views updated May 17 2018


Theory in Depth
Theory in Action
Analysis and Critical Response
Topics for Further Study
See Also


who controls government? State supported by the people

how is government put into power? Cooperative founded by dissatisfied group

what roles do the people have? Tolerate differences; conform if needed

who controls production of goods? The people, managed by state

who controls distribution of goods? The people, managed by state

major figures Sir Thomas More; Robert Owen

historical example The Farm

From the writings of ancient Greece to the most recent films of Hollywood, people have tried to imagine how the ideal community might look. Each description of the perfect state not only expresses the hopes of the author, but also carries with it an implied criticism of current systems. As analyses of the imperfections of contemporary governments and explorations of the possibilities for future systems, utopianism has led to reform, revolution, and a number of experimental communities designed to test models of ideal states. Cultures all over the world from the classical age to the present, from Jewish and Christian and Moslem traditions, have produced utopias. Most utopian literature and community experimentation, however, is associated with the West. Utopias and their alter egos, dystopias, reflect not only specific concerns about how governments and people interact, but also an overarching hope that change can make institutions and individuals better.


The word utopia first appeared in Thomas More's (1478–1535) book of the same name, published in 1516. More coined the term by combining the Greek words for "not" (ou) and "place" (topos), thus creating a word that meant "nowhere." This name captured the essence of More's endeavor. He wished to describe in detail a place that did not exist, that was located in no physical spot—but that might be, and could be, and should, represent the ideal place to which every real location might aspire. Utopia could be found only in the imagination, in the mind's eye.

Although the word originated with More, the idea of utopia wasn't new. The first precursors of the utopian thinkers were known as prophets. They criticized contemporary culture, its excesses and inequalities, and contrasted what existed to what might one day be—the end of oppression, the reign of peace, and the unity of people across every conceivable economic and social boundary. One of the earliest of these utopian thinkers was Amos. Born in the eighth century B.C., Amos was a shepherd and fruit gatherer, and he railed against the corruption of the elite classes in Israel and their misuse of honest laborers. According to the Torah and Old Testament, he predicted that the aristocracies such as the one in Israel would fall and the bounty of the lands would rest in the hands of the honest and faithful Jews. His message was two–fold: religious and ethical. Only those of the right faith and lifestyle would reap the benefits of a golden age.

Similar thinkers followed, such as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekial. Perhaps most noteworthy was the Israeli courtier/councilor of the late 700s B.C., Isaiah. Like those who had come before him, Isaiah denounced the corruption of the ruling class and the emptiness of most religious practice, predicting the fall of the current system and the preservation of a faithful, moral few. He then described the peaceful kingdom that would follow; according to Isaiah 2:4 in the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament, the people "shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

These early prophets paved the way for a tradition of religious thinkers who described utopias marked by love, service, humility, and worship of a common deity. In the first century A.D., according to the New Testament, Jesus spoke of a Kingdom of God on Earth. Augustine (354–430 A.D.) wrote about a City of God, and Savonarola (1452–1498) preached of an ideal theocratic state. Some of these Judeo–Christian thinkers believed the perfect world they described would come to pass; others described the ideal land as an exercise to show what areas of their system needed to be changed. Other spiritual traditions such as Taoism, Theraveda Buddhism, and medieval Islam also had their own comparable precursors to utopianism as well. Both kinds of thinkers, those who foresaw a literal paradise and those who used it as a foil for their own era, led the way for later forms of religious utopian thought and action.


c. 360 B.C.:      Plato completes his Republic, the first true utopian work.

1516:      Thomas More coins the term "utopia" in his book of the same name.

1623:      Tommaso Campanella completes City of the Sun.

1656:      James Harrington completes his Commonwealth of Oceana.

1776:      Ann Lee founds a Shaker settlement in Watervliet, near Albany, New York.

1825:      Robert Owen founds an experimental cooperative society in New Harmony, Indiana.

1841:      John Humphrey Noyes founds the socialist Oneida Community in Putney, Vermont.

1844:      Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts, becomes a Fourierist phalanx.

1888:      Looking Backward, by Edward Bellamy, appears.

1932:      Aldous Huxley completes Brave New World and launches the era of the dystopia.

1971:      Stephen Gaskin and 320 self–described San Francisco "hippies" create The Farm in Summer-town, Tennessee.

1974:      Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia appears.

Plato and the Utopian Republic

The golden age of Greece provided the first real utopian work in the form of Plato's (428–348 B.C.) Republic. Written in the fourth century B.C., The Republic was a political work meant not only to sketch out an ideal form of government, but, in doing so, to highlight the problems Plato saw in contemporary Greece. Plato's solution for the inequalities of wealth and status was a state in which wealth was evenly distributed and individuals were divided into three groups: artisans; warriors; and the guardians, the special leadership class trained from childhood to rule. In short, Plato advocated an aristocratic communism to guide the life of a Republic.

Plato's Republic not only offered the first classic blueprint of a political utopia, but it also delved into the issue of the ideal personal life. This included the issues of sexual relations and parenthood. Though Plato afforded women more opportunities in his Republic than they had at the time in Greece, he expected men to comprise the guardian class, and even indicated that they should hold wives in common—as well as children, who would be raised apart from their biological parents. He even suggested such a group family would allow experimentation with selective breeding to take place to create the best leaders possible. Plato's concern not only with public structures but also with personal issues such as the family opened the door for future utopian thinkers to address the relationships between men, women, and children in their plans for the ideal world.

After Plato's Republic, many centuries passed before the next true utopian work, Thomas More's Utopia, appeared. The tendency to criticize contemporary ways of life and suggest better ones did not hibernate during this time, however. Philosophers, statesmen, religious leaders, and poets all noted their concerns for their political and social systems and their dreams for paradise. For example, classic Roman figures such as Virgil, Seneca, Tacitus, and Juvenal all complained of injustices and inequalities and longed for a natural, simple state that provided justice and plenty for all citizens. Augustine's City of God (approximately 412 A.D.) used the fall of Rome as a springboard for religious utopianism in the tradition of the early Jewish prophets.



The author of the first true work of utopianism, The Republic, is also one of the most influential philosophers in history. In 407 B.C., Plato became the student and friend of the most visible and controversial Greek thinker of the day, Socrates. Eight years later, Socrates was convicted of corrupting youth and teaching religious heresies; he was given poisonous hemlock to drink for his execution. The death of Socrates affected Plato deeply; Plato wrote many of his works as dialogues, such as the Apology, the Crito, and the Phaedro, among others, and in these the former student cast the late Socrates in a key role as the champion voice of reason. Plato lived at the court of Dionysius, Tyrant of Syracuse for a time and then returned to Athens to found the Academy, where he taught philosophy and mathematics until his death.

Plato's earliest written works described the ideas of Socrates regarding virtue, knowledge, and happiness. As Plato's own ideas matured, his writings focused on the questions of how to know and how to live. He believed the universe possessed its own internal harmony, and he wanted to build a philosophical scheme that paralleled and explained the rationality of the universe. This led him to the notion of ideal forms. Ideas, he argued, were independently real, regardless of correspondence to objects we can see. Likewise, every object, every thing, corresponded to an ideal form of that thing, far more real than the fleeting existence of the object in our realm. For example, according to Plato, a chair is but a shadow of the Ideal Chair that embodies true Chairness in the realm of ideas.

If what we see in the temporal realm is an anemic copy of the ideal form of an object or system, then what does that ideal form look like? Plato penned his Republic in the effort to explain what the ideal form of a government—in other words, utopia—might look like. He tried to systematize the state as a mirror of the harmony that he believed existed somewhere else. In Plato's "Allegory of the Cave," he compared the realm of ideas to a sunlit world that threw shadows on the wall of a dark cave; those chained in the cave saw only the shadows and believed that these shadows represented the real world, rather than a pale comparison of it. In his Republic, Plato tried to turn away from the shadows on the cave wall and see the real community in the sunlight. The product was the very first work of utopian political theory.

By the Middle Ages, thinkers took the classical preoccupation with a "natural state" a step further and tried to determine what the state of nature looked like for humankind. John Wycliffe (c. 1328–1384), a British church and political leader, believed that the

state of nature was communist in form, with all property held in common. John Ball (?–1381) agreed, and the social reformer took part in the radical Peasant Revolt in England before he was excommunicated by the church and drawn and quartered by the crown. His example moved utopian thought from the realm of ideas to the realm of action, and led the way for future utopians to try to put their visions of the ideal world into practice. The writings of Wycliffe and Ball later influenced William Morris, who named his work of socialist utopianism The Dream of John Ball (1888).

More Coins a Vision

More's Utopia (1516) launched a new literary genre and gave a name to it as well. More wrote the story as if its central character, sailor Raphael Hythloday, were real and had visited an actual, physical place called Utopia. At the time, so–called travel narratives of explorers' journeys were a popular form of literature. More therefore based his fictional account on the popular non–fictional works of the day, turning the travel narrative on its head to speak about what could be instead of what was. Hythloday's experience discovering the land, its people, and its systems, though fictional, made key points about labor, justice, education, and religion in society. The Utopians believed the goal of life was happiness, but they recognized that true happiness came from moderate and worthy activities such as work and study, and not false pleasures such as excessive wealth or empty status. Framing the critique and challenge within a fantastical story gave More greater philosophical freedom than if he had written a book criticizing his king and country.

More's book sprung from the humanist tradition of the era, which celebrated the human capacities of reason and rationality, and urged individuals to contemplate truth to better themselves inside and out. More inspired a series of others to write similar works describing imaginary paradises, their systems, and the types of people who could maintain them. These sixteenth– and seventeenth–century European utopias harnessed the new methods of the Scientific Revolution as well as the new theologies of the Reformation to examine the nature of the good life and the perfect state. François Rabelais' description of the Abbey of Thélème in Gargantua (1532), Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (approximately 1602), Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1627), and James Harrington's The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), among others, followed from the example of More's Utopia.

Political theory of the era had a direct impact on the utopias produced during the time. Theorists such as Hugo Grotius (1583–1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), and John Locke (1632–1704), for example, wrote extensively about two particular ideas: the social contract and natural law. The social contract was a shorthand way of describing the mutual duties and responsibilities of the government and the governed. The consent of the governed, or the citizens, legitimized the authority of the government. This consent was based on an understanding of what the government would do for the governed, and, likewise, what the citizens owed in terms of obedience to the state. This implied contract could be broken if one side failed to live up to expectations, however; for example, if the citizens agreed to place themselves under a particular government so it could protect their lives and property, and in turn it abused the citizens' rights and property, then the contract was broken, and the citizens had the right to revolt against the state. The idea of the social contract influenced a number of utopian visions, particularly among the experimental communities.

Natural Law Theory

Likewise, natural law theory also influenced the formation of utopian works and experiments. Natural law theory looked back to an earlier time—literal or metaphorical—before the development of so–called civilization to imagine how the earliest humans ordered themselves into societies. Some theorists such as Thomas Hobbes believed that humans in nature were violent, greedy, and irrational, and the state had to set up mechanisms to control the base instincts of its citizens. In contrast, philosophers like John Locke believed that human nature allowed for peaceful, cooperative relationships between individuals, and the state's chief responsibility was to try to maintain the freedom that would allow individuals to recapture this state of nature again. Utopians fell on both sides of the issue, but more tended to agree with Locke's more optimistic assessment of the natural law. As a result, many utopias described populations as natural, untouched, or uncorrupted by civilization, enjoying life in an Eden–like atmosphere.

Social contract theory and natural law theory helped to usher in a new era in the West. The era of revolutions—namely the American War of Independence (1775–1783) and the French Revolution (1789–1799)—and the theorists who helped to inspire them led to a new wave of utopian thinkers and works, especially in France. Utopian socialists and political reformers/revolutionaries such as François Noel Babeuf (1764–1797), Étienne Cabet (1788–1856), Comte Henri de Saint–Simon (1760–1825), and Pierre–Joseph Proudhon (1809–1865) not only wrote, but also worked to make their views become reality. Their combination of agitation and activism led to a new era in utopian thought; not only would utopians write about their views, but they would develop communities in which their ideas could be put into practice, showcases for their theories in action. Although utopian thought existed and exists throughout the world, the West, and in particular the United States, offer strikingly vivid examples of utopian communities in action.

