All Commentary
Wednesday, March 1, 1972

Utopia: Dream into Nightmare

Despite their best efforts to create "perfect" societies, utopians have routinely discovered to their sorrow that men are not angels.


A former lecturer in philosophy at Tufts College, Dr. Winston has written extensively in the field of history. His most recent book is No Man Knows My Grave: Privateers and Pirates, 1665-1715.

Plato fathered the first blueprint of a planned society, and his descendants still clasp us in a sticky embrace while they rifle our freedoms. His Republic mapped out a spartan state run by benevolent philosophers, defended by a secondary caste of warriors, and supplied with the necessities of life by a mass of farmer artisans whose only political role was to obey. He did away with two obstacles to the ordered state: private property and the family. In the Republic each citizen performs that task for which he is fitted; the lowly toiler’s ignorance is his bliss; and all parts of the body politic function together in well-oiled harmony.

Thomas More’s Utopia (Greek for “noplace”) in 1516 gave the name to this whole type of literature. A spate of others followed: Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), Campanella’s City of the Sun (1623); Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), to cite a few; then a growing flood rising from the French Revolution and spreading amidst the industrial turmoil of the nineteenth century (Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward, 1888, being the most popular); and on to our own day in such projections of the future as H.G. Wells’ Modern Utopia (1905) and B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (1948).

They number by the score, and their variety in detail is as great. The majority rely on rule by an aristocracy of merit, a few try to preserve a modicum of democracy; most are communistic, but one at least (Hertzka’s Freelands, 1890) recognizes self-interest as basic and aims to save capitalism by restraint on overproduction. They may be secular or religious, agricultural or industrial, favorable to education or distrustful of it, resolutely egalitarian or frankly hierarchical.

Common Assumptions

However, certain elements of these multiform visions emerge with such frequency that they deserve our attention. The utopian pictures a static society in which careful planning solves every major problem of human life. Faith is placed in a collectivity that owns or controls all property. Competition for markets or jobs vanishes. Family ties diminish, and the rearing of children by the state is taken for granted. Everything is rationally ordered by those most capable of doing so: Plato’s guardians, More’s king and his advisers, Bacon’s Solomon’s House scientists, Bellamy’s industrial council, Wells’ austere samurai, Saint-Simon’s Council of Newton, Campanella’s quartet of superior men, Skinner’s panel of psychologists.

In utopia everyone works, the women on equal terms with the men. Hours are short — four to six daily—and retirement as early as age fifty, but the wants of the people have a stoic simplicity, and all enjoy a decent living. There is little to quarrel over, the atmosphere is uniformly brotherly, crime is almost unknown and disease rare — a perfect whole of perfect parts, all supremely content. “Utopia,” the noplace, is plainly “eutopia” the happy place.

But how to get there? Utopians had no answer to that, and avoided the question. They sprang their flawless states fullarmed from the inkpot, always somewhere else — a distant island, an obscure wilderness, another planet — or at a dim future time. The transition from a callous, exploitive society, its people already deformed by prevalent evil, to one of affection and universal sharing, struck the utopians dumb. Their residue of hope rested in a double view of human nature. They mixed these two elements at will, for each one favored a regeneration of man’s sorry existence. In one they saw man fundamentally good (but perverted by a debasing environment); in the other they saw man quite plastic, molded to the last detail by his surroundings. Either way, the right society would very quickly set men right.

A combination of circumstances after 1800 convinced social idealists that the time was ripe for bringing heaven to earth. The French Revolution had produced a new crop of theorists, the long hours and short pay of the early factory system promised to grind down the poor, and overseas the American republic offered a haven for all who wanted to try something better than mankind had ever known. “Our fathers have not seen it,” said Saint-Simon; “our children will arrive there one day, and it is for us to clear the way for them.”

American Experiments

The result was more than 130 attempts to establish utopian societies in the United States during the nineteenth century. A ferment of change filled the air, even in staid New England. “We are all a little wild here with numerous projects of social reform,” Emerson wrote to Carlyle. “Not a reading man but has a draft of a new community in his waistcoat pocket.” Many of the settlements were European in origin as well as theory; some seeking escape from religious persecution, others imbued with recent secular plans for utopia; but all drawn by the cheap land of the American frontier and the easy tolerance of the young republic that had thrown off the shackles of old Europe and considered itself the vehicle of the new age. At last the utopians had before them something very like the fabulous island of the old dreamers. In America they could found minuscule states, as self-sufficient as possible, based on common ownership of property, filled with the brotherly spirit, and isolated from contamination by the outside world. “Our ulterior aim,” said young Charles Dana of Brook Farm, “is nothing less than heaven on earth.”

