Marxism, Romanticism and
Utopia: Ernst Bloch and
Marxists have generally been antagonistic to anything that could
be described as utopian, justifying this on the basis of Marx ‘s and
Engels’ strictures on the ‘utopian socialists’. In recent years,
several writers have pointed out that neither Marx nor Engels
was totally negative about the writings of the great utopians,
Owen, Fourier and Saint-Simon; as critiques of capitalism they
had great merit. Their main antipathy – and even this was not unqualified – was directed at the utopian socialist movements. In
continuing to pursue utopian goals after Marxism revealed class
struggle as the true motive force of social change, these became
diversionary and hence reactionary – an argument based on historical process, not simply on dogma. Some have also tried to
argue that Marx and Engels were equally utopian, in that it is
possible to piece together an image of what the good society
would be like from their writings. Such an image can of course be
constructed, but it remains the case that it was deliberately never
expressed in this form. There was a real reluctance to speculate
about the future, for two quite explicit reasons. The first is the
argument that it is impossible to think oneself out of present
circumstances and predict the needs and conditions for their satisfaction that will be created in the future; in this sense, the
imaginative construction of utopia as a political goal is strictly
speaking impossible. Secondly, and this was the essence of their
attacks on the utopian socialists, the construction of such blueprints carries with it the danger of idealism. Where the utopian
socialists -leaders and followers – chiefly erred was in thinking
that the propagation of a plan for the good society would, through
the operation of reason, result in its own realisation.
Opposition to utopianism was, then, initially based primarily
on local political judgements and attacks on idealist notions of
social change. This gave rise to a general antagonism within
Marxism, particularly during the period of the Second International, to any speculation which could be designated utopian;l
and the term included not just images of the future which were
held to be unrealistic, but any imaginative construction of the
future at all. This has remained the dominant orientation of
Marxism to utopia, despite the fact that such blanket condemnation can hardly be justified by reference to the works ofMarx and
Engels, and despite the fact that there have been recurrent attempts from within Marxism to challenge this repressive orthodoxy. This article examines and compares two such attempts.
One is the work of Ernst Bloch, whose The Principle of Hope is
the most extensive theoretical attempt to reintegrate Marxism
and utopia. The second is the debate that arose, seemingly quite
independently, about the significance of the work of William
Morris. Both concern not just the relationship between Marxism
and utopia, but between Marxism and Romanticism, and both
leave us with similar problems about the possible role of utopianism within Marxism.
Ernst Bloch: The Principle of Hope
Bloch was born in 1885, two years after the death of Marx. His
interest in utopia preceded that in Marx, one of his key categories, that of the ‘Not Yet’, being originated in 1906. By 1921, he
had written two major works on utopianism, Geist der Utopie, a
study of Thomas Munzer which was a major influence on Karl
Mannheim’s work on utopia, and which Bloch himself later
referred to as a work of ‘revolutionary romanticism’ a His development as a Marxist involved close relationships with Georg
Lukacs and with Walter Benjamin. Like many other German intellectuals, Bloch was of Jewish origin, and was forced into exile
in the thirties. He spent the years from 1938 to 1949 in the USA,
but unlike such people as Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse and
Erich Fromm, he did not become integrated into American
academic life. He spent these years working on drafts of The
Principle of Hope, and in 1949 returned to the German Democratic R~public, where the frrst two volumes of this massive
work were published in the fifties, and for which Bloch was
awarded the National Prize. The third volume, which deals
principally with religion, was published in a small edition in
1959, and did not receive the same critical acclaim. In 1961, with
the building of the Berlin Wall, Bloch left the GDR, and lived in
West Germany until his death in 1977.
Plainly, Bloch was practically as well as theoretically committed to Marxism. The project of The Principle ofHope is not to
revise Marxism by the insertion of utopia (though it is arguable
that this is in fact what Bloch does), but to rehabilitate it as a
neglected Marxist concept. The key concept in this process is the
Not Yet, which has two aspects, the Not Yet Conscious and the
Not Yet Become – an ideological and a material aspect. The Not
Yet Conscious is developed through a critique of Sigmund
Freud. Freud regarded the unconscious as a rubbish bin of
repressed material that was no longer conscious; Bloch argues
that it is (.lso a creative source of material on the verge of coming
to consciousness. The creativity that derives from this is expressed in a variety of ways, from simple day-dreams to the
heights of artistic activity. And in so far as these expressions are
expressi0Ils of hope for a better world or a better way of being in
it, they are expressions of utopia. The utopian impulse is there-
fore a fundamental human faculty, which may take a wide
variety of forms, many of which are discussed in the second
volume of The Principle 0/Hope and which range from alchemy
For Bloch, however, these dreams of a better world are not
simply a matter of compensatory fantasies, but a venturing
beyond the present to a possible better future. Here, the Not Yet
Conscious is linked to the Not Yet Become. Fundamental to
Bloch’s argument are certain assertions about the material world.
It is essentially unfinished, the future is indeterminate and there-
fore is a realm of possibility: ‘the world is full of objective real
possibilities, which are not yet actual possibilities because they
have not yet fulfilled all the conditions of their possibility, and
mayor may not ever become fully possible. ‘2 It is the notion of
real possibility which provides the link between utopia and
Marxism. Bloch is critical of versions of Marxism which present
it as a deterministic philosophy:
It is not sufficient to speak of dialectical process and then
to treat history as a series of sequential Fixa or even closed
‘totalities’ . A narrowing and diminishing of reality threatens here … and that is not Marxism.3
Since the world is in a constant state of becoming, and what it is
becoming is not determined, there are always many real possible
futures – not all of which are desirable, since they include
‘devastatingly, possible fascist Nothing’ as well as, and above
all, ‘finally feasible and overdue, socialism ‘.4
Of course, although the future is not determined, it is not
unconstrained, so not all futures are real possibilities. The venturing beyond that is the characteristic of the Not Yet Conscious
will contain elements that are anticipatory, but also those which
are purely compensatory. Bloch does not, like Mannheim, reject
compensatory fantasies as ideological; even the most limited
forms of dreaming are products of the utopian impulse and are, as
it were, better than nothing. But he does distinguish between
abstract and concrete utopia, and this is essentially a distinction
between the compensatory and the anticipatory elements (which
in reality occur together). It is concrete utopia which is embodied
in Marxism, where aspirations and effective change are interwoven. And for the concept of utopia to be rehabilitated within
Marxism, it is necessary to eliminate these abstract elements
which clutter up the concrete core:
… with knowledge and removal of the finished utopistic
element, with knowledge and removal of abstract utopia.
