Utopias, the rejection of utopia, and a revolutionary vision

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The following interview with Daniel Bensaïd was conducted by Alain Brossat.

Alain Brossat. We are living in a phase of rejection of utopia. Going further, it seems as if we have entered the phase of “anti” thought. Among broad layers of intellectuals, people no longer define themselves by what they favor, but by what they are opposed to. The theme of antitotalitarianism, around which quite a large consensus has developed in our country, is the best-known example.

What is also striking is that these “anti” attitudes are broadly determined by the place from which the intellectuals speak. Here anti-totalitarianism provides a world vision for some of them, while anti-Reaganism allows others in other parts of the world to avoid having to pose some delicate questions.

“Anti” through is a regional thought. It often leads to tremendous misunderstandings: respectable liberal1 gurus among us can perfectly well serve as inspirers of radicals in the Hungarian opposition.

In what way does this intellectual climate influence revolutionary practice?

Daniel Bensaïd. There are several elements in this reaction that you call “anti.” First, we must go back to History, to that great divide – Stalinism – after which you could no longer think as you had before. After Stalinism, you can no longer find in the vocabulary and themes that Marxism deals with the same degree of utopia, in the positive sense of the term, that you could find in the socialism of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Over the course of time, disillusionment has done its work, has cut a wide swath, primarily among the intellectuals. So well that we may again see a challenge to the type of linkage that existed between “scientific socialism” in quotes and the utopian heritage that Marx and Engels had properly speaking incorporated into it, as can be clearly seen by reading their youthful works, beginning with the Communist Manifesto or Engels’ Eberfeld speech.

Today, what seems to predominate among many intellectuals is a fear of any vision, any vision that seems to imply a norm, a constraint, appearing to have a tendency toward or a potential for totalitarianism.

In fact, we see a reaction that goes far beyond anti-utopianism, a fundamentally anti-ideological reaction, a reaction against systems, which leads to a sort of cult of individualism, of the immediate, the multiple.

This reaction goes beyond the borders of Europe. We see it in reading a novel like The War of the End of the World by the Peruvian Vargas Llosa, in which he simultaneously expresses a sympathy toward people’s revolt, but also mistrust of anything having to do with building, with a social system that could become the carrier of an alienating or oppressive order.

Therefore it is no coincidence that you find Vargas Llosa in the role of a sort of liberal witness against the Sendero Luminoso guerrillas in Peru.

So what approach could we use to take up this question? In my opinion, we must exclude the idea that we could reinvent a utopia through some sort of fresh start, research, dynamization of Marxism in this sphere. It is true that we witnessed a small surge of utopian through after 1968, but that was, in my opinion, in a context already strongly marked by the decline of the great utopian systems.

I would say on the whole that the surge took place in the context of what the philosopher Ernst Bloch called the fragmentary utopias that, according to him, take the place of the great social utopias. I believe that the era of great utopian constructions has come to an end.

Alain Brossat. Why?

Daniel Bensaïd. Because you cannot go backwards. Let’s start from a provisional definition of utopia: the projection of a different social system, generally in a void. This projection leads to an “elsewhere.” But from the moment you enter into the context of a historic thought, you no longer reflect the present moment in terms of the historic “beyond” of the present. And that “beyond” necessarily involves a relationship of negation, but also of continuity with the place and the moment from which you start.

In such an approach, the relationship to the utopia is fundamentally changed. The utopia in that case is what remains undecided in a social and historic vision, the part that is the dream, the part that is the possible. That is how we enter into the era of partial utopias that can, for example, states Bloch, be anchored in the specific oppression of women, of Jews (the original Zionism), etc.

Alain Brossat. There are ideological phases, conjunctures where the utopias are “carriers” from the intellectual vantage point, where the mood of the time leads to utopia. There are other periods where anti-utopian thought, or even negative utopias are clearly dominant. What does this alternation between utopia and anti-utopia mean for us? under these conditions, what is the memory, the continuity of the utopia?

Daniel Bensaïd. If we look at utopia as “the nonpractical sentiment of the possible”, we can say that in any phase of transition marked by the decline of one class and the rise of another, there is a utopian moment where anticipation has its role to play.

This was the case at the end of the 15th century, at the beginning of the 16th century where utopia appeared in its two variants, one being authoritarian centralizing that prefigured the modern state, and the other that developed along a liberal, self-governing line.

This utopian current developed throughout the 16th century. But in contrast, from the start of the 17th century, utopia ebbed in favor of a debate over law, the theory of natural law that was already an instrument of political struggle for the bourgeoisie. Utopia therefore retreated because you were entering the practical and political dimension of the possible.

In another phase, following the French revolution, we saw a renewal of utopia that corresponded both to the new possibilities in terms of productive forces and to the search for a new social expression of these possibilities.

