Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

Radical Utopian Communities

A Global History from the Margins, c. 1890–1950

Dr. Robert Kramm

Abstract

The project highlights the astounding global pervasiveness of radical utopian communities in the first half of the twentieth century. Based on four case studies located in and connected to Jamaica, Japan, South Africa and Switzerland, it asks why such communities emerged in a similar form at a particular time in history and what their almost simultaneous occurrence tells us about the making of the modern world.

In the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, radical utopian communities were built all around the world. They ranged from socio-political communes to religious sects, encompassing the political spectrum from the radical left to the far right. Many communities attempted to put theories of anarchism and socialism into practice. Others combined a variety of—and at times conflicting—political and cultural ideas to articulate and live a utopian model society, molding different strands of modern political thought such as anarchism and socialism with facets of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Occultism; some embraced more secular concepts of social Darwinism and racial hygiene.

In countries like France, Britain, Germany, Russia, Palestine, the United States, Japan, Manchukuo, in various Latin-American countries, and in Switzerland, to name but a few, people gathered in radical utopian communities. Such communities were usually built in spatially and sometimes also socially reclused colonies apart from the urbanizing metropoles and developing industrial centers, often with the aim to create autarchic living conditions through collective, agricultural labor.

The project highlights the astounding global pervasiveness of radical utopian communities in the first half of the twentieth century. Based on four case studies located in and connected to Jamaica, Japan, South Africa and Switzerland, it asks why such communities emerged in a similar form at a particular time in history and what their almost simultaneous occurrence tells us about the making of the modern world. It inquires what impact these community projects and their members have had, and if their laboratory models constituted transcultural and transnational templates for a wider scope of community building.

Moreover, an analysis of radical utopian communities enables to look at the history of the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century with all its rises and falls of empires, socio-economic growths and crises, innovations and wars from a new angle by focusing on spatially remote places that have been marginalized in most historiography.

With few exceptions, utopian communities have mostly been analyzed in an enclosed national or regional context. This project, on the contrary, approaches radical utopian communities from a global history perspective, highlighting the entanglement of radical community projects in the first half of the twentieth century. The chosen cases are the Pinnacle Commune in Saint Catherine Parish on Jamaica, the Nōson Seinen Sha (Farming Village Youth Association) in Nagano, Japan, the Tolstoy Farm near Johannesburg, South Africa, and the Mazdaznan-settlement “Aryana” at Herrliberg, Switzerland.

Obviously, these communities varied not only spatially, but emerged in distinct cultural, political and social contexts. Political positions, religious orientations and economic structure differed significantly. They ranged from religiously inspired libertarian communes to secular anarchist colonies, but also encompassed völkisch movements that simultaneously embraced “Oriental wisdom” and racial eugenics. Yet, they shared common features in organizational form and by relying on similar ideals of self- and world-improvement. Some of them were indeed entangled, both personally through contacts, correspondences and networks, and also discursively by operating with analogous poetics that addressed the same debates.

Radical utopian communities therefore offer an ideal opportunity to analyze the range—and limits—of actors of globalization and the circulation of knowledge, and allow for the writing of a decentered global history of the early twentieth century from the margins of the geographical, political and social spectrum.