Ann Lee and the Shakers

Ann Lee (1736–1784), also known as Ann the Word or Mother Ann, was the chief leader of the Shakers, a Christian sect that broke away from the Quakers and developed utopian communities based on their unique theology. The Shaker movement, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ's Second Appearing, or the Millennial Church, began with a Quaker revival in England in 1747 and grew under the initial leadership of James and Jane Wardley. Ann Lee, however, took the group from England to the United States and established an exclusive, utopian Shaker settlement.

Lee came from humble beginnings in Manchester, England. Illiterate and poor, Lee worked in cotton factories and as a cook. She married blacksmith Abraham Stanley in 1762. In approximately 1770, Lee claimed to have a vision that changed her life and the lives of many others forever. She said she received a revelation that the Second Coming of Christ had taken place within her; she was the embodiment of the holy on earth, the female incarnation of God who fulfilled Her role as mother just as Jesus had suggested God's fatherhood. This vision, along with the abilities she claimed such as speaking in tongues and performing miracles, gave Lee authority not only as a religious leader but as a divine figure as well.

The teachings of Lee, however, included the complete equality of the sexes and the holiness of celibacy, and both ideas seemed radical to the eighteenth–century English mainstream. She was even imprisoned for a time for her beliefs. Eventually, Lee realized that the Shakers had to find a way to pursue freely the ideal community. She decided to follow a vision and take a faithful few to North America and begin a Shaker colony there. In 1776, she founded Watervliet, near Albany, New York. After her death in 1784, the Shaker impulse toward building utopian colonies continued to grow. By 1826, there were eighteen American Shaker communities in a total of eight states, each organized into groups, or families, of thirty to ninety people who owned property communally.

Lee is an important figure for organizing the first Shaker communities, as well as for emphasizing gender equality in a utopian setting. Her message had staying power: the Shakers outlived Lee by more than 230 years—unusual for a group that practiced celibacy. Though Shaker communities are all but extinct today, their vision of balance, simplicity, and equality in the ideal world survives through their signature architecture, furniture, and crafts.

Charles Fourier

One of the first theorists to inspire communities based on his utopian thought was Charles Fourier (1772–1837), known as the father of utopian socialism, the most visible French utopian thinker, and the inspiration for a series of celebrated experimental utopian communities. Many of his concerns about the mechanization, dehumanization, and class schism of society previewed concerns later raised by critics of the Industrial Revolution. His belief in channeling humans' natural passions to achieve social harmony, and the practical means he suggested for achieving it, became known as Fourierism.

Unlike communist utopians, who believed the state needed to own all means of production in the economy, Fourier accepted a few of the tenets of capitalism, including some private property ownership. He simply wanted a well–ordered agricultural society,

one based on cooperation and gender equality. Fourier devised with almost mathematical precision his plan for achieving harmony: the phalanx, an economic unit of 1,620 people who divided labor among themselves according to ability. He wrote and spoke about his blueprint for utopia, and followers and newspapers responded enthusiastically.

The Frenchman Fourier believed that natural human passions could be channeled to create social harmony. His prescription for this endeavor was quite specific: he believed the phalanx worked best to produce an organized, agricultural society. His teachings spread from France to the United States and resulted in The Society for the Propagation and Realization of the Theory of Fourier. Dozens of Fourierist communities developed according to the blueprint of the writer, including the highly visible Brook Farm.

Unfortunately, Fourier did not live to see his ideas applied in real settings. After his death, adherents such as Albert Brisbane and Horace Greeley transplanted Fourierism to the United States and in 1843 founded Phalanx, New Jersey, the first of almost thirty experimental communities based on Fourier's vision. Christian, but nonsectarian, these colonies organized themselves as cooperatives with equalized wages and supported themselves by the work of members and money from non–resident stockholders. The communities encouraged traditional values such as monogamy and family, but also encouraged gender equality—several directors or presidents of Fourierist communities, in fact, were women.

The most successful symbol of Fourierism was Brook Farm, an experimental community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The community began in 1841 as a Unitarian venture but converted to a Fourierist phalanx in 1844. Brook Farm gained international celebrity status due to its membership, which included some of the era's intellectual elite, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Orestes Brownson. The Fourierist newspaper Harbinger began publication at Brook Farm as well. After the central building was destroyed by fire, the colony fell into economic hardship and eventually disbanded. Its fame lived on, however, in the works and lives of its former members.

Later Utopian Idealists

Other communities based on the political theories of utopian writers followed. Robert Owen (1801– 1877) founded a cooperative rather than communist society in New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825. Among New Harmony's historical contributions were the first trade school, kindergarten, public school, and free library in the United States. John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886) believed Fourier had highlighted real problems in contemporary systems, but Noyes disagreed with Fourier's conclusions about how to solve them. Noyes advocated the blend of religion and politics, arguing that socialism could not work without institutionalized faith, and a "complex marriage" that offered a form of polygamy and sharing of children in common. He founded the Oneida Community in Putney, Vermont, in 1841.

At the same time theorists were experimenting with communities that put their ideas into practice, religious groups established their own societies for the free exercise of their faiths. Between 1663, when Dutch Mennonites created a communitarian colony in the Delaware of today, until 1858, approximately 138 separate religious communities sprang up in North America. German Pietists, Shakers, and Hutterites, among others, founded long–lived towns and communities, some of which still exist today. However, the U.S. Civil War tore apart the fabric of the nation and brought a halt to the community–building impulse of the utopian movement. Few other utopian experiments took place.

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, utopian literature across the West began to resemble More's Utopia once again; works like Laurence Gronlund's The Coöperative Commonwealth (1884), Edward Bellamy'sLooking Backward (1888), Samuel Butler's Erewhon (1891), William Morris's News From Nowhere, and H.G. Wells' A Modern Utopia (1905) described worlds that could be—often with solutions to the problems of labor, mechanization, overcrowding, and income that seemed to arrive hand–in–hand with a more urban and industrialized society. The reliance on science and economics typified these turn–of–the–century utopias.

The Dystopia

The twentieth–century experience with two world wars and a Cold War led to a new literary subgenre: the dystopia. Just as theorists wrote utopias to prove how good things could be if they were changed, authors of dystopias warned of how bad things could be if they were not changed. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932), George Orwell's 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange (1962), and Ursula Le Guin's The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) were early warnings of how anti–intellectual, despotic regimes might threaten individual liberties. Later dystopias dealt with specific issues such as racism, environmentalism, and ageism. Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1985) was one of many dealing with the problems of gender in society and government.

History seemed to run parallel to this change of literary tone. Optimistic experiments in communal living, especially during the 1960s in the United States, appeared to be overshadowed by the negative examples of other communities gone awry; leaders such as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and others led their followers to acts of violence and self–destruction. Writers continued to use warnings as the main method of critiquing current practices. The advent of films from Metropolis (1926), The Man From Planet X (1951), and Planet of the Apes (1968) to Mad Max (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Dark City (1998) further marked the century as the age of the dystopia.

Although the form of utopian thought has changed over time from religious imagery and political blueprint to fictional description and visual drama, one thing is clear: the impulse to describe what might be possible, and in the process to criticize what exists, is a long–lived urge that dates from antiquity to the present day. Theorists over time have expressed their desire for change in many ways. The ideal worlds they have desired have looked different across the years. One thing remains the same: dreamers of different nations and eras all have seen a glimpse of something better and tried in their own ways to bring their societies closer to the world of their dreams.


From the early days of the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers to the present era of novelists and movie makers, utopianism has never been a theory per se as much as a state of mind, a way of initiating a conversation about the manner in which people can live together best. The utopian thinkers themselves have disagreed widely on the political nature of the good life and espoused a number of different and even contradictory systems that might meet the need of given communities. Utopians fall into their category not so much because of what they seek specifically, but because of how they seek it. Rather than work for incremental reforms within systems, changing existing governments from the inside, utopian thinkers look outside of current models to what could take their places. Rather than reform what exists, utopians dream of replacing it with something new and different. The goals they have often put utopian theorists outside of the mainstream dialogue of political theory. Despite the isolated position of its adherents, utopianism has endured in one form or another for thousands of years.

Although the forms of utopianism are almost as numerous and unique as the individuals who have dreamed of utopias, several key strains of utopian thought appear over and over again; these ideal states involve religion, property, relationships, and past injuries. Any utopia might address several aspects of life—economic, social, personal—but each must have a central cause for its creation. The oldest form of utopia, which dates to the era of the Hebrew prophets in the eighth century B.C. and survives to this day, is the religious utopia.

Religious Utopias

By suggesting the right way to live, utopian thinkers automatically criticize the way of life in their time. If the contemporary systems worked perfectly, after all, then there would be no need to replace them with something else. The religious utopians believe that the practice of or return to a true faith is the heart of the ideal state. Theocracies, or governments led by spiritual leaders, often follow from this type of reasoning. The states of religious utopias often perform the same functions attributed to the church: leading worship of the God/gods, coordinating the rituals/ceremonies of the faith, instructing the people in the values of the faith, and policing the populace to enforce practice of the faith.

The Jewish prophets such as Isaiah believed the true faith existed, but people had fallen away from its practice. Their utopias consisted of a return to the traditional practices of Judaism and then the reward from God for their renewed obedience. They held systems and their followers accountable for the fact they had once known the true faith but had abandoned it. Utopia, then, was a return to a previously held practice, though it would be made better, perfected even, the second time around.

In contrast to this point of view, other religious utopian thinkers believed the true faith, or at least some key ingredient in it, was new. This recent revelation called for a different way of living and a new community to support it. These utopian leaders did not seek a return to old ways; they wanted a system that was entirely original. The Shakers, for example, began with a Quaker revival in England in 1747. Led first by James and Jane Wardley, and later by Ann Lee, who believed she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as a mother figure, the Shakers left England for Watervliet, New York, where they founded the first Shaker colony. Others followed. Though Christian in background, the Shaker utopia looked different than any other Christian community at the time: pacifism, communism, and celibacy, as well as confession to the dual—male and female—nature of God and the equality of the sexes typified these isolated colonies. While the Jewish prophets urged people to remember past teaching and build a perfect world upon it, Shakers urged people to accept a new revelation and build a perfect world on its new tenets. These two contrary impulses—returning to the old wisdom of the past and accepting the new wisdom of the present—formed the two sides to religious utopian thought.

Utopians and Property

A second historical strain of utopianism focuses on the question of property. The inequality of economic systems, the stratification of wealth, and the division of the rich and poor classes serve as repeating motifs in utopian literature. Consequently, many blueprints for a true utopia revolve around the question of property ownership. Many of the utopian works from More's Utopia (1516) to Bellamy's Looking Backward (1888) emphasize the fact that, although every citizen of the ideal state has everything he or she needs, none of the people are overly wealthy. This often is achieved by a kind of communalism in which major property such as agricultural fields or commercial factories are held in common by all citizens and usually managed by the government; therefore, socialist and communist utopias make up many of those preoccupied by the question of property.

Most of the utopians who have written or spoken about property have tended to treat the issue as a procedural matter rather than a natural one. In other words, they have suggested that, with the right structure for government, greed and need would be eliminated—the fault lies with the contemporary system, not the people in it. By taking this position, the theorists have not had to be concerned about the human nature of those who govern and distribute property; the assumption is that they will resist temptation and act fairly instead of using their positions for their own advantages. This forms the heart—or, according to critics, the vulnerability—of the property approach to utopianism.

Individual Relationships

Other utopian thinkers have focused less on issues of faith and property than those of individual relationships. For these people, government begins not in the public arena, but in the home; significant reform therefore begins not between the citizen and his or her government, but the individual and his or her family. One of the notions identified with utopianism is that of "free love"—meaning the pursuit of sexual relations outside of the traditional heterosexual conception of marriage. But many utopian thinkers were interested in more than simply experimenting with sexuality. They believed the historical monogamous couple and nuclear family created an impediment for the achievement of the ideal life.

Some utopian thinkers came to this conclusion from different directions. Plato's concern in his Republic, for example, was one of genetics. He wanted the brightest and best people possible to lead as guardians of his ideal state. By sharing wives and rearing children in common, Plato believed, the most intelligent of the citizens could experiment with mating in different combinations to produce the most gifted offspring possible. Plato's concern had little to do with feelings and emotions, and much to do with a calculated, if somewhat primitive, attempt at eugenics (improving the hereditary qualities of a race).

