A forensically critical and scholarly assessment of the most important utopian writings from Plato’s ‘Republic’ to Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’. What is ‘utopian’? Is it the desire for a ‘just’, equitable and cooperative society free of moral and physical compulsion, or the economists’, politicians’, planners’ and ideologues’ vision of a regimented, mechanically-functioning society with their schemes for social improvement in which all society’s conflicts are reconciled or contained? Marx’s theory of history, for example, predicts an end to history in which all social contradictions will be permanently resolved.
In her account of Utopias, Marie Louise Berneri emphasises the intolerant and authoritarian nature of most of these visions; the exceptions, such as those of Morris, Diderot and Foigny, being only a very slight minority. She points to the fact that, although the Marxists have always claimed to be “scientific” as opposed to Utopian socialists, their actual social experiments have in practice taken on the generally rigid structure and even many of the individual institutional features of the classic Utopias. Visions of an ideal future, where every action, as in Cabet’s or Bellamy’s schemes, is carefully regulated and fitted into a model state, are no longer popular, and it is impossible to consider such a book today achieving the fame which was enjoyed by Bellamy’s Looking Backward in the late nineteenth century. It is significant that not only are those writers who are conscious of present-day social evils writing anti-Utopias to warn people of the dangers of going further in the direction of a regimented life, but these very books have the same kind of popularity which the smug visions of a socialist paradise enjoyed before 1914.
“Utopia itself has almost as many circles as Hell and Heaven that Dante visted under Virgil’s tuteage; and Marie Louise Berneri is the best of guides to this super world: not afraid to let its inhabitants speak for themselves or to let the reader draw his own conclusions. Altogether an admirable book…” — Lewis Mumford
“…The Utopian State is even more ferocious in its suppression of the freedom of the artist. The poet, the painter, the sculptor must all become the servants and propaganda agents of the State. They are forbidden individual expression either on aesthetic or moral grounds, but the real aim is to crush any manifestation of freedom. Most utopias would fail the “test of art” suggested by Herbert Read:
“Plato, as is too often and too complacently recalled, banished the poet from his Republic. But that Republic was a deceptive model of perfection. It might be realised by some dictator, but it could only function as a machine functions—mechanically. And machines function mechanically only because they are made of dead inorganic materials. If you want to express the difference between an organic progressive society and a static totalitarian regime, you can do so in one word: this word art. Only on condition that the artist is allowed to function freely can society embody those ideals of liberty and intellectual development which to most of us seem the only worthy sanctions of life.
“The Utopias which pass this test are those which oppose to the conception of the centralised State, that of a federation of free communities, where the individual can express his personality without being submitted to the censure of an artificial code, where freedom is not an abstract word but manifests itself concretely in work, whether that of the painter or of the mason. These utopias are not concerned with the dead structure of the organisation of society, but with the ideals on which a better society can be built. The anti-authoritarian utopias are less numerous, and exerted a lesser influence than the others, because they did not present a ready-made plan but daring, unorthodox ideas; because they demanded each of us to be “unique” and not one among many. When the utopia points to an ideal life without becoming a plan, that is, a lifeless machine applied to living matter, it truly becomes the realisation of progress.” — M.L.B.