Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (1949).



Among the sections of the Communist Manifesto which have exerted the most powerful influence on the generations up to our own day is that entitled "Der kritisch-utopistische Sozialismus und Kommunismus" (The Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism).

Marx and Engels were entrusted by the "League of the Just" with the formulation of a communist credo -- an important preliminary to the convocation of a Universal Communist Congress, the "Union of all the Oppressed", planned for 1848. The League Directorate laid down that fundamental expression should also be given in this credo to the "position as regards the socialist and communist parties", i.e. the line of demarcation dividing the League from the affiliated movements, by which were meant above all the Fourierists, "those shallow folk" as they are called in the draft of the credo which the Central Authority presented to the London League Congress. In the draft written by Engels there is as yet no mention of "utopian" socialists or communists; we hear only of people who put forward "superlative systems of reform", "who, on the pretext of reorganizing society, want to bolster up the foundation of existing society and consequently the society itself," and who are therefore described as "bourgeois socialists" to be attacked -- a description which, in the final version, applies in particular to Proudhon. The distance between the Engels draft and the final version drawn up substantially by Marx is immense.

The "systems", of which those of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen are mentioned (in Marx's original version Cabet, Weitling and even Babeuf are also named as authors of such systems), are all described as the fruit of an epoch in which industry was not yet developed and hence the "proletariat" problem was not yet grasped; instead there appeared those [2] same systems which could not be other than fictitious, fantastic and Utopian, whose aim was at bottom to abolish that very class-conflict which was only just beginning to take shape and from which the "universal transformation of society" would ultimately proceed. Marx was here formulating afresh what he had said shortly before in his polemic against Proudhon: "These theoreticians are Utopians; they are driven to seek science in their own heads, because things are not yet so far advanced that they need only give an account of what is happening under their eyes and make themselves its instruments." The criticism of existing conditions on which the systems are built is recognized as valuable explanatory material; on the other hand all their positive recommendations are condemned to lose all practical value and theoretical justification in the course of historical development.

We can only assess the political character of this declaration in the framework of the socialist-communist movement of the time when we realize that it was directed against the views which used to reign in the "League of the Just" itself and were supplanted by Marx's ideas. Marx characterized these views twelve years after the appearance of the Communist Manifesto as a "secret doctrine" consisting of a "hodge-podge of Anglo-French socialism or communism and German philosophy", and to this he opposed his "scientific insight into the economic structure of bourgeois society as the only tenable theoretical basis". The point now, he says, was to show that it "was not a matter of bringing some Utopian system or other into being but of consciously participating in the historical revolutionary process of society that was taking place before our eyes". The polemical or anti-utopian section of the Manifesto thus signifies an internal political action in the strictest sense: the victorious conclusion of the struggle which Marx, with Engels at his side, had waged against the other so-called -- or self-styled -- communist movements, primarily in the "League of the Just" itself (which was now christened the "League of Communists"). The concept "utopian" was the last and most pointed shaft which he shot in this fray.

I have just said: "with Engels at his side." Nevertheless reference should not be omitted to a number of passages from the Introduction with which Engels, some two years before the Manifesto was drafted, had prefaced his translation of a fragment from the posthumous writings of Fourier. Here, too, [3] he speaks of those same doctrines which are dismissed as Utopian in the Manifesto; here, too, Fourier, Saint-Simon and Owen are quoted; here, too, a distinction is made in their works between the valuable criticism of existing society and the far less relevant "schematization" of a future one; but earlier on he says: "What the French and the English were saying ten, twenty, even forty years ago -- and saying very well, very clearly, in very fine language -- is at long last, and in fragmentary fashion, becoming known to the Germans, who have been 'hegelizing' it for the past year or at best re-discovering it after the event and bringing it out in a much worse and more abstract form as a wholly new discovery." And Engels adds word for word: "I make no exception even of my own works." The struggle thus touched his own past. Still more important, though, is the following pronouncement: "Fourier constructs the future for himself after having correctly recognized the past and present." This must be weighed against the charges which the Manifesto lays at the door of utopianism. Nor should we forget that the Manifesto was written only ten years after Fourier's death.

What Engels says thirty years after the Manifesto in his book against Dühring about these self-same "three great Utopians", and what passed with a few additions into the influential publication The Evolution of Socialism from Utopia to Science a little later, is merely an elaboration of the points already made in the Manifesto. It is immediately striking that once again only the same three men, "the founders of Socialism", are discussed, those very people who were "utopians", "because they could not be anything else at a time when capitalist production was so little developed", people who were compelled "to construct the elements of a new society out of their heads because these elements had not yet become generally visible in the old society". In the thirty years between the Manifesto and the anti-Dühring book had no socialists emerged who, in Engels' opinion, deserved the epithet "utopians" and his notice alike, but who could not be conceded those extenuating circumstances, since in their day the economic conditions were already developed and "the social tasks" no longer "hidden"? To name only one and of course the greatest -- Proudhon -- one of whose earlier books, The Economic Contradictions or the Philosophy of Misery, Marx had attacked in his famous Polemic written before the Manifesto -- from Proudhon a series of important [4] works had appeared meanwhile which no scientific theory about the social situation and the social tasks could afford to overlook; did he also (from whose book, albeit attacked by Marx, the Communist Manifesto had at any rate borrowed the concept of the "socialist utopia") belong to the Utopians, but to those who could not be justified? True, in the Manifesto he had been named as an example of the "conservative or bourgeois socialists" and in the Polemic Marx had declared that Proudhon was far inferior to the socialists, "because he has neither sufficient courage nor sufficient insight to raise himself, if only speculatively, above the bourgeois horizon"; and after Proudhon's death he asseverated in a public obituary that even to-day he would have to confirm every word of this judgment, and a year later he explained in a letter that Proudhon had done "immense harm" and, by his "sham-criticism and sham-opposition to the Utopians" had corrupted the younger generation and the workers. But another year later, nine years before writing the anti-Duhring book, Engels states in one of the seven reviews which he published anonymously on the first volume of Marx's Capital, that Marx wanted to "provide socialist strivings with the scientific foundation which neither Fourier nor Proudhon nor even Lassalle had been able to give" -- from which there clearly emerges the rank he awarded to Proudhon despite everything.

