Anna Neima. The Utopians: Six Attempts to Build the Perfect Society. London: Picador, 2021. 320pp, $39.95.
“I saw a horse collapse in the street: the driver was knocked aside by the starving people, who rushed to cut chunks from the warm body to bring home to their families.” So wrote Eberhard Arnold , founder of the Bruderhof, in Germany in 1917. His observation captures a slice of the devastation that World War I wrought across the world. The sheer loss of life (20 million people, more than half of whom were civilians) was staggering , but the cultural and social disruptions were just as intense and widespread. The war (and the Spanish Influenza pandemic that overlapped it, also killing millions) shattered a widespread sense of confidence that technological development, national pride, and religious devotion would march onwards with a better life for all, leading many to rethink how mankind ought to think, believe, and live — and for some, to found communities where they could live out these new, idealistic aspirations.
Anna Neima’s The Utopians (Pan Macmillan, 2021) profiles six of these communities, following each one from the early lives of their inevitably idiosyncratic founders to their (with one exception) collapse. Readers of Mere Orthodoxy are likely familiar with that one exception, the Bruderhof, and its differences from the other utopian communities are particularly worth noting (even if Neima doesn’t necessarily give them the attention they deserve). Still, many of us who would like to imagine a life together that rejects the spirit of our age will find these stories of what made these communities succeed and fail is by turns fascinating, challenging, and even instructive.
From the Ashes
The cultural, social, technological, and political forces that brought about World War I were also many of the same forces that made it so devastating to its survivors. The unique and novel horrors themselves — chemical weapons, trench warfare, aerial bombing — were bad enough on their own, but advances in communications also brought their ugly realities to the masses in unprecedented ways through photography, film, and the telegraph. Jingoistic platitudes could not obscure the horrors of the trenches, underscoring the pointlessness of a war in which mass mobilization and national sacrifice (Neima notes that Germans were forced to endure “the turnip winter” on less than a thousand calories a day in 1916) affected every member of the population in some way.
One of the more uncomfortable realities of the war was its religious character. As Philip Jenkins argues in his book The Great and Holy War, support for the war among churches and Christian leaders was both widespread and enthusiastic to the point that many at the time considered it a religious crusade. Across many different denominations and nations, Christians assumed and proclaimed that God was on their side. Even Bruderhof founder Eberhard Arnold began his literary career with a steady stream of nationalist articles and books praising the war effort.
In the aftermath of the conflict, then, there was profound disillusionment with the status quo — perhaps especially with the religious status quo. Churches both liberal and conservative had proudly expected that God wanted them to win, so many people turned away from mainstream denominations to occult spirituality, quasi-mystical psychology (Jungian and otherwise), radical Christian theological traditions, and a melange of pluralistic philosophies. Central to all of the communities profiled in The Utopians was the idea that spiritual transformation, both individually and socially, was essential to redeeming the world from the forces that had wreaked so much chaos.
That chaos and the collective trauma of the past decade led some to the hedonism of the Roaring Twenties in America, but others saw it as an opportunity for radical transformation. Industrialization had poisoned the environment, militarism had poisoned brotherly love, and laissez-faire capitalism had poisoned the cooperation necessary for human flourishing. The “dozens” of utopian communities in “hundreds of guises” that sprung up in the interwar period showed that people were hungry for change, and they were willing to totally rethink social mores, spiritual concepts, and economic principles in order to create a better world.
Neima divides the six communities she profiles into two groups. The first, she argues, focused on “complete self-actualization” as the means to social change; in these places free expression and transformation of one’s self was achieved by creating environments where anyone could pursue their educational, artistic, and spiritual inclinations while also contributing to a self-sustaining community. In this category she places Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan-Sriniketan in India, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst’s Dartington Hall in England, and Mushanokōji Saneatsu’s Atarashiki Mura in Japan. The second group required adherence to a more specific (though often no less pluralistic) credo, assuming that world peace and harmonious living would follow if everyone in the group followed the founders’ philosophies and recruited others to do the same.
