Lyman Tower Sargent. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
The word utopia was coined by Thomas More (1478-1535) as the name of the island described in his Libellus vere aureus nec minus salutaris quam festivus de optimo reip[ublicae] statu, deq[ue] noua Insula Vtopia (1516). While More wrote in Latin, he based his new word on Greek. More combined topos (place or where) with u or ou (no or not) to create nowhere, but in “Six Lines on the Island of Utopia,” part of the larger work, he suggests that the word eutopia, or good place, is a better descriptor. Thus, from the time of More’s original coinage, the word utopia has been conflated with eutopia to mean a nonexistent good place.
The word utopia entered Western languages quickly—the book was translated into German in 1524, Italian in 1548, French in 1550, English in 1551, and Dutch in 1553, and the word itself often entered these languages before the book was translated. In the eighteenth century, the word dystopia was first used to characterize a nonexistent bad place, but the word did not become standard usage until the mid-twentieth century.
While More coined the word and invented the genre of literature that grew from the book, he was not the first to imagine the possibility of a society better than the one currently existing and to describe such a society. Examples of such imaginings can be found in ancient Sumer, classical Greek, and Latin literature, the Old Testament, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Hinduism, among other predecessors.
While it is no longer possible to see utopia as a product of the Christian West, the role of utopia in Christianity has long been an area of dispute. Eden, the millennium, and heaven all have clear utopian elements, but the extent to which they can be achieved through human action is open to dispute. The Fall and the resultant emphasis on sinful human nature has led some commentators to view utopia as anti-Christian and heretical. Human beings are simply not capable of a utopia in this life. But other commentators, like the theologian Paul Tillich (1886-1965) and the founders of Liberation Theology, have argued that utopia is central to any understanding of the social message of Christianity.
Expressions of Utopianism
Today dreaming of or imagining better societies is usually called “utopianism,” and utopianism can be expressed in a variety of ways. Utopian literature, the creation of intentional communities or communes, formerly called utopian experiments, and utopian social theory are the most commonly noted forms in which utopianism is expressed, but there are other means of expressing utopianism, such as the design of ideal cities.
Utopian literature is most common in the English-speaking world, with particularly strong traditions in England, the United States, and New Zealand. Brazil, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Russia, and Spanish America also have strong utopian traditions, and we now know that there are substantial utopian traditions in other European countries and in the non-Western world. The strongest non-Western utopian tradition is found in China, but such traditions exist throughout the Middle East and in India and Southeast Asia; there are also developing utopian traditions in various African countries. Even Japan, which was once thought to have no such tradition, has recently been shown by young Japanese scholars to have one.
Although early scholarship in the field treated utopias from all times and places as if they were alike, these utopian literatures differ from each other in significant ways, and national and cultural differences are now recognized. Also, as a direct result of the influence of feminist scholarship, we are now more aware of both the similarities and differences found in utopias written by men and woman, and recently such awareness has been extended to differences and similarities based on ethnicity, race, religion, and other such characteristics.
From its earliest expression to the present, a basic human utopia is found in which everyone has adequate food, shelter, and clothing gained without debilitating labor and in which people lead secure lives without fear of, in early versions, wild animals, and in later versions, other human beings. But these basic elements are expressed in different ways in different times and places and also reflect individual concerns; as a result, the range of utopias present throughout history is immense.
Much utopian literature, particularly the dystopian, has been marketed as science fiction, and one minor scholarly controversy had some arguing that utopias were a subgenre of science fiction and others arguing that historically it was the other way around. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, there was clearly an intellectual as well as a marketing overlap with the most prolific writers of utopias, like Ursula K. Le Guin (b. 1929) and Mack (Dallas McCord) Reynolds (1917-1983), using science fictional motifs and tropes. In Scraps of the Untainted Sky (2000), Tom Moylan carefully considers the relationships between utopia, dystopia, and science fiction.
Scholarship on utopian literature increased in both quantity and quality in the 1970s and 1980s with the publication of definitional essays by Lyman Tower Sargent and Darko Suvin that helped clarify the conceptual muddle; bibliographies by Arthur O. Lewis, Glenn Negley, and Sargent that transformed the understanding of the subject; and important books by Krishan Kumar, Frank E. and Fritzie P. Manuel, Tom Moylan, and Kenneth M. Roemer that rewrote the history of utopian literature. At the same time, there was a major revival of utopian writing, the most important works being Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1974), significantly subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and The Left Hand of Darkness (1969); Joanna Russ’s (b. 1937) Female Man (1975); Marge Piercy’s (b. 1936) Woman on the Edge of Time (1976); Samuel R. Delany’s (b. 1942) Dhalgren (1975) and Triton (1976); and Margaret Atwood’s (b. 1939) The Handmaid’s Tale (1985).
