Utopian socialism, properly so-called, is the name given to socialist aspiration in the era prior to the development of industrial capitalism. It refers to the yearning for an egalitarian society, but without the scientific analysis of social evolution that modern scientific socialism provides.
Before the coming of industrial capitalism, the yearning for an egalitarian society could only be a yearning, without any concrete analysis of social reality. Utopian socialism does not refer, therefore, to the vision of a William Morris, who was a scientific socialist, but to largely pre-capitalist visions of a socialist future. Under this heading come the mediaeval communists together with the Anabaptist and other religiously-motivated sects.
The decaying feudal society that produced the Hutterites and other pre-capitalist utopian socialists could only produce a vision, expressed usually in religious terms. An innumerable range of “heretical” Christian sects come under this heading, most of them expressing the yearning of peasants and the urban poor for “something better” than the world they suffered in. This is the principal reason for the Catholic Church’s absolutely savage persecution of such “heresy”. The Church represented the feudal ruling class, whose aim had to be to keep the serfs exploitable and in their place. Anabaptism and other communistic self-regulating communities were seen as a threat to that rule; as indeed many were, by emancipating their adherents from the ideological control of the Catholic clergy and hence of the feudal system.
The response of the pre-capitalist communists was to separate themselves from the dominant society. This was the only thing, apart from initiate or participate in widespread peasant revolt (which many did), they could do to realise their socialistic dream in an age in which the social and economic conditions were by no means ripe for converting the dominant society itself into a socialist one. The only answer was to separate oneself and set up alternative communities, in the manner of what we know as the cult, or the religious sect. Some of these sects were more or less democratic, others were authoritarian, but all challenged the existing order. (And in feudal, as in capitalist society, remember, even pacifist separation constitutes defiance.)
In continental Europe, the last great communist movement that accompanied the end of feudalism, that of militant Anabaptism, was bloodily crushed at Münster in Germany in the 16th century. Anabaptism, however, continued to play a part in the English bourgeois revolution of the 1640s, where political groupings such as the Diggers and Ranters aimed at building a communist society, expressing this aspiration in the only way they could as people of their time: in the language of the Bible and Protestant Christianity. In both central Europe and in England, the failure of these early utopian socialists to realise their hopes for an egalitarian society led inevitably to the pacifist reclusiveness and social separation which marks their descendants today: the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, Hutterites and other Anabaptist groups in America; and the pacifist, democratic English sect of the Quakers. These groups all represent utopian socialism “forced into retirement” by the social reality of feudal and early capitalist Europe.
The descendants of pre-capitalist utopian socialism have been joined in our time, and throughout the three centuries which separate us from the militant Anabaptists, by new sects advocating intentionally communistic “alternative societies” consisting of people understandably disillusioned by the dominant society of our time—capitalism—and seeking alternative lifestyles to that of the modern wage-slave. These communities range from the genuinely democratic on the one hand, to the authoritarian and cultish on the other. Most, but not all, express their aspirations, like the pre-capitalist communist movements they emulate, in religious terms, Christian or otherwise. They are to be distinguished from scientific socialists not only in their policy of social separation (marked by greater or lesser degrees of reclusiveness), but by the fact that they emphasise the common ownership and consumption of goods, as in Anabaptist and early Christian injunctions. For scientific socialists communism (socialism) entails the common ownership of the means of production.
Scientific socialism comprehends the socialist task to be the transformation of society, now that the economic means for the establishment of a socialist society have been realised. For the past 100 years or so the means for the establishment of socialism as a society have existed. This was not the case prior to the industrial revolution, when socialism could only be utopian, as to its realisation at the time was socially and economically impossible. Likewise, the analysis of capitalist society and of the social development leading up to it provided by Marx in his book Capital could not have been made prior to the industrial revolution.
Today, utopian communities in separation from the dominant (capitalist) society which reigns in all countries court at best a deceptive bliss and, at worst, disaster. The pre-capitalist, utopian communism they espouse in all genuineness necessarily fights a losing battle everywhere against the destructive effects of world capitalism. A polluted river will carry its poison through all valleys; the hydrogen bomb respects no person’s health. In a sense the true heirs of the militant Anabaptist and other pre-capitalist communists are not those who still seek to separate themselves from capitalist society but those who realise that a democratic society-wide revolution can at last achieve a society the original utopian socialists could only dream of.