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chris jennings paradise now utopianismLUMPENPROLETARIATParadise Now: The Story of American Utopianism (2016) is the name of a new book by author Chris JenningsLetters and Politics host Mitch Jeserich joined Chris Jennings to discuss the history of north American utopianismListen (or download) here. [1]



[Official Letters and Politics programme summary from the KPFA archive page] [1]

LETTERS AND POLITICS—[10 MAR 2016]  With Chris Jennings, author of the book Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism

About the book: 

In the wake of the Enlightenment and the onset of industrialism, a generation of dreamers took it upon themselves to confront the messiness and injustice of a rapidly changing world. To our eyes, the utopian communities that took root in America in the nineteenth century may seem ambitious to the point of delusion, but they attracted members willing to dedicate their lives to creating a new social order and to asking the bold question What should the future look like?

In Paradise Now, Chris Jennings tells the story of five interrelated utopian movements, revealing their relevance both to their time and to our own. Here is Mother Ann Lee, the prophet of the Shakers, who grew up in newly industrialized Manchester, England—and would come to build a quiet but fierce religious tradition on the opposite side of the Atlantic. Even as the society she founded spread across the United States, the Welsh industrialist Robert Owen came to the Indiana frontier to build an egalitarian, rationalist utopia he called the New Moral World. A decade later, followers of the French visionary Charles Fourier blanketed America with colonies devoted to inaugurating a new millennium of pleasure and fraternity. Meanwhile, the French radical Étienne Cabet sailed to Texas with hopes of establishing a communist paradise dedicated to ideals that would be echoed in the next century. And in New York’s Oneida Community, a brilliant Vermonter named John Humphrey Noyes set about creating a new society in which the human spirit could finally be perfected in the image of God.

Over time, these movements fell apart, and the national mood that had inspired them was drowned out by the dream of westward expansion and the waking nightmare of the Civil War. Their most galvanizing ideas, however, lived on, and their audacity has influenced countless political movements since. Their stories remain an inspiration for everyone who seeks to build a better world, for all who ask, What should the future look like?



[Partial transcript of actual radio broadcast by Messina for Lumpenproletariat and Letters and Politics] [1]

LETTERS AND POLITICS—[10 MAR 2016]  “This is Pacifica Radio‘s Letters and Politics.  On today’s show:”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “They called their philosophy Bible communism.  So, they’re taking inspiration from certain sections of the Bible, which they read as commanding Christians to communism.  In fact, all these groups, even the secular ones, were reading the same bits of the Bible and saying:  Look, it’s evident here that our most sacred texts tell us that we must live in communities of total equality without private property.

“But the United community were also very intellectual and very interested in reading the socialist ideas of their secular contemporaries. [2]  They’re really wedding these two streams.  They’re very politically aware as well as being religiously inspired.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “In the 19th century, a number of communes sprung up around the United States, that attempted the old anarchist adage of creating a new world within the shell of the old.

“For most of us, these stories have been lost to history, but not today.  We’ll talk to author Chris Jennings about five of the them:  the Oneida, the Shakers, the Fourierists, the Icarians, and New Harmony.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “One thing we can take from them is this idea of imagining idealised futures allowed them to see things that it took their fellow countrymen another century to see:  You know, the equality of women, the fact that education needs to be free for all children if we’re gonna have a democratic society.

“These were not mainstream ideas in the middle of the 19th century.  And they were within these communities.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Chris Jennings is the author of the book, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism.  That’s next on Letters and Politics.  But, first, the news.” (c. 1:45)

[KPFA News Headlines (read by Aileen Alfandary) omitted by scribe] (c. 09:57)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Good day, and welcome to Letters and Politics.  I’m Mitch Jeserich.  With this programme, I occasionally like to point out that we like to do history-related topics because I believe history is important in today’s world.  That how we tell history, frequently creates the boundaries of our contemporary political debates, and that the struggle against forgetting is also important in the dynamic.  One history, that I was unaware about before, but is also the topic of our conversation today, is the communes of the 19th century in this country, that were meant to create a society based on equality, including full equality for women, and an equal distribution of resources.

