Commentary Magazine

Utopia & Its Enemies, by George Kateb

Re-Imagining Society

Utopia and its Enemies.
by George Kateb.
Free Press. 244 pp. $5.50.

Although world-wide change is wiping the slate clean for us, we seem paralyzed and incapable of imagining an attractive future. The threat of the bomb gives us an excuse: how dizzying, how frightening, if we become persuaded that the bomb is not going to explode, or even that the risk of its doing so will progressively diminish! What relation can we establish to history if theories of inevitable catastrophe and decay join theories of inevitable progress and perfectibility in losing their imaginative hold over us? Thus it is imperative that Utopian thought and speculation be revived, that we recover the power of Utopian imagination, the capacity to see visions.

Almost any work that seriously addresses itself to the restoration of Utopian thinking and to the defense of Utopia as an ultimate social and political measuring-rod is of inestimable value at the present time. George Kateb's lucid, intellectually courageous book raises so many crucial questions about utopianism that it will hopefully inspire others to qualify, deepen, or extend his argument. Kateb has written a defense of utopianism at the most general level: the level of the “cluster of Utopian ends” that have been affirmed by all Utopian thinkers, past and present, however much they may have differed concerning the institutional arrangements that they thought necessary to maintain these ends. Indeed, the same ends and values constitute the core of all visions of the good life or of social perfection, whether these visions have been identified with Utopian possibilities, other: worldly paradises, golden ages of the past, or future terminal points of world history.

Utopias differ from other conceptions of an ideal society in that their relation to earthly life, to history, is indeterminate. Thus utopianism inescapably thrusts us into the world of politics, of conflict, and of the choice of means and strategies. How can the Utopian vision be realized? What leverage does the historical present provide for the creation of a Utopian society? How, in short, are we to make the leap from history into freedom? Utopias are not states of social well-being rooted in nature, where innocence and ignorance prevail, nor are they accidental, happily stumbled-upon by-products of historical change. They are on the contrary deliberate contrivances, true “projects” in the existentialist sense, created and sustained by knowledge and purposeful effort. This is most evidently true of modern Utopias inspired by the progress of science and technology, which are attempts to extend to human society the control and mastery we have attained over nature. “It is unthinkable,” Kateb writes, “that the cluster of Utopian ends could, as a cluster, have permanent existence outside a society organized for their own sake. This is where modern utopianism begins.”

If Utopias are the goals of political effort, knowledge and self-consciousness are also implied by the conditions under which Utopian societies maintain themselves once they have overcome the obstacles to their creation. Although a majority of the citizens of Utopia may exist in a state of happy animal innocence or mindless automatism, there is always an elite of Grand Inquisitors, philosopher-kings, or social engineers which has tasted the forbidden fruit. Utopia presupposes, in other words, full knowledge of the workings of the social order rather than “false-consciousness” and blind submission to social fate, even if this knowledge is the possession of a small, dominant minority.

Utopia, then, means the permanent realization of a cluster of ideal ends; their realization becomes a goal of political effort; Utopian society, once established, is perpetuated by men who know clearly what they are doing and why. Kateb argues that each of these three aspects of utopianism has given rise to a corresponding anti-utopian argument. There are those who ultimately reject the Utopian ends, or at least their full realization, arguing that they are self-defeating, or inherently in conflict, or subversive of other less exalted values; there are those who renounce Utopia as a political goal because they see no way of making the historical transition from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom, or because they regard the costs of the transition to be too high; and finally, there are those who reject Utopia out of distaste for the conditions necessary to maintain it once it is in existence. Kateb reviews each of these arguments, beginning with the problem of attaining Utopia, considering next the problem of maintaining it, and examining last the Utopian ends themselves.


Totalitarian politics have, of course, given enormous resonance to the view that the inevitable cost of Utopia must be revolutionary violence and that the blood shed in its name can only corrupt the Utopian ideal or ineradicably stain it. No longer does utopianism suggest harmless fantasy or idle daydreaming; it is now to be feared rather than mocked, standing for disciplinary elitism and the ruthless sacrifice of living men on behalf of an ideal future. Kateb shows little originality in discussing this view of Utopia, his arguments falling into well-worn grooves. He reproduces the classic justification for doing limited evil in order to promote greater good, conceding, however, that the belief that “the end justifies the means” is a presupposition of all political action and thus has no special relevance to Utopian aspirations alone.

Kateb's discussion of the Russian Revolution, is even less relevant. Acknowledging it as the historical event that has most discredited utopianism in our time, he laboriously and tritely argues that Russian backwardness doomed the ideals of the revolution, but that there now exists a chance over forty years later that “the next decades may show the Russian regime making good some of the claims of Soviet Marxism.” In attempting to blunt the force of the Russian example as evidence for the anti-utopian position, Kateb is here implicitly comparing a hypothetical Russia that has become more liberal long after the revolution with the pre-revolutionary regime, and he is suggesting that, since the comparison favors the former, revolutionary violence and Stalinist terror may “in the long view” look less objectionable. But the relevant comparison is surely between a possible liberalized Soviet society and the kind of society that might have developed in the absence of revolution in 1917. The Russia of the Czars would not have stood still for half a century.

