This interview begins with the definition of utopia, exploring the relationship between scientific and utopian socialism, revealing contemporary revisions of utopian socialism.[i] There are many different approaches to and definitions of the key notion of utopia, so in the first section, we consider how to understand the notion of utopia correctly, in the context of Prof. David Leopold’s research. Second, we explore the relation of Marx, Engels, and utopian socialists, what the Marxian criticisms of utopianism are, and how to approach these criticisms. Additionally, we compare Leopold’s and Marx’s understandings of utopia. Finally, we summarise Leopold’s contribution to reconfiguring Marxian and utopian philosophies and conclude that Marxian and utopian socialism can be compatible in many ways. This creates the possibility for people to design new ‘recipes’ for the future.
Li Liu: You contribute actively to academic debates on utopian socialism. So to start off, could you say something about your research process and share some insights about your definition of utopia with us?
David Leopold: Sometimes, people offer distinctive definitions of a concept and all the work is focused on the definition, whereas I think of my definition of utopia as relatively neutral and open. It could be acceptable to many people. The word ‘utopia’ in English was invented by Thomas Moore, and for him, it was a play on words, a kind of a joke, because it had two very different connotations: ‘good place’ and ‘no place’—put together we get a ‘good place that does not exist’. The only thing that I add to that account is that I think it has to be a reasonably detailed description of a good place—the ideal society which does not exist (at least not yet). The only thing that this explicitly adds is the idea of that detail, but I think that is implicit in Moore’s original usage. Moore himself describes the utopia in reasonable detail, and I think of my definition as not hugely controversial.
My views on the relationship between Marxism and utopianism may be more controversial, but I do not want my definition of utopia to be controversial. I hope that this is a definition that many people could accept: utopias are detailed descriptions of an ideal society that does not exist. That said, I should say something about the use of ‘ideal’ here, which people sometimes worry about. How ‘ideal’ is this notion of the ideal society? I want this notion of ‘ideal’ to be reasonably flexible. Sometimes people characterise utopia not just as something which does not exist but as something that could not exist; it is not feasible—where feasible means compatible with what we know about human nature and social design—and could never exist. Whereas other people want their notion of utopia to be a feasible utopia, a realistic utopia. I want my definition to be neutral about that debate. I want ‘the ideal’ here to include both ‘feasible’ and ‘not feasible’ ideals. I do not want to say that if this ideal society is feasible it is not a utopia. Feasible ideals would be included in my notion of ‘Ideal’.
Qian Luo: This is crucial to us. Usually, in our understanding, we think that utopia is in contradiction to scientific socialism; utopia could not be realised because it is an imagination. Should the notion of utopia be understood as an ideal society that is difficult to reach or an ideal society that has not yet been realised?
David Leopold: You might think of there being three helpful distinctions among the best kind of society. First, there is the best kind of society that we could reach, given where we are now and where we start from (call this the best accessible society). Second, there is the best feasible society, that is the best society that is compatible with what we know about social design and human nature. This best feasible society might be more demanding than what we can reach now. Perhaps approximating the best feasible society will take hundreds and hundreds of years, but the best we can reach now (the best accessible society) is what we can reach in our lifetimes, from our starting point. So there is the best accessible, meaning that we can reach it; then there is the best feasible, meaning that it could be realised, given what we know about the world, social structures, and human beings like ourselves; and then, third, there is the best that we can imagine. This third option, the best that we can imagine might not be feasible. For example, maybe the best that we can imagine involves human beings living forever; the best feasible might involve us living as long as it is possible for humans to live; and the best accessible might involve just living a bit longer than our parents, but not as long as our children.
LL: If utopia is understood as the ideal society that has not yet been realised—while not unlikely to be achieved—then we also know that in the Marxian account, communism is an ideal society that has not been realised but will ultimately be. Why then, did Marx and Engels reject utopian socialism?
DL: Well said. So, in response to this question of the relationship between Marxism and utopianism I maintain that Marx provides two kinds of arguments against utopianism. Some of them are (what I call) ‘foundational’ arguments and some are ‘non-foundational’ arguments. The latter are concerned with views that particular utopian thinkers may hold, and which Marx thinks are mistaken, but which have no necessary connection with their utopianism.. So, for example, in The Communist Manifesto, Marx suggests that the utopian socialists have a paternalistic view of the proletariat. That might be true of some utopian socialists, but it is not necessarily a feature of utopianism. You could be utopian and create detailed designs for an ideal society, without having a paternalistic view of the proletariat.
