Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (1949).



What, at first sight, seems common to the Utopias that have passed into the spiritual history of mankind, is the fact that they are pictures, and pictures moreover of something not actually present but only represented. Such pictures are generally called fantasy-pictures, but that tells us little enough. This "fantasy" does not float vaguely in the air, it is not driven hither and thither by the wind of caprice, it centres with architectonic firmness on something primary and original which it is its destiny to build; and this primary thing is a wish. The Utopian picture is a picture of what "should be", and the visionary is one who wishes it to be. Therefore some call the Utopias wish-pictures, but that again does not tell us enough. A "wish-picture" makes us think of something that rises out of the depths of the Unconscious and, in the form of a dream, a reverie, a "seizure", overpowers the defenceless soul, or may, at a later stage, even be invoked, called forth, hatched out by the soul itself. In the history of the human spirit the image-creating wish -- although it, too, like all image-making is rooted deep down in us -- has nothing instinctive about it and nothing of self-gratification. It is bound up with something supra-personal that communes with the soul but is not governed by it. What is at work here is the longing for that Tightness which, in religious or philosophical vision, is experienced as revelation or idea, and which of its very nature cannot be realized in the individual, but only in human community. The vision of "what should be" -- independent though it may sometimes appear of personal will -- is yet inseparable from a critical and fundamental relationship to the existing condition of humanity. All suffering under a social order that is senseless prepares the soul for vision, and what the soul [8] receives in this vision strengthens and deepens its insight into the perversity of what is perverted. The longing for the realization of "the seen" fashions the picture.

The vision of Tightness in Revelation is realized in the picture of a perfect time -- as messianic eschatology; the vision of rightness in the Ideal is realized in the picture of a perfect space -- as Utopia. The first necessarily goes beyond the social and borders on the creational, the cosmic; the second necessarily remains bounded by the circumference of society, even if the picture it presents sometimes implies an inner transformation of man. Eschatology means perfection of creation; Utopia the unfolding of the possibilities, latent in mankind's communal life, of a "right" order. Another difference is still more important. For eschatology the decisive act happens from above, even when the elemental or prophetic form of it gives man a significant and active share in the coming redemption; for Utopia everything is subordinated to conscious human will, indeed we can characterize it outright as a picture of society designed as though there were no other factors at work than conscious human will. But they are neither of them mere cloud castles: if they seek to stimulate or intensify in the reader or listener his critical relationship to the present, they also seek to show him perfection -- in the light of the Absolute, but at the same time as something towards which an active path leads from the present. And what may seem impossible as a concept arouses, as an image, the whole might of faith, ordains purpose and plan. It does this because it is in league with powers latent in the depths of reality. Eschatology, in so far as it is prophetic, Utopia, in so far as it is philosophical, both have the character of realism.

The Age of Enlightenment and its aftermath robbed religious eschatology in increasing measure of its sphere of action: in the course of ten generations it has become more and more difficult for man to believe that at some point in the future an act from above will redeem the human world, i.e. transform it from a senseless one into one full of meaning, from disharmony into harmony. This incapacity has become an actual physical incapacity, in avowedly religious no less than in a-religious people, save that in the former it is concealed from consciousness by the fixed nexus of tradition. On the other hand, the age of technology with its growing social contradictions has influenced Utopia profoundly. Under the [9] influence of pan-technical trends Utopia too has become wholly technical; conscious human will, its foundation hitherto, is now understood as technics, and society like Nature is to be mastered by technological calculation and construction. Society, however, with its present contradictions poses a question that cannot be dismissed; all thinking and planning for the future must seek the answer to it, and where Utopia is concerned the political and cultural formulations necessarily give way before the task of contriving a "right" order of society. But here social thinking shows its superiority over technical thinking. Utopias which revel in technical fantasias mostly find foothold nowadays only in the feebler species of novel, in which little or none of the imagination that went into the grand Utopias of old can be discovered. Those, on the contrary, which undertake to deliver a blueprint of the perfect social structure, turn into systems. But into these "utopian" social systems there enters all the force of dispossessed Messianism. The social system of modern socialism or communism has, like eschatology, the character of an annunciation or of a proclamation. It is true that Plato was moved by the desire to establish a reality proportioned to the Idea, and it is true that he also sought, to the end of his days and with unflagging passion, for the human tools of its realization; but only with the modern social systems did there arise this fierce interplay of doctrine and action, planning and experiment. For Thomas More it was still possible to mingle serious instruction with incongruous jesting, and, with supercilious irony, to allow a picture of "very absurd" institutions to rub shoulders with such as he "wishes rather than hopes" to see copied. For Fourier that was no longer possible; here everything is practical inference and logical resolve, for the point with him is "to emerge at last from a civilization which, far from being man's social destiny, is only mankind's childhood sickness".