But what then remains: the unfmished forward dream, the
docta spes which can only be discredited by the bourgeoisie – this seriously deserves the name utopia in carefully
considered and carefuJly applied contrast to utopianism;
in its brevity and new clarity, this expression then means
the same as: a methodical organ/or the New, an objective
aggregate state o/what is coming up.s
Concrete utopia is thus an essential constituent part of an essentially unfmished reality, and an category whose reference is
human action in and on the world; it is both real, and Not Yet
… the concrete imagination and the imagery of its mediated anticipations are fermenting in the process of the real
itself and are depicted in the concrete forward dream;
anticipating elements are a component of reality itself.6
What is problematic, of course, is how one distinguishes between
abstract and concrete utopia – how one can distinguish the
elements of anticipation from the dross of compensation. Bloch
offers us no criteria. There is, however, implicit appeal to praxis,
and to Marxism. Bloch argues that Marxism, rather than negating
utopia, rescues it: firstly, in so far as the concept of tendency
recognises the importance of what is becoming as an aspect of
reality; and secondly, by revealing the process by which utopia is
This latter claim uses the term utopia in a more conventional
sense, referring to a state of the world which is now a possible
future. Although both Bloch’ s work and his life indicate that at
this time he believed that utopia was in the process of emergence
in the GDR and the Soviet Union, Bloch does not provide us with
a blue-print of what it would look like; there is no plan of an ideal
society. This is not because Bloch shared the orthodox opposition to such depiction. In discussion with Adomo in 1964, he
pointed out that Marx’ s strictures against such imagining were
historically specific judgements, and argued that in spite of the
dangers of drawing up blue-prints, Marx had cast too little of a
picture of the future. Rather, it seems to be bound up with his emphasis on individual experience, albeit an experience which he
constantly reiterates is dependent upon socio-economic conditions. Thus in 1972 he described ‘the essence of what is due to be
realised’ as ‘the individual who is no longer to be humiliated,
enslaved, forsaken, scorned, estranged, annihilated, and deprived of identity’ , and this is the beginning of the work of the
classless society.7 The quest is for unalienated experience, the
overcoming of antagonism between humanity and the world.
This is what is prefigured in all utopian expression, and is the
state which begins to be conceivable in reality through Marxism
in communism. This ontological state is described, among other
things, as a ‘homeland of identity’8 and as the ‘highest good’,9
and is prefigured in the greatest artistic works through the experience of tile ‘fulfilled moment’ . Great music (particularly that of
Beethove:l and Brahms) conveys this as both aspiration and
anticipatiun. The importance of religion, and in particular the
image of the Kingdom of God, is that it too represents a resolution of antagonisms – one more profound than can be imagined in
any currently conceivable social state, since it involves the
overcoming of death, the most profound anti-utopia. 1o
Utopia for Bloch does then involve some reference to content, but its defining characteristic is its function, a function
which has four aspects, described by Hudson as follows:
[a] cognitive function as a mode of operation of constructive reason, [an] educative function as a mythography
which instructs men to will and desire more and better,
[an] anticipatory function as a futurology of possibilities
which later become actual, and [a] causal function as an
agent of historical change. ll
Bloch’s cosmology requires utopia in order that we may be able
to imagine, will, and effect the future. And since ‘the hinge on
human history is its producer’ P the future is effected through our
action; the content and quality of utopian anticipation are therefore of fundamental importance.
Part of what Bloch is doing is asserting the role of aspiration
in social transformation; but he is also claiming that this is not a
departure from Marxism, which, far from being antagonistic to
forward dreaming, requires it He argues that there are two
strands in Marxism, a ‘cold’ and a ‘warm’ stream. The cold
stream is that of analysis, both of material conditions and of
ideological processes which serve to disguise the ‘ultimately
decisive conditions, which are always economic’. The warm
stream is the ‘liberating intention’ of Marxism, in whose interest
analysis is undertaken; it is this which is the ground of the ‘appeal
to the debased, enslaved, abandoned, belittled human being’ and
‘the appeal to the proletariat as the turntable of emancipation’.
Marxism as a doctrine of warmth is concerned with ‘that freedom, that homeland of identity, in which neither man behav~s
towards the world nor the world behaves towards man, as If
towards a stranger’. What is essential is that these two streams
are not ‘held apart from one another undialectically’ so that they
become ‘reified and isolated’ 13 It is a plea for the dialectical
relation of reason and passion.
Bloch’s central thesis is that human dreaming has always
reached towards utopia, with varying mixes of the abstract and
the concrete; but only with Marxism has it become possible for
utopia to be fully graspable in the imagination and hence in
reality. Bloch claims Marxist credentials for this position by
repeated reference to a letter from Marx to Ruge, dated 1843, in
which Marx wrote:
Our motto must therefore be: reform of consciousness not
through dogmas, but through analysis of mystical consciousness which is still unclear to itself. It will then
become apparent that the world has long possessed the
dream of a matter, of which it must only possess the
consciousness to possess it in reality. It will become
apparent that it is not a question of a great thought-dash
between past and future, but of the carrying-through of
the thoughts of the past. 14
Bloch also quotes the more well-known passage about purposive
action as a distinguishing characteristic of the human species:
We are assuming work in a form in which it belongs
exclusively to man. A spider carries out operations which
resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts many builders
to shame with the building of its wax cells. But what distinguishes the worst builder from the best bee from the
outset is that he has built the cell in his head before he
builds it in wax, at the end of the work process there is a
result which already existed in the imagination of the
worker at the beginning of that process, i.e. already
existed ideally. Not that he only effects a formal change in
the real; he also realizes his purpose in the natural
Both passages support Bloch’ s case for the centrality of human
vision in social transformation, but the first is a more important
summary of Bloch’s position, and a quotation to which he
returned throughout his career. The claim that ‘mankind has long
possessed the dream of a matter’ is the justification, for Bloch, of
his interest and exploration of the variety of human dreaming as
expression of the human capacity for hope. It is not simply that
utopian speculation in its many and varied forms is an interesting
and esoteric by-way of culture; it is the source and the goal of the
warm stream of Marxism, the passion for human liberation.
