Capitalist Utopianism or Practical Socialism?

Every so often, a “great thinker” comes onto the public stage to offer their solution to where we have all gone wrong and what to do about it. A couple of decades back it was Will Hutton (THE STATE WE'RE IN) with his raft of social reforms to save capitalism, more recently it has been the French economist, Tomas Piketty (CAPITALIN THE 21ST CENTURY), and now it is the turn of the Dutch academic, Rutger Bregman with his book: UTOPIA FOR REALISTS: AND HOW WE CAN GET THERE (2017).

So what is Rutger’s menu of social reforms, how are they going to be enacted and who is going to enact them?

* He argues for a universal basic income
* He argues against using GDP as a measure of a country’s health
* He argues in favour of eliminating national borders
* He is against foreign aid
* He wants to abolish poverty
* He wants a fifteen hour working week
* He wants governments to raise taxes with a “world-wide progressive tax on wealth” as suggested by Tomas Piketty.

Bregman wants a universal basic income but is aware of the failure of those proposing such schemes in the past, from the Speenhamland system introduced in the 18th century to the proposals put forward by Richard Nixon in the 1970’s, who tried unsuccessfully to implement this reform.

A universal basic income, even if it were enacted, would not solve the problems facing the working class. The working class are exploited within the production process by producing, what Marx called “surplus value”, and what workers receive in wages and salaries is never enough for them to lead decent and worthwhile lives. The capitalist class needs to keep the workers poor to be able to force workers to sell their labour power or ability to work on the labour market.

This also applies to reducing employment time to fifteen hour weeks. Capitalists want to employ workers for as long as they can in order to increase the intensity and extent of exploitation. They want workers to work as much surplus labour time as possible. What they do not want is to pay for workers to have more and more leisure time except when it is not profitable to employ them!

Socialists also want to see the abolition of poverty. Poverty for socialists, though, is defined by workers not only being exploited in the wages system but by not owning the means of production and distribution. Workers are poor because they cannot just take what they need or use the means of production and distrubution under capitalism for social use. The means of production under capitalism are used to make a profit.

The social reform measures put forward by Rutger, even if they were enacted by a benign government, would still leave the workers as an exploited class living in poverty. This is because of the existence of the exploitive class relationship between workers and capitalists with its in-built inequalities. And Rutger does not learn from history. The failure of social reform parties, like the Labour Party, to make any appreciable difference to the condition of the working class, supports the socialist case against capitalism that, so long as the profit system is accepted by workers as a necessity, it can only be run in the interests of the capitalist class, and not the workers.

We now come onto Bregaman’s utopianism. Yes, socialists would like to see the elimination of national borders. We want to see a world-wide socialist system without the artificial barriers to the movement of people across the planet. However, this will not happen under capitalism. Capitalism is split into competing nation states which is the cause of war and conflict. Not to understand this, as Rutger’s appears not to do, is just naïve utopianism.

As for the suggestion of a “world-wide progressive tax on wealth”; just who is going to enact this legislation? Even Piketty thought it highly unlikely. Governments exist, not for the benefit of all society, but to further the interest of the capitalist class, particularly protecting their means of production and distribution, to the exclusion of the rest of society. Capitalists want taxes as low as possible and for the state to represent them and them alone. That is why they bankroll capitalist political parties, buy newspapers and other media outlets in order to spread pro-capitalist propaganda and wine and dine capitalist politicians.

Finally, socialists also have no interest in GDP and agree with Rutger that it can never measure a county’s health. But a country is not what socialists are interested in. We want the resources of the world to be within the parameters of the common ownership and democratic control of the means of production and distribution by all of society. And that means World socialism. The health of socialism would be measured by the intrioduction of production solely for use to enable men and women to flourish and take part in the democratic affairs of society. Capitalism, whether in a block of countries or an isolated country cannot provide the basis for this universal health and well-being.

Bregman’s a ‘realist’ and utterly opposed to socialists and socialism. He use the derogatory term “under-dog socialism” to describe those socialists whose world view is that:

…the neo-liberals have mastered the game of reason, judgement, and statistics, leaving the left with emotion” (p. 256).

