Unintended Consequences: 19th Century Socialism and 21st Century Transhumanism

You tell me that it’s evolution
Well, you know
We all want to change the world

Bright young activists have great plans for the future. They say that science and technology, not religion, will be humanity’s salvation. An era of universal prosperity is coming. Humanity will throw off the shackles of the old; a new world is arising. This utopia is almost guaranteed, but first: The threat of world-rending disaster looms.

That’s not early-twenty-first-century transhumanism, it’s late-nineteenth century socialism. Socialism’s name has been tarred by the murders of around 100 million, and the enslavement and impoverishment of many more. But at the fin de siècle, socialism was widespread among the intellectual elite. Most of its followers truly believed that they were making the world better; they had no plans for a dictatorship of the masses or mass murder.

Like transhumanists, they sought to improve humanity in mind and body. They wanted to make a “New Socialist Man.”. They wanted total, radical change for humanity’s good.

At every step, they were sure that the purest logic dictated their course as they “rationalized” society to maximize the common good. And now, in our twenty-first century, the Singularity Instutute for Artificial Intelligence devotes as much effort to rationality as to Friendly AI. The socialists were wrong; are the transhumanists just as wrong?

Socialists believed in central social control, like some singularitarians today, who think that the way to save the world from technological destruction, and to serve human utility, is through centralized control by a “singleton…, a world order in which there is a single decision-making agency “ — a superintelligent machine or a world government.

According to Marx’s principles of dialectical materialism, humanity is fated to move through stages of development, starting at primitive socialism, and progressing through slave society, feudalism, and capitalism, before finally reaching perfect communism. This predetermined course of history is, generally, an upwards spiral. Today, transhumanist Ray Kurzweil is the best-known proponent of a deterministic history propelled by inexorable underlying principles, lifting humanity ever upwards towards a utopian destiny.

In dialectical materialism, there’s an exception to the upwards trend: The first, primitive stage is not the lowest, but the highest. It was a utopia, to which the ultimate communism will return. Some transhumanists see the most advanced parts of human civilization moving towards a hunter-gatherer ethic. Already, some complement their technophilia with elements of the Neolithic lifestyle for which evolution sculpted our bodies. Our future, say transhumanists and socialists, may look a lot like the better parts of our distant past.

Marx envisaged yet another deviation to the upward trend, a final world war between the proletariat and the capitalist classes, as a necessary precursor to the utopian end of days. Transhumanists also fear world destruction, but with a difference: They see a threat, though not a certainty, of final human extinction, rather than mere devastation as a preliminary to utopia; and they fear accidental technological calamity more than war. (But exceptionally, artificial-brain scientist Hugo de Garis warns of apocalyptic war between supporters and opponents of superintelligence in machines.)

For all the good intentions, socialism resulted in incomparable horror. Eliezer Yudkowsky draws from this the conclusion that AI programmers should not attempt to implant a specific political ideology in their soon-to-be-superintelligent creations. James Hughes draws the conclusion that transhumanists should be guided by democratic decision-making and other liberal principles. But the risks transcend political ideology; the main risk is that mistaken principles of design result in technology will destroy any possibility of a positive human future. Most transhumanists are well aware of the dangers of technology; a few are aware that they themselves, in their most positive efforts to create beneficial artificial general intelligence, nanotech, and genetically improved humans, may be the agents of destruction.

So far, we’ve compared the beliefs of socialism and transhumanism, without looking for a historical links between the two. But the similarities are not accidental. Socialism and transhumanism are products of the Enlightment, from which they both get their leanings towards rationality, a shared faith in science and technology as humanity’s saviors, an idealization of primitive man, and their view of history as an upwards spiral rather than a recurring cycle.

Transhumanism as we know it began in the late twentieth century, but there were precursors. These proto-transhumanist thinkers covered the political map. Some, like Nietszche and the Russian Cosmist Nikolay Fedorovich Fedorov, had ideologies that diverged strongly from Enlightenment values. Others were advocates of Enlightenment-derived views. H.G. Wells, for example, was a socialist. But liberals, as well, sought progress through technology and capitalism, like Theodor Herzl with his utopian, technophilic, bourgeois-liberal vision for modern Zionism.

