The Utopian Impulse: Reflections on a Tradition




The article originally appeared in Harbinger: The Journal of Social Ecology Vol. 1 No. 1, winter 1983.

The ecosphere is threatened to a degree unprecedented in humanity’s tenure on the planet. The rupture with the natural world is symptomatic of and a causal factor in the breakdown of social relations. The consciousness of exploitation and domination extends to both people and nature and given their concurrent evolution it is unlikely that one will be eliminated exclusive of the other.

The ecology movement, at least in its most conscious manifestations, that is, parts of the antinuke, alternative technology, and ecofeminist movements, has recognized the need for a reconstructive vision that acknowledges the primary importance of these interrelations. The radical ecology movement rejects simple technical fixes as the solution to ecological problems that have their roots deeply embedded in the culture. The movement has stressed the need for a holistic approach to ecological problems and further, has suggested that basic changes in the ethos of the culture and the structure of its institutions are necessary if we are to ever achieve a truly ecological society.

Radical ecologists are attempting to create a theory and practice for such an ecological society: a reconstructive vision that they can begin to actualize in the here and now. In the creation of their reconstructive praxis they draw inspiration from many sources, including the scientific discipline of ecology, the traditional cultures of Native American peoples, and the spiritual paths of the East.

There is another tradition that informs their vision as well though unfortunately it remains largely unknown, ignored, misunderstood, or unacknowledged, even by the movement itself. It is the utopian tradition.

While using a different language and set of references, the utopian tradition in many ways parallels the concerns of the radical ecology movement. There is much in the theory and history of utopia that can help illuminate critical problems in social ecology.

What follows are reflections on that utopian tradition, a typological analysis which differentiates various strains in the tradition, and an analysis of those aspects of the tradition most relevant to the emerging praxis of the radical ecology movement.

Throughout the whole of history there have been attempts to transform the given social circumstance in basic ways, to visualize and to actualize a society more harmonious, fulfilling and clearly close to ideal than the one given. These attempts have taken a variety of forms ranging from the purely philosophical and conceptual to the reconstructive and revolutionary. In a broad sense, these efforts can be understood as part of the utopian impulse.

Utopia is a term coined by Sir Thomas More in 1515.1 He traces the root to two Greek words: outopia, translated as no place, and eutopia, the good place. The word has acquired, since Frederick Engles’ critique of “utopian” socialism in Anti-Duhring,2 the negative connotation of outopia—cloud cuckoo land. For our purposes, the term must be understood in a more neutral way: as a description of an approach to social reconstruction oriented toward the creation of an “ideal” society.

The utopian impulse is a response to existing social conditions and an attempt to transcend or transform those conditions to achieve an ideal. It always contains two interrelated elements: a critique of existing conditions and a vision or reconstructive program for a new society. Utopias usually arise during periods of social upheaval, when the old ways of a society are being questioned by new developments. Thus, Plato’s Republic3 emerged in Athens after the victory of Sparta in the Peloponnesian Wars, More’s Utopia emerged during the Age of Discovery, and the industrial revolution gave birth to numerous utopian experiments.

While these utopias and countless others are all distinct in a programmatic sense they share certain structural elements. The combination of critique and reconstructive vision has already been noted. They also share a holistic perspective, focusing on the reformation of society as a whole rather than the simple reform of specific social institutions. They tend to choose a humanly scaled community as their locus of action and elaborate their transformative vision within that context.

Utopias often display an orientation toward “happiness” defined in terms of material plenty (communal property) and “justice,” a concept defined in widely divergent terms. They frequently emphasize equality between men and women, and an integration of town and country. The themes of balance and harmony resonate throughout utopia.

Utopias develop their vision either by drawing on residual traditional elements or historic tendencies of a society that are seen as positive and elaborating and supporting those elements—as Plato took inspiration from aspects of Greek tradition—or by drawing upon and elaborating new developments, often scientific or technological, that seem to hold promise—as Francis Bacon did in New Atlantis.4

The impulse toward utopia has persisted over millennia. Paul Radin suggests that even primitive hunters and gatherers harkened toward utopia, as reflected in their dream/myths of a past Golden Age that would return in the near future.5 We see a certain continuity of utopian thought from the philosophical writings of Plato through the Christian Myth (the Garden of Eden) and Eschatology.