Of course it is a “straw socialist”; a myth which can be easily knocked down. Socialists might put the socialist case with passion but it is backed-up by reason and empirical evidence. The case for socialism is not based on emotion or morals. The case for socialism is that capitalism is incapable of meeting the needs of all society. It is, as Marx noted is “a fetter on production” (COMMUNIST MANIFESTO): historically bankrupt and preventing a society of abundance from taking its place.

Bregman cannot engage in debate with socialists. And for a very good reason, as acknowledged by Engels in SOCIALISM: UTOPIAN AND SCIENTIFIC, in a comment he once made against all utopian idealists. He said of the plans of speculative utopians that it represented nothing more than:

… a mish-mash allowing of the most manifold shades of opinion: a mish-mash of such critical statements, economic theories, pictures of future society by the founders of different sects, as excite a minimum of opposition; a mish-mash which is the more easily brewed the more definite sharp edges of the individual constituents are rubbed down in the stream of debate, like rounded pebbles in a brook”.

The more Bregman’s social reforms are interrogated to reasonable and analytical criticism the more they assume the shape of “rounded pebbles in a brook”. He is no ‘realist’ just a misplaced utopian; the type of social reformer going all the way back to Robert Own who, in his own day, found that those in power had no intention of enacting his social reforms, no matter how reasonable or efficient they happened to be.

Finally, Bregman believes that ideas can change the world. Indeed they can, but only under the right historical, political and social circumstances.

What of socialist ideas: Here are a few:

* From each according to their ability to each according to their need
* Abolition of buying and selling, money
* The proletariat alone is a really revolutionary force of social change.
* The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority, in the interst of the immense majority
* Socialism as an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all

Socialist ideas, formed from the class struggle, are important but unless subscribed to by a majority of the working class these ideas are going to do nothing. There is a relationship between ideas, consciousness and political action. Ideas by themselves do nothing. Socialist ideas need a revolutionary force behind them to become practical in the sense of changing society in a revolutionary way; and that practical force is a socialist majority. To end the problems described in Bregman’s book requires conscious political action by socialists and the democratic capture of political power. All else is failure and utopianism.

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Object and Declaration of Principles


The establishment of a system of society based upon the common ownership and democratic control of the means and instruments for producing and distributing wealth by and in the interest of the whole community.

Declaration of Principles


1. That society as at present constituted is based upon the ownership of the means of living (ie land, factories, railways, etc.) by the capitalist or master class, and the consequent enslavement of the working class, by whose labour alone wealth is produced.

2. That in society, therefore, there is an antagonism of interests, manifesting itself as a class struggle, between those who possess but do not produce and those who produce but do not possess.

3.That this antagonism can be abolished only by the emancipation of the working class from the domination of the master class, by the conversion into common property of society of the means of production and distribution, and their democratic control by the whole people.

4. That as in the order of social evolution the working class is the last class to achieve its freedom, the emancipation of the working class will involve the emancipation of all mankind without distinction of race or sex.

5. That this emancipation must be the work of the working class itself.

6. That as the machinery of government, including the armed forces of the nation, exists only to conserve the monopoly by the capitalist class of the wealth taken from the workers, the working class must organise consciously and politically for the conquest of the powers of government, national and local, in order that this machinery, including these forces, may be converted from an instrument of oppression into the agent of emancipation and the overthrow of privilege, aristocratic and plutocratic.

7. That as all political parties are but the expression of class interests, and as the interest of the working class is diametrically opposed to the interests of all sections of the master class, the party seeking working class emancipation must be hostile to every other party.

8. The Socialist Party of Great Britain, therefore, enters the field of political action determined to wage war against all other political parties, whether alleged labour or avowedly capitalist, and calls upon the members of the working class of this country to muster under its banner to the end that a speedy termination may be wrought to the system which deprives them of the fruits of their labour, and that poverty may give place to comfort, privilege to equality, and slavery to freedom.