Is a Marxist utopia really a utopia?

In December 1516 the first edition of the novel "Utopia" [1] appeared from the pen of the future English Lord Chancellor Thomas More. It was the first draft of a communist society based on common property. Thomas More, who lived from 1478-1535, appeals to the historian because he was a contradicting figure and is judged very differently by posterity to this day.

The Catholic Church canonized him in 1935 for his steadfastness in the face of Henry VIII's request for divorce and his confession to the papal church, knowing full well that More was one of the toughest persecutors of heretics and probably handed over several followers of the Reformation to the executioner. The humanists and the educated bourgeoisie see him as a model for a particularly cultivated and decent way of life, which is characterized by material undemanding but constant intellectual creativity. For communists, More, as the author of the novel "Utopia", is the first architect of a socialist society based on common property that has abolished private ownership of the means of production.

Today there are different readings of the novel, namely mainly a Catholic and a socialist. The labor movement of the 19th century understood and approved of "Utopia" as a socialist fighting program because it portrays a social order in which private ownership of the means of production is abolished and a collective economy prevails with regard to the distribution of labor and goods.

The Catholic Church is different: Here the person of Thomas More is held in high esteem. In Germany alone, more than 40 Catholic churches are named after More as their namesake. The positive appreciation does not apply to "Utopia". From the Catholic side, the novel is rated at best as a funny derailment or "witty idea", according to the Christian conservative Morus biographer Prof. Peter Berglar. [2] But there are also more critical voices, such as those of the Jesuit Dr. Hubert Schiel, who got the Phaidon-Verlag's Utopia edition. He attests to the "Utopia" that one can hear an "incitement to class hatred" from it: ... with More you do not know where the fun ends and the seriousness begins ... the "Church-loyal Christian has to look at the scriptures of this Catholic saint." help with more or less embarrassed shaking of the head. "[3]

The more of the Utopia phase - he was 38 years old when he wrote the work in 1515/16 - we encounter as a particularly socially sensitive person who, as an avowed Christian humanist, suffered terribly from the "peasant laying" of his time. At that time the English crown, the clergy and the high nobility gathered all of the arable land to rededicate it to sheep pasture. Because with the beginning of the wool manufacture in the Netherlands, much higher income could be achieved through sheep breeding and the raw material sheep wool than through arable land.

The farmers, who had been farming with their families on the leaseholds of the nobles since ancient times, were now driven out with ruthless violence. However, if you caught them while straying, they were threatened with the gallows. In the era of Henry VIII alone, over 70,000 peasants who had become landless were supposed to have been murdered in this way. More was appalled by this brutal way of increasing the wealth of the ruling class and this was probably the driving force behind the fact that he came up with the future society of Utopias.

Utopia - an island kingdom somewhere

Now, of course, the question arises as to how a fairer society could be imagined at a time when technical progress with the accompanying growth in productivity hardly existed in real history. The left-wing political scientist Elmar Altvater points out on various occasions that technical growth in the period from the birth of Christ to the threshold of industrialization only took place at a very low level [4]. In his lifeworld, More could not yet assume that there would be an increase in productive power possible through technical innovation, with which the shortage of food and the scarcity of other essential goods could be overcome.

Therefore, he focused on the aspect of a more equitable distribution of labor and consumer goods through the reduction of luxury. Idleness and noble privileges. The people on the fictional island state of Utopia did not have a striving for more and more private wealth. Instead, they wanted to distribute the necessary work in handicrafts and agriculture evenly across all shoulders. More then also wants to distribute the goods produced equally equally. His utopia should be a state in which social collective property rules.

Only a few members of society are exempted from directly productive work, e.g. higher priests and researchers, but everyone else who can work also does so, with a kind of family patron supervising the living and working group subordinate to him. At the same time, More takes the view, which at the time seemed almost unbelievable, that no more than six hours of daily teamwork were necessary on a free Sunday in order to produce all essential goods in sufficient quantities. Back then, people usually worked from sunrise to sunset.

What the novel form chosen for the reproduction of such ideas is able to emphasize in a very concrete way, in addition to the production and distribution of goods, all other specifics that make up a social coexistence: In other words, detailed descriptions of the state organization, the legal system, foreign policy, the practice of religion, the educational system, of manners and customs, ultimately even of sexual life. Because this design of a society of the future appeared so enormously three-dimensional - like an architect's model, so to speak - it has repeatedly inspired thinkers, scholars and cultural workers through the centuries to deal with individual building blocks.