A major contribution to our understanding of the changes utopias were undergoing was Moylan’s development inDemand the Impossible (1986) of the “critical utopia.” Moylan wrote:
A central concern in the critical utopia is the awareness of the limitations of the utopian tradition, so that these texts reject utopia as a blueprint while preserving it as a dream. Furthermore, the novels dwell on the conflict between the originary world and the utopian society opposed to it so that the process of social change is more directly articulated. Finally, the novels focus on the continuing presence of difference and imperfection within the utopian society itself and thus render more recognizable and dynamic alternatives. (pp. 10-11)
Even though positive utopias were published in every year of the twentieth century, the dystopia has been the most frequently published form of utopian literature from World War I to the early twenty-first century. The dystopia uses the depiction of a usually extrapolated negative future as a means of warning the present to change its behavior. The message of the dystopia is that if the human race continues in the direction it is now heading, this is what will happen. The dystopia, thus, has a positive element in that it suggests the possibility of change. In this, the dystopia is in the tradition of the Jeremiad, or a work modeled on the Book of Jeremiah, in which a condemnation of contemporary behavior and a warning of retribution also holds out hope of improvement if the warning is heeded.
Although there were precursors, the dystopia came to prominence through four works: We (1924), by Yevgeny Zamyatin (1884-1937); Brave New World (1932), by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963); and Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), by George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair; 1903-1950). They were concerned with the effects of the dominant ideologies of the twentieth century and each raised the question of the potential danger of a utopia based on one of these ideologies being imposed on some country. Such works continued to be written, albeit rarely as well, throughout the rest of the century. Later the dystopia was applied to other areas. Two works by John Brunner (1934-1995) are outstanding examples: Stand on Zanzibar (1968), focusing on the effects of overpopulation, and The Sheep Look Up (1972), focusing on the effects of pollution.
Some authors, such as Fredric Jameson and Sargent, have made a distinction between dystopia and anti-utopia. Sargent reserves the latter for works written against positive utopias or utopianism. Jameson does the same, but in doing so makes a political point by arguing that anti-utopianism has dominated the late twentieth century.
The most important twentieth-century theme of positive utopias has been feminism. The discovery of Herland (published serially in 1915) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) with its first book publication in 1979 led to the discovery or rediscovery of many early feminist utopias, particularly The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666), by Margaret Cavendish, duchess of Newcastle (1623?-1674); A Serious Proposal to the Ladies (1694), by Mary Astell (1668-1731); and A Description of Millenium Hall (1762), by Sarah Scott (1723-1795).
Such feminist utopias are found throughout the history of utopian literature, but the greatest number were published from the mid-1970s through the end of the twentieth century, with the most important being those by Le Guin, Piercy, and Russ. Small feminist presses published many of these novels, and the many lesbian utopias were published almost exclusively by lesbian presses. Such lesbian utopias included Retreat: As It Was! (1979), by Donna J. Young; Daughters of a Coral Dawn (1984), by Katherine Forrest (b. 1939); and Womonseed: A Vision (1986), by Sunlight.
The other major theme of the late twentieth century was environmentalism. Ecotopia (1975), by Ernest Callenbach (b. 1929), the most influential of the environmental utopias, was initially published by a small press and then reissued by a mass-market publisher. Later, environmentalism and feminism combined in ecofeminism, and most utopias that are feminist or reflect environmentalism include the other perspective.
The aspect of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century utopian studies that might appear least connected to the tradition of utopianism is intentional communities, but most such communities had a clear vision of how they hoped to live, which was in many cases explicitly utopian. In most cases, the actuality of the communities had little to do with the visions. Still, the visions were there, and they attracted and continue to attract people who choose to try to live the vision, even if they regularly fail to do so.
Many intentional communities were founded in the late 1960s through the 1970s, and while most were short-lived, there are a substantial number of such communities, like Twin Oaks in Virginia and The Farm in Tennessee, that are well past their thirtieth anniversary. And there are individual communities in various countries that are past fifty or seventy-five years. The phenomenon continues to grow, with more communities planned and some founded each year, and although members now downplay the utopian aspects, they are still there.