To be quite frank, I was unimpressed with the non-Bruderhof communities in the second group (G. I. Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man and Gerald Heard’s Trabuco College). Gurdjieff’s primary legacy is the first recorded use of the Enneagram and Heard is notable for the people who came to Trabuco (including Aldous Huxley and AA founder Bill Wilson) and his influence on the counterculture a generation later. Both founders could more or less be described as charismatic cranks who convinced wealthy dupes to fund unsustainable communities in exchange for access to pseudospiritual blather. The aforementioned openness to spirituality of all kinds (especially spirituality that claimed to be the key to peace) made people more susceptible to such blather, but the Tony Robbins of yesteryear are not especially relevant to this review.
The Utopian Communities
Rabindrath Tagore, writer of the Indian national anthem and the first non-Western Nobel Prize winner in 1913, founded Santiniketan-Sriniketan with the goal in mind of creating a community that could preserve the goods of simple village life and Eastern religion while incorporating the insights and benefits of Western science and philosophy. He also argued, to great applause in the West, that the rapacious appetites of Western nations for conquest and profit needed to be rebuked by Eastern wisdom. His speaking tours after his Nobel Prize had created a rich network of donors that he could call upon to fund his vision, and after a few years he had built a community across two campuses where classes on art, philosophy, history, religion, music, literature, agriculture, trades, and crafts took places under trees or in small huts. Leonard Elmhirst, a young Englishman who had studied at Cornell, helped Tagore set up his model farm at Santiniketan-Sriniketan. The farm had its early climax in a struggle between Tagore and Elmhirst against several students over whether the students would empty the latrine buckets themselves — Tagore prevailed, and people came from all over the world to work and study in a model of cooperation and harmony.
However, the practical farm at Sriniketan and the intellectual school at Santiniketan never truly came together as one community, and the students who had flocked to Santiniketan in order to study under the trees demanded diplomas so that they could have appropriate credentials for work within the status quo while total social revolution tarried. The school thus institutionalized itself out of the utopian vision it had been founded upon. Tagore had no talent for administration, never groomed a successor, and found himself constantly needing to withdraw into solitude to write. He was dejected by the rise of fascism in his final years and disagreed with Mahatma Gandhi’s nationalist strategy for Indian independence. However, as his death drew near he asked Gandhi to take charge of the community, which endured only as a loose collection of mainstream trade schools and a university.
Leonard Elmhirst left Santiniketan-Sriniketan in 1924 to wed Dorothy Straight (nee Whitney), the daughter of a railroad tycoon and widow of a First World War veteran who succumbed to the influenza pandemic. They returned to Leonard’s homeland to buy a broken-down country estate with Dorothy’s inheritance and started their own rule-free, self-directed school as well as a farm that used cutting-edge technology like tractors. Artists, dancers, musicians, potters, actors, and writers were invited to join Dartington Hall with free rein to create as they wish, with surrounding aristocratic neighbors suspicious of the community and local laborers hired to carry out the Elmhirst’s endless ideas befuddled but amused.
It had always been the Elmhirsts’ plan for all members of Dartington to democratically deliberate about decision-making within the community, but when the Elmhirsts weren’t simply asserting authority wherever they could (after all, they controlled the funds), they were holding community meetings in which farmhands were expected to engage with professors on equal terms. The different parts of the community naturally ensconced themselves, with the artists becoming more flamboyant and the more practical endeavors attempting to become self-sustaining in the face of the worldwide Great Depression. The school attracted the children of progressive elites around the world, and by the time Britain’s postwar Labour government began to carry out its own progressive ideas, Dartington had become downright mainstream. It is now “a centre for progressive learning in arts, ecology and social justice” according to its website, and, in Naima’s estimation, anticipated midcentury social changes more than it inspired them.
In Mushanokōji Saneatsu’s Atarashiki Mura in Japan, unity was not as important as self-actualization. Mushanokōji was a writer whose career took off when he started publishing a literary magazine focused on self-love; he found the traditional cultural communitarianism and nationalism stifling (especially as it became more militarist) and as an elite he feared the upheaval of a socialist or communist-leaning proletariat. Hearing Tagore speak and reading Tolstoy and the Bible led Mushanokōji to believe that a different kind of community was required to self-actualize; he would need an alternative way of life that would contrast with the diverging (and increasingly violent) mainstream values on either side. Mushanokōji’s utopian vision was that a place where individuals could be themselves to the fullest was one where egalitarian love between people would also flourish (and vice-versa).
