In defence of utopia

Published five hundred years ago in 1516, Thomas More’s Utopia would become the founding text of the utopian tradition. Ever since, a scholarly debate has ensued on whether Utopia should be read as satire, or as a detailed blueprint for a new society. The discussion has implications that stretch far beyond the text itself. More’s Utopia functions as a platform from which to gauge the merits of utopian thought and intellectual engagement as such. Does utopianism necessarily lead to violence and totalitarianism? Do utopian ideas need to end ‘in a miserable fit of the blues’, as Marx once famously wrote? Is it possible to transform society on the basis of ideas? What role can intellectuals play in politics? Following in the footsteps of anti-utopian thinkers such as Karl Popper, Isaiah Berlin and John Gray, the influential Dutch philosopher Hans Achterhuis has formulated forceful answers to these questions. In his view, More’s Utopia has carved a path that subsequent generations of utopian thinkers have been forced to follow, often against their will; a path that has inexorably lead to the modern totalitarian regimes of Stalin, Mao and the Khmer Rouge. The dismissal of societal alternatives, as theorized by Achterhuis, became a defining feature of the post-political culture in the Netherlands after 1989, the year that Wim Kok, leader of the social democrat party (PvdA), renounced its ‘striving towards the Grand Aim’. Though there is no final resolution to be reached on the interpretation of More’s Utopia – which remains an enigmatic book – there are convincing arguments to approach it as a semi-serious, semi-satirical text in the genre of serio ludere. In this tradition, utopia should be understood not as a blueprint to be implemented in its detailed totality, but an unstable and unrealizable image of the future that serves to critique the present, while having some fun in the process, too.

‘Utopia is on the horizon. When I walk two steps, it takes two steps back; I walk another ten steps, and it recedes ten steps further. As much as I may walk, I will never reach it. So what is utopia for? The point is this, to keep on walking.’

Eduardo Galeano, Walking Words

 ‘If we are to believe the discourse of the wise, our fin de siècle is the finally conquered age of realism. We have buried Marxism and swept aside all utopias. We have even buried the thing that made them possible: the belief that time carried a meaning and a promise […] The thinkers who have made it their specialty to remind us without respite of the century’s horrors also explain to us relentlessly that they all stem from one fundamental crime. The crime is to have believed that history had a meaning and that it fell to the world’s peoples to realize it.’

Jacques Rancière, Chronicles of Consensual Times

The intellectual debate on utopian thought has long been dominated by a series of scholars – such as Karl Popper, Hannah Arendt, John Gray, Hans Achterhuis – who have described utopianism as a one-way ticket to totalitarianism. The classic case against utopianism has been made by the liberal philosopher Karl Popper. As explained in his famous The Open Society and Its Enemies (1945), and more at length in The Poverty of Historicism (1957/1944) and Utopia and Violence (1963), Karl Popper sees utopianism as an approach whereby one must first

‘determine the ultimate political aim, or the Ideal State, before taking any practical action. Only when this ultimate aim is determined, in rough outline at least, only when we are in possession of something like a blueprint of the society at which we aim, only then can we begin to consider the best ways and means for its realization, and to draw up a plan for political action.’ (Popper 1945: 167). \

Another defining characteristic of utopianism is its holism: ‘the desire to build a world which is not only a little better and more rational than ours, but which is free from all its ugliness: not a crazy quilt, and old garment badly patched, but an entirely new gown, a really beautiful world.’ (Popper 1945: 174). This approach, called ‘Utopian engineering’ by Popper, necessarily demands a ‘strong centralized rule of the few’ and is therefore ‘likely to lead to dictatorship’ (Popper 1945: 169). Since there is no rational or scientific way to determine what the ideal is that society should move towards, the differences of opinion on these matters take on the character of religious disputes, on which no compromise is possible. ‘Any difference of opinion between Utopian engineers must therefore lead, in the absence of rational methods, to the use of power instead of reason, i.e. to violence.’ (Popper 1945: 171). As an alternative, Popper proposed piecemeal engineering – small scale experiments, trial and error – of politics as a condition for the development of an ‘open society’. Unlike the Utopian engineer, the piecemeal engineer does not strive towards the establishment of a future ideal; his or her concerns lie wholly in the present.

Popper’s critique of utopian thought, and his reduction of politics to scientific rationalism in the here and now, provided the philosophical basis for the turn towards the technocracy of the post-political era, culminating in Fukuyama’s claim of the ‘end of history’. In the Netherlands, the rejection of utopian thought – inspired by Popper – was a key element in the development of the Dutch Third Way and the early shift of Dutch social democracy towards a centrist, technocratic and pragmatic politics. That era was inaugurated in 1989 by Wim Kok, the leader of the social democrat party (PvdA), who distanced himself from the ‘striving towards the Grand Aim’. With remarkable similitude to Margaret Thatcher’s famous dictum – There Is No Alternative (TINA) – Kok stated: ‘We no longer speak of a Vision or The Alternative of the PvdA. […] There is no alternative for the societal constellation we have now and therefore it’s no use to aim for that’ (cited in Marijnissen 2009: 36). This shift was motivated by a critique of utopian thought.

One year before, in 1988, Paul Kalma, the soon-to-be director of the scientific bureau of the Dutch social democrat party, had written a searing indictment of socialist ideology. In the ground-breaking essay Socialisme op Sterk Water (Socialism in Formaldehyde), Kalma pleaded for a definite departure from traditional socialist ideology, understood as the utopian desire for radical transformation of society. Following Popper’s argument, social democracy had to become an enemy of utopia and defend the ‘open society’ against the ‘closed society’ that utopian thought aimed for. (Ironically, for Kalma the ‘closed society’ is based on the idea of an end-stage of history, a harmonious society where all conflict has disappeared; it is eerily similar to the end-of-history thesis as developed by Fukuyama.) A ‘minimal socialism’ should arise without the pretention of being able to develop or realise ‘a general vision of man and society’ (Kalma 1988: 21). In 1995, Wim Kok held his famous Den Uyl lecture, where he spoke of the ‘liberating experience of shedding the ideological feathers’ (Kok 1995). Kok cited Kalma lengthily and approvingly: ‘A true renewal of the PvdA starts with a definite departure from socialist ideology; with a definite severing of the ideological ties with other descendents of the traditional socialist movement.’ (Kok 1995). Only to add that in 1995, the severing of ties had been as good as completed.

