Political Theories for Students. Editor: Matthew Miskelly & Jaime Noce. Volume 1. Detroit: Gale, 2002.
From the writings of ancient Greece to the most recent films of Hollywood, people have tried to imagine how the ideal community might look. Each description of the perfect state not only expresses the hopes of the author, but also carries with it an implied criticism of current systems. As analyses of the imperfections of contemporary governments and explorations of the possibilities for future systems, utopianism has led to reform, revolution, and a number of experimental communities designed to test models of ideal states. Cultures all over the world from the classical age to the present, from Jewish and Christian and Moslem traditions, have produced utopias. Most utopian literature and community experimentation, however, is associated with the West. Utopias and their alter egos, dystopias, reflect not only specific concerns about how governments and people interact, but also an overarching hope that change can make institutions and individuals better.
The word utopia first appeared in Thomas More’s (1478-1535) book of the same name, published in 1516. More coined the term by combining the Greek words for “not” (ou) and “place” (topos), thus creating a word that meant “nowhere.” This name captured the essence of More’s endeavor. He wished to describe in detail a place that did not exist, that was located in no physical spot—but that might be, and could be, and should, represent the ideal place to which every real location might aspire. Utopia could be found only in the imagination, in the mind’s eye.
Although the word originated with More, the idea of utopia wasn’t new. The first precursors of the utopian thinkers were known as prophets. They criticized contemporary culture, its excesses and inequalities, and contrasted what existed to what might one day be—the end of oppression, the reign of peace, and the unity of people across every conceivable economic and social boundary. One of the earliest of these utopian thinkers was Amos. Born in the eighth century B.C., Amos was a shepherd and fruit gatherer, and he railed against the corruption of the elite classes in Israel and their misuse of honest laborers. According to the Torah and Old Testament, he predicted that the aristocracies such as the one in Israel would fall and the bounty of the lands would rest in the hands of the honest and faithful Jews. His message was two-fold: religious and ethical. Only those of the right faith and lifestyle would reap the benefits of a golden age.
Similar thinkers followed, such as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekial. Perhaps most noteworthy was the Israeli courtier/councilor of the late 700s B.C., Isaiah. Like those who had come before him, Isaiah denounced the corruption of the ruling class and the emptiness of most religious practice, predicting the fall of the current system and the preservation of a faithful, moral few. He then described the peaceful kingdom that would follow; according to Isaiah 2:4 in the Revised Standard Version of the Old Testament, the people “shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
These early prophets paved the way for a tradition of religious thinkers who described utopias marked by love, service, humility, and worship of a common deity. In the first century A.D., according to the New Testament, Jesus spoke of a Kingdom of God on Earth. Augustine (354-430 A.D.) wrote about a City of God, and Savonarola (1452-1498) preached of an ideal theocratic state. Some of these Judeo-Christian thinkers believed the perfect world they described would come to pass; others described the ideal land as an exercise to show what areas of their system needed to be changed. Other spiritual traditions such as Taoism, Theraveda Buddhism, and medieval Islam also had their own comparable precursors to utopianism as well. Both kinds of thinkers, those who foresaw a literal paradise and those who used it as a foil for their own era, led the way for later forms of religious utopian thought and action.
Plato and the Utopian Republic
The golden age of Greece provided the first real utopian work in the form of Plato’s (428-348 B.C.) Republic. Written in the fourth century B.C., The Republic was a political work meant not only to sketch out an ideal form of government, but, in doing so, to highlight the problems Plato saw in contemporary Greece. Plato’s solution for the inequalities of wealth and status was a state in which wealth was evenly distributed and individuals were divided into three groups: artisans; warriors; and the guardians, the special leadership class trained from childhood to rule. In short, Plato advocated an aristocratic communism to guide the life of a Republic.
Plato’s Republic not only offered the first classic blueprint of a political utopia, but it also delved into the issue of the ideal personal life. This included the issues of sexual relations and parenthood. Though Plato afforded women more opportunities in his Republic than they had at the time in Greece, he expected men to comprise the guardian class, and even indicated that they should hold wives in common—as well as children, who would be raised apart from their biological parents. He even suggested such a group family would allow experimentation with selective breeding to take place to create the best leaders possible. Plato’s concern not only with public structures but also with personal issues such as the family opened the door for future utopian thinkers to address the relationships between men, women, and children in their plans for the ideal world.
After Plato’s Republic, many centuries passed before the next true utopian work, Thomas More’s Utopia, appeared. The tendency to criticize contemporary ways of life and suggest better ones did not hibernate during this time, however. Philosophers, statesmen, religious leaders, and poets all noted their concerns for their political and social systems and their dreams for paradise. For example, classic Roman figures such as Virgil, Seneca, Tacitus, and Juvenal all complained of injustices and inequalities and longed for a natural, simple state that provided justice and plenty for all citizens. Augustine’s City of God (approximately 412 A.D.) used the fall of Rome as a springboard for religious utopianism in the tradition of the early Jewish prophets.
By the Middle Ages, thinkers took the classical preoccupation with a “natural state” a step further and tried to determine what the state of nature looked like for humankind. John Wycliffe (c. 1328-1384), a British church and political leader, believed that the state of nature was communist in form, with all property held in common. John Ball (?-1381) agreed, and the social reformer took part in the radical Peasant Revolt in England before he was excommunicated by the church and drawn and quartered by the crown. His example moved utopian thought from the realm of ideas to the realm of action, and led the way for future utopians to try to put their visions of the ideal world into practice. The writings of Wycliffe and Ball later influenced William Morris, who named his work of socialist utopianism The Dream of John Ball (1888).
More Coins a Vision
More’s Utopia (1516) launched a new literary genre and gave a name to it as well. More wrote the story as if its central character, sailor Raphael Hythloday, were real and had visited an actual, physical place called Utopia. At the time, so-called travel narratives of explorers’ journeys were a popular form of literature. More therefore based his fictional account on the popular non-fictional works of the day, turning the travel narrative on its head to speak about what could be instead of what was. Hythloday’s experience discovering the land, its people, and its systems, though fictional, made key points about labor, justice, education, and religion in society. The Utopians believed the goal of life was happiness, but they recognized that true happiness came from moderate and worthy activities such as work and study, and not false pleasures such as excessive wealth or empty status. Framing the critique and challenge within a fantastical story gave More greater philosophical freedom than if he had written a book criticizing his king and country.
