By Niall Kishtainy

William Collins. 353 pages. £25. ISBN 978-0-00-832585-5

Reviewed by Jim Burns

This isn’t a broad history of utopias. As its title indicates it focuses on London, with a few excursions into what is now commuter land, and it encompasses a fairly wide definition of utopian dreams. They range from attempts to set up communes of one kind or another, to small groups who feel that it’s necessary to protest against specific aspects of contemporary society. It argues that it isn’t a long jump from Gerrard Winstanley and the seventeenth-century Diggers occupying St George’s Hill in Surrey to Reclaim the Streets attempting to restrict the use of cars and other vehicles in crowded urban spaces. A plea for a better society is common to both groups, as is a determination to do more than dream about it. 

There is a passage in Niall Kishtainy’s book which refers to a visit that Henry Mayhew made to the “notorious slum of Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey” and the contrast he drew between what he saw and how the area had been “in days gone by”, It was, he says, at one time “a place of repose and harmony, an idyll on the margins of the city”. It’s impossible to know for sure if it was as perfect as was claimed, but the point is that, as Kishtainy puts it, “Here we have a hint of one ingredient of an incipient utopianism, the myth of a lost Arcadia that holds up an unflattering mirror to the world of today and  can turn the mind towards a critique of the present”. And in another passage: “utopia is a picture of social desire. Through the description of an imagined good place, it criticises the existing social order and provides a plan for a new kind of society”.

Of course, many people attack the “existing social order”, without being utopians. They may want to simply object to a single widespread problem such as economic inequality. And this raises the question of whether or not utopians should get involved in formal politics? Will tinkering with the system ever lead to a better society overall? In the nineteenth century there were numerous attempts world-wide to set up what might be called “alternative societies” by creating communities which aimed to be self-sufficient and survive by establishing new codes of behaviour. Few of them lasted very long and often foundered on the vagaries of human behaviour. People didn’t easily transfer from the flexible social requirements of the wider society to the necessary restrictions of communal living. It may be a fact that to create a utopia it’s likely that certain unwelcome (to some) controls will have to be applied. It’s too often thought that utopia means that everyone is free to act as they want. It doesn’t work that way. As an illustration of the problems that could affect utopian plans it’s instructive to read a history of Icaria, the community established in America on principles (a number adapted from Robert Owen) laid down by Etienne Cabet. It lasted for around fifty years, in one form or another, but encountered many difficulties, some economic but others resulting from personality clashes, differences between age groups and, inevitably, money and property.

Kishtainy commences his survey with a fairly lengthy look at Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516. Raphael, a seasoned voyager, tells the tale of how he happened on Utopia, an island state and its capital, Amaurot, “the quintessential communal society, based on a community of goods and a city of disciplined citizens united on their high purposes”. As he does so he essentially outlines More’s theory of what a society in which private property doesn’t exist, and people live in harmony with each other, could be like.  But Kishtainy is quick to point out that More “did not propose that his utopia be created in the real world. He did not gather utopian disciples or attempt to set up an experimental community run along Morean social lines”. He wrote, in Latin, what was an intellectual exercise for a limited number of scholars and statesmen across Europe. It was a variety of later philosophers, idealists, and others who would come up with blueprints for how utopias could be created. It would be interesting to know how many of them had read Thomas More.

Jumping ahead we do find people who didn’t only theorise about utopia. They attempted to put their ideas into practice. Gerrard Winstanley and the Diggers were a relatively small group, and their activities were limited in terms of the overall impact they had on the larger society. But they were singular enough to have left a record in the history of the English Civil War. Look at Christopher Hill’s splendid The World Turned Upside Down : Radical Ideas During the English Revolution  (Viking Press, New York, 1972). And they captured the imagination of succeeding generations in such a way that   novels, plays, poems and films have been produced about them. Winstanley’s short-lived adventure on St George’s Hill in Surrey, where he and his band of Diggers took over what they saw as the common land and started to cultivate it, was a move towards a utopian ideal of community living in its best practical sense.

That it failed, partly due to opposition from local people and also government repression, and that Winstanley later abandoned his utopian dreams and became a successful businessmen, should not be allowed to detract from the original principal intentions of the group, These were “to restore the earth to its former condition, when men and women lived in community with each other and enjoyed the fruits of the land as one”. An admirable enough objective, one might think, but sufficiently radical to invite attention from landowners and the authorities, both local and national. People couldn’t (and can’t) be allowed to act that independently.

What is noticeable as the story extends through the seventeenth, eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, is the number of curious characters with equally curious proposals for utopian living that emerge. Perhaps they were only the tip of the iceberg of longing for something different that existed throughout society? They usually attracted followers, but on the whole we know little about the rank-and-file as opposed to the leaders who often left written accounts of their activities. Thomas Spence had come to London from Newcastle in the late-1780s and was full of plans for not only a utopian society, but also complicated ideas for the reform of the language: “To Spence, the trickiness of the English language – its unphonetic spelling and pronunciation traps – stopped the poor from escaping their slums. For their uneducated speech they were open to ridicule and to being barred from politics and power, while the inconsistencies of English spelling hindered their access to ideas through their own reading and self-education”.

