Madhavan Palat: Utopia and Dystopia in Revolutionary Russia

First posted November 11, 2017

Madhavan Palat

Utopia is a place or as it literally means, a no place, in Thomas More’s Greek pun, one that does not exist,  cannot exist, but ideally should come into being as the good place, the Eutopia. Many utopian projects, be it beauty that never fades or the return to Eden, cannot be realized because nature does not permit them. But utopia was a dream, it provided orientation and hope, it allowed people to think that life could be beautiful, happy, just and inspiring rather than ugly, miserable, oppressive and squalid. The ideal was ahistorical and the vision was static; outside time, it did not belong to the past, the present, or the future; as a concept it was and is often still regarded as dogmatic and closed. As a place it was located beyond normal life, isolated and secluded, the better for creativity and purity free of the miasmas of our polluted world. It entailed more often than not an extraordinary journey to a remote abode, to an island far away, to a forgotten settlement in the empty steppe, to a remote mountain retreat.

But from the end of the eighteenth century, in the course of the revolutionary convulsions of the age, it was increasingly imagined as something that could be made to happen, more as the good time than as the good place, an euchronia rather than utopia or eutopia. As human society acquired ever more resources to control and transform the natural world, to shape it according to its wishes, utopia seemed a possibility.

More than anybody else H.G. Wells summed up the distinction between the earlier utopias and the modern one. From an ahistorical ideal it was transformed into a historical pursuit, as a historical future. From a static vision of a place fixed in time and space, it became a dynamic objective. It imagined the human species as mobile and cosmopolitan, liberated from the fetters of the local and the provincial. It privileged individualism over the communistic ideal so beloved of his predecessors, especially Thomas More and Plato. In his forceful style he anticipated Max Weber’s contrast between bureaucratic standardization and stability on the one hand and charismatic transgression for change on the other. “Each man and woman, to the extent that his or her individuality is marked, breaks the law of precedent, transgresses the general formula, and makes a new experiment for the direction of the life force. It is impossible, therefore, for the State, which represents all and is preoccupied by the average, to make effectual experiments and intelligent innovations, and so supply the essential substance of life.”

The Russian avant-garde and the cultural intelligentsia generally, soaked in Nietzsche, would have concurred… Download the full essay here

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