More’s book sprung from the humanist tradition of the era, which celebrated the human capacities of reason and rationality, and urged individuals to contemplate truth to better themselves inside and out. More inspired a series of others to write similar works describing imaginary paradises, their systems, and the types of people who could maintain them. These sixteenth- and seventeenth-century European utopias harnessed the new methods of the Scientific Revolution as well as the new theologies of the Reformation to examine the nature of the good life and the perfect state. François Rabelais’ description of the Abbey of Thélème in Gargantua (1532), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun(approximately 1602), Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), and James Harrington’s The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656), among others, followed from the example of More’s Utopia.
Political theory of the era had a direct impact on the utopias produced during the time. Theorists such as Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679), and John Locke (1632-1704), for example, wrote extensively about two particular ideas: the social contract and natural law. The social contract was a shorthand way of describing the mutual duties and responsibilities of the government and the governed. The consent of the governed, or the citizens, legitimized the authority of the government. This consent was based on an understanding of what the government would do for the governed, and, likewise, what the citizens owed in terms of obedience to the state. This implied contract could be broken if one side failed to live up to expectations, however; for example, if the citizens agreed to place themselves under a particular government so it could protect their lives and property, and in turn it abused the citizens’ rights and property, then the contract was broken, and the citizens had the right to revolt against the state. The idea of the social contract influenced a number of utopian visions, particularly among the experimental communities.
Natural Law Theory
Likewise, natural law theory also influenced the formation of utopian works and experiments. Natural law theory looked back to an earlier time—literal or metaphorical—before the development of so-called civilization to imagine how the earliest humans ordered themselves into societies. Some theorists such as Thomas Hobbes believed that humans in nature were violent, greedy, and irrational, and the state had to set up mechanisms to control the base instincts of its citizens. In contrast, philosophers like John Locke believed that human nature allowed for peaceful, cooperative relationships between individuals, and the state’s chief responsibility was to try to maintain the freedom that would allow individuals to recapture this state of nature again. Utopians fell on both sides of the issue, but more tended to agree with Locke’s more optimistic assessment of the natural law. As a result, many utopias described populations as natural, untouched, or uncorrupted by civilization, enjoying life in an Eden-like atmosphere.
Social contract theory and natural law theory helped to usher in a new era in the West. The era of revolutions—namely the American War of Independence (1775-1783) and the French Revolution (1789-1799)—and the theorists who helped to inspire them led to a new wave of utopian thinkers and works, especially in France. Utopian socialists and political reformers/revolutionaries such as François Noel Babeuf (1764-1797), Étienne Cabet (1788-1856), Comte Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon (1809-1865) not only wrote, but also worked to make their views become reality. Their combination of agitation and activism led to a new era in utopian thought; not only would utopians write about their views, but they would develop communities in which their ideas could be put into practice, showcases for their theories in action. Although utopian thought existed and exists throughout the world, the West, and in particular the United States, offer strikingly vivid examples of utopian communities in action.
Ann Lee and the Shakers
Ann Lee (1736-1784), also known as Ann the Word or Mother Ann, was the chief leader of the Shakers, a Christian sect that broke away from the Quakers and developed utopian communities based on their unique theology. The Shaker movement, also known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, or the Millennial Church, began with a Quaker revival in England in 1747 and grew under the initial leadership of James and Jane Wardley. Ann Lee, however, took the group from England to the United States and established an exclusive, utopian Shaker settlement.
Lee came from humble beginnings in Manchester, England. Illiterate and poor, Lee worked in cotton factories and as a cook. She married blacksmith Abraham Stanley in 1762. In approximately 1770, Lee claimed to have a vision that changed her life and the lives of many others forever. She said she received a revelation that the Second Coming of Christ had taken place within her; she was the embodiment of the holy on earth, the female incarnation of God who fulfilled Her role as mother just as Jesus had suggested God’s fatherhood. This vision, along with the abilities she claimed such as speaking in tongues and performing miracles, gave Lee authority not only as a religious leader but as a divine figure as well.
The teachings of Lee, however, included the complete equality of the sexes and the holiness of celibacy, and both ideas seemed radical to the eighteenth-century English mainstream. She was even imprisoned for a time for her beliefs. Eventually, Lee realized that the Shakers had to find a way to pursue freely the ideal community. She decided to follow a vision and take a faithful few to North America and begin a Shaker colony there. In 1776, she founded Watervliet, near Albany, New York. After her death in 1784, the Shaker impulse toward building utopian colonies continued to grow. By 1826, there were eighteen American Shaker communities in a total of eight states, each organized into groups, or families, of thirty to ninety people who owned property communally.
Lee is an important figure for organizing the first Shaker communities, as well as for emphasizing gender equality in a utopian setting. Her message had staying power: the Shakers outlived Lee by more than 230 years—unusual for a group that practiced celibacy. Though Shaker communities are all but extinct today, their vision of balance, simplicity, and equality in the ideal world survives through their signature architecture, furniture, and crafts.
One of the first theorists to inspire communities based on his utopian thought was Charles Fourier (1772-1837), known as the father of utopian socialism, the most visible French utopian thinker, and the inspiration for a series of celebrated experimental utopian communities. Many of his concerns about the mechanization, dehumanization, and class schism of society previewed concerns later raised by critics of the Industrial Revolution. His belief in channeling humans’ natural passions to achieve social harmony, and the practical means he suggested for achieving it, became known as Fourierism.
Unlike communist utopians, who believed the state needed to own all means of production in the economy, Fourier accepted a few of the tenets of capitalism, including some private property ownership. He simply wanted a well-ordered agricultural society, one based on cooperation and gender equality. Fourier devised with almost mathematical precision his plan for achieving harmony: the phalanx, an economic unit of 1,620 people who divided labor among themselves according to ability. He wrote and spoke about his blueprint for utopia, and followers and newspapers responded enthusiastically.
The Frenchman Fourier believed that natural human passions could be channeled to create social harmony. His prescription for this endeavor was quite specific: he believed the phalanx worked best to produce an organized, agricultural society. His teachings spread from France to the United States and resulted in The Society for the Propagation and Realization of the Theory of Fourier. Dozens of Fourierist communities developed according to the blueprint of the writer, including the highly visible Brook Farm.
Unfortunately, Fourier did not live to see his ideas applied in real settings. After his death, adherents such as Albert Brisbane and Horace Greeley transplanted Fourierism to the United States and in 1843 founded Phalanx, New Jersey, the first of almost thirty experimental communities based on Fourier’s vision. Christian, but nonsectarian, these colonies organized themselves as cooperatives with equalized wages and supported themselves by the work of members and money from non-resident stockholders. The communities encouraged traditional values such as monogamy and family, but also encouraged gender equality—several directors or presidents of Fourierist communities, in fact, were women.