“Joining me to talk about that history is Chris Jennings.  Chris Jennings is the author of the book Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism.  Chris Jennings, it is my very good pleasure to welcome you to this programme.” (c. 10:44)

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Thank you so much.  It’s great to be here.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Usually, when we talk about communes in this country, we’re talkin’ about the communes of the late 1960s and ’70s.  The communes during the 1800s were very different than the communes of more recent history.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “They were very different.  I think, probably, if you were to ride your horse up, or drive your bus up to one of them, they might look similar on the face.  You know?  Sort of farms with too many people living on them, big communal meals of beans and rice.

“In actual fact, the ideas and the rhetoric, that undergirded the 19th century communities were, in my estimation, far more utopian than anything that happened in the late ’60s or early ’70s around these parts.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “And it’s really fascinating.  When we talk about history, it’s hard to find a lot of examples of alternative styles of living, especially in a progressive kind of way.  But the five you look at are the Shakers, New Harmony, the Fourierists, [inaudible], the Icarians, and Oneidans.  I probably said like three of those wrong.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “No.  You, you nailed ’em.  Yeah.  They were.  I mean, obviously, this sort of language we have now of progressive and conservative and left and right don’t map neatly onto 19th century political thinking.  But it’s true that this sort of chapter of American history, which is, I think, underdiscussed, represents a sort of counter-history to the rather monolithic narrative we have of American history.” (c. 12:16)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Are they all religious?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “They’re not all religious.  And one of the things, that’s really interesting about them is some of them are avowedly atheistic, or at least avowedly secular.  And some of them are extremely religious.  But they saw enough, they had enough in common with one another that they saw each other as, sort of, fellow travellers.  Their rhetoric and their programmes were very similar.  And, to outsiders, to their fellow Americans, they were generally understood as being part of one, sort of, coherent movement, despite the fact that some of them based their philosophies on religious revelations.  And some of them were building on the Enlightenment ideas of progress.

MITCH JESERICH:  “And communism?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “And communism.  Communism, probably small-‘c’ communism.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Communism, as Karl Marx wrote about?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Well, it’s interesting.  There’s a lot of—Marx and Engels, actually more Engels, spent an awful lot of time reading and writing about these people.  And they lifted—and they mostly give credit a lot—from these folks.

“But, at the same time, the reason we now call these utopian communities, that language comes from Marx and Engels.  In the Communist Manifesto, they, sort of famously mock these, the people they, who invented socialism before them.  They’re sort of their predecessors.  And they use the term utopian socialism to distinguish these folks from themselves, who they  were calling the scientific socialists.  So, that language comes from Marx and Engels.  And—”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Are these the groups?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yeah.  They name about four or five groups.  Four of the five, that I write about are mentioned in the Communist Manifesto.  So, sort of obliquely, because they’re sort of teasing them, they don’t say them by name.  But, elsewhere, they wrote at great length about them.

“And Engels, in particular, was very interested in the Shakers and sort of.  If nothing else, it looked to these folks as evidence, since the Shakers were really thriving at the time they were writing, as evidence of the practicality of communism.

“They would say the biggest critique of communism, then, as now, was:  This just isn’t gonna work.  And Engels would go: Oh, look at the Shakers!  Their barns are always full of hay.  Their pots are always full of soup.  And, clearly, a society without private property can thrive.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Tell me more about the Shakers and Mother Ann Lee.  This was run, headed by women.”  (c. 14:44)

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yes, it was.  Well, it was, sort of, the prophet or the prophetess, as they called her, of the Shakers, whose actual name was the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing.  Shakers started as, sort of, a derogatory term, they eventually made peace with, that derives from their mode of worship, which was to bounce around a lot.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “And it comes from the Quakers.  Or are they—did it come out of the Quakers?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Loosely.  Ann Lee starts, gets her start in Manchester, England, which, again, an interesting connection to the later, so-called, scientific socialism.  Manchester is, sort of, the cradle of Marxian philosophy also, and for much of the same reason.  It was the Industrial Revolution and this supposed capitalist future was on full display.  And it was extremely ugly.

