Utopia is usually considered a dirty word. The concept has been too often been employed to justify the worst totalitarian terror and justify passivity in the face of actual political issues. Rarely is utopia understood as a regulative ideal that resists translation into practice yet remains necessary to guide any genuine attempt at liberation. It instead conjures up images of demagogues, dreamers, fanatics, apocalypse, gullibility, and – perhaps above all — what Samuel Butler, the great Victorian satirist, called “erehwon” (or “nowhere” spelled backwards). But this is only part of the story. Utopia has an anthropological appeal, especially for the lowly and the insulted, and Ernst Bloch was surely right when he noted in Heritage of Our Times (1935) that “man does not live by bread alone – especially when he doesn’t have any.” Most civilizations have their unique ideals of a heavenly or secular paradise from which, given a cosmopolitan outlook, every other civilization can learn. Utopian traces appear in the most varied forms of art, philosophy, and religion. They provide insight into what humanity might truly want—or not want – and so give substance to aspirations for liberated society.


Envisioning utopia requires boldness of the imagination coupled with a deep knowledge of the past and its cultural heritage. Older depictions (and some new ones) have a pastoral quality like the Garden of Eden, or paradise (once identified with the gardens of Persepolis built by Cyrus the Great in the Persian city of Shiraz), “the land of milk and honey,” or even the heavenly gardens for-the-rich in the film Metropolis (1927).  All such visions rest on the longing for an organic society without alienation or reification, decadence or the cultural and scientific complexity associated with modernity. Dystopian critics have criticized such utopias for ignoring the benefits of work, the enjoyment of politics, and the learning process that grows from failure. They have imagined the inhabitants of utopia as living in a quasi-drugged state, mindlessly happy, while lacking individuality and a sense of existential purpose. But such comfortable criticisms are easy to make by those who live comfortably. The wretched of the earth have always understood the liberating character of what Paul Lafargue (Marx’s son-in-law) termed “the right to be lazy” and the utopian vision of a bountiful life marked by calm, health, leisure, joy, and play.

Utopia projects social justice, economic equality and radical democracy. But the “best life” is not reducible to the conquest of scarcity or institutional matters. Utopia projects a transformation with respect to what and how products are produced along with altered forms of behavior that privilege qualities like kindness and decency, charity and altruism, experimentation and tolerance, would define the interaction between people. The invocation of utopia makes us realize that what we have is not necessarily what we want and what we want is not necessarily all we can have. No system and no movement can ever fulfill the always untapped possibilities of human experience. Freedom and desire always outstrip the real. There will always be new possibilities for expanding the enjoyment of life and new discoveries of arbitrary constraint and repression. As Bertolt Brecht noted in Mahagonny (1930), when it comes to utopia there is always “something missing.”

Utopian ideals have traditionally had a complex and tension-ridden connection with reality. The way in which they are employed, in fact, provides deep insights into the character of radical political parties and social movements, their specificity and how they operate. In his classic Ideology and Utopia (1929), Karl Mannheim noted how every genuine mass movement has been fueled by utopian impulses. Even social democracy had its visions of the best life crystallized in hugely popular works like Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888). But such utopian ideals are always tainted and entangled with the particular interests and class base of the movement in question.

A partial view of utopia is thereby substituted for a vision consonant with its multiplicity and complexity – and its critical character of the concept gets lost. Utopia thus turns into ideological slogans and forms suitable for mobilizing the masses.  Only “free-floating intellectuals,” according to Mannheim, can reflect upon this process and confront such ideological misrepresentations. To a certain extent that is also true given the intellectual commitment that visualizing utopia requires. Unfortunately, Mannheim’s position is usually criticized for justifying the intellectual’s retreat from political life and as support for disengagement. Especially in periods of crisis and intense ideological conflict, however, it also serves as a plea for liberal politics and a rational stance with respect to what are often inherently emotional appeals.

Feelings of resentment and memories of exploitation by the subaltern render utopia susceptible to manipulation by authoritarian or totalitarian movements. Some have identified it with a racially pure or religiously homogenous or ethnically cleansed society. Others have used it to justify their belief that a particular historical agent alone has the wisdom and knowledge to wield the avenging sword. This view informed the moral relativism of Lenin’s vanguard party and its treatment of enemies from the standpoint of expediency, as surely as later the purges of Stalin. To put it another way, utopia has often been used to legitimate an outlook in which the end justifies the means. Without making reference to teleology or the millenarian or the messianic, however, the end is only justified by the means used to achieve it. Utopian ideals call upon political actors to develop a plausible relationship between ends and means. Slogans like “by any means necessary” are seductive but dangerous and, ultimately, ethically self-defeating. The refusal to place limits on political action and the willingness to commit any crime in the name of utopian ends was what Camus considered the “pathology” of his age.

Freedom and human dignity mark any serious rendering of utopia. Politics only sets the stage: utopian thinking necessarily privileges the individual in terms of exploring his desires, expanding his interests, and taking control over his life. So, for example, Marx never equated communism with any regime, not even the Paris Commune, but instead with the end of “pre-history” and a world where “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” In such a world, he believed, humanity can finally democratically determine its fate in common, consciously and without reference to external determinants like economic interest. Perhaps even more important, however, the classless society must serve as a society in which individualism would flourish.