The most successful symbol of Fourierism was Brook Farm, an experimental community in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. The community began in 1841 as a Unitarian venture but converted to a Fourierist phalanx in 1844. Brook Farm gained international celebrity status due to its membership, which included some of the era’s intellectual elite, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Orestes Brownson. The Fourierist newspaper Harbinger began publication at Brook Farm as well. After the central building was destroyed by fire, the colony fell into economic hardship and eventually disbanded. Its fame lived on, however, in the works and lives of its former members.
Later Utopian Idealists
Other communities based on the political theories of utopian writers followed. Robert Owen (1801- 1877) founded a cooperative rather than communist society in New Harmony, Indiana, in 1825. Among New Harmony’s historical contributions were the first trade school, kindergarten, public school, and free library in the United States. John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886) believed Fourier had highlighted real problems in contemporary systems, but Noyes disagreed with Fourier’s conclusions about how to solve them. Noyes advocated the blend of religion and politics, arguing that socialism could not work without institutionalized faith, and a “complex marriage” that offered a form of polygamy and sharing of children in common. He founded the Oneida Community in Putney, Vermont, in 1841.
At the same time theorists were experimenting with communities that put their ideas into practice, religious groups established their own societies for the free exercise of their faiths. Between 1663, when Dutch Mennonites created a communitarian colony in the Delaware of today, until 1858, approximately 138 separate religious communities sprang up in North America. German Pietists, Shakers, and Hutterites, among others, founded long-lived towns and communities, some of which still exist today. However, the U.S. Civil War tore apart the fabric of the nation and brought a halt to the community-building impulse of the utopian movement. Few other utopian experiments took place.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, utopian literature across the West began to resemble More’s Utopia once again; works like Laurence Gronlund’s The Coöperative Commonwealth (1884), Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1891), William Morris’s News From Nowhere, and H.G. Wells’ A Modern Utopia (1905) described worlds that could be—often with solutions to the problems of labor, mechanization, overcrowding, and income that seemed to arrive hand-in-hand with a more urban and industrialized society. The reliance on science and economics typified these turn-of-the-century utopias.
The twentieth-century experience with two world wars and a Cold War led to a new literary subgenre: the dystopia. Just as theorists wrote utopias to prove how good things could be if they were changed, authors of dystopias warned of how bad things could be if they were not changed. Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), George Orwell’s 1984 (1949), Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962), and Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974) were early warnings of how anti-intellectual, despotic regimes might threaten individual liberties. Later dystopias dealt with specific issues such as racism, environmentalism, and ageism. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) was one of many dealing with the problems of gender in society and government.
History seemed to run parallel to this change of literary tone. Optimistic experiments in communal living, especially during the 1960s in the United States, appeared to be overshadowed by the negative examples of other communities gone awry; leaders such as Charles Manson, Jim Jones, and others led their followers to acts of violence and self-destruction. Writers continued to use warnings as the main method of critiquing current practices. The advent of films from Metropolis (1926), The Man From Planet X (1951), and Planet of the Apes (1968) to Mad Max (1979), Blade Runner (1982), and Dark City (1998) further marked the century as the age of the dystopia.
Although the form of utopian thought has changed over time from religious imagery and political blueprint to fictional description and visual drama, one thing is clear: the impulse to describe what might be possible, and in the process to criticize what exists, is a long-lived urge that dates from antiquity to the present day. Theorists over time have expressed their desire for change in many ways. The ideal worlds they have desired have looked different across the years. One thing remains the same: dreamers of different nations and eras all have seen a glimpse of something better and tried in their own ways to bring their societies closer to the world of their dreams.
Theory in Depth
From the early days of the Hebrew prophets and Greek philosophers to the present era of novelists and movie makers, utopianism has never been a theory per se as much as a state of mind, a way of initiating a conversation about the manner in which people can live together best. The utopian thinkers themselves have disagreed widely on the political nature of the good life and espoused a number of different and even contradictory systems that might meet the need of given communities. Utopians fall into their category not so much because of what they seek specifically, but because of how they seek it. Rather than work for incremental reforms within systems, changing existing governments from the inside, utopian thinkers look outside of current models to what could take their places. Rather than reform what exists, utopians dream of replacing it with something new and different. The goals they have often put utopian theorists outside of the mainstream dialogue of political theory. Despite the isolated position of its adherents, utopianism has endured in one form or another for thousands of years.
Although the forms of utopianism are almost as numerous and unique as the individuals who have dreamed of utopias, several key strains of utopian thought appear over and over again; these ideal states involve religion, property, relationships, and past injuries. Any utopia might address several aspects of life—economic, social, personal—but each must have a central cause for its creation. The oldest form of utopia, which dates to the era of the Hebrew prophets in the eighth century B.C. and survives to this day, is the religious utopia.
By suggesting the right way to live, utopian thinkers automatically criticize the way of life in their time. If the contemporary systems worked perfectly, after all, then there would be no need to replace them with something else. The religious utopians believe that the practice of or return to a true faith is the heart of the ideal state. Theocracies, or governments led by spiritual leaders, often follow from this type of reasoning. The states of religious utopias often perform the same functions attributed to the church: leading worship of the God/gods, coordinating the rituals/ceremonies of the faith, instructing the people in the values of the faith, and policing the populace to enforce practice of the faith.
The Jewish prophets such as Isaiah believed the true faith existed, but people had fallen away from its practice. Their utopias consisted of a return to the traditional practices of Judaism and then the reward from God for their renewed obedience. They held systems and their followers accountable for the fact they had once known the true faith but had abandoned it. Utopia, then, was a return to a previously held practice, though it would be made better, perfected even, the second time around.
In contrast to this point of view, other religious utopian thinkers believed the true faith, or at least some key ingredient in it, was new. This recent revelation called for a different way of living and a new community to support it. These utopian leaders did not seek a return to old ways; they wanted a system that was entirely original. The Shakers, for example, began with a Quaker revival in England in 1747. Led first by James and Jane Wardley, and later by Ann Lee, who believed she was the reincarnation of Jesus Christ as a mother figure, the Shakers left England for Watervliet, New York, where they founded the first Shaker colony. Others followed. Though Christian in background, the Shaker utopia looked different than any other Christian community at the time: pacifism, communism, and celibacy, as well as confession to the dual—male and female—nature of God and the equality of the sexes typified these isolated colonies. While the Jewish prophets urged people to remember past teaching and build a perfect world upon it, Shakers urged people to accept a new revelation and build a perfect world on its new tenets. These two contrary impulses—returning to the old wisdom of the past and accepting the new wisdom of the present—formed the two sides to religious utopian thought.
