Other utopias, through the years

April 19, 2017

Note: This is post accompanies episode #45: The End of Civilization Ecovillage


A sketch showing Robert Owen’s ideal utopian community, the “parallelogram.”

Robert Owen, a wealthy textile magnet from Manchester, came to see the deleterious effects of industrialization on his workers. Chris Jennings (2016) charts Owen’s paternalistic efforts to improve their lives, including an experimental textile mill with impressive daycare, education, housing, and something called an “Institute for the Formation of Character.” This mill became a tourist attraction, and made Owen the most popular man in Europe, according to Friedrich Engels. Owen was disillusioned with English politics, and thought the best way to bring about his reforms would be through aggressive propaganda efforts. Owen gave popular speeches and published pamphlets arguing that humanity was inherently good, but corrupted by society. We could have “the emancipation of mankind,” he claimed, as well as wild productivity gains, if people would work in co-operation and mutual aid instead of competition. He said everyone in the world must gather together in small cooperative colonies, or “parallelograms,” that would be founded on perfect equality, education, science, and reason. There would be no private property, no institutionalized religion, and no inequality between the sexes. Jennings says that Owen’s communism is much like the end state of Marxist thought, but without the revolution. Therefore, Marx and Engels ultimately repudiate him. Despite their criticism, Owen was remarkably well-received by other mainstream critics (in Jennings, p. 111). He even delivered a 3-hour address to Congress and to the President, in which his explicit purpose was to convert the United States to socialism. Inspired by the success of America’s Shaker communes, Owen decided to put his ideas into action, traveling to the United States in 1824 to build the first parallelogram, New Harmony. Hundreds of diverse people flocked to New Harmony, including intellectual elite and unskilled labourers (critically though, few skilled labourers and craftspeople). Owen did not have very specific plans for how to manage the community, nor did he do much managing in the first place—he was often out on propaganda tours, inspiring others to build their own parallelograms. Between 1825 and 1826, there were nine other small Owen-inspired communities formed in the United States (126). Back at New Harmony, the enterprise was hemorrhaging cash, only sustaining itself thanks to Owen’s largesse. Once he pulled his support, under financial pressures, New Harmony turned to factionalism and infighting. In 1827, three years after it began, New Harmony disintegrated, and the Owenite movement faded into obscurity (Jennings pp. 134-144).


A sketch showing Charles Fourier’s ideal utopian community, the “phalanx.”

Jennings (2016) continues his history of American utopianism through the story of Charles Fourier, a French merchant who railed against commerce because he thought it debases and corrupts individuals (126). Like Owen, he believed that the solution would be to build co-operative utopian communities, he called them “phalanxes,” which were essentially small cities within a self-contained apartment building. However, Fourier had bizarre prose and fanciful ideas (in one famous footnote, he claims when the polar ice caps melt, the ocean will taste like lemonade), which meant his work did not have the immediate impact of Owen’s. He was popularized by journalist Albert Brisbane, who renamed the ideas “associationism,” and scrubbed them of their more fanciful elements. The core principle of Fourier’s thought, according to Brisbane’s translations, is that labour had to be attractive, and in accordance with the natural passions of individuals. Fourier desired to free human passions; he believed that one’s passions were their destiny, and any attempt to squelch those passions would only lead to ruin. This was a communitarian scheme “grounded entirely upon the vital, spontaneous expressions of the individual” (Jennings, 208). These communities would be decentralized agrarian communes, emphasizing leisurely “work as play,” enabled by a simple lifestyle. Not surprisingly, Marx and Engels ultimately came to view Fourier as “apolitical,” “peculiar” and “ridiculous,” not unlike their criticisms of Owen. Despite these criticisms, Fourier’s ideas became wildly popular. Fourier’s embrace for individual eccentricity (in contrast to Owen’s thorough anti-individualist communism) made him a “middle-road” between Owen and laissez-fair capitalism, according to Jennings (181). After a financial panic in 1837 and a financial crisis in 1839, people flocked to Fourierist phalanxes. By 1845, there were 33 separate phalanxes in the United States. Oved (1988) asserts Fourierism reached an “apex of massive influence that no communal theory in the United States had achieved” (p. 10). However, it quickly receded because most communes failed economically, while the broader economy recovered. Even so, strands of Fourier’s theory would re-emerge in the counter-cultural ‘back-to-the-land’ movement, and the global ecovillage movement.

