Little Utopias Run Amuck

"Ever since Edmund Burke, intellectuals have been denounced for fomenting revolutionary terror with their dreams. In the world utopia runs amuck often enough."
--Manuel & Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World

Here's a little piece I wrote in 1989, for the two-hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution. As somebody said recently on an Internet forum, "When people behave in an ugly fashion and excuse the behavior by how important the 'cause' is, I have to question it."


"A revolution such as ours is not a trial, but a clap of thunder for the wicked." So Saint-Just, the rigid utopian moralist of the French Revolution, characterized the course of events which began two hundred years ago this summer with the storming of the Bastille. "Our aim is to create an order of things which establishes a universal tendency toward good... Principles should be moderate, laws implacable, principles without redress... Either the virtues or the Terror."

In The Rebel, Albert Camus commented on the style of Saint-Just: "That cascade of peremptory affirmatives, that axiomatic and sententious style, portrays him better than the most faithful painting. His sentences drone on; his definitions follow one another with the coldness and precision of commandments. It is the style of the guillotine." In July 1794, at the age of twenty-six, Saint-Just himself was guillotined along with Robespierre.

That era inaugurated by the French Revolution-- the era of earnest attempts to usher in utopia, the Kingdom of God, the reign of perfect justice, here and now-- is still with us, and in the twentieth century its methods have been refined and its scope expanded to a degree which the French revolutionaries could scarcely have envisioned: "They question my right to the title of philanthropist," exclaimed Marat. "Ah, what injustice! Who cannot see that I want to cut off a few heads to save a great number?" Marat, making his final calculations, claimed two hundred seventy-three thousand heads. The Khmer Rouge, in their effort to turn Cambodia back "to the Year Zero," murdered more than one million people out of a population of seven million. And, as nobody this side of Alexander Cockburn now doubts, the death toll under Stalin numbered in the vicinity of twenty million, give or take a few megadeaths. In the world utopia runs amuck often enough.

Yet the fascination with the latest scheme to immanentize the eschaton continues unabated. As Paul Hollander has so amply chronicled [Paul Hollander, Political Pilgrims: Travels of Western Intellectuals to the Soviet Union, China, and Cuba, 1928-1978 (Oxford, 1981)], no sooner does the latest revolutionary regime come into vogue-- be it in the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Vietnam, or most recently, Nicaragua-- than the usual assortment of the politically correct begins its pilgrimage to the mystic shrine of the new political utopia. And always it is as if for the first time-- as if memory had been rendered tabula rasa with the wipe of a damp sponge.

When Camus published The Rebel in 1951, his study of the tradition of "metaphysical revolt" in the West since the eighteenth century drew upon him the ire of the French Left and the castigation of Jean-Paul Sartre, with whom this book marked Camus' decisive break. Camus' work, claimed his critics, offered objective aid and comfort to the forces of reaction. Camus, for his part, could no longer stomach the frame of mind that led such as Sartre to refrain, "as an act of intellectual discipline," from any remarks critical of Stalinism even after the extent of Stalin's crimes became widely known in the West. The yearning for utopia induces a special sort of blindness. "Ideology today is concerned only with the denial of other human beings, who alone bear the responsibility of deceit. It is then that we kill. Each day at dawn, assassins in judges' robes slip into some cell: murder is the problem today."

Examining a tradition that began amidst figures as diverse as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the Marquis de Sade, Camus traced the development of that vision which broke out onto the stage of history in 1789. It was a matter, claimed Camus, not of rebellion against this or that particular injustice. It was a matter of a metaphysical revolt against the very conditions of human existence. God was to be held responsible for the injustices of man's existence, and thus God had to be overthrown. Yet when God, like King Louis XVI, had been deposed and despatched, man found himself obliged to step in and fill the void: "Since the world has no direction, man, from the moment he accepts this, must give it one." But if there is no longer any absolute which can act as a brake on man's proclivities by relativizing him, then man must be driven, by the logic of revolt, to one extreme or another: All or Nothing... Everyone or No One. Man's protest at the injustice of existence leads to the establishment of man-made justice as a new absolute-- a justice which no longer has any governor to moderate its momentum as it strives for perfect and absolute realization.

But, as Nietzsche observed, "When the ends are great, humanity employs other standards and no longer judges crime as such even if it resorts to the most frightful means." If utopia is really just around the corner, who can object to a little reign of terror along the way, especially if that terror is instrumental to achieving the utopian end? So what began as a protest at the injustice of human existence ends as a justification of the most terrible and inhuman injustices.

Camus told a chilling parable of the new utopian Prometheus:

Proclaiming his hatred of the gods and his love of mankind, he turns away from Zeus with scorn and approaches mortal men in order to lead them in an assault against the heavens. But men are weak and cowardly; they must be organized. They love pleasure and immediate happiness; they must be taught to refuse, in order to grow up, immediate rewards. Thus Prometheus, in his turn, becomes a master who first teaches and then commands. Men doubt that they can safely attack the city of light and are even uncertain whether the city exists. They must be saved from themselves. The hero tells them that he, and he alone, knows the city. Those who doubt his word will be thrown into the desert, chained to a rock, offered to the vultures. The others will march henceforth in darkness, behind the pensive and solitary master. Prometheus alone has become god and reigns over the solitude of men. But from Zeus he has gained only solitude and cruelty; he is no longer Prometheus, he is Cæsar. The real, the eternal Prometheus has now