“Utopia and Democracy” workshop – A brief reflection

On the 27th and the 28th of April 2023, the research group “Democracy in East Central European utopianism” funded by the Gerda Henkel Foundation and based at CEU’s Democracy Institute, organized and hosted its first major academic event – a workshop titled “Utopia and Democracy”. Fifteen scholars from various backgrounds, sharing an interest in the productive interconnections between utopia and democracy delivered their talks in Budapest.

We had the pleasure of beginning our event with a keynote talk entitled “Utopian vs. Utopian” delivered by Professor Luisa Passerini. Professor Passerini’s thought-inducing lecture, as suggested by its title, started off with a discussion of the nuanced differences the Italian adjectives ‘utopico contro utopistico’ (the first understood in a positive sense and the second in a pejorative one), that does not fully exist in English. This duality characteristic of utopia served as a steppingstone for Professor Passerini who then looked more carefully at the theoretical and political impact of utopian movements and ideals, focusing on particular on the decades 1960s–1980s, when widespread counter youth-, student- and women-movements established new links between utopia, daily life and democracy. While Professor Passerini’s talk rightfully pointed out the meaning and role of utopia in contemporary politics – a topic that stayed present throughout the event – our first panel aimed to simultaneously delve deeper into the ancient roots and defining features of utopia.

The assignment of starting this panel titled “Origins of Democracy and Utopia” was (appropriately) given to Classics scholar Myrthe Bartels who explored the implications of ancient Greek ideas for democracy, focusing in particular on the importance of ‘scholê’ – time devoted to one’s friends or one’s city (not the same as our notion of “free time” or “leisure”, and that should instead be understood in contrast to working for a wage). Through the notion of scholê that ancient thinkers like Plato and Aristotle placed at the heart of citizenship and used to criticize the inclusion of wage-labourers (the dêmos) as citizens in democratic communities, Bartels explored the utopian implications of the fascinating ancient idea that non-paid activities in the service of the community are of fundamental importance for participating in democratic politics. Our collective inquiry into the nature and origins of utopia continued with the presentation given by Ferenc Huoranszki, professor of philosophy, who reflected on the lack of utopian ideals in normative social theory and contemporary practical philosophy, whose very goal is the projection of a basic structure for a political community in which human beings can flourish. Lastly, Zoltán Balázs, professor of political science, using the approach of political theology, focused on an essential defining feature of utopian thinking – its temporal aspects. Beginning with a reflection on the ways in which utopian time is both futural and endless, Balázs argued that the political time (of democracy) is equally ambivalent, caught up and determined by concepts such as timelessness, being-without-time, being-above/beyond time, being-outside-time, or eternity – all related to New Testament notions.

The second panel of the day delt with the intricacies of democratic and utopian ideals between the East and the West. In his paper, “Democracy and leadership in 19th century Hungarian utopias”, Zsolt Czigányik reflected on the intellectual history of democracy within utopianism, focusing on 19th century Hungarian narratives. As Czigányik argued through the fascinating examples of György Bessenyei’s The Voyage of Tariménes (1804), influenced by Queen and Empress Maria Theresa and Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man (1861), 19th century Hungarian utopian texts highlight the problematic aspects of democratic societies, particularly when contrasted with regimes centered around benevolent, enlightened rulers; as well as the problems and dangers arising out of the immaturity of the masses. Iva Dimovska focused on another Central European utopian tradition – the Yugoslav – while looking at its peculiar national(istic) specificities in her talk “Barbarians and Geniuses, or the Democratic Potentials of a Balkan Utopia”. Dimovska’s talk centered on a utopian Balkan movement called Zenitism, formed by Serbian writer Ljubomir Micić and conceived around the revolutionary-anarchistic figure of Barbaro-Genius, whose mission was to “de-civilize” and “re-democratize” Europe, focusing on the formative tensions between concepts such as “Western” vs. “Central/Eastern”, the “Balkans”, “Europe” and “democracy”. Finally, Ana Maria Spariosu’s presentation illuminated in detail one expression of utopianism – communitarianism – looking specifically at two contemporary utopian communities in Italy, and their relation to democratic ideals. Spariosu argued that perceiving representative democracy as not democratic enough, the two communities opted instead to put into practice their own variations of direct democracy and looked at the various ways in which their members (attempt to) establish societies characterized by the presence of ‘deeper’ forms of democracy.

