Science Fiction Studies

#30 = Volume 10, Part 2 = July 1983


Artur Blaim

Encounters with Utopia

Jerzy Szacki. Spotkania z Utopia Warsaw: Iskry, 1980. 220pp. 26 zts.

The traditional bias of Polish culture towards the past accounts for the rather small number of native utopias and utopian studies. Szacki's Spotkania z Utopia (Encounters with Utopia) is a welcome addition to the relatively short list. In fact, the book is a completely revised and expanded version of an earlier work entitled Utopie (Utopias), first issued in Polish in 1968 and then in a translated version in Brazil (Utopias ou a felicidate imaginada: Rio de Janeiro, 1972). It is, according to the author, an introduction to the problem of utopia rather than a thorough survey of utopian studies. Szacki's sociological interests determine his approach to the problem: he sees utopia in terms of a sociological phenomenon rather than as a literary text.

As in any study of this kind, he begins with an attempt at a definition of utopia. Szacki looks for a very broad definition transcending the notion of utopia as a literary form so as to encompass texts depicting ideal lands, descriptions of the Golden Age, projects of perfect constitutions, and systems of institutions aimed at eradicating existing evils. All these differ only in their forms of expression while sharing the underlying mode of thinking about the world. Thus for Szacki the essence of utopia consists in the specific mode of thinking and not in any specific literary form.

Having established the general terms of his discussion, Szacki considers utopia as an impossible dream, as an ideal, as an experiment, and as an alternative. The conception of utopia as an impossible dream corresponds most fully to the popular understanding of it but is of little use in any discussion of utopia as a social phenomenon because it assumes negative evaluation before the proper study even begins: in political life, for example, the word utopia functions almost as an invective. Nevertheless, every political project or program contains a grain of the impossible (utopian), and the particular utopian solutions have sooner or later been implemented.

Utopia as an ideal refers to "all visions of a better society no matter whether they have any chance of being realized" (p. 21). Thus, everyone who cherishes a great social ideal or has far-reaching objectives is a utopist. This conception of utopia is also of little use in actual research because in accordance with it any thinking man may be regarded as a utopist, and so this formulation identifies utopia with ideology.

The concept of utopia as an experiment derives from Ernst Mach, who compared a utopist to a scientist conducting an experiment in order to find out all the consequences of a given hypothesis. Thus More's Utopia demonstrates what happens when private property is abolished, The New Atlantis depicts the consequences of a broad application of scientific knowledge, etc.

Szacki's own understanding of utopia contains various elements of all these definitions. In accordance with its etymology, utopia refers to a place that does not exist. There is a permanent and deep chasm between utopia and reality. The utopist is never satisfied with the world as it is; he dreams of and projects future changes.

Utopias are often impossible dreams, but they sometimes bring about the downfall of kingdoms and empires. But the majority of utopists do not want to destroy the existing order by force. Nevertheless, they differ from the reformists, who accept the old as the basis of the new order, in questioning the old order in the name of the new.

Marxist communism, even though it proposes a vision of a radically new society opposed to capitalism and rejecting reformist solutions, is not, according to Szacki, to be identified with utopianism. Marxism, he maintains, breaks away from utopianism both in theory and practice. Its critique of utopianism concentrates on three issues. First of all, utopists, in creating ideal commonwealths on the basis of abstract ideas of nature, justice, freedom, equality, etc., disregard the problem of whether there is anything in their own societies to justify the hope of implementing these ideas. Second, the vision of the future society does not take into account the means and conditions of its formation or social forces capable of implementing it. Finally, utopists have a naive faith in the possibility of planning every detail of the perfect society in advance.

Yet, despite all their differences, Marxism and utopianism share the ideal of a good society, and the controversy between them centers on the ways of formulating and implementing this ideal. In fact, in its evolution Marxism has oscillated between the reformist emphasis on the means regardless of the ideal and the utopian yearning for the ideal regardless of the means.

Oppositional pairs have been formed of utopia and realism, utopia and myth, utopia and ideology, utopia and science, and so forth. In terms of Szacki's conception, utopia is juxtaposed to conservatism and to any spontaneous changes in social life.

