The Dark Side of Paradise: A Brief History of America’s Utopian Experiments in Communal Living
What Brook Farm and other utopian communities of the 19th century sought is essentially unachievable. Yet the idea of a collectivist paradise remains alluring to many even today.
This is an article about a famous utopian community that flopped. But for context, let me first relate a story from my younger days.
More than half a century ago, I had a friend in junior high school I could never figure out or drum much common sense into. He was quite the dreamer. He loved science fiction. His nickname was “Angus” — derived from the fact that he was rather rotund, and our school was surrounded by farm fields. When we grazed at the same lunch table, he would speculate endlessly about what life on other planets might be like. He was very earnest, and very entertaining.
One day I suggested facetiously that Angus stop speculating and go find out for himself. “Build a spaceship someday and fly to the planet of your choice,” I recommended. To my surprise, he took me seriously.
Some days later, Angus excitedly told me he had it all worked out. He had designed the spaceship and even brought the plans to show me. Then he unfolded a large sheet of brown wrapping paper. There it was — the entire cockpit control panel of the craft that would take Angus to the cosmos. There was a button for everything.
“This is not a plan!” I declared with a laugh. “It’s just a bunch of buttons with labels on them.”
“But it’s all here,” Angus insisted. “I’ve thought of everything — Start, Stop, Land, Take-off, Dodge Asteroids, you name it, everything you need to know.” He even had an all-purpose button to take care of anything unexpected, which he thought was a genius innovation.
What I remember most vividly about this experience was not the fine detail of my friend’s sketch. It was my frustrating inability to convince him he was delusional, that his plan was no plan at all, that as a 14-year-old he wasn’t yet ready for a senior position at NASA. He was what philosopher Eric Hoffer might call a “true believer” — convinced beyond any hope of convincing otherwise that his plan was thorough, perfect, and sure to work.
I lost track of Angus after graduation, but I am quite certain his spaceship never left the ground.
True story, and a fitting metaphor that encapsulates the experiences of dozens of communal, utopian experiments in early American history. In his book, Brook Farm: The Dark Side of Utopia, historian Sterling F. Delano reveals that there were at least 119 of them established between 1800 and 1859.
Those experimental colonies were typically founded by disgruntled idealists, well-intentioned people unhappy about life as they observed it. They were invariably confident they could personally create a new and better society. Some were avowedly socialist or communist. Nearly all sought some sort of blissful harmony in which capitalism, class distinctions, individualism, private property and competition were erased by a fanciful, collectivist “cooperation.” Some were religious, most were secular.
In a superb 1972 essay titled “Utopia: Dream Into Nightmare,” Alexander Winston summarized these communitarian dreams:
The utopian pictures a static society in which careful planning solves every major problem of human life. Faith is placed in a collectivity that owns or controls all property. Competition for markets or jobs vanishes. Family ties diminish, and the rearing of children by the state is taken for granted. Everything is rationally ordered by those most capable of doing so…
In utopia everyone works, the women on equal terms with the men. Hours are short — four to six daily — and retirement as early as age fifty, but the wants of the people have a stoic simplicity, and all enjoy a decent living. There is little to quarrel over, the atmosphere is uniformly brotherly, crime is almost unknown and disease rare — a perfect whole of perfect parts, all supremely content…
But how to get there? Utopians had no answer to that and avoided the question. They sprang their flawless states fully-armed from the inkpot, always somewhere else — a distant island, an obscure wilderness, another planet — or at a dim future time.
“Cooperation Has Nigh Killed Us All”
Some utopians are content to remain theorists, their inkpot being as real as they ever get. But others — such as the creators of the 119 or so utopian communities of early 19th century America — went a step further and tried to build in reality what they dreamed on paper. I give them credit at least for putting their time and money where their mouths and inkpots were, though the results were depressingly dismal.
British industrialist Robert Owen is among the better known of 19th century utopian communitarians. He earned his fortune spinning wool in Britain, then came to America and blew a lot of it on his grand plan for “cooperative” communes. Alexander Winston explains that Owen’s failure derived in part from the kind of people his communities attracted:
Robert Owen’s communal system gave full vent to their shabby ways. They couldn’t run anything properly — flour mill, sawmill, tannery or smithy — and their only solution to problems of production was to write another constitution or make another speech. The industrious soon tired of supporting the idle. From the Nashoba, Tennessee Owenite settlement, leader Frances Wright informed Owen that “cooperation has nigh killed us all,” and departed. Within two years every Owenite venture, fourteen in all, disintegrated.
