Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 26, 2011

Dueling Utopias

Filed under: utopian thought — louisproyect @ 7:18 pm

Russell Jacoby

Erik Olin Wright

In the latest issue of Dissent, a social democratic journal founded by Irving Howe in 1954, there’s a remarkably vituperative review of Erik Olin Wright’s Envisioning Real Utopias by Russell Jacoby, a UCLA professor. This is the most vicious paragraph:

WHAT IS one to make of this morass? Wright seems to know nothing about the history of utopian thought, communities, or cooperatives. He refers to exactly one book in the utopian tradition, Martin Buber’s 1949 Paths in Utopia. Buber’s book closed with a discussion of the kibbutz, a subject that would seem to call out to Wright. After all, the kibbutz is a “real utopia” with a socialist ethos and decades of practice. Are there lessons to be found here? Daniel Gavron’s suggestive book The Kibbutz, subtitled “Awakening from Utopia,” sought to appraise its past and future. Wright says nothing about the kibbutz or the literature on it. Nor does he say much about the “real utopias” in Brazil, Canada, and Spain. He says little about anything. The empirical information he provides is perfunctory at best. His command of Marxism seems limited. His historical reach extends to his own earlier works. His vast theoretical apparatus is jimmy-rigged and empty. The graphs are inane, the writing atrocious. To call this book dull as dish water maligns dish water.

It must be understood that Jacoby has a special interest in knocking down someone who writes about utopian socialism, especially a figure with some authority in the academic milieu that is home to both of them. Reading Jacoby’s appraisal of Wright, one wonders if there is a kind of envy at work:

He [Wright] is a chaired professor who has just been elected president of the American Sociological Association, the premier professional organization of the field. He often lectures at universities across the globe. He teaches in what many consider the finest sociology department in the country, at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. The Madison department is where C. Wright Mills received his doctorate, and it housed his mentor, Hans Gerth, an émigré scholar who was a student of another sociologist, Karl Mannheim, whose 1929 Ideology and Utopia remains a touchstone study.

From the looks of it, Wright has won more blue ribbons than Heineken beer, as my good friend the late Mark Jones once described David Harvey. In this rarefied arena, the competition is very intense when it comes to Marxism, at least as defined as published articles and books that few sans-culottes activists will ever have the time or the energy to read.

This is not the first time that Jacoby has gone for the jugular. In the April 10, 2006 Nation Magazine, he went after a young academic named Eric Lott whose book The Disappearing Liberal Intellectual he described thusly:

In an era of pallid Democrats and furtive leftists, Lott comes out shouting his revolutionary loyalties. He marches with real working people. So far, so good. Unfortunately, he marches only from the podium to the speaker’s table. Sometimes he gets to the library or logs on to hiptheory.com to check out what Etienne Balibar, a French post-Marxist, has written. His radical commitments amount to promoting leftist colleagues in American studies departments and a few European Marxists. Moreover, he wildly inflates the impact of the “liberal front” he is supposedly challenging. With Lott as your guide, you’d think Todd Gitlin and Paul Berman sabotaged the left and ushered in Bush. Were it so simple.

I wrote about the Jacoby attack on Lott not long after it appeared:

Since Jacoby is a sworn enemy of post-Marxism and anything remotely smacking of academic obscurantism (he was seen as an ally of Alan Sokal in a Lingua Franca article on the fight against jargon, while Lott has taken Sokal down a notch or two in the pages of the Village Voice), it is to be expected that he would attempt to smear Lott with alleged connections to figures such as Etienne Balibar (there are surely much worse than Balibar) and a propensity for terms like “intersectionality” and “the praxis potential of antinormativity.” Frankly, with what I have learned about Alan Sokal and his anti-postmodernist rightwing allies over the past 8 years or so, I am more inclined to line up with the winners of Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing Contests of yore.

Improbably invoking Lenin, Jacoby suggests that Lott’s work smacks of ‘infantile leftism,’ but when “Lenin used the term he was referring to new political parties, not professorial posturing.” I don’t quite know how to put this, but there should be a law against somebody like Russell Jacoby invoking Lenin. This is what the Turks call chutzpah.

