The most influential utopian thinker in American history did not write futuristic novels or imagine perfect worlds in which evolved humans dined on honeydew. He was a gritty political agitator who responded to the news of his day with manuals designed to inspire politically and economically disenfranchised people to immediate action. Yet even now, more than two centuries after his death, there is no mistaking the utopian promise of Thomas Paine’s declaration that “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
Paine, like so many other utopian thinkers, past and present, broke down religious, political, social, and literary boundaries in order to achieve “a renovation of the natural order of things” so sweeping that his 18th-century generation might be recognized as “the Adam of a new world.” Therein lies the genius of Paine’s project at the founding of what remains the American experiment. He was not talking about the distant future. His was a practical utopianism—yes, that’s possible—which, in the words of Paine scholar Harvey J. Kaye, inspired readers to go about the work of “trying to build utopia in America.” Of course, Paine’s comrades fell short, stumbled along the way, and at times failed miserably. That was predictable. What mattered was the trying. This is the key to the most vital utopian thinking: It does not imagine perfection; rather, it proposes a dialectic based on what historian Eric Foner identified as a “new language” of possibility.
The notion that utopianism can be purposeful is what makes it radical. The most potent utopian thinking is seldom found in jet-pack-wearing flights of fancy or the imaginings of spacey future worlds where enlightened beings don flowing robes and await the arrival of a time-traveling Bill and Ted to encourage them to “be excellent to each other.” In Paine’s time, and in the best eras that have evolved from it, there was an understanding of the utility of utopian thinking as a political instrument. It could be adopted by visionary authors, playwrights, and presidents. It would be embraced by mass movements. But it was not a constant. Pragmatic utopianism has surged at critical junctures in our history—as when the radical social experiments of the 1840s were covered as breaking news on the front page of Horace Greeley’s New-York Tribune, and when, in 1966, A. Philip Randolph and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. thrust “A Freedom Budget for All Americans” onto the desk of President Lyndon Johnson—and it has receded.
To be sure, its recession in recent decades has been pronounced, as the world-weariness, the cynicism, and the craven calculations of political and media elites fostered a neoliberal consensus that delighted in recalling the crude language of Margaret Thatcher, who advocated for austerity with the declaration that “There is no alternative.” Rebecca Solnit well and wisely observed a decade ago that “Utopia is in trouble these days. Many no longer believe that a better world, as opposed to a better life, is possible, and the rhetoric of private well-being trumps public good, at least in the English-speaking world.”
But, as Solnit knew, the Thatchers and the Reagans and the Bill Clintons and the Paul Ryans were on the wrong side of history. There was always an alternative. There still is an alternative. It can be imagined, and it can be achieved. But that will happen only if we pull utopian thinking off the pedestal and recognize the deepest truth of our intellectual and practical history: that there are few tools so powerful as a rough-and-tumble, unafraid-of-getting-dirty utopianism for organizing and achieving transformative change. Instead of an endless search for perfection, the utopian thinking that most frequently matters addresses immediate issues with a sense of urgency. It can and should be epic in scope and character, but it should also be willing to get specifically militant, as when French feminists argued for mandating equal representation of women in parliament with the suggestion that it was time to be “a bit utopian.”
Radical faith in grand visions—be they political or economic, social or spiritual—is supercharged by immediacy and the promise that rapid fundamental change is possible, that we can seize the moment and transform it. This is the faith that tells us technological progress need not enrich only the few but can in fact empower the many. This is the faith that says standards for public safety need not be dictated by mayors and the police unions that endorse them but can be controlled by the community. This is the faith that says a burning planet might not just be saved but renewed.
The seed of hope that inspires activism is also what makes utopian thinking so powerful. This power must be reclaimed if we are to harness the energy of a remarkable opening when—because of a pandemic that upended everything about what we thought possible, and of movements for justice that are finally being heard—it might finally be possible to address our contemporary variations on Paine’s American Crisis.
This rare opening highlights a need for utopian thinking, in all of its forms, that is more pressing than at any time since the end of World War II. If ever there were a moment that called for Paine’s “birthday of a new world,” this is it. Tens of millions of Americans, hundreds of millions of people around the world, see the possibility. More bold ideas are being advanced than at any time in decades. There are serious discussions about ending poverty, precarity, and inequality with universal basic income schemes. Demonstrators fill the streets to demand not just the defunding of police but the upending of systemic racism. A new generation of campaigners propose to save the planet and the people who inhabit it with a Green New Deal. Where UBI, abolition, and climate justice went unaddressed in the fall presidential debates of 2016, they framed the debates of 2020. The most important of those debates were not between Donald Trump and Joe Biden but between Biden and the future. Biden was resistant, declaring when the climate crisis came up that “The difference between me and the new green deal is they say, automatically, by 2030 we’re going to be carbon free. Not possible.” That was a frustrating response, but it was also an invitation to the sort of utopian thinking, and the sort of utopian demanding, that says, “Yes, possible.”
It was to be expected that right-wing Republicans in Congress would dismiss the Green New Deal as “a radical reshaping of American society in the name of utopian environmental policy,” as did Republican Representative Morgan Griffith from Virginia. That conservative commentators from the Colson Center would declare, “Abolishing police is the stuff of utopian fantasies.” That media outlets like Prairie Public Broadcasting would ask, “Is a Universal Basic Income too Utopian to Work?” What was unexpected, and hopeful, is the speed with which centrist Democrats like Biden, and even a few Republicans at the state and federal levels, have been drawn into discussions of these proposals since the pandemic hit and Black Lives Matter demonstrations filled the streets of American cities after the murder of George Floyd.
Utopian thinkers are always spinning out ideas, as my friend Erik Olin Wright proved with his three-decade-long Real Utopias project, in which the late University of Wisconsin sociology professor brought together thinkers and activists to explore visionary responses to contemporary challenges. The conferences Wright organized from the 1990s to the 2010s were epic gatherings where great thinkers from around the world wrestled with everything from transforming the division of labor within families to redesigning the distribution of wealth within capitalist societies and genuinely empowering participatory democracy. The utopian responses that Wright and his comrades spawned did not get enough attention in their moment. But they are the sorts of ideas that get a second look in times of peril and uncertainty. These are such times. We can be overwhelmed by everything that’s coming at us. Or we can mount an overwhelming response that channels the visionary energy of Karl Marx, who declared that there is “a world to win,” and the humanity that Arundhati Roy expressed when she wrote, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”
Wright launched the Real Utopias project at a time when the Cold War had ended and Francis Fukuyama was proposing that the moment should be understood as “not just the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: That is, the end-point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Jacques Derrida rebuked Fukuyama with a stinging declaration: “Instead of singing the advent of the ideal of liberal democracy and of the capitalist market in the euphoria of the end of history, instead of celebrating the ‘end of ideologies’ and the end of the great emancipatory discourses, let us never neglect this obvious, macroscopic fact, made up of innumerable, singular sites of suffering: no degree of progress allows one to ignore that never before, in absolute figures, have so many men, women and children been subjugated, starved or exterminated on the earth.” With his relentless intellectual curiosity and rigorous humanity, Wright sought to take the discussion to the next level by highlighting radical thinking that addressed the issues left unresolved at “the end of history.” With the Real Utopias project, he sought to reopen the debate by identifying visionary responses that he argued required only political courage, an understanding of technological progress, and a leap of the imagination to be achieved.
Wright acknowledged that the notion of “real utopias” might seem like a contradiction in terms for those who accepted a narrow definition of the U-word. “Utopias are fantasies, morally inspired designs for a humane world of peace and harmony unconstrained by realistic considerations of human psychology and social feasibility,” he mused. “Realists eschew such fantasies. What is needed are hard-nosed proposals for pragmatically improving institutions. Instead of indulging in utopian dreams we must accommodate to practical realities.” Wright’s proposal “embraces this tension between dreams and practice.” Rejecting “vague utopian fantasies [that] may lead us astray,” he argued that “Nurturing clear-sighted understandings of what it would take to create social institutions free of oppression is part of creating a political will for radical social changes needed to reduce oppression.”
That’s a reasonable restatement of the historical view of the political power of utopian thinking—a view that has been accepted and utilized by figures as distinct as Paine; Fanny Wright, the feminist, abolitionist, and anti-capitalist social reformer who established a multiracial utopian community in the 1820s; Edward Bellamy, the utopian novelist whose best-selling 1888 book Looking Backward: 2000–1887 would be credited by Eugene V. Debs as “the first popular exposition of socialism in this country” and, eventually, earn plaudits from New Dealer Arthur Morgan as “almost a catalog of social legislation of the past half-century”; and W.E.B. Du Bois, whose groundbreaking 1920 story “The Comet” wrestled with overturning white supremacy in a visionary anticipation of Afrofuturism that imagined a post-apocalyptic New York where a surviving Black man comes to recognize himself as the Adam of a new world.
Unfortunately, contemporary political and media elites are quick to reject visionary thinking of any kind. In today’s United States, the word “utopian” is often used to discredit progressive ideas and candidates. When Bernie Sanders ran as a democratic socialist for the presidency in 2016 on a platform that was radical only in the context of constipated American politics, his rival, Hillary Clinton, dismissed his agenda as “little more than a pipe-dream.” After she lost the fall race to Donald Trump, Clinton wrote a book in which, Vanity Fair noted, she argued that Sanders had “hijacked the Democratic primary and derailed her White House bid by misleading voters with his utopian, pie-in-the-sky proposals for free health care, free college, and free ponies for all.” A derogatory application of the “utopian” label to the Sanders candidacy was a constant. A Forbes headline declared, “Bernie Sanders’ Scandinavian Utopia Is an Illusion.” The Washington Times announced, “Only morons would vote for crazy Bernie Sanders’ utopian socialism,” while The Washington Post ridiculed the senator’s desire to create a Scandinavian-style social welfare state as “utopian fantasy.” The line of attack was so prominent that Sanders announced, “It is not utopian thinking to say that every man, woman and child should have access to health care as a right.”
There was no debating the point if you lived in Norway, New Zealand, or any of the other countries that guarantee health care. But the fact is that what Sanders was proposing—health care for all, free college, expanded Social Security, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and requirements that employers provide paid parental leave, sick leave, and vacation time—sounded utopian for a lot of working-class Americans. The senator’s campaign acknowledged he was proposing a “political revolution.” So why, instead of getting defensive, didn’t Sanders draw inspiration from the author of the original American Revolution to explain how ideas once thought to be utopian can be mainstreamed? Sanders would have benefited by borrowing a page from Paine, whose tracts inspired immediate revolutionary action.
Paine opened Common Sense with an acknowledgment that “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general Favor; a long Habit of not thinking a Thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defence of Custom.” With that, he outlined the argument for the rejection of the divine right of kings and a revolution against the wealthiest and most militarily powerful empire on the planet. The revolution ensued, formally beginning with the signing of a Declaration of Independence just six months after the publication of a pamphlet that concluded with a utopian cry. “A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand….”
Not a bad point of beginning, then. Or now.