As is often the case, the most extensive theoretical elaboration of this shift only came after the fact. At the end of the 1990’s Hans Achterhuis developed a still widely acclaimed critique of utopian thought, inspired by the ideas of Popper. The work of Achterhuis thus became the main intellectual expression of the anti-utopian turn in Dutch politics.[1] According to Achterhuis ‘utopian thought has, from the very beginning, tried to prevent the emergence of an open society, in refined ways.’ (Achterhuis 1998: 117).

I believe that statement to be false. In fact, there is much to be said for the opposite argument: that the open society has been inaugurated by utopian thought. The democratic revolutions in the U.S., in France and the Netherlands were inspired by the republican ideals as articulated in the work of More and Rousseau (Rutjes 2012, Venturi 1971).

Internationally, thinkers such as Fredric Jameson, Terry Eagleton and Russel Jacoby have proposed a reassessment of utopian thought. While utopia as a blueprint is generally seen as problematic by these authors, the reappraisal concerns the iconoclastic form of utopian thought that primarily functions as a critique of the status quo instead of a master plan for the future. In the words of Eagleton: ‘Bad Utopia persuades us to desire the unfeasible, and so, like the neurotic, to fall ill of longing, whereas the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present.’ (Eagleton 2000, p34). Similarly, in the Netherlands, a reassessment of utopian thought is underway. Willem Schinkel writes of ‘a need to hold on to a utopian horizon, without ever making the dangerous claim of realising utopia.’ (Schinkel 2012: 24). Laeyendecker (2013: 423-431) has written an impressive encyclopaedic defence of utopia as a form of societal critique. And the journalist Rutger Bregman (2014: 386) argues for ‘utopian iconoclasm’.

Motivated by a similar spirit as the defenders of iconoclastic utopianism mentioned above, I aim to show that the critique of utopian thought as developed by Hans Achterhuis is based on a deterministic and ultimately untenable interpretation of the utopian tradition, and a flawed and reductive conception of utopia as blueprint. What follows is a critical revision of the critique of utopian thought popularized by Achterhuis, leading us all the way back to the foundational text of the utopian tradition: Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. On closer examination, this foundational text turns out be much more in keeping with the idea of utopia as critique, than that of utopia as a complete blueprint.

I. Utopia on Trial

The philosopher Hans Achterhuis, a long-time holder of the Dutch honorary title ‘Thinker of the Fatherland’, is one of the most widely read political thinkers of the Netherlands. In many ways, his biography is that of an entire generation. After receiving a doctoral degree in theology in 1967, Achterhuis worked for the global deaconate, the international department of the Dutch Reformed Church, where he became radicalised and left after a conflict with the leadership. As for many of his generation, leftist politics was not only a break, but also a secular continuation of his previous beliefs. As a young radical, he wrote books on Apartheid in South Africa (The Revolution Postponed, 1973) and the ideas of anti-colonial figures such as Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, Paulo Freire, Ivan Illich and Mao Tse-Toeng (Philosophers of the Third World, 1975). Experiencing a crisis of leftist faith, from the late seventies onwards Achterhuis developed into the single most prominent intellectual critic of the social movements of the sixties and seventies. Combining leftist critiques of the state (Foucault) and philosophical conservatism, in 1979 he published his now classic critique of social work as an institution that fosters dependency (The Market of Welfare and Happiness, 1979). But the repudiation of his former leftist beliefs is most poignantly expressed in his critique of utopian thought, which has been a central theme in his intellectual career. It led to books such as De Erfenis van de Utopie (The Legacy of Utopia, 1998), Utopie (Utopia, 2006) and finally De Utopie van de Vrije Markt (The Utopia of the Free Market, 2010), which portrays neoliberalism as another utopian belief system that Achterhuis, seduced by its persuasive power, had overlooked in his earlier work.

In De Erfenis van de Utopie, his most extensive study of utopian thought, Achterhuis defines utopian thought by way of three family traits:

  1. Social engineering, the idea that human nature and the natural world can be rationally given (a new) shape and controlled.
  2. The idea of community, implying the subservience of the individual to society.
  3. Holism or totality of the societal experiment. There is a blueprint or master-plan with a detailed image of a future society: the whole of society needs to be configured and controlled, implying a total break with the past.

On the basis of this holism – taken from Karl Popper – Achterhuis objects to interpretations of utopian thought that seek to ‘take away useful elements’ or ‘inspiring ideas’. One either has to reject utopian thought in its entirety, or accept it as a whole, in its uttermost detail, with all of its troubling ingredients. According to Achterhuis, ‘the utopians explicitly oppose, starting with More, the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas. Partial improvements are for the right-minded utopian out of the question.’ (1998: 19).

Next to these three characteristics, More’s Utopia itself is the central foundation stone on which the critique of utopia rests, which Achterhuis seeks to develop in De Erfenis van de Utopie. The analysis departs from the ‘simple fact that both the concept as the phenomenon ‘utopia’ saw light of day in 1516’ (14), when More’s Utopia was published. ‘Almost all later developments and problems of utopian thought are present here, in condensed form’ (16). ‘Who is unfamiliar with these sources,’ Achterhuis goes on to state, whoever ‘ignores or denies their existence, does not speak of utopia, but merely their own fantasies and projections.’ (16). More’s Utopia is ‘decisive’ (19) for his perspective on utopianism. ‘In this book More has thought through utopian discourse to its logical conclusions.’ (32).