The second day of the workshop began with Eglantina Remport’s analysis of Irish thinker and politician Patrick Pearse’s political essays in which he discussed Ireland’s democratic future, in connection to the Proclamation of the Irish Republic (1916). Remport carefully considered the potentials of interpreting these writings, that are important examples of an Irish literary and political tradition, as utopian texts. The tension between the political and the social, the ideological and the utopian brought up in Remport’s talk also marked András Bozóki’s presentation, this time with a focus on East and Central Europe and its hybrid political ideologies. The region in question was also addressed in Ondřej Slačálek’s talk who delivered a theoretically grounded discussion on the interconnections between utopia and democracy, presenting his interesting take on the various forms in which we could think about democracy in its utopian, anti-utopian and dystopian forms in the contemporary world. Zoltán Gábor Szűcs, the last speaker of this panel on “Utopia, Politics and Democracy”, talked about the role of utopia in contemporary realist political theory, often characterized as anti-utopian. Reflecting against this simplification, Szűcs distinguished three forms of utopian thinking in realist political theory: dystopia, a utopia of fear and a utopia of hope.

The last panel of the workshop focused on modern and contemporary representations of utopia and utopian ideals in the works of a diverse group of writers and thinkers. First, we listened to Natalya Bekhta whose talk examined the usefulness of utopia as a future-making category in the context of post-1990s Central and Eastern Europe. Reflecting on the persistence of utopian struggles in times of perpetual crises and attempts for democratic rebirths, Natalya drew on the example of Ukrainian fiction, emphasizing the important role of literature as a site of (utopian) articulation and discussion. The role of literary narratives persisted in the two remaining presentations in this panel. Daryna Koryagina’s fascinating talk on the utopian and scientific idea(l)s of the New Soviet man in the early period of the Soviet State promptly pointed out the tensions between categories such as “scientific” vs. “unscientific”, when it comes to the utopian nature of the Soviet Communist project. Emrah Atasoy drew our attention to the equally rich tradition of utopian and dystopian narratives in contemporary Turkish literature and the way these works engage with various issues significant for democratic political thought, such as solidarity, the common good, and the relationship between utopia, dystopia, and democratic discourse, focusing in particular on Turkish writer Zülfü Livaneli’s critical dystopia Son Ada (The Last Island, 2008).

As the workshop was slowly coming to a close, we had the pleasure of listening to Professor Gregory Claeys’s final keynote. Professor Claeys began his lecture “Utopianism and Democracy” reviewing the development of the anxious relationship between utopianism and democracy, reflecting on the fundamentally anti-political aspects of the utopian tradition, focusing in more detail on the charge that the eternal search for near-unanimity of opinion is fundamentally anti-democratic. Examining the (mis)interpretation of utopia as “perfection”, and the optimal role played by consent in utopian relationships, in the second half of this talk, Professor Claeys focused on the ways in which a sustainable reversal of the current catastrophic climate collapse can be reached democratically, offering his view that a development of utopian imaginaries and sociabilities is the best available solution.

A closing roundtable, inspired by professor Claeys’s talk was the last event of the “Utopia and Democracy” workshop, during which a lively discussion moderated by Zsolt Czigányik took place. Final reflections on the meaning and role of utopia in the (academic) works of the participants were shared, accompanied by more general thoughts on the future of utopia and its (democratic) potentials in the 21st century.

The organizers of the workshop were very pleased to welcome all the participants and would like to thank them all for participating in this event, that hopefully served its purpose as an enjoyable opportunity for sharing knowledge, strengthening cooperation and creating deeper networks amongst utopian scholars. The workshop is available in a video format here.

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