22 November 2018


Michael Robertson. The Last Utopians: Four Late 19th Century Visionaries and Their Legacy. Princeton University Press. 2018.

Concluding his very last piece for Magonia, our dear friend Peter Rogerson wrote: “The anthropologist Mary Douglas once wrote a book called Purity and Danger, but a book called ‘Purity is Danger’ would be more apposite, for surely all the worst crimes are committed in the name of purity and pure lands: pure religion, pure nation, pure race, pure people, pure lands that no actual human being is ever pure enough to inhabit.” This book is about four such ‘pure lands’.
Michael Robertson looks at a quartet of writers, from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, whom he considers to be among the last people who could provide a sincerely intended model for a utopian society. Probably the most famous today is the designer and socialist writer, William Morris. The others, less well-known are Edward Bellamy, Edward Carpenter, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the latter probably remembered largely through her proto-feminist horror story ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’.

These writers most significant utopian works were published in the last two decades of the nineteenth century, and the first two of the twentieth. Robertson feels that no real utopian work has been published since then, although he concludes the book with a chapter ‘After the Last Utopians’ attempting to discern threads of utopianism in more modern manifestations, and looking at later dystopian works.

The four worlds discussed here, although each claiming to present a perfect model of human civilisation, are in many ways mutually exclusive. The earliest, and perhaps the most influential at the time, is Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, published in 1888. Bellamy’s protagonist, Julian West, wakes from a hypnotically induced trance into the Boston of the year 2000. Although Bellamy was initially reluctant to use the 'S' word, his utopia is a centrally planned socialist state, with direction of labour into an ‘industrial army’ that produces goods for equal distribution to all citizens of the United States, all of whom receive equal pay; difficult or unpleasant jobs are rewarded by shorter hours rather than higher pay.

Whether in this society having greater leisure time is all that desirable is a moot point. One way of filling it would be through a cable audio system which would transmit ‘sermons, talks and music’ into every house. Perhaps the most insightful prediction in it is the description of what is basically an on-line shopping service, a sort of Amazon Prime, with delivery thorough pneumatic tubes – which would at least obviate the need to arrange for neighbours to collect the goods if you were away.

The remarkable thing about this vision is that it produced a considerable political movement named, rather confusingly in retrospect ‘Nationalism’, although this refereed to the national ownership of property and businesses and might better be expressed as ‘Nationalisationism’. The principles expressed by Bellamy though this ‘Nationalist’ movement were influential with the People’s Party, founded by Ignatius Donnelly, who had himself published a utopian novel and is perhaps best known as populariser of the Atlantis myth through his book The Antediluvian World.

However the appeal of Bellamy’s vision faded with the withdrawal of the People’s Party from the 1896 US Presidential election, and a follow-up to Looking Backward, Equality, with a more clearly socialist message published a year before Bellamy’s death, did not have the same success, and especially after the First World War, the authoritarian nature of Bellamy’s version of utopia led to the eclipse of the book and his ideas.

Bellamy’s vision, predicated on a strong, centralised industrial state, was anathema to utopians of a more libertarian persuasion. It was in many ways as a critical response to Bellamy that William Morris wrote News From Nowhere, published initially in the magazine Commonweal, the first part appearing just a year after the publication of Looking Backward, which Morris had previously reviewed for the same magazine.

News From Nowhere follows the traditional pattern of the sleeper awakening, used by everyone from Washington Irving to Woody Allen. The protagonist, William Guest – clearly Morris himself – falls asleep in the ‘shabby’ London borough of Hammersmith (no argument there) to awake in a bucolic twenty-first century Hammersmith, where the iconic cast-iron bridge has been replaced by a replica of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. But the whole of industrial London has been replaced by a series of small villages. We learn that Manchester too has completely disappeared (no argument there either) and everyone appears to be dressed like a character in a Pre-Raphaelite painting. Which of course is exactly what they are, for the whole of Morris’s book is a Burne-Jones or Dante Gabriel Rossetti painting turned into text.

