The Oxford English Dictionary definition of Utopia is an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect. (Paddy: for the sake of this particular discussion I’ll amend the above, removing “imagined” due to the obvious repercussions for my side.)
Paddy: A state in which everything is the best it can possibly be, what William Morris called an “earthly paradise”. For me, that is worth striving for with upmost vim. Equality, liberty and an absence of pervasive social ills strikes me as goals worthy of what others might see as heavy costs. A dangerous compromiser (or “liberal”) such as yourself might count yourself among their apprehensive ranks.
Pole: I see you go straight to name calling and labelling. Don’t know why I hoped we could have a civil discussion, but as you wish. I accept your challenge sir, the gloves are officially off.
I feel inclined to agree with you about liberty and all that good stuff. However, I wouldn’t be so quick to pay that heavy price – because it might lead to some additional and unforeseen costs and consequences. As a super-radical, you might be blind to them, or choose to outright ignore them, because the ideal is more important than people.
Paddy: It might be helpful to be more specific about these “costs”. Chiefly, I’m referring to the damaging effects (or should that be side-effects?) of Revolution.
Revolutions, whether its detractors admit it or not – because, let’s not forget, conservatives have been served by them too – have always been a means of achieving the ideal society by the most direct route possible. Tear down the old and, upon the smoking ruins, build anew.
Even with our species’ numerous attempts at acquiring Utopia this way, it has never quite worked out. The reason for this, of course, was a betrayal: the adoption of leadership techniques the idealistic upstarts originally sought to destroy. Robespierre and Bonaparte made themselves absolutist rulers, while Stalin made himself a poor imitation of Bonaparte. “History repeats first as tragedy and then as farce.”
This does not mean Revolution as a political strategy is forever condemned. Every left-wing revolution, even the French and Russian, has unleashed dangerous and liberating ideas which are not so easily “disappeared”. Equality, freedom and fraternity, although not achieved in their absolute forms; in striving for them we have witnessed the general betterment of humankind. Whatever the costs.
Pole: These are the exact costs I have in mind. You agree that revolutions are destructive in their very nature, which is not a necessarily bad thing if it means tearing down an oppressive regime. But, as Marx pointed out every revolution needs to establish its own oppressive regime after its success, during the transition from the old to the new system. Unfortunately that involves removing anyone who can pose a threat to the new order. In case of the French Revolution that meant guillotining a great many members of the ancien regime, in case of the Russians it meant executing the royal family (which I know you’re all for), filling gulags and more. These are the costs you are happy to ignore: thousands or millions of deaths, secret police forces, suppression of freedom of speech, etc.
To say that revolutions spread the ideals of liberty and equality is a bit of a stretch as well. They did remove the corrupt bourgeois governments and opened the path for advancement to the masses, that much is true. But they were quick to place their own governments, led by elites, who were more than happy to yet exploit the masses and block their advancement. The difference is, they called themselves different names and used different arguments to justify the new order. Instead of a Tsar, there was General Secretary of the Central Committee, instead of the landowning nobility there were party members.
I could go on about the sins of revolution. It is a failed concept if it takes another revolution to correct the wrongs of the previous one. Thus locking us in an endless struggle. Revolutions might just be too destructive.
Paddy: You admit that there has been a general progressive improvement of the political and moral landscapes, accelerated in large part by revolutionary utopian thinkers, yet you also argue that revolutions are a failed concept.
There is a fundamental contradiction in your position unless, of course, you are not a progress-inching liberal at all, but a conservative.
Pole: Again with the name calling. What I am suggesting is that revolutions might cause too much destruction and suffering, while at the same time take a very long time to deliver what they promised, which sometimes requires another revolution. Also they don’t seem to give us the finished product only a work in progress. It’s like spending £50 on a new game, waiting for months for its release, withstand multiple delays, only to be given a half finished, broken product, which requires a shitload of patches and updates. Only by then it is too late to realise that you’ve fallen victim to hype and false promises. Made by people who wanted to do good, but had no idea of how to do it.
In the end I would be in favour of seeking less destructive ways of achieving the same level of slow, gradual progress, because the end result given to us by revolutions doesn’t seem to repay for the atrocities committed by the revolutionaries in name of progress.
Paddy: It’s not name-calling, I simply like to identify what I am up against. In many ways a principled conservative is trickier to debate against than a liberal. Glad to see you’ve set up your stall in the latter camp.
You say that you favour gradual progress while ignoring the fact that revolutions have not just been desirable, but inevitable, throughout history.
Take the American Revolution – or the Declaration of Independence for us stuffy lot this side of the Atlantic. The principles and ideals which gave this event its popular support (genocide of the indigenous population aside) were the exact sentiments which the absolutist Monarchs of Europe censored so harshly.
With the debates about the divine right of kings and social leveling shut down, gradual progress, brought about through debate and increment, was simply impossible. The great Thomas Paine, who called for such dangerous legislation as universal education, suffrage and an end to slavery, would have lost that handsome head of his – and very nearly did following the publication of The Rights of Man – when he brought into question the divinity of the State’s head. It took the relative isolation and the well-armed populace of North America for common sentiments to gain meaningful articulation. Through that, the colonists threw off the domination of that incestuous Crown, under whose territory progress of any kind remained stunted for a generation.
It is tyrants, not idealists, that make violent Revolution inevitable.
Pole: This discussion is not about the inevitability of revolutions, but whether utopia is worth it. You cannot say that liberty, equality and free speech cannot be implemented without revolutions. As much as you hate the British royalty, England is no longer an absolutist monarchy. The Magna Carta, which limited the authority of kings and laid groundwork for the eventual establishment of a democratic parliament came about without revolution. The Scandinavian countries are no longer absolutist monarchies, but are some of the most liberal countries in the world, yet no revolutions. The Polish noble democracy, where every noble, no matter their fortune or name, was equal under law and an eventual Polish constitution (1st in Europe, 2nd in the world) happened without a revolution.
To summarise, I am not absolutely hell bent on avoiding revolutions at all costs. Unfortunately, sometimes the situation forces us to take up arms and rise against a tyrant. However, I would simply see it as a last resort, used only after all other options have been exhausted. Never the less, a revolution is not good – it’s a necessary evil at best.
At this point I think we should stop talking about revolutions as I fear we are getting further away from the core subject of the discussion.
Paddy: The English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution reduced the power of the Monarch, on whose whims we would still be subject to if it weren’t for gun powder and steel. Don’t forget that.