So, other Enlightenment-influenced philosophies, which equally touched on transhumanist values, did not degenerate into evil like socialism.

Transhumanism today primarily works to change the world through technology, not politics. The movement leans towards libertarianism, the heir of nineteenth-century liberalism—with Max More as the best-known libertarian transhumanist thinker. But there is also a Techno-Progressive direction, a gentler heir of nineteenth-century socialism, as advocated by James Hughes. These are no more than slightly different weightings of competing human values: freedom in the former case and sharing in the latter.

Socialism is not transhumanism, and transhumanism is not socialism.

But the similarities are real, and the fate of starry-eyed fin de siècle idealism serves as a warning. Those who pursue a utopian, secular, rational faith in salvation by technology and science may be fooling themselves; and they might get us all killed.

30 Responses

  1. Abram says:

    As a Marxist intellectual, I would like to know where exactly the author believes Marx claims that a world war is necessary to achieve Socialism and eventually capitalism.

  2. click here says:

    However, unrestrained capitalism outcomes in the development of expected business “persons,” organizations that cannot be attributed for their activities in many ways – what are we going to do, prison Enron? – and, free of constraints, eat down sources and contaminate the surroundings as they go, the deficiency of worker-safety rules resulting in repulsive and needless damage to those employees applied by such organizations.

  3. alt says:

    socialism and transhumanism are just “-isms”

    these are ideologies and are very far from belief-free science that explains the evolutionary origins of human condition and the nature and course of human evolution

    mankind evolved out of ignorance and ignorance is voting ignorance into office meanwhile the closed sytem of the life-forms governed by genetic imperative follows the laws of material universe

    not knowing the nature and course of human evolution leads to mankind as organism whole allowing the system to run the full course to ultimate overpopulation, environment destruction, and break-down of socio-economic system

    but the proper science has been amassed by 1950-ies and eventually this belief-free science will be the sole vehicle of continuos survival of mankind

    and transhumanism will never happen because the socio-economic system will loose its ability to maintain progress and robotization before AI happens

    watch next 50 to 100 years

  4. filou says:

    exactly like math, the problem is not to find the theorem but to prove it ! well, i feel quite powerfull saying that having leftists and rightists in my family those opposed notions are an illusion, and a bad one, suckers thanks internet for sharing !

  5. Adam says:

    Transhumanism is political whether you like it or not. Its unavoidable, and transhumanists shouldn’t shy away from that. They need to pursuade humanity to embrace technology anew, just as the world has done ever since the wheel was invented and fire discovered.

    To say socialism has failed in just plain wrong as its a far more diverse set of beliefs and social movements than you have given it credit (as is transhumanism itself) and it is thanks to these that workers have rights and we are not forced into the near slavery of the 19th century.

    I also think that given the advancements in technology and globalisation, socialism will become rediscovered in a transhumanist light, where equality is enabled in ways that Marx could not have concieved, and the USSR and other communist contries would have been unable to implement (and I seriously doubt that the leadership were as noble in their beliefs as you give them credit).

    Also, any major social movements or change brings major disturbances, for example it took the American Civil War to end slavery, and the spark of the Enlightenment was almost crushed with Revolutionary France at the turn of the 19th century. Socialism’s place in history and continuing role resembles that as the next wave of social progress and reform needed to propel humanity forward.

    Like it or not transhumanism is likely to become considered just as revolutionary and controversial, as the successor to liberalism and socialism in the 21st Century, and maybe just as prone to Robespierres, Napoleons, Stalins and Maos trying to highjack it towards their own ends.

    We can only hope that humanity has evolved beyond the point of falling into servitude to these (with the help of technology, and primarily the Internet) and that when trahumanism does reach this revolutionary stage the transition is more peaceful and smooth than any before it.