The Counter-Cultural Communes

Throughout American history, the late 1960s and early 1970s featured the highest degree of communal experimentation. Some estimate that there were at least 2,000 communes in the United States (in Schehr, 1997, p. 45). Communes in the Counter Culture: Origins, Theories, Style of Life by Keith Melville (1972) offers a robust account of the history and ideology of this period in utopian experimentation. Melville charts the co-development and eventual break of two distinct movements in San Francisco between 1964 to 1968: the ‘activist’ Berkeley free speech movement, and the ‘hippie’ movement of Haight-Ashbury. The former, inspired by the civil rights era, emphasized anti-war politics and radical participatory democracy to create systematic change. The latter, inspired by San Francisco’s psychedelics communities and ‘beat generation’ artists, embraced cultural revolution and rejected political revolution (“you tell me it’s the institution/ well, you know/ you better free your mind instead,” sang John Lennon, directly targeting British radicals of the ‘old left’). The activists derided hippies for being indulgent, disorganized, and apolitical; the hippies responded by saying “don’t fight the revolution on the Establishment’s terms” (i.e. political organizing, protesting, voting, etc.), because “politics isn’t something you do, it’s something you are” (p. 62-69). Their central contention was that oppressive cultural norms (i.e. sexism, consumerism, anthropocentrism, the Protestant work ethic, etc.), would not be altered through political changes—a cultural revolution was necessary. Further, they were disaffected by the ‘old left’ politics of the activists, which seemed to collapse the individual into amorphous forces like history or social class. “The communal strategy,” writes Melville, “is a reaction against a theory of revolution that deals in political and economic categories that bear no relationship to everyday life” (78). By the mid 1960s, the movements had completely split, with the hippies abandoning the anti-war movement and migrating to drug colonies (pp. 52-78).

However, LSD was declared illegal in 1966. Authorities disintegrated the hippie movement through a series of raids and high-profile arrests. Nonetheless, Melville (1972) suggests that this period (however brief) imprinted young radicals with two lasting impressions: the state and its culture stifles, but communal living expands possibilities. Therefore, after rejecting the ‘old left’ politics, the hippies “only remaining alternative [was] to begin society in a microcosm” (p. 80). The first high-profile attempt was in 1968, when Ray Mungo (a radical student leader) ‘dropped out’ to a rural farm in Vermont:

The word Vermont popped into our heads almost simultaneously. Vermont! Don’t you see, a farm in Vermont! A free agrarian communal nineteenth-century wide-open healthy clean farm in green lofty mountains! A place to get together again, free of the poisonous vibrations of Washington and the useless gadgetry of urban stinking boogerin’ America. (in Melville, p. 81)

Then, in 1970, he authored the influential Famous Long Ago, which Melville (1972) labels the closest thing to a “manifesto for this communal strategy:”

Here’s a lesson I honestly believe I learned in my lifetime: ideals cannot be institutionalized. You cannot put your ideals into practice, so to speak, in any way more “ambitious” that through your own private life (in Melville, p. 81).

The global ecovillage movement sees this back-to-the-land movement as an early predecessor.


Jennings, Chris. Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. New York: Random House (2016).

Melville, K. (1972). Communes in the counter culture; origins, theories, styles of life. New York: Morrow.

Mungo, R. (2012). Famous Long Ago: My Life and Hard Times with Liberation News Service. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.

Oved, Y. (1988). Two hundred years of American communes. New Brunswick, N.J., U.S.A: Transaction Books.

Schehr, R. C. (1997). Dynamic utopia: establishing intentional communities as a new social movement. Westport, Conn: Bergin & Garvey.

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