In more recent times, utopia has shifted from the religious to the secular arena. From the Enlightenment onward, utopia began taking a more explicitly social form. Here too though, we must distinguish between the utopias of intellect and attempts to actualize utopia through communalistic or revolutionary experiments.

In examining the broad historic tradition that comprises the utopian impulse we can develop general categories of utopias that display similar characteristics. At one end of the continuum, the literary and philosophical utopias present a theoretical “blueprint” for a perfect society, while on the other end, utopian social theories, experiments and movements make concrete attempts to bring about “utopia.”

These two approaches to utopia are described by Lewis Mumford in another context:

“One of these functions is escape or compensation; it seeks an immediate release from the difficulties or frustrations of our lot. The other attempts to provide a condition for our release in the future. The Utopias that correspond to these two functions, I shall call the Utopias of escape and the Utopias of reconstruction. The first leaves the external world the way it is; the second seeks to change it so that one may have intercourse with it on one’s own terms. In one we build impossible castles in the air; in the other we consult a surveyor and an architect and a mason and proceed to build a house which meets our essential needs; as well as houses built of stone and mortar are capable of meeting them.” 6

Philosophical and literary utopias are the work of individuals and as such tend to reflect their creators’ likes and dislikes. These idiosyncratic approaches have given rise to the cliché that “One man’s utopia is another man’s hell.” While the philosophical utopias address themselves to important social problems they tend to generate “solutions” that take the form of mechanistic plans requiring an authoritarian social structure for enforcement. They are usually hierarchical, dogmatic, static societies. (This rationalization of society and the concurrent rigidification of social hierarchies is described by Karl Popper7 and brilliantly explored in Stanley Diamond’s critique of Plato’s Republic,8 the archetypal literary utopia.)

Reconstructive utopian social movements approach the problem of creating a new social order in a more organic fashion. The emphasis at the outer edge of the continuum is on utopian process, with the actual reconstructive details of the “new society” left to the participants’ determination. At this end of the continuum we can place the various “people’s utopias” which have a long history suggested by the early slave revolts, the heretic communities such as the Gnostics (the Paterini and Lombardi in Italy), the Brotherhood of Free Spirits, the True Levelers and Diggers during the English Revolution, the revolt of Thomas Munster and other movements of the Reformation, peasant revolts, the Paris Commune, and in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries anarchist praxis in Russia, Spain, and elsewhere.

These are the more libertarian forms of utopia, to varying degrees participatory, democratic and non-hierarchical, and all dynamic and transformative in their approach.

In Mumford’s words:

“The Utopia of reconstruction is what its name implies: A vision of a reconstituted environment which is better adapted to the nature and aims of the human beings who dwell within it than the actual one; and not merely better adapted to their actual nature, but better fitted to their possible development.”

“By a reconstructed environment I do not mean merely a physical thing. I mean in addition a new set of habits, a fresh scale of values, a different net of relationships and institutions.”9

At a variety of points between the extremes, we can place the ideal constitutions, planned communities, intentional communities, communes, and revolutionary movements. They conform to a general definition of utopia that includes the combination of critique and reconstructive program—a holistic vision of the new society that insists on the integration of the various psychological, social, economic, political, and spiritual aspects of society.

The tradition of the reconstructive “people’s utopias” is an old one, predating the literary and philosophical. It is in all probability a tendency that predates written history. “People’s utopias” have been efforts on the part of groups of people to actualize their utopia rather than to relegate it to a lost paradise or to defer it until death. They have been concerned with a total restructuring of society from the bottom up. These efforts have taken the form of the institution of the new social order either through the creation of separatist intentional communities or through active revolutionary opposition to the old order.

