Underneath this general rubric, however, “utopia” can be seen to signify several related but distinct things. The term is commonly used to refer to that literary genre, deriving its name from Thomas More’s eponymous Utopia, which depicts various “ideal commonwealths.” Beyond this meaning, many commentators have identified these literary utopias as belonging to a broader impulse that exists within the very structure of human experience, of which they are but one expression. Karl Mannheim, for example, described utopianism as a mentalité, writing that “[a] state of mind is utopian when it is incongruous with the state of reality within which it occurs…and at the same breaks the bond of the existing order.” Others have linked the idea of utopia to more metaphysical foundations, explaining how the condition for the possibility of utopia is carried by the category of possibility itself. Understood in this way, a utopia could be an alternate social configuration that is imaginable either as a pure fantasy wholly apart from existing conditions, or as one that is potentially viable, somehow implied by those same conditions. The former of these constitutes an abstract or merely logical possibility, whereas the latter represents a concrete or real possibility.
In either case, the point of reference for a utopia is the social order presently at hand. As such, utopia is historically variable, depending upon the political, economic, and institutional framework prevailing at any given time. The specific contents of a utopia (whether it has democracy or aristocracy as its political ideal, whether it favors partial slavery or universal citizenship) tend to reflect the outstanding structures and practical exigencies of its age, responding to them in any number of ways. This is why for Mannheim utopias, like ideologies, are always “situationally transcendent.” Utopias reach beyond existing circumstances, but in such a manner that they nevertheless remain informed by them. In this sense, Mannheim’s definition retains a kernel of truth, despite the dubious distinction he otherwise tried to draw between ideology and utopia and his confusion over the concept of “ideology” in general. For the many utopian visions and utopian movements that have arisen throughout history are without a doubt the products of their time. Accordingly, they bear the mark of the material forces and social pressures that surrounded them. Even Mannheim’s somewhat faulty definition of utopia is indicative of the early twentieth-century milieu out of which it emerged, a moment in which utopianism was undergoing one of its most decisive historical mutations.
Not only are the specific contents of utopia largely determined by history, but the different forms utopianism has taken as well. This is meant in the most general possible sense — not in terms of the varying dimensions of the wished-for realities portrayed in daydreams, utopian fiction, and architectural blueprints — but rather in the human orientation toward those images of a better world. This becomes clearer when one considers the different significances utopia has been held to possess, which were outlined above. While Mannheim is probably correct to assert that “wishful thinking has always figured in human affairs,” utopia’s precise relationship to reality has by no means remained constant over time. For this very reason, the intentions of the various authors of utopia have been subject to change. Some elaboration would perhaps be appropriate here in order to elucidate this point.
Surveying the discrete products of the utopian imagination over time, several notable facts present themselves. To begin with, the earliest utopias, from Plato’s Republic down through the Renaissance, assumed an exclusively literary form. These literary utopias, despite the narratives that sometimes accompanied them, never amounted to more than speculative thought-experiments whose primary purpose was to critique existing reality. In other words, they served a purely negative function. Only with the rise of certain chiliastic religious sects in the wake of the Protestant Reformation do we see the emergence of utopianism as a positive program to bring about the existence of a better world. This form of utopianism underwent a general process of secularization over the course of the Enlightenment and into the nineteenth century, absorbing liberal and radical influences along the way. By this time, entire movements had been founded upon the principle of realizing utopia. These movements, when they did not attempt to break away from existing society, often had ties to mass political movements, and sought to achieve their utopian visions either through legislative reform or revolutionary action. Of course, literary utopias were hardly rendered obsolete by these more activist strains of utopianism: they adapted comfortably to the form of the novel, drifting toward the fledgling genre of science fiction during the fin-de-siècle. Still, there was considerable overlap between the contents expressed by the newer literary utopias and concurrent utopian movements, as they often used the political ideologies of their day as the basis of their vision of a better world. It was not unusual that a major utopian author like H.G. Wells would belong to the Fabian society or that a prominent revolutionary figure like the Bolshevik Aleksandr Bogdanov would write a utopian science fiction novel.
But the ideal societies depicted — either as fictional constructs in literary utopias or as realizable political goals for utopian social movements — likewise experienced a fundamental transformation around the turn of the century. In each case, thinkers began to reconsider the basic contours of utopia, to rethink the spatial dimensions it would inhabit. Whereas before utopias had occupied geographically isolable locations limited by definite spatial boundaries, the idea of a perfected society was now extended to encompass the entire globe. That is to say, all previous utopias had been envisioned as territorially self-enclosed. For Plato and Campanella a single polis had proved sufficient, for More and Bacon an island commonwealth. As late as the nineteenth century, the political formation of the nation-state, surrounded on all sides by established borders, had been enough to satisfy the conditions required for the utopias of Bellamy and Butler. Starting in the first decade of the twentieth century, however, this image of a localizable utopia no longer appeared adequate. Instead, utopia was reimagined on a global scale.
Similarly, the utopian social movements that had earlier in the nineteenth century aspired to break away from existing society now increasingly began to call for a global project of emancipation. While Fourier undoubtedly possessed an idea of “universal humanity” inherited from the Enlightenment and although Owen’s early philanthropy extended well beyond the British Isles, their followers were content to found ideal communities in isolation from the rest of modern society. These were the utopian socialists encountered by Marx and Engels, at whom they leveled a devastating critique in their jointly-written Communist Manifesto of 1848:
[The utopian socialists] still dream of an experimental realization of their social utopias, the establishment of individual phalansteries, the foundation of home colonies, the building of a little Icaria — pocket editions of the new Jerusalem — and to erect all these castles in the air, they must appeal to the philanthropy of the bourgeois heart and purse.
“[The utopians] reject all political action,” the young authors continued, “particularly revolutionary action. They want to reach their goal by peaceful means and seek through the power of example to pave the way for the new social Gospel through small-scale experiments, which naturally fail.” By the end of the nineteenth century, however, these criticisms were generally no longer applicable. The utopian currents which had before been so widespread had by this point largely been absorbed into the mainstream socialist and anarchist movements throughout Europe, both of which had a decidedly internationalist bent. The millennialist fervor that characterized so much of these groups’ revolutionary ambitions was carried over from earlier utopian impulses.
