The American Utopia

Eduard Batalov

Chapter IV


1. The Negative Utopia from Donnelly to Lewis

At every stage of its development the inherently contradictory tradition of utopian thought has encountered more or less active resistance. It has not been merely a clash of different temperaments, a debate between optimists and pessimists. It has also been. a clash of different political forces and different social ideals. "The concept utopia," the American scholar Frank E. Manuel writes, "has from the beginning been used in both a positive and a pejorative sense; it has connoted at the same time an ideal longed‑for and a crackpot scheme. The negation of the great dream has always constituted a parallel stream, from the very inception of utopian thought. The antiutopia was not the invention of Aldous Huxley and Zamiatin: after all, The Parliament of Women by Aristophanes was contemporaneous with Plato's Republic; More's Utopia produced a galaxy of mocking parodies." [1]

One could agree with this statement but for an element which, at first glance, appears purely semantic but proves to be quite important. Today's experts use—often indiscriminately—a variety of terms: "antiutopia", "negative utopia", "dystopia" and "cacotopia". Meanwhile, the history of utopia proves that these terms denote two different phenomena, and to confuse them means to distort the picture.

There are books which, unlike utopias with their image of a desired world, picture an undesirable world whose emergence must be prevented. It is very important that such works may accept the utopian quest, utopian ideals

1  Frank E. Manuel, "Toward a Psychological History of Utopias" in: Studies in Social Movements. A Social Psychological Perspective, Ed. by Barry McLaughlin, the Free Press, New York, 1969, p. 372.


and principles. These works are negative utopias, or dystopias ("bad place" in Greek). "Cacotopia" is synonymous with "dystopia".

But aside from these there are books which not only describe an undesirable world but also link its emergence to the very attempts to construct and implement a utopia. These books dispute and even negate utopia; they are antiutopias. One may debate which term should denote which phenomenon, but it is imperative to distinguish between them.

A negative utopia criticizes deviations from progress as seen by the utopians. And if its denunciations do deal a glancing blow to progress, it contains no radical negation of the latter. It is perhaps for this reason that a negative, often satyrical, [sic] utopia could exist side by side with a utopia within one and the same book. Conversely, antiutopia is a more or less pronounced negation of the very notion of progress, of the very striving to improve the world. And so the two phenomena differ quite substantially; to ignore this means to oversimplify the history of utopia, of the struggle of ideas and ideals.

The "parallel stream" Manuel refers to is made up not by antiutopias but by the negative utopia which was born simultaneously with utopia. And the works he mentions belong to the class of the negative utopia. Naturally, even some classical philosophers were skeptical of the attempts to improve man and society. But this skepticism could crystallize in the form of an antiutopia only given certain conditions which could not arise before it became clear that historical progress had a contradictory nature and that a striving to realize a utopia may entail far from pleasant consequences. This happened in the 20th century.

Some scholars who admit that antiutopia is a product of our times believe that it is rooted in the advances of science and technology. According to George Kateb, "antiutopianism . . . is a crystallization of a number of ideas, attitudes, opinions and sentiments that have existed for centuries. And it is nothing but the development of technology and the natural sciences that is responsible for the crystallization that has taken place". [1] Other authors (Fred Polak)

1  George Kateb, Utopia and Its Enemies, Schocken Books, New York, 1972, p. 3.


look for the roots of antiutopia in the political history of the modem age. [1]

Although in both cases authors speak of phenomena which have a bearing on the process under discussion, their approach appears too simplistic and superficial. Certainly, scientific and technological progress and political crises both are bound to influence the emergence of antiutopia. But the main causes were in‑depth historical processes, above all the general crisis of capitalism and all its consequences. This crisis signified a gradual decomposition of bourgeois civilization which inevitably produced qualitative changes in bourgeois historical consciousness and led to disillusionment in "reason" and "progress" among certain social groups who felt they were now treading shaky ground. Before the very spirit of social utopianism (and not merely specific utopian ideas) was called into question, before the striving to attain social Perfection encountered a skeptical reaction, before philosophers rejected utopia, progress and perfection on the grounds that the search for perfection led to destruction, bourgeois civilization had to enter a period of protracted but total and irreversible crisis.

In 1917 Pavel Novgorodtsev, a prominent Russian jurist and professor at Moscow University, wrote in his book On the Social Ideal: "Utopian hopes to find an ideal form of social organization have foundered. There is no political means which could give people immutable perfection of life once and for all.

"(1) We must abandon the notion of finding an Open Sesame which would show us the absolute form and point the way to paradise on Earth.

"(2) We must abandon the hope that in the near or distant future we might reach a blissful and happy epilogue of the earlier drama, the last and concluding period of history ....

"The experience of the 19th century has undermined the faith in the miraculous power of political change, in' its ability to usher in a heavenly reign of truth and good." [2]

This idea was subsequently echoed in different ways by many authors and philosophers, particularly Nicolas Ber

1  Fred L. Polak, The Image of the Future, Vol. 2, A. W. Sythoff, Leyden; Oceana Publications, New York, 1961.

2  P. I. Novgorodtsev, On the Social Ideal, p. 17 (in Russian).


diaeff who expressed it almost aphoristically. "Utopias," this Russian idealist wrote in his essay "Democracy, Socialism and Theocracy", "seem very much more realizable than we had formerly supposed. And now we find ourselves face to face with a question which is painful in quite a new way: How can we avoid their actual realization?

