Utopias, Visions and Realities

IssueMarch - June 2002
Feature by Andrew Rigby

Utopia - no place, a never-never land beyond the realm of everyday experience, a dream world that is unattainable, a fantasy vision to which people might like to fly in their dreams and escape the chains of reality.

Utopian was the pejorative term also used by Marxs associate Freidrich Engels to dismiss the work of early nineteenth century socialists like Robert Owen and Charles Fourier, who were naïve enough to believe that you could create a world based on the values of cooperation and human fulfilment without resorting to violence and bloody class struggle. These utopian socialists constitute one link in the historical chain of activist-visionaries who have searched for a non-authoritarian way to create a new society, relying above all on the power of example believing that if you could create an ideal society in microcosm, then this would act as an exemplar which others would follow in the pursuit of their ideals.

Means and ends

One of the most articulate advocates of this communitarian nonviolent approach to social transformation was Martin Buber. He argued that it was the Marxists that were utopian, in the sense of being out of touch with reality deluded. He pointed to the complete disjunction between the perfect world of freedom and equality to which authoritarian socialists might pay homage, and the violent and coercive means they believed necessary to bring about such a realm. Echoing Gandhi and others, Buber emphasised the importance of maintaining a continuity between means and ends, refusing to accept that in our reliance on the future leap, we have to do now the direct opposite of what we are striving for. In words that still have a resonance, he urged that we must create here and now the space now possible for the thing for which we are striving, so that it may come to fulfilment then.

A flawed fantasy?

Buber believed that the kibbutz movement, in what was to become Israel, constituted the most significant example of such a movement. In his contribution in this issue of Peace News, Uri Davis details how Bubers dream has been poisoned. As in so many historical examples, the practice has proven to be corrupt and has fallen far short of the original inspirational vision. But does that mean the vision, any vision, is worthless a flawed fantasy? Surely now, more than ever, the people of Palestine - Jews and Arabs - need hope.

But as the violence and terror perpetrated by Israelis and Palestinians continues, the seeds for hope are becoming increasingly difficult to find.

There are many who do have a vision of a shared future based on equal rights for all in Israel/Palestine. This is a utopian vision, in the sense of being beyond the realm of everyday reality, stretching the parameters of what seems possible at the present time.

But it is only by holding on firmly to such a dream that activists on both sides can continue to struggle and to hope.

This is the function of utopias - to provide us with a vision that tests the boundaries of our mundane world, to inspire us with hope for an alternative future, and thereby act as a guide for our actions in the here-and-now, helping us to create the changes required to enable the dream to be fulfilled.

Practical idealism

Gandhi described himself as a practical idealist. He was also one of the best historical examples of the visionary-activist.

Writing in 1927 he confessed to his utopian mentality, the refusal to submit to the total embrace of the world-as-it-is in his quest to realise his dream of a world permeated by truth and nonviolence.

He wrote, This scheme may sound utopian. I however prefer to live in this utopia of my imagination to trying to live up to the unbridled licence of a society that I see tottering to its disruption. It is surely given to individuals to live their own utopias even though they may not be able to see them accepted by society. (Young India, 17 November 1927).

In this issue Jenny James recalls her efforts to live her own utopia, to construct a personal and a communal life in accordance with deeply held beliefs and values.

In her account one can sense the tensions between the impulse to withdraw from the violence of the world in order to create a healthy human environment a haven for herself, her children and her community and the concern to engage with the injustices of the world.

Imposing blueprints

It is, of course, one thing for individuals to live their own utopias, and to try and persuade others to emulate them in their own fashion. The danger and the horror lies in the attempts by people to impose their own utopia on others.

A dear friend in Cambodia once challenged me about Gandhi, arguing that Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge cadres had been every bit as idealistic and utopian as Gandhi. They wanted to start a new phase of history, to transform Cambodia and its people and create a perfect communist society based on the values of collective self-reliance, equality and cooperation. The result was the auto-genocide of their own people in the years between 1975 and 1979a terrible reminder of the violence and the totalitarianism that are necessary dimensions of all blueprints which seek to order the lives of others without their informed consent.

Legacies remain

Utopias as visions of alternative ways of living and relating are always conceived in relation to the conditions of the existing society. As such they can be read as expressions of the unrealised and unfulfilled needs of their age. But some themes seem to recur throughout the ages, and we can still find inspiration in the dreams and visions of long ago.

More than 350 years ago a young man called Gerrard Winstanley led a small group of people in occupying a plot of common land in the south of England, declaring that God had created the earth to be a common treasury for all.

As Andrew Bradstock recounts in his contribution, their venture lasted only a short while before being quashed by the forces of the state and the landed gentry.

But their legacy remains to inspire contemporary visionary-activists who grasp the intimate relationship between how we treat each other and how we treat nature. History reveals that again and again the utopians of one generation have proven to be the prophetic realists to which subsequent generations have turned for insight and inspiration in tackling the paramount issues that confront them, because what they possess in abundance is that faculty of creative imagination and moral courage that is so lacking in most of us.

Envisaging the future

Too many of us lack the ability to envisage an alternative human order beyond some materialistic paradise achieved through the maximisation of economic growth and personal wealth. We are unable to envisage a world of perfect freedom and fellowship, a true commonwealth. That is why utopias (and utopians) are so important to inspire and enhance the visionary powers that have been atrophied in so many of us. They enable us to begin to see beyond the confines of the present and to anticipate alternative futures in both our dreams and our actions. They help us in summoning up the courage to move beyond saying no to the violence that surrounds and threatens us, and in affirming our faith in the human capacity to create a future fit for all, and in seeking to embody that faith in our daily lives.

Topics: Utopias