Imagining a Better Future

Tony Beekman’s short story: A New Job, set in a socialist utopia drawn from his own imagination (Scottish Left Review Issue 67) struck me as being reminiscent of a recently neglected tradition in fiction: the socialist utopian novel. Images of utopia can, of course be traced back to the 16th century when Thomas More’s satirical attack on the values of Tudor England was written, but the socialist utopian novel has its own tradition beginning in the late 19th century.  This of course was the period when Oscar Wilde claimed that ‘a map of the world which does not include Utopia was not even worth looking at’. But if Wilde, in The Soul of Man under Socialism, argues for a world where people would be free from the kind of constraints that an obsession with money places on them, other writers in his own time went further and envisaged how a socialist society in the future would come about and what principles it would be based on.

Two writers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries stand out in this respect: the American liberal journalist Edward Bellamy and the English socialist, artist and designer William Morris. Rather than simply subject them to what EP Thompson called “the condescension of posterity” by looking at the limits of their vision, it is perhaps more constructive to re-examine their work to see if anything can be learned from it. Both of these writers tried to imagine what society would look like if the poverty, exploitation and greed that characterised 19th century capitalism was brought to an end and socialism prevailed.  Bellamy’s Looking Backward and Morris’s News from Nowhere were highly popular texts with left wing educators and autodidacts in the labour movement for at least two generations after they were written. Their rival visions of how socialism could be achieved and would it operate in a future society are, arguably, still relevant to socialists today.

For Bellamy, who sees socialism developing in America as a result of large corporations (or ‘trusts’ in the language of the period) being taken over by the state as a result of a social cris de fois when the American public lose their belief in capitalism.  This he predicted would have happened before the year 2000, not by class struggle but by a peaceful political work and negotiation.  The socialist society that he outlines in his novel is  highly regulated, centralised and essentially bureaucratic and as the state deals with all social needs there are only a few occasions when the government has to meet. The government itself comprises a group of enlightened individuals. Ironically  there are some limited parallels between this group and Lenin’s concept of a revolutionary vanguard but, of course, Bellamy’s political  leaders have no revolutionary intent and, perhaps more importantly, no alternative ideology. The government, when it acts, acts for the common good. Bellamy’s thinking here is close to Rousseau’s concept of the ‘will of the people’ and, like Rousseau himself, he side-steps the problem of competing priorities and the difficult choices that have to made in any form of politics. Had Bellamy looked back at the history of the French Revolution, and in particular the Reign of Terror, he may have given more consideration to this idea.  Robespierre, a well-known disciple of Rousseau, backed by the ironically named Committee of Public Safety, justified the atrocities he gave orders for as actions being carried out for the common good, as he was able to interpret the ‘will of the people’. Such are the dangers of vague and nebulous concept in the hands of powerful high minded idealists.

It may even be time to revive the tradition of the  socialist utopian novel, and attempt to imagine a future socialist society from a 21st century perspective, not only to provide some inspiration in dark times but to generate new debates on  what a future socialist state would look like

Although the novel seems naive from a 21st century perspective, it must be seen within the context of American bourgeois thinking at the time. In response to Bellamy’s novel, Bellamy clubs were formed to debate the themes raised in the book and Bellamy himself was lionised by American intellectuals. Then, as now, many Americans had a pathological fear of communism but they were also concerned about the power of large corporations and by the deepening gap between the rich and poor. Unable to escape the political and intellectual straightjacket of the dominant ideology of their times, they wanted a more civilised society but the notion of revolution or direct action on the part of the working-class was anathema to them. Bellamy, in other words, told them what they wanted to hear: American history was moving in the right direction and there was no need to adopt what were regarded as dangerous European theories of political and social change. It should be borne in mind that this was a work written in one of the most turbulent periods in American labour history.

What is particularly interesting is what followed. Not only did Morris write his News from Nowhere, which like Bellamy’s novel is narrated by a man (Morris himself) who travels through time to a future socialist age in response to  Looking Backward but he presented a contrasting version of utopia. Morris’s socialist future is one based on communities and small cooperatives which allow the creativity of people to flourish. The power of the state has ceased to be evident as Morris, an avowed Marxist, tells us that, in his socialist utopia (in Marxist terms a actually communist utopia), the state has all but withered away. This is not the only contrast however as Morris tells us that his socialist state was only achieved after a long and bitter struggle. Morris was deeply influenced by the economic social and political events of 19th century Britain, a time when, according to EJ Hobsbawm, for the first time in history, a class conscious working class had emerged and was asserting its power through political and trade union activity. Morris was a keen observer of the activities of the labour movement and had been a member of socialist political organisations including the Social Democratic Federation and, later, the Socialist League. So, unlike Bellamy, Morris held a firm belief that capitalism would not evolve or change without a significant and sustained struggle and that the agents of change would be the working class rather than enlightened bourgeois intellectuals.

