Dorothea Nikolaidis | No-Place Like Home: Reflections on Marx and Utopia

By Dorothea Nikolaidis

“What ought to be is, and at the same time is not. If it were, it would not be what merely ought to be.”

— W. F. Hegel, The Science of Logic[1]

“The theoretical consciousness autonomized in ideology, and the spontaneous representation of subjects and objects induced by the circulation of commodities, have the same general form: each constructs the fiction of a ‘nature’, denies historical time, its own dependence on transitory conditions”

— Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx[2]

I. An Unhelpful Intrusion

In our discussions of political uses of utopia, the name “Marx” tends to hang in the air like a black cloud. At times the epithet “utopian” seems tailor-made to suffocate our every effort at envisioning a different, better society. In any case, it does not usually stop us from trying to do so. But every once in a while, we feel compelled to acknowledge, maybe with a sigh, that after all Marx, and many Marxists after him, seemed to think of this whole exercise of constructing utopias as, at best, unproductive, and, at worst, a hindrance to our stated political aims.

Yet, although Marx’s criticisms of the utopian socialists are ever-present in these discussions, their underlying motivations, scope, and import remain obscure. The section on “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism” in the 1848 Manifesto of the Communist Party, a collaborative work by Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, remains Marx’s most explicit statement on this matter.[3] Like much of the Manifesto, the section’s polemical, at times even playfully mocking tone can conceal the theoretical background underpinning its positions. The Marx of the Manifesto is at least as eager to entertain and provoke as he is to educate his reader. Marx’s descriptions of the Utopian Socialists do not provide us with an exhaustive account of their practical and theoretical errors so much as a series of hints at such a perspective interwoven with a number of jabs at his opponents’ expense. Thus, the section ends “They therefore violently oppose all political action on the part of the working class; such action, according to them, can only result from blind unbelief in the new Gospel. The Owenites in England, and the Fourierists in France, respectively, oppose the Chartists and the Réformistes.”[4]

On account of this obscurity, when Marx’s name is invoked in discussions of utopia, it is rarely done with a view to a sustained engagement with Marx in the development of such a political vision. More often Marx’s name is invoked with the aim of wholly dismissing such an endeavor, or in preempting such attempted dismissals. If Marx’s criticisms of utopian socialism often come as an unhelpful intrusion into discussions of radical utopian thinking and practice, I suggest that their obscurity is in large part what tends to make them so unhelpful.

I want to shed light on the relevant theoretical background underlying the criticisms of utopian socialists of the Manifesto. To illuminate the underlying argument in this passage, I will turn to some of Marx’s other works. In so doing I do not purport to put forward a “unified” or “systematic” reading of Marx’s positions on utopianism.[5] Rather, I aim to trace out a number of theoretical strands which recur throughout much of Marx’s work.

In bringing these strands together I aim to show that Marx provides us with a powerful critique of utopian structures of political thinking. This critique, far from stifling our attempts at imagining and effecting political change, can spur us on to a more comprehensive theoretical and practical challenge of our present society. I will first discuss Marx’s methodological constraints on envisioning political futures. I will then discuss the ways in which Marx sees such political futures as already contained in the present.

II. Future-Tense

The task of imagining a political future seems to be a necessary element of any radical politics. In the famous “Eleventh Thesis” of Marx’s 1845 Theses on Feuerbach, he criticizes those philosophers who “have only interpreted the world” without changing it.[6] Nonetheless Balibar notes of this thesis that “in order to change, one needs a model, however minimal.”[7] In fact, Balibar suggests, it is difficult to see how Marx could go about constructing a vision of a political future consistently with his own scruples against idealism. Despite Marx’s materialist scruples, Balibar explains, “he certainly could not completely avoid the idea: communism is an idea… [Marx] remained an activist, in both senses of the term, and therefore an idealist.”[8] On this reading, the Eleventh Thesis expresses a tension in Marx’s thought. The practice of changing the world requires thought, but thought threatens to displace practice.