Bloch’s contention that his position is more orthodoxly
Marxist than that of Marxist orthodoxy is one with which many
might choose to take issue, but it is not the central concern of this
paper. In any case, it is much more important to ask whether
Bloch was right than whether he interpreted Marx correctly,
while recognising the political importance for Bloch of pursuing
this rapprochment within Marxism. What is at issue here, however, is the way in which certain themes and issues which are
apparent in Bloch’s work relate, in different ways, both to the
work of William Morris himself, and to the more recent debates
about the significance of that work. The transcendence of alienation and the centrality of art are features of both Bloch’ s and
Morris’s thought, both of them drawing heavily on the romantic
tradition. Subsequent debates share with Bloch a focus on the
relationship between reason and passion, which reappears as the
relationship between knowledge and desire, and the defmition of
utopia in terms of a function which is simultaneously educative
and transformative. The question of the significance of dreaming
occurs in all three contexts.
Alienation, Art and Socialism
Morris was, of course, writing much earlier than Bloch. He was
born in 1834 and died in 1896, thus being more nearly contemporary with Marx himself. His overtly socialist work was produced
from 1821, and the utopian novel, News from Nowhere, was
written in 1890 – when Bloch was six years old. This novel was
by far the most widely known of Morris’s socialist writings, and,
as we srn.11 see, formed the basis of many people’s interpretations
and misinterpretations of Morris’s political position. News from
Nowhere, subtitled’ An Epoch of Rest’ ,portrays a society where
the ugliness of industrialism has been superseded by an ecologically sustainable system, largely based on craft production. It is
an account of England in the twenty-second century, to which
Morris travels in a dream, waking up on the site of his own house
by the Thames at Hammersmith. In this future England, most of
London has disappeared to be replaced by fields and gardens.
Villages remain, with markets and communal meeting places.
Schools have been abolished. The Houses of Parliament are used
to store manure – ‘dung is not the worst kind of corruption’ .16 In
spite of the apparent dominance of craft production, there is machinery available, and power which can be used by small workshops and as fuel for transport. The central theme is of work as
pleasure, and the distinction between mental and manual labour
has been abolished. It is a dream from which Morris wakes up to
the reality of industrial capitalism and political struggle; but the
book ends with the words ‘if others can see it as I have seen it,
then it may be called a vision rather than a dream’ .17
Despite the fact that News from Nowhere contains a long
section on ‘how the change came about’ , which takes the form of
a proletarian revolution followed by the withering away of the
state, the dominant mood of the book remains anti-industrial, and
the society presented by Morris is one of much greater simplicity
than can be regarded as feasible. Nevertheless, the specific
context of the writing of News from Nowhere, and the broader
context of Morris’s socialist writings as a whole, as well as the
concluding words of the book itself, emphasise that it is far more
than a reactionary and medievalist romance. It was written, in
fact, in response to another socialist utopian novel, Edward
Bellamy’sLooking Backward. This, which also enjoyed massive
sales, portrayed a centralised sociaist society emerging without
conflict from monopoly capitalism. Production was based on ‘industrial armies’, and the life aspired to that of the suburban
middle classes of the time. Morris referred to it as a Cockney
p~adise; his published review was remarkably restrained, but
made his position and his reasons for writing his own utopia
I believe that the ideal of the future does not point to the
lessening of men’s energy by the reduction of labour to a
minimum, but rather to the reduction of pain in labour to
a minimum, so small that it will cease to be a pain; a gain
to humanity which can only be dreamed of till men are
more completely equal than Mr. Bellamy’s Utopia will
allow them to be ……. there are some socialists who do not
think that the problem of the organization of life and
necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national
centralisation … for which no-one feels himself responsible; … that individuals cannot shuffle off the business of
life on to the shoulders of some abstraction called the
State, but must deal with it in conscious association with
each other; that variety of life is as much an aim of true
Communism as equality of condition, and that nothing
but a union of these two will bring about real freedom ….
And finally, that art, using that word in its widest and due
signification, is not a mere adjunct of life … but the
necessary expression and indispensable instrument of
human happiness. IS
The first statement underlines the fact that the emphasis on work
as pleasure and as the proper ground of human self-actualisation
which pervades Newsfrom Nowhere is precisely about the transcendence of alienation. As for Bloch, this is a key concern. To
debate whether Morris or Bloch is more authentically Marxist is
to collude in a sterile and unhelpful competition for credentials.
Nevertheless, Morris’s approach to the issue incorporates a central theme from Marx which is largely absent from Bloch’s
analysis, since it is concerned with unalienated labour, in the
combination of mental and manual labour characteristic of craft
production, and craft production which is not commodity production since there is no market, no buying and selling of goods.
(There are ‘markets’ in NewsfromNowhere, but they are simply
areas for the collection and distribution of goods, without the
assigning of exchange values.) The transcendence of alienation
for Morris, as for Bloch, involves the sphere of art, but for Morris it is artistic production which is the key. In contrast, when
Bloch talks of the utopian function of art, and refers to the
experience of, for example, the ‘fulfilled moment’ through particular artistic work, he focusses on the consumption rather than
the production of art. It is an important contrast, but a dangerous
one, since Bloch himself was at pains to distinguish ‘contemplation (and passive enjoyment)’ as features of bourgeois-classical
aesthetics from ‘hope (and the aroused will)’ which are the
essence of the utopian function of art, and which imply an active
and involved response – but a response, nonetheless. 19 And, as
Edward Thompson points out, Morris’s idea of ‘beauty’ implies
‘sweet, easeful, decorative, soothing’ in a manner characteristic
of romanticism, and of that contemplative attitude which Bloch
seeks to distance himself from.20
Both Morris and Bloch attribute a utopian function to art, but
it operates differently. A full exploration of the aesthetic theories
implicit in Morris and Bloch is beyond the scope of this discussion, but some preliminary observations can be made. Firstly,
what is meant by ‘art’ differs somewhat between the two. Morris
was concerned primarily with architecture and the visual, particularly decorative, arts, distinguishing these from the ‘intellectual’ arts, the latter being addressed ‘wholly to our mental needs’,
while the former were aspects of things ‘intended primarily for
the use of the body’ .21 Bloch would scarcely make such a distinction, since the utopian function is in his case attributed to culture
in its broadest sense; nevertheless, his discussions of art place far
more emphasis on the intellectual than the decorative arts. Secondly, Bloch attributes a more active role to art than does Morris,
but simultaneously pays far less attention to the conditions of its
production; a properly dialectical approach would need to combine these perspectives.
