Back to Utopia

Back to Utopia

From the beginning, Dissent has been a haven for utopian ideas. An early essay by Irving Howe and Lewis Coser declared that socialism was “the name of our desire,” paraphrasing what Tolstoy had written about God. In 1954 it was utopian to reject every big ideology on offer—Stalinism, McCarthyism, the mild conservatism of Eisenhower, and the milder liberalism of Stevenson—in favor of a radical democratic vision with no mass movement behind it. In the very last piece he published, Irving was still naming his desire. Utopianism, he wrote in 1993, “is a necessity of the moral imagination. It doesn’t necessarily entail a particular politics; it doesn’t ensure wisdom about current affairs. What it does provide is a guiding perspective . . . an understanding that nothing is more mistaken than the common notion that what exists today will continue to exist tomorrow.”

The founders of Dissent knew that one response to political defeat or marginality is to defect to liberalism or conservatism. But another is to describe a world worth working toward. In his 1968 essay “A Day in the Life of a Socialist Citizen,” Michael Walzer celebrated the flourishing of the human spirit that could accompany socialism and cautioned that “if society is not to become an alien and dangerous force . . . the citizens cannot accept its regulation and gratefully do what they please. They must participate in social regulation. . . organizing and planning their own fulfillment in spontaneous activity.” The essay perfectly captures Dissent‘s spirit: holding socialism aloft as a utopian ideal yet acknowledging that, as Oscar Wilde put it, all that participatory zeal might also “take too many evenings.”

Sometimes, in troubled times, utopian impulses flourish because the impossible seems more reasonable than the realistic. The risk is that this separation from practice can have a deadening effect or a distancing one. This “is a special problem for intellectuals on the left,” wrote Marshall Berman in 1984, “because we, among all political movements, take special pride in noticing people, respecting them, listening to their voices, caring about their needs, bringing them together, fighting for their freedom and happiness.” The problem can only be resolved by contributing “visions and ideas that will give people a shock of recognition, recognition of themselves and each other, that will bring their lives together.”

Our current moment is certainly daunting: the democratic left is on the defensive nearly everywhere in the world. In the United States, movements against austerity and for labor, race, and gender justice tend to struggle apart from each other. Occupy revived the spirit of utopian proposals, and its cooperative encampments offered a glimpse of a society that prized generosity and practiced democracy. But it was also disorganized, collaborating with or creating few institutions that mi...