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The Concept of Utopia

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Ruth Levitas

In this highly influential book, Ruth Levitas provides an excellent introduction to the meaning and importance of the concept of utopia, and explores a wealth of material drawn from literature and social theory to illustrate its rich history and analytical versatility. Situating utopia within the dynamics of the modern imagination, she examines the ways in which it has been used by some of the leading thinkers of modernity: Marx, Engels, Karl Mannheim, Robert Owen, Georges Sorel, Ernst Bloch, William Morris, and Herbert Marcuse. Utopia remains the most potent secular concept for imagining and producing a ‘better world’, and this classic text will be invaluable to students across a wide range of disciplines.

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Chapter 1 Ideal Commonwealths: The Emerging Tradition 11

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chapter 1 Ideal Commonwealths: The Emerging Tradition The study of utopia as a field of academic enquiry did not emerge on any scale until the 1960s. Nevertheless, the perennial fascination of utopia is reflected in the fact that there were in the preceding decades a number of commentaries on various novels, works of political philo sophy and social and political movements deemed to be utopian. These early works are interesting and important for a number of reasons. Not only do they provide an insight into what was seen as utopian at the time, and into the role utopia was thought to play in the processes of social change, but they did much to construct a series of assumptions about which phenomena are properly to be labelled utopian. Sometimes the criteria are spelt out with clarity, sometimes not; but in all these compendia and commentaries, the material selected for inclusion provides an implicit definition of the utopian object and the proper field of utopian studies. The effect of these selections can still be felt in contemporary work, and the issues about the boundaries of utopia which are raised continue to be pertinent. There are a very large number of works which could be considered in trying to characterise the approach to utopia in the period in question. In a discussion of the historiography of utopia, J. C. Davis divides works on utopia into three sections. First, various catalogues and bibliographies which, he says, wrestle with inadequate defini tions. Secondly, commentaries and...

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