by guest contributor Dr. Cat Moir

It is difficult to talk about utopia and be taken seriously today. The utopian imagination—that mode of consciousness that envisions ultimate states of humanity or society, whether near-perfect or post-catastrophic—is everywhere in popular culture, but mainly in its dystopian guise. The global screen success of series like The Handmaid’s Tale, The Man in the High Castle, even the historical Chernobyl, to name a few, bears witness to the ubiquitous appeal of dystopia.

In literature, the positive, eu-topian vision of a more just, equal, sustainable world has been kept alive by writers like Kim Stanley Robinson, Ursula K. Le Guin, Iain M. Banks and China Miéville. But their works are perhaps more recherché—or, to put it another way, less well integrated into the culture industry—than those with dystopian blockbuster value.

In the sphere of political thought, utopia today is something ‘for realists’, as contemporary Dutch historian Rutger Bregman has put it (Utopia for Realists, 2017). Gone are the dreams of proletarian revolution or the creation of a ‘new man’. Now, utopia looks like a 15-hour working week, universal basic income, and an open-border world. That these ideas should appear radical today arguably tells us much about how deeply the conviction that there is no alternative to neoliberalism has penetrated the collective consciousness.

Fred Jameson has explained the exhaustion of utopia and the contemporary cultural predominance of apocalyptic tropes by arguing that it is easier today to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism (‘Future City’, NLR 2003). This is more than just a quotable slogan. The utopian imagination is closely tied to the changing shape of human mentalities, which are in turn rooted in shifting historical conditions.

Scholars disagree about whether utopias can be found in all historical and cultural contexts, or whether it is a peculiarly modern, European phenomenon. Those who take utopia in the broadest sense as an image of ultimate harmony or disharmony between people and their environment argue that utopias of some sort are to be found in all human cultures dating back to the earliest times (Dutton, ‘Non-western utopian traditions’, 2010). Ancient images of Eden, paradise, or a Golden Age of humankind that proliferated in Greece and the Arab world all imagine a utopian situation in this sense, as do the Chinese stories of the Peach Blossom Spring, or the idea of Datong, the Great Unity.  

Others who interpret utopia in the specific sense of a social and political philosophy—albeit one that has very often taken literary form—see its origins in western Europe, beginning perhaps already with Plato’s Republic, but certainly with the work that gave the genre its name, Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) (Kumar, ‘Aspects of the Western Utopian Tradition’, 2003). More’s satirical, fictionalised traveller’s tale portrayed a distant land where the worst features of Henry VIII’s England—religious fanaticism, the execution of thieves—were absent. This ‘no place’ (u-topos) was also a ‘good place’ (eu-topos) in which ‘Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich—for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?’

Whichever view one takes, what unites ancient and early modern utopias is that they were all either located in an explicitly other-worldly space or time, or, if they took place in a more profane setting, they were primarily spatial fantasies. The flurry of works that followed in the wake of More—inter alia Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602) and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1626)— pictured near-perfect societies in walled cities or on exotic islands.

As those scientific, industrial, technological, religious and political shifts we call ‘modernity’ gathered pace, however, the utopian imagination increasingly migrated into time and into the ‘real’ world. Louis-Sébastian Mercier’s L’An 2440, published at the height of Louis XVI’s reign, imagined a future Paris in which the political injustices of absolutism had been overcome. It is arguably no coincidence that what Reinhart Koselleck has called the ‘temporalization of utopia’ occurred just as the European political imagination was running out of ‘undiscovered’ islands onto which to project its fantasies of social perfection (The Practice of Conceptual History, 84). Mercier’s book was published in 1770, the year that Cook charted the eastern coast of Australia, the mythological ‘southern land’ in which earlier writers had imagined utopian societies (Gabriel de Foigny, La terre austral connue, 1676).

During the Enlightenment, as traditional religion and seemingly timeless political realities were challenged, the idea that a perfect society and state of humanity could be found either somewhere else or in the afterlife gradually gave way to the belief that it could be created in this world, in the future. The philosophies of history of figures such as Kant or Rousseau express this shift, as does the nineteenth-century ‘idea of progress’ through science and industry.