As might be expected, some of these starry-eyed experiments were simply preposterous. At Fruitlands that “tedius archangel” Bronson Alcott would not harness workhorses to the plow (unnatural), nor allow sugar (reaped by slaves), nor wear woolen cloth (robbed from sheep), nor spread manure on the fields (filthy stuff), nor burn whale-oil lamps (from slaughtered whales). Shakers led by an illiterate factory girl hailed as “Ann the Word” were strictly celibate, and regulated the lives of the faithful down to such details as what shoe to put on first in dressing, and which trouser leg to step into. An irresistible little fellow in Michigan got himself proclaimed James I of Zion by 2,000 adherents and five wives; “King Benjamin” of the House of David announced that he was the younger brother of Jesus Christ; the final verdict in the early days of the Amana settlement rested with an oracular Werkzeug whose utterances came straight from God; the ruler of a Florida colony taught that we all live inside the earth, our feet on its inner surface. The Lake Erie  Brotherhood of the New Life gave major attention to the sisterhood, in the belief that: “Soul-life and sex-life are at one, In the Divine their pulses run.”

Robert Owen and Charles Fourier

Founders of other perfectionist settlements were more sincere and a bit less silly. Robert Owen, a successful English textile manufacturer, believed community of property essential to the good life, and was sure that the individual is totally shaped by his environment. In 1825 he bought up the extensive holdings of a religious community that was moving from Harmony, Indiana. The 900 who flocked in at his open invitation seemed to Owen’s son a “heterogeneous collection of radicals, enthusiastic devotees to principle, honest latitudinarians and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in.” Owen’s communal system gave full vent to their shabby ways. They couldn’t run anything properly—flour mill, saw mill, tannery or smithy—and their only solution to problems of production was to write another constitution or make another speech. The industrious soon tired of supporting the idle. From the Nashoba, Tennessee Owenite settlement, leader Frances Wright informed Owen that “cooperation has nigh killed us all,” and departed. Within two years every Owenite venture, fourteen in all, disintegrated.

Disciples of the unsmiling Frenchman Charles Fourier set up no less than twenty-seven American experiments. Fourier based his utopian ideal less on man’s malleability than on his fundamental goodness. The twelve passions, which he carefully listed and classified, would act in perfect harmony with each other and with society as a whole if given a chance. Let people gather into phalanxes” of some 2,000 members, housed communally in one huge “phalanstery” lying in a spread of 1,600 acres owned in common. Let each choose the work he wished to do. Pay the highest wage for disagreeable but necessary labor, less for the more attractive, and least for work that was downright pleasurable. Bring all goods produced to a single warehouse, where they could be purchased with worktickets. In Fourier’s ample vision all mankind would finally be gathered into three million phalanxes, coordinated by an Omniarch in Constantinople.

Fourier-inspired communes quickly died of dissension, ineptitude, and sheer tomfoolery. An attempt to use some Fourier principles dealt the final blow to the most charming and humane of all the utopian experiments, Brook Farm. The Farm was owned in shares; it intended to support itself by voluntary labor at an equal wage for all (ten cents an hour), and have plenty of time left over for culture. Some choice souls sought refuge there: The Rev. George Ripley, founder; Nathaniel Hawthorne, who soon discovered that forking manure ten hours a day was not conducive to literature; George Curtis, later to edit Harper’s; and Isaac Hecker, a humble German who became a priest and instituted the Paulist Fathers. Good families sent their boys down to be prepared for Harvard at the Farm school.

Into this idyllic but financially precarious community of like minds swept a voluble enthusiast for Fourier, Albert Brisbane. He convinced them that their happy anarchy wouldn’t work. They must organize. Tasks were specialized on Fourier principles; a Sacred Legion took on the dirtier jobs; unequal wages replaced equal pay; work became compulsory; uneducated artisans came in with their ignorant and sharp-tongued wives; and before long the genial spirit that had held Brook Farm together evaporated. Six years after its beginning in 1841 the Farm was sold to West Roxbury (Mass.) for an alms house, thus passing, in the words of one observer, from “the highest ideal” to “the lowest actual.”