Kishtainy provides a colourful description of Spence’s followers as they meet with him in a London pub: “The room is filled with a cross-section of the London poor, many of them misfits and outcasts like Spence. There are weavers, tailors, carpenters, navvies, dockworkers, ex-sailors and thieves”. Needless to say, Spence’s activities came to the attention of the authorities. The repression by the government of any radical activity during the war with France was extensive.  He was hounded for selling Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man and arrested numerous times. There is a quote from a trial in 1801 that might sum up in a few words why Spence believed in what he did: “Are we never to expect a better state of things than the present? Must we be debarred from the pleasures of imagination also?”.  I can’t help thinking that Spence was not only on trial for his advocacy of supposedly subversive political ideas, but also because when he promoted theories about educating the working class he was challenging the established order of things : “In Spence’s hands, the finer points of spelling reform, far from being  arcane  curiosities, form part of a liberatory science of society, a vector for social mobility. Any defender of the status quo who could appreciate what Spence was trying to do would have found in it a threat”. And Kishtainy says:  “Hannah More, the evangelical social reformer and a contemporary of Spence, deemed suitable reading matter for labourers’ children  ‘such coarse works as may fit them for servants’ and expressed horror at the thought of the poor becoming scholars and critics”. I’ve heard not dissimilar opinions expressed in more recent times. 

As the nineteenth century progressed there seems to have been more attempts to actually set up utopian communes rather than just theorising about them. John Goodwyn Barmby and his wife Catherine “established their utopia in a house at Hanley on the western fringe of London” in 1843. They named it the Moreville Communitorium, with a nod in the direction of Thomas More, and described it as “the first Asylum for the sane”. Kishtainy tells us that an advertisement stated that it was an establishment “where boys and girls were educated ‘sentimentally, intellectively and manually’ and that a gardener, shoemaker and a young woman for domestic work” were required. Were these posts filled by people who affirmed to whatever doctrines applied in what was a hopeful little utopia? It’s not known, and in any case it was a short-lived venture: “Various fellow residents had not lived up to the canons of the Barmby’s new religion, being apparently too attached to the selfish, individual ways of conventional society”. I was reminded of a commune I was invited to visit in the 1960s. The residents all claimed to have an interest in the idea of peace and co-operation. I sat in on their weekly meeting and listened to them bicker about who should have cleaned the windows or swept the floor or taken out the kitchen waste.   

It’s easy to be cynical about attempts to establish utopian communities, so many of them foundering on the failings of human nature. And yet it’s hard not to admire the dreams and determination of many of the individuals involved in schemes for a different form of society, one that sought to make life better for the majority of people and not just a privileged few. Anna Wheeler, “a well-connected woman from a Protestant Irish background”, provided something of a link between utopians in France and similarly-minded thinkers in England. She admired the writing of Saint-Simon and Fourier, both of them in their different ways producing detailed plans of their envisaged utopias.  Saint-Simon thought that “Society would be guided along the path to this new Golden Age by a cadre of experts – engineers, scientists and artists – whose knowledge of social and historical laws would enable them to act in the interest of the community as a whole, rather than of particular social groups”.

Fourier believed in “the flowering of the human passions rather than of reason alone. In the ‘phalanstery’ – 1,600-strong communities housed in rectangular buildings – people would engage in ‘attractive labour’, an allocation of work that was in line with their inclinations and abilities”. I’ve outlined both the Saint-Simonian and Fourierist philosophies in very basic terms, and they’re worth studying in greater detail. They were influential in utopian thinking and, for example, their ideas appear prominently in histories of nineteenth-century American utopian communes such as New Harmony and Brook Farm, the latter experiment somewhat satirised in Nathaniel Hawthorn’s novel, The Blithedale Romance. Kishtainy mentions Bronson Alcott’s 1842 visit to England when he met with followers of James Pierrepoint Greaves, known as “the Sage of Bloomsbury”, and an advocate of leaving behind the materialism of the “squalid metropolis” and turning towards “transcendent truths”. The Greaves community was named the Concordium.  The link between Alcott, a founder of Brook Farm and a member of the New England Transcendentalist group, and Greaves’ disciples is easy to see. Some of them returned to America with him.  

There is so much in Kishtainy’s book likely to arouse curiosity that I haven’t the space to incorporate references to it all. He moves through the late nineteenth-century and writes about William Morris and his utopian novel, News from Nowhere in which the narrator wakens up one day to find himself transported to a London of the future. It’s a city without social strife. All the slums have been cleared and life is lived at a more leisurely pace than previously: “London, it seems has been transformed into a verdant town of pastoral bliss and true human fellowship”.  The “pastoral” element appears to have been prevalent in English utopian reflections. The notion of an English Arcadia held firm.

