Utopianism and liberalism

In a previous post I said that my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, was meant to be a story of one example of utopian thinking by a particular group of people at a particular time in a particular place rather than a critique of utopian thinking in general. Although I thought the story of the Achtundsechziger illustrated some of the dangers of utopianism, I didn’t want to make generalisations based on it. However, since I wrote the book, I have been thinking more about utopianism in general. In particular, I recently read an interesting essay by Michael Walzer (editor of Dissent and author of Just and Unjust Wars) who argues that although utopian aspiration can be dangerous, it is also essential in order to check liberal democracy’s inherent tendency towards authoritarianism and hierarchy. “Without the steady pressure, or, better the intermittent uprisings, of men and women in pursuit of some ideal of justice, liberalism will give us only oligarchs and plutocrats”, he writes.

Walzer takes as his starting point Isaiah Berlin’s essay on the decline of utopian ideas in the West. As a liberal writing in the aftermath of World War II, Berlin welcomed the decline of utopianism – in other words the belief in the possibility of creating a perfect society – which had led to totalitarianism in the twentieth century. But although Walzer – himself a veteran of the movement against the Vietnam war in the 1960s – agrees with Berlin about that utopian aspiration can be anti-liberal because it leads to the idea that just ends justify extreme means, he also argues that it is the only force that can motivate “insurgent movements, radical mobilizations, and political struggles” such as the labour movement of the 1930s and the civil rights movement of the 1960s that have expanded liberalism. Thus for Walzer, utopianism is not just legitimate but necessary to protect liberalism from itself. This seems pretty persuasive to me.

What troubles me, however, is Walzer’s use of the concept of “resistance” to characterise such utopian movements. As I’ve mentioned before, that is exactly how the Achtundsechziger saw their struggle against the Federal Republic: against the background of the Nazi past, some were thinking of the anti-fascist resistance; inspired by national liberation movements in the Third World, others were thinking of anti-colonial resistance. However this idea of “resistance” justified methods that were more appropriate to fighting a totalitarian or colonial regime than reforming a fledgling democracy. In fact, I think this is precisely where Germany’s 1968 generation went wrong. So perhaps if there is a lesson from the story of the Achtundsechziger for utopian thinking in general, it is that when protest or opposition in a liberal democracy becomes “resistance” it can also become anti-liberal.


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