Utopians and Property
A second historical strain of utopianism focuses on the question of property. The inequality of economic systems, the stratification of wealth, and the division of the rich and poor classes serve as repeating motifs in utopian literature. Consequently, many blueprints for a true utopia revolve around the question of property ownership. Many of the utopian works from More’s Utopia (1516) to Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888) emphasize the fact that, although every citizen of the ideal state has everything he or she needs, none of the people are overly wealthy. This often is achieved by a kind of communalism in which major property such as agricultural fields or commercial factories are held in common by all citizens and usually managed by the government; therefore, socialist and communist utopias make up many of those preoccupied by the question of property.
Most of the utopians who have written or spoken about property have tended to treat the issue as a procedural matter rather than a natural one. In other words, they have suggested that, with the right structure for government, greed and need would be eliminated—the fault lies with the contemporary system, not the people in it. By taking this position, the theorists have not had to be concerned about the human nature of those who govern and distribute property; the assumption is that they will resist temptation and act fairly instead of using their positions for their own advantages. This forms the heart—or, according to critics, the vulnerability—of the property approach to utopianism.
Other utopian thinkers have focused less on issues of faith and property than those of individual relationships. For these people, government begins not in the public arena, but in the home; significant reform therefore begins not between the citizen and his or her government, but the individual and his or her family. One of the notions identified with utopianism is that of “free love”—meaning the pursuit of sexual relations outside of the traditional heterosexual conception of marriage. But many utopian thinkers were interested in more than simply experimenting with sexuality. They believed the historical monogamous couple and nuclear family created an impediment for the achievement of the ideal life.
Some utopian thinkers came to this conclusion from different directions. Plato’s concern in his Republic, for example, was one of genetics. He wanted the brightest and best people possible to lead as guardians of his ideal state. By sharing wives and rearing children in common, Plato believed, the most intelligent of the citizens could experiment with mating in different combinations to produce the most gifted offspring possible. Plato’s concern had little to do with feelings and emotions, and much to do with a calculated, if somewhat primitive, attempt at eugenics (improving the hereditary qualities of a race).
On the other hand, other utopian thinkers who have addressed the same kind of questions of sexual and familiar relationships did so for very different reasons. Their concern was not for the efficiency of selective breeding, but with the pleasure of unrestrained experimentation with intimacy. Charles Fourier and John Humphrey Noyes believed the traditional marriage and family would dissolve in favor of a complex family relationship based on caring for the group, the whole—multiple and/or revolving partnerships, as well as different forms of communal parenting, they believed, would take the place of the old ways of life. These lifestyles might be efficient, but, more to the point, they would also be exciting and pleasurable. In such utopias, happiness remained the chief objective of the utopian exercise. The counterculture revolution of the 1960s built on this foundation and added experimentation with drugs to the mix.
Still other utopian thinkers focused on issues beyond faith, property, and relationships. These theorists are concerned with historical patterns of injustice and/or wrongdoing and seek to undo specific errors of past systems by creating new ones. Pacifist responses to war, environmentalist responses to pollution, and feminist responses to discrimination offer examples of this kind of approach to building the ideal society. Perhaps the most obvious of these is the response to the rise of totalitarian states such as that of the former Soviet Union in the twentieth century; dystopias such as Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and Orwell’s 1984 (1949) warned of what would happen in the future if changes were not made.
Advocates of civil rights and individual liberties contemplated how governments could limit themselves to preserve as much freedom as possible for their citizens. One example of a response to fears of “Big Brother” and its control over the path of individuals’ lives is Robert Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia (1974).
Utopianism as a political theory has had many manifestations—prophecy, revolution, reform—but two main legacies: utopias in literature and experimental communities. The literature of utopianism ranges from works of theory to fiction. The most sophisticated have drawn from theory and fiction to create lasting impressions of ideal worlds.
Plato’s Republic, written in approximately 360 B.C., is considered the foundational work of utopianism. Authors as diverse as Thomas More in the sixteenth century and Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) in the twentieth century drew upon Republic when writing their own contributions to utopian thought. Plato believed that everything on earth was but a shadow of the ideal form of that object or idea; in his Republic, he tried to imagine and describe in detail the ideal form of the state. Republic featured Plato’s late mentor, Socrates, discussing this perfect community with a number of characters and extolling the virtue of reason that guided it. Plato’s paradise consisted of three classes, the lead of which was the guardian class. His utopia therefore was not a democracy, but an aristocracy, led by those dedicated to reason, wisdom, and virtue:
But the simple and temperate desires governed by reason, good sense, and true opinion are to be found only in the few, those who are the best born and the best educated…. Both the few and the many have their place in the city. But the meaner desires of the many will be held in check by the virtue and wisdom of the ruling few. It follows that if any city may claim to be master of its pleasures and desires—to be master of itself—it will be ours. For all these reasons, we may properly call our city temperate.
To create this leading class, Plato described a primitive version of selective breeding, including wife-sharing among the guardians, to produce the best human specimens possible. These children also benefit from the most advanced and carefully regulated education available, with everything from books to music carefully censored in order to feed the minds of the future leaders with the best material. In many ways, Plato built a political system in Republic that would avoid the suspicious anti-intellectualism of the Greek process that, years before, had sentenced Socrates to death for corrupting youth and spreading heresy with his philosophical teachings.
More expands on the Republic
Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, built on the foundation of Plato’s Republic. It copied many of the classic’s ideas—for example, children were common property of the community in both—with a distinctly Christian twist absent from Plato’s work. The success of More’s venture spawned a wave of utopian works over the next century and inspired various religious and political movements from Mormonism to communism. Perhaps the greatest contribution of the work, however, was its very name, a new addition to the English language.
More’s style also inspired future utopian authors in terms of tone. Wry, witty, and satirical, More wrote not as if exploring a theory in the abstract, but rather as if Utopia existed. This made his work interesting to a wide readership. He also maintained his sense of fun:
Lines on the Island of Utopia by the Poet Laureate, Mr. Windbag nonsenso’s sister’s son: Noplacia was once my name That is, a place where no one goes; Plato’s Republic I now claim To match, or beat at its own game; For that was just a myth in prose, But what he wrote of, I became, Of men, wealth, laws a solid frame, A place where every wise man goes: Goplacia is now my name.
