Utopia Limited

David Cannadine

  • Fabianism and Culture: A Study in British Socialism and the Arts, 1884-1918 by Ian Britain
    Cambridge, 344 pp, £19.50, June 1982, ISBN 0 521 23563 4
  • The Elmhirsts of Dartington: The Creation of an Utopian Community by Michael Young
    Routledge, 381 pp, £15.00, June 1982, ISBN 0 7100 9051 X

The Road to Utopia was trodden by many star-struck pilgrims before Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour made their celluloid expedition there in the 1940s. Sir Thomas More, who first wrote of the place, lost his head completely, for non-Utopian reasons, and since then a succession of charismatic cranks, frenzied philosophers and visionary vegetarians have aspired to realise heaven upon earth while more usually anticipating hell. Mighty prophets like Gerrard Winstanley (a bankrupt cloth merchant turned cattle herdsman), Sir Richard Bulkeley (an early 18th-century hunchback virtuoso), William Blake (‘I see so little of Mr Blake now,’ his wife once complained: ‘He is always in Paradise’), and James Pierrepont Greaves (damned by Carlyle as a ‘blockhead’ and an ‘imbecile’), preferred to leave the world rather than to understand or change it, renouncing (inter alia) religion, property, profit or prostitutes, tobacco, alcohol or flesh (sometimes animal, sometimes human).

But, like the road to hell, the path to Utopia has more often been paved with good intentions than with good results. The religious zealots of the 17th century, the Enlightenment rationalists of the 18th, and the Owenite socialists of the 19th, were equally unsuccessful in their Utopian endeavours, for reasons well summarised by Leonard Elmhirst, founder of Dartington Hall School: ‘they disregarded sound economics, they followed some ethical or theoretical principle too rigorously, or they attempted to isolate themselves too completely from the social and economic world around them.’ Above all, Utopians have usually been more certain what to rebel against than what to believe in: ‘perfect harmony’, ‘divine revelation’, ‘inner light’ and ‘visible and sensible communion with the angels’ may be appealing as dogmas of dissent, but they are of little help as guidelines of organisation. Infuriatingly if predictably, Utopia turns out to be an objective more utopian than utilitarian. Not surprisingly, then, the names of sects like the Camisards, Pantisocrats, Swedenborgians and Phalansterians suggest little more to most of us than Tolkien on an off-day, while such fleeting Utopian communities as Fulneck, Ockbrook, Icaria and Topolobampo sound about as plausible as those exotic realms visited by Gulliver – or Dr Who.

Despite this accumulated catalogue of failures, the years from the 1870s to the 1930s saw what may prove to be the last grand flowering of Utopian designs. One late 19th-century approach, exemplified by Ruskin in his Guild of St George and by William Morris in his News from Nowhere, sought salvation in a world of rustic, artsy-craftsy, thatched and timbered, anti-machine socialism: ‘small is beautiful’ before its time. Another, more pragmatic coterie, presided over by Ebenezer Howard and his Garden City Association, realised some of the most substantial and enduring Utopian designs in the planned communities of Letchworth, Hampstead Garden Suburb and Welwyn Garden City. A third approach, in conscious and deliberate opposition to this shared rural sentimentality, held out the alternative prospect of a glittering, metallic future, dominated by machines, scientists and technocrats, most famously and prolifically articulated in the novels of H.G. Wells.

It is in this fertile, Fin-de-Siècle context of confused and competing Utopias that these two authors set their studies of conjugal crusaders which tell us much about informed, élite attitudes to Utopian ideas in this most recent phase of sustained and self-conscious development. There, however, the similarities end. Britain’s densely-researched book is a revised doctoral dissertation which views the Webbs with Webb-like detachment: Young’s account is longer but also slighter – an affectionate (if faintly equivocal) survey by an Old Dartingtonian, who knew both Elmhirsts well, and is himself a trustee of the school.

As Britain explains, the Fabians have usually been depicted as dull, killjoy philistines, indifferent to art, lacking in imagination, immersed in their Blue Books and Royal Commissions, and obsessed with bureaucratic procedures and collectivist regulation. In this bleak and grey landscape, the Webbs stand out as the bleakest and greyest of all: arid, austere, ascetic and abstemious, shunning enjoyment and pleasure, and coldly censorious of self-indulgence and moral lapses. In 1902, they founded a dining club at which experts might discuss contemporary problems: it was called The Coefficients. Beatrice once admitted that she was ‘poetry-blind’ in the same way that other people were colour-blind; that Sidney was ‘undistinguished and unimpressive in appearance’; and that together they were ‘two second-rate minds, but curiously complementary’. They belonged, she explained, to ‘the B’s of the world – bourgeois, benevolent and bureaucratic’. ‘All the good in the world,’ she observed in a further moment of alliterative awareness, ‘has been done by either priests or prigs,’ and she made it plain that Sidney took the prize as the biggest prig of all. When trying to adapt socialism to the affluent society of the late 1950s, Anthony Crosland had little time for this puritanical earnestness: ‘Total abstinence,’ he observed, ‘and a good filing system are not now the right signposts to the socialist Utopia.’

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