    • Jonathan Lyons says:

      Excellent clarifying points, Adam. Thanks! – j

    • Jonathan Lyons says:

      I should add that I find not only the socialism bogeyman an inadequate, self-limiting idea, but that appeals to unrestrained capitalism/free market forces are similarly flawed, as in practice, we have only ever seen government-social-economic models that include elements of capitalism and socialism, as well as others.

      That said, I find it disingenuous to call such programs as Social Security and Medicare “socialist,” as working people pay into these programs in order to receive their benefits when the time comes. (Though I suppose that they are socialist where the need arises before a person can ever contribute to such programs.)

      Recall that the so-called Union of Soviet “Socialist” Republics actually functioned on a state-sponsored and controlled capitalist economic system.

      Which didn’t work very well.

      On the other hand, unrestrained capitalism results in the creation of supposed corporate “persons,” entities that cannot be held responsible for their actions in many ways – what are we going to do, jail Enron? – and, free of restraints, gobble down resources and pollute the environment as they go, the lack of worker-safety regulations leading to grotesque and unnecessary harm to those workers employed by such entities.

      I do wonder how transhumanism might be processed trough a free market system; will uploading-immortality be available only at a steep price? How about regenerative medicine such as printed or lab-grown replacement parts, or genetic or technological upgrades to our physical selves?

      I worry that a transhumanism that is approached in this way will result in only those born into very wealthy families having such advantages available to them, and such a situation resulting in an underclass – perhaps several sorts of underclasses – who become the have-nots to the born-wealthy haves.

      On that sort of possibility, i am definitely even more of a Democratic Socialist – that is, one who believes in a good measure of socialist ideas assuring a good measure of equality of opportunity for all, arrived at through entirely democratic means. (Let me dream 🙂 )

      • petr frish says:

        We may be caught in a semantic trap, here:

        “Recall that the so-called Union of Soviet “Socialist” Republics actually functioned on a state-sponsored and controlled capitalist economic system…”

        and whenever we put ‘democratic socialism’ or any socialism as contrast to ‘capitalism’.

        What is socialism (socialistic-social .. ) is not well defined (or rather was defined too many times) and it was the superpower rivalry, which makes ‘socialism vs capitalism’ look like ‘either / or’. Economy in the Soviet union followed the Marx’s prescription as all ‘means of production’, factories, land, could not be owned by private parties. It still used money – in combination with 5-year plans – and it was state controlled – really bureaucracy controlled – and so was not ‘capitalistic’ (whatever that means).
        Any functioning society, any governance and economy, is mix of socially conscious and market based rules. Not only devil is in the details.

        The question of health care posed above is certainly pertinent, as are the details of any ‘singleton’ – which sounds like a totality and certainly will attract attention of future Stalins, Napoleons — who may be are already living among us…

  6. Jonathan Lyons says:

    Of scoialism, the author wrote:
    “Most of its followers truly believed that they were making the world better; they had no plans for a dictatorship of the masses or mass murder.”

    Well, except that that’s enough inaccurate assumptions piled upon one another to amount to quite a staggering, reeking heap of BS. Socialism is a social system, not a system of governance; it has no place for totalitarianism, nor for violence or murder.
    Further, though an obviously totalitarian movement called itself socialist – and communist – it was neither. While communism is a system of governance, actual communism has never been witnessed here in the real world.
    So to speak as though authoritative while building an argument from such flawed beginnings really does not work.

    To say, further, that “For all the good intentions, socialism resulted in incomparable horror” becomes an even more egregious crime against socialism and the author’s own argument. It is nonsense, on the order of me pointing out that Hitler’s political party, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, were socialists who endorsed workers’ issues and, therefore, socialism and those who stand up for workers are responsible not merely for anti-Semitism, but the Holocaust itself.
    Which would, of course, be BS.

  7. filou says:

    spéciale dédicace à P.DAN from Marseille, et à nino le petit que j’ai vu qu’en photo sa mère !