And although Marx and Engels firmly rejected any association with the ‘utopian’ socialism of figures such as Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen, their idea of a communist society in which all goods would be collectively owned equally distributed also clearly belongs to the utopian tradition of political thought (Engels, ‘Socialism: Utopian and Scientific’, 1880).

In the twentieth century, the pursuit of utopia took shape in the mass ideologies of communism, liberalism, and fascism. All three systems aimed to create a perfect, or as near to perfect as possible, society, whether that society was conceived in terms of social and economic equality (communism), equality of opportunity (liberalism), or racial or cultural purity (fascism).  

And it was in the twentieth century that the idea of utopia underwent another significant shift in the work of Ernst Bloch. Bloch developed a philosophy he called ‘speculative materialism’, which combined elements of romantic and idealist nature philosophy with a Marxist political orientation. Bloch reinscribed the possibility of utopia into the fabric of reality itself. In his book Das Materialismusproblem, seine Geschichte und Substanz (1972), he argued that material world is a process of self-realising and self-limiting possibility, driven on by an ontological incompleteness at its heart that wants, ultimately, to find completion in the form of utopia. Human beings, he argued, as matter-become-conscious are capable of at least partly discerning and directing this process, and he saw political action in the service of constructing a good society as one of the main ways in which we can realise this utopian impulse.

This may sound today like a bold and even crazy idea, just as it did to many of Bloch’s contemporaries. Many Marxist thinkers rejected it as utopian in the pejorative sense of a theory that seemed to have nothing to do with analysing real, socio-historical contradictions. Meanwhile, thinkers in the west such as Jürgen Habermas rejected it as a naively speculative cosmology that was of a piece with Soviet totalitarianism.

As I argue in my research on Bloch, despite its many problems, his speculative materialism does have some merits for us now, particularly in the way in which it theorises human-nature relations in the context of the contemporary socio-ecological crisis.

But one question I’ve grappled with is how to situate Bloch’s theory within the broader history of the utopian tradition. How can we explain his transformation of the idea of utopia in terms of a materialist intellectual history that sees ideas as both shaping and shaped by broader socio-historical conditions?

Though Das Materialismusproblem was first published in 1972, it was written between 1936-1938 when Bloch was living in Prague in exile from Nazism. By now a committed if heterodox Marxist, at that time Bloch saw Soviet communism as the only realistic bulwark against the Nazi threat. Yet the materialist metaphysics of the Third International left him wanting. In particular, he objected to the mechanistic tendencies he saw in orthodox Marxist materialism, which he believed left no ‘room for a human head’—in other words, for freedom of thought or action (Bloch, 1972, 15).

The communist project had achieved great things: in the space of a generation the Russian economy was industrialized, women obtained new rights, and a new modernist avant-garde emerged that revolutionized the arts. By the mid-1930s, however, the utopian ideals that had underpinned the revolution had already been substantially eroded. Bloch refused to condemn Stalinism in the 1930s, but his claim in the preface to the materialism book that the Comintern had allowed the theoretical development of Marxism to stagnate betrays his insight into some of its failings. By the time the book was published, the evacuation of utopia from ‘real socialism’ was embedded in official doctrine. Bloch’s transformation of utopia can thus be seen to respond to this specific historical contradiction.

On the one hand, it is what Wayne Hudson has called an ‘activist metaphysics’—the assertion that it is materially possible to create a more just, equal, and free society was intended to galvanise support for social action against the cynicism of pure critique (The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, 66). The achievements of mass utopian projects served Bloch, however problematically, as evidence that real material change is possible and can succeed.

On the other hand, however, such a bold utopian programme would have been unnecessary had the promise of utopia actually already been realised. In this respect, Bloch’s utopia, like all other utopias, held up a critical mirror to the status quo of the circumstances in which it was conceived.

Cat Moir is Senior Lecturer and Chair of Germanic Studies at the University of Sydney. She is the author of Ernst Bloch’s Speculative Materialism: Ontology, Epistemology, Politics(Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2020).