With so many critical minds who have grappled with "Utopia", it is no wonder that More's plan for the future is judged highly controversial. Some praise him for his religious tolerance, such as Karl Kautsky, who wrote a famous More biography in London in 1887 [5]. Others accuse him that the Utopian political system resulted in a "dictatorship of the clergy" because, although there was tolerance in questions of faith, atheism was practically a death penalty. According to More, whoever did not believe in the "immortality of the soul" had no right to go on living. The priests in Utopia were allowed to banish such people from the community and have them executed. The much-touted tolerance in religious matters was not far off, which the leading English biographer More than Chambers [6] sharply criticized.

In addition to very uniform city facilities, extremely monotonous clothing and the rejection of any luxury, we also find all sorts of bizarre ideas in Utopia, for example with regard to sexual life: future bridal couples were allowed to examine each other stark naked before the wedding under the supervision of persons of authority. Utopias often go into great detail and deal with almost all areas of society.

His plea for slave and prison labor also remained controversial. He wanted to protect the utopians from particularly dirty and brutal activities, such as slaughtering animals or building roads. Since More was not yet able to think in technical categories due to the circumstances of the time, no machine-technical solutions occurred to him for such work - as later utopian writers did.

Instead, the utopians used ransomed convicts from other nations who had to carry out these necessary but mean activities - but kept their lives in return.

Edward Bellamy solved this problem more than 350 years later in his utopian novel "A Review from the Year 2000 to 1887" [7] by reducing the average working day required for particularly dirty or dangerous activities to a few minutes. This rewarded those who did such work with more free time.

The novel form certainly has the advantage over a strictly theoretical treatise that it offers certain narrative leeway. In this way, those essentials of the future society that are particularly important to the author can be prominently highlighted and illustrated. The most important German utopia researcher, Prof. Richard Saage, counts 36 such utopian novels in our culture as a formative component of literary work since the beginning of modern times around 1500. In the successor of Thomas More they show a "classic utopian pattern", namely:

- Firstly, criticism of the existing social order;
- secondly, an indication of the way to revolutionary upheavals;
- and thirdly, a model version of the life-defining characteristics of the (largely conflict-free, harmonious) society of the future.

Marx & Engels on utopia

What then bothered Marx & Engels about utopian socialism? Actually, they should have welcomed the fact that the ideas of a society based on common property were worked out particularly clearly in this way. But their relationship to utopia was rather mixed. In an early work, the "Communist Manifesto" (1848), an extra section deals critically with "utopian socialism". There it says of Marx: "The revolutionary literature that accompanied these first movements of the proletariat is necessarily reactionary in content. It teaches a general asceticism and crude leveling" [8]. This related primarily to the very early writings - ie Morus, Campanella, Bacon [9] from the 16/17. Century.

The attitude towards the utopians of the 19th century is somewhat more positive: "... the systems of St. Simons, Fouriers, Owens etc. emerged in the first, underdeveloped period of the struggle between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie ... The inventors of these systems see the contrast between the classes and the effectiveness of the dissolving elements in the ruling society itself. But they see no historical self-activity on the side of the proletariat, no political movement peculiar to it. (...) They are aware of their plans mainly to represent the interests of the working class as the most suffering class. Only from this point of view of the most suffering class does the proletariat exist for them. (...) They therefore exploit all political, especially all revolutionary, action, they want to achieve their goal by peaceful means and try, through small, naturally unsuccessful experiments, through the power of example, the new society to break the daily gospel path. This fantastic portrayal of the future society arises at a time when the proletariat is still extremely underdeveloped, that is, it is still fantastic about its own position ... "[10]

In a positive way: "The socialist and communist writings also consist of critical elements. They attack all foundations of the existing society. They have therefore provided extremely valuable material for educating the workers." [11]

Then again more critically: "The meaning of critical-utopian socialism and communism is in inverse relation to historical development. To the same extent in which the class struggle develops and shapes, this fantastic elevation above it, this fantastic fight against it loses all practical value, all Theoretical justification. If the originators of these systems were therefore revolutionary in many respects, their students form reactionary sects every time. (...) They still dream of the tentative realization of their social utopias, the foundation of individual phalansters, the establishment of home colonies, To build a small ikari - duodec editions of the new Jerusalem - and to build all these Spanish castles, they must appeal to the philanthropy of the bourgeois hearts and moneybags. "[12]

Marx & Engels therefore fear that the revolutionary impulse that may have been inherent in the creators of utopias will turn into something reactionary at the latest among their supporters, because they - instead of relying on the class struggle - appeal to the ruling class, the world but please change according to the pattern of their designs for the better. This fear cannot be completely dismissed. In fact, many utopian writers attempted to appeal to the ruler himself or to influential personalities under the sign of the absolutist monarchism that was still ruling at the time. Only when they could be convinced did the utopians believe that it would be possible to realize their future models.