". . .Utopias are capable of realization. Life moves towards Utopia. And perhaps a new age is beginning in which the intellectuals and the cultured class will dream of methods of avoiding Utopia and of returning to a society that is not Utopian, that is less 'perfect' and more free." [1]

This was not simply one of the catch phrases for which Berdiaeff had a penchant, but an extremely succinct expression of the social mood certain strata of bourgeois society experienced upon entering a crisis; it was their social and political credo and, most importantly, the very essence of antiutopia. It was no accident that Aldous Huxley, an author of rare sensitivity to social change, used this quotation from Berdiaeff as the epigraph for his Brave New World.

Antiutopia expresses the crisis of historical hope, and the antiutopian is usually a disenchanted utopian. He would have loved to support the values extolled by many generations of utopians, all the more so because he himself harbors a utopian project which he hides guiltily. But the antiutopian no longer believes—is afraid to believe—that it is possible to create a free, happy and prosperous society. He is not only a disillusioned but also a despairing utopian for he is convinced that any attempt to put utopia into practice will lead to directly opposite results. And so he is against utopias and utopian experiments as such.

Critics of antiutopia justly blame it for some of the hostility toward utopia which emerged and became fairly widespread in the West in the 20th century and which contributed to the banishment of utopia from culture and political practice and to the spread of pessimistic, if not apocalyptic sentiments. I believe, however, that a purely negative attitude to antiutopia is as unjustified as the latter's purely negative attitude to utopia. After all, antiutopia is right in its assertion that attempts to translate utopia into

1  Quoted in: A. L. Morton, The English Utopia, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1952, p. 202.


practice very often lead to arbitrary and violent action against the laws of history, against nature and man and that therefore utopia should be rejected as a practical way of transforming society. Essentially, antiutopia soberly, albeit sometimes in extravagant terms, states the repeatedly proven fact that an arbitrarily constructed (and for this reason "perfect") model of society can usually be implemented only contrary to the natural course of developments—that is, also arbitrarily. Marx and Engels were well aware of this, and they resolutely opposed the practice of approaching social transformation as the realization of ideal (or perfect) projects constructed a priori. The founders of scientific communism invariably stressed that workers "have no ideals to realize, but to set free the elements of the new society with which old collapsing bourgeois society itself is pregnant".  [1]

But the distinctly negative attitude of Marx and Engels to attempts at implementing social utopias in practice did not prevent them from appreciating the role of individual utopians in the shaping of socialist consciousness and culture and from making use of their legacy in elaborating a scientific approach to history.

When an antiutopian banishes utopia not only from the sphere of sociopolitical. practice but also from the spiritual and intellectual sphere, trying to dismiss it as a phenomenon of culture, of consciousness, he, perhaps unwittingly, turns against the humanitarian principles, although their defense was perhaps the prime reason for the crusade against utopia launched by many other antiutopians. As a result, antiutopianism emerges as a sort of positivist tyranny which is no less dangerous than the tyranny of a utopian.

Let us now return to America and trace the genesis of the critical attitude to utopia.

In the opinion of some American literary critics, historians and sociologists, U.S. authors anticipated Yevgeni Zamiatin, Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, the classical threesome of European antiutopians, by more than a quarter century. They hold that the pioneers of this genre were Jack London, the author of The Iron Heel, and Ignatius

1  Karl Marx, "The Civil War in France" in: K. Marx and F. Engels, Selected Works, Vol. 2, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1976, p. 224.


Donnelly, a public figure almost forgotten today but very popular in the late 19th century, the author of several novels, including Caesar's Column.

"Obviously, Caesar's Column, though possessing definite characteristics of the utopian romance," W. B. Rideout, an American literary critic, writes, "stands more in the tradition of antiutopia, that tradition which has become characteristic of our own violent century and which has produced such books as Huxley's Brave New World and Orwell's 1984. As a novel it is certainly inferior to either of these two; yet all three are alike in being extrapolations into the future of major forces that each author sees operating in sinister fashion at the present time." [1] M. Fellman, a U.S. historian, is even more outspoken in his claim that Caesar's Column, the peak of Donnelly's literary effort, marked the death of utopia and the birth of antiutopia. [2]

Before taking up Huxley's and Orwell's novels, one should examine these assessments of works by American authors. It is not a matter of precedence, for precedence here is nothing to be proud of, but of historical accuracy. There is no doubt that The Iron Heel and especially Caesar's Column, as well as several books written in imitation of these novels, recorded new tendencies in American social consciousness and a new stage in the development of the utopian tradition and in the attitude to it. But was Donnelly really the first antiutopian and his novel, the first antiutopia? Or, to put it differently, did the United States of the late 19th century really develop conditions which gave rise to the antiutopian phenomenon?

Caesar's Column is set in the United States of 1988. Gabriel Weltstein, a Swiss colonist from Africa, arrives in New York and witnesses the collapse of civilization, the inevitable result, the author emphasizes, of developments over the past 100 years.

"There was a golden age once in America—an age of liberty; of comparatively equal distribution of wealth; of democratic institutions." [3] The United States used to be a country of "universal justice" which meant "equal oppor

