Blog #58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.

Blog 58a: From Immediate Demands to Utopias via Transformative Demands.

The Occupy movement was frequently criticized for not making immediate and concrete programmatic demands. The movement challenging climate change and calling for society to become managed along ecological lines is sometimes charged with the same failure. The slogan, “Cities for people, Not for Profit,” and the Right to the City movement, are likewise often faulted in the same way, charged with being utopian, unrealistic, naïve. The tension between efforts to bring about changes within the system, to meet priority needs as a priority goal, or to change the system itself to deal with long-term causes and consequences, is a tension fraught with difficulties, both in theory and in practice. Examining the handling of utopias and utopian ideas , while on its face perhaps theoretical, can provide some illumination as to the practical alternatives for social movements as well.

I. Utopian Utopias and Non-Utopian Utopias

A. Utopian Utopias, “utopian” ideas.

“Utopia” and “utopian”: those are two quite different words, often used with quite different meanings and, if they are used without attention to the difference, they can have quite different, even contradictory, practical implications The discussions of utopia go far back in history, at least to the Greeks, recurs in the discussions of and within the Occupy movement, and is the source of on-going tensions in discussions of strategies of social change all over the world: are the goals of this movement or the assumptions of this program or that utopian, or is the spelling out of a vision of utopia now a mobilizing impetus for movements of social change? The focus on such questions was hot in the 1960’s, in the new left, in the anti-colonial struggles and movements for national liberation, in the peace movements. They perhaps came most sharply into focus in 1968, with Herbert Marcuse’s talk on The End of Utopia in Berlin[1] and in the signs displayed by the students on the streets of Paris that year: “Be Realistic; Demand the Impossible.”

Recognizing the differences in the two meanings, the positive meanings of “utopia” and “utopian” as ideally desirable and the negative meaning of the two terms as meaning “impossible” and “unattainable” leads to the question

“Is utopia still a utopian concept?”

Using utopia in the positive meaning and utopian in the negative.

Thus: “is an ideal society still unattainable? “

So we need to distinguish between two concepts of utopia: that of 1) a an imaginable but unattainable perfect future state, a utopian utopia, and that of a good, or a just, society, in which the principles of social justice would prevail, a just utopia seen as the goal of actual political social, and economic societal arrangements, a concrete, really attainable utopia: an attainable utopia, for short, as the word will be used here, “attainable” as opposed to “utopian.”   It was then argued that by the 1960’s there should be an end to the painting of an utopian utopia because an attainable utopia had become possible, and continuing to define it as utopian was conservative if not self-defeating.

B.    Attainable Utopias

In what sense could there be an attainable utopia? In 1967, it was said in Berlin

“Today any form of the concrete world, of human life, any transformation of the technical and natural environment is a possibility, and the locus of this possibility is historical. Today we have the capacity to turn the world into hell, and we are well on the way to doing so. We also have the capacity to turn it into the opposite of hell. This would mean the end of utopia, that is, the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities. It can also be understood as the “end of history” in the very precise sense that the new possibilities for a human society and its environment can no longer be thought of as continuations of the old, nor even as existing in the same historical continuum with them. Rather, they presuppose a break with the historical continuum; they presuppose the qualitative difference between a free society and societies that are still unfree, which, according to Marx, makes all previous history only the prehistory of mankind.”[2]

There are other interpretations of the End of Utopia formulation, notably by Russell Jacoby and Sam Moyn, which however use the concept,[3] 20 some years after Herbert Marcuse used it, in a quite different way from his use. They consider it still as the exercise of picturing a perfect although unattainable world and pursuing it, and see the ending of that result as a defeat of the aspiration for a radical change in society.[4] Herbert Marcuse, I believe, would have agreed, but differentiated a utopian utopia from an attainable utopia, from the real possibility of making a close to perfect world no longer unattainable, no longer utopian as a unrealizable ideal, but a goal now possible of achievement.

