An ‘anti-utopian age?’: Isaiah Berlin’s England, Hannah Arendt’s America, and utopian thinking in dark times

Kei Hiruta
  • Journal of Political Ideologies, November 2016, Taylor & Francis
  • DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2016.1258773

What is it about?

This essay challenges the influential view that Isaiah Berlin and Hannah Arendt played a central role in inaugurating an ‘anti-utopian age’. While the two thinkers certainly did their share to discredit the radical utopian inclination to portray a political blueprint in the abstract, I show that neither was straightforwardly anti-utopian. On the contrary, both thinkers’ writings display a different kind of utopian thinking, consisting in an imaginative and idealized reconstruction of existing polities. Schematically put, Berlin’s utopia was England reconstructed as a quintessential liberal society, whereas Arendt’s utopia was America reconstructed as a quintessential modern free republic. Those two polities differ from each other in important respects, but they share two essential features in common: they are claimed to be exempt from the rise of totalitarianism; and they allegedly give men and women the decent chance to live a fulfilling life. To illustrate Berlin’s and Arendt’s overlapping and yet differing visions, I consider their contrasting responses to the upheaval of 1968 – a possible utopian moment in the late 20th century. While their responses could scarcely be more different, they were informed by their shared desire to imagine an ideal polity in what both regarded as the darkest century in human history.

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