The creation of any utopia from the imagination, even a socialist utopia, has a clear existential dimension and Morris’ utopia is a place where aesthetics have not taken second place to functionality. As well as being horrified by the possibility of excessive centralised state control, he also feared that unbridled technological change if not handled democratically, could also have dehumanising effects. Clearly drawing on his horror of the ‘dark satanic mills’ and ugly industrial cities that typified the Victorian era, Morris, always the artist and designer at heart, felt a socialist society should not only have a fairer system of distributing wealth and a more efficient system, it should also look and feel different for all of the people. In other words he rejected any model of socialism based solely on economic or technological determinism. Bellamy’s vision of work in the future being carried out by an “industrial army” which would operate with “military discipline” was abhorrent to Morris. Whereas Bellamy sees work as “a necessary duty to be discharged” before people can pursue creative activities in leisure, Morris’ utopia is one where our creative energies are expressed in our work. This reflected a view central to Morris’ thinking in general. For much of his life he mourned the passing of traditional crafts and small communities and cherished the hope that they may return at sometime in the future. Not surprisingly they have been restored to life in his socialist utopia.

If Morris’s News from Nowhere went some way to challenging some of Bellamy’s cruder assumptions about how state-directed socialism would work in reality, and dismisses naive notions of how socialism would come about, the work that threw Looking Backward’s optimism into sharp contrast in America was Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel. That book, although partly narrated and explained by a historian looking back from a socialist society of the future, has as its central narrative voice the partner of a revolutionary. In the opening chapters of the novel Everhard, the socialist hero, attends a number of debates at dinner parties. Most of the guests see him as an idealist but cannot match his knowledge of history and economics. At a pivotal point in the book he asks, during one such debate, how capitalism will cope when the people rise and take direct action against its exploitative nature. The answer comes from a major shareholder in local mills who tells him in unequivocal terms that any revolution will be crushed mercilessly: “we will grind you down and walk upon your faces”.

Although, as mentioned above, London sees a kind of socialist utopia emerging in the long term, this deeply dystopic novel describes a long and bloody struggle which London predicts will be the path to socialism. There is no evolutionary inevitability; rather, London sees a sustained period of strikes, demonstrations and armed battles as being inevitable before socialism is achieved. The ‘Brotherhood of Man’ eventually assume control when the revolutionaries defeat the ‘Oligarchy or Iron Heel’: a dictatorship set up to defend capitalist interests. The predictions in Iron Heel have seemed closer to realisation since 2008, partly in the catastrophic world-wide failure of unregulated capitalist financial activities, and partly in the rhetoric and political attitudes of right-wing activists in the United States and elsewhere who vehemently reject any notion that the highly inequitable distribution of wealth and resources in capitalist economies may lie at the root of the problem.

As I write people are involved in anti-capitalist demonstrations in almost all Western capitalist economies. While their grievances are clear, what is less apparent, when we hear demonstrators interviewed, is what they would replace capitalism with and how they see the process of change coming about. The evidence of the a peaceful evolution to a fairer society with capitalism developing a conscience is thin on the ground (notwithstanding the words and actions of Warren Buffet and a few other exceptional individual millionaires) but Bellamy is still worth a read as is News from Nowhere particularly for the debates that they led to in left-wing circles for much of the 20th century. It may even be time to revive the tradition of what I have loosely titled the  socialist utopian novel, and attempt to imagine a future socialist society from a 21st century perspective, not only to provide some inspiration in dark times but to generate new debates on  what a future socialist state would look like. It is always easier to criticise than it is to create and as we vent our spleens at the injustices of capitalism it is perhaps necessary to have an image of a better world in our sights and remain positive and optimistic about the possibility of achieving it. That is, if we want to convince anyone of our cause and avoid the pitfalls of political pessimism. Bertolt Brecht’s observation, which may be read as a warning, is as relevant now as it was in his lifetime:

‘And yet as we know

Hatred, even of meanness

Contorts the features

Anger even against injustice

Makes the voice hoarse

Oh, we who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness

Could not ourselves be friendly

But you when the time comes

And man is helper to man

Think of us

With forbearance