Posts Tagged ‘Claude-Henri Saint-Simon’

Book on Utopias from the 17th Century to Today

January 20, 2021

Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (Oxford: Peter Lang Ltd 2011).

I’m sorry I haven’t posted anything for several days. Part of that is because the news doesn’t really inspire me. It’s not that it isn’t important, or that the Tories have stopped trying to strip working people of their rights and drive them further into poverty and degradation. Or that I’m unmoved by Trump trying to organise a coup to keep himself in the Oval Office like just about every other tin pot dictator throughout history. Or that Brexit isn’t threatening to destroy whatever remains of British industry and livelihoods, all for the benefit of the Tory superrich and investment bankers like Jacob Rees-Mogg, who have their money safely invested in firms right across the world. Or that I’m not outraged by even more people dying of Covid-19 every day, while the government has corruptly mismanaged their care by outsourcing vital medical supplies and their services to firms that are clearly incompetent to provide them, because those same firms are run by their chums. Ditto with the grossly inadequate food parcels, which are another vile example of Tory profiteering. It’s just that however disgusting and infuriating the news is, there is a certain sameness about it. Because all this is what the Tories have been doing for decades. It’s also partly because I can’t say anything more or better about these issues than has been already said by great bloggers like Mike, Zelo Street and the rest.

But I’ve also been kept busy reading some of the books I got for Christmas, like the above tome by Ruth Levitas, a sociology professor at Bristol Uni. The blurb for this runs

In this highly influential book, Ruth Levitas provides an excellent introduction to the meaning and importance of the concept of Utopia, and explores a wealth of material drawn from literature and social theory to illustrate its rich history and analytical versatility. Situating utopia within the dynamics of the modern imagination, she examines the ways in which it has been used by some of the leading thinkers of modernity: Marx, Engels, Karl Mannheim, Robert Owen, Georges Sorel, Ernst Bloch, William Morris and Herbert Marcuse. Utopia offers the most potent secular concept for imagining and producing a ‘better world’, and this classic text will be invaluable to students across a wide range of disciplines.

It has the following chapters

  1. Ideal Commonwealths: The Emerging Tradition
  2. Castles in the Air: Marx, Engels and Utopian Socialism
  3. Mobilising Myths: Utopia and Social Change in Georges Sorel and Karl Mannheim
  4. Utopian Hope: Ernst Bloch and Reclaiming the Future
  5. The Education of Desire: The Rediscovery of William Morris
  6. An American Dream: Herbert Marcuse and the Transformation of the Psyche
  7. A Hundred Flowers: Contemporary Utopian Studies
  8. Future Perfect: Retheorising Utopia.

I wanted to read the book because so many utopias have been socialist or socialistic, like the early 19th century thinkers Karl Marx described as utopian, Saint-Simon, Fourier and Robert Owen, and was interested in learning more about their ideas. In this sense, I’m slightly disappointed with the book. Although it tells you a little about the plans for the reformation of society, and the establishment of a perfect state or political system, the book’s not so much about these individual schemes as a more general discussion of the concept of utopia. What, exactly, is a utopia, and how has the concept been used, and changed and developed? Much of this debate has been within Marxism, beginning with the great thinker himself. He called his predecessors – Owen, Fourier and Owen ‘utopian’ because he didn’t believe their particular schemes were realistic. Indeed, he regarded them as unscientific, in contrast to his own theories. However, Marx did believe they had done a vital job in pointing out the failures of the capitalist system. Marxists themselves were split over the value of utopias. The dominant position rejected them, as it was pointless to try to describe the coming society before the revolution. Nevertheless, there were Marxists who believed in their value, as the description of a perfect future society served to inspire the workers with an ideal they could strive to achieve. This position has been obscured in favour of the view that Marx and his followers rejected them, and this book aims to restore their position in the history of Marxist thought. This idea of utopia as essentially inspirational received especial emphasis in the syndicalism of Georges Sorel. Syndicalism is a form of radical socialism in which the state and private industry are abolished and their functions carried out instead by the trade unions. Sorel himself was a French intellectual, who started out on the radical left, but move rightward until he ended up in extreme nationalist, royalist, anti-Semitic movements. His ideas were paradoxically influential not just in the Marxist socialism of the former Soviet Union, but also in Fascist Italy. Sorel doesn’t appear to have been particularly interested in the establishment of a real, syndicalist utopia. This was supposed to come after a general strike. In Sorel’s formulation of syndicalism, however, the general strike is just a myth to inspire the workers in their battle with the employers and capitalism, and he is more interested in the struggle than the workers’ final victory, if indeed that ever arrived.

The book also covers the debate over William Morris and his News from Nowhere. This describes an idyllic, anarchist, agrarian, pre-industrial society in which there are no leaders and everyone works happily performing all kinds of necessary work simply because they enjoy it and find it fulfilling following a workers’ revolution. Apart from criticisms of the book itself, there have also been debates over the depth of Morris’ own socialism. Morris was a member of one of the first British Marxist socialist parties, Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, and the founder of another, the Socialist League, after he split from them. Critics have queried whether he was ever really a Marxist or even a socialist. One view holds that he was simply a middle class artist and entrepreneur, but not a socialist. The other sees him as a socialist, but not a Marxist. Levitas contends instead that Morris very definitely was a Marxist.