On the other hand, other utopian thinkers who have addressed the same kind of questions of sexual and familiar relationships did so for very different reasons. Their concern was not for the efficiency of selective breeding, but with the pleasure of unrestrained experimentation with intimacy. Charles Fourier and John Humphrey Noyes believed the traditional marriage and family would dissolve in favor of a complex family relationship based on caring for the group, the whole—multiple and/or revolving partnerships, as well as different forms of communal parenting, they believed, would take the place of the old ways of life. These lifestyles might be efficient, but, more to the point, they would also be exciting and pleasurable. In such utopias, happiness remained the chief objective of the utopian exercise. The counterculture revolution of the 1960s built on this foundation and added experimentation with drugs to the mix.

Still other utopian thinkers focused on issues beyond faith, property, and relationships. These theorists are concerned with historical patterns of injustice and/or wrongdoing and seek to undo specific errors of past systems by creating new ones. Pacifist responses to war, environmentalist responses to pollution, and feminist responses to discrimination offer examples of this kind of approach to building the ideal society. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the response to the rise of totalitarian states such as that of the former Soviet Union in the twentieth century; dystopias such as Huxley's Brave New World (1932), and Orwell's 1984 (1949) warned of what would happen in the future if changes were not made.

Advocates of civil rights and individual liberties contemplated how governments could limit themselves to preserve as much freedom as possible for their citizens. One example of a response to fears of "Big Brother" and its control over the path of individuals' lives is Robert Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).

Utopian Literature

Utopianism as a political theory has had many manifestations—prophecy, revolution, reform—but two main legacies: utopias in literature and experimental communities. The literature of utopianism ranges from works of theory to fiction. The most sophisticated have drawn from theory and fiction to create lasting impressions of ideal worlds.

Plato Plato's Republic, written in approximately 360 B.C., is considered the foundational work of utopianism. Authors as diverse as Thomas More in the sixteenth century and Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) in the twentieth century drew upon Republic when writing their own contributions to utopian thought. Plato believed that everything on earth was but a shadow of the ideal form of that object or idea; in his Republic, he tried to imagine and describe in detail the ideal form of the state. Republic featured Plato's late mentor, Socrates, discussing this perfect community with a number of characters and extolling the virtue of reason that guided it. Plato's paradise consisted of three classes, the lead of which was the guardian class. His utopia therefore was not a democracy, but an aristocracy,

led by those dedicated to reason, wisdom, and virtue:

But the simple and temperate desires governed by reason, good sense, and true opinion are to be found only in the few, those who are the best born and the best educated…. Both the few and the many have their place in the city. But the meaner desires of the many will be held in check by the virtue and wisdom of the ruling few. It follows that if any city may claim to be master of its pleasures and desires—to be master of itself—it will be ours. For all these reasons, we may properly call our city temperate.

To create this leading class, Plato described a primitive version of selective breeding, including wife–sharing among the guardians, to produce the best human specimens possible. These children also benefit from the most advanced and carefully regulated education available, with everything from books to music carefully censored in order to feed the minds of the future leaders with the best material. In many ways, Plato built a political system in Republic that would avoid the suspicious anti–intellectualism of the Greek process that, years before, had sentenced Socrates to death for corrupting youth and spreading heresy with his philosophical teachings.

More expands on the Republic Thomas More's Utopia, published in 1516, built on the foundation of Plato's Republic. It copied many of the classic's ideas—for example, children were common property of the community in both—with a distinctly Christian twist absent from Plato's work. The success of More's venture spawned a wave of utopian works over the next century and inspired various religious and political movements from Mormonism to communism. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the work, however, was its very name, a new addition to the English language.

More's style also inspired future utopian authors in terms of tone. Wry, witty, and satirical, More wrote not as if exploring a theory in the abstract, but rather as if Utopia existed. This made his work interesting to a wide readership. He also maintained his sense of fun:

Lines on the Island of Utopia by the Poet Laureate, Mr. Windbag nonsenso's sister's son: Noplacia was once my name That is, a place where no one goes; Plato's Republic I now claim To match, or beat at its own game; For that was just a myth in prose, But what he wrote of, I became, Of men, wealth, laws a solid frame, A place where every wise man goes: Goplacia is now my name.

Just as Plato had crafted his Republic in reaction to the contemporary system of Greece, More was moved to write about economics and justice after viewing the disparity of wealth and corruption of legal procedure in Tudor England. The English government that he subtly criticized in Utopia eventually took More's life when he would not submit to a law he believed was immoral and unjust—an ironic parallel to the death of Socrates that so haunted Plato.


Sir Thomas More

Thomas More coined the term "utopia" in his 1516 work of the same name. By the time of its publication, More already had built a reputation as a scholar and lawyer in England. His work brought him into contact with a number of luminaries such as Erasmus who formed a Christian humanist movement in the West. These thinkers valued rationality and religion, and sought ways to better themselves and humankind through philosophical inquiry. More joined these humanists, writing and translating a number of histories, prayers, poems, and devotional works.

His most famous publication, Utopia, described an ideal society based on reason. He located this society on an island in the so–called New World of North America. The book explored not only the community's system of government, but also the details of citizens' daily lives, from their poetry to their laws of divorce. More, himself a character in the book, acted as a lawyer would, at times cross–examining the traveler who encountered Utopia and his views on what he had found. Some historians have seen More's focus on orderly justice, peace, and equality in Utopia as an influence on the later development of Anabaptism, Mormonism, and even communism.

More's work brought him to the attention of King Henry VIII of England, who took More into his service. In 1521, More was knighted; in 1529, he became Lord Chancellor. A combination of poor health and discomfort with Henry's failing relationship with the Catholic Church led More to resign in 1532. When Henry required his subjects to submit to his Act of Supremacy, which made Henry the head of the English Church instead of the Pope, the retired More could not go against his conscience and subscribe to the policy. Henry had him imprisoned on a charge of treason in 1534 and, a year later, executed. For his commitment to conscience and the Church, More was beatified in 1886 and canonized in 1935. His life remains a source of contemporary interest, as the multiple stage and screen versions of Robert Bolt's dramatic biography of More, A Man For All Seasons, prove. The 1998 film Ever After: A Cinderella Story brought More's work more clearly to mainstream attention by showing and quoting a battered copy of Utopia repeatedly as a blueprint for making the ideal world a reality.

Françoise Rabelais Many of the utopias that followed More's work suggested that so–called civilization corrupted many of the instincts humans needed to live with one another in peace and harmony. The more complicated and authoritarian governments became, some theorists argued, the less successful they were. To these thinkers, the state of nature, humans' original condition, possessed certain natural laws— individuals should not kill each other, for example— that made a more innocent time also a more successful one politically. Françoise Rabelais, in his "Abbey of Thélème" from the larger French comic masterpiece Gargantua (1532), described a utopia built on natural law with a populace of noble savages:

These people are wild in the sense in which we call wild the fruits that nature has produced by herself and in her ordinary progress; whereas in truth it is those we have altered artificially and diverted from the common order that we should rather call wild. In the first we still see, in full life and vigor, the genuine and most natural and useful virtues and properties, which we have bastardized in the latter, and only adapted to please our corrupt taste…. Those nations, then, appear to me so far bar barous in this sense, that their minds have been formed to a very slight degree, and that they are still very close to their original simplicity. They are still ruled by the laws of Nature and very little corrupted by ours.

Like a Garden of Eden, Rabelais' Abbey was pristine, peaceful, and well ordered. Civilization could not better it, only corrupt it. Rabelais' "Abbey" offered one of the most visible utopias to be built on natural law theory. In contrast, Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun (1623) reflected another trait in utopian literature of the era: the influence of the Scientific Revolution. The momentum of scientific thought inspired centrally planned and organized paradises built with almost mathematical precision. Campanella's utopia was no exception:

The greater part of the city is built upon a high hill… It is divided into seven rings or huge circles named from the seven planets, and the way from one to the other of these is by four streets and through four gates, that look toward the four points of the compass. Furthermore, it is so built that if the first circle were stormed, it would of necessity entail a double amount of energy to storm the second; still more to storm the third; and in each succeeding case the strength and energy would have to be doubled; so that he who wishes to capture that city must, as it were, storm it seven times.

The repetition of significant numbers, as well as the vision of concentric circles and evidence of careful planning in this passage marks the City of the Sun as a product of the Scientific Revolution. Otherwise, Campanella's book read like something of an Italian version of Plato's Republic, making this key example of Italian utopianism also proof of the durability of Plato's vision.

Edward Bellamy If James Harrington's Commonwealth of Oceana influenced the politics of its time, Edward Bellamy hoped his Looking Backward (1888), one of the most popular utopias of its era, would also change the world he knew. The American Bellamy feared the trends toward industrialization that he witnessed and wondered how mechanization, urbanization, and competition would affect human lives. His utopia included a government–controlled economy and a socialist state. In a postscript to his work, Bellamy not only explained why he designed his ideal state the way he did, but captured the optimistic spirit of utopianism in general:

As an iceberg, floating southward from the frozen north, is gradually undermined by warmer seas, and, become at last unstable, churns the sea to yeast for miles around by the mighty rockings that portend its overturn, so the barbaric industrial and social system, which has come down to us from savage antiquity, undermined by the modern humane spirit, riddled by the criticism of economic science, is shaking the world with convulsions that presage its collapse. All thoughtful men agree that the present aspect of society is portentous of great changes. The only question is, whether they will be for the better or worse…. Looking Backward was written in the belief that the Golden Age lies before us and not behind us, and is not far away. Our children will surely see it…

Huxley's Brave New World Interestingly enough, Bellamy wrote his utopia as a tale of time travel through the eyes of a contemporary viewing the world of the future. In this sense, Bellamy anticipated the rise of the science fiction utopia and dystopia. The groundbreaking pioneer of the science fiction dystopia was Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1932). Huxley drew a dark picture of what would happen if the government grew in power and exercised increasing control over the lives of individuals—ironically, much the way Bellamy would have liked—and that system evolved to its ultimate conclusion: totalitarian tyranny. Chillingly, Huxley, through the character of the Controller, explained that the architects of subjugation would believe they were acting for the greater good of all.

Rather than describing the ideal state, Huxley made his point about the importance of limited government and individual liberty by describing the worst state possible and noting how the contemporary system might devolve into something like it. Instead of suggesting what to do to become like a utopia, Huxley implied what not to do to become like a dystopia. Huxley's highly successful work ushered in the era of the dystopia.

Although many of the twentieth–century works dealing with utopian themes have been dystopias, many from the genre of science fiction, one book reintroduced the idea of utopianism to the political theory community: Roberty Nozick's Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1986.

Robert Nozick Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Robert Nozick was appointed to Harvard in 1965. His 1974 Anarchy, State and Utopia sent shock waves through the political theory community. In part his work answered the thesis of John Rawl's A Theory of Justice (1971), which outlined a concept of a just society. Rawls defended a kind of mixed economy socialism, with social policies/rules chosen behind a "veil of ignorance." Behind this veil, Rawls suggested, policy makers would act as if they were ignorant of their status in the community as they created policy, so that goods would be distributed fairly across race, gender, and class lines in a manner that always benefited the least advantaged group.

Nozick criticized the redistribution inherent in Rawls' proposals, defending each person's claim to his or her own using a natural rights argument reminiscent of early utopians. In fact, Nozick began his work in a state of nature, then asked whether there should be a state at all. In the end, Nozick argued for a "minarchist" state, a minimalist government for protection only. He argued completely from individual consent–based morality; according to his rules, for example, a state could not tax, because that would be analogous to forced labor. In his words, "[The minarchist state] allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less."

According to John Gray in Liberalism (1986), Nozick was successful in "reclaiming for the liberal tradition the utopian vision which virtually all liberals (except [Friedrich] Hayek) had rejected as uncongenial to the pluralism demanded by the liberal ideal." Nozick asserted that the minimal state would provide the framework for a meta–utopia in which individuals might join together to form communities of free entry and exit, competing for members. Within these smaller associations, members might choose to contract away certain rights in favor of receiving certain services. Thus a communist association, a cooperative community, and an anarchist colony all might coexist. With the option of exit ever–present, however, each association would be forced to remain true to its contract and accountable to its members. Nozick pioneered the exodus of other minarchists into public view—for example, John Hospers, chairman of the University of Southern California Philosophy Department and 1972 National Libertarian Party candidate for the U.S. presidency, and Tibor Machan, philosophy professor and author—and brought the serious philosophical discussion of utopia back into fashion.