Just as Plato had crafted his Republic in reaction to the contemporary system of Greece, More was moved to write about economics and justice after viewing the disparity of wealth and corruption of legal procedure in Tudor England. The English government that he subtly criticized in Utopia eventually took More’s life when he would not submit to a law he believed was immoral and unjust—an ironic parallel to the death of Socrates that so haunted Plato.
Many of the utopias that followed More’s work suggested that so-called civilization corrupted many of the instincts humans needed to live with one another in peace and harmony. The more complicated and authoritarian governments became, some theorists argued, the less successful they were. To these thinkers, the state of nature, humans’ original condition, possessed certain natural laws— individuals should not kill each other, for example— that made a more innocent time also a more successful one politically. Françoise Rabelais, in his “Abbey of Thélème” from the larger French comic masterpiece Gargantua (1532), described a utopia built on natural law with a populace of noble savages:
These people are wild in the sense in which we call wild the fruits that nature has produced by herself and in her ordinary progress; whereas in truth it is those we have altered artificially and diverted from the common order that we should rather call wild. In the first we still see, in full life and vigor, the genuine and most natural and useful virtues and properties, which we have bastardized in the latter, and only adapted to please our corrupt taste…. Those nations, then, appear to me so far bar barous in this sense, that their minds have been formed to a very slight degree, and that they are still very close to their original simplicity. They are still ruled by the laws of Nature and very little corrupted by ours.
Like a Garden of Eden, Rabelais’ Abbey was pristine, peaceful, and well ordered. Civilization could not better it, only corrupt it. Rabelais’ “Abbey” offered one of the most visible utopias to be built on natural law theory. In contrast, Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623) reflected another trait in utopian literature of the era: the influence of the Scientific Revolution. The momentum of scientific thought inspired centrally planned and organized paradises built with almost mathematical precision. Campanella’s utopia was no exception:
The greater part of the city is built upon a high hill… It is divided into seven rings or huge circles named from the seven planets, and the way from one to the other of these is by four streets and through four gates, that look toward the four points of the compass. Furthermore, it is so built that if the first circle were stormed, it would of necessity entail a double amount of energy to storm the second; still more to storm the third; and in each succeeding case the strength and energy would have to be doubled; so that he who wishes to capture that city must, as it were, storm it seven times.
The repetition of significant numbers, as well as the vision of concentric circles and evidence of careful planning in this passage marks the City of the Sun as a product of the Scientific Revolution. Otherwise, Campanella’s book read like something of an Italian version of Plato’s Republic, making this key example of Italian utopianism also proof of the durability of Plato’s vision.
If James Harrington’s Commonwealth of Oceana influenced the politics of its time, Edward Bellamy hoped his Looking Backward (1888), one of the most popular utopias of its era, would also change the world he knew. The American Bellamy feared the trends toward industrialization that he witnessed and wondered how mechanization, urbanization, and competition would affect human lives. His utopia included a government-controlled economy and a socialist state. In a postscript to his work, Bellamy not only explained why he designed his ideal state the way he did, but captured the optimistic spirit of utopianism in general:
As an iceberg, floating southward from the frozen north, is gradually undermined by warmer seas, and, become at last unstable, churns the sea to yeast for miles around by the mighty rockings that portend its overturn, so the barbaric industrial and social system, which has come down to us from savage antiquity, undermined by the modern humane spirit, riddled by the criticism of economic science, is shaking the world with convulsions that presage its collapse. All thoughtful men agree that the present aspect of society is portentous of great changes. The only question is, whether they will be for the better or worse…. Looking Backward was written in the belief that the Golden Age lies before us and not behind us, and is not far away. Our children will surely see it…
Huxley’s Brave New World
Interestingly enough, Bellamy wrote his utopia as a tale of time travel through the eyes of a contemporary viewing the world of the future. In this sense, Bellamy anticipated the rise of the science fiction utopia and dystopia. The groundbreaking pioneer of the science fiction dystopia was Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). Huxley drew a dark picture of what would happen if the government grew in power and exercised increasing control over the lives of individuals—ironically, much the way Bellamy would have liked—and that system evolved to its ultimate conclusion: totalitarian tyranny. Chillingly, Huxley, through the character of the Controller, explained that the architects of subjugation would believe they were acting for the greater good of all.
Rather than describing the ideal state, Huxley made his point about the importance of limited government and individual liberty by describing the worst state possible and noting how the contemporary system might devolve into something like it. Instead of suggesting what to do to become like a utopia, Huxley implied what not to do to become like a dystopia. Huxley’s highly successful work ushered in the era of the dystopia.
Although many of the twentieth-century works dealing with utopian themes have been dystopias, many from the genre of science fiction, one book reintroduced the idea of utopianism to the political theory community: Roberty Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia in 1986.
Born in Brooklyn in 1938, Robert Nozick was appointed to Harvard in 1965. His 1974 Anarchy, State and Utopia sent shock waves through the political theory community. In part his work answered the thesis of John Rawl’s A Theory of Justice (1971), which outlined a concept of a just society. Rawls defended a kind of mixed economy socialism, with social policies/rules chosen behind a “veil of ignorance.” Behind this veil, Rawls suggested, policy makers would act as if they were ignorant of their status in the community as they created policy, so that goods would be distributed fairly across race, gender, and class lines in a manner that always benefited the least advantaged group.
Nozick criticized the redistribution inherent in Rawls’ proposals, defending each person’s claim to his or her own using a natural rights argument reminiscent of early utopians. In fact, Nozick began his work in a state of nature, then asked whether there should be a state at all. In the end, Nozick argued for a “minarchist” state, a minimalist government for protection only. He argued completely from individual consent-based morality; according to his rules, for example, a state could not tax, because that would be analogous to forced labor. In his words, “[The minarchist state] allows us, individually or with whom we choose, to choose our life and to realize our ends and our conception of ourselves, insofar as we can, aided by the cooperation of other individuals possessing the same dignity. How dare any state or group of individuals do more. Or less.”
According to John Gray in Liberalism (1986), Nozick was successful in “reclaiming for the liberal tradition the utopian vision which virtually all liberals (except [Friedrich] Hayek) had rejected as uncongenial to the pluralism demanded by the liberal ideal.” Nozick asserted that the minimal state would provide the framework for a meta-utopia in which individuals might join together to form communities of free entry and exit, competing for members. Within these smaller associations, members might choose to contract away certain rights in favor of receiving certain services. Thus a communist association, a cooperative community, and an anarchist colony all might coexist. With the option of exit ever-present, however, each association would be forced to remain true to its contract and accountable to its members. Nozick pioneered the exodus of other minarchists into public view—for example, John Hospers, chairman of the University of Southern California Philosophy Department and 1972 National Libertarian Party candidate for the U.S. presidency, and Tibor Machan, philosophy professor and author—and brought the serious philosophical discussion of utopia back into fashion.