When it comes to the 20th century, the book points out that utopias have fallen out of fashion, no doubt due to the horrors committed by totalitarian regimes, both Fascist and Communist, which have claimed to be ideal states. However, the critic Tom Moylan has argued that utopias have still been produced in the SF novels of Joanna Russ, Ursula le Guin, Marge Piercy and Samuel Delaney. He describes these as ‘critical utopias’, a new literary genre. The heroes of this literature is not the dominant White, heterosexual male, but characters who are off-centre, female, gay, non-White, and who act collectively rather than individually. The book criticises some earlier utopias, like News from Nowhere, for their exclusive focus on the male viewpoint, comparing them with the Land of Cockayne, the medieval fantasy that similarly presents a perfect world in which everything is seemingly ordered for men’s pleasure. In contrast to these are the feminist utopias of the above writers, which began in the late 19th century with Harriet Gilman’s Herland. It also discusses the value of satires like Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, and dystopias like Eugene Zamyatin’s We, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984.

Levitas does not, however, consider utopianism to be merely confined to the left. She also considers Thatcherism a form of utopianism, discussing the late Roger Scruton’s Conservative Essays and citing Patrick Wright’s On Living in an Old Country. This last argued that the Conservative promotion of heritage was being used to reinforce old hierarchies in a markedly racist way. Some members of society were thus delineated as truly members of the nation, while others were excluded.

The book was first published in 1990, just before or when Communism was falling. It shows it’s age by discussing the issue whether the terrible state of the Soviet Union served to deter people dreaming and trying to create perfect, socialist societies. She argues that it doesn’t, only that the forms of this societies are different from the Marxist-Leninism of the USSR. This is a fair assessment. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy of books about the future colonisation of Mars, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, the colonists not only succeed in terraforming the planet, but also create socialist society in which authority is as decentralised as possible, women are fully equal and patriarchy has been overthrown and businesses run by their workers as cooperatives. At the same time, those wishing to return to a more primitive way of life have formed hunter-gatherer tribes, which are nevertheless also conversant with contemporary technology.

Further on, although the Fall of Communism has been claimed to have discredited not just Marxism but also socialism, recent history has shown the opposite is true. After forty years of Thatcherism, an increasing number of people are sick and tired of it, its economic failures, the glaring inequalities of wealth, the grinding poverty and degradation it is creating. This is why the Conservative establishment, including the Blairites in the Labour party, were so keen to smear Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite, a Communist and Trotskyite, or whatever else they could throw at him. He gave working people hope, and as Servalan, the grim leader of the Terran Federation said on the Beeb’s classic SF show, Blake’s Seven, ‘Hope is very dangerous’. A proper socialist society continues to inspire women and men to dream and work towards a better world, and it is to stop this that the Blairites contrived to get Corbyn’s Labour to lose two elections and have him replaced by Keir Starmer, a neo-liberal vacuity who increasingly has nothing to say to Johnson and his team of crooks.

Back to the book, its discussion of the nature of utopia therefore tends to be rather abstract and theoretical as it attempts to describe the concept and the way it has changed and been used. I didn’t find this really particularly interesting, although there are nevertheless many valuable insights here. I would instead have been far more interested in learning more about the particular ideas, plans and descriptions of a new, perfect, or at least far better, society of the many thinkers, philosophers and authors mentioned.

Hooray! Copies of My Book Demanding Workers’ Parliamentary Chamber Have Arrived!

September 16, 2020

I got the two copies of my self-published book For A Workers’ Chamber, published with the print on demand service Lulu through the post today. I wrote the book way back in 2018. It argues that as parliament is dominated by millionaire company directors and senior management, working people have been effectively excluded. Blairite Labour is no help, as it has enthusiastically embraced this policy. I therefore argue that what is needed to correct this is a parliamentary chamber composed of working people, elected by working people, following ideas and demands going back as Robert Owen’s Grand Consolidated Trade Union and the Chartist’s assembly of a parliament of trades in the 19th century. The book’s blurb runs

For a Worker’s Chamber argues that a special representative chamber of composed of representatives of the working class, elected by the working class, is necessary to counter the domination of parliament by millionaires and the heads of industries.

It traces the idea of worker’s special legislative assemblies from Robert Owen’s Grand Consolidated Trade Union, anarchism, syndicalism, Guild Socialism, the workers’, soldiers’ and peasants’ councils in Revolutionary Russia, Germany and Austria, the Utopian Socialism of Saint-Simon and the Corporativism of Fascist Italy. It also discusses the liberal forms of corporativism which emerged in Britain during the First and Second World Wars, as well as the system of workers’ control and producer’s chambers in Tito’s Yugoslavia.

It argues that parliamentary democracy should not be abandoned, but needs to be expanded in include a worker’s chamber to make it more representative.

