Human Folly & the Paradox of Human Intelligence

Versions of Utopia

The progression from the ideals of the Philosophes of the Age of Enlightenment to the horrors of the Terror represents one of the supreme examples of good intentions paving the road to Hell. As Dostoyevsky observed 'Ideas have consequences', and these may be profound; unfortunately they may also be quite different from those imagined. All the common human errors that are likely to affect our view of the present (misinterpretation, distortion, wishful-thinking etc.) are equally likely to influence our aspirations for the future. As a result, Utopian visions are notoriously unreliable. In the end, one person’s ideal may be another’s purgatory, as the following account shows.


The Victorian historian Thomas Carlyle was notoriously loquacious. On one occasion, at a dinner-party, he was giving forth in his customary manner when a fellow guest, tiring of the philosopher’s spate of words, interrupted him, saying 'But these are ideas, Mr. Carlyle, nothing but ideas'. Carlyle turned to him and said 'There was once a man called Rousseau who wrote a book containing nothing but ideas. The second edition was bound in the skins of those who laughed at the first'.

Carlyle was, of course, referring to Jean Jacques Rousseau's ‘Le Contrat Social ‘(The Social Contract), which called for a 'total renovation' of society, and its reconstruction according to a 'logical pattern'. In the eruptions that shook France at the end of the 18th century this work became the revolutionaries Bible. Rousseau had affirmed that 'the fruits of the earth belong to all, but the earth itself to no one', and that 'all existing social conditions owe their origin to force and fraud; government and property are usurpations'. Basing his theories of some imagined 'primitive' society Rousseau concluded that Man was, by nature, perfectly moral - it was simply the artificial institutions of governance that were at fault. Once these had been disposed of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were bound to prevail. In effect ‘Le Contrat Social’ provided a theoretical justification for the overthrow of the existing order, in particular the artificial institutions of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the Church, and their replacement by a fairer, more equitable system, one that would be based on rational principles. So it was that a theory that advanced the notion of the inherent purity of the human soul made a substantial contribution to the bloodstained social upheaval of the French Revolution.

Important though they were however, Rousseau's ideas were not the only theoretical justification for radical change. In fact he was one of a whole group of brilliant freethinking and sceptical intellectuals who, in the mid-19th century, had contributed to Diderot's Encyclopedie. This massive undertaking (which ran eventually to some thirty-five volumes), was intended as a summary of the whole of philosophical and scientific knowledge of the time but it also had a sub-text of social and political reform. The Encyclopedists believed that once a more rational attitude had come into play, expedited by the free exchange of knowledge and ideas (especially their own), then far reaching social changes would be bound to follow, 'promptly and reasonably'. In the event the Revolution that they helped to promote was every bit as prompt as they imagined, but could scarcely characterised as reasonable - and it progressed in ways that they had not predicted, and would certainly not have approved.

Although the Encyclopedists, as products of the late-Enlightenment, were united in their desire for radical reforms they had, in reality, very different ideas on the way that these might be achieved. This is particularly evident in their differing views on the value of science and technology. The Marquis de Condorcet, for instance, one of the more prolific contributors, was a thoroughgoing 'modernist', who firmly equated social progress (and the happiness of Mankind) with advances in science and the application of reason in human affairs. These views contrasted sharply with those of Rousseau, for whom progress would be accompanied by a return to a simpler, more 'natural' state of existence, with its institutions growing organically, as it were, out of this newly-enlighted condition.

The conflicting perceptions of the potential effects of science, technology and industrialisation on human existence continued to preoccupy social theorists throughout the 19th century. In fact ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution there had been a divide between those who felt passionately that science had the potential to change the world for the better (sometimes for the infinitely better), and others who were less convinced - or indeed appalled at the miseries that rampant Industrial capitalism had already caused. Those who advocated a return to some simpler life-style tended to idealise some golden era of the past (like William Morris, who was enamoured of his own blissful version of the Middle-Ages one that was miraculously free of its ignorance, cruelties and disease). The pro-science lobby, naturally, had their minds (and their fantasies) set well into the future. This division of attitudes with respect to the value of science to human happiness is of course still very much with us.

