Politics and Contemporary History in Germany – Panorama

Is the Age of Political Utopias Past? – Three Questions for Richard Saage

Richard Saage; Foto: Lorenz ViereckeRichard Saage; Foto: Lorenz ViereckeThe funeral dirge for utopia has been sung many times. Yet thinking in alternatives is part of the inalienable core of the European intellectual tradition, says Germany’s leading utopia researcher Richard Saage in an interview with goethe.de.


Professor Saage, is the impression deceptive or is the age of political utopias past?

The answer to this question depends on the position of the person to whom it is posed. Anyone who thinks that the present society is in principle intact doesn’t need utopian perspectives and will consider them even harmful. But anyone who believes that social development is the responsibility of human beings will consider thinking in utopian scenarios essential, because otherwise there is the risk of becoming encrusted. On this view, moreover, renunciation of utopia means surrendering an element that has been a key part of European identity since ancient times: it was Plato and Sir Thomas More who taught us to think in alternatives.

But even if one considers utopian thought to be indispensable, it has to renew itself, it has to measure up to the challenges of the twenty-first century. In distinction to its predecessors, it must meet the following criteria: 1. Political utopias must give up the claim of being the goal of the historical process. They can still be spoken of only in the plural. They must seek acceptance in the media and by the public in competition with other approaches. 2. Only by assuming a distance to the socio-political reality of its society can utopian thinking remain creative and capable of learning. If a political utopia is realized, it forfeits its status as a regulative principle and becomes encrusted by a dogmatic ideology, ending in stagnation and self-destruction. 3. Utopian constructions have to be self-reflexive, that is, they must become aware of the danger of becoming the opposite of their positive intentions.

The equation “utopia = authoritarian” doesn't add up

What constitutes a “classic” utopia, and why do we have difficulty today thinking of a society on a utopian pattern?

The classical utopia stands in the tradition of its origin, Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. Conceived on a this-worldly design and appealing to secular reason, it is based on a rational analysis of the failures of English society of the day, to which More devotes the first part of his book, about one half of the whole. He confronts this social criticism with what he views as a positive alternative, which avoids the analyzed causes of social misery. The fictional institutional scenario includes all relevant areas of personal, social and political life. It promises the Utopians the opportunity of a happy life through a perfection immanent in the world.

We find it difficult today to accept this utopia because in it an omnipotent government restricts the scope of individual freedom, regulating the lives of individuals from cradle to grave. But this accurate criticism from today’s point of view shouldn’t blind us to several things: 1. In addition to monarchist variants, that is, hierarchical utopias, utopian discourse since ancient times has also produced non-hierarchical fictions. The equation “utopia = authoritarian” therefore doesn’t add up. 2. Anyone who sees More’s model within its historical context will hardly deny that the total welfare state of Utopia was quite an attractive offer for the poverty-stricken lower classes. 3. More always saw Utopia as an ideal that couldn’t be realized on a one-to-one basis and that, in Europe, could at most lead to specific reforms from above. 4. He criticizes himself his alter ego Hythlodeuus’ eulogy of Utopia and its communist structure. This self-reflexive potential, often overlooked by critics, is a lasting legacy of utopian thinking and the prerequisite of a built-in learning process that has unfolded in the course of its history.

The “post-modern utopia” leaves modern civilization in essence unchanged

Is there still room in the present for a positive political utopia? Is there such a thing as a post-modern utopia?

Although many critics have conjured up the “end of utopia”, in the 1960s, 70s and 80s of the twentieth century, particularly in the U.S., a large number of utopian novels were published containing innovative revisions of the authoritarian model. Anarchist, feminist and ecological themes were hegemonic. The gigantic form of mechanized warfare in the First World War and the ecological crisis of the 1970s corroded the connection between the ability of scientists and engineers to bear moral responsibility and the faith in progress, and led to a far-reaching transformation of classical utopian discourse, as may be seen in the hegemony of the classical dystopias by Zamyatin, Huxley and Orwell. Even positive utopias such Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Piercy’s Women on the Edge of Time included dystopian components. They constantly reckon with the possibility that the projected utopia can turn into a dystopia.

This context is relevant to the post-modern production of utopias. For post-modernism, the classical utopia in the tradition of More is a “grand narrative” and therefore naturally under suspicion of totalitarianism. This reading deconstructs both the narrative and its claim to validity, at least as to the possibility of collective emancipation. Still, post-modernism doesn’t abandon the utopian altogether. Thus Foucault detects niches in society that haven’t been made available to modern civilization. He calls these interstices that have been spared the pressure of the rationalization process “heterotopias”. Of the utopian hope for a better society, there remains in the end nothing but the subjective experience of a space beyond the tight corset of the managed society. At any rate, the post-modern utopia is reduced to a sign, a mere virtuality, and leaves modern civilization, from which it seeks to disassociate itself, in essence unchanged.


Richard Saage, born in 1941, was Professor for Political Theory and History of Idea at the University of Halle-Wittenburg from 1992 to 2007. He is a member of the Saxonian Academy of the Sciences in Leipzig. His major publications include: Vermessungen des Nirgendwo - Begriffe, Wirkungsgeschichte und Lernprozesse der neuzeitlichen Utopien (1995), Utopieforschung – Eine Bilanz (1997), Utopieforschung, Band 1: An den Bruchstellen der Epochenwende von 1989 (2. Auflage 2008); Band 2: An der Schwelle des 21. Jahrhunderts (2008).

Andreas Vierecke
conducted the interview. He is one of the two heads of Südpol-Redaktionsbüros Köster & Vierecke and chief editor of the Zeitschrift für Politik.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
March 2010

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