Academic journal article Antipodes

Reviving the Radical 1890s: Contemporary Returns to William Lane's Australian Utopian Settlements in Paraguay

Academic journal article Antipodes

Reviving the Radical 1890s: Contemporary Returns to William Lane's Australian Utopian Settlements in Paraguay

Article excerpt

IN 1893, BETWEEN FIVE HUNDRED AND SIX HUNDRED MIGRANTS from the as-yet-unfederated British colonies in Australia traveled to Paraguay to establish a Utopian socialist community (Souter 282). At "New Australia," the settlement they founded in South America, all land and property was collectively owned. The constitution enshrined teetotalism and "the color line," an attempt at race-based social planning that pre-dated the White Australia Policy by eight years. The community was Utopian in the sense that it envisaged and tried to implement a model of a perfect society intended to set an example for others to follow (Metcalf 7; Morris and Kross xxi). This society was to be free of class and racial conflict - it would exclude non-Anglo Saxons all together - and would treat the sexes as equals (New Australia 1.1:4).

The leader of the New Australia movement was William Lane, a charismatic, British labor journalist. He believed the institution of private property was fundamentally corrupting and led inevitably to poverty, economic exploitation, and crime: "This is where the sin begins, this is the sin which underlies it - that a few own what all must have before they can work" (New Australia 1.1:2). By reversing this single principle and successfully establishing socialism in Paraguay, Lane believed the New Australian workers would teach an object lesson, not just to "Old Australia," the country they had abandoned, but to all the world (New Australia 1.6: 4). His vision was a grand one. Hoping others would emulate New Australia's model of small, collectivist village settlements, he corresponded with the leaders of similar organizations in Mexico and South Africa. Eventually - and this was Utopian indeed - he believed such communities would replace industrial capitalism across the globe (New Australia 1.1: 1).

New Australia emerged toward the end of the great international era of Utopian experiments. From the mid-eighteenth century to the end of the nineteenth century, hundreds of similar communities were founded in the Americas and around the world. Often, these small-scale reformist societies were antimodern, a reaction against industrialization and urbanization. Like the New Australians, who sometimes referred to their ship The Royal Tar as "Our Mayflower" (New Australia 1 .2:3 ) , many of them were inspired by the example of the United States.

Utopianism flourished later in Australia than elsewhere, peaking in the depression of the 1890s. The fate of the Queensland settlements was typical of those in other colonies. Following the passage of the 1893 Co-Operative Settlement Act, twelve communes were established involving some two thousand people (Metcalf 26). All struggled due to lack of agricultural expertise, harsh conditions, and infighting. When the inspirational example New Australia collapsed in Paraguay, the press and colonial governments at home crowed: "socialism in New Australia and Old Australia, has practically failed, as everyone who has read history, or his bible, ought to have known it would fail" (The Queenslander, qtd. in Metcalf 28). By 1896, all the Queensland settlements had disbanded, and those in the other colonies soon followed. The collectivist dream faded from the Australian political landscape, not to be revived, with a few exceptions, until the communes of the 1960s and 1970s counterculture. New Australia, it seemed, had succeeded in teaching an "object lesson to the world" (New Australia 1.1:1), but it was not the lesson intended.

What went wrong in Paraguay? The trouble stemmed, principally, from a split between wowsers and carousers. Many bachelors from the bush disliked Lane's severe, ascetic brand of socialism: they demanded the right to drink alcohol and have relationships with local women. Wives dragged into the venture by their husbands complained of the hardship of pioneer life (Whitehead, Paradise Lost Episode 3). Within a few months, the community split into factions. The "Royalists" continued to support Lane as leader; the "Rebels" objected to his authoritarianism, and demanded his replacement with a board of management (Souter 85-6). …

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