The Return of the Utopians

From The New Yorker: What today’s movements for social and economic reform can learn from the intentional communities of the nineteenth century.

Five hundred years ago, a man who condoned torture, religious persecution, and burning at the stake wrote a book about the perfect world. In “On the Best Kind of a Republic and About the New Island of Utopia” (the book’s full title, translated from Latin), Sir Thomas More envisaged a paradise where men and women could choose their religion, without fear of violence or coercion. In practice, as Lord Chancellor of England, More oversaw the burning of at least six Protestants and the jailing of some forty. One merchant was tortured in More’s own home, and tied so tightly to a tree that blood reportedly flowed from his eyes. More referred to it as “the Tree of Truth.”

Contradiction and hypocrisy have always hovered over the utopian project, shadowing its promise of a better world with the sordid realities of human nature. Plato, in the Republic, perhaps the earliest utopian text, outlined a form of eugenics that would have been right at home in the Third Reich—which was itself a form of utopia, as were the Gulag of Soviet Communism, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and, more recently, the blood-and-sand caliphate of isis. “There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia,” the French economist and futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote.

The twentieth century was perhaps the cruellest for utopian hopes. “Innumerable millions of human beings were killed in this century in the name of utopia,” the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz reminded his audience, at a 1986 pen conference. In a 2007 polemic, “Black Mass,” John Gray proclaimed “the death of utopia.” Indeed, utopia’s name has become so tarnished that it has recently been used almost interchangeably with its evil twin, dystopia—a word coined by John Stuart Mill, three and a half centuries after the publication of More’s book, to describe a society that was “too bad to be practicable.”

Now the tide may have shifted. As the literary Marxist Fredric Jameson observes, “In the last years, utopia has again changed its meaning and has become the rallying cry for left and progressive forces.” A slew of books have arrived to celebrate the utopian spirit, notably two on the history of utopia in the United States. Erik Reece’s “Utopia Drive” is a travelogue through the ghosts of America’s nineteenth-century intentional communities. In Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Virginia, New York, and Massachusetts, Reece visits the remains of a handful of utopian settlements and towns, mining their histories to reflect on the present. Chris Jennings’s “Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism,” a historical account of five utopian projects, is more firmly rooted in the past. Both books seek to capture the spirit of what Jennings calls “a long, sunny season of American utopianism”—a period of about a century, roughly bookended by the optimism of American independence and the butchery of the Civil War.

Neither author is blind to the shortcomings of his subject. Jennings is attuned to the latent “terror and repression” in the utopian project. Reece has a sharp eye for the contradictions of communities that condemn the capitalist economy but are sustained by vibrant commercial enterprises. The founders of these communities—a colorful cast of prophets, dreamers, and narcissists—preach against private property and possessions as they jealously guard their own. “One thing we can say about the seductive visionaries who led the utopian movement in America,” Reece notes dryly, “is that they did not lead the most self-examined lives.”

Despite the caveats, the over-all tone of both books is enthusiastic, even laudatory. Set against the general opprobrium that has tarred utopia in the twentieth century, these are works of intellectual and political rehabilitation. Jennings laments “a deficit of imagination” in our era, and argues that, “uncoupled from utopian ends, even the most incisive social critique falls short.” Reece likewise ends his travels convinced “that things will only get worse if we don’t engage in some serious utopian thinking.” For Reece, in particular, the process of rehabilitation is an explicitly political project—an attempt to exhume the lessons of the past in order to frame an alternative to the economic, environmental, and political despair of recent times. Sitting in a hammock in the intentional community of Twin Oaks, in Virginia, he reads More’s “Utopia” and thinks of Bernie Sanders. Driving toward what remains of the community of Modern Times, on Long Island, he decries “Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Agra, Big Pharma” and the “corporate vandals” who “pollute the commons.” Although their books are formally about nineteenth-century intentional communities, both Reece and Jennings tap into an altogether more contemporary strand of post-crisis (i.e., post-2008) economic and political discourse.

