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The Utopia Reader


Edited by Gregory Claeys & Lyman Tower Sargent


New York: New York University Press, 2017

Paperback, xv + 545 p. 978-1479837076. $40


Reviewed by Gilbert Bonifas

Université de Nice




This is the second edition of an anthology of utopian literature and utopian thought that Lyman Tower Sargent and Gregory Claeys first published in 1999. Despite the eighteen-year gap between the two versions, the 2017 contents of the Reader do not show signs of much alteration. All the 1999 texts are still here. There have been a number of additions, some of which fill up a few noticeable lacunae in the first edition: an excerpt by Joachim of Fiore as a sample of millenarian thought, another from Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men, “one of the last great restatements of the Golden Age”, the respective reactions of William Morris and Edward Bellamy to Looking Backward and News from Nowhere, a long passage from the little-known John Lithgow’s Equality, a History of Lithconia (“the first literary utopia published in the United States”), and an extract from Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia which served as a launching pad for environmental utopianism.

A small number of texts have been the object of minor cuts or additions which in most cases do not change their tenor. The translated versions of non-English passages, often dating from the early twentieth century, have sometimes been replaced by yet older ones from the Victorian Age or the eighteenth century. There is no reason to believe that these are more authoritative than their predecessors, and one suspects the change has mainly to do with keeping costs down. Regrettably, as a result extracts from the works of Hesiod, Pindar and Horace can no longer be read in verse, but in prose.

Most of the introductions to the texts have been slightly lengthened and perceptibly rearranged since the first edition. On the whole they are more informative but many, however, remain exiguous (e.g. four lines only to introduce the Rabelais excerpt, two and a half dedicated to Winstanley) and their rearrangement has sometimes worsened a patent lack of logic in their organization (e.g. the introductions to More’s text or Condorcet’s).

The editors have also inserted short biographical elements in these introductions. There is certainly a good didactic reason for their presence. However the lack of method is surprising. Not every author is covered, and not always those one would expect to be most in need of a presentation. Why inform us that Swift “was an Anglo-Irish poet and clergyman and is widely regarded as the most successful satirist writing in English” and say nothing about the life of the much less known James Harrington for instance?

The most serious flaw of these introductory pieces, however, is the all too frequent failure to contextualize the excerpts. Often it is difficult to know not only who is the speaker but also where, when and to whom he is talking. There is a long passage from Bacon’s New Atlantis. The reader is never informed that this rediscovered Atlantis is in fact a Pacific island named Bensalem and that the speaker is the important head of the House of Salomon. Similarly in the dialogue excerpted from Wells’ A Modern Utopia it would not come amiss to be told where we are (on a parallel planet) and how the verbose utopian and the narrator who appears to be his enigmatic double met (thanks to a quirk in time and space while the narrator was walking in the Swiss Alps). And who is this Gabriel who seems to be the narrator and main protagonist of Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column?

Sometimes it is the origin and background of the work excerpted that remain mysterious. For instance we are told nothing about the circumstances that drove Winstanley to write The Law of Freedom in a Platform. To say that he was “the leader of the Diggers, a radical egalitarian group that reoccupied public land that had been privatized” is not enough in view of the content of the extract selected, which clearly shows that the aim of Winstanley was not merely to recreate an egalitarian community of free peasants, but to build a new ideal society. Winstanley’s dream was “a primitivist Millennium” (Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium), and Claeys himself writes in his Searching for Utopia that Winstanley wanted “to recreate a community similar to that which had existed before the Fall”.(1) But of this and, more generally, of the millenarian currents that convulsed England during and after the Civil War there is not a word in The Utopian Reader. Similarly the reader of “the principles of Newspeak” [474-483] is curious to know why Orwell put “the alteration of language in order to reshape thought” at the centre of his dystopia. But unfortunately the excerpt is left in an intellectual and contextual vacuum. No mention is made in particular of Orwell’s “Politics and the English language” (1946), of his belief that “language can corrupt thought” and of the link he establishes between the “debasement” of English and the totalitarian leanings of the left intelligentsia.