It was at that time that the pre-Marxist utopias developed, the utopias of Saint-Simon, Owen, Fourier, each with its own special features. The closer you get to the practical possibility of the proletarian revolution, the more that form of utopia recedes in favor of a political strategy, and ends up, in a sense, dissolving.

The Russian Reovlution translated into reality a whole load from prior utopian thought: everything, for example, involving social experimentation, the recasting of the way of life…

Can one say that the status of utopia is ruled by some sort of law of eternal return, in line with the development of social classes and their exhaustion? The problem is, above all, that today it is hard to imagine which class could reactivate the utopia. Bloch says it well: there is no longer any great class that could develop a unified utopian schema beyond the socialist schema, which continues to bear the great utopian aim of the withering away of the state, its extinction.

From this point of view, I believe that the utopian source of 1968 and its aftermath was much shorter than we thought at the time. It flowed from a period of prosperity that has ended. It was part of a conjuncture where everything seemed possible, where the social layers that impelled it felt great self-confidence, where the prevailing sentiment was that the resources of that society were inexhaustible, that you could use them whatever way you wanted.

This was, we should note, a very regional thought, based on the apogee of the accumulation of capital in the developed capitalist countries of Western Europe, a by-and-large local optimism.

What strikes me in the period of crisis and tensions that we see now, more than the quest for a new utopia, is the return of moral thought. It is undoubtedly not for nothing that Sartre’s Notebooks for a Morality was recently published. It must be seen as a symptom.

Even for those who place themselves in the sphere of Marxism, the integration of a moral concern often appears to be an obligatory passage. Morality often appears as an uncrossable horizon. Through a return to amoral approach to problems, they try to handle the trauma connected with the experience of the bureaucratic degeneration of socialism, connected with the experience of totalitarianism.

There is something peculiar in this return to morality. Not so long ago, the moral approach of dissidents from the Eastern countries [for example Plyushch] seemed somewhat exotic to us. Today there is the feeling that problems are often posed to the workers movement in terms of internal moralization. I am not sure that that’s where we can find the solution to the problems we have. But in any case, today the concern with morality seems to me to have largely overshadowed the concern with utopia.

Alain Brossat. The idea that utopia is the yeast of totalitarianism is very commonly accepted today. Marx and Engels are presented by the right as the founding fathers of totalitarianism. Where do you stand with regard to these “obvious facts” of our period?

Daniel Bensaïd. That question is so vast! We can only deal with specific aspects. Let’s take the question of Lenin and Leninism. I have the impression that after 1914 a much more thorough going change took place in Lenin’s thinking than has been stated: on the methodological plane [see his reflections on Hegel’s Logic], on the plan of this perception of the imperialist world as a totality, on the plane of his perception of the State.

From this vantage point, I do not believe that State and Revolution was a brilliant improvisation in a revolutionary context. Rather it was a break with a certain way of looking at things inherited from before 1914, a break that was taken further by Trotsky in the anti bureaucratic struggle and constitutes a new link in the chain of Marxism.

Another thing harped on by the anti-Leninism so prevalent now is the idea that the theory of the revolutionary party he developed in What Is to Be Done? harbors all the seeds of totalitarianism.

Here we have a question that is poorly posed. The real problem is inherent in the particular features of the proletarian revolution: the problem of the transformation of a dispossessed, plundered class into a ruling class. Political power becomes a means of emancipation and social transformation. But was does the political power rest on if not the social and cultural heritage of this capitalist society?

In this sense the danger of bureaucratization is inherent in the proletarian revolution, what ever theory of the workers party you base yourself on.

I would go so far as to say that Leninism, with its idea of the vanguard party, creates more favorable conditions than any other to confront this difficulty. In this regard it is less dangerous than the idea prior to Lenin’s that the party represents the proletariat as a whole, that it constitutes the political society of the working class, with all its extensions, its mass organizations…

The Leninist theory makes it possible to establish a much clearer relationship between the exercise of the sovereignty of power and political organization. It makes it possible to think more rigorously about the separation of the party and the state, the subordination of the party to the sovereignty of the soviets.

All these ideas become clearer once you are confronted with a vanguard party that proposes and tries to convince, but cannot impose itself as the immediate representative of the interests of the whole working class.

It is true that this distinction, which could be seen in potential form in the major works of Lenin after 1914, did not prevail in the 1920s. In the first congress of the Communist International, the stress was placed on the soviets as instruments for taking power, but party-soviet-union relations were not clearly defined. In any case there is an ambiguity regarding the subordinate relationship of the soviets to the party: is it a political, historic, institutional or subordination?