In his book, Nozick imagines a world of competing states with different systems and only one coordinating principle: free entry and free exit. In this utopian vision, Nozick imagined individuals choosing what amount of state authority, what form of government, they liked best. No one state could abuse the rights of its people, because citizens would leave for a more palatable alternative. Just as Nozick offers a view of a world free from totalitarian regimes, others imagine worlds free of bigotry, sexism, violence, and environmental crisis.
In his work, Nozick imagined utopia to be not a specific community, but rather an overarching, minimal state that offered “playing rules”—free entry, free exit—that would allow smaller experimental communities to evolve and compete for members. The diversity of possibilities available in this model over time has since inspired a new dialogue among political theorists.
In a sense, the open-endedness of Nozick’s view of utopia, and his willingness to abandon central control in favor of spontaneous order, added a new dimension to the view of utopia. He raised the bar from static, complete notions of “the perfect state” by arguing that the perfect state would be many ever-changing societies impossible to predict. As the twenty-first century begins, the hopefulness of utopian political theory endures, but remains overshadowed by the dystopian vision of filmmakers and genre authors. Television, in the guise of science fiction hits such as Dark Angel(2000), has continued this trend.
Of course other utopias have shaped the course of the political theory as well. From Plato to Huxley and beyond, from Greece and Italy to France and the United States and elsewhere, all of the great utopias and dystopias have shared an underlying optimism that their suggestions or warnings might change the world for the better.
The one resounding commonality among all of the approaches to the ideal world is that of optimism. By discussing, illustrating, and even experimenting with their visions of paradise, the utopian thinkers not only criticized what they found to be wrong with their contemporary political systems, but also believed those systems could be changed. Whether motivated by the doom they saw ahead or the paradise they dreamed of, these theorists were dedicated to the proposition that things could be better than they were. Some believed the world would improve if individuals embraced a particular faith. Others believed equality of property or opportunities in personal relationships were necessary for positive change. Still others believed that paradise meant the solution to one problem, the righting of an historical wrong. Their conclusions remain as different as the eras in which they originated. Utopianism is less about the ends, however, than the means of achieving them. What unites utopian thinkers is not the detail of a given system, but the optimism and imagination to envision that system in place, working as planned, successful and enduring.
Theory in Action
Utopia, the ideal “nowhere” sought by writers and revolutionaries and reformers, has meant different things to different people, and thus has been acted upon in very different ways. The ancient Greek legends of Atlantis, a continent of advanced, peaceful, enlightened people who had achieved their own utopia before a natural disaster submerged their land beneath the sea, so inspired seekers and scientists that searches for the physical remains of the place continue to this day, as if pinpointing the ruins on a map might make the possibility of achieving a new paradise on earth more possible. Likewise, the stories of El Dorado, a utopian city built of gold somewhere in South America, spawned exploration of the continent by colonizing European nations beginning in the sixteenth century. The goal of discovering an ideal community motivated nations in a way that simple internal reform—building a more ideal community—could not.
Others seemed to know that paradise had no earthly address. Plato nursed anger and resentment toward the government of Greece that had executed his beloved teacher Socrates, and Thomas More watched with wariness the state of England that eventually executed him. Neither philosopher expected to find Atlantis or El Dorado on earth. To them and others like them, utopianism in practice meant using the motif of an ideal community as a foil, a literary device, to contrast the way things should be with the way things were. The ultimate goal was not the discovery or creation of the described paradise, but the betterment of the current system and the attitudes and values that supported it. Dystopians such as Huxley and Orwell represented the other side of this impulse, using negative examples of how a terrible state might behave to warn readers and promote reform. This literary— and today, also cinematic—form of utopianism stretches from the fourth century B.C. to the twenty-first century, and continues to produce political critique for our systems.
Other utopian thinkers found the need for reform much too urgent to write works of fiction and theory and hope that their messages eventually touched sympathetic readers. For them, change had to come immediately. These utopians became fervent, and sometimes violent, revolutionaries. For example, Babeuf had a vision of equality for all citizens of France. Though he supported the French Revolution, he did not believe that the first wave of change it brought to the nation beginning in 1789 went far enough to create this quality. He published criticisms of the government, was imprisoned, and emerged even more dissatisfied with the state. He therefore created the Conspiracy of the Equals, a secret organization focused on overthrowing the fledgling new French government and instituting a utopian communist regime in which all people would share the economy’s products equally. Babeuf’s plans required violent upheaval, and he was eventually captured and executed for his plots before they became reality. His method of devising revolutionary cells for the distribution of information became the blueprint for the organization of revolutionary, freedom fighter, and terrorist groups even today. For Babeuf and others, achieving utopia meant not only reform, but also revolution.
The Shakers, led by Ann Lee (known as Mother Ann), took up residence near Albany, New York in September, 1776, and began creating the first Shaker community. The people benefited from the revivalistic interest created by the phenomenon of the Great Awakening. These protracted revivals, which occurred widely in the Middle and New England colonies, commonly exhibited the same dramatic characteristics that were seen among the Shakers. Thus, people on the frontier were less likely to be scandalized by religious emotionalism. As the revival fires cooled, the Shaker community continued to attract those who ardently looked for signs of the Second Coming.
Shaker villages consisted of separate buildings for eating, working, and sleeping. Everything was separated by gender—the buildings even had different stairways for men and women. This was probably done so men and women would have as little contact as possible, which would make it easier to honor to rules of celibacy. Schools and shops were shared among the people, while some “families” controlled their own small money-making ventures, such as crops.
Though their unusual religious practices were always a curiosity (their name comes from the way they jumped and shook during prayer and worship), it was Shaker doctrines, such as the condemnation of marriage, and Ann Lee’s messianic claims, which caused the greatest controversy. As the Americans fought England for independence, the Shakers’ pacifism was misunderstood, resulting in imprisonment for several members of the community. Events gradually improved when local citizens began to object to the mistreatment of the Shakers, believing that such actions betrayed the ideals of the new republic. (Generations later, during the Civil War, Shakers would provide food and relief to both Union and Confederate troops.)
