European Utopians

by Roger Alford

One of the key arguments in that latter half of Mead’s book is that Anglo-Americans are particularly given to visions of history working itself out toward some greater purpose. Mead believes that Anglo-Americans are distinctly oriented toward utopian visions of fixing human affairs. Of course, there are ample examples to support naïve and idealistic American dreams of a new world order. So while I think Mead is correct that Anglo-Americans are prone toward such idealism, I’m not sure they are distinctly given to such an orientation.

Some of the most important utopian visions of the past century do not have their origins in the Anglo-American world. To offer just a few examples, the early 20th century pacifist movement was largely a European construct. The great populist pacifists of the day— Frédéric Passy, Élie Ducommun, Albert Gobat, Bertha von Suttner, Klas Arnoldson, Frederik Bajer, Alfred Fried, and Henri La Fontaine—were all Europeans. These populist pacifists genuinely believed that a world without war was imminent. Of course, there were a few notable exceptions, such as the Englishman Randal Cremer or the American Andrew Carnegie, but they were a distinct minority.

It was an Austrian, Bertha von Suttner, who in 1889 penned the monumentally significant pacifist manifesto Lay Down Your Arms, a book that Leo Tolstoy described as the pacifist equivalent of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She proclaimed in 1906 that the old system of militarism was doomed to fail and that anyone who understood the laws of evolution recognized that “the future will always be one degree better than the past.” And it was the Swiss pacifist Albert Gobat who said, “I am not one of those who laugh at utopias. The utopia of today can become the reality of tomorrow. Utopias are conceived by optimistic logic which regards constant social and political progress as the ultimate goal of human endeavor.”

During the interwar years, the utopian vision of a world without war returned, this time to Switzerland with the Locarno Pact. The chief negotiator of the Locarno Pact was the French Foreign Minister Aristide Briand, who with the German Gustav Stresemann and the Englishman Austen Chamberlain, signed the 1925 agreement that would end war in Europe. When the Locarno Pact was signed on October 16, 1925, one first-hand account by Mercedes Randall reported that “jubilation broke out as if a new gospel had been proclaimed. People embraced each other, some of them even wept—no more conflicts—no more wars—no more victors and vanquished—the word was becoming one great family of friends and brethren!… Henceforth the name of that little city on the beautiful lake was to be not merely the designation of a town, but a new conception of the unity and friendship of mankind.”

The Kellogg-Briand Pact was originally the brainchild of again, the Frenchman Aristide Briand. When it was eventually signed in 1928, Briand proclaimed: “War, formerly considered an attribute of divine right, and continuing to live in international ethics as a privilege of sovereignty, is at last by law deprived of that which constitutes its greatest danger: its legitimacy…. Freed from such a serfdom, the peoples who adhere to the new treaty will soon become accustomed to the idea that national prestige, national interest, is no longer connected with the conception of violence.”

There are other examples one could offer. And of course, I’m not telling Mead anything he doesn’t already know. But suffice it to say that naïve idealism and utopian triumphalism is not unique to Anglo-American stock. Anglo-American utopias may be different than European utopias, with the former unusually committed to the invisible hand of democratic capitalism and the latter uncommonly oriented toward liberal international institutionalism. But utopians know no nationality, and utopians of all nationalities share the common mistake of misapprehending the difficulties of achieving their visions.

One Response

  1. Utopians may in fact know something of nationality, or at least geography, as the utopian genre as such is not really found in Asia (I’d be delighted to be corrected on this score; of course there are conceptions of a Golden Age in the past, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing.).

    American utopians have often been “communist,” hence I think it was Engels who pointed to Americans experimenting with communal forms of living as embodiments of a kind of communism (and hence the title of Charles Nordhoff’s unforgettable study, The Communistic Societies of the United States, 1875). Cf. too: works by Robert Hine, Kenneth Rexroth, Carol Weisbrod, Donald Pitzer, to cite those that come quickly to mind.

    By the way, there are utopians and there are utopians. Not all utopians “share[d] the common mistake of misapprehending the difficulties of achieving their visions.” Yes, those that understood their visions as more or less blueprints often succumbed to that mistake, but many others did not, indeed, sometimes, if not more often, it was those inspired by the writers of utopias who mistook the proper nature of these visions. In other words, it will not do to use the appellation “utopian” in a purely pejorative sense, as egregiously occurs in the work of Karl Popper.

    The clearest and most concise account of the nature of utopian imagination happens to come courtesy of a well-known Liberal political philosopher, William Galston, and is found in his book, Justice and the Human Good (1980):