“So, it’s a place where people formulated counter-theories.  But Ann Lee gets her start there.  And she doesn’t really so much as come out of the Quakers.  But the group, that she starts in a prayer group, that had been started by two former Quakers.  So, their neighbours start calling them the shaking Quakers, from which their name derives. (c. 15:51)

“She comes to—she sort of ascends to the leadership of this small prayer group.  And, she, most notably, by having a revelation that says that we should all stop having sex, that that’s how the millennium god has promised us the thousand years of peace and abundance on Earth will come about once we stop having sex.

“She leads a small group of followers from Manchester to upstate New York, just in the middle of the American Revolution.  And she dies soon after the Revolution.  And the Society is led by a series of incredibly talented followers of her’s.  And the leadership is split 50/50 between men and women.  It really was.

“I mean, obviously, these were people of their time.  So, theory and practice did not always align.  But, yes, the Shakers were largely led by women at a time where anything other than a school room was not run by a woman anywhere in the United States.” (c. 16:45)

MITCH JESERICH:  “And no sex?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “And no sex.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “No marriage?  No—”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Mm.  No marriage.  One thing, that pretty much all these communities have in common, that distinguishes them from other types of communists, I suppose, is that they strongly  believed that the family, the nuclear family, was an obsolete institution, that was standing in the way of, of mankind’s ascent to a perfected society.

“So, they all hoped through various means to dissolve the nuclear family.  For the Shakers, that largely meant not having sex.  But, for some, like the United community, the took an opposite approach.  They all had sex with each other and considered everyone in the community married to everyone else in the community.”  (c. 17:23)

MITCH JESERICH:  “What time frame was the Oneida and the Shakers?  Were they around at the same time?”


MITCH JESERICH:  “Did they overlap?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yeah, they overlapped because the Shakers lasted much longer than anyone else.  They go their start in Manchester and, I mean, theoretically, there’s still two people who count themselves Shakers, living in a community called Sabbathday Lake, Maine.

“But the Shakers reached their demographic peak in the 1840s, which is when the Oneida Community starts.  And the Oneida Community, kind of, unravels after the Civil War in the 1870s.  And the Shakers were also declining at around that time.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Did they communicate amongst each other, these groups?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “They did.  (c.17:56)

[SNIP] (c. 18:42)

“But they spoke of each other as noble contestants.  That was the language, that one Shaker said.  Noble contestants were bringing about the millennium.”  (c. 18:48)  [SNIP]  (c. 19:11)

“Yeah.  It is amazing.  It was amazing at the time.  And they did—”

MITCH JESERICH:  “How big was it?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “You know, it fluctuated in size.  But it sort of peaked out at about 300 people, which doesn’t sound like that many until you see where they lived, and you see the scale.  They, basically, all lived in one mansion, that they built for themselves.  It’s very impressive.

“The United community, like the Shakers, and unlike some of their other utopian colleagues, really thrived economically.  They made a ton of money.  So, they built themselves a beautiful estate.

“And they did, eventually, excite enormous public rebuke from, sort of, more conservative fashions.  And their existence did, sort of, coincide with, sort of , the peak of the Victorian era, the sort of out-of-control American [inaudible].  (c. 20:00)  [SNIP]  (c. 20:26)

“So, they were at odds with the surrounding culture.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Are they one of the secular groups, that you were talking about?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “They’re not a secular group.  They’re kind of are interesting.  And I put them at the end because they, sort of, wed the secular and the mystical strain, that runs through American utopianism.  They were definitely building.  They called their philosophy Bible communism.  So, they’re taking inspiration from certain sections of the Bible, which they read as commanding Christians to communism.  In fact, all of these groups were reading.  Even the secular ones were reading the same bits of the Bible and saying:  Look!  It’s evident here that our most sacred texts tells us that we must live in communities of total equality without private property.  

“And, so, but the United Community were, also, very intellectual and very interested in reading the socialist ideas of their secular contemporaries.  So, they’re really wedding these two strains.  They are very politically aware as well as being religiously inspired.” (c. 21:29)  [SNIP]  (c. 23:27)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Looking back at the Shakers, after Mother Ann Lee, we have other leaders.  Joseph Meacham and Lucy Wright.  And they developed what’s known as religious communism.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yeah.  They, again, there’s a key, similar to what we were just discussing, a key to bit of the Bible, they were all reading.  This is in the Book of Acts, where it’s describing:  Jesus has died.  His apostles are all living together with a, sort of, small community.  They didn’t even call them Christian.  But they’re sort of Jewish Christ-worshippers.

