Great Good Places of the Mind

John Passmore

  • Utopian Thought in the Western World by Frank Manuel
    Blackwell, 896 pp, £19.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 631 12361 X

For a quarter of a century, Professor and Mrs Manuel have explored the highways and byways of Utopianism. Their task is now completed, their painstaking research encapsulated in a single monumental volume. Nothing less than ‘monumental’ will suffice to describe it: half a million words, at a rough estimate. Tighter editing would have excised an occasional sentence as repetitious or otiose. But that would have had no more substantial effect than a craftsman’s final polishing. The monolith remains, in a sense beyond criticism, simply there, an Ayer’s Rock of scholarship.

Most large books can safely be skipped through or skimmed, by all but the most conscientious reader. In the present case, this is not so. Those whose interest in the Utopians is confined to, let us say, Fourier will no doubt choose to read nothing but the lively account of that unusually engaging fantasist. But to read with care the history as a whole is to read it sentence by sentence. Each sentence is a bead on a string, a separate piece of information, not an exemplification or an illustration of a general thesis, dispensable as such. For no general thesis informs the whole.

‘Our book is constructed,’ so its authors tell us, ‘of seven major constellations and a few minor ones, arranged in chronological order, preceded by two exordia, one methodological and the other mythological, the whole crowned with a prophetical peroration.’

Classical Utopianism is relegated to the mythological exordium. Plato and Plutarch make their appearance, then, in distinctly odd company and not in a manner which makes quite perspicuous the degree to which they set the intellectual pattern of so many subsequent Utopias. ‘The birth of Utopia’ is delayed until the Renaissance and the Reformation; the first major ‘constellation’ contains More, the Italian city designers, and Thomas Müntzer. Strange companion-stars, one might well think, but, for the Manuels, they were all intent on specifying the nature of an ideal Christian society. Even if that be granted – and the dominant ideals of the Renaissance city-planners were surely pagan rather than Christian – the question still remains whether, More apart, they fall into the category of Utopians. Not everyone who sets out to reform society is a Utopian. To that point I shall return.

For the moment let us consider, by way of a further example, the second, ‘pansophist’, constellation, where Bruno, Bacon, Campanella, Andreae and Leibniz are united by taking as their ideal a form of society which will be at once Christian and scientific, containing within its folds every variety of wisdom. We soon notice that in the Manuels’ history Leibniz is widely separated from the other members of his constellation not only by the Civil War Utopians, from Winstanley to Harrington, but by such Sun King Utopians as the Huguenot Vairasse, the Catholic Fénelon – scarcely, any of them, pansophists. No further demonstration is needed that the Manuels’ ‘constellations’, like their heavenly counterparts, vaguely suggest rather than accurately delineate a pattern. Even chronology – as in the backwards transition from More to the designers of cities – is often set rudely aside.

Their preferred form, so the Manuels tell us, is the essay; many segments of their history have previously been published as such. It is designed, one begins to see, as a series of such essays, loosely linked by temporal relationships and still more loosely by a type of concern. Its style accords with this literary preference. Nowhere is it pompous or abstract; there is no hint of the academic dissertation. Every sentence is clear in its meaning, if not always in its intent, its role in the total picture. But the fastidious reader may find the manner somewhat too unbuttoned, the register too colloquial. He could point, in evidence, to such sentences as ‘De Sade invented libertine heroes who used their passionate stick whenever it could be set aflame’ or to the translation of Ernst Bloch which makes him say, in relation to Müntzer’s sermon on Uproar: ‘Right on, I want to be uproarious.’ Such a reader might complain, too, of an excessive uniformity in pace and tone and syntax. There is relatively little direct quotation to break the even flow with an irruption from a more eloquent style. The effect is a monotone, particularly marked in the paraphrasings of the great Utopias which, in the Manuels’ version, scarcely live up to their reputation as movers of men.

The dullness of such paraphrases is not entirely a matter of style. A few exceptions apart, the Manuels are not particularly interested in Utopias as such. Again and again, this or that Utopia is dismissed as ‘boring’, ‘dismal’, ‘arid’. And even those which are not so dismissed may strike the reader as deserving to be. This is puzzling – it is, after all, part of the historian’s task to interest us in his topic more than we expected to be – but seems less so if we recall the preface to Frank Manuel’s earlier work, The Prophets of Paris, a book which has been incorporated, largely unchanged, into the present history and constitutes, in my judgment, its strongest section. ‘The tracing of disembodied moral and philosophical traditions,’ Manuel there writes, ‘is not my method. I still feel the need to introduce the bearer of the idea even when he disturbs the flow of abstractions.’ And he continues: ‘My interest in the manuscripts of the thinkers presented here derives largely from a Romantic view of history-writing. The scribbled brouillons, the casual notes, the personal letters give me a sense of intimacy with these men which their published works somehow withhold.’

