Utopias in American History

Utopias in American History

Utopias in American History

Utopias in American History


An insightful look at the long tradition of communal societies in the United States from colonial times to the present, examining their ideological foundations, daily life, and relationships to mainstream American society.


What Is a Utopian Community?

Utopia is a word coined by Thomas More, a 16th-century English writer, from two Greek words. It literally means “nowhere.” More imagined and wrote about an ideal country where citizens lived in harmony and prosperity. He called his ideal country “Utopia.”

Today, a “utopian community” refers to a group of people trying to live according to their highest values. Utopian communities are communities in which unrelated people live together by choice and that are designed to foster values that the members think are important, such as spirituality, cooperation, economic equality, or a simple lifestyle. These communities are formed to offer what are seen as better alternatives, a better way of life, than what can be found in the larger society. These kinds of communities are also called communes, collective settlements, or intentional communities.

Members of utopian communities generally share resources and labor. In other words, the members of the community live together, work together, and share their money, food, and other belongings, to a greater or lesser degree. Some communities go as far as sharing things like child care, with the entire community involved in caring for the children. In other communities, families have their own houses and their own belongings, but they may share strict spiritual beliefs, rules about living, and some work and property.

All societies—including the one you live in now—are designed with some values and foster some values. But utopian communities are very aware of how their values differ from those of the larger world. They are proactive in promoting their own values and trying to create structures that foster them.

The Beginnings of Utopian Communal Life

Communal living may have begun with human evolution. Historian Donald Pitzer points out that early humans banded into kinship groups and tribes. These cooperative groups helped individual members to survive and thrive (1997, 3).

As human society developed, so too did the urge for some groups to withdraw from the mainstream of society and create their own idealistic, utopian communities. The earliest utopian communes that scholars are aware of may have been selfsufficient Taoist communes in China in the fifth century BCE. In the Western world, the earliest utopian communities that we have evidence of are the Jewish Essenes, who attempted to create their own communities in the face of the imposition of Greek values upon their culture. About 4,000 Essenes lived communally in Palestine (now . . .

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