the spirit of utopia today

A talk by Mark Ellingsen at the recent Bristol Anarchist Bookfair

First of all I would like to make a distinction between utopia and utopianism, or the spirit of utopia. So let’s start with a couple of definitions which I think is close to how I see the two concepts:

Definition of utopia:

“The word describes an ideal community free from conflict which incorporates a clear set of values and allows the complete satisfaction of human needs.” (Burden 2006: 716).

Definition of utopianism:

“Critical and creative thinking projecting alternative social worlds that would realize the best possible way of being, based on rational and moral principles, accounts of human nature and history, or imagined technological possibilities. Utopian thinking invariably contains criticism of the status quo. It aims to overcome social inequality, economic exploitation, sexual repression, and other possible forms of domination that make well-being and happiness in this life impossible” (Kögler 2005: 939).

So based on these definitions my argument is that we should not be striving for a utopia, that is a perfect world, but our movement should be imbued with its spirit, that is, we should be actively involved in “critical and creative thinking projecting alternative social worlds”. In the rest of this essay I will discuss utopia and utopianism from the perspective of answering its critics because they have been successful in giving utopianism a bad press.

Dostoevsky and the Perfect Society

I want to start with the criticism that utopia is a perfect society which is impossible to achieve. The nineteenth century Russian writer Dostoevsky made an argument which epitomises this view. For Dostoevsky, utopianism was an attempt to build a society in which everybody would be happy and if this was successful it would deprive us of our humanity, which is dependent on being able to make choices in which the outcome of happiness or suffering is uncertain. But are these criticisms valid? It is certainly true that some utopians have written blueprints for a better and happier society (e.g. Robert Owen) but it was not necessarily a perfect society. Even where one could possibly argue that perfection is what is being strived for as in the communities designed by Charles Fourier there was a great deal of emphasis on individual freedom, in which choice was an important aspect of human life. However, I would argue that on the whole that utopianism has not been about perfection but mostly about better ways of living. That better ways of living are proposed to increase the amount of happiness is undoubtedly true, such as communism as the abolition of human alienation, but whether the expectation is that people will be perfectly happy is another matter. The striving for peace, justice, equality, fraternity and liberty is not necessarily expecting that human conflict, suffering, contingency and resource scarcity would be done away with.

The Inevitability of Totalitarianism

The accusation of perfectionism also leads to the charge that utopianism inevitably leads to totalitarianism. According to the anti-utopians, if utopias are perfect societies which require perfect individuals then this inevitably leads to the use of force, propaganda, surveillance and incarceration to get people to comply with an unrealisable ideal. The provenance of the concept of totalitarianism was that it was originally used to describe Italian fascism before the Second World War. It was then broadened out to describe Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. I think the concept has its uses but the way it has been used, or I should say misused since the Cold War, is in the way that people like Karl Popper and other anti-utopian philosopher use it to force a link between utopianism and totalitarianism. It implies that all forms of utopianism lead to totalitarianism because utopianism is about perfectionism. So for some recent critics, the collapse of the regimes of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe is a vindication of the view that utopianism is futile. However, if utopianism has anything to do with a vision of a perfect society, then what these critics fail to see is that that the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union had nothing to do with putting a utopian vision into practice but with deferring that vision to an unspecified time in the future.

Stalinism, progress and the sacrifice of generations

The real criticism of the Bolsheviks was that they were prepared to sacrifice the current and subsequent generations for a communism which was never likely to be delivered as the state and Communist Party consolidated their power. During the late nineteenth century there was an intense debate within the Russian Left about the paths to socialism or communism. The populists argued that there was a non-capitalist road to a democratic socialist society based on the rural commune. They were opposed in this by people such as Plekhanov that Russia would have to proceed through a capitalist phase in order to establish the material conditions for socialism, despite the inevitable suffering associated with industrialisation and the proletarianisation of the peasantry. Ironically this was not Marx’s view, as he had already written to Russian socialists that there was no need for Russia to pass through a capitalist phase because the rural commune could be used as a basis for communism, as land was already communally owned.2 While both Trotsky and then Lenin came around to the idea that a capitalist stage could be radically foreshortened they still held to the view that the material basis laid down by a process of industrialisation similar to capitalism would be needed to build the foundations of socialism. Thus they were prepared to sacrifice the conditions of the current generation for the sake of future ones. Even relatively recently the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm has defended the crimes of Stalinism in the name of progress. In a BBC interview in 1994, a question was put to him: ‘What (your view) comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of 15, 20 million people might have been justified?’ He replied: ‘Yes.’” (Kamm 2004)

Progress as a result of ‘ethically motivated struggle’ – Populism

The Russian populists had a much more sophisticated idea of progress than what came to dominate Russian Bolshevism. The two main theorists of Russian populism, Pëtr Lavrov and Nikolai Mikhailovskii, insisted “that progress was not an objective law of development but a result of a conscious, ethically motivated struggle for social ideals.” (Walicki 2002). If we accept this then this has an important implication as to how we see progress in our own time. The idea that progress can be measured by the level of industrialisation or more widely by the development of the productive forces does not take into account how the form of social organisation lives up to our ethical ideals.