  8. filou says:

    and nothing is easier to fool oneself about its past, eu acho, if you got a future !

  9. filou says:

    nobody ? is better facebook for jokes, eu acho. So, we train them special sport-meditation stage, then they get used to hold a bracelet, and this bracelet is smart enough to know if they are doing good, automatically, they must fear the machine ah ah ah

  10. filou says:

    (about drugs and socialism, the only thing i would say is that, for as far i’m concerned, i always knew it was ten years to recover from a bad trip – if you got means to live – kurt cobain wrote it somewhere and it helped me a lot)

  11. filou says:

    avec les tranquilisants et les pilules magiques en contrepartie

  12. filou says:

    we could get them some maconha for those too “hurted yet”

  13. filou says:

    if i’m not wrong, according to zizek’s last performance with julian assange, (but in many ways according to all previous philolovers) we could transform all prisoners from brasil into peace funny pacification soldiers, and if they don’t cooperate ? physical confrontation ; and that would work of course (if they get pain – en français dans le texte)

  14. Beo says:

    I think not less people were killed for money(capitalism). And The French Revolution was not less bloody than October Revolution. Anyway we can’t blame Rousseau or Marx for such course of events. Revolution happens if people live in harsh conditions. Not because somebody, even smart philosopher, argued in favour of one.

    So transhumanism is not dangerous by itself, but there might be situation when it will.

  15. hugh says:

    socialism has never worked all you have to do is look toward russia,before ww1 the country was do fine,then wall street turn it,s eyes toward russia and started ww1 to begin the over throw of nick,and then they brought the german lenin in to start the revolution,after that russia was a basket case,there out side forces at work here,and it,s called big money,and great power occult power at work in the world,there aim is the over throw of united states as the world great power so they can set up there world goverment.It,s coming folks all the signs are there.The united states is the key to this whole scheme of theres,and obama is going to be the fall guy,we,ll blame it on the black guy.

  16. Gray Garrett says:

    Unless the social engineers confront their own
    unquenchable thirst for power, high living, and
    penchant for public adoration ie the photo op
    then their quest for the New Man will be all but
    mute. You see they themselves are a blowback
    victim of their own mind control and technology
    strivings coupled with psychopathic dillusions
    thar do not corrolate with their own addictions
    and worldly desires.

  17. Ievgen says:

    The main difference between socialism and transhumanism is that socialism considered class struggle an intergral part of the doctrine. Socialism by definition couldn’t be achieved without defeat and dethronement of “ruling classes” all over the world. But there is nothing of the kind in transhumanism. Yes, transhumanists regard their opponents as ‘luddits’, but I have never heard any appeals to kill of emprison those luddites or even deprive them of any rights. Usual attitude of transhumanists to luddits is the following: ok, if you don’t want to augment your minds and bodies using technological achevements – that’s your problems, just don’t bother us with your obscurantism.

  18. hammondhank says:

    The main problem of classic socialism, as well as modern transhumanism, is a lack of authoritative moral constraints. This is due due an atheist/utilitarian bias. But whether one is an atheist/Darwinist, theist/Intelligent design, or Judeo-Christian fuhndamentalist creationist, the unintended consequences of recklessly removing social, chemical, or biological boundaries and/or conventions can have, and in fact repeatedly has, some diastrous and irrevocable unforeseen consequences. Moral and/or scientific anarchy has similar results, though on a much grander scale, to giving toddlers several different colored cans of paint, and leaving them unsupervised to their own devices. What they might intend for a masterpiece usually winds up an indistinguishable purplish/brown mess, that ruins everything it touches, and that someone else has to clean up or pay to have refinished, if it can be salvaged at all. The tryanny of “That which is not forbidden is compelled” must at some point be constrained by Divine “Thou shalt nots” within a wider framework of responsible exploration and experimentation.

  19. Singularité says:


    Science can be a religion …

    Technology can be a religion …

    Communism and capitalism are religions ..

