Utopian Experimental Socialism
By Bryan Caplan
He [“Utopian socialist” Robert Owen] was no obscure crank. When he arrived in the United States in 1824,
he was received by a joint session of Congress that met over two
separate days with outgoing President Monroe and incoming President John
Quincy Adams, among the many luminaries who came to hear him out.
Owen then bought an already developed settlement on the banks of the
Wabash River from a religious sect. The members of this group had
developed it, and it included not only homes but vast fertile farmlands
and more than twenty highly productive workshops that produced goods
sold all across the country. Yet within a year after taking it over,
Owen and his thousand followers had turned this little Switzerland into
an Albania. All the other collective settlements, except for some that
were first and foremost religious communities, had similar histories of
But along came Marx and Engels, who wiped this record of failure away
with one of the great intellectual conjuring tricks of all time. Owen
and his ilk, said Marx and Engels, were utopians. What we needed
instead was scientific socialism, which they then outfitted with great
pseudo-scholarly paraphernalia: means and modes of production,
historical forces, class struggle, and all the rest.
What I mean by conjuring trick is this: Owen and the other so-called
utopians had an idea. What did they do? Owen and the other
communitarians actually created experiments to test their ideas.
Experimentation is the very essence of science. They were the real
scientific socialists. Marx and Engels dismissed all experimental
evidence, replaced it with an idea that was sheer prophecy, and claimed
thereby to have progressed from utopia to science.
Until now, I’d always thought that despite his pretensions, Marx was no better than the Utopian socialists. Now I realize that this was entirely unfair. Marx was decidedly inferior to his “Utopian” rivals. They were wrong, but at least they had the common sense and common decency to beta test their radical proposals on a small scale with consenting subjects.