History 12 Reading Guide


Course Texts:

  • Donald E. Pitzer, ed., America's Communal Utopias (1997).
  • Charles Nordhoff, American Utopias, Foreword and Afterword by Robert Fogarty (1993) [originally published as The Communistic Societies of the United States (1875)].
  • Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward:  2000-1887 (1888).
  • Frances Fitzgerald, Cities on a Hill:  A Journey Through Contemporary American Cultures (1981, 1983, 1986).

Concepts and Definitions:

Utopian Experiments

  • Across time and space, communities of individuals have sought "a form of community that would enhance the ability of individuals to develop their full potential, lead meaningful lives, and partake in a close sense of belonging with others .... In this search, utopian thinkers have employed widely differing principles to construct communities they believe will lead to the fulfillment so utterly absent in the larger society.  These high hopes, however, have often ended in disappointment."  Charles A. Redenius, "Lindisfarne: Change and Development in a Utopian Community," Communal Societies 9 (1989), 62.

Utopian Visions/Utopian Philosophies

  • "The virtue of utopia is that it holds up an ideal, an ideal which encourages social progress — but that progress is seen as properly a gradual process, which the literal attempt to institute utopia would interrupt. There is an ambivalence here:  utopia fascinates as an expression of the felt problems and solutions of particular historical situations; it inspires as a response to the recurring problems across history; yet it provokes fear that the revolutionary may make the mistake of taking it literally.
  • "There is an implied model of the process of social change, as well as its direction:  ideas are the motive force in social progress, so that utopia must be taken seriously as a contribution to this — but not too seriously, or evolution and progress may turn to revolution and disaster...."  Ruth Levitas, The Concept of Utopia (1990), 10-11.


  • Community is an aggregate of people who share a common interest in a particular locality.
  • It has an expectation of a special quality of human relationship:  a network of social relations marked by mutuality and emotional bonds. But the solidarity does not mean that all is unity and harmony within:  communal conflict is real.
  • A community is an end in itself. It may offer aid or advantage to its members, but its value is basically intrinsic to its own existence. It does not exist to serve external or instrumental purposes.  (Thomas Bender, Community and Social Change in America (1978).)

Communal societies/communes:

  • Broadly speaking, these are small, voluntary social units, partly separated from the general society, in which members share an economic union and lifestyle in an attempt to implement, at least in part, their ideal ideological, religious, political, social, economic, and/or educational systems.

"Utopian communities":

  • The term "utopian community" generally refers to 19th century communal societies whose members envisioned, and sought to realize, grand, ideal — indeed "utopian" — relations and institutions.

"Intentional communities":

  • The term "intentional community" generally refers to 20th century communes:  communities structured by deliberate intention or design, with voluntary participants, usually concerned with relations in a small group (also called experimental communities).
  • Communes are characterized by conscious planning and coordination, with the goal of ensuring the welfare of every member. They capture this quality by referring to themselves as intentional communities.  (Rosabeth Kanter, Commitment and Community (1972), 39.)
  • The commune movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was characterized by a diminishing scope:  the communes encompassed fewer visions of social reconstruction, fewer hopes for permanence, fewer people, fewer demands on those people, and fewer institutions.
  • Thus, where nineteenth-century communal societies sought a conception of an alternative society (and called themselves "societies"), the twentieth-century conception was of an alternative family (and they called themselves "families").  (Rosabeth Kanter, viii, 165-6).

Dystopia (or anti-utopia):

  • Dystopia refers to the apocalypse — "end of the world." The optimism of utopia and the pessimism of dystopia represent opposite sides of the of the same coin — the hope of what the future could be at best, the fear of what it may be at worst.
  • A literary example of an anti-utopia is Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (1955) — "a nightmare and a warning to all who would plan a utopia."  (Ruth Levitas, paraphrasing Krishan Kumar, 139.)


  • The term "cult" was used in the 17th century and then rarely until the middle of the 19th century, meaning worship, reverential homage rendered to a divine being or beings; a particular form or system of religious worship, especially in reference to its external rites and ceremonies.
  • The current usage is based on the 19th century roots:  devotion or homage to a particular person or thing, especially as paid by a body of professed adherents or admirers.  (Oxford English Dictionary)