John Stuart Mill approved of dissent. In ‘On Liberty’, he argued that vigorous debate improved society and that unconventional behaviour lit the path to freer and more fulfilling lives. He urged the widest tolerance for opinion, speech and even what he charmingly called ‘experiments of living’. Without such pinpricks, he argued, like-minded majorities would grow intolerant and democracies would slide into despotism. Mill made resisting social norms a social duty of its own.
Tobias Kelly and Anna Neima are Millians. Both authors admire their subjects. Kelly’s are the conscientious objectors who refused to fight during the Second World War; Neima’s are the creators of the utopian community of Dartington Hall. Both show how thoughtfully these dissidents weighed individual conviction and social obligation; both think society gained from their choices. These claims are persuasive, and yet they also sound quixotic today, when conscience is often invoked to refuse even the most minor social duties (wearing a mask, getting a vaccine) and when utopias are well-fortified private islands or imagined space colonies barred to all but the most well-heeled. Kelly and Neima are aware of that dissonance: they were, I imagine, writing these books while Brexit and Trump were upending what dissent might look like. But this makes the books more self-reflective and ethically troubled – and the better for it.
Battles of Conscience opens with a surprising statistic: that sixty thousand Britons refused conscription in the Second World War – three times the number who objected in the First. There is a relationship between those statistics, though: conscientious objectors in 1939 were thinking less about the war bearing down on them than about the previous one. Men had volunteered eagerly in 1914 and became convinced of the war’s immorality only belatedly and after much suffering. In 1939, by contrast, men shaped by two decades of pacifism and internationalism decided from the outset not to serve. They knew the way their predecessors had been treated, however, and were fearful. Some thought they would be shot.
But while the conchie’s lot was never easy, it was less miserable this time round. Britain didn’t introduce conscription in the Great War until 1916, but after it did, those who resisted were treated harshly. Hauled before tribunals often staffed by army officers deeply unsympathetic to their claims, a third of them served prison terms with hard labour. That treatment helped change the standing of conscience. Although military service was made compulsory in 1939 for men aged between 18 and 41, objectors could plead for an exemption, and the tribunals before which they appeared now often included local clergymen and teachers. Those arbiters were more sympathetic to religious dissent than to, say, a general unwillingness to kill, but they excused from combat 70 per cent of those who came before them.
Only rarely was that exemption unconditional, however. Two-thirds of objectors were assigned an alternative form of service – working on a farm, driving an ambulance, serving in civil defence, fire-watching. Those roles weren’t always so different from what conscripts were doing – and in performing them, objectors became less distinctive and less ‘objectionable’. Great War soldiers felt that they alone endured a calvary of pain when their bellicose compatriots handed out white feathers or sang jingo songs; in the Second World War, however, ordinary citizens often faced death by bombing at a time when many soldiers were still tucked up in rural training camps, far from harm’s way. As the line between civilian and combatant became blurred, and as the war’s cause grew clearer, rates of objection declined radically: from 2 per cent of conscripts in late 1939 to just 0.3 per cent by the end of 1942.
So what was it that made so many early recruits claim exemption, and stick to their convictions through six long years? Kelly, an anthropologist not a historian, has mined the wonderful memoirs, diaries and oral histories collected by the Imperial War Museum to track the way five objectors lived out their answers to that question. All of them, revealingly, were pacifists of the first hour, four in their mid-twenties when conscripted and shaped more by the politics of the 1930s than by the early war years. Roy Ridgway, born in Liverpool, came from a pacifist family and was a member of the Peace Pledge Union; Ronald Duncan, an idealistic Cambridge graduate, had travelled to India to see Gandhi’s movement first hand; Fred Urquhart, a working-class Scot with ambitions to be a writer, moved on the fringes of radical and communist circles; Tom Burns, from a poor East London family, had broken with his past to become a pacifist and a teacher. Kelly’s only woman subject, Stella St John, who was conscripted when young single women were called up in 1941, had studied at Dartington Hall and worked for the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation.
Embedded as they were in radical or pacifist networks, all five were determined to resist compulsion. Suspicion of official motives or even scepticism about the threat Germany posed may have bolstered their resolve: as Kelly notes, pacifist organisations in the 1930s sometimes downplayed or distrusted reports of Nazi atrocities. Kelly is less sure-footed than he might be about the political context that shaped his subjects’ views, but in reconstructing their soul-searching his book comes into its own. He believes himself that ‘war, in almost all cases, is deeply wrong’ (not really a position from which a historian would begin), and homes in on the serious ethical dilemmas conscientious objection poses – ones that most of his subjects, to their credit, faced head-on.
The problem with individual conscientious objection is, of course, that we are mutually dependent whether we acknowledge it or not. You may refuse to get vaccinated on grounds of conscience but will benefit from herd immunity if others do; you may refuse to pay taxes but will still get your rubbish collected; you may refuse to take up arms in war but will be protected from harm if others serve. Kelly might not think much of conflict as a means of resolving disputes, but he is aware that, once war is underway, no one can quite escape its entanglements. His book grapples with one central question: how can one justify refusing what is, after all, an obligation imposed on citizens in a democratic state?
