To save the world, the Left must reclaim utopia

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Socialism was conceived as a creative and idealistic movement, but lost its way for most of the 20th century. Recapturing this imaginative energy can help find solutions to such huge threats as climate change.

by Ben Courtice
Blind Carbon Copy

This article started from a short impromptu speech I gave to launch the third edition of the Socialist Alliance’s Climate Charter.

Socialism used to be a rallying point for idealists, utopians, dreamers and those who were simply hopeful. It carried an almost millenarian promise of redemption and salvation. More importantly, it allowed its advocates to exercise their imagination. If socialism was to democratically realise the wishes of the common working people, why should they be restrained in their wishes?

There are pitfalls in utopian imaginings. George Orwell once said that “’Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” Inevitably, some utopian visions have been codified (and ossified) into cult dogma.

When the left banished utopia

But the 20th century left did not in the main succumb to utopian cults. Rather, it lost most of its creative imagination. The state socialist countries of the Eastern bloc as much as the social-democratic and labour movements in the West all succumbed to (or promoted) a grey economic reduction of the socialist vision.

Admittedly, even among the most authoritarian of the Stalinist parties, they never truly killed off creativity. The Communist Party of Australia had workers’ theatre. The USSR had Shostakovich and the Bolshoi Ballet and more. But the creative urge was de-coupled from the political project: it became a pressure relief valve for the masses. In the west, union campaigns for shorter work hours were probably the most creative movement, but the liberatory potential of freeing people from work was largely negated by the greater focus on wage rises and the related growth of consumerism.

The culture and dreams of working people have thus been privatised by the old, official “left”. State socialism and social democracy sought to out-compete the capitalists in economic growth and consumerism – without success. Clearly, if the aim was to enable working class people to be overweight, bored couch potatoes in front of a very big TV, capitalism won that competition.

Che Guevara’s example

The outstanding exception in the 20th century left’s retreat from creativity and humanism was Che Guevara’s economic theories. Fortunately there is now a detailed English account of Guevara’s practice as a government minister in Cuba, Helen Yaffe’s excellent Che Guevara : the Economics of Revolution (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009).

Che based his ideas on creating the new “socialist man” (person) who would be motivated by solidarity and community, not personal advancement. For a long time it was generally assumed that this idea was another facet of the romantic idealism that was seen as the total of Che’s contribution. But the real Che was no naïve romantic. He was a scholar of Marx and heir to Marx’s profound humanism.

Che’s idealistic programs such as encouraging voluntary labour were backed up by a creative, yet thorough system of economic management. His system was developed in opposition to, and as a critique of, the dominant system of management in the Soviet economy. Che predicted that the market mechanisms that were corrupting Soviet socialist planning would inevitably lead to a restoration of capitalism.

Sadly, although the Cuban revolutionaries have never forgotten the lessons that Che discovered, they have not yet been able to put them fully into practice either. Nor have these ideas been spread among the international left as they deserve.

A new urgency

The failings of economistic 20th century leftism have allowed capitalism and consumerism to run rampant to the extent that the biosphere of the planet is beginning to experience a catastrophic breakdown, best known in the form of climate change (although broader than that most pressing problem).

Climate change and the ecological crisis are demanding a reinvigoration of the left’s imagination. No longer can workers settle for demanding pay rises and economic advances. No more can the left settle for reactive campaigns calling to stop this or that crime, or to save this service from cutbacks. These are the defensive posturing of a movement that has put their visions of a better future off indefinitely as impractical or impossible just now.

Climate change demands action now. It demands solutions. They are feasible, and we can fight for them, but they are a radical departure from the consumerist life. This life is what the Western working class knows. It is largely what the third world masses aspire to. It is the dominant mass ideology. It’s a powerful ideology because it gives the appearance of having left behind the grim poverty of yesterday, and it gives the appearance of some return on the hours of workday drudgery that pay for it.