An American equivalent, Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward likewise used the idea of someone waking up to find himself in the future. The setting is Boston, and as with London the streets are now bright with trees and fountains. There is a difference, though. Bellamy doesn’t appear to be as hooked on an imagined rural-inclined idyll as Morris, and imagines a “vast production system run by an industrial army in which everyone has to serve until the age of forty-five”. I seem to recall that Trotsky spoke about creating an “industrial army” during the formative days of the Bolshevik take-over of Russia. Conscription can come in various forms, it seems. Not every utopia was based on a concept of “the good and simple life”.

If utopian thinking in the Twentieth Century tended to move away from large-scale theories of what could be achieved it did nonetheless manage to create some smaller schemes which benefited groups of people anxious to find an escape from inner-city conditions. Kishtainy pays attention to Henrietta Octavia Barnett and her involvement with Hampstead Garden Suburb and Ebenezer Howard and his development of Letchworth Garden City. In the 1920s Ada Slater, the Mayor of Bermondsey, had “ambitious social visions”, though she wasn’t a “utopian ideologue” and had a more down-to earth concept of what needed to be done to improve the lives of her constituents. Worthwhile things were achieved, though the post-1945 period tended to see the “dulling of a bright social vision”. Government involvement, financial constraints and increased regulations meant that utopian dreams, to quote the words of one forward-looking architect, “had to be submitted in triplicate for Ministry approval”.

The architect in question was Berthold Lubetkin who arrived in London in 1931 and had close connections with the European avant-gardes. Kshtainy gives an account of his attempts to bring fresh ideas to English planning, though he “found in England ‘a stratified society, in which each successive layer of self-deception was contained between rigid crusts of conventional institution‘ ”. Kishtainy adds that Lubetkin “deplored the tradition of English empiricism, which rejected social theory and was only interested in isolated facts, not into linkage into systems which could be the basis for social remodelling”. As an aside, I can’t help wondering what Lubetkin would make of present-day Manchester? What seems to be a desire to cram as many people as possible into a small space has resulted in the erection of high-rise apartment blocks and the conversion of old warehouses in a way that defies any appearance of order and proper planning. There are no utopian intentions to be discerned here, nor are those citizens on low incomes catered for.    

It’s perhaps inevitable that what Kishtainy sees as utopian in today’s society has the appearance of fragmentary actions by single-issue groups like Reclaim the Streets and Just Stop Oil. He has a colourful account of the Claremont Road stand-off in 1994 when squatters occupied houses slated for demolition and held out until police and bailiffs eventually moved in to evict them. Among the protestors was Dolly Watson, a nonagenarian who had been born in Claremont Road and had refused to leave when the Council served notice on her. Kishtainy suggests that the activists were “influenced by strands of anarchist and unorthodox Marxist thinking rooted in avant-garde art movements such as surrealism and Dada, which earlier in the century had infused revolutionary ideals with those of imagination and desire”. And he refers to the Paris-based Situationist International, “a grouping of European artists and intellectuals who sought new critiques of capitalism”. I don’t know if Dolly Watson had ever encountered surrealists and Dadaists, but she did like the squatters and said they were nice people.

Are there any utopian dreams now? I mean “dreams” in the sense of large plans for the re-organisation of the whole society? It seems not and the vision is probably even more dystopian as climate change, wars, and other factors create conditions which, despite stated good intentions, are only likely to get worse. Even in the developed world where the majority of people have relatively comfortable lives the prognosis is less than positive. Kishtainy quotes from Guy Debord’s Situationist text, The Society of the Spectacle: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation”. And the “supremacy of markets and money has led to the ‘degradation of being into having….. People were in thrall to what Debord termed ‘the spectacle’, representations of products and lifestyles that made individuals want to own even more commodities”. Kishtainy adds: “The Situationists believed that in the twentieth century the spectacle had become the reigning principle of society, making people into observers of their own lives rather than true participants……Dazzled by the spectacle, it becomes harder than  ever to imagine an alternative way of life”. 

Some will say that the absence of ambitious plans for a utopia is a good thing. For example, Isiah Berlin and Karl Popper “developed philosophical critiques of the utopian enterprise and argued for a more limited notion of human advancement”. And “made a plea for liberal pragmatism against the all-encompassing vision of utopia”. I have my own doubts about the desirability of utopian schemes  when I read that the Concordium utopians’ publication, the New Age, made the following proclamation : “He who will not submit to be inwardly disciplined must be put under outward discipline and drilled into obedience”. And I think of Saint-Just during the French Revolution, with its utopian intentions to create a new society and new citizens : “He who does not conform must be driven from the gates of the city”. There is always the danger that any form of social organisation, no matter how well-meant, will turn to repression and ultimately dictatorship when faced with dissension.

The Infinite City is a lively and thought-provoking book. I’ve not done much more than select some aspects of it for inspection, and there is in it a wealth of material that I could have looked at closely. What about Robert Owens’ ventures into utopia?, some might ask, or Robert Wedderburn, a black agitator in London whose utopianism incorporated plans for an armed uprising? Kishtainy tells his story and those of others like him who came and went and are mostly forgotten. He has provided a valuable service by resurrecting their activities for us. We may have our doubts about them but it would be wrong to dismiss these dreamers out of hand.  His book has notes and a useful bibliography.