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The Persistence of Utopian Thinking

by Victor S. Yarros - 1939

ALTHOUGH our age claims to be eminently positive, practical, and realistic, Utopian thinking characterizes and vitiates many of our reform plans. Indeed, the persistence of utopianism in quarters where one would least expects it is a phenomenon, which has not received the attention, it demands.

ALTHOUGH our age claims to be eminently positive, practical, and realistic, Utopian thinking characterizes and vitiates many of our reform plans. Indeed, the persistence of utopianism in quarters where one would least expects it is a phenomenon, which has not received the attention, it demands. Some time ago, Louis Wallis, a disciple of Henry George, had the courage to speak of the "utopianism" of his admired master, and to express the opinion that the so-called single tax movement would have fared much better than it has if George had not, like Ibsen's Brand, demanded "all or nothing"—expropriation of economic rent, the abolition of all taxes, save that on land values, and the repeal of all tariff laws by a stroke of the pen. Since the death of Henry George, many of the "single taxers" have virtually dropped the Utopian elements in their gospel and are now intelligently advocating gradualism in the realization of their program, as well as important concessions in the objectives themselves. The "single" tax, like the syndicalists' "general" strike, is what Vernon Lee called "a vital lie." The slogan serves some purpose, no doubt; but there never will be a single tax. The idea of taxing more and more heavily the rental value of land, and land held for speculation, is, however, gaining ground, as it should.

Karl Marx professed the most withering contempt for the Utopian schools of socialism—St. Simonism, Fourierism, Owenism, and the like. He and his followers plumed themselves on their absolute freedom from sentimentality, wishful drinking, doctrinairism, utopianism. They are strictly and rigorously scientific, we are solemnly assured. However, there is plenty of utopianism in Marxian socialism. The assertion that under socialism the State will gradually fade away is Utopian. The State is merely another name for organized society, and society will insist on organizing itself as long as there are antisocial persons—idlers, loafers, chiselers, slanderers, parasites, aggressors. Again, Marx assigned to the proletariat a rfile which that group perversely refuses to play. The great majority of the proletarians are not revolutionary and do not trust the intellectual vanguard which, according to Marx, is the natural, historically ordained guide and interpreter of the working class. It is Utopian to imagine that the dictatorship for the proletariat is necessarily and inevitably the dictatorship of the proletariat. Finally, it is Utopian to assert that the middle class will increasingly cooperate and identify itself with the wage workers, who "have nothing to lose but their chains." The middle class may have little actual stake in the present system; it may steadily sink lower and lower and be even worse off than the upper strata of the working class; but it regards itself as superior to the latter, and evinces precious little sympathy with it in crises class struggles. As a class thinketh, so it is! Marxian “science” and Marxian dialectical interpretations of history are seen to be unmistakable instances of wishful thinking and Procrustean manipulation of facts in the interest of a prejudice or dogma.


Another unconscious Utopian is H. G. Wells, who so easily detects Utopian heresies in others. Mr. WelIs, in truth, is strangely paradoxical in his thinking. He sat at the feet of the great Huxley, and his education, though limited, was certainly scientific as far as it went. There is no metaphysical or pseudo-philosophical nonsense about him. He is, he fancies, thoroughly realistic. Yet he has fallen a victim to one utopia after another, has tried to build castles upon sand, has launched sweeping generalizations with absurdly little support from known and observable facts, and has indulged in more moonshine than many a confessed sentimentalist and dreamer.

Mr. Wells tells us that a race is in progress between “catastrophe and education," but his assaults upon our educational systems impose upon one the conclusion that education has no chance whatever in the race, if, indeed, it does not contribute to the victory of catastrophe. He talks in terms of a world State, a world currency, a world flag, and heaps scorn upon the "foreign offices," State departments and embassies, which to him are offensive nuisances. But the present tragic and menacing world situation, with its fanatical nationalisms, its rabid and savage anti-Semitism, its vain and costly efforts to establish autarchy or self-sufficiency in economic life, its Chinese tariff walls, its frenzied armament rivalries, its preparations for another great war, scarcely warrants Wells's approach to the solution of our grave problems. He addresses himself to sentiments not yet born, to a spirit not yet released. Nothing could be more futile, more unrealistic.