I ordered two copies of my book as I want to send one to the Labour Party. It’s now holding a policy review, and they’ve been asking members to send in suggestions for a policy. I really this idea is quite extreme and Utopian, but I want to send a copy of it to them to remind them just who they were set up to represent and where their priorities should lie. And they definitely do not lie with chasing Tory votes, taking over Thatcher’s policies and dismantling the welfare state, privatising the NHS and enrolling rich businessmen in parliament.

I’d like to send the second copy to any Labour MP or senior figure in the movement, who might be interested in it. Ken Livingstone would be the obvious choice, as he was a strong supporter of workers’ rights and industrial democracy when he was head of the GLC. Unfortunately, he has been forced out of the party due to being smeared as an anti-Semite, simply because he correctly pointed out that Hitler initially supported Zionism and sending Jews to Israel. The German Zionists signed a pact with him, the Ha’avara Agreement, which is documented on the website of the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem.

I’m also thinking of sending it Richard Burgon, who is now one of the leading figures in left-wing Labour politics. I realise that it is probably too extreme for him, as he’s traditional centrist Labour, wanting the return of nationalisation for the NHS and utilities and a state managed but mixed economy. You know, the standard post-war social democratic consensus until Thatcher’s election in 1979. But I’m also worried about sending it to him in case his enemies in the party use it to smear him as a Commie or Trotskyite, just as they did with Corbyn.

The book is only one of a number of pamphlets and books I’ve self-published. I tried sending copies of them to the press, but didn’t get any interest. If you have any suggestions for any senior Labour figure, or simply ordinary MP or official, who would enjoy reading a copy, please let me know.

If Only You Could Do This To The Bedroom Tax

March 16, 2014

saint-simon pic

The 19th century French Utopian Socialist, Claude-Henri Saint-Simon, admired the way the English were so devoted to their rights as free citizens, that they had no fear of resisting corrupt and domineering government officials. As an example of this attitude, he describes the way the English purchaser of the Hotel de Noialles firmly resisted the attempts of the French authorities to confiscate it. It was during Napoleon’s reign, and emigres were not allowed to hold property in France. However, the English proprietor stated that he was quite within his rights, and would continue to hold it, armed and barricaded by himself and his servants if necessary, until the government had passed legislation saying that he couldn’t. Saint-Simon describes the situation thus:

In France everyone says that the laws alone should be obeyed, but no one thinks of putting up the slightest resistance to the most insignificant representative of authority who has committed an illegal act. We have not yet acquired that spirit of independence which is characteristic of the English. To us, independence is simply a principle; to the English it is action and they carry it wherever they go; in every country they are ready to resist anything which does not emanate from the law. Among many examples which can be cited of this, we are content to recount the following anecdote which took place in France very recently:

An Englishman’s Home is his Castle, even in Napoleon’s France

‘Shortly after 20 March, an Englishman bought the Hotel de Noailles. When Bonaparte came to power, because the Englishman had only paid a deposit, the administration began to put into effect the imperial decree concerning the possession of emigres and to eject the buyer.

‘On receiving the order to vacate the premises, which was brought to him by a bailiff, the Englishman replied only that this was his home, that the civil act which gave him the right of ownership could only be annulled by another civil act; this was the law.

‘The next day another bailiff presented himself and received the same reply as the first, ending with these words:

‘”Say to those who sent you that I will not leave here except by virtue of a court hearing; that I demand a court hearing. They say that you are free in France; I shall soon know if you are. I shall do what in the same circumstances I would do in England: the home of a citizen is inviolable; my house will be barricaded, my people armed and we shall fire upon anyone who approaches, as you have done, Sir, to commit violence against me in the name of any authority which is not based upon law.

‘And, in fact, the house was barricade, the doors barred, the servants armed. The incident became known; it was brought before the Conseil d’Etat. The Englishman was left in peace in his house.

‘What Frenchman would have dared to show such resolution?’

Ghitza Ionescu, The Political Thought of Saint-Simon (Oxford: OUP 1976) 113, n.1.

The bedroom tax similarly has no, or very little, legal basis. There never was a subsidy in Housing Benefit to people in homes with more than one room, as the Tories have claimed when formulating the cut. Similarly, many of the people, who have been hit with the Bedroom Tax, including those who have died of starvation or taken their own lives as a result, have been found to be exempt under the law. Some authorities have nevertheless stated that they will continue to administer the tax, however. Unfortunately, the tax is administered through cutting the Housing Benefit, rather than collecting it from the person affected, so you can’t barricade yourself in the property with a group of stalwart friends, family or servants. And the situation also seems to have changed, so that it is the French, who resist corrupt and domineering authority following the traditions of the Revolution rather than the English. I am not recommending the use of violence or force here. I just would like there to be a bit more awareness over this side of la Manche of our rights, and that there was a way of mobilising more people against the Bedroom Tax and the other wretched welfare reforms, so that you could physically defend their victims from them as intolerable violations of our rights as freeborn Brits.