Of Kelly’s subjects, only Fred Urquhart seems to have felt that his life as a writer was simply more valuable than the lives of others and deserved protection. ‘In a war like this it is imperative that people like me should be kept inviolable,’ he wrote in his diary. ‘We are part of a civilisation that must be saved.’ The tribunal before which he appeared didn’t agree that he should be left free to write and assigned him to agricultural work for the whole of the war – though local farmers took him on only reluctantly.
Urquhart was the exception. The other four worried about the ‘free rider’ problem, though they resolved it in different ways. The Gandhi-influenced graduate Ronald Duncan was perhaps the most absolutist. Working as a farmer and so not subject to conscription (though he tried to register as an objector anyway), he decided he shouldn’t benefit from the risks being run by others and so constructed a world apart. With a few like-minded friends, he built a co-operative farming community on the Devon coast, one of scores of pacifist farms established early in the war. Duncan’s experiment came under the surveillance of the police, was reviled by locals as a free love haven, and was riven by the kinds of squabble familiar to anyone who has lived in a communal house. But if his little band often fell short of their ideals, Duncan wrote, ‘at least we were not dropping bombs on each other.’
Stella St John also worried about the legitimacy of dissent in a period of intense social interdependence. ‘It is impossible to opt completely out of war work,’ she wrote. ‘By paying taxes, eating food brought in a convoy, you can’t opt out.’ She determined to pay for her dissent by selfless service. Early in the war, she worked with homeless Londoners who weren’t welcome in shelters because they were verminous, smelly or psychologically disturbed, willingly doing work almost no one would do. She also spent evenings as a volunteer ambulance driver – but, quixotically, when assigned precisely the same task as a conscript, refused to serve. On principle, she would not accept state compulsion. When sentenced to six weeks in Holloway Prison, she uncomplainingly scrubbed floors and did prison laundry. St John was among the 10 per cent of objectors (compared to a third in the First World War) to be sent to prison.
Roy Ridgway and Tom Burns also refused military service while taking on obligations that put them in harm’s way. Burns signed up for the Friends’ Ambulance Unit so early that he wasn’t subject to conscription; Ridgway was briefly imprisoned for his unwillingness to wear a uniform, but he too joined the Quaker-funded unit. Their actions make clear the elevating contribution that conscience can make to public life. Members of the FAU were frontline workers, routinely in danger, differing from soldiers only in that they would not kill. Burns served in Finland, Egypt and Greece, and ended up as a prisoner of war in Germany after it occupied the Balkans. (The status of the FAU being incomprehensible to his captors, Burns was in a POW camp for 733 days. When he was finally repatriated, his health was too poor for him to return to frontline service.) Ridgway served as an ambulance driver in Syria, Lebanon and Italy, as the Allies pushed the Wehrmacht up the boot. Not until the war was effectively over did a tribunal grant him the unconditional exemption he had long claimed.
Kelly uses these lives to draw some apt if obvious conclusions about objection’s consequences. As he notes, claims of conscience have their dangers. They can become a way to turn complex issues into matters of ‘individual moral scruples rather than difficult collective political conversations’; they can allow us to duck rather than embrace social obligation. But some of his subjects – Burns, St John and Ridgway in particular – acknowledged their duty to society while contesting the form that service took: ‘They did not want to sit comfortably at home standing by their principles while sending others off to die.’ While Urquhart and Duncan moved steadily to the right after the war, these three appear to have held to their convictions. St John did volunteer work and died just short of her ninetieth birthday; Burns became an eminent sociologist; and Ridgway, who had a career as a journalist and author, was press officer for International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War when the organisation was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Those who dissent from social convention, Mill thought, help us imagine a better world. They are idealists not escapists. Some have a spiritual mission, but others seek a community bound by egalitarian or progressive ideals. Duncan had Gandhi in mind when he set up his communal farm, but the interwar years were thick with residential schools, religious communities, co-operatives and farms dedicated to modelling better forms of collective life.
Neima’s Practical Utopia recounts the history of one of the most influential and certainly the best resourced of such ventures. It is an engaging but also cautionary tale. Dartington Hall was the joint project of Leonard Elmhirst, a Yorkshire-born economist, and Dorothy Straight, née Whitney, an idealistic and philanthropic American heiress with three young children who lost her diplomat husband in the flu epidemic of 1918. The two met in 1920, when Leonard went to the US to study agricultural economics at Cornell, and they married in 1924. Leonard had been influenced by the Bengali poet and rural reformer Rabindranath Tagore, Dorothy by New York’s settlement house movement. They began casting around for a rural English property on which to build a utopia of their own. When they bought Dartington Hall and its eight hundred acres in 1925, there were only seventeen people living on the dilapidated Devon estate. Eight years later Dartington had 846 employees, 124 tenants, a progressive school and a host of enterprises producing everything from pottery to plays to poultry.
