How would you convince anti-utopian critics such as Popper, Talmon and Berlin that utopian thinking is not necessarily authoritarian? There are three primary arguments that show that utopian thought is not necessarily authoritarian. The analysis will start defining key terms, and using Marx and Rousseau to explain the basis of Popper, Talmon and Berlin’s critique. It will then probe the epistemological foundations of their argument.
This will lead to the two conclusions: that the anti-utopians themselves are susceptible to authoritarianism, and that is fallacious to claim that any statement can be necessary whilst subscribing to Popperian empiricism. Finally, the analysis will examine different conceptions of utopia, and will conclude that the existence of a plurality of such ideas also undermine Popper, Talmon and Berlin’s criticism, because they are fundamentally different in nature to the ‘blueprint’ utopia on which their critique is based.
There will be certain features of anti-utopian thought that will not be explored fully , such as Popper and Talmon’s lengthy discussion of historicism’ and ‘holism’. There will be other features that are completely omitted, such as Kumar’s writings. This is for two reasons. Firstly, space constraints allow only a limited number of topics to be given the depth of treatment they warrant. Secondly, because empiricism and definitions of utopia are a foundational part of Popper, Talmon and Berlin’s wider critique of utopia, if the validity of these elements can be undermined, then a critique will not need to also examine their wider writings.
It is therefore necessary to begin by defining key terms. I will be using Goodwin and Taylor’s definition of authoritarianism. Its characteristics are: no freedom of choice (anti-liberal), restricted, elite, or dictatorial government (anti-democratic), and the use of violence or coercion (inhumane). The question implies an attempt to establish a causal relationship between utopian thought and authoritarianism. This is because of the concept of necessity. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy defines a proposition as necessary ‘if it could not have been false’.
The definition of utopia is also important as to how one approaches and answers the question, but as explained above, this debate will be addressed in greater depth towards the end of the analysis. Until then, utopianism will follow Popper’s definition: they are ‘blueprints… for reforming the whole of society. As Goodwin and Taylor acknowledge, there are features of many utopias that conform to their definition of authoritarianism. Talmon argues that utopianism assumes an ‘ultimate harmony of individual expression and social cohesion.
However, he asserts that without coercion, these values cannot in fact be reconciled; no society can hope for both ‘freedom’ and ‘salvation’. Berlin agrees, holding that ‘the necessity of choosing between absolute claims is… an inescapable characteristic of the human condition’. This is why anti-utopian authors believe that utopian thought conforms to the ‘anti-liberal aspect of Goodwin and Taylor’s definition of authoritarianism: freedom of choice in life is restricted or completely curtailed in order to achieve social cohesion.
A utopia that serves as a useful example of this was conceived by Rousseau. In The Social Contract, he argues that members of an ideal legislature should, after rational consideration, conform to the ‘general will. This is ‘the balance that remains, when we take away from [individual wills], the pluses and minuses which cancel each other out. For each individual, the general will becomes ‘their own’. Hence, when they obey it, they are obeying themselves. As a result of this, when people are coerced into following the general will, they are being ‘forced to be free’.
Another key utopian thinker, Marx, proposes a theory that fulfils all three of Goodwin and Taylor’s criteria for authoritarianism. It holds that after a worker’s revolution, a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ will be instituted. This is the society that bridges bourgeois capitalism and true communism, and is described by Lenin as: ‘won, and maintained, by the use of violence, by the proletariat, against the bourgeoisie… unrestricted by any laws. Though this does not prove that utopias are necessarily authoritarian, these two well-known examples serve to show that such features are present amongst utopian thought.
It becomes necessary to question why this is. A suitable starting point would be to examine the grounding on which authors such as Rousseau and Marx place their conceptions of human nature. This is because. as Goodwin and Taylor note, many such utopias were grounded upon the premise that present institutions corrupt society, and only if they are reformed to conform better to human nature can this be solved. A key component of Marx’s utopian writings – his concept of’alienation’ – will be used to examine human nature.
Marx’s exposition of the first part of his theory of alienation can be reduced to two basic premises. 1) That by labouring upon an object, man imbibes it with something of himself, and 2) that he will not own the product that he creates. If these premises are accepted, then it follows that: 3) Man is alienated from the product of his labour, and therefore loses something of himself. It can be accepted without discussion that for contracted workers within a capitalist system, (2) is true. The premise (1) must therefore be where critical attention is focused.
Walton and Gamble state that this premise, about a constituent part of human nature, is ‘indispensible’ to Marx’s arguments; that in order to accept Marx’s theory of alienation, his view of man’s nature must be accepted as a ‘fundamental ontological given’. This is shown in the fact that, for Marx, freedom (an absence of alienation) is to be found in man reaching his natural ‘species state’; a conception of what man’s nature is. This all shows that Marx’s theory of alienation rests upon an acceptance of his conception of human nature; of the ‘species state’.