1990s >> 1990 >> no-1027-march-1990

Who are the dreamers?

The world is crying out for change. Routinely, millions of children die each year of starvation while billionaires spare themselves no indulgence. Meanwhile, ever new weapons of death are produced for our “security”. Yet people say that we socialists are utopian because we hold to the view that a new society is the only lasting solution to the mess we’re in. and that this must be achieved democratically. Yes”, they say. “the world is heading for disaster, but it’s better to try to make smaller changes than go all out for socialism and perhaps change nothing”,

We are called Utopians because we dare to suggest that we could run our lives in a much more harmonious way, instead of succumbing to the prevailing view that things must carry on more or less as they are. At root, the critics see socialism as just an idea, perhaps even a nice idea, but one that is not likely to materialise. From their perspective we are mad even to sketch out what a better society could be like and should limit ourselves to short-term changes such as bringing down interest rates, or getting rid of a certain type of missile, which might improve things— somehow.

Utopians and Socialists

Part of the confusion about the meaning of the term utopia comes from its first use in Thomas More’s book of the same name The word is a pun: eu in Ancient Greek meaning “good”. (o)u meaning no”, and topos meaning “place”. This definition implies that a utopia is a good place that doesn’t exist, much like the land described in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. Many books other than More’s have outlined utopias, the most famous socialist utopia being News from Nowhere by William Morns where he painted a picture of a classless. stateless, moneyless society, something like the one the Socialist Party is talking about. Many political books have utopian elements, features that the writer sees as desirable in a good” society. Even a book of Mrs Thatcher s speeches might have utopian elements in it, for some people.

There has been a tradition in socialist writing dating back to Marx and Engels of avoiding going into too much detail about what socialism would be like (although there was a great deal of agreement about socialism meaning a moneyless classless society). When Marx and Engels labelled earlier socialists (like Saint-Simon and Robert Owen) utopian, they simply meant that their ideas were before their time. Earlier socialists wanted a world of abundance and co-operation before there was a sufficient level of political consciousness and technology to support such a society: so the more completely plans of a new society were worked out in detail, the more they drifted into fantasies with no basis in the real world. It wasn’t that Marx and Engels thought that you should never talk about what socialism was, but rather that talking about it made no difference until the other requirements had been met.

The idea of socialism stopped being utopian (in the sense of an unrealisable dream) for Marx and Engels once capitalism had developed sufficiently to allow the working class to become politically organised, and when the level of industrial technology brought the potential to produce an abundance of goods to meet everyone’s needs. It is more than a hundred years since Marx’s death and the advanced level of technology that now exists is a very real basis for a truly free and co-operative society. There’s certainly nothing unreal about suggesting that we could organise a better world now. The real dreamers are those who refuse to describe the sort of society that they’re after but rather muddle along hoping that this or that reform will somehow make the profit system behave humanely—something it has never done so far.

The Real Dreamers

So who is being unrealistic? Some people on the “Left” won’t even say what socialism is, because they think that any account of a future society is a waste of time and that we should concern ourselves with present-day struggles. But unless you do talk about where you’re going, how will you know when you’ve arrived? Others even try to convince themselves that socialism already exists in Russia or could be brought about by a Labour government twiddling with capitalism for a few years.

Some of those who accept the aim of socialism still argue that we must go through a “transitional society” which will only later lead to socialism. These “transitional societies” always seem to bear some resemblance to post-1917 Russia and look nothing at all like a truly liberated world society. Even Trotsky (who never stood for the society that we’re working for) recognised how the reality of such a supposed transition in Russia dragged the name of socialism through the mud and gave people a wholly false idea of what a socialist society would be like. Workers today still feel that if this is socialism, then you can stick it.

Even so. despite this vilification of the term socialism, more and more people today recognise that the present system of production for profit makes our lives needlessly stressful and is ruining the planet. Given all this, the real dreamers are those who refuse to outline a viable social framework in which the routine catastrophes of capitalism will stop recurring month after month, year after year. It’s naive not to say exactly how a better society will differ from the present one. The real Utopians are the people who won’t even talk about utopias.

A Very Different Alternative

Socialism has never been tried. This is why we have a clear answer to those who say. “look what socialism is like in Poland or China”. We can counter the nonsense of Thatcher who sees socialism as “a life of debilitating dependence on the state”. Every day socialists balk at the terms “state socialism”, “market socialism”, “socialist France”, or even “National Socialism”. All these assume a political spectrum that stretches only from so-called free market societies on the right to state control of industry on the left. Our ideas have nothing to do with these variations on a grey theme.

We support a very different alternative. We do not say that socialism is a democratic. moneyless world society just because it sounds nice. Our ideas are part of a political tradition which views these social conditions as the only viable framework for stopping the inevitable consequences of continued production for profit. Socialism takes the skills developed under capitalism and puts them to truly co-operative use for the first time. Our outline of socialism is no more than a description of the social conditions in which human talents can truly blossom.

Unless you do have a clear idea of socialism then anyone can claim it, defame it and say it doesn’t work. And unless we keep the idea of working directly for a worldwide co-operative community on the agenda people will always be sidetracked by each month’s new worry—armaments, starvation, disease, urban decay, or pollution. All of these are tragic, but trying to tackle them separately is to fight an ever more difficult battle. These problems are all part and parcel of the sort of society in which we live.

Almost a hundred years ago William Morris saw the dangers of treating the problems of capitalism separately by reforms and insisted on the need to work for a socialist society and nothing else. He argued, with Belfort Bax in Socialism: Its Growth and Outcome, that “it is essential that the ideal of the new society should always be kept before the eyes of the working classes, lest the continuity of the demands of the people should be broken, or lest they should be misdirected”.

Since this time much sincere political effort has indeed been misdirected in attempting to deal with social problems by reforms Meanwhile the real enemy still wreaks havoc; more than ever the inhuman forces of capitalism dominate the world, throwing up ever new problems each day.

The rules of the game need to be changed from producing what makes a profit to producing what we need. At the moment time and resources are wasted on advertising, marketing, the financial systems and weapons while millions die because they don’t have a few coins to pay for the food to fill their stomachs. A competitive society clearly does not meet real needs: by describing how socialism would operate we simply point out how our potential could be realised if we used current know-how in a different way. None of this is utopian in the unrealistic dream sense of the word. “We have the technology”, as they used to say on TV.