Two That Remain

Two utopian communes have the distinction of remaining, though much altered, to the present day. In 1848 John Humphrey Noyes settled fifty one Perfectionists along Oneida Creek near Utica, New York, an area so filled with fiery religious fanatics that wits called it “the burned over district.” A slab chinned fellow with a scraggly beard and bleating voice, Noyes was nevertheless personally impressive, and a canny manager of people. He quipped that too many agricultural communes had “run aground,” and set out to make Oneida industrial. The growing membership (an average of 250) canned farm produce for the market, made traveling bags and a special type of steel trap, spun silk, silver plated dinnerware, and prospered.

Noyes’ word was law. He rested it on divine inspiration, and exerted pressure so gently that no one thought him despotic. The individual at Oneida had no life apart from the community — property in common, personal acts under common scrutiny, sexual sharing on the theory that monogamy was un-Christian “claiming.” The women said that they belonged to God first and Noyes next, an order of precedence that they in fact reversed. A system of selective breeding called “stirpiculture” admitted only the most fit to parenthood. Children lived apart, rarely seen by their parents.

For thirty years Oneida adhered to the original plan. By 1880 Noyes had aged; the religious spirit that he had evoked flickered; the young revolted at the idea of sharing spouses and surrendering their children. The commune converted to a joint stock company in an effort to avoid collapse, but its old habits were too ingrained. In 1890 P.B. Noyes, one of the founder’s “stirpiculture” sons (he sired ten) saved the community by transforming it into a typical well run American business. He concentrated on silverware, cut costs, emphasized teamwork, hustled, advertised, and competed. Today Oneida differs in no essential from any other enlightened manufacturing firm.

Where Oneida chose industry, the Amana community of Iowa remained rural, and even more pervasively religious. Eight hundred Germans of the “True Inspiration” sect established it in 1854 on 26,000 choice acres, seven villages spread in a circle around the central one. Every member surrendered all his capital to the common fund (if he left, he got it back with interest) and in return was guaranteed his necessities for life. Under the rule of church elders the maxim, “obey, without reasoning, God, and through God your superiors,” kept members in line. Amana supplied its own needs — weavers, cobblers, tailors, watchmakers, pharmacies, print shop — and exported only high grade woolen cloth. As much as possible the members ignored the world around them, even hiring outsiders to serve in the hotel lest their own girls be corrupted.

By 1900 Amana’s piety had waned. Without the invigorating spur of competition the economy lagged badly. In 1932 it became a joint stock company intent on profit. A business manager brought in from the outside trimmed the labor force of its hired hands, closed shops that had run at a loss for years, eliminated fifty two inefficient dining halls, sold businesses into private hands and houses to their occupants. Still quaint and quiet today, Amana is a producing and marketing cooperative, without a vestige of its former communism.

American experiments that went under in two years, as many did, had too large a proportion of misfits whose record outside was one of steady failure. Intimacy bred discord, as people living too close together bumped each other at every turn. The absence of competition resulted in lethargy. None of these eccentrics had any business sense; the purchase of a 300-acre tract in Pennsylvania, for example, was made in midwinter snows by an artist, a doctor and a cooper, and turned out to be rocklands and that had to be abandoned in a year. The Ruskin colony in Tennessee (1894) was ruined by an agent who took such pleasure in making a sale that he sold regularly at a loss. Occasionally plain chicanery was too much for the innocent: the Rev. Adin Ballou lost his “miniature Christian republic” at Hopedale when one of his Christians bought up enough shares to force everyone else out. Worse, the utopians misread human nature. “If men were angels,” remark the Federalist Papers, “no government would be necessary.” The utopians discovered to their sorrow that men are not angels now, nor can be so shaped.

Displaced by the Welfare State

While these sad little failures gathered dust, Americans awoke to the fact that in the welfare state of the western democracies, and more explicitly in communist Russia, utopia had already arrived on a massive scale. The results in this country stirred up a general unease. Every step that added to the individual’s security detracted from his liberty; every move toward the better life exacted its toll. The United States government assumed vast new powers to tax, spend — and regulate the affairs of its citizens. Mass production and the communications media created a bland uniformity, with the flesh and blood breadwinner converted into a Social Security number. Welfare programs that averted gross poverty also robbed the individual of his initiative. Women’s equality did much to skyrocket divorce. The same technological advance that increased abundance polluted the landscape. Nuclear energy was more bomb than blessing. Parents did all they could to make a heaven on earth, and their children kicked them in the stomach for the effort.