Certain of Marx’s comments suggest a reticence to conceive of communism symptomatic of just such an internal tension. In Marx’s 1873 Afterword to the Second German Edition of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, for example, he mocks the Paris Revue Positiviste’s reproach of him for confining “myself to the mere critical analysis of actual facts, instead of writing receipts (Comtist ones?) for the cook-shops of the future.”[9]Here, Marx meets a request to elaborate on his vision of a communist future with nothing but a sarcastic remark. Like Marx’s remarks in the Manifesto, this comment leaves the reader without an indication of its scope. Does Marx have a way of conceiving of a political future? Can Marx speak in future-tense?

In Marx’s The German Ideology written in 1845 but never published, he suggests an answer to this problem, one which Marx explicitly identifies with a “Materialist” as opposed to an “Idealist Outlook.”[10] At the end of a section titled “Idealism and Materialism,” in a subsection titled “Development of the Productive Forces as a Material Premise of Communism,” Marx describes a series of developments tending to result in the creation, on the one hand, of a mass of capitalist wealth, and on the other, of the revolutionary subjectivity of a global proletariat.[11] Concluding this section, Marx goes on to state the conditions under which he conceives of a communist future. For the Marx of the German Ideology,

Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things.[12]

Given the context of this passage Marx is likely not using ‘real’ as a mere claim to truth. Rather, ‘real’ is used in the sense of ‘belonging to the res’ or ‘thing’ itself in opposition to an ‘ideal’ imposed from without. The following sentence reads: “The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.”[13] If Marx speaks in future tense, he does so by taking this circuitous route through the present.

Marx’s “real movement” definition thus presents itself, first of all, as a methodological constraint. Balibar notes the significance of the passage in this connection when he states that “this was the only materialist definition of communism” for the Marx of the German Ideology.[14] Thus, whatever else communism entails, be it the abolition of the division of labor, private property, or the state, each of these descriptions only applies to the extent that it is discoverable in communism as a real movement. On this conception, considerations of justice, aesthetic appeal, or our personal whims about the future more broadly, however important or unimportant, however well-reasoned or arbitrary, are beside the point in discussions of a communist future. That is not to say that a person’s commitment to communism cannot involve some commitment to justice, for example. But claims about what ought to be, or about how our society ought to be structured are not self-supporting. They find their claim to truth as a political program, to the extent that there is any, in a real movement. This methodological constraint thus imposes far-reaching restrictions on the statements we can make about communism.

These restrictions prove necessary in light of the epistemological strictures that Marx articulates during this period in the Theses. In Marx’s “Second Thesis,” he states that the “question whether objective truth can be attributed to human thinking is not a question of theory but is a practical question. Man must prove the truth — i.e. the reality and power, the this-sidedness of his thinking in practice.”[15] We may note a number of important resonances between this Thesis and the “real movement” definition. Marx’s definition of communism restricts statements on the political future to those which are actualized in practice by the premises now in existence. In doing so, thought conforms to practice, that is, it satisfies the epistemological strictures of the Second Thesis and is therefore valid on the Second Thesis’ terms.

The import of the methodological constraint of the “real movement” definition and the closely related epistemological constraint of the Second Thesis is most clearly revealed in comparison to structures of political thought where neither of these constraints are satisfied. Marx’s section on “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism” in the Manifesto provides just such a case study.

There, he describes a series of socialist thinkers who formulated their socialist vision of the future in a period when capitalism and the proletariat were as yet undeveloped.[16] As such, they could not yet ground their thought in the immanent subjective-objective movement toward the abolition of the present state of things.[17]Instead, they sought to construct an ideal form of society in thought without regard to the presence of forces that might actualize this thought.[18] The resulting systems are series of ought-to-be’s unmoored from the self-movement of the “is.”[19] For all their importance in the development of socialist thought, the systems of the utopian socialists do not account for their own actualization in practice.

