By MICHAEL CAINES
It's futile, many a Middle England type would say, to vote for Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party. What's the point in voting for this supposedly unelectable figure? Look at the local election results coming in from around Britain today: Labour defeated in Scotland; and merely, as far as anyone can tell at the moment, holding steady across England when they ought to be making dramatic gains in the face of Tory venality, hypocrisy, in-fighting etc, as previous opposition parties have done. It seems that my old MP Sadiq Khan has won the London mayoral election – but that's despite Corbyn, some have said already and no doubt will go on saying.
As a wise head told me this morning, however, some see an urgent point in trying to correct the right-wards drift to which the Labour Party has succumbed over the past two decades. Leaving aside the apparently unlikely scenario of a Labour victory in the General Election of 2020, even if Corbyn is out well before then, whoever succeeds him would have to acknowledge and accommodate the majority of party members who have supported him, rather than sinking back into the purest Blairism. It's that, some say, or a permanent split.
There is a dirty word that Right-thinking people occasionally like to throw at such idealists: utopian. The word in this context means: unworldly dreamer, one whose notions would be catastrophic if ever put into practice. It's the word Marx and Engels used to dismiss early socialist thinkers such as Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. And it's time the word was reclaimed, I think. 2016 is, after all, the year in which Thomas More's mighty book Utopia turns 500. It's about time we learned again what that mischievous coinage could possibly mean . . . .
Commentators have already tried to link Utopia to the Labour leader, sometimes with spectacular ineptitude; for one thing, Utopia does not advocate a "broad-minded attitude to religion". Nor is it simply a book about having an "extremely authoritarian state". (There is ignorance of another kind on display in one commentator's recent suggestion that the pun encoded in the word "Utopia", meaning both the good society (eutopia) and no place (outopia), is More's "only recorded joke". He made at least one more.)
On the other hand, nobody could know everything there is know about this subject. There is a library's worth of commentary on Utopia itself, as well as countless literary imitations and a long history of sometimes disastrous attempts to put "utopian" ideas into practice. There is a Society for Utopian Studies and its long-running publication Utopian Studies. This year's 500th anniversary, marking five centuries of Utopia and utopianism, brings us all manner of events around central London; and, to satisfy the academically minded inheritors of the humanist tradition in which More himself worked, there are conferences taking place in Leuven (the city where Utopia was first published), Lisbon and St Petersburg, FL. (The conference in Antwerp, where More sets the first half of his book, has been and gone.)
And – ahem – everyone is welcome to "Utopia: Then and now", a discussion I'm chairing at King's Place in London on May 16, with some excellent, "utopologically" minded speakers; it would be just grand to see some TLS blog readers there. (Whet your appetite with this recent episode of TLS Voices, which concentrates on Utopia "then" and what More wrote . . .)
(All right. Plug over.)
So what is a utopia?
The simplest answer is that it is an imaginary or real state or community designed to improve everyone's lot. Hence the belated rise of its opposite: the dystopia, a term only coined after the Industrial Revolution, in which everyone except the lucky few is worse off.
There are further distinctions to be made, though, between Land of Cockayne fantasies of plenty without end and elaborate, serious-minded attempts to devise, at least in outline, a world and the way it would work. Another useful distinction, delineated by Elisabeth Hansot in Perfection and Progress (1974), separates "classical" utopias from "modern" ones: the first, in her view, are contemplative and static, like Plato's Republic; the second type are about the possibility of real change.
Partly as it's often described as a satire, I guess More's Utopia could easily be categorized as the first of Hansot's two types. It mocks the disorderly England of the sixteenth century; the island commonwealth of the title, on the antithetical side of the globe, is everything More's world wasn't. Private property doesn't exist there, the citizens are wonderfully reasonable and all social problems have evaporated. (The few bad apples are serenely made better, or dispatched.) The learned traveller in whose mouth More puts his description of Utopia, Raphael Hythloday, entirely approves of everything he sees there.
An alternative view of Utopia is offered by the excellent Open Utopia edition:
Hythloday finds himself at the table of a political figure drawn from life, Archbishop John Morton, and, in this elevated company, stridently condemns contemporary abuses of power in England, such as the ruthless enclosure of common land and the imposition of the death penalty for petty crimes. These criticisms crash, however, against the firm defences of ignorance and bigotry; Morton himself is receptive, but his hangers-on convert his pronouncements into opportunities for mere sycophancy.
"Their received notions must prevent your making an impression on them", Hythloday is told. He is advised to follow a different course:
"If, when one of Plautus’ comedies is upon the stage, and a company of servants are acting their parts, you should come out in the garb of a philosopher, and repeat, out of Octavia, a discourse of Seneca’s to Nero, would it not be better for you to say nothing than by mixing things of such different natures to make an impertinent tragicomedy? . . . go through with the play that is acting the best you can, and do not confound it because another that is pleasanter comes into your thoughts."
To Hythloday, direct confrontation is the only approach worth taking. Unwittingly, though, he takes this other option, suiting his argument to its moment, with his description of Utopia. It is his Plautine comedy, an entertainment intended not to blast his interlocutors into submission but giving them to chance to contemplate the common problems of the world. It is not a rhetorical end in itself but the means to an end.
Just as Morton's dinner table gives us a mock-Socratic dialogue, Utopia can certainly be read as a satire – but that is not all it is. The name "Raphael Hythloday" would have warned More's readership of fellow humanist scholars that its owner was a "speaker of nonsense", yet the nonsense he speaks turns out to contain some surprisingly noble sentiments. The devout More is extremely unlikely to be mocking Jesus's teachings when he has the Utopians refer to their "community of goods" and explicitly acknowledge its Christian precedent.
If the book is not a blueprint, this reading suggests, it might instead be called a "prompt" – a nudge in the direction of thinking creatively yet realistically about shared political, social and philosophical problems. Through Hythloday, More offers a vision of a different way of life. Readers/travellers are meant to explore it and return to their own world enriched. Not morally purified in some extraordinary way, or subjected to a conversion to More's beliefs, but perhaps prepared to think differently. Who could make that journey, return home and lapse back complacently into their own imperfect modus vivendi?
So when people talk about the "utopian" schemes of a naive variety – well, I know what they mean. But to be truly "utopian", in the spirit of the great book itself? Now there's a compliment.