During the 19th century the proponents of each side of this argument were inclined to present their forecasts in the form of tracts or utopian fantasies. The second half of the century in particular saw a huge growth in such speculative literature, much of which met with considerable popular success. The public had become very interested in the Future. One of the earlier pro-science writers, J.A.Etzler, wrote a characteristically optimistic forecast, ‘The Paradise within reach of all Men without Labour, by Powers of Nature and Machiner’y, which predicted that science would change the world beyond conception. In Etzlers projection all the necessities of life would be produced in super-abundance by machinery; new plant-foods would be created, entirely original materials would be discovered and all manner of new laboursaving devices invented. Travel would be revolutionised, bringing the peoples of the world into increased contact and greater harmony and as a result of all these advances the different nations of the world would be drawn into one great society - the inevitable outcome would be universal human happiness. Etzler clearly felt that a technological Paradise was virtually within our grasp.

John A.Etzler was American, but there were others of a similar cast of mind throughout the industrialised countries of Europe and North America. The German science writer Professor Ludwig Büchner produced a book that also promoted this optimistic mood. In his ‘Man in the past, present and future’ he claimed that 'the guiding principles of evolution could not fail to make the world better and better'. As man left his animal condition behind him, and as a result of the efforts of his labours and intellect, strife would be replaced by Universal Love leading, inevitably, to a Paradise of the Future. This book, which was published in 1872, proved to be extremely popular, running to several editions and being translated into five languages. It accorded with a conviction of the future benefits of science that was common at this time, not least among philosophers and intellectuals. There were, however, notable differences of opinion as to how mankind might best be conveyed to this promised 'noble future' - projections tended to be bound up with the respective theorist’s views of human nature.

Futurist projections at this period, whether in the form of tracts or Utopian fantasies, tended to assume either that people were inherently good (and were best left alone) or, that left alone they would get up to mischief of one sort or another. Following from these conclusions, it was felt that either a more libertarian, or a more authoritarian, regime was appropriate to ensure future happiness. Some (notably Rousseau and his followers) felt that too much governmental interference in peoples lives simply impeded the human instinct to live in peace and harmony. Others were as equally convinced that a regulated structure was essential to maintain order within their ideal society to prevent it from being pulled apart by the selfish demands of individuals. There was a comparable division between those who saw the solution to social problems in greater material prosperity and others who felt the answer lay in the adoption of simpler and more austere way of life. But overall the simple-lifers were in the minority. The dominant theme of 19th century predictive literature tended to be set by those who imagined that the world would be changed for the better by being more technologically advanced, more prosperous and more efficiently (ie. centrally) organised. These utopian ideas proved to be very influential (many were best sellers), and some led directly to attempts to realise the fantasies of their authors.

One of the earliest of the 'scientific' socialist utopias was proposed by the French author Etienne Cabet. Cabet had been an active revolutionary. In the early 1830ies he was a member of an early communist group, the Carbonari, who were dedicated to achieve total equality, by absolutely any means. As a result of his revolutionary activities he was arrested and sentenced, but managed to escape to England. Here he met Robert Owen, the pioneer socialist and philanthropist, and was converted to his methods of persuasion and non-violence as the means to attain his own ideal egalitarian society. Cabet worked in the library of the British Museum between 1834 and 1839 where he studied the ideas of other, earlier utopian authors. He came to the view that an enduring state of human happiness could only be realised in an egalitarian state that enjoyed all the benefits of advanced technology. He began to formulate his own scheme by which such a perfect social system might operate.

Cabet chose to present his ideal communist society in the form of a visit to Icarus, an imaginary utopian island located somewhere in the Indian Ocean. In the wake of a revolution that has swept away the inequalities and injustice of their old society the Icarians have established a completely egalitarian system. They have also discovered a new, unlimited source of energy, and this, together with their advanced technology, has enabled them to eliminated poverty. Icaria, it is revealed, has 100 provinces, each divided into six communes, every one of which contains precisely eight villages and one market town. The island is Eden-like, with an abundance of 'flowery arbours, groves and plantations'. It is picturesque and virtuous, a prosperous and exceptionally orderly society; bourgeois Heaven in fact.

