Utopia and Marxism Ruthless Criticism

Utopia and Marxism

Interview with Karl Held

[Translated from C. Zacharias, Where Is Utopia? 1985]

In the Communist Manifesto, the utopian socialists are accused of ignoring class conflict and aiming for the liberation of all instead of supporting the fight of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. What is so bad about supporting all of humanity?

One of the most successful honorary titles in whose name any crime may be committed, as well as prevented, is “humanity.” No, Marxists have nothing to do with this subject. It exists only in the imagination, this collective subject with big common noble wishes, and indeed that is the reason, because it is always used for a philosophical preparation for the appeal that morally educated contemporaries of capitalism always require.

In the name of humankind some put up nuclear weapons – and in the same name, others warn about hypothermia. As critics, the latter estimate their credibility higher than the effort to put an effective resistance on its legs. They prove their credibility by an abstraction in which the political and economic conflicts that populate their beautiful world are forgotten. The belief that the inclusion of everyone into their own concerns would lend their objections an effectiveness which is otherwise lacking is obvious.

So the call upon humanity is really only plausible by people who are authorized by their office to dole out morality and insist on compliance to their laws. If they declare social peace and peace in general as indispensable and class warfare as outdated, they know very well that the prohibition on battling out conflicts is how they are enforced! And it is always good for them to also label their opponents as enemies of humankind. Marxists do not hold such a thing necessary. A little knowledge about who arranges what at whose expense is completely sufficient. The practical consequences then concern that kind of “humanity” which gets such a raw deal in the free market because it serves others' wealth.

It is our concern that a certain part of “humanity” cannot be pleased any longer about being used for kindling an illusionary common interest.

Marx and Engels contrasted utopian socialism to scientific socialism. Why can’t scientifically justified teachings be nevertheless utopian in its goals?

Common sense has in fact somewhat understood that utopia does not quite agree with knowledge. It loves to measure criticism by whether it offers “feasible” alternatives, and in debate it regards it as a clever and irrefutable argument if it makes the accusation of a utopian position. With the keyword “utopia” nothing less is characterized than the error of wanting to do things that are not at all possible; to be preoccupied with necessities that cannot be changed, so that, conversely, one has to take consideration of them.

When the accusation “utopian” is expressed, the argument always relies on unalterable necessities that cannot be abolished, like laws of nature.

That sounds as if you would nevertheless break a lance for utopia!

No, our criticism of this term is different. Science is set against pious hopes and dreams of a better world, starting with knowledge. Knowledge concerns iron necessities that disgrace mere intentions. Therefore it is always worthwhile to examine the upheld knowledge for its soundness. And therefore it is basically upside down to withdraw into “fantasy” and to display more or less proudly a talent for utopian thinking; this art of imagining most things or even everything as being different is namely concerned with what is so far not at all here.

The practice of theoretically undoing everything, or at least making it half as bad, has been in fashion for centuries in art and religion – and as edifying background music it is always appreciated and enjoyed by the shapers of reality. The commitment inherent in all utopias, to overcome with the imagination the burdens of the respectively practiced business, to therefore exist in the subjunctive where nobody has ever been, makes its pleasures so enjoyable.

Where such a commitment wants to set programs, it is not declared unsuitable for the comfortable, just that with “realism” what inspires the mind does not yet count for economic and political interests.

“Realism” is a word which is probably an iron component of socialist teachings. But also their bitter enemies, the capitalist ruling powers, take up this term for themselves.

Their realism has its own reason. I know of very few cases in the history of the Federal Republic where in public debates utopias were represented and raised to a political program. And if it happened and happens, the qualification “idealists” does not occur here because the attempt to realize projects that are doomed to failure is “unrealistic”.

Up to the present the representatives of wealth and political power approve every ideal with beautiful regularity and on television: whether one now says “woman” or “symbiosis of humans and trees”, whether a “peace process” or a “full employment initiative” are now publicized, the responsible persons always fight, unaffected in the role of the accused, on the side of the idea of a better condition – but with the small addendum that the respective program, the upheld value, is in the best hands with them.

Definitively, no illusions are rejected, but all demands.

With the word “objective constraint” a true linguistic monument was established for this procedure. People to whom nothing occurs more easily than to repeat the philosophical doctrine that there can allegedly never be definite knowledge suddenly become very dogmatic in political principle and issues of the day. They then “know” very exactly that “business” will not stand for a reasonable wage increase. They know still much more exactly that freedom without the largest weapons arsenal in history is not possible and that the threat of its use, just like its application, secures the peace. Oppositional demands and efforts they dash off flippantly as “utopian” and “day dreaming”. They neither want to recognize their assertions about their favored “order” as their damning indictment, nor does the obvious fact bother them that they fight “objective constraints” that stand and fall with their order.

Radical critics stand better to express such truths than to cultivate utopias belonging to the aesthetic realm, which still credits itself as “daring” to think “completely differently.”

Ideals and their cultivation possibly belong to the aesthetic sphere, but the nature of utopia consists nevertheless of transforming conditions, due to the criticism of the dominant conditions, in order to carry out these dreams.