1  Ignatius Donnelly, op. cit., p. XII.

2  M. Fellman, The Unbounded Frame, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1973.

3  Ignatius Donnelly, op. cit., p. 45.


tunities for all men and a repression by law of those gigantic abnormal selfishnesses which ruin millions for the benefit of thousands". However, several shortsighted and selfish generations gradually spoiled it all. "Now we have but the shell and semblance of all that. We are a Republic only in name; free only in forms.... The very assertions, constantly dinned in our ears by the hireling newspapers, that we are the freest people on earth, serve only to make our slavery more bitter and unbearable." [1] The social classes have become sharply polarized and so have power and wealth, which have come alienated from the people and usurped by a brutal and mercenary plutocracy led by a handful of international bankers, with a few score dictating to the entire nation. "This is the real center of government of the American continent; all the rest is sham and form. The men who meet here [in the home of the Prince of Cabano, the leader of the plutocrats] determine the condition of all the hundreds of millions who dwell on the great land revealed to the world by Columbus. Here political parties, courts, juries, governors, legislatures, congresses, presidents are made and unmade; and from this spot they are controlled and directed in the discharge of their multiform functions. The decrees formulated here are echoed by a hundred thousand newspapers, and many thousands of orators; and they are enforced by an uncountable army of soldiers, servants, tools, spies, and even assassins. He who stands in the way of the men who assemble here perishes. He who would oppose them takes his life in his hands.” [2] The plutocracy wallows in luxury, while at the opposite pole the workers are deprived of all rights and are doomed to poverty. Mistrust, suspicion and hatred are rampant. People "are suspicious, and properly so, of strangers, and even more so of each other". [3]

Donnelly paints a frightening picture of the degradation of the personality which afflicts this society at all levels. "The women, young and old, were much alike in some particulars . . . their jaws. . . were firmly developed, square like a soldier's. . . . The most peculiar features were their eyes. They had none of that soft, gentle, benevolent look . . .

1 Ibid.

2 Ibid., p. 62.

3 Ibid., pp. 30‑31.


their looks were bold, penetrating, immodest. . . .

"The chief features in the expression of the men were incredulity, unbelief, cunning, observation, heartlessness." [1] Here is the portrait of the leaders of the Brotherhood of Destruction set up by the desperate workers to fight against the system: "It was an extraordinary assemblage that greeted my eyes; a long array of stem faces, dark and toil-hardened, with great, broad brows and solemn or sinister eyes. . . .

"The large heads at one end of the line were matched by the large heads at the other. A great injustice, or series of wrongs, working through many generations, had wrought out results that in some sense duplicated each other. Brutality above had produced brutality below; cunning there was answered by cunning here; cruelty in the aristocrat was mirrored by cruelty in the workman. High and low were alike victims—unconscious victims—of a system." [2]

Donnelly goes to great lengths to convince the reader that the situation in the America of 1988 is irreversible and can no longer be corrected by reform—it's too late! The only way out is an uprising of those below who would be glad to rebuild the world and to restore its former virtues but who are unable to perform anything constructive. The only thing they can do is to bring about destruction, chaos, anarchy and death. "The rude and begrimed insurgents . . . do not mean to destroy the world; they will reform it—redeem it. They will not make it a world where there shall be neither toil nor oppression. But, poor fellows!

Their arms are more potent for evil than their brains for good. They are omnipotent to destroy; they are powerless to create." [3]

That is precisely what finally happens in 1988. The people rise. "Like a huge flood, long dammed up, turbulent, turbid, muddy, loaded with wrecks and debris, the gigantic mass broke loose, full of foam and terror, and flowed in every direction. A foul and brutal and ravenous multitude it was....

"A sullen roar filled the air as this human cyclone moved onward, leaving only wrecks behind it. . . .

Ibid., p. 15.

Ibid., pp. 148‑49.

Ibid., p. 258.

"That which it took the world ten thousand years to create has gone in an hour." [1]

Having exterminated the plutocrats (together with a multitude of innocent people) the insurgents finally turn against one another. Caesar Lomellini, the president of the Brotherhood of Destruction, who distinguished himself only by erecting a column of 250,000 corpses over which cement was poured, is assassinated. The vice-president, having stolen 100 million dollars, flees by airship to Palestine where he "proposes to make himself king in Jerusalem, and, with his vast wealth, re‑establish the glories of Solomon, and revive the ancient splendors of the Jewish race, in the midst of the ruins of the world". The dream of the insurgents was "to create order out of chaos and reconstruct society. But that dream is past". [2]

Donnelly's novel is valuable to the sociologist and the historian above all because it is a concentrated expression of the author's fears, of the trends in the development of American society at the end of the 19th century which, in his view, should be stopped so as to prevent the destruction of America and of civilization as a whole. Donnelly maintains that all evil is rooted not in private property (Bellamy's view) but first and foremost in inequality and concentration of wealth; not in the fact that a bourgeoisie exists but in the concentration of power and the weakening of America's democratic institutions, in the excessive gap between the classes and in the fact that entrepreneurs and bankers rob ordinary people, producers. Caesar's Column expresses the disillusionment and alarm of the utopian advocate of a "farmers' America", his warning to the ruling class to the effect that if it does not move fast to counteract the nascent antiegalitarianist trends and if it does not heed his advice, revolution will be inevitable and will destroy all.

Like many 19th‑century authors, Donnelly ingenuously explains in his foreword what his novel is all about and who it is addressed to: "I seek to preach into the ears of the able and rich and powerful the great truth that neglect of the sufferings of their fellows, indifference to the great bond of brotherhood which lies at the base of Christianity,

Ibid., pp. 256, 257.

2  Ibid., p. 283.

[178 / 179]

and blind, brutal and degrading worship of mere wealth, must—given time and pressure, enough—eventuate in the overthrow of society and the destruction of civilization." [1]

Donnelly, however, believes that the situation can still be salvaged, that all is not lost. His pessimism and criticism are directed not at utopians who try to squeeze society into the rigid framework of their constructs but at specific social and political groups and their policies. His position differs greatly from the stand taken by Aldous Huxley, George Orwell and other antiutopians of the 1930s and 1940s.

