An Ambivalent Reading of Marxism and Utopianism


Vincent Geoghegan.  Utopianism and Marxism.  Oxford et al: Peter Lang, 2008.  pp. 189.  ISBN: 3039101374.

In his contribution to Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, Alain Badiou forcefully argues that the century, “between 1917 and the end of the 1970s, is not at all a century of ideologies, or the imaginary or of utopias, as the liberals would have it today.  Its subjective determination is Leninist.  It is the passion of the real, of what is immediately practicable, here and now.”1  These words, issued forth in 2007 (and reappearing in the same year’s The Century), sit rather uneasily with the kind of story Vincent Geoghegan’s book tells about the place of Utopia in the evolution of Marxism during the last two centuries, including its place in Lenin’s own thought.  The latter’s famous 1902 intervention “What Is to Be Done” was, after all, entitled in an act of tribute to Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s homonymous 1863 novel, described as “primarily a piece of socialist and feminist utopianism”; and the conclusion of Lenin’s own reflections at the beginning of the century involves a defense of the “positive assessment of dreaming against revisionist and economistic ‘realism'” (74).  If “utopia” obtains a negative significance for Lenin, Geoghegan adds, it is only in the sense of “totally arbitrary and abstract speculation,” one that is not to be confused with a “denunciation of future speculation per se” (77).

The tension between these two positions is largely an effect of their respective moments of enunciation: Geoghegan’s book was originally published in 1987, a time when “the domestic political context [in Britain] was the increasingly confident neo-liberal conservatism of Margaret Thatcher, in power since 1979” (7).  Badiou’s own look at the past, by contrast, comes at the time of the death throes of this same neoliberal hegemony, now compromised by global war, the drastic curtailment of civil liberties and an ever-intensifying (and still unfolding) economic crisis that has been especially vehement at the “advanced centers” of the capitalist world system.  But this also means that Geoghegan’s and Badiou’s contrasting interpretations are themselves parts of a still active, evolving and unfinished tradition — that of Marxism — and its ongoing negotiations with the questions of Utopia and social reality, the imperatives of system-building and radical transformation, the experiences of success and defeat, the organizational alternatives of centrism and pluralism — the set of problems, in fact, which Geoghegan’s brief but concise treatise tackles.

The book comprises nine chapters, effectively distributed over four discrete historical moments: first, that of the so-called Utopian Socialism of Saint-Simon, Owen and Fourier and its deeply ambivalent reception in the work of Marx and Engels (chapters 1 and 2); second, that of Social Democracy and Bolshevism as well as of a third path for which the buried memories of an emancipated past functioned as means of negotiating a path beyond the rationalist/pragmatist priorities of both reformism and revolutionary vanguardism (chapters 3 and 4); third, the political triumph of the “authoritarian utopianism” of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and the challenge against its reductive implications in Ernst Bloch’s magisterial The Principle of Hope(chapters 5 and 6); and finally, the discrete but also largely related postwar attempts of Herbert Marcuse, Rudolf Bahro, and André Gorz to move past the impasses of social democracy and the dictatorship of the proletariat in order to reclaim the vital significance of the utopian impulse for a Marxist politics capable of doing justice to the increasingly more complex demands of modernity (chapters 7, 8 and 9).

Though Geoghegan’s overall mode of approach seems to privilege contextual analysis over theoretical groundwork, it is possible to discern two guiding assumptions informing his work.  These are: first, that utopianism constitutes a vital and necessary component of visions of radical change in the direction of social justice and equality, one that cannot be abandoned without direful political and ethical consequences (this is more or less Bloch’s position, which Geogheghan acknowledges as a major influence in the book [8]); secondly, that, empirically speaking, utopianism has had no stable conceptual content, but has served as an imputation against antagonistic positions even while it has also implicated itself in the anti-utopian rhetorical stance: thus Marx and Engels’s critical denunciation of Utopian Socialism does not equal the absence of (self-consciously and unconsciously) Utopian elements in their work;2 the Utopian Socialists themselves were likely to see themselves as “scientific” and denounce as “Utopian” the prejudicial beliefs of their own societies; Kautsky’s attack against the Utopian precocity of Bolshevism does not exculpate his own work from the charge of a Utopian investment in the efficacy of reformism, and so on.  The general formula Geoghegan traces until he gets to the discussion of Bloch and his self-consciously Utopian epigones is in this sense that of “anti-utopian utopianism” (58), of a denunciation of antagonistic political positions that fails to acknowledge its own investments in a set of competing projections, desideratums and ideals.  This configuration may in fact be traced all the way to the time of the book’s original publication, since, as Geoghegan powerfully argues, “utopianism is also present in the so-called ‘limited’ or ‘realist’ ideologies”, including that of the “right-wing utopianism” that is “Thatcherite conservatism”, with its idealization of a Victorian past and its wide-eyed faith in the supreme rationality of the market (18).