Again, in dealing with the social, economic, and political questions of our time, Mr. Wells naturally asked himself the question, Which social group or groups are most likely to work either unselfishly or from motives of enlightened self-interest or for both reasons for the gradual, peaceful, experimental solutions of those problems? The masses of the people, the average bodies of men and women, he despairs of, and is frank enough to say that he expects no help from them. Unlike Marx, he has no faith in alleged historic roles, which social forces play unwittingly and, as it were, despite themselves. The masses, Mr. Wells holds, are too ignorant and too stupid to assume any positive and constructive part in the social drama. They can be inflamed and enraged; they can be converted into savage and destructive mobs; but reform and reconstruction are tasks quite beyond them. Whom, then, are the intelligent humanists and liberals to turn to for aid and guidance, for initiative and example? Mr. Wells's answer to this question has not been certain or consistent. He has shifted his ground several times. His first suggestion, it will be remembered, was that men and women of right feeling and intelligence form a "Western Samurai," devote themselves to study and contemplation, and fit themselves for disinterested and wise public service. There is something attractive about this old idea, but Mr. Wells soon realized that his elite would isolate itself from the working, suffering, and fighting members of the community and that its influence would be nil. He dropped the suggestion.

He resurveyed the social scene and discovered the modern engineer and technician. Here, surely, is the proper liaison agency to conciliate, mediate, and adjust differences between capital and labor, investors and consumers, creditors and debtors. Let the engineers and technicians reorganize our economic system on a scientific basis and make it work; let them abolish unemployment, iron out the business curve, do away with the cycles in industry, render strikes and lockouts unnecessary, curb greed and monopoly, and assuredly the rest of us, with our brutish admiration for genius and skill, will cheerfully acquiesce, and celebrate the emergence of the good society. This dream was a revival of St. Simonism, and rude developments soon shattered it. The engineers, unfortunately, prefer to take orders from the industrialists and capitalists, and many of them agree with their masters. So the engineers and technicians had to be consigned to the outer darkness—and were!

Mr. Wells turned next to the successful and socially minded industrialists. He had discovered some rare specimens of that type. Why should not the rich, satisfied, and intelligent captain of industry inaugurate a new economic and social order? No longer greedy or insecure, that industrialist might well develop a new ambition—to reform society, end poverty and strife, and promote human happiness. Alas, this Utopia proved shorter-lived than any of the others. The great majority of the industrialists have no quarrel with the present system; they may have all the wealth they want, but they love power, lack vision, and are not interested in theories of social reconstruction.

So now Mr. Wells is constrained to join the up-to-date variety of the "worse-ists." We are doomed; education cannot avert catastrophe. Western civilization is sick unto death, and must die. Another world war is inevitable, and after the ruin, chaos, and despair, which it will entail, the miserable and scattered survivors in Europe or America will perforce seek salvation in the socialist World State.

This is wishful thinking with a vengeance. Spengler was more realistic than Mr. Wells. If we cannot avert another world war, or several such wars, the death of our Faustian civilization will be followed by a Dark Age, not by a socialist World State; by confusion and demoralization, not by a new, bright synthesis.


It might be supposed that utopianism is confined to the radical reformers—the Single-Taxers, the Socialists, the Communists. This is not so. There are Utopians in the opposite camp, among the self-styled individualists and libertarians. There is, e.g., our friend Albert J. Nock, a graceful writer and a polished, civilized person. Mr. Nock hates the New Deal and all its works. He would not like, he says, to purchase abundance "at the price of even formal and distant relations" with Roosevelt, Ickes, and Hopkins. He would rather starve—e.g., see millions of ordinary people starve—than give up his personal and individual sovereignty. Indeed, our real enemy is the State! The true remedy for our ills is philosophical anarchism, or something remarkably like it. Of all the possible and impossible Utopias, that of the philosophical anarchists is, of course, the most preposterous one. How many persons in the world of today can even imagine a society without the State? The first thing people do under pioneering conditions is to organize a government. The first thing people in distress do at any time is to appeal to the State for aid. The American farmers do not regard the State as their enemy. They are grateful to it for small favors; and organized labor is equally grateful for like favors. If the State is the enemy, what is plutocracy, and what is predatory big business? What is the lynching mob? The few closet philosophers who sigh for anarchism are totally irrelevant; they have no conception of human nature as it is, or of life as it is lived. Time, place, conditions, realities mean nothing to them. They contribute nothing to the solution of the current problems, which menace civilization. They simply do not count now; they might as well migrate to the moon.

There is Mr. Walter Lippmann, the ex-liberal of semi-collectivist leanings who once advocated the acquisition and operation of the railroads by the Federal Government as a means of "integrating America." Mr. Lippmann abhors collectivism now, and quotes Adam Smith on natural liberty and the "simple" social order based on free enterprise and free contract. Bureaucracy fills him with dread. Economic planning is anathema, since; he contends—without a scintilla of actual proof—that regimentation of industry is bound to lead to regimentation of thought and destruction of spiritual values. Mr. Lippmann recognizes that the present order is not ideal, and certainly Adam Smith would find" it neither simple, natural, nor free. But, says Mr. Lippmann, let us attack and wipe out all existing monopolies and existing privileges, instead of extending monopoly and privilege to classes or groups that have long been the victims of that system. Let us establish the system which Smith postulated and imagined, not that which actually existed in his day. Let us better the instructions of the classical school and get rid of the abuses and evils of capitalism. A purified, redeemed, and humanized capitalism should be our goal, not any regimented collectivist society. The Government should return to the Spencerian idea of its function of umpire and harmonizer, and all abuses in the economic system should be corrected by the judiciary, not by bureaucratic administrative agencies.

