David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

The idealist method of utopianism

Ideas develop in accordance with a certain historically-determined logic. As a product of their time, the conceptions of the great progressive utopians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were grounded in the materialist philosophy of that epoch. But that materialism was of a primarily mechanical, static and ahistorical character, and therefore could not adequately account for the development of social consciousness. The limitation of this form of materialism found its most significant expression in the utopians’ conception of the relationship between consciousness and the realization of the social ideals that they advocated. The French materialists of the late eighteenth century insisted that man was a product of his social environment. Both his virtues and vices arose from this objective source and, therefore, it was only through changes in his social environment that man’s virtues could be multiplied and his vices eliminated. Thus, alterations in consciousness required the alteration of the social environment within which his consciousness developed. But this raised a further question: how was this social environment to be changed? It was here that the French materialists found themselves trapped within a conundrum, from which their philosophy offered no escape. Man is a product of his environment. But the social environment, they argued, is a product of... public opinion! Where did this conclusion leave the materialists of the eighteenth century? If man is a product of his social environment, it would seem to follow that public opinion itself is a product of that environment. Yet, the materialists turned the argument around, and made the social environment a product of public opinion! And so, notwithstanding the essentially materialist foundations of their epistemology, the French philosophes arrived at the idealist conclusion that changes in the social environment principally depended upon changes in thought, or, as the French materialists often posed the issue, in “human nature.”

Within the framework of French materialism, no solution could be found to the Social Environment—Public Opinion conundrum. Rather, a solution depended upon the discovery of objective forces, not dependent upon “public opinion,” that both determined the social environment and shaped the form and direction of social consciousness. The discovery of such objective forces was the singular achievement of the materialist conception of history elaborated by Marx and Engels.

What has all this to do with your document, Comrade Brenner? In pleading for the revival of utopianism, you more or less reproduce the theoretical conundrum that bedeviled the materialists of the eighteenth century. While their errors had the charm of originality and genius, yours, 250 years later, appear merely foolish. “The central point I am making,” you write, “is that it is just because the proletariat is the only conceivable revolutionary subject of history that utopia is important: class consciousness will never be revived until socialism becomes once again a great social ideal, the focal point for the aspirations and dreams of the broad mass of workers, young people and intellectuals.” [Emphasis added]

Let us examine this argument with the attention it deserves: “Class consciousness will never be revived until socialism becomes once again a great social ideal.” But the emergence of socialism as “the focal point for the aspirations and dreams of the broad mass of workers, young people and intellectuals” could only mean that a colossal development of class consciousness had already occurred. Stripped down to its naked essentials, your formula makes the revival of class consciousness dependent upon the revival of ideals, that is, upon one of the aspects or components of class consciousness. You might just as well have written, “Socialism (as an especially advanced expression of class consciousness) will never be revived until socialism becomes once again a great social ideal.” We are left with a tautology. You fail to answer the obvious question: how will socialism become a “great social ideal?” Do there exist objective conditions, independent of consciousness, that will provide a real socioeconomic impulse for that development? For all your invective against mechanical materialism, you reproduce the fundamental flaws of that mode of thought.

The mechanical character of eighteenth century materialism, which made unavoidable a relapse into an idealist conception of the development of social consciousness, was historically conditioned by the existing level of socioeconomic and scientific-technological development. Neither industrial capitalism nor the working class had matured to the point required for the discovery that the development of the productive forces, and the social relations to which they give rise, comprise the real and objective foundation of social consciousness. Socialist thought assumed a utopian character precisely because historical conditions did not yet exist for establishing the link between social consciousness and the objective development of socioeconomic forces. Moreover, precisely because the utopians were unable to identify the objective source of changes in consciousness, the process of changing consciousness could only be conceived in terms of education carried out by enlightened individuals.

By the 1840s, both capitalism and the working class in Britain, France and Germany had considerably developed. It became possible to identify the objective forces, operating in relative independence of peoples’ thinking, which underlay dramatic changes in social consciousness and generated immense eruptions of open class conflict. In the face of these developments, conceptions that made fundamental shifts in social consciousness dependent upon the pedagogical efforts of advanced and isolated thinkers, assumed an ever-more apparent reactionary character. In Germany, such conceptions were associated with a tendency known as the critical critics, whose principal representative was Bruno Bauer. Analyzing this tendency, Plekhanov wrote:

“Opinion governs the world”—thus declared the writers of the French Enlightenment. Thus also spoke, as we see, the Bauer brothers when they revolted against Hegelian idealism. But if opinion governs the world, then the prime movers of history are those men whose thought criticises the old and creates the new opinions. The Bauer brothers did in fact think so. The essence of the historical process reduced itself, in their view, to the refashioning by the “critical spirit” of the existing store of opinions, and of the forms of life in society conditioned by that store...

Once having imagined himself to be the main architect, the Demiurge of history, the “critically thinking” man thereby separates off himself and those like him into a special, higher variety of the human race. This higher variety is contrasted to the mass, foreign to critical thought, and capable only of playing the part of clay in the creative hands of “critically thinking” personalities. [48]


Georgi Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1974), pp. 118–19.