The communitarian efforts of the classic “utopians”—St. Simeon, Fourier, and Robert Owen—were an outgrowth of the idiosyncratic “systems” usually associated with the literary tradition. Yet they did attempt to bring their utopias into being and in so doing laid the foundations for modern socialist thought, which can itself be understood as a further expression of utopia. On the other end of the continuum of “people’s utopias” stand the revolutionary anarchist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

One way of defining utopian social movement in the nineteenth century is by examining the distinction between these movements and the “scientific socialism” of their chief critics, Marx and Engels. The Marxist critique of utopian socialism is most clearly expressed by Engels in Anti-Duhring.10 He acknowledges the contributions made by Fourier, St. Simeon, and Owen toward the formulation of the basic ideas of socialism. In Engels’ words, “In St. Simeon we find a comprehensive breadth of view, by virtue of which almost all the ideas of later socialists, that are not purely economic, are found in him in embryo…”11 Of the utopians in general he states, “We delight in the stupendously grand thought and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their phantastic covering.”12

It is the “phantastic covering” of St. Simeon’s system of which Engels was critical. He argued that St. Simeon’s utopia, a unification of science and industry in a “New Christianity” in which the bourgeois are transferred into public servants by the spirit of reason and cooperation, was an expression of a period when industrial capitalism and its ensuing class antagonisms were still in an undeveloped state. Though he recognized an embryonic class consciousness in St. Simeon’s overriding concern for “the class that is the most numerous and most poor,”13 ultimately St. Simeon is seen to be dominated by the historical situation that stimulated his theory. “To the crude conditions of capitalist production and the crude class conditions corresponded crude theories.”14

Fourier is praised by Engels for his astute and biting criticism of French society. However, in Engels’ words, “Fourier is at his greatest in his conception of the history of society. He divides its whole course, thus far, into four stages of evolution—savagery, barbarism, the patriarchate and civilization.”15 Engels sees in Fourier’s historical ideas an application of dialectics analogous to Kant’s use of the method in natural science. Yet, Fourier, despite his brilliant insights into the workings of society and history, projected a complete system as the solution to France’s social problems. Engels said, “These new social systems were foredoomed as Utopian; the more completely they were worked out in detail the more they could not avoid drifting off into pure phantasies.”16

Yet, by dismissing Fourier’s “phantasies” Engels and others dismissed the most prescient and provocative aspects of Fourier’s thought: his emphasis on the emotional content of life in his utopia, a whole psychodynamic dimension displaying a set of concerns with the nonmaterial quality of everyday life. Unfortunately, this did not reemerge as a major theme in socially reconstructive thought until the 1960s, when it was once again developed by theorists such as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown.

The idiosyncratic element in these utopian systems was, in Engels’ view, inevitable. As with the literary and philosophical utopias, they were the works of individual thinkers who saw the new society arising out of reason and self-conscious activity, divorced from a specific historical period and level of economic development. They were an expression of the likes and dislikes of their creators, conditioned by their subjective views and expressing their own absolute truths. Unfortunately, in his search for “science” and in his insistence on a narrowly defined class analysis, Engels rejects some of the more profound aspects of the French utopian tradition.

Robert Owen was a formulator of systems as well, but the industrial capitalism of nineteenth-century England, where Owen put his theories into practice, was significantly more developed than in France. Owen, who began his career as a social reformer from the unlikely position of factory manager, gradually came to believe that socialism was the only means of guaranteeing justice to the working class he saw battered and degraded by the new system of production. Owen made the transition from philanthropist to socialist upon his realization that “the newly created gigantic productive forces, hitherto used only to enrich individuals and to enslave the masses, offered the foundations for a reconstruction of society; they were destined, as the common property of all, to be worked for the common good of all.”17 He saw private property, religion, and the present form of marriage as the obstacles to the institution of his ideal society. While his attempt to actualize his ideal in the form of a communist community in Indiana met with failure, he was a major influence on the British working class. Owen’s communism, grounded in the materialist view that people were a product of their heredity, but moreover their environment, was still an appeal to reason. Rather than looking to the proletariat to emancipate themselves, he demonstrated the logic of his system and hoped to convince the bourgeoisie through that logic.

This brings us to another crucial point in Engels’ critique of the utopians. He states that despite a genuine concern for the working class, “one thing is common to all three. Not one of them appears as a representative of the interests of that proletariat, which historical development had in the meantime produced.”18 Here Engels is referring to the failure of St. Simeon, Fourier and Owen to represent the interests of the proletariat exclusively, based on their lack of perception of what he saw as the deep, irreparable chasm which developed between bourgeois and proletariat under the impetus of industrial capitalism. There can be no doubt that all three were concerned with the plight of the working class but they did not envision the new society born of a confrontation between classes over control of the means of production. Theirs was not a truly revolutionary socialism; they still believed in the ideal of reason, which lay at the root of the bourgeois revolutions, and in the ability of reason to bring about the new social order. The essence of Engels’ critique of the utopians lies not with their formulation of the basic ideals of socialist theories, but with their lack of understanding of the process by which the new society may be brought into being and their idiosyncratic projections of what form the new society will take.

After the classic utopians, socialism began to take on an identity as a revolutionary movement, first in France, later in other European nations. This development followed two distinct paths, the “scientific” socialism of Marx and Engels, and a continued “utopianism” best presented by the anarcho-syndicalist Proudhon and the anarcho-communists Bakunin and Kropotkin. Both positions were influential among the emerging workers’ movement; Marx’s influence was strongest in Germany and England where an industrial proletariat had developed and, according to Marx’s theory, the material conditions were sufficiently evolved to allow for the development of socialism. The anarchists’ theories were embraced by workers’ movements in France, Italy, Switzerland and Spain, where the craft tradition of the small workshop and individual producer had not entirely given way to the factory system necessary for the creation of a true industrial proletariat.

The Marxists and anarchists were the two major forces in the first International Working Men’s Association. Though doctrinal differences had surfaced before the formation of that organization (most notably in the dispute between Marx and Proudhon, sparked in part by Proudhon’s refusal to collaborate with Marx) it was in the International that the issues which divided the Marxist “scientific” socialists and anarchist “utopians” clearly surfaced.

The differences revolved around three interrelated questions concerning class analysis, organizational form, and the role of the state.

Though the anarchists recognized a severe class antagonism and had discarded the classic utopian’s view that the bourgeois would reform themselves, they did not accept Marx’s notion that the only truly revolutionary class was an industrial proletariat, organized and disciplined by the factory system. They posited the concept of revolutionary activity arising from a multiplicity of classes: workers, to be sure, but also peasants, déclassé intellectuals and students, and even the sans culottes, that lumpen element for whom Marx had nothing but contempt. The Marxists criticized this position as petit bourgeois. Indeed, in Proudhon we do see a naive belief in the ability of the workers to create the new society without a direct confrontation with the owners, but Bakunin and Kropotkin both clearly express a belief in class struggle as the means of carrying out the “social revolution.” The dispute lies then not with the concept of class struggle, but with the composition of the classes that make the revolution.

The second major dispute was based on two very different concepts for organizing the socialist movement. Marx saw the need for a rigid, disciplined, centralized party organization that would take as its model that most efficient form of organization yet devised, the factory system. Workers, organized and disciplined by the industrial processes, would find the embryo of the new society within the sweatshop of the old and use any means possible, including parliamentary activity, to end its exploitation. The anarchists were highly critical of this approach. They saw it as a repetition of the bourgeois pattern in the sense that it was hierarchical, authoritarian and stifling to people’s individual initiative. They believed that this approach, though it might bring economic justice, would perpetuate the larger structures of bourgeois society. They were not simply concerned with ending exploitation, an essentially economic concept, but with ending domination as well, a broader social concern. They opted for an organizational model that was decentralized, egalitarian, non-hierarchical and committed to a strategy of direct action. The anarchists believed that the means and ends of their movement could not be separated: that the form of organization for building the new society must be congruent with the forms they wished to create in that new society.

This dispute over organizational forms is directly connected to the third major area of disagreement: the role of the state. Marx called for the creation of a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would seize state power, and through a transitional period, pave the way for the “withering away of the state.” The anarchists were convinced that rather than withering away, such a state would make its highest priority its own perpetuation. They proposed the dissolution of the state per se, and its replacement by a decentralized federation of autonomous production units and communities, which under direct self-management would coordinate the economic and social life of what was formerly the state.

