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58e Congrès de la SAES, atelier de la SFEVE, Utopia(s) and Revolution(s)

Introduction

Utopia(s) and Revolution(s)
Jean-Yves Tizot

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1This section of the Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens presents a selection of three articles following the SFEVE workshop on ‘Utopia(s) and Revolution(s)’ at the 2018 SAES Congress in Nanterre. The articles deal with topics relating to utopia and revolution in different ways, and the meanings associated with these words vary somewhat between the different approaches. The utopia of Samuel Butler’s 1872 Erewhon, which is the object of the first article presented here, displays aspects of social organisation that might seem desirable and others that would be repulsive, probably both to the author and to the readers of the novel—but in that it does not differ too much from the majority of utopias, including More’s original generic template: literary utopias reflect the historical reality in which they were born as well as elements of sociogenetic projects (plans or visions of ‘better worlds’). There is no direct reference to revolution in the historical sense in Erewhon, but the reading experience of the novel, with its attendant loss of secure points of reference in moral judgement as well as in social appreciation judgement, certainly amounts to a great revolution in the reader position. In the second article, the ‘dreich’ island of Garveloch, where the rough and tough heroine Ella bravely takes on typically male tasks and responsibilities, serves an instrumental utopian function in so far as it provides a favorable background for the fictional social experiment of female empowerment in peasant/working-class context, all other social rules remaining equal. Here the revolution is the ‘Industrial Revolution’ which is the backdrop of these island adventures, but, more to the point, the revolution of female empowerment in a male-dominated world. Lastly, the notions of utopia and revolution find obvious meanings in the third article, which considers the debate between ‘scientific’ and ‘utopian’ socialism within the Fabian movement in its initial period, a question which harks back to Marx and Engels’s analysis of the maturing of socialism in the context of the urban industrial mutation, and of the role of utopian thought in this maturing process. The utopian ancestry in this line of thought is that of Owen, Fourier, Saint-Simon, as well as thinkers such as Cabet and Proudhon for example.

2This diversity of focus, nature and treatment of the questions of utopia and revolution is in itself interesting, in that it reflects some of the various uses of the typical utopian ‘regime of fictionality’. One of the great specialists of utopias, the German sociologist and historian Norbert Elias, has offered a synthetic definition aimed at encompassing precisely both the writings commonly referred to as ‘dystopias’ (or sometimes, but less convincingly, ‘anti-utopias’) and the ‘positive’ e/utopias. In this view, even if there are typical utopian patterns, devices and motifs, it seems preferable to refer to a specific regime of socio-fictional discourse validity rather than to a wholesale formal ‘generic type’ which has proven difficult to define, the identity and very existence of which are doubtful. Accordingly, utopian discourse is more easily apprehended as a particular modality of the relationship between historical reality, fiction, past and future rather than as a genre. In Elias’s own words,

  • 1 My translation from the French.

[i]n this sense, we could thus say, to sum up, that a utopia is the imaginary representation of a society, containing proposals toward solutions to unsolved problems—problems particular to the society of origin—, proposed solutions indicating the changes which the authors or proponents of said utopia wish to see implemented or the changes that they fear might happen, possibly both at the same time. (Elias 36)1

3This broad approach, however, excludes from the realm of utopian thought and writing the imaginary representations of worlds different from our own, set in another ‘historical’ past or outside our real world, such as the depiction of human groups presented as having (fictitiously) existed in the past, or allegedly existing in another dimension. The necessity for this theoretical exclusion, according to Elias, comes from the fact that utopias, if they are to be defined fundamentally as various forms of a specific modality of literary discourse (albeit with certain generic attributes), are structurally forward-oriented fictions or programmes, because they propose goals and guidelines for action (if only intellectual action such as social criticism for example), and not mere fantastical or mythological narratives. There might exist hybrid or mixed varieties containing elements of both utopia and historical fantasy, for example; but, says Elias, ‘the structural particularities of utopias, such as their function as potential guides for action, disappear if you consider—to give but one example—that the narrative of Adam and Eve in heaven is a utopia’ (41). In this perspective, Greek or Persian mythologies, The Thousand and One Nights, as well as much of the heroic fantasy literature, or ‘superhero’ narratives in different forms, do not partake of the utopian imagination. This approach, both broad and deep, but also critical of formless relativism and of the endless extension of the category of utopia, provides an interesting theoretical prism through which to look at the three articles in this section. The limits imposed on the concept of utopia by Elias make sense in relation to the idea of revolution—even in the loose sense of significant change—since according to him utopias can be the seeds of change in the present or in future, and need therefore to be linked to, or rooted in the real historical time of actually living societies.

4Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay’s article, the first in this selection, is entitled ‘The Music and (dis)harmony of (anti)utopia in Samuel Butler’s Erewhon’. It deals with the role and importance of music in utopias and in particular in Butler’s intriguing novel (the title of which is ‘nowhere’ in reverse, of course, that is ‘utopia’ in its etymological sense). It looks in particular at the various functions of musical symbolism in the satire and critique of Victorian society which readers, commentators and critics alike have noted in this remarkable work of literary imagination, ever since its publication in 1872. Like many of the literary aspects of the novel, musical references and tropes, revolving round the notions of harmony and discordance, are far from straightforward and unambiguous, and the clarifications offered here take us several steps closer to an enlightened understanding of Butler’s social position, intellectual intentions and talent as a writer. Whilst the original emphasis is clearly on the literary nature of the object under enquiry, and on some of its essential structural elements and functions (symbolic networks and the relationships between them for example), the conclusion is that understanding the way the various components collaborate within the novel on a literary plane helps us read more of the social and political meaning that might have motivated its writing in the first place.

5The complexity of Erewhon as artful utopian writing is such, however, that its global apprehension remains challenging, complex and, writes F. Dupeyron-Lafay, ‘ultimately problematic’. The insensitivity of Erewhonians to music and sound harmony, their lack of musical education and taste, are, however, a clear reflection of Butler’s critique of moral and behavioural conformity in the real Victorian society of his time. The ‘Musical Banks’ are an obvious example of this, but as Butler’s narrative and the narrator’s own comments weave in and out of complex ironic postures, and shift from the utopian mode to the dystopian and back again at high speed, clear-cut distinctions and interpretations are difficult to reach. F. Dupeyron-Lafay notes that in Erewhon the (positive) utopian tonality and the critique of Victorian society through distorted images sometimes co-exist in certain passages, but further remarks that what makes Erewhon a remarkable utopian novel, above all, is that this complexity is expressed through musical references, which is rather rare in utopias. Music is endowed in Erewhon with the status of a structural component of the literary utopian formalisation, a status more commonly reserved to architecture, urban planning or the organisation of work or daily life. In this respect, Butler’s Erewhon is probably unique, and the findings of F. Dupeyron-Lafay in this article cast new light on this relatively under-researched aspect of utopian studies, not least by showing that, if Erewhon is not a novel about revolution, it is a novel that revolutionises the experience of reading, and the use of musical references is a key component of this literary upheaval. The rich and diverse bibliography adds even more value to this significant and innovative piece of research work.

6The second article, by Catherine Heyrendt, deals with two short stories by Harriet Martineau, Ella of Garveloch and Weals and Woe in Garveloch, respectively tales n° 5 and 6 in Martineau’s Illustrations of Political Economy in which the setting of the narrative is a small Scottish island (Garveloch) where a fishing community, overseen from a distance by the aristocratic landlord, strives to produce basic means of subsistence and, whenever possible, better living conditions for themselves. Here, the utopian motif of the remote island as the locale for a microcosm displaying the same sort of organisation and constraints as early 19th-century British society (the social division into classes and the social division of labour in particular) is used to promote the didactic ends of the author, who proposed a small revolution of sorts: the stories are premised on the idea that women can play a more central part in the planning and managing of social organisation, on several fundamental levels.