In his book, Nozick imagines a world of competing states with different systems and only one coordinating principle: free entry and free exit. In this utopian vision, Nozick imagined individuals choosing what amount of state authority, what form of government, they liked best. No one state could abuse the rights of its people, because citizens would leave for a more palatable alternative. Just as Nozick offers a view of a world free from totalitarian regimes, others imagine worlds free of bigotry, sexism, violence, and environmental crisis.

In his work, Nozick imagined utopia to be not a specific community, but rather an overarching, minimal state that offered "playing rules"—free entry, free exit—that would allow smaller experimental communities to evolve and compete for members. The diversity of possibilities available in this model over time has since inspired a new dialogue among political theorists.

In a sense, the open–endedness of Nozick's view of utopia, and his willingness to abandon central control in favor of spontaneous order, added a new dimension to the view of utopia. He raised the bar from static, complete notions of "the perfect state" by arguing that the perfect state would be many ever–changing societies impossible to predict. As the twenty–first century begins, the hopefulness of utopian political theory endures, but remains overshadowed by the dystopian vision of filmmakers and genre authors. Television, in the guise of science fiction hits such as Dark Angel (2000), has continued this trend.

Of course other utopias have shaped the course of the political theory as well. From Plato to Huxley and beyond, from Greece and Italy to France and the United States and elsewhere, all of the great utopias and dystopias have shared an underlying optimism that their suggestions or warnings might change the world for the better.

The one resounding commonality among all of the approaches to the ideal world is that of optimism. By discussing, illustrating, and even experimenting with their visions of paradise, the utopian thinkers not only criticized what they found to be wrong with their contemporary political systems, but also believed those systems could be changed. Whether motivated by the doom they saw ahead or the paradise they dreamed of, these theorists were dedicated to the proposition that things could be better than they were. Some believed the world would improve if individuals embraced a particular faith. Others believed equality of property or opportunities in personal relationships were necessary for positive change. Still others believed that paradise meant the solution to one problem, the righting of an historical wrong. Their conclusions remain as different as the eras in which they originated. Utopianism is less about the ends, however, than the means of achieving them. What unites utopian thinkers is not the detail of a given system, but the optimism and imagination to envision that system in place, working as planned, successful and enduring.


Utopia, the ideal "nowhere" sought by writers and revolutionaries and reformers, has meant different things to different people, and thus has been acted upon in very different ways. The ancient Greek legends of Atlantis, a continent of advanced, peaceful, enlightened people who had achieved their own utopia before a natural disaster submerged their land beneath the sea, so inspired seekers and scientists that searches for the physical remains of the place continue to this day, as if pinpointing the ruins on a map might make the possibility of achieving a new paradise on earth more possible. Likewise, the stories of El Dorado, a utopian city built of gold somewhere in South America, spawned exploration of the continent by colonizing European nations beginning in the sixteenth century. The goal of discovering an ideal community motivated nations in a way that simple internal reform—building a more ideal community—could not.

Others seemed to know that paradise had no earthly address. Plato nursed anger and resentment toward the government of Greece that had executed his beloved teacher Socrates, and Thomas More watched with wariness the state of England that eventually executed him. Neither philosopher expected to find Atlantis or El Dorado on earth. To them and others like them, utopianism in practice meant using the motif of an ideal community as a foil, a literary device, to contrast the way things should be with the way things were. The ultimate goal was not the discovery or creation of the described paradise, but the betterment of the current system and the attitudes and values that supported it. Dystopians such as Huxley and Orwell represented the other side of this impulse, using negative examples of how a terrible state might behave to warn readers and promote reform. This literary— and today, also cinematic—form of utopianism stretches from the fourth century B.C. to the twenty–first century, and continues to produce political critique for our systems.

Other utopian thinkers found the need for reform much too urgent to write works of fiction and theory and hope that their messages eventually touched sympathetic readers. For them, change had to come immediately. These utopians became fervent, and sometimes violent, revolutionaries. For example, Babeuf had a vision of equality for all citizens of France. Though he supported the French Revolution, he did not believe that the first wave of change it brought to the nation beginning in 1789 went far enough to create this quality. He published criticisms of the government, was imprisoned, and emerged even more dissatisfied with the state. He therefore created the Conspiracy of the Equals, a secret organization focused on overthrowing the fledgling new French government and instituting a utopian communist regime in which all people would share the economy's products equally. Babeuf's plans required violent upheaval, and he was eventually captured and executed for his plots before they became reality. His method of devising revolutionary cells for the distribution of information became the blueprint for the organization of revolutionary, freedom fighter, and terrorist groups even today. For Babeuf and others, achieving utopia meant not only reform, but also revolution.

The Shakers

The Shakers, led by Ann Lee (known as Mother Ann), took up residence near Albany, New York in September, 1776, and began creating the first Shaker community. The people benefited from the revivalistic interest created by the phenomenon of the Great Awakening. These protracted revivals, which occurred widely in the Middle and New England colonies, commonly exhibited the same dramatic characteristics that were seen among the Shakers. Thus, people on the

frontier were less likely to be scandalized by religious emotionalism. As the revival fires cooled, the Shaker community continued to attract those who ardently looked for signs of the Second Coming.

Shaker villages consisted of separate buildings for eating, working, and sleeping. Everything was separated by gender—the buildings even had different stairways for men and women. This was probably done so men and women would have as little contact as possible, which would make it easier to honor to rules of celibacy. Schools and shops were shared among the people, while some "families" controlled their own small money–making ventures, such as crops.

Though their unusual religious practices were always a curiosity (their name comes from the way they jumped and shook during prayer and worship), it was Shaker doctrines, such as the condemnation of marriage, and Ann Lee's messianic claims, which caused the greatest controversy. As the Americans fought England for independence, the Shakers' pacifism was misunderstood, resulting in imprisonment for several members of the community. Events gradually improved when local citizens began to object to the mistreatment of the Shakers, believing that such actions betrayed the ideals of the new republic. (Generations later, during the Civil War, Shakers would provide food and relief to both Union and Confederate troops.)

The six months following the release of the jailed Shakers was a period in which the Shakers were allowed to practice their faith unmolested. Mother Ann and two disciples set out on horseback on a preaching mission that would last more than two years. This mission was of tremendous importance to Shaker history—several new communites were established in New England.

Unfortunately, the mission was marred by repeated acts of mob violence in which several Shaker leaders were horsewhipped. Ann herself was dragged out of a dwelling and thrown into a carriage where she was mocked by abusive citizens.

When Mother Ann and her company finally returned home, the violence of the New England mission left her in a weakened condition, and she never fully regained health. She died on September 8, 1874.

Before her death, Ann passed the reins of leadership to James Whittaker. Unlike Lee, Whittaker had a great gift for organization and, under his leadership, the movement prospered. He urged all the Shaker communities to implement communal living and common ownership of property as demonstrated in the New Testament.

In spite of her convictions concerning celibacy, which doomed the Shakers to eventual extinction, Anne Lee was in many ways a progressive eigh-teenth–century women who made a significant impact on the world. She was a pioneer for justice and equality. The Shakers were among the first in America to advocate pacifism, abolition of slavery, equality of the sexes, and communal ownership of goods. The Shakers also made contributions to American culture beyond that of ideology—they were the first people in the United States to produce commercial seed, and invented the circular saw, metal pen points, and the first commercially successful washing machine.

Robert Owen and Cooperative Utopia

For the pioneer of a social movement, Robert Owen had very inauspicious beginnings. With little formal education to his credit, Owen began working in the textile business at age ten. But by the time he was 23, Owen had worked his way up to be a successful cotton manufacturer in Manchester, England, and read widely enough to compensate for his lack of schooling. In 1800, he moved to New Lanark, Scotland, where he became a co–owner of the mills once owned by his father–in–law.

Owen used the opportunity afforded by the mill town to put his fledgling theories into practice; he reorganized the community—which included profit stores, competitive schools, and organized sanitation—into a model of a self–sufficient, cooperative agricultural–industrial community, in which enterprises were owned and operated for the benefit of those using their services. As working conditions bettered, profits increased. Owen's influence spread and even instigated the Factory Act of 1819, a reform bill targeting the conditions of businesses like the one in which Owen worked as a child.

With the success of his community in Scotland, Owen suggested that other similar utopian experiments be conducted elsewhere. In 1825, followers organized New Harmony in Indiana after Owen's model—coincidentally, New Harmony had been founded ten years earlier as another kind of utopian experiment by German Separatists who practiced communism and celibacy. The overhauled, Owenite experimental colony gained widespread attention when it became a cultural and educational center, boasting some of the era's leading intellectuals as residents. The town boasted the nation's first kindergarten, public school, free library, and equal instruction for boys and girls. The experiment ended in 1828 because of internal conflict.

Owen's base of support shifted from the upper class to the working class as he published various works such as New View of Society; or, Essays on the Formation of Character (three volumes from 1813 to 1814) and Report to the County of Lanark (1821), which revealed his disinterest in religion and his desire to transform society and its institutionalized system of privilege. For a time he worked with labor unions and suggested that they join forces with cooperative societies, but the union movement proved too disposed toward violence for Owen, who wanted change to come through peaceful means. For the last decades of his life, Owen wrote and lectured about his belief that environment shaped individuals and cooperative societies, in particular, improved character. His life's work, in his writings and in the communities such as New Lanark and New Harmony, secured Owen's place as the father of cooperative utopian thought.

The Oneida Community

Many explorers, writers, and revolutionaries can be considered utopians. The groups seem to share little in common, but all are united by the idea that the government could be bettered. The most visual example of utopianism in action is that of the experimental communities, colonies created as experimental tests of utopian theory. Even among this subset of utopianism, however, many differences arise. Some communities came together due to faith. Others united over interests in property, personal relationships, or historical wrongs associated with issues of race, gender, the environment, and/or individual liberty. Groups such as the Oneida Community, founded in 1841, and The Farm, founded in 1971, reflect different sides of the experimental utopian community.

The Oneida community existed from 1847 to 1881 in New York. This faith–based group evolved from the religious teachings of John Humphrey Noyes (1811–1886), a Christian preacher who believed in the ultimate perfectibility of humanity. His theology of Perfectionism brought him ridicule from other mainstream Protestants, but also drew a faithful band of followers that eventually agreed to set up a colony apart from nonbelievers. After being forced to flee other areas due to the controversial nature of their faith, Noyes and his adherents finally established the Oneida community. The practices of the Perfectionists—including group marriage, a form of polygamy, and economic communism—followed from Noyes's teaching of how to attain communion with Christ and, ultimately, sinlessness.

The Oneida experience exemplifies the pattern of many religious utopian experiments. The first year's population was a mere 87, but it increased to 205 at the height of the colony's popularity. All members met nightly for community business meetings and worked and reared children in common. Women attained rights equal to those of men. But the society was exclusive, closed to the outside, and the community's practices didn't spread to the surrounding area.

Eventually, internal dissension forced Noyes to leave the United States for Canada. In the absence of the community's governmental and theological cornerstone, the community disintegrated. What was left of the group abandoned any utopian pretense and became a joint stock company. Factories producing paper products, plastic goods, and the famous Oneida silverware are the lasting legacy of the community. The formula of an iconoclastic, charismatic religious leader and followers who join together apart from the mainstream, maintain their faith and its corresponding practices for a while, but eventually lose interest seems the standard pattern for religious utopian experiments in action.

The Farm

Other utopian communities are not tied so directly to their founders as leaders or focused on attaining a single end—in the case of Noyes and Oneida, human perfection—but, instead, are developed as responses to certain concerns and dedicated to the journey as well as the end goal. For example, Stephen Gaskin (1935– ) and 320 self–described San Francisco "hippies" created The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, in 1971. They agreed on certain principles—nonviolence and environmentalism, for example—but shared no common vision regarding religion or economics. The community developed organically, meeting challenges as they arose. The adaptiveness of this approach allowed the colony to survive. Membership skyrocketed to 1,200 by 1980, but now remains a steady 250.

Some members earn money outside of the community in nearby towns; others work with internal community businesses, now reaching a global audience through the Internet. Some members live a vegetarian lifestyle; others eat meat. Some members take part in a communal economic experiment known as The Second Foundation; others maintain private property ownership. The anti–violence, pro–environment atmosphere of The Farm remains intact, however, and the fact that members interact with the outside world allows The Farm's experiment to affect life outside the utopia. In fact, The Farm's use of solar power, organic farming, and spiritual midwifery, among other things, has brought international attention. Nonetheless, the world has not changed to look like The Farm. The experiment may be considered successful by many criteria, but The Farm remains an exception to the rule of contemporary society.