    Transhumanism is a religion …

    Religions, ideologies, group thinking, all human bias

    are not the solution

    It is void of value, and a society need a value

    A global law

    But , why qh

    Yeah I am oldschool , very old school : you know ” Renaissance ”

    Science, progress, growth are NOT A SOLUTION to man kind existential crisis

    You cannot solve a problem in man itself with more growth … ( what happen soon may be necessary )

    ” what do we do now , that we achieved everything” ? do we do everything or nothing ?

    WHen will you understand ?

    Never so … lets create things : an AGI that will show you : 1) you are wrong since the beginning of mankind and every concept created by man is WRONG 2) you are FUCKED By technology itself

    3) if we survive and in freedom : the only thing we shall take care is living in peace

    • Singularité says:

      killing people is not a solution

      but …
      why should we create a society based on any ideology , capitalism , communism etc …

      or based on a hierarchical society , or a network society ?

      or based on one type of thinking, of people of race

      That is maybe a big question …

      What do we do now, what do we do of mankind ?

      Do you want mankind just to live in a hedonist society ?

      Do you want mankind to upload their mind in a cloud compute heaven or hell ?

      ” why ? ”

      I have no clue … everything is void : “there is no future “or the futur will not be decided by us , monkeys

      killing people is not a solution

  20. J Hughes says:

    Thanks for the shout-out Joshua. I think…

    I would just point out that not only did proto- and contemporary transhumanism have liberal and authoritarian strands, but that “socialism” is not just Marxist-Leninism, but also nineteenth century communalists, utopians like the Technocrats, Labour Zionism, the cooperative movement, the Spanish anarchists, and the social democratic parties which have built the Western European welfare states that gave them the highest standards of living in the world. As I think you understand, my desire is to have transhumanists embrace not only the liberal but also the egalitarian strands of the Enlightenment as exemplified by social democracy and the utopian socialists, and reject the authoritarian tendencies suggested by the former embrace of eugenics, and the contemporary enthusiasm for replacing participatory democratic governance with rule by robot Gods.

  21. That hammer-and-sickle graphic at the top of the article is interesting. In Russian it says, “All power in the USSR belongs to…” — and then I can’t make out the third line (it’s like the vision test at the Department of Motor Vehicles). Anyway, in the article it says that Eliezer Yudkowsky draws the conclusion that “AI programmers should not attempt to implant a specific political ideology in their soon-to-be-superintelligent creations”. This morning I was working on http://www.scn.org/~mentifex/AiMind.html and giving it a “specific political ideology” was the furthest thing from my AI programmer mind.

    • Bonnie says:

      But since you are the programmer….your mind IS in your programming….yes? Your intellect, your beliefs, your thought process does influence your programming, your actions and your future.

      As well as mine.

      I am not comforted.


    • Ievgen says:

      The inscriptions says Вся власть в СССР принадлежит трудящимся города и деревни в лице советов депутатов трудящихся, i.e. “belongs to toilers of city and village represented by councils of workers’ deputies”

    • petr frish says:

      The slogan, promoted by Lenin during the 1917 bolshevik revolution was:

      All power to the Soviets.

      Soviets (meaning councils (of workers – peasants – soldiers)) were ad-hoc comittees which replaced then official government of premier Kerenski
      and surviving bureaucracy of the state.

      The analogy transhumanists — early socialists is interesting, but same danger applies to all popular movements, including French revolution.
      Aparently danger lies in designing a positive future scenarions — when it spreads through masses ..

    • DK says:

      The text states,
      All rule of the USSR,
      to working people of cities and farms, in the form of faces of elected officials “working hard for them”.
      The quoted text is the last word that I could not decipher clearly.

  1. July 9, 2011

    […] https://hplusmagazine.com/2011/07/07/unintended-consequences-19th-century-socialism-and-21st-century-… This entry was posted on Saturday, July 9th, 2011 at 3:41 pm and is filed under Transhumanism. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site. […]

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