Introductions have to be economical, but they must be instructive enough for the reader not to be forced to go through a text in a state of perplexity which is sometimes made worse by the presentation of many of the extracts. These are made up of several discrete passages normally far apart from each other in the work excerpted, often illustrating different aspects of utopia, but in the Reader merely separated by three ellipsis dots easily mistaken for suspension points. The consequence is a number of unannounced non sequiturs that throw the reader off balance and render certain texts almost incomprehensible. The worst case is the excerpt from Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar’s Column. It is introduced as taken from chapter 12, but is in reality a mystifying assemblage of fragments from chapters 12, 37 and 40. The Utopian Reader was manifestly compiled with a public of students in mind. It is a pity that it sometimes lets them down badly.

On the credit side there is of course the fact that Claeys and Sargent’s anthology offers a wide-ranging collection of not only well-known but also often obscure utopian and (in a lesser number) dystopian texts. These form what the editors justifiably call “an overview of the history of utopianism”. They are preceded by a general introduction which in the 2017 version has been considerably lengthened from four to eight pages while the originally skimpy bibliography at the end of it has grown into a seven-page long list of recent and not so recent books and articles on what the editors prefer to call “utopianism” rather than “utopia". Though shorter the 1999 introduction was perfectly adequate in view of the texts selected. It clearly pointed to the distinction between (mainly pre-Morean) “utopias of sensual gratification” achieved “without human effort ... a gift of nature or the gods” and “utopias of human contrivance” in which the good life is always of this world. It also theorized the evolution of utopian thought after More as a succession of four overlapping waves which the Reader reflected: a religious and often egalitarian radicalism, the temptation of primitivism, the fascination for the developments of science and technology leading to a belief in indefinite progress, the aspirations for liberty, equality, justice which concreted into socialism and Marxism and eventually into visions of “the future as nightmare” to use the title of Mark Hillegas’ book.

The definition of “utopianism” itself did not take up much space in the 1999 edition – the first page, in fact, in which brief definitions of the main elements of this much-debated and diffuse concept were supplied. This is the section which has been much enlarged in the second edition, the rest being left more or less untouched. The cause of this enlargement is not a change in the contents of the anthology or a mere wish to beef up some of the points of the initial introduction, but the 1989 collapse of the Berlin Wall and consequentially of the Soviet Union which has finally come home to liberal intellectuals (both are briefly mentioned in the last paragraph of the Reader’s introduction and at greater length in the recent writings of the two editors). The two events were the inspiration for many books which expatiated on the (often murderous) faults and eventual failures of millennial ideologies, notably of the variant forms of Marxism,(2) and on the seeming triumph of economic liberalism. The political transformation that had occurred at the very end of the twentieth century seemed definitively to demonstrate the superiority of Popper’s “open society”, and that he had been right in preferring the elimination of “concrete evils” to over-ambitious and violence-prone “utopian engineering”.

There was much in this diagnosis that could not be denied, and much also that was disagreeable to progressives who had always had a soft spot for Marx’ theories.(3) In their eyes communism was discredited but not certain utopian ideals it had falsely claimed to embody. Utopia could be “salvaged” (Claeys’ word in Searching for Utopia). Trading on the ups and downs of capitalism in the early years of the twenty-first century (the introduction of the Reader mentions the 2008 crisis) they reformulated a lighter definition of utopianism in which the quest for perfection was replaced by a concern for perfectibility. In the introduction [2] Claeys contends that “the myth of a heaven on earth” must no longer be at the heart of utopian thinking. He and Sargent even wonder whether it ever was: “The editors of this volume argue that this [Popper’s] view misrepresents utopias and utopianism in that authors of utopias ... rarely present perfect societies, just ones that are significantly better than those in which the authors lived” [8]. Well understood, utopianism is about how to make daily life incrementally better, not perfect. The business of utopia is “the transformation of the everyday” says Sargent, not “salvation” or “ultimate emancipation” adds Claeys.(4)