With the communist anarchists Bakunin and Kropotkin, we see a new definition of utopia emerge. They were not concerned with blueprinting the ideal society for inherent in their approach was an aversion to “systems” and preconceived utopias. Rather they tried to develop a process whereby a multiplicity of new societies could form themselves. They had a strong belief in cultural diversity as a value to be encouraged for its own sake. They recognized in the vestiges of authentic community life that survived the state, as well as the new organizations created by the workers, the embryo of the new society. They visualized communism developing in accordance with the specific cultural tradition of each community, and each community, though participating in a regional and national economy, retaining a distinct cultural identity and the greatest degree of autonomy possible, without sacrificing that degree of coordination necessary to insure the smooth functioning of an industrial society. They saw the creation of a network of such self-managed communities, social and economic units as a substitute for the state. The anarchist vision of the new society took much of its inspiration from what they saw as the authentic social life and culture of the people. They envisioned personal responsibility and self-conscious ethical behavior taking the place of law. They called for the creation of “people’s assemblies” as the basic unit of governance. (Kropotkin offers the Folk Mote of the Medieval commune, the Russian Mir, or peasant village commune, and the cantonal structures of Switzerland as possible models.) The anarchists developed concepts of leadership that were substantially different from those which ruled bourgeois society. Their ideal was much closer to communal and traditional leadership roles, with leaders emerging in specific situations because of specific skills, and with responsibility and decision making ultimately lying with the collectivity. The anarchists’ brand of communism was close to the communal economic base characteristic of pre-state peoples. They envisioned the creation of self-reliant communities which integrated industry and agriculture, town and country, and work and play. They projected the collectivization of the means of production under the direct control of the workers and peasants, not mediated by the state—as it is under a policy of nationalization—and coordinated on the local, regional and, ultimately, planetary level by a process of federation. Their ethos was from each according to their abilities, to each according to their need. The anarchists are a clear extension of the tradition of the people’s utopia. Yet, despite their differences, and despite the denial of many Marxists, in a sense, so too is Marx himself.

If we view utopia as a cultural development that replaces the political association of the state as the organizing principle of society with a multiplicity of authentic social and economic associations, we gain a perspective which allows us to understand the utopian element in Marxism. While Marx never spelled out his “utopia” in concrete terms, he maintained that the new society must emerge from forms already present in the old. Certain writings are pregnant with implications of the form a post-revolutionary development might take. As Martin Buber points out, Marx’s formulations concerning the “withering away of the state” point in a direction similar to that suggested by the anarchists.19 In 1844 in his essay “Critical Glosses,” after discussing revolution as the last “political” act, Marx says, “But when its organizing activity begins, when its ultimate purpose, its soul emerges, socialism will throw the political husk away.” Marx’s belief in the ability of and need for the proletariat to seize direct control of the organs of production is reflected in his attitude toward the Paris Commune of 1871, (also claimed as a model by the anarchists) which he praises as an expression of “the self-government of the producers.” Marx believed that ultimately “the communal constitution would have rendered up to the body social all the powers which have hitherto been devoured by the parasitic excrescence of the State which battens on society and inhibits its free movement.”

Contradicting his own statements that capitalism must organize the forces of production before socialism can emerge, Marx indicates in his letter to Vera Zasulitch20 concerning the prospects of adopting the cooperative tradition of the Mir, the Russian peasant community, as a basis for socialism, that such communal forms would prove valuable as models for the new society and in fact might be able to transcend the development of capitalism and move directly into communism. Here Marx was not advocating a return to primitive village communism, but rather the integration of the tradition of cooperation and communal ownership at a higher level of development into the new society.

Further indication of the utopian element in Marx’s theories can be found in the section of the Grundrisse discussing pre-capitalist economic formations. Marx’s descriptions of the institutions of primitive communism and their evolution into those of capitalism communicate a sense of the respect that he had for those earliest economic forms. In the dialectical formulations concerning the emergence of socialism from capitalism, it is possible once again to get a sense of the reemergence of the communist impulse, latent in society for epochs, on a higher level, set free by the development of material conditions that provide the preconditions for socialism. The impulse is not a mechanical application of tribal, communal organization but an unfolding of the same human potential in a new set of economic conditions.21

Marx does not look to a change in human nature as the catalyst to bring socialism into being, but rather to the maturation of material conditions. In reference to the Paris Commune he says, “It has no ideals to realize, it has only to set free those elements of the new society which have already developed in the womb of the collapsing bourgeois society.” Marx avoided any but the sketchiest intimations of what the “developed elements” might be, beyond the organization of the proletariat provided by the factory system, but he leaves no question as to the composition of the new society. It is “classless” in the sense that the class antagonisms between proletariat and bourgeois will be resolved by the elimination of the bourgeoisie, and it will be organized by the workers themselves. Marx’s critical attitude toward the early utopians and all socialists who proposed complete “systems” for the new society is reflected in his unwillingness to draw his own blueprint. He focuses his attention instead on the process through which the new society can be actualized. It is, significantly, in the realm of process that his vision departs from the tradition of utopianism.

