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My Private Utopia | The Nation

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My Private Utopia

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Twenty-one years ago I made an effort to start a little Utopia for everyday use, and naturally my thinking on the subject is dominated by that experience. I will begin by telling you some of the things I learned at Helicon Hall.

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Among the joys we realized was the opportunity of being alone when you wanted to be alone, and of having friends when you wanted friends. We cannot arrange matters that way in our present world, try as hard aa we will. Our work and study hours get interrupted by telephone calls and knocks on the door -- we can't let everybody know our habits and whims and when we want company we have to make journeys in taxis and street cars, and we have to stay even though we find we are bored. But in our little Utopia we had our friends close at hand, and any time we felt like playing billiards we could always be sure of finding some one else in the same mood. On the other hand, if we wanted to be alone, we had our own rooms to which we might retire, with the certainty that no one would come there except by special invitation.

In the next place, we made at least a beginning at solving the "servant problem" in our Utopia. Nowadays, as I hear the ladies discussing it, I realize how large the problem bulks. Some of our married friends are doing their own housework and giving up their intellectual lives because they are so tired of trying to adjust themselves to a stream of untrained and untrainable "domestics" in their homes. There is no need to go into details, because all wives know and all husbands hear. And we really started to solve that problem in Utopia; we got far enough at least to know that we were on the right track.

Just the other day I read a statement in print that I had founded a colony in which everybody took turns at housework. That is the common impression, and it is not true. We had a quota of regular servants at Helicon Hall; the only difference was that we did not treat them as social inferiors, but admitted them on terms of social equality and even gave them a vote as to how the colony should be run. Among many complaints which I heard on many subjects I cannot recall having heard that any one of our "colony workers" ever abused the consideration we showed. They were always quiet and courteous, and possessed by the spirit of jolly and simple democracy that is a feature of my private Utopia.

There was a pretty Irish girl who had been the maid of all work at my Princeton farm before the colony days; it was a great adventure to her to be transported to Utopia and dance on Saturday evenings with a professor of philosophy from Columbia University. It did not do the professor any harm, I am sure, or keep him from becoming a well-known writer. There was an elderly widow who did housework for the board of herself and a little son. There was an Irishman who had done kitchen work in the homes of the rich, a very humble individual and a devout Catholic, and what he made of our bunch of Socialists and Anarchists and assorted libertarians I never inquired, but he recognized kindness and consideration when he met it, exactly as other humans do. Our little Utopia was big enough so that no one had to tread on any other's toes, and when our "servants" included such individuals Sinclair Lewis and Allan Updegraff, we could not seriously feel that our intellectual tone was being lowered.

Another problem we were on the way to solving was that of the children. It does not trouble me any more, because my son is grown up; but in those days he was five years old and very much determined having his share of life. So that made a problem for a young author and wife, and a reason for moving to Utopia. At Helicon Hall the children had a little world of their own, made especially for their convenience, and they led social life, which is the only kind for gregarious animals. It was a small affair -- only fourteen children, and that was too few -- we could not afford to employ the experts we wanted, and the mothers had to cooperate. I don't say it was easy, but I do say we made a beginning, and proved that mothers can be educated when they get to the point where they really want to be. It is my belief that community care of children can be lifted to a higher plane than we find nowadays in "institutions," and that with parental supervision it can become something fine and fruitful.

Why didn't my private Utopia last? Well, in the first place, it burned down; we had had only a little money, and had had to take a jerry-built product of the profit system instead of erecting a fireproof structure according to our needs. Also, I had learned that it takes one man to organize such an enterprise and he could not be writing books at the same time. You will claim that as proof of what you call "individualism," but it means no more than this: that the cooperative spirit and technique have not yet been evolved, and that people have not yet learned to be social in their everyday lives. They will learn when they have it -- which is when the wage slaves go on strike and refuse to maintain the leisure class and its system of snobbery. Then, very quickly, you will see little Utopias springing up all over the land.

One great trouble with our Utopia was the existence of a set of wolves outside who preyed upon and left us no peace. I mean, of course, the capitalist press and the reporters they sent out to snoop in our pantry and peer into our bedroom windows. Having lived, before and since then, in leisure-class hotels, I can assert that Helicon Hall was the most "moral" community then existing in America. But the reporters of the capitalist newspapers chose to suspect otherwise and to make their readers suspect it. There was no real harm in the Columbia professor's dancing with the Irish waitress, under his wife's eyes, but the newspaper reports failed to mention the wife, and the professor was worried for his job. So were others -- teachers, writers, and professional people. All that is merely repeating the fundamental Socialist thesis, that there can be no peace or Safety for any individual group in our society until there is peace and safety for all.

So you see why I am moved to turn my private Utopia into a public one. I have learned, not merely as a matter of theory but in practice, that long as the masses of the people are held in ignorance and slavery, a s long as they are at the mercy of predatory groups such as newspapers which fill their minds with filth and garbage and keep them subjected to superstition and prejudice -- just so long can there be no real beauty in the world, and no peace for any sensitive and humane man or woman. This mob will be told by their predatory masters that they are the most wonderful and intelligent people that can possibly be imagined, and they will believe it, and will be ready to set to work at any moment to slaughter other people who do not immediately adopt their way of life and submit to being exploited by their predatory masters. It happens that individually will soon be beyond the age where I am liable to be seized by these slave-drivers and compelled to march out and be slaughtered for them; but my son is right at the age where they will grab him -- and am I to stay blissfully in retirement in my private Utopia and pay no attention to that fate which is hovering over the young men of the land?

My Utopia is first of all a spiritual thing. It involves a renunciation of that blissful certainty, which so many people cherish, that they are greatly superior to other human beings and therefore entitled to command them and put them to work. So many brilliant society ladies I have known, absolutely convinced that they were "socially" superior to the masses of women whom they didn't know, and to the servants who were compelled by poverty to wait upon them, and to the millions upon millions of men and women whose skins were colored by nature instead of by art. And yet so many of these women of the superior Caste are entirely brainless and entirely useless, except that they are bringing up a child or two as brainless and as useless as the mother. The entrance to my Utopia is a pathway strewn with these superior ladies and gentlemen who have been dumped off the backs of the workers and have landed, more or less bruised and muddy, in the ditch.

I am sorry if this sounds impolite and inelegant, but the plain truth is that I don't know any way to realize a world in which care to live while the masses of the people produce wealth for idlers to consume. I have been as patient and polite as I know how to be during the thirty years or so that my eyes have been open to this situation; I have argued and pleaded with the idlers to get off the backs of the workers voluntarily and permit Utopia to be established in an intelligent and polite way. Their answer has been to organize bands of bullies and rowdies, armed with every sort of deadly weapon, and to turn them loose upon those members of the working class who dare to raise their voices in protest against parasitism and exploitation. They have clubbed and beaten and jailed and tortured and shot and hanged the working-class leaders; when they were preparing to electrocute two of them in Massachusetts last summer, out here in Los Angeles we were not even permitted to protest. Friends of mine went to attend a meeting and found there to be no meeting because a thousand burly fellows armed with shotguns and clubs were lined up along the street, hustling everybody along, and dragging you off to jail if you tried to halt for a moment. All the leaders and organizers of the meeting were thrown into jail under the charge which our police have invented, "suspicion of criminal syndicalism"; and everybody thinks it is all right, and nobody is doing anything about it.

Such is the private Utopia of the Merchants and Manufacturers Association of Los Angeles. And I sit off in a corner and dream about love and justice and beauty and such things, and it is as if I were smoking opium or going to church and singing hymns about heaven.

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