So, I put those arguments aside here because they do not seem to penetrate the heart of the matter. They might or might not be true of particular utopians but they do not undermine utopianism as such. In contrast, the foundational arguments that Marx advances are targeted against utopianism as such. I elucidate these arguments in my article about Marxian utopophobia where I identify three claims about utopian designs: (1) Marx thinks that they are undemocratic; (2) Marx thinks they presuppose a kind of knowledge which we cannot have; and (3) Marx thinks that they are unnecessary, given the way that the historical process works. Regarding those three arguments, I want to say, in general, that if they worked, they would be devastating for utopianism—but that they do not work. Marx’s foundational criticism of utopianism is mistaken. I could sugar-coat that and put it more cautiously, but I just think that he is wrong here.
That said, I so think that some of that erroneous thinking is understandable, given the context in which Marx was writing, but that it is still erroneous. Consider, for example, the third of Marx’s claims: that capitalism will evolve into communism without us having to decide what communism would look like. I think it was probably easier to believe that claim in the nineteenth century than it is to believe it in the twenty-first century. I maintain that socialist arrangements will only be realised if people embark on design work. They need to think about the kind of society that they want to live in, what kind of values it would embody, and what kind of institutions would best embody those values. To do that well, they would need to provide advance descriptions of the ideal society.
I think of Marx’s attempt to put a divide between socialism and utopianism as unsuccessful. Achieving socialist arrangements requires people to think about how we want to live, and what kind of world we want to live in. Marx remarkably thought that we did not need to think about these questions; that it was a mistake to think about these questions. Whereas I think that socialists do need to think about these questions if they wish to have any hope for the future.
LL: Marx and Engels provide various complaints about utopian socialism in their writings and you divided these complaints into two categories, non-foundational and foundational. Could you please explain this further?
DL: Foundational complaints are arguments which, if successful, would count against utopianism as such, they would suggest that it is pointless to spend time and energy engaging with issues of social design. Non-foundational arguments, in contrast, attack other beliefs that utopian socialists may hold, but which are not necessarily related to their utopianism (their engagement with social design).
I have already given an example of one of Marx’s non-foundational criticisms of utopian socialism: he maintains that the utopians have a paternalistic view of the proletariat (they see workers as the object of change rather than the subject bringing it about). However, this view of the proletariat is not necessarily connected to utopianism.
Interestingly this point is implicitly recognized by Engels, in a late preface to The Communist Manifesto.[ii] Engels acknowledges that there are what he calls ‘utopian communists’, such as Weitling and Cabet. These thinkers are distinctive because they have plans and blueprints for socialist designs but they do not have a paternalistic view of the proletariat. They claim that only the proletariat can bring about socialism. That claim might be a matter for debate but it does not affect whether or not we need utopianism.
I have already mentioned three of Marx’s foundational objections. Let me say a little more about his idea that utopian designs are unnecessary, because the solutions to social problems emerge from the historical process (without needing to be designed). This involves a number of complex empirical claims which makes it difficult to challenge (people can always say: ‘Well, it just has not happened yet but that does not mean it will not happen’, and so on.)
However, I think that this foundational objection is unwarranted and implausible. Marx never identifies the mechanisms which would select the optimal solutions. I also think that all the empirical evidence is against a good society simply emerging as a result of activity that does not involve design. All of the societies which have historically thought of themselves as socialist, have at some point had to think, ‘How are we going to do this?’ They had to make hard design decisions – deciding whether markets were necessary, or where the state fitted in – but they often had to make them at short notice. Whereas I argue that socialists need to be thinking about these things from the very beginning if they want to change the world in a desirable direction.
LL: What you emphasise in utopianism is a detailed description of the future society, so when you claim it is necessary to draw blueprints for future generations, there is a possibility that the unrealised society can be realised in the future. We cannot reject the possibility because it might be realised. When we draw the blueprint for the future, there is a possibility that it can be realised. Right?
DL: I think there are many different kinds of ‘blueprints’. Sometimes you want a blueprint which is a guiding light. It is not a plan that you literally want to put into action, but rather a reference point for the plan that you want to realize. John Stuart Mill had an apt quotation that I often borrow. He says, ‘The North Star is useful even if you attempt to travel no further than Hull’ [Hull is a city in northern England]. The thought is that if you want to make the existing world a little more just, you have to know what justice is. Even if perfect justice cannot be embodied in the world—even if the world can only approximate perfect justice.