“And it says very explicitly that they had all things in common.  Everyone who came in with property into the community sold it and laid the wealth at the feet of the apostles.  And they shared everything.

“So, all of these people, the Shakers said:  Okay, these are the people, that knew best what Christ wanted, they’d lived with him.  They were his friends.

“He’s gone now.  But, clearly, how they’re arranging their society is how God wants a Christian society to be organised.

“So, they initiated this, sort of, religious communism, wherein anyone who came into the—Shakers donated their wealth into the collective.  And every Shaker, theoretically, owned, you know, one share in what they called Zion, which was this, sort of, federation of communities, that they built throughout the northern United States.” (c. 24:53)


[music break:  Bach]  (c. 27:45)  [SNIP]  (c. 52:15)

“And utopianism is, along with being a very good way of organising one’s grievances with the here and now, because what more, you know, when you describe the perfect society, the things you add to it and the things you leave out are the things you don’t like or do like about the world in which you live.

“So, the fact that these people, utopianism simultaneously allows you to formulate a good critique of the present and stimulate the, sort of, energy to move forward towards something.  I think that’s very valuable; and it’s something, that’s missing from contemporary discourse.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Are there paralells to how all these five groups came to an end?”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “There are parallels, but not neat ones.  They didn’t all die of the same cause.

“Some of them died of poverty.  Some of them died of—because they got too rich.  And they were afraid to let new people in.  The United Community and the Shakers, they ended up with so much property because, for a time, their economic structure was so successful that they got, sort of, nervous about letting new people in.

“Very often—and this does, sort of, echo closely with 20th century communalism, the children of the founding generation wanted to see something else of the world.  They knew that their parents had picked a very weird life.  And they wanted to go live a different kind of life.

“A lot of them died because of fire.  It’s a funny thing to read 19th century history.  You realise what a dominant part of day-to-day life fire was.  And, so, you know, Brooke Farm goes bankrupt when the massive phalanstère, which was what Fourier called the buildings in which he thought people should live.  Their phalanstère burns down.

“So, they died of various causes.  But, basically, my research indicates that the real reason that they, if there’s one cause of death it’s that some circumstance intervenes, which ceases to make it look like their rhetoric is gonna come true.

“Once the utopian dream is—begins to look like it’s not gonna be realised, all of the effort that people have been spending years pouring into these communities, kind of, unravels because, as long as the dream was there, you know, people were happily working along, you know, working very hard.  It’s hard work.”  (c. 54:36)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Yeah.  And you could say:  Nothing lasts forever.”


MITCH JESERICH:  “Businesses don’t last forever.”


MITCH JESERICH:  “Does that mean they were a failure?  Probably not.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yeah.  Yeah.  I think so.  I mean I think you can say, in some ways, basically, people fail by their own terms because they thought they were, unlike, say—”

MITCH JESERICH:  “They were bringing the revolution.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yeah.  They were bringing the revolution.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “A new day.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yeah, exactly.  So, I would say, like, if your average hippie commune shutters after 20 years, you can say, well, that was great fun.

“But these folks did say that they were not—”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Did not reach their final goal.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “—not reach.  The millennium was not commenced, as they said.  They promised it was going to be.”

MITCH JESERICH:  “Chris Jennings, thank you.”

CHRIS JENNINGS:  “Yeah.  It’s a real pleasure.  Thank you so much.”  (c. 55:11)

MITCH JESERICH:  “Again, the name of the book, Paradise Now: The Story of American Utopianism. (c. 55:18)  [SNIP]

[SNIP] (c. 59:59)


[This transcript will be expanded as time constraints, and/or demand or resources, allow.]


[1]  Terrestrial radio transmission, 94.1 FM (KPFA, Berkeley, CA) with online simulcast and digital archiving:  Letters and Politics, hosted by Mitch Jeserich, for Thursday, 10 MAR 2016, 10:00 PST.

[2]  The United community refers to the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing, which came to be known as the Shakers.


[Last modified 00:58 PST  11 MAR 2016]