If this had been thought through before 1999, the likelihood is that the contents of the anthology would have been somewhat different. But even though the editors’ definition of utopianism has since become more “realist” [3] or pragmatic, perhaps even Fabian in the gradualism it seems to have become synonymous with, their collection of texts has changed very little and so what is on offer in The Utopian Reader is a range of extracts which may not all describe perfect static societies, but which certainly signal a strong will to break with, and not merely to improve, a distasteful time or space. The utopias of the Reader clearly belong to the realm of those “possibles latéraux à la réalité” Raymond Ruyer wrote about in his L’Utopie et les utopies, and are not merely located a few stages further forward on the same road that the societies in which and against which they were imagined. Only in one of the final excerpts, Ursula Le Guin’s “The Day before the Revolution”, do we find an illustration, in the person of an old revolutionary whose ambitions for a bright future have become much more modest with age and illness, of latter-day utopian thought as conceived by Sargent: “More complex, less certain of [its] proposals, and intended for flawed humanity” (Utopianism : 6).

In their taxonomy of Utopia the editors stick to the three categories established by Sargent under the phrase “the three faces of utopianism”: literary utopias, “utopian practice” by which he essentially means blueprints or practical attempts aiming at founding new and better communities, and lastly “utopian social theory”. Only the first two types are represented in the anthology. The final page of the introduction to this second edition has a few thumbnail sketches of certain political theorists who wrote on the nature and function of utopian thought, Mannheim, Popper, Tillich, Bloch and Ricoeur, but it is all rather succinct and somewhat arbitrary. Why leave aside such thinkers as Talmon, Levitas, Polak, Jameson, Kolakowski or Bauman (all mentioned by Sargent in his Utopianism)?

The excerpts themselves are distributed over six chapters in chronological order. The first chapter, allocated to “utopianism before Thomas More” is necessarily the most eclectic and the least “English” including as it does samples of many of the foundational myths from the Golden Age and the Garden of Eden to the Millennium and Cockaigne. Hesiod, Ovid, Virgil, Horace, Pindar are there, together with a clutch of Hebrew prophets. That best-known of millenarians, Joachim of Fiore, surprisingly absent from the first edition, makes here his appearance. Ancient legislators, especially Lycurgus whose influence on utopian thinking is perceptible well into the Modern Age, are not forgotten. Plato is understandably given pride of place with 29 pages taken from The Republic. Disappointingly there is nothing from Aristotle even though Book VII in his Politics is putting across a view of the good society which in some respects is the exact opposite of the Platonic utopia as Claeys himself points out in Searching for Utopia [25-26].

From the Renaissance each century is entitled to one chapter. The sixteenth is represented by great classics: More’s Utopia, Rabelais’ “Abbey of Theleme” and Montaigne’s famous passage on the cannibals. More is granted only 17 pages excerpted from Book II of Utopia, omitting therefore all of Book I and its indictment of sixteenth-century English society. This is enough to convey the flavour of More’s eutopia and to introduce the reader to utopian ways of life, organization and government. However in view of the ongoing debate on the true interpretation of Utopia and on More’s own stance, the inclusion of the final paragraph of the book in which More, or his persona, expresses reservations about certain aspects of life in Utopia would have been welcome for a finer appraisal of the work.

The seventeenth-century excerpts all predate the Restoration and mostly reflect the intense political, religious and scientific debates of a period in which the myth of the Golden Age, millenarianism, Plato and More still retained a strong influence while Puritanism agitated minds and awoke desires for a new order. The chapter includes a short extract from Gonzalo’s famous speech in The Tempest, longish passages from Campanella’s City of the Sun and Bacon’s New Atlantis, a rare text of 1655 by Margaret Cavendish, “The Inventory of Judgements Commonwealth”, which the editors have chosen in preference to the better-known The Description of a New World, Called the Blazing World (1666) an excerpt of which would however have better exemplified the feminism of “Mad Madge”, that being presumably what the editors wanted to highlight. Of more importance for a study of the historical development of utopian thinking are the selections from Winstanley (The Law of Freedom in a Platform) and James Harrington (The Commonwealth of Oceana) as they mark the birth of the practical utopia. Winstanley’s and Harrington’s works are political programmes. They are not content to erect imaginary societies parallel to the real world; they intend to reshape the latter’s future, to impact on History. With them “l’ère des utopies-programmes a commencé ... Cela fait glisser insensiblement l’utopie vers la discussion des réalités les plus immédiates”,(5) the consequence being that the borderline between utopian thinking and political action becomes blurred and what pertains to the one or the other a moot question which the reader of the anthology is about to ask himself many times as he reaches the purlieus of the modern utopia.