A rejuvenated Marxism underlies much of this thinking. In fact, Marx and Engels were dismissive of nineteenth-century bourgeois “utopian socialism,” contrasting it with their own “scientific socialism.” Yet many of the principles championed by these communities—collectivism, egalitarianism, the rejection of capitalism and individualism—reflect a softer version of Communism: what Benjamin Kunkel has described as “Marxish” thought. As Fredric Jameson notes in his manifesto “An American Utopia,” now republished, along with several commentaries, in book form, modern-day utopians embrace “Marxism as a negative and critical analysis of capitalism, without any longer being attracted to the cultural, social, and political traditions established over a century by the communist movement.”

One sign of how far political rhetoric has shifted in recent years is that when Reece and Jennings write about “secular communism” or the “communistic” tendencies of these projects they are writing in celebration, instead of lamenting an ideology that tyrannized vast swaths of the planet. Not long ago, utopianism was a mark of naïveté or fanaticism, or even of solidarity with political coercion; today, anti-utopianism is denigrated as a form of political cynicism and complicity with the global forces of oppression.

Utopias come in waves. The era that Reece and Jennings write about represents an early heyday of American idealism. For ambitious young men of the nascent Republic, utopia schemes were the apps of their day. “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. The nineteen-thirties witnessed a short-lived flowering of New Deal utopias, government-created coöperatives built to generate employment; the next big wave was in the sixties. Each of these periods was marked by a sense of tumult, of cultural and financial dislocation, much like the present. Jennings writes that “literature is a sensitive indicator of utopian sentiment.” Could these books—along with the other recent utopian books—offer guidance for a grand new moment of social reform?

Oneida, in central New York, was one of the most prominent, and promising, of these communities. It was founded in 1848 by a mercurial Vermont-based preacher named John Humphrey Noyes, whose followers pooled their resources and bought a hundred and sixty acres of land on the Oneida Reserve, named for a local Indian tribe. They set about realizing Noyes’s vision of “Bible Communism,” believing that Christ had already made his Second Coming (“like a thief in the night,” as the Bible puts it), and that humans were thus living free of sin, with the responsibility to create a perfect world.

The pursuit of Perfectionism, as the doctrine was called, led to a number of unorthodox practices, notably “complex marriage” and “sexual communism,” which were essentially coinages for radical polyamory and free love. (Utopia is very good at rebranding existing human behaviors.) Underlying Oneida’s quirky sexual norms was, in fact, a set of deeply progressive beliefs in collective ownership and equality, notably for women.

Oneida was sustained by a robust communal economy, built around the manufacture of animal traps and silverware. Just as Noyes and his followers opposed any form of private property in this economy, so they were against the ownership of people, particularly in the form of marriage (which they saw as a means of patriarchal control) and slavery. In an 1850 Oneidan pamphlet titled “Slavery and Marriage: A Dialogue,” one character argues that each was an “arbitrary institution and contrary to natural liberty.” Women in Oneida were free to choose lovers and jobs (e.g., as carpenters) in a manner that was elsewhere shut off to them. Noyes wasn’t exactly a feminist, but he helped create an environment that was among the most emancipatory for women.

A similarly vanguardist outlook characterized almost all the places that Reece and Jennings write about. Their books are exemplars of historical reconstruction, and they vividly bring to life the ecological sensitivity, inclusiveness, and egalitarianism that inspired so many in early America. A significant number of these communities treated women (and a few even African-Americans) as equals; almost all set out to erase barriers of economic class and conventional hierarchy. It was a time of remarkable ferment and innovation, marked by what Jennings, who has a gift for the striking phrase, calls a belief that “society seemed like something to be invented, rather than merely endured.”

Of course, all along there were forebodings, hints of the injuries and iniquities that so often seem to accompany utopias. For all the idealism, daily life in these “heavens on earth”—to borrow the title of Mark Holloway’s classic 1951 work on American utopias—rarely managed to rise above the mundanities that mark most human settlements: financial shenanigans, nepotism, authoritarianism, envy, sexual exploitation. The Icarians, of Nauvoo, Illinois, instituted a “moral purge,” complete with a network of spies, designed to cleanse the community of imperfections. In Oneida, parents were separated from their young offspring, in an effort to break attachments that could deviate from communal solidarity (“stickiness,” in another Oneidan coinage). Children, passive receptacles for their parents’ life choices, are always the worst victims of such communities.