Utopian thinkers in turn have sought to socialize the economy and free it of government involvement, give power to all equally and reserve it for a chosen few, honor one gender over another and give both genders the same authority. Just as there are as many utopias as there are utopian thinkers, there is no satisfactory way to categorize utopianism in practice. Historically, however, a pattern does emerge of when certain kinds of utopian action became more prevalent than others, especially in the West. The eighth century B.C., for example, contained mostly religious utopian thinkers who relied on oration to communicate their messages. The sixteenth century offered many literary utopias presented as travel narratives to contrast with current systems. The eighteenth century brought revolutionaries who longed to see immediate change. The nineteenth century yielded experimental communities that put theory into practice, at least for a time. The twentieth century brought dystopias that warned what might happen if systems did not reform. Of course in each era, overlap exists. But even within each era of utopian action, the utopias themselves, the blueprints for a better world, remained as unique as the individuals who conceived of them.


In many ways it is difficult to analyze utopianism, for it has been many things to many people across the ages. How can Plato's Republic, a staple of Western literature for more than 2,000 years, be considered a failure? How can François Noel Babeuf's abortive attempt to overthrow the French government be considered a success? And how can these two examples of utopianism in action be considered comparable at all? Nonetheless, the open–endedness of the theory aside, there can be legitimate criticisms and compliments made with regard to utopianism.

Perhaps the most obvious criticism of utopianism is the underlying uncertainty of whether the ideal community is, in fact, real. The most visual illustration of this uncertainty is the image of Spanish conquistadors searching South America for El Dorado, or contemporary oceanographers trying to pinpoint the lost city of Atlantis. Does paradise exist? Though it seems that the legends of beautiful societies of learning, peace, and eternal health were but a foil for the current day's problems, a device to critique existing governments and peoples, some continue to experience the urge to tie utopia to a geographical location. If utopias cannot be mapped, seen, and touched, does this make the idea of them and their systems less viable? Many sixteenth–century writers described their utopias in the form of travel narratives, as if the authors themselves had visited concrete, three–dimensional locations and then simply reported on their findings. Yet these places were fiction only. The uneasy tension between literal and metaphorical readings of utopian works remains a difficulty of the theory. If the fabled utopias don't really exist, then what does that mean for those who would institute the reforms suggested by them?


Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley was born in 1894 in Surrey, England, and grew up in London. His family was well–known for scientific and intellectual achievements—Huxley's half–brother won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for his work in physiology—and as a youth Aldous was considered something of a prodigy. He was highly intellegent and very creative.

Eton and Oxford–educated Huxley left his native England to live in the United States, where he became one of the most famous novelists of the twentieth century. Though nearly blind since his late teens, Huxley was remarkably prolific and produced a number of works, many of which set the standard for the modern dystopia. Huxley's dark humor and natural cynicism grew with age and his increasing pessimism with the direction the world was taking. His Brave New World (1932) served as perhaps the best example of his dystopian thought and opened the door for George Orwell's 1984 (1949) and the era of the dystopia.

Huxley's novels displayed his deep background in utopian literature. In Brave New World, for example, he describes "soma," a psychedelic drug used to control citizens—a term lifted from Thomas More's Utopia (1516). His dystopias like Brave New World and Ape and Essence (1948) satirized earlier science fiction utopias as well—such as H. G. Wells' A Modern Utopia (1905) and Men Like Gods (1923)—by turning their premises upside down, showing how societies based on scientific principles alone develop into sterile, empty worlds of many means but no ends. Brave New World explored a caste society in which emotions are repressed, relationships are hollow, and humans are genetically altered to fit preexisting classes while the totalitarian 10 World Controllers serve the stability of the citizens while protecting their own self–interest. Ape and Essence painted a devastating picture of a depraved humanity in a United States after atomic and bacteriological warfare.

His one attempt at a true utopia, 1962's Island, described a peaceful community in the Indian Ocean whose peace rested on the dual pillars of Tantric Buddhism and drugs. Island did not reflect the passion of Huxley's other works, however, and did not bring similar attention to the author. Huxley met the greatest success commercially and intellectually when he explained the terror of the world that might be created— the antithesis of paradise—if society did not change. Mechanization, materialism, violence, sexism, and, above all, the willingness to surrender individual liberty and responsibility for stability and efficiency, according to Huxley, led in the opposite direction of true utopia. His body of work became one of the foundational currents in contemporary science fiction and the model for twentieth–century dystopian literature.

In the last years of his life, Huxley experimented with mysticism and drugs such as LSD. He died on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. His influence is felt in the world of literature and beyond. The rock group The Doors took its name from Huxley's novel The Doors of Perception.

This question leads to a second problem with utopianism: its abstract nature. Especially in the case of utopian prophets and writers, who discussed the ideal society and its attributes in a vacuum, utopias remained in the realm of ideas only. Few utopian thinkers of this sort explained how to move current systems toward attaining the attributes of paradise. Communities that enjoyed enlightened leaders and no poverty sounded wonderful, but how could people get there from where they were with their fallible, unsatisfactory states? By relying on the image of a utopia, thinkers did not have to explain what reforms needed to be made or how they could be achieved. This means that many of the potential changes utopian thinkers might have brought never found their way to actual practice.

The Problems of Utopias

Even when some utopian thinkers experimented with actual communities and tried to implement their ideas, members often proved to be the theories' own worst enemies. By making utopian communities exclusive, cut off from the larger world around them, community members ensured that their reforms never influenced mainstream culture. To be fair, some groups, such as the Shakers, remained apart for reasons of self–defense; their practices inflamed outsiders and sometimes led to acts of animosity and even violence. Others remained separate for fear of contamination from the outside world. Regardless of the reasons, though, insularity meant that any reforms the communities made lived and died within the community walls and never had the opportunity to affect the larger world. While open communities still exist, exclusivity was a tenet of many utopian experiments.

These communities often revolved around a central figure—an Ann Lee or a John Humphrey Noyes— especially if religion provided the foundation for the utopia and the leader held specific theological authority. The first problem with this is that, in some communities, the life span of the experiment paralleled the life span of the leader. When the leader died, so, too, did the utopia. This meant that the experiment did not last long enough to experience growth and maturity, and its message rarely had any lasting impact. Surely in the ideal world the truth the members sought would be more permanent, less transient than the life of a man or a woman.

The power of these experimental community leaders, coupled with the isolation of the colonies, also leads to another potential downfall of utopian thinking: the cult of personality. One contemporary example illustrates this well. Jim Jones (1931–1978) was a Protestant minister in the United States, preaching particularly in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Ukiah and San Francisco, California. After officials began to investigate his alleged misuse of church money, Jones convinced a thousand of his followers to go to Guyana with him and create an experimental utopian community named Jonestown, after its leader. At one level, the community did seem Eden–like; its members came from different races, classes, and age groups to form a cooperative, faith–based, self–sufficient community in the wilds of an exotic land. But if the charismatic Jones had power before, it was doubled after his followers left the larger world behind in favor of the insulated settlement. Eventually, the paranoid Jones convinced his followers to commit mass suicide in 1978, and he followed by taking his own life. Many members went to Guyana in the hopes of developing an alternative community that would serve as an example to the rest of the world; the experimental paradise devolved into a cult of personality that ended up costing more than 900 lives. Certain utopian visions can lead to dangerous cults of personality with the potential for violence.

A Vision of Hope

The impact of these tragic utopias is the exception, however, and not the rule. In fact, the chief criticism of utopian thought is not that it has dangerous outcomes, but rather that it is rarely acted upon. If no society recreates Plato's Republic or More's Utopia, does this mean that the authors failed in their utopian quest? The saving grace of the utopian impulse is not in the details, but in the big picture. The one thing that unites all forms of utopianism, from sermons to literature to communities, is hope. None of the utopian theorists would have bothered with lengthy books or dangerous revolutions or challenging community experiments if they believed that the system in which they found themselves could not be changed for the better. Some might not have given their audience blueprints for how to implement their ideas, but all assumed that criticizing the status quo and/or suggesting what kind of better world could exist was a worthy use of their time. Even the dystopians with their gloomy and even frightening predictions of the future voiced their concerns so individuals had the time to make things better. The utopians believed ideas mattered and progress was possible. The question of what those ideas were, and what was meant by progress, pales in comparison to the realization that all utopians were and are, at heart, optimists. Over 2,000 years of unbroken optimism about the political process in all its forms and functions is a remarkable legacy for any theory.


  • Consider several of the utopian works. How did women's roles change from Plato's Republic to later works such as Bellamy's Looking Backward?
  • What about the United States made it the most successful launching ground for experimental utopian communities?
  • Which utopian theorists were most associated with the American and French revolutions? How did the revolutions affect their ideas of the perfect society?
  • Consider recent books and films. In what ways has science fiction influenced utopianism in the twentieth and twenty–first century?



Andrews, Charles M., comp. Famous Utopias: Being the Complete Text of Rousseau's Social Contract, More's Utopia, Bacon's New Atlantis, Campanella's City of the Sun. New York: Tudor, 1901.

Bellamy, Edward. Looking Backward: 2000–1887. New York: Hendricks House, n.d.

Clute, John, ed. Science Fiction: The Illustrated Encyclopedia. New York: Dorling Kindersley, 1995.

Clute, John, and Peter Nicholls, eds. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1995.

Eliav–Feldon, Miriam. Realistic Utopias: The Ideal Imaginary Societies of the Renaissance, 1516–1630. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982.

The Farm. Available at http://www.thefarm.org/.

Gray, John. Liberalism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986.

Guarneri, Carl J. The Utopian Alternative: Fourierism in Nineteenth–Century America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Harrington, James. The Commonwealth of Oceana and A System of Politics. J. G. A. Pocock, ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Hayden, Dolores. Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790–1975. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1976.

Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 1680–1880. 2nd edition. New York, Dover, 1966.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. Reprint edition. New York: HarperPerennial Library, 1998.

Kraut, Richard, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Kumar, Krishan. Utopianism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991.

Laidler, Harry W. Social–Economic Movements: An Historical and Comparative Survey of Socialism, Communism, Co–operation, Utopiansm; and Other Systems of Reform and Reconstruction. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1947.

Manuel, Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1979.

Miller, David, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Political Thought. Cambridge, Blackwell, 1991.

Moment, Gairdner B. and Otto F. Kraushaar, eds., Utopias: The American Experience. Metuchen, NJ: The Scarecrow Press, 1980.

More, Thomas. Utopia. Ralph Robinson, trans. London: A. Constable, 1906.

Nozick, Robert. Anarchy, State and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974.

Plato, The Republic. B. Jowett, trans. New York: Tudor Publishing, 1892.

White, Frederic R., ed. Famous Utopias of the Renaissance. New York: Hendricks House, Inc, 1955.

Wiener, Philip P., ed. Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas. Volume IV. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1973.

Further Readings

Andrews, Edward D. People Called Shakers: A Search for the Perfect Society. Mineola, NY: Dover, 1994. This work looks at the origin and ideology of the Shakers, as well as examining the everyday life of Shaker society.

Baker, Robert S. Brave New World: History, Science, and Dystopia. New York: Twayne Publishing, 1989. This book analyzes the key points and ideas of Huxley's classic novel.

Horrox, Rosemary, and Sarah Rees Jones, ed. Pragmatic Utopianism: Ideals and Communities, 1200–1630. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2001. This book examines the meaning and practice of Utopia in the medieval and early Renaissance world.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World Revisited. Reprint edition. New York: HarperPerennial Library, 2000. One of the most brilliant minds of the century analyzes the issues related to his landmark novel two decades after its publication.

Royle, Edward. Robert Owen and the Commencement of the Millennium: A Study of the Harmony Community. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998. A look at the life of Robert Owen and his New Harmony utopian vision.


Communism, Pacifism, Socialism


views updated May 23 2018







It would seem at first sight that the study of utopianism is not the study of a really delimited subject: the range of the words “utopia” and “Utopian” is very great. They are applied colloquially to any idea or proposal that may be desirable but is impractical or unrealizable, that is thought to be delusive or fatuously out of accord with reasonable expectation, or that implies a radical departure from existing conditions. More formally, these words are applied to any speculation in ethical philosophy about the Good Life; or to any speculation in political theory about fundamental political principles or forms of government; or to any imaginary society found in a treatise, novel, story, or poem; or to any vision or conception of a perfect society. In the face of such variety of usage, can it be said that utopianism is the name of a single doctrine or of a coherent body of doctrines?