Most of the excerpts in the next chapter on eighteenth-century utopianism were written in the last decades of the period and mirror many of the tenets of the Enlightenment, notably the centrality of reason. Several texts here plan or describe a “reasonable state of society” (William Godwin’s words : 200), particularly the long extract from Condorcet’s Esquisse d’un tableau historique des progrès de l’esprit humain, a short passage taken from Thomas Spence’s republican Constitution of Spensonia (too short, unfortunately, to show Spence’s debt to Winstanley and the active presence of the Millennium in his thought) and two fragments from Louis Sébastien Mercier’s L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante (Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred). Individualism, that second pillar of the Enlightenment, is not totally absent (it shows in the selection from Godwin’s Enquiry Concerning Political Justice) but what dominates is as always a propensity for collectivism and over-regulation: L’andrographe by Restif de la Bretonne was, according to its subtitle, “un projet de règlement … pour opérer une réforme générale des moeurs et, par elle, le Bonheur du genre humain”; this aspiration materializes in the anthology as a seven-page long passage minutely detailing the regulations concerning sexual relationships and marriage! In this intellectual context and given Claeys and Sargent’s broad definition of utopia an extract from Rousseau’s Social Contract would not have come amiss but instead the editors have chosen a passage from A Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality -- a piece of pure adamism completely at odds with the spirit of the time but interestingly the exact opposite of Swift’s savage anti-adamism in the opening text of the chapter which relates Gulliver’s encounter with the Yahoos.

Inevitably the nineteenth and twentieth century have the lion’s share of the anthology, more than 300 pages out of 545. The chapter on the nineteenth century is subdivided into two parts, the first of which focusing on “communal societies as utopias”, namely a number of the experimental collectivist communities that were founded in the United States under the influence of European “utopian socialism” and of certain religious beliefs inherited from the radical Protestant sects and deeply infused with millennialism. Half a dozen texts are dedicated to the constitutions, rules and even architecture of these small colonies: the Shakers, the Amana Society, the Oneida community and Albert Brisbane’s Association with its plans for American Fourierist phalansteries (quasi-duplicates of Fourier’s own scheme for an “experimental Phalanx” also included in this section). There is nothing, however, on Brook Farm despite its close association with Brisbane and Fourierism and its place in Hawthorne’s Blithedale Romance. Even more surprising is the total absence of New Harmony in this part of the chapter. Robert Owen himself makes his appearance with his utopian blueprint, The Book of the New Moral World, in the next half where he rubs shoulders with Henri de Saint-Simon and Karl Marx, the three of them trying to get to grips with the social and economic changes brought about by the Industrial Revolution. The editors have chosen to illustrate Marx’s thought by means of an extract from the Communist Manifesto, a plausible utopian blueprint in a period when it becomes difficult to distinguish between utopian and political thinking. However the selection informs the reader only of what the programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat will be and says nothing about that truly utopian “higher phase of communist society” in which each will receive according to his needs and no longer according to his ability, so that some of the early paragraphs of the Critique of the Gotha Programme might have been more apposite. One may also regret the non-inclusion of the section of the Communist Manifesto dealing with “critical-utopian socialism” and criticizing Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon and Cabet. As these stand cheek by jowl with Marx in the anthology, the passage would have been helpful to weave many of the nineteenth-century excerpts more meaningfully together.

