Utopia and program

2013 Platypus
International Convention 

Image: Designed by
Douglas La Rocca


Closing plenary:

Sat. 6 April 2013 @ 6:00-8:00pm
School of the Art Institute of Chicago
36 S Wabash Ave  Chicago, IL 60603


Endnotes collective
Stephen Eric Bronner (Rutgers University)
Sam Gindin (Socialist Project)
Roger Rashi (Québec solidaire)
Richard Rubin (Platypus)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Temple of Death, Interior (1795)

Étienne-Louis Boullée, Temple of Death, Interior (1795)


“Program” and “utopia” have for well over a century now sat in uneasy tension within the politics of the Left, in tension both with each other and with themselves. Political programs tend to be presented in the sober light of practicality — straightforward, realistic, matter-of-fact. Social utopias, by contrast, appear quite oppositely the virtue of aspiring ambition — involved, unrealistic, exhilarating. Historically, then, the two would seem antithetical. In either case, one usually offers itself up as a corrective to the other: programmatism as a harsh “reality check” to pipe-dream idealism; utopianism as a welcome alternative to dreary, cynical Realpolitik.

Today, however, it is unavoidable that both program and utopia are in profound crisis. For those Leftists who still hold out some hope for the possibility of extra-electoral politics, an impasse has arisen. Despite the effusive political outbursts of 2011-12 in the Arab Spring and #Occupy — with their emphasis on the identity of means and ends, anti-hierarchical modes of organization, and utopian prefiguration — the Left seems to have run aground. Traces may remain in the form of various issue-based affinity groups, but the more ambitious projects of achieving sweeping social transformation have been quietly put to rest, consoled with the mere memory of their possibility.

Meanwhile, longstanding Left organizations, having temporarily reverted to their usual waiting game of patiently tailing popular discontents with the status quo, until the masses finally come around and decide to “get with the program” (their program), have experienced a crisis of their own: slowly disintegrating, with occasional spectacular implosions, many of their dedicated cadre call it quits amid demoralization and recriminations. What could possibly remain for a Left whose goal is no longer utopian, and whose path toward it is no longer programmatically defined?

Charles Fourier, Phalanstère

Charles Fourier, Phalanstère


1. Within leftist and especially Marxist discourse, “utopianism” tends to carry pejorative connotations. Yet it is often forgotten that revolutionary authors such as Marx and Engels defended the legacy of “the great utopians” against latter-day epigones who saw fit to dismiss them as nothing more than “social alchemists.” How, if at all, are the utopian elements present in politics of more recent memory similarly redeemable? — Should the Left be utopian?

2. One charge commonly leveled at Leftist political formations is that any attempt to achieve lasting social transformation outside of established electoral channels and mainstream parties or coalitions is, in itself, inevitably utopian. When operating within the confines of the status quo remains the only apparently viable option, waging anarchist insurrection or voting for a Green Party presidential candidate seem equally  idealistic.  Insofar as what traditionally distinguished “utopian” from “scientific” socialism was the presence of an historically developed and international workers movement self-consciously organized toward socialism, is not the entirety of the Left today utopian in its absence? — How can the Left today be utopian in a more positive sense?

3. In 1957, the Polish dissident Leszek Kołakowski — at that time still a Marxist — asserted that utopias, though products or specific outgrowths of history, nevertheless seek to intervene so as to change its course. “[T]he extreme element of every Left,” wrote Kołakowski, “is a revolutionary movement, a total negation of the existing system and is thus also a total program. A total program is, in fact, a utopia.”

How are program and utopia related to one another historically, and how does their relationship (or lack thereof) mediate history for us today? Radical alternatives to the status quo have in the past seemed concretely attainable, and various groups and individuals have sought to implement measures so as to attain them. If no such concrete practical prospects can be said to exist today, and if the political programs that do exist today only do so to preserve the existing state of affairs, and are hence ultimately right-wing in character, can history even be said to be happening today? — Must any true Left be utopian?

Erfurter Programm

Erfurter Programm

4. Though Leftist (especially Marxist) political organizations tend to be associated with sober realism and hard-nosed, point-by-point programs, broadly-accepted party platforms have just as often been the subject of the most thoroughgoing critiques by the Left: the Gotha Program by Marx, the Erfurt Program by Engels and later revolutionaries like Lenin and Luxemburg. In the eyes of their critics, these programs conceded too much to prevailing reality. Today, just the opposite would seem to be the case. If anything, the programs of the Left that do exist appear wildly unrealistic, while taking far too much about their aims for granted. Either way, to what extent can the contemporary Left rely on the “tried-and-true” programmatic formulae of the past? To what extent do existing programs stand in need of ruthless criticism and revision? — Does the Left today stil need its old programmatic traditions, better iterations of these programs, or new programs entirely? What might these be?

5. In 1920, Georg Lukács could calmly explain to the Italian syndicalists the following: “[I]t is only when the proletariat as the leader…possesses an organized and experienced party, with strictly defined goals and a more clearly worked-out program of immediate measures…that the conquest of political power will serve as the starting-point for a lasting communist construction of society by the proletariat.” Needless to say, the validity of this argument is by no means beyond question  today. Since at least the 1960s, groups like Théorie Communiste in France claim that there has been a more general “breakdown of programmatism.” According to this interpretation, programmatism — understood as “forms of organization (mass parties, unions) and ideologies (socialism and syndicalism)” proposing programs of measures to be implemented after the revolution — became untenable after this point.

Because the proletariat no longer appears to be the political force driving forward the different permutations of capitalism, social development increasingly seems the result of the automatic, unopposed activity of capital. But as Benjamin Noys has noted, “[w]hile ‘programmatism’ is obviously in crisis a replacement is not evident.”  While the political programs of old have seemingly been exhausted, what alternatives can be said to exist? If nothing else is viable, and if only those past movements that were programmatically-defined deserved the name of “politics,” should its passing not be lamented even by its critics? Given the widely-recognized death of the left over several generations now, could programmatic politics — organization around a program and the clarification of programmatic aims — yet overcome the impasse in which the left has found itself? If so, how? If not, what else besides “program” could bring the Left back to life?

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