Although “utopia” and “Utopian” mean many different things, when we speak of “utopianism” we can speak of a persistent tradition of thought about the perfect society, in which perfection is defined as harmony. The harmony is of each man with himself and of each man with all others. (Hereafter in this article, “utopia” and “Utopian” are used only in the sense pertaining to utopianism.)

The word “harmony” itself is no doubt vague. It is apparent, however, that this word is merely a shorthand way of referring to a number of social conditions, each one of which is a manifestation of harmony. Among these conditions are perpetual peace; full satisfaction of human wants; either a happy labor or a rich leisure, or a combination of both; extreme equality, or inequality on a wholly rational basis; the absence of discretionary authority, or the participation of all in turn in discretionary authority, or the placing of discretionary authority in the hands of those with a clear claim to it; and a nearly effortless virtue on the part of all men. These are the conditions of Utopian life in its hypothetical descriptions; these are the conditions that a society must have if it is to be in accord with utopianism.

The sources of utopianism. The primal sources of utopianism are in some of the oldest stories of the race, stories of man before the Fall, of man in the Golden Age, of man in an Arcadian state of nature. In these stories we generally find a hopeless nostalgia for a time, long in the past, when the gross evils of the real world were absent and an easy contentment marked human life. The harmony there was a natural harmony: simple men with few needs or desires led simple lives in which their needs and desires were easily satisfied. There were neither the complexities nor the anguishes of civilized existence. One could say that it is a low-level harmony that characterizes these renderings of early man. To be sure, the civilized mentality has stood ready to disparage any attempt to make of natural harmony a standard by which to judge and finally to condemn the real world. Witness the epithet which Glaucon, a young Athenian, applied to Socrates’ description in Plato’s Republic of the felicities of precivilized society. Glaucon called such a society a “city of pigs.” Witness the pleasure of Hegel in contemplating the fall of man, the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden. Hegel considered the Fall a fortunate fall: True freedom, true morality, true adulthood can be built only on the basis of man’s awareness and experience of sin. Witness the scorn heaped on Rousseau’s head after he had written warmly of some remote state of nature where none of the institutions of civilization sullied life. His critics gloried in the variety and glitter and richness that only civilization could produce. Nevertheless, we can legitimately say that these old stories, together with more recent retellings of them (like Rousseau’s), are the prefigurement of utopianism because they are the repository of the immemorial longings of the multitude of ordinary men.

The theorists of utopianism, however, have usually sought to give nonnatural, civilized, fully societal equivalents of the conditions pictured in the old stories. Utopianism is actually an effort to imagine what the harmonious life would be once removed from a natural or pastoral setting. And the assumption is that the society in which the harmonious life is lived is the perfect society, in which all men would live if they could. It is not the perfect society according to the eccentric imaginings of any isolated thinker but according to the prepossessions of common humanity.

Where utopianism is found. The literature on utopianism is indeed vast, but certain categories of writing stand out in importance. We may consult those political theories that go beyond a discussion of the fundamental principles of politics to a more inclusive discussion of the Good Society. Strictly speaking, Hobbes’s Leviathan and Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government are not part of the literature of utopianism because their main concern is confined to political structures; their major aim is to make society tolerable, not perfect. But Plato’s Republic, parts of Aristotle’s Politics, and Rousseau’s Social Contract are works of political theory in the tradition of utopianism. We may also consult some of the books that give detailed descriptions of hypothetically perfect societies. Politics has, of course, a place in these books, but not the centrality given it in political theories. Examples of this sort would be Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, Campanella’s The City of the Sun, Morelly’s Code de la nature, William MorrisNews from Nowhere, and H. G. Wells’s A Modern Utopia. We may also consult those philosophies of history that are, at the same time, philosophies of inevitable progress. In this connection, the writings of Turgot, Condorcet, Hegel, Spencer, and Marx would be relevant. Finally, we may consult works that, although they may not deal with the institutions of the Good Society, engage in speculation about either the essential quality of the Good Life or desirable changes in the character or psychic structure of human beings as we know them, for example, Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man, Mill’s On Liberty, and Herbert Marcuse’s Eros and Civilization.

Variety within utopianism. If we compare these numerous expressions of utopianism, we must be struck by their enormous variety. When, therefore, we speak of a tradition of utopianism, all we can mean is that a number of thinkers, through the centuries, have shared a dedication to the idea of harmony. We cannot mean that these thinkers have been of one mind on the social practices and institutions most appropriate to harmony or on the smaller details and arrangements of Utopian life. Part of the explanation for these divergences is to be found in the fact that the conditions of the real world, which influence the Utopian imagination in its devisings of perfection, are obviously not constant; hence, the devisings themselves cannot be constant. Of special importance are the level of technology and the state of scientific knowledge. As these change, thought about perfection must change. New possibilities disclose themselves. Whether, for example, material abundance can be taken for granted will determine the Utopian attitude toward the satisfaction of human wants. Will the effort be made, in the perfect society, to limit the number of human wants and achieve the satisfaction of austerity, or will human wants be allowed to multiply because it is supposed that the means are on hand to indulge them? The aim of both procedures—and they are both found in the tradition of utopianism—is to eliminate the gap between wanting and having. But the way to eliminate that gap, in a hypothetically perfect society, will depend on the economic and technological assumptions that a Utopian thinker makes.

Not only the conditions of the real world work on the Utopian imagination and account for the great differences in descriptions of perfection. The beliefs held on such an issue as the capacity of improved conditions of life and improved techniques of education to reform human nature will also play a prominent part in determining the peculiarities of a given version of the harmonious society. If a Utopian writer thinks that all social arrangements are powerless to cancel innate inequalities of human endowment, he will purchase harmony at the cost of rigid social stratification, with discretionary authority confined to a few. If, on the other hand, he thinks that innate inequalities shrink in importance before the potency of new social and educational practices, then the whole problem of authority and social regulation will take on a different aspect; full democracy, perhaps even anarchism, may emerge as plausible systems. Furthermore, a Utopian writer’s beliefs in the ability of improved social conditions to produce a society whose virtue is certain and whose practice of it is nearly effortless will be decisive in the formulation of his Utopian ideas. Human nature seems to be less tractable to some Utopian writers than to others.

Then too, the moral sensibilities of writers in the tradition of utopianism have differed from each other. Consequently, the Utopias have differed from each other. Shall the harmonious society be one in which public affairs or private pursuits occupy the dominant energies of the people? Does the life of craft or the life of play comport best with human happiness? Shall there be a single definition of the Good Life in the Good Society, or should the premise be that once radical evil is removed from society, each man should be left free to take advantage of the resources of Utopian society in his own way and define the Good Life for himself? Obviously, there is ample room for disagreement in answering these questions. Yet all those who disagree can still adhere to utopianism.

In sum, the history of utopianism is made up of the efforts to present images of societies in which harmony is the controlling value. In these societies, harmony is achieved through varying institutions and arrangements; but harmony remains the common aim.

The uses of utopianism. Of what value is this tradition of utopianism? Is it anything other than a record of escape from reality, a sorry sequence of daydream and fantasy? Is it of any more relevance to the business of the real world than the stories (of nature and the Golden Age) from which the tradition derives? Several answers may be given.

First, utopianism has, from time to time, criticized with great power the serious deficiencies of the real world. This is not to say that whenever important changes or reforms have been made, a Utopian writing has played a prominent role. It is only to say that Utopian literature is a contribution to the conscience of society: it can create a diffuse dissatisfaction; it can stimulate the spirit that probes without mercy into existing weaknesses. The Utopian works of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Europe performed these tasks especially well. Perhaps Marxism is the only Utopian, or quasi-utopian, body of thought that large numbers of men have actually tried to translate into practice. But Marxism is not the only version of utopianism that has worked to generate the feeling that the real world is profoundly imperfect and that some sort of change, even small, and not even in a Utopian direction, is a pressing necessity.

Second, the literature of utopianism, taken as a whole, enriches the sense of human possibility. There are many kinds of writing that also do the same thing: history, anthropological descriptions, and works of poetry and fiction from different cultures and times. All these make vivid the fact that any given society does not—cannot—exploit the full riches of human nature; each society, obviously, elicits and develops some qualities, while ignoring or suppressing others. Each society does not—cannot—contain all possible character types, all possible social roles, and all possible varieties of human experience. Utopianism does its share of reminding society that society is limited and that, although society may be, to some degree, pleased with itself, other forms and ways of life are imaginable. In short, utopianism helps to give perspective by giving contrast.

Third, many Utopian books are, in effect, comprehensive sociologies and improve our understanding of social relations in much the same way as large-scale studies of real societies. To see a mind in the act of creating a complex hypothetical society, made up of many institutions and the institutions, in turn, bound together and conditioning each other, is to be led back to the basic problems of social analysis. The rewards are great of having a whole society laid out before one, even though that society be imaginary. Our eyes are trained for looking at totalities. Naturally a good deal of exclusion and oversimplification characterize the Utopian sociologies. That is the price paid for abstraction, but a price not paid by Utopian writers alone and a price sometimes worth paying.

Modern utopianism. Apart from these three continuing uses of utopianism, there is a peculiarly modern one. For the past century or so, diverse thinkers—including H. G. Wells, Arnold Toynbee, Lewis Mumford, and B. F. Skinner—have concluded that utopianism is meant to be realized in the world. (At the same time, even though Marxism has traditionally derided Utopian fancy and purports to be scientific analysis only, the Marxists have done much to arouse Utopian expectation throughout the world.) Many men have said or implied that utopianism hardly begins its work when it contributes in a general way to the conscience of society, enriches the sense of human possibility, and improves the understanding of social relations. Although these things matter greatly, there is something that matters more; that is to convince the world that for the first time in human history a society embodying the principles of utopianism is genuinely conceivable. Advances in technology, in the techniques of abundance, in the techniques of social efficiency, and in the sciences of psychology and genetics make it reasonable to think that a harmonious life for all men on the globe can be had in the foreseeable future. The key to Utopia is the rational use of resources, skills, and knowledge, free from the constrictions of the system of nation-states. Failing that, the alternative is either chaos or the nightmare-state. More and more, with time, it will be seen that the choices will narrow to two: heaven or hell. Thus, some would wish to show that the only doctrine suited to modern reality is, paradoxically enough, utopianism. In a world in which nation-states compete for the usual stakes, but especially for security, the result must eventually be one kind of disaster or another. What is more, the alternative, in theory at least, is not a lesser evil, but a great good, the greatest of secular goods, the Good Society. To get the world to see itself in this way, then, is thought by some to be the highest mission of Utopian thinkers.

The antiutopian reaction. One of the most interesting tendencies in recent thought has been the growth of antiutopianism, which, like modern utopianism, is based on the conviction that men will soon have at their disposal the means to build Utopia. Antiutopian writers deplore the idea of a harmonious society characterized by perpetual peace, the satisfaction of human wants, and a nearly effortless virtue.

It would not be correct to say that antiutopianism is a doctrine; rather it is an aggregate of ideas, sentiments, feelings, and prejudices directed at various aspects of the idea of a Utopian society. The roots of antiutopianism are to be found in the writings of Dostoevski and Nietzsche. Dostoevski’s Notes from the Underground and passages in his novels The Possessed and The Idiot display a number of antiutopian sentiments: the life of risk, of uncertainty, of suffering, of inexplicable will, and of spirituality is championed at the expense of the Utopian life, which is seen as stultifying. Scattered throughout Nietzsche’s writings are ideas that mock Utopia (explicitly or implicitly) by praising heroism, excess, and grandeur of soul. More recent writers, like Evgenii Zamiatin in his novel We and Aldous Huxley in his novel Brave New World, have continued what Nietzsche and Dostoevski began. But where the target of Nietzsche and Dostoevski was utopianism, the target of Zamiatin, Huxley, and others might be called “pseudoutopianism,” that is, a debased utopianism in which its traditional aims are carried to an unacceptable extreme. Not that Zamiatin and Huxley would wish to say that Utopian values are inherently bad, but Utopian values like peace, material satisfaction, and ease in virtue lend themselves, as all values may, to perversion. Peace can become a rigid fixity; material satisfaction can lead to a bestial contentment; and ease in virtue can be achieved at the expense of the adult moral faculties. The effect of this critique of utopianism is cautionary; it is to help the apologists of utopianism remember that there is a difference between a low-level harmony and a high-level harmony, and that if the latter is unattainable—for whatever mixture of reasons—the real world, in all its confusion and sorrow, is better than the former.