But it is Icaria's social system that receives the most attention. Every aspect of life in Icaria is carefully planned by democratically elected committees (who return to their own work between times). One of these committees is responsible for the common diet; others deal with education, sanitation, furniture etc... Everyone lives in identical houses (which have identical furniture), eats the same food, and has the same education. The newspapers only print facts, and only good books are printed (a committee decides which sort of facts should be included, and which books are 'good') - and there is a universal daily routine...

'Have you noticed the regular movement of our population? At five o'clock everyone gets up; as six approaches, all our buses and streets are full of men going to their factories; at nine the women and children appear; from nine to one, the population is in the factories or the schools; at one-thirty, the whole mass of workers leave the factories to join their families and neighbours in the peoples restaurants; from two to three, everyone eats; from three till nine, the entire population goes out into the gardens, streets, terraces, promenades, popular assemblies, lecture halls, theatres and other public places; at ten, everyone goes to bed; and during the night, from ten till five o'clock the streets are deserted.' There is no crime in Icaria, no drunkenness, no vandalism or adultery, and there are no loafers or spongers; everybody is happy. Unfortunately individuality in any form seems to have completely disappeared.

‘Voyage en Icarie’ appeared in 1840, and was an immediate success. Cabet's vision captivated his readers. He was able to return to France quite soon after its publication, and the enormous popular response to his book encouraged him in an attempt to put his ideas into practice in some actual location. He set up an 'Icarian' movement, and it too was very successful. Within eight years he had attracted half a million followers. Their subscriptions raised an enormous sum of money to establish an experimental community. By 1849 the first group had settled on land purchased by the movement at Nauvoo in the American Mid-West.

Sadly, the real-life Icaria at Nauvoo, and a later commune at Cheltenham, did not achieve the sort of social harmony that was depicted in the Voyage, or anything like it. Cabet, it turned out, was singularly ill suited for the role of commune leader. Initially the settlements worked reasonably well but, as practical difficulties arose, Cabet's response was to become ever more dictatorial. His attempts to ban alcohol and tobacco, to introduce a special diet and a stricter sexual code met with resistance. The quarrels deteriorated into a serious internal dispute, with the commune at Nauvoo finally splitting into two opposed factions, their differences culminating in a pitched battle in the commune’s streets. Soon after this Cabet himself was expelled from the community with 180 followers and died a week later. Both communes struggled on for some years, their existence protracted a little longer, ironically, by the outbreak of the American Civil War.

The irony of the proposal of an intensely bourgeois, tightly controlled Utopia by a barricade-storming, would-be overthrower of the social order, is even more marked in the case of another French theorist of the time, the anarchist Joseph Déjaque. Like Cabet, Déjaque had been personally involved in revolutionary activity. He took part in the revolution of 1848 revolution (for which he was imprisoned), and the insurrection of 1849 (for which he as sentenced, but managed to escape to America). While in exile in New York he edited an anarchist paper Le Libertaire, in which, in serial form, he presented his utopian ideas.

Déjaque had been an extreme advocate of revolutionary violence and his proposals for the establishment of an egalitarian society were as extreme - religion, personal property, the family, the state, even cities as we now know them, would all be swept away. In his utopian projection, L'humanisphere, he portrayed a futurist fantasy that was a curious mixture of libertarian ideas and truly nightmarish regimentation. His version of an ideal society is set in the year 2858, by which time science has conquered Nature. Mankind has learned how to control the weather, has tapped the vast store of energy within volcanoes, has cultivated the deserts and freed the poles of ice. People live and work in humanispheres, vast high-rise buildings capable of housing thousands, constructed on a radiating star plan, with separate wings for workshops and stores. The inhabitants are free to exchange apartments and workplace at will. The family has been abolished and children are raised apart from their natural parents. In the centre of each humanisphere there is a great assembly room where local concerns are resolved in a spirit of intellectual liberty. Each humanisphere is autonomous, and its interactions with others are conducted on the basis of universal respect and benevolence. In place of the formal structures of governance and religion Déjaque envisaged vast assemblies called cyclideons, housed in monumental structures, each capable of holding a million people, which acted as 'altars of a social cult, anarchic churches of utopian humanity'. In these enormous public forums (by some unspecified means) 'the free and great voice of the public' would make itself known on all outstanding social matters - 'If a proposition can gather enough workers to put it into operation .... it is carried out'.