Donnelly openly admitted his dislike of Bellamy and the socialist ideas he advocated, a fact directly reflected in Caesar's Column. Viewed from this angle, his novel was not only a negative utopia but also a counterutopia (in relation to Looking Backward). Still, it remained alien to the antiutopian tradition for which the necessary conditions did not exist in 19th‑century America—the very conditions which arose in Europe after World War I, after the fascists seized power in Italy and Germany—in other words, after developments which led critical consciousness to face problems America had not been ready to contemplate at the time. In the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries the United States stopped at the negative utopia, although the latter was represented not only by clumsy pieces like Joaquin Miller's Destruction of Gotham but also by serious works like Jack London's Iron Heel, let alone It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis.

While Donnelly warns against a plutocracy seizing power and, in the final analysis, against a revolutionary explosion, Jack London, taking a different stand (defending socialist ideas and advocating rule of labor) and writing at a different time (1908), warns against the danger of oligarchy and counterrevolution. Anthony Meredith wrote in his foreword to the novel: "The Iron Heel . . . we feel descending upon and crushing mankind." [2] Like Donnelly, London tells the reader directly (but not so naively) that his goal is to warn of a danger that can be prevented. "What else than Feudalism could have followed upon the breakdown of that great

1 Ibid., p. 3.

2 See: Jack London, The Iron Heel, Grosset & Dunlap, New York, 1917, p. XI.


centralized governmental machine known as the Roman Empire? Not so, however, with the Iron Heel. In the orderly procedure of social evolution there was no place for it. It was not necessary, and it was not inevitable. It must always remain the great curiosity of history—a whim, a fantasy, an apparition, a thing unexpected and undreamed; and it should serve as a warning to those rash political theorists of today who speak with certitude of social processes." [1] According to the novel, the Iron Heel finally (after 700 years of oligarchy domination) loses power to the labor movement which wins a worldwide victory. But the terrible nightmare of seven hundred years hangs, like the sword of Damocles, over the American people.

It Can't Happen Here appeared during the 1936 election campaign, when Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal supporters clashed with their rivals, Huey Long among them, a man many democratically inclined Americans charged could become a dictator of the fascist type. In his novel, Lewis warned of the danger of fascism in America which could lead to a new war, destroy democratic institutions, suppress personal freedoms and do many other things fascism was capable of. Much of this was obvious enough from the German experience.

Lewis describes what could happen in the United States if the voters believed demagogues like Senator Berzelius (Buzz) Windrip (copied, in the unanimous opinion of the critics, from Huey Long, although he is mentioned in the book by name, as a different person) and helped him to become President of the United States. In his election speeches, Windrip spoke of a "Paradise of democracy in which, with the old political machines destroyed, every humblest worker would be king and ruler". [2]

After his arrival in the White House, Windrip proclaims a "real New Deal" which essentially means that "he should have complete control of legislation and execution, and the Supreme Court be rendered incapable of blocking anything that it might amuse him to do". [3] A personal dictatorship is established in the United States, all parties except "the

1 Ibid., p. XII.

2 Sinclair Lewis, It Can't Happen Here, The New American Library, New York, 1970, p. 97.

3 Ibid., p. 126.


American Corporate State and Patriotic Party" are banned, labor unions are outlawed, censorship is introduced, labor concentration camps are set up to "help combat unemployment", and a reign of terror begins.

Lewis was no pessimist. Like Donnelly who believed that a plutocracy could be barred from power, like London who held that the rule of an oligarchy could be prevented, Sinclair Lewis was convinced that America could turn away from the German path if it voted for Roosevelt. This was obviously the immediate political goal of the author who was concerned over the future of America as a democracy.

And so one can conclude that neither Donnelly nor London nor Lewis nor their imitators approached antiutopia. They warned their country and the rest of the world of the coming danger but, I repeat, believed that democracy, freedom and other values they cherished could be saved. They did not oppose utopia because they still had faith in the very idea of progress and in its tangible results.

2. "Disillusionment with Progress" and Conflicting Attitudes to Utopia

No major negative utopias or antiutopias appeared in the United States during the war years. But that was then that the nation's social consciousness began to generate—with the help of immigrants from Europe, and especially from Germany—moods and currents which led to a critical opinion of utopia on the part of some American intellectuals.

The "decline" or even "death" of utopia was what highlighted these moods. "Our visions of the future," Kenneth Keniston wrote in 1960, "have shifted from images of hope to vistas of despair, utopias have become warnings, not beacons. Huxley's Brave New World, Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm, Young's The Rise of the Meritocracy and, ironically, even Skinner's Walden Two—the vast majority of our visions of the future are negative visions, extensions of the most pernicious trends of the present. They are deterrents, cautionary tales: utopia has become counterutopia. The connotations of 'utopian' have similarly changed: the term is now unequivocally associated with 'unrealistic',


with 'self‑defeating' and, for some, with man's deepest and most prideful sins." [1]

Keniston presents a Sufficiently accurate picture of the moods which spread in the West, including the United States, in the initial Postwar years and which persisted up to the early 1960s. Proof of this includes the absence of serious and well‑written utopias from the American literature of those years, and the "apostasy from utopia" on the part of certain philosophers and historians, particularly Lewis Mumford who turned into a utopiaclast in the 1950s and 1960s. [2]

These moods were also clear from the attitude to the books listed by Keniston, above all to Orwell's 1984, which appeared in 1949, and Huxley's Brave New World, for which the author wrote his foreword in 1946. It would be no exaggeration to say that these British novels were as welcome among certain quarters of American society as they were among their counterparts in England and that they became organic elements of American culture. Moreover, reactionaries used these novels as weapons in the acute ideological confrontation of the Cold War. Orwell's book was exploited with particular zeal; it was interpreted as a purely anticommunist book, the reader being told that the totalitarian society depicted in the novel was a direct result of attempts to implement the "communist utopia".