But you can really figure out where Jacoby is coming from through his defense of Todd Gitlin’s and other “old fogies” call for a “universal left.” Let’s get something straight. This “universal left” has nothing to do with reconstituting the Communist International. All it is a call for rebuilding the Labor-Civil Rights-Democratic Party coalition under the leadership of a latter-day Hubert Humphrey. Gitlin voted for Humphrey in 1968 and will never forgive the radical movement for telling the truth about Humphrey, namely that he was a warmonger and a corporate stooge.

The latest contretemps with Wright has an added dimension. Although you might not have figured it out from Jacoby’s review, Jacoby is a long-standing utopian socialism theorist so there is a kind of turf battle going on. How dare Wright tackle a subject that Jacoby has made his own?

In some ways, the intensity of Jacoby’s attack reminds me of the beating Mark Danner took at the hands of George Packer in the NY Times Sunday book review. Both men have staked out turf in the “decent left”, with Danner urging NATO punishment of the dastardly Serbs throughout the 1990s and Packer defending Bush’s war in Iraq—until it turned sour. But if you are vying for top honors in State Department liberalism, there’s going to be a need to knock your competitor down a peg or two.

On the question of utopianism, it must be stressed that Wright and Jacoby have completely different approaches. Wright is far more interested in experiments like Mondragon than Jacoby whose notion of utopia mostly revolves around the need for projecting lofty goals, especially through imaginary literature such as Bellamy’s “Looking Backward”.

Unlike Wright who has a very active presence on the Internet and who does not mind duking it out with his ideological opponents, including me, Jacoby is a rather aloof and remote figure whose output is almost completely restricted to print journals. Indeed, he does not even have an email address on his UCLA website, an effort one supposes to preempt exchanges with riffraff like me.

Although it is restricted to subscribers, there is an electronic version of an article that Jacoby wrote in the December 2000 Harper’s Magazine titled “A Brave Old World: Looking Forward to a nineteenth-century utopia.”

The article was written to commemorate Bellamy’s “Looking Backward: From 2000 to 1887” and to make the case for its relevancy in 2000, which mostly has to do with the need for visionary schemes for future societies. Jacoby’s main point is that utopianism has gotten a bad rap because of a failed experiment in the USSR that also embraced ambitious goals. He writes:

Anti-utopianism continues to suffuse our culture. Conventional as well as scholarly opinion posits that utopia spells concentration camps and that utopians secretly dream of being prison guards. Robert Conquest, a leading chronicler of the Soviet terror, is lauded by Gertrude Himmelfarb for telling the truth about “totalitarianism and utopianism” in his latest book Reflections on a Ravaged Century. And the final chapter of The Soviet Tragedy, by Martin Malia, another leading Soviet historian, is tellingly entitled “The Perverse Logic of Utopia.” Indeed, we now think of utopian idealism as little more than a prelude to totalitarian murder. At best, an expression of utopian convictions will call forth a sneer from historians and social scientists. In the nineteenth century the anticipation of a future society of peace and equality was common; now it is almost extinct. Today few imagine that society can be fundamentally improved, and those who do are seen as at best deluded, at worst threatening.

Now who am I to condemn anybody, least of all a widely respected academic like Russell Jacoby, for having utopian convictions? Given the terrible state of the world, one can surely understand why Jacoby would want to hole up in his UCLA office and fantasize about a world where there is no hunger, war, or alienation. It also certainly beats getting your hands dirty working on a campus protest against the war in Afghanistan.

But I think the whole idea of utopia has very little use in the class struggle today. As an old fashioned Marxist, I think the focus has to be on the here and now. As American Trotskyist James P. Cannon once put it, the art of politics is knowing what to do next.

I don’t think there is any great harm in dreaming up utopian solutions to our problems. Erik Olin Wright’s endorsement of Mondragon will not set us back in the class struggle, nor will Jacoby’s musings do much harm either.

My own approach, however, is at odds with utopianism as I tried to make clear in an article I wrote over ten years ago. It follows in its entirety:

Neo-Utopian Socialism

It is really hard to believe, but adherents to rival utopian visions can have nasty splits just like “Marxist-Leninists”. Evidence of this is contained in the most recent copy of “Democracy and Nature”, a journal formerly known as “Society and Nature”. The International Managing Editor is Takis Fotopoulos.

