Utopias and Utopianism

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The word utopia was invented by Thomas More, who published his famous Utopia (in Latin) in 1516. More coupled the Greek words ou (no, or not) and topos (place) to invent a name that has since passed into nearly universal currency. Further verbal play shows the close relation between utopia and eutopia, which means "the good [or happy] place." Through the succeeding centuries this double aspect has marked the core of utopian literature, which has employed the imaginary to project the ideal. (This is not to deny that More's own attitude towards the ideal society he imagined may well have been ambivalent.)

The words utopia and utopian, however, have been put to many uses besides the one suggested by More's book. Common to all uses is reference to either the imaginary or the ideal, or to both. But sometimes the words are used as terms of derision and sometimes with a vagueness that robs them of any genuine usefulness. For example, a proposal that is farfetched or implausible is often condemned as utopian, whether or not the proposal has any idealistic content. In another, closely related pejorative use, utopian designates that which is unacceptably different from the customary or is radical in its demands. The connotation of impossibility or complete impracticality serves to discredit a threatening idealism. Similarly, daydreams and fantasiespsychologically driven and frequently bizarre expressions of private idealsare called utopian, as if utopia were synonymous with deviant or deranged thinking. Even when the word is used without hostility, its coverage is enormously wide. Almost any expression of idealisma view of a better life, a statement of basic political commitments, a plea for major reform in one or another sector of social lifecan earn for itself the title utopian. Furthermore, all literary depictions of imaginary societies are called utopian, even if they are actually dystopias (bad places) that represent some totalitarian or fiendish horror, or are primarily futuristic speculations about technical and scientific possibilities that have no important connection to any idealism.

Much historical experience is reflected in this variety of usage. Indeed, the ways in which utopia (and utopian) are used can be symptomatic of prevailing attitudes towards social change in general. Nevertheless, clarity could be served if we see the core of utopianism as speculation, in whatever literary form, about ideal societies and ideal ways of life for whole populations, in which perfection, defined in accordance with common prepossessions and not merely personal predilections, is aimed at. Perfection is conceived of as harmony, the harmony of each person with himself or herself and with the rest of society. (If there must always be war, then utopian war is waged only against outsiders.) The tradition of utopian thought, in this core sense, is thus made up of elaborated ideas, images, and visions of social harmony.

Not discussed in this entry is dystopian speculation in many genres about the near or distant future, in which the condition of human life is degraded or deformed. In many cases, dystopia shares with utopia a total vision of an imaginary society; but a deliberate hell, not a planned heaven. What brings such a condition into being is zeal to maintain the power of the ruling group, not the project of human well-being. An oppressive and tenacious dictatorship holds sway. The most famous example is the sadistic dystopia of George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

Inspiration of Utopianism

The forerunners of the utopian tradition are the fables and myths of the golden age, the Garden of Eden, or some benign state of nature. These inherited stories, although of considerable antiquity, look back to some even more remote time in the misty past when harmony was allegedly the normal condition of life. Remorse or nostalgia is the usual accompaniment of these stories. Reality is not what it was, and worldly good sense holds that it is not likely that life will ever be again what it wasexcept perhaps through some divine intercession.

An uncontrived harmony characterized the primal felicity. Simple people led lives as simple as themselves; because human nature was undeveloped, they were easily made content. If the glories and pleasures of civilization were missing, so were its artificialities, corruptions, and physical and psychological sufferings. Whenever disgust or disenchantment with civilization has become acute, these old stories are retold in order to expose the faults of civilization. But apart from their role in this fundamentally self-conscious method of striking at an existing order, these stories are primarily interesting as repositories of the age-old longings of ordinary humanity. All that the world is not is summed up in short and supposedly seductive descriptions. Sometime long ago, when people were still in touch with their uncontaminated nature, they lived without domination, irrational inequality, scarcity, brutalizing labor, warfare, and the tortures of conscience; they lived without disharmony in any form. The good life is, in the first instance, defined by the absence of these things. Although fondness for an early simplicity may seem regressivean ignoble attachment to a primitive and subhuman harmonya principal impetus for utopianism is undeniably to be found here.