Mr. Lippmann has a legislative program, too, which business and finance consider to be radical and unnecessary. The chances of enacting that program into law, Mr. Lippmann admits, are very slight. Yet he vehemently opposes paternalistic measures for the benefit of farmers, wage-workers, and other groups. His position is Utopian in that it fails to take account of human nature, of the patent futility of his proposals, and of the impossibility of turning the clock of history back and reversing an inevitable process. Monopoly and entrenched privilege will not permit the adoption of a genuine and consistent libertarian economic system. They want the perpetuation of the status quo, and their appeals to individualism are hollow and insincere.

There is no realism in Mr. Lippmann's perfectionist gospel. It is doctrinaire. We must resign ourselves to liberal doses of paternalism and collectivism, and meantime seek to preserve intellectual and spiritual freedom by the means now available, and, if these be insufficient, devise new and more effective means. Not even orthodox socialists would today favor political operation of any industry, or bureaucratic direction and management of any business. The T.V.A. is not political nor bureaucratic, whatever we may think of its internecine controversies and difficulties. The device of the public corporation, semi-independent and divorced from the spoils system, is at least a partial response to the demand for efficiency and sound business standards in State-owned and State-operated industries. That device is doubtless imperfect, but its principle is sound and characteristically modern. The idea of a government yardstick in the field of regulated public utilities is another admirable innovation designed to protect the public against extortion and overcapitalization as well as against bureaucratic red tape and inefficiency. It is not impossible to secure a fair and scientific use of the yardstick, once the idea is accepted by the public and the lawmakers. In several other ways State operation can be safeguarded against either political or bureaucratic abuses. Give American (and human) ingenuity and skill a chancel


Consider, now, the case of Aldous Huxley. This gifted novelist, who was so often accused of cynicism and of contempt for humanity, has become a militant moralist and champion of peace, spiritual regeneration of the individual, and uncompromising loyalty to first principles. He is, of course, definitely on the side of the angels. But is he realistic; does he see things as they are; or is he, on the contrary, imagining vain things and asking of human nature more than it is capable of giving? The idealist who is not also a pragmatist is not useful in the fight for justice, progress, and righteousness. He may do more harm than good. The selfish and stubborn reactionaries are not afraid of him.

In his recent volume of essays entitled Ends and Means, Mr. Huxley reaches conclusions for which history, psychology, and sociology furnish no warrant whatever. In other words, he is utterly unscientific, and if the social sciences are to offer us any guidance at all, they must eschew wishful thinking, build firmly and solidly on facts, and avoid hasty and superficial generalizations. There is no conflict between sound practice and sound theory, but no theory is sound unless all the known facts are explained by it. Mr. Huxley now preaches a perfectionism and a mysticism alien to Western minds as well as to new Oriental trends. Purify and ennoble your own heart, and all will be well with the world. Never use immoral means to achieve moral ends. In fighting fascism and its tyrannies and absurdities, democracies must beware of the grave danger of losing the democratic principles and copying fascism. In attacking plutocracy and economic despotism, we must adhere at all costs to persuasion and sweet reasonableness. The trouble with society and politics is that we are all “attached” to something—to possessions, to lust, to fame, to philosophy, to art. Salvation lies in ridding ourselves of all attachments, and becoming superhuman. The present economic system is bankrupt, and cooperation must supersede monopoly or competition, but the transformation can and must be effected without force, coercion, or injustice to any one. The advantages of socialism—which Mr. Huxley accepts—can be obtained, he opines, "by making changes in the management of large-scale production," and "there should be no insuperable difficulty" in extending the application of the modern principles already embodied in certain progressive institutions—the T.V.A., or the Port of New York Authority. Page the Girdlers, Fords, Du Ponts, Wilkies, and the members of the Liberty League and the National Manufacturer’s Association! Tell them the good news! Why fight collective bargaining, government yardsticks, municipal acquisition of utilities, regulation of wages and hours, and elimination of parasitic and superfluous holding companies? “There should be no difficulty” in extending collectivism to wider and wider fields!

The fact that Bourbons never learn and never forget the fact that classes never voluntarily surrender their privileges—as even Dean Inge admitted; the fact that social legislation and social control have been bitterly opposed at every step by corporate capital and private privilege; the fact that in 1939 the so-called Christian world is less disposed to lend an ear to a man named Jesus, who had something to say about greed, riches, selfishness, and hypocrisy—these facts are overlooked by Mr. Huxley. What history has proved again and again to be humanly impossible "should not be difficult"! Alas, it is very difficult, and statesmen and reformers alike must face facts instead of indulging in daydreaming. No sane person favors violence, but it will take a good deal of planning and adjusting to avoid violence and adhere to Fabian methods.