Neima sees this experiment as ‘a small-scale story about very big ideas’ – the main ‘big idea’ being that it is possible to build communitarian ways of working and living which are superior to laissez-faire liberalism, sustaining, as Tagore put it, ‘life in its completeness’. Neima sketches Dartington’s various enterprises and aims: the social and spiritual ‘questing’ that underwrote support for peace movements, Eastern mysticism and ultimately social science; the progressive educational values that led to the founding of Dartington School; the artistic commitments that made the place an innovator in pottery and textiles and – by 1938 – a refuge for sixty or so avant-garde Continental dancers, sculptors and playwrights; and the agricultural ventures which, if never profitable, became a seedbed for research. Dartington – or more precisely the Elmhirsts – lent support, too, to a host of progressive organisations and causes: the Next Five Years Group founded in 1935, the think tank Political and Economic Planning, architectural modernism, the League of Nations Union.
All of this seems admirable – but as the story unfolds complications emerge. Like William Morris before them, Leonard and Dorothy wanted to foster creativity and beauty but they also wanted their enterprises to prove themselves and to last. With all the estate’s projects bleeding money, Leonard (a trained economist after all) began to see economic viability as the measure of any venture’s worth. In 1929 the Elmhirsts formed Dartington Hall Ltd, a private liability company with Leonard as shareholder and chairman; two years later, Dartington Hall Trust was set up as an educational foundation to manage the school. Day-to-day operations were handed over to managers, and the various ventures – forestry, orchards, farms, poultry, arts and crafts – were expected to turn a profit or at least break even.
Almost none of them did. The agricultural and industrial ventures were too large for purely craft-based production but too small to compete with factories; of the artistic ventures, only furniture-making made money. The drama and dance departments lost money too, though Dorothy, concerned more with artistic standards and innovation, didn’t much care. After a chaotic start, the school became financially stable, but only because Dorothy and Leonard settled a substantial endowment on it in 1934, making it the envy of such progressive competitors as Bertrand and Dora Russell’s Beacon Hill and A.S. Neill’s Summerhill. Rather than the community school originally envisaged, it became the ‘village school of the Bloomsbury intellectual’ – the school to which Aldous Huxley, Victor Gollancz, Ernst Freud and Barbara Hepworth sent their children. It held to project-oriented progressive pedagogy but also now prepared its pupils for university entrance exams.
Dorothy’s wealth sustained this whole show, and while Neima is more interested in Dartington’s ideals than its economics, she makes clear just how substantial that support was. Dorothy’s American fortune was worth some $35 million in 1925 – a figure that measuringworth.com (an invaluable website) tells me is equivalent to about $500 million today. Her fortune held its value through the Depression, and Dorothy put some $8 million into Dartington between 1925 and 1936, equivalent to about $135 million. Then as now, great fortunes produced huge surpluses: Dorothy was determined to use hers to good ends.
Who gets to determine ‘good ends’, though? Kelly’s wartime objectors insisted on their right to make the judgment themselves, but they accepted that their dissent would come at a cost. The Elmhirsts, by contrast, could define the good pretty much in whatever way they liked, forcing us to ask whether Dartington is better understood as a utopian community or a vanity project: an experiment in democratic living or a modern version of the company town. Leonard sometimes called Dorothy, in jest, ‘the squire’s wife’, but to the estate’s workers – living in uncomfortable modernist housing while Leonard and Dorothy lived with their children and a staff of twenty in the painstakingly restored medieval hall – that nickname hit close to home. The couple felt they listened to others, but as one friend said, Dorothy always took the drumstick, ‘with which she conducts the meeting’. Leonard, like know-it-alls everywhere, simply ‘talked at’ people. When the school was turned over to the socialist but dictatorial headmaster W.B. Curry, he too ‘always got his way, regardless of our so-called democracy’. Students and staff unsurprisingly grew tired of meetings – and tired, too, of being put on display for the benefit of the left-leaning pilgrims who came to take tea in the orchard and admire the happy community at work.
The Elmhirsts, no fools, were aware of these contradictions. During the Second World War and after it, Leonard especially came to accept that social betterment would come through a process of democratic planning, not just well-financed example, and he shifted Dartington’s labs and farms towards bigger research projects. Neima is less interested in this social-democratic phase in the estate’s history – hers is an interwar story – but it doesn’t appear to have involved less reliance on Dorothy’s funds. Ironically, when the fountain eventually ran dry, the local landscape had changed in ways that helped the estate survive. With Devon now a mecca for artisanal foods, craft production, biodynamic agriculture and holistic spas, Dartington is well known both for its courses in sustainable agriculture and luxury holidays in its lovely manor house. This denouement isn’t quite what Dorothy and Leonard had in mind when they bought the estate almost a century ago, but it seems fitting. Their project was enabled by a private fortune and accepted the need to adapt to market demands. And in the end, those markets – not conscience, not collectivities, not ‘planning’ – determined which utopias would survive.
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