What has science got to do with revolution? Given that the scientific method is the best way of producing reliable knowledge, wherever possible revolutionary programmes ought to be informed by science. If we care about values such as logic and evidence – as most radical-progressives seem to – then that should go without saying. But what kind of science are we talking about here? In what domains or fields of enquiry should we be looking?
Broadly speaking, within the tradition of socialism, there have been two approaches to organising for social revolution. The first has been what is called “scientific socialism”. The second is what has been called “utopian socialism”. Marxists came up with both terms. The first refers to their own methodology, which as the name suggests, is considered scientific and therefore superior. The second is a kind of put-down to approaches to revolutionary organising that are inspired by idealised visions of a good society. Utopian socialism is understood by Marxists to be unscientific and therefore inferior and naive. I think that the opposite is true. Let me explain why…
Before going any further I want to say something about why this is important. This is not just an academic exercise! Given that Marxism was incredibly influential during the 20th Century we can assume that ideas, like those being discussed here, had consequences that impacted on many peoples lives. Furthermore, for those of us who are interested in radical-progressive social transformation for the 21st Century, we need to learn from past events – and the consequences of scientific socialism were truly tragic.
What I want to argue here is that utopian socialism can be more scientific than so called scientific socialism – or that the man who coined the terms (Frederic Engels) was wrong. If correct this should clearly have an impact on how 21st Century revolutionaries think and go about organising for social transformation.
The crucial thing to understand about the differences between “scientific” and “utopian” socialism – as approaches to revolutionary organising – is that they are based on very different theories of human nature. In turn, these theories are grounded in incompatible assumptions about the nature of the human mind/brain. These incompatible theories constitute one of the great debates within the history of ideas. Typically these two competing positions are distinguished from each other by philosophers with labels such as “empiricist” and “rationalist”.
However, it is sufficient for us to understand the difference between these two positions in very simple terms. So here is the bottom line. One position holds that the mind/brain is empty of content and that knowledge and understanding (including consciousness relating to social justice) is the product of the external environment. This position is usually associated with the empiricist philosophy of mind and is the theoretical basis of scientific socialism. Scientific socialism therefore claims to be scientific by focusing on the objective facts of social reality that determine the continuities and changes of history – such as the incompatible interests of different classes within the capitalist system. The second position holds that the mind/brain already has content prior to contact with the external environment. This position is usually associated with the rationalist philosophy of mind and is, or can be, the theoretical basis of utopian socialism. In contrast to scientific socialism, utopian socialism is typically justified by appealing to innate drives that are either understood as God given or endowed by nature.
To clarify these two competing positions further, it might be helpful to think about them in terms of innate needs. Strictly speaking, for scientific socialists there can only be socially constructed innate needs – an expression of the design of the dominant institutions within society. For utopian socialists, however, innate needs can be grounded in our biology – an expression of our DNA. What is important to note here is that for scientific socialists there are no innate needs that are independent of specific social conditions and conditioning. In effect there is no intrinsic human nature.
From this perspective it makes sense to dismiss utopian socialism as unscientific and to focus on trying to identify the objective social forces that drive history, such as class conflict. This has typically been the Marxist way. However, if we stop and think about it, this makes no sense. After all, if people have no intrinsic needs that run deeper than those that are socially constructed, then how could there be any genuine conflict of interests between competing classes? Claims of social injustice, such as class oppression and exploitation, only make sense if innate needs, grounded in our very nature, exist. Without innate human needs talk of social justice is simply meaningless. And it is from this insight that utopian socialism has the potential to trump scientific socialism at its own game.
Furthermore, the philosophy of mind that underpins the utopian socialist methodology (i.e. rationalist) gained a great boost in the 1950’s as a result of the cognitive revolution. This intellectual revolution resulted from a growing body of evidence that showed that the human mind/brain must have intrinsic capacities and innate needs that are grounded in, and expressions of, our genes and therefore represent crucial aspects of human nature. A major figure in this intellectual endeavour has been Noam Chomsky who, on a number of occasions, has argued for the need to conceptualise a form of social organisation that best accommodates fundamental human needs (for example, see his Language and Freedom).
To be fair, not all Marxists reject the utopian socialist methodology. For example, writing in the 1950’s, Erich Fromm talked about the need to develop a vision of a sane society that would be compatible with our innate needs for psychological and emotional well-being. In doing so, however, it seems to me that Fromm is undermining the argument, presented by Engels and expounded by most Marxists, for scientific socialism. Grounded in a rationalist philosophy of mind – what he called “normative humanism” – Fromm’s argument is effectively pro-utopian socialist.
Clearly, the project articulated by Chomsky, Fromm (and many others) represents an incredibly challenging and ambitious undertaking that almost certainly has no definitive end point. This is an important point because we need to keep in mind that we cannot wait for a perfect science of human nature before engaging in revolutionary organising. The stakes are simply too high and in any case real life is never that tidy. That aside, the point that I have been trying to make, and want to finish on, is that so called “utopian socialism” can be more scientific than so called “scientific socialism” and that the utopian socialist methodology should be used to inform revolutionary thinking and action in the 21st Century.
The best examples of such efforts that I know are the Radical Theory and Participatory Vision and Strategy – available to explore online for free here, or under the heading of Fanfare for the Future – in book form here.