With the exception of Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, more a satirical comment on Victorian England than a utopian novel (in spite of “The Book of the Machines”, reproduced in full), the novels excerpted here (John Lithgow’s Equality, a History of Lithconia, Cabet’s Voyage to Icaria, Bellamy’s Looking Backward, Morris’ News from Nowhere, Ignatius Donnelly’s Caesar Column, William Dean Howell’s A Traveller from Altruria and Theodor Hertzka’s Freeland) are all concerned with the evils of the industrial revolution and of unbridled capitalism, and how to eliminate them, which is mostly by a good dose of collectivism and equality – in short by the invention of a socialist paradise, though the latter may take the form of a society which is either a disciplined “industrial army” (Bellamy) or an arcadia where men live in sweet harmony with nature, machines, if any, having been carefully hidden (Morris). It would be churlish to dispute the choice of the editors, even if other suitable titles come to one’s mind, but one cannot help pointing out the curious absence of any reference to what, much more than any other worldview, determined the destiny of the modern West, the liberal free trade utopia. In Searching for Utopia, Claeys has two or three irate pages on economic liberalism and its “utopian vision of universal opulence” [10], but the Reader ignores the greatest popularizer of that vision, Richard Cobden. Yet there was surely much to quarry from the writings of a man who could declare during the last days of the campaign for the repeal of the Corn Laws(6): “I see in the Free-Trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe, drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace ... I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires, for gigantic armies and great navies ... will die away ... when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man”.

The twentieth-century portion of the anthology is thematically more disparate. It begins with an excerpt from Wells’ A Modern Utopia, the most prolix and actionless of all Wellsian utopias. The passage selected makes it look like Bellamy’s world writ large. At this point in the book the reader begins to tire of those long, repetitive expositions on how society is governed, administered, regulated and wishes the editors would from time to time adopt a new approach to their subject-matter. An extract from the more lively Men like Gods would have been more entertaining and no less enlightening, besidesoffering, through the arguments of the anti-utopian Mr Catskill (aka Winston Churchill) defending the old order in Darwinian tones, a new perspective on nineteenth-century utopianism.

At the time Wells was writing A Modern Utopia, the feminist movement was in full swing, protesting against the economic and political inequality of women. Utopian fiction became a much-used forum for and against women’s rights. It may be that “utopian writing demonstrates how feminists time and again have relied on utopia in order to posit a viable as opposed to an unattainable future”,(7) but the fact is that the two excerpts included in the Reader rather vindicate the view of many of their opponents (also often expressed in utopian novels) that the feminists were crazed women. In the imaginary societies of Rokeya Hossain’s “Sultana’s Dream”, a 2017 addition, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland men have been either “shut indoors” and banished to the kitchen, or have altogether vanished, reproduction occurring through parthenogenesis. Needless to say the world is a better, more humane, more peaceful and more efficient place.

Dystopia in this chapter is represented by well-known passages from Zamiatin’s We, Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984. One is a little surprised by the fact that the 1984 selection was drawn from the appendix to the novel proper, “The Principles of Newspeak”. This is obviously another instance of the editors’ preference for expository writing over a non-discursive, more artistic use of language, otherwise the conversation in the canteen between Winston Smith and Syme the philologist (part I, chapter 5) about the destruction of words and the consequent impossibility of autonomous thought would have provided a more telling example. Regrettably too no effort has been made to link the three novels whose genealogical ties are well established. By selecting three extracts focusing on the dissidents (which only We does), an instructive axis of throwbacks to a time when the world was still a reasonably sane and human place in which to live might have been constructed in order to contrast the utopian view of man as primarily a collective being and the dystopian belief in the “autonomous individual” to use Orwell’s phrase.

B.F. Skinner’s Walden II (followed by “Walden II revisited”) and Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia are the last two important texts in the anthology. The Skinner piece is inevitably long-winded. In its insistence that a good society might be built on the malleability of man it is no more than sub-Wellsian stuff and takes up valuable space at the expense of dystopias written at about the same time that would have echoed and enriched themes previously broached in the book, Fahrenheit 451 or Player Piano for instance. Callenbach’s utopia has probably been included in this edition as a consequence of its status as the “proto-ecological utopia” (Claeys, Searching for Utopia : 208), of its influence in the environmental movement and because “the whole subgenre of the ecotopia ... is today the strongest utopian current” (Sargent, Utopianism : 31). It may well be the only instance in the anthology of the “new” utopia, the one whose role is to demonstrate that “living a better life is possible in the here and now” (Sargent, Utopianism : 8). Do not the ecotopians, as early as 1975, dispose of their rubbish in recycling bins and do they not get around on bicycles that are available for free in the streets? The downside, to go by the Callenbach extract, is that, thus tamed, utopia ceases to interest.