For Morris, art is primarily product. It is ‘the expression of
man’s joy in labour’.22 The unalienated activity of communist
society will produce more and better art, and the activity of
artistic production epitomises the transcendence of alienation;
but art itself plays little role in the transition to communist
society. Indeed, Morris finds it thinkable that art may have to die
awhile un~il the conditions conducive to its flourishing are created. 23 This position should not be overstated; Morris also argued
that the ugliness of industrial society stunted the human personality, and NewsfromNowhere was written because he believed it
could inspire people to work for a form of socialism worth
having. It was, he said, ‘essential that the ideal of the new society
should always be kept before the eyes of the working classes, lest
the continuity of the demands of the people should be broken, or
lest they should be misdirected’.24 If the arts are ‘man’s expression of the value of life’, it is also true that ‘the production of
them makes his life of value’.25 And Bloch would surely agree
that ‘all the greater arts appeal directly to that intricate combination of intuitive perceptions, feelings, experience and memory
which is called imagination’ , and that’ all worthy schools of art …
[are] the outcome of the aspirations ofthe people towards the true
beauty and pleasure of life’ .26 Nevertheless, Thompson’ s judgement stands: ‘Morris has not emphasised sufficiently the ideological role of art, its active agency in changing human beings, i~
agency in man’s class-divided history’ .~7 ~or, therefo~e, does It
attribute active agency to art in the reahsatIon of utopIa.
For Bloch, on the other hand, the utopian function of art is
more active. It nourishes the sense that ‘something’s missing’, simultaneously drawing attention to an experience of lack in the
present and potential fulfillment ~n the f~ture, and i~ a ?ece~sary
inspiration to social transformatIon. WIthout art (m Its WIdest
sense) to embody the ‘dream of a matter’, we will scarcely be
able to possess it in reality. Bloch seems to have little to say about
how social conditions impinge on the artist; he is a philosopher,
rather than a sociologist of art. Yet Bloch’ s insistence that hunger
is the most fundamental human drive qualifies the priority assigned to art: ‘people must first fill their stomachs and then they
can dance.’28 Similarly, Morris wrote that ‘anyone who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go
before the knife and fork … does not understand what art
means’ .29 Thus the contrast, while significant, should not be
overdrawn; it is perhaps more a matter of a difference of emphasis within arguments that are at least complementary. Yet i( there
are common issues raised by Bloch and Morris, there are even
more striking similarities between Bloch’s work and the themes
of the re-evaluation of Morris. Here, with very little direct
reference between the two, the arguments about the function of
utopia and the relationship between Marxism and utopianism run
News from Nowhere:
Claims and Counter-Claims
The interpretation of News from Nowhere remains contentious.
Many Marxists would still not give it the time of day, although
arguably contemporary eco-politics makes it more rele.vant .than
ever. In the years following its publication, the very WIde ~lfCU
lation of the book, combined with the deliberate suppressIOn of
Morris’s political activities and writings by his biographers, and
the strongly anti-utopian attitudes characterising Marxism, led to
the propagation of two myths about Morris. I? one, the ‘bou!geois myth’, his socialism was ignored or demed altogether; m
the other, the ‘Menshevik myth’, he was portrayed as a gentle,
eccentric, and above all anti-Marxist, English socialist. The latter
myth was the one most prevalent among Marxists, even after
Robin Page Arnot both named the myths and attempted to
reclaim Morris for Marxism in the 1930s.30
Bloch who dismisses Morris in less than two pages, subscribes to’the same myth: ‘capitalism is fought by Morris not so
much because of its inhumanity as because of its ugliness, and
this is measured against the old craftsmanship. ’31 Even the revolutionary transition fails to redeem Morris in Bloch’ s eyes:
Morris prophesies the revolution as the fruit and selfdestruction of ‘unnatural’ industrialism, and he welcomes
the revolution, though only as an act of annihilation. For
once it has died down, not only the capitalists, but also the
factories will be destroyed, in fact the whole plague of
civilisation in the modern age will have been removed.
Revolution thus appears to this machine-wrecker to be a
sheer turning back of history or a dismantling; once it has
done its work, the world of craftsmanship will return,
people will stand – after the modem age has disappeared
– on the colourful ground of native Gothic, which was
only disguised in the English renaissance. 32
Bloch is said not to have been greatly at ease with the English
language, and probably had only limited access to Morris’s
writings. His judgement, which appe~s to be base~ solely on .a
reading of News from Nowhere and an Ignorance of Its context IS
understandable; nevertheless, the dismissal is ironic given subse. .
The beginning of the general re-evaluatIon of Mo~s ca~e
not with Amot’s Vindication, but with three books pubhshed m
the 1950s – that is, at the same time as Bloch’s The Principle of
Hope. The first was A. L. Morton’s The English Utopia. 33 This
was interesting for two reasons. Firstly, it was a major departure
for a Marxist to address the history of utopias at all, and there is
no doubt that Morton’s analysis was, by and large, orthodoxly
Marxist. Secondly, he accords the greatest positive value to the
medieval folk utopia of the Land of Cokaygne and to Morris’s
News from Nowhere. ‘Nowhere’ is Cokaygne transformed and
presented as the outcome of class struggle and revolution, as
communism achieved. It is, says Morton, ‘not only the one
utopia in whose possibility we can believe, but the one in which
we could wish to live’34 – although given the persistence of the
sexual division of labour in Nowhere, some of us might gi ve onl y
qualified support to this sentiment.
