Expressions Of Utopianism
Today dreaming of or imagining better societies is usually called "utopianism," and utopianism can be expressed in a variety of ways. Utopian literature, the creation of intentional communities or communes, formerly called utopian experiments, and utopian social theory are the most commonly noted forms in which utopianism is expressed, but there are other means of expressing utopianism, such as the design of ideal cities.
Utopian literature is most common in the English-speaking world, with particularly strong traditions in England, the United States, and New Zealand. Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Russia, and Spanish America also have strong utopian traditions, and we now know that there are substantial utopian traditions in other European countries and in the non-Western world. The strongest non-Western utopian tradition is found in China, but such traditions exist throughout the Middle East and in India and Southeast Asia; there are also developing utopian traditions in various African countries. Even Japan, which was once thought to have no such tradition, has recently been shown by young Japanese scholars to have one.
Although early scholarship in the field treated utopias from all times and places as if they were alike, these utopian literatures differ from each other in significant ways, and national and cultural differences are now recognized. Also, as a direct result of the influence of feminist scholarship, we are now more aware of both the similarities and differences found in utopias written by men and woman, and recently such awareness has been extended to differences and similarities based on ethnicity, race, religion, and other such characteristics.
From its earliest expression to the present, a basic human utopia is found in which everyone has adequate food, shelter, and clothing gained without debilitating labor and in which people lead secure lives without fear of, in early versions, wild animals, and in later versions, other human beings. But these basic elements are expressed in different ways in different times and places and also reflect individual concerns; as a result, the range of utopias present throughout history is immense.
Much utopian literature, particularly the dystopian, has been marketed as science fiction, and one minor scholarly controversy had some arguing that utopias were a subgenre of science fiction and others arguing that historically it was the other way around. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, there was clearly an intellectual as well as a marketing overlap with the most prolific writers of utopias, like Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929) and Mack (Dallas McCord) Reynolds (1917–1983), using science fictional motifs and tropes. In Scraps of the Untainted Sky (2000), Tom Moylan carefully considers the relationships between utopia, dystopia, and science fiction.
Scholarship on utopian literature increased in both quantity and quality in the 1970s and 1980s with the publication of definitional essays by Lyman Tower Sargent and Darko Suvin that helped clarify the conceptual muddle; bibliographies by Arthur O. Lewis, Glenn Negley, and Sargent that transformed the understanding of the subject; and important books by Krishan Kumar, Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel, Tom Moylan, and Kenneth M. Roemer that rewrote the history of utopian literature. At the same time, there was a major revival of utopian writing, the most important works being Le Guin's The Dispossessed (1974), significantly subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969); Joanna Russ's (b. 1937) Female Man (1975); Marge Piercy's (b. 1936) Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); Samuel R. Delany's (b. 1942) Dhalgren (1975) and Triton (1976); and Margaret Atwood's (b. 1939) The Handmaid's Tale (1985).
A major contribution to our understanding of the changes utopias were undergoing was Moylan's development in Demand the Impossible (1986) of the "critical utopia." Moylan wrote:
A central concern in the critical utopia is the awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream. Furthermore, the novels dwell on the conflict between the originary world and the utopian society opposed to it so that the process of social change is more directly articulated. Finally, the novels focus on the continuing presence of difference and imperfection within the utopian society itself and thus render more recognizable and dynamic alternatives. (pp. 10–11)
Even though positive utopias were published in every year of the twentieth century, the dystopia has been the most frequently published form of utopian literature from World War I to the early twenty-first century. The dystopia uses the depiction of a usually extrapolated negative future as a means of warning the present to change its behavior. The message of the dystopia is that if the human race continues in the direction it is now heading, this is what will happen. The dystopia, thus, has a positive element in that it suggests the possibility of change. In this, the dystopia is in the tradition of the Jeremiad, or a work modeled on the Book of Jeremiah, in which a condemnation of contemporary behavior and a warning of retribution also holds out hope of improvement if the warning is heeded.
Although there were precursors, the dystopia came to prominence through four works: We (1924), by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884–1937); Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley (1894–1963); and Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair; 1903–1950). They were concerned with the effects of the dominant ideologies of the twentieth century and each raised the question of the potential danger of a utopia based on one of these ideologies being imposed on some country. Such works continued to be written, albeit rarely as well, throughout the rest of the century. Later the dystopia was applied to other areas. Two works by John Brunner (1934–1995) are outstanding examples: Stand on Zanzibar (1968), focusing on the effects of overpopulation, and The Sheep Look Up (1972), focusing on the effects of pollution.
Some authors, such as Fredric Jameson and Sargent, have made a distinction between dystopia and anti-utopia. Sargent reserves the latter for works written against positive utopias or utopianism. Jameson does the same, but in doing so makes a political point by arguing that anti-utopianism has dominated the late twentieth century.