But at heart, consumerism is truly a hollow ideology. Even the commonplace sayings of the consumer era refute it. Consumerism says “you are what you buy” – but everyone knows, as the Beatles sang, “money can’t buy me love”. It can’t buy very much happiness either. There is an intrinsic gap in the ideological hegemony of the consumer ideal.

Forward to utopia!

Practical solutions to climate change open up vast arenas of possibilities for future social organisation. If we can’t afford to continue industrial agriculture, we will have to return to more localised, community based agriculture. How will it be run? Co-operative community gardens? Or individual plots? Will it be shared? Bartered? Food is a vital part of our inherited culture and recreation, as much as it is a simple necessity. A ration of bread or rice might go a long way to solving basic needs, but why would people settle for just that?

The popularity of garden shows, home gardening and so on is attested to by the growth of home improvement stores like Bunnings, the home makeover TV shows. They are trying to cash in on the desire of some people for a little control over their food, and a recreational pastime that is unalienated because it also serves a practical purpose.

Look at the food industry as it is now. For one small example, supermarkets sell two or three varieties of apple, just those that are easy to store, pack and market. Growing these monoculture crops is ecologically unstable, if not outright damaging. But in history there have been thousands of fascinating varieties of apples. For an orchardist there is a wealth of options for learning and experimenting and discovering.

For those whose inclinations and inspirations do not hinge on gardening or food, there are other areas of creative endeavour that are just as important. If we are mostly phasing out private motor cars, what will happen to the popular petrol-head culture? The quasi-hippy gardening subculture might suggest they can get lost and good riddance, but this would be mistaken. Enthusiasts for machinery and engineering are valuable.

We have to re-invent our transport system without fossil fuels. What mix will there be for electric, biofuel or pedal powered propulsion? Already, there is a market for high performance, lightweight (and still expensive) bicycles. It is marketed as another form of conspicuous consumption, but if we re-connect it with the real reason for bicycles – the cleverest method of transport yet invented – then this, just as much as high-speed trains, or electric car racing, is a field of discovery and creative competition for mechanically minded people. Will we build new electric vehicles, or convert old combustion-powered vehicles to electric drive? That could keep a lot of mechanical enthusiasts very busy for some time!

How can we re-imagine the urban environment? Without so many cars, what will happen to all the wide asphalt road spaces, the endless car parks and driveways? Could we see fast-food drive-throughs renovated as community kitchens, the carparks turned into gardens? Would children and pets be able to run and play on roads once again?

More broadly, without so many expensive commodities, what could happen to the work day? On average, people would not need to work so long either to produce, nor to pay for, all those SUVs, plasma TVs, double-door refrigerators, turbo-charged gas barbecues and other items of conspicuous consumption that clutter modern marketing. What an incentive: who would choose a plasma TV over a three day weekend?

A modest beginning

The urgency of the environmental crisis means we have to be radical. And to be as radical as the reality of this threat is to be radical indeed. The science of climate change is grim and scary. That threat provides some motivation, but it’s not enough. Nuclear war was a terrifying threat for decades but it did not motivate the world’s people enough to disarm the warmongers.

A utopia, or if you like, a creative vision of what we want, is essential. We can’t be defined by what we are against.

It must be a practical utopia. There must remain a thread connecting even the mundane concerns of the worker/consumer of today with the vision we propose. In this respect, something as simple (and traditional) as the demand for the shorter working week is a valuable lever of struggle (and the victories in obtaining a 36 hour working week for many construction workers in recent years is a small victory to point to already).

Equally, demands for comprehensive public transport networks have a dynamic that acts against the auto industry (which is the quintessential consumer industry).

The Climate Charter of the Socialist Alliance, with its 10-point climate action plan, is one attempt at a road map to a new society. It goes well beyond simple opposition to evils of the current system. It proposes transitional demands (to use an old term) that are logical and sensible at face value – but which fundamentally undermine consumer capitalism if they are implemented.

The climate charter is now in its third edition. As one of main initiators and contributors to the first edition, I am convinced it should not be read as a finished document, as the ultimate solution to the environmental crisis. It is a summary of the problem, and a working plan to begin solving it. As such, it should be taken as a starting point for launching campaigns and for researching more detailed and creative solutions (or policies) to campaign for.

