Imagining other worlds

Issue: 112

Michael Löwy

A review of Matthew Beaumont, Utopia Ltd: Ideologies of Social Dreaming in England 1870-1900 (Brill, 2005), €58

This book is a remarkable contribution to a materialist history of utopias in the form of a study of English utopian novels of the late 19th century. Inspired by Marx, William Morris, Ernst Blocha and Walter Benjamin,b it stands apart from most works on this subject area by its Marxist culture and philosophical depth.

In a historical context defined by the Paris Commune, the Great Depression of 1873-1896, and the first social struggles of English workers, a large number of utopian novels were published in England. In their most radical manifestations they offered the possibility of a utopian/critical perspective on contemporary society from the standpoint of a fictitious future. In their more conventional forms, they remained prisoners of the (bourgeois) present, unable, to use Benjamin’s phrase, to ‘shatter the continuum of history’.

William Morris, in his famous utopian novel News from Nowhere (1891), inspired by the English Romantic anti-capitalist tradition, is an example of the more radical type; his rival, the American Edward Bellamy, with Looking Backward (1888), is the most influential representative of the other type, that is, of state socialist utopias ‘from above’, which in no way call into question modern (capitalist) civilisation.

From a position close to Fabianism, Bellamy puts forward a reformist, evolutionist, modernist, philanthropic, profoundly ‘petty bourgeois’ utopia, a sort of ‘third way’ between laissez-faire capitalism and socialist revolution. In his utopian novel the future is presented in the form of what he calls ‘nationalism’—the word ‘socialism’, too compromised by its associations with the red flag and the smell of petroleum from the fires of the Commune, is avoided. It is a system thanks to which the nation becomes ‘one great business corporation…the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists’, while the workers are mobilised into an ‘industrial army’ under military discipline.

This future is the natural and inevitable result of the concentration of capital, so society simply needs to ‘recognise and cooperate’ with ‘industrial evolution’. As a critic of liberal capitalism, Bellamy is a supporter of ‘prophylactic’ reform. ‘Let no mistake be made here, we are not revolutionarists but counter-revolutionarists’, he explained in a lecture of 1890 in response to middle class anxieties.

The huge success of Looking Backward in the US and, to a lesser extent, in England convinced William Morris that the utopian novel was a site of cultural struggle within the socialist movement. His response, News from Nowhere, was that of a revolutionary utopia, that is, a future resulting from the active struggle of the exploited, and which represented a radical alternative to capitalist civilisation. His concrete utopianism—in the sense which Ernst Bloch gives this term—is not contemplative, but fulfils a dialectical function—to introduce reality into utopia and utopia into reality.

Apart from these two key figures, the author analyses in detail two other forms of futuristic fiction: feminist utopias and anti-communist ‘cacotopias’.

The utopian feminist novels of the late 19th century are the product of a complex convergence between two streams of thought: the ‘warm stream’ (another of Ernst Bloch’s terms) of the Owenite socialist-feminist utopia of the first half of the century, and the ‘cold stream’ of the pragmatic feminist reformism of the late 19th century. What they have in common is the hope of ‘constructing a New World inside the shell of the Old’, in the words of the feminist historian Barbara Taylor.

These utopian novels are, in part, a response to misogynist dystopias such as J M Allan’s novel Woman Suffrage Wrong (1890), which brandishes the threat of an ‘Amazonian army…ready and willing to copy the excesses of Parisian women at Versailles on 6 October 1789’. We find ‘Amazonian armies’, but with an emancipatory dimension, in Florence Dixie’s utopian novel Gloriana, or the Revolution of 1900 (1890), in the form of a Woman’s Volunteer Corps composed of militant suffragists capable of defeating ‘the demon armies of Monopoly and Selfishness’. The whole new society is inspired by the myth of the Amazons in Elizabeth Corbett’s novel New Amazonia (1899): she shows us Ireland in 2472 ruled entirely by women.

According to Beaumont, the epistemologyc of these utopias is that of an heuristic exercise, ie a counter-factual thought experiment, an imaginative leap into the future beyond empirical data, an attempt to import the redemptive perspective of the future into the present.

