- Modern Utopias, Major and Minor
What exactly characterizes a modern utopia? We can set aside Phillip Wegner’s view, in his deservedly influential study of Imaginary Communities (2002), that utopia is in itself a uniquely modern literary genre, since this backdates modernity to the collapse of the medieval world at the beginning of the sixteenth century. Wegner in any case moves very quickly from More’s Utopia to Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward (1888), which as we shall see is the primary candidate for the title of the first modern utopia, at least in English. In another groundbreaking study, Krishan Kumar’s Utopia and Anti-Utopia in Modern Times (1987), the modern utopia is described as “egalitarian, affluent and dynamic.”1 “Dynamism” here follows H. G. Wells’s declaration at the beginning of A Modern Utopia (1905) that the post-Darwinian utopia must be in a process of development and change, since the age of the earthly paradise—of “perfect and static States”—has gone forever.2 Egalitarianism and affluence suggest both the use of advanced technology to increase output and a socialist redistribution of the proceeds of labor. All these things have happened and are happening in Edward Bellamy’s twenty-first-century Boston, where, thanks to near-universal conscription in the Industrial Army, the common experience of life is one of contentment and leisure. There are, however, other respects in [End Page 793] which Looking Backward marks a break with the earlier tradition of literary utopias from More to, say, Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872).
Bellamy sets out to unveil a future world rather than a remote and undiscovered “no-place” imagined as already in existence. His society has a political constitution that we are urged to work towards: a “not yet” rather than a nowhere. Moreover, Boston in the year 2000 is shown to be a typical rather than an exceptional community. It is not an island kingdom or privileged enclave but part of a global socialist society. (It is true that Looking Backward launched a political movement that Bellamy named nationalism rather than socialism, but this movement was not confined to the United States, and Bellamy’s influence spread throughout the industrialized world.) I would add that in Bellamy the construction of a new society is an end in itself, not a means towards some spiritual or otherworldly goal. His is a utilitarian, not a millenarian, utopia. These characteristics—the future setting, the global reach, and the profoundly secular (and specifically post-Christian) orientation—are shared by the best-known utopian works of the first half of the twentieth century, Wells’s A Modern Utopia, Zamyatin’s We (1921), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the only difference being that the last three are customarily regarded as dystopias or anti-utopias. My claim is that the modern utopia and its offspring, the modern dystopia, follow the same broad pattern.
Why did the modern utopia emerge in 1888, and why did it so quickly turn sour? The first of these questions was extensively discussed in Matthew Beaumont’s earlier book Utopia Ltd. (2005); the second, though touched upon by several of the contributors to Utopian Spaces of Modernism, scarcely needs answering at length. Bellamy’s vision of humanity mobilized in an Industrial Army all too readily prefigures the totalitarian projects of Hitler and Stalin. Jay Winter, in his essay in Utopian Spaces, describes Hitler and Stalin as “major utopians,” leaders who set out to “uproot, cleanse, transform, exterminate” in pursuit of their political ideals (73). I will return to the distinction between major and minor utopias, but the revolutionary upheavals of the early twentieth century were preceded...