism signifies, never mind the signifier. Its most prominent theorists typically content themselves, as Badiou does, with the reiteration of traditional formulae. They also say little about communism except that that isn’t capitalism, as when Slavoj Zizek speaks of a communism absconditus knowable only by its absence from the contemporary world.

Any picture of utopia that is not an abstract canvas can only be a sketch, not a blueprint. But a movement with no imaginable design in view is unlikely to win the strength to accomplish the unimaginable. The “Endnotes” collective describes a communism free of institutional specification: “The revolution cannot be a matter of finding new ways to mediate relations among workers, or between human beings and nature, the state and the economy, men and women, etc. Instead, the revolution can only be a set of acts that abolish the very distinctions on which such mediations are based.” This is luminous, but terrifically vague. “Endnotes” paraphrases Marx: “Communism is not an idea or slogan. It is the real movement of history.”

The itinerary will change along the way

If history is to flow in the desired direction, ideas and even slogans will help to unsluice it. David Schweickart’s After Capitalism (2011) is probably the most impressive practical utopia the English-speaking left has produced this century. Schweickart’s comprehensive vision of a market economy owned and directed by a democratic public doesn’t rule out the unforeseeable changes that a free people might enact. In this sense, his utopia is only a halfway house en route to another one beyond our ken.

But unless a complex order distinct from liberal capitalism becomes conceivable for masses of people, the left can only propose a leap in the dark. Only the desperate will gamble the world they know on such a chance. Better grounds for revolution are reason, purposefulness, even gaiety. (“All things fall and are built again,” Yeats says, “And those that build them again are gay.”) Work done in this spirit needs a plausible object—a consideration that is probably especially important for would-be activists among the middle classes. For them, the present world is a place not only of injustice, anxiety, and frustration but also of familiar comforts.

An itinerary is by no means the only thing required for setting out on a trip. And the itinerary will change along the way. But for a deliberate departure from capitalism, rather than a blind flight, a preliminary itinerary will be necessary. Whatever we think of the term communism, the crossroads Marx and Engels glimpsed in the Manifesto is coming more clearly into view: either a left alternative to capitalism or “the common ruin of the contending classes”.

Read more in this debate: Simon Hardy, Jodi Dean, Alberto Toscano.


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