Or, above all, in America practical experiments were carried out, that is to say municipalities were founded, which were supposed to try out the respective models in reality and disseminate them propagandistically. Most of these small communist communes, however, soon perished again. The Russian economic theorist Michael Tugan-Baranowsky, who is one of the "legal Marxists" and wrote an interesting book about 100 years ago, [13] attributes this to the fact that too many intellectuals and too few skilled craftsmen started to found such communes involved, i.e. constantly discussed but little was built up. Second, especially during the prosperity of the late 19th century in America, a hardworking worker in an ordinary factory was far more likely to build a modest existence for himself and his family than in the commune experiments.

Back to Marx & Engels. The two founders of so-called "scientific socialism" did not think very much of the modeling of utopian designs: "The utopians, we see, were utopians because they could not be anything else at a time when capitalist production was still so little developed. They were forced to construct the elements of a new society out of their heads because these elements were not yet generally visible in the old society itself; for the basic features of their new building they were limited to the appeal to reason, because they were not yet could appeal to the simultaneous history. "[14]

What Engels meant by simultaneous history, he sums up in his creed on historical materialism or the materialistic conception of history, where it says: "With the seizure of the means of production by society, the production of goods is eliminated and with it the domination of the product over the producers. The anarchy within social production is replaced by systematically conscious organization. The struggle for individual existence ceases. Only then does man, in a certain sense, finally leave the animal kingdom, step out of animal conditions of existence into truly human ones. (...) It is the leap of humanity from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. Carrying out this world-liberating act is the historical vocation of the modern proletariat. To fathom its historical conditions ... and thus the conditions and conditions of the class that is called to action, today oppressed conscious of the nature of their own action It is the task of the theoretical expression of the proletarian movement, of scientific socialism. "[15]

We can see from these quotations that Engels links the rejection of utopia to the simultaneous awakening of the proletariat and an increase in class struggles, summed up in the formula that one no longer has to appeal to reason through beautiful models if the simultaneous historical course of events does this Appeals replaced. But then the reverse conclusion quickly becomes apparent: namely if and as long as this increase in class struggles does not (yet) take place, at least not with the force to shake the foundations of bourgeois-capitalist society, as long as it actually still makes sense, the To develop model elements of a future society. Because this would also be linked to the hope of stimulating the class struggle through clearer ideas about the society of the future.

Socialist theorizing and utopia

The fact that Marx and Engels were predominantly critical of utopianism in their creative period also has to do with the circumstances of the time: In the early socialist tradition of thinking, especially in the generation before Marx & Engels, there was in fact only (!) This type of utopian thinking, including that Attempt to appeal to the rulers and set up small model colonies, all of which quickly disappeared. On the other hand, Marx & Engels wanted to set themselves apart with their more scientific work and in 1880 Engels called his important work, which popularized Marxism, logically "The development of socialism from utopia to science". [16]

Now, however, this scientific postulate could well be questioned today, since a number of events that were declared to be historically necessary or even expected to be scientifically determined did not occur.For example, as a result of the agglomeration in the factory and increasing class struggles, the working class has still not developed from the class itself to the class for itself, as Marx & Engels postulated. In the leading industrial countries, the class struggles are on the decline and the modern factory is no longer an agglomeration of working masses, but rather "depopulated" again.

Or the assertion of steadily increasing monopoly, which reaches such proportions that competition is finally completely eliminated and there is only one monopoly in every branch, with the bourgeois state developing from an ideal total capitalist to a real total capitalist. Marx & Engels always made such prognoses as the determining tendency for the next one or two generations. Of course there is a tendency towards monopoly formation in capitalism. However, the fact that this would result in a ownership structure linked to the state with regard to the main capital sectors - that too has not come true as a prognosis. On the contrary: With neoliberalism, we have even seen a strong reprivatisation of companies formerly owned by the state or municipalities in the last 30 years.

The accuracy of these statements, which claim to be scientific and which Marx & Engels claim to have gained from their analytical work, should therefore be questioned. It is also the case that Marx was never able to realize his intended work plan due to poverty and illness, which also included an analysis of the bourgeois state and the world market. From the pure capital level, however, only limited conclusions can be drawn about historical determinants.