There is a marked contrast between Déjaques elaborate working out of the physical, structural aspects of his future society and his unrealistic expectations of human nature within it. His ideal society is entirely two-dimensional, a vehicle for his own abstract notions of social justice rather than the complex interactions and emotional needs of real people. He was very serious about his projections, but they now, in the light of everything that has happened since, have a thoroughly nightmarish quality. In fact Déjaque's prescription of a new social order in the form of a vision of the future falls into a genre of speculative fiction that traces all the way back to Plato.

Plato presented his version of an ideal society in The Republic. Its constitution, by contrast with Déjaques, is strictly hierarchical, with lawmaking Rulers at the top of a social pyramid, beneath whom are the Auxillaries (who are the administrators and warriors). These two leisured classes constitute the aristocratic Guardians of Plato's imagined Republic, who govern the farmers, artisans and traders, the practitioners of the necessary (but despised) arts. Way below all of these are the slaves, who scarcely warrant a mention. It is a society in which everybody knows their place. It is also perfectly obvious that Plato himself identified with the aristocratic Rulers (the class to which he belonged in real life), and natural that his ideal would be an intensely stable society, ie. one in which aristocratic privileges were perpetuated (particularly at a time when Athenian society itself was falling apart). Nevertheless Plato established a powerful and persuasive format for presenting his political and philosophical ideas, and The Republic became the most influential of all his dialogues.

But the earliest genuinely science-based Utopia is that depicted in Francis Bacon's New Atlantis (1620), which was itself based on Plato's account of Atlantis in another of his dialogues, the Critias. In this work the imaginary island of Bensalem is ruled by a scientific elite who are attached to a Foundation which is essentially an establishment for scientific research. Bacon was the first to equate human happiness with scientific and material progress, and he and his followers clearly felt that their vision was realisable. They actively promoted the 'domination and exploitation of nature'. Bacon predicted the sort of unprecedented advances that would be made in medicine, engineering and transport, and his conviction of the certain improvement of the conditions of life through scientific progress was to attain a mythic power. He foresaw a time of regnum hominis, when a complete knowledge of 'the causes and the secret movement of things' would allow Man to control the whole of nature, when all her materials and energies would be put to use for the greater benefit of mankind. Francis Bacon had an enormous influence on Enlightenment thinkers (the Encyclopedists were much taken with his ideas), and he more or less established the genre of scientific futurism. The New Atlantis became the exemplar for many later utopians.

In 1888 an American author, Edward Bellamy published one of the most influential of all modern utopian novels, ‘Looking Backwards from the year 2000’. This, like Cabet's Icarie, struck a chord with the public and was an immediate bestseller. Although largely forgotten now, Looking Backwards was in its time the most widely read of futuristic fantasies. Like most in this genre it was a vehicle for the author's ideas for improving the way society was run, and like the others discussed here, it promoted a 'scientific and systematic' and, above all, a rational approach to social arrangements. By the time it appeared, at the latter end of the 19th century, technological advances were having an enormous effect on society, and notions of progress were, in the minds of many, firmly linked with science and 'scientific planning'.

Bellamy's fable uses a Rip-van-Winkle formula. His hero, Julian West, is accidentally over-sedated in 1887 and is recovered from a cellar 137 years later. He awakes to an utterly transformed social order, which is essentially that of a benevolent paternalism. The nation is organised as a huge monopolistic corporation; education, welfare and a livelihood are guaranteed for all citizens. There is a centralised control of the economy, every fine detail of which is judged on a purely rational basis (to his credit Bellamy is quite aware that this would involve an extensive bureaucracy). The core institution of this society is an 'Industrial Army', to which all between the ages of 21-45 have to belong. The 'Army' carefully selects people, according to their aptitude, for the work that is most appropriate to their individual talents. Bellamy's future society is meritocratic, but it has certain checks and balances - less attractive jobs, for instances, have shorter hours. Wages are allotted in 'credit-cards’, which represent an equal share of the Nations/Corporation’s wealth. Since all economic problems have been solved there are no quarrels about money and, because everyone has a job that is appropriate to their skills, there is no frustration arising from unfulfilled ambitions. Many other aspects of life are collectivised; clothes are washed in public laundries, food is cooked in public kitchens; food and goods are available at company stores. People do not, however, appear to have much in the way of a private life in this regimented future world, their main pleasure seems to be listening to one or other of the music channels that are piped into everyone’s home. Looking Backwards creates an impression of a superbly well regulated, but cloyingly conformist society; efficient, but utterly boring.