Mushanokōji bought a remote piece of farmland and set off with a few followers to live out this apparently contradictory vision at a place they called Atarashiki Mura. Previsaging Patreon by a century, he offered subscribers to his magazine the opportunity to pay a monthly fee to be a spiritual part of the community — a downright necessary component of his community’s sustainability, considering that none of these urban poets knew anything about farming. Mushanokōji remained idealistic through severe weather, abandonment by his followers (even his wife), and hunger; despite high turnover there were a few stalwarts who slowly learned how to farm and still have enough energy at the end of the day for creating their own art. They stayed even when Mushanokōji himself left; he remained a patron, perhaps because the idea was always more appealing to him on paper than anything else. Yet other people were inspired to start their own Atarashiki Mura-type communities in Japan and even Mao Zedong wrote early in his career of how he wished to organize his own. Always flitting from one new idea to the next, Mushanokōji became so supportive of Japan’s WWII that he was condemned as a war criminal by the American occupation even though his community still endures today as a small collective farm run by less than a dozen people.
The Bruderhof, which Neima acknowledges to be the most successful of all the communities in the book, began in 1920 in Sannerz, Germany with Eberhard and Emmy Arnold’s family and a handful of others. The postwar “youth movement” in Germany was engaged in all sorts of different rejections of the mainstream values that they blamed for the war, ranging in intensity from folksong-singalongs to farming communes. The Arnolds, having undergone intense soul-searching during the war, felt that if they devoted themselves to the principles of the early Church as recorded in Acts. their actions would inspire others to reject the militarism and nationalism that had deceived even them and led Germany into such a horrific war.
Unlike the other communities, the Bruderhof was a place truly open to all — and truly all came. Perhaps it was the fact that Germans had been more profoundly and intimately affected by the war, but there was much more local openness to their vision. Everyone from famed philosopher Martin Buber to bedraggled ex-convicts fresh from prison came to visit; Neima reports that in 1921 alone, the new community hosted 2500 visitors. Their own unity came mostly through community meetings with preaching and singing; they integrated well with the local community and participated in village events. Like other utopian communities, they struggled to learn how to farm and were perpetually running low on money — though it helped that anyone who joined for life gave all of their personal wealth into the communal fund.
Members of the Bruderhof worked hard, but the consistent practice of giving to all in need stretched finances thin while greater threats loomed on the horizon. Eberhard managed to stave off financial collapse by joining the very similar (but far more stable) Hutterites as a “daughter colony,” even though this meant that they had to give up their free-spirited youth movement outfits (often colorful) for a strict dress code. More difficult was the problem of Nazism; as Hitler grew in strength the SS regularly began to raid the community and terrify members into joining the Nazi Party. Eberhard sent a manifesto directly to Hitler pleading for him to embrace the power of love, but when Germany introduced compulsory military service in 1935 all of the men of military age were forced to flee to Lichentenstein. At the end of the year, Eberhard himself died from complications of a bone infection.
The community pressed on without their founder, fleeing again to Britain and then again to Paraguay when, at the start of WWII, the government looked askance at a commune full of foreigners who refused to fight in the war. From there, Bruderhof members have founded communities all over the world holding to the simple teachings of peaceableness, devotion to God, and love for others. Even today one can read their Plough magazine in multiple languages or visit one of their communities to experience their hospitality in person. Their endeavors, now far more profitable than hardscrabble farming, support charitable works across the world.
A Better World is Plausible
What can we learn from these wild-eyed utopians and their schemes to remake the world one small commune at a time? Certain themes emerge: charismatic leaders can induce followers to start anything, but sustained growth requires structure and, if one has a back-to-the-land bent, someone who knows how to make use of a hoe and pitchfork. Any group of idealists, no matter how committed they are to love and harmony, will have disputes over the dirty chores and the direction of the community. There will always be an attraction to hodgepodge spiritualities, and the Bride of Christ will send people scurrying for these heresies if it identifies itself too closely with violent national interests. Worldwide disaster and social unrest will induce soul-searching that can make people open to a new way of life — or more violent national interests, as the utopians who watched their communities wither in the runup to WWII saw.
