The Centre for the Study ofthe History of Political Thought

CFP: 2024 London Graduate Conference

Call for Papers: Utopias and Dystopias in the History of Political Thought

15th Annual London Graduate Conference in the History of Political Thought

Keynote speaker: Professor Duncan Bell

Location: Ambrose Fleming Lecture Theatre, Roberts Building, UCL

Date: Thursday 20th-Friday 21st June, 2024

The history of political thought, if it is anything, is a history of utopias and dystopias. Every normative political idea points to some concept of a better world, even if only implicitly; every analysis of a society may be read as the roadmap to its improvement, or a cautionary tale about its potential downfall. But even more explicitly, images of completely perfect and utterly damned states and societies have redounded throughout history: the history of political thought can be told through the heavens and hells of our own imagination.

In classical Greece, Plato’s Republic set out a vision of a potentially perfect society, whilst the contemporaneous Chinese Book of Rites put forth the idea of the Great Unity. Medieval and early modern Christian and Islamic thought contrasted a fallen world and a decline from virtue with the return of messianic figures, while temporal rulers from Madrid to Samarqand increasingly pursued millenarian visions of universal monarchy. As the European Wars of Religion began, Thomas More coined the word ‘utopia’ in a combination of satire and philosophical exploration; as they came to an end, Thomas Hobbes called for peace and order at any cost, escaping the dystopian horrors of a state of nature through establishing an unchallengeable sovereign.

The modern era has been the most fertile age for utopias and dystopias. With the birth of the ‘Enlightenment’, the dream of sociopolitical and scientific improvement towards a perfectly rational world came to the fore, counterpoised against the nightmares of ‘savagery’ and ‘oriental despotism’ in a powerful excuse for empire and the exploitation of the extra-European world. Growing out of this, yet set firmly against it, came the teleological histories of Hegel and Marx, the latter of which juxtaposed the dystopian horror of capitalism with a tantalisingly imminent communist paradise even while deriding earlier socialists as ‘utopian’. The later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, consumed by the idea of irresistible progress, have been interpreted as an ‘Age of Questions’, with their necessary answers being the reshaping of the world into a perfected final form; some of these answers, in turn, gave rise to the totalitarian ideologies of the mid-twentieth century. Today, in a world built on the ruins of these failed dreams and averted nightmares, some claim that technology will liberate us from suffering, while others point to a climate crisis threatening to render our planet unliveable. We remain, perhaps more than ever before, poised between utopia and dystopia.

This conference will explore the ways in which the ideas of utopia and dystopia have been presented, explored, challenged, and understood throughout history. We invite submissions from graduate students in history and related disciplines (even if you do not necessarily view your research as falling within the history of political thought), working on all periods and places. We especially welcome submissions seeking to push the boundaries of the history of political thought, whether by focusing on lesser-known thinkers, adopting a new approach to well-explored works, or building on other academic disciplines or strands of history.

Proposals for papers and panels may wish to consider the following themes:

  • Proposed models for ideal societies
  • Utopianism as a style of political critique
  • The history of utopian or millenarian movements
  • Philosophical conceptions of apocalypse and the end of the world
  • Ideas of historical progress and historical regression
  • The politics of utopian and dystopian literature
  • Temporality and the politics of time

To apply, please email a proposal and an academic CV to Abstracts should be no more than 300 words for papers of 20 minutes in length. Abstracts must be submitted by 23/02/24, and successful applicants will be notified by 15/04/24.

Please note that as this is a graduate conference, we can only consider proposals from applicants who have not yet been awarded a doctorate, and priority will be given to those who have not previously presented at this conference.