In the “Dialog” section of the issue, the editors air their dirty laundry. Murray Bookchin, a member of the advisory board along with other luminaries such as Noam Chomsky, Andre Gunder Frank and Cornelius Castoriadis, is tendering his resignation. Bookchin is the guru of the social ecology movement, which –crudely put– is a mixture of anarchism and environmentalism. He lives in Vermont and posts jeremiads against capitalism to his followers near and wide.

“Very disturbingly, Takis and I have even drifted apart on the issue that long held us together, libertarian municipalism. (I now strongly prefer the word ‘libertarian’ over ‘confederal’ municipalism because ‘libertarian’ has a revolutionary political content, rather than merely a structural and logistical one.) His current advocacy of a personal voucher system and an ‘artificial market’ (whatever happened to a libertarian-communist moral economy?), and his notion that libertarian municipalism could somehow creep up on the bourgeoisie and erode the power of the state are highly disturbing to me. These notions divest libertarian municipalism of its confrontational stance toward the state in the form of a revolutionary dual power. I did not propound this theory of politics to see it mutate into Bernsteinian evolutionary social democracy.”

Bookchin’s “libertarian municipalism” is offered as an alternative to the Marxist vision of a transformation of society led by the working-class.

Social ecology would embody its ethics in a politics of confederal municipalism, in which municipalities cojointly gain rights to self-governance through networks of confederal councils, to which towns and cities would send their mandated, recallable by delegates to adjust differences.

Okay, let’s see if we can get this right. Capitalism will be replaced by a more humane system through the incremental replacement of capitalist chunks of real estate by new egalitarian units. Today we have liberated Putney, Vermont and Madison, Wisconsin. Next week we have a shot at taking over Dallas, Texas. When all the towns and cities have been become liberated zones, we then celebrate our victory by eating dishes of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.

What is that Takis Fotopoulos believes in that so exercised Bookchin? The fight is over models and nothing else. Bookchin clings to one model, while Takis to another.

In his “Outline of an Economic Model for an Inclusive Democracy”, contained in the very same issue, Fotopoulos makes a sales presentation for this breakthrough in model-creation:

Although it is up to the citizens’ assemblies of the future to design the form an inclusive democracy will take, I think it is important to demonstrate that such a form of society is not only necessary, so that the present descent to barbarism can be avoided, but feasible as well. This is particularly important when the self-styled ‘left’ has abandoned any vision that is not based on the market economy and liberal ‘democracy’, which they take for granted, and has dismissed an alternative visions as ‘utopian’ (in the negative sense of the word.)

Fotopoulos takes swipes at Hahnel-Albert’s Parecon in his article, who are of course rival utopians. He believes that their schema invites bureaucracy because it provides for some state agency that invites people to state what their consumer “needs” are. Agencies, as we know from bitter experience, can turn into utter monstrosities. One day they will ask you whether you want pleats in your trousers or not. The next day they will be sending you to prison for stating the wrong preference.

Fotopoulos’ schema revolves around the issuance of vouchers.

Basic Vouchers (BVs) are used for the satisfaction of basic needs. These vouchers, which are personal and issued on behalf of the confederation, entitle each citizen to a given level of satisfaction for each particular type of need that has been characterized as ‘basic’, but do not specify the particular type of satisfier, so that choice can be secured.

In contrast to these kinds of detailed but essentially useless blueprints, Marx and Engels saw utopian thought as having limited value. For them, there were three essential features:

  • Ahistoricism: The utopian socialists did not see the class struggle as the locomotive of history. While they saw socialism as being preferable to capitalism, they neither understood the historical contradictions that would undermine it in the long run, nor the historical agency that was capable of resolving these contradictions: the working-class.
  • Moralism: What counts for the utopian socialists is the moral example of their program. If there is no historical agency such as the working-class to fulfill the role of abolishing class society, then it is up to the moral power of the utopian scheme to persuade humanity for the need for change.
  • Rationalism: The utopian scheme must not only be morally uplifting, it must also make sense. The best utopian socialist projects would be those that stood up to relentless logical analysis.

As Engels said in “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific”:

To all these socialism is the expression of absolute truth, reason and justice, and has only to be discovered to conquer all the world by virtue of its own power. And as absolute truth is independent of time, space, and of the historical development of man, it is a mere accident when and where it is discovered.

All of these themes are present to one degree or another in the projects of market socialists like John Roemer, or their new left rivals Albert and Hahnel.

