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Zsolt Czigányik, ed. Utopian Horizons: Ideology, Politics, Literature (Central European University Press, 2017, 416pp, £19.53 [e-book only])

Reviewed by Brian Willems (University of Split, Croatia)


Nearly all of the chapters of Utopian Horizons have a Hungarian focus, including readings of Karl Mannheim’s attempt to disentangle ideology from utopia, a history of Hungarian anarchist thought, and a reading of a gross mistranslation of Aldous Huxley’s pacifist pamphlet, What Are You Going to Do About It? (1936). Its strengths lie in uncovering many of the totalitarian strains which underlie even the most liberal of utopias. However, the essays do not go far enough in grappling with utopian thinking that imagines a world radically different from ours, as found in such books as Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists (2016) or Kathi Weeks’s The Problem with Work (2011).

Instead, the kind of utopia the essays often suggest is summed-up in the title of András Bozóki and Miklós Sükösd's contribution, ‘Third Way Utopianism’. To set out their thesis, three types of anarchism are described. The first opposes anarchism to democracy. This type reacts against the developed democracy of Western Europe and is termed a ‘post-democratic’ anarchism. The second is found in Eastern Europe, where ‘the attainment of democracy was not a realistic possibility’ and is thus called ‘pre-democratic’ anarchism. The third encapsulates the most valued kind of utopian thinking. It is found in Central Europe, mainly comprising the area ‘taken up by the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy’, where democracy is ‘always just a few steps away’. This anarcho-democracy is a ‘third way’ that combines ‘the advantages of anarchy and democracy without the disadvantages of either.’ For example, third-way utopians, such as György Konrád and Oszkár Jászi, ‘wanted the people to come into power but detested power itself.’

A utopianism which combines two elements in order to find a third is found in a number of other chapters. Fátima Vieira argues for a dialectical utopia which ‘provides us with different points of view about a subject and engages us in the pursuit of truth.’ Eglantina Remport reads George Bernard Shaw’s John Bull’s Other Island (1904) as showing how ‘the ideals of liberalism could be harness with the social critique of Marxism’, as well as arguing that ‘the traditions of Toryism could be the basis for political anarchism.’ Czigányik’s reading of the Hungarian utopia Kazohinia (1941) distances it from the extremes of both anarchism and fascism, instead locating its utopia in ‘the everyday results of […] a collectivist reality.’ All of these conclusions shy away from the massive utopian changes that Fredric Jameson names when he describes the fear of utopia, namely a fear of worlds so different from our own that there is no place for us at all. Instead, we get conclusions such as the one Gregory Claeys ends his chapter with, claiming that ‘many a past utopia – the welfare state being one – has been realized already.’ From this perspective utopia is not about massive change, but rather about a ‘good society, not heaven on earth.’

One problem with third-way thinking, as epitomized by Anthony Giddens and Tony Blair, is that it seeks no real alternative to the market-led economies of globalization. It assumes that no massive changes are needed, that the way things are is pretty good already. Karl Popper advocates a similar approach with his preference for ‘piecemeal’ over ‘utopian engineering.’ The former is about small steps, improving the local environment, rather than the massive changes indicated by Jameson’s fear. There may, however, be a divergence between the actual and the perceived state of affairs, as in a bubble. Eventually this disequilibrium collapses and the bubble bursts. This dynamic process describes the long-term ebb and flow of financial markets, but it does not provide the escape velocity required for imagining something completely new, a place in which financial markets would have no use at all, for example.

Such extreme utopian thinking is not offered here. In fact, the best parts of the essays map out some of the dangers involved in it. In Lyman Tower Sargent’s opening essay, Mannheim and Paul Ricoeur are used to show how the total ideology ‘of an age or a concrete historico-social group’ can smother the idealism of many utopias. Claeys argues that violence is what turns a utopia into dystopia. More importantly, this violence arises from the totalitarianism of an all-encompassing utopian ideal. Lastly, Károly Pintér traces the influence of civil religions even in utopias which denounce any higher being.

These criticisms are important, and locating them in Hungarian contexts is extremely valuable, adding a concreteness to the essays. However, despite what the collection argues as a whole, there can be a demand for large-scale utopian thinking that avoids the violence of totalitarianism. This can be found in the subversive universals of Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, in which universal structures are placeholders for contending forms of thought, or in Weeks’s idea of a utopian demand rather than a utopian blueprint, so that massive change is not subsumed by one ideology. In short, the collection is more useful for those critiquing utopia than trying to build one. It is true that the traps it warns us of are of the most horrific variety. Yet its continual insistence on lodging utopian thinking in the realities of the present at times borders on third-way thinking of an unfruitful kind.