In the creation of the increasingly rigid and reified body of theoretical work that forms the basis of his political legacy (most noticeably in Das Kapital), Marx betrays his own utopian promise. In his search for a science with regular “predictable laws” and a universal, inexorable dialectic, he commits the very error for which Engels chastised the French utopians; he creates a rigid system that, despite many valuable insights, allows for no deviation and that fully incorporates Marx’s own idiosyncrasies. Despite his unwillingness to blueprint his utopia, by the “scientific” pretense of his endeavor and by thus enshrining the limitations of his thought (ultimately bourgeois, according to Murray Bookchin22), Marx doomed his followers to a betrayal of his utopian impulse.

Marx’s utopianism is in a certain sense the most interesting, provocative and inspiring aspect of his vast, often contradictory volume of work. This is the core of Marx’s humanism and the engine that drives forward his revolutionary project. It is the positivistic “science” of Marx that has prevented the realization of this utopian core, and allowed for its distortion by the various parties and sects that bear his name.

As Ernst Bloch points out:

“A distinction has to be made between the Utopistic and the Utopian; the one approaches circumstances only immediately and abstractly, in order to improve them in a purely cerebral fashion, whereas the other has always brought along the constructural equipment of externality. Of course only Utopism, as it reaches out abstractly above reality, need not fight shy of a mere empiricism that undertakes only another form of abstract apprehension below reality. A real Utopian critique can only proceed from a viewpoint that is adequate, that does not—so to speak—correct or even replace over flying by a factistic creeping.”23

Certainly, this sense of Marx’s critique of capitalism can be seen as utopian. The utopian perspective is able to provide a valuable critique because it exists outside of the given. Unlike ideology, utopia is a projection of that which does not yet exist, rather than a reflection of the ruling class and the dominant culture. As such, it is exempt from decay. In Bloch’s paraphrase, “Only that which has never yet come to pass cannot grow old.”24 Bloch concurs with the view that the urge to utopia is a primal one, discernible from the earliest epochs to the present, though represented by different forms in different historical situations. However, he sees continuity between the various aspects which utopia presents. The urge toward utopia, the vision of an ideal, harmonized society, ever shimmering on the horizon, is in Bloch’ s view an archetype which precedes even formalized mythology. Bloch identifies Marx as an heir to that tradition. It is the promise of utopia, not its specific image, which gives urgency to the Marxist project. That promise, while never crystallized, is central to understanding the dynamics of revolution.

In Marx’s own words:

“Our slogan, therefore, must be: Reform of consciousness, not through dogmas, but through analysis of the mystical consciousness that is unclear about itself, whether in religion or politics. It will be evident then that the world has long dreamed of something of which it only has to become conscious in order to possess it in actuality. It will be evident that there is not a big blank between the past and the future, but rather that it is a matter of realizing the thoughts of the past. It will be evident finally that mankind does not begin any new work but performs its old work consciously… to have its sins forgiven, mankind has only to proclaim them for what they are.”25

In terms of his critique and his implicit vision, then, even Marx (though not the Marxists of varying hues which populate the left) must be understood to contain an element that is utopian. Orthodox Marxism, as practiced by “socialist” states and parties, however, is certainly distinct from the utopian praxis of people’s movements.

“People’s movements” are an expression of a different set of organizing principles, as exemplified by the split between the Marxists and anarchists over the three interrelated questions of the constituency of the movement (proletarians versus proletarians and déclassé intellectuals, peasants, petit bourgeoisie, and lumpen elements); the structure of the movement (decentralized versus centralized); and the role of the state and politics (dictatorship of the proletariat versus decentralized federation, party versus movement, political economy versus holistic socio-economic-cultural reconstruction). Closely related to these major differences are questions about the forms of ownership and decision making (nationalism versus collectivization, central planning versus self-management). The relationship between the two positions has been complex historically and hard and fast categorization is difficult, belt these are the central questions. From the time of the Paris Commune on, we can clearly note this bifurcation. The decentralist movements, as they reject the statist framework and “political” (really parliamentary) activity as a valid means for cultural reconstruction, are the more direct line of connection to the utopian continuum.