Here it becomes necessary to present some basic information on the content of More’s Utopia. It consists of two parts. In Book I, More introduces himself and his (really existing) friend Peter Giles and recounts his first acquaintance with the (fictitious) traveller Raphael Hythloday. What follows is a description of the discussions they have on how society could best be governed and whether intellectuals (in this case: humanist scholars) can fruitfully engage with politics, as advisors to rulers. At the end of the discussions in Book I, Raphael proposes to tell More and his companion Giles of his experiences on the island Utopia. The second book is the detailed exposition of the nature and customs of Utopian society, as told by Raphael to More and Giles. Naturally, the narrator Raphael Hythloday is a literary device, a fictitious figure employed by More to present certain ideas – which were deemed quite radical at the time – without having to take responsibility for them.

The island of Utopia that Hythloday describes in Book II is in some aspects a very desirable place, certainly when compared to sixteenth-century Europe. In Utopia, socio-economic equality is the norm, since there is no private property. Nobody goes hungry and there is no homelessness. Utopians have a six-hour working day and everybody gets to do the job they like most. There are limited forms of democracy: if a tyrant takes control of political power, the Utopians can dispose of him. There is universal education and healthcare. And there is a policy of religious tolerance. On the other hand, Utopian society is highly restrictive of personal freedom. Children can be transferred from one family to another, or one location to another, to maintain optimum population levels. Leisure is strictly regulated, and people are not allowed to amuse themselves in wine bars, alehouses or brothels. Utopia also features slaves, who take care of the dirty jobs no one is willing to do. Free citizens of Utopia can be condemned to slavery if they disobey the rules. What’s more, each family is led and controlled by an elderly patriarch, and women are supposed to serve their men. Also, Utopians feel entitled to colonize foreign lands that are not cultivated and to violently subdue its indigenous population if necessary.

In some aspects – slavery, patriarchy, and colonial violence – Utopia is not unlike sixteenth-century Europe. In other aspects, Utopia anticipates some of the accomplishments of modern welfare states. And again in further aspects, the highly organized and omnipresent nature of the state in Utopia reminds us of twentieth-century totalitarian regimes. Here the much-debated question arises as to whether More himself saw Utopia as an ideal society. All in all, More’s Utopia is a complex text whose meaning is not immediately transparent to the reader.

The discussions in Book I are generally perceived as key to understanding what More sought to achieve with Book II, Raphael’s description of the nature and customs of Utopia. Likewise, Achterhuis bases his interpretation of Utopia on an analysis of a dialogue in Book I, where More argues for a politics of the lesser evil. The good life as such is unachievable, the character More says to Hythloday. It will never be ideal, as long as humanity isn’t ideal. Raphael Hythloday then responds by saying that humanity can be improved, as is shown by the island Utopia, which exists in reality. For Achterhuis, this is the single most important proof that in the utopian tradition, utopia is not some unattainable idea, ‘it is more than a Platonic idea for the philosopher to consider’ (50). Utopia needs to be taken literally, as a blueprint for a new society, intended to be implemented in its detailed entirety: ‘More’s Utopia shows that utopia is feasible in reality, and Raphael’s answer to More has been so convincing to its readers that they immediately set out to realize it in uttermost detail.’ (68) [2].

As Achterhuis reluctantly acknowledges, his interpretation is somewhat complicated by the fact that More distances himself at various points in the text from Raphael’s description of Utopia. First of all by using the word utopia itself: the term is an invention of Thomas More, a combination of the Greek οὐ (‘not’) and τόπος (‘place’) meaning ‘no place’. It’s a play of words, a pun on the word eutopia, derived from the Greek εὖ (‘good’ or ‘well’) and τόπος (‘place’), which means ‘good place’. The pronunciation of the two words is similar, leading to confusion, which was undoubtedly More’s intention. Secondly, the name More has chosen for his narrator is Raphael Hythloday. The surname is derived from the Greek word Huthlos, used frequently by Plato, and the name translates as peddler of nonsense or idle talk. His Christian name, Raphael, stems from the Archangel Raphael who gives sight to the blind and guides the lost. Thomas More’s Utopia then, is the story of a non-existing place, told by a fictional narrator whose unreliability is implied by his name. Nonetheless, Utopia is not merely a refined prank, a private joke shared amongst the sixteenth-century humanist scholars familiar with the Greek language that More used to hide his jokes in. As the name Raphael suggests, the reader is guided somewhere and vision is imparted to the blind.

What then, is More trying to tell us? In the introduction, More suggests to the reader how to approach the stories told by Raphael Hythloday: ‘While he told us many ill-considered usages in these newfound nations, he also described quite a few other customs from which our own cities, nations, races and kingdoms might take lessons in order to correct their errors.’ (Logan & Adams 1989: 12). In the concluding passage of Book II, More gives another final clue to his readers. Describing the laws and customs of Utopians as ‘really absurd’, More concludes: ‘while I can hardly agree with everything he [Hythloday] said (though he is a man of unquestionable learning and enormous experience of human affairs), yet I freely confess that in the Utopian commonwealth there are very many features that in our own society I would wish rather than expect to see.’ (Logan & Adams 1989: 107).

Here Thomas More suggests an approach to Utopia that Hans Achterhuis has explicitly rejected (by referring to More) namely ‘the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas’. The way Achterhuis seeks to circumvent this problem is by separating the text from its author, and by attributing the text with an agency of its own:

‘For me the greatness and genius of More, lie in the unrelenting logic with which he systematically explores the reality of Utopia. That he, in reality continuously distances himself from it, by means of irony or the posing of critical questions to Hythloday, the narrator of the story, is of great importance for judging his personality. The rigorous logic of the utopian system that would come to captivate many after More, is not affected by it.’ (Achterhuis 1998: 34).