But the tension between these two basic positions — the first of which posits a sort of inherent ethical value in utopianism as a mode of thought, while the second interrogates the existence of any kind of determinate or a priori content in it — creates a distinct and far-reaching methodological problem: if “utopianism” has no outside — in the sense that it may be imputed to virtually all positions in the ideological spectrum — then why does it possess any substantive value as a principle?  And further, if there is no position outside a conscious or unconscious (or both) investment in utopianism, then how is one to prevent Utopia from fully collapsing into ideology, as another version of ideology’s own lack of an outside?  This is an important issue, for one of the fundamental definitions of the Utopian is that it is a critique of ideology that remains itself ideological to the extent that it is not conscious of the grounds of its critique;3 but this seems to be precisely the problem with Geoghegan’s own position, which seems to consist in a series of critiques conducted from a position that disclaims a vested political ground, seeming rather to emerge out of a purely “corrective” agenda, one that ultimately consists in curtailing this or that theoretical excess.

The difficulties that arise out of this comparative lack of critical reflexivity are instantiated, to take two examples, in the author’s claim that Gorz’s presentation of a brief Utopia of a future society “can only be to the good” (170); or in his suggestion, shortly after, that Marxism-Leninism has “proved to be the most unsatisfactory” (172) strategy for harnessing the utopian tradition, given its failure to offer “principled commitment” to “democratic pluralism” (174).  Both of these positions are obviously evaluative — producing a concrete vision of utopia is “good,” the Leninist refusal of a pluralist politics is not — but an explicit defense of the grounds for such judgment is missing.  The consequence is that both statements obtain a naturalized, and hence profoundly ideological, valence.  Geoghegan’s new preface to the book seems to accentuate, if anything, the original’s sense of irresoluteness regarding theoretical and political positioning: “I am struck in re-reading the text how much I present myself as an insider in the Marxist tradition, identifying myself (though selectively) with its past, defending it from ideological attack, and keen to refashion it for modern conditions. . .  [The book] is hostile to what it terms the ‘authoritarian utopianism’ of Marxism-Leninism, but is keen to point to the elements of positive utopianism associated with the growth of the Soviet Union” (7-8).  What is striking here is precisely a sense of ambivalence toward the position of critical enunciation (the author is struck, virtually in wonder, by his own self-presentation as an “insider” of the Marxist tradition), one that is hardly resolved by the proclamation of abiding faith in “positive utopianism” (for what, politically, is to decide the grounds of such positivity?).  Throughout the book, the author seems at once genuinely unwilling to relinquish the hard core of the Marxist tradition, including some of its most engaged and politically militant embodiments (Lenin, Luxemburg, Sorel) and strongly attracted by the pluralist, liberal and largely post-Marxist language of the “new social movements” of feminism, queer activism and new labor (strikingly, reference to Laclau and Mouffe‘s elaboration of a theoretical bridge between Gramscian hegemony and the demands of a post-Marxist political strategy for the left is missing).

That said, Geoghegan’s book remains a genuine treasure-trove for anyone interested in the broader, and still very much relevant, parameters of the vexed relation between utopianism and Marxism.  The author displays a wide-ranging and internationally informed knowledge of the trajectories of Marxist debates around the question of Utopia.  One is particularly struck by the fresh light cast by his discussion of Kautsky, Bernstein, Luxemburg, Plekhanov, Kuskova and Lenin in the chapter on the second International; of Lafargue, Bebel, Morris, Reich, and Sorel in the chapter on reappropriations of mythical and golden age legacies by the broader left; of idealizations of bureaucratic rationality in the discourse of western apologists of Stalinism in chapter 5; and of the complex and interesting intellectual trajectories of postwar Marxists like Bahro and Gorz.  This is not terrain often traversed, especially with such encyclopedic erudition and effortless synthetic capacity.  Geoghegan’s prose and manner of presentation is thoroughly (and refreshingly) unpretentious, and the chapter on Marx, Engels and the Utopian Socialists remains all but indispensable for any scholar interested in the complex, ambiguous and ultimately irresolvable relation of Marxism to future-oriented thought.  This is a book that is definitely worth reading (or re-reading), particularly now, at a time when an identifiable renewal of left political thought is in sight — one for which the question of the political “real” is no longer reducible to that of “political realism” and the urgent appeal to political militancy does not presuppose the prior identification of a historically predestined and readily identifiable revolutionary subject.


1  Alain Badiou, “One Divides Itself into Two”, in Lenin Reloaded: Toward a Politics of Truth, ed. Sebastian Badgen, Stathis Kouvelakis and Slavoj Žižek, Durham, Duke University Press, 2007, 9.

2  On this question, also see Simon Tormey, “From Utopian Worlds to Utopian Spaces: Reflections on the Contemporary Radical Imaginary and the Social Forum Process,” Ephemera 5.2 (2005), 396-397.

3  See Louis Marin, “Theses on Ideology and Utopia” in Utopics: Spatial Play, trans. Robert A. Vollrath, Atlantic Highlands, NJ, Humanities Press, 1984, 196: “Utopic criticism is ideological insofar as utopia as discourse does not allow for the exposure of the methodology that would legitimate it.  It does not produce the theory of its production.”

Antonis Balasopoulos, University of Cyprus.  This article was first published in European Journal of American Studies (2009) under a Creative Commons license.

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