Much of the strength of the Manuels’ history derives from their 25 years of manuscript reading; we are reading historians who ‘know their man’. To have nothing to learn from the Manuels is to be learned indeed. At the same time, the concentration on correspondence, jotted notes, has the effect that the great published works of the Utopians sometimes receive less than their proper attention, are paraphrased out of a sense of duty rather than illuminated by a scholar’s love. ‘Utopian Prophets’ – picking up the title of the earlier work – might have been a better title. In the Romantic fashion, the thinker is more interestingly depicted than his thoughts, ‘the Utopian propensity’, to use the Manuels’ own phrase, than the Utopias in which it issues.

Individual peculiarities can properly be invoked by the intellectual historian to explain what otherwise presents itself as a wholly mysterious detail. How else explain why Campanella writes of the inhabitants of his City of the Sun: ‘They hate black as they do dung, and therefore dislike the Japanese, who are fond of black’? And the Manuels do not succumb to the more extreme sort of psychological reductionism. For all that the only theory of which they make use, and then rather vaguely, is Freudian, they specifically reject the view that the great Utopian simply gives formal shape to personal fantasies. If he is to be more than an item in a bibliographer’s catalogue, they tell us, the Utopian must be ‘stirred by creative passion’. The great Utopias, they add, ‘are marked but not necessarily marred by the scars of their authors’. Nevertheless, their emphasis on personal idiosyncrasies often obtrudes as an irrelevance and at its worst approaches the vulgarity of the gossip-column. Does it illuminate the Utopianism of H.G. Wells to write of him: ‘As he jumped from bed to bed in his personal life, he preached of a new order’?

Two ‘throw-away’ phrases illuminate the Manuels’ method: ‘the muck of scholarly analysis’ and ‘the windy exposition of an abstract argument’. One can readily sympathise with the feeling which lies behind them: in our Alexandrian age both ‘scholarly muck’ and ‘windy expositions’ proliferate, often in combination. At the same time, these forthright phrases warn us what not to expect. The book’s scholarship, as we said, is firmly based on a lifetime of close research. But by a historian’s standards, the annotation is light; many by no means unquestionable judgments go unsupported. Except in bibliographical notes, other scholars are seldom referred to and never, as I recall, specifically argued with. No polemical sparks enliven the story. As for ‘abstract argument’, that plays scarcely any role; general views about Utopias are sometimes hinted at, but not developed. For all the merits of their history as a set of scholarly essays, it is unlikely fully to satisfy either the historian or the theorist.

What, it is natural to ask, given its strange form, is this history really about? Seeking an answer, we turn with high hopes to the so-called ‘methodological exordium’ with which the book begins, looking first for some indication why so many unexpected characters turn up as Utopians, what determines their presence as such. But there we find no serious attempt to delimit the field. Indeed, the Manuels seek to avert the philosopher’s evil eye, with a gesture of disclaimer: ‘The bypassing of a rigid definition may distress some philosophical intelligences... but as the whole of this work is intended to endow the idea of Utopia with historical meaning, those looking for a dictionary definition or pat phrase had better try elsewhere.’

A ‘pat phrase’, to be sure, one ought not to demand. General criteria one can reasonably require. When the question is whether Hobbes, let us say, is a Utopian, it scarcely does to reply: ‘in the present work we declare writers to be Utopians by sovereign fiat.’ If Hobbes is a Utopian what political philosopher is not?

No doubt, as the Manuels argue, ‘the line between a Utopian system and a political and social theory often becomes shadowy.’ So does the line between Utopian systems and political and social projects. But not so shadowy as to justify their conclusion that ‘all constitution-making is in a way Utopian, since its substance is an alternative plan whose eventual consequences cannot be clearly foreseen.’ For so much is true of every project for the future, even at the personal level. Are we all of us Utopians, unless we obey the precept: ‘Take no thought for the morrow’?

We often argue about whether a particular description of a better society is Utopian. What is this argument about? Certainly not about whether the attempt to construct such a society might have unexpected consequences – that is quite a different issue. We try to distinguish, rather, between those descriptions of an alternative society which have a firm root in the actual conditions of man and society, attempting to show how the new society could grow from such roots, and those which have no such roots, offer no such theory of development. These last we call ‘Utopian’.