The text, in other words, escapes the control of its author. Achterhuis defends this peculiar perspective on the analysis of texts by taking recourse to a rather eccentric interpretation of Foucault’s discourse theory. According to Achterhuis, discourse theory implies that ‘individual motives and intentions are not the deciding factor, when looking at the material effects of a text’ (35). While that is a commonly accepted insight of the history of ideas, Achterhuis gives it a particular deterministic twist. When people are born, he states, they enter into an existing discursive order, which is already present before their birth, and will continue to exist after their death. Similarly, philosophers have no choice but to attach themselves to – and immerse themselves in – existing discourses, they are always preceded by a nameless voice, in whose narrative they enmesh themselves, in order to continue its path. This passage by Achterhuis is a reference to Foucault’s famous opening in The Discourse on Language:

‘I would have preferred to be enveloped in words, borne away beyond all possible beginnings. At the moment of speaking, I would like to have perceived a nameless voice, long preceding me, leaving me merely to enmesh myself in it, taking up its cadence, and to lodge myself, when no one was looking, in its interstices as if it had paused an instant, in suspense, to beckon me. There would have been no beginnings: instead, speech would proceed from me, while I stood in its path – a slender gap – the point of its possible disappearance.’ (1972: 215).

In these elegant first lines, Foucault expresses the scholar’s desire to give himself up to discourse. For the people who read beyond the first page, it becomes quite clear that Foucault refers to a personal desire and not a premise that follows from his discourse theory. In fact, the very opposite is the case: Foucault presents his discourse theory as an attempt to break away from the seduction of passive immersion, leading to an active awareness of how institutions shape and regulate discourse:

‘Inclination speaks out: “I don’t want to have to enter this risky world of discourse; I want nothing to do with it insofar as it is decisive and final; I would like to feel it all around me, calm and transparent, profound, infinitely open, with others responding to my expectations and truth emerging, one by one. All I want is to allow myself to be borne along, within it, and by it, a happy wreck.” Institutions reply: “But you have nothing to fear from launching out; we’re here to show you discourse is within the established order of things, that we’ve waited a long time for its arrival, that a place has been set aside for it – a place which both honours and disarms it; and if it should happen to have a certain power, then it is we, and we alone, who give it that power.’’’ (Foucault 1972: 215-216).

Achterhuis, however, assumes the dominance of the text over its authors as the epistemological implication of Foucault’s philosophy. It means that once a certain discourse has been given form by a ground-breaking author, subsequent generations can only enmesh themselves in it and continue its course. Likewise, the authors in the utopian tradition ‘cannot escape from certain conclusions that More already made’ (1998: 35) in his foundational text. Using Wittgenstein’s idea of family resemblances, Achterhuis adds to this determinism by stating that in the utopian tradition discourses that have some of the family traits discussed above, tend towards having them all in the end: ‘one aspect of utopian discourse almost inevitably calls into being the other’ (35). In other words: the all-encompassing totalitarian logic that Achterhuis identifies in More is an inescapable aspect of all utopian discourse that follows. Even if subsequent authors have assumed it possible ‘to refrain from some of these implications’, they will nonetheless manifest themselves ‘uncontrolled and undesired behind their backs’ (35).

In so doing, Achterhuis manages to invent a remarkable brand of discursive determinism, with which he (unwittingly) approaches Hegel’s idealism.[3] In Hegel’s philosophy everything revolves around the idea, human minds are its vehicle and history is the development of the idea, working out its own rational purposes in human consciousness. Similarly, for Achterhuis, there is the utopian logic, human minds are its often unknowing or unwilling vehicle, and history is the unfolding of the utopian logic. In both cases, providence is at work.

Starting with More, all subsequent utopian thinkers are considered to be tragic wrecks in the utopian stream, whose current inescapably leads them towards totalitarianism, even if some of the passengers of said wrecks are – desperately – paddling in the opposite direction:

‘Maybe the utopian logic is so powerful that one cannot independently give it the desired direction. Maybe it goes its own direction, behind the backs of those that think they can meddle in it unpunished, a direction that is opposed to their own desires and ideals. Many disappointments and failures of benevolent people inspired by utopia, in both really existing socialism and capitalist societies, could in this way better be explained and understood.’ (14).

Like the speech that is to emanate from the vessel that is Foucault, it is the ‘immanent logic of utopia’ that speaks through authors such as Sartre, Marx, Marcuse, Horkheimer, Habermas, Bloch and Brecht, despite their good intentions and highest ideals.[4] Or one could say, because of these high ideals: in the utopian tradition, ‘the all-important end justifies the means, resulting in violence, and the hardening of economic and gender relations’ (21). Any appeal for a radically different society – such as the Paris 1968 slogan ‘be realistic demand the impossible’ – is interpreted by Achterhuis (25) as a call to violence. The immanent (totalitarian) logic of utopia, according to Achterhuis, is the result of the hidden will-to-power of utopian thinkers, a desire they themselves are not even aware of. What follows is an indictment of an entire ‘generation of western intellectuals of the second half of the twentieth century’ who were not aware of their own hidden will-to-power. After which Achterhuis proceeds to decry ‘the mass foolishness’ (150) of the Dutch sixties and seventies. The spirit of that time, Achterhuis claims, came to display the utopian logic: ‘The dominant intellectual climate of the seventies can without doubt be considered utopian’ (151). In other words, tending to totalitarianism. To argue his case, Achterhuis refers to a book by a German theologian who compares Mao and Marx with Christ, an English publication that glorifies Mao’s China and the writings of Marcuse. None of which seems to validate his claim of a dominant utopian Dutch intellectual climate. The most important intellectual figure on the Left was without doubt Den Uyl, who was opposed to utopian blueprints. And what is often seen as the most remarkable aspect of the New Left current within the Dutch social democrat party (PvdA) was its reformism and anti-intellectualism (Blokland 2005: 296).