The West edged piecemeal toward the planned society; Russia made it in a leap. Marx had revived the utopian dream and promised its fulfillment: abundance of consumer goods, universal happiness, absolute equality, peace at home and abroad, government that would hardly need to govern — a perfect whole of perfect parts. Liberals who had been beguiled by this splendid vision shuddered at the actuality. In Russia the government clamped an iron grip on the people and showed no inclination to let go. Everything was in short supply except armaments. The mildest critic of the regime was branded a traitor, and shipped off to Siberia. Art and science became tools of the Party; news media spewed nothing but the official line; and the calculated lie became a habit. The planned society, dreamed of through the ages, turned out to be the police state.

Americans who had believed in a steady march to the promised land now quailed at the prospect. Once they had yearned for utopia; now they asked themselves, “What can we do to prevent it?”

Antiutopian novels clanged like warning bells in the night. Eugene Zamiatin’s We (1920) was among the first, and dozens followed (if we include science fiction), notably Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), Vladimir Nabokov’s Bend Sinister (1947) and George Orwell’s 1984 in 1949. They draw a frightening picture of the planned society: its ruthless manipulation by the rulers of the ruled, its grey-faced homogeneity, its stifling of creative change, its reduction of man to a producing and consuming animal, its hideous distortion of truth. Once the masters of this nightmare society are in the saddle, few can escape or even want to.

Human nature, in these anti-utopias, is infinitely malleable; men can be taught to kiss their chains.

Are we all doomed to this? There is reason to doubt it. The anti-utopian sounds a needed alarm, but he badly overplays his hand. He regards the individual as an empty sack into which any rubbish can be poured. Even the lonely rebels of anti-utopian novels are spineless, stupid, or both. D503 of We can build a cosmic machine, but is otherwise a bumbling idiot; Bernard in Brave New World is a sniveling coward; Smith in 1984 is a perverter of truth by vocation and a lovesick ninny on the side; the renowned philosopher Kruger in Bend Sinister has a backbone of rope. In anti-utopia western man has thrown away every vestige of his hard-won rights, to gain a bovine placidity. All the world is content to chew its cud.

Common Sense May Prevail

Such a view undoes history. Western man has shown himself far too stubborn, restless and plain cussed for any such fate. Once the common man has had a full taste of speaking his mind, no one can shut him up for long. Once he is used to the ballot, and the exhilarating experience of throwing the rascals out, he can be deprived of it only under the most extraordinary conditions. Once real power is firmly established at the base of the political pyramid (as it never was in Russia or China), tyranny from the top becomes an outside chance.

This may be faith, but it is a faith worth having. A man’s essence is his hazardous freedom. It is built in, inexpugnable. For it he has fought wars, rioted, hidden in catacombs, gone to the stake, killed kings, languished in prison, and he does not forget. Freedom disrupts old orders, and sometimes gives the impression that everything nailed down is coming loose, but as long as Americans demand it as their right, the horrors of the police state will stay beyond our borders.

***

Umpire

In general, nothing happens except a change in the weather, unless somebody makes it happen. Under a free economic system, the man who makes things happen is called an enterpriser. With his own savings or savings borrowed from others, he goes into farming, manufacturing, mining, or banking, and begins producing goods or moving them around. That much is basic.

Thomas Nixon Carver, the economist, said the reason many countries are backward is that there was nobody who cared to invest in them. Either the government itself was predatory, or thieves and robbers roamed unmolested. In such countries the rich keep their wealth in the form of unproductive goods — gold and jewels — which they can hide and easily transport when things get too tough.

If a nation wants production and prosperity, the persons to encourage are the enterprisers. Not only should they be encouraged to build and produce, but they should be assured that their property and a decent part of their gains are protected against confiscation. If they lose part or all of their savings in the competitive game, they must take the loss and shut up. Government’s main job is to see that the rules are fair and are enforced.

This article was republished from The William Feather Magazine, November, 1971.