The 20th century was a difficult century for the utopian vision — the quest for an ideal society free from humanity’s chief miseries. The Communist revolutions in Russia and China were supposed to usher in egalitarian utopias where all social needs were met by benevolent state planning. Instead these Communist revolutions produced brutal authoritarian regimes where privileged bureaucracies ruled over the masses and lagged far behind the advanced West in meeting social needs.
In the advanced West, social democrats pursued a gentler utopian ideal that envisioned an egalitarian society of abundance with social control of the economy and enhanced democracy in the workplace and throughout society. But the welfare state model ran into troubles starting in the 1970’s as economic growth slowed and the inefficiencies of the system became ripe targets for conservative political forces. Support for the socialist ideal began to falter. The coup de grace was administered by the fall of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European states. Socialist societies turned their backs on the idea and embraced capitalism with gusto. Even Western European parties that still called themselves socialist abandoned any pretense that they were seeking to create an actual socialist society.
There was also a utopian impulse in America, though it had its roots in the more diffuse political traditions of liberalism and progressive reform. The idea here was that society could gradually perfect itself through a process of continuous reform that would weed out injustice and deliver prosperity for all. That idea came to a head with the Great Society of the 1960’s but sputtered out soon thereafter, battered first by counter-cultural and political radicalism and then by a nascent conservatism fueled, as in Europe, by economic problems that exposed underlying governmental inefficiencies. Over time, the liberal movement backed far away from the Great Society and its expansive vision of social justice and became resolutely focused on maintaining American social programs or, at best, their modest expansion.
Counter-cultural and political radicalism had their own utopian impulse of course. In the 1960’s, visions of society ranging from participatory democracy (Students for a Democratic Society) to communal bliss (hippies) to endless Marxist-Leninist revolution (Maoists) danced in the heads of young radicals. But such hubris did not survive the grimmer atmosphere of the 1970’s, not to mention the pressures of the life-cycle as these young radicals entered their thirties and forties.
As the Left’s utopian dreams faded, surging conservatives attacked vigorously. They argued that all of the left’s failings and especially its visions of a future society were attributable to their fundamentally unrealistic beliefs about human nature. People were selfish and acquisitive, not cooperative and solidaristic as the Left mistakenly believed. Therefore, the vision of society we should all strive for is a society without government and taxes where selfishness would be unleashed and individuals could shape their own destiny free of the oppressive hand of the state. This Ayn Rand-style libertarian utopia became an inspiration to legions of conservative activists.