Utopian Social Theory
The first major theorist to use utopia as an aspect of social theory was Karl Mannheim (1893-1947). Mannheim’s sociology of knowledge is concerned with the social origins of thought systems, and to understand them he contrasts ideology and utopia. Ideology characterizes dominant social groupings who unconsciously obscure the fragility of their position. Utopia characterizes subordinate social positions; it reflects the desire to escape from reality. The utopian mentality is at the base of all serious social change.
Karl R. Popper (1902-1994) objected to utopianism in his The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945). Popper argued that utopianism leads to violence and totalitarianism, saying, “the Utopian approach can be saved only by the Platonic belief in one absolute and unchanging ideal, together with two further assumptions, namely (a) that there are rational methods to determine once and for all what this ideal is, and (b) what the best means of its realization are” (vol. 1, p. 161). Popper’s position came to dominate discussions of utopianism.
Those opposing Popper and supporting utopianism, like Ernst Bloch (1885-1977) and Frederik L. Polak (1907-1985), argued that utopianism was an essential element of all positive social theory. Polak argues that it is fundamental to the continuance of civilization, saying:
if Western man now stops thinking and dreaming the materials of new images of the future and attempts to shut himself up in the present, out of longing for security and for fear of the future, his civilization will come to an end. He has no choice but to dream or to die, condemning the whole of Western society to die with him. (vol. 1, p. 53)
Others have argued that while some people may be willing to impose their vision on others if they have the power to do so, this is not a problem with utopianism but with people misusing power.
Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his followers argued that their version of socialism was scientific, in contrast to the socialism of the so-called utopian socialists. This position was most famously expressed by Friedrich Engels (1820-1895) in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1882), but Marxists have always been more ambivalent about utopianism than this simple division suggests, and while many Marxists were anti-utopian, others were clearly utopian themselves.
Thus, while Bloch was a Marxist, he did not have the negative attitude to utopias of many Marxists because his philosophy stressed the end or goal of human life. He saw utopia as an aspect of present reality, saying, in his Principle of Hope (1955-1959):
So far does utopia extend, so vigorously does this raw material spread to all human activities, so essentially must every anthropology and science of the world contain it. There is no realism worthy of the name if it abstracts from this strongest element in reality, as an unfinished reality. (p. 624; emphasis in the original)
Bloch makes a key distinction between “abstract” and “concrete” utopia. “Abstract utopia” includes the wishful thinking or fanciful elements found in the utopian tradition, such as the golden ages, earthly paradises, and cockaignes that occur early in most utopian traditions but also continue throughout their histories. “Concrete utopia” anticipates and affects the future, something like Polak’s idea that our images of the future are part of the creation of our actual future. But for Bloch, as a Marxist, utopia must be part of praxis, it must grow out of present reality and influence actual political activity. Utopia, for Bloch, is a mechanism that has the potential of being reached. As Oscar Wilde famously put it, “A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail. Progress is the realization of utopias (p. 27).
Bloch’s approach is based on the joined concepts of “hope” and “desire,” in which desire can become an active agent of change. In The Concept of Utopia (1990), Ruth Levitas uses Bloch’s approach to develop an understanding of utopia as a politically important tool whose essence is desire.
The coming of postmodernism, with its rejection of universals, posed a problem for those utopians who see utopias as generalizable solutions. But as Moylan points out in Demand the Impossible, writers of utopias had begun to change their approach even as postmodernism became influential. Le Guin’s subtitle, An Ambiguous Utopia, signaled an explicit rejection of perfection and the recognition that utopias will face problems and will change over time.
Fredric Jameson, one of the most important theorists of postmodernism, has written extensively on utopianism. Jameson, like Bloch, argues that the literary utopia is a form of praxis rather than representation. But for Jameson, utopias are not goals, as they are for Bloch, but critiques of the present that help reeducate us regarding the present.
Both positive and negative utopias continue to be published. Intentional communities continue to be founded, and while most will fail, some will last for many years, fulfilling at least some of the expectations of their members. And attempts to understand the roles played by utopianism in human thought continue. Utopias have always expressed both the hopes and fears of humanity, the highest aspirations for human life and the deep-seated fear that we may not be capable of our own aspirations.