George Kateb

[See also Literature, article on Political Fiction; Social Science fiction; and the biographies of Platoand Rousseau.]


Buber, Martin (1947) 1950 Paths in Utopia. New York: Macmillan. → First published in Hebrew.

Bury, John B. (1920) 1960 The Idea of Progress. Gloucester, Mass.: Smith.

Cohn, Norman (1957) 1961 The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Messianism in Medieval and Reformation Europe and Its Bearing on Modern Totalitarian Movements. 2d ed. New York: Harper.

Gray, Alexander 1946 The Socialist Tradition: Moses to Lenin. London: Longmans.

Horsburgh, H. J. N. 1957 The Relevance of the Utopian. Ethics 67:127-138.

Kautsky, Karl (1895) 1947 Die Vorldufer des neueren Sozialismus. 2d ed., enl. Stuttgart (Germany): Dietz.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. et al. 1935 Primitivism and Related Ideas in Antiquity. Johns Hopkins University Documentary History of Primitivism and Related Ideas, Vol. 1. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press; Oxford Univ. Press.

Mannheim, Karl (1929-1931) 1954 Ideology and Utopia: An Introduction to the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Harcourt; London: Routledge. → First published in German. A paperback edition was published in 1955 by Harcourt.

Mumford, Lewis 1956 The Transformations of Man. New York: Harper.

Negley, Glenn; and Patrick, J. Max (editors) 1952 The Quest for Utopia. New York: Schuman.

Polak, Frederik L. (1955) 1961 The Image of the Future: Enlightening the Past, Orientating the Present, Forecasting the Future. 2 vols. Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.: Oceana. → First published as De toekomst is verleden tijd. Volume 1: The Promised Land: Source of Living Culture. Volume 2: Iconoclasm of the Images of the Future: Demolition of Culture.

Popper, Karl R. (1945) 1963 The Open Society and Its Enemies. 2 vols., 4th ed., rev. Princeton Univ. Press. → Volume 1: The Spell of Plato. Volume 2: The High Tide of Prophecy: Hegel, Marx and the Aftermath.


A community may be thought of as a small state, even a miniature world, in which some of the problems of implementing a way of life are reduced to manageable size. Many kinds of communities have served this purpose. Although seemingly successful unplanned cultures have often been taken as models (Arcadia by the Greeks, the South Sea islands by the eighteenth-century social philosophers), this article is concerned with communities which have been or might be explicitly designed.

Some of the rules of the Qumran Community were set forth in the Manual of Discipline found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, which the community helped to preserve. The rules of Benedict and Augustine governed life in similar monastic communities. Semireligious and secular communities flourished in the nineteenth century in America (the Oneida Community is a particularly interesting example). Explicitly designed, or intentional, communities of the twentieth century range from the intensely religious Bruderhof to the essentially secular kibbutzim in Israel. The Soviet collectives and mikroraions and the Chinese communes, though parts of larger governmental structures, are other examples. Fictional communities—for example, those described in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627)—have also captured men’s imaginations.

In its relation to government in the broadest sense, a community, speculative or attempted, serves something of the function of a pilot experiment in science or a pilot model or plant in technology. It is constructed on a small scale. Certain problems arising from sheer size—such as communication and transportation—can then be neglected, but the main advantage is that closer attention can be given to the lives of individual members. Such a community is also almost always geographically isolated. Utopias have often occupied islands, but walls isolate almost as well as water. (The members of a sect, no matter how well organized, are not usually regarded as a community if they are widely dispersed geographically.) There is also a certain isolation from tradition. The eighteenth-century European could expect to abandon much of his culture when he reached Tahiti; life in a monastery may begin with a ritual of rebirth. All this makes it easier to think about such a community as a viable or perishable entity—as an organism with a life of its own. Its success or failure, unlike the rise and fall of eras or nations, is likely to be quick and conspicuous. New ways of doing things are tested for their bearing on its success. Such a community, in short, is an experiment.

Men found, join, or dream of such communities for many reasons. Some are moved by intellectual interests: they want to prove a theory (for example, that men are naturally noble or that they are incomplete without “community” or “love”) or to hasten a prophesied stage in history. Others have more immediate personal reasons: they seek simple pleasures, the satisfaction of basic needs, political order, economic stability, help in self-discipline, and so on. Such goals are often formalized as “values.” The goal of the community is to maximize happiness, security, sanctity, or personal fulfillment. The more general the goal, however, the more debatable it seems to be. In conceiving of a community as a pilot experiment, the designer may turn directly to two practical questions: What behavior on the part of the members of a community is most likely to contribute to its success? How may that behavior be generated and maintained?

Some answers to the first question are quite obvious. It is important to a community that its members defend it against its enemies, produce the food, shelter, clothing, and other things it needs, and maintain internal order. It is also obviously important that its members teach each other, and, particularly, new members, how to behave in necessary ways. Other kinds of behavior—for example, in the uses of leisure-—often figure prominently among expressed goals, but their relevance to the success of a community is not always clear. These behaviors are things members “want to do,” and various reasons may be given for doing them, but the designer may proceed most effectively by confining himself to behaviors that are demonstrably related to success or survival.

The second question has usually been answered by appeal to historical analogy. Men have lived peacefully, productively, stably, and happily under many observed systems or structures of government, economics, society, family life, and so on. There is a strong presumption that a given system generates the behavior observed under it, as political science, economics, sociology, and other social disciplines usually contend. We might conclude, therefore, that the designer has only to choose among systems or structures. Should the government of a community be authoritarian or democratic? Should the society be open or closed? Should the social structure be classless or stratified? Should the economy be planned or laissez-faire? Should the family be strong or weak? Questions at this level of analysis offer little practical help in designing a community. Terms like “authoritarian” and “laissez-faire” seldom refer to properties which a designer can build into a social environment, and terms like “peaceful” and “stable” do not sharply characterize behavior which can be shown to contribute to the success of such an environment.

There is a more useful level of analysis. Every developed language contains terms which describe in great detail the social environment and the behavior it generates. Rules of thumb useful in modifying behavior are expressed in such terms. Thus, everyone knows how to attract a man’s attention, to arouse him emotionally, to reward and punish him, and so on. Communities are usually designed with an eye to this level of human behavior. The designer is concerned not with a hypothetical type of economic system but with actual working conditions, not with a hypothetical type of government but with ethical practices and instructions in self-discipline, not with a formal conception of social or family structure but with specific interactions among the members of a group.

The relations between behavior and environment at this level have only recently been formulated in a systematic way. It is significant that statements expressing an understanding of human nature or a skill in handling people—for example, in the essays of such men as Bacon or Montaigne or in sporadic comments by political scientists, economists, and others—have remained aphoristic. They have never been brought together in a coherent, consistent account. Psychology is the scientific discipline relevant here, but it has only recently been able to supply an effective alternative to folklore and personal experience. A special branch of psychology has now reached the point at which promising technological applications are becoming feasible. The principles derived from an experimental analysis of behavior offer the designer considerable help in setting up an environment under which behavior which will contribute to the success of the community may be generated.

At any level of analysis, certain conditions either lie beyond the control of the designer or, if used by him to advantage, limit the significance of his design as a general solution. He cannot actually institute a new culture all at once: the earlier social environments of the members of a community will play a role, if only in providing a contrast to a new way of life. Members may show personal idiosyncrasies or background differences. They may have

been explicitly selected—and will almost certainly be self-selected—with respect to some such trait as cooperativeness or intelligence. The site of the community—its climate, soil, and existing flora and fauna—will be favorable or unfavorable. The community will begin with a certain amount of starting capital, it will have natural resources, and it may continue to receive outside support in the form of charity or philanthropy. All these conditions limit the significance of a successful result, but there is still scope for extensive design. A few examples must suffice here.

Negative reinforcement. An important element in any culture is the use of force. The state is often defined primarily in terms of the power to punish. We say that punishment requires force because its imposition is resisted. In political theory the right and power to punish are discussed under some such concept as “sovereignty.” The behavioral processes are obvious and easily related to the role of punishment. The term applies, strictly speaking, only to the suppression of unwanted behavior, but the punishing events used for that purpose can be used to generate behavior—to induce people to behave in given ways by “punishing them for not behaving.” The technique is particularly useful in offsetting other aversive consequences, as in forcing men to fight or to fill production quotas. Effectively used, punishment in this broad sense can make men law-abiding, obedient, and dutiful.

[See Mental Disorders, Treatment of, article on Behavior Therapy.]

But there are inevitable side effects. One who is behaving well in order to escape punishment may simply escape in other ways, as exemplified by military desertion and religious apostasy. Extensive use of punishment will cost a community some of its members. It may also lead to counterattack— as in revolution or religious reformation—or to stubborn resistance to all forms of control. These are familiar, predictable reactions upon which an experimental analysis of behavior throws considerable light. A slow, erratic trend toward minimizing aversive control in the design of a community is actually an example of such a by-product. This trend is exemplified when powerful military or police action is replaced by ethical control imposed by those with whom the citizen is in immediate contact or when educational programs are designed to reduce the frequency with which aversive behavior occurs or to prepare the individual to adjust more effectively to any remaining forcible control. An example of a more extreme alternative is the cloister, an environment in which unwanted behavior is unlikely or impossible and in which wanted behavior is particularly likely to occur [seemonasticism].

Positive reinforcement. A very different example of the relevance of an analysis of behavior to the design of a community is the use of so-called rewards. A community may need as much power to reward as to punish, but it is not said to be using force because its operations are not resisted. Reward refers very loosely to the “positive rein-forcers” which have been extensively analyzed in laboratory research. It is a basic principle that behavior which is followed by certain kinds of consequences is more likely to occur again, but reinforcements may be contingent on behavior in many subtle and complex ways, and extensive technological knowledge is needed to use the principle effectively in all its ramifications. Although it is generally true that the greater the reinforcement the more it is productive of behavior, the amount of behavior generated is not related in any simple way to the amount of reinforcement. The net gain or utility of an action has little relation to the probability that the action will occur. Indeed, under certain contingencies of reinforcement—for example, in gambling—behavior may be maintained at a high level for long periods of time even though the net monetary gain is negative.

A community may resort to positive reinforcement to generate any behavior important to its success. For example, it may arrange for reinforcement through group approval of accepted behavior as an alternative to coercive legal or ethical control. It will also be interested, of course, in the classical problem of maintaining productive labor. (If there is any established discipline which is most closely concerned with positive reinforcement, it is economics.) The designer of effective working conditions in a small community is in a favorable position to use a technology of reinforcement. The immediate temporal contingencies are crucial. Many communities have given special attention to rewarding productive labor. Some have returned to conditions which prevail in the life of the craftsman—that is, they have used the natural reinforcing consequences of labor. It is not a very enlightened solution. Furthermore, the use of money as a reinforcement is admittedly not as simple as it may at first appear. The value of money must, of course, be taught—but so must the value of early stages of craftwork. The main difficulty is that wages are artificially contingent upon the behavior which produces them, and it has been difficult to construct contingencies which maintain productive labor without undesirable side effects. It was once thought that the deficiency must be offset by making wages more powerful as reinforcers—for example, by maintaining a hungry labor force. Another solution has been to increase the actual amount of reinforcement (by raising wages). The contingencies of reinforcement have remained poorly analyzed, however. Current systems of rewards are largely aversive, the threatened loss of a standard of living being more important than the receipt of wages. Effective reinforcement of productive labor is one of the more interesting areas in which the designer of an experimental community may apply recent scientific discoveries.[See Wages.]

When goods and services which may be used as reinforcers are allowed to become available for other reasons—when, for example, they are supplied by a bountiful nature or a bountiful government concerned with welfare or happiness—much of their reinforcing effect is lost. We make explicit use of this principle when, as an alternative to punishment, we deliberately destroy contingencies by supplying reinforcers gratis—for example, when we give men the things they would otherwise behave illegally to get. If the community does not need productive work, reinforcing contingencies can safely be neglected, but a long-standing conflict between welfare and incentive suggests that the issue has not been wholly resolved.