Utopian elements in Marx's thinking

In order to show that the communism draft postulated by Marx & Engels does contain theorems which, in their expectations, should be subsumed under the label of utopia, the following quote from the "Critique of the Gothaer Program" (1875) should be used: " In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaved subordination of individuals to the division of work, with it the opposition between mental and physical work, has disappeared; after work has become not only a means of life but itself the first need for life; after with the the all-round development of individuals, their productive forces have grown and all springs of cooperative wealth flow more fully - only then can the narrow bourgeois legal horizon be completely exceeded and society can write on its flags: Everyone according to his abilities, everyone according to his needs! "[17]

Marx differentiates here between a higher phase of communism and a phase that apparently took place before it, commonly called socialism today, which is partly still afflicted with bourgeois legal elements. Let's take the higher phase first and make it clear what is going on under what conditions. The most important point should be the one with the "first need for life". That everyone consumes according to their needs, to put it bluntly, that at Karstadt and H&M the doors are always open and the cash registers have been abolished (at most a cash register that records the incoming and outgoing goods) and everyone takes what they need it is linked to the fact that people in communism developed another need for life before this consumptive satisfaction of needs, namely the need to work first. Logical! Because if the entire range of goods at Karstadt, H&M etc. - the stores are then certainly called differently - has not been produced first, there can be no free self-sufficiency without control and supervisors.

Now the idea that one day there will be a human society anywhere on the globe in which everyone feels work as the first need for life and only afterwards enjoy the consumer products should not be declared unreal or absurd at all. But from today's perspective one would certainly assign this to the sphere of the utopian. Marx was probably more of a hopeful revolutionary than a cool analyst, if he apparently only understood the lower precursor phase as a "transition society", but not as a presumably long-term, independent social formation.

In the "Gothaer Programmkritik" he conceives this previous phase, socialism, in great detail as a social order where strict bookkeeping and control still prevail and every employed person receives a certificate for the work performed by society, which then entitles him to enter the socialist system To take from consumer temples so and so much of goods. He always assumed, however, that this "bourgeois legal horizon" can be overcome relatively quickly according to the principle of "everyone according to his performance".

But it is precisely at this "predetermined breaking point" that we should think more carefully today. This is where new theoretical and literary future models are justified.

Utopia today

... would by no means have the task to paint a great idea of ​​the higher phase of communism, so to speak, the realization of the boldest human dreams with regard to a harmoniously functioning social whole. It would be much more exciting to sketch the contradictions and adversities that, according to today's judgment, open up on the way there.

This should be illustrated by two or three examples: for example the question of socially necessary working time in socialism. It is a natural expectation that a socialist society is characterized by the fact that technological advances in productivity are reflected in reduced working hours. This means that the necessary average work, on which the average payment, i.e. the consumable share of goods of the individuals is measured, can be reduced step by step - to 30 hours per week, to 25 hours per week, to 20 hours per week, etc.

Now the weekly working hours would be closely linked to the specific supply of goods expected by the members of a socialist society. Should all (!) Products common today be manufactured, or should the state only guarantee a basic supply? The interested parties would then have to take care of the goods they would otherwise need themselves. Even with extensive planning, it will hardly be possible to determine exactly the necessary average social working hours; political decisions will have to be made about this - possibly in party-political competition between several socialist parties. How could this be done as democratically as possible, were such a question.

Let us take another example: 5011 there is still - after the experience with Soviet communism - a binding, central one Planned economy or is this set of instruments completely superfluous, as Sahra Wagenknecht thinks in her new book [18]. It even goes so far as to in fact completely reject state participation in the economy and conceives four forms of ownership for overcoming capitalism, in which at best the municipalities still play a role as the state economic agency. Christian Felber, too, who wrote a book on the economy of the common good [19] that was widespread among the left, conceived this economic model largely without the state as an agent of economic life. So the question: How much state may, must or should be in the economy of a society of the future?

Finally, let's take a third example. keyword Economic Democracy: We have always had the criticism of capitalism that this is where democracy ends at the factory gate. So something would have to be changed in the direction of strengthening the co-determination powers of the workforce. But now we know the problem of "company egoism" from societies of the real socialist type. So there would also have to be representatives of the community, equal opportunities officers, environmental protection, etc. in the supervisory bodies of a company. What should that look like in concrete terms? Especially if we assume a "mix of forms of property" in socialism, as suggested by Klaus Steinitz [20] and others, in order to get away from the rigid, centralized planning type in the GDR in the future.

