"Hi, my name is Norman and I’m a utopian."
Those of you who have either been to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous—which, I hasten to say, I myself never have—or have, like me, seen one enacted in the movies or on television, will know that you are now supposed to respond by saying "Hi, Norman." Then you are supposed to applaud when I go on to tell you that I have been sober—or in this case off my addiction to utopianism—for some thirty years now. To the uninitiated this might suggest that I have been cured. But no. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic who is, as we say in America, keeping "off the sauce," and as they put it in AA, "one day at a time." The same, I would argue, is true of utopianism. If one has ever been addicted to it, it too can only be fended off by a combination of discipline, help from what AA calls other "recovering" addicts when one is in danger of backsliding, and the grace of God.
In my opinion at least, utopianism resembles alcoholism in yet another way. It is not only a disease; it is also a vice. But here we reach the limits of the analogy. For unlike alcoholism, utopianism is a sin as well. Or, more precisely, it is an amalgam of two sins—two of the seven deadlies, avarice and pride. In the case of utopianism, the avarice is more likely to be spiritual than material, though it can and often does incorporate the material species, combining both kinds into one great lustful passion.
I am not a scholarly expert on utopianism, nor have I done more than the most cursory research on the subject. Therefore, I will not attempt to sketch its history from, say, Thomas More to its contemporary pushers on what is left of the Left and among the more numerous technological visionaries of the age of cyberspace. Instead, like a speaker at an AA meeting, I will focus on what I have learned from my own personal addiction to this diseased and sinful condition.
According to the old cliché, it is in our youth that we are, and should be, most vulnerable to utopianism—or idealism, to use the pseudonym under which utopian lust sometimes euphemistically travels. Some Frenchman—Clemenceau was it?—famously said that not being a socialist at twenty showed one up as heartless, but that still being a socialist at fifty showed one up as a fool. Yet at twenty, though my political views were liberal in the American sense, I was neither a socialist nor, I think, a heartless person. In any event, it was not until I was nearly thirty that I succumbed to the utopian temptation. But this delay probably had less to do with me as an individual than with the period in which I went to college and the people by whom I was educated, as well as the books they led me to read.
The university I attended as an undergraduate in the United States was Columbia, where I spent the four years from 1946 to 1950. There I fell under the influence of the great literary critic Lionel Trilling, who was busily engaged in attacking American liberalism precisely for the utopian strain within it. That strain, said Trilling, took the form of a belief in human perfectibility—a condition that supposedly could be achieved through the right social arrangements. To be sure, Trilling himself was a self-declared liberal and he was launching this attack from within, in the hope of restoring a liberalism grown lazy and complacent—as well as corrupted in some of its sectors by sympathy with the Soviet Union—to what he regarded as its original intellectual vigor and political health.
But Trilling was not the only liberal taking this line in those days. For example, the Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr also strove mightily to reconcile his own liberal political views with the radically anti-utopian Christian doctrine of original sin.
I then spent the next three years, from 1950 to 1953, in England, studying at Cambridge under F.R. Leavis. Many pejorative epithets have been hurled at this great, if idiosyncratic, literary critic, but "utopian" was never among them. While at Cambridge, too, I came upon, and was much intrigued by, some of the explicitly conservative British thinkers whose clothes (to adapt a famous witticism from Disraeli) were being stolen and imported to America by the liberals I have mentioned. I devoured Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge from the past, and I found reinforcing sustenance in contemporary political theorists like Michael Oakeshott. It would be hard to imagine an intellectual concoction more effective in vaccinating a young man against utopianism.
When, moreover, we add to this mix the name of Sigmund Freud, the potion becomes even more potent. For better or worse, I myself was never psychoanalyzed, but like almost every American with intellectual interests in those days, I read Freud devotedly. And what Freud did, in the context of this discussion, was translate the idea of original sin into secular and supposedly scientific terms. By this I mean that no less fervently than a theologian like Niebuhr did Freud believe in the inexorable and ineradicable obstacles set by human nature on the realization of the utopian fantasies to which our species was vulnerable. For that matter, even Karl Marx himself had shared in this disdain for utopianism. To Marx the utopian socialists of the nineteenth century were "infantile" (a word Freud himself might easily, and perhaps did, use of them). His own socialism, or so Marx imagined, was realistic and scientific.