This deterministic reading of texts is compounded by a second eccentric inference that Achterhuis makes from discourse theory, namely the collapse of the distinction between theory and practice. ‘Because reality is constructed in language, texts can have an inescapable and even deadly effect.’ (1998: 33). He cites Heinrich Heine to the effect that Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason was ‘the sword with which European deism was decapitated’ and the work of Rousseau is ‘the bloodstained weapon that in the hands of Robespierre had destroyed the old regime’ (33). Achterhuis writes of ‘acts that are irresistibly invoked by certain discourses’, and consequently in utopian discourse ‘words and acts are hard to separate’ (36). It leads Achterhuis (132) to blame a sentence in Rousseau’s Emile for the wholesale destruction of the capital of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. In fact, Achterhuis quotes Rousseau spectacularly out of context.[5] And it leads Achterhuis to portray Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as the supposed cause of the rise of neoliberalism, ending in the global financial crisis. A hyperbolic claim rightly debunked by Zuidhof (2012: 86) as ‘historically highly implausible’.

Of course, no intellectual would want to dispute that ideas have an effect on practice. If not, what would be the point of formulating and spreading one’s ideas? But an ‘inescapable’ and ‘irresistible’ effect? That seems to be overdoing it a bit. Why is Achterhuis making these rather grandiose claims for the efficacy of theory? The most convincing answer is that it appears to further his argument. Whether intended or not, the conflation of theory and practice serves to tie the entire tradition of utopian thought irrevocably to modern totalitarian practice.

It may come as no surprise that in reality these historical phenomena are more complex than the approach of Achterhuis allows for. A case in point is the example of the French Revolution, considered by Achterhuis to be the first eruption of the modern totalitarian logic. It is questionable whether the utopian ideas of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his later adherent Abbé Sieyès led to the Terror, as Achterhuis claims through a rather disgraceful misreading of Rousseau, whose formulation of the general will supposedly contains a ‘cleansing logic’ (130-131). In reality, the political theory of both Rousseau and Sieyès maintained that sovereign power needed to be bound by important preconditions, such as the rule of law. The violence of the French Revolution is often seen as a much more pragmatic affair, stemming from a context of immanent war and the threat of counterrevolution.[6] Achterhuis however, follows Hannah Arendt’s controversial account of Rousseau and the French Revolution, which presents Rousseau’s theory of the general will as the inspiration and cause for the Terror of the Jacobin regime. Arendt’s description of French revolutionary history has come under heavy criticism from both political theorists and historians[7]. As Scheuermann argues in a particularly enlightening critique: ‘Arendt believes that we can ignore Rousseau’s own adamant insistence in his crucial discussion of The Limits of Sovereign Power, that political power is only legitimate when exercised in accordance with the ideal of the rule of law. Nor, it seems, do we need to take Rousseau’s detailed description of the proper presuppositions of legitimate republican government – modest size, and a substantial degree of social and economic equality, for example – very seriously. For Rousseau, such preconditions represent pivotal limitations on the absoluteness of the general will.’ (Scheuermann 1997: 152-153, italics in original). Scheuermann concludes: ‘We need to distinguish between the theory and practice of the French Revolution. Simply to assume an underlying affinity between these events and the core of the theoretical legacy of the French Revolution represents sloppy intellectual and political history.’ (Scheuermann 1997: 141).

Yet this is exactly what Achterhuis does, he simply assumes an underlying affinity: the inescapable flow of utopian discourse bearing down on us from the sixteenth century serves to bind it all together – even if Achterhuis admits that Rousseau’s writing cannot be strictly defined as utopian, ‘according to my definition’ (1998: 125). Seeing no need to change his definition, Achterhuis goes on to qualify Rousseau’s work as utopian just the same. Moreover, if there is no such thing as a distinction between theory and practice, if texts have a direct effect on reality, then Rousseau must be accountable for providing the ‘bloodstained weapon’ to Robespierre – his theory of the general will. One could demur and interject that Rousseau saw only smaller communities as appropriate for the application of his ideas as formulated in The Social Contract. But then Achterhuis would reply that the individual motives and intentions of the author are not the deciding factor when looking at the material effects of a text, since that would be ‘idealism’. Relying on his remarkable interpretation of discourse theory, Achterhuis claims that it ‘makes no sense to hold Rousseau responsible for the posterior effects’ of the ideas he has let loose on the world (131). Even though this is precisely what Achterhuis seems to do, by mentioning a few sentences later that Rousseau’s influence on the French Revolution was ‘immense’, and that ‘the first laboratory for the ideas of Rousseau was the Jacobin regime of Robespierre’ (131), and by erroneously stating – in the footsteps of Hannah Arendt – that Rousseau rejected negative freedoms and the division of powers in the name of the unitary and all-powerful general will (129)[8]. Even if Achterhuis’ interpretation of Rousseau’s general will as a ‘utopian cleansing logic’ (128, 130-131) is dramatically incorrect, still one wonders, why should Rousseau not be held responsible for being an intellectual arms-dealer of sorts and for formulating an alleged ‘cleansing logic’?

A similarly confounded reading is offered of the work of Marx and Engels. Of course the problem here is that Marx famously criticized utopian thought and expressed his refusal to ‘write recipes for the cook-shops of the future’. (Achterhuis mistranslates this to Dutch as ‘looking in the cooking pots of the future’, which poses an interesting image of Marx to entertain.) A remarkable solution to this problem is presented:

‘Paradoxically, the neglect of the demand for a concrete description of a new society would, behind their backs, come to plague Marx and Engels. The insistence on details, an inescapable aspect of the utopian logic, only came to the fore after the socialist revolution had taken place. It does not appear in the texts, but in the reality in which the new rulers in their all-embracing plans, tried to arrange the smallest details. Again it shows how brilliant and exhaustive the exploration of the realm of utopia is, that More performs in Utopia. Who thinks they can easily withdraw themselves from certain aspects of the utopian logic revealed by him, is generally deceiving themselves.’ (69).

So in the end, it doesn’t really matter if an author presents a detailed utopian blueprint or not. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The totalitarian nightmare will always catch up with those that dare to dream of a different society. Achterhuis has developed a critique of utopia that takes the form of a slippery-slope argument: any form of utopian thought that has some of the family traits of utopian thought, will – inescapably – come to have them all and will – irresistibly – lead to totalitarian outcomes.