7The utopian regime of fictionality here is more of a pretext to give a believer a pulpit to preach for her cause, an opportunity to illustrate her beliefs. The utopianism of the Garveloch stories, as C. Heyrendt shows convincingly, is in fact a function of Martineau’s ‘feminism’, understood as her intention to help promote better social conditions for women—whilst leaving most of the social structure intact on the other hand—and of her strong commitment to didacticism concerning the possibility of change in gender roles. This sort of attitude would perhaps fall into the category of what some Marxist thinkers have called ‘reactionary’ or ‘bourgeois’ utopias, as opposed to the ‘revolutionary’ ones that not only question but also challenge the existing social order by offering blue-prints of alternative social models. The philosopher and sociologist Henri Lefèbvre (1901–1991) was one of these Marxist analysts of utopias, and in Marxist Thought and the City, in a section devoted to ‘Engels and Utopia’, he tried to summarise Engels’s position vis-à-vis different types of utopian thinking:

Engels was not satisfied with comparing socialist utopianism to bourgeois utopianism; he contrasted revolutionary and concrete utopia with reactionary and abstract utopia. Concrete utopia is based on the movement of a reality whose possibilities it discovers. Dialectically, the possible is a category of reality once we consider its tendencies in the real rather than assigning it a fixed place. (Lefèbvre 102−03)

8‘Reactionary’ or ‘bourgeois’, which could be, in that perspective, the verdict on Martineau’s ‘feminist utopias’? Lefèbvre is interesting, among other reasons, because he was not a faithful believer of the established doctrine and his critical approach to the original Marxist texts sometimes freed him from adopting and repeating the fixed syntagms as well as the accepted views of the time-honoured Marxist tradition. ‘However’, he continued, ‘the modern reader, who no longer follows the structures of dogmatism, wonders if Engels has fully described his concept and his project. Sometimes, he appears to come out against any utopia whatsoever’ (Lefèbvre 103). Elsewhere Lefèbvre noted (after Marx and Engels) that the great force of the bourgeoisie was its unflinching commitment to the progress of its own cause presented as progress for all, and was able to subordinate, through legal and policy changes, the improvement of the living conditions of certain dominated categories to the pursuit of its own class interests. Reform against the threat of rebellion or revolution has been one of the constants of Liberal ‘progress’. In that respect, a policy of accommodating certain needs and demands of the subaltern categories, within the constraints of the perpetuation of both rent landlordism and commercial-industrial capitalism (in the tales the laird is renting out his Garveloch lands and waters to a fishing company), might rightly be called progressive (‘social policies’ are a case in point). In which case, critical readers of Martineau will have to recognise the ambiguous nature of her progressivism, as illustrated for example in the Garveloch stories, where the stereotypes of the improvident and lazy families as well as the deserving and hard-working families are strongly reminiscent of the right-thinking and patronizing Liberal edification literature of a Samuel Smiles, for example. At any rate, C. Heyrendt in her article gives us all the right keys and clues to do so.

9In the third article, entitled « Révolution sociale et utopie chez les premiers Fabiens (1884-1890) : un positionnement complexe », Marie Terrier examines the ambiguous rapport of the early Fabians to the works of the so-called ‘utopian socialists’. At a time when, following Marx’s death in 1883, Engels was re-ordering and to a certain extent re-interpreting the meaning of his and Marx’s previous work according to his own philosophical penchants (thereby inventing the first version of authorised ‘Marxism’), the British socialists themselves were trying to lay the foundations of their own ‘scientific’ form of socialism—that is, they were somewhat distancing themselves from the roots of British socialist ‘utopianism’. But at the same time, as M. Terrier shows, British socialism still found inspiration and even pride in referring to the rich British and English-language utopian tradition, at least to those thinkers whose utopian visions chime in unison with their own brand of rather centralised, hierarchical and large-scale industry socialism. Here the meanings of the words ‘utopia’ and ‘utopianism’ are central, and the emphasis of the article is wholly on the programmatic, political and ideological dimensions rather than on the literary genres, modes or regimes.