The later tradition not only fills out the picture that is only a sketch in the old myths, but more important, transcends the old myths. Whatever wistfulness for the golden age may be present, there is general agreement that primal harmony cannot be regained. The condition of harmony, which defines the good life, must be civilized. It may be more or less complex, more or less scientific, more or less abundant, more or less hierarchical, more or less free, but it must be organized and institutionally articulated (and almost always governed). Throughout the utopian tradition, reality is not defied to the extent of wishing away the idea of a settled society. In Plato's Republic, Socrates can dwell only briefly on the excellence of an amiably anarchic rusticity (no war, no class-strife, no politics, no meat-eating, no philosophy or sciences or high art) before his admirer Glaucon, with the stinging phrase "city of pigs," forces him to turn his thoughts to the ideal city (the city of justice, which is founded on the initial unjust act of taking land from others). This transition can be taken as typical of utopianism as a whole.

Varieties of Utopianism

Even with a scrupulous adherence to the definition of utopianism as the succession of ideas, images, and visions of social harmony, the relevant texts are extremely numerous. The main types of utopias include, first, and most properly utopian, descriptions of imaginary societies held to be perfect or much closer to perfection than any society in the real world. They are located in the past, present, or future and are contained in treatise, novel, story, or poem with varying degrees of detailed specification and imaginative inventiveness.

The second type of utopiaclosely allied to the firstis found in those works of political theory in which reflection on the fundamental questions of politics leads the theorist beyond politics to consider the social and cultural presuppositions of the ideal political order and the ends of life which that political order (placed in a certain social and cultural setting) can and should facilitate. Whereas the political theorist comes to the forms and purposes of all institutional life by way of political concerns and, as it were, incidentally, the intentionally utopian writer, with Thomas More as the model, works out from the start a comprehensive view of the ideal society and its way of life, a view in which political forms need not be of central importance. Some works of political theoryPlato's Republic, for exampleso capably discuss nonpolitical matters that they fit into either category.

Those philosophies of history that culminate in a vision of achieved perfection are a third cluster of writings that are not imaginary projections of the ideal but display instead metaphysical optimism of a total kind. These are the theories of inevitable progress created by such thinkers as the Marquis de Condorcet, Herbert Spencer, and Karl Marx. Marx, for one, indignantly fought against inclusion in the utopian tradition because he presented himself as an antiutopian realist blessed with unique insight into the nature of the historical process and its necessary workings carried even to the future, not as an idealist preaching to the world an ahistorical conception of the ideal. For all that, others have taken his writings as belonging in the utopian tradition. Roughly, the same holds for Spencer and some other philosophers of history. No list of the major sources of utopian literature would be acceptable without theorists of inevitable progress.

Fourth are those workssometimes called philosophical anthropologiesin which the writer attempts not only to isolate the instincts, traits, and capacities that are peculiar to humanity among all species in nature, but also to specify what is genuinely human rather than merely conventional, and what human growth and fuller realization would be. These discourses are not always consciously utopian; they may be directed to individual reformation or to preparation for the afterlife. Furthermore, the discussion may be carried on without reference to concrete social practices and institutions. That is, philosophical anthropologies aim to assess the various kinds of human activity, the various pleasures open to human beings, or the various styles of life made possible by advancing civilization or cumulatively progressive science. A few examples are Schiller's On the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), Ernst Bloch's The Principle of Hope (19551959), Herbert Marcuse's Eros and Civilization (1955), and Norman O. Brown's Love's Body (1966). But despite the abstract quality of philosophical anthropology, and whatever the intentions of a given writer, it would be unduly constrictive to omit altogether this literature from an account of utopianism. When its idealism is manifest, philosophical anthropology is thus highly relevant to or allied with utopianism.