In this paradise everyone works because they want to. Employment is slavery, there is no form of money or other commercial exchange, the State has withered away – the old Houses of Parliament are used to store manure (subtle or what?). There is no formal education system, children learn through doing. People work whenever and at whatever they please. A morning spent carving an elaborate tobacco pipe (Morris’s utopia is noticeably less puritanical than many others) might be followed up by an afternoon doing some manual road building, just for the sheer fun of it and to get a bit of healthy exercise. Morris is silent on the possibility of doing a spot of sewer-cleaning in the same spirit of joi-de-vivre.

Morris’s is a world of medieval aesthetics – minus the plague, cholera and famine – with a liberal sexual morality that seems more in tune with the ‘sixties flower-power era. In this world marriage and divorce are things of the past, discarded with the other trappings of capitalism. This does not however stop at least two murders and a suicide happening as a result of sexual jealously during the course of Mr Guest’s stay. And even in Nowhere a woman’s work is still, by definition, a woman’s work. No road building for the ladies, who seem to be more involved with the tapestry side of things.

Unlike Bellamy's creation, Morris’s book is still read and admired today, and regarded as a foundation text for the libertarian left – it gives its name to a radical bookshop in Liverpool, for instance. Morris’s Hammersmith certainly seems a much more pleasant place to live in than Bellamy’s Boston – for a while, anyway. But one can’t help thinking that it's a little bit like that old TV series The Prisoner, lovely and bucolic on the surface, but something a little darker when you get deeper in. You start to ask yourself “but what if no-one actually fancies doing an afternoon of back-breaking road mending, after a morning of light wood carving or calligraphy?"

Perhaps the most obscure of Robertson's four utopias is that of Edward Carpenter [left]. Carpenter was born in 1844, in Brighton, to a large upper-middle-class household, with nine siblings and a full complement of servants. He moved effortlessly through public school and Cambridge and entered the Church; a traditional progression for a man of his class and era. Along the way he published a slim volume of poetry, the homoerotic overtones of which were lightly disguised by the classical and religious models they were based on.

The erotic content of his writing became more overt after discovering, and visiting, Walt Whitman in America. By then he had moved away from the Church and was involved in worker education schemes in the north of England, around Sheffield, where he met “a good-looking young ironworker” who lived with his wife and family on a small farm near the Steel City. Carpenter then moved to a cottage he had built for himself at Millthorpe in Derbyshire, which became a sort of northern, but less architecturally appealing version of Morris's Kelmscott. Despite its aesthetic failures it succeed as a meeting place for a wide range of literary figures, political thinkers and socialist writers. It was at this time he produced his main utopian work, Towards Democracy, a long free-verse poem.

What makes Beyond Democracy stand out from other utopian works of the period is its advocacy of same-sex love as the basis of a perfect society. Although some have seen this as a pioneering work of gay liberation it reads very strangely today. Carpenter used the term 'uranianism' to describe homosexuality, a word derived from Plato, and favoured by Oscar Wilde. Carpenter's utopian blueprint was based on his belief that 'uranians' were actually less sensuous than 'mullierasts' – straights – and being less sexually active were more able to advance civilisation through art and philosophy. Many of Carpenter's views sit uncomfortably with present-day ideas of homosexual equality, displaying a hierarchy of gayness, with almost asexual spiritual lovers, whom he called 'urnings', at the top; and “effeminate”, “mincing”, “chatterbox” types at the bottom, along with their female equivalents, who are “markedly aggressive' with “masculine manners and movements”.

In summarising Carpenter's contribution to utopian thought, Robertson points out that Carpenter's lifestyle - vegetarianism, living simply, working on his own organic small-holding, and enjoying the manual labour it involved - was closer to his own utopian ideal than Morris or Bellamy ever achieved. He was after all, as Robertson points out, probably the only Cambridge honours graduate with his own fruit and veg stall in Sheffield Market!

