Tag Archives: communism

Utopias in America

Does dystopia seem more tangible than utopia? Media such as Handmaid’s Tale, Hunger Games and Mad Max depict fractured futures. Science and economics speak of the effects of climate change, the next big flu pandemic, wealth inequality, and dark campaign money.

Utopianism seems gullible and naive, while dystopianism seems world-weary and chic. But it wasn’t always this way. 19th century America was littered with utopian societies. There were the Shakers, the Rappites, the Owenites, the Associationists, the Oneidans (yes, the silverware folks), The Amanans (yes, the refrigerator folks), and others. Look it up; there were probably utopian communities in your area too. In St. Louis, the Icarians briefly settled near present-day Dogtown. A German utopian group called the Giessen Emigration Society settled near Washington, Missouri. In New Mexico, we have Blackdom, a settlement for black families; there’s also the Faithists who founded the Shalam community. Most of these communities lasted only briefly, but vestiges of many remain; Washington, Missouri remains heavily German today although the surrounding area is not.

Some utopian colonies, like Blackdom, were more pragmatic than religious or dogmatic; Blackdom was founded to leave behind the KKK and Jim Crow. Millenarians, like the Shakers, believed that the Second Coming was imminent; they had to prepare for a thousand years of heaven on Earth, as predicted in the book of Revelations in the Bible. This thinking was influential in the Second Great Awakening. Others, like Robert Owen’s Owenites, were secular and believed that the industrial revolution could be harnessed to improve life if people pooled their efforts.

So why were there so many utopias founded in the United States in the 19th century? Europeans interpreted the Biblical arc of history as traveling from east to west; they saw history as starting in the Middle East, advancing in Europe, and ending in the Americas. The American revolution still seemed truly revolutionary, but also to some, incomplete. There was a lot of cheap land available for purchase. The industrial revolution destabilized long-standing traditions. The woman who brought Shakerdom to the United States, Ann Lee, grew up in the industrial miseries of Manchester, England–the city where Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also developed their social theories.

These intellectual ties to 20th century communism probably explain why we’ve forgotten these kooky and imaginative social experiments. Marx and Engels used the term “communism” because “socialism” was so tied to Robert Owen in the public imagination. The utopias of the 19th century inspired later communist theory, but they differ immensely from later authoritarian regimes. They were voluntary social experiments. The Shakers were led by a woman and preached celibacy and gender equality. Many advocated gender equality, universal education, sexual liberty (or at least relaxation), and later, abolitionism.

The utopian thinking of the 19th century, though largely forgotten, was influential. Robert Owen spoke to congress twice and President John Q. Adams displayed a diagram of Owen’s utopian “parallelogram” in the White House. Many of the famous transcendentalists of New England, including Nathaniel Hawthorne, participated in the Utopian colony of Brook Farm. The famous editor, Horace Greeley, advocated Associationism. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, was brought up in the vegetarian Fruitlands Utopian Colony. (Not strictly relevant but hilarious: In the book Paradise Now, the author describes a few Fruitlands residents; “the community included… a man who refused to eat tubers because any vegetable that grows downward displays questionable ambitions;” another man “advocated spiritually cleansing obscenity. ‘Good morning, damn you,’ was his preferred salutation.”)

I think today’s dystopianism and 19th century utopianism are two sides of the American coin–we think expansively. Things are either the worst or we’re going to create heaven on earth in western Indiana. Both utopianism and dystopianism emerge from the observation of fault in today’s society. Both today’s dystopianism and 19th century Millenarianism utopianism are obsessed with the end of the world. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has raised eyebrows with his talk of the rapture. Either way, we like to think that, when it all goes down, we’ll be at the center of it.

Some good resources on American Utopianism

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Style: Soviet Propaganda Posters

The 20-40s really seem like it was a golden age for illustration. Color photos were not as vibrant as they are today, yet mass printing existed. Thus, beautiful and stylized portraits of life were used in advertising and propaganda (Alphonse Mucha did lovely art nouveau illustrations for advertisers since the late 1800s, I wrote about him here). Many of us have seen the posters created for the Great Depression and WW2 by artists such as Thomas Hart Benton.

When I visited the Czech Republic, Budapest and East Berlin, I was struck by their propaganda posters from the same period. There was such a contrast between the lovely illustrations and the content that we would likely find oppressive. It can be a window into history to understand how people chose (or were forced into) their path. For good collections of Czech or CSSR Propaganda, check out the Communist Musuem in Prague and Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin. The featured image for this post is the poster for the Communist Museum; one of my souvenirs from Prague are some nesting dolls with this design.

To have more we must produce more (Wikipedia)

The Czech, Hungarian, and German posters seem hard to find, and I only know the languages a little (if anyone knows good sources, let me know!) I find the role of small countries in the early 20th century especially interesting since they are underrepresented. The countries of central Europe endured many of the worst hardships during the 20th century. There are many sources for Russian propaganda posters:

 

10 years since the revolution