Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sailing to Utopia

“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing.” – Oscar Wilde  [i]

Oscar Wilde wrote that a map that didn’t include utopia was not worth glancing at.  Why do we dream of utopia and strive towards it? 

The dream of a world of peace and harmony has inspired many throughout history.  The communist and socialist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were inspired by this urge.  Many today march in the belief that by joining with others they can effect change - protesting wars, pollution, discrimination.  They believe like Wilde that there must be a better, fairer way of doing things than the way we live today.  But, what is this need in us to remake our world for the better? Why do we spend so much energy struggling for a more equal world instead of focusing purely on our own selfish needs? 

Human dreams of utopia have constantly run aground on the rocks of human greed and ambition.  History has shown that we are incapable of creating a more equal society merely, as George Orwell put it, a society where some people are more equal than other people. [ii]  In the face of our increasing attempts to build international institutions and laws to bring about an end to conflict we stand no nearer, and arguably farther away, from achieving this aim.  But, in spite of the weight of history there are those who still seek the dream of a man-made utopia – heaven on earth. 

Where do these ideas of utopia come from?  Were we born with them?  Did they develop over the course of human history?  Is there some scientific explanation for them?


In the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx proposed a theory that claimed to provide a scientific foundation to the dream of a man-made utopia of equality and brotherhood.  Karl Marx, whose ideas are still deeply influential in our world today, asserted that history was driven by observable class conflict. 

The appeal of Marxism lay in its presentation as a scientific theory.  Marxism is a materialist theory.  That is to say it explains itself in economic terms based on observable factors like conflict between workers and factory owners without resort to metaphysical (or supernatural) terms or entities.  Karl Marx propounded a theory called historical materialism that explained human history as a series of class conflicts between two opposing groups – one in control the other not in control.  Slaves and masters, serfs and landowners, factory workers and factory owners.  At each stage class conflict arises when the group out of control realizes that there is a better way to do things and fights to achieve that new arrangement.  For example, in this way Marx contended that the slave/master society gave way to a feudal society and feudal society to capitalism.  He asserted that the nineteenth century conflict between factory workers and owners would inevitably lead to the final stage – communism in which resources would be equally shared among everyone.  The communist stage would usher in an utopian world of peace and plenty for all.

However, communism did not inevitably follow capitalism as capitalism followed feudalism.  True, various political movements around inspired by Marx tried to bring about the communist era by force.  As we now know, they failed and in doing so caused human suffering on an epic scale.

Communism promised a utopia of equality and brotherhood that turned into the greed and graft of the elite and the oppression of dissidents by secret police of the Soviet Union. The world reacted in horror to the brutal inhumanity of the Soviet Union and rejoiced when the Iron Curtain fell. So the theory of historical materialism failed in the laboratory of history.

But the utopian dream lives on.  The motivation behind many post-modern political movements is to achieve a Marxist utopia without the theoretical Marxism that has proved to be such heavy baggage.  The appeal of Marxism and historical materialism was that it showed a path to heaven on earth without any religious or spiritual mumbo-jumbo.  But now that the sheen of scientific credibility has melted away under the tide of history, belief in a man-made utopia has the distinct air of religious belief about it.


The Christian answer to the question of where the dream of utopia comes from is that we are born with a sense that there is a supernatural dimension to this world.  The Christian concept of heaven is based on absolute, immutable ideas.  The Christian idea of a future of absolute peace assumes the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing God that guarantees this future.  However, the Christian heaven of perpetual peace is only open to those who acknowledge this all-powerful God and pledge their allegiance to Him.

Many people have a problem with the idea that one must surrender to God to enter heaven and that humankind cannot by themselves build such a heaven on earth.  For these and other reasons, the Christian worldview as it relates to a heavenly utopia is rejected.  However, the biblical imagery of turning swords into plowshares and loving your enemies is retained.  The lingering notion that there must be something more, that humanity is not always destined to drown in enmity, is kept alive.  The project then becomes to build a ladder to heaven using earthly materials.  Hence, the appeal of Marxism and historical materialism.

 But, as we have seen the idea that Karl Marx’s historical materialism provided a scientific foundation on which to build our dreams of heaven on earth no longer holds water.  Marxism without its scientific backup involves just as much faith as anything else.  That is to say, there is no objective reason to believe that humanity will achieve a world of peace, love and brotherhood.  It seems that the harder we try the farther it slips from our grasp.

I do not imagine there are many well-intentioned people who would reject the biblical picture of endless peace.  What they do object to is the idea that this peace is God-given and not man made.  However, if they object to the involvement of God in the process because they think this to be without any objective scientific basis, they should be aware that belief in a man-made utopia is no different. 

Of course Wilde was quite right that life would not be worth living if there is no chance of a better world than this one.  So what can one do?  Continue to dream, ignoring the evidence to the contrary, of a man-made utopia?  Embrace the despair that comes from the acceptance that we can never reach utopia and that it’s better not to try?  Accept the longing for perfection as a sign that there is more to our world than we see everyday?

Whatever the origin of the utopian dream, I think one is hard pressed to deny the existence and universality of such longings.  This urge for utopia persists.  Next, one must admit these longings have been misused to inspire great evil.  Human efforts to leave our world of petty jealousies and mass murder and sail to a better place have failed.  History has shown us there is no place on the map called utopia and that many attempts to reach that fabled shore have in fact led to hell on earth. 

So, considering purely material earthly factors such as history show us that utopia is an impossible dream, if one wishes to be truly scientific about it – there is no quantifiable evidence that utopia is achievable.  Even what we consider to have been great civilizations were built on cruelty and inhumanity and exclusion.  As a result, it is insanity to look at our world and dream utopia is possible.  

Perhaps it is time to let the dream of utopia die.  But we know that if we lose hope we lose everything.  If we deny the possibility of a better world we will lose our essential humanity and so guarantee inhumanity.  So for many of us ditching the dream of peace and plenty for all is not an option.  Therefore, if we want to keep believing in the possibility of utopia, we perhaps need to consider that the utopian urge is not explainable in material, physical terms, but is a sign that there is more to human life.  To save ourselves from the perpetual disappointment that results from the mismatch between our dreams of perfection and the realities of human nature, maybe it is time to look to heaven.

[i]  The Soul of Man Under Socialism.  Oscar Wilde.

[ii] Animal Farm.  George Orwell.

1 comment:

  1. I love Wilde, but I disagree with the general premise. Can you look into your child's eyes, hold your wife or be in the company of family and think there must be more? To me nothing could be more greedy.