Can the notion of ‘utopia’ be explained in 500 words? This was the challenge that Mark Steven set for me in relation to his exciting new book entitled, Understanding Marx, Understanding Modernism, to be published with Bloomsbury in 2020. The book will carry more than thirty chapters with similar entries conceptualising Marx, addressing Marx in Modernism, and providing a glossary of key terms from alienation, to primitive accumulation, to value and the general formula of capital. Here is my contribution on utopia.
Utopia is not originally a modernist idea, but it is a modern one. Though the vision of an ideal society or perfect state of humanity has existed since the earliest times, the genre of utopia, which bridges literature and political theory, came into being in the early modern period with the work of Thomas More (1516). More’s Utopia was the fictional tale of a European traveller claiming to have visited a near-perfect society located on an exotic island. Despite presenting itself as a real travel report, already with More, utopia became identified with the idea of a society that is possible to imagine, but impossible to realise, an association it has never shaken.
Marx and Engels were suspicious of utopia for this reason, even if their ideas about communism can in some ways be seen as an attempt to realise utopia in practice. In the Communist Manifesto, they denounced the attempts of early nineteenth-century utopian socialists Saint-Simon, Cabet, Fourier, and Owen to establish new societies based on a blueprint. For Marx and Engels, communism was not an ‘ideal to which reality will have to adjust itself’ but the ‘real movement which abolishes the present state of things’. Nevertheless, their relationship to utopia remains ambiguous. Though Engels explicitly distinguished ‘scientific’ from ‘utopian’ socialism, he still praised the utopian socialists as revolutionaries. Meanwhile, throughout his work Marx adumbrates a vision of communism that many have seen as utopian in the negative sense of unrealisable: a participatory democracy, beyond wages, money, and exploitation, in which human freedom and equality can be fully realised.
A profound connection between utopia and Marxian materialism can be seen in the way in which the utopian imagination is intimately connected to the historical horizon. In More’s era, utopias were spatial fantasies imagined on undiscovered islands, but by the time capitalism had reached every corner of the globe, utopia was beginning to be projected into the future. The process of modernisation—profound socio-political change and the advance of science and technology—held out the hope that utopia might become a reality. The impact of fascist and communist attempts to realise political utopias in the twentieth century brought utopia into disrepute. Yet the deep human need to imagine a different world remains.
If utopia was not originally modernist, modernism was perhaps by definition utopian. Expressionists, constructivists and other modernists saw art as a way to criticise an inadequate status quo and create a better society. Today, speculative fictions in print and on screen continue to thematise social and political questions. Dystopias dominate in a context in which, as Frederic Jameson has noted in New Left Review, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But utopia is far from dead. In the face of twenty-first century challenges such as climate change and ongoing social injustice, only big ideas will do.