Utopian chorus

What can we learn and glean from the past to create our aspirations for the future?

by Paolo Frosina

Culture 11 June 2020

From philosophy to Ska music, we look at how the concept of utopia inspired the work, life, and movements of four influences across history and the globe.

Peter Waldo (1140 – 1217)

Not much is known about the life of the man who is regarded as the founder of the Waldensian movement. Historians say he was a wealthy clothier and merchant from Lyon, France, and a bit of a scholar. Following a crisis of conscience, he sold all of his property around 1173, preaching apostolic poverty as the way to perfection. He taught his ideas publicly, condemning what he considered as papal excesses and some Catholic dogmas, including purgatory and transubstantiation, which he called “the harlot” from the book of Revelation. Waldo and his disciples, the “Poor of Lyon” — who later became known as Waldensians — evangelized their teachings while traveling as peddlers and practicing voluntary poverty and strict adherence to the Bible. Their main inspiration was the sermon of the mount — the most important moral discourse from Jesus Christ. They believed that every baptized Christian could serve as a priest, that the gospel should be spoken in local languages instead of Latin and that the church should not compromise with anyone in political power. They were declared heretics by the Roman Catholic Church, mostly because in their community, laypeople, including women, were allowed to preach, as they still are today. Pope Lucius III excommunicated Waldo and his disciples in 1184. Fearing persecution, he fled from Lyon to northern Italy and the Piedmont valleys. Today, the Waldensian Evangelical Church counts some 45,000 members, primarily in Italy, Switzerland, and South America.

Ernst Bloch (1885 – 1977)

For the famous German writer, philosopher, Marxist, and inspiration for the student movements in 1968, utopia was at the core of his philosophical research. During World War I, while living in Switzerland as a refugee, he wrote The Spirit of Utopia, in which he explained his general ways of thinking. War, he said, “was the failure of the European culture.” To build a new existence, he said it was necessary to develop a fresh utopian concept, following the route of fantasy, struggling for what is not yet there, no matter how poor the reality was. Bloch’s notion of utopia is not the same as that of Renaissance authors: it is neither something impossible nor abstract. On the contrary, it is something deeply possible, that is difficult to reach but still in the realm of possibilities. Practically speaking, Bloch’s utopia could be compared to a long-term political program. Utopia, he says, has a double meaning. It’s inside every one of us, who could potentially reach the status of homo absconditus — a utopian man who’s never born. And it’s also outside, as a mythical homeland we’ve never been to, and nonetheless, we dream of it as the end of our journey. Although Marxism criticized utopias by saying they were no more than ideologies, and thus reactionary, Bloch argued it would be an error for socialism to reject utopian ideas. If men only fight for their basic economic needs, it won’t be sufficient motivation in the long run. That’s why, according to Bloch, socialism has to encourage the deepest and most ambitious desires of men in the fields of art, religion, and philosophy — making humanity unique.

Milan Šimečka (1930 – 1990)

“Although I have had more than enough opportunity to rage at failed and moribund utopias, now, years later, I have made my peace with them […] realizing that without them our world would be that much worse.” Starting in his mid-20s, Czech philosopher and dissident Milan Šimečka dedicated a significant part of his intellectual life to dealing with the concept of utopia, which he analyzed with respect to the ideology and political practice of the Soviet regime. In 1963, he published a systematic work about social utopian theories — Social Utopias and Utopians, followed in 1967 by The Crisis of Utopianism, a utopia-based criticism of Marxism. Šimečka described utopia as a regressive conception of history, comparing it to a form of para-religious exaltation. In twentieth-century socialism, he recognized classical utopian ideals, such as the struggle to create a one and only notion of socialism and communism as the unreachable ideal everyone should look at. He argued that the ultimate purpose of ideology is to justify crimes, by persuading people that evil doesn’t come from men but rather from the powerful and mysterious hand of history. According to him, socialism could only have a future if it summoned the unicity of the single man, surrendering what he defined as “simplistic images from the last century.” For these ideas, Šimečka was called a dissident and revisionist: In 1968, he was banned from the communist party and forbidden from teaching. In 1989, he was arrested and imprisoned for more than a year, charged with “subversive activities.”

Jerry Dammers (1955 – present)What’s more utopian than a kid from Coventry, England who is barely aware of Nelson Mandela, and yet writes a hit that becomes the most powerful anti-apartheid anthem? It was 1983 when 28-year-old Dammers — a keyboard player and songwriter for the British ska band The Specials — heard the South African leader’s name for the first time. “I went to a concert at Alexandra Palace to celebrate Mandela’s birthday,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “People like Julian Bahula, a South African musician who came to Britain in exile, were singing about him, which gave me the idea for the lyrics. I picked up lots of leaflets at the concert and started learning about Mandela. At that point, he’d been imprisoned for 21 years.” The Specials were in chaos at the time, and three of its members — Terry Hall, Lynval Golding, and Neville Staple — had left to form a new band. But Dammers carried on the project with a new name — The Special AKA — and a fluctuating line-up. “There were lots of arguments in that period, so I asked Elvis Costello to produce the song because I thought he’d bring everyone together,” he said. “The track felt very important: trying to get it done before the whole thing fell apart was exceedingly stressful.” The chorus of Nelson Mandela was sung by three top session singers. Its words — “Free Nelson Mandela!” — are often used to refer to the song as a whole. The melody was composed years before: “In the early 1980s I made up a tune that was vaguely Latin-African. I didn’t quite know what it was, but it was very simple. The main melody was just three notes — C, D, and E — with brass embroidered around it. I think writing the tune before writing any lyrics was key. If I’d known anything about Nelson Mandela beforehand, I’d probably have come up with some earnest thing on a strummed acoustic guitar.”