Along with different conceptions of utopia go different topologies. The plurality of topologies suggests the polymorphism of the phenomenon of utopia and the possibility of viewing it from different angles. Following Mumford, Szacki distinguishes between escapist and heroic utopias, and adds further subdivisions: escapist utopias comprise utopias of place, time, and eternal order, whilst among heroic utopias he includes monastic ones.

Utopia of place is the most common classic form and the one most readily identified with the concept itself. This form is inseparably bound up with travel literature, not only temporally (the Renaissance explosion of utopias corresponds to the Age of Discovery) but also in its fascination with novelty, a passion for comparison, a belief that everything is possible in this world, and the belief in earthly paradise.

This variety of utopia undergoes a certain evolution from Renaissance fantasylands to the 18th-century idealization of the "Noble Savage." The element of confrontation of the two worlds grows in importance; detailed circumstantial evidence gives way to the presentation of a general philosophical idea underlying the perfect society, utopia opens up and becomes a norm acceptable to all mankind. It is necessary not to live exactly like the "Noble Savage" but to observe natural laws as he does. The epoch of revolutions puts an end to the traditional utopias of place. After the 19th century, they appear very rarely, and then always as stylizations.

Szacki does not fully support the popular opinion that the appearance of utopia of time corresponds to the end of the age of great geographical discoveries and the replacement of the distance in space by distance in time. A more potent factor was the emergence of the idea of progress. Yet the reasons Szacki gives for the shift towards the utopia of time do not seem to be adequate. Considering only external factors, he says nothing of the immanent evolution of utopia as a genre, especially the automatization of its spatial model of the world. He also does not mention the fact that the orientation towards the future is inherent in every utopia, even that of place. After all, the presentation of the perfect commonwealth is a presentation of the desired future state of one's own world. Both distance in space and distance in time are thus variants of a more fundamental opposition appearing in all utopias--namely, the physical distance from the ideal--and this can be realized in either spatial or temporal terms.

Utopias of time past, Szacki maintains, appear both in popular consciousness and in the history of human thought. Many religious systems contain myths of "paradise lost," a "golden age," and the like. Then, too, utopian concepts are often reflected in such expressions of everyday speech as "before the war," "before the revolution," etc.

Utopias of the future arrive for the first time with medieval millenarianism. They reappear, in a different form, in the 18th century, with the advent of the new faith in progress. However, only those philosophies of progress are utopian in which the happy future stands in opposition to the wretched present. There must as well be a definite social ideal to be reached at some moment in the future; faith in constant improvement is not enough.

Szacki observes a certain ambivalence in all theories of progress: on the one hand, there are claims that the road to perfection can have no end, and on the other, there is a tendency to depict history as having a last stage, and as therefore something finite if not static. Thus utopia's relationship with history is also ambivalent: "history is good because it leads to the realization of the idea, but it is also bad because it leaves no room for anything permanent and stable" (p. 98)--and hence no dynamic or "open" utopia is possible.

According to Szacki, the utopia of eternal order sometimes appears as the basis of traditional utopias of time or place, but often it exists independently. It dispenses with plot and the convention of the "speaking picture," and instead introduces a set of desirable social values or institutions directly opposed to those of the author's world--e.g., Platonic Ideas, Chinese Tao, Stoic Nature, Christian God. These can function as `the underlying principles of the perfect societies depicted in literary utopias, which often provide a standard for judging the present by invoking an ideal existing beyond time and place.

Yet the validity of Szacki's conception of the utopia of eternal order seems dubious. The underlying principles he refers to are phenomena of a different order than their actual realisations in particular texts; and to treat those general principles or ideas in the way he does, as if they were synonymous with utopia itself, is both confusing and unjustified: it makes the very concept of utopia so broad as to lose any specific meaning.

Utopias of place, time, and eternal order are all escapist utopias inasmuch as they do not propose any program of action to radically ameliorate existing social evils. They only suggest and propose a certain mode of thinking about social phenomena, their understanding and evaluation. Szacki maintains that the very structure of many of these utopias involving a journey in time or space excludes any formulation of practical suggestions and can only indirectly postulate a need for action. But he does not seem to be accurate here either. Regarded in structural terms, utopias of time and place need not be escapist, even if we accept Szacki's understanding of the term. Moreover, the image of the perfect commonwealth of some other time or place may also contain a list of measures leading up to its implementation. In fact, many such utopias describe the moment of the instituting of the perfect order, sometimes in detail (as in Harrington's Oceana, Vairasse's The History of the Sevarambians, or Mercier's L'An 2240). Besides, the myth of the great law-giver points to an obvious way of implementing the perfect order.