All three of these aspects of utopia hitherto discussed, the specific contents it prescribed, the different forms its expression took, and the scale on which it was imagined, can therefore be seen to have undergone a substantial change over time, especially during the nineteenth century. In this essay, I would like to suggest that the changes that took place during this period mirrored an underlying shift in the structure of society. This shift was in turn triggered by the arrival of an historically unprecedented social formation, one which first began to take shape in the sixteenth century in England, which then matured in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and finally started to spread in earnest to the other nations of Europe in the nineteenth: namely, the social formation corresponding to the capitalist mode of production. For while utopias written in precapitalist societies doubtless reflected the predominant economic relations of their given polity and the legal, political, and religious ideologies attached to them, these cannot be thought to have possessed any more than a local significance. The various social formations that existed prior to the commodification of labor under capitalism proceeded according to no inherently totalizing logic comparable to that of the latter. “[With capitalism, w]e are dealing with a new sort of interdependence, one that emerged historically in a slow, spontaneous, and contingent way,” explains Moishe Postone. “Once the social formation based upon this new form of interdependence became fully developed, however (which occurred when labor power itself became a commodity), it acquired a necessary and systematic character; it has increasingly undermined, incorporated, and superseded other social forms, while becoming global in scale.” By the dawn of the twentieth century, capitalist relations had expanded to such an extent and its internal dynamic had developed to such a degree that it produced unmistakable changes in the constitution of utopia.
Moreover, utopian thought had in the meantime been mediated over the stretch of the nineteenth century by its interaction with other ideologies generated by the advent of capitalism. Foremost among these, it is here argued, was that of historic Marxism — not only that of the founders Marx and Engels themselves but also the parties that flew under their banner. The utopian social movements that existed before the revolutions of 1848 were now forced to confront damning criticisms provided by a theory that explicitly acknowledged its debts to their advances. As a result, they found that their ideas had been either overcome or irrevocably altered by the appearance of this new form of revolutionary thought. Conversely, the numerous Marxist and anarchist currents that emerged out of the First International still held traces of the utopian tendencies that had initially served as one of their chief sources of inspiration. One of the difficulties posed by this paper, then, will be the comprehension of utopia’s encounter with (and partial sublation by) historic Marxism according to the categories laid out by Marx himself — the only categories the present author considers adequate to the analysis of capitalist society. This remains so despite the shortcomings of much traditional Marxism, regardless of its misapprehension of Marx’s later theory.
This study will hence be divided into two sections in order to clarify the relationship between capitalism and utopia. The first will explore the historicization of utopia, whereby the representation of a better world was removed from its position transcending space and time and transplanted into one which was immanently emerging out of historical conditions. Following this section, a second will investigate the globalization of utopia, in which the ideal societies imagined by thinkers and projected by activists began to assume planetary proportions. Throughout these sections there will be an attempt to ascertain the connection between Marxism and utopia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From there, some concluding remarks can be offered based on the study’s results.
The Historicization of Utopia
One of the defining features of premodern literary utopias is their ahistorical nature. By this is meant their absolute abstraction from any sense of historical process, wholly divorced from the laws of existing reality. Although they undoubtedly arose in response to a particular historical situation, in some sense the literary utopias written prior to the onset of mature capitalism stood outside of time and space. The rhetorical device relied upon to convey this was to set the depicted utopia at a great spatial distance from the author’s intended audience, even though it was said to exist in the present. Horkheimer wrote of this tendency in literary utopias in a 1934 essay:
The utopians…speculatively outlined a communist society…whose realization they imagined to be possible with means available at the time. This is the reason why…their dreamlands do not lie in the future, but only in spatial distance from the authors’ own country. More’s Utopia is situated on an ocean island; Campanella’s City of the Sun is in Ceylon. For these philosophers, the perfect society can be established at any time and in any place if only human beings can be induced to accept a corresponding state constitution by means of persuasion, subterfuge, or even violence.
A subtle dialectical inversion can be seen at work here. By removing utopia from the process of historical development (making it effectively static) and placing it “just over the horizon” (as an effective “nowhere” or oύ-τόπoς), utopia becomes something that is realizable anytime and anywhere.
By contrast, the early utopian movements displaced this spatial distance by remaking it into a distance in time: they instead oriented their activity toward the better future that they were seeking to bring about. Yet despite having this temporal dimension to their activity, these groups had no more a conception of history than the literary utopians, whose perfected societies were spatially remote. They viewed the new societies they were building as equally realizable in earlier times. In their understanding, it was purely fortuitous that they arrived when they did. For these utopians, the fact “[t]hat [a genius pointing the path to a more perfect future] has now arisen, that the truth has now been clearly understood, is not an inevitable event, following of necessity in the chain of historical development, but a mere happy accident,” as Engels explained. “He might just as well have been born 500 years earlier, and then have spared humanity 500 years of error, strife, and suffering.”
The widespread appearance of utopian social movements at this time, of course, was not accidental. Aside from the Anabaptists and their celebrated leader in the German Reformation and Peasants’ War, Thomas Münzer, nearly all the popular projects of utopian emancipation that have appeared in history date from the early nineteenth century, when Europe witnessed an explosion of groups whose goal was to radically transform society. Ernst Bloch explained the relative lull in utopianism (both literary and activist) during the intervening years as owing to the Enlightenment preoccupation with Natural Rights, which he distinguished from utopia as pertaining to the political and legal status of human beings rather than their social and economic standing. Not until the expansion of a class that sold its labor as a commodity under the capitalist mode of production did any utopian social movement of note appear on the scene. “Proper [utopian] socialist and communist systems, the systems of Saint-Simon, Fourier, Owen, etc., emerged in the first undeveloped period of struggle between proletariat and bourgeoisie,” Marx and Engels pointed out. And so, with the exception of the Anabaptist chiliasts, who represented “that class which was the forerunner…of the modern proletariat,” utopian social movements were inextricably bound up with the rise of the historical proletariat. This fact alone attests to the connection between activist utopianism and capitalism.
