When the anti-capitalist movement began to emblazon its banners with the slogan “Another World is Possible”, it signalled the revival of a utopianism that had been furled up and forgotten for at least a couple of decades.
Utopianism – the attempt to envisage a different, better world – was one victim of the right wing onslaught led by Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in the US. From 1979, when Thatcher took office, utopianism seemed unacceptable. “There is no alternative” was the slogan associated with the neo-liberal ideology she helped engineer.
It took the mass protests that shut down the World Trade Organisation summit in the US city of Seattle in 1999 to begin to tear apart this consensus.
Before then, according to many of the “postmodernist” thinkers who passed for radical intellectuals, anti-capitalist politics of any kind were tainted by their association with outdated totalitarian fantasies hatched in the 19th century.
Michel Foucault, one of the patron saints of postmodernism, mused that “to imagine another system is to extend our participation in the present system”. Many of the postmodernists still suffered from the hangover that they had acquired when the euphoria of the late 1960s dissipated in the succeeding decades of reaction and retrenchment.
Cold War ideologues
Propagandists for Western capitalism could point to Russia, which they argued was the nightmarish and inevitable outcome of the left’s dreams of a socialist society. “We told you so!” the Cold War ideologues of the 1950s and 1960s taunted in infantile tones. For them, Stalinism confirmed that there could be no viable alternative to free market capitalism.
A number of liberal and left wing thinkers felt chastened by these taunts, not least because the dominance of the Communist parties in the European labour movement made it so difficult to maintain a Marxist critique of the Russian model. Even those Marxist intellectuals who remained independent of Stalinism submitted to the gloomy climate that prevailed.
In 1948 one such intellectual, Theodor Adorno, lamented that “the mere idea of humanity, or of a better world, no longer has any sway over mankind”. Instead he glimpsed a damaged, fragmentary image of utopia in works of art, literature and music that offered a fleeting escape from the tyranny of market capitalism.
The idea that the free market is the only game in town, and that everybody has to sit it out at the roulette table rigged by the capitalist companies that own the casino, is central to the logic of capitalism.
As Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in their 1848 Communist Manifesto, the capitalists “create a world after their own image”. Pro-capitalist thinkers deny the possibility of fundamental historical change, presenting their system as eternal. The future will supposedly be the same as the present – but a little better.
The capitalists have obliterated the traces of their system’s origin in the messy and often bloody abolition of feudalism. To admit that capitalism might have a historical origin at all, let alone a violent one, is to concede that this system might, one day, face an equally violent demise.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 appeared to reinforce the assumption that free market capitalism is the “end of history”, as one postmodernist thinker dubbed it.
Some disillusioned leftists seemed to agree, though naturally they were more reluctant to admit that socialism had been comprehensively defeated by its ancient antagonist.
But there was an alternative to pro-capitalist triumphalism and left wing pessimism. A minority of those on the left, including those in Trotskyist organisations such as the Socialist Workers Party, had sought to rigorously dissociate Marxism and communism from its Stalinist deformations.
They argued the regimes of Eastern Europe and Russia functioned not as the opposite of Western capitalism, but its mirror image. For these socialists, the onset of the 1990s represented a unique historical opportunity to reclaim a revolutionary vision of an alternative to capitalism.
The rise of the anti-capitalist movement meant that debates about this vision were not simply theoretical possibilities – the argument was played out in the realm of practice.
Principle of hope
Utopianism is almost by definition poised awkwardly between theory and practice. According to the narrowest definition, utopias are those political schemes that remain as blueprints that are practically impossible to implement.
But according to a broader definition, utopianism is a “principle of hope” that, as the Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch insisted, is woven into everyday activities as mundane as day dreaming in the classroom. Such activities represent semi-conscious attempts to undermine the demeaning alienation of life in a capitalist society.
The more compelling utopias have tended to be presented not through abstract philosophy or concrete political practice, but through novels. However, there are not many exceptional examples of this, because the visions that are politically convincing often fail to inspire the reader’s imagination and those that are imaginatively inspiring often seem politically unconvincing.
The most compelling vision, in my opinion, is that presented by William Morris in News from Nowhere, written in the 1890s. This is an attempt by an active Marxist to articulate his dream of a society that has superseded capitalism.
This utopia was written at a time when hundreds of utopian fictions were published. Most of these however make mind numbingly dull reading because their politics are dogmatic and they are imaginatively impoverished.
The sheer volume of such publications in the late 19th century, the last period in which utopia was the dominant expression of the Western political imagination, is nonetheless instructive. The form was popular because of people’s political uncertainty.
It was a time when capitalism seemed to be on its deathbed, but the adolescent socialist movement ultimately lacked coordination and the sense of direction needed to pose a coherent alternative. Books and pamphlets about the future were a vital forum for debating the present.
More than a century later, the historical situation is of course quite different. But there is once more a pervasive sense that capitalism is undergoing a prolonged crisis, the environmental and social consequences of which might be little short of apocalyptic. And there is, in addition, an emerging conviction that another world is possible.
In this climate, the question of the future has forced itself back into political consciousness. It necessarily remains a question, though the hypothetical answers to this question need not be as hopelessly vague as the banner on a May Day demonstration in London a few years ago which urged that we “overthrow capitalism and replace it with something nicer”.
It is imperative that Marxists debate the post-capitalist future. They must do so both in practical terms – in relation to the mechanics of a planned economy for example – and in frankly impractical terms – in relation for instance to the ordinary details of lives distorted by capitalism.
The mission of Morris’s utopia, as the socialist historian EP Thompson argued, was to “educate desire”. This is once more an urgent task for socialists.
The Mexican poet Octavio Paz once complained that in the 20th century humanity had made the mistake of dreaming with its eyes open. He insisted that we “begin to dream once more with our eyes closed”. Both kinds of dreaming need to be integrated into our attempts as socialists to negotiate the space between political theory and political practice.
Matthew Beaumont is the author of Utopia Ltd – Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900. To order copies contact Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848.