In Szacki's typology, the escapist utopia finds its counterpart in the heroic one. The opposition between ideal and reality becomes, in the heroic utopia, the opposition between people following the ideal and the rest of the society. This act of practical negation may manifest itself in a variety of ways: it may be aimed at transforming the entire society; or, when this is deemed impossible, a handful of the just may follow the ideal. The latter type Szacki calls the monastic utopia because monastic life constitutes its best-known and most significant example.

The monastic utopia does not offer an alternative to existing political programs: leaving the old order to its own fate and ignoring politics in general, it establishes a brand new society. The same utopian principle is at work among various social groups or classes whose mythologies and ideologies present themselves as the only embodiment of all values, Szacki admits that this phenomenon differs considerably from what is found in the classic utopia but argues that the essential similarity consists in the fact that a given group is assigned virtues which the rest of the people lack.

Szacki gives the relationship between practical politics and utopia a more thorough treatment when he turns to the phenomenon which he, somewhat paradoxically, calls the utopia of politics. A politician makes a choice between the alternatives manifest in the existing order, whereas utopist rejects the existing order as a matter of principle. The one chooses among competing variants of reality, the other confronts the real with the ideal. However, there are situations when utopia and politics come into contact. A utopist, for example, may be given a chance to implement his or her ideal; and conversely, some political theories may assume the possibility of a transition from reality to the ideal, or of a radical change that leads to the establishing of the perfect order. In traditional utopias, change of that kind was brought about by the great law-giver. Today the myth of the great law-giver has given way to the myth of revolution; and the traditional opposition of real and ideal has accordingly been reformulated as one between the pre-revolutionary and the postrevolutionary state.

The utopia of politics is produced by a combination of utopia and revolution which brings the ideal into the realm of practical possibility. Of course, not all utopias are revolutionary, nor all revolutions utopian. The borderline is marked by the concept of the transition period. The less this transition period is taken into account the more utopian a given revolution appears.

Utopian tendencies are also present in the realm of politics. Their role in the consciousness of common people is always significant: there is a constant tendency to place great hopes for a radical change in every political undertaking. A change of government, coup d'tat, or constitutional alteration usually inspires a utopian mood among large groups of citizens. Yet, despite these hopes, utopias suffer the fate of all ideologies: they give man values worth struggling for; but since they cannot guarantee the power and knowledge needed to implement them, man's actions aimed at establishing utopian order always differ from, and usually fall short of, the adopted ideal.

Any utopia which aspires to mass following must be so general as to enable everyone to project his or her own vision of perfect order into it. Conversely, the victory of the revolution makes it necessary to specify the details of the program, and this in turn alienates many of its original adherents. Revolution does not mean breaking down the wall between ideal and reality, but perpetually striving for a social ideal which must never be reached because reaching it would result in stagnation and the death of the society. The true revolutionary regards that ideal as a standard for evaluating social realities rather than as a practical objective.

Szacki points out that the most violent critique of the very idea of utopianism followed in the wake of the French Revolution: a new project, no matter how reasonable, cannot be superior to what has evolved in the course of history. Society is an organism, not a mechanism. An organism simply is: it develops, goes through various stages, and dies, but it cannot be improved. Conservative critics of utopia alleged that utopianism does not take into account the nature of social life, which is too complex for any simple general principles to apply. Behind such a critique of utopia there are two motives: the danger of utopian values' turning into their opposites, and fears about whether the perfect society is going to function according to the plan.

The shortcomings of the approach that Szacki bases on the broad conception of utopia come to the fore when he turns his attention to the negative utopia. In order to discuss it on the same level as other varieties of utopia, he maintains that the negative utopia transcends the limits of a mere formal (literary) construct because what is heaven for some may be hell for others. This argument, however, applies to virtually all utopias, any of which is not only potentially but also actuary (for some people) a dystopia. For that reason the negative utopia must be thought of as a phenomenon of the same order as other utopian types; and Szacki, in holding otherwise, seems to have confused the perspective of the author (or participant in a utopian community) with that of the reader (or external observer). What is more, no negative utopia can exist outside literature from the point of view of its author or founder.

