Utopia: Findings and Fallacies
Pavel B. Ivanov
Published: 4 May 1998
There have been many ideological trends that could
equally be called Utopian. Though they may seem most
different, and even incompatible with each other,
they share a number of common features, having the same
economic and social roots, which lead them to numerous
ideological fallacies—but also to important discoveries
and deeds, the value of which should not be underestimated.
Among the characteristic features of any Utopian school,
one could find the following:
- Static world
People tend to believe that the world can be governed be eternal laws, that
can be entirely comprehended and used to come to a better way of life.
It is pre-supposed that the people's activity cannot change the physical
and biological background of their lives, and the best one can do is to
adapt as much as possible to the natural laws, taking all what is
physically possible, but unable to get more than that.
However, the human ability of comprehending the world is in
no way confined by the natural laws, and there is no natural
law that cannot be understood and used in the interests of
the people. There is no transcendental or mystical world
complementary to the only physical world we are leaving in,
and all we want must be sought for in this very physical world.
- Embodied ideal
The natural consequence of the static picture of the world is the belief
that the development of the humanity must finally come to the best
order possible. When all the physical laws and the mechanisms
of biological evolution are discovered, they will give the people everything
they can get from the Nature at all, thus compelling them to adopt the
social organization the most compatible with the laws they have discovered.
So, the humanity's dream of a better world and the ideal way of life
can be completely embodied in the objectively existing optimal
social and economic system, which is bound to be established, sooner
or later, and the only reasonable behavior would be to move to this
ideal right now, coming as close to it as possible on the modern
level of our knowledge.
The objective existence of the ideal implies as objective distinction
between good and evil, the former being identified with the
steps toward the ideal organization, while the latter meaning
anything hindering the humanity's approaching the ideal.
The medieval controversy of nominalism and realism
comes to the mind, when one regards the Utopian views. Evidently,
the Utopians are inclined to support the real existence of the abstract
categories advocated by "realism".
- Innate morality
Since there must exist an ideal social organization, it is quite logical to
suppose that the people are designed to eventually become aware of
that final goal of social development. The Utopians conclude that
all the people would agree on that destination and thus come
to acting in the same direction, to achieve their common goal.
This assumes that there can be no principal discrepancies in the
people's morality, and their notions of good and evil are principally
the same. Consequently, the apparent differences between the
moral principles advocated by different people and schools
can only be attributed to delusion, which has to be eventually
removed after the humanity discovers the principles of the ideal
social organization and decides to follow them. If somebody's
behavior does not seem good, this indicates the lack of understanding
in the person, which could be fixed by mere education.
If there is an objective goal supported by the subjective unanimity,
it is enough to just invent a model of an ideal social organization
and tell the people about it to make it commonly accepted as a guide
for the practical implementation of the idea, which is good enough
to speak for itself. There is no need to argue, or fight for the model
invented—one has to just explain it. People will follow a really
good model just because it is good, and they want it to become a
Also, people are often encouraged to invent their own ideal models, so
that the design of the future society would be elaborated in more detail.
However, most Utopian teachings explicitly or implicitly limit the
people's creativity to what is compatible with their specific model of
The Utopians' belief in the efficiency of their economic and social
inventions makes them attempt to implement them right away,
within the current social organization. They believe that a good example
can draw other people to their ideas and encourage them in following
the same way. The Utopian colonies are to be organized despite all
their incompatibility with the society they have to coexist with,
in the hope that the very perfection of the model will make them
strong enough to compete.
However, the very necessity to compete implies certain internal
structures destined to support the colony's survivability in the
hostile environment. This implies a high degree of centralized
regulation in the life of the colony, with the interests of the
members subdued to the necessity of survival. Thus the discipline
becomes the primary demand for an Utopian colony, and the
model colonies are quite resembling military camps.
The abstract Utopians who just dream about the ideal society
may proclaim the peaceful way to their Utopias—but as
soon as one tries to do anything in the real world, one has to
use the methods appropriate for this world to achieve anything
The Roots of Utopias
There are both objective and subjective roots of the Utopian way of
thought and action.
The objective roots lie in the rapid changes produced
in the people's cultural environment by industrial development during
the periods immediately preceding the society's transition to the next
level of socioeconomic development. When the productive forces grow
beyond the limits of the current social organization, this latter has to
be replace by a different one, more suited for further development.
The popularity of Utopian ideas is one of the first indications to
this objective necessity, the specificity of which is still to come to
public awareness. The syncretic, Utopian stage precedes the
"analytic" stage, when the leading social forces
of the new society become consolidated enough to oppose the
existing order in an organized way, as a mass movement.
The industrial revolution that lead to the formation of capitalism in
Europe was a quite characteristic example. The productivity of
the first factories was much higher than that of the medieval
manufactures, and this was attributed to the new machines used.
