The Utopians by Anna Neima: ‘Absurdity, possibility and hope’  

Cover image for The Utopians by Anna NeimaI became interested in utopian societies as an idealistic teenager when I learnt about Welsh philanthropist Robert Owen‘s experimental socialist community in New Harmony, Indiana. Then I read about the Whiteway Colony in Gloucestershire whose original owners burnt their deeds in the name of egalitarianism. Anna Neima’s The Utopians explores six such communities, their aspirations, achievements and influence, all founded in the early twentieth century as a response to the First World War, the influenza pandemic that followed it and the laissez-faire capitalism that many felt had caused it.

Utopias are a kind of social dreaming  

Many readers will know that Thomas More coined the word ‘utopia’. It was the title of his scathing satire on religious intolerance but idealists have interpreted it differently in the fervent hope of delivering an alternative to the status quo. Of the six communities Neima explores, three are devoted to the idea of self-actualization and three to a better world through spirituality. Nobel Prize-winning poet Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan-Sriniketan grew out of reaction against colonialism and was founded on the ideal of pacifist internationalism through education and social reform, ideals which formed the basis of both Britain’s Dartington Hall, set up by Leonard Elmhirst, a leading light in Tagore’s community, and his wealthy wife Dorothy, and Mushanokōji Saneatsu’s ‘New Village’, influenced by Tagore’s visit to Tokyo. All three offered the prospect of a practical utopia as did the Christian socialist Bruderhof, established by a disenchanted Lutheran preacher, which managed to survive the Second World War by the skin of its teeth. In contrast self-styled guru Gurdjieff’s cultish Fourth Way, which found a home for itself just outside Paris, and Gerald Heard’s Californian Trabuco College were both characterised by a woolly thinking that defies definition.

Utopians have always refused to accept current definitions of what is possible, and have infused the world with new, optimistic energy. That is why we need them now.

Each of these communities is examined in a series of meticulously researched, contextualised pen portraits detailing their establishment, operation, influence and founders. As you’d expect from individuals with lofty, grand ambitions, these were big, charismatic personalities conveyed vividly by Neima who brings them to life with humanising detail, not least the flamboyant Gurdjieff whose ragbag of beliefs gained a multitude of followers.  For some, their professed egalitarian ideals conflicted with their seemingly innate bossiness together with their acute unease with working class people – Gerald Heard gave up trying, coming to the conclusion that he needed to recruit an army of ‘neo-brahmins’ to promulgate his ideas rather than mix with the hoi polloi. Their influence was far reaching: the ideas demonstrated and discussed at Dartington Hall influenced the setting up of the welfare state while Trabuco College provided the foundations of ‘60s counterculture. They all tended to suffer the same problems, money or the lack of it, topping the list but several are still in existence, the most successful of which is the Bruderhof which still boasts 2,900 members. It’s a fascinating book from which Neima’s passionate interest in her subject sings out loud and clear, and an inspiring one, particularly in this age when we’re facing the global catastrophe of climate change.

That’s it for me for a week apart from A Six Degrees post tomorrow before catching the train to Edinburgh. It’ll be a long day and I dare say some reading will be done.

Picador: London 9781529023077 306 pages Paperback

16 thoughts on “The Utopians by Anna Neima: ‘Absurdity, possibility and hope’  ”

  1. Have you ever visited New Lanark? If you’re interested in Robert Owen and utopian societies then it’s a great place to visit and it’s in a beautiful setting near the Falls of Clyde. If you’re in Edinburgh anyway next week then it’s not too far away for a day trip. Whatever you get up to Susan, enjoy your time in bonnie Scotland!

  2. Sounds fascinating. I have studied some in French history.
    Also in my last year of high school, we studied the theme of Utopia in literature. It was so fascinating, I remember for instance Erewhon (which obvious is ‘nowhere” scrambled), by Samuel Butler (1872). Enjoyed it a lot at the time

  3. A rare nonfiction post from you! I’m interested in utopian projects and cults (different things, I know, but sometimes with related aims). The only novels I’ve read that I can think of that were set in utopian communities are Arcadia by Lauren Groff and The Blithedale Romance by Nathaniel Hawthorne. A recent commune history I’ve heard of is Better to Have Gone: Love, Death, and the Quest for Utopia in Auroville by Akash Kapur, set in India.

    Have a lovely time in Edinburgh! It’s one of my favourite places. We had hoped to be going there this month for a conference for my husband, but like so many things it’s been moved to online only to be safe.

    1. It is, isn’t it, and thanks for the recommendations. I think you’re right about the occasional crossover between cults and utopian communities. What starts out as one may end up as another.

      Thanks. I’m looking forward to it although tinged with a little anxiety. We’ve rented an apartment and (fingers crossed) the weather looks good so plan to spend lots of time outside, following the same precuations we do here in Bath

  4. This sounds like a fascinating exploration of alternative societies. I can see why they attract people, I can even imagine being drawn to one myself given the right circumstances. However, I suspect that idealism often gets a little in the way of reality.

    1. Thank you. It already feels like a second home – all hills and Georgian architecture (at least where we’re staying) although very different from Bath in other ways. Hope you manage to get over the border next year!

  5. Recently catching up on Lauren Groff’s backlist to review her latest, I “discovered” Arcadia (not to be confused with the recent French novel by the same name, which actually makes a terrific companion read, however). It follows the pattern you’ve described, but somehow manages to be a mostly “good read” despite all that mess.

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