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Four Quirky Post-WWI Utopians

Utopian irrationalism flourished after World War I. Here's a glimpse at four such reformers.

Photo by Goetheanum / Unsplash

World War I shook European society.

The first 15 years of the 20th century were la belle epoque—the banquet years. Society was more optimistic about its prospects than Harvey Weinstein at a cocaine-fueled casting session.

And then came the genocide against English, French, and German youth that occurred when the great nations combined Lincoln’s “total war” with modern industrial innovations. Ten bodies exchanged for a foot of ground; men losing limbs to mud-induced disease. Nasty stuff. Harvey Weinstein’s life today.

Then came the aftermath. People previously looked at existence with optimism. Now they looked at existence as nonsensical. Disillusion was the dominant feeling.

The WWI wake brought us the Lost Generation, T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” the devil-may-care excesses of Weimar Germany, the sheer fictional existence of a guy like Gatsby.

But it also brought us a wave of Utopian movements that have faded from memory. We all know about Communism, Socialism, and Fascism, all of which picked up steam after WWI, but there were a lot of smaller movements that tried to capitalize (so to speak) on society’s collective disillusionment with the industrialization of modern life that, they thought, manifested itself in the mechanical horrors of World War I.

Mustard gas, land mines, tanks, and machine guns come from factories. Therefore, factories are bad. Factories come from capitalism. Therefore, capitalism is bad. Capitalism flourishes in urban areas. Therefore, urbanization is bad. It was time to get everyone off the grid, living in common.

These reformers took that line of thinking really seriously.

Edward Carpenter

He wrote Civilization: Its Cause and Cure. That’s great alliteration. I’m kind of surprised he didn’t add “cancer” to the title somehow, so he could really castigate the concept of “civilization” He wrote the book in 1889, but it got popular during after WWI, going through 15 printings by 1921. His twin pillars to get society away from civilization: vegetarianism and rural life. He wanted man to find that he was “absolutely indivisibly and indestructibly” a part of a great whole. By uniting himself with the Divine, man would unite with his fellows and the universe. Carpenter was also an early champion of homosexuality, which he referred to as “uranism” (no comment here).

Aubrey Westlake

Quaker, Anthroposophist, and Founder of the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry. He was also into water divining (dowsing). He disliked impractical religion, preferring that it be subjected to the needs of society. He apparently didn’t think there was an adequate religion available, so he invented one: the Sun Lodge. Woodcraft Youth progressed from Wood Cubs through Woodcraft Scouts and Pathfinders to the Sun Lodge. The Sun Lodge would make sure nature preserved the spiritual ideals of the Order. “In order to become spiritual one must first be natural.” Which makes sense, I suppose, since “supernatural” presupposes “natural.” Also wanted to develop a “Forest School” that would help its pupils “regain Paradise.”

Rolf Gardiner

Disciple of the medieval Joachim of Flora, who figures largely in Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics, Gardiner hoped to revive British agriculture through folk dancing. Specifically, morris dancing. Generally, he wanted to revive all folk traditions. He thought they would bring people back to rural ways and effect a change in consciousness. He was apparently interested in founding a “peasant aristocracy.” A greater oxymoron I’m not sure ever existed, but such things don’t stop utopians. He was greatly impressed and inspired by the German youth movements of the 1920s and an early supporter of the Nazis in Germany, pointing out that the youth movements were meant to train an elite for leadership. He also practiced the magical art of water divining and lectured on it.

Richard St. Barbe Baker

Founder of “Men of the Trees,” an organization formed to prevent the Bantu tribe in Kenya from destroying the forests and ruining their farmland. Utopians, it should be noted, are nothing if not busybodies. He initiated a ritual known as “Dance of the Trees,” which was apparently far more energetic than its rooted and log-like name would imply since it was meant to persuade the Bantu tribesman to stop cutting all that wood. Baker brought the movement back to England with the goal of planting a lot of trees to “develop physical, moral and spiritual qualities which are essential to the well-being of man.” The Men of the Trees exist today under the name, “International Tree Foundation.”

Muck and Mysticism

That’s how opponents of these “Eden” thinkers referred to their ideas: “muck and mysticism.”

But it wasn’t just all muck and mysticism, and they weren’t just Quixotic quacks. Many of their ideas were incorporated into the progressive mainstream. City planning in the 20th century, for instance, was heavily influenced by their ideas. They also had sympathizers among more staid thinkers and orthodox Christians such as Hilaire Belloc, whose Servile State paralleled a lot of their criticism, and G. K. Chesterton, whose G. K.’s Weekly would fuel the start of the Distributist League, which has heavy agrarian roots and beliefs.

And why do I find them interesting?

Because they were progressives who embraced the irrational. Such a thing has a long tradition, going back at least the Renaissance, whose great magicians were often social reformers and progressives. The impetus was pushed underground when Isaac Casaubon showed in 1614 that the godfather of Renaissance magic, Hermes Trismegistus, wasn’t an ancient writer, but that’s all that happened to it: It didn’t go away. It was merely pushed underground so the rational empiricism of Francis Bacon and rational idealism of Descartes could occupy the entire field of polite discourse for the 300 years from 1614 to 1914, including the arena of politics.

When World War I shattered belief in rationality, the underground irrational erupted as people revolted against the world of rationality and its preoccupation with essence: things that can be defined, counted, and used.

It started looking to the irrational and existence in all areas, including the political but not just.

I believe our renewed interest in the irrational and existence was the reason God sent St. Therese of Lisieux and her existentialist Little Way when he did. I think it’s the reason the West has increasingly become interested in Eastern religions. I think it’s been the source of much mischief (the Beatniks, the 1960s, LSD), as well as literary expression and reception (J.D. Salinger, Flannery O’Connor, Robert Pirsig) and philosophical expression (Sarte, Camus, Derrida).

I’ll be exploring all these things—all these ways that existence struck back—in future columns.

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