If the purpose of political theory is to tackle the question of what “the good life” is and how justice should be defined, then utopianism is perhaps one of the most imaginative and thorough methods of rising to such a challenge. There are countless texts throughout history that describe such utopian or “perfectly ideal” societies. Our latest political thinker, Karl Marx, lays out in The Communist Manifesto numerous conditions of his communist state. While not directly describing this society as utopian, the bold courses of action he outlines in the second chapter of the Manifesto are radical enough that the resulting society could be thought of as a Marxist utopia. But how do Marx’s socioeconomic/political changes compare to the ideas laid out by other utopian philosophers and theorists? In comparison, is it really sound to think of The Communist Manifesto as a utopian text? I will be comparing several of Marx’s most important claims with those of other famous utopian and utopian-esque texts, namely The Republic by Plato and Utopia by Thomas More.
The first of Marx’s measures of transforming a society into a communist state is the “abolition of property in land and application of all rents of lands to public purposes” (Wootton 809). Similarly, in Plato’s Republic, one of the key aspects of the ideal society is the dissolution of private property and the establishment of communal living to replace the nuclear family. More, too, includes the dismantling of private property in his Utopia, stating that all goods are held in warehouses to be distributed at the request of the citizens. Another change proposed by Marx, the “equal liability of all to labour” (Wootton 809), is also held in common with both Plato and More. Particularly with Marx and More, the importance of agriculture is profound, with Marx suggesting the creation of “industrial armies, especially for agriculture” (Wootton 809).
However, More and Plato are starkly different from Marx in one major way: the existence of social classes. Plato especially puts a strong emphasis on the persistence of a rigid social class structure, with his utopian society being divided into three groups: The ruling class of wise, Philosopher-Kings, the guardian class of soldiers and officials, and a class that includes all the workers and artisans. As the society proposed by Marx in the Manifesto rests on the premise that the communist society is a classless one, the almost totalitarian enforcement of social order in Plato’s Republic is the complete opposite of what Marx believes is ideal. In More’s Utopia, the existence of slavery is profound, and the enslavement of citizens in his society is a common punishment. Again, as Marx believes that the proletariat or working class is essentially “enslaved” by the rich bourgeoisie class, the idea of slavery in the communist society is an unheard-of one.
Ironically, all three theories of a potentially utopian society possess many aspects that can be seen as dystopian. The power held by the governments in the three societies is immense; and all have the potential to lead to tyranny and oppression. In Marx and More’s theories, they fail to account for scientific advancements and the potential for new means of subsistence and economic diversification (beyond agriculture). The three utopias think of human creativity and freedom of thought as potentially dangerous, and each act to limit the freedoms and creative abilities of their citizens.
Despite their differences, I do feel that Marx’s Communist Manifesto can be thought of as a utopian text comparable to those of Plato and Thomas More. The three texts were all written in response to what their authors believed to be a social, political, and economic degradation in their respective eras. They all share radical proposals to the social structure, shifting either from one end of the spectrum (classless) to the other (governmentally-enforced social stratification). Where Marx sets his work apart from the others, is his belief in not only the plausibility of his utopian state, but his confidence in its existence in the not-so-distant future.
1. “Modern Political Thought” by David Wootton.
2. “The Republic” by Plato.
3. “Utopia” by Thomas More.