Course: Utopian Impulses, Utopian Visions, Utopian Realities

HC 431H

Professor: Joseph Fracchia

Visions of a world without poverty and injustice, a world of community and peace rather than dissension and war, are at least as old as recorded history. Such visions can be found, for example, in both the Judaic and Christian (the Catholic as well as the Protestant) traditions; in various 19th century experiments to build ‘utopian’ communities; among radical peasants in Southern Europe; obviously in the Marxist tradition (the Bible and The Communist Manifesto are said to be the two best-selling books in history); in the manifestos and communitarian experiments of the 1960s; and they are becoming more prevalent worldwide in the current context of capitalism in crisis. Despite great variation in these movements, all were/are devoted, in principle, to the creation of a society free of oppression, a society in which the material needs of all the inhabitants would be met, in which people governed themselves, and in which the free development of each would be the precondition of the free development of all. Such visions have generally been dismissed by the majority of self-proclaimed ‘realists’ who find ‘utopian visions’ unrealistic, impractical, unattainable, and ultimately dangerous.

It should be added that until recently such realists generally admitted the attraction of the vision with comments to the effect of “wouldn’t it be nice, but…” In this context, it seems rather disturbing that such visions have for so many ceased even to be attractive. This is partly an understandable result of the horrible history of 20th- century communism. But it is also a result of the recent degeneration of political discourse that has reduced terms such as “socialism”, “communitarianism”, and “communism” to curse words invoking the specter of ‘big government’, dictatorship, taxes, infringement on individual rights, and the gulag. It is nevertheless a sad irony of the present that although our world is hardly free of poverty, injustice, and war, we seem to have lost the capacity to imagine a better one. History, it seems, has stumbled into a cul-de-sac. TINA (the acronym coined in 1980s as an abbreviation for British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s comment that ‘there is no [better] alternative’ to the ‘private enterprise’, ‘free markets’, and the competitive market economy) is the order of the day. This sense was heightened after the 1 of the Soviet Union in 1989, when various commentators began speaking of the “end of history”; by this they meant that human freedom had been fully realized in contemporary capitalist democracies, that any qualitative change could only be regress, and that any visions of a qualitatively better alternative to the present are unrealizable and therefore dangerously deceptive. Even now, in the serious crises that have in the last couple years rocked the world economies, we seem only to hope for a return to the pre-crisis situation—the one out of which the crisis evolved.

Though visions of a better world are often disparaged as ‘utopian’ (literally: ‘no place’) and unrealistic, it should however be remembered that those committed to such visions do not consider them unattainable. The purpose of this course, therefore, is to study the ideas that have animated a selection of socialist and communitarian movements past and present in an attempt to understand their visions of the future and also why participants in such movements saw their “utopia” as a real possibility, not as “no place”, but rather as “not yet”. In so doing we will also address the crucial issue of what can happen in attempts to implement such visions of the future. Stalinism is but one example of atrocities committed in the name of the future (but certainly not the only one; the conquest, subjection, and decimation of the native inhabitants of the Americas and also the European and American slave trade are non-socialist examples of atrocities committed in the name of the future; and, to cover all tenses, Nazism is but one example of atrocities committed in the name of the past, and the atrocities of any dictator attempting to hold power an example of those committed in the name of the present.). With this in mind, we will try to understand the ideas that have made “utopian” movements such a powerful force, why and how “utopian thoughts” are embedded in most people’s views of the world, what, if anything, these ideas might contribute to the understanding of the present and to the development of alternative visions of the future, and we will struggle over the questions of whether various such ‘utopian’ visions of the future are theoretically feasible and practically possible.