As the famous Joel Pett cartoon asks, what if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?

The workers of the world still have a world to win; it is not worth saving it otherwise. Practical utopianism will be the future of progress, if there is to be a future worth having.


  • Response to Ben Courtice

    Revolutionaries, whether they be anarchist or socialist, have not lost their vision of a global ‘utopia’, of a green, close to nature communism devoid of class antagonism. They do however differ on the way of getting to this ‘utopia’. As a consequence, we have and are still being betrayed by ‘utopianism’, the impatient striving to go beyond the possibilities of existing, objective conditions and, of course, there have always been divisions on the interpretation of them.

    Early on, the upholders of the ideology of scientific communism settled matters with the ‘utopianism’ of anarchism which, in rejecting the necessity for a transitional phase of socialism, sought to go directly to communist society.

    Later, the supporters of the Fourth International veered away from scientific socialism when they sought to go directly to a state of international socialism.

    And from 1934, the supporters of the Third International veered away from scientific socialism by accepting that it was possible to build, not just socialism, but communism in one country.

    These Internationals are no more, only their factions remain, but they are of our history and their outlooks will certainly be subject to review for many years to come, but we now face the objective conditions created by the advent of global imperialist capitalism and the disintegration of the communist socialist movement. Until that disintegration is overcome, there can be no advance.

    Rather than deal with this disintegration, there are those who choose to ignore it, those who choose to build an alliance with others of their own ilk, and those who seek a unity with the forces of labour or green reformism, or both.

    Overcoming this disintegration is where our “imagination” should be. It is that which “demands action now” and that would be “radical”. Reforming capitalism is not the way to rebalance the planet we live on and ensure a future for humanity.

    As for ‘consumerism’, we should remember that ‘work – buy – consume’ is the modus operandi of capitalist society and this resulted in the over-consumptive ‘consumerism’ of the imperialist states, by a substantial number of people who could afford or borrow the money for it, while still leaving, at a guess, about a third who couldn’t.

    The intense, persuasive power of the ‘democratic’ mass media played a crucial role in pumping up the bubble of consumerism and now, supported by sections of both labour and green reformism, this same mass media is trying to persuade us that it we are the present problem and not global imperialist capitalism.

  • Belated reply to Jeff White:

    The state socialist (social democratic and ‘Stalinist’) left currents in the 20th century do have to share some blame for the state of affairs we are in. Not necessarily the small radical left (Trotskyists, anarchists, etc) although they have tended to be marked by their opposition to the main left currents on matters of democracy more than they have mapped out any alternative economic or social vision against capitalism.

    True capitalism is the root cause, but to only blame that is too simplistic. The errors and corruption of the state-socialist currents have been heavily influenced by productivist ideology and measures, which is probably part of the reason why they succumbed so quickly to neoliberalism. It has also made the victory of neoliberalism all the more complete in many countries, as the official working class alternative has joined the enemy.

  • Actually, I agree with you. I don’t think there is anything better for the “working class” than to shorten or eliminate alienating “work.” And building community where everyone shares in the work that is really needed would do that. I also agree that no matter how abstract we can get, for our own health and sanity, we need to stay close to the earth. I understand that even in the Bronx community gardens are sprouting. Also think it is important for men to share “women’s work.” I live in an area in Northern California where people are growing food and attempting to use less energy and are involved now in something called “Transition Town,” which is about creating “sustainable” community.

    It is also clear that Capital no longer needs a big consumer class in this country, so we will be forced to learn how to produce what we need. We can’t wait for “jobs” because we aren’t needed anymore. Hardt and Negri call for a guaranteed wage for everyone whether we work or not. Good luck getting that. As I recall, McGovern was offering that once upon a time.

    It’s not difficult to imagine a better way to live than the hellish system we now suffer. The problem as always is how to get from here to there.

    But I have no idea whether these small efforts will have any impact on global warming!

    Lucky thing for Orwell that he’s dead.