The roots of many anti-utopias lie in ideological struggle, in the attempts to make the enemy's ideal repulsive and totally unacceptable. Negative utopias are often used to affirm the existing order by demonstrating the absurdity of the alternative. They frequently employ the traditional utopian formula: a critique of a given order by exaggerating some of its features to absurd proportions. Szacki gives the following final assessment of anti-utopias:

Negative utopias seem to be utopias in the full meaning of the word, though utopias of a very special kind. If we disregard their possible uses as a means of conservative or reformist propaganda, they may be regarded as conscious or unconscious manifestations of the need for a better life which is experienced even by people who cannot find it out for themselves. (p. 183)

The modern proliferation of anti-utopias has led some critics to proclaim the end of utopia. Szacki does not subscribe to this view, which, he argues, derives from inadequate knowledge or outright ignorance of other cultures (e.g., the Third World). At the same time, he points to futurology as having taken over some of the functions of classic utopias, and also to the number of proper utopias that have appeared in recent years. But while futurology, like utopia, turns to the realm of unrealized possibilities, it investigates the future implications of the existing order. Futurologists deal with processes, utopists with radical changes. Therefore, the development of futurology cannot be seen as a revival of utopianism. In fact, the advances in futurology make life more difficult for utopists by restricting the imaginative range of their speculations and ideas.

Nevertheless, in Szacki's opinion utopianism does survive in contemporary world, although it has undergone significant transformations. It has rediscovered a fascination with unprecedented possibilities of science, technology, and the "global" organization of life. This is connected with a tendency towards what might be called the utopia of scientific organization, wherein the utopia becomes a matter of (a long) process rather than a reified state resulting from a sudden "leap" into the realm of perfection. On the other hand, some of the "new utopians" have abandoned the macro-world to explore man's inner self and to reconstruct the basic relations among human beings. The resultant type, the utopia of human self-realization, is polymorphic and cannot be reduced to any ready-made formula. Opposed to all ideological systems, its main concern is to discover a new basis for inter-human relationships, not in laws but in feelings and sympathy. It demonstrates the continuing relevance of a utopian impulse made more acute by the fact that none of the changes in his material circumstances in the last two centuries has made man significantly happier.

In his concluding remarks, Szacki looks at the conditions generally considered as favorable to utopian thinking. He does not fully accent the common belief that utopian activity abounds in periods of violent revolutionary changes, whereas social and political stability brings it to a halt. Indeed, he rejects the notion that periods of absolute stability in fact exist; for even in a time of relative stability there are always groups of dissatisfied individuals opposing the existing system and its norms. To be sure, dissident ideas have their best chance to spread in the days of radical changes, but utopia thus points both to the decline of the old system of social organization and to the presence of forces capable of overcoming it.

Because it offers a mystified vision of the society in terms of the conflict between the opposing forces of good and evil, justice and injustice, utopia may be regarded as a form of "false consciousness." However, even utopian simplification has its functions: it gives people some stable orientation amid confusion and chaos. Hence, the historical significance of utopia depends "on the extent to which it is capable of impressing on the (existing) social consciousness the idea of the questionable character of the existing order and the necessity of making a choice between it and some other, alternative order" (p. 207).

Utopia, Szacki believes, can be destroyed only by a change in the reality which gave rise to it. He does not mean that utopia can be overcome only by its realization, but his argument is compatible with that paradox. Unrealized utopias persist regardless of the "rational" arguments directed against them.

Most of the shortcomings of Spotkania z Utopia come from Szacki's paying too little attention to the fundamental difference between utopia as a mode of thought and utopia as a literary genre which cannot be reduced to the status of irrelevant dressing for social and political messages. After all, the significance of the highly ambivalent ideas introduced in More's Utopia (to take the most obvious example) is different from utopian projects of James Harrington or Robert Owen. Indeed, the analysis of utopias as literary works should always precede any serious discussion of their social or philosophical significance if the critic is to distinguish between elements of genre conventions and original social ideas. Nonetheless, the general nature of what Szacki has to say makes the consequences of his not observing this requirement less acute than they would be in a study that concentrates on particular texts. They certainly impair the validity of some of his theorizing, but they leave unaffected his many insights into the functioning of utopia in various areas of social life.


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