Romancing Utopia

I detest the notion of a new dawn in which Homo sapiens would live in harmony. The hope this utopia engenders justified the bloodiest exterminations in history.


François Bizot[1]

In his brief but weighty tract Communism: A History,[2] Harvard historian Richard Pipes observes what others before him[3] have noted — the driving force behind Marxist regimes of the 20th century was nothing less than to “creat[e] an entirely new type of human being” (8-9).   The underlying goal was not economic, but ontological.   Acquisitiveness is a trait cultivated by capitalist societies, according to Marxists, but it can be stripped from man’s consciousness by careful reconditioning.   Man can be broken, remade and purged of all self-interest and recalibrated to submit joyfully to “the collective” in the form of the state.   The goal of the most consistent Marxists, therefore, was a political order resting on a pliant, virtuous populace.   This goal was more poignant in China than the Soviet Union.   Mao was the force behind Communist “brainwashing” and “reeducation.”   The goal was not merely to change Chinese behavior (by offering sufficient incentives — anybody could do that) but to change citizens’ very consciousness.   The most dramatic and harrowing example of this program, however, was Pol Pot’s Cambodia.   The leaders of the Khmer Rouge got their training in Paris (Pol Pot himself flunked out), where they imbibed the writings of the Romantic Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who depicted man as born free, virtuous and happy in the “state of nature” but subsequently corrupted by human society and its institutions.   Pol Pot was convinced that if he could restore the “state of nature” in Cambodia — annihilating all vestiges of the previous civilization — he could create the New Man and the New Order.   To that end the Khmer Rouge forcibly abandoned all cities for the countryside, created a totally agricultural society, jettisoned the calendar and started at “Year 0,” forced children to betray parents, obliterated all non-statist institutions like the family and church, and tortured and murdered most Cambodians linked to the old regime (“The killing fields”).   The philosophy was: If humans are not with the program, we must annihilate them and create humans who are with the program.

Mao, Pol Pot’s ideological mentor, thought he could create a utopia, the New Order obliterating the dark, exploitative capitalist past.   No task was too hard:   “We shall teach the sun and moon to change places.   We shall create a new heaven and earth for man” (130), Mao declared.    This astounding, harrowing utopianism can be accomplished only at the expense of multitudes of human lives. [4]   All statist utopias end in dystopias.   Every attempt to create heaven on earth in the end creates a living hell.   Why?   Man made in the image of is not plastic; he is deeply resistant to fundamental change apart from the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit.   Man cannot change man; only God can change man.   Of course, if like the Marxists, one loses hope in the power of a sovereign God to change humanity, he must vest that sovereignty in the power of man — and generally in the secular state.   No more pernicious formula for inhumanity could be devised.

“Christian” Utopias

Though less destructive, ecclesial and familial utopianism also dehumanize.   The mad attempts to create the “model church” occupied by model Christians — the Green Berets for Jesus — is a perversion of the Biblical conception of the church (1 Cor. 12:22-24).   Ecclesial utopias, ruled by tyrannical ideologues that are quite certain that they (and few others) understand The Truth (just as the Marxists believed they understood it) decimate lives, shipwreck families, and damn souls.   All in the name of godly faith.

Familial utopians (usually fathers) covet the “perfect family,” and are willing to wreak havoc on wives and children — and themselves — to produce that idyllic family.   The wife is not permitted her own opinions but must march in lockstep to her dictator-husband; the children are treated and expected to act as miniature adults (an Enlightenment trait); the church must bow to the wishes of the dictator-husband.

Then there are the ultra-conservative political utopians, mirror images of the ultra-Left: “America is an evil nation, and we should shout ‘Glory!’ when any tragedy befalls her”; “George W. Bush is an idolater who may have known about 9-11 beforehand”; “The Christians in Congress are imposters since they voted for bills that didn’t dismantle the state as quickly as we want”; and other such stupidities.   These folks (thankfully, they are few) would find something to criticize in Heaven — utopia is always the impossible dream, always just beyond the grasp.

Utopians in politics, family or church are a menace.

Beware the utopians.

[1] François Bizot, The Gate (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 6-7.

[2] Richard Pipes, Communism: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2003).

[3] For example, Mikhail Heller, Cogs in the Wheel: The Formation of Soviet Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988).

[4] Stephane Courtois, The Black Book of Communism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990)


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