While some well-regarded scholars argue that utopianism is a Western phenomenon and that utopias do not appear outside the West until the influence of More’s Utopia was felt, others have argued that utopianism developed independently in non-Western cultures. Thomas More invented a literary genre, but there are texts in the West and outside it that predate More’s Utopia that describe a nonexistent society that is identifiably better than the existing society. Probably the best-known early non-Western utopia is “The Peach Blossom Spring,” a poem of T’ao Yüan Ming (also known as T’ao Ch’ien) (365-427), that describes a peaceful peasant society, but there are golden ages, earthly paradises, and other forms of utopianism found in Sumerian clay tablets and within Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Daoism.
Once it is established that there are utopian traditions that are certainly non-Western, there are problems that confront a scholar approaching the subject at the beginning of the twenty-first century. One is the issue of what is non-Western. Scholars disagree profoundly over what constitutes non-Western and Western. Some would limit Western to Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand and thereby exclude the substantial Portuguese and Spanish literatures published in Central and South America, which contain many utopias. Others would include these literatures. A second problem is that there are no good bibliographies of any non-Western utopianism not written in English. A related problem is that there are debates in a number of countries, even in countries such as India, where English is an official language, over the status of works written in English, particularly those written by authors who choose to live outside the country.
In ancient China, Moist and Legalist thought had utopian elements, and the same can be said for neo-Confucianism and Daoism. In twentieth-century China, Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was clearly utopian in his desire to transform Chinese society along the lines of his vision for it, and it can be argued that Mao’s Communism was both Marxist and rooted in Confucianism.
There have been a number of twentieth-century political movements with utopian dimensions. In India, Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869-1948) was a utopian and used the Hindu notion of Ramaraja (the rule of the Rama), the golden age, as a means of communicating his ideas. The vision of the Islamic republic developed by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900?-1989) and by the Taliban for Afghanistan were also clearly utopian and fit Popper’s analysis of the dangers of utopianism.
There are oral utopian traditions among the aborigines in Australia, the first nations in Canada, the Maori in New Zealand, and the Native American Indians in the United States. The struggle against colonialism produced millennial movements with strong utopian elements, such as the Taiping Rebellion (1851-1864) in China and the Ghost Dance movement in the United States. There were dozens of such movements in South America and movements among the Maori in New Zealand, some of whose successors still exist in the early twenty-first century, such as the Maori’s Ratana Church.
Also, there is a strong communitarian tradition in both Buddhism and Hinduism, and there is a traditional communitarianism among various indigenous peoples that has redeveloped since around 1980 as chosen, better ways of living, particularly among the Maori in New Zealand.
Most non-Western utopianism is post-More and clearly connected with the genre of literature he invented, and as a result are deeply influenced by the West. Since China had the strongest pre-More utopian tradition, it is not surprising that it has the strongest post-More tradition. The Chinese utopias that are best-known in the West are Li Ju-Chen’s (c. 1760-c. 1830) Flowers in the Mirror (1828), which favors the rights of women, and Kang Youwei’s (1858-1929) Da T’ung Shu (1935), which is concerned with world unity.
Works that most nearly fit the genre of utopian literature appear to be most common in former colonies, and aspects of Chinese utopianism fit this model. There are utopias in English in various African countries, including South Africa, where utopias are in Afrikaans, English, and indigenous languages. In addition, there are utopias (because of limited research, how many is not known) in various indigenous languages in other African countries and in India.
African utopias in English are the works most widely read in the West. They come from many different countries and have a strong dystopian flavor. But as with many contemporary Western utopias, they often hold out hope of positive change. Ali A. Mazrui (1933-), who was born in Kenya, wrote The Trial of Christopher Okigbo (1971), which is mostly dystopian but still holds out hope. Authors born in Nigeria include Buchi Emechta (1944-), whose The Rape of Shavi (1983) shows the destruction of traditional utopia by colonialism; Wole Soyinka (1934-), whose Seasons of Anomy (1973) is primarily dystopian but includes the possibility of a better life; and Ben Okri (1959-), whose Astonishing the Gods (1995) presents the search for utopia. Bessie Head (1937-1986) was born in South Africa and lived in Botswana; her When Rain Clouds Gather (1969) presents a village that is both described as a utopia and is the location of an attempt to create a utopia.
The best-known Indian utopia in English is probably Salman Rushdie’s (1947-) Grimus (1975), which includes a society that is described in the text as “utopian” because it functions on a basis of rough equality and with no money. Other Indian utopias do not appear to have gained much of an audience outside India.
Comparative studies on Western and non-Western utopianism are only just beginning. (An early-twenty-first-century example is Zhang Longxi’s “The Utopian Vision, East and West” in the journal Utopian Studies .)