Arguably, both Arnot and Morton did much to try to create
another myth, a Marxist myth which reads News from Nowhere
as an account of the goal of communism tout court. 1955,
however, saw the publication of E. P. Thompson’s William
Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary. Thompson was not concerned primarily with the interpretation of Newsfrom Nowhere,
although he quoted approvingly Morton’s assertion that it was
‘the first utopia that was not utopian’ ,35 adding his own description of it as a ‘scientific utopia’ .36 The central project of Thompson’s book was more important: it analysed Morris’s.transition from the Romantic tradition of Carlyle and Ruskm to a
revolutionary socialist position. What was important about
Morris however, was not that he made this move, but that in the
proces~ of doing so he effected a synthesis between Romantici.sm
and Marxism which enriched and transformed both. MarXIsts
were not culpable for failing to recognise that Morris was really
a Marxist but because they ignored the element of ‘moral realism’ in Morris’s work which would enrich Marxism itself.
The sheer lack of understanding by Marxists of the importance of Morris (and indeed of the whole radical Romantic
tradition) is emphasised by the lack of impact of this remarkable
book. That lack of understanding was fractured by Raymond
Williams’ Culture and Society, published in 1958.37 This book
was much broader in scope, addressing the development of the
idea of culture in Britain between 1780 and 1950. It was focussed
neither on utopian ism nor on Morris, and was not written fro~ a
Marxist perspective. Indeed, commentators. have locat~d WI~
liams’ \ ork as stemming from the same radIcal romantIC tradItion as that of Morris: ‘Williams’ own writing over two decades
… has exemplified how tough a mutation of the tradition can still
be, and how congruent to the thought of Marx. ’38 In Culture and
Society, Williams, who had read Thompson’s book, a~ ~h
ompson had read Morton’s, advanced a substantially SImIlar
argumer-t about the significance of Morris’s work. Morris: he
argued, drew from Ruskin ‘a right understanding … of what kmds
of labour are good for men, raising them and making them
happy’ ,39 but he took the general values of this tradition and
‘sought to attach [them] to an actual and growing social force:
that of the organized working class’ .40 Morris was thus a pivotal
figure, integrating the romantic tradition, which was the source
of his general rebellion against industrial capitalism and of the
idea that the arts defme a ‘quality of life which it is the whole
purpose of political change to make possible’ , with the economic
reasoning and political promise of Marxism.41
Williams’ judgements (and indeed Thompson’s) were, however, based not upon a reading of NewsfromNowhere, but upon
a much broader reading of Morris’s work, and particularly his
political essays. The rehabilitation of Morris does not therefore
necessarily imply a rehabilitation of the utopian form, if by that
we understand a fictional description of the desired society. It
does, however, imply a recognition of the utopian function, of
venturing beyond, which is a general characteristic of Morris’s
political writing. This remained largely implicit, however, until
the re-issue of Thompson’s book in 1977, with its now famous
postscript which discusses the development of the debate about
Morris sice the 1950s and which directly addresses the relationship between Marxism and utopia. The debate about the significance of Morris’s work was thus shown to have far wider
implications than the proper evaluation of that work per se; it
addressed precisely that relationship which is Bloch’s central
problematic. As Edward Thompson puts it:
… what may be involved … is the whole problem of the
subordination of the imaginative utopian faculties within
the later Marxist tradition: its lack of a moral self-consciousness or even a vocabulary of desire, its inability to
project any images of the future, or even its tendency to
fall back in lieu of these upon the Utilitarian’s earthly
paradise – the maximisation of economic growth … to
vindicate Morris’s Utopianism may be at the same time to
vindicate Utopianism itself, and set it free to walk the
world once more without shame and without accusations
of bad faith.42
Bloch evinced a similar concern:
Vulgar Marxism is already haunting the world in a kind of
petit bourgeois communism, or, to put it in a less paradoxical way, it sees the main goal of communism in
triviality such as an electric refrigerator for everyone, or
art for everyone. It is exactly against such red philistinism
that the new surplus, free of ideology, establishes and
launches its utopian essence, its most central concern.43
Thompson reiterates that his book was an argument about Morris’s transformation of the Romantic tradition: ‘the moral critique of capitalist process was pressing forward to conclusions
consonant with Marx’ s critique, and it was Morris’s particular
genius to think through this transformation, effect its juncture,
and seal it with action. ’44 In rejecting Morris’s socialism as
regressive ‘orthodox Marxism turned its back upon a juncture
which it neglected at its own peril and to its subsequent disgrace’ ;45 on the other hand, it was important to avoid the creation
of a new myth, the ‘Marxist myth’, which simply assimilated
Morris to Marxism, and which, in Thompson’ s words, was not
merely wrong, but ‘repressive, distancing and boring’.46
The Pill’ticular target for this attack was a long study by the
French Marxist Paul Meier, Le Pensee Utopique de William
Morris (translated into English as William Morris: The Marxist
Dreamer). Meier takes the text of News from Nowhere, elaborated by the political writings, as a statement of Morris’s goal,
and argues that the critique of capitalism, the principles and
details of the projected society, and the transition between them,
constitute a thoroughly Marxist account. He notes in particular
the two stages (of socialism and communism) and the similarity
with the Critique of the Gotha Pro gramme. It is, he says, ‘ridiculous … to put William Morris into the last generation of Romantic
writers’ since ‘the main inspiration and starting point of Morris ‘s
utopia are to be sought in Marxism’ .47
Some of Thompson’s objections to this approach are legitimate. It is undoubtedly true that Meier understates both the
importance of the Romantic tradition in the development of
Morris’s thought, and his own independent contribution. It also
involves evaluating Morris’s ideas in terms of their approximation to a defmition of Marxist orthodoxy. More importantly,
however, it reinforces precisely that dichotomous division between Marxism and Romanticism which Thompson and Williams argue Morris has overcome. And in assimilating Morris to
Marxism rdther than Romanticism, Meier treats News from
Nowhere as a literal statement of a goal, which may be to
misunderstand the function of dreaming. The Marxism to which
Meier assimilates Morris, however, is not the same as that of
Amot or Morton, for Meier seeks to argue that it is·Marx rather
than Ruskin who is the source of Morris’s humanism. To think
otherwise, he argues
betrays an ignorance … of the fact that Marxism is humanism, totally different from traditional abstract humanism,
but real and fertile; … it is this materialist humanism, and
not speculative humanism, which is at the base of Morris’s u:opia. 48
This is more congruent with the beginning and end of the book,
which poi!1t to an interpretation of utopian thought and writing
very different from the literalism which dominates the main text.