In summary, the critique of utopia that Achterhuis has developed is based on a curious discursive determinism that consists of three core assumptions, all supposedly derived from Thomas More’s Utopia. Firstly, an all-or-nothing approach to utopian thought. Achterhuis rejects the idea that utopia could serve as an unattainable ideal, an inspiration to guide action. On the contrary, he maintains there is a single, unitary utopian tradition that departs from the idea that utopia is realizable. Utopia is a detailed blueprint that must be implemented in its entirety: the utopian tradition rejects the reformism that improves elements of society or applies loose ideas. Secondly, starting from More, all utopian texts, even those that stipulate clear limitations on sovereign power, even those that do not provide a detailed blueprint of a future society, inescapably lead to totalitarianism, due to ‘the immanent utopian logic’ that is stronger than the good intentions and high ideals of the utopian authors. An added benefit here is that one doesn’t need to properly analyse the writings of utopian thinkers, since their intentions do not really matter[9]. Thirdly, texts can have a direct – inescapable and irresistible – effect on social reality. The advantage of this last assumption is that there is no need to get deep down into the messy realm of historical reality and political practice, or to address the even more difficult question of ascertaining causality and attributing blame. One merely assumes an underlying affinity and pardons all participants in the process as naïve, well-meaning victims of an ephemeral utopian logic. As a scholarly discipline, the history of ideas seems to have never had it so easy. Here, analytical rigour seems to have been sacrificed for the purpose of political propaganda.[10]

Thus far we have looked at the attempt of Achterhuis to develop the construct of a unitary utopian tradition, inherently directed towards violence and totalitarianism; a notion that he subsequently employs to indict utopian thinkers and the Dutch progressive movements of the sixties and seventies. We have already seen that the structure of the argument itself is rather shaky. Instead of a solid set of analyses of primary texts, it consists of a series of references to controversial interpretations of More, Rousseau and Marx[11]. These are then joined together by the superglue of discursive determinism, which relies on an eccentric understanding of Foucault’s discourse theory. This already unstable construct rests on one, all-important building block: the interpretation of Thomas More’s Utopia. If we were to extract this particular element, the entire edifice of his already rickety argument would come crashing down.

II. An open reading of Utopia

Let’s return to the discussions in Book I of More’s Utopia for a moment. As mentioned earlier, in this section More introduces himself and his friend Peter Giles, and describes his encounter with an unknown figure, Raphael Hythloday, whom we know to be both a guide to the blind and a nonsense peddler, and who is introduced as follows: ‘a stranger, a man of quite advanced years; with a sunburned face, a long beard, and a cloak hanging loosely from his shoulders; from his face and dress, I took him to be a ship’s captain.’ (Logan & Adams 1989: 9).

As Giles introduces Raphael he explains to More that his first impression is incorrect, Raphael is not a ship’s captain: ‘you’re far off the mark’, Giles tells More, ‘for his sailing has not been like that of Palinerus, but more that of Ulysses, or rather of Plato.’[12] Giles proceeds to describe Raphael as a humanist scholar, proficient in Latin and Greek, whose main interest is philosophy, and who has joined Amerigo Vespucci in his explorations of the New World to return with a wealth of knowledge concerning distant lands. Thus, from the very beginning it is made clear to the reader that we are embarking on philosophical travels, instead of merely material ones. Raphael Hythloday then engages in thoughtful discussion with Giles and More, concerning ‘the faulty arrangements both in that hemisphere and in this’ and the ‘wiser provisions’ that can be derived from his experience (12). Impressed with his intelligence, Giles and More encourage Raphael ‘to enter some king’s service’, to make sure his knowledge is put to good use. Raphael responds by saying that involvement with politics would bring nothing, since nobody is prepared to listen to new ideas. An extensive discussion on intellectual engagement with politics ensues.

Involvement in politics is of no use, Raphael concludes. Europeans are resistant to new ideas. Princes are deaf to philosophy and more concerned with making war than hearing ideals for peace. And courts are filled with men who admire only their own ideas and who are envious of others. More concurs: ‘When your listeners are already prepossessed against you and firmly convinced of opposite opinions, how can you win over their minds with such out-of-the-way speeches?’ (34). Since there is no room for ‘academic philosophy’ in the councils of kings, More proposes Raphael an alternative approach:

‘[T]here is another philosophy, better suited for the role of a citizen, that takes its cue, adapts itself to the drama in hand and acts its part neatly and appropriately. This is the philosophy for you to use. Otherwise, when a comedy of Plautus is being played, and the household slaves are cracking trivial jokes together, you come onstage in the garb of a philosopher and repeat Seneca’s speech to Nero from the Octavia. Wouldn’t it be better to take a silent role than to say something inappropriate and thus turn the play into a tragicomedy? You pervert a play and ruin it when you add irrelevant speeches, even if they are better than the play itself. So go through with the drama as best you can, and don’t spoil it all just because you happen to think of a play by someone else that might be more elegant.’ (35).

As Logan and Adams explain, the comedies of the Roman playwright Plautus involve ‘low intrigue’. The tragedy Octavia, in contrast, is ‘full of high seriousness’ and in the speech that More alludes to, the Roman philosopher ‘Seneca lectures Nero on the abuses of power’ (35n80). In other words, if the play of politics is performed as a light comedy, why ruin it by playing one’s part as if it were a serious tragedy?

This enigmatic paragraph is the key passage of Book I. More continues by describing his alternative as an ‘indirect approach’, oriented towards diminishing harm: ‘what you cannot turn to good, you may at least make as little bad as possible. For it is impossible to make everything good unless all men are good, and that I don’t expect to see for quite a few years yet.’ (35). Raphael responds by saying that he doesn’t understand what More means. For the reader it is equally unclear what is intended here.