It would be unfair not to mention that as early as the 1950s some (although few) American literary figures and social scientists pointed out that Huxley's and Orwell's works were ideologically and politically ambivalent and that they were interpreted in a rigidly one-sided way. As Erich Fromm wrote in his afterword to 1984, "the warning is that unless the course of history changes, men all over the world will lose their most human qualities, will become soulless automatons, and will not even be aware of it". [3] Fromm called on the American reader not to be smugly certain that the book had nothing to do with

1  Kenneth Keniston, Youth and Dissent. The Rise of a New Opposition, Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, New York, 1971, p. 43.

2  See: Lewis Mumford The Myth of the Machine. Technics and Human Development, Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1967.

3  Erich Fromm's afterword in: George Orwell, 1984, A Signet Classic, New York, 1962, p. 257.


him, writing of enslavement and dehumanization as a danger "inherent in the modern mode of production and organization, and relatively independent of the various ideologies".  [1]

That was a sign marking the beginning of a turn in some American intellectuals' assessment of both antiutopias (a turn away from their one‑sided interpretation) and the state of American society. The turn itself came later, in the mid‑1960s, when people suddenly saw an America of today or tomorrow in Huxley's and Orwell's novels. The Orwellian nightmares gave an impetus to the left radicals in their struggle against trends in the domestic and foreign policies of the United States in the latter half of the 20th century, Images from these books became catchwords these radicals used frequently to describe American realities.

The antiutopian feelings of the 1940s and 1950s were by no means accidental; they stemmed from a series of objective circumstances—first and foremost, the socially and politically differing phenomena of the times such as World War II and the traumas it inflicted on liberal bourgeois consciousness, the Cold War imperialism launched, and the anticommunist hysteria which, in the United States, took the form of McCarthyism. Finally, there were the increasingly pronounced and contradictory consequences of scientific and technological progress, the progress the social utopia of the late 19th and early 20th centuries had advocated so vigorously. All these were heterogeneous developments, but they all pushed in one direction, generating what Raymond Aron later called "disillusionment with progress" among Western intellectuals. This disillusionment was bound to affect utopia, with its faith in social (including political and moral) progress as its motive force (although this was not always recognized).

Still, by the mid‑1960s it was already quite obvious that the "death of utopia" had been recorded prematurely and that the antiutopian trend had failed to take firm root in American consciousness and culture and to establish itself as a tradition. Utopia was alive. Having lived through a crisis, it reemerged, in a slightly different shape but with its essence unchanged. The proof was in the mass democratic movements which advanced social and political alterna

Ibid., p. 267.


tives sometimes of a utopian hue, resurrecting the hope of creating a different, more humane world. This was also clear from what was happening in American literature.

The assumption here is that science fiction (or fantasy) and utopia are different things, that they reflect different phenomena. A utopia may be free from any fantastic elements, just as a piece of science fiction may be devoid of any utopian features. Here, science fiction means not only speculative fiction dealing exclusively with science but also science fiction concerned with technological or social matters: the term "science fiction" denotes not the scientific nature of a literary work or the degree to which it matches scientific accuracy (straight science fiction); it refers to the object of a given book, be it science , technology, or social, political or other processes. Certainly, science fiction may contain socioutopian ideals, just as a social utopia may use science fiction techniques—the path that authors of negative utopias or antiutopias may take.

Then, what was the genre of the hundreds of books critics described as antiutopian science fiction, negative utopias, or simply warnings? How can one assess, in relation to the subject under discussion, works that stand out among this mass, such as The Space Merchants by Frederick Pohl and Cyril Kornbluth, Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., 451° Fahrenheit by Ray Bradbury, "A Ticket to Tranai" by Robert Sheckley and Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey?

Upon a closer examination, most of these and many similar works are better described as negative utopias than antiutopias in the strict sense of the term.

Expressing a critical attitude to various social and political phenomena, including world nuclear war, destruction of the environment , bureaucratization of the social fabric, limitations of human rights and freedoms, modern American negative utopias comprise a broad range of types. Among these, antitotalitarian, antitechnocratic and antiwar works should be singled out specially.

The notion of a "totalitarian society", which arose in American social consciousness and political sociology not without the influence by the European immigrants who came to the United States between the 1930s and the 1950s (including figures like Herbert Marcuse, Hannah Arendt, Erich Fromm and Thomas Molnar), was largely based on


European experience, above all on what happened in Nazi Germany. Projected against the background of postwar America, with its tendency to expand the functions and enhance the role of the state and with its crisis of traditional bourgeois individualism, this experience led to an image of totalitarianism as a system which was a repressive dictatorship of the whole vis‑a‑vis its parts: society oppressed the individual; the state, its citizens; and the organization, its members.

Of considerable importance as factors which contributed to the appearance of this notion were Huxley's and Orwell's novels, especially 1984. The "Orwellian world" became a symbol of sorts of "totalitarian dictatorship" which frightened not only the American left but also conservatives and even certain right‑wing groups, since in the United States their thinking was still shaped by individualist and antietatist values.

The influence of the European experience and its concomitant political interpretations were also evident from the fact that throughout the 1940s and 1950s the possible establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship in the United States was connected either with a socialist revolution—in the eyes of the right—or with a fascist coup—in the eyes of the left. In other words, this dictatorship was considered to be incompatible with the typically American political and legal procedures. Most Americans entertain this notion to this day. However, now it is being attacked as a primitive concept which does not fully reflect the political realities of today.