The political implications of taking all utopias to be utopian are strong. If one wants to use utopia in that sense, it follows that striving for utopia, or even spending time thinking through and imagining what a utopia might be like, is a useless exercise. If, however, one wants to argue that today utopia is no longer a utopian, in the sense of unrealizable, vision, but rather one that can be a concrete goal of human (political) activity, what follows is rather an incitement to concrete political action. It was an optimistic vision, as opposed to Moyn’s implicit assumption that utopia and utopian are necessarily associated and unachievable concepts. But I argue that an attainable utopia today is both optimistic, in its presentation of a lofty goal that is achievable, although pessimistic in agreement with Jacoby and Moyn, that the effort to achieve it as an immediate goal seems quite remote, depending on how one reads history. But I argue that there is a new real historical possibility of the realization of an attainable utopia requires a change in policy and program, in which the realization of that possibility, while it cannot be seen as an immediate goal (pessimism), can yet inspire individual partial steps towards its realization that may, as they come together, still make ultimate success possible (optimistic).

Thus, today, implicitly to label all discussions of utopia as utopian is politically loaded, conservative, hostile to efforts for fundamental social change.

It would not always have been so. The End of Utopia argument, as the long quotation above suggests, is made in a specific historical context, and I would rather read Moyn and Jacoby as reading that historical context today as different from what it was in the 1960’s. If the historical context indeed does not support the contention that attainable utopias are today possible, if the “historical continuum” in which earlier discussion of utopias still continues unbroken, then indeed today all utopias really are utopian. The belief that there has been a fundamental historical change, some time after World War I and increasingly thereafter, in which technological development has advanced far enough to make a society of abundance, of plenty for all, a real physical possibility, is a belief that has substantial support, and seems, if one things about it, intuitively plausible: if all the waste that goes into production for war, for unsatisfying luxury consumption and satisfaction of inflated and “false” needs, for competition for status and conspicuous consumption, for growth for its own sake, for legal and illegal theft, were instead funneled to challenges into ending existing inequities, into production of the necessities for a decent life for all in a society that put justice above profit and power, could not abundance for all, a real utopia, be realized today, even though hardly foreseeable in any earlier historical period?

The point is simple: an attainable utopia, not “utopian” in the sense of “unrealizable,” is a possibility today more than it has ever been before in history.

C.    Critical Utopias.

But even in earlier historical periods, the criticism that talk of utopias was useless and irrelevant to positive social change is only partially correct. It is correct, for instance, if heaven is seen as a utopia to be achieved in the hereafter, not in the now, thus preaching submission and patience and tolerance of injustices that will be rewarded, not in this life, but after it. This idea of utopia explicitly confined to the bye and bye indeed justifies that comment in the opening quotation: they are conservative if they amount to

“the refutation of those ideas and theories that use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities.”

For this use the concept of utopia to denounce certain socio-historical possibilities is aspect of some historical discussions of utopia that have a most critical edge, and that conceivably still have, even if indeed history is still tilted against their concrete realization

For many, perhaps most, imaginings of utopias historically have not as their purpose the presentation of an ideal society to be achieved, but rather have been a criticism of the societies in which they are written. They were not arguments for the realization of a particular utopia, a particular new society differently structured and different motivated, but rather efforts to show how ludicrous existing arrangements were, how badly they required change. Whether that change was through reform or revolution, liberal or radical, was often not elucidated. One thinks of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, H. G. Wells A Modern Utopia, or Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. This use of utopias as critical was thus indeed utopian, in its unrealistic sense, but not, in its historical context, an argument against social change, but rather one for it. How far concrete utopias might in their day be realized was quite different from how that might be realized today. Their political position then was as critical of the existing societies as discussions of utopia can still be today, if their ultimate attainability is not rejected ab initio. The purpose of these critical utopias was very much the same, if upside down, from novels appropriately called dystopian—the opposite of utopian—by writers such as Jack London in The Iron Heel or George Orwell in 1984. Dystopias are the presentation of an imaginary world, not as likely to be achieved, but to expose how the existing one was deficient. Utopias did it by showing what the better alternatives could be imagined, dystopias by what worse alternatives might be imagined to They were not intended to be blueprints for a new society to be achieved. Both critical utopias and dystopias were critical calls to action, in fantasized forms, intended to influence actions required to be undertaken in their contemporary societies.

So one may speak of a utopian utopia, a critical utopia, and an attainable utopia: a utopian utopia conservative in its political implications, a critical utopia or dystopia critically reformist in its political implications, and an attainable utopia, radical in its ultimate political implications, each very much dependent on its historical context.

