More than twenty years ago Dennis Hardy wrote a great book on alternative communities in 19th century England which is now out of print. He has now written a “sequel”, a history of community experiments in England during the first half of the 20th century.
This new book bears some of the stylistic hallmarks of the earlier one: it is written with deep sympathy for the pioneers and their projects. The text is complemented by a host of photographs and other illustrations that help bring the subject matter alive, and the author succeeds once again in combining impressive scholarship with a clear and accessible style of writing.
The motivating force behind so many experiments in community living throughout the ages has been a revulsion at the violence of the world (and war in particular), and a desire to create something better – on however small a scale. But each period of utopianism also reflects the particular features of its age, and 1900-1945 was an unusual epoch. It encompassed two world wars, a global economic depression with mass unemployment, the spread of totalitarianism in the form of Soviet state socialism and fascism, and the burgeoning of materialism based on the mass production of consumer goods and what some would call “modernity”.
It was during the Second World War that there was a growth of agriculturally based pacifist communities within which COs could find refuge and also, if they read their Peace News, believe they were working constructively for a new society. But this was not the only “back to the land” movement of the period. In response to mass unemployment there were a number of land settlement schemes informed by the vision of providing the unemployed with a new beginning as small-holders.
One venture that has survived, and which can trace its origins back to the 19th century and the impact of Tolstoyan Christian anarchism, is the Brotherhood Church in Yorkshire. Every year they hold a “Strawberry Tea”. It remains an archetypal “English” event in many ways – but the proceeds are usually donated to War Resisters' International.
In seeking to evaluate the significance of these different experiments Hardy, almost regretfully, suggests that their impact on the rest of society was extremely limited, and that in no way did they challenge the status quo. However, he does attribute a longer-term significance to them as models of sustainability – not in terms of their longevity but insofar as they pioneered many of the elements that are now recognised as important for our collective survival: smallness of scale, respect for nature, and cooperative human relationships.