Two opposite natural reactions resulted from that: one was to
blame the machines and ruin them—and the other was to
deify the machines and associate every kind of well-being
with a properly designed social mechanism. The latter trend
lead to the appearance of the numerous Utopias, as another side
of the Cartesian paradigm in philosophy.
The peculiarities of class struggle in different feudal societies
were reflected in the specific Utopian ideas. A number of syncretic
models appeared in XVI-XVII centuries, with some features far
beyond the immediate goal of building capitalism, and even beyond
the level of much later communist teachings. When it came to
practical action, these Utopias left their popularity giving the way
to the ideology of the Enlightenment, advocating the interests of the
bourgeoisie. However, the writers of the Enlightenment often used
the form of Utopia to convey their views, which should be
distinguished from the Utopian writings proper.
The difference in the rate of capitalist development in different
countries of Europe has produced a discrepancy between the tasks
of social revolutions on the boundary of the XVIII and XIX centuries
and the Utopian ideas of that time. Two kinds of Utopias were
then observed, one reflecting the historical transition from the
"natural" capitalism to its higher stage we experience
today—and another foreseeing the end of capitalism as a
social system; this latter form of Utopias was called the Utopian
The subjective roots of Utopias ascend to the
impossibility to actually changing the world in the time when
the people first become aware of the necessity of changes.
So, one can only dream about the future and build the ideal
models of it, without any indication to the real ways of
bringing it to life—the imaginary ways designed by the
Utopians serve to compensate this deficiency.
The development of public mentality is determined by the
development of economy and social system; one cannot expect
the general acceptance of a new idea before there are the objective
grounds for that. The glimpses of the future can be observed
in the works of a few individuals of the time—but they
can only explicate what has already intrinsically formed.
Hence, one should not expect from the Utopian writings
more than they can give, in their social environment.
One can also consider the cultural roots
of Utopias, noting that the primary forms of awareness get
inherited from the present culture, and the new ideas are often
expressed in a rather inadequate and cumbrous way.
It is much later that the proper ideological forms can
be invented, the first attempts inevitably carrying the
stamp of the past on them.
This usage of traditional forms prevents Utopians from
being clear enough, even to themselves—but it also makes
them understandable to their contemporaries.
Utopia: the Negative Sense of the Word
The deficiencies of the Utopian way of thought are closely related to
its essential syncretism. Since the mixture of inhomogeneous features
they suggest can never be present in a real society, the first fallacy of
any Utopian construction is its unreality, the
impossibility of practical implementation. The natural subjective
consequence is the internal inconsistency of any
Utopian view. In practice, this leads to voluntarism,
when arbitrary decisions are followed despite all the evidence of
The principal logical fault inherent to all the Utopian writings is the
discrepancy between the objectivity of the world and the absolute
subjectivity of social development. While the physical world
(including the bodily existence of humans) evolves in an entirely
objective way, so that one can discover its laws and use them to
achieve a more comfortable living, the minds of the people are
operating in a quite independent way, so that one could accept
any idea, once it has been formulated by somebody else; no matter
how a person lives, everybody can distinguish good ideas from
bad deeds, and choose to follow the former and avoid the latter.
However, an adequate idea of objectivity would mean that the
ways of thinking and acting that can be observed at any stage of
social development are not arbitrary, depending on the material
development. Conscious beings are a part of the same world,
and their behavior must obey the objective laws, albeit very
different from those of the inanimate nature, or biological laws.
The forms of economic and social organization are objectively
formed in an objective process of development, which implies
quite definite stages and levels. The diversity of cultural trends
observed on every level of this development is as objective,
and one cannot impose any commonality on the humanity
if this commonality has not been objectively formed yet.
In other words, there is no such thing as common human
values—since the humanity is still split to nations and
classes with antagonistic interests.
Though many people used to at least once dream about a better
world, there is no such thing as a consummate dream of the
best level of human existence. The notions of a better world
will differ in different social layers, and the pictures drawn by
different people may be completely incompatible. Thus, a
slave-owner would like a world where the slaves would silently
obey any instruction without rousing a rebellion, theft or hidden
sabotage; on a slave's side, one could invent a quite different
solution, up to slaughtering the master and all his family.
However, the general rule is that the exploited classes can
rarely think of anything beyond the current mode of existence,
and their ideal is nothing but a refined picture of what the ruling
classes have, which may have nothing to do with actual changing
the world. Truly Utopian ideas come from the social layers that
has not formed into classes yet, and this adds to the syncretism
of their thought.
Utopias are different because the interests of the people differ.
Under the same economic circumstances, different classes will
draw their own pictures of a better world, though there will be
some common features in these pictures due to the common
opposition of the new classes to the old social organization.