Of course these anti-utopian influences were not exerted in an academic vacuum. For an American like me at least, they were made especially powerful by several very large historical facts. Chief among these were the invention of nuclear weapons and the outbreak of a huge new conflict—the Cold War—following hard upon the defeat of Nazi Germany.
Let me count the ways in which these facts acted as a strong inhibitor of utopian fancies. First, the danger of a nuclear holocaust dictated a strictly prudential approach to the conflict with the Soviet Union, which ran directly counter to the utopianism of Americans like Woodrow Wilson. Wilson had actually been sincere in saying that World War I was a war to end all wars and that, followed up with an international organization like the League of Nations, would also make the world "safe for democracy." Thanks to the outbreak of World War II, among other developments, Wilsonianism was largely discredited. Then, after 1945, academic theorists like Hans J. Morgenthau and intellectually sophisticated diplomats like George F. Kennan were replacing the Wilsonian ethos with the decidedly anti-utopian philosophy of Realpolitik.
There is, however, a complication here that should be noticed. Realpolitik stresses the balance of power as a guarantor of peace and stability, and it has little patience with moral considerations in international affairs. But to me and many others, the moral dimension was central to the struggle against Soviet Communism which we considered a force no less evil than Nazi Germany. To us, it was the other great configuration of the monstrous new form of tyranny to which Hannah Arendt and others had given the name totalitarianism. Hence we would have liked nothing better than to attempt to do what Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, with more than a little help from the Pope, finally managed to accomplish many years later. Yet we accepted that nuclear weapons had made the direct and immediate pursuit of this ambitious objective too dangerous. We therefore concluded that the more modest strategy of "containment" adopted by the Democrats was more advisable than the Republican alternative of "rollback" or "liberation."
Ironically, in holding out this dream of liberating East Europe from the Soviet yoke, it was now the Republicans, rather than the Democrats, who sounded like Wilsonian utopians. On the other hand, when the Republicans came into power under Eisenhower in 1952, they forgot all their oppositionist rhetoric and embraced a policy of what the new secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, called "calculated risk." This meant, said Georges Bidault, who was the French foreign minister at the time, that he calculated much and risked nothing.
In 1960, when the Democrats recaptured the White House behind John F. Kennedy, the ghost of Wilsonian utopianism seemed to have returned with them. After all, what could be more Wilsonian in its utopianism than John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address promising that "we shall pay any price, bear any burden . . . to assure the survival and the success of liberty"? Here again, however—and with the great exception of Vietnam, a Wilsonian venture if ever there was one—the policies Kennedy actually pursued were considerably more cautious and prudent than his rhetoric would suggest.
Another irony is that in the domestic arena, the moral dimension of the Cold War acted not as a stimulus to but as yet another dampener of utopian dreams. Thus, returning to my own story, when I was in my twenties, I joined in a rediscovery of the virtues of America with many other older American intellectuals on the Left who had formerly prided themselves on their so-called "alienation" from this putatively inferior bourgeois society. And why indeed not, when it was precisely this long-despised society that had been willing to shed blood and treasure to defeat one form of totalitarianism, and was now prepared to make comparable sacrifices to defeat the other?
In taking this noble burden upon itself, the United States was giving the lie to the radicals who had spent a century sneering at it and praying for its demise. More than that, the United States was making a mockery of the Marxist prophecy that capitalism would lead to the progressive "immiseration of the poor" and fall apart from its putative "internal contradictions." In postwar America, and then virtually everywhere capitalism spread, especially when combined with democracy, it was achieving an undreamed of and unprecedented degree of freedom and prosperity which were, in addition, being shared by an unprecedented number of people. America was thereby presenting itself as a living reproach to those who had been looking for a better alternative either to the utopia supposedly being built by the Soviet Union on earth, or some utopia that existed only in their heads—the word "utopia," of course, meaning "nowhere."