Given the historical trajectory of the libertarian wing of the utopian tradition, it is not surprising that there has been an association of the anarchist and reconstructive aspects with the conscious elements of the radical ecology movement. Aspects of the tradition that bear a direct relation to the more conscious and radical elements in this ecology movement grow out of the theoretical congruence of concerns which transcend gross economic issues to examine the over all quality of life. The utopian (particularly anarchist) concern for a process and organization that embodies the ideals of the new society is an obvious point of connection. The most profound insights of the utopians contain a core of logic that seems almost prescient when one considers that the concerns were addressed and articulated by a movement that existed hundreds of years before the word “ecology” entered our vocabulary.

In its concern with the whole of people’s lives and its refusal to opt for the simplistic reductionism of the more mechanical “scientific view,” the utopian tradition displayed an intuitive understanding of the holistic approach embodied in ecology as a scientific discipline. The perception of society as a whole and the concern of the utopian impulse with the transformation of the whole, rather than the reform of its parts, is reflected in the understanding that grows out of the study of ecology: that there are critical interdependencies and relationships in any system, social or ecological, that create a totality greater than the sum of its parts. The integration of components, the awesome display of unity growing from the diversity of nature, provides a powerful paradigm for the understanding of social interactions. This shared outlook, this concern with whole systems, is the underlying connection between the utopian tradition and the radical ecology movement, but it is further refined by a whole set of particulars that the two share as well. It must be understood, however, that the “laws” of natural ecology that influence the vision of the ecology movement are paradigmatic, powerful metaphors for the harmonious, homeostatic reworking envisioned by the radical ecology movement.

In that reworking, we could do well to reconsider the role of utopia, for as Bloch points out,

“Utopian consciousness remains wholly without description inasmuch as the moment of its fulfillment is still outstanding—and certainly not for skeptical or agnostic reasons. Yet this Utopian consciousness does not obscure its blinding goal with solutions, let alone with more reified means from the route to that goal, and then (even on a Hegelian level) offer an absolutized half light in conclusion. Its reason for not doing that is superlatively real—the most objective correlative ground that Utopian consciousness possesses: the world substance, mundane matter itself, is not yet finished and complete, but exists in a Utopian—open state, i.e.: a state in which its self identity is not yet manifest.”


  1. Thomas More, Utopia (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965).
  2. Frederick Engels, Anti-Duhring (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1976).
  3. Plato, The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1955).
  4. Francis Bacon, New Atlantis (New York: Oxford University Press, 1924).
  5. Paul Radin, The World of Primitive Man (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1971).
  6. Lewis Mumford, The Story of Utopias (New York: The Viking Press, 1962).
  7. Karl R. Popper, Open Society and Its Enemies (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966).
  8. Stanley Diamond, “Plato and the Definition of the Primitive,” In Search of the Primitive (New Brunswick: Transaction Books, 1974).
  9. Lewis Mumford, p. 21.
  10. Frederick Engels.
  11. Frederick Engels, p.333.
  12. Ibid. p. 335.
  13. Ibid. p. 332.
  14. Ibid. p. 342.
  15. Ibid. p. 334.
  16. Ibid. p. 330.
  17. Ibid. p. 338.
  18. Ibid. p. 21.
  19. Martin Buber, Paths in Utopia (Boston: Beacon Press, 1949).
  20. Karl Marx and V.I. Lenin, Civil War in France The Paris Commune (New York: New World Paperbacks, 1940), p. 59.
  21. Karl Marx, Pre-Capitalist Economic Formations (New York: International Publishers, 1964).
  22. Murray Bookchin, “Marxism as Bourgeois Sociology,” Comment Vol. 1, No. 2.
  23. Ernest Bloch, Philosophy of the Future (New York: Herder and Herder).
  24. Ibid.
  25. Marx, Karl, “Letter to Arnold Ruge” in Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society (Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, Doubleday Publishers, 1967).