'Godless Edens': surveillance, eroticised anarchy and 'depraved' communities in Britain and the wider world, 1890-1930

TAYLOR, Antony (2015). 'Godless Edens': surveillance, eroticised anarchy and 'depraved' communities in Britain and the wider world, 1890-1930. In: PLILEY, Jessica, KRAMM-MASAOKA, Robert and FISCHER-TINE, Harald, (eds.) Global Anti-Vice Activism 1890-1950: Fighting Drink, Drugs and 'Immorality'. New York, Cambridge University Press, 29-58. (In Press)

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The end of the nineteenth century was a period of prolific community building by radicals, anarchists and social reformers. Drawing on notions of the ‘simple life’, spade-husbandry, non-traditional approaches to the family and ‘dress reform’ ideas, they channelled much of the unease and anxiety that accompanied the rise of modernism. Expressive of the communitarian impulses unleashed by the reform movements of the period, these settlements were dedicated to a total transformation of society and nothing less than the reform of human character itself. Hostility to these land communes and the cosmopolitanism they represented framed a number of the commonplace fears of the later nineteenth century. Attracting political militants, draft-dodgers, refugees, and exponents of colonial separatism, they were seen as challenging the state, and creating channels of communication for political and cultural dissidents whose clandestine organisations transcended national borders. Ranging from Tolstoyan communes, through quasi-religious sects, to artistic and bohemian alternatives to conventional society, these settlements attracted considerable voyeuristic and prurient attention from the state, police, anti-vice activists and near neighbours. However remote, they inspired a hostile culture of surveillance and a close supervision that emphasised the negative and immoral aspects of their communal endeavours. These ‘septic’ communities in Britain and the US, in particular, were settlements around which many of the fears of anti-vice organisations in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cohered. Allegations against them included hatred of the family, sexual promiscuity, encouragement of underage sex, birth control, the transmission of venereal diseases, nudism, moon worship, atheism, vegetarianism, and varieties of narcotics abuse. In order to counteract the corrupting influence of such settlements, police informers and spies frequently infiltrated the communities, reporting back to the authorities on the ‘general debauchery’ they encountered. Drawing together a number of examples of such settlements, from Whiteway in Gloucestershire in the UK, via the Monte Veritὰ community at Ascona in Switzerland, to the Hope Colony at Tacoma in Washington State, this chapter explores the contemporary late-Victorian hostility to radical land communes, and considers the vision of sexual impropriety that adhered to them. It also traces the global and transnational impact of these communities, some of which were organised explicitly around agendas for the renovation of White settler society, and the furthering of ambitions for a ‘new‘ European, attuned to life in the tropics. Traditionally the history of Whiteway and other similar settlements has been disaggregated from the broader history of radicalism in Britain and elsewhere. This paper restores the role of these imagined communities to the forefront of popular politics, and evaluates their significance in relation to the changing moral and political concerns of reformers and anti-reformers at the end of the nineteenth century. Finally, this chapter seeks to locate these communes in the context of a popular literature that established the commonplace accusations against radicals, socialists and left utopians increasingly standard in the late nineteenth century and the first decade of the twentieth. Through an examination of popular fiction, this paper charts the sensationalist and prurient literature that ridiculed, or emphasised, the dangers accompanying the wider acceptance of the ideas preached at communities like Whiteway and at Monte Veritὰ.

Item Type: Book Section
Research Institute, Centre or Group - Does NOT include content added after October 2018: Humanities Research Centre
Page Range: 29-58
Depositing User: Tony Taylor
Date Deposited: 18 Jun 2015 14:49
Last Modified: 18 Mar 2021 16:16
URI: https://shura.shu.ac.uk/id/eprint/10316

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