That the utopian movements had developed an orientation toward the future was not insignificant, either. Even if they were lacking an understanding of themselves as the outcome of a broader historical process, at least their actions had acquired a directionality (however one-sided). The founders of these different sects, Engels recalled, left delightful “pictures of future society” to be realized by their followers in time. What was it that allowed these figures to establish their utopian programs as projects for the future, whereas their literary predecessors had not?
For one, it was the increasing dynamism exhibited by the new form of society under which they were living, such that time-honored social institutions and traditional practices now visibly underwent a series of sudden and convulsive transformations. Longstanding social relations were often uprooted and replaced within the span of a single lifetime. Zygmunt Bauman thus rightly credited “[t]he considerable speeding up of social change” as a necessary condition for the creation of these utopian programs. This tendency, he added, “was duly reflected in the…novel sense of history as an endless chain of irreversible changes, with which the concept of progress — a development which brings change for the better — was not slow to join forces.” The notion of progressive historical development was aided, moreover, by the ongoing technical revolutions taking place in the field of production. And so, despite the volatility involved in the rapid upheaval of older social forms, the memory that things had not so long ago been different granted to some the hope for a return to “simpler times,” while for others it held the promise of leading to a more perfect, as yet unseen social arrangement.
To offer the raw fact of the heightened social dynamism manifested during this period as an explanation for the futuristic outlook of early nineteenth-century utopianism, as Bauman does, is not enough, however. The latent source of this newfound dynamism must itself be ascertained. For the disintegration of feudal class relations, increased urbanization, and spread of the wage-labor relationship (side by side with the creation of a “relative surplus population” of unemployed workers) are all only surface phenomena bespeaking a deeper social transformation. Though these developments are already commonly associated with the onset of capitalism, it is important to grasp the underlying mechanism that gives rise to them. A reexamination of this mechanism, though long ago apprehended by Marx’s analysis, is made all the more necessary by the vulgar interpretations offered by most of traditional Marxism.
All of the symptoms of transformation listed above were indicative of a basic shift in the structure of society to an economy founded on the generation of value, a quantitative category measuring the amount of abstract labor-power expended in the production of a commodity (expressed in homogeneous units of time). Value, when it appears in the form of capital, ceaselessly strives to augment itself through a process of self-valorization. It here becomes clear that the Lukácsean simultaneous subject-object of history is not Labor as constituted by the proletarian class, but Capital as constituted by self-valorizing value, which assimilates the non-identical to itself through its own activity while remaining at all times identical with itself. As Marx wrote, “[capital] is constantly changing from one form to another, without becoming lost in this movement; it thus becomes transformed into an automatic subject.” Value is still the operative concept in its form as capital, however: “In truth,…value is here the subject of a process in which…it changes its own magnitude, throws off surplus-value from itself considered as original value, and thus valorizes itself independently. For the movement in the course of which it adds surplus-value to itself is its own movement, its valorization is therefore self-valorization.” It thereby obtains an almost magical character: “By virtue of being value, it has acquired the occult ability to add value to itself.”
Capital achieves this valorization through the purchase of labor as a commodity. productive labor thus enters the process of capitalist circulation as a socially mediating activity necessary for the augmentation of capital. “[C]apital has one sole driving force, the drive to valorize itself, to create surplus-value, to make its constant part, the means of production, absorb the greatest possible amount of surplus labor.” Labor, which uniquely possesses the ability to enhance the value originally invested in its purchase, produces surplus-value for its temporary owner in either of the following ways: 1) by an absolute increase in the time spent laboring beyond the socially average time necessary to reproduce the value advanced; or 2) by a relative decrease in the time required to produce an equivalent value below that same social average, since “the prolongation of the surplus labor must…originate in the curtailment of the necessary labor-time,” assuming the length of the working day remains constant. The latter of these methods can only be accomplished by an increase in the productivity of labor by technical or organizational means, either by the introduction of new machine technologies or a more efficient division of labor.
Historically, capital at first relied on the production of absolute surplus-value through the extension of the working day in order to valorize itself, until labor negotiations and parliamentary legislation managed to secure a normal working day through the famous Factory Acts. These set a legal limit on the maximum number of hours a worker could be assigned in a day. Thereafter, capitalist production was generally forced to make do with the generation of relative surplus-value, which it achieved by the successive institution of cooperative action between workers, the detail division of labor in manufacturing, and the implementation of heavy machinery in large-scale industry.
Value, in its infinitely self-relating form as capital, thus constitutes the essence of the capitalist mode of production throughout its various phases. Contrary to the position of the young Marx and most of traditional Marxist thought, neither private property nor class exploitation forms the basis of capitalism. The proletariat, though playing an indispensible role in the initial development and eventual triumph of capitalism, is not the highest embodiment of some sort of transhistorical Labor, on the back of which every past society has been built. It is the transitory outgrowth of an historically determinate social formation, corresponding to a society in which commodity-production has become the dominant mode. Instead of adopting labor (in the form of the proletariat) as the standpoint from which to comprehend capitalist society, along with Lukács and most traditional interpreters of Marx, one should instead look to value (in the form of capital) as the key to understanding its structure.
At this point, our digression into the inner workings of capitalism reconnects with the investigation of utopian social movements. For it is the category of value undergirding capitalist society that is the source of its dynamism; the dynamic character of value in the form of capital is built into its very concept. The dialectical tension which characterizes capital always exists in potentia as part of its logic, but begins to unfold more rapidly with the general stabilization of the workday and the increased stress placed upon the generation of relative surplus-value. Since relative surplus-value demands that the technical and social basis of production be constantly revolutionized so that productivity can be increased, but at the same time the rate of surplus-value thereby gained begins to vanish as soon as these technical and organizational advances are generalized, there is an overall “speeding up” of the production process. These frequent, usually violent speedups give rise to what Postone has called the “treadmill effect” of capitalist production, involving a “dialectic of transformation and reconstitution.”