At first blush, John Roemer seems an unlikely utopian since he couches his schema in hard-headed microeconomics. In “Market Socialism, a Blueprint: How Such an Economy Might Work”, he says that “it is possible to use markets to allocate resources in an economy where firms are not privately owned by investors who trade stock in them with the purpose of maximizing their gain, and that the government can intervene in such an economy to influence the level and composition of investment should the people wish to do so.”

This doesn’t sound particularly ‘visionary’, does it? What is particularly utopian about the schemas of Schweickart, Roemer et al is not that they have the redemptive and egalitarian power of Saint-Simon or Robert Owens, but that it is based on an ahistorical notion of how socialism comes into existence.

Specifically, there is no historical agency. Roemer shares with the 19th century utopians a tendency to present a vision that is detached from history. Since history play very little role in Roemer’s thought overall, it is understandable why he would devote himself to utopian schemas. Furthermore, since AM is based on removing one of the key aspects of the Marxist understanding of capitalism –the labor theory of value– it is difficult to see how any historical agency can carry this social transformation out. Once the class-struggle is removed, the socialist project becomes an exercise in game-playing by rational actors. Since rationalism is a cornerstone of utopian thought, market socialism would have an appeal because it is eminently rational.

Answering the question of whether his schema will work, Roemer offers the following assurance:

Is it possible for a market system to equilibrate an economy in which profits are distributed as I have described and in which the government intervenes in the investment behavior of the economy by manipulating interests if the managers of firms maximize profits, facing market prices, wages and interest rates? My colleagues Joaquim Silvestre, Ignacio Ortuno, and I have studied this question, and the answer is yes.

My, isn’t this reassuring. There is only one problem. The difficulties we face in building socialism are not on the theoretical front, but in the application of theory. The reason for this of course is that such applications always take place in the circumstances of war, economic blockade, internal counter-revolution, etc., where even the best laid plans off mice and men often go astray.

Furthermore, one has no idea how Roemer’s theory can ever be put into practice since it is not really addressed to the working-class, the historical agent of change in Marxism. Who will change the world, the subscribers to “Economics and Society”? Roemer’s proposals are directed toward the narrow, insular, academic world of “dueling blueprints”. I suppose if one was to be given a choice of utopian worlds to identify with, a much more palatable choice would be that of their new left rivals, Albert-Hahnel.

Turning to their “Looking Forward”, another work obviously inspired by Edward Bellamy, we find a completely different set of politics and economic reasoning, but the utopian methodology is essentially the same. Their vision of how social transformation takes place is virtually identical to that of the 19th century utopians. In a reply to somebody’s question about social change and human nature on the Z Magazine bulletin board, Albert states:

I look at history and see even one admirable person–someone’s aunt, Che Guevara, doesn’t matter–and say that is the hard thing to explain. That is: that person’s social attitudes and behavior runs contrary to the pressures of society’s dominant institutions. If it is part of human nature to be a thug, and on top of that all the institutions are structured to promote and reward thuggishness, then any non-thuggishness becomes a kind of miracle. Hard to explain. Where did it come from, like a plant growing out of the middle of a cement floor. Yet we see it all around. To me it means that social traits are what is wired in, in fact, though these are subject to violation under pressure.

Such obsessive moralizing was characteristic of the New Left of the 1960s. Who can forget the memorable slogan “if you are not part of the solution, then you are part of the problem.” With such a moralistic approach, the hope for socialism is grounded not in the class struggle, but on the utopian prospects of good people stepping forward. Guevara is seen as moral agent rather than as an individual connected with powerful class forces in motion such as the Cuban rural proletariat backed by the Soviet socialist state.

Albert’s and Hahnel’s enthusiasm for the saintly Che Guevara is in direct contrast to his judgment on the demon Leon Trotsky, who becomes responsible along with Lenin for all of the evil that befell Russia after 1917. Why? It is because Trotsky advocated “one-man management”. Lenin was also guilty because he argued that “all authority in the factories be concentrated in the hands of management.”

To explain Stalinist dictatorship, they look not to historical factors such as economic isolation and military pressure, but the top-down management policies of Lenin and Trotsky. To set things straight, Albert and Hahnel provide a detailed description of counter-institutions that avoid these nasty hierarchies. This forms the whole basis of their particular schema called “participatory planning” described in “Looking Forward”:

Participatory planning in the new economy is a means by which worker and consumer councils negotiate and revise their proposals for what they will produce and consume. All parties relay their proposals to one another via ‘facilitation boards’. In light of each round’s new information, workers and consumers revise their proposals in a way that finally yields a workable match between consumption requests and production proposals.