Over all, though, the biggest problem—at least, in any attempt to harness these nineteenth-century projects to twenty-first-century reforms—is one less of evil than of ineffectuality. A spectre hangs over these places—the spectre of failure. In 1879, under external and internal pressures to conform, Oneida voted to adopt traditional marriage practices. The next year, it abandoned the principle of collective ownership, converting itself into a joint-stock company that went on to become a major silverware manufacturer. Shares in the company were allocated according to members’ initial contributions (as well as time spent in the community), in a stroke undoing the equality that had originally characterized communal life. Noyes was in exile at this point, having fled threatened legal action over the community’s sexual practices. A mere three decades in, the dream was effectively over.

Virtually all these utopian communities met the same fate. Reece ends his book with a cry to action: “We can head out today toward the utopia of reconstruction. We can build the road as we travel.” Readers of these books might be forgiven for thinking that this road is something of a dead end. None of the five places that Jennings writes about remain in existence. Of the many that Reece travels through, only one, Twin Oaks, survives in anything even vaguely resembling its initial form. The small number that haven’t disappeared are now tourist attractions or bourgeois housing settlements—“a toy town, an ersatz version of the original dream,” as Reece puts it, visiting what remains of New Harmony, in Indiana.

The issue isn’t just that these communities failed to achieve the lasting, epochal change that they often envisioned. Even at their height, they never reached a critical mass, remaining instead scattered and mostly minuscule attempts at social tinkering—Trialville, as one called itself, in an uncharacteristic burst of modesty. Oneida, at its apogee, numbered some three hundred people. Walking around the Twin Oaks settlement one day, Reece asks a man how far he thinks the community’s collectivist economy could grow. “I’d say it can’t go beyond a thousand people,” the man ventures.

This is delicate territory for utopians. There is a sense in which failure is baked into the very idea of utopia; the goal of a perfect world—a holiday from history—is intrinsically self-undermining. The literature, consequently, ties itself in anxious knots. Ruth Levitas, a luminary in the academic field of utopian studies, writes defensively about “the elision between perfection and impossibility” employed by critics who dismiss the practicality of utopias. Reece thinks that, “as a culture, we need them to fail because that failure affirms the inevitability of the dominant economy, with its attendant violence, inequality, and injustice.” Contemplating the now extinct Shakers of Pleasant Hill, Kentucky, he argues that there are “simply no criteria by which we can say that [they] failed.” Instead, “we might say, in retrospect, that the larger American culture failed them.”

Fair enough; there’s always plenty of blame to go around. But the serial collapse and the sheer insubstantiality of these projects brings to mind Thomas Macaulay’s jibe that an acre of Middlesex is worth more than a principality in Utopia. The heart wants such worthy causes to succeed, looking to them hopefully for solutions to our contemporary dilemmas. The head can’t turn away from reality. At a certain point, it becomes impossible to resist asking, What is it that makes the noble ideas embodied in these communities so fragile, and so apparently unattractive?

Arthur C. Clarke had one answer. “The newspapers of Utopia . . . would be terribly dull,” he wrote in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, who, like so many of her Eastern European compatriots, lived through the ravages of two dystopian utopias, hints at some deeper possibilities. In her poem “Utopia,” she writes of an “Island where all becomes clear,” where “Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley,” and where “The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple, / sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.” And yet:

For all its charms, the island is uninhabited,

and the faint footprints scattered on its beaches

turn without exception to the sea.

As if all you can do here is leave

and plunge, never to return, into the depths.

Into unfathomable life.

There is a moment early in Reece’s journey when he is having a meal of snap peas and fried chicken with his wife at Pleasant Hill. The waitress has a hickey on her neck. Conversation turns to Shaker injunctions against sex. “That’s crazy,” Reece’s wife says. “Why build something this beautiful and then tell people they can’t have sex here. It’s not natural.”

Utopians tend to be skeptical when it comes to talk of human nature and, indeed, of humanism in any recognizable form. They contest our assumptions about what’s “natural.” Yet, as the portraits in these books indicate, those dreary assumptions win out every time. Utopias are, in the philosopher Leszek Kołakowski’s phrase, “anti-human.”