The six months following the release of the jailed Shakers was a period in which the Shakers were allowed to practice their faith unmolested. Mother Ann and two disciples set out on horseback on a preaching mission that would last more than two years. This mission was of tremendous importance to Shaker history—several new communites were established in New England.
Unfortunately, the mission was marred by repeated acts of mob violence in which several Shaker leaders were horsewhipped. Ann herself was dragged out of a dwelling and thrown into a carriage where she was mocked by abusive citizens.
When Mother Ann and her company finally returned home, the violence of the New England mission left her in a weakened condition, and she never fully regained health. She died on September 8, 1874.
Before her death, Ann passed the reins of leadership to James Whittaker. Unlike Lee, Whittaker had a great gift for organization and, under his leadership, the movement prospered. He urged all the Shaker communities to implement communal living and common ownership of property as demonstrated in the New Testament.
In spite of her convictions concerning celibacy, which doomed the Shakers to eventual extinction, Anne Lee was in many ways a progressive eighteenth-century women who made a significant impact on the world. She was a pioneer for justice and equality. The Shakers were among the first in America to advocate pacifism, abolition of slavery, equality of the sexes, and communal ownership of goods. The Shakers also made contributions to American culture beyond that of ideology—they were the first people in the United States to produce commercial seed, and invented the circular saw, metal pen points, and the first commercially successful washing machine.
Robert Owen and Cooperative Utopia
For the pioneer of a social movement, Robert Owen had very inauspicious beginnings. With little formal education to his credit, Owen began working in the textile business at age ten. But by the time he was 23, Owen had worked his way up to be a successful cotton manufacturer in Manchester, England, and read widely enough to compensate for his lack of schooling. In 1800, he moved to New Lanark, Scotland, where he became a co-owner of the mills once owned by his father-in-law.
Owen used the opportunity afforded by the mill town to put his fledgling theories into practice; he reorganized the community—which included profit stores, competitive schools, and organized sanitation—into a model of a self-sufficient, cooperative agricultural-industrial community, in which enterprises were owned and operated for the benefit of those using their services. As working conditions bettered, profits increased. Owen’s influence spread and even instigated the Factory Act of 1819, a reform bill targeting the conditions of businesses like the one in which Owen worked as a child.
With the success of his community in Scotland, Owen suggested that other similar utopian experiments be conducted elsewhere. In 1825, followers organized New Harmony in Indiana after Owen’s model—coincidentally, New Harmony had been founded ten years earlier as another kind of utopian experiment by German Separatists who practiced communism and celibacy. The overhauled, Owenite experimental colony gained widespread attention when it became a cultural and educational center, boasting some of the era’s leading intellectuals as residents. The town boasted the nation’s first kindergarten, public school, free library, and equal instruction for boys and girls. The experiment ended in 1828 because of internal conflict.
Owen’s base of support shifted from the upper class to the working class as he published various works such as New View of Society; or, Essays on the Formation of Character (three volumes from 1813 to 1814) and Report to the County of Lanark (1821), which revealed his disinterest in religion and his desire to transform society and its institutionalized system of privilege. For a time he worked with labor unions and suggested that they join forces with cooperative societies, but the union movement proved too disposed toward violence for Owen, who wanted change to come through peaceful means. For the last decades of his life, Owen wrote and lectured about his belief that environment shaped individuals and cooperative societies, in particular, improved character. His life’s work, in his writings and in the communities such as New Lanark and New Harmony, secured Owen’s place as the father of cooperative utopian thought.
The Oneida Community
Many explorers, writers, and revolutionaries can be considered utopians. The groups seem to share little in common, but all are united by the idea that the government could be bettered. The most visual example of utopianism in action is that of the experimental communities, colonies created as experimental tests of utopian theory. Even among this subset of utopianism, however, many differences arise. Some communities came together due to faith. Others united over interests in property, personal relationships, or historical wrongs associated with issues of race, gender, the environment, and/or individual liberty. Groups such as the Oneida Community, founded in 1841, and The Farm, founded in 1971, reflect different sides of the experimental utopian community.
The Oneida community existed from 1847 to 1881 in New York. This faith-based group evolved from the religious teachings of John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886), a Christian preacher who believed in the ultimate perfectibility of humanity. His theology of Perfectionism brought him ridicule from other mainstream Protestants, but also drew a faithful band of followers that eventually agreed to set up a colony apart from nonbelievers. After being forced to flee other areas due to the controversial nature of their faith, Noyes and his adherents finally established the Oneida community. The practices of the Perfectionists—including group marriage, a form of polygamy, and economic communism—followed from Noyes’s teaching of how to attain communion with Christ and, ultimately, sinlessness.
The Oneida experience exemplifies the pattern of many religious utopian experiments. The first year’s population was a mere 87, but it increased to 205 at the height of the colony’s popularity. All members met nightly for community business meetings and worked and reared children in common. Women attained rights equal to those of men. But the society was exclusive, closed to the outside, and the community’s practices didn’t spread to the surrounding area.
Eventually, internal dissension forced Noyes to leave the United States for Canada. In the absence of the community’s governmental and theological cornerstone, the community disintegrated. What was left of the group abandoned any utopian pretense and became a joint stock company. Factories producing paper products, plastic goods, and the famous Oneida silverware are the lasting legacy of the community. The formula of an iconoclastic, charismatic religious leader and followers who join together apart from the mainstream, maintain their faith and its corresponding practices for a while, but eventually lose interest seems the standard pattern for religious utopian experiments in action.
Other utopian communities are not tied so directly to their founders as leaders or focused on attaining a single end—in the case of Noyes and Oneida, human perfection—but, instead, are developed as responses to certain concerns and dedicated to the journey as well as the end goal. For example, Stephen Gaskin (1935- ) and 320 self-described San Francisco “hippies” created The Farm in Summertown, Tennessee, in 1971. They agreed on certain principles—nonviolence and environmentalism, for example—but shared no common vision regarding religion or economics. The community developed organically, meeting challenges as they arose. The adaptiveness of this approach allowed the colony to survive. Membership skyrocketed to 1,200 by 1980, but now remains a steady 250.
Some members earn money outside of the community in nearby towns; others work with internal community businesses, now reaching a global audience through the Internet. Some members live a vegetarian lifestyle; others eat meat. Some members take part in a communal economic experiment known as The Second Foundation; others maintain private property ownership. The anti-violence, pro-environment atmosphere of The Farm remains intact, however, and the fact that members interact with the outside world allows The Farm’s experiment to affect life outside the utopia. In fact, The Farm’s use of solar power, organic farming, and spiritual midwifery, among other things, has brought international attention. Nonetheless, the world has not changed to look like The Farm. The experiment may be considered successful by many criteria, but The Farm remains an exception to the rule of contemporary society.
