Wednesday 22 October 2008

The virtues of utopianism

'He linked so many different causes. He was a gay man, friendly with feminist women. He was opposed to vivisection, a socialist who supported animal rights. He was interested in mysticism, wrote for the Fabians but had anarchist sympathies...He was a visionary who was very interested in practical solutions.'

That's Edward Carpenter, described by Sheila Rowbotham, who has just published a long-awaited biography of the late-Victorian poet, philosopher and activist.  Carpenter is one of my heroes, so Rowbotham's book will certainly be added to my Christmas wish list. I very much enjoyed her memoir of Sixties radicalism, so have high expectations for the new book.

The other day, in an exchange of comments with Eve Garrard about this post, I wrote about the dangers of utopianism on the religious left. As a counter-balance, it's worth remembering the positive contribution of visionary thinkers such as Carpenter to progressive change: many of his opinions were considered outlandish in his day but are now accepted wisdom. One of my many bones of contention with gloom-and-doom merchant John Gray, whose Black Mass I'm still struggling through, is his blanket hostility to all forms of utopianism. Instead, I tend to agree with something that the Plump wrote some months ago about Carpenter, Whitman and their ilk:

'The left they belonged to was far from orthodox, it experimented with a range of ideas, many of which were hardly impressive, but others provide insights that are relevant to a libertarian left and laid the foundation for modern sexual politics. At a time of left realignment the rediscovery of what became marginalised traditions is of more than academic interest.'

No comments: