“I only love myself. Everyone else, even my parents, my brother, my master, my friends, my beloved, are enemies to my growing self.” So wrote the Japanese writer Saneatsu Mushanokōji. In 1918, under the influence of sundry radical figures including Jesus Christ, Leo Tolstoy, Edward Carpenter, William Morris, and the Belgian philosopher of self-love Maurice Maeterlinck, Mushanokōji founded Atarashiki Mura (“New Village”) in Hyūga, the old province on Kyūshū, a mountainous island in south Japan. This village was a utopian experiment in living which promised to transform both the individual and the world.

Home to the nation’s mythological founder, Emperor Jimmu, Hyūga came to Mushanokōji in a “revelatory” dream: it was only right, Mushanokōji reasoned, that two great civilizations should share a birthplace. Humility, it seems, was not Mushanokōji’s strong suit. Nor was consistency. Bored of community life in Hyūga, Mushanokōji left the “New Village” for good in 1926 and soon exchanged anarchic idealism for the chauvinism promoted by Emperor Shōwa. In 1945, Mushanokōji was named a war criminal for supporting Shōwa’s regime. Mushanokōji’s contemporaries judged him an “aristocratic brat,” “frivolous and attention seeking,” and “unhinged.”

It is, without doubt, an inglorious episode. In The Utopians, however, Anna Neima encourages readers to be forgiving. Mushanokōji wrote a “clear manifesto,” after all, “a feat that few other utopians of the age achieved.” Neima’s new book focuses on six attempts to build intentional communities around the world: five in the interwar years, the other between 1942 and 1949. In addition to Mushanokōji’s Atarashiki Mura, they include Rabindranath Tagore’s Santiniketan–Sriniketan in India, Dorothy and Leonard Elmhirst’s Dartington Hall in England, G. I. Gurdjieff’s Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in France, Eberhard and Emmy Arnold’s Bruderhof in Germany, and Gerald Heard’s Trabuco College in California. The theme uniting these projects is their commitment to internationalism and a world free from conflict. Far from laughable, the utopians are, for Neima, “an inspiration.”

The Utopians provides a kind of Carlylean Universal History. Naturally, there are periodic gestures by Neima of disapproval at her subjects’ residual elitism and sexism, but, with the exception of Dorothy Elmhirst and Emmy Arnold, it is a study of “Great Men” and what they achieved. And if we take Neima’s word for it, they achieved a huge amount: everything from “child-centred education and universal access to the arts, to low-technology farming, composting toilets and making time for daily sessions of meditation and mindfulness.” 

Deadly earnest and politically engaged, the book sometimes exaggerates the influence of its protagonists. The British prime minister Clement Attlee may have offered Leonard Elmhirst a baronetcy in 1946, for instance, but Dartington Hall was certainly a less-than-marginal factor in the minds of those creating Britain’s welfare state. Establishing causation, however, is not Neima’s main concern. Rather, the book is a paean to “progress,” and any “achievement” her utopians might plausibly be said to have attained is all to the good, even if that achievement is, say, the inspiration Mushanokōji’s Atarashiki Mura exercised on Mao Zedong.

Conflating utopianism with the formation of intentional communities, Neima offers us an idiosyncratic and unsatisfactory definition of who is and who is not a utopian. The Utopians, it turns out, is not a study of utopians at all; it is rather a study of gurus. While the Elmhirsts were merely prigs who were overexcited by science, Tagore, Mushanokōji, Gurdjieff, Arnold, and Heard all fit the bill. Each claimed special knowledge of the meaning of life and felt entitled to tell others how life ought to be lived. 

Grandiose, vacuous, and irresponsible, to be sure. But none of these gurus abused the power they wielded too egregiously. Unworthy of veneration, but not dreadfully malign, they were mainly guilty of hypocrisy: eulogizing democracy and equality while living luxurious lifestyles quite distinct from the spartan ones of the communards they bossed about. Only Gurdjieff betrayed an unmistakable strain of sadism, dispensing “shocks”—ritual forms of humiliation—to his willingly submissive followers as a way of bringing them to “self-enlightenment.” We hear very little about the disciples these gurus collected around them and what motivated them to join these experiments, but Gurdjieff was surely onto something when he ended his Saturday suppers with “the toast to the idiots.” 

Neima’s text is teeming with “Third Ways” and “Fourth Ways,” “Third Moralities,” “Humanisms,” “World Brotherhoods,” “poet’s religions,” “superconsciousness,” “psychological communisms,” “democratic confessionalisms,” and “generating cells.” The gurus’ ridiculous metaphysical claims, their naivety and arrogance, their belief that they had discovered something which generations of human beings had missed, their faith in reason and human perfectibility, and their predictable flights from what they had established when things did not work out quite as planned are all tiresomely preposterous. But one suspects that by dealing with the ideas of her gurus so superficially, Neima makes them even more absurd than they actually were.

Just who is the most conceited among Neima’s gurus is unclear. What is very obvious, however, is who is the least: Eberhard Arnold, the founder of the Bruderhof, whose model for the ideal society was the first church in Jerusalem, where members were of “one heart and one mind, and shared all things in common.” In contrast to the other gurus, Arnold did not renounce rules and leadership. On the contrary, the Bruderhof was expressly hierarchical and disciplinarian. It was not only the fact that the Bruderhof was faith-based and rooted in tradition that kept the community vital—it is the only experiment which has survived intact—but also the fact that it was the least utopian.

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