The internal dynamism of the value-dimension in capital also implies a directionality to its process. That is to say, it moves along definite lines, producing drastic changes along the way (even if these changes are not traced back to their true source). “Value, in Marx’s understanding,…comes into its own only as a structuring social category with the constitution of capital as a totalizing form,” writes Postone. “It is…a category of efficiency, rationalization, and ongoing transformation. Value is a category of a directionally dynamic totality.” Of course, because capital lacks consciousness, this motion is hardly guided by some sort of causa finalis. It lacks intentionality, and therefore cannot be teleological. Rather, society under capitalism is governed by a set of impersonal laws following from strict dialectical necessity.
Even though it proceeds as an abstract force outside of human agency, the social totality as it is constituted in the capitalist formation has often been misrecognized as something that could easily be “corrected” or even “controlled” by conscious planning or regulation, whether this was carried out through mass action or state intervention. Often the very groups whose stated goal was to “overcome” capital were prone to committing errors in their diagnosis of modern society, targeting inessential (though real) social antagonisms without ever penetrating to the core contradiction.
The early utopian movements, for their part, fell victim to this tendency. They mistook some of the passing symptoms of capitalism for its essence. Nourished by the firsthand experience that society was subject to transformation, they sought to pave the way for a future in which certain of the deleterious effects of modernity were eliminated. The utopian activists overlooked the fact that these effects were only the accidental byproducts of capitalist development. The young Marx and Engels, who were themselves still convinced that the nature of society was founded in class struggle, wrote of the utopians’ programs for social reform:
Their positive proposals concerning future society, e.g. transformation of the conflict of interest between town and country, transformation of the family, of private appropriation, of wage-labor, the proclamation of social harmony, the conversion of the state into a mere agency for administering production — all these proposals merely point towards the end of class conflict which had in fact only just begun to develop, which they only knew in its first formless and undefined stage.
These proposals for a society of the future were grounded in a critique of the society that the utopians presently encountered. The “critical elements” of their programs consisted in that they “attack[ed] the…principles of existing society.” They were not formulated with an attention to broader historical processes. An historical dimension would be added to utopian impulses only through their mediation by Marxism, a form of thought which was itself a product of the rise of capitalism.
Before passing on to this crucial conjuncture, however, it is perhaps worth briefly noting one of the consequences of our inquiry to this point. So far it has revealed that the orientation toward the future displayed by activist utopian groups beginning in the early nineteenth century was something not found in earlier utopian thought. Though utopia as an idea long predates capitalism, this feature of utopianism only presents itself in the modern period. Bauman was therefore correct when he wrote that “utopia is a thoroughly modern phenomenon,” insofar as he had earlier defined utopia “as an image of a future and better world.” But this definition is too narrow. Literary utopianism had for centuries depicted ideal societies as either already existing or without any relation to time at all. The notion of utopia as a project to be actively realized in the future, however, is historically specific to capitalism. Utopian social movements, inasmuch as their existence was predicated on future-directed activity, only became possible early in the modern era.
It would thus seem that Mannheim was partially justified in writing that “in certain historical periods wish-fulfillment takes place through projection into time while in, others, it proceeds through projection into space,” even though the two forms of projection often co-existed in the same period. Whether the remoteness of their utopias was conceived as spatial or temporal, however, the ideal societies imagined before the maturation of the capitalist social formation in the second half of the nineteenth century were all commonly ahistorical. Many of the literary utopias and utopian social projects produced after this point, by contrast, were rooted in a theory of history. What occurred between these periods, then, that allowed for the historicization of utopia?
The ultimate reason for the lack of an historical sensibility in earlier utopianism again lies in the structure of society as it existed at the time. Here, as before, it was the temporal dynamic inherent in the value-dimension of capital that made possible an historical consciousness on the part of society. For it was only with the further elaboration of the dialectic immanent to relative surplus-value that the concept of history as an unfolding progression of stages even became available. Postone explains: “Considered temporally, this intrinsic dynamic of capital, with its treadmill pattern, entails an ongoing directional movement of time, a ‘flow of history.’ In other words, the mode of concrete time we are examining can be considered historical time, as constituted in capitalist society.”
Along with the consolidation of capitalism in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries arose the first premonitions of history as a series of distinct epochs, as seen in the writings of Vico and Hegel. These thinkers recognized a real phenomenon that was taking place before their very eyes, as the drive to extract relative surplus-value revolutionized production on a continuous basis, propelling society forward into a number of drastic transformations. This process appeared to them in a veiled form, however, as they both failed to identify its economic source and compounded their mistake by treating it as characteristic of all past time. Engels, who was a bit too much of an Hegelian himself in this respect, traced out this conception of process as follows: “In [Hegel’s] system…for the first time the whole world, natural, historical, intellectual, is represented as a process, i.e., as in constant motion, change, transformation, development.” As far as history is concerned, “[f]rom this point of view the history of mankind no longer appeared as a wild whirl of senseless deeds of violence,…but as the process of evolution of man himself.”
Marx and Engels openly drew inspiration from the “critical elements” of utopian socialism even as they engaged it polemically. Their main point of difference with the utopians was that their movements lacked the historical awareness that even the idealists possessed (albeit in a mystified form). In his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, Engels cited modern socialism’s materialist appropriation of the idealist conception of history as a dialectical unfolding of events as a major advance over the utopian socialism that preceded it. Against the idealists, however, Marx and Engels shared with the utopian socialists their opposition to the present state of society and their desire to bring about a better one. “In its mystified form, the dialectic became the fashion in Germany, because it seemed to transfigure and glorify what exists,” Marx explained in his postface to the second edition of Capital. “In its rational form,…it includes in its positive understanding of what exists a simultaneous recognition of its negation, its inevitable destruction.”
Marx and Engels opposed the idealists’ positive understanding of the present; they likewise opposed the utopians’ positive proposals for the future. It would thus seem that they were only anti-utopian in a limited sense. As Adorno would later write, “Marx and Engels were enemies of Utopia for the sake of its realization.” Bloch reiterated this point: “[I]t must be repeated that Marxism is not no anticipation (utopian function), but the Novum of a processive-concrete anticipation.” The importance of process is apparent here. An understanding of the movement of history is necessary to recognize the conditions required to realize utopia. “Concrete utopia,” as Bloch called Marxism’s image of a better society, “is therefore concerned to understand the dream of its object exactly, a dream which lies in the historical trend itself. As a utopia mediated with process, it is concerned to deliver the forms and contents which have already developed in the womb of present society.” Utopia, then, becomes “concrete” insofar as it is historicized, since historical time under capitalism is itself concrete.