Between these chapters and the index (both thematic and onomastic) a five-page afterword new to the second edition adumbrates a number of new utopian trends which, according to the editors, have emerged with the twenty-first century: the Radical Left parties in Spain and Greece (or can Syriza be called utopian? From faraway America, in 2015, Claeys and Sargent had not yet grasped that the answer was no), “young adult utopias” such as Hunger Games particularly appealing to the editors because “most are written by women, have a female protagonist” who often rescues the man she loves, “survivalist dystopias” less to their taste as they are peopled with gun-toting white guys who do not like liberals, “Occupy” movements, particularly Occupy Wall Street, fresh and engaging, but alas too much disorganized. In the middle of all this (why not at the end?) a short section on “non-print utopias”, i.e. a very brief list of films, all dystopian in fact. In his Utopianism [21] Sargent insists that utopias “have been written from every conceivable position”, including right-wing. But no effort is made in the Reader to illustrate this strand. In the twentieth-century chapter even an important author like Ayn Rand is ignored, and in their afterword Claeys and Sargent have nothing to say about the current utopian visions of the Radical Right in America though documented evidence is not lacking. Why leave unmentioned that truly utopian dream, the Northwest Territorial Imperative, the creation of a separate white homeland in the Pacific Northwest, all the more so as the Imperative is also fictionalized in at least the five novels (so far) of Harold Covington (“The Northwest Quintet”)?

Seeing that no similar work has come out between 1999 and 2017, and that the other compendiums of mainly British and North American utopias(8)  have long been out of print, the republication of The Utopian Reader is certainly to be welcomed. It is a definite improvement on the first edition and it will be a valuable tool to university students embarking on an exploration of the vast expanses and varied terrains of utopianism despite the deficiencies of its critical apparatus. Naturally those with a more expert knowledge will not learn much from the contents and general tenor of the book although it may introduce them to a number of American and even Indian utopists. Otherwise these pages will merely lead them to opine that Lewis Mumford was right when he summed up the whole of utopian history with these words:

isolation, stratification, fixation, regimentation, standardization,militarization – one or more of these attributes enter into the conception of the utopian city, as expounded by the Greeks. And these same features remain, in open or disguised form, even in the supposedly more democratic utopias of the nineteenth century … In the end, utopia merges into the dystopia of the twentieth century; and one realizes that the distance between the positive ideal and the negative one was never so great as the advocates or admirers of utopia had professed.(9)


(1) Gregory Claeys, Searching for Utopia : The History of an Idea. New York: Thames & Hudson, 2011 : 39.

(2) Or, as Claeys and Sargent put it rather coyly p. 8, there was “renewed discussion of the utopian elements in Marxism, and their possible relation to dystopian totalitarianism”.

(3) For recent symptoms see for instance p. 103 of Sargent’s Utopianism : A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: University Press, 2010) and the introduction and conclusion of Claeys’ Searching for Utopia.

(4) Sargent, Utopianism : 4; Claeys, Searching for Utopia : 204. See also his preface to The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature. Cambridge: University Press, 2010 : xi-xii. This certainly accounts for the watering down of utopianism in the 2017 edition of the anthology. In 1999 it was “the imaginative projection” of a society “dramatically different” from the present; in 2017 the projection has become only “often dramatically different”.

(5) Alexandre Cioranescu, L’avenir du passé. Paris : Gallimard, 1973 : 152 & 154.

(6) In Manchester on January 15th, 1846.

(7) Alessa Johns, “Feminism and Utopianism”, in The Cambridge Companion to Utopian Literature, ed. Gregory Claeys : 194.

(8) Glenn Negley & J.M. Patrick, The Quest for Utopia, an Anthology of Imaginary Societies (1952); J.W. Johnson’s Utopian Literature, a Selection (1968); John Carey, The Faber Book of Utopias (1999).

(9) Lewis Mumford, “Utopia, the City and the Machine”, in Utopias and Utopian Thought, ed. Frank E. Manuel. Boston: Beacon Press, 1967 : 9.


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