Raphael then explains why private property is at the base of society’s troubles, and that he does not understand how to convince people of that through an ‘indirect approach’. Maybe he should just follow the advice of Plato, when he described the reaction of wise men faced with crowds of people out in the streets, being rained upon. Since the wise men cannot persuade the people to go inside and get dry, because the wise men know they will only get themselves wet as well if they go out and try, they stay indoors, content to keep at least themselves dry. More objects to Raphael’s ideas concerning the abolition of private property. Raphael replies by proposing to explain the customs of Utopia, to prove his point. That is the end of Book I, and of course, the prelude to Raphael’s detailed exposition of the mores of Utopia in Book II.

Scholars have long been divided over the question how to explain the metaphor of the play employed by More in his advice to Raphael. A first reading is that More’s advice to Raphael is a justification for appeasing rather than confronting power and for working within the system. This is also the interpretation of Achterhuis: he applauds More’s appeal for ‘patience and gradualism’, and criticizes the ‘hot-headed activism’ of Raphael, ‘who wants to eradicate evil down to its very roots’ (1998: 50). In the eyes of Achterhuis, More stands for sober reformism, and Raphael embodies the revolutionary spirit.[13] Achterhuis presents Raphael’s answer to More as proof that utopia is realizable, thus providing the basis for his thesis that the utopian tradition is defined by realizable blueprints. For Achterhuis, Raphael is the literary variant of a monster of Frankenstein: a construct that, once given life, rebels against its creator (More) and takes control over utopian discourse. Raphael is the embodiment of the ephemeral utopian logic that will seduce utopian thinkers in the ages to come. An alternate reading, which has been gaining in popularity in the last decades, interprets the advice of More as a plea for enveloping critique in literary or artistic form. Drama creates a space and place which looks and feels like reality, where marginal ideas can suddenly become the norm.

Duncombe describes the indirect approach as an artistic strategy, which involves the creation of an imaginary ‘lifeworld that operates according to different axioms’, leading the spectator to experience reality in a radically different way. The critic is no longer an outsider, trying to convince people that what they hold to be true – the dominant narrative – is actually wrong. The critic-turned-artist invents a radically new world where the coordinates of right and wrong are rearranged, a world that can be experienced by the audience as a convincing, and therefore detailed and holistic reality. Of course, such an approach also implies a limitation: as the work is fictional, it loses part of its authoritative power, it is not to be taken literally. Instead it opens itself up to the interpretation and imagination of the audience.

Significant here is what Logan and Adams identify as the ‘seriocomic mode of Utopia’ (Logan and Adams 1989: XXI). More, and his close friend Erasmus, with whom he discussed and conceived Utopia, were both admirers of the Greek/Syrian ironist known as Lucian of Samosata. Lucian’s writings took the form of dialogues and short pieces of prose, in which he would make serious political points, cloaked in satire. In 1506, a decade before the publication of Utopia, More published a translation of four works of Lucian, together with some additional translations by Erasmus. As part of this tradition, Logan and Adams mention also The Golden Ass of Apuleius, The Praise of Folly by Erasmus (written while residing in More’s house in 1509 and published in 1511, five years before Utopia[14]) and the later works of Rabelais and Swift. Logan and Adams refer to this tradition as serio ludere, ‘to play seriously’. As More wrote in the preface to his translations of Lucian, the quality of this tradition is that it obeys the classical requirement of literature, to combine delight with instruction. Not coincidentally, the (ironical) subtitle of More’s Utopia reads as follows: ‘A Truly Golden Handbook, No less Beneficial than Entertaining.’[15] According to Logan and Adams ‘More was also attracted to the tradition of serio ludere for a deeper reason. The divided, complex mind, capable of seeing more than one side of a question and reluctant to make a definite commitment to any single position, has a proclivity for ironic discourse; and serio ludere – in which the play can serve to qualify or undercut any statement – is one of the great vehicles of irony.’ (XXI).

The enigmatic quality of More’s Utopia stems from this double character: serious and satirical at the same time. As the book’s title – On the Best State of a Commonwealth and on the New Island of Utopia – makes clear, it is inspired by the classical tradition of political writing on the ideal state of the commonwealth, such as Plato’s Republic and Laws, and Aristotle’s Politics. Here the conjunction ‘and’ in the title is telling, instilling doubt as to whether the island of Utopia can be considered an ideal commonwealth: it is, after all, a fiction. In the second letter to Giles, More comments obliquely on his choice for this literary format:

‘I do not deny that if I had decided to write of a commonwealth, and a tale of this sort had come to my mind, I might not have shrunk from a fiction through which the truth, like medicine smeared with honey, might enter the mind a little more pleasantly. But I would certainly have softened the fiction a little, so that, while imposing on vulgar ignorance, I gave hints to the more learned which would enable them to see what I was about. Thus, if I had merely given such names to the governor, the river, the city, and the island as would indicate to the knowing reader that the island was nowhere, the city a phantom, the river waterless, and the governor without a people, it wouldn’t have been hard to do, and would have been far more clever than what I actually did. If the veracity of a historian had not actually required me to do so, I am not so stupid as to have preferred those barbarous and meaningless names of Utopia, Anyder, Amaurot and Ademus.’ (109).

This is of course exactly what More has done: Utopia means non-place, Anyder waterless river, Amaurot is a play on the Greek word amauroton, meaning dim or obscure and Ademus translates as ‘without a people’. A lot of the fun for the humanist scholars in the circle around More and Erasmus consisted of the fact that some contemporaries were actually tricked into believing that Hythloday and Utopia really existed.[16] In a letter published in the 1518 edition, the humanist scholar and printer Beatus Rhenanus describes a discussion of Utopia with ‘various important men’. He writes about a ‘foolish fellow’ who argued that More deserved no more credit than a paid scribe, since all that More did was write down what Hythloday said. Rhenanus then switches to Greek and comments: ‘Now, don’t you admire the sly wit of More, who can bamboozle men like these, not just ordinary dolts but men of standing and trained theologians at that?’ (126). We can conclude that almost 500 years later, More continues to bamboozle trained theologians.