A utopian undercurrent therefore remained operative in Marx’s writings and in the Marxist political movements centered around them, no matter how sober and “scientific” they were purported to be. This utopianism had been thoroughly historicized, however, reflecting Marxism’s historical consciousness, which itself was tied to the recognition of a dynamic working within capitalism. Utopian goals were redefined in terms of a theory of history, by which they comprehended existing reality as an outcome of an ongoing process. From this perspective, they thus regarded the future as something that could be shaped in ways that were compatible with its movement.
All those who possessed utopian sentiments, Marxist and non-Marxist alike, had to face up to this historical critique, and accordingly, “the sense of historical determinateness [in socialism] displaced the other competing forms of utopia.” Ahistorical utopian social movements, the fringe groups that sought to break away from existing society and realize utopia without regard for historical conditions, more or less disappeared midway through the nineteenth century. Most of the utopian energies that had been channeled into separatist groups were now reinvested into mass political movements, where they placed their hope in either reform or revolution of the existing society. Mannheim rightly noted that the anarchist and populist faith in the spontaneous revolutionary potential of “the people” stemmed from earlier chiliastic impulses. Georges Sorel, who flirted with both Marxist and anarchist affiliations over his career, advocated proletarian violence in order to secure a future revolution and revitalize the whole of Europe. Although Bolshevism contained many thoroughly pragmatic elements, its success attracted a number of the prominent strains of utopianism in Russian society and avant-garde art, many of which were integrated into it. For all of these movements, however, utopia had become historicized. That is to say, they saw the possibility for the realization of a better society as rising out of a long historical process that had furnished them with unique conditions, and not as something that could have been accomplished before their time.
Literary utopias increasingly began to locate their ideal societies in the future, as well. Here, too, they often laid out a fictionalized historical progression from the present to the time of their realization. These often converged with the young genre of science fiction. Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 2000-1887, which set off a craze for utopian novels (and a string of sequels written by other authors) toward the close of the nineteenth century, assumed the standpoint of a futuristic society. Starting from the year 2000, it retraced the steps taken by the United States in order to achieve an industrial socialist democracy. H.G. Wells’ Time Machine carried this approach even further. The older spatial utopias survived to some extent, though the locations of the perfect societies they depicted were now restricted to the few unexplored regions of the earth (polar or subterranean utopias) or removed to even extraterrestrial limits (Mars, and occasionally the moon). But for the most part, these utopias were replaced by visions of a future society arising out of the one that presently exists. They often presented one of the ideologies of the day (liberalism, “cooperativism,” but most commonly socialism) as having prevailed in the future in a fairly pure form, thereby overcoming all the problems that before seemed insoluble.
On both of its main levels of expression, then — in the literary as well as the political realm — utopia underwent an unmistakable historicization. This registered fundamental changes that were taking place in the constitution of society, but was also determined by its interaction with other ideologies that had developed an historical consciousness based upon these same changes. Marxism, to be sure, played no small part in this process. A sense of history was not all that utopia owed to capitalism, however. Beyond the timeframe of utopia, the very world it imagined began to take a different shape.
The Globalization of Utopia
Utopias written before the sudden expansion of capitalism in the late nineteenth century into regions of the world that had hitherto remained peripheral to it depicted ideal societies that were uniformly localizable in terms of their spatial limits. The communities planned by the utopian movements before this time were, as noted previously, similarly limited in scope. The better “worlds” they imagined by both were in no sense worldwide. Around the turn of the century, however, their images of utopia expanded considerably, reflecting a new vision of global emancipation.
Northrop Frye noticed this trend in his essay on the “Varieties of Literary Utopias,” but misattributed its occurrence to the exponential growth of technology. This growth of technology was, of course, merely symptomatic of a more fundamental change. “[F]rom about 1850 on,” Frye wrote, “…technology tends to unify the whole world. The conception of an isolated utopia like that of a More or Plato or Bacon gradually evaporates in the face of this fact.” Regarded as a proximate cause, technology was certainly a large factor in the globalization of utopia, especially when technology is understood to provide new means of communication and physical conveyance. H.G. Wells, the renowned utopian, in his minor 1902 treatise Anticipations also identified this as a primary impetus for the foundation of a world state: “[T]he essential process arising out of the growth of science and mechanism, and more particularly out of the still developing new facilities of locomotion and communication science has afforded, is the deliquescence of the social organizations of the past, and the synthesis of ampler…and more complicated…social unities.” The ultimate cause for the rapid improvement of communicative and locomotive technologies during this time resided, in the final analysis, in a branch of industry essential to the circulation of capital. This branch, which is unique in the system of capitalist production in that it does not produce objective commodities, covers both “the transport industry proper, for moving commodities and people, and the transmission of mere information — letters, telegrams, etc.”
Regardless of its true source, Wells saw the accelerated development of these new technologies of transportation and communication as having a major effect on the spatial dimensions of future society. “The suggestion is powerful, the conclusion is hard to resist,” he wrote, “that, through whatever disorders of danger and conflict, whatever centuries of misunderstanding and bloodshed men may still have to pass, this process nevertheless aims finally, and will attain to the establishment of one world-state at peace within itself.” In the next line, however, Wells discerned more closely its real origin: “In the economic sense, indeed, a world-state is already established.” This was fully consonant with the effects entailed by further advancements in the field of transportation and communication. These technologies, which were already being revolutionized so as to expedite the circulation of capital, now reciprocally served to broaden the sphere of capitalist development in the world. For “[i]f the progress of capitalist production and the consequent development of the means of transport and communication shortens the circulation time for a given quantity of commodities,” wrote Marx, “the same progress and the opportunity provided by the development of the means of transport and communication conversely introduces the necessity of working for ever more distant markets, in a word, for the world market.” The more substantial inroads capital thus made into its peripheral zones during the last few decades of the nineteenth century began to establish for the first time truly global social and economic ties of interdependence.