10One of the ruses of human languages, it is well known, is that some of the subtleties of thought and expression are lost in translation from one to another; and some details, it is also well known, are important. The title of Engels’s 1880 essay Die Entwicklung des Sozialismus von der Utopie zur Wissenshaft (meaning the development, or evolution, of socialism from utopia to science), which was originally a section of the larger Anti-Dühring, was translated into English as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, a foreshortening or at least a distortion of the German original. Commenting on this difference, Vincent Geoghegan in his precious Utopianism and Marxism wrote that

[t]he contrast with its English title . . . is significant—the former suggesting Marx and Engels’s historical materialist analysis of utopianism, whereas the latter implies a sharp dualism of world-views; one true, one false. Engels himself must bear some of the responsibility for the possibility of such a shift, with his paeans to science and odd materialist metaphysics—and Marx too has passages with a distinct scientist cast. However, the idea of a ‘scientific socialism’, which somehow reflected, and was legitimized by, the inexorable march of history, is alien to their dialectical perspective. (Geoghegan 30)

11There lies the possibility of a fundamental misunderstanding, if we were to follow Geoghegan down this path. Be that as it may, the British socialists in general, and the Fabians in particular, found themselves torn between the temptations of ‘scientific’ legitimacy and a form of loyalty towards their favorite utopian thinkers, or at least towards the aspirations of the latter to ‘higher forms of human social organisation’, as M. Terrier shows by referring to the Fabian Essays in Socialism, edited by G. B. Shaw and published in 1889. In spite of the (relative) diversity of points of view displayed by the seven different authors in the Essays, M. Terrier detects a collective dual tendency which, if it is not a paradox, is still a little perplexing: on the one hand, although they did not hold revolutionary beliefs in the Marxist sense, the authors seemed to adopt, more or less uniformly, some of the most turgid aspects of ‘Marxist theory’, in particular the belief that any step toward large-scale, centralised, monopolistic organisation under capitalism is a step toward socialism—a famous classic later further developed by Lenin. On the other hand, the Fabians seemed to reject existing or past concrete experiments as either impossible or impractical—as ‘utopian’ in the negative, derogatory sense—, whilst making plans for the improvement of the proletariat’s lot through legislation (ironically a form of ‘parliamentary utopianism’, in the illusory daydream sense). This, after all, is in many ways typical of the intellectual middle-class variety of British socialism, and M. Terrier reminds us that the Fabians were strongly criticised by William Morris, another prominent Victorian utopian, as naive or ‘utopian’—again in the same pejorative sense—for adhering to the belief in the inevitability of socialism as a necessary consequence of the evolution of capitalism (as in the cruder versions of vulgar Marxism), and for favouring a policy of parliamentary and institutional integration over the implementation of alternative solutions for the workers by the workers. Later, at the beginning of the 20th century, that same gradualist, parliamentary and reformist brand of socialism of the Municipal-Gas-and-Water vein advocated by the Fabians was mocked and accused of practical inanity and intellectual fraud by Robert Tressell in The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914), yet another utopian socialist—of sorts.

12M. Terrier in her article argues that even though the Fabians, who represented the centre of gravity of British middle-class ‘liberal’ socialism, did in fact not adhere to the practice of describing in great detail the future of British society under socialism, they could be described as ‘utopian’ insofar as they believed in the inherent ‘perfectibility of mankind’—a recurring theme of early utopian socialist literature together with a form of social organicism and an optimistic faith in the basic goodness of ‘human nature’ and of British ‘democratic’ institutions. Through the prism of their relationship to utopia, M. Terrier’s article paints an interesting picture of the Fabians as thinkers and political activists who were perhaps just as deluded about the efficiency of moral force and historical inevitability as they were sincerely motivated to improve the conditions of the poor without resorting to revolutionary methods. This represents a valuable addition to the research literature on Fabians and Fabianism.

13Through meaningful contributions that illustrate the diversity of interests for the utopian inspiration, the three following articles each add their brick to the rich buildings of both Victorian and utopian studies. All three call for more research on their topics of choice, all of which deserve further elaboration and dissemination. No doubt, seeds have been sown here from which new thoughts will grow in future.

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Bibliographie

Elias, Norbert. L’utopie. Paris: La Découverte, 2014.

Geoghagan, Vincent. Utopianism and Marxism. London: Methuen, 1987.

Lefèbvre, Henri. Marxist Thought and the City. Minneapolis: U. of Minnesota P, 2016.

Tressell, Robert. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. 1914. London: Flamingo, 1993.

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Notes

1 My translation from the French.

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Jean-Yves Tizot, « Introduction », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 89 Spring | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2019, consulté le 19 novembre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/cve/5487

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Jean-Yves Tizot

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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