How Sci-Fi Shaped Socialism

From William Morris to Ursula K. Le Guin and Iain M. Banks, science fiction has provided an outlet for socialist thinkers — offering readers a break from capitalist realism and allowing us to imagine a vastly different world.

Utopian science fiction offers a new way of thinking about history. (Illustration by Chris Moore)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest novel, The Ministry for the Future, challenges the dominance of capitalist realism in the Global North by setting out a speculative future history in which collective action brings capitalism to an end and saves the world from climate change. In imagining an alternative to the status quo, Robinson continues a long, honorable tradition of left-wing science fiction authors writing utopian fiction.

The tradition stretches back at least to William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), which tells of a proletarian revolution leading to an ideal society without poverty or oppression. In their different ways, Robinson and Morris share a vision of humanity living through labor as a social activity that operates both in and against nature. All such works, and those of other famous socialist utopian novelists from H. G. Wells to Iain M. Banks, further the cause of socialism by providing readers with radical depictions of post-capitalist life that rarely exist elsewhere in the media.

Utopian science fiction doesn’t just present us with a blueprint for the future: it also offers a new way of thinking about history. The back cover of Tribune’s latest issue quotes Marx to the effect that “World history would indeed be easy to make, if the struggle were taken up only under favorable circumstances.” So what if there were a conceptual way of reframing the circumstances we find ourselves in? What if we stopped thinking so much about history in relation to the past, and started thinking about it from the perspective of the future?

In his Imagined Futures (2019), Max Saunders describes the emergence in interwar Britain of a “future history,” by which he means a history of the present and its immediate future, written from the point of view of the imagined distant future. The scientist and communist public intellectual J. B. S. Haldane wrote a section of his book Daedalus; or, Science and the Future (1923) in the form of a student essay from 2073 describing how biological developments, like the growth of embryos outside the mother’s body, had become a widespread practice.

Haldane presented a prediction of the complete transformation of conventional sexual relations as a simple matter of fact; by taking a future perspective, and seeing his present as a stage of history that would be superseded, he freed himself from the restrictive moral compass of tradition and the past.

Haldane’s sister, Naomi Mitchison, applied a similar logic to her feminist science fiction. Her description of We Have Been Warned (1935) as a “historical novel about my own times” implies that she was also thinking about her present from the perspective of a more progressive society in the future. The novel’s depiction of a fascist takeover of England warned readers of the need for a transformation of class and gender relations in order to avoid that fate and instead bring about an anticipated future in which all would be equal.

This idea — that the needs of the future society outweigh those of past and current societies — was developed into an ethical principal through an analogy with industrial action. Mitchison noted that there was a public tendency to view ongoing strikes or political campaigns as aggressive or hostile acts against the existing social order; such struggles only became retrospectively legitimate through the common realization that an improvement in living conditions had resulted.

Therefore, it was argued, socialists should represent the values of the utopian future as ethically good, and the practices of the capitalist class as a hostile act against that “good society” of the future. That science-fictional sense of a future worth fighting for, celebrated by the left-wing cultural politics of the 1930s, underpinned British workers’ decisive contribution to the Second World War and led in part to the election of the 1945 Labour government.

The model for this progressive future in much left-wing fiction of the interwar years was the pre-show-trial Soviet Union, which is represented in We Have Been Warned from the perspective of emancipated women workers enjoying the right to control whether and with whom they have children. (Mitchison’s contributions to conversations about liberation and birth control, however, should be caveated by an awareness of her involvement with the Eugenics Society.)

In her non-fiction book, The Moral Basis of Politics (1938), Mitchison argued that traditional sexual morality was rooted in an economics of scarcity and that freedom and equality would only become the norm when all material needs were satisfied. She therefore predicted the final success or failure of the Soviet Union would depend on its capacity to establish a post-scarcity society.

Ultimately, the USSR failed, but the story of that failure is far more interesting and instructive than has ever been acknowledged by its opponents. Francis Spufford’s creative documentary account of this Soviet attempt to meet all needs scientifically, Red Plenty (2010), has been described as the equivalent of a science fiction novel by Robinson or Ursula Le Guin.

More generally, the idea of a post-scarcity utopian society forms the framework for the most sustained body of socialist science fiction in recent years: Iain M. Banks’s Culture series (1987–2012). Together, these novels are an extended examination of the ethics of intervention by socialist forces designed to maneuver traditionally hierarchical states into emancipating their peoples. By writing from the future-history perspective of AI “Minds,” Banks decenters the classical liberal ideology that dominates discussions of humanitarian interventions today and replaces it with a reasoned analysis of the political values at stake.

The scope of this kind of space opera also functions to demonstrate the limitations of ruling-class values. As the critic Fredric Jameson has pointed out, the traditional novel is a bourgeois literary form which is structurally dependent on a formal resolution, like the entry of one of Jane Austen’s heroines into a marriage contract, which upholds property relations and the social order.

In contrast, science fiction is a genre that desires to boldly go beyond those kinds of constraints. By shifting the scale of action from the confines of modern life, defined by birth circumstances and job opportunities, to an infinite universe, it opens up an exploration of individual and social possibility without limits; once you’ve watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate, there’s no going back to passive late-capitalist life.

What we find in more than a century’s worth of socialist science fiction is a guide to some of the necessary perspectival shifts for us to break free from the ideological constraints of the present and get on with the task of making history. These novels offer not only hope and inspiration for troubled times, but also a renewed sense of wonder at what a true society of equals could achieve.