In 1844 Marx and Engels (in their book The Holy Family) had found in Proudhon's book on Property a scientific advance which "revolutionizes political economy and makes a science of political economy possible for the first time"; they had further declared that not only did he write in the interests of the proletariat but that he was a proletarian himself and his work "a scientific manifesto of the French proletariat" of historic significance. And as late as May, 1846, in an anonymous essay, Marx had dubbed him "a communist", in a context, moreover, which makes it obvious that Proudhon was still a representative communist in his eyes at the time, some six months before the Polemic was written. What had happened in the meantime to move Marx to so radical an alteration of his judgment? Certainly, Proudhon's "Contradictions" had appeared, but this book in no way represented a decisive modification of Proudhon's views, also the violent diatribe against communist (by which Proudhon means what we would call "collectivist") Utopias is only a more detailed elaboration of his criticism of [5] the "Communaute" which can be read in the first discussion on property, so lauded by Marx, in 1840. However, Proudhon's refusal of Marx's invitation of collaboration had preceded the "Contradictions". The situation becomes clearer for us when we read what Marx wrote to Engels in July, 1870, after the outbreak of war: "The French need a thrashing. If the Prussians win, the centralization of State power will subserve the centralization of the German working-class. German domination would furthermore shift the focus of the Western-European workers' movement from France to Germany, and you have merely to compare the movement in the two countries from 1866 up to now to see that the German working-class is superior both in theory and in organization to the French. Its supremacy over that of the French on the world-stage would at once mean the supremacy of our theory over Proudhon's, etc." It is thus in eminent degree a matter of political attitude. Hence it must be regarded as consistent that Engels should describe Proudhon soon afterwards in a polemic against him (On the Housing Question) as a pure dilettante, facing economics helplessly and without knowledge, one who preaches and laments "where we offer proofs". At the same time Proudhon is clearly labelled a Utopian: the "best world" he constructs is already "crushed in the bud by the foot of onward-marching industrial development".

I have dwelt on this topic at some length because something of importance can best be brought to light in this way. Originally Marx and Engels called those people Utopians whose thinking had preceded the critical development of industry, the proletariat and the class-war, and who therefore could not take this development into account; subsequently the term was levelled indiscriminately at all those who, in the estimation of Marx and Engels, did not in fact take account of it; and of these the late-comers either did not understand how to do so or were unwilling or both. The epithet "Utopian" thereafter became the most potent missile in the fight of Marxism against non-Marxian socialism. It was no longer a question of demonstrating the Tightness of one's own opinion in the face of a contrary one; in general one found science and truth absolutely and exclusively in his own position and utopianism and delusion in the rival camp. To be a "Utopian" in our age means: to be out of step with modern economic development, and what modern economic development is we [6] learn of course from Marxism. Of those "pre-historic" Utopians, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen, Engels had declared in his German Peasant War in 1850 that German socialist theory would never forget that it stood on the shoulders of these men, "who despite all their fantasticalness and all their utopian-ism must be counted among the most significant brains of all time, who anticipated with genius countless truths whose validity we can now prove scientifically". But here again -- and this is consistent from the political point of view -- consideration is no longer given to the possibility that there are men living today, known and unknown, who anticipate truths whose validity will be scientifically proved in the future, truths which contemporary "science" -- i.e. the trend of knowledge which not infrequently identifies itself in general with Science -- is determined to regard as invalid, exactly as was the case with those "founders of socialism" in their day. They were Utopians as forerunners, these are Utopians as obscurantists. They blazed the trail for Science, these obstruct it. Happily, however, it is sufficient to brand them Utopians to render them innocuous.

Perhaps I may be allowed to cite a small personal experience as an instance of this method of "annihilation by labels". In Whitsun, 1928, there took place in my former home-town of Heppenheim a discussion,1 attended mainly by delegates from religious socialist circles, on the question of how to nourish anew those spiritual forces of mankind on which the belief in a renewal of society rests. In my speech, in which I laid particular emphasis on the generally neglected and highly concrete questions of decentralization and the status of the worker, I said: "It is of no avail to call 'utopian' what we have not yet tested with our powers." That did not save me from a critical remark on the part of the Chairman, who simply relegated me to the ranks of Utopian socialists and left it at that.

But if socialism is to emerge from the blind-alley into which it has strayed, among other things the catchword "Utopian" must be cracked open and examined for its true content.


1 The minutes appeared in Zurich 1929 under the title "Sozialismus aus dem Glauben" (Socialism from Faith).