In Defense of Utopianism

If there’s one common dismissive epithet that anyone on the left has probably heard it’s the accusation that they’re ideology is ‘utopian’. From the condescending “sure, but we live in the real world” to the full hostility of “just move to <Cuba, Somalia, etc>”, the underlying theme is the same: we on the left aren’t being ‘realistic’ or we are failing to ‘see the big picture’.

What most of the people making these accusations (if they’re made in good faith, which they often aren’t) don’t seem to understand is that there is a *purpose* to what they call ‘utopian’ ideology.

When you are organizing your first consideration really ought to be what do you hope to achieve out of it – what’s the goal?  Is it a short term goal or a long term goal? If it’s short term, how does it fit into a longer term strategy? It’s at this point in the process that, inevitably, someone from the pragmatic sidelines will step in to make the usual arguments: we have to be ‘realistic’ and ‘aim for goals that are achievable’, they’ll say. ‘We live in the real world’ they might tell you.

Hell, they may even go so far as to accuse of ‘purity cults‘- the idea being that in your unrealistic utopianism you are pushing out potential allies.


Pragmatism as a short-term action planning tool is fine, and has a long history of use on the left. It *might* make sense, for example, to put aside real philosophical differences on an individual action and pull the left together with more center groups – such as something like the recent climate march (who’s efficacy I question, but leaving that aside for now). In the same way, provisionally, I can support voting in local elections.

What has to be stated unequivocally though is that there’s no guarantee that these kinds of strategies will work long term, and in fact they seem to be detrimental when taken to long term ends.

For example: in the short term being anti-war is at least a good place to start – but long term if it’s not accompanied by being anti-imperialist you’ll probably end up advocating no-fly zones, humanitarian interventions, and all of the other things that (surprise!) lead to war itself.

If you’ve ever followed me on twitter before I nuked my accounts in frustration, or even read more of my posts here, there’s only really one thing I personally hold as a key to defining radical thought: constantly, at all times, being aware of and pushing back against structures not just issues. It’s great to push back against a gender pay gap, but you fail if you don’t accompany that with an understanding of patriarchy. It’s vital to fight against the cops constantly, daily, murdering unarmed black people with impunity – but it’s a failure if you don’t recognize that they are systemically designed to do so.

Utopianism in this way is not pie in the sky thinking, or putting ideology over reality, or any of the other common accusations. What it is doing is centering the debate, ALL debate, on underlying structures.

Sorry Sarah Kendzior, but in fact corporations *are* the problem, not just their policies.

In a way, leftist thought is a way of replacing old structures with new. It’s purpose is, or at least should be, building frameworks for living that step outside of the old decaying authoritarian structures that hold up oppression of all types. If we’re trying to build a better house, why would we weaken the frame itself? It might make sense to watch how we use our limited resources and, say, cheap out on the carpet – but pragmatic thinking taken to the level of ideology is the equivalent of using cardboard in place of lumber.

Call me utopian if you want, but I’d rather aim for a house that can stand on it’s own then settle for one that we’ll just be rebuilding 50 years from now.

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