One hundred years later, many of the utopians’ concerns are ours. Advances in technology have made environmental destruction and human alienation from one another even worse, even as they have given idealists more opportunity to connect with one another across the world and do far more good both locally and globally (not to mention sparing us a repeat of the devastation that the influenza pandemic wrought). Wars still displace and destroy vulnerable people across the world, but since Americans and Europeans are not threatened there is rarely enough political will to end them and no clear solution for many conflicts. The excesses of capitalism, modernism, and liberalism (neo- or plain) inspire countless diatribes grasping for alternatives.
Are practical utopias like Santiniketan-Sriniketan or Dartington Hall a worthwhile alternative? Neima seems to think so:
The example of planned community living, for instance, became an inspiration for the international community development movement that took off after the Second World War. The holism of Dartington Hall fed into Britain’s welfare state. The low-impact lifestyle of the Bruderhof and Atarashiki Mura prefigured the environmental movement. Tagore’s ideal of liberal, practical education influenced the school system of the whole of India. Even Heard and Huxley’s embrace of psychedelics and Gurdjieff’s promotion of full wakefulness rather than ‘unconscious’ living found their way into mainstream psychological discourse and the business methods of Silicon Valley. The people who passed through these social experiments picked up ideas and then reworked and re-enacted them in other settings. At the same time, the very existence of such radical communities conveyed, even to those who never saw them at first hand, a message about the possibility of the world being otherwise than it was. […]
Criticizing the status quo is rarely enough to create real change – whether that criticism comes in the form of marches, petitions, policy papers or satirical tweets. What we need are laboratories to devise, test and demonstrate new ideas and systems; concrete experiments that prove the viability of what otherwise would remain nothing more than an alluring set of ideas. While few practical utopias last for long, utopian living is extraordinarily generative. It creates openings in the fabric of society, inspires change, reminds us that it is possible to reach beyond the dominant assumptions of our day and discover radically different ways of being.
The Bruderhof deserve far more credit for their endurance beyond their “low-impact lifestyle.” Neima notes that religious utopias tend to endure for longer than non-religious ones, thanks to the fact that their core beliefs are not as flexible or subject to a founder’s whims. The Bruderhof’s tenacity speaks to the Holy Spirit’s blessing on their faithfulness and their simple rule forbidding members from talking about one another behind their back helps to explain how they have succeeded where many others failed.
There are, I would suspect, two different groups of Christians for whom a book like The Utopians is worthwhile. The first are those who are too comfortable with the mainstream values of acquisition and success that characterize our late modern world, indistinguishable from their non-Christian neighbors except for a few political and religious beliefs. These brothers and sisters would benefit from opening their eyes to the plausibility of a more radical practice of our faith — not necessarily going Full Bruderhof, but embracing more of the ancient Christian tradition of hospitality to the vulnerable, for example.
The second group are those who are on board with a radical critique of our modern era but usually settle for fighting back against the encroachment of liberalism in whatever outrage-of-the-week culture war guise it might take. For these folks, many of whom are already fantasizing about creating their own little utopias, this book is a stern dose of reality reminding us (for I count myself among the utopia-fantasizers) that starting the community is the easy part. Conflicts about who is going to clean the toilets are far more likely to be relevant than one’s beliefs about the legitimacy of the liberal order, and even if one manages to raise enough money to keep the lights on there is no guarantee that the forces of evil won’t tear you apart from the outside — or the inside.
Neima has written a fascinating set of stories about a series of communities and their founders by turns compelling, bizarre, and inspiring. I found myself wishing most chapters were longer as I reached the end of each and a little sad as each utopia struggled to endure. As people who believe that Christ’s perfect reign on Earth is inevitable and in some way coming to fruition now, some of us might need to do a little more utopian dreaming but all of us could do with a little more practice as if that reign is here among us.
Published in Mere Orthodoxy‘s second print edition. To support our work and receive future editions, subscribe today.
- Neima asserts these figures but does not document them. It is unclear if any reliable count of utopian communities as she defines them has ever been made or can be made. ↑
- Gurdjieff did not develop the familiar Enneagram of Personality (AKA horoscopes for people who went to college), though his work influenced those who did. ↑
- Full disclosure: The author of this piece and the editor-in-chief have written for Plough and experienced Bruderhof hospitality in person. Both are highly recommended experiences. ↑
- The advent of this rule, which Neima describes as a turning point for the community, has also been attested to the author by members of the community as one of the defining factors in the community’s endurance. ↑