The polemics of Marx and Engels have resulted in the term "utopian" becoming used, both within Marxism and without, for a socialism which appeals to reason, to justice, to the will of man to remedy the maladjustments of society, instead of his merely acquiring an active awareness of what is "dialectically" brewing in the womb of industrialism. All voluntaristic socialism is rated "utopian". Yet it is by no means the case that the socialism diametrically opposed to it -- which we may [10] call necessitarian because it professes to demand nothing more than the setting in motion of the necessary evolutionary machinery -- is free of utopianism. The Utopian elements in it are of another kind and stand in a different context.

I have already indicated that the whole force of dispossessed eschatology was converted into Utopia at the time of the French Revolution. But, as I have intimated, there are two basic forms of eschatology: the prophetic, which at any given moment sees every person addressed by it as endowed, in a degree not to be determined beforehand, with the power to participate by his decisions and deeds in the preparing of Redemption: and the apocalyptic, in which the redemptive process in all its details, its very hour and course, has been fixed from everlasting and for whose accomplishment human beings are only used as tools, though what is immutably fixed may yet be "unveiled" to them, revealed, and they be assigned their function. The first of these forms derives from Israel, the second from ancient Persia. The differences and agreements between the two, their combinations and separations, play an important part in the inner history of Christianity. In the socialist secularization of eschatology they work out separately: the prophetic form in some of the systems of the so-called Utopians, the apocalyptic one above all in Marxism (which is not to say that no prophetic element is operative here -- it has only been overpowered by the apocalyptic). With Marx, belief in humanity's road through contradiction to the overcoming of the same, takes the form of Hegelian dialectic, since he makes use of a scientific inquiry into the changing processes of production; but the vision of upheavals past or to come "in the chain of absolute necessity", as Hegel says, does not derive from Hegel. Marx's apocalyptic position is purer and stronger than Hegel's, which lacked any real driving power for the future; Franz Rosenzweig has pointed out, and rightly, that Marx remained truer to Hegel's belief in historical determinism than Hegel himself. "No one else has seen so directly where and how and in what form the last day would dawn on the horizon of history." The point at which, in Marx, the Utopian apocalypse breaks out and the whole topic of economics and science is transformed into pure "utopics", is the convulsion of all things after the social revolution. The Utopia of the so-called Utopians is pre-revolutionary, the Marxist one post-revolutionary. The [11] "withering away" of the State, "the leap of humanity out of the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom" may be well-founded dialectically, but it is no longer so scientifically. As a Marxist thinker, Paul Tillich, says, these things "can in no way be made intelligible in terms of existing reality", "between reality and expectation there is a gulf", "for this reason Marxism has never, despite its animosity to Utopias, been able to clear itself of the suspicion of a hidden belief in Utopia". Or in the words of another Marxist sociologist, Eduard Heimann: "With men as they are, a withering away of the State is inconceivable. In speculating on a radical and inmost change of human nature, we pass beyond the borders of empirical research and enter the realm of prophetic vision where the true significance and providential destination of man are circumscribed in stammering metaphors." But what is of decisive significance for us is the difference between this Utopianism and that of the non-marxist socialists. We shall have to observe this difference more closely. .