This vision initially influenced the Bolsheviks who, after all, gained power in 1917 under the slogan: “All Power to the Soviets!” Left-wing radicals still exhibit nostalgia for the “heroic stage” of the Russian Revolution (1918-1921) when it seemed that all things were possible: the cultural avant-garde working for the people, the abolition of money, the transformation of the nuclear family, the end of hierarchy, and international revolution intent upon creating regimes based on soviets or workers’ councils. The arbitrary exercises of power, the bloodshed, the confusion, the cruelty, and the poverty of those times vanish. Only an idealized vision remains of what are today completely anachronistic institutions such as soviets in which, as it was once put to me, “everyone will control everything” (naturally without considering the number of meetings this would entail). Many contemporary radicals are inspired only by the image of that “new man” who once seemed ready to take the stage. Trotsky crystallized this utopian communist outlook in his Literature and Revolution (1924) by insisting that ultimately: “Man will become immeasurably stronger, wiser, and subtler; his body will become more harmonized, his movements more rhythmic, his voice more musical. The forms of life will become dynamically dramatic. The average human type will rise to the heights of an Aristotle, a Goethe, or a Marx. And above this ridge new peaks will rise.”

Utopian experiments undertaken in the past cast a dark shadow over the seemingly pedestrian politics in the present. According to this mode of thinking, differences between existing parties and movements appear negligible. There is only mass society with its culture industry and commercialism. The drama is gone. The existing ensemble of social relations turns into a seamless whole threatening all forms of critical reflection and individuality. The “system” (not class society) is now seen as the problem and anything tainted by instrumental reason or bureaucracy is suspect. Grand narratives are considered mere manipulative props for mass movements, authoritarian parties, and overweening states. Tempering the imbalances of political and economic power is no longer the priority. Nothing associated with real politics is radical enough and, in this way, the perfect becomes an enemy of the good. Staunch belief in utopian ideals excuses indifference to building a better future. As an all or nothing proposition, therefore, utopia can justify passivity as well as fanaticism.

Employed critically, however, utopia keeps us open to what were previously unacknowledged forms of oppression – and the liberating response to them. Twentieth century modernism provides a case in point. As I argued in Modernism at the Barricades (2012), expressionism, futurism, surrealism and other trends comprising this international cultural phenomenon blended fervent longings for utopia and a “new man” with radical artistic experiments that really did project new ways of hearing, seeing, and portraying the world. Free verse was pitted against rhyme, montage was employed against narrative; and a tonal scale revolutionized music. Such new prospects for expanding individual experience occurred in conjunction with powerful criticisms of the authoritarian family structure and sexual denial, the treatment of youth, patriarchy, rape, homophobia, abortion and other repressive yet hidden aspects of everyday life. Not only did cultural modernism provide utopia with substance, it served as a corrective for those seeking to identify it with a particular ideology, movement, or regime.

Utopia is inherently unfinished: the society or regime that views itself as utopian, or even firmly on the path to utopia, is dystopian by definition. That is because history does not move in linear fashion. Progress in one realm of society can occur while regression takes place in another. Extraordinary scientific breakthroughs, for example, have accompanied the rise of religious fundamentalism; cultural liberation has flourished since the 1960s while economic equality has increased. There is no uniform and prefabricated teleological process leading humanity to a happy end. Unresolved conflicts, or what Bloch termed “non-synchronous contradictions,” are often carried over from one epoch to the next. Clearly, for example, racism and sexism and religious prejudices are pre-capitalist in character but play an important role in capitalist society—and, potentially beyond. Tensions exist not only between the whole and its dynamic parts but between the parts themselves. To conceptualize utopia in a serious manner thus calls for both recognizing the critical and liberating inheritance of the past –while overcoming its limitations.

Others have understood it as requiring what might be termed an anthropological break from history. In An Essay on Liberation (1969) and other works, for example, Herbert Marcuse saw the best life as resting upon a “new sensibility” repulsed by cruelty, exploitation, greed, and bourgeois egoism. But he also recognized that those wishing to introduce the new sensibility must already be imbued with utopian habits of mind and behavior. Calling for the mechanical translation of utopia into practice therefore misses the point; Henry Pachter put the matter bluntly (though in a slightly different context) when he noted “one cannot have socialism, one is a socialist.”

Only as a regulative idea that serves as a guide for radical politics, but resists being realized, can utopia highlight the inherent tension between humanity and its works, the power of the imagination and the demands of political power. Under such circumstances, utopia can provide radicals with both modesty in terms of their undertaking and a sense of purpose. It can invigorate politics by highlighting the ever-changing content and character of liberation. Or, to put it another way, utopia must remain utopian. Only then can it help confront the always historically-limited exercise of freedom, the dogmatism deriving from a lack of imagination, and – perhaps – an insight into the way forward.


Stephen Eric Bronner is the Senior Editor of Logos. His most recent book is Modernism at the Barricades: Aesthetics, Politics,  Utopia  (Columbia University Press).This article is based on a plenary talk given at the 2013 International Convention of the Platypus Affiliated Society.


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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

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2024: Vol. 23, No. 1