At a public meeting tomorrow afternoon in central London, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, will take the stage to discuss the relevance of his policies for Britain. The hottest thing on the international left circuit, he is likely to draw an appreciative crowd.
For many, Chávez's celebrity is evidence of a revival of the utopian impulse. In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, for example, the former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castañeda links Latin America's recent lurch leftward to a new kind of utopianism, even if he concludes that Chávez himself is more of a populist than a utopian. All this is a little unexpected. Just a few years ago, the modern idea of utopia - 500 years old, dating from the publication of Thomas More's Utopia in 1516 - had been banished to the periphery of political theory. Now it has acquired a new respectability. In their latest books, two of America's leading left intellectuals, Frederic Jameson and Russell Jacoby, make it their mission to reinvigorate utopia for a contemporary audience. Even the left-leaning British thinker David Marquand, disenchanted with New Labour's pragmatism, has recently argued that the left needs a utopian vision to see it through the 21st century.
Jacoby's book, Picture Imperfect, is as good an example as any of the new breed. He points out that the idea of utopia is too readily thrown around as a term of abuse. Utopian has come to mean, he says, not just someone who has a difficult-to-swallow vision of a future society but anyone who is prone to violence in pursuit of their political ambitions. The Nazis are now regularly labelled as utopian, for example; likewise the men who flew planes into the World Trade Centre. Neither do utopias necessarily morph into dystopian purgatories, as Aldous Huxley implied that they must in Brave New World. His wrath is reserved for the liberal thinkers of the post-war period - Hannah Arendt, Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper - who flirted with radicalism in their youth but went on to build intellectual careers championing "anti-utopianism", thus blackening its name for an entire generation.
Jacoby acknowledges the weaknesses of much of utopian thought. The problem with many visions of utopia is that they micromanage their blueprint of the future - laying down the law on interior furniture, for example, or what time dinner will be served in the commune. The world conjured up by William Morris in his 1890 book News from Nowhere, for example, looks worthy and uninviting - not somewhere many would want to be. Jacoby, however, claims to have unearthed a different tradition of utopian thinking that allows visions of the future to emerge more naturally from everyday reflections on music, poetry and literature. This kind of thinking, he says, can help open the window on stale political debate and let in the breeze.
Thoughts of utopia tend to prosper when progressive politics is powerless and lacks organisation. But they are also useful as a weapon against the narrowing of the political imagination, as a kick against the current of pragmatism. Without them we are doomed to live in the present, with only technocrats for politicians and gadgets for visions. "Our most important task at the present moment," wrote Lewis Mumford in 1922, "is to build castles in the air." Try raising that the next time you're doorstepped by an election campaigner.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006