According to many liberal American journalists and sociologists, one cannot, essentially, rule out the establishment in the United States of a totalitarian regime of the "national type"—a regime which would take a "distinct road"—without a mass fascist party, without storm troopers or the use of the army. They maintain that a tense, stormy atmosphere and violent mass discontent would be all it would take—wary of the liberals, the masses would, without any storm trooper support, vote for some fascist demagogue who would seize power and "set things straight".

This was the pattern Sinclair Lewis used in It Can't Happen Here. A similar plot is present in The R Document by Irving Wallace. One of the protagonists—the director of the FBI—dreams of a totalitarian dictatorship in the United


States. And so he tries to push through the legislature—bypassing the President—the so‑called 35th Amendment which would suspend (in actual fact, repeal) the Bill of Rights and would vest unlimited authority in the director of the FBI. Suspecting nothing, many states vote in favor of the amendment (the pretext is to strengthen law and all is in full compliance with the constitutional procedure), and only an accidental combination of events and an incorruptible Attorney General frustrate the conspiracy which could have led America to tragedy.

Today, such problems are discussed not only in novels but also in the academic community—witness, for example, the debate on the pages of The Futurist about the possibility of an "Orwellian world" in the United States.

How 1984 Came to America, a futurologist scenario by David Goodman, is set against such an ordinary and almost habitual sociopolitical background that the coming of "1984" looks frighteningly credible. "By the late 1960s," the scenario goes, "the increasing availability of fissionable materials and weapons‑making information leads to escalating fears of 'atomic terrorism'. The intellectual community, journalists, corporate leaders, and politicians all warn that atomic bombs may soon spread beyond government control, but no one can devise a satisfactory solution to the problem.

"In the colleges, students are also discussing the private construction of atomic bombs and what the consequences of such an occurrence would be. . . . In one Eastern experimental college, a course is offered on 'How to Build an Atomic Bomb'."

Finally, a "group of idealistic students" lays its hands on the quantity of plutonium and produces a bomb capable of destroying a large city. They blackmail the government and advance a program of demands. Panic engulfs the nation. The President's aides insist that he declare an emergency. "Although the National Emergencies Act of 1976 repealed many of the president's sweeping powers in time of national crisis, he is still able to issue binding executive orders good for six months provided he informs Congress of his intent." Therefore, Goodman argues in his scenario , "the president could still rule by 'lawful dictatorship' , with rationalizations to come later". After long hesitation , he declares a national emergency, demanding restrictions


on the freedom of movement and of the press, a ban on certain types of communications, and almost unlimited search powers for the police. He also proposes a "reassignment of troops and the institution of temporary martial law". [1] Pressure from the opposition is growing. Finally, the terrorists are caught, but the tension remains: everyone fears a repetition of the incident. The President addresses the American people with a plea for restraint. He asks them not to limit his emergency powers. He also wants the right to suspend the Bill of Rights.

One can easily see that the establishment of a totalitarian dictatorship as seen by Goodman is not connected with a violent rejection of bourgeois democracy. In his article "Countdown to 1984: Big Brother May Be Right on Schedule", published together with the scenario, Goodman explains that "Orwellian world" may be a natural outcome of the functioning of traditional bourgeois‑democratic institutions. Within the framework of these institutions and without any visible deviation from the letter of the law (or against the law but without its open rejection) occur changes which, imperceptibly, push the West into "1984" and make American democracy so fragile and volatile that one tiny external impulse is enough to eliminate it as such. According to Goodman, "the social trends of the last 30 years have brought the West closer to 1984 than ever before, and these trends could rapidly accelerate under certain circumstances". [2]

"Doublethink" is the way of the Oceanians in 1984. But it is already a feature of today's America, Goodman says: "A recent example was in the late 1960s when the Nixon administration overtly promoted domestic law and order and decried all forms of 'civil disobedience' while covertly ordering telephone taps, sponsoring break‑ins, opening the mails, keeping the 'enemies' under surveillance, and committing other ostensibly lawless acts.” [3]

Oceania is ruled by Big Brother, an omnipotent and omnipresent dictator who is watching each and everyone all

The Futurist, Vol. XII, No. 6, December 1978, p. 354.

2  Ibid., p. 350.

Ibid., p. 351.


the time. But, Goodman maintains "with today's paternalistic government and powerful presidency, Big Brother may be somewhat diffused but just as strong".  [1]

Total electronic surveillance is practiced in Oceania—and in the United States: "The surveillance of alleged subversives by U.S. government agencies has been documented by congressional testimony." [2]

In Oceania, people are conditioned to see and feel "the right way" so as not to subvert society. Newspeak, a special language, makes it impossible to semantically express a heretical thought. All, even family, relations among people who, in the opinion of Big Brother, could pose the slightest threat to the totalitarian regime, have been severed. But, Goodman argues, all this is a feature of American life too.

"The social trends of today clearly indicate a general decay of individual liberties, rational thought, personal privacy, and self-determination; a 1984‑type future is getting closer every year. But the critics of 1984 are quick to point out that 'it can't happen here' and that 1984 certainly could not come true only five years from now. They maintain that our democratic beliefs run too deep to be destroyed by a predatory Big Brother.

"They are partly right. None of the social trends have yet reached the intensity that Orwell envisioned in 1984, and at the current rate of 'progress' an Orwellian future is definitely more than just five years away. Unfortunately the trends could speed up. Not one of Orwell's predictions is beyond the range of possibility, and almost any of the social and political trends described above could be brought to a head by just a single triggering incident.” [3]

Goodman's analytical logic clearly records both the crisis of bourgeois democracy in the United States and the crisis of democratic thought, the lack of faith in the ability of the existing cultural and political institutions to prevent society from sliding into antidemocracy, the fear of a large‑scale terrorist act or a natural catastrophe which, he holds, can demolish bourgeois democracy. Goodman is especially alarmed by scientific and technological progress

Ibid., p. 352.