    “Utopias are images of ideal communities; utopian thought tries to make explicit and to justify the principles on the basis of which communities are said to be ideal. [….] [T]he philosophical importance of utopias rests on utopian thought, although the practical effect of a utopia may be quite independent of its philosophic merits.” [....] Utopian thought performs three related political functions. First, it guides our deliberation, whether in devising courses of action or in choosing among exogenously defined alternatives with which we are confronted. Second, it justifies our actions; the grounds of action are reasons that others ought to accept and—given openness and the freedom to reflect—can be led to accept. Third, it serves as the basis for the evaluation of existing institutions and practices. The locus classicus is the Republic, in which the completed ideal is deployed in Plato’s memorable critique of imperfect regimes. [....] Utopian thought attempts to specify and justify the principles of a comprehensively good political order. Typically, the goodness of that order rests on the desirability of the way of life enjoyed by the individuals within it; less frequently, its merits rely on organic features that cannot be reduced to individuals. Whatever their basis, the principles of the political good share certain general features: First, utopian principles are in their intention universally valid, temporally and geographically. Second, the idea of the good order arises out of our experience but does not mirror it in any simple way and is not circumscribed by it. Imagination may combine elements of experience into a new totality that has never existed; reason, seeking to reconcile the contradictions of experience, may transmute its elements. Third, utopias exist in speech; they are ‘cities of words.’ This does not mean that they cannot exist but only that they need not ever. This ‘counterfactuality’ of utopia in no way impedes its evaluative function. Fourth, utopian principles may come to be realized in history, and it may be possible to point to real forces pushing in that direction. But our approval of a utopia is not logically linked to the claim that history is bringing us closer to it or that we can identify an existing basis for the transformative actions that would bring it into being. Conversely, history cannot by itself validate principles. The movement of history (if it is a meaningful totality in any sense at all) may be from the most desirable to the less; the proverbial dustbin may contain much of enduring worth. Fifth, although not confined to actual existence, the practical intention of utopia requires that it be constrained by possibility. Utopia is realistic in that it assumes human and material preconditions that are neither logically nor empirically impossible, even though their simultaneous co-presence may be both unlikely and largely beyond human control to effect. Sixth, although utopia is a guide for action, it is not in any simple sense a program of action. In nearly all cases, important human or material preconditions for good politics will be lacking. Political practice consists in striving for the best results achievable in particular circumstance. The relation between the ideal and the best achievable is not deductive. [….] Thus, the incompleteness of utopia, far from constituting a criticism of it, is inherent in precisely the features that give it evaluative force. As has been recognized at least since Aristotle, the gap between utopian principles and specific strategic/tactical programs can be bridged only through an inquiry different in kind and content from that leading to the principles themselves. If so, the demand that utopian thought contain within itself the conditions of its actualization leads to a sterile hybrid that is neither an adequate basis for rational evaluation nor an accurate analysis of existing conditions.”

    In other words, and in short, ideal constructions or what Gandhi called “Euclidean” models (for him: satya, ahimsa, satyagraha, Rama Rajya, etc.) need not and should not be mistaken for definitely realizable concretions. Nonetheless, such models or ideal constructions perform invaluable functions for political theory, as Galston explains above.

    For further reading, I have the audacity to suggest the following:

    Baczko, Bronislaw. Utopian Lights: The Evolution of the Idea of Social Progress. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

    Bahro, Rudolf (David Fernbach, trans.). The Alternative in Eastern Europe. London: NLB (New Left Books), 1978.

    Bartkowski, Frances. Feminist Utopias. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

    Bloch, Ernst (Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight, trans.). The Principle of Hope, 3 Vols. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1986.

    Bloch, Ernst (Jack Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, trans.). The Utopian Function of Art and Literature: Selected Essays. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988.

    Elster, Jon and Karl Ove Moene, eds. Alternatives to Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

    Erasmus, Charles J. In Search of the Common Good: Utopian Experiments Past and Future. New York: Free Press, 1985.

    Galston, William A. Justice and the Human Good. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

    Geoghegan, Vincent. Utopianism and Marxism. London: Methuen, 1987.

    Godwin, William. Enquiry Concerning Political Justice. Middlesex, England: Penguin Classics, 1985 (1793).

    Hine, Robert V. California’s Utopian Colonies. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1983 (1953).

    Iyer, Raghavan. Parapolitics: Toward the City of Man. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

    Iyer, Raghavan. The Moral and Political Thought of Mahatma Gandhi. Santa Barbara, CA: Concord Grove Press, 2nd ed., 1983 (1st ed., New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).

    Jacoby, Russell. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York: Basic Books, 2005.

    Jacoby, Russell. Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007 ed.

    Joll, James. The Anarchists. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2n ed., 1979.

    Kumar, Krishan. Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times. Oxford, UK: Basil Blackwell, 1987.

    Kumar, Krishan and Stephen Bann, eds. Utopias and the Millennium. London: Reaktion Books, 1993.

    Levitas, Ruth. The Concept of Utopia. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1990.

    Luntley, Michael. The Meaning of Socialism. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1990.

    Mannheim, Karl. Ideology and Utopia. London: Routledge &Kegan Paul, 1960 (1936).

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

    Marsden, John Joseph. Marxian and Christian Utopianism: Toward a Socialist Political Theology. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1991.

    Martineau, Alain. Herbert Marcuse’s Utopia. Montreal: Harvest House, 1986.

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

    Pitzer, Donald E., ed. America’s Communal Utopias. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

    Rexroth, Kenneth. Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century. New York: Seabury Press, 1974.

    Schaer, Roland, Gregory Claeys and Lyman Tower Sargent, eds. Utopia: The Search for the Ideal Society in the Western World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

    Seung, T.K. Intuition and Construction: The Foundations of Normative Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

    Sonn, Richard D. Anarchism. New York: Twayne Publ., 1992.

    Taylor, Michael. Anarchy and Cooperation. London: Wiley, 1976.

    Taylor, Michael. Community, Anarchy and Liberty. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1982.

    Weisbrud, Carol. The Boundaries of Utopia. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

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