Sex—more specifically, the urge to procreate and nurture a family—has proved to be one reliable trip wire. Many of these communities sought to regulate conjugal relations. They are not alone: think of China’s one-child policy, or of early Soviet efforts to dismantle the institution of marriage. If the Oneidans and their sexual communism occupied one end of the spectrum, the Shakers were at the other. They tried to address the same anxiety harbored by the Oneidans—that private ties would trump communal solidarity—by banning sexual relations. Both approaches were fighting some powerful headwinds. Oneida nearly collapsed amid accusations of statutory rape and squabbles over the allocation of virgins. The course chosen by the Shakers was, quite evidently, the surest way to extinction.

Today’s utopians are less interested in sex than in the economy—specifically, in hastening the downfall of capitalism. More than a century and a half after Marx and Engels predicted that capitalism would collapse under the weight of its own contradictions, contemporary neo-Marxists maintain a dogged faith in the ephemerality of the modern economic system. “The starting point of the entire analysis is that capitalism is going to end,” Peter Frase, an editor at Jacobin, writes in an upcoming book, “Four Futures: Life After Capitalism.” We can think of these two ambitions—reinvented sex and a remade economy—as the twin pillars of the utopian project.

In fact, the example of America’s nineteenth-century intentional communities suggests that there is something elemental in what John Maynard Keynes, writing during the Great Depression, called “the resilience of capitalism.” Nearly every utopia in these books begins with a determination to create a new economy, usually through some amalgam of collective ownership, central planning, and voluntary labor. Yet egoism, acquisitiveness, competitiveness, and all the other ills of human flesh bob repeatedly to the surface, like a cork that will not be submerged.

Twin Oaks, inspired by B. F. Skinner’s “Walden Two” (1948), was founded on a behaviorist faith that mankind could be molded by “a positive, healthy environment” and could elevate community over the individual. Yet when Reece visits a Twin Oaks spinoff, Acorn, what he encounters suggests that age-old dilemmas of human motivation and incentives are not so easily overcome: some people are shirking work, others are complaining about the need for more “accountability” and a “system to make sure everyone is pulling their fair share.” Similarly, in Oneida the twin pillars of sexual communism and collective ownership give way in quick sequence, suggesting their fragile interdependence. Family life opens the door to self-dealing clannishness: parents hoard for their children; siblings and spouses favor one another over the collective.

Such moments—along with the repeated tensions over sex, property, and labor, which rent nearly all these places—are reminders that their inhabitants, for all their efforts at transcendence, stubbornly remain status-seeking, gene-propagating, and, quite simply, selfish creatures. As one member of Oneida wrote, in a lucid assessment of the community’s decline, “Every serious student of social problems has discovered that possessiveness in sex and family relations makes economic communism unattainable.”

Oneida, and especially the manner of its ending, is worth revisiting. Reece and Jennings largely cover the period from its founding until its incorporation, in 1880, but the story doesn’t actually end there. A fuller treatment of Oneida’s history, stretching over more than a century, can be found in another recent book, “Oneida: From Free-Love Utopia to the Well-Set Table,” by Ellen Wayland-Smith, who also happens to be a descendant of Noyes. (Owing to the community’s principled promiscuity, he had many descendants.)

Assembled from diaries, personal correspondence, and family recollections, Wayland-Smith’s book is a lively and often entertaining account. Sexual communism lends itself to some raunchy passages. “Tirzah Miller liked to have sex,” begins one chapter, which goes on to quote a description of an encounter from Miller’s diary: “There was a wonderful glow and ache between us. . . .We seemed all aflame. We hurried to the house, and then he wanted me to come to his room. Ecstasy.”

But the core of the book is really an account of Oneida’s many incarnations over the years and, in particular, of its evolution from a group at the radical fringe to a large corporation catering to middle-class fantasies of sophistication and class distinction. In the decades after its incorporation, Oneida Limited (as it was now known) became one of America’s most profitable silverware companies—“an economic powerhouse and a leader in the field of industrial relations,” as Wayland-Smith puts it. Initially, the company tried to hold on to some vestiges of its founding idealism, by paying more progressive wages, among other things. By the nineteen-sixties, when an “efficiency expert” was brought in and the company was listed on the New York Stock Exchange, even these trace principles were a distant memory. The nineteen-eighties and successive decades saw efforts to professionalize management and a string of acquisitions that loaded the company with debt. Predictably, this all led to bankruptcy, in 2006, and the company’s dissolution was accompanied, Wayland-Smith writes, by the termination of one of its workers’ pension plans. Oneida’s founding idealism, she concludes, “had been made a mockery.”