That a critical meaning inheres in utopian conceptions is a delusion, which their aficionados gladly cherish, because they always explain their discontent with what this existence has done to them with the evidence of their ideas. Only precious little is achieved with this evidence, which can easily be seen in the sentiments of the relevant opponents of the “do-gooders.” In their way, the rulers of the Pentagon and the International Monetary Fund are also critical: it is just that their discontent refers to what in their opinion limits the success of their business. And their conceptions of a better world – without disruptive Russians or crises in their balance books – are in the newspaper every day.

Turned around, the sad side of the utopianism of “the left” – which already led Marx to his refusal of utopian socialism – should not be overlooked. Without knowledge about the necessities that are ordered by power, quite a lot of alternative projects eagerly go to the effort of illustrating exactly those ideals that arise from the actions of the ruling authorities and even ornamenting them – ideals which, separated from the rejected conditions, lose their reason to exist and stand there almost as stupidities.

Justice, equality, fraternity, reconciliation with the environment and so on are ideas which no longer stir up utopian pictures of a better society as soon as they are logically and historically traced back to their banal core and origin. The task is not their “productive” takeover, but criticism of them and the practical effort to position them as the handiwork of those who not only have the final say, but also money and power.

Ernst Bloch ended his Principle of Hope with the statement that Marx’s final demand was the “development of the wealth of human nature.” Can’t one call that utopian thinking?

No, not even in such gladly quoted cliches as the “development of the wealth of human nature” does Marx honor a utopian motive. It is rather quite simple to understand – despite the metaphor of human nature – and in the early writings already certainly economic.

Wealth – objectively available and produced in increasing measure with the progress of the capitalist mode of production – was hard to overlook in Marx's time. From the fine cloth up to the good book, from the Portuguese wine to the steam engine, there was something that could be seen. In that time, and also today, wealth – subjectively, “the diversity of needs” – left something to be desired. That ever more means and ever more varied needs exist on the market could not remain hidden to Marx. That these means came into the world as business objects – profitably, profitably – and otherwise for no other reason contrasted for the good man very unpleasantly with their usefulness.

Access to them was and is a question of money – and the producers of the whole rubbish, the workers, looked worse for it. Just because of growth, labor costs were always too high and purchasing power always too low, completely apart from the productivity in the profitable factories, which aim neither at health nor their ability to benefit.

In short: Marx was already a witness to a destructive abstraction – the separation between wealth and those who produce it. That both match well was to that extent not an extremely utopian idea.

The victory of socialism should be on the one hand a historic necessity, but on the other hand nobody is content with the real existing socialism of the Eastern Bloc countries except the party officials. How does that agree, when one wants to exclude utopian thinking?

This program is not by any means represented by a “historical necessity” in which one can believe and rely on. The ridiculous route of repeating Marx’s prophecy of the proletarian or world revolution and then intentionally passing the error on confuses two things. It is one thing to judge something as necessary because of findings about social relations that one does not want to stoop to. It is completely different if someone believes in the fact that the transformation of social conditions is soon to be realized or will be on a certain day. In the first case one argues, convinces and fights – and in the second case, speculates historical-philosophically.

To prove itself in harmony with an independently ruling historic tendency is more reminiscent of the life philosophy of arty conformists than revolutionaries.

Unfortunately, this crucial distinction is not common among people who hold it an honor to be a Marxist and want to unconditionally wear this title on their lapel. Then they think, pretty often quite consciously utopian, about the “direction of history.” They strive to affirm a spectral subject that cannot go in any other direction than in agreement with its interpreters: they call it “history” and teach everyone that it is precisely whatever they read into it.

The relevant state socialists over there, including their people, with all the programmatic stupidity and vulgarity of their sort of rule, hardly have had the opportunity to complete more than minimal programs of their alternative political economy. They are constantly based on the interests “of the free world” and confronted with the historical perspective that soon their next and final chapter (Reagan) is written – in history, it shall be understood.

Even if one considers your Marxist analysis of social conditions correct, as a “bourgeois individual” one comes to one point that is disturbing. You want to thus impose your goals by revolution, with violence. Can one force people to their happiness?

With the crunch question of violence, one is for a change tempted to quote Marx: “When our turn comes, we will not make excuses for the terror …” Now every educated democrat holds this for a confession – and for an unmasking as well. Therefore a small note should be added: that nothing, nothing at all in the realm of “freedom” – from the family to the social economy, from the income tax to the football league – would come about and take place without violence. Why critics of this type of rule, which abounds with violence, must legitimize themselves with an avowal of non-violence is not to be seen at all.

Nevertheless, the embarrassing activity that is described as ”forcing others to their happiness” can be guaranteed to remain undone. Happiness – the psychological utopia of being almost well – was never spoken of in Marxism. And if enough of them who have reasons for it band together, coercion will also hold them within limits. There is only the fear that there is already a sizeable arsenal of violence, holding itself responsible for history, humanity, the nation and other values …