The disembodied character of these systems of thought results in a fatal mismatch between their political thought and the results of their political practice. In political practice the utopian socialists’ systems of ought-to-be’s took the form of bare moral appeals to society as a whole, or even to its ruling classes.[20] Worse still, in the utopian socialists’ blind quest for political support, Marx suggests that many of them engaged in political alliances which positively frustrated real communist movements.[21]

This critique can still apply to forms of political practice that employ the real or concrete utopias under discussion in Utopia 13/13. In this context, the relevant criteria are not whether a utopia has already in some way been brought about, but whether and how it takes stock of the political forces which bring it about, sustain, and expand it. That is, the relevant question is whether, on reflection, the form of thought and action at play measure up to one another and to the task of changing the world.

This reflective posture plays an important role in this conception of truth. Under certain conditions human thought is capable of reflecting back on itself, evaluating its own thought in terms of its adequacy to practice and adjust itself accordingly. In such turning back, second-order thought recognizes the conditions under which a first-order subjectivity is brought about and, in this recognition, can assess its trajectory in practice. Here there is no final meta-language that escapes such evaluation. Even the general pronouncement on truth offered in the Second Thesis is subject to such a recursive evaluation. Hence, immediately after the Second Thesis, Marx’s Third Thesis begins “the materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself.”[22] Human consciousness is bound and shaped on all sides by circumstances outside its control, but from within these bounds it can recognize itself, assess itself, and assume responsibility for itself.

Marx’s position, while acutely sensitive to the constraints of external factors on our thought and activity therefore does not sink into fatalism. Indeed, the act of writing a manifesto, of being a political activist in any capacity while professing fatalism in politics would amount to something like a performative contradiction.[23] If the communist movement is not subject to our individual whims it is not therefore something wholly independent from us. For Marx, communist consciousness, including his own, must be a form of subjectivity generated by the subjective-objective development of the capitalist mode of production which finds its validity recursively in the tendency of capital to produce such a subjectivity.

III. Past, Present, (and Future)

The foregoing discussion has focused on the methodological constraints which Marx’s “real movement” definition and his Second Thesis place on speech about the future. At this point I would like to discuss what the adequation of thought to practice means for any description of the present. Men make their own history, but at present, they do not make it as they please.[24] What constitutes a true grasp of a present in which forces outside of our control produce systematic and pervasive discrepancies between our thought and action? Here a description is adequate only to the extent that it shows the movement toward the overcoming of such a mismatch. It must show how the whole of the old society groans and labors in pain in anticipation of the new.[25]

As an interpretative key to Marx’s work, this observation is of immense significance. In describing developments within the present mode of production, Marx is not confining himself to the rehearsal of current political developments. Rather, through present developments he is describing a subjective-and-objective movement toward a radically different political future. Against the Utopian Socialists, the Marx of the Manifestois at pains to show how the communist future is present with us now in the dynamism of capitalism, its unprecedented expansionary capacity, and above all in the production of the proletariat.[26] The Marxist Philosopher Jacque Cammatte hits on this insight in relating how, contrary to the claim that Marx “had simply described capitalism in its liberal phase,” the Italian communist militant Amadeo Bordiga exclaimed that “all of [Marx’s and Engels’] work consisted in a struggle for, and an impassioned description of communism.”[27]

Perhaps even the “mere critical analysis of actual facts” presented in Capital could represent Marx’s most comprehensive impassioned description of communism. Here we should be wary of presenting an overly unified picture of Marx’s work. Nonetheless, for all the revisions, reversals, and advancements made between the composition of the German Ideology and the publication of Capital, Marx’s mature critique of political economy develops a number of analogous points to those which motivated the “real movement” definition of the German Ideology. From within the suffocating atmosphere of nineteenth century capitalism, Marx constantly forces us up against the outer limits of political economy’s seemingly all-embracing economic categories.[28]

At times Marx even describes the occasions on which we will be compelled, little by little, to confront these limits ourselves. The spaces where he locates such encounters with a political future might strike us as counterintuitive. Marx does not reserve such encounters with outer limits of capital for some space or set of spaces, literal or metaphorical, “outside” of capital’s reach. He rather locates these places of encounter deep within capital’s heart. The wage-labor relationship is one such location. On opposite poles of a single relationship, wage labor and capital each develop distinct conceptions of their own position, interests, and rights in this same relationship.

