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Utopianism refers simultaneously to social issues and to questions of the imagination. In fact, utopianism can be seen in action anytime the imagination is put to the use of remaking social life. The term describes a tendency to think of the world as a place to be made more perfect. The utopian impulse in history can be understood as posing the question of how else humans might organize themselves. It is generally agreed that the first utopian society in Western thought is to be found in Plato’s Republic (c. 400 BCE), a realm where philosopher-kings govern. The term utopia was coined by Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) in Utopia, first published in 1516. The writing of More’s Utopia corresponds to the period of discovery by Europeans of what was called the New World, with all that it ushered in to Europe’s political economies and social imagination.
Ambiguous from the outset, the term utopia could be read as a joining of the Greek prefix ou with the word topos (place), which would translate as “no place.” The first syllable could equally be understood as the Greek prefix eu, rendering utopia the “good place.” Later writers, notably William Morris (1834-1896) in England, who titled his utopian fiction News from Nowhere (1891), recognized that the improved society they envisioned is, in principle, impossible to find or perhaps even to construct. However, this problem has never stopped utopian thinkers from casting their visions in print and in fact. Utopian societies or communities, though usually short-lived, have been founded in countries across the globe, especially in times of revolutionary change. And utopian manifestos and programs have been written and promulgated in such times as well.
Whether cast as prelapsarian or millenarian, the tense of the utopian narrative is inevitably the future and the mood is subjunctive, as utopians speculate about what may come to be. Even Edward Bellamy’s (1850-1898) Looking Backward (1888), the most popular late nineteenth-century utopian novel, describes the imaginary future through a fictionalized past. Throughout the nineteenth century, utopian movements arose that looked forward to how lives might be improved by the Industrial Revolution. Other such movements looked backward with nostalgia for ways of life that had been lost due to the same irrevocable changes. Labor was no longer primarily agricultural but industrial, and cities were rapidly growing, making the lost pastoral a focus of cultural longing. By the mid-twentieth century, such impulses toward the “good place” had been brought up short by world events, leading to a period of dystopian thinking. Two key texts representing this perspective are Brave New World (1932) by Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) and 1984 (1949) by George Orwell (1903-1950).
A strategic moment in the history of utopianism is the shift from early nineteenth-century thinkers such as Charles Fourier (1772-1837) in France and Robert Owen (1771-1858) in England, who proposed a form of utopian socialism, to the writings of Karl Marx (1818-1883) and Friedrich Engels (1820-1895), who differentiated their ideas as scientific socialism. This conceptual divide leads some to see utopianism as a way of thinking that is impossibly idealistic. Of course, utopianism was, in some sense, never intended to be of this world; hence the weakness of many utopian communities, whether those of the Levelers or Diggers of mid-seventeenth-century England or the Branch Davidians of the late twentieth-century United States. Just as visions of possible futures arose out of political thought, numerous vibrant utopian experiments often emerged from religious splinter groups, whose promise of a better life both in the here and now and in the hereafter drew multiple generations of adherents. Examples of such groups are as different as the eighteenth-century Shakers (with their doctrine of celibacy) and the Church of Latter-Day Saints or Mormons (whose beliefs included plural marriage). Millenarian beliefs are common in utopian thinking, linking utopianism both to revolutionary and reactionary forms.
Between the hopeful utopianism of the nineteenth century and its opposite, the dreadful dystopianism of the mid-twentieth century, it is crucial to note a new form of utopian thinking and writing that arose during the first wave of feminist political struggle for suffrage at the turn of the nineteenth century. Herland (1915), a utopian fiction by the American reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), is a key text of this period of numerous writings by women that imagine a better place. However, it was the reissue of Gilman’s novel in 1979 that connected the first wave of feminist activism and imagination to the second wave of the later twentieth century. A noteworthy publication phenomenon of the 1970s and into the 1980s was the outpouring from mainstream and alternative presses of feminist utopian fictions. One of the best known is Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976).
The most important utopian thinker of the twentieth century is the German philosopher Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), whose magnum opus, The Principle of Hope (1954-1959), is a three-volume study of how hope her-aids the new and the “not-yet” as it emerges in political and imaginary realms. Given the speculative nature of utopianism, it is not surprising that such thinking continues to evolve in the realm of political criticism and in genre writing, especially science fiction. An effort to keep up with utopianism and utopian criticism is maintained by the Society for Utopian Studies, which has been in existence since 1975. The society publishes a journal and a newsletter, sponsors an annual conference, and recognizes that utopianism emanates from disciplines as diverse as engineering, architecture, literature, and economics.
- Bloch, Ernst. 1986. The Principle of Hope. 3 vols. Trans. Neville Plaice, Stephen Plaice, and Paul Knight. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
- Gilman, Charlotte Perkins.  1979. Herland. New York:Pantheon.
- Manuel, Frank E., and Fritzi P. Manuel. 1979. Utopian Thought in the Western World. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.
- More, Thomas. 1516. Utopia. http://gutenberg.net/etext/2130. The Society for Utopian Studies. http://www.utoronto.ca/utopia.
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