To have such approximations, you need two things: you need to know what ‘perfect justice’ is, and you need to know what a ‘best approximation’ is. Some blueprints might be the best imaginable arrangements, some might be the best feasible arrangements, and some might be the best we can achieve in our lifetimes, given our starting point. We need all kinds of blueprints. But I am sympathetic to the view that for the best accessible plans we need to know something about the best feasible arrangements, and for the best feasible arrangements we need to know something about what the best imaginable is, independent of feasibility constraints.
I want to say something further about my use of the term blueprints. The word originates from engineering drawings; it is the design for something, which is going to be manufactured. These drawings were reproduced on blue tinted sheets of paper (hence ‘blueprints’). I use this analogy because it suggests the idea of detail. However, it also has another connotation—which is unfortunate and which I regret—which is that you have to follow the plan exactly as it is. Blueprints of the engineering drawing kind are not flexible or open-ended, but the kind of blueprints that I am arguing for should be. They should not be thought of as stipulative but as open to revision and criticism.
For example, the utopian socialists all created detailed descriptions of their ideal society, but thought of them in different ways. Fourier’s [version of blueprints] is prescriptive. He would say: ‘Unless you have exactly the covered walkways that I describe, the whole settlement will fail’. He insisted on every detail being followed. If you questioned anything, if you didn’t follow his plans exactly, he predicted that you would never succeed. However, other utopians were much more flexible. Owen, for example, at least in some moods, was quite happy with open-ended blueprints, and took a more experimental view. He was trying to give us his best estimate of how to create communal work arrangements, but if after implementation, a better solution was found and put into practice, that would be acceptable. We can think of his blueprints as more open-ended and flexible, as open to improvement by future generations.
In any event, the element that I am borrowing from the idea of a blueprint is the element of detail, not the element of prescription. My enthusiasm is for a plurality of competing blueprints, and for people to adopt an open-minded and experimental attitude towards them.
LL: I think that in your account of utopianism, it is necessary to draw a detailed description, but Marx and Engels thought that it was unnecessary to draw a blueprint. So, is your understanding of utopianism different from Marx’s or should we see that our understanding of the Marxian account is wrong?
DL: I do disagree with Marx on this particular issue, but not with all of the things that Marx says about utopian socialists. On the need for socialist design, I do think that the utopians are right and Marx is wrong. However, this does not exhaust Marx’s views on utopian socialism. It is also important to notice that Marx says many positive things about the utopians. People sometimes assume that he thinks, first, that all socialism is either utopian or scientific; and, second, that the utopian variety is just wrong about everything.
In fact, Marx thinks that utopian and scientific socialism are just two forms of socialism among many. In addition, he thinks that lots of things that utopians say and do are valuable, interesting, and important, both for the development of Marxism and for the emergence of socialism as a historical movement. So, Marx is much more enthusiastic and positive about utopian socialism than people often assume. He is not wholly negative about utopianism, but also very positive about some aspects. For example, he thinks of Fourier as a brilliant social critic—an insightful commentator on the existing world from whom all can learn.
One of the places where I disagree with Marx, is with his claim that you do not need to design the future because he—Marx—thinks that the future will unfold as a result of the laws of history. It is not just that the utopians go into too much detail, or that some of their detail is far-fetched. Marx rather denies that there is a need to design the institutional and other arrangements of socialism. Rather, the role for human agency is to bring about the future that is emerging within the existing society. He often uses obstetric metaphors, metaphors of childbirth and pregnancy. The role of the proletariat is like that of a midwife, they are to deliver the baby, not to design the baby. However, I argue that we need to ‘design the baby’.
LL: Maybe this criticism is about Marx’s ideal of history. If Marx’s material view of history is economic determinism—history is an automatic process—maybe he thinks that the detailed description is unnecessary, but as we know Marx and Engels have said that history is just a process of activities pursuing human purposes. What do you think of the role of history?
DL: I think there may be a tension in the theory of history. If you examine Marx’s theory of history, what it suggests is that no form of society lasts forever. Every form of society is replaced by another form, and each of those subsequent forms is more productive than the previous one. This historical pattern, of course, reflects the human struggle to overcome scarcity. Earlier societies capitulate to new societies, which are more productive. Nothing that I am saying about the need for design affects that central thread in the theory of history.
Now it may be that capitalism came about by some hidden-hand mechanism, and not by agents seeking to bring about capitalism. However, I am not confident that any desirable alternative to capitalism will simply emerge, without our conscious engagement with issues of social design. Marx thinks you need agency to deliver the new kind of society, but you do not need an agency to design the new society. Whereas I am sceptical that there is a hidden-hand mechanism which will guarantee a desirable alternative. I think that desirable alternatives will need to be designed and delivered.
LL: I feel that this is a bit strange. If Marx and Engels had said that History is a process of people pursuing (their) purpose, why is it not necessary to describe it in detail?
DL: I think that this is a really good question, particularly to put to somebody like me, who is sympathetic to Marx and who regards Marx as a great thinker—a profound thinker. In a way what I am accusing him of is a gross error. I think it is always a good question in those circumstances to ask: how did such a smart person make such a mistake?
I am tempted to say that it is Hegel’s fault. Hegel’s picture of History is that there is a God-given plan, and the role of human beings is to ‘roll it out’. We don’t design it; we just give deliver it. And I think that what we find in Marx is thus a vestigial Hegelianism. I would add that Marx is not entirely consistent—some of the things he says are in tension with each other. In some moods, when he is attacking Hegel, Marx effectively says: ‘This is ridiculous; why on earth would you assume there is a God-given plan that we are driven to realize? We are not just vehicles of Geist [Spirit], fated to carry out that plan? It is a ludicrous view of the world’. However, when he attacks the utopian socialists, he effectively reproduces the Hegelian view that, in another context, he was attacking. If you ask me the source of Marx’s mistake, I think it is an unexamined fragment of Hegelianism that remained in his thought. That is my explanation.
LL: As you said, Marx and Engels are not entirely critical of utopian socialism. They also have some positive opinions about its political ideas. What did they absorb from utopian socialism?
DL: I think this is an interesting question. There are primary and secondary aspects to these positive claims. I should also acknowledge that Engels is more enthusiastic about utopian socialism than Marx. In all these cases you can find examples from both Marx and Engels, but the tone of the latter is often more enthusiastic. The main distinction that is helpful here is between criticizing the existing society and constructing a future society. As we already know Marx and Engels disagree with the utopians about the need for constructive future plans (because Marx and Engels think that the socialist ‘baby’ needs only to be delivered not designed).
Putting that aside, and focusing on the criticism of existing society, we can find many examples where Marx and Engels borrow from the utopians. Much of their commentary in The Communist Manifesto about the bourgeois family and hypocrisy is similar to points made by Fourier. Similarly, there are arguments in Capital about how manufacturers and capitalists treat workers as instruments of production that appeal to Owen’s arguments. These familiar Marxian criticisms of capitalism’s instrumental treatment of human beings, and about the hypocrisy of bourgeois society, are borrowed directly from, and credited to, utopian socialism. Some commentators (for example, Isaiah Berlin) claim that Marx seldom credits other people for their ideas. This is not true in this context. There are many places where Marx is very generous towards utopian authors. He credits Fourier’s brilliance often and in Capital he quotes Owen directly. The main thread in these positive remarks concerns the critical dimension of utopian writings, their attack on existing society. However, in some moods, Marx and Engels say positive things about other threads.
Marx sometimes allows that utopians anticipate aspects of what communism will look like. Marx and Engels think the utopians are wrong about the need to design communism, but they are right about some of its features. I will provide two examples. One concerns education and is from Capital: Marx credits Owen’s idea of how education should function as an anticipation of how (it) will work in communism. Similarly, Marx endorses the utopian idea—found in Fourier and Owen—that communism will somehow overcome the antagonism between town and country, between cities and rural areas. Again, he thinks of these as ideas of the utopian socialists, which anticipate features of future socialist society.
Marx and Engels also allow some backwards-looking claims as well. Engels, for example, argues that Fourier has a dialectical view of History—that he views history as progressing through social conflicts, of various kinds.
I think that there are many ways in which Marx and Engels are generous about the utopians as fellow socialists. Not least, they regard scientific socialism as the heir of utopian socialism and hence viewed themselves as the inheritors of some of that tradition. However, Marx and Engels thought it was problematic to continue wanting to be utopian when there were better ways of viewing the world, ways that incorporated some of those utopian insights but did not make some of its errors. Whereas I am suggesting that some of these utopian errors might not be errors after all.
QL: Just as you said, when we talked about communist society, people tend to think of Marx as being similar to Fourier and Owen. Most people, when they criticize Marx and Marxism, say that Marxism is full of utopianism. So, when we defend Marxism, do we need to emphasize the scientific dimensions, which may appear similar to utopianism?
DL: So what I want us to move away from—and you might tell me it is not possible in China because it is too deeply rooted—is the idea that to call something utopianism is necessarily a criticism. Utopianism is not necessarily a bad thing that people should avoid. Utopianism involves thinking about how you want the world to be, and that is something that we should be engaging in. It is a mistake to think of Marxism and utopianism as opposites that you have to choose between. Nearly all of Marx’s insights into history, capitalism, human nature, and what socialism would look like, are compatible with the need for social design. There is no general requirement to choose between Marxism and utopianism.