In the fifth group are prophecies of profound alteration for the better in human existence made by religious groups, statements of purpose made by revolutionary groups, and blueprints offered by individuals, sects, and secular associations. Obviously, not all activist and reformist political and religious groups have sought to remake society completely, in conformity with the utopian aim of harmony. Nevertheless, many groups have not been satisfied merely to speculate about the ideal society but have sought to realize it, either by persuasion or violence. Examples are the sixteenth-century Anabaptist millenarian, or chiliastic, movements in Europe, radical Protestant groups in the English civil war in the middle of the seventeenth century, and some of the marginal radical figures in the French Revolution, such as Gracchus Babeuf. And in the nineteenth century, especially in the United States, small bands of eager people, religious or simply high-minded, formed utopian communities on unoccupied land, enclaves in isolation from the larger society. Some residues continued to exist after the nineteenth century. In the second half of the twentieth century, for example, a few communal utopian experiments in the United States were inspired by Walden Two (1948), the utopian novel by B. F. Skinner, a behavioral psychologist.

Causes of Utopianism

The literature of social harmony is thus extensive and diverse. Some periods and some cultures have been richer in utopianism than others. The question therefore arises as to why some persons become utopian in their thought or, more rarely, in their action. What causes the desire for change to be absolute, the character of idealism to be extreme and uncompromising, the passion for harmony so averse to the normal condition of dispute and dissonance? Several answers are found scattered in the history of utopianism; some indicate urgency, others do not.

First, some intellectuals simply need to invent worlds. The construction of a utopia, even if only on paper, is a godlike act and resembles the creation of a fictional world by the nonutopian novelist. A utopia can thus be an effort at mastering the complexity of social phenomena; part of the effort consists of rearranging social phenomena to form a more rational or beautiful pattern. In short, one impulse that sustains utopianism, from Plato to the latest science fiction, is to give imagination free rein. This is serious intellectual playfulness. (The same could be said about philosophers of inevitable progress, howsoever they present their optimism.)

Another cause is the desire for moral clarity. In the course of carrying one's demands on social reality as far as possible, one may achieve a fixedpotentially rigidposition in relation to that reality. As a consequence, reality can be constantly put to the test. To the utopian writer, improvisation that allows purposes to emerge from the onrush of experience or waits for new means to suggest or impose new ends is nothing more than a passive or complacent or naive immersion in reality or a confused and unprepared reception of it. Although utopian writers may do nothing to improve society, they may still deem it worthwhile to preserve the concept of the ideal. This may be thought desirable even in comparatively decent societies; to insist on the distinction between the acceptable and the ideal can have a chastening influence on those who govern as well as on those who happily go along. The utopian writer in all varieties of utopianism promotes dissatisfaction and self-criticism, with the risk, of course, of simultaneously provoking a reinvigorated defense of the status quo.

A further cause of utopian thoughtand one that lacks the quality of comparative detachment present in the two preceding onesis the wish to subject society to a total indictment. What is involved here is not a sense that things could be, or may always be, much better than they are but that everything, or nearly everything, is intolerableinhumanly oppressiveand deserves to go under. There is the direct, unappeasable indictment of established institutions, the way of Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his discourses, William Blake in some of his long poems, Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto, or D. H. Lawrence in his two books on the unconscious. In works of this sort hatred of social reality may be stronger than love of any alternative; the positive utopianism may be only implicit.

Other works propose, in contrast, that existing social conditions are a spurious utopia: the mass pleasures, whether technological or licentious, provided by affluent society block the way to a genuine transformation of the human condition into a genuine utopia. Such was the theme of the Frankfurt School of social critique in the middle third of the twentieth century. The indictment of society is indirect when the utopianism is explicit and the practices of the ideal society are sketched. And because the main aim is to indict, the practices of the ideal society are, at least in large part, the contradiction of those in existence. The utopian imagination in these instances is hemmed in by the grave defects of the real world; the urge is strong to replace them by conditions that in no way resemble them or to discredit them intellectually. Utopian writing so motivated may blend into radical satire aimed at the status quo and produce a work as great as Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726). Or it may produce works such as William Morris's News from Nowhere (1891) that are plainly archaistic and may expose themselves to the charge of immaturity or irrelevance. Almost all utopian works contain curiosities and excesses, which may often be explained as compensatory responses to especially terrible features of the real world.

