Europe as Utopia

Is the European Union a utopian project? Right-wing Eurosceptics often see it as one. In her book Statecraft (2002), for example, Margaret Thatcher called the EU a “classic Utopian project, a monument to the vanity of intellectuals, a programme whose inevitable destiny is failure.” More recently, left-wing Eurosceptics such as Wolfgang Streeck have begun to describe the EU as a different kind of utopian project. In an influential book published in Germany last year (to be published in English in May as Buying Time: The Delayed Crisis of Democratic Capitalism), Streeck argues that the EU is evolving into (or perhaps revealing itself as) a kind of Hayekian utopian project – a vehicle for endless liberalisation without interference from democratic politics. But is this the right way to think of the EU? Does it really seek to make Utopia a reality?

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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.

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Utopia or Sparta

I recently read Theodor Herzl’s novel Altneuland (1902), which Walter Laqueur aptly describes in the preface to the third edition of his History of Zionism as “political science fiction”. In it, Herzl imagines the future Jewish state – which, he had argued in Der Judenstaat (1896), would be propelled into existence by the misery of Jews in the diaspora – as it might be in the twenties. But, ironically, after insisting in Der Judenstaat that he was not describing a Utopia, he proceeded in Altneuland six years later to do exactly that: Herzl’s imaginary new society is a kind of paradise in which the economy based on the principle of “mutualism” runs smoothly, education is free and women have equal rights. Most strikingly of all, however, Jews and Arabs live in perfect harmony. “Why should we have anything against the Jews?” asks an Arab character in the novel. “They have enriched us and they live with us like brothers”.

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Since my book, Utopia or Auschwitz, was published last year, several people have asked me about the title. What exactly did I mean by Utopia and what was I trying to say about utopianism and its relationship with Nazism? At one level, the Utopia of the title stood simply for the aspirations that the 1968 generation in Germany shared with protest movements around the world in 1968. But I also had in mind a more specific meaning that Utopia has in Marxist theory. Marx and Engels coined the term “utopian socialism” in the nineteenth century as a contrast to their own version of socialism, based on dialectical materialism, which they called “scientific”. In the twentieth century, however, Marxist thinkers attempted to revive and reclaim the concept. In particular, Rudi Dutschke, one of the leaders of the West German student movement, was deeply influenced by Ernst Bloch, who developed the idea of “concrete Utopia”.

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Real and imaginary new Jews

One of the strangest illusions among Germany’s Achtundsechziger – about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz – was the idea that they were the “new Jews”. In the late sixties, as members of the protest movement in West Germany came under increasing attack from their parents’ generation – the so-called “Auschwitz generation” – they began to imagine that they had somehow taken the place of, or were being treated like, the European Jews killed in the Holocaust. (Alain Finkielkraut has written eloquently about this in relation to the soixante-huitards – the French equivalent of the Achtundsechziger. He points out in his book The Imaginary Jew that their slogan “Nous sommes tous des juifs allemands” (“We are all German Jews”) – an expression of solidarity with Daniel Cohn-Bendit – suggested that “Jewish identity was no longer for Jews alone” and that “every child of the post-war era could change places with the outsider and wear a yellow star”.)

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Tony Judt’s 1968

In the latest essay in the series that began with the extraordinary piece, “Night”, that I mentioned in a previous post, Tony Judt shares his memories of 1968 and its aftermath on the NYRB blog. I particularly liked his description of the “unutterably serious” revolutionaries he came across on a visit to West Germany and their attempts to purge the Nazi past through free love:

The notion that a twenty-year-old in Western Europe might exorcise his parents’ guilt by stripping himself (and his partner) of clothes and inhibitions—metaphorically casting off the symbols of repressive tolerance—struck my empirical English leftism as somewhat suspicious. How fortunate that anti-Nazism required—indeed, was defined by—serial orgasm. But on reflection, who was I to complain? A Cambridge student whose political universe was bounded by deferential policemen and the clean conscience of a victorious, unoccupied country was perhaps ill-placed to assess other peoples’ purgative strategies.

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