Calendars are never innocent, but in recent times they have become positively lurid. Even the soberest temporal reckoning is open to the suggestions of political numerology, which fascinates by its very lack of reason. The year now ended was for a generation the deadline for the most widely propagated of latterday political forebodings, George Orwell’s vision of ‘Ingsoc’; and, as if that were not distraction enough, 1984 found us exactly mid-way between 1968 and the millennium, 2000. Such thoughts are whimsical, but whimsy is not random. It is a sign of anxiety, in this case a political anxiety whose real grounds are evident. The stronger probabilities of the years ahead appear dispiriting and dangerous, and, more gravely, it is increasingly widely feared that the reservoir of historical possibility is in fact a mirage. Contemporary culture is pervaded by what Raymond Williams has come to call ‘the sense of the loss of the future’footnote1—the future not as a continuation of recognizable forms of social existence but as a locus of realizable alternatives. It is ironic that capitalism should at length have ‘advanced’ to this. Familiar of the most dynamic mode of production in history, capitalist culture valorized the attainable earthly future as no prior culture could have done. The theme of ‘modernity’ was and is just this: an endless serial presentation (making present) of the future. The ambition was not empty: capitalism has remade and continues to remake the earth and its populations. But the accumulation of tomorrows is self-depleting. The physical landscapes of advanced capitalism are now littered with stalled and abandoned futures, things and people alike, much metropolitan culture is an aimless circulation of retro-chic, and apocalypse itself is just the last word.

But socialism too has seen its futures come and go. Capitalism has survived longer, and with far greater material and social successes, than most nineteenth-century socialists would have forecast. Social democracy, in spite of governmental opportunities extending over as much as half a century, has nowhere prevailed against the rule of capital, and in many cases is unable even to sustain its limited achievements. The communist tradition has been much more successful, abolishing capitalism across one-third of the planet; but, for all their social gains, the bureaucratic regimes of the East have one after another dissipated their original power of example and attraction for socialists elsewhere; and the communist parties in the West are caught in a political latitude whose climate varies only between Stalinist freeze-up and the treacherous thaw of social democracy. Revolutionary tendencies—including, indeed, state practices—continue to reassert themselves against this virtual system of political frustration, but none has yet summoned the force necessary to break through its cyclical present into a hopeful socialist future.

This is the context in which to retrace the fortunes of ‘projective’ and ‘prospective’ discourse on the left. The rhetoric of social dissent has traditionally included projections of the desired alternative. However important the main critical modes of analysis and polemic, there was obvious, perhaps even special, utility in the attempt to give body to the values that animated them. This was the work of the ‘utopia’ (and the closely related ‘romance’), a fictional mode in which the optative assumes the forms of the indicative, the goals of the struggle appearing as if already fully and securely achieved. The utopia was a powerful inspirational device, and was valued as such in the diverse radical culture of the nineteenth century. But its defining operation was wish-fulfilment; it dealt in idealities whose earthly home was, admittedly, ‘nowhere’. By the end of the century this fiction, together with other forms of discourse to which the generic term ‘utopian’ was now applied, had been depreciated, as a radically different conception of intellectual priorities won hegemony over the socialist movement.

The theory inaugurated by Marx and Engels was distinctively ‘scientific’. Communism was possible because of the real movement of material history, and would come about not through the redemptive human incarnation of an ideal scheme but the overthrow of capitalism at the hands of its own social creation, the proletariat. Utopianism was now obsolete. The primary responsibilities of ‘scientific socialism’ were the analysis of capitalism and the states that defended it, and the development of organizations and programmes capable of mobilizing the working class against them. The projection of desirable futures now gave way to the analysis of historical prospects. Utopian and romantic writing did not wholly disappear from Marxist culture: William Morris produced the classic News From Nowhere; Engels’s Dialectics of Nature veered at times towards a kind of evolutionary romance; revolutionary Russia stimulated Kollontai’s fiction and the rhapsodic finale of Trotsky’s Literature and Revolution; and ‘socialist realism’ bore a heavy charge of official romance. But the main prospective mode was the strategic forecast. Works such as Trotsky’s Results and Prospects, Luxemburg’s Accumulation of Capital and Lenin’s Imperialism addressed themselves to the existing systemic trends of capital and its political and military apparatuses. Their analyses were in one sense bleak, predicting the impossibility of ‘normal’ political development in Russia, an inbuilt capitalist drive towards barbarism, a century of inter-imperialist warfare. Yet they were motivated by a powerful historical optimism. They prepared for the worst because only in that way could they prepare to forestall it, turning the contradictions of capitalist development to revolutionary account. The socialist future was not in doubt, but it depended on the strategy and tactics of the socialist revolution.

This definition of priorities remains valid, but it no longer possesses a monopoly of realism. ‘Socialism’ is official fact for the hundreds of millions who live in the post-revolutionary bureaucracies of Europe, Asia and the Caribbean. The ambiguous record of these states, interlocking with the history of social-democratic management of capital, has deformed and discredited socialist politics throughout the world. In such conditions, some kinds of projection are no longer idle, and ‘strategy’ risks abandonment as the last utopia.