The utopian socialists are not Marxists. And some Marxists are not utopian because they do not think that you need to engage in social design. However, I think there is a possible overlap here. There is a potential ‘Venn diagram’ which locates a point where you can be consistently and coherently both utopian and Marxist. At this point, utopian is not a criticism. Utopian here means that you are thinking seriously about the kind of values that socialism should promote, and the kind of institutions that might best embody these values. I think that utopianism in this sense is a good thing, not a bad thing. I want to recapture the term as a positive one, and avoid just assuming that utopianism is a bad thing that should be avoided. I think that socialists should reclaim the idea of utopia.
LL: As you said, the utopians mainly thought about the future world, and Marxism emphasizes criticism of the existing society, so if we combined utopianism and Marxism, would that strengthen the criticism of the power structures of the present, or would that be weakening the critical power?
DL: Well, I think it strengthens it in two ways. If you talk to people in the West about socialism, one familiar assumption is: it is a great idea in theory but does not work in practice; that socialist arrangements are desirable but not feasible. What socialism infused by utopianism can potentially do is take feasibility seriously. It might think seriously about feasibility and institutional design, adopting an experimental approach towards socialism, and the attempt to work out what works and what doesn’t. This potentially makes socialism more powerful because it engages with one of the central aspects of resistance to socialist ideas (‘It is a nice idea but it is not feasible’).
Marx effectively said: ‘Do not worry about the feasibility issue, that will all get sorted out by the laws of history’. I do not think that is any longer persuasive. In contrast, the utopians say: ‘Let us look at how markets work, whether there are alternatives to markets, or whether there are combinations of socialism and markets that might be feasible’. They discuss the details of the institutional design and how things might work. This does two things: it eliminates some of the feasibility worries—where people think that it just is not possible—and it potentially increases the desirability of socialism (because people have a better sense of what it might involve).
I am also interested in William Morris, who wrote a utopian novel, News from Nowhere, which is, in certain ways, influenced by Marx and Engels (Morris knew Engels). I am very fond of the novel. It begins with a socialist activist going home after a depressingly factional meeting with his comrades. Sitting alone on the Underground [the subway system in London] the protagonist says to himself: ‘If I could but see it?’. What he was asking for was a sense of what socialism might look like in order to renew his enthusiasm and motivation for struggling to improve the world. And that sense is provided by the imaginative picture of the future that follows in the rest of the book. I think that utopias can play this important motivational role.
People are only going to be motivated to do the work of delivering socialism if they are enthusiastic about the likely result. And they have to know more about the result if they are to devote time and energy to promoting it. There is something rather odd in Marx and Engels’s works: they say that we should strive and struggle to the best of our abilities to deliver this future world, but they do not say what it will look like. I think that is a very bad way to motivate people to engage in the struggle to deliver it.
LL: You have indicated that communism is like a baby and that the proletariat will deliver it. Utopian socialist, Owen, provided a detailed description of the future and engaged in communal experiments. He provides descriptions and guidelines but failed to put them into practice. We know that utopian socialism has failed, so how do you view the failure of utopian socialists?
DL: One of the non-foundational objections to utopianism that Marx raised is that the methods that some of the utopians sought to use to realize socialism were not going to work. For example, Marx is sceptical about the scope for piecemeal experimentation within capitalism. He rather thinks that you need first to change the wider social framework.
Marx’s thought seems to be that piecemeal experiments within a society which is characterized by competition, self-interest, social division, and inequality, are liable to fail. You cannot build little islands of equality and community within such a social framework, because they will be corrupted from the outside. You might be able to achieve it on a very small scale—monastic orders might be an example—but it is not going to be possible for everyone in the society. As it happens, some communal experiments did endure and have some success. (I am thinking of communitarian groups in North America that lasted over a hundred years.) However, they tended to remain small, not to spread by example—as some communitarians thought that they would—and to survive because they had outside supporters who subsidized and supported them in various ways.
In short, Marx might well be right about the failure of communitarian experiments. However, the alternatives here are also problematic. For instance, it is not obvious that frontal assaults on the state are feasible or desirable. Questions of transition—of how to get from here to there—seem to me unresolved, they are something that we have to think about, argue about, and discuss. I do not have a clear and persuasive answer to the question: how will socialism come about. But I don’t think the idea that it will develop automatically as a result of the laws of history is clear and persuasive either.
LL: You made a very important distinction between foundational and non-foundational arguments. You also indicate that many Marxian objections to utopianism and arguments against utopian socialists are best characterised as non-foundational, so it seems to me that the abundant non-foundational arguments are worth exploring. However, why are you concerned with foundational rather than non-foundational Marxian objections to utopianism?
DL: I started with foundational arguments because philosophically they were the most interesting. They formed the subject of my recent article ‘On Marxian Utopophobia’.[iii] However, I have also started writing a piece about non-foundational arguments, which is in the early stages. [This article has since been published.][iv] And, at some point, I might also write something more about the possibility that the foundational arguments could be reformulated in a non-foundational way (which is alluded to in the original article). There is also a realism about power and self-interest in Marx’s account, which explains why certain utopian ideas about transition will not work. For example, Owen thought that you needed only to talk to people and explain what the desirable future society would look like for them to sign up and support the project. People would simply be politically persuaded by the power of the argument. In contrast, Marx is deeply sceptical about how efficacious reason alone might be, and he recognizes that power and self-interest often impedes purely rational humanitarian reasoning. This is the point at which Marx’s realism might trump utopian rationalism.
However, those reflections do not count against the need to design the future. They merely suggest that to realise that future, you will need a realistic and hard-headed strategy that addresses the interests and ideology of those opposed to social change. Marx maintains a realism about power and conflict which, it seems to me, any sane account of transition must address. However, that kind of Marxian realism is compatible with engaging in social design. As a result, Marxism and utopianism [are] not, in this respect, in conflict. Nor do I think that utopianism and realism are necessarily in conflict. You can have realistic blueprints as well as unrealistic blueprints.
LL: Are there any later Marxian commentators who rejected utopianism or shifted their attitudes towards utopianism, other than Marx and Engels?
DL: There are a few later Marxist thinkers who have a more positive attitude towards utopianism. The most famous of these is Ernst Bloch, who was a twentieth-century German philosopher, whose most famous book is The Principle of Hope. William Morris, who was influenced by and sympathetic towards Marx’s views, might also be an earlier example of someone who might be sympathetic to what I am saying. In short, I think there are a few examples of fellow travellers—like-minded people who have said adjacent things.
However, I think it is still a minority view. Oddly, the anti-utopianism of Marxism has been one of its most influential aspects. Not only amongst Marxists, but also amongst liberal academics with little wider sympathy with Marx. So, I do not think there are a lot of people sharing my views.
QL: Thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Fredric Jameson also criticise contemporary society based on future dimensions. When they discuss utopia, they use the term to criticize reality but not to provide a detailed description of the future. So, how do you think they would view your work?
DL: I think that many of Marx’s defenders—Bloch would be an example—use a very expansive notion of utopianism. Utopia becomes associated with any vague wish for something better. However, it can thereby lose the original connotation of the ideal society which I have sought to emphasise and preserve. My approach towards utopia is thus more archaic than some of these more fashionable characterisations. However, I think it is worth preserving that original focus, which both respects its historical origins and is consistent with the way Marx understood utopianism.
I have not engaged much with either of the thinkers you mention. Derrida’s relation to Marxism is complicated. Jameson is obviously more sympathetic, but I do not find all of his work on utopia as clear as I would like.
QL: What is the difference between their understanding of future dimensions and your blueprints for the future?
DL: I am genuinely unsure about how far they might share my views about the desirability and possibility of socialism. It is in that context that I have sought to rehabilitate utopianism. Socialists ought to engage in questions of socialist design, ought to think imaginatively and seriously about how the basic institutions of a future society might function, and the kind of values they might embody.
Erick Olin Wright is an important figure in this context. And I would recommend his Envisioning Real Utopias book,[v] as well as the volumes he has edited in the series. He is not so much interested in the connections with Marx, but he writes eloquently about the need for socialism to have this design element. And he has written interestingly and engagingly about a variety of potential solutions to particular problems in socialist design. I would welcome more work in this vein. In this context, I might also mention the interesting book by Joseph Carens about market socialism.[vi] He outlines a utopian model in which the informational effects of markets are preserved, but without their distributive consequences.
LL: One Marxian objection to utopian thought is that a normative account is undemocratic. However, this undemocratic claim is not persuasive. In your view, are there any democratic concerns in Marx’s thoughts?