A similar cause of utopian thought is tactical. There are times when it may appear to those bent on reforming society that overstatement is necessary for some degree of success. That is, utopian works need not harbor utopian intentions or even an abstract utopian commitment. Although writers may lavish great energy on making their utopias plausible and attractive, they may aspire only to contribute to the gradual and partial amelioration of their societies. By painting fair pictures of felicity and suggesting that the world is, as presently made up, remote from that felicity, they may encourage an innovating spirit. At the same time, these utopias will give at least guidelines for reform. There may be no real expectation that the utopia will ever fully materialize or, indeed, that pure felicity can be had on any terms. Nevertheless, without that exaggeration, less-than-utopian reform would perhaps be too modest or too slow. Much depends on the persuasiveness of the writer's scheme. For that reason the utopias of reform tend to be less free in their speculation and are content to suggest the completion of certain good tendencies in the real world rather than trying to overturn it theoretically. Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward, 20001887 (1888) is an example of this tactic.

The last cause of utopian thought is the most obviousthe conviction that the whole truth about human well-being in a setting of social harmony is known, can be imparted, and should be acted on. There is, of course, a wide variety in the historical situations that call forth such an overweening attitude. But if some radical Protestant groups (such as the German Anabaptists of the sixteenth century), some utopian movements of the nineteenth century (such as those inspired by the Comte de Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen), and those Marxists who are quasi-utopian are exemplary, there must be a sense of deep, intolerable wrong. There must also be a sense of enormous possibility, of not only righting the wrong but also going beyond to perfection itself, and either an overpowering group- or self-confidence or the conviction that the utopian leaders and their following are the instruments of some higher will or the culmination of some impersonal process. The word messianism perhaps best summarizes some manifestations of this utopian spirit.

Uses of Utopianism

Apart from their place in history, of what use are the works of utopianism? When utopian writings are deliberate constructions of whole societies, readers may think that utopianism is simply a scattering of uninhabited palacesgrand imaginary structures that may amuse realists if not filling them with contempt. But utopianism is more than its core, the deliberate constructions made by the imagination. The utopian aspiration is found in various modes of writing, and is sometimes oblique or even hidden. Is there, however, something of enduring value, in all these modes, even the deliberate constructions, apart from any question of application? There are, in fact, several benefits conferred by utopianism.

As already noted, a cause of utopian writing is playful delight in the act of imagining new kinds of social reality. This delight can be answered by the pleasure the reader takes in the results of that playfulness. The standards for judging utopianism (in any of its modes) from this point of view are primarily aestheticplausible novelties in the projected way of life, clever and ingenious details, daring departures from customary practices. The inner coherence of the utopian ideal matters more than any closeness to probability, although naturally too much strain on belief weakens the pleasure. Admiration for the skill of the utopian writer may be mixed with appreciation for being allowed to contemplate what it would mean to live other lives. No stimulus to make one's own better need be felt. This may make the utopian enterprise somewhat precious, but it can be a source of guiltless satisfaction even to the most conservative temperaments. The utopian works of H. G. Wells are famous for their power to gratify the taste for sampling different worlds, however else they may instruct.

A second use of utopianism is as a record of human aspiration. For the record to be complete, many other kinds of utterance must be consulted, but the various modes of utopianism supply a valuable indication. They are peculiarly vivid forms taken by changeable human longings underlain by permanent human wants. Read with due allowance for their often lopsided or eccentric quality, they will shed vivid light on their times. The desperation of a given historical period, together with the limits of its hopefulness, may emerge from a study of its utopian writings. The abundance or paucity of utopian writing is itself an aid to understanding a period.

