Prolegomenon: Utopian Socialism

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The Shakers 

Calvin Green and Seth Y. Wells, “A Summary View of the Millennial Church or United Society of Believers” (excerpts), C Van Benthuysen (1848).

The story of Socialism in the US traces its roots in the beginning of the 19th century,  from the hands of millenarist christian sects. Between the 1820s and 1840s, individuals who believed in the perfectibility of the social and political order founded hundreds of “Utopian communities.” One of the earliest Utopian societies was popularly known as the Shakers. Formally known as the United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Coming, the Shakers developed their own religious expression which included communal living, productive labor, celibacy, pacifism, the equality of the sexes, and a ritual noted for its dancing and shaking. Founded in 1776 by “Mother” Ann Lee, an English immigrant, the Shakers believed that the millennium was at hand and that the time had come for people to renounce sins. Aspiring to live like the early Christians, the Shakers adopted communal ownership of property and a way of life emphasizing simplicity.  This pamphlet provides a theological background for a communal organization of the society, showing the how the Shakers  try to justify their attempt to create a communal society.


5. To see the luxurious state of the pampered rich, the oppression and destitution of the poor, who are perishing by thousands, yea, hundreds of thousands, for the want of the necessaries of life; and the consequent bitter animosities and increasing collisions between the rich and the poor, must suggest to every benevolent mind the indispensable necessity of some system of operation among men, that will confer a much greater equality of rights and privileges, both in person and property, than any which now prevails, in order to prevent mankind from rushing on to utter ruin.

6. Multitudes of people have been so firmly persuaded of the utility and practicability of such a system, that they have attempted to form communities upon the plan of equal rights and privileges, with a unity of interest in all things, believing that it is the design of the benevolent Creator that man should be a social and benevolent being; that their joys and sorrows, as fellow beings, may be shared together.  These sentiments are evidently the impressions of Divine Goodness, and clearly show his benevolent designs for his creature man, who is his intelligent representative in this lower world.  This was prefigured under the law, when Divine Providence fed the people of Israel with manna.  Of this they all shared equally, according to their necessities.

7. During the present century, many attempts have been made to form associations upon the plan of a community of interest, in various parts of Europe and in the United States of America.  Many societies have been formed in part or wholly upon this plan.  But it is well known that with all their wisdom, skill, benevolent designs, unity of intention, convenience of location and confidence of success, they have soon failed in their expectations, and been scattered as before.  This signal and general failure has more or less disappointed the votaries of this system, and set many to devising some other plan to accomplish their object.   Many, of course, scoff at the idea of such communities, while others, after having tried the system, have given up the object as unattainable.

8. But notwithstanding these general failures, we are prepared to show that there is a sure system, founded upon the principles of a unity of interest in all things, which has stood the test a sufficient length of time, to prove that it can be attained and supported.  This system has been established and maintained for many years, in seven different states in this Union, and in many locations in these states.9. The United Society of Believers (called Shakers) was founded upon the principles of equal rights and privileges, with a united interest in all things, both spiritual and temporal, and has been maintained and supported in this Society, at New Lebanon, about sixty years, without the least appearance of any failure.  Is not this proof sufficient in favor of such a system?


Utopian Literature

Edward Bellamy Boston, “Looking Backward: 2000-1887”. Ticknor and Co. (1888) 

Socialism within the United States first received national attention following the publication of a science fiction book by Edward Bellamy called “Looking Backward”. “Looking Backward: 2000-1887” remains the most successful and influential Utopian novel written by an American writer. At the end of the 19th century, Bellamy creates a picture of a wonderful future society. Bellamy’s protagonist is Julian West, a young aristocratic Bostonian who falls into a deep sleep while under a hypnotic trance in 1887 and ends up waking up in the year 2000. West is introduced to an amazing society, which is consistently contrasted with the time from which he has come. As much as this is a prediction of a future utopia, it is also a scathing attack on the ills of American Life heading into the previous turn of the century. Bellamy’s sympathies are clearly with the progressives of that period. For example, he discovers that everybody is happy, and no one is either rich or poor, all because equality has been achieved. Industry has been nationalized, which has increased efficiency because it has eliminated wasteful competition. This is a world with no need of money, but every citizen has a sort of credit card that allows them to make individual purchases, although everyone has the same monthly allowance.