George Ripley’s Brook Farm
If any of the numerous utopian experiments had a chance of succeeding, surely it was Brook Farm, begun in 1841 by the transcendentalist George Ripley just a few miles west of Boston. It attracted interest from notable literary figures of the day, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. In a very capitalist fashion, it raised $12,000 by selling stock. It started a school that earned an excellent reputation rather quickly. “Our ulterior aim,” said Ripley associate Charles Dana, “is nothing less than heaven on earth.”
Ripley and his team neatly divided the work at Brook Farm into six activities: school teaching, domestic tasks in and around living quarters, buildings and grounds, farming, manufacturing, and recreation. With very few exceptions, everyone was paid the same wage regardless of which of the six categories of work they fell into. Why six instead of seven, ten or twenty-two? Remember, these were self-anointed central planners, but being human at the same time, they did not want to make their society too complicated. Planning one’s own life is a full-time chore; planning everybody’s, ironically, requires a certain degree of simplicity (like Angus’s spaceship “design”).
In a selfless “spirit of community” and a “brotherly cooperation instead of competition,” there would be virtually no divisions of class or income. Everybody would then live happily ever after (which, as readers know, is a popular final line of many a fairy tale).
Brook Farm was never a full-blown socialist or communist enterprise. To his credit, Ripley allowed freedom of choice in work. You could choose which of the designated activities you wanted to engage in. If that meant too many people chose one line of work over the others (wage rates were the same), the community would cross that bridge when it came to it. They would talk it through. Ripley also opposed the slightest restriction on freedom of speech, as well as the complete abolition of private property. In his own fuzzy-headed way of thinking, individualism and collectivism would strike some sort of perfect balance at Brook Farm.
Flight from Personal Responsibility
Nonetheless, at the center of the communitarian life that Ripley sought was a flight from personal responsibility. There was a certain amount of homogenizing of people in this regard, so that no one would fully bear the brunt of his own poor choices. Crowe cites journalist J. T. Codman’s description of the “inner essence of Ripley’s Brook Farm dream”:
The doctrine they taught above all others was the solidarity of the race. This was ever repeated. It was their religion that the human race was one creation, bound together by indissoluble ties, links stronger than iron and unbreakable. It was one body. It should be of one heart, one brain, one purpose. Whenever one of its members suffered, all suffered. When there was a criminal, all had part in his crime; when there was a debauchee, all partook in his debasement; when there was one diseased, all were afflicted by it; when one was poor, all bore the sting of his poverty.
On the one hand, it may be comforting to know that one’s poor choices will be absorbed by everybody; but on the other, the actual effect of socializing personal irresponsibility is to produce more of it and to sap the strength of responsible people simultaneously. Sorry, but like most humans, I’ll only pick up the tab so many times before I say, “Enough is enough!”
A Collection of Misfits and Oddballs
There’s something about these utopian experiments that appeal to the eccentric, the misfits and the oddballs of society. Like Owen’s communities, Brook Farm came to possess more of its fair share of them. It attracted ex-ministers who couldn’t handle the duties of the pulpit, bankrupt merchants who resented the market’s verdict on their efforts, flaky artsy-types who hoped to paint or draw or dance their way to a livelihood, young people “out for a lark,” at least one “professional reformer” who decided to eschew the use of money (perhaps because he couldn’t figure out how to earn it), and a motley crew of starry-eyed malcontents.
George Ripley’s wife described a former Unitarian minister who joined Brook Farm this way: “He could not be happy in Heaven unless he could see his way out.” Another oddball utopian who took up residence is described by historian Charles Crowe in George Ripley: Transcendentalist and Utopian Socialist as “one of the most fanatical faddists.” Named Samuel Larned, he “refused to join in the exploitation of the cow by drinking milk — and spent much time and thought in searching for a ‘socially acceptable’ substitute for shoe leather.”
Ripley himself came to realize early that his attempt to blend individualism with collectivism was untenable. Within three years of the community’s inception, he decided to go all in for collectivism—in other words, to go from the frying pan into the fire. With Brook Farm facing internal dissension and mounting financial challenges by 1844, he opted to turn the whole operation into a playground for the crackpot notions of the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier.
Everything Was Everybody’s Business
Fourier (1772-1837) postulated a “scientific reorganization” of society. The ideal, he argued, would be communities (he called them “phalanxes”) of fewer than 2,000 persons in which people would “cooperate” for cooperation’s sake. Daily life would be so arranged that everybody would do everything in groups—meals, work, leisure, etc. They would even reside in one massive dwelling he called the “Phalanstery” where they shared virtually everything, even the rearing of the community’s children. This “communitarianism” would promote harmony, prevent exploitation, end the “isolation” of family life, and focus every person’s attention on the whole instead of the self.