My point is not to suggest that Kateb is soft on Communism, nor even on Stalinism—nothing so hackneyed and tiresome as that. Moreover, he may very well be correct in his estimates of the Soviet future. My objection is that his argument and its terms of comparison actually give the game away to the anti-utopians at the outset by taking it for granted that Utopia can only be the outcome of abrupt, violent transition. Kateb seems to think that this necessarily follows from the fact that Utopia is the result of trilled change. Thus it is hardly surprising to find him regretfully acknowledging the, cogency of the anti-utopian rejection of the means for attaining Utopia: “The Utopian dream is lost . . . the conditions under which the transition from pre-utopia to Utopia could be accomplished at the smallest short-term cost to Utopian ends are out of the range of possibility altogether.”

But why must a Utopian insist on the “simultaneous coming to power of the Utopian party all over the world,” a condition which, as Kateb recognizes, makes violent revolution and dictatorship almost inseparable from Utopian politics? Cannot Utopia serve as a standard for evaluating gradual historical changes, proceeding perhaps by “piecemeal” reforms and yet moving toward a goal, luminously present in the minds of the reformers, that truly transcends the status quo? Was not John Stuart Mill, for example, a Utopian in this sense? Did Marx and Engels become anti-utopians on those occasions when they conceded that socialism might be achieved peacefully and gradually under conditions of political democracy with universal suffrage?


Perhaps the trouble is that Kateb, whose profession is political science, thinks most of the time too exclusively in terms of political change and political institutions. Might not the alteration in the position of women in Western society or the “sexual revolution” be more relevant to a consideration of future changes toward Utopia than a rehashing of the moral issues raised by political violence and “temporary” dictatorship? If Utopian thinkers have too often been preoccupied with describing ideal child-rearing and educational practices in a realized Utopia beyond history, Kateb is inclined to make the reverse error. His discussion of the problem of maintaining (as distinct from attaining) Utopia, for example, is confined to a long and involved analysis of whether government will be necessary in Utopia and, if so, what form it should take. He concludes that it will be necessary because Utopia, unlike Butler's Erewhon, will be committed to technological progress necessitating adaptive social changes. He then argues that some form of representative democracy will be more suittable to a world-wide, technically advanced Utopian society than either direct democracy on the Aristotelian model or rotation of leaders. All of this is closely reasoned and convincing, but it is given disproportionate attention (although this judgment doubtless reflects the fact that I am a sociologist rather than a political scientist).

The last half of the book dealing with anti-utopian criticisms of the Utopian ends themselves is by far the most challenging and original part of Utopia and Its Enemies. Kateb here sees that, in spite of all the current talk about the anti-utopian “lessons” to be learned from the experience of totalitarianism, there is a deeper and subtler anti-utopianism involving a rejection of the idea of Utopia itself, of the very notion of social perfection. It is rooted in the feeling that, as William James put it, “the attainment of outward good would seem to be its suffocation and death,” or in the conviction of Yeats's Crazy Jane that “fair and foul are near of kin, and fair needs foul.” The chief strength of Kateb's book is his willingness to face the doubts and ambivalences about Utopia that exist on the level of feeling rather than of systematic thought or ideology He wisely goes to the poets—to Emily Dickinson, Auden, Frost, and Yeats—for the fullest and most eloquent expressions of anti-utopian feeling. Although in the end he rejects their anti-utopianism for exalting aesthetics, or rather a particular kind of aesthetics, at the expense of morality, he gives the argument from feeling its due. His attempt to prove that Utopia need not mean the everlasting reign of boredom, mediocrity, and spiritual death is the most impressive and original section of the book.

Kateb confines himself to examining three of the “cluster of Utopian ends”: perpetual peace, guaranteed material abundance, and what he calls “conditioned virtue,” to which he devotes by far the most attention. He means by this term the use of psychological knowledge to mold human character so that people will inevitably want to do what they ought to do, or—to put it more sociologically—will want to do what they must do if the institutions and values of Utopian society are to be maintained. Such an elimination of the gap between desire and obligation is a central feature of all Utopias. And Huxley's Brave New World most forcefully states the anti-utopian conviction that guilt, moral anxiety, and even physical pain and illness are essential and ultimately valuable human qualities, the elimination of which by applied psychological knowledge can only result in a race of shallow, de-individualized, robot-like creatures.


Kateb meets this position head-on. He deals with it by means of a detailed examination of the Utopia described by the Harvard behaviorist psychologist B. F. Skinner in his Walden Two. This book is often pointed to with fascinated horror by humanist critics as an example of the dehumanization to which utopianism and scientific psychology must inevitably lead. Kateb finds that Skinner is simplistic in eliminating all change from his Utopia and sometimes inclined to come uncomfortably close to picturing the conditioned citizens of Utopia as “lobotomized zombies,” in the words of one of the critics. But Kateb does Skinner the justice of taking his claims and arguments seriously, and is able to show that most of Skinner's anti-utopian critics are guilty of flagrant obscurantism and a tendency to romanticize suffering and evil.

Yet here Kateb fails to consider the possibility that a genuine change in human nature might release motivational energies which would permit men to be more rather than less self-determining. I have in mind the rich speculations of such recent Utopian writers—psychoanalytic rather than behaviorist in approach—as Herbert Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, whose visions of a liberated human nature “beyond good and evil” in no way feed anti-utopian fears that a transformed and transfigured human nature and society will rob men of their spontaneity and reduce them to passionless automatons. But I have perhaps unfairly charged Kateb with too many sins of omission in view of the considerable success he achieves in doing what he sets out to do. This is, after all, a short book on a very large subject. Hopefully, it both reflects and will contribute to a revival of the Utopian imagination.

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