There is an early reference, echoing Bloch, to ‘anticipatory
thinking’ ,49 and a long passage re-iterating Lenin’s quotation
from Pisa”cv on the rift between dreams and reality. so And despite Meier’s attention to the detail of Morris’s utopia, he also
points out that this was no blue-print, but a hypothetical construction in which Morris ‘is careful not to draw up a detailed
plan of future society and aims above all to suggest a utopian
scale of values’ .51 It is the humanism of this ’tissue of possibilities’ which gives News from Nowhere its lasting significance;
and the function of utopia in general is precisely that it ‘supports
a scale of values’ .52 Such an interpretation calls for a much less
literal reading than Meier in fact provides, and it is to precisely
such a reading that Thompson inclines, following Miguel Abensour and John Goode – a reading based on its status as dream.
Creams and the Education of Desire
In the fir~t part of The Principle of Hope, Bloch argues that
dreams c( !lstitute an expression of the utopian faculty of anticipatory consciousness. He distinguished between day-dreams and
night-dreams, claiming that nocturnal dreams fed on the past and
were a space in which ‘very early wishes circulate’, while daydreams were subject to direction and therefore contain more
anticipatory and less compensatory elements. s3 Similar points
are touched on in Goode’ s discussion of the significance of the
dream form in Newsfrom Nowhere and inADream ofJohn Bal!.
Morris himself wrote in the opening paragraph of A Dream of
John Ball ‘all this have I seen in the dreams of the night clearer
than I can force myself to do in the dreams of the day’ , and Goode
‘Force’ suggests that dream, though an alienated activity,
is one which is open to discipline, and ‘clearer’ implies
that the relief which is sought still has a responsibility to
truth. Dream is given a positive intellectual role. More
importantly, however, the sentence makes an important
distinction between the involuntary dream of the night
and the willed dream of the day: not only do dreams have
specific responsibilities, but these responsibilities are
fulfilled better by the proper assessment of the involuntary invasion of consciousness than by the conscious
effort to bring those values to mind. The fullest possibility
of vision is available only to the dream that is beyond the
individual will. 54
ties, to conserve human demands for happiness and playfully to anticipate what in reality has not at all been
produced but what dreams and religious or profane wishimages of humans are full of. On this defmition, literary
activity becomes a special form of dream work.s9
Abensour shares with Goode the central argument that the importance of News from Nowhere, and of all utopias, lies not in the
descriptions of social arrangements, but in the exploration of
values that is undertaken. He rejects the opposition between
science and utopia asserted by Engels, and argues that from 1850
the nature of utopian writing became ‘heuristic’ rather than
systematic – that is, it shifted from the construction of literal
blue-prints to more open and more exploratory projects. The
purpose of News from Nowhere, then, is to ’embody in the fonns
of fantasy alternative values sketched as an alternative way of
life’.60 The point then becomes not whether one agrees or disagrees with the institutional arrangements, but rather that the utopian experiment disrupts the taken-for-granted nature of the
It is a different judgement from Bloch’ s, yet both address the role
of intentionality in dreaming, and in day-dreams as opposed to
noctural dreams. And Morris’s work of course involves boththe nocturnal dream as an aspect of the form and content of his
utopian novels, the day-dream as the constructive process of
creation which is involved in writing them.
Goode in fact argues that the particular function of the dream
form is neither to posit a goal nor to construct a compensatory
fantasy, but to emphasize the role of vision and will in the process
of social transformation:
Morris invents new worlds or reinvokes dream versions
of old worlds, not in order to escape the exigencies of the
depressing actuality but in order to insist on a whole
structure of values and perspectives which must emerge
in the conscious mind in order to assert the inner truth of
that actuality, and give man the knowledge of his own
participation in the historical process that dissolves that
The function, as for Bloch, is not compensation, but anticipation,
transformation. And it is not a literal goal, but the vehicle for the
communication of the values on which a socialist society would
be based: ‘What it sets out to portray is not what the future will be
like, but how a nineteenth-century socialist might conceive of it
in order to communicate the rationale of his faith in his socialist
activity. ’56 Again, for Bloch, communicability is one of the key
features distinguishing the day-dream from the nocturnal dream.
Utopia, says Goode, is ‘the collectivization of dream’ , the dream
made public.s7 In the end, he argues that News from Nowhere
fails to fulfil this role because the transition is not sufficiently
effective in bringing ‘the collectivity of the dream … into relationship with the collectivity of the present’; but that is what
utopia should dos8 Similar sentiments on the role of literature are
contained in Gerd Ueding’s exposition of Bloch’s position:
Literature as utopia is generally encroachment of the
power of the imagination on new realities of experience…. In addition, its temporal point of reference is the
future. However, it does not withdraw from the reality
principle merely to place an ethereal and empty realm of
freedom in place of the oppressive realm of necessity.