This passage—from radicalism to conventionality, from communal socialism to sharp-elbowed corporatism—makes for a fascinating, if somewhat depressing, read. In Wayland-Smith’s extended chronicle, we see utopia as it sails through the world, assaulted on all sides by the forces of assimilation and greed. But, for all the idiosyncrasies of this particular story, the broader contours are in fact quite familiar. Wayland-Smith bemoans the “loss of energy and imagination behind the original dream,” the descent into “middle-class smallness” and “conformity.” This is the trajectory of so many of the utopias in these books and, indeed, throughout history.

There is an element of reinventing the wheel here, a sense that Oneida, in its crawl toward monogamy, dynastic families, and mercantile (and mercenary) capitalism, was simply reverting to something like a human mean. The circle of our aspirations is not easily reconciled with the square of our human propensities. Over and over, optimistically and stubbornly, commendably but maybe also a bit foolishly, utopia just seems to take a long and circuitous route to the same, inevitable destination.

Have I been unfair to utopia? An acquaintance who spent several decades of his life working and living in an intentional community much like the ones in these books told me once that utopia was all a matter of perspective. The final, articulated goal remains always just out of reach. But a lot of good can nonetheless result from aiming for that goal. Small victories mark the path to ultimate failure. Utopia is always susceptible to the tyranny of high expectations, but it was up to each individual, my friend said, to decide whether to focus on the victories or on the failure.

This seems close to the perspective taken by Reece and by Jennings, and by at least some of their fellow-travellers on the new left. Jennings writes that “the mere contemplation of an ideal polis . . . is a civic act.” Reece approvingly quotes a man who tells him that utopia is “always a disappearing horizon.” In this view, utopia is “less a blueprint than a direction,” as a recent article in Jacobin put it. We live in unjust and uncertain times, utopia’s contemporary enthusiasts seem to be saying. Surely these nineteenth-century communities have much to teach us about daring to imagine alternatives, about interrupting what may seem like the ineluctable march of history.

As always with utopia, the sentiment is irreproachable. But imagining is the easy part. It is what happens after the imagining—the movement from what Ernst Bloch called “abstract utopia” to “concrete utopia”—that is most concerning. Modern-day utopians are not blind to the lessons of history. Many of them see the limits posed by human nature, and recognize that utopia has always veered between evil and futility. Yet, at least implicitly, they seem to view the price of utopia—the disruptions of sweeping change, the inevitable turmoil of total overhaul—worth paying. “A revolution is not a dinner party,” as Mao put it.

But what if there were another way? What if lasting change could happen without all the violence and disillusionment and just sheer drama that always seems to accompany utopia? What if the real way forward weren’t a great leap but grinding, tedious, unglamorously incremental change—what George Eliot called “meliorism”?

The zealous conviction of utopians that the present must be erased, rather than built upon, fuels their denunciations of pragmatic incrementalism. It leads them to belittle the energies of reformism, and to obscure the truth that change and reform do occur, even if in a halting and often unfathomable manner. Few, if any, major improvements in recent decades—the spread of democracy, say, or the halving of extreme poverty, or the expansion of women’s and L.G.B.T. rights—can be attributed to utopianism. (In fact, the first of these was helped along by the collapse of the twentieth century’s most prominent utopian project.) Aiming not at perfection but at improvement, accepting the vagaries of human nature as a premise that policy must accommodate, rather than wish away, meliorism forces a longer, more calibrated approach. It is not a path for the impatient, but it has the verdict of history on its side. The utopian has a better story to tell; the meliorist leaves us with a better world. ♦

Akash Kapur, the author of “India Becoming,” is writing a book set in the intentional community of Auroville, in India, where he grew up.

Leave a Comment

Comments may be edited for clarity or other reasons