So it was that my ears began ringing with the pre-conversion John Donne’s line, "O my America, my Newfoundland." (Donne, of course, had something erotic in mind: he was referring in a lubricious metaphor to a woman’s body, not a country, but in this context I thought of the line in its literal sense.) I could envisage no better alternative than what radicals and other utopians contemptuously referred to as the status quo. Of course, I knew very well that there were things wrong with America, especially its treatment of what were then called Negroes, but I also had no doubt that these wrongs could be righted within the going system. And so the great thing was to defend this system militarily against its Communist enemies from without and ideologically against its utopian enemies from within.
What then happened to open me up to the lures of utopianism and to become addicted to it? The answer is the death of Stalin, the denunciation of him by Khrushchev, and the so-called "thaw" that followed in the Cold War. I blush to say that I perceived in this series of developments a serious softening of Communist totalitarianism, a chance to end the Cold War very soon, and an opportunity to negotiate meaningful arms-control agreements. These illusions about the international situation bred in me, and many others, a resurgence of correlative illusions about human perfectibility in general, and the perfectibility of American society in particular. For, given the supposedly imminent disappearance of the intertwined factors that had up till then put a dampener on utopianism—that is, the danger that the Cold War could escalate into a nuclear holocaust—there was no longer anything strong enough to hold utopianism back. And so it erupted: in me personally and in a whole generation of young people and their fellow-traveling elders who collectively formed what soon came to be known as the Movement.
The Movement, which, as we all remember, dominated the 1960s, was made up of a political branch, the New Left, and a cultural wing, the counterculture. At the beginning, what was new about this Movement was that it was not Marxist. All, or most, of the radical or socialist traditions that had been denounced as infantile for their utopianism came flooding back, especially anarchism. And to add insult to this injury being done to Marxism, the new utopians—myself, I blush again to say, very much included—claimed that it was we, frankly and proudly calling ourselves utopians, and not the Marxists or the pragmatic liberals, who were the more practical and realistic. The name of Paul Goodman had almost been forgotten by 1960 and has again receded into obscurity, but I as the newly appointed editor of Commentary serialized his book Growing Up Absurd, and it almost immediately became the bible of the youth culture of the ensuing decade. In introducing it, I said—and here yet another and even deeper blush is in order—that my purpose was to "encourage a reawakening of the kind of social criticism exemplified by Mr. Goodman—criticism animated by a ‘utopian’ vision of human possibility that commands assent precisely because it is so much more sensible than the constricted ideas of people who are pleased to think of themselves as realists."
And so, to the dismay of some of my old teachers, especially Lionel Trilling, I spent the next few years doing my share to propagate the idea that human perfectibility on this earth was the only worthy goal for which to strive. Furthermore, this goal—and here is where the component of pride came in to compound the sin of greed—was indeed with reach. When I first set out to reach it, I was part of a very tiny minority, who—to the limited extent that the people in power deigned to notice us at all—were dismissed as naive idealists or, as one of them put it, a bunch of "upper West Side Jacobins." Yet so infectious was the utopian virus that by the time Robert Kennedy, who had been an especially contemptuous scoffer, ran for president only a few years later, he had become fond of saying things like "I dream of things that never were, and say ‘Why not?’"
I myself was never much of an activist. I made a few speeches at rallies here and there, but I disliked marching in demonstrations, even peaceful ones, never mind those consciously designed to provoke the cops into beating people up. Nor did I do more than flirt with the counterculture in my personal life. I experimented a bit with the softer drugs—and yes, I did inhale. But I found that they did not deliver the expanded consciousness and other great benefits they were advertised as doing, and I soon gave them up forever.
Then there was the sexual freedom that represented an equally basic element of the counterculture. As I had done much to revive the utopian social criticism of Paul Goodman, I also had a good deal to do with rescuing Norman O. Brown’s book Life Against Death from the deep well into which it had fallen upon its publication in the late 1950's. This book became to the countercultural side of the Movement what Goodman’s Growing Up Absurd was to its political side. But after a while, observing Brown’s gospel of what he called "polymorphous perversity" in action, I came to see it neither as the path to a salutary new liberation of human sexuality, and still less as the eroticization it promised of the entire body, but just the opposite. It was a perfect example of what D.H. Lawrence had dismissed as "sex in the head," which was not exactly where he, or I, let alone Norman O. Brown himself, thought sex ought to be.