Consider the case of Marx. For all his own disclaimers, for all that they themselves cite his denunciatory ‘the man who draws up a programme for the future is a reactionary,’ the Manuels count Marx as a Utopian. This is not on the basis of his youthful indiscretions but rather because, as in his Critique of the Gotha Programme, he committed himself, even in his later years, to revolutionary slogans. We might dispute this characterisation on any of three grounds. The first is that Marx set out to show in detail how the new society would inevitably develop out of 19th-century capitalism. A Utopian makes no such attempt: his Utopia was, or is to be, created by a legislator. The second ground is that Marx’s criticism of existing forms of society is direct, whereas the characteristic Utopian criticises indirectly, by asking us to contemplate an alternative, better, form of society and compare it with our own. (The first book of More’s Utopia, with its direct criticism of the enclosures, is not Utopian.) The third ground is that mere slogans like ‘the free development of the individual’, ‘from each according to his abilities’, do not constitute a Utopia. The power of Marxism partly derives from its refusal to go beyond such slogans, to describe in detail an ideal society about the minutiae of which its adherents might quarrel.

The Manuels say something very like this of Müntzer. He had no gift, they tell us, for depicting in detail the kind of kingdom the elect would establish after the apocalypse. ‘But,’ the Manuels go on, ‘It is precisely this mistiness about what happens on the morrow of victory that has given birth to one of the most powerful Utopia of the Western world.’ it is Marxism that they have in mind. Müntzer, indeed, is represented as a Utopian rather than a millenarian prophet precisely because Marx is later to be so denominated. But if we finally reject Marx’s claims to have presented us with a ‘scientific socialism’ this is in order to place him with Müntzer as a prophet rather than with More as a Utopian – not forgetting that, also like Müntzer, he was at the same time a powerful social critic. Men go to battle, as the Manuels put it, on the strength of ‘a word about things being held in common, or as if in common, about brothers in Christ, and about the satisfaction of need’. Utopias proper do not send men to battle: one cannot die with More’s Utopia on one’s lips or inscribe it on a banner. Had the Manuels confined their field more rigidly, that of itself would have lent their work a greater unity. But we might still have been dissatisfied by the structure they have chosen.

Now, however, we are on controversial ground. How is one to design a history of Utopian thought? Inevitably, the historian encounters the problems which beset every form of intellectual history. Several alternatives suggest themselves. The doxographical historian painstakingly describes the life and work of one Utopian after another. He is an encyclopedist who chooses to write in chronological rather than alphabetic order. At its very worst, the Manuels’ history approaches this historical nadir. But only approaches it. Their very idiosyncrasies – and the fact that in spite of themselves they often embark on a quite different kind of history – protect them from a stronger indictment.

A second possibility would have been a purely historical study, as a professional historian understands history. Then each Utopia would be placed in its period as both a product of it and one piece of evidence about its nature. Or perhaps such a historian would consider how this or that Utopian construction acted as a social leaven, as Saint-Simonianism did in 19th-century France. There are histories of 19th-century France in which we hear a great deal about the Saint-Simonians but very little about the ideas of Saint-Simon. A work of genius troubles the professional historian. He is happy to describe the social situation out of which it arose and its diffusion as a political force, but its power to move men across the centuries, like gravity in empty space, disturbs his sense of historical sequence as much as gravity disturbed the proponents of action by immediate contact. To describe the work of a genius in detail, furthermore, interrupts his narrative flow or, if his approach is sociological rather than narrative, introduces a whale into his school of minnows. The more closely a work is related to its time the more likely it is to interest the professional historian and the less likely it is to interest the intellectual historian – unless, as the Manuels do not, he succumbs to the fashion for populism.

The professional historian’s approach the Manuels specifically reject, for excellent reasons. Without denying that the Utopian, like every other writer, is in part a creature of his times, that ‘precise circumstances and incidents’ not only trigger his decision to construct a Utopia but to some degree shape its content, they still insist that he ‘has something ahistorical to say about love, aggression, the nature of work, the fulfilment of personality’. Neither, they add, can Utopians properly be judged in and through the writings of such of their admirers as attempt to apply their ideals in practice, to accommodate them to political realities – who ‘adapt, prune, distort, refine, render banal, make matter of fact’ the Utopias which once stirred the souls of their visionary creators.

A third possible approach is polemical. Anarchists have written histories of Utopianism to prove that the Utopian propensity, with rare exceptions, is the propensity to regiment; Marxists have sought to show that Utopian thought once had a positive social function, played a part in the liberation of mankind, but can now only be reactionary. The Manuels have no such general thesis to defend. In their ‘prophetical peroration’ – which might better have been described as their ‘elegiac finale’, inspired as it is by regret for times past when Utopianism flourished – they finally commit themselves to the general judgment that ‘Utopian fantasies have yielded both good and evil in ample measure.’ But in their history proper they have made no attempt to justify any such conclusion, by tracing the historical effects of this or that Utopia.

How else might the Manuels have proceeded? (I have said that the ingredients for a tighter, more closely organised, book were already present.) Quite late in their history, discussing Rousseau, the Manuels ask a set of questions which arise, they tell us, out of ‘the Western Utopian way’. One can summarise them thus: what degree of social cohesion will characterise a Utopian society and what social institutions can ensure the presence, and the preservation, of that degree of cohesion; how is the Ideal Commonwealth to preserve its identity over time; what pattern of relationship between the sexes and what model of education should it adopt; how should it distinguish need from desire; is there a single ideal form of the religious spirit and, if so, how should it be diffused; should a Utopia concentrate on the development of the moral or the intellectual faculties of its citizens? To this list one could easily add many other questions, all of them raised at one point or another by the Manuels – whether, for example, all property should be held ‘in common’ and precisely what community of property entails, whether there is any room for cities in Utopia, how its rulers are to be selected.

The history of Utopian thought is a history of the Utopian’s attempt to decide these issues, in a manner partly determined by his acquaintance with the past, or the myths he accepts about it, partly by his perception of the problems which beset his own society, partly by his temperamental idiosyncrasies, partly by his social, political and moral ideals. Had the Manuels set such issues out at the very beginning, as a central ingredient in their methodological exordium, we should have looked at the Utopias they describe in a different light. A Utopia which in paraphrase is deadly dull springs into life if we read it as at once testifying to the persistence of old problems and attempting new answers to them. With issues in mind, the Manuels would have had criteria of relevance to determine what Utopian detail could be ignored. As matters stand, we are often totally puzzled by what the Manuels choose to highlight, sometimes, it would seem, merely for a picturesque effect.

From a problem-centred history we could learn a good deal about the Utopian propensity. We could see to what straits it is driven by its passion for equality: driven to construct societies based on the principle that ‘if there is not enough to go around abolish the thing itself’ (Babeuf), or in which every town is precisely similar to every other town (Campanella), and every house to every other house (More), or in which everybody is hermaphroditic (De Foigny) as the only secure way of avoiding sexual inequality. We should see, too, how certain discontents persist across the centuries: discontents not only with gross inequalities, but with such social institutions as marriage, law, property, toil. We could come to understand why Marx condemned as a ‘reactionary’ anyone who tries to draw up a blueprint for the future of society: how often Utopians indulge in nostalgia, giving content and plausibility to their dreams about the future by calling upon familiar dreams about the past, how closely they confine personal liberty. (William Morris is often cited as an exception in this last respect. But in his conviction that men do not really desire what they imagine themselves to want there is already the seeds of authoritarianism.)

Ought we to regret, with the Manuels, the disappearance of creative Utopianism in the 20th century, its absorption into the repetitious banalities of Science Fiction? The very facts are disputable. Imaginative Utopias have been rare in any century. The Manuels themselves admit partial exceptions, referring to Bernal’s The World, the Flesh and the Devil and Skinner’s Walden II, for example, to say nothing of Marcuse’s ‘hybrid for our times’, Freudian Marxism. But they are unwilling to allow them the highest sort of creativity. We might be prepared to write more kindly than they do of H.G. Wells and point to what they have not noted, the Utopianism of the ecological movement, which has given birth to at least one fully-fledged ‘Ectopia’. But, undoubtedly, our mind turns to dystopias rather than to Utopias as the characteristic product of our century; Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four has seized the public imagination more firmly than any 20th-century Utopia. Why should this be?

The orthodox Marxist answer is, as usual, straightforward. Bourgeois societies have nothing to offer, no ideal to set before their citizens. So they content themselves with slandering, in dystopias, those who have socialist ideals. As for the socialist countries – after Marx, there is no need for Utopians, just as, according to Tertullian, after Jesus there was no need for investigation. In societies which are busily constructing an ideal commonwealth in reality, the fictional Utopia has had its day.