There remains, then, the question of whether the historical context today is still the same as that of the 1960’s, whether indeed the optimism of those days on the streets and universities around the world was justified, and if not, what the conclusion as to the utopianism of utopias is today. It is hard, in a time of economic instability, high unemployment, increasing inequality, environmental degradation, unaddressed climate change, war and campaign of bombing and attrition, strong right-wing and racist tendencies in even the most formally democratic countries, to visualize even the possibilities of an attainable utopia.[5] Martin Jay certainly felt, in 1999, that visualizing the concept, as in Herbert Marcuse’s essay, “now reads like a document of a long lost civilization,[6] Is there then, at least in the short term, any surviving political relevance to the concept of utopia?

D.    Utopian Communities as Models for Transformation.

The term “utopian community” is often used to describe planned communities built in the last two centuries, and Sam Moyn uses the term “transformative utopianism” to describe “minimalist, hardy utopia[s] that could survive in a harsh climate.”[7] His reference is to the idealism of some of the protests of the the 1960’s, but the term might also be used to describe the planned communities like or Brook Farm or New Harmony or Oneida in the United States, or, very recently, eco-villages or planned communities or utopian experimental socialist models. Many were limited to attempts to implement different models for the physical growth of a community, laying out town plans and land use arrangements in a critical direction, as the Garden City movement. One might call various efforts to approach efforts of fundamental change as partially utopian in a limited way, as in Ebenezer Howard’s Garden City movement and its spin-offs. And very down-to-earth reforms such as expansion of cooperative structures to broad sectors of the economy, worker-owned enterprises such as Gar Alperovitz espouses, have a touch of utopianism about them, if very much in Moyn’s sense of minimalist for harsh social climates. The issue of whether what is espoused represents change within the system or of the system is not always clear; the underlying hope is undoubtedly for both.

II. Transformative utopianism

Utopian, however, in almost all historical usages, carries with it the idea of complete change, a different society as a whole, as in its original use by Sir Thomas More and the subsequent thinkers discussed above. A “partial utopia” is really an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms. Striving for efforts at reform, by definition less than a complete or revolutionary change, can thus only properly be called “utopian” in the sense that they may prefigure one part of a utopia, on step towards complete change, part of a transition towards something more. Rather than call such efforts “utopian,” with its dominant usage as unrealistic, desirable but unattainable, does its transformative potential a disservice. There is a continuum in efforts of social change, ranging from small-scale, clearly piece-meal actions and ideas – “increase the amount of affordable housing till no one is homeless” – to large-scale goals, such as “provide housing on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.” It is stretching it to goal the former utopian,” but it may in fact be seen, and advanced, as part of efforts to attain the latter, maybe a utopian housing system, a partial utopia. I think it would be more effective to speak of such a partial, or even sectoral, goal as transformative utopianism.[8]

And in this more limited meaning, but still at the forward edge of the politically relevant, I believe pressing the case for a long-range and comprehensive perspective of social change, efforts to work out the outlines of an attainable utopia, of a critical utopia, of a transformative utopia, can still play an important and positive role. Immediate and concrete programmatic demands for reforms need such utopian perspective today if they are to have a lasting impact tomorrow. The trick is formulating and fighting for demands that both secure immediate benefits but raise the possibilities of broader social transformation; demands that address the narrow immediate but open to vista to the whole, demands both for change within the system and change of the system.

[1] lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967. Reprinted in                                   vol   of

[2] Herbert Marcuse, The End of Utopia, First Published: in Psychoanalyse und Politik; lecture delivered at the Free University of West Berlin in July 1967, included in Herbert Marcuse, Marxism, Revolution and Utopia, ed. Douglas Kellner, Routledge, 29014, also available at and at ttps://

[3] Samuel Moyn, 2010, The Last Utopia: Human Right in History, Cambridge, Mass, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Russell Jacoby, 2,000. The End of Utopia Politics and Culture in an Age of Apathy. Basic Books.

[4] For a short overview of other uses of utopias, see Marcuse, Peter. “Utopias and Dystopias in Brecht (with a side glance at Herbert Marcuse)” in Silberman, Marc, and Florian Vassen, ed., 2004. The Brecht Yearbook 29, The International Brecht society: University of Wisconsin Press, pp. 23-30., available

[5] Herb Gans has tried to do so, in a thoughtful way, in Imagining America in 2033: How the Country Put Itself Together After Bush University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, 2009. But it has not attracted the widespread attention it deserves

[6] Review in London Review of Books, “The Trouble with Nowhere” June 1, 2000, p. 23.

[7] Op. cit. pp. 119, 120.

[8] For more on the concept of transformation, see my Blog #30, Transformative Proposals in Nine Areas, at

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