Their idea of a feasible socialism is beyond reproach, just as any idealized schema will be. The problem is that it is doomed to meet the same fate as ancestral schemas of the 19th century. It will be beside the point. Socialism comes about through revolutionary upheavals, not as the result of action inspired by flawless plans.

There will also be a large element of the irrational in any revolution. The very real possibility of a reign of terror or even the fear of one is largely absent in the rationalist scenarios of the new utopians. Nothing can do more harm to a new socialist economy than the flight of skilled technicians and professionals. For example, there was very little that one can have done to prevent such flight in Nicaragua, no matter the willingness of a Tomas Borge to forgive Somocista torturers. This had more of an impact on Nicaraguan development plans than anything else.

The reason for the upsurge in utopian thought is in some ways similar to that of the early 19th century: The industrial working-class is not a powerful actor in world politics. Engels observed that in 1802 when Saint-Simon’s Geneva letters appeared, “the capitalist mode of production, and with it the antagonism between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, was still very incompletely developed.”

Isn’t this similar to the problem we face today? Even though the working-class makes up a larger percentage of the world’s population than ever before, we have not seen a radicalized working-class in the advanced capitalist countries since the 1930s, an entire historical epoch. In the absence of a revolutionary working-class, utopian schemas are bound to surface. Could one imagine a work like “Looking Forward” being written during the Flint sit-down strikes? In the absence of genuine struggles, fantasy is a powerful seductive force.


  1. I’ve always thought that the appeal of anarchism and other utopian thought was that they never really had a historical precedent (with some exceptions) unlike Marxism and the U.S.S.R. Anarchists (as well as any other non-Marxist) are able to point to the failures of the Soviet Union and other workers’ states as inherent in Marxism, but since anarchism has never been implemented on a mass scale there is no damning evidence to discredit the ideology.
    On the subject of moralizing, is there really no place for morals in the scientific socialism that is Marxism? I think many of us would agree that what attracted us to Marxism to begin with was disgust with the existing capitalist order, and the belief that socialist society is a much more humane alternative.
    Also, Happy Birthday, Louis!

    Comment by Rob — January 26, 2011 @ 10:37 pm

  2. ‘Jacoby’s main point is that utopianism has gotten a bad rap because of a failed experiment in the USSR that also embraced ambitious goals’

    so how did it go wrong?
    ‘when the wrong man takes right way, the right way becomes the wrong way;
    when the right man takes the wrong way, the wrong way becomes the right way’

    Comment by brian — January 27, 2011 @ 1:32 am

  3. Great piece, Louis. It deserves more attention than it’s getting, but then maybe there’s just not much to argue with there. Albert’s ZNet just seems to get more and more bland, and as it does it gets more persistent with requests for money – I have to ask myself ” do I really care about this?”

    Comment by jock mctrousers — January 28, 2011 @ 9:03 pm

  4. Thanks for this fascinating digest of the state of Marxist thought on Utopianism. Also for yr high minded defense of E O Wright, an unusually good guy for a high flyer, who by no means should be subjected to such gratuitous unpleasantness. What a hilarious level of mean-spiritedness for a “utopian.”

    Comment by Teresa — February 9, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

  5. Just for the record Jacoby actually does have an online presence–among other places he writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education where he gets the same sort of comments that everyone else gets. What is remarkable is that you don’t seem to have responded to the substance of Jacoby’s critique of the book. Instead you do an ad hominem attack on Jacoby and then reprint yourself. Why even discuss the review if you are not going to deal with its substance?

    Comment by Michael — February 12, 2011 @ 2:02 am

  6. Why even discuss the review if you are not going to deal with its substance?

    Because the review is of little interest to me other than what it reflects about Jacoby’s style. He is rather pathetic turning Wright’s prose into a litmus test reminiscent of the Trotsky-Shachtman debate on the USSR. These fights among academic Marxists are tempests in a teapot.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 12, 2011 @ 2:12 am

  7. Oh please. You mean as opposed to the dramatic blow that you post on their disagreement makes?

    Comment by Michael — February 13, 2011 @ 9:50 pm

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