One of the oldest traditions in America is trying (and mostly failing) to set up a utopian community.

French Enlightenment thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed if man could return to a state of nature – free from social conditioning that put him in conflict with his neighbor – then a new, perfect social order could emerge. This sounds like hopefully wishful thinking today, but in the context of the 1800s, a utopian community really wasn’t all that far fetched. The French Revolution failed, but the equally radical American Revolution succeeded. If a country could rule itself without a king and queen, some thought, why couldn’t it rule itself without any ruler at all? Many utopian thinkers asked themselves that if one Greek form of government, democracy, could be dusted off after thousands of years on the shelf, then why not try other discarded ideas? Perhaps the time had come for Plato’s vision of a utopia.

From the 1830s to 1850s, charismatic leaders formed groups of 50 to 100 Europeans who followed a basic ideology or religious denomination and set up communist communities across America.

Today I’m talking with Prof. Timothy Miller of the University of Kansas. He is a historian of American intentional communities. His books include The Quest for Utopia in Twentieth-Century America and The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. He connects the utopian communities of old with the hippie communes of the 1960s

Widely believed by the larger public to be sinks of drug-ridden sexual immorality, the communes both intrigued and repelled the American people. He argues the intentional communities of the 1960s era were far more diverse than the stereotype of the hippie commune would suggest. A great many of them were religious in basis, stressing spiritual seeking and disciplined lifestyles. Others were founded on secular visions of a better society. Hundreds of them became so stable that they survive today.

RESOURCES MENTIONED IN THIS EPISODE

Timothy Miller’s academic work

Timothy Miller’s blog