Thus, when capitalism formed within the feudal system,
the bourgeois and the proletarians could oppose the feudalism
together, having quite different views of the new life to come.
It should be noted that Utopian ideas appearing before the
qualitative change in the mode of production are generally
reflecting the ideology of the leading class of the new society,
the opposite class sharing much of it; this is an objective
consequence of the positions of the classes in the social hierarchy.
If everyone has dreamt of a better world, it does not mean that
these dreams can be brought to a common basis, and that
there is a common dream of the humanity. The same words can
be used to denote quite different things. Thus, for one person,
freedom may mean that any antisocial act is allowed, while
for another person, freedom is impossible until some people act
in an antisocial way. For instance, I cannot feel myself free
if there are people who can murder me, or simply let me die from
hunger, depriving of a decent income—those who kill the others
or exploit them to death would hardly greet banning such their
Nationality and religion are not artificial differences, they
originate from the objective development. One cannot choose
one's religion or nationality, or refuse belonging to either of them.
The growth and education in a national or ideological environment
strongly influences a person, and the traces of those early influences
can be found in the later actions consciously destined to quit with
one's cultural background. Therefore, one cannot arbitrarily
adopt any ideology, one's preferences being determined by the
embedding cultural processes. And of course, there is no way
to persuade the church to use its wealth for anything but the
church's own profit, or try to use the national idea for promoting
the international cooperation.
Yes, humans on the Earth have much in common as physical
and biological entities. But the common experience of an essentially
identical carbon-based life is not enough to ensure the existence
of common goals and interests. On the contrary, it is the physical
and biological commonality that constitutes the basis of possible
social differences: social discrimination can only be observed
where there is an awareness of biological sameness. Belonging
to the same biological species does not imply the existence of
the united humanity.
In this world, everybody works for one's own survival, or for
one's family and friends; this results in that the interests of the
people are essentially limited by the small group they belong to,
and one cannot speak about the unity of goals and ideals.
Moreover, the interests of different people are often contrary,
and this is defined by the objective economic and social laws
rather than by their personal inclinations.
Also, there is no reason to assert that everyone would strive
for the best life possible. In a perverted society, the people's
psychology is as perverted, and many people feel that they
could profit from the world's imperfection. Various swindlers,
thieves and tricksters will never agree to such a social change
that would make any robbery impossible; a politician would
never accept the elimination of any politics; a capitalist
would rarely help to annihilate capitalism.
The humanity just cannot choose a common goal in a kind
of a mental act. Objectively, the interests of different classes,
social layers and individuals are different, and this in no
way depends on their will. It is not individuals who act in
history—it is classes and social forces. It is not
up to the people how they behave—they just act as the
representatives of the class. Hence, one cannot decide to be
good, and become good. One cannot even become aware of good
and evil but in the sense of one's class.
Since the development of the people's mentality is related to
economic and social development, there is no direct link between
knowledge and behavior. People may know something quite
well—and behave in an entirely opposite way, being often
unaware of that contradiction. On the other side, the ruling
classes are not interested in supplying any kind of knowledge to
everybody, and the society is organized in the way preventing
too much spreading of sensitive information. There are different
methods of hiding knowledge from the public, from direct bans
and commercial secrets to dissolving knowledge in the flood of
nonsense, so that it's hard to distinguish an idea from its vulgar
On itself, knowledge is not enough to do anything. One cannot
cure any illness just knowing how to do it—one has to get
the material pre-requisites necessary for that. Knowing how
to get food to feed the hungry means nothing while those who are
not objectively interested in annihilating hunger are doing all
they can to keep the things as they are. Knowledge cannot
stop pollution if there is no economic interest in that. Knowledge
cannot lead the humanity to the unlimited production capabilities
if the ruling classes do not want that.
Knowledge can solve no problem and achieve no result—it
only provides a basis for that, but never a motive. The humanity
cannot move towards the new life merely accumulating
knowledge—though it cannot develop without accumulating
sufficient knowledge neither. Utopians are apt to treat
knowledge and education in an extremely wide sense, including
almost everything in it (like justice, truth, wisdom etc.).
In this interpretation, of course, it would be quite easy
to explain any failure by the lack of knowledge. However, one
should better leave knowledge in its own realm, discriminating
it from the other forms of reflection. Thus, the possibility of
spreading knowledge in a particular society would depend
on its economy and social structure, and the corresponding social
institutes can hardly depend on any particular knowledge,
save the knowledge of how to make the masses to obey...
The existence of the efficient ways of disseminating information
cannot guarantee its actual dissemination. Since the
companies and institutions have to act within the market
economy, they will never be interested in publishing all
the information they have, and no corporation would give
money for maintaining a knowledge base, if it does not
bring a good profit. For instance, it would be unwise
to expect that, say, American Medical Association would
create a Web site containing all the knowledge about
medicine—this is utterly impossible, even if there
were other institutions supporting the idea. No governmental
or international consortium is possible to create a publicly
available source of information on every field of knowledge.