A quite different phenomenon is presented by the anti-communist dystopias or cacotopias—from the Greek kakos meaning ‘bad’—inspired by the terrifying spectre for the ruling classes of the Paris Commune of 1871. The task for these fictions of social catastrophe, which describe revolution as a sexual and political apocalypse, is to stave off the danger of an ‘English Commune’, a spectre nourished by the emergence of the socialist movement and by the class struggle in England in the last third of the 19th century. The prototype of this sort of futuristic fiction is The Commune in London: A Chapter of Anticipated History (1871) by S B Hemyng, who describes, with a wealth of detail, the ravages and crimes committed in the good city of London by a bloodthirsty working class mob led by demonic female insurgents and secretly controlled by agents of the International. In The Decline and Fall of the British Empire (1890) by Henry Watson, a dirty, unwashed crowd sets fire to Buckingham Palace, to Kensington Palace, and, worst of all, to the gentlemen’s clubs of London. The role of the women ‘incendiaries’ recurs in almost all these cacotopias: in the hands of these women, writes an anonymous commentator, ‘the torch of Enlightenment had become the brand that set Paris alight’.

Paradoxically, observes Beaumont, these cacotopias are conceived as false prophecies, starting from the optimistic hypothesis that their readers will be able to prevent the disaster; but they are also anxious and uncertain of their effectiveness. There is also a ‘utopian’ aspect to these dystopias: in comparison with the hell that threatens us, present day capitalism appears as an ideal society.

In the final chapter of the book the author returns to William Morris’s utopia, which enables us, thanks to the perspective of the future, to see the ‘view from the rooftop’ embracing present day society in all its contradictions. As Ernst Bloch wrote, ‘We need the most powerful telescope, that of polished utopian consciousness, in order to penetrate precisely the nearest nearness.’

In the utopian future described in News from Nowhere, work ceases to be a curse and becomes ‘the pleasurable exercise of our faculties’, the product of which is freely distributed by the workers to the consumers. Use value and the beauty of objects replace the commodity and its price. In a famous scene of the novel, the visitor from the past accepts the gift of an object of beauty (a pipe), richly decorated with gold and gems. This happy future, where the pleasure principle and the reality principle seem to have become reconciled, has not fallen from the sky but has been the result of a bitter revolutionary struggle described by Morris in the chapter ‘How the Change Came’.

News from Nowhere is an exercise in critical historiography. It understands the last years of the 19th century from the perspective of a possible future history, of a communist alternative. The aim of this dream of the future is, for its author, to act on the present, that is to say on the ‘Now’, which is the ‘strait gate’ by which the Messiah—ie the Revolution—might enter history (Walter Benjamin). William Morris is thus virtually alone in the late 19th century in his aspiration to ‘transform utopian writing into a necessarily partial and provisional moment of revolutionary practice’ (Miguel Abensour).

My only criticism of the enthralling analysis put forward by Matthew Beaumont is that he too rapidly passes over the structure of William Morris’s romantic anti-capitalist sensibility, briefly referred to (p43), but subsequently abandoned. To me, this seems decisive in the understanding of his work, inasmuch as it introduces an essential dimension of his utopian novel: the relation to the past. Like all the Romantics, Morris refers to the pre-capitalist past to criticise modern bourgeois civilisation. However, unlike the conservative Romantics, such as his friend John Ruskin, he does not advocate a return backwards, but rather a detour via the past on the way to the utopian future. This romantic/revolutionary dialectic between the past and the future—against the wretched capitalist present—is visible in numerous aspects of the novel, as in the scene of the gift, the ornamentation of which suggests artisanal and/or artistic labour, or in the scene which describes London transformed into a sort of pastoral city surrounded by greenery. This romantic moment does not in any way detract from the visionary strength of News from Nowhere, quite the contrary!

In any case, Beaumont’s work is of a high intellectual and political quality, and will undoubtedly become a reference work for all those interested in the fortunes of the Principle of Hoped dear to Ernst Bloch.


a: Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), German philosopher who moved towards Marxism in the late 1920s, went into exile under the Nazis and then lived in East Germany until disagreements with the authorities led him to move to West Germany in 1961.
b: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), German Marxist theorist of literature and art, committed suicide just as he was about to be handed over to Gestapo in 1940.
c: Epistemology—theory of knowledge
d: Principle of Hope—Ernst Bloch’s best known work, a critical history of the utopian vision.