When we examine what Marxist criticism calls the Utopian element in the non-marxist systems we find that it is by no means simple or uniform. Two distinct elements are to be distinguished. The essence of one is schematic fiction, the essence of the other is organic planning. The first, as we encounter it particularly in Fourier, originates in a kind of abstract imagination which, starting from a theory of the nature of man, his capacities and needs, deduces a social order that shall employ all his capacities and satisfy all his needs. Although in Fourier the theory is supported by a mass of observational material, every observation becomes unreal and untrustworthy as soon as it enters this sphere; and in his social order, which pretends to be social architecture but is in reality formless schematism, all problems (as Fourier himself says) have the same "solution", that is, from real problems in the life of human beings they become artificial problems in the life of instinctive robots -- artificial problems which all allow of the same solution because they all proceed from the same mechanistic set-up. Wholly different, indeed of a directly contrary nature, is the second element. Here the dominant purpose is to inaugurate, from an impartial and "undogmatic understanding of contemporary man and his condition, a transformation of both, so as to overcome the contradictions which make up the essence of our social order. [12]

Starting with no reservations from the condition of society as it is, this view gazes into the depths of reality with a clarity of vision unclouded by any dogmatic pre-occupation, discerning those still hidden tendencies which, although obscured by more obvious and more powerful forces, are yet moving towards that transformation. It has justly been said that in a positive sense every planning intellect is Utopian. But we must add that the planning intellect of the socialist "Utopians" under consideration, proves the positive character of its utopianism by being at every point aware, or at least having an inkling, of the diversity, indeed the contrariety, of the trends discernible in every age; by not failing to discover, despite its insight into the dominant trends, those others which these trends conceal; and by asking whether and to what extent those and those alone are aiming at an order in which the contradictions of existing society will truly be overcome.

Here, then, we have one or two motives which require further explanation and amplification both in themselves and in order to mark them off from Marxism.

In the course of the development of so-called Utopian socialism its leading representatives have become more and more persuaded that neither the social problem nor its solution can be reduced to a lowest common denominator, and that every simplification -- even the most intellectually important -- exerts an unfavourable influence both on knowledge and action. When in 1846, some six months before he started his controversy with Proudhon, Marx invited the latter to collaborate with him in a "correspondence" which should subserve "an exchange of ideas and impartial criticism", and for which -- so Marx writes -- "as regards France we all believe that we could find no better correspondent than yourself," he received the answer: "Let us, if you wish, look together for the laws of society, the manner in which they are realized, but after we have cleared away all these a priori dogmatisms, let us not, for God's sake, think of tangling people up in doctrines in our turn! Let us not fall into the contradiction of your countryman Martin Luther who, after having overthrown the catholic theology, immediately set about founding a protestant theology of his own amid a great clamour of excommunications and anathemas. . . . Because we stand in the van of a new movement let us not make ourselves the protagonists of a new intolerance, let us not act like apostles of a new religion, even [13] if it be a religion of logic, a religion of reason." Here it is chiefly a question of political means, but from many of Proudhon's utterances it is evident that he saw the ends as well in the light of the same freedom and diversity. And fifty years after that letter Kropotkin summed up the basic view of the ends in a single sentence: the fullest development of individuality "will combine with the highest development of voluntary association in all its aspects, in all possible degrees and for all possible purposes; an association that is always changing, that bears in itself the elements of its own duration, that takes on the forms which best correspond at any given moment to the manifold strivings of all." This is precisely what Proudhon had wanted in the maturity of his thought. It may be contended that the Marxist objective is not essentially different in constitution; but at this point a yawning chasm opens out before us which can only be bridged by that special form of Marxist utopics, a chasm between, on the one side, the transformation to be consummated sometime in the future -- no one knows how long after the final victory of the Revolution -- and, on the other, the road to the Revolution and beyond it, which road is characterized by a far-reaching centralization that permits no individual features and no individual initiative. Uniformity as a means is to change miraculously into multiplicity as an end; compulsion into freedom. As against this the "utopian" or non-marxist socialist desires a means commensurate with his ends; he refuses to believe that in our reliance on the future "leap" we have to do now the direct opposite of what we are striving for; he believes rather that we must create here and now the space now possible for the thing for which we are striving, so that it may come to fulfilment then; he does not believe in the post-revolutionary leap, but he does believe in revolutionary continuity. To put it more precisely: he believes in a continuity within which revolution is only the accomplishment, the setting free and extension of a reality that has already grown to its true possibilities.