Rather it does this intentionally to test human possibili-
And ~il such an adventure two things happen: our habitual
values (the ‘commonsense’ of bourgeois society) are
thrown into disarray. And we enter Utopia’s proper and
new-found space: the education of desire. This is not the
sam( as ‘a moral education’ towards a given end: it is
rather, to open a way to aspiration, to ‘teach desire to
desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in a different way.61
What is daimed here as the key function of utopia is exactly the
educative aspect which Bloch also stressed. The education of
desire is part of the process of allowing the abstract elements of
utopia to be gradually replaced by the concrete, allowing anticipation to dominate compensation. Utopia does not just express
desire, but enables people to work towards an understanding of
what is necessary for human fulfilment, a broadening, deepening
and raising of aspirations in terms quite different from those of
their every-day life. Thus Newsfrom Nowhere, as a critique of
alienation, invites us not just to think about an alternative society,
but invites us to experience what it would mean to be fully in
possessi;)n of our own humanity – an experience which Bloch
claims i~ offered to us through artistic works in the ‘fulfilled
Of course there is no point in the education of desire for its
own saki~. For Morris’s commentators, as for Morris and Bloch,
the education of desire is important because it informs human
action if. me pursuit of social transformation. If the function of
utopia is the education of desire, the function of the education of
desire is t:’1e realisation of utopia. And one of the problems which
runs through these debates is the same problem that confronted
Marx and Engels. Some processes of dreaming may aid the
process of struggle, others may inhibit it. Williams remarked that
the particular danger of the heuristic utopia is that it ‘can settle
into isolated and sentimental desire, a means of living with
alienation’ .62 Thompson, too, stressed that there are disciplined
and undisciplined ways of dreaming.63 And indeed Bloch uses
the term ‘docta spes’ for the utopian function which ultimately
embodies both idea and action – a term which combines knowledge and desire as educated hope.64
It would be a mistake to claim that the positions implied by
Bloch and by Morris’s commentators are identical, although they
are remarkably similar. Thompson’s conclusions in fact posit a
relationship between Marxism and utopia which differs from that
claimed by Bloch. Thompson wishes to recognise Morris as a
utopian and as a Marxist, without ‘either a hyphen or a sense of
contradiction … between the two terms’.66 Whereas Bloch argues
that utopia is an existing but neglected Marxist category,. Thompson argues that ‘Morris may be assimilated to Marxism only
in the course of a re-ordering of Marxism itself’ – a re-ordering,
that is, away from economism. 66 Of course, it is precisely such a
re-ordering of Marxism that Bloch’s thesis demands. But for
Thompson there can be no total assimilation to even a re-ordered
Marxism, because the ‘operative principles’ of utopia and Marxism are different. Utopia is the realm of desire, Marxism of
knowledge, and ‘one may not assimilate desire to knowledge’.67
Utopia and Marxism need to be dialectically related. This of
course is exactly what Bloch said about the warm and cold
streams of Marxism, the streams of passion and analysis. Depending on whether the element of passion/desire is located
within or outside Marxism, the problematic relationship is either
within Marxism itself or between Marxism and utopia. But it is
the same relationship and the same problem. In both cases, there
is an attempt to argue that dreaming is an activity necessary to
transcending our present sorry state, and that such dreams have
both an educative and a transformative function; that the goal of
that transformation is the transcendence of alienation; that art can
prefigure that experience (Bloch), and will be fundamental to its
realisation (Morris); and that these claims are, if not already
contained within Marxism, at least compatible with and a necessary adjunct to it.
While the influence of Gramsci on contemporary Marxism
means that there is much sympathy for the notion that the
development of an alternative common sense is necessary to
social transformation and indeed is part of it, this is not, of
course, a position without its critics. Marxists of an economistic
persuasion are likely to find the Marxism/utopia debate so much
idealistic hogwash and to prefer the bracing waters of the cold
stream. And there are of course some real problems, raised (if
perhaps overstated) by Perry Anderson in Arguments within
English Marxism. Anderson is sharply critical of the notion of
the education of desire, and the distinction between the principles of desire and knowledge. The phrase ‘to teach desire to
desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire in
” different way’ he rejects as ‘Parisian irrationalism’ (although,
as we have seen, it is scarcely exclusively Parisian).68 Behind this
xenophobic epithet, there are real objections which demand to be
taken seriously, for while it may not be irrational, it is plainly a
non-rational concept; the whole point is that the ‘rational’ categories of knowledge and analysis cannot contain human experience, and one must take account also of its non-rational aspects.
Yet the non-rational and the irrational may be difficult to distin:guish. Desire does not necessarily lead in a utopian direction, as
the anti-utopian lobby has pointed out with greater insistence
than acuity. The emphasis upon experience and feeling does
have real dangers, as shown by the close affinity between fascism and Sorel’ s notion of the heroic possession of the self.69 But
it is a problem clearly recognised by both Bloch and Thompson .
It is the reason why utopia is not simply about the expression and
pursuit of desire, but about its education, and why feeling and
experience must be constantly subjected to the discipline of
thought. Indeed, while one can conceive of a dialectical relationship between the rational and the non-rational, it is hard to
imagine any such relationship between the rational and the irrational.
Anderson also argues that the distinction between desire and
know ledge as posited by Thompson substitutes an ontological
for an historical explanation. Both Thompson and Bloch, it is
true, treat utopianism as arising from an oI1tological given.
Although the expressions of hope and desire are various and are
historically determined, their roots lie in the essential characteristics of human nature. It is a contentious claim, but not necessarily un-Marxist; even Marx worked with a notion of human nature
which assumed some aspects as given. More interestingly, Anderson suggests that the distinction between the principles of
desire and knowledge re-iterates the antithesis between Romanticism and Utilitarianism which he sees as expressed in News
from Nowhere, and which is undoubtedly reflected in the contrast between News from Nowhere and Looking Backward. For
Anderson, the real advance would be the supersession of this
conflict – which at the time he saw as provided by Rudolf
Bahro’s The Alternative in Eastern Europe a judgement difficult
to sustain in the light of Bahro’ s subsequent intellectual trajectory. However Anderson criticises Thompson, he is essentially
concurring in the judgement that synthesis is necessary – and,
since the opposition is historically contingent rather than ontologically given, possible.
Where, t11en, does this leave us? We have two separate but
essentiall! similar arguments about the need to make space
within or alongside Marxism for expressions of human aspiration whic!1 arise from feeling and may take many forms, including that of the dream. The importance of these fantasies of desire
is that the y are not simply escape attempts, but explorations of
perhaps possible futures, and particularly of the values which
would be necessary to a humanly satisfying future. Further, they
are necessary to motivate people to action; there is little impetus
to engage in a struggle for change unless there is a belief that the
world could, in identifiable ways, be made into a better place.
Without the sense of lack and of what is lacked, without wishful
thinking, there can be no will-full action. Both arguments focus
on feeling and experience as the criteria by which capitalism is
criticised and utopia evaluated; both are concerned primarily
with the transcendence of alienation.
It is this, as well as the regressive elements in Morris’s utopia,
which open not only Morris but Thompson, Abensour, Goode
and Bloch to charges of Romanticism. But why ‘charges’?
