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Book Review: 'History of American Socialisms'

Utopian Communities

'History of American Socialisms', by John Humphrey Noyes, with new introduction by Mark Holloway, Dover, New York

"Socialism has been tried before in various communal experiments. These failed because men cannot live together, co-operating freely in production and sharing the amenities and products of their community."

So runs one of the "human nature" type of objections to Socialism.

The answer is that Socialism cannot work in isolation. It must be world-wide, taking over from the present world-wide system of society—capitalism. The conditions for its achievement are, that there must be a potential abundance for all, and that a majority of workers must be equipped with the knowledge of Socialism and be organised to get it. Socialism is the emancipation of the working class and not an escape from capitalism to some backwoods hideaway. This is Scientific Socialism as opposed to the earlier ideas of reforming mankind by setting up communities free from the influence of private property known as Utopian Socialism.

This book is a contemporary account of Utopian communities set up in America mainly between 1825 and 1850. The author founded a religious community which lasted 30 years. The greater part of his material was drawn from the researches of A. J. Macdonald, an admirer of Robert Owen. The book is largely devoted to brief histories of communal experiments, the main groups dealt with being: the efforts of Owen and his followers, communities set up by admirers of Fourier and various religious colonies.

It is interesting that theories developed to deal with the effects of the industrial revolution in Europe should have been applied in pre-industrial America. There was plenty of land available in America and people who had escaped from conditions in Europe were keen to try new and more satisfying ways of living. Their role was of pioneers opening up virgin territory rather than social revolutionaries ending oppression.

The fallacy of trying to change the social environment in isolation is evident with each experiment. Private property dogged them from the start. Land, tools and supplies had to be bought. Funds had to be raised for these, which meant that the community was in debt to the lender. They had to direct their efforts to paying this off so that they had to try and sell their products at a profit. In practice these schemes worked out as private property, held and worked in common, with all the frustrations of small property owners and the added irritants of being confined by the bounds of their land and of their social circle, both work and play, being limited to the colony. No wonder their attempts to change society failed. This book only deals with the mechanics of failure (some, say Noyes, were, incompetent; others anti-religious; some had too many lazy members; others were struck by disasters like fire or sickness) but does not question the ideas of the Utopians.

The ideas, which seemed feasible in the 19th century, have been swept away by modern capitalism. The working class in its hundreds of millions is engaged in the social process of production on a world scale. Their position has changed from being mere beasts of burden to the people who run society from top to bottom. Yet for all these changes their social position is unchanged: they still face the problems associated with wage or salary earning; they still work for the minority who own the means of production. It is now clear that the environment of capitalism makes socialists who, when they are in a majority, will use their knowledge to make the world fit to live on.

The History of American Socialisms is an interesting historical document showing the efforts that men made to organise their affairs on what they thought was a sane and rational basis. The failure of the Utopians lay not in their intentions or courage but in the fact that the conditions of capitalism in their day made their ideas seem feasible.

JEF