Marx argued that communism is only possible in a post-scarcity environment and indeed this is the case – while humans compete for scarce resources to meet basic needs there is an unlikely to be sustained social stability conducive to a communist society. However, in most cases scarcity arises for most people because resources and wealth are monopolised by a ruling class. The depletion of the Earth’s resources by a rampant capitalism bent on the accumulation of profit to the detriment of fulfilling basic needs is an illustration of this. However, communist social relations are not dependent on a level of material production but on how social relations are structured and how any surplus product is distributed.

The ends do not justify the means – Camus – democracy, revolution etc.

One could also argue that the Bolsheviks are a classic example of those imbued with a utopian sprit to the extent that the goal became everything and the means of getting there were much less important. The destruction of democracy within the workers councils (the Soviets) and within the factories in the name of consolidating the Bolshevik regime which was seen as the guarantor of the socialist nature of the revolution is a case in point. One of the most inspiring of writers to take a positive attitude towards utopianism was Albert Camus (1913-60). In his book The Rebel., he rejected any views that argued that the ends justify the means while maintaining that rebellion against exploitation and oppression was justified. For Camus, there are no transcendent or final ends. All ends are visions of transformed futures which themselves will simply be means for further ends. As Dostoevsky would say, life and history are unfolding process – there are no final outcomes. All ‘utopias’ are relative to what has gone before and what goals are set for the future. So the means we use to achieve a goal cannot be just set aside as if they didn’t matter.

Human society as a temporary state

As both Dostoevsky and Camus have rightly pointed out, a finished and perfected world is not achievable, but the question can be asked again, is this really the essence of all utopianism? Certainly, Marx didn’t picture communism in that way, for Marx communism was only the beginning, it was not an end to human history. The anarchist communist, Pëtr Kropotkin believed that even after the shackles of the state had been thrown off, that human society would continue to go through phases of equilibrium and disequilibrium. But I would go further and argue that even if we achieve a communist society, because of the contingencies of human life and history, like all forms of social organisation, including capitalism, it won’t last indefinitely. It may last 100, 1000, 10,000 years who knows? But the struggle for communism is an indefinite one and each generation has to find new ways to renew the struggle and maintain an ethical way of relating to each other which does not include exploitation and domination.

Engels and Utopian Socialism

One of the most famous critiques of utopianism was made by Friedrich Engels in the latter half of the nineteenth century of what he called ‘utopian socialists’. This was aimed at writers and activists such as Robert Owen and Charles Fourier. Owen and Fourier described societies based on relatively small communities, while Owen, and the followers of Fourier and Saint-Simon built such communities particularly in the United States. However, these communities had very short lives. The Owenite New Harmony community in Indiana only lasted a couple of years. Equally short lived were the Chartist agrarian communities such as O’Connorville and Charterville . Some of the communities inspired by Fourier lasted up to ten years. Some egalitarian communities in the US inspired by religion rather than a secular politics lasted for a lot longer but most succumbed to the industrialisation and urbanisation which transformed the US at the end of the nineteenth century.

So what was Engels’ critique of these attempts to build utopian communities? It was not that he was unsympathetic to these attempts; indeed as a young man he had praised the efforts of the religious communism of the Rappites and the Shakers. There were three main elements to his criticism: a) that the construction of small communities was the wrong approach to a thorough transformation of society because they would never be allowed to succeed by those who were threatened by any such fundamental transformation; b) that their adherents lacked an understanding of how capitalist society worked which alone would make political action possible; c) and finally, the he was scathing of those, like Fourier, who appealed to the feelings and purses of rich benefactors. The charge from Engels was that the methods suggested by the utopian socialists to transform society was unrealistic.

Prefigured forms

While I agree with Engels’ criticism, I would argue that attempts at prefigurative ways of living are important in order to free people’s minds from the conformity, tradition and ideology that they are often mired within. If we are not to replicate the domination and straightjacket of contemporary social structures then it is important that new ways of living are also found within the old. Alternative forms of living ought to be encouraged because they can provide dignity to individuals even within an otherwise hostile environment and because they give a glimpse of a better world – what matters is how we live now as well as the future. But as with the nineteenth century they are unlikely to last for any significant amount of time. Secondly, for most people, however, the need to work for a living places a constraint around what is possible in terms of individually breaking with exploitative relations. It is this which minimises the impact of utopian communities upon the wider society. Breaking with these confines can only be done en masse, through a revolution against capital and the state.