So, what are we to make of Achterhuis’ claim that the irony of More does not affect ‘the rigorous logic’ of his utopian system? Or the idea that the detailed exposition of a blueprint in Book II of Utopia has served as the model for utopian thinking ever since? As we’ve seen, it is the fictional character of More’s Utopia that distinguishes it from previous political philosophy on the ideal commonwealth. Precisely that fictional quality would make it into the foundational text of the utopian genre. More invented a world instead of merely arguing for one. The descriptive details and the holism that Achterhuis sees as utopian family traits leading to totalitarianism, are in fact preconditions for a successful work of fiction. And it is this same fictional character that results in the ambiguity undermining the rigorous logic that Achterhuis is so eager to project on the work. After all, how can the island of Utopia be the ideal commonwealth? It openly contradicts the ideas of Raphael Hythloday, who states in Book I that ‘it’s an incompetent monarch who knows no other way to reform his people than by depriving them of all life’s benefits’ (33). In Utopia, crime is punished with slavery. Utopian society even contradicts the ideas of Utopians themselves, who believe ‘no kind of pleasure is forbidden, provided harm does not come of it’ (58), while in fact all sorts of harmless pleasures are forbidden, such as an unsanctioned walk in the country. The tale of Utopia is filled with absurdities and inconsistencies. The Utopians have golden chamber pots.

More himself, in the second letter to Giles, responds to the criticism of a ‘very sharp fellow’ who has ‘noted some absurdities in the institutions of the Utopians, or caught me putting forth some not sufficiently practical ideas about the constitution of a republic.’ More’s answer is telling: ‘Aren’t there any absurdities elsewhere in the world? And did any of all of the philosophers who have offered a pattern for society, a ruler, or a private household set down everything so well that nothing ought to be changed?’ (108-109). It is clear: Utopia is not a closed blueprint, it is meant as an open space for imagination and reflection upon possible changes to society. This much is confirmed by a poem attached to the early editions, printed in the Utopian language and in the voice of the island itself: ‘I alone of all nations, without philosophy, have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city. Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.’ (119). As Duncombe rightly concludes,

‘Utopia does not have, nor provide to the reader, a wholly satisfactory philosophy; its systems of logic, aesthetics, ethics, metaphysics, and epistemology are constantly undercut by More. But it is because the reader cannot satisfy themselves within the confines of Utopia that it can become a ‘philosophical city,’ a place to ponder and space within which to think.’ (Duncombe 2012: 40).

Seen in this light, utopian thought becomes a force that promotes many of the qualities that Karl Popper attributed to his ‘open society’: a spirit of criticism, reason and reform. Popper argued that the dream of perfection, what he calls aesthetic enthusiasm, ‘becomes valuable only if it is bridled by reason, by a feeling of responsibility, and by a humanitarian urge to help.’ (Popper 2006: 174). But what if it’s bridled by irony, by metaphor, by the explicit recognition that we are dealing with fiction?[17] Then it becomes impossible to maintain that ‘utopian thought has, from the very beginning, tried to prevent the emergence of an open society, in refined ways’.


Here we should return to the three core assumptions on which Achterhuis bases his approach to utopian thought. Let’s begin by rejecting his first assumption: the all-or-nothing approach to utopia – the idea that ‘the utopians explicitly oppose, starting with More, the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas. Partial improvements are for the right-minded utopian out of the question.’ (1998: 19). We have seen that at several points in the article above that More explicitly embraces reformism, writing of features he would like to see implemented, lessons one could take away from utopia, and that any pattern for a new society contains absurdities and impracticalities needing change and improvement. Of course, this does not mean that the subsequent utopian tradition necessarily contains an awareness of the inevitable imperfection of the utopian ideal. It just means that the unitary tradition of utopian thought as blueprint, the idea that Achterhuis has tried to develop, is a fiction.

The open-endedness of More’s Utopia – or the fictional character of the utopian genre as such – also implies that there is no posterior effect condemning all subsequent utopian authors to follow the ‘immanent utopian logic’ on a course to totalitarianism, even against their will. Here it becomes necessary to make a distinction between different tendencies of utopian thought. For Duncombe, ‘the problem with many social imaginaries is that they present themselves as a realizable possibility. Their authors imagine a future or an alternative and present it as THE future or THE alternative.’ (Duncombe 2012: 40). More’s Utopia manages to circumvent that problem, by undermining and thus opening up his utopian ideal. Utopianism and ‘the reformism that seeks to improve certain elements or apply loose ideas’ can thus be made to coincide, in democratic ways. This particular vision of utopia – as an unattainable ideal – has been present from the very beginning. It is articulated by Rousseau when he describes his much desired natural state of man, as a state that no longer exists, maybe never has existed, and probably never will exist (Rousseau, 1979 [1762]). The present defenders of utopian iconoclasm, such as Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, are in line with More’s original spirit, when stating that ‘the only authentic image of the future is, in the end, the failure of the present.’ (Eagleton 2000: 34).

The third assumption of Achterhuis, the collapse of the distinction between theory and practice, has allowed liberal Cold War critics to apply rigid schemes of interpretation to a rich and complex intellectual heritage. Authors such as Plato, More, Rousseau and Marx, have all been soiled with the stain of modern totalitarianism, while their work has contributed significantly to the foundation of modern democracy: Plato’s republican ideals inspired several democratic revolutions; More’s humanistic ideas contributed to the Renaissance; Rousseau equally inspired the modern education system, democratic revolutionaries, and the thought of Kant and Schiller; Marx provided a worldview to the workers movement that went on to campaign for universal suffrage, and gave rise to the modern welfare state. Of course their work is not without its shortcomings and should not be read uncritically – no text should be. But the idea that these texts have had a direct – inescapable and irresistible – effect in establishing totalitarianism leads to the conclusion that we ‘cannot meddle in it unpunished’. That would imply a severe restriction of our intellectual room for manoeuvre, and our democratic capacity of imagining alternative realities.