Marx hints at this divergence in perspective in his discussion of the labor process. On capital’s side this process appears as “a process between things that the capitalist has purchased, things that have become his property.”[29] The laborer, on the other side, feels the tension between his existence as living labor and his simultaneous existence as part of capital as an opposition within his work activity. In this way “his labour constantly undergoes a transformation: from being motion it becomes an object without motion.”[30]

This difference comes to a head later in Marx’s treatment of the length of the working day. There, Marx takes up the perspective of a wage-worker. He shows how the laborer comes to grasp Capital as an impersonal force possessing a relentless drive toward self-expansion.[31] This impersonal force stands in irreconcilable opposition to his own interests.[32]  The opposition comes to a head when each party asserts conflicting rights in the wage labor relationship, each with equally valid justification from the point of view of the capitalist property system.[33] An antinomy between equal rights emerges which can only be resolved by force. Between living labor and its dead embodiment opens a chasm that is a millimeter wide but a thousand miles deep.[34] A subjectivity opposed to capital’s system of abstract social domination arises out of and in constant relation to capital itself.

Such a formulation might inspire us to reframe our discussion of political utopia. In this 13/13 series, we set out with the aim of exploring concrete utopias, or at least, other spaces within our present order of things.[35] But if we take Marx’s descriptions of our present social reality seriously, then we would do well to avoid taking this language of “space” or even of “other” too literally. However, we might describe the presence of alternative political futures in our present society, they need not be separated from the whole of society to subsist as alternative forms. We may find that, scattered throughout our world today, cotemporal and even coextensive with the most grievous and all-encompassing forms of social domination, lay fragments of the future. The world they speak of is so different from our own that without them it would be inconceivable.


[1] Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel, The Science of Logic (George di Giovanni trans., 2010)

[2] Étienne Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx (2017).

[3] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

[4] Id.

[5] Balibar cautions against such “unifying” approaches in his The Philosophy of Marx explaining that “in studying him, one cannot abstractly reconstruct his system. One has to retrace his development, with its breaks and bifrucations.” Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx (2017).

[6] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

[7] Étienne Balibar, Justice & Equality: A Political Dilemma? UMBR(A) UTOPIA 111, 119 (2008).

[8] Id.

[9] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Vol. I, 12 (Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling trans., 1887) [hereinafter Capital].

[10] Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, The German Ideology.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] Balibar, The Philosophy of Marx (2017).

[15] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

[16] Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848).

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

[22] Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach.

[23] Balibar raises this issue in his discussion of the tensions in the Eleventh Thesis. Justice & Equality: A Political Dilemma? (2008).

[24] Paraphrase of a passage from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.

[25] Paraphrase of Romans 8:22.

[26] Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848)

[27] Jacque Cammatte, Bordiga and the Passion for Communism.

[28] “When I state that coats or boots stand in a relation to linen, because it is the universal incarnation of abstract human labour, the absurdity of the statement is self-evident. Nevertheless, when the producers of coats and boots compare those articles with linen, or, what is the same thing, with gold or silver, as the universal equivalent, they express the relation between their own private labour and the collective labour of society in the same absurd form.” Capital, 50.

[29] Capital, 131.

[30] Id at 133.

[31] Id at 163.

[32] Id.

[33] Id at 164.

[34] This is a paraphrase of Fr. Herbert McCabe. Fr. Herbert McCabe, God Still Matters 13 (2002).

[35] Bernard E. Harcourt, Six Questions for Utopia 13/13 (2022).