Ernst Bloch – ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ utopias

However, the main difference between the utopian socialists and the writings of Marx and others, is the analysis of the preconditions which may enable a new society to take form. Even when discussing the Russian rural commune, what very much comes across in all of Marx’s discussion is an analysis of the possibilities; not of a utopian dream without foundation in the reality of the social, economic and political situation. One could argue whether Marx was right or wrong in his analysis but at least it was an attempt to discern the possibility of a new form of society arising on the basis of capitalist development or in the case of Russia in the 19th century some form of feudalism or serfdom. The twentieth century Marxist, Ernst Bloch characterised this difference as one between ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ utopias. An abstract utopia is mere dreaming which has no foundation in the possibilities of the age. Although I would argue that dreams and fantasies have their place in any emancipatory politics. Concrete utopia, on the other hand is rooted in objective possibilities of the age.

What form can a concrete utopia take today? What Marx and the early communist and anarchist movements did not have to come to terms with, was what forms of social organisation are possible with a severe depletion of the Earth’s resources and a radical change to the ecology of the planet ,and the consequences of that for a world dependent on global manufacturing and trade. Does the possibility exist that we can move towards a more libertarian, democratic and egalitarian society?

In the 1980s André Gorz and Rudolf Bahro argued against Marx ‘s view that a large economic surplus was required to establish a communist society. What was required was a sustainable social life that was not grounded on inequality and exploitation but which at the same time did not depend upon the destruction of the natural environment in the fulfilment of this goal. And while basic needs have to be met it is not necessary for there to be a large economic surplus.

But on what basis do we make that move to a better society? For anarchists and communists that basis should be the self-activity of working class people against exploitation and oppression and for the abolition of wage labour and the state. I think that even in the face of the new ecological conditions this is the only possibility to make a radical social change which will benefit the majority of the population. Since the defeat of working class political organisations in the 1980s there has been an understandable scepticism of the possibility of a social transformation towards a communist society. However, these defeats were not inevitable. No more so than the outcomes of the Russian Revolution or the Spanish Civil War. Neither is it inevitable that the working class will remain passive in the face of a recession as we have seen with the recent occupations. Nor is it inevitable that anarchism or communism remains a minority influence on workers’ political consciousness. But to make any inroads into working class politics takes real engagement with the concerns and issues which confront working people today ,whether in the work place or on the housing estate and to help provide solutions to those problems even if it means a temporary compromise with those in power.

But if we are to win people over to anarchism or communism then it’s not enough that we proclaim our abstract principles but show how this might work in practice by trying to wrest control from the employer on the shop floor and from the state in the local community. But we must go further, and provide an alternative conception of the economic and social organisation of society in today’s conditions. People need hope, but a realistic hope, and I don’t think that we provide that at the moment. At the Commune we are exploring issues around how self-management would work in the economy but there is so much more to look at, including how we would handle the disruption to manufacturing and trade dependencies if we were to move to a more local economy. I would argue that the failure of the communist and anarchist movement to provide a plausible alternative economic and political model which has a hope of being put into practice and how that transition from capitalism is to occur has stymied its possible growth.


To sum up, I hope that I have provided enough arguments to convince you that utopianism ought to play a creative part in our political thought. As Ernst Bloch says, utopian aspirations give us hope that a better life is possible and make human life bearable. There is always potential for positive social change because the future is ‘not yet’ and human beings are active participants in creating that future whether for better or worse. Utopianism is indispensible for political motivation which aims to better society in any fundamental sense even for those who shun any attempt to spell out what a future would be like. While I don’t think we can build a utopia in the sense of a perfect world, I’ll leave the final word to Oscar Wilde who wrote:

“‘A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not even worth glancing at.’ (Oscar Wilde)” (quoted in Harvey 2000: 133)

Burden, Tom. (2006). “Utopia”, in William Outhwaite (ed.), The Blackwell Dictionary of Modern Social Thought. 2nd edition. Oxford: Blackwell.

Harvey, David. (2000). Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Howard, M. C. and King, J.E. (1989). A History of Marxian Economics, vol. 1, 1883-1929. London: Macmillan.

Kamm, Oliver (2004). “It takes an intellectual to find excuses for Stalinism”, The Times, July 23rd, 2004.

Kögler, Hans-Herbert. (2005). “Utopianism”, in Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, new edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Walicki, Andrzej (2002). “Russian philosophy of history”, in E. Craig (Ed.), Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. London: Routledge. Retrieved July 01, 2007, from