Nevertheless it sold a quarter of a million copies in the U.S. within two years, and went on to sell a further half million (becoming the second best selling novel of the century in America, after Uncle Tom's Cabin). Bellamy's book was translated into most European languages and became the most widely read of all futurist fantasies (Leo Tolstoy, no less, was involved in its publication in Russia, where it was very favourably received, though later judged to be subversive and banned by the Tsar). In America the response to Looking Backwards was such that groups of enthusiasts formed associations to propagate its message and turn its ideas into reality. Within three years there were 163 of these clubs in the U.S. and many others in Europe.

The book and its ideas also provoked a strong critical response. For those who were attracted to the notion of a scientifically-planned, collectively mobilised society there were others who were repelled by its soulless regimentation; for those who admired its solution of the problems of social conflict, and its cradle-to-grave welfare system, there were others who were suspicious of the leading role that it assigned to bureaucrats and who were leery of its element of compulsion. Like so many utopian authors Bellamy seems to have been blind to the abuses that their 'perfect' system would offer for power-seekers and greed-heads.

Looking Backwards also came under fire from the Marxist camp. The followers of Marx and Engels were always keen to assert the superiority of their social theories over those presented in what they regarded as extravagant fantasies, and were as dismissive of Bellamy's proposals as they had been of Cabet's, and indeed of all 'Utopianism', these ideas were simply not 'scientific', unlike their own. They felt that theirs was the only practical path to an egalitarian society - but they, too, were caught up in the cult of the adoration of the machine. Marx had always recognised the power of industrial technology to transform society, but under his version of socialism it would be the instrument of peace and plenty, rather than the means of exploitation that it had become under Capitalism. In their enthusiasm for the revolutionary potential of 'the machine’ Marx and his followers conveniently overlooked the fact that industrial technology had in fact been developed by enterprising capitalists in the search for profit.

When, after the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks were confronted with the stern realities of administering the vast domain that had fallen into their lap, they soon came to realise that the changes that they wanted to introduce were unlikely to bring about rapid solutions to the many and varied problems that faced them. Their thoughts turned increasingly to technological solutions to overcome their difficulties. The leaders of the Revolution were not alone in their belief of the redemptive power of technology; by 1920, with the encouragement of the Bolsheviks, the entire U.S.S.R. became positively intoxicated by the cult of the machine. Huge exhibitions were mounted in all the major cities, in which machines of every kind, from typewriters to turbines were displayed. Workers filed past these modern icons with the same mixture of awe and reverence that they had once felt in the old (and now padlocked) cathedrals.

But the machine-cult was far more extensive than this. There was a genuine, widespread enthusiasm for things mechanical, which came to involve every aspect of the arts. All were enlisted, in the name of Prolekult art, to promote and celebrate this new credo. Oratorios were commissioned in which the whirrings and clangings of machinery were simulated. Ballets were devised glorifying the mysteries of the machine, with the dancers adopting jerky, mechanical movements. And painters, poets and sculptors were also caught up in this machine-worshipping frenzy. In the fine and decorative arts it became the vogue to depict the glories of heavy industry; in poetry, too, it was fashionable to eulogise the romance of railways and factories, and of the 'Electrodynamical City'. Even the theatre was touched by this craze. The function of the stage in this new era was to provide a 'social demonstration of the human mechanism', and actors were directed to act in a stilted, robotic manner