In Fourier’s utopia, one would presumably never hear anyone utter the words, “None of your business!” because everything was everybody’s business. Evening lectures would reinforce this presumptuous, altruistic ethic. Fourier never explained what was “scientific” about all this. I think Fourier and his scheme were a lot like my friend Angus and his spaceship. Certainly, Fourier shared with Angus a limitless confidence in his own design. The Frenchman wrote that once the world was organized according to his contrivance, “Men will live to the age of 144, the sea will become lemonade; a new aurora borealis will heat the poles… Wars will be replaced by great cake-eating contests between gastronomic armies.”
Drowning in Rules
No kidding. Alexander Winston elaborates:
Disciples of the unsmiling Frenchman Charles Fourier set up no less than twenty-seven American experiments [of which Brook Farm was one]. Fourier based his utopian ideal less on man’s malleability than on his fundamental goodness…Let people gather into phalanxes” of some 2,000 members, housed communally in one huge “phalanstery” lying in a spread of 1,600 acres owned in common…Bring all goods produced to a single warehouse, where they could be purchased with work tickets. In Fourier’s ample vision all mankind would finally be gathered into three million phalanxes, coordinated by an Omniarch in Constantinople. Fourier-inspired communes quickly died of dissension, ineptitude, and sheer tomfoolery.
It was Fourierism that took a failing Brook Farm and in less than three years, killed it outright. The quasi-socialism of the Farm’s early years became more rigid and doctrinaire. Drowning in rules and mandates, the residents began to drift away. Even the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, briefly an investor in the project, ended up filing a lawsuit to get his money back. He cost Brook Farm a lot of money in the process.
As Fourierism required, Brook Farm aimed to build a massive structure (its own “Phalanstery”) for communal living. It was to incorporate, according to one author, “parlors, reading rooms, reception rooms, a general assembly hall, dining rooms capable of seating over 300 people, and a kitchen with attached bakery carefully planned for common use.” But Ripley’s socialist views apparently included a low regard for insurance companies. Nearly complete, the uninsured Brook Farm Phalanstery burned to the ground in March 1846. A year later, a financially insolvent Brook Farm was sold to the highest bidder. It had lasted longer than almost every other utopian community — just six years.
Reforming the World Starts With Reforming Yourself
There are indications in George Ripley’s later life that he may have learned something about the seductive allure of utopian schemes. Charles Crowe writes,
By 1869 the energetic reformer with plans for the total reformation of the social world had become a tired, indifferent old man who had “no faith in external panaceas,” who would entertain no “Utopian ideal” except “that of contributing to the improvement of mankind by leading an upright life.”
It required years of costly failure for Ripley to discover what far more astute observers of life could have told him for free, and in a single sentence: Reforming the world starts with reforming yourself, and that’s a full-time, lifelong task.
What Brook Farm and other utopian (and especially socialist) communities seek is essentially unachievable in light of human nature: They want a triumph of exhortation over incentive, of intentions over results, of wishful thinking over actual performance. It’s the difference between an actual, working spaceship and a teenager’s drawing of one.
Angus With a Gun
Socialists of today are a reasonable facsimile of 19th century utopian communitarians. They possess similar, anti-capitalist and anti-individualist motivations. They have big plans for a better world, if only it will conform to those plans. But unlike their utopian kinfolk of the 19th century, they aren’t setting up experimental villages and trying through voluntary means to make them work. Perhaps they know that none of the previous attempts succeeded, so they propose to accomplish similar objectives through the political process and coercion.
Imagine a Brook Farm with a Berlin Wall and a command economy enforced by a police state. It makes me think of Angus with a gun.
What could possibly go wrong?
Lawrence W. Reed is FEE’s President Emeritus, Humphreys Family Senior Fellow, and Ron Manners Global Ambassador for Liberty, having served for nearly 11 years as FEE’s President (2008-2019). He is author of the 2020 book, Was Jesus a Socialist? as well as Real Heroes: Incredible True Stories of Courage, Character, and Conviction and Excuse Me, Professor: Challenging the Myths of Progressivism. Follow on LinkedIn and Parler and Like his public figure page on Facebook. His website is www.lawrencewreed.com.
Originally published at FEE.org. Reprinted with permission.