For the first of these judgments, there is much to be said. The last social ideal which dominated the thinking of bourgeois societies was the welfare state. And that found expression in White Papers and Blue Papers rather than in Utopias: it was too limited in its range to stimulate the Utopian propensity. The students of 1968 are sometimes described as ‘Utopian’ and certainly described themselves in those terms. But, as the Manuels put it, ‘’68 came and went and despite the sloganeering no new dreams were painted.’ That is precisely right: the students were sloganeers. Some of their slogans were in favour of Utopia: if ‘Utopian’ means nothing more than ‘ignoring social realities’, they were certainly Utopian. But they were too chaotic in their objectives, too disorderly in their thinking, too derivative in their ideas, to have any place in a history of Utopian thought: thinkers they were not. What of the present? Nothing could be less Utopian than the style and aspirations of the new conservatism, although it shares with Utopians a nostalgic regret for the ‘good old days’ – days which I do not recall myself having experienced. If there is a prevailing objective nowadays in the West sauve qui peut sums it up pretty accurately. And one cannot make a Utopia out of the instinct of survival.

That we should be reduced to this condition is certainly a proper cause for lamentation. When did any of us in the Western world over the last few years react to a project for the future with ‘that I should love to live to see’? To have faith that with the dismantling of the welfare state a better society will automatically come into being one has to be an anarchist at heart, with the anarchist’s confidence that the legend of the Phoenix is not a mere myth. There is still need for imaginative thinking about the future, if in a mood chastened by our century’s great discovery – that there is no such thing as an unmixed blessing.

It is one thing, however, to regret, while understanding only too well, the lack of imaginative thinking about the future, the retreat into purely personal concerns, quite another thing to suggest that what we stand in need of is Utopian fantasies. China under ‘the Gang of Four’ came very close indeed to achieving the aspirations of Utopians: whether in the uniformity of its clothing, its demand that everyone spend a certain amount of time in agriculture, its distrust of intellectuals as a potential élite, its bias against the cities, its praise of austerity. We remember that in More’s Utopias there were to be no private places where factions might develop and we think of China’s street committees. Cambodia approached the Utopian ‘ideal’ even more closely. That passage from Berdyaev which Aldous Huxley quoted as the epigraph to Brave New World daily sounds more convincing:

Utopias now appear to be much more realisable than we had previously thought. We find ourselves nowadays confronted with a question quite agonising in a different way. How can we avoid their final realisation? Perhaps a new century is beginning, a century when intellectuals and cultivated men will dream about methods of avoiding Utopia and returning to a society which is not Utopian, less ‘perfect’ and more ‘free’.

For one distinguishing feature of Ideal Commonwealths is that they are never free societies. True enough, they sometimes offer greater liberties of some particular sort – greater sexual freedom, let us say. But always at a cost to liberty in a broader sense, as in De Sade’s ideal community where, as he grants, human beings will have to be enslaved as sex objects to ensure that all sexual needs are met. A free society can be described only in the most general terms: it can never be depicted in detail, just by virtue of its freedom. Inevitably, it will be chaotic, rapidly changing, morally imperfect – since human beings, given liberty, will not always use it as the moralist would wish. And it will be centred, as free societies always have been, in cities. To the Utopian, all this is anathema. The Utopian looks for order, permanence, guaranteed virtue. He most commonly believes that these qualities can survive only in a highly romanticised – for the Utopians have themselves been city-dwellers – rural village or small town. (Marx’s notorious phrase ‘rural idiocy’ is one sign that he lacked the Utopian propensity.) The Utopian spirit is captured in the paintings of Poussin: the Classical robes, reverting to the past, the static noble gestures, the sense that time is frozen in a living death. There is not a single ‘Ideal Commonwealth’ to which I should willingly migrate.

But if the construction of fictional Ideal Commonwealths is momentarily at an end, the passions which gave them birth are by no means dead. When they are spelt out, one at least sees how dangerous those passions can be. Expressed as slogans, abstract ideals, they are the more enticing for their vagueness. ‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.’ Who can resist so immediate an appeal to our sense of justice? But try to work it out in detail and, as Proudhon long ago saw, it entails a state apparatus at once bureaucratic and arbitrary, to determine what is to count as a ‘need’ and what contribution can properly be demanded from people of ability. If the history of Utopia can teach us by example, its lesson is a very simple and familiar one: ‘the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.’ All this we can learn from the Manuels’ history, even if it is not what they set out to teach us.