I have deliberately chosen only examples of the need for clarification from the economic policy sector in order not to overload the question. A concrete utopia could of course not leave it at that, but would also have to take a position on the broader ensemble of social conditions. In the 19th century, socialist thinking always drew heavily on utopian ideas. It was not necessarily Marx & Engels who were the most widely read authors, but rather August Bebel in Germany, [21] worldwide Edward Bellamy. [22]

Due to their largely conceived notions of socialism, there was in the left what Christoph Lieber of the magazine "Sozialismus" calls "a project". So some kind of common idea of ​​how the future world, which one wanted to fight for, would have to look like in its basic elements. We no longer have such a joint "project" today! The fact that there are almost no positive utopias today, but there are plenty of black utopias (dystopias), reflects the fact that we live in non-revolutionary times. Apparently the fantasies only go so far as to be able to imagine all kinds of end-of-time scenarios in countless areas - from the surveillance state, nuclear disaster, climate change, terrorism to ecological collapse.

"But since Ernest Callenbach's" Ökotopia "(1975) [23] there have not really been any future plans that spread a livable alternative for society as a whole. a project ", so at least a rudimentary future perspective. Dieter Klein put this in a nutshell:" Anyone who wants to convince others to travel together has to say where they should go. "[24]

Gerald Munier (Bielefeld, October / November 2016)

(The author has a doctorate in history and teaches history didactics at the University of Bielefeld. VSA published the more biography "Thomas More - Urvater des Kommunismus und catholic saint; Hamburg 2008" from his pen)


[1] Thomas More: Utopia; Reclams Universal Library no. 513, Stuttgart 2009. I recommend this edition, but there are countless other versions of "Utopia" in German.

[2] Peter Berglar: The hour of Thomas More - One against power; Walter-Verlag, Olten and Freiburg im Breisgau 1978.

[3] Quotes from Thomas More: Utopia; ed. By Hubert Schiel / Alexander Heine; Phaidon-Verlag, Essen undated

[4] Cf. Elmar Altvater: The end of capitalism as we know it; Verlag Westfälisches Dampfboot, Münster 2005, p. 92ff.

[5] Karl Kautsky: Thomas More and his Utopia; Verlag Dietz Nachf., Bonn-Bad Godesberg 1973, ISBN 3-8012-1005-7, reprint of the 5th edition published in Stuttgart / Berlin in 1922

[6] R. W. Chambers: Thomas More - a statesman of Henry the Eighth; Verlag Josef Kösel, Munich and Kempten 1935.

[7] Edward Bellamy: A look back from 2000 to 1887; Reclam 2660 (4), Stuttgart 1983. Bellamy's novel is likely to have been the most widely read socialist draft for the future at the time of the labor movement.

[8] Karl Marx: Manifesto of the Communist Party; Reclam No. 8323, p. 52.

[9] Thomas Campanella wrote the utopian novel "Der Sonnenstaat" in 1602. Francis Bacon is the author of the utopian novel "Nova Atlantis" from 1623.

[10] Marx, ibid., P. 52f.

[11] Marx, ibid., P. 53.

[12] Marx, ibid., P. 54.

[13] Michail Tugan-Baranowsky: The communist polities of modern times; Gotha 1921.

[14] Friedrich Engels: Anti-Dühring; Dietz-Verlag, Berlin 1971, p. 247.

[15] Engels, ibid., P. 264f.

[16] Engel's writing, which is an excerpt from the "Anti-Dühring", can be found in MEW 19.

[17] Karl Marx: Critique of the Gotha Program; Dietz Verlag Berlin 1965, p. 24f.

[18] Sahra Wagenknecht: Wealth without greed. How we save ourselves from capitalism; Campus Verlag, Frankfurt / New York 2016.

[19] Christian Felber: Economy for the common good ....

[20] Klaus Steinitz: The Failure of Real Socialism - Conclusions for the Left in the 21st Century; VSA, Hamburg 2007, p. 96. Steinitz speaks of a pluralism of property forms in a future socialism.

[21] August Bebel: Women and Socialism; Verlag Dietz Nachf., Bonn 1994. Bebel's writing from the year 1878 contains in the 4th section a very detailed explanation of the development of communism.

[22] The novel by Bellamy was translated into German by Klara Zetkins because she was of the opinion that, although not a work of "scientific socialism", it "still has a lot to say to the working masses today." (Reclam edition, p. 292)

[23] Ernest Callenbach: Ökotopia; Rotbuch Verlag, Berlin 1984.

[24] Dieter Klein: Assumptions about a democratic socialism of the 21st century; in Brie / Detje / Steinilz (ed.): Paths to socialism in the 21st century. Alternatives - development paths - utopias; VSA, Hamburg 2011, p. 195.