We live in a period unprecedented in its possibilities for the development of socialism. With the collapse of the command-administrative system in eastern Europe and the states of the former Soviet Union, it may be hoped that, East and West, Saint-Simonian fantasies can be put aside and the real tasks of socialist transformation be addressed.

Socialists have little reason to regret the death of the illusion that there could exist a purely centrally-planned alternative to market-capitalist economic development. The twentieth-century elaboration of this doctrine emerged from the ideas of Engels: already within the capitalism of the 1890s, according to him, we may see ‘islands of conscious coordination’ which will serve as a model for the future socialist society. The transition to the new economy consisting of ‘one big factory’ will be unproblematic, as the ever-increasing centralization under the capitalist regime provides the appropriate material basis for the new society. Generations of socialists subsequently pointed to examples of the supposed success of planning in the capitalist world (for example, Yurii Latin’s high praise for German planning in the First World War). The growing predominance through the century of the great ‘monopolies’ only seemed to reinforce this vision.

The vision was false.footnote1 Planning had never replaced the market in capitalism. Both forms of governance have continued to exist in a complex symbiosis: the most successful examples of capitalist ‘planning’ have continued to take place in the context of market relations, while markets have expanded and new markets have been created through the conscious, ‘planned’ activities of both capitalist enterprises and central administrative, including governmental, bodies.

Perhaps we have let Dr Marx off too easily in all this. To Saint-Simon we have attributed the absurd notion that societies could re-create themselves de novo on the basis of Reason; to Engels we have ascribed an inappropriate vision of central planning, one dramatically inconsistent with subsequent historical developments. The Saint-Simonian utopian vision emerged in the nineteenth century from the Enlightenment’s ‘transcendental pretense’footnote2 of an undifferentiated humanity moving toward the goals set by a small subset of European men; in the nineteenth century, with European thought increasingly besotted with the notion that the physical world had been conquered by the discovery of Newtonian ‘laws’, the search took place for equivalent social laws, and the social sciences were born. Saint-Simon’s development of social engineering—the creation of social utopias on the basis of social science—was meant to parallel developments in engineering which had emerged on the basis of discoveries in physical science. Marx himself, the dutiful disciple of Hegel, mostly abjured speculation about the future socialist society and explicitly rejected all such utopian schemes as ‘unscientific’. Exegesis of his writings, however, can result in citations consistent with the Engels vision, and in the Critique of the Gotha Programme there can even be found advocacy of a scheme for labour credits that would substitute for money.

A crucial and contradictory aspect of Marx’s socialism is its chiliasm: Marx’s greatest gift to us is his vision of human history as outlined in The Communist Manifesto. The material history of humankind, far from being a smooth development from the point of Creation, has a major discontinuity with the emergence of capitalism, a system which had swept before it all previous forms. Capitalism (a term not used in the Manifesto) was, at the time of writing, barely two or three centuries old. And yet this new system, which had reconstructed the parameters of civilization, was, according to Marx, to disappear at any moment—most certainly in his lifetime—and be replaced by communism.

It is difficult to demonstrate definitively, but the two notions are incommensurate. On the one hand, we have a system that, in part of Europe at least, had transformed and replaced aspects of civilization which had lasted for millennia, and was in the process of making its presence felt worldwide. It was clearly a potent force and there were good reasons for its predominance, which Marx was to spend much of his life exploring. Marx also believed that this system possessed inherent contradictions. But is it reasonable to believe that a social system which had rewritten thousands of years of human history was to disappear itself within a few generations of its inception? Clearly, Marx felt a need to believe this. Why else would he make the extraordinary claim in the Manifesto that the proletariat constituted the ‘overwhelming majority’ of the population of Europe?

Marx’s chiliasm had a disruptive effect on the construction of an ongoing socialist movement and strategy that dealt with the here and now of society while preserving a long-term vision of the future. Socialism instead split between those purists who preserved the chiliastic spirit (for example, the Bolsheviks) and those who took a more evolutionary approach (the social democrats). The latter often pursued policies in an aimless and inconsistent manner because they had abandoned any long-term vision of society.