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Utopia“A bus ride to Paradise”

Utopian thought is important not only as an exercise of the imagination but to challenge today’s consensus.

Peter Arkell enjoys a new book.

Utopian socialist thinkers are often criticised for building dream systems which ignore the real source of the problems of society, that is, the capitalist system itself. They rely on the hope that the power of their ideas for a better society, together with the will to put their ideas into practice, will convince everyone of the necessity for transformation.

The truth is, of course, that the economic system, backed up by the power of the state, does not melt away in the face of good ideas. Such experiments are doomed to isolation and failure within an overall system that is hostile to alternative communities and settlements.

But the ideas and the social experiments remain valid and valuable. They can provide lessons for the time when people break free from the system of private profit. More importantly perhaps, they can offer a vision of how people might thrive in a new society that puts the needs of humanity and co-operation between people at the top of the agenda.

Early socialist thinkers and experimenters, all of them Utopian, were an important ingredient in Karl Marx’s overall message, as they pointed to possible ways in which society could develop after capitalism had been overthrown. They helped to identify the natural aspirations of people who did not own property. They were Utopian because they relied on religious or idealistic zeal to take hold. They could only hope to succeed if the ruling classes as a whole embraced the ideas and that was never going to happen, as Marx understood perfectly well. It was the working classes alone that could pave the way for the new kind of society by overthrowing the capitalist class. Nothing short of that would do.

Mike Marqusee’s essay, “Let’s talk Utopia”, introduces a collection of short writings that illuminate the often-unconscious aspirations of so many people who are looking for change. “While there are dangers in Utopian thinking”, Marqusee  believes, “the much greater danger is its absence”. He continues:

“We need the attraction of a possible future as well as the revulsion at the actual present. If people are to make the sacrifices required by any struggle for social justice, then they need a bold and compelling idea of the world they are fighting for. Utopian thinking is more than just model building. It is a critical tool, a means of interrogating present conditions. We have to exercise that supremely political faculty, the imagination, if we are not be prisoners of a prevailing consensus... Without utopias we enjoy only a restricted view of our own nature and capacities. We cannot know who we are.”

The book includes writings about and by the great English socialist and revolutionary, William Morris and others describing various land colonies and communes in Essex, in Whiteway, near Stroud, in New Lanark, and in New Zealand, Israel and Poland. There is a short history of 19th century Utopias by Marie Louise Berneri, a description of a bus ride to Paradise in Australia, poems and songs including Leon Rosselson’s The World Turned Upside Down (with the printed music), an essay called “Dreaming London: the Future City in William Morris and Others”, one about the struggle to establish the bookshop News from Nowhere in Liverpool, and even one called “In Search of Utopia Down the Pub”.

John Payne, writing about the Putney Debates that took place during the English Revolution, traces the arguments of the Levellers for equal representation and for fixed-term two-year parliaments. “In addition”, he writes, “sovereignty was invested by the people in Parliament, the powers of which were `inferior only to theirs who choose them`... Parliamentary democracy was not see as a system in which people ceded power to members of Parliament... Certain specific rights should be retained by the people themselves such as religious belief and the right not to be conscripted into the army.”

He goes on to ask: “It is all very well to have rights, but how can those rights be upheld in a manifestly unequal society?” A key question indeed, which Payne develops when he outlines Cromwell and the Army grandees’ insistence that voting rights were to be given only to those with property. The Levellers argued that the “distribution of property was in itself unfair, that it corresponded to conquest (the Norman Conquest specifically) and could and should be changed by law. They contrasted ‘birthright’ to ‘property right’. It was the logic of this position that two years later took Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers to St. Georges Hill to lay claim to the land.”

That early Utopian experiment was, of course, ahead of its times, and ended with the destruction of the settlement by thugs sent on the orders of the local landowner-clergyman. It could not have survived for long in that period of history at the dawn of capitalism, but the idea of land as a Common Treasury for All, live on in the writings of Winstanley and “Freeborn” John Lilburne. They are increasingly relevant and practical today as the rotten-ripe system of capitalism teeters on the edge.

4 April 2013

UTOPIA, edited by Ross Bradshaw. Five Leaves Publications. £9.99.

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