Reaffirming the importance of idealism in the work towards social change

When I entered university a year ago, I was exhilarated by the prospect of leaving my suburban high school behind and getting involved in the politics of the student movement. I was eager to find ways to fight the economic, political, and environmental oppressions that our society is currently faced with. I did not realize, however, that there was a paradox brewing inside me; I’m full of ideals, but found myself believing “utopia”—a catch-all term for the infinite possibilities that an ideal world presents—to be a dirty word.

I was—first unconsciously, then actively—a materialist. Materialism holds that the material conditions of a society, such as how goods are produced and who owns them, determine its non-material conditions, like culture and politics. In order to understand or attempt to change political or social structures, a materialist believes it necessary to understand and change material conditions. I believed that the job of social movements was not to imagine how the world could be, and fight for it, but rather to explain how the world is and guide its processes to their natural conclusions.

I set out to “figure out” politics and society in order to act on my “knowledge.” My first reading was Friedrich Engels’ Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, a Marxist text expressing the belief that human society is a science in which it is possible to determine rationally, after empirical observation, what must be done to work towards social change.

When thinking about social change as working towards utopia, there is the danger of imposing one’s own rigid ideal on the entire world. The materialist is right to identify the dangers of upholding a single eternal truth. They are also right in the assertion that, in order to be effective, we must be able to analyze the conditions under which we live, and how these affect what ideas are possible. We aren’t going to get anywhere by simply describing how we want the world to look. Strict materialist organizations, however, that settle on a single explanation—such as “class structure” as the base of all the complexities of human society—have this in common with the worst of “utopian” thinking; a hyper-rationality that doesn’t account for the limited human capacity for understanding.

Yes, there are patterns, identifiable systems of oppression, and traditions of resistance. But, attempting  to “figure it all out” first and act later—or believing it possible to “figure it all out” at all—is a misguided way of approaching social change.

Utopia does not have to refer to any specific place or truth. In fact, it’s best if it doesn’t. Giving up on eternal ideals does not mean we must take the materialist route of giving up on it. Instead of thinking of utopia as a place or a plaster mould, let’s think about it as the state of mind in which we accept that there are going to be unknowns, but in which we decide to act anyway. If we reclaim the concept of utopia, we can perhaps develop a more productive approach; one in which we are constantly open to new learning, and in which we are not afraid to imagine and dream.

What is that world and how do we get from this period of crisis to there? As students, we are uniquely placed to consider both of these questions by taking advantage of the privilege of tools and spaces for contemplation that post-secondary education provides. Among the resources at UofT is an event called DisOrientation, an alternative Frosh week held for those ready to take action from September 18th to 22nd. We also offer a wide range of political and advocacy groups at Vic and across the UofT campus that reveal countless directions for students to find opportunities to fight for equity. With construction threatening to roll out this month on the Kinder Morgan pipeline in BC, and with UofT still invested in the fossil fuel industry even as the rolling snowball of climate chaos picks up speed—we don’t have time for paralysis. But if we act now, we just might have time to win.