In any case, this observation in Anticipations, which Wells intended mostly as a preparatory analysis, served as a major touchstone for his upcoming work, A Modern Utopia. Wells’ utopia, which followed a rather strange format in combining meta-utopian remarks upon the nature of utopia with longer narrative sections, offered a key insight into the expanding scale of utopia over time. This reflection captured exactly the globalization of the utopian vision in the modern age:
No less than a planet will serve the purpose of a modern Utopia. Time was when a mountain valley or an island seemed to promise sufficient isolation for a polity to maintain itself intact from outward force; the Republic of Plato stood armed ready for defensive war, and the New Atlantis and the Utopia of More in theory, like China and Japan through many centuries of effectual practice, held themselves isolated from intruders. Such late instances as Butler’s satirical “Erewhon,” and Mr. Stead’s queendom of inverted sexual conditions in Central Africa, found the Tibetan method of slaughtering the inquiring visitor a simple, sufficient rule. But the whole trend of modern thought is against the permanence of any such enclosures…A state powerful enough to keep isolated under modern conditions would be powerful enough to rule the world, would be, indeed, if not actively ruling, yet passively acquiescent in all other human organizations, and so responsible for them altogether. World-state, therefore, it must be.
A Modern Utopia, which in many ways marked the culmination of the series of utopian novels that started in the last decades of the nineteenth century, envisioned the world that was already beginning to emerge around Wells. This world stood in stark contrast to the ones portrayed in previous utopias, especially in that it was all-encompassing. It did not admit of localization; nothing could rightfully stand outside of it.
Premodern utopias, as Wells reminded his readers, were imagined on a much smaller scale. The societies they depicted usually mirrored the predominant modes of social and political organization of their day. Plato, writing at a time in which the city-state was the main political body for the Greeks, theorized an ideal republic in the form of a city-state. More, who lived on the mostly island kingdom of England during the age of exploration, fantasized about the island commonwealth of Utopia located somewhere in the New World. Bellamy, who wrote Looking Backward during the heyday of the nation-state, dreamt of a future socialist democracy, which, while drawing loosely upon Marxism, was confined to national boundaries. Reviewing the history of utopian literature in his 1922 work, The Story of Utopias, Lewis Mumford commented on how unimaginable the ancient notion of the city-state seems to the modern mind. “Nowadays when we talk about a state we think of an expanse of territory…so broad that we should in most cases be unable to see all its boundaries if we rose five miles above the ground on a clear day,” he pointed out. “Even if the country is a little one, like the Netherlands or Belgium, it is likely to have possessions that are thousands of miles away; and we think of these distant possessions and of the homeland as part and parcel of the state.”
With Wells, the vision was no longer of a city-state, dynastic state, or nation-state: it was of a world-state, as he called it. Yet no world-state existed at the time he was writing A Modern Utopia, nor has one existed since. From where, then, did Wells arrive at his idea of a world-state, of a global utopia? He already singled out economic and technological progress as an important source of this notion. This is indeed a promising line of inquiry. But there were other, more immediate sources of this vision, built upon the same premises of economic and technological development. Large political groupings, including international Marxism, were clamoring for an end to the jingoism and parochialism associated with the form of the nation-state. They contended that the spread of capitalist economic relations had rendered nationalism anachronistic.
In his article devoted to the subject, “Utopia, Nation-Building, and the Dissolution of the Nation-State around 1900,” Hans Ulrich Seeber argues that “[i]n the process of modernization normativity disappears, but the fact of economic globalization makes national structures increasingly superfluous. Worldwide modernization undermines the very national structures it created.” Insofar as modernity is coterminous with capitalism, thus meaning that modernization is the same thing as capitalization, Seeber is correct. There is a socioeconomic basis to this process of “modernization” as he conceives it, of course: “Economic transactions are totally globalized and society has become an international one.” What Marx and Engels had predicted had now come to pass: “In place of the old needs satisfied by home production we have new ones which demand the products of the most distant lands and climes for their satisfaction. In place of the old local and national self-sufficiency and isolation we have a universal commerce, a universal dependence of nations on one another.”
Seeber notes that this newly globalized social order left its mark on the utopias imagined around this time. “Utopian thought and narrative utopias of the turn of the century (1900),” he writes, “reflect and interpret this development with remarkable clarity.” Despite the lack of an international political body during this time, the increasing interdependence of nations all over the world made it nearly impossible to imagine a utopia as existing on less than a global scale. He cites utopias by Whiteing, Wells, and Benson between 1899 and 1907 as prominent examples of this new type of globalized utopia. Even Bellamy’s Looking Back, which left the form of the nation-state intact, provided for a global organization to mediate the relationships of individual nations. “The great nations of Europe, as well as Australia, Mexico, and parts of South America,” reported Doctor Leete in Bellamy’s novel, “are organized industrially like the United States. The peaceful relations of these nations are assured by a loose form of federal union of worldwide extent. An international council regulates the mutual intercourse and commerce of the members of the union.” To this list Seeber could have also added some of the well-known dystopias — the One State of Zamiatin’s We, the World State of Huxley’s Brave New World, and the three multi-continental powers of Orwell’s 1984.
The precise relationship Seeber’s three terms have to one another — “globalization,” “modernization,” and capitalism — must be spelled out before proceeding any further. For the purposes of this study, “modern society” refers to that social formation corresponding to the capitalist mode of production. Though many accidental elements peculiar to European culture have often been arbitrarily designated as “modern” or “civilized” in the past, this does not mean that the concept of modernity is a self-serving invention of Eurocentric chauvinism. It is a valid category referring to a real phenomenon. “Modernity,” Postone asserts, “is not an evolutionary stage toward which all societies evolve, but a specific form of social life that originated in western Europe and has developed into a complex global system.” This helps bring the global aspect of capitalist modernity into sharp relief. Globality indeed belongs to capitalism as part of its intrinsic logic, and capitalism’s spread to the rest of the world has not been so much a matter of happenstance than it has been the fulfillment of its destiny.
It may well be asked, of course, if there was ever a time when capitalism was not global. The answer to this question is not so simple as it would at first seem. For while historically capitalism emerged in a determinate time and place in Western Europe, specifically England, it might be fair to argue that capitalism was always global in concept. In other words, capitalism may appear at any given moment to be spatially limited on an empirical level (confined to a central “core” of nations where the capitalist mode of production has taken hold), and yet it can still be seen to possess an inherently globalizing dynamic on a conceptual level. “The need for a constantly expanding outlet for their products pursues the bourgeoisie over the whole world,” wrote Marx and Engels in the Manifesto. “It must get a foothold everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere…Through the exploitation of the world market the bourgeoisie has made the production and consumption of all countries cosmopolitan.”
Capitalist modernity not only characterizes a specific form of society; in another way, it can be regarded as having given birth to the idea of “society” to begin with. “Society” only became a general object of investigation in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, when it was finally codified and made into its own discipline by Comte. Before the crystallization of the capitalist social formation, “society” was scarcely conceivable as anything other than a collection of qualitatively separate estates. Moreover, the notion of an overarching “society” beyond that which would specifically pertain to this or that kingdom or nation (French or British society, etc.) would have seemed patently absurd.
All this changed once the capitalist mode of production reached the point at which it could continuously regenerate itself. From that moment on, “[b]ourgeois society carried out the process of socializing society,” as Lukács wrote. “Capitalism destroyed both the spatio-temporal barriers between different lands and territories and also the legal partitions between the different ‘estates’…Man becomes, in the true sense of the word, a social being. Society becomes the reality for man.” Society treats its members, its constituent parts, as belonging to “a general whole that is substantially homogeneous — a totality.” No longer do they appear as divided into qualitatively different estates in which membership was more or less determined by birth. Instead, as Adorno noted, “‘Society’ in the stronger sense…represents a certain kind of intertwinement which leaves nothing out; one essential characteristic of such a society — even though it may be modified or negated — is that its individual elements are presented as relatively equal.” Appealing to the authority of a nineteenth-century Swiss sociologist, Adorno specified “the concept of society…as an essentially bourgeois term, or a ‘concept of the third estate.’” Society, it would seem, is only as old as capitalism.
Capitalism’s totalizing aspect goes hand in hand with its capacity to modernize other social forms it comes into contact with. It draws them into its fold, transforming existing institutions, making them more like itself. Wherever the capitalist form of the commodity has taken hold, capitalism has exerted a homogenizing influence on the social structures it encountered. The way that this plays into the globalizing element of capitalist development should be obvious, as capital would then be able to expand outward, adapting and modifying other social forms to its own. Of course, this expansion has almost never occurred in an unbroken, straightforwardly centrifugal fashion; the diffusion of capital from the “core” to the “periphery” was rather usually motivated by a crisis in the former, necessitating a sudden extension into the latter. This is exactly what took place in the late nineteenth century when capitalism, having already established a stronghold in Europe and the United States and steadily growing in the surrounding areas (the Russian, Ottoman, and Japanese Empires), began to incorporate new geographical zones into its complex world system.
Marxist critics during the last decade of the nineteenth century and the first two decades of the twentieth identified this particular stage of capitalist development as “imperialism.” One of the most influential theoreticians of this phenomenon was Rudolf Hilferding, who addressed the issue as part of his 1910 magnum opus, Finance Capital. In this work, he asserted that “[t]he export of capital, especially since it has assumed the form of industrial and finance capital, has enormously accelerated the overthrow of all the old social relations, and the involvement of the whole world in capitalism.” Like Wells had before him, Hilferding largely ascribed this acceleration and expansion to revolutionary innovations in the fields of transportation and communication. This was well in line with what Marx had already written on the subject, as well. “The capitalist mode of production reduces the transport costs for the individual commodity by developing the means of transport and communication, as well as by concentrating transport — i.e. by increasing its scale,” Marx wrote. “It increases the part of social labor, both living and objectified, that is spent on commodity transport, firstly by transforming the great majority of all products into commodities, and then by replacing local by distant markets.” Writing in a similar vein with reference to his own time, Hilferding reflected that
[t]he revolution in transport is a milestone in the history of capital exports. Railways and steamships in themselves are immensely important to capitalism because they reduce the turnover time. This releases circulation capital and then raises the rate of profit. The reduction in the price of raw materials lowers costs and increases consumption. Thus it is the railways and steamships which first create those large economic territories…But above all the railways were the most important means of opening up foreign markets. Without them, it would have been impossible to distribute the products of these countries in such vast quantities throughout Europe and to expand the market so rapidly into a world market. Even more important, however, is the fact that the export of capital now became necessary on a vast scale in order to construct these railways, which have been built almost entirely with European, particularly English, capital.
Together with the increased concentration of capital in the hands of “capitalist monopolies,” these radical new developments in transportation technology led to the increased globalization of capitalist relations. In this way, Hilferding declared, “Capital becomes the conqueror of the world, and with every new country that it conquers there are new frontiers to be crossed.”
Two of the leading Marxist political theorists of the day, Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg, generally agreed with Hilferding that the catalyst for this global expansion of capital was a combination of the rise of industrial monopolies and an overwhelming surplus of capital in the most advanced capitalist nations. The need for cheap labor and raw materials outside of these countries, they contended, drove the major capitalist associations and the governments of nations where the capitalist mode of production prevailed to invest in regions of the world where capital was less developed. For these regions, this implied the building of an infrastructure sufficient to the needs of the current level of capitalist production. One of the principal components of this necessary infrastructure was transport, and so this involved the construction of extensive railroad networks, as Hilferding had noted. The export of capital also entailed economic competition and military rivalry between the major capitalist powers at home and abroad, as they vied for influence over valuable territories. Luxemburg thus characterized the imperialist phase of capitalism as follows:
The imperialist phase of capitalist accumulation, which implies universal competition, comprises the industrialization and capitalist emancipation of the hinterland where capital formerly realized its surplus value. Characteristic of this phase are: lending abroad, railroad constructions, revolutions, and wars. The last decade, from 1900 to 1910, shows in particular the world-wide movement of capital, especially in Asia and neighboring Europe: in Russia, Turkey, Persia, India, Japan, China, and also in North Africa.
