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
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
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'état, 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
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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