On the other hand, the head was the right place for ideas to be, and that was where the effects of the utopian disease hit me the hardest. I was seized with very high fevers of intellectual excitement over the thought that by reforming this institution or that, and even by merely tinkering with others, a new world could be brought into being in which there would be not only an equitable distribution of wealth but an equitable distribution of happiness and satisfaction in life. "If you will it, it is no dream," said Theodor Herzl in the nineteenth century about the idea of a Jewish state. This is what I believed about the creation of utopia in America, and the only thing that stood in the way of mobilizing the necessary will was the idea that perfection was impossible in the nature of things and in the nature of human beings. For about ten years I worked very hard as a writer and an editor to challenge this idea—and if I tell you that this project enjoyed a good deal of success, it is in a spirit not of boasting but of contrition.
As the 1960s wore on, the Movement grew from a tiny sect into a mass movement, not only among the young in the universities but among their parents and teachers as well. Said Archibald Cox of the Harvard Law School—a man at the very center of the very American establishment that the Movement was out to dislodge—this was "the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic" generation ever born in America. The famous anthropologist Margaret Mead went even further. She declared that in the young of the ’60s we were witnessing a veritable mutation into a higher and better species.
But that is not how it came to strike me. On the contrary. Looking around me, I saw nothing much more exalted than a bitter and vicious hatred developing for the life that was lived in America. This hatred took root most solidly not, as might have been expected, among the poor blacks, but among prosperous and privileged whites who had no apparent reason to feel it. Yet so greedy and so proud had the utopian virus made them that anything less than perfection of every conceivable kind—that is, as they conceived it—became so intolerable that it represented sufficient grounds for the whole society to be judged as evil and for a death sentence to be pronounced upon it.
A lot of violence, including bombings and shootings, followed, often perpetrated by young people who only a few years earlier had been apostles of nonviolence: almost overnight they went from Gandhi to Lenin or Bakunin. But it was through no lack of determination or conviction on their part that the revolution they were working to bring about never came. St. Augustine said that the virtue of children resides not in their wills but in the weakness of their limbs. And so it was with the utopians of the Movement: if they had been stronger, they might have prevailed. And if they had prevailed, we would have been provided with another hideous example of how easily utopianism turns into totalitarianism.
Coming to understand all this caused me to recoil from the utopianism to which I had grown addicted in my thirties. By the time I reached forty, I was well on the way back to where I had started in my twenties. Once again, only now with renewed vigor backed up by a lot of experience, I tried to atone for my decade of sinful addiction by becoming a defender of American society, and Western civilization in general, against its enemies from without and its denigrators from within. In time, though not usually for the reasons that drove me, the same recoil from utopianism began taking place among hordes of others.
Alas, no sooner did this happen than the utopian virus immediately sought for and found new hosts in which to grow. First came the women. That many of them had become infected was evident when the feminists began promulgating the doctrine that the differences between the sexes were not rooted in nature but were merely social constructs. Women, they said in the true spirit of utopian greed, could—in the words of a favorite slogan of the American feminist movement—"have it all": careers and family, husbands and lovers. Homosexuals soon followed suit. In the same spirit of utopian greed, they too wanted to "have it all." They demanded social approval of the right to the promiscuity that was, according to the title of a famous book, an essential element of "the joys of gay sex." But they also demanded the contradictory right to enter into legally sanctioned marriages.
Already there are signs, at least among women and even among some homosexuals, that the utopian virus is passing. But it will never disappear, any more than avarice and pride will ever disappear. And we can be sure that it will find ingenious new forms through which to propagate itself. As for "recovering utopians" like me, the best we can do is keep fighting against the always possible relapse, and—like so many Othellos—to tell what we have learned from the dangers we have passed.
Having begun with Alcoholics Anonymous, let me end with it by quoting the Serenity Prayer composed by the same Reinhold Niebuhr I mentioned earlier, and that members of AA carry around with them on a laminated card for daily recitation. Effective as this prayer may be for recovering alcoholics, it is perhaps even more suitable to recovering utopians like myself. In fact, I commend it even to those of you—if any there be—who have never felt the lure of utopianism. It is called the Serenity Prayer, and it goes like this: "God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other."
To which I can only say Amen.