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Bernie Sanders and Socialism Part I Utopian Socialism

Whether Bernie Sanders is even nominated for President by the Democratic Party, let alone wins the presidency, is a moot point.  The fact that a serious contender for the presidency has identified himself as a socialist marks a turning point in American politics. 

Cries of horror from the political right and charges of inconsistency from the radical left behoove us to examine the meaning of socialism.   In the history of Western political economy there have been several distinct types of socialism.  This series briefly examines the three most important socialist movements—utopian, revolutionary, evolutionary—and then their relationship to the welfare state and Senator Sanders’ claim to be a democratic socialist.

Although significant differences between these socialist movements exist, nevertheless all share three characteristics.

  1. The goal of equality, especially economic equality
  2. The distrust of, if not outright opposition to, private property and economic competition
  3. The creation of a just society through scientific analysis and organization directed by a centralized power

The subject of this essay is utopian socialism.  The term “utopian socialism,” which was not their chosen self-designation,[1] refers to a group of theorists and reformers in the first half of the nineteenth century.  The four major figures are Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), François-Charles Fourier (1772-1837), Robert Owen (1771-1858), and Louis Blanc (1813-1882).[2]

In analyzing any political or economic movement it is essential to discover its ultimate goal.  For utopian socialists that goal was a universal harmonious communal equality.  Fourier wrote, “There exists for Man a unitary destiny–a Divine social order to be established on the earth for the regulation of the social and domestic relations of the human race,” or what Blanc called “the triumph of fraternity.”

The utopian socialists thus were especially captivated by the French revolutionary ideal of fraternity.  For this reason many of them advocated or sought to form model communities which would ultimately usher in a perfect universal society.   Examples of these model communities were Fourier’s phalanxes and Owen’s New Lanark.

The chief obstacles to this harmonious society were economic competition and private property.  Fourier asserted, “Under a true organization of Commerce, property would be abolished, the Mercantile classes become agents for trade of industrial goods and Commerce would then be the servant of Society.”  According to the utopian socialists, the problem with private property is that it creates inequality and thus destroys fraternity.  In Fourier’s model community property would be the common possession of the phalanx.  Since all commerce would be working for the common good of society and not society working for the sake of commerce, the phalanxes “will render Industry attractive and end the evil distinction between Producers and Consumers.”

Blanc, who seemed to have been more in tune with the condition of workers, strongly condemned what he perceived to be the evil effects of economic competition on them. “Who would be blind enough not to see that under the reign of free competition the continuous decline of wages necessarily becomes a general law with no exception whatsoever?”  The technological advances of the Industrial Revolution were also problematic for laborers.  According to Blanc, under the capitalist system of industrialization, the need for large amounts of money to finance the creation of factories and their machine resulted in monopolies and loss of jobs to workers.  Blanc proposed worker-owned shops in which all would share from the profits and the new machines would not displace them because with “the new system of association and solidarity there are no patents for inventors, no individual exploitation. The inventor will be recompensed by the State and his discovery is then placed at the service of all.”

Blanc’s reference to “the State” answers the question about how the utopian socialists intended for their plans to be implemented.  Blanc’s worker-owned shops were to have been financed by the state.  Because “the private man looks only to his personal interest,” the wealthy will always win in a competitive society.  Therefore, the state must intervene.  He wrote, “The government ought to be considered as the supreme regulator of production and endowed for this duty with great power. … This task would consist of fighting competition and of finally overcoming it.”  Blanc triumphantly proclaimed, “In destroying competition we strangle at the same time the evils which it brings forth.” Fourier agreed. “The present system of Commerce was the growth of circumstance and accident. Never did such a system better deserve condemnation as being vicious and corrupt. What is the power to intervene to repress this fraud? Government.”

Fourier’s argument for government intervention demonstrates a crucial aspect of the attitude of the utopian socialists toward their contemporary society and government in general.  Both Blanc and Fourier appeared to view government as an impartial and unselfish agent in contrast to the greed and selfishness of capitalist society.  Fourier also considered the government to be an agent of reason in contrast to the irrational system of capitalist society, which was merely a product of an unplanned historical accident.  In this he showed the influence of the Enlightenment emphasis on reason and the theories of rational social planning derived from it.   Fourier’s confidence in scientific planning was evident in his hope, “To elevate Nature Humanity must create and organize a perfect system of industry, discover and perfect the physical sciences, and establish on a peaceful and industrial basis an order of Society that will direct its labors to the work of terrestrial cultivation and improvement.”

Connected with Fourier’s emphasis on rational planning and the sciences was a proposal for universal free education, which would direct human drives toward a “unity of manners and civility,” and away from the competitive spirit.  Ultimately, he hoped for a perfect society in which “Universal happiness and gaiety will reign. A unity of interests and views will arise, crime and violence disappear. There will be no individual dependence—no private servants, only maids, cooks, and so forth all working for all (when they please). Elegance and luxury will be had by all.”  Such a society would be prosperous, harmonious and egalitarian.

So is Senator Sanders a utopian socialist?  He certainly appears to share their confidence in government as the primary force for social justice.  His advocacy of tuition-free public university education reflects Fourier’s call for universal education. Nevertheless, similarities on specific issues do not necessarily entail fundamental philosophical agreement.  Senator Sanders does not reject out of hand the institutions of private property and claims to support and desires to encourage entrepreneurship, which preserves at least some element of competition.  So, no, he is not a utopian socialist.

Utopian socialists can be criticized on several fronts.  Biblically, the institution of private property is not considered sinful in and of itself.  More importantly, utopian socialism’s contention that a specific institution, such as private property, is the chief source of society’s problems fails to recognize the truth of Scripture’s teaching about human sinfulness.  Christians can thus rightly criticize its naïve confidence in human goodness and institutions such as government.  The heart of man is desperately wicked (Jeremiah 17:9), and John’s condemnation of Babylon in Revelation 18 should disabuse anyone of the notion that a powerful government is necessarily a force for good.  Even a cursory glance at history also supports Christianity’s suspicion of humanity’s goodness and the benignity of our institutions.

Strangely enough, revolutionary socialism and Christianity would be in agreement on the unrealistic program of utopian socialists.  According to Marx and Engels, their advocacy of “peaceful means” and “the force of example” and their “appeal to the feelings and purses of the bourgeois” ignore the reality of class antagonism.  They are hopelessly utopian, building “pocket editions of the New Jerusalem” and “castles in the air.”[3]

The discussion of Marx and Engels will be saved for the next essay in which we ask whether Bernie Sanders is a revolutionary socialist.


[1] The name stuck after the critique of this movement in the section “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism” in The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and published in 1848.  I believe communitarian socialism would describe them better but will stick with the common designation of utopian socialism.

[2] We shall be quoting from Fourier’s Theory of Social Organization (1820) and Blanc’s The Organization of Work (1840).  A convenient place to find excerpts of these writings online is The Internet Modern History Sourcebook of Fordham University.  The citations in this essay are taken from this source.

[3] All of these quotations come from the section “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism” of The Communist Manifesto mentioned previously.  I am using the translation edited by Samuel H. Beer for Appleton-Century-Croft “Crofts Classics” in 1955.

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