Utopian thinkers in turn have sought to socialize the economy and free it of government involvement, give power to all equally and reserve it for a chosen few, honor one gender over another and give both genders the same authority. Just as there are as many utopias as there are utopian thinkers, there is no satisfactory way to categorize utopianism in practice. Historically, however, a pattern does emerge of when certain kinds of utopian action became more prevalent than others, especially in the West. The eighth century B.C., for example, contained mostly religious utopian thinkers who relied on oration to communicate their messages. The sixteenth century offered many literary utopias presented as travel narratives to contrast with current systems. The eighteenth century brought revolutionaries who longed to see immediate change. The nineteenth century yielded experimental communities that put theory into practice, at least for a time. The twentieth century brought dystopias that warned what might happen if systems did not reform. Of course in each era, overlap exists. But even within each era of utopian action, the utopias themselves, the blueprints for a better world, remained as unique as the individuals who conceived of them.
Analysis and Critical Response
In many ways it is difficult to analyze utopianism, for it has been many things to many people across the ages. How can Plato’s Republic, a staple of Western literature for more than 2,000 years, be considered a failure? How can François Noel Babeuf’s abortive attempt to overthrow the French government be considered a success? And how can these two examples of utopianism in action be considered comparable at all? Nonetheless, the open-endedness of the theory aside, there can be legitimate criticisms and compliments made with regard to utopianism.
Perhaps the most obvious criticism of utopianism is the underlying uncertainty of whether the ideal community is, in fact, real. The most visual illustration of this uncertainty is the image of Spanish conquistadors searching South America for El Dorado, or contemporary oceanographers trying to pinpoint the lost city of Atlantis. Does paradise exist? Though it seems that the legends of beautiful societies of learning, peace, and eternal health were but a foil for the current day’s problems, a device to critique existing governments and peoples, some continue to experience the urge to tie utopia to a geographical location. If utopias cannot be mapped, seen, and touched, does this make the idea of them and their systems less viable? Many sixteenth-century writers described their utopias in the form of travel narratives, as if the authors themselves had visited concrete, three-dimensional locations and then simply reported on their findings. Yet these places were fiction only. The uneasy tension between literal and metaphorical readings of utopian works remains a difficulty of the theory. If the fabled utopias don’t really exist, then what does that mean for those who would institute the reforms suggested by them?
This question leads to a second problem with utopianism: its abstract nature. Especially in the case of utopian prophets and writers, who discussed the ideal society and its attributes in a vacuum, utopias remained in the realm of ideas only. Few utopian thinkers of this sort explained how to move current systems toward attaining the attributes of paradise. Communities that enjoyed enlightened leaders and no poverty sounded wonderful, but how could people get there from where they were with their fallible, unsatisfactory states? By relying on the image of a utopia, thinkers did not have to explain what reforms needed to be made or how they could be achieved. This means that many of the potential changes utopian thinkers might have brought never found their way to actual practice.
The Problems of Utopias
Even when some utopian thinkers experimented with actual communities and tried to implement their ideas, members often proved to be the theories’ own worst enemies. By making utopian communities exclusive, cut off from the larger world around them, community members ensured that their reforms never influenced mainstream culture. To be fair, some groups, such as the Shakers, remained apart for reasons of self-defense; their practices inflamed outsiders and sometimes led to acts of animosity and even violence. Others remained separate for fear of contamination from the outside world. Regardless of the reasons, though, insularity meant that any reforms the communities made lived and died within the community walls and never had the opportunity to affect the larger world. While open communities still exist, exclusivity was a tenet of many utopian experiments.
These communities often revolved around a central figure—an Ann Lee or a John Humphrey Noyes— especially if religion provided the foundation for the utopia and the leader held specific theological authority. The first problem with this is that, in some communities, the life span of the experiment paralleled the life span of the leader. When the leader died, so, too, did the utopia. This meant that the experiment did not last long enough to experience growth and maturity, and its message rarely had any lasting impact. Surely in the ideal world the truth the members sought would be more permanent, less transient than the life of a man or a woman.
The power of these experimental community leaders, coupled with the isolation of the colonies, also leads to another potential downfall of utopian thinking: the cult of personality. One contemporary example illustrates this well. Jim Jones (1931-1978) was a Protestant minister in the United States, preaching particularly in Indianapolis, Indiana, and Ukiah and San Francisco, California. After officials began to investigate his alleged misuse of church money, Jones convinced a thousand of his followers to go to Guyana with him and create an experimental utopian community named Jonestown, after its leader. At one level, the community did seem Eden-like; its members came from different races, classes, and age groups to form a cooperative, faith-based, self-sufficient community in the wilds of an exotic land. But if the charismatic Jones had power before, it was doubled after his followers left the larger world behind in favor of the insulated settlement. Eventually, the paranoid Jones convinced his followers to commit mass suicide in 1978, and he followed by taking his own life. Many members went to Guyana in the hopes of developing an alternative community that would serve as an example to the rest of the world; the experimental paradise devolved into a cult of personality that ended up costing more than 900 lives. Certain utopian visions can lead to dangerous cults of personality with the potential for violence.
A Vision of Hope
The impact of these tragic utopias is the exception, however, and not the rule. In fact, the chief criticism of utopian thought is not that it has dangerous outcomes, but rather that it is rarely acted upon. If no society recreates Plato’s Republic or More’s Utopia, does this mean that the authors failed in their utopian quest? The saving grace of the utopian impulse is not in the details, but in the big picture. The one thing that unites all forms of utopianism, from sermons to literature to communities, is hope. None of the utopian theorists would have bothered with lengthy books or dangerous revolutions or challenging community experiments if they believed that the system in which they found themselves could not be changed for the better. Some might not have given their audience blueprints for how to implement their ideas, but all assumed that criticizing the status quo and/or suggesting what kind of better world could exist was a worthy use of their time. Even the dystopians with their gloomy and even frightening predictions of the future voiced their concerns so individuals had the time to make things better. The utopians believed ideas mattered and progress was possible. The question of what those ideas were, and what was meant by progress, pales in comparison to the realization that all utopians were and are, at heart, optimists. Over 2,000 years of unbroken optimism about the political process in all its forms and functions is a remarkable legacy for any theory.