Screed on the Politics of Utopianism

by Ralph Dumain

(with caveat)

Dear editors:

The November 1989 issue was my first exposure to your review, and I am most impressed.  I was particularly stimulated by John Crowley's "The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart."  I didn't think there was anything more that anyone could say about utopias, but Crowley delivered some new insights. Among them, Crowley fruitfully suggests that Comenius’ two realms "are not truly opposed" but "are simply two aspects of a single undertaking, or attempt: the attempt to cancel out the complexities and ambiguities of the civilizations we are born with, and to live, instead, in simpler possibilities," and adds the observations that the particular utopias conceived from Thomas More on are repugnant to our contemporary sensibilities and that the people that populate them are less than real.

Crowley also claims that utopians are not just social critics who uphold standards of human possibility against the shortcomings of existing societies but people who are looking for an excuse to indulge in fiction (not unlike religion, I would add).  This is probably true of the more questionable utopians, but it could not be true of all, especially of those who actually tried to set up utopian socialist communes in real life.  But obvious utopianism aside, Crowley would tar with the brush of "utopia" any attempt to make radical changes in society, even on the part of people with a more realistic world view.  This has the danger of encouraging social conservatism.  More serious than Crowley's failure to make some potentially useful distinctions, I think that Crowley's otherwise admirable analysis is inadequate on three counts: (1) failure to concretize the real world politics of utopians, (2) lack of understanding of the Russian Revolution, (3) failure to distinguish the authentic from the dubious functions of fantasy.

(1) The most questionable utopians are like religionists: they are hypocrites who fantasize about a pie-in-the-sky world while in real life are the most disgusting reactionaries. 

Thomas More was no man for all seasons; he was a reactionary agent of the Catholic Church whose execution was richly deserved. The real deal was a power struggle between the Church trying to hold on to its property and power and the Johnny-come-lately monarchs coming into their own and throwing off the foreign shackles of Church power.  The Catholic Church canonizes its "martyrs": its "saints" are the fallen soldiers who have died in very earthly power struggles against competing economic interests.

Aldous Huxley envisioned not only a negative utopia but a less known positive one: Island.  Huxley was an upper middle class mystic and pacifist, spinning out elitist schemes for piecemeal social engineering (Ends and Means) but staying aloof from real social struggle.  His pacifist convictions were tested by World War II, which he conveniently spent in Hollywood, since Europe was too dangerous for a pacifist.  In sum, a hypocritical crackpot.

B.F. Skinner is the author of a utopian novel, Walden Two.  At least one 1960s commune was inspired by his ideas.  In real life, his behavioral conditioning is an unscrupulous instrument of mind control.  Politically, Skinner could be called a liberal, i.e. a social democrat, but in essence he is a social fascist. One could go on and on, but I think you will find that many utopians (including science fiction writers) exhibit this familiar pattern of idealistic fantasies and reactionary politics.  This can happen, because like religion, utopianism severs any possible connection between means and ends, between the now and the hereafter.  Those who profit off of social conflict seek to disguise the nature of their society by arbitrarily positing a society without conflict, without suffering, without human personality.

(2) It was Karl Marx who threw a monkey wrench into utopian fantasizing.  Marx intellectually thrashed Proudhon's utopian arbitrariness (The Poverty of Philosophy).  Marx explicitly refused to speculate on the socialist society of the future (no "recipes for the cookshops of the future"), but it most surely would not be a simplistic society, or a cocoon shielded from the pains of life.  The kind of conflict that would come to an end would be the antagonisms engendered by a society divided into social classes, but humans would not turn into drooling goody-goody Lotus Land robots.  Marx tried to find some strategy for realizing the socialist future based on understanding and dealing with the conditions of the present.  Whether or not you think this is ultimately practicable, you cannot simply label it as utopian in Crowley's sense.

Engels continued along similar lines, as revealed in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific.  By the turn of the century, the world had changed significantly, and Lenin had to come up with a new strategy.  It is patently false to assert as Crowley does that the Russian Revolution of 1917 was born out of utopianism (any more than the American or French revolutions).

The Old Bolsheviks did have lofty social ideals which they sought to realize through practical politics.  Circumstances were not very kind to the fledgling USSR.  The Western European revolution never materialized, and an isolated poverty-stricken underdeveloped USSR was in a desperate predicament.  Under those circumstances, Stalin maneuvered himself into a position of total control, where he despotically conducted a crash program of industrialization.  In the early 1930s, many of the older party members were removed from preeminent positions of power.  Many of these were the more idealistic types who had lived experience of their revolutionary ideals.  Ironically, many of them were not from the proletarian or peasant strata, while their replacements, who really came from the peasantry and proletariat, were not idealists but upwardly mobile pragmatists (people of Krushchev's ilk).  By 1938, Stalin had exterminated the Old Bolshevik leaders along with his other victims.  The newer party functionaries could hardly be considered utopians.  Utopian, non-utilitarian ideas were not tolerated from the early thirties through the Stalin era and afterwards (unless one considers the imagery of the "new Soviet man" utopian, but even that was strictly utilitarian).  (See Soviet Marxism by Herbert Marcuse on Soviet hostility to transcendence.)

(3) The utopianism present in science fiction also disguises reactionary politics, as evidenced by the following examples.

H.G. Wells as a Fabian socialist was a mere social democrat.  Lenin called him a philistine.  Trotsky referred to his Outline of History as devoid of methodology and any systematic understanding of history.  Wells was also a constructor of utopias.  He was of course a futurist, and his futurism became ever more fanatical and escapist when he could see no practical way out of the nightmare of the 1930s.  Was Wells anything more than an intellectual dilettante?

The sickening utopian outer space mysticism of Arthur C. Clarke has always turned my stomach.  What useful information does 2001 reveal?  Childhood's End smacks of fascism to me under the guidance of benevolence, although I'm sure that Clarke is a good white liberal.  Clarke is also a socially irresponsible futurist fantasizer.

Then there is one of the most despicable human beings in the sorry annals of American science fiction: the fascist redneck Robert A. Heinlein.  His utopian exercise, Stranger in a Strange Land, fooled a lot of people, and became consecrated by many in the 1960s counterculture, though its elitist and manipulative world view is more a prefigurement of Charles Manson and Jim Jones.  The public was fooled by the seemingly avant-garde nature of communal sex arrangements, though the same concept and the same world view can be found in the original reactionary utopia: Plato's Republic.

Crowley also begins to question the ideological function of science fiction, and he suspects that science fiction, rather than teaching us how to be different, "is chiefly indulging in possibilities for their own sakes,"  and that this craving for novelty might be a "neurotic symptom."  Bravo!  I think Crowley has gotten to the bottom of my instinctive disgust for science fiction buffs.  Most of them seem to me like philosophically superficial overgrown adolescents.

Crowley indiscriminately lumps together and criticizes all makers of science fiction and fantasy.  Because his approach is so abstract and schematic, he fails to make concrete political analyses of science fiction authors as I sketched above.  That same schematic approach also fails to distinguish between the different types and goals of fantasy and to explain its positive functions.  Firstly, the human mind in its abstractive capacity functions indirectly: fantasy can be a roundabout, in fact indispensable, means of analyzing existing reality.  Secondly, some creators of fantasy, including science fiction, really are interested in revealing human possibilities.  This is how I would distinguish useless escapism and intellectual superficiality from really imaginative and intellectually inspiring works: the best science fiction and fantasy is that which is based upon the most profound decomposition and conceptualization of existing reality. That is, it knows how to abstract productively.

Which is why some possibilities excite me and others are just disguised versions of the same everyday ideological nonsense.  In fantasy, I have long been nauseated by the medieval Teutonic world view of Tolkien and countless others.  There is something profoundly antagonistic to human emancipation in such views of the world. In science fiction, the only authors I follow are Samuel R. Delany and Stanislaw Lem.  I hope that someone can point out to me other writers that are worthy of my attention, but I am very hard to please.  Delany is one of the greatest living geniuses; I just pray that that pretentious deconstructionist drivel doesn't rot his brain.  Most of his fans are unworthy of him, and I don't think that he is aware of the enormous intellectual distance that separates him from the rest of the S-F pack, especially the cyberpunk white trash.

Anyway, thanks Mr. Crowley, but please make your analysis more politically and theoretically precise.

Written 25 November 1989

SOURCE: Dumain, Ralph. "Screed" column [letter to the editor on the politics of utopianism], The New York Review of Science Fiction, no. 17 [vol. 2, no. 5], January 1990, pp. 21-22.

The prior article referenced is:

Crowley, John. "The Labyrinth of the World and the Paradise of the Heart," The New York Review of Science Fiction, no. 15 [vol. 2, no. 3], November 1989, p. 1[-?].

New site: Volume 2. Old site: no. 15; no. 17.

Postscript 1

From a private letter, 10 September 1993:

The New York Review of Science Fiction published a little article of mine, actually a long letter, on the relationship between utopianism and reactionary politics.  In retrospect, I would have written this piece with a little more subtlety.  It is a bit too schematic and over-argumentative. However, it does bring up the question, to what extent the imaginative impulses of science fiction and utopian thinking are emancipatory or merely escapist or even conservative.  I gave only the negative side of the issue in this piece.  I never got around to writing an article on my own positive views on the character of imagination.

Postscript 2

I am extremely embarrassed by this piece.  I am publishing it only because I have cause to refer to it from time to time and it does sketch out a matter of recurrent concern, however crudely.  I think the last time I wrote this way was in 1990.  My subsequent intense engagement with intellectual history and self-expression resulted in a relaxation of the severe schematism in evidence here and permitted the public expression (one is always more flexible in one’s own head) of a more fully fleshed out analytical framework.  Hopefully, you can discern the conceptual structure of what I attempted to articulate here:

(1) the relation between reality and fantasy,

(2) the mutual interdependence of the comprehension of actuality and the ability to imagine alternative (utopian) possibilities,

(3) different possible conceptual relationships between actuality and possibility, i.e. to distinguish analytically the ‘authentic from the dubious functions of fantasy’,

(4) the interdependence of a certain kind of utopian fantasy with reactionary politics and world views,

(5) the self-deception of a species of fantasy or utopianism, in science fiction as elsewhere.

My examples are bound to be surprising at first glance: Thomas More and Aldous Huxley are not commonly thought to have been villains, and are likely to be held up as heroes.  There are those who object to Skinner, but he was also once chosen Humanist of the Year.  The dark side of H.G. Wells may not be immediately apparent to some. Huxley’s case could be considered more paradoxical than the others and thus deserves a more elaborated treatment, esp. viz. the need to dissect the questionable metaphysical analysis of society and the ‘perennial philosophy’ so dear to New Agers.  Wells and Huxley in any case contributed something to human culture, so the paradox of their contributions requires further explanation. The question of the ‘utopianism’ of the Bolsheviks may not be so cut-and-dried, even if one discounts the anti-communist propaganda against utopianism now in vogue.  I questioned some of the heroes of science fiction—Wells, Clarke, Heinlein—as well as the medieval fantasy of Tolkien.  At best, one can get a glimpse of the problem I see in the underlying relationship between actuality and fantasy in the thought of all of these figures.  Unfortunately, I did not get to elaborate the underlying logic I see at work in these cases.  The topic of the relation between actuality and imagination has surfaced in philosophical discussion over the years. Hopefully one day I will be able to elaborate my ripened thoughts in print.


Gouldner, Alvin. Enter Plato: Classical Greece and the Origins of Social Theory. New York: Basic Books, 1965.

Jacoby, Russell. The End of Utopia: Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. New York: Basic Books, 1999.

Jacoby, Russell. Picture Imperfect: Utopian Thought for an Anti-Utopian Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

(1 August 2006)

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