Utopia Exits to the Ash Heap

November 09, 1991|By GWYNNE DYER

London -- Even now, while the corpse is still warm and the family of the deceased are stumbling around with dazed looks on their faces, it's time to talk about the real meaning of what has just happened. Because it may be more than the collapse of ''totalitarianism;'' it may be the end of utopias.

The communist experiment is over (despite a few hold-outs that haven't got the news yet), and it has been an unmitigated failure. Seventy years of theory and plotting, and another 70 years in which the theory was ruthlessly put into practice, have just gurgled down the drain. And we have not yet addressed the question of what else went down with them.

This is clearly the end of the line for Stalinism, for Leninism, and even for Marxism. But is it the end, too, for Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sir Thomas More and Plato?

Now that the Cold War is only a memory, we can forget the cheap propaganda trick that simply equated fascism and communism as sister ''totalitarian'' ideologies. Fascism and communism shared many of the same structures and methods (and it was the Leninists who thought them up first), but in intellectual and even spiritual terms there is no comparison.

Fascism is an exaggeration of nationalism and a glorification of power whose roots cannot really be traced back much further than the end of the 18th century. It was a transitory response to a passing configuration of social problems and political opportunities.

Whereas communism was an attempt to turn the dominant political dream of philosophers throughout history into a functioning reality. Communists themselves would make this point ad nauseam, talking about History with a capital H and presenting themselves as its sole appointed earthly agents.

Incredible presumption, of course, and ultimately punished by History in a fitting manner. But communist ideology really did embody most of the utopian ideas that have been floating around human societies since shortly after the invention of mass civilization.

What was the ''vanguard party'' if not a modern expression of Plato's philosopher-king, acting autocratically by right of superior wisdom for the common good? And the ideal of a society without private property, sharing work according to ability and the fruits of work according to need, has been the central theme of most designs for utopia ever since.

Yet never, before this century, did these ideas and dreams get a realistic road-test.

There have been countless little experiments with communist societies over the past two thousand years, particularly in the convents, monasteries and religiously-based secular communities that fill the history of Christianity and Buddhism. On that scale, many of the communities worked quite well and survived for centuries.

There has even been one medium-sized experiment that covered an area the size of France and lasted for a century and a half. It was carried out by the Jesuits, who put Sir Thomas More's scheme for ''Utopia'' (the word is his coinage) into practice to protect the native Guarani Indians in what is now eastern Paraguay, north-eastern Argentina and southern Brazil.

But even this extraordinary example was not a true test of communist principles, for the Guarani were in awe of the apparently superior culture of the Jesuits (guns, writing, buildings in stone) -- and they needed the Jesuits to protect them from the rest of that culture.

Until 1917, nobody had ever taken an entire existing country and tried to communize it. And the question is: After all that the country once called the Soviet Union went through in the following 70 years, will anybody ever try the communist experiment again?

So at the very least, the world is probably going to get out of the utopia business for a while. Pragmatism and the market reign, and at one level it looks like Francis Fukuyama's speculations about the ''end of history'' are coming to pass.

But take the longer view, and things get a lot less certain. Are ideas that have been around for several millennia really going to be abandoned after only one serious try?

The argument has been gaining ground for decades now on what we quaintly call ''the revolutionary left'' that true communism was never really tried in the Soviet Union; that that experiment still lies in the future. Nobody is going to try it again in a big country for a couple of decades at least, but I doubt that we have seen an end to utopias.

Gwynne Dyer writes a syndicated column.

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