On the other hand, in my opinion the logical corollary to the overall question of the vanguard party must be respect for multipartyism in the transitional society. It was not just for circumstantial reasons that Trotsky turned toward this idea in the 1930s. For him it was not a return to a mundane democratic idea. Rather it was the development of a consciousness, flowing from the experience of the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR, that it is impossible to artificially unify the interests of the working class and suppress its heterogeneity by decree, that differentiated channels of social and political representation of the working class must be established in the transitional phase. I think that the implications of this theoretical reorientation are far-reaching.

Let’s look at one final aspect of the question concerning Lenin and Leninism. One of the “proofs” often trotted out to show the totalitarian cast of his thinking and his action is the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly. There are two aspects to this. First, there is a concrete political problem of that time, posing the question: Who dominates whom? Who exercises the political power? In this case, two powers coexisted – the power of the Soviets and the power of the Constituent Assembly – based on different representations of the political reality, of its transformation…

From this vantage point, the confrontation was inevitable and the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly was a question of political opportunity, not principle.

The second aspect, and here it would be wise to keep a critical distance, is the way in which Lenin and Trotsky would later make a virtue of necessity. They could do so because there was neither a conscious vision of the problem of the transition in their epoch nor a plan to institutionally define those problems. Today, experience has shed some light on these questions.

Let’s take two examples. We saw the emergence in Poland, before Jaruzelski’s coup, of the demand for free elections to the Sejm [parliament], a demand heading in the direction of the reestablishment of institutions of the parliamentary type. But I think that once such a demand arises in a context where the social relations are not, fundamentally, determined by a market economy, the content of this “democratic” demand is quite different from what it would be in a context where free enterprise rules.

This demand takes a meaning within the perspective of a system of dual representation, where the Sejm would coexist with an Economic Chamber of Factory Self-Management Councils. Once private ownership of the means of production has been abolished, a parliamentary-type form of representation can fulfill a positive function.

In Nicaragua, elections will soon take place for the establishment of a Constituent Assembly, unless the imperialist intervention creates obstacles. We can therefore see that in a process of transition, even one that is strongly hampered by the possibility of a military intervention against the revolution, passage to the single party is not preordained.

We see that in Nicaragua there is a certain plurality in parties and debates. It is a demonstration of the strength of this revolution. We will have to see later how this assembly is combined with other forms of representation of a more directly social type. It seems that among the Sandinistas there was a debate over maintaining dual representation after the elections for the Constituent Assembly.

Alain Brossat. Do you think that regarding a question like the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, the question of legitimacy is not posed?

Daniel Bensaïd. We must go further. The victorious Russian revolution thought of itself as an active part of a much bigger revolution. In a question like that one, the Bolshevik leaders related to a totality in motion, representing a more important criterion than the electoral photograph of Russia at a given moment. What was involved, therefore, at the time was not a problem of morality but a problem of strategy, with all the margin for uncertainty and for possible error that implies.

You cannot make abstract comparisons between the situation facing the Bolsheviks in that period and the one facing the Nicaraguan leaders today. It has been five years since the Nicaraguans took power. In the meantime things have been considerably clarified. A segment of the bourgeoisie left the country; the process we are currently witnessing is also a process of constituting the nation, a nation that is still unfinished.

To return to the Russian revolution, the debate over one or another particular aspect, like the one we have raised, is at the bottom always the same: either you think, as the Mensheviks did, that this revolution was premature from the standpoint of the level of productive forces, or you think that it could constitute the starting point for a total transformation of the relationship of forces between imperialism and the revolution, and from that moment on there are no general criteria that let you pose the question in terms of legitimacy or illegitimacy.

The question is one of the context in which the revolutionaries make one or another decision, of possible blank spots in revolutionary though, of the relationship between theory and experience, etc. The Constituent Assembly of January 1918 could very well have become the institutional center of “legitimization” of the counterrevolution on the eve of the civil war!

Alain Brossat. Is there a special coloration to utopia in the dependent countries, in Latin America for example?

Daniel Bensaïd. This question is too vast. The thing we should talk about in the first place is a thought that is not utopian at all, but is rather, quite simply, a thought of liberation. A thought that bases itself on misery, ruination, even hopelessness; in many countries, the simple fact of getting rid of the burden of the foreign debt, of the dictatorship of hunger, looms as a tremendous moral and human ambition. We should also mention a specific and interesting phenomenon, “liberation theology,” which has it own utopian thrust in the way it reformulates the Christian heritage.

Furthermore, the intellectuals of these countries have a hard time placing themselves in a truly universalist utopia. There is an enormous gulf between their vision of the world and the one that prevails among the intellectuals of the developed countries. We know, for example, that sympathy for the struggle not to mention adherence to that struggle, has encountered different obstacles in Latin America than in Europe. In Latin America, through the intermediary of Cuba, the socialist camp remains a pole of reference. They do not see History from the same angle as here, where an Arrabal can state with impunity on television that there are 300,000 political prisoners in Cuba that Cuba is the capital of racism along with South Africa, etc.!

I have the impression, through discussions with certain exiled Latin American intellectuals, that a sort of “realism” predominates in their stance, a “realism” based on the following reasoning: the revolution is a vital necessity; Cuba – and in the background the USSR – is an inevitable point of reference, but you must not be naive about the reality of the socialist camp.

They sometimes develop a theory that could be formulated: the revolution means justice, but it does not mean freedom. You should not ask too much of the revolution, or you run the risk of grave disillusionment.

You again see reproduced here a separation between a subjective morality of freedom on the one hand and a realpolitik on the other. It seems to me, however, that it is indispensable to give back to Marxism its entire liberating dimension, especially by showing that the necessity for democracy is a functional, not simply a formal, necessity. The events in Poland or those in Grenada that gave the American government the pretext to go in and “reestablish order” suffice to demonstrate that point.

Alain Brossat. Could you say that there was an important utopian component in Che Guevara’s thinking?

Daniel Bensaïd. Rather than a utopian thinking, I would speak of an on-the-spot, appropriate, revolutionary thinking, a thinking that brings together a problem of revolutionary action, a historic vision, and an ethical dimension. In this regard, I find it regrettable that no one has ever made an in-depth assessment of Che’s place in the Cuban revolution.

There are undoubtedly some rather suspect reasons for this: it is true, for example, that in the face of the failure of the “10 million” ton harvest in 1970, Castro had to accept the failure of an economic policy, reestablish a book-keeping system, reinstitute material stimulants, revise the wage system, all of which was coupled with Cuba’s entry into Comecon and the strengthening of ties with the USSR.

One often has the impression that in the self-criticism of the 1960s policy that led to these difficulties, often people in Cuba consciously or unconsciously telescope things too rapidly, making it possible to ascribe these difficulties to the positions that Che defended in the years 1963-65. But that is not at all obvious.

Che’s position did not rest solely on a moral idea, but also on the conviction that a transitional society that rested only on material stimulants would not necessarily go where it wanted to go. He put great stress on the dimension of education and on the value of example, in the military field as well as the economic. But he lacked a means through which to deepen these ideas, an institutional framework favorable to carrying them out.

Che’s figure faded because it was symbolically tied to leftism, to a revolutionary voluntarism. But his thought nonetheless constitutes an acquisition that can be reactivated, a flame that can be rekindled at whatever moment history moves forward again. In Latin America, this idea of the currency of the revolution was set back primarily for the simple reason that the revolutionary vanguard went through a decade of defeats and dictatorship. Politics therefore resumes on a much more mundane level: in Brazil, a million people go into the streets for direct elections; in Chile, they demonstrate for democracy; in Argentina, there is the vote for Alfonsín, a “realistic” vote.

It is also true that a whole utopian thrust was found in certain sectors of society in Europe in the late 1960s, which has faded. In part, these were just so many illusions that were dissipated. People could in fact believe that there was a direct correspondence between this effect of 1968 on culture and the political and social reality. They believed in an immediacy of the revolution. In certain cases they even evoked the immediacy of communism (Il Manifiesto, under the impact of the cultural revolution).

It has turned out that all this was, in large part, fantasy, that there was an enormous gap between the reality and these utopian projections. These illusions constituted the arena for a certain utopian climate in the vanguard organizations, among us as well as in Latin America for example. Today, this phenomenon has receded, and people concern themselves with much more matter-of-fact things, resistance to the effects of the crisis here, calling for the reappearance of the disappeared there.

On the one hand, one result of this situation is that people are closer to the political reality. On the other hand, it highlights the danger of getting bogged down to a degree in that reality. Here I am not even talking about the lack of utopia, but quite simply lack of vision, the danger of routine.

Precisely because we confront the repellent image of the countries of the East, the revolutionary vision cannot be reduced to a string of self-defense acts, protests, or strikes.

In addition, the working class and its allies must be able to take it upon themselves at a given moment to develop a vision for society.
This is what is not understood by those who, after having been burned once after 1968, are now twice shy, and who view anything having to do with utopia, with anticipation, as nothing more than a little cultural breeze if not an error of youth.

Special issue of “Critique communiste” n° 32, 1984
“Critique Communiste” is a monthly magazine published in Paris by the Revolutionary Communist League (LCR), French section of the Fourth International, of which Daniel Bensaïd is a leader. The translation is by “Intercontinental Press”.

  1. In French political language, liberals are opponents of government intervention in political and economic affairs. -IP

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