Leisure. Positive reinforcement occupies an especially important place in solving the problem of leisure. With modern technology it is conceivable that a man need not spend much time in making his contribution to peace and prosperity. What is he to do with the rest of his time? Perhaps it does not matter. If the community has solved the essential problems of daily life, it may leave each member free to do as he pleases. But he is free only to come under other forms of control. If there are no effective reinforcers, he may spend all his waking hours doing nothing. Or he may come under the sustained control of biological reinforcers, such as food, sex, aggressive damage to others, or drug-induced euphoric states. Weaker reinforcers will take control when they occur on powerful schedules: leisure is often spent in repetitive and compulsive activities, such as solitaire or other simple games. [See Leisure.]

These are all forms of behavior which flourish when behaviors having a more specific relevance to the success of a community are not needed. A community may be able to afford a certain number of them, but it stands to profit more from other uses of free time. Sports, games, and other forms of complex play; arts and crafts, music, and the dance; literature and the theater; and the contemplation, observation, and exploration of nature which constitute “science” in the broadest sense are important activities to the designer because they bear on the success of the community. Some of them make the community more attractive in the sense that they reinforce supporting behavior and discourage defection. For example, they reinforce the simple behavior of remaining in the community. Other activities develop extraordinary skills which make it possible for members to meet emergencies with maximum effectiveness. Those which advance science yield the physical and cultural technologies needed for the maintenance and improvement of the community as a way of life.

These relations to the success of a community are overlooked in saying that leisure is to be devoted to the pursuit of happiness, for this emphasizes the reinforcers rather than the behaviors reinforced. The concept of “happiness” (or, less frivolously, “fulfillment” or “enrichment") is often felt to be a necessary, if admittedly troublesome, value in explaining man’s search for a way of life. From the point of view of an experimental analysis of behavior, it appears to be merely an awkward way of representing the roles of positive and negative reinforcers. Its main fault is its neglect of the contingencies of reinforcement. Asked to describe a world in which he would like to live, a man will often refer directly to reinforcing conditions—freedom from aversive stimulation and an abundance of positive reinforcers—but he then finds himself unprepared for many paradoxes, such as the often encountered unhappiness of those “who have everything” or, in that other field of Utopian speculation, man’s failure to conceive of an interesting heaven.

In summary, then, a community is much more complex than a laboratory experiment in human behavior but much simpler than the large-scale enterprises analyzed in political science, economics, and other social disciplines. For this reason it is especially helpful in studying the effects of a social environment on human behavior and, in return, the relevance of that behavior to the maintenance and development of the environment. It is a favorable ground for social invention. A surprising number of practices first described in Utopian thinking have eventually been adopted on a broader scale. In writing the New Atlantis (1627), Francis Bacon could imagine that scientists might be organized to solve the problems of the community. Only after he had made such an organization plausible was the Royal Society founded—and quite clearly on Bacon’s model. More general principles are also encouraged. The success or failure of a community, for example, is easily seen to mean the success or failure of all its members, whether or not its social structure is egalitarian; but it is hard to reach a similar sense of community in thinking about a nation or the world as a whole.

It has been suggested that the well-governed Greek city-state, by permitting men to conceive of an orderly world of nature, led to the development of Greek science. Little in the world today could have that effect, for the order is now clearly on the side of science. But if the principles which are emerging from the laboratory study of human behavior can be shown to be relevant, then science may repay its debt by bringing order back into human affairs.

B. F. Skinner

[Directly related are the entries Learning, articles on INSTRUMENTAL LEARNING and REINFORCEMENT. Other relevant material may be found in Community; Groups; Leisure;Social Contract; Social Control;Social Movements; Social Science Fiction; Stimulation Drives; and in the biographies of Bacon; Rousseau.]


Bacon, Francis (1627) 1952 New Atlantis. Chicago: Encyclopaedia Britannica. → A fragmentary description of a state profiting from a scientific society “instituted for the interpreting of nature and the production of great and marvelous works for the benefit of man.”

Bellamy, Edward (1888) 1951 Looking Backward, 2000-1887. New York: Modern Library. → An economic Utopia depicting Boston in the year 2000.

Cabet, Etienne (1842) 1848 Voyage en Icarie. 5th ed. Paris: Au Bureau du Populaire. → A post-Rousseauan Utopia that the author tried to realize by coming to America with a group of followers to set up a community in the Midwest.

Darin-Drabkin, Haim 1963 The Other Society. New York: Harcourt. → An analysis of the kibbutzim in Israel.

Goodman, Percival; and Goodman, Paul (1947) 1960 Communitas: Means of Livelihood and Ways of Life. Rev. ed. New York: Vintage. → Emphasizes architecture and town planning.

Huxley, Aldous (1932) 1958 Brave New World. New York: Harper. → A satirical portrait of the scientifically planned society and a sympathetic account of the fate of the individual. The first of the behavioral Utopias, it exploits the conditioned reflex.

Kateb, George 1963 Utopia and Its Enemies. New York: Free Press. → An analysis of antiutopian writing, mostly modern.

Krutch, Joseph Wood 1954 The Measure of Man: On Freedom, Human Values, Survival, and the Modern Temper. Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill. → A critical discussion of freedom and human values in a planned society.

Manuel, Frank E. (editor) 1966 Utopias and Utopian Thought. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. → A symposium on current Utopian speculation.

More, Thomas (1516) 1966 The Complete Works of St. Thomas More. Volume 4: Utopia. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → The archetypal pattern for all Utopias.

Negley, Glenn; and Patrick, J. Max (editors) 1952 The Quest for Utopia. New York: Schuman. → A critical analysis of fictional communities.

Nordhoff, Charles (1875) 1965 The Communistic Societies of the United States. New York: Schocken. → A firsthand account of communities such as the Harmonists, the Shakers, and the Oneida Perfectionists.

Noyes, Pierpont 1937 My Father’s House: An Oneida Boyhood. New York: Farrar & Rinehart.→ A nostalgic account of the author’s boyhood in the Oneida Community.

Orwell, George 1949 1984. New York: Harcourt. → A mordant picture of the Western world as a police

state controlled by propaganda, spying, and punishment. A paperback edition was published in 1963.

Skinner, B. F. 1948 Walden Two. New York: Macmil-lan. → A nonsatirical behavioral Utopia. A paperback edition was published in 1965.

Rousseau, Jean Jacques (1762)1961 The Social Contract. London: Dent. → First published in French. Utopian speculation concerning the sources of authority.

Spiro, Melford E. 1956 Kibbutz: Venture in Utopia. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press. -> Report of a study of an Israeli kibbutz in 1951.

Wilson, William E. 1964 The Angel and the Serpent: The Story of New Harmony. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. -> A history of the communities established in New Harmony, Indiana, first by George Rapp and then by Robert Owen.


views updated Jun 11 2018



Utopianism refers simultaneously to social issues and to questions of the imagination. In fact, utopianism can be seen in action anytime the imagination is put to the use of remaking social life. The term describes a tendency to think of the world as a place to be made more perfect. The utopian impulse in history can be understood as posing the question of how else humans might organize themselves. It is generally agreed that the first utopian society in Western thought is to be found in Platos Republic (c. 400 BCE), a realm where philosopher-kings govern. The term utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More (14781535) in Utopia, first published in 1516. The writing of Mores Utopia corresponds to the period of discovery by Europeans of what was called the New World, with all that it ushered in to Europes political economies and social imagination.

Ambiguous from the outset, the term utopia could be read as a joining of the Greek prefix ou with the word topos (place), which would translate as no place. The first syllable could equally be understood as the Greek prefix eu, rendering utopia the good place. Later writers, notably William Morris (18341896) in England, who titled his utopian fiction News from Nowhere (1891), recognized that the improved society they envisioned is, in principle, impossible to find or perhaps even to construct. However, this problem has never stopped utopian thinkers from casting their visions in print and in fact. Utopian societies or communities, though usually shortlived, have been founded in countries across the globe, especially in times of revolutionary change. And utopian manifestos and programs have been written and promulgated in such times as well.

Whether cast as prelapsarian or millenarian, the tense of the utopian narrative is inevitably the future and the mood is subjunctive, as utopians speculate about what may come to be. Even Edward Bellamys (18501898) Looking Backward (1888), the most popular late nineteenth-century utopian novel, describes the imaginary future through a fictionalized past. Throughout the nineteenth century, utopian movements arose that looked forward to how lives might be improved by the Industrial Revolution. Other such movements looked backward with nostalgia for ways of life that had been lost due to the same irrevocable changes. Labor was no longer primarily agricultural but industrial, and cities were rapidly growing, making the lost pastoral a focus of cultural longing. By the mid-twentieth century, such impulses toward the good place had been brought up short by world events, leading to a period of dystopian thinking. Two key texts representing this perspective are Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley (18941963) and 1984 (1949) by George Orwell (19031950).

A strategic moment in the history of utopianism is the shift from early nineteenth-century thinkers such as Charles Fourier (17721837) in France and Robert Owen (17711858) in England, who proposed a form of utopian socialism, to the writings of Karl Marx (18181883) and Friedrich Engels (18201895), who differentiated their ideas as scientific socialism. This conceptual divide leads some to see utopianism as a way of thinking that is impossibly idealistic. Of course, utopianism was, in some sense, never intended to be of this world; hence the weakness of many utopian communities, whether those of the Levelers or Diggers of mid-seventeenth-century England or the Branch Davidians of the late twentieth-century United States. Just as visions of possible futures arose out of political thought, numerous vibrant utopian experiments often emerged from religious splinter groups, whose promise of a better life both in the here and now and in the hereafter drew multiple generations of adherents. Examples of such groups are as different as the eighteenth-century Shakers (with their doctrine of celibacy) and the Church of Latter-Day Saints or Mormons (whose beliefs included plural marriage). Millenarian beliefs are common in utopian thinking, linking utopianism both to revolutionary and reactionary forms.

Between the hopeful utopianism of the nineteenth century and its opposite, the dreadful dystopianism of the mid-twentieth century, it is crucial to note a new form of utopian thinking and writing that arose during the first wave of feminist political struggle for suffrage at the turn of the nineteenth century. Herland (1915), a utopian fiction by the American reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (18601935), is a key text of this period of numerous writings by women that imagine a better place. However, it was the reissue of Gilmans novel in 1979 that connected the first wave of feminist activism and imagination to the second wave of the later twentieth century. A noteworthy publication phenomenon of the 1970s and into the 1980s was the outpouring from mainstream and alternative presses of feminist utopian fictions. One of the best known is Marge Piercys Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).

The most important utopian thinker of the twentieth century is the German philosopher Ernst Bloch (18851977), whose magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (19541959), is a three-volume study of how hope heralds the new and the not-yet as it emerges in political and imaginary realms. Given the speculative nature of utopianism, it is not surprising that such thinking continues to evolve in the realm of political criticism and in genre writing, especially science fiction. An effort to keep up with utopianism and utopian criticism is maintained by the Society for Utopian Studies, which has been in existence since 1975. The society publishes a journal and a newsletter, sponsors an annual conference, and recognizes that utopianism emanates from disciplines as diverse as engineering, architecture, literature, and economics.

SEE ALSO Marxism


Bloch, Ernst. 1986. The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gilman, Charlotte Perkins. [1915] 1979. Herland. New York: Pantheon.

Manuel, Frank E., and Fritzi P. Manuel. 1979. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

More, Thomas. 1516. Utopia. http://gutenberg.net/etext/2130.

The Society for Utopian Studies. http://www.utoronto.ca/utopia.

Frances Bartkowski


views updated May 21 2018

Utopianism (Gk. ‘no place’) Projection of ideal states or alternative worlds, ordered for the benefit of all and where there exist no social ills. Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) outlines his notion of an ideal commonwealth based entirely on reason. It critically describes contemporary social existence, while prescribing a transcendent, imaginative vision of the best of all possible worlds. Enlightenment philosophers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau, portrayed a vision of a pre-feudal European ‘golden age’. Other writers, such as Saint-Simon, Charles Fourier, and Robert Owen, outlined ideal communities based on cooperation and economic self-sufficiency. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels valued the satirical social insights of utopianism but rejected its unscientific analysis of political and economic realities. By the late 19th century, the utopian novel was an established literary genre. Works such as Erewhon (1872) by Samuel Butler were popular and influential. The spread of totalitarianism in Europe during the 1930s encouraged dystopian novels, such as Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley and 1984 (1949) by George Orwell.