It was at this time that Lenin's proclaimed that 'Communism is Soviet power plus electrification'. But he had, in fact, long been enamoured not only with the West's advanced industrial technologies, but also with the 'bourgeois' concept of 'scientific management'. In his view (which was shared by other leading Bolsheviks) socialism had to appropriate and apply capitalist technology and its methods of work. It was quite characteristic, then, for him to declare that 'We must immediately introduce piece-work, and test its value'. In particular, he felt that 'The Taylor system must be tried'. F.W.Taylor was an American engineer, and the first to apply time and motion studies to industrial manufacture. His method principally involved breaking down complex tasks into simpler operations and introducing automation as far as possible. Henry Ford was a great proponent of Taylor's methods and had adopted them in his automotive factories. Both Taylor and Ford were deeply admired in Russia - to an almost cultish degree. Lenin, characteristically, imagined that Taylors notion of the 'remodelling' of the workers psyche might be extended to the whole of society - 'The socialist idea will be realised when we are able to unite the rule of the Soviets with the latest achievements of capitalism'. On a visit to Russia in 1920 Bertrand Russell noted the preoccupation of the regime with organisation and discipline - 'Everything is to be systematic .... The same education for all, the same clothes for all, the same kind of houses for all, the same books for all, and the same creed for all'.

With the sort of endorsement that they received from the great theorist and leader of the Revolution, Taylors 'scientific methods' were given every encouragement by the Soviet bureaucracy. It fell to the President of the Central Institute for the Scientific Study of Human Labour, one Alexei Gastiev, to enact these theories in their most extreme and peculiar form. Gastiev, who was both an engineer and a poet, had conducted his own intensive research (a la Taylor) into the 'mechanical laws of the human organism'. He had managed to convince himself that he had discovered the 'basic laws of the human machine', and had reduced the complexity of its movements to two primary functions, 'push' and 'pull'. With this knowledge he felt (and managed to convince his superiors) that he would be able to meet the enormous demand for mechanics and engineers by applying a form of Taylorian production-line technique. The overheated atmosphere of this period was such that it allowed all manner of crank theorists to flourish (the charlatan-biologist Lysenko being the most famous). In 1920 Gastiev's mad scheme was given the go-ahead; his avowed aim was to 'improve' the trainee’s minds by making them as machinelike as possible.

The workers involved in these experiments had to wear identical overalls, and were required to march in columns to their benches. Once in position they would be ordered to their tasks by buzzers. Training was in form of direct mechanical induction. The trainees were taught to hammer correctly, for instance, by holding a hammer that was attached to a beating mechanism. They were instructed to persist with this motion until it was felt that they had internalised the machines rhythm. The procedure was repeated for other basic movements, chiselling, filing etc. The whole procedure was quite deliberately dehumanising. Gastiev believed that machines were superior to humans and that by making his trainees more machine-like he was engaged in a scheme that would ultimately prepare humanity for the next, obvious stage of its evolution. He looked forward to a time when all the messy, unplanned human traits (that constituted individual personality), would disappear. 'People' would then become 'proletarian units'. They would no longer require personal names, but would be registered by cipher, by some combination of letters or numbers. He imagined a 'mechanised collectivism that would take the place of the individual personality in the psychology of the proletariat'. Human emotions would then no longer be necessary, the human soul could be measured not 'by a shout or a smile, but by a pressure gauge or speedometer'. This whole vision seems quite ludicrous now, but Gastiev was perfectly serious.

In the event neither Gastiev’s nor any of the other wild experiments of the early Revolutionary period solved its many problems. By 1924 Lenin had died and Stalin had taken over; idealism increasingly gave way to opportunism (and later, simply to survival). The optimistic enthusiasm of Prolekult faded, and the cult of the machine became subservient to the cult of Terror. Some ideas survived however. The notion of a new world in which every aspect of life was precisely calculated and centrally planned persisted, but under Stalin it was driven by an unprecedented degree of ruthlessness and brutality - and in general it was a hopeless failure. Sovietised industry was horribly inefficient; collectivised agriculture led to widespread famine. The new factory-towns, the new railway and canal systems, the attempts to cultivate virgin lands led, not to the promised 'machine millennium', but to the reintroduction into the modern world of a system of slavery on a previously unimaginable scale. There was one aspect of Gastiev's vision that was adopted - those who were taken to the Gulags were deprived of their names, which were replaced by a cipher in just the way he imagined. This was appropriate. These suffering legions, the victims of Stalin's mindless, out-of-control Terror, were indeed the final, terrible product of a stream of modern thought that was inclined to regard humans as mere ciphers in some greater ideological drama.