DL: I think that is an interesting example of the kind of question that is difficult to answer because of Marx’s unwillingness to say what socialism would look like (his refusal to ‘write recipes’ for the future). And yet we often have questions about the detail; we want to know what this alternative world might look like, not because we want a blueprint that we can slavishly implement, but because until we know more about the detail here, we cannot know whether we are sympathetic to this vision or not.
Marx is not alone here. John Rawls would be an example of a contemporary thinker who gestures at social alternatives—I am thinking of his remarks about ‘liberal socialism’ and ‘property owning democracy’—without describing them in much detail. He provides an abstract principle but does not enable us to see how it would operate in a concrete social setting.
Until some flesh is put on the bones—until we have more detail—we cannot tell what these Marxian or Rawlsian alternatives might look like. And until we know much more about those details, it seems impossible to come to a considered judgement about their desirability or feasibility.
With Marx, the most detail we have is from adjacent discussions. Looking closely at his political writings (for example on the Paris Commune), we can see that he is sympathetic to certain democratic institutions (initiative, recall, annual elections, imperative mandate, and so on). But he is reluctant to say any more.
The idea that utopias are undemocratic seems to assume that they are always stipulative, but as I suggested earlier, utopias can be detailed without being stipulative. Utopias can just be part of a conversation about what an alternative might look like. And collectively discussing and deciding how we want to live looks compatible with democracy. Questions of social design can be tackled in an experimental and open-minded manner. There is no necessary incompatibility between social design and democracy.
QL: Five years ago I conducted an experiment in Beijing. I invited 160 graduate students to participate in an utopian experiment. Do you think that utopian experiments are desirable or feasible? What do you think of utopian experiments?
DL: Well I think that some utopian experiments might be feasible, and that some subset of those might be desirable. However, I suspect that in order to locate that desirable and feasible subset, a large number of experiments in living are required.
Individually we are often experimenting, trying different ways of living and working in order to find out what works. I would like to see more of that happening, in a conscious and careful way, in the more collective dimensions of our social and political lives. Of course, doing this collectively is much harder. Not least, democratic experiments require some agreement about both what our goals are, and how to achieve them. However, it is important to remember that social experiments can operate at all kinds of scale.
Critics of utopianism often assume that it is always concerned with society-wide forms of social change. Historically, however, utopian experimentation often took a small scale communitarian form, and thought of its voluntaristic character as an advantage. Enthusiasts for experimentation should remember that social experiments do not have to involve imposing institutional and other arrangements on unwilling participants.
QL: The organizer designed the society, provided the ideas, and asked volunteers to join the experiment. So, it is a small-scale experiment. My point is, even if we argue that the utopian ideal is a desirable society, or desirable way of living, we are still discussing it theoretically. As a theorist, I did not want to volunteer to join the experiment. In what ways is a utopian experiment desirable?
DL: I fear that contemporary culture is not especially conducive to social experimentation. As others have observed, contemporaries find it easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. Moreover, some experiments in living are about escaping from the existing social world rather than changing it. And other social experiments embody institutions and values that I am unsympathetic to.
In short, I am sympathetic to the idea of social experimentation, but not all of its contemporary forms strike me as attractive.
QL: This reminds me of biographies—these biographies argue that Marx and his wife once lived communally in an experiment in Paris, and very quickly stopped living communally. The problem is that they propose that this experiment affected Marx and his views on utopianism, and the future. What do you think of this theory?
DL: My view is slightly different. I think there might be a contrast here between Marx and Engels.
I think that Marx was always hostile because there is early evidence of anti-utopianism in Marx in the very early 1840s, even before he moves to Paris. Moreover, I don’t think that Marx briefly having to share a house, was Marx engaging in a communal experiment. Marx’s anti-utopianism is always theoretically grounded (rooted in Hegelianism), and he was sceptical about utopian experiments from a very early stage. In contrast, for Engels it was the failure of Owenite and other communitarian experiments, particularly in Britain and America in the early 1840s, which turned him against them. In short, Engels’s anti-utopianism looks more empirical than that of Marx.
LL: I want to say that in the ‘later Marx’, the inventors of the socialist revolution transform [society], rather than conduct experiments. Maybe this idea emerged because his early experiment failed, and the answer is different?
DL: Marx sometimes suggests that there is no scope to escape the effects of private property and individualism, without overthrowing the entirety of existing social arrangements. He sometimes suggests that modern economic life will always corrupt and contaminate piecemeal social experimentation; that you either have to change the whole or nothing will really change.
I hope that he is wrong about that because I do not think the chances of changing the whole from nothing are great, and because I think it is perfectly reasonable for people not to want to take leaps in the dark. It is not that the social experiments have to be perfect but they have to provide enough sense of the desirability and feasibility of alternative arrangements for others to want to promote and protect those arrangements.
