Sailing to Utopia
by Stephen McAndrew
Oscar Wilde wrote that a map that didn’t include utopia was not worth glancing at. Why do we dream of utopia and strive towards it?
The dream of a world of peace and harmony has inspired many throughout history. The communist and socialist movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were inspired by this urge. Many today march in the belief that by joining with others they can effect change – protesting wars, pollution, discrimination. They believe like Wilde that there must be a better, fairer way of doing things than the way we live today. But, what is this need in us to remake our world for the better? Why do we spend so much energy struggling for a more equal world instead of focusing purely on our own selfish needs?
Human dreams of utopia have constantly run aground on the rocks of human greed and ambition. History has shown that we are incapable of creating a more equal society merely, as George Orwell put it, a society where some people are more equal than other people. In the face of our increasing attempts to build international institutions and laws to bring about an end to conflict we stand no nearer, and arguably farther away, from achieving this aim. But, in spite of the weight of history there are those who still seek the dream of a man-made utopia – heaven on earth.
Where do these ideas of utopia come from? Were we born with them? Did they develop over the course of human history? Is there some scientific explanation for them?
In the late nineteenth century, Karl Marx proposed a theory that claimed to provide a scientific foundation to the dream of a man-made utopia of equality and brotherhood. Karl Marx, whose ideas are still deeply influential in our world today, asserted that history was driven by observable class conflict.
The appeal of Marxism lay in its presentation as a scientific theory. Marxism is a materialist theory. That is to say it explains itself in economic terms based on observable factors like conflict between workers and factory owners without resort to metaphysical (or supernatural) terms or entities. Karl Marx propounded a theory called historical materialism that explained human history as a series of class conflicts between two opposing groups – one in control the other not in control. Slaves and masters, serfs and landowners, factory workers and factory owners. At each stage class conflict arises when the group out of control realizes that there is a better way to do things and fights to achieve that new arrangement. For example, in this way Marx contended that the slave/master society gave way to a feudal society and feudal society to capitalism. He asserted that the nineteenth century conflict between factory workers and owners would inevitably lead to the final stage – communism in which resources would be equally shared among everyone. The communist stage would usher in an utopian world of peace and plenty for all.
However, communism did not inevitably follow capitalism as capitalism followed feudalism. True, various political movements around inspired by Marx tried to bring about the communist era by force. As we now know, they failed and in doing so caused human suffering on an epic scale.
Communism promised a utopia of equality and brotherhood that turned into the greed and graft of the elite and the oppression of dissidents by secret police of the Soviet Union. The world reacted in horror to the brutal inhumanity of the Soviet Union and rejoiced when the Iron Curtain fell. So the theory of historical materialism failed in the laboratory of history.
But the utopian dream lives on. The motivation behind many post-modern political movements is to achieve a Marxist utopia without the theoretical Marxism that has proved to be such heavy baggage. The appeal of Marxism and historical materialism was that it showed a path to heaven on earth without any religious or spiritual mumbo-jumbo. But now that the sheen of scientific credibility has melted away under the tide of history, belief in a man-made utopia has the distinct air of religious belief about it.
The Christian answer to the question of where the dream of utopia comes from is that we are born with a sense that there is a supernatural dimension to this world. The Christian concept of heaven is based on absolute, immutable ideas. The Christian idea of a future of absolute peace assumes the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing God that guarantees this future. However, the Christian heaven of perpetual peace is only open to those who acknowledge this all-powerful God and pledge their allegiance to Him.
Many people have a problem with the idea that one must surrender to God to enter heaven and that humankind cannot by themselves build such a heaven on earth. For these and other reasons, the Christian worldview as it relates to a heavenly utopia is rejected. However, the biblical imagery of turning swords into plowshares and loving your enemies is retained. The lingering notion that there must be something more, that humanity is not always destined to drown in enmity, is kept alive…
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