Charlotte Perkins Gilman's utopia is another one with a curious sexual framework. Herland – the clue is in the name – is a society, hidden somewhere in deepest Amazonia, comprised entirely of woman. This same-sex paradise is disturbed by three male interlopers who fly into this world in a bi-plane. They find a perfectly ordered, well-manicured society, but we find it rather less perfectly described than Bellamy's or Morris's utopias. Although it seems to have a high degree of technology – there are electric cars, and an extensive road network – there seems to be a total absence of industry or any manual labour, apart from agriculture.

All males in this world died, through some biological or ecological disaster, two thousand years before, but rather than the remaining population of women dying out over a generation, some young women began giving birth through an unexplained form of parthenogenesis. The resulting all-female society was inherently peaceful and co-operative because, as Gilman explained, women are “natural co-operators” with a “mental outlook” that has “no need for the individualism and competitiveness inherent in capitalism”. Hmm. I suppose I could say 'Margaret Thatcher' and leave it at that.

But when we get deeper into this loving maternal paradise, where all children are 'our children', we find the worm in the bud. Although women reproduce asexually, there is a form of birth-control. Once a woman feels the semi-orgasmic charge that precedes her immaculate conception, she can prevent actual conception happening by concentrating on her work in the farm or the electric car factory. This helps keep Herland's population stable, but also allowing it to be carefully controlled, as this cooperative, motherly society “breed[s] out … the lowest types” and those deemed undesirable are required to renounce motherhood.

For this is Herland's and Gilman's dirty little secret, an enthusiastic advocacy of eugenics. Now you might say that eugenics has had a bad press over the past 75 years or so, and its origins were simply in a movement to create a healthier society through educational and social reforms, and as such it was promoted by many in progressive circles and on the political left. However, in reality, as well as the need to encourage mentally and physically healthy families, there was the unspoken need to somehow discourage mentally and physically unhealthy families.

In her writings Gilman [right] was an enthusiastic supporter of this process. An earlier utopian fantasy of hers, Moving the Mountain, set thirty years after it was written in 1911, describes a United States Federal Department of Eugenics, which supervises the sterilisation of those deemed to be sub-standard, although we are told that 'moral sanatoriums' have replaced the cruder practices of earlier years. “Sometimes we had to amputate, especially at first … we killed many hopeless degenerates, insane, idiots, and real perverts” our guide tells us, although, to be fair, only after “trying our best powers of cure”. This makes it even more chilling when we read that Gilman describes the feminist utopia of Herland as “entirely Aryan”.

Perhaps the weakest part of Robertson's book is the final chapter, 'After the Last Utopians', which seems something of an appendix to the main text. As well as summarising the anti-utopian and dystopian literature which followed later in the twentieth century, like 1984 and Brave New World, he describes his visits to a series of groups, ranging from small agrarian communities on remote Scottish islands, through Findhorn and Burning Man, to New York's Reclaim Wall Street encampment in 2011. The one thing that all these communities seem to have in common is that in the end they are entirely dependent on the extremely non-utopian societies that surround and ultimately support them, everything from portable lavatories and the New York subway system, to Caledonian Macbrayne ferries.

After reading this book I am more convinced than ever by Peter Rogerson's assertion that 'purity is danger', because behind the facades of efficient delivery of goods and an early retirement age, beautiful tapestries and hand-made furniture, healthy homoerotic farm work and motherly love with electric cars, there has to be some way of dealing with the awkward squad, the misfits. I could probably imagine going a few months in Morris's Hammersmith – although I would rather miss Bazalgette's rickety old bridge - and I feel paradoxically relieved that there is the occasional murder in this earthly paradise - but sooner or later it would be my turn to do the road-mending on the Broadway, and that's when I would want out.

A fascinating book, and perhaps one that eventually comes across with a message the author may not originally have intended, for I'm afraid it seems  that 'purity' really is danger, and I'd rather hold on to the messily pragmatic, stick-a-plaster-on-it, but nevertheless gradually getting better world we have at the moment. – John Rimmer.

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