The most important twentieth-century theme of positive utopias has been feminism. The discovery of Herland (published serially in 1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860–1935) with its first book publication in 1979 led to the discovery or rediscovery of many early feminist utopias, particularly The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), by Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle (1623?–1674); A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), by Mary Astell (1668–1731); and A Description of Millenium Hall (1762), by Sarah Scott (1723–1795).
Such feminist utopias are found throughout the history of utopian literature, but the greatest number were published from the mid-1970s through the end of the twentieth century, with the most important being those by Le Guin, Piercy, and Russ. Small feminist presses published many of these novels, and the many lesbian utopias were published almost exclusively by lesbian presses. Such lesbian utopias included Retreat: As It Was! (1979), by Donna J. Young; Daughters of a Coral Dawn (1984), by Katherine Forrest (b. 1939); and Womonseed: A Vision (1986), by Sunlight.
The other major theme of the late twentieth century was environmentalism. Ecotopia (1975), by Ernest Callenbach (b. 1929), the most influential of the environmental utopias, was initially published by a small press and then reissued by a mass-market publisher. Later, environmentalism and feminism combined in ecofeminism, and most utopias that are feminist or reflect environmentalism include the other perspective.
The aspect of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century utopian studies that might appear least connected to the tradition of utopianism is intentional communities, but most such communities had a clear vision of how they hoped to live, which was in many cases explicitly utopian. In most cases, the actuality of the communities had little to do with the visions. Still, the visions were there, and they attracted and continue to attract people who choose to try to live the vision, even if they regularly fail to do so.
Many intentional communities were founded in the late 1960s through the 1970s, and while most were short-lived, there are a substantial number of such communities, like Twin Oaks in Virginia and The Farm in Tennessee, that are well past their thirtieth anniversary. And there are individual communities in various countries that are past fifty or seventy-five years. The phenomenon continues to grow, with more communities planned and some founded each year, and although members now downplay the utopian aspects, they are still there.
Utopian social theory.
The first major theorist to use utopia as an aspect of social theory was Karl Mannheim (1893–1947). Mannheim's sociology of knowledge is concerned with the social origins of thought systems, and to understand them he contrasts ideology and utopia. Ideology characterizes dominant social groupings who unconsciously obscure the fragility of their position. Utopia characterizes subordinate social positions; it reflects the desire to escape from reality. The utopian mentality is at the base of all serious social change.
Karl R. Popper (1902–1994) objected to utopianism in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper argued that utopianism leads to violence and totalitarianism, saying, "the Utopian approach can be saved only by the Platonic belief in one absolute and unchanging ideal, together with two further assumptions, namely (a) that there are rational methods to determine once and for all what this ideal is, and (b) what the best means of its realization are" (vol. 1, p. 161). Popper's position came to dominate discussions of utopianism.
Those opposing Popper and supporting utopianism, like Ernst Bloch (1885–1977) and Frederik L. Polak (1907–1985), argued that utopianism was an essential element of all positive social theory. Polak argues that it is fundamental to the continuance of civilization, saying:
if Western man now stops thinking and dreaming the materials of new images of the future and attempts to shut himself up in the present, out of longing for security and for fear of the future, his civilization will come to an end. He has no choice but to dream or to die, condemning the whole of Western society to die with him. (vol. 1, p. 53)
Others have argued that while some people may be willing to impose their vision on others if they have the power to do so, this is not a problem with utopianism but with people misusing power.
Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his followers argued that their version of socialism was scientific, in contrast to the socialism of the so-called utopian socialists. This position was most famously expressed by Friedrich Engels (1820–1895) in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1882), but Marxists have always been more ambivalent about utopianism than this simple division suggests, and while many Marxists were anti-utopian, others were clearly utopian themselves.
Thus, while Bloch was a Marxist, he did not have the negative attitude to utopias of many Marxists because his philosophy stressed the end or goal of human life. He saw utopia as an aspect of present reality, saying, in his Principle of Hope (1955–1959):
So far does utopia extend, so vigorously does this raw material spread to all human activities, so essentially must every anthropology and science of the world contain it. There is no realism worthy of the name if it abstracts from this strongest element in reality, as an unfinished reality. (p. 624; emphasis in the original)
Bloch makes a key distinction between "abstract" and "concrete" utopia. "Abstract utopia" includes the wishful thinking or fanciful elements found in the utopian tradition, such as the golden ages, earthly paradises, and cockaignes that occur early in most utopian traditions but also continue throughout their histories. "Concrete utopia" anticipates and affects the future, something like Polak's idea that our images of the future are part of the creation of our actual future. But for Bloch, as a Marxist, utopia must be part of praxis, it must grow out of present reality and influence actual political activity. Utopia, for Bloch, is a mechanism that has the potential of being reached. As Oscar Wilde famously put it, "A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of utopias (p. 27).
Bloch's approach is based on the joined concepts of "hope" and "desire," in which desire can become an active agent of change. In The Concept of Utopia (1990), Ruth Levitas uses Bloch's approach to develop an understanding of utopia as a politically important tool whose essence is desire.