  • Carol, before you take umbrage you should read the article a little more carefully. It’s true that Orwell’s list of “wackos” is somewhat ridiculous; that’s probably half the point my article is making. Nudists are probably the only category on the list not completely normal nowadays. “utopianism” is relative.

    I agree with your comments re the necessity of feminism for creating socialism. Orwell may not have. I included that quote for its amusement value more than serious analysis. What do you think of my words?

  • These comments are fascinating to me. They seem to be speaking to some entirely other article. Interesting! Nothing any commentor has said yet takes away from Courtice’s point.

    This must be a very very sensitive topic. Well, I guess it is. The fate of Life on Earth is in the balance. IMHO.

  • When he listed “feminists” along with the other wackos who are attracted to socialist utopias, I lost interest in anything else he had to say. Does he know what a feminist is?

    Half the world at least are women. All of them are also workers inside and outside the home. Most of them are poor. A feminist is a woman who feels solidarity with other women around the world. Wouldn’t feminism be indispensable to creating socialism? What would socialism without feminism even be?

    Women are constructed differently than are men, but shouldn’t they have something to contribute to the new socialist “human?”

    There are many feminist utopian visions in print. I suggest socialists start reading them.

    • Carol — I’m confident that Ben would agree with you. The passage you object to wasn’t his words — he was quoting something George Orwell wrote long ago.

  • I question the equation of utopianism with creativity (and vice versa).

    Also, the blame for “privatising” the culture and dreams of working people lies with the capitalist system and its relentless consumerism – not with the “old, official left”. It is not the left that has made the workers dream of SUV’s, plasma TV’s and fast food, unless the left refrred to is the social-democratic left, which has largely embraced the ideology and assumptions of capitalist society.

    My own experience with the “first world” Marxist left in the last fifty years has been that we have always held up a vision of a radically different kind of society where people would be freed from the work and consumption treadmill and allowed to pursue their full spiritual and cultural potentials.

    But the relentless attacks on workers’ abilities to feed and house themselves and their families has compelled their struggle to focus on jobs, consumer goods, and economic growth.

    The Cuban masses who made the revolution were not motivated by Che’s vision of Socialist Man, but by the desire – indeed, necessity – to escape the material conditions of grinding poverty and oppression. Even today, when Cubans have greatly improved their lives over pre-revolutionary times, their concerns are largely to preserve their calorie intake levels and other measures of basic consumption against the constant pressures and threats of imperialsm to take them away.

    But the visionary and personally liberating aspects of the historical materialist ideology have remained an integral part of revolutionary socialist theory and propaganda throughout the world.

  • Ben Courtice has outlined a feasible agenda for the green-left convergence process. A key political objective however must be localisation of politics, with re-invention of the role of the village, as focus for community development, on a scale such that people can get to know each other. The village can be urban as well as rural. It could have a key role in organising localised food supply, on the basis of a network of co-operative enterprises, in production and marketing. This proess needs to be seriously fleshed out in economic terms, in a context where creative localised work is the objective, and the ‘growth’ mantra abandoned. Perhaps the ‘growth’ concept needs to be re-invented in the direction of enhanced localised utility.

  • Having started with the concept of needing to develop a utopian ideology the author sidetracks himself by coming up with particular practical examples.
    What is needed in the first instance is a set of principles on which a realistic utopia is to be based. A political philosophy is realistically utopian when it extends what are thought to be the limits of practical possibility and in so doing reconciles us to our political and social condition. (John Rawls Law of the Peoples p11)
    A close reading of Rawls provides us with the principles on which political and social institutions may be based and ensures that an egalitarian society is created.
    The reason foundational principles are important (and Rawls has just two)is that the sort of transition ideas contained in this essay can easily be expropriated by the same forces that have created the problem in the first place. An obvious example is the enthusiasm with which carbon trading is promoted – carbon trading is merely yet another financial instrument that creates wealth for the few without making the slightest difference to the reality of climate change.
    In much the same way the left has to expose the environmental ponzi schemes which do nothing to create a sustainable future.