Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

The road to utopia

Note: This appeared as the weekend editorial in the Times-Record.

The utopian ideal, the belief that something close to heaven can be created on earth, has been part of the fabric of the American national character since the beginning of our country.

The colonies of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were founded in the 17th century on differing visions of what a Christian utopia should look like. In the 19th century the Mormons established their own utopia in the west, later brought into the union, not entirely voluntarily as the state of Utah.

Pamphleteer of the American Revolution Tom Paine, expressed that part of our makeup in 'Common Sense,' “We have it in our power, to begin the world anew.”

From the founding of our nation, utopian idealists started to take off into the wide open spaces of the west with groups of like-minded individuals to build models of what the good society would look like. They expected their success would convince the world to follow their lead into utopia.

Their efforts were opposed by Karl Marx, who despised “utopian socialists” and preached the only road to utopia was through world revolution.

There were literally hundreds of attempts to found intentional communities throughout the 19th century. Most failed in short order.

Businessman Robert Owen bought a town from the Rappite religious community in Harmony Indiana and founded the secular socialist community of New Harmony in 1825. It folded in less than three years. The Rappites themselves lasted as a communal sect until 1906 though.

In 1843 Bronson Alcott, father of novelist Louisa May Alcott, founded Fruitlands, whose members ate only fruit that fell naturally from trees and wouldn't bathe in heated water. It lasted until winter set in.

Brook Farm was founded in 1841 on vaguely socialist ideals of combining a life of manual labor with artistic and intellectual pursuits. The community, which included famous members such as Nathanial Hawthorne, was by most accounts a pleasant enough place, remembered fondly by people who lived there. But it fell heavily into debt and closed in 1847.

There were longer-lasting attempts. Some survived for a few generations, some blended into the mainstream of American society, others still thrive as subcultures among America's “peculiar peoples.”

The Amish, Mennonites, Hutterites, and the Amana community, offshoots of the 16th century German pietistic movement, transplanted to America to escape persecution.

The Amish, Mennonites and Hutterites survive as religious communities. The Amana communities reorganized as a joint-stock company in the 1930s, manufacturing household goods.

The Oneida free-love community founded in 1848 in New York became the Oneida silverware company, whose stockholders and board of directors seem rather embarrassed by their wild ancestors.

Their polar opposites, the celibate Shakers, survive though greatly diminished as one might expect.

The Individualist Anarchist community of Modern Times on Long Island eventually became a more-or-less normal community with a strong tolerance for eccentricity, now known as Brentwood.

It's easy to laugh at these people now. How naive and impractical the intellectuals of Fruitlands and Brook Farm now seem, to dive headlong into farm life without a clue about how to run a successful farm!

Yet, to me there is something appealing about them. Today those who would build the world anew disdain the idea of say, allowing the states to try different reforms of health care, welfare, etc to see which ideas prove workable. They have no patience with local, piecemeal, step-by-step approaches to reform.

Unlike our modern utopians who insist we overhaul our national institutions RIGHT NOW, the 19th century utopians took a more humble approach. They tried to demonstrate on a small scale how their ideals would work first. Most failed, but then that's the nature of experiments.

But the next time you use a flat broom, circular saw, or clothespin – thank the Shakers who invented them. And maybe we should remember that utopia means “no place.”


  • At 6:38 PM, Blogger Ted Amadeus said…

    Many, like Jim Jones and V. I. Lenin, who tried to bring Heaven on Earth, ended up unleashing hell instead.
    Lots of people in Washington D.C. would like U.S. to forget those not so little nor harmless "experiments".
    The more complete the surrender of individual autonomy, liberty and responsibility in a community, the more assured its failure will be.

  • At 6:48 AM, Blogger martinm said…

    I don't suppose anyone has bothered to keep a detailed log of what worked and what didn't, on their trek to utopia? It'd be nice to know some of the details.

  • At 7:31 AM, Blogger Steve said…

    No detailed logs that I know of, but I found some pretty good summaries when I was researching the subject.

    For an interesting take on the socialist experiment at New Harmony, read Josiah Warren.

    Warren was a veteran of New Harmony who went on to found the anarchist community of Modern Times.

    The successful (small 'c') communistic societies I found, all had certain characteristics in common.

    1) They are, without exception, religious.

    2) They have something like a uniform, all members dress alike, only differing by sex.

    3) They never exceed a few hundred people per community, before they have to split and colonize elsewhere.

    4) Though they may participate quite successfully in the capitalist economy (Hutterite competition in agriculture is often fiercely resented by neighboring farmers) they can't seem to deal with money from investment interest or patents. It seems to destabilize their communities.

    5) They are gerontocracies. If you want a position of power in the community, basically what you have to do is live long enough.

    The complex-marriage community of Oneida is remarkable for having lasted as long as it did, before founder John Humphrey Noyes adivsed them to abandon the institution after fleeing a morals charge.

    I have my own crackpot notion as to how they managed to make a notoriously unstable arrangement last as long as it did. Perhaps another time.

  • At 1:27 PM, Blogger TGGP said…

    Have you heard of Daniel Flynn's "Conservative History of the American Left"? He considers the old proto-hippie communalists the "freedom left", contrasted with the European-derived (often Marxist) "force left".

  • At 3:39 PM, Blogger commoncents said…

    Great post - I really like your blog!!

    ps. Link Exchange?

  • At 6:09 PM, Blogger dchamil said…

    "The successful societies I found all had certain characteristics in common." Here's another: Often they have a separate language, e.g., Pennsylvania Dutch.

  • At 4:44 PM, Blogger Steve said…

    And around here we see the Hutterites come to town to go shopping, or have a meal at Hardees, speaking what sounds kind of like German.


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