I 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