Romantic anti-capitalism was not only a major source of Morris’s revolutionary commitment, but also of Marx’ s, and the concept of alienation provides the connection between the analysis
of economic structures and human experience. It is hardly possible to argue that alienation is not a Marxist concept, although it
may cease to be one when it is interpreted in ways which sever
this link. Thus Michael Lowy argues that:
See Bloch’s discussion with Adomo in op. cit., pp. 8-12.
Hudson, op. cit., p. 51.
Bioch, The Principle of Hope, p. 249.
Ibid., p. 209.
Ibid., pp. 155-56
Ibid., p. 76.
W. Morris, News from Nowhere, Longmans, Green & Co.,
Ibid., p. 238.
A. L. Morton, Political Writings ofWilliam Morris, Lawrence
and Wishart, London, 1984, pp. 252-53.
Bloch, The Utopian Function ofArt and Literature, p. 71. This
section is in fact an excerpt from The Principle of Hope, but is
one of the few points at which the Zipes translation seems
E. P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary,
Merlin Press, London, 1977, p. 658.
William Morris, ‘Art under Plutocracy’ , cited in Thompson, op.
cit., p. 642.
Ibid., p. 647.
Vlilliam Morris, ‘The Lesser Arts’, in William Morris: Selected
l1 ritings, ed. G. D. H. Cole, Nonesuch Press, 1934, p. 515.
William Morris (with Belfort Bax), Socialism: Its Growth and
Outcome, 1893, p. 278.
Ci~ed in Thompson, op. cit., p. 656.
William Morris, ‘The Lesser Arts of Life’ and ‘The Deeper
Meaning of the Struggle’, cited in Thompson, op. cit., p. 657.
Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, p. 14.
William Morris, ‘How I became a Socialist’, cited in
Thompson, op. cit., p. 665.
R. P. Amot, WilliamMorris: A Vindication, 1934. More accessible is the same author’s William Morris: TJze Man and The
Myth, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1964.
Bloch, The Principle of Hope, p. 614.
A. L. Morton, The English Utopia, Lawrence and Wishart,
London, 1952. (Page references are to the 1969 paperback
! ‘id., p. 221.
l~orton, op. cit., p. 215; Thompson, op. cit., p. 695.
Thompson, p. 697.
f , Williams, Culture and Society, Chatto and Windus, London,
1158. (Page references are to the 1963 Penguin edition.)
Tbompson, op. cit., p. 785.
J. Ruskin, On the Nature ofGothic, quoted in Williams, op. cit.,
Williams, op. cit., p. 153.
Ibid., p. 161.
Thompson, op. cit., p. 792.
Bloch, The Utopian Function of Art and Literature, p. 41.
Thompson, op. cit., p. 779.
Ibid., p. 802.
P. Meier, William Morris: The Marxist Dreamer, Harvester,
~. ‘lssex, 1976, p. 53.
Ibid., p. 164.
1 ,id., p. xi
kid., p. 76
Marx’s own view is neither Romantic nor Utilitarian, but
the dialectical Aufhebung of both in anew, critical and
revolutionary weltanschauung. Neither apologetic of
bourgeois civilization nor blind to its achievements, he
aims at a higher form of social organization, which would
integrate both the technical advances of modem society
and some of the human qualities of pre-capitalist societies
– as well as opening a new and boundless field for the development and enrichment of human life. A new conception oflabor as a free, non-alienated, and creative activity
– as against the dull and narrow toil of mechanical industrial work – is a central feature of his socialist utopia.70
It seems that in so far as there is a problematic relationship
between Marxism and utopia, it does not hang on the question of
whether or not we should think about the future. Although it
often arises in this form, this is based on a misunderstanding and
is relatively easily dealt with. The real problem is how we should
think about the future, and specifically, how we should think
about feelings and about experience. The problem of Marxism
versus utopia manifests as a problem of Utilitarianism versus
Romanticism, knowledge versus desire, thought versus feeling.
In the form of Romanticism versus Utilitarianism, Lowy and
Anderson argue that Marx overcomes this antithesis, Thompson
that Morris does so, Anderson that Bahro does so. In the form of
knowledge versus desire and the cold and warm streams, Thompson and Bloch propose their dialectical relationship, stopping short of a synthesis which overcomes the difference and
tension between them. If some writers manage to synthesize the
two, it is a fragile synthesis, constantly in danger of disintegrating into its component parts, but one which must therefore
constantly be re-established.
See V. Geoghegan, Utopianism and Marxism, Methuen, London, 1987.
W. Hudson, The Marxist Philosophy of Ernst Bloch, Macmillan,London, 1982,p.90.
E. Bloch, The Principle ofHope, tr. N. Plaice, S. Plaice and Paul
Knight, Basil Blackwell, London, 1986, p. 197.
Ibid., p. 157.
Ibid., p. 197.
E. Bloch, The Utopian Function ofArt and Literature, tr. Jack
Zipes and Frank Mecklenburg, MIT Press, 1988, p. 42.
Ibid., p. 209.
Ibid., p. 11 0 1.
Ibid., p. 578.
BIoch, The Principle of Hope, p. 79.
J. Goode, ‘William Morris and the Dream of Revolution’, in J.
Lucas (ed.), Literature and Politics in the Nineteenth Century,
1971, p. 257.
Ibid., pp. 269-70.
Ibid., p. 273.
Ibid., p. 274.
Ibid., p. 277.
Cited in Zipes’ introduction to Bloch, The Utopian Function of
Art and Literature, p. xxxiii.
.Thompson (glossing Abensour, whose work is not available in
English), op. cit., p. 790.
Ibid., p. 790-91.
R. ‘Villiams, ‘Utopia and Science Fiction’ in Problems in
M,;lerialism and Culture, Verso, London, 1980, p. 203.
Thumpson, op. cit., p. 793.
BIoch, The Principle of Hope, pp,146-47.
Ibid., p. 791.
Ibid., p. 806.
Ibid., p. 807.
P. Anderson, Arguments within English Marxism, Verso, London, 1980, p. 161.
G. SoreI, Reflections on Violence, passim.
M. LOwy, ‘The Romantic and the Marxist critique of modem
civilization’, Theory and Society 16,1987, p. 900.
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