Mr. Huxley's dependence on "nonattached" men and women reminds one of Plato's "guardians"—the supermen, trained for the task of government, freed from all earthly cares, possessing nothing they might call their own, deprived even of individual wives and children! No such persons have ever existed. None are mentioned in the Bible. Jesus was not non-attached. He was passionately attached to his ideals and his doctrines, and had little patience with compromiser’s cruisers and shirkers. To love one's neighbor as one’s self is to be attached to one's neighbor. To love God is to be attached most deeply to what one believes to be the commandments of God.


It is strange, indeed, that would-be guides of humanity, reconstructors of civilization, consider themselves completely absolved from the pedestrian task of objectively studying their materials and their tools. You cannot build a bridge, a subway, a cottage, without knowledge of steel, cement, wood, brick, glass, etc. The Utopians serenely plan societies and civilizations in complete ignorance of, and indifference to, the human materials and instruments involved. Environment does much to human nature, it is true, but human nature reacts on the environment and cannot be treated as negligible. The social sciences, in so far as they are scientific, can predict how men and women in the mass will act in certain circumstances. It is certain that they will attach themselves to one thing or another. It is certain that they will resent injustice and fight oppression; that they will not commit wholesale suicide nor race suicide; that they will pursue their interests and seek happiness in their own way.

There is a fallacy in Lord Bryce's statement that "democracies are what their leaders make them." Leaders exert much influence and, for a time, mold the masses who follow them; but, on the other hand, the demands, aspirations, and fears of the masses have to be understood and served by the leaders. And the masses do not always want the same thing. They may surrender liberty for fancied security, or even for bread; but not for long. The leaders who do not change their objectives and methods to suit new conditions are thrust aside and sacrificed. Dictators and tyrants are likely to die in exile or in prison. Over-idealistic rulers are generally left behind and find themselves isolated, if not repudiated. As John Morley said, "Do not ask of human nature more than it is capable of yielding."

Sober-minded men and women will not forget that behind abstractions and slogans there are concrete realities—needs, passions, hopes, drives. The social and economic order changeth; institutions die, or evolve; and new occasions teach new policies. The blind Tory is as Utopian as the visionary radical. Wise opportunism, sane pragmatism, respect for divergencies of habit and sentiment, give-and-take in reform and cheerful acceptance of the unavoidable—these are the conditions of rational and evolutionary progress. The Utopians may have a modest role to play in the drama of history and progress, but they will not solve our problems or direct our course in times of peril, confusion, and stress. Poets and dreamers cannot do the work of engineers, planners, architects, and realists.

The American mind is spontaneously pragmatic. The influence of the frontier has not ceased to operate. The American radical, like the American statesman, is a natural opportunist, and the Utopian thinker in America is a pale, shadowy, isolated figure. Trial-and-error is the American and the scientific method of dealing with practical problems. Dr. Albert Shaw once made the profound remark that in the United States all real and serious problems have been solved, virtually, by common consent, despite apparent divergencies and heated, bitter campaigns.

The American reformer, like the American politician, wants and demands results. He will accept half loaves, quarter loaves, rather than wait indefinitely for whole loaves. He wants to feel that he is moving toward his goal, and it is the next step that interests him.

The conflict between individualism and collectivism is, in America, a sham battle. Collectivists will fight for personal and individual freedom when that becomes, once more, a vital issue. Individualists will accept collectivist measures when these appear to be preferable to the alternatives faced by them. The nationalization of the railroads, e.g., is now seen to be inevitable and desirable as the lesser evil.

The intelligent and earnest American may not care to join any party, faction, or school. He may wish to remain independent. But he cannot remain indifferent and morally isolated. If he wields power or influence as a writer, lecturer, or teacher, he will have to ask himself with what trends and tendencies of his day he will wish to associate himself. He must be for the common good, or against it. He must use instruments and weapons that are at hand.

John Morley says in his Recollections that "in politics one may have to choose between two blunders." The narrow-minded sectarian may refuse to make such a choice and call for "a plague o' both your houses." The active citizen cannot avoid making his choice. He will not renounce his ideal; but there is no value in a barren ideal. There are times and conjunctures when compromise best serves one's ideal. The utopians and perfectionists overlook that truth. The pragmatist may make mistakes, but in principle and theory his course is sound—he does that which, on the whole, in his judgment, will tend to promote justice and progress in his community and in the world.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 5 Number 46, 1939, p. 264-268
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 13946, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 6:40:12 PM

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