BOOK REVIEW / Betes noires, false gods and silly Fabians: 'A World Elsewhere' - Bernard Levin: Jonathan Cape, 16.99

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BERNARD LEVIN's exploration of Utopia begins with the utmost refinement but, like man's fruitless quest for that perfect realm, soon descends into polemic, strife and world-weariness. At first he evokes Hesiod and Homer and a golden generation of mortals who passed a happy existence in some lost Aegean Eden. Then Levin sets off through the sorry history of mankind, a bewildering encyclopaedia of utopians whose efforts, he argues, almost invariably left humanity worse off.

The effect can be disconcerting. Within a few pages the reader is introduced to Thomas More and given a rapid exegesis of his book Utopia, which bequeathed us the word, then led via Prospero's isle and Aztec Mexico to Candide and Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha; next to the shores of the enlightenment (of which Levin does not very much approve) and, lo, the scene is set for a familiar Levin philippic against the false gods of modern civilisation.

There is certainly a prodigious amount of learning crammed into not many pages. Philosophers rub shoulders with charlatans, saintly monks contend with anarchists, peasant visionaries lead armies of the benighted, and intellectuals dictate systems of inhuman perfection to the credulous.

It is never quite clear, however, where this cavalcade is leading us. On one random page, the reader is invited to wrestle with Adam and Eve, Homer, Schiller (in German) and the jungle paintings of the Douanier Rousseau. Elsewhere, St John the Divine jostles with the libretto of The Magic Flute. After a while, the diet can seem rather too rich.

Then there are the recurrent betes noires, which come up again and again with a telling disregard for proportion. It is not a surprise to discover that the author does not think highly of French anarchism. Nor need one marvel at his discovery that Marx and Engels perverted the Utopian dream. Does Levin reserve his worst anathema for Stalin and Hitler? He does not. The blackest pit of his inferno is kept for Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the silly Fabians who thought Soviet Russia a model democracy and excused its show trials as necessary justice.

It is at this point that the reader, gently entertained so far by the parade of folly, begins to wonder if Levin has not joined company with his utopians in the obsessive pursuit of one correct path. The message is unveiled by degrees. Utopia is a dangerous illusion, all reformist politics are to a degree utopian, therefore left-wing ideas tend to generate murderous disorder. Only the briefest consideration is given to those modern utopians who argued that an unrestrained free market held the key to prosperity and progress.

Indeed, there is a curiously dated feel to Levin's indignation. His targets are often past their threatening prime. Brezhnev's Russia and the Socialist Workers Party no longer offer the sinister line-up that provided villains for so many of Levin's columns 20 years ago. Like a utopian who wakes up to discover himself unexpectedly in paradise, he has yet to adjust to the irrelevance of his philosophy.

It is predictable that the place Levin considers closest to utopia should be fifth-century Athens. He is gracious enough to concede that its practices of slavery and suffrage limited to men do not qualify it for universal admiration. But if Aristophanes had performed light opera in an Athenian Covent Garden, no doubt it would have represented perfection indeed.