LL: We need recipes and that is a key point. Just as Engels said: ‘To take the socialist design, we need to make the design’. I think as you mentioned, the people who are familiar with utopian socialism are not fond of Marxism; the people who research Marxism may not agree with utopian socialism. However, you have done a very good job in this area, and if people are asked to create a socialist design, I think that you are the best choice. Perhaps there is an opportunity for everyone to make the effort to think about ‘recipes’. However, I want to ask you personally, If you are asked to do the job, what recipe will you write for the future kitchen?
DL: Well that is certainly what I want people to do. However, although I insist on the need for recipes, I am not confident in my own recipe writing skills. I feel more at home critically engaging with the recipes of others.
For example, I have already mentioned News from Nowhere, but I do not think that Morris’s ideal is my ideal. We can read Morris as saying that the only way we can achieve equality is to give up on technology and lead a simpler life. I hope that he is wrong about that because I value many of the achievements of technology and industrialization. I can see the attractions of ‘the simple life’, but I do not think that is my social ideal.
When I am confronted with a recipe, I can reflect and engage with it, and say what I like and do not like. However, if you just gave me a blank sheet of paper, I do not know if I would come up with anything of much value.
I fear that I am not temperamentally suited to writing utopias myself, but I would still encourage others to have a go.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 1976, The German Ideology, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Collected Works Vol 05, London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Marx, Karl and Frederick Engels 2004, The Communist Manifesto, translated by Samuel Moore, London: Penguin Classics.
Marx, Karl 1992 , ‘Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts’, in Early Writings, translated by Rodney Livingstone and Gregor Benton, London: Penguin Classics.
Marx, Karl 1992, Capital Vol 1, translated by Ben Fowkes, London: Penguin Classics.
Marx, Karl 1993, Capital Vol 3, translated by David Fernbach, London: Penguin Classics.
Engels, Frederick 1989, Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Collected Works Vol 24, London: Lawrence & Wishart.
Carens, Joseph, 1981, Equality, Moral incentives, and the Market: An Essay in Utopian Politico-Economic Theory, Chicago: Chicago University Press.
More, Thomas 2003, Utopia, translated by Paul Turner, London: Penguin Classics.
Morris, William 2003, News From Nowhere, edited and introduced by David Leopold, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Leopold, David 2007, The Young Karl Marx: German Philosophy, Modern Politics, and Human Flourishing, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
——2013, 'Marxism and Ideology: From Marx to Althusser', in The Oxford Handbook of Political Ideologies, edited by Michael Freeden, Lyman Tower Sargent, and Marc Stears, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
——2014，'Marx and British Socialism', in The Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century British Philosophy，edited by William Mander, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
——2015，‘Marx, Engels, and Other Socialisms’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Communist Manifesto, edited by Terrell Carver and James Farr, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
——2016, ‘On Marxian Utopophobia’, Journal of the History of Philosophy, 54,1:111-134.
——2018, ‘Marx, Engels, and Some (Non-Foundational) Arguments Against Utopian Socialism, Jan Kandiyali (edited), Reassessing Marx’s Social and Political Philosophy. Freedom, Recognition and Human Flourishing, New York: Routledge.
Wright, Eric Olin 2010, Envisioning Real Utopias. London: Verso.
[i] We would like to take this opportunity to thank Prof. David Leopold for the constant support and encouragement through the years. We had accomplished four academic interviews on topics ranging from liberalism and analytical Marxism to utopian socialism when we were affiliated to the department of politics and international relations at the University of Oxford. The first interview was published in 2017, ‘Karl Marx: Son of Liberty —Interview with David Leopold’ can be accessed at: http://zzs.ujs.edu.cn/xbskb/EN/article/searchArticle.do . The second one was published in 2019, ‘Analytical Marxism: Methods and Approaches’ can be accessed at:
https://oversea.cnki.net/KNavi/JournalDetail?pcode=CJFD&pykm=LJSK . The third one was published in 2021, ‘G. A. Cohen’ s Political Philosophy Thoughts’ can be accessed at: https://seer.ufs.br/index.php/tempopresente/article/view/15446 and this is the fourth one. Prof. David Leopold has been kind enough to go through this interview and significantly improved it with his careful and accurate reading.
[ii] Preface to 1888 English edition of “The Manifesto of the Communist Party.” In MECW 26.
[iii] See Leopold 2016.
[iv] See Leopold 2018.
[v] See Wright 2010.
[vi] See Carens 1981.