3  Ibid.


and the increasingly strong positions of the technocracy: he sees this as a sort of material base of a totalitarian dictatorship. This should be emphasized specially since the view that the threat of such a dictatorship is rooted in scientific and technological advances is not infrequently voiced in America. This view made itself felt, among other things, in the course of the discussion of Goodman's scenario and article in The Futurist.

"For the majority of the human race," wrote Joseph Maloney, an American systems analyst, "a society like 1984 is the most probable future. It probably won't appear within five years, or even within a generation, but the continued spread of high technology, coupled with the continual growth of population, guarantees the eventual establishment of 1984.

"A 1984‑type society will not arise because of direct catastrophes, such as war, famine, and disease, caused by the growing imbalance between the earth's resources and its population. It will arise instead from the technologies that must develop to sustain large numbers of people at the standards of living they expect." [1]

The mass technophobia which springs from a fetishistic attitude to science and technology has, expectedly, given rise to an antitechnocratic and antiscientistic response in the sphere of consciousness and culture. Over the postwar decades, numerous books, including negative utopias, have appeared in the United States, critical of science and technology and aimed against their claims to omnipotence and their schemes to replace man by machine.

Player Piano, written by Kurt Vonnegut as early as 1952, still remains a classical example of an antitechnocratic negative utopia. The novel is set in the United States at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, when Machine reigns supreme. True, to an outsider it could appear that "things really were better than ever. For once, after the great bloodbath of the war, the world really was cleared of unnatural terrors—mass starvation, mass imprisonment, mass torture, mass murder. Objectively, know‑how and world law were getting their long‑awaited chance to turn earth into an altogether pleasant and con

The Futurist, Vol. XIII, No. 2, April 1979, p. 115.


venient place in which to sweat out Judgment Day". [1] But this is only a superficial impression. Gradually, it turns out that man has paid a stiff price for prosperity.

Having guaranteed a certain minimum of material affluence, the Machine has made man into its appendage. Controlling him fully, it has actually ousted him from society as something irrational and therefore absolutely redundant. Officially, power is in the hands of a small technocratic elite, convinced of its superiority over others and imbued with a "sense of rightness about the hierarchy topped by managers and engineers". [2] But even this elite does not enjoy the freedom of decision‑making since ruling over all society, including the elite itself is EPICAC XIV, the manmade computer and the true master of the United States. There is even a joke, "the machine has all the cards". Lost in this world of machines, man loses his "feeling of . . . dignity". [3]

Vonnegut demonstrates. that such society unavoidably gives rise to protest—both by the mass of lumpens, a natural product of a technocratic society, and by some of the technocrats themselves. No one knows precisely how machines and men should be managed, but everyone feels—and that is the main thrust of the book—that technocratic society is hostile to man and is doomed.

The idea that the technocratic world is inhumane and historically doomed permeates all antitechnocratic negative utopias. But these books often distort the role science and technology do play in society. Taking them out of their broad social context and failing to detect their ambivalence, negative utopias frequently blame science and technology for just about all evils existing in this world. As a result, they make a fetish of the very forces they want to fight. That is why these books' positive significance is usually connected with their critical quality.

One of the reasons behind the criticism of technocratic ideals is that everyday consciousness often sees science and technology as virtually the chief culprits of the emergence of weapons of mass destruction and of the threat of a new world war. And war, especially nuclear war, is treated in

1  Kurt Vonnegut, Player Piano, Macmillan, London, 1967, p. 6.

Ibid., p. 5.

Ibid., p. 80.


many modem American negative utopias as one of the greatest evils and dangers facing mankind. Significantly, negative utopias often use a devastating war either as a background or as the culmination. And, no matter how the cause of the war is interpreted or who is blamed for it (the accusations may range from anticommunist to antiimperialist), it is usually cursed as the destroyer of civilization and of man.

Fear of war is at the same time an indirect expression of fear of its source. Depending on the author's politics and intellect, this may be the military-industrial complex, a shortsighted government, the "Red menace" (sometimes transformed into the "Yellow peril", as in Peter Bryan George's "atomic utopias"), the right or the left.

The better‑known antiwar negative utopias—like Seven Days in May by Knebel and Bailey—discharge the warning function traditional for negative utopias and antiutopias, and, given the present situation, are important in mobilizing public opinion for the prevention of a new world war.

In some negative utopias, antiutopian elements, sometimes muted and vague, can be detected. We may reject the world of 1984 as evil, Joseph Maloney writes, but we should realize, first, that this evil cannot be avoided and, second, that it is not as terrible or unfamiliar as it may appear at first sight. Essentially, life in a small town where each is known to all, where people live in a fishbowl and are at the mercy of custom and public opinion, differs little from life in an Orwellian world, Maloney argues. And so, while trying to delay the coming of 1984, we should not despair when it does come. We would merely have to adapt to it, realizing that while it may not be to our liking, it is still not the worst of all possible worlds because its inhabitants at least have food, clothing, shelter and medical care. [1]

This reasoning, scandalizing the reader, displays a feature typical of modem utopian consciousness: the utopian ideal is becoming less and less remote. When an evil appears inevitable, the least of all possible evils appears as a positive ideal and eventually, it is no longer perceived as evil at all. The negative utopia, as a form of possible reality rejected today, becomes the utopian ideal of tomorrow. The distance separating the real from the possible and the possible

See: The Futurist, Vol. XIII, No. 2, April 1979, pp. 115, 117.


from the desirable becomes infinitesimally small, the dividing lines practically disappear; it remains to be grateful for food, clothing and shelter and to hope that nothing worse will happen. Obviously, this is a covert manifestation of the crisis of bourgeois utopian consciousness, a covert rejection of utopia per se—although the fear that utopian ideals may be actually implemented (which surfaced in European culture half a century ago) is not yet in evidence; nor is there a conscious, philosophically substantiated rejection of attempts to build the "ideal society".