Third is the contribution of several modes of utopian literature to general sociology. The great constructed utopiasPlato's Republic and Laws, the relevant parts of Aristotle's Politics, More's Utopia, Tommaso Campanella's The City of the Sun (1623), Morelly's Code de la nature (1755), the writings of Saint-Simon and Fourier (early nineteenth century), H. G. Wells's A Modern Utopia (1905)incorporate a great deal of sociological wisdom. Common to these and other utopias is the idea of the integration of social institutions in its most intense version, utopian harmony. To utopian writers no habit or practice seems innocent of significance for the proper maintenance of the utopian society. Utopian writers are therefore constantly pointing out connections between things that appear unrelated. Part of utopian analysis consists in the attempt to identify the major elements of society and to demonstrate how they act on one another and how each must be adjusted to the others if the best possible world is to be attained. For all their care, utopian writers commit a radical abstraction when they create their images of perfection, but this is the price paid by all general sociology, including that which is wholly neutral and descriptive.

The last use of utopianism is moral. Utopian literature (including the literature relevant or allied to it) is a repository of reflection on human nature. Although not directly concerned to expose frailty, to scrutinize motives, and to astonish with cynical revelations, utopian literature has in it much hard psychological intelligence. Utopian writers disagree among themselves on the extent to which human nature is reformable, but rarely is this problem treated lightly. Indeed, it is usually acknowledged as the problem requiring the deepest study; it is also the source of the greatest hesitation. The principal mission of utopianism is to encourage the hope that human nature is changeable for the better beyond the limits assigned by worldly pessimism or theological despair. That the real world, despite its amazing pluralist variety, still does not exhaust the possibilities of human nature is the heart of utopianism. The long series of utopian texts enlarge the world by suggesting new character types and new social milieus in which these types could emerge. They also enlarge the world by their claim that the societies of the world ignore, repress, distort, or destroy human potentialities that have not yet been fulfilled.

It is true that the concept of harmony rules out some segment of the spectrum of human nature. The essence of antiutopianism is the charge that any imaginable utopia, like any generous philosophical anthropology, actually impoverishes human nature by not allowing scope to those traitswildness, excess, discontent, perversity, risk-taking, heroismthat threaten harmony. If therefore the precondition of a harmonious life is the thorough manageability of people, allegedly for their own good, human nature must suffer a terrible diminution. Such diminution is the awful hidden human sacrifice that utopianism exacts with a good conscience. What intensity of experience, what craving for more than satisfaction, what passion for the unknown and the unlimited, would be left? Humanity should always face difficulties that are impossible or nearly impossible to overcome.

For many people, perhaps most, utopia can and does already appear in experiences and temporary conditions, in moments and episodes, in the world as it is. Each person's utopia is different from everyone else's. Utopia cannot be an uninterrupted and common way of life for a whole society. The only genuine utopia is actual life, and every proposed utopia is a dystopia. The critique of utopianism is without doubt a rich field and numbers Friedrich Nietzsche and Fyodor Dostoyevsky among its luminaries. A shrewd and witty antiutopian satire is Aldous Huxley's novel Brave New World (1932). A related antiutopian theme is that utopias are often driven by a strong passion for equality that threatens to efface all that is fine or rare in life or that can be created by or appeal to only a few. Utopias level society and thus work to make people more or less uniform and interchangeable; preaching individual expressive growth, utopias often destroy the social and psychological conditions of such growth. Utopian harmony is only monotonous.

In rebuttal, utopian writers and their sympathizers are proud to confine their imagination to the realm of the largest happiness. Within that realm, utopians say, much more human excellence is possible than many people commonly think. That would be proven, if only the world, or a part of it, could be transformed or would become more permissive. Without subscribing to any set of specific utopian ideas, one can appreciateat least to a moderate extentthe efforts of utopian writers to rescue this sentiment from the disparagement of those who believe, explicitly or not, that pain not only will but should remain, if not definitive of the human condition, then its substratum.

See also Civil Disobedience; Cosmopolitanism; Multiculturalism; Postcolonialism; Republicanism.


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George Kateb (1967, 2005)