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'Dreams of Peace and Freedom,' Jay Winter

About the author
Rob Cawston is openDemocracy's production manager. He has written on film, literature, issues of transitional justice and Bob Dylan.

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"Dreams of peace and Freedom: Utopian moments in the 20th Century"

by Jay Winter

Yale University Press | October 2006 | ISBN 0300106653


Recommended by Rob Cawston: The historical arc of the twentieth century has been dominated by grand utopian projects doomed to failure. By 1918 the Victorian dream had been trampled in the mud of Flanders and DH Lawrence had declared that "the cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins".

Today, the term Utopia has been thoroughly discredited through association with the totalitarian movements of the century's great dictators. Their visions involved forcibly shaping society by the ruthless removal of all undesirable elements from the world. They ended not in peace and freedom but in war and bondage for millions.

Jay Winter's Book, Dream's of Peace and Freedom, seeks to reclaim the term from the shadow of the Gulag by charting the century's "minor utopias". These are characterised as moments of hope, chinks of light in the darkness opened by individuals trying to imagine a radically better world.

Winter picks six key moments when utopian projects flourished in Europe: the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900; the Paris Peace Conference in 1919; the Paris exhibition of science and light in 1937; the universal declaration of human rights in 1948; the student revolts and birth of liberation theology in 1968; and the emergence of an idea of "global citizenship" in 1992. The minor utopians described - from René Cassin the drafter of the universal declaration of human rights to liberation theologist Gustavo Gutierrez - are shown to have reimagined the world by engaging and struggling with the real problems (how to solve poverty, how to protect what is human etc) and pushing through changes that were ultimately not too optimistic or unrealistic to realize.

Many of these movements were born out of periods of extreme violence. As Winter explains, utopias are narratives of discontinuity with the present, a chance to "realize the creative potential imprisoned by the way we live now". But, as utopias describe where we want to be, they also show where we stand forcing an engagement with the real world. Making a utopian journey and landing on the shores of Thomas More's "no-place" allows us to look with new eyes at where we have come from. As Winter then states, "what is made strange is made contingent, and what is made contingent need not last forever."

Dreams of Peace and Freedom is an engaging read and the author rarely falls into the trap of overestimating the impact or devaluing the limitations of each project. Winter's analysis provides a keen awareness of the patterns of utopian thought and throughout the book he charts the shift in the discourse of social transformation. The century witnessed a move from collective and national projects towards decentered, local approaches and a renewed emphasis on the individual as the common denominator of humanity (whilst paradoxically now aiming at the construction of a "global civil society").

The book provides a welcome perspective on a century of ruins. It proves that the world can sometimes be changed for the better and asks: can we continue to dream of peace and freedom? The cataclysm has happened but we must continue to struggle forwards. As Lawrence continues ..."It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We've got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen."

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About the author: Jay Winter is Charles J. Stille Professor of History, Yale University. He is a specialist on World War I and its impact on the 20th century. He is author or coauthor of more than a dozen books including Remembering War: The Great War between Memory and History in the 20th Century, published by Yale University Press.

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