Saturday, August 13, 2005

O' Utopia, Where Art Thou?

Marxian philosopher Bertell Ollman has a great essay on the human impulse to create utopia in the July/August edition of The Monthly Review. After a fascinating survey of the various utopian works throughout history, Ollman observes the one thing almost every utopian dream had in common before the modern era: some form of the socialist dream.
The contents of these [utopian] ideals vary a great deal as do the proportion of fact to fantasy, but the brotherhood of man, equality between the sexes, sharing of most earthly goods, checks against tyranny, and an emphasis on education as the chief means of producing good human beings appear often enough for these utopian visions to have been a major springboard for all the socialist thinking that came after.
Yet as the Soviet Union rose to great power status, the utopian novel directed its gaze at the horrors of Sovietism. Due to the magnificent works of Zemyatin’s We (1928), Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), and George Orwell’s 1984 (1945) socialism became unfairly associated with the purges and gulags of the U.S.S.R. much to conservative glee. To correct this conflation, Ollman writes "the call has gone up from many people on our side, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, for more and better utopian socialist works." Ollman ultimately disagrees with this call to imaginative arms, arguing that utopians adopt "a mode of thinking in which dreams, hopes, and intuitions play a bigger role in constructing their vision of the future than their analysis of the present." Being a thorough Marxist, Ollman believes a resurgence of socialist scholarship is needed to project socialism into the consciousness of the masses once again.
Now as then, helping workers grasp the specific nature of their exploitation within capitalism remains the key to raising their class consciousness, but, with capitalist ideologists trumpeting the failure of the Soviet and social democratic models of socialism as the failure of socialism as such, a more direct assault on the pervading pessimism of our time is also needed. Hence, projecting communism as a realistic and desirable alternative inherent in the workings of capitalist society, providing sufficient detail to make it comprehensible, attractive, and believable, has become one of the more urgent tasks of socialist scholarship. And, it is just because we must do more and better on this score than we did earlier that the need to distinguish our vision from utopian thinking, with its numerous wrong turns and cul-de-sacs, has become more important than ever.
I'm not sure Ollman's correct: If works of literature such as 1984 destroyed the allure of socialism, then why can't a new wave of socialist art -- whether as literature or film or both -- rekindle the desire for a true democratic socialist (and if I had my way, libertarian) future?

Nevertheless, read the essay; it's a fascinating discussion of utopianism, socialism, and their uneasy relationship.