Lenin, respectively, explained how the conditions for the spread of capital were prepared by the fact that many precapitalist nations had already been pulled into the orbit of capitalist circulation: “The export of capital is made possible by a number of backward countries having already been drawn into world capitalist intercourse; main railways have either been or are being built in those countries, elementary conditions for industrial development have been created, etc.” The necessity of this expansion, however, owed to crises occurring in the older capitalist countries: “The need to export capital arises from the fact that in a few countries capitalism has become ‘overripe’ and (owing to the backward state of agriculture and the poverty of the masses) capital cannot find a field for ‘profitable’ investment.” All of this laid the groundwork for an enormous global expansion of capitalist relations starting in the late nineteenth century.
The impact of imperialism on world economics was not lost on utopian authors, either. William Morris, a non-Marxist socialist, recognized its importance, as well. Depicting a postcapitalist pastoral society of the future in his utopia News from Nowhere, he lamented how, in the nineteenth century, “[t]he appetite of the World-Market grew with what it fed on: the countries within the ring of ‘civilization’ were glutted with the abortions of the market, and force and fraud were used unsparingly to ‘open up’ countries outside that pale.” As with many of the Marxist interpreters of this development, Morris stressed the importance that a crisis in the global sphere of exchange, a “breakdown of the whole system founded on the World-Market and its supply,” might have in allowing for the possibility of a world revolution.
Class conflicts in the core capitalist countries were also a major factor in the spread of capital during this period. Working-class movements, which had begun to assert themselves in the late nineteenth century through unionization and the organization of political parties, succeeded in regularizing work hours and continued to demand higher wages for their labor-time. By their very victories, however, workers forced their employers to look to foreign pools of labor, where fewer restrictions existed and where they could thereby obtain a higher rate of surplus-value. Hilferding dealt with this antagonism in his final chapter to Finance Capital, entitled “The Proletariat and Imperialism.” Increased wages and the expansion of the consumer goods industries, he contended, “brings about a rapid increase in the demand for labor and hence a more favorable position for the worker on the labor market, strengthens trade union organizations, and improves their prospects of victory in any new wage struggles.” However, for the employers, “[a]n enlargement of the domestic market through wage increases means a fall in their rate of profit, with the prospect of further reductions, and this in turn slows down accumulation…The commercial policy of the entrepreneurs is accordingly directed primarily to the foreign market.”
As Postone has written, “[s]uch [class] conflicts [between labor and capital] directly affect the ratio of necessary to surplus labor time and hence, play an important role in the dialectic of labor and time…[B]ecause such conflicts are mediated by a totalizing form, their significance is not only local: the production and circulation of capital is such that conflicts in one sector or geographical area affect other sectors or areas.” Again, class conflict is not the prime mover in this scenario: at base, the determining relationship is the ratio of necessary to surplus labor-time, which has a bearing on the amount of surplus-value that is able to be realized. Still, the centrality of maintaining this as a fixed ratio allows class conflict to become a driving force insofar as it disrupts it, compelling capital to look elsewhere for cheap labor. “[C]lass conflict [thus] becomes an important factor in the spatial and temporal development of capital, that is, in the distribution and flow of capital, which becomes increasingly global, and in the dialectical dynamic of the capital form,” writes Postone. “Class conflict becomes a driving element of the historical development of capitalist society.”
This global pattern of capitalist development, which first began to be fully realized in the age of imperialist expansion in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, was reproduced in the utopian imagination of the time. Marxist and anarchist political movements, most of which pinned their hopes for the realization of a better society on a world revolution, envisioned a new social order erected on the ashes of the old. Literary utopias described ideal societies that spanned the entire globe, facilitated by new modes of transportation and communication. In both cases, the utopian vision was subject to a process of globalization in redefining its imaginative scope. As it was with its temporal historicization, here it was also the value-dynamic of capital that lay behind this spatial transformation of utopia.
Conclusion: Socialism and the Attempted Realization of Utopia
The twin processes of utopia’s historicization and globalization in the modern period, the changing nature of its spatio-temporal framework, were each grounded in the dynamic of value intrinsic to capital, qua self-valorizing value. Capital’s march through history was simultaneously its movement through the world (and vice versa), and the epoch-making effects it had on society left their indelible imprint on utopia. For “the totalizing mediation expressed by ‘socially necessary labor time’ [in the form of the commodity] is not a movement of time but a metamorphosis of substantial time into abstract time in space, as it were, from the particular to the general and back.” Of the many aspects of historical time as constituted under capital, one of them was to remake the world in capital’s image. Both of these elements of modern society, its inherent historicity and globality, began to show up in the utopias that were imagined as soon as their truth was realized over the course of the second half of the nineteenth century.
Not only did the utopian imagination reflect these changes to the structure of society directly, but it also came to a consciousness of them through a critical interaction with the main ideologies of its age. One of the principal forms of thought it encountered, which engaged it the most readily, was historic Marxism. Though critical of earlier forms of utopianism, Marxist thought sublated the utopian energies that existed before it. The socialist idea, as Bloch called it, was so captivating that in the minds of many it came to replace utopia entirely. “[A] kind of dedifferentiation,” notes Jameson, “begins to re-appear in the modern era which is registered in the conflation, from Bellamy onwards, of Utopia and socialism.” Bauman expressed much the same sentiment when he wrote that “[s]ocialism has been, and to some extent still is, the utopia of the modem epoch.” When in 1917 there was a socialist revolution in Russia and a series of subsequent revolutions throughout Europe, an active attempt was made to realize a world socialist utopia. In the aftermath of its failure to spread to the most advanced capitalist nations and the Stalinist turn to “socialism in one country,” the first major works of dystopian fiction appeared. Even the utopias that were produced show extreme signs of fragmentation. Those that were written no longer displayed the ambition to change the whole world, and usually only imagined societies that amounted to a modified liberalism. The utopian goals of social movements likewise receded until finally fading completely, having given up the dream of fundamentally transforming society.
Further study could help illuminate the paths that utopia took after this early part of the twentieth century and their connection to later manifestations of capitalism. In particular, it could focus on the specific ways that utopianism tried to respond to the palpable failure of a worldwide socialist revolution and later the collapse of the Soviet regime, which until that point still seemed to many an alternative to the global capitalist order.