Seen from another angle this difference may be clarified still further. When we examine the capitalist society which has given birth to socialism, as a society, we see that it is a society inherently poor in structure and growing visibly poorer every day. By the structure of a society is to be understood its social content or community-content: a society can be called structurally rich to the extent that it is built up of genuine societies, [14] that is, local communes and trade communes and their step by step association. What Gierke says of the Co-operative Movement in the Middle Ages is true of every structurally rich society: it is "marked by a tendency to expand and extend the unions, to produce larger associations over and above the smaller association, confederations over and above individual unions, all-embracing confederations over and above particular confederations". At whatever point we examine the structure of such a society we find the cell-tissue "Society" everywhere, i.e. a living and life-giving collaboration, an essentially autonomous consociation of human beings, shaping and re-shaping itself from within. Society is naturally composed not of disparate individuals but of associative units and the associations between them. Under capitalist economy and the State peculiar to it the constitution of society was being continually hollowed out, so that the modern individualizing process finished up as a process of atomization. At the same time the old organic forms retained their outer stability, for the most part, but they became hollow in sense and in spirit -- a tissue of decay. Not merely what we generally call the masses but the whole of society is in essence amorphous, unarticulated, poor in structure. Neither do those associations help which spring from the meeting of economic or spiritual interests -- the strongest of which is the party: what there is of human intercourse in them is no longer a living thing, and the compensation for the lost community-forms we seek in them can be found in none. In the face of all this, which makes "society" a contradiction in terms, the "utopian" socialists have aspired more and more to a restructuring of society; not, as the Marxist critic thinks, in any romantic attempt to revive the stages of development that are over and done with, but rather in alliance with the decentralist counter-tendencies which can be perceived underlying all economic and social evolution, and in alliance with something that is slowly evolving in the human soul: the most intimate of all resistances -- resistance to mass or collective loneliness.

Victor Hugo called Utopia "the truth of to-morrow". Those efforts of the spirit, condemned as inopportune and derided as "utopian socialism", may well be clearing the way for the structure of society-to-be. (There is, of course, no historical process that is necessary in itself and independent of human resolve.) It is obvious that here, too, it is a matter o\ [15] preserving the community-forms that remain and filling them anew with spirit, and a new spirit. Over the gateway to Marxist centralization stands -- for who knows how long? -- the inscription in which Engels summed up the tyrannical character of the automatism in a great factory: "Lasciate ogni autonomia voi ch'entrate." Utopian socialism fights for the maximum degree of communal autonomy possible in a "restructured" society.

In that socialist meeting of 1928, I said: "There can be pseudo-realization of socialism, where the real life of man to man is but little changed. The real living together of man with man can only thrive where people have the real things of their common life in common; where they can experience, discuss 'and administer them together; where real fellowships and real work Guilds exist. We see more or less from the Russian attempt at realization that human relationships remain essentially unchanged when they are geared to a socialist-centralist hegemony which rules the life of individuals and the life of the natural social groups. Needless to say we cannot and do not want to go back to primitive agrarian communism or to the corporate State of the Christian Middle Ages. We must be quite unromantic, and, living wholly in the present, out of the recalcitrant material of our own day in history, fashion a true community."