This is not a lack of awareness of all the importance of such
a network for the development of the humanity—rather,
the economic organization of the capitalist society would not
permit that. The maximum what can be done is to collect
information about the possible (commercial) sources of
information in a kind of online catalog. But one can get
little knowledge for free in the present social environment.
Reducing economic and other barriers is impossible
under capitalism, which is objectively interested in the existence
of numerous social groups confronting each other. However,
what cannot be done as a voluntary act, is gradually occurring as
a result of economic development, and some groups of activists
might think that the changes ought to be written on their credit.
The possibilities of free education are most limited today,
though capitalism has to allow people to learn since the current
mode of production cannot be maintained without qualified
personnel. However, free education will always be very limited
in the capitalist society, and most people will not be able to get
a good education because they don't have enough money for that.
An educational revolution is therefore impossible without a
social revolution and economic reorganization.
The capitalist society is oriented on the rich consumer, and it is
not interested in funding research and development. It is only
when there may be some immediate outcome that can be used to
increase the profits, the capitalists (often represented by their
governments) may pay for—though much less than it
actually costs. It is convenient to have an army of scientists and
engineers who are always afraid of losing their job and hence
will do everything for just a little sum.
Spirituality is opposite to any commerce, and there can be no funding
system for the arts and science that could be good enough. It is in
the nature of the market to support spectacular machinations by
the expense of really promising research that could drastically change
the well-being of the majority of the humanity. Selecting the directions
to fund on a competitive basis can only fund the skillful competitors,
but never the real masters; those who can work have too little time
and interest for pushing the others by their elbows. A good system
would support those who do not compete—this is incompatible
with the principles of market economy.
The same holds for the system of government and social regulation.
The capitalist governments are just the mechanism of balancing the
interests of different commercial groups, and no government is
interested in increasing its efficiency, which would mean the
disappearance of the very necessity in the government. Since the
political system of the capitalist society serves the needs of the
ruling class only, one cannot expect that it would ever turn to
the ordinary people and become interested in their opinions.
In the market economy, governmental institutions obey the same
laws of the market, and it would be naive to want them act
for free, merely for keeping peace and justice.
The fundamental changes in social organization can never be
made through any kind of plebiscite. Democracy is just one
of the possible modes of government typical for the so called
civilization (that is, the three exploitative formations: slavery,
feudalism and capitalism). However, no voting can support
a decision requiring a non-traditional approach. Common
sense is not enough for making decisions in critical situations
of any level; the problems are usually too complex to judge
by the superficial acquaintance only; the real solutions are
not trivial, and they require an intense research far beyond
the common sense. In the human history, there have been many
examples of how the common sense made severe mistakes—still,
there still are people who suggest the common sense as the final
criterion of truth and justice.
While many Utopians advocate a peaceful movement to the
ideal society through getting knowledge and education, the way
of social development cannot be always peaceful, especially
when it comes to replacing one social system with another.
The old regime would not leave the power to the new one,
without a severe fight. The forms of this struggle may be
most diverse, and it is always desirable to avoid catastrophic
consequences in any revolution. However, one cannot build
the future being afraid of the shocks and trying to always
preserve smoothness and positivity of action. Actually,
there can be no "negative" or "positive" actions, since every
actions becomes interpreted within a wider social process,
thus being dependent on the following development.
The final assessment always comes a posteriori, and
the opinions of the people making history today may be far from
the historical sense of their deeds.
To once mention the unreality of Utopian projects, it should be
noted that the very ideals cannot stay outside the general process
of development, and there is nothing to become the final goal
of the humanity. Abstractions cannot exist in reality, and asymptotic
approaching the ideal does not save the situation, as long as the
ideal itself remains static.
The Necessity of Utopias
Despite all the fallacies, the Utopian ideas are important for the
development of the humanity, and they may significantly influence
the minds, forming a new level of public mentality appropriate
for a higher level of economic and social organization.
The very appearance of Utopian suggestions indicates the necessity
of change. This is the first form of social self-awareness, and
its syncretism allows it to reflect the sprouts of the both near and
very distant future of the humanity.
Utopian writings stimulate the thought, making people consider the
future as a product of their own efforts and design. Hence, people
become aware of their significance as the creators of the world,
and not mere marionettes.
The attempts of implementing various Utopian projects objectively
stimulate development. They provide a kind of social experiment,
with the negative and positive results being equally valuable.
Even the abstract Utopian dreams have a practical significance,
as a mental experiment illustrating specific aspects of social
Every attempt to collect knowledge and educate the people is
very important. The more bits of knowledge get exposed,
the more they undermine the outdated social system in favor of
the new one, more suited for the next stage in the development