Still, it does not at all follow that there are no overtly antiutopian works in modem American literature. Take "A Ticket to Tranai" by Robert Sheckley, a well‑known science fiction author. Marvin Goodman, the main protagonist, learns that "out past the Galactic Whirl" there is a utopian world called Tranai—"Tranai the Bountiful, a peaceful, creative, happy society, not saints or ascetics, not intellectuals, but ordinary people who had achieved utopia”. [1]

After all sorts of ordeals and trials, Goodman reaches this Promised Land. At first he is delighted, but gradually he realizes the meaning and the price of utopia. There is no crime on Tranai—simply because criminals are not called criminals, and a man who has killed five people is termed a "potential criminal". There are "no police force or courts, no judges, sheriffs, marshals, executioners, truant officers or government investigators. No prisons, reformatories or other places of detention” [2]—because those in authority administer the law swiftly and easily, using rifles with silencers and telescopic sights. Arbitrary action and mistakes are ruled out because by definition and under the unwritten law, each person dispatched by the authorities is a "potential criminal". Tranai has achieved "a stable economy without resorting to socialistic, communistic, fascistic or bureaucratic practices", based on a distribution of wealth "without resorting to governmental intervention". [3] It soon becomes clear, however, that wealth is distributed and redistributed with the help of a blaster.

1  Robert Sheckley, Citizen in Space, Ballantine Books, New York, 1968, p.111.

2  Ibid., p. 114.

3  Ibid., pp. 114, 115.


In a word, Goodman had another think [sic] coming. "His mind was in a complete turmoil. . . . Was Tranai a utopia or a planetwide insane asylum? Was there much difference? For the first time in his life, Goodman was wondering if utopia was worth having. Wasn't it better to strive for perfection than to possess it? To have ideals rather than to live by them?" [l]

This is the clearest possible expression of the antiutopian's credo, the formula of antiutopia. Nevertheless, despite the fact that some literary antiutopias do exist and that antiutopian motifs do penetrate negative utopias and other literary genres, one would be justified to say that on the whole, the antiutopian tradition remains undeveloped in the United States. Eugen Weber, who holds this view, sees the reason for this undeveloped state in that while it has felt, perhaps even more acutely than other countries, the negative consequences of technological progress, the United States has not yet lived through the kind of social and political upheavals that have shaken Europe; a benevolent history is not the best environment for the rise of an antiutopian spirit. Americans are not yet really disillusioned with their political prospects. "They have produced utopian satires of the bitterest kind—D. N. Keller, Revolt of the Pedestrians; Ward Moore, Greener than Grass; S. Mead, The Great Ball of Wax,—but the dread and despair characteristic of anti‑utopia appear only in the work of the 'technologists'—Bradbury, Vonnegut, Asimov, etc., writers who see the machines taking over; human personality, initiative, and fantasy lost or floundering in a sea of gadgets, experience garnered vicariously through electronic apparatus. . . . The mood of the American anti‑utopia is just as despairing, the defeat of the individual is just as sure, but the end is attained by different means in plot and in treatment, which themselves reflect the author's different experience." [2]

Although Weber does not clearly distinguish between the negative utopia and antiutopia, he has grasped the essence of the latter, and, on the whole, correctly evaluated the development level of the American antiutopian tradition. "The utopian is either a hopeful critic or a hopeful rebel,

Ibid., p. 143.

2  Utopia, Ed. by George Kateb, Atherton Press, New York, 1971, pp. 86‑87.


because he has an alternative to offer. . . . The anti‑utopian does not believe in alternatives: it is too late for that. He is defeated before he starts to write." [1] America has not yet lived through enough social and political upheavals, it has had the luck to easily solve the problems which plagued capitalist Europe, its faith in its abilities and historical destiny is still too great for a powerful, emotional and influential body of antiutopian literature to have developed in the United States.

Naturally, the undeveloped state of the antiutopian tradition should not be viewed as something meaning that American culture is inferior. One should remember that it is an ambivalent tradition. True, it does check the infiltration of political theory and practice by utopian concepts and it does stimulate greater realism. But its corroding skepticism leaves a twofold imprint on culture, since it breeds both pessimism and nihilism. So far , Americans are more idealistic than Europeans, with all this entails. However, things are changing now faster than ever before. The nation is growing increasingly aware that America has lost its "exceptionalism", and the possible range of historical adjustment is shrinking. This means that the contradictions America will in all probability face at home and abroad in the near decades will be increasingly acute. The 21st century promises many upheavals and great disillusionment for America; this is sure to affect the nation's consciousness and to generate, sooner or later, a more powerful and distinctive antiutopian spirit which will clash with utopian feelings and orientations and with practical attempts to implement new utopian ideals.

Ibid., p. 86.

SOURCE: Batalov, Eduard. The American Utopia, translated from the Russian by Dmitry Belyavsky (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1985), Chapter IV, From Utopia to Antiutopia, pp. 170-194.

Criticism of “Contemporary Society” and “Negative Dialectics” (Excerpts on Adorno) by E. Batalov

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Salvaging Soviet Philosophy (1)

Marx and Marxism Web Guide

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