David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

Neo-utopianism and the demoralization of the petty-bourgeois left

Your document claims that my reference to neo-utopianism “is simply a straw man” that I have conjured up. You assert that I quoted from only one work, Vincent Geoghegan’s Utopianism and Marxism, to substantiate my claim that this tendency exists, and that it represents a form of contemporary political pessimism. Actually, I also cited the Socialist Register for the year 2000, which is entitled Necessary and Unnecessary Utopias. However, I should have been more generous in my citations of this latter work, a defect that is easily remedied. Permit me to quote from the preface:

The theme of this volume of the Socialist Register was first conceived in 1995 with the following general question in mind: as we approach the end of the millennium, what is to succeed the first great socialist project that was conceived in Western Europe in the nineteenth century, and variously implemented and frustrated by communism and social democracy in the twentieth? We had no illusions that an answer to this question would be found by cudgelling the brains of however large a number of left-wing intellectuals. But we did think that the time had come to renew the left’s vision and spirit and that the Register could hope to contribute something useful for this purpose. We wanted to break with the legacy of a certain kind of Marxist thinking which rejected utopian thought as “unscientific” just because it was utopian, ignoring the fact that sustained political struggle is impossible without the hope of a better society that we can, in principle and in outline, imagine. And we particularly felt that in face of the collapse of communism, as well as the rejection by ‘third way’ social democracy of any identification with the socialist project, there was now, especially in the context of the growing crisis of the neo-liberal restoration, an opening as well as a need for imaginative thought.” [68]

The clear connection between neo-utopianism and the demoralization prevailing among a layer of intellectuals, socialists and ex-radicals is established in the first contribution to this volume, entitled, “Transcending Pessimism: Rekindling Socialist Imagination.” Written by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, many of the themes present in Brenner’s essay are anticipated in this chapter—including the invocation of the work of Ernst Bloch, from whom you, Comrade Brenner, obtained the title of your tract on utopianism, To Know A Thing Is To Know Its End. In his The Principle of Hope, Bloch wrote, “The true genesis is not at the beginning, but at the end.”

It is simply not possible, within the framework of this document, to deal in depth with the neo-utopian theories of Ernst Bloch (1885–1977). According to his biographer, Wayne Hudson, important influences in the development of Bloch’s thought included Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Dostoevsky, Brentano, Meinong, Vaihinger, Hermann Cohen, Rudolf Steiner, Georges Sorel, and Max Weber. The eclectic amalgamation of these diverse and generally reactionary influences, to which he added heavy doses of Jewish cabbalistic mysticism, constituted the “Marxism” of Ernst Bloch. Not surprisingly, Bloch was critical of the emphasis placed by Marx and Engels on economics, and of their “neglect of the secret transcendental elements in socialism…” [69]

Hudson writes that Bloch believed:

… Marxism, as Marx and Engels left it, was one-sided and lacked many of the elements necessary for the implementation of its project. Morality and love had not been given their proper place in the revolutionary struggle … the Marxist concentration on a heaven on earth was inadequate. Instead, it was necessary to take account of man’s primal religious desire and to formulate a concept adequate to its intention. There had been too great a progress from utopia to science in Marxism, Bloch implied. [70]

Advocating a reconciliation with religion, Bloch argued (according to Hudson) that Marxism “needed to speak to people about their situation in language they could understand: to develop a propaganda which related to the ideology inside their heads, instead of superstitiously relying on correct theoretical analyses to win a path for truth in the world.” [71]

Throughout the 1930s, Bloch remained a passionate supporter of Stalin, whom he regarded highly as a theoretician. Bloch enthusiastically supported the death sentences handed down at the Moscow trials. “Indeed,” writes Hudson, “he prided himself on his ability to accept a degree of moral evil and the ‘unmistakable smell of blood’ as evidence of his political maturity … He idealised the reality of Stalinist murder, and avoided the moral dilemma by accepting violence and ‘red terror’ in a context in which the fundamental good intentions of the revolutionary forces and their commitment to moral values as teleological ends could not be doubted.” [72] Later, in 1953, while living in the Stalinist German Democratic Republic, he issued no protest against the brutal suppression of the working class rebellion against the hated regime of Walter Ulbricht.

This is the man, Comrade Brenner, from whom you believe the International Committee has much to learn, and whose theoretical example you invoked in the title of your document on utopia!

It is somewhat odd that you should deny that contemporary utopianism is a response to pessimism, because, as Panitch and Gindin point out, Bloch’s own original work was motivated precisely by the effort to counter the pessimism generated by the catastrophes of the 1930s. As they note:

Bloch’s response was to try to revive the idea of utopia. He insisted that even in a world where socialist politics are marginalized, we can still discover, if only in daydreams, the indestructible human desire for happiness and harmony, a yearning which consistently runs up against economic competition, private property and the bureaucratic state. [73]

Panitch and Gindin make no secret of their own belief that Marxism is based on an unrealistic and exaggerated estimate of the revolutionary potential of the working class, writing:

... it must be said that the historical optimism in Marx that inspired generations of socialists came with an underestimation of the chasm between the scale and scope of the utopian dream and the capitalism-created agency honoured—or saddled—with carrying it out: the working class. Between Marx’s broad historically-inspired vision of revolution/transformation and his detailed critique of political economy, there was an analytical and strategic gap—unbridgeable without addressing the problematic of working-class capacities—which later Marxists sometimes addressed, but never overcame. … Every progressive social movement must, sooner or later, confront the inescapable fact that capitalism cripples our capacities, stunts our dreams, and incorporates our politics. [74]

Comrades Steiner and Brenner: it is your right to oppose and criticize the International Committee, but don’t take us for fools. We are quite familiar with the literature circulating in petty-bourgeois political and academic circles, and are able to identify the sources with which you are working. So please don’t argue that neo-utopianism—and the pessimism from which it is derived—is a “straw man” we created to counter your brilliant, original ideas. You are not deceiving us. Rather, you are deceiving yourselves.

You go on to complain of references in my first lecture to Geoghegan’s Utopianism and Marxism, which you claim “is a hatchet-job with quotes ripped out of context for the purpose of proving that Geoghegan (and hence ‘neo-Utopianism’) advocate a left-version of Nazi-style mythmaking. But this again is nonsense,” you continue, “as is apparent to anyone who reads the book. The point that Geoghegan was making in the quote cited by North was that the Nazis were far more effective in their appeals to mass psychology than the German left.”

By this point, it should be fairly obvious to all objective readers that you were well aware my lectures in 2005 provided a reply to your earlier documents. And, I might add, that your present document is an attempt to answer the critique of your views presented in the course of those lectures.

The quotes are not ripped out of context. On the contrary, more extensive citations from Geoghegan would have reinforced my assessment of his book as a work that attacks Marxism for having underestimated the force and significance of the irrational in the motivation of human behavior. In my reference to Geoghegan, I stated that he “criticizes Marx and Engels for ‘having failed to develop a psychology. They left a very poor legacy on the complexities of human motivation and most of their immediate successors felt little need to overcome this deficiency.’”

Let us place the quote in context by citing the entire paragraph from which it was “ripped.” Geoghegan writes:

There has always been what one might term a rationalistic current in Marxism. It works with an Enlightenment model of the individual and its principal distinction is between knowledge and ignorance. This is its key to the central paradox of capitalism: that people put up with conditions not in their own interests. The ignorance which is false consciousness and alienation manifests itself in a variety of irrational beliefs and actions. However, once people break through this cocoon of illusion they will cease to behave in such a bizarre fashion. This is the spirit of Pottier’s “Internationale”: “Arise! ye starvelings from your slumbers/ Arise ye criminals of want/ For reason in revolt now thunders/ And at last ends the age of cant.” Such a view tends to privilege the bearers of knowledge: those who have emerged from the shadowy world of Plato’s cave and have seen the light of the truth. There was a strong dose of this type of rationalism in much of the Marxism of the Second International and it helped fuel the obsession with science. Part of the reason, which itself was part of the problem, was that Marx and Engels failed to develop a psychology. They left a very poor legacy on the complexities of human motivation and most of their immediate successors felt little need to overcome this deficiency. A simple concept of the individual coexisted with simplistic socialist strategies. [75]

The entire paragraph in no way contradicts my summary of Geoghegan’s argument. Rather than complaining that I have misquoted the author, you should explain why, and by what process, you have come to agree with his views. I have already noted your ambivalent attitude to the Enlightenment. The passage cited above reveals not only the parentage of your earlier objection to my “uncritical defense of the Enlightenment,” it also makes clear that your embrace of neo-utopianism has placed you in extremely unhealthy ideological and political company.

It is unfortunate that you have failed to investigate the various sources from which Geoghegan has drawn inspiration. All the ideas advanced in this one paragraph, which you vehemently defend against my criticisms—that Marxism is excessively rationalistic, that it is mistaken in its conviction that workers will embrace socialism if they acquire knowledge of their objective class interests, that it lacks an adequate knowledge of human psychology, and that it is based on a false theory of historical motivation—were anticipated and developed in considerable detail some eighty years ago by Hendrik de Man, in a book entitled The Psychology of Socialism.

De Man, a Belgian socialist who taught at the University of Frankfurt in the 1920s, broke from Marxism in the aftermath of the First World War. The mass slaughter of 1914–1918, which he witnessed as a soldier, led him to move “from the outlook of economic determinism, which forms the basis of Marxist socialism, to the standpoint of a philosophy wherein the main significance is allotted to the individual human being as a subject to psychological reactions.” [76]

De Man asserted that the basic flaw of Marxism was its belief that human behavior was subject to rational explanation, and that socialism arose as a response within the working class to its class interests. Marxism, he wrote, “obstinately” ignores the “multiplicity of socialist motivation, refuses to see the complicated nature of the issues. Otherwise the Marxists would lose their faith in the necessary connexion between class interests and ways of thinking.” [77]

The Psychology of Socialism was immensely influential within German academic circles in the 1920s, especially in the city where the Frankfurt School was taking shape, under the leadership of Friedrich Pollack and Max Horkheimer. Though de Man’s thoroughgoing repudiation of Marxism was not acceptable to the founders of the Frankfurt School, his attempt to supplant historical materialism with psychology anticipated trends that were to become increasingly pronounced among Horkheimer’s colleagues.

As for de Man, he achieved considerable fame in the 1930s when he wrote his Plan du Travail, under the “inspiration” of the ephemeral economic successes of Hitler’s regime. De Man envisaged an alliance of the working class and middle class on the basis of a national economic program of state-regulated capitalism. After the Nazis invaded Belgium, where he had been a “socialist” government minister, de Man became a fascist collaborator. At the end of the war, he fled Belgium, which then tried him for treason in absentia. He died in Switzerland in 1953. His life is an extreme, but by no means unique, example of the erratic biographical trajectory of those who have sought to separate socialism from historical materialism. It is a reactionary project with politically dangerous consequences.


Leo Panitch, Socialist Register 2000 (Suffolk, 1999), p. vii.


Wayne Hudson, The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch (New York: MacMillan, 1972), p. 33.


ibid., p. 33–34.


ibid., p. 45.


ibid., p. 46.


Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, “Transcending Pessimism: Rekindling Socialist Imagination,” Socialist Register 2000, p. 2.


ibid., p. 5.


Vincent Geoghegan, Utopianism and Marxism, (London and New York: Routledge Kegan & Paul, 1987), pp. 67–68. [Italicized words indicate those directly quoted in my lecture last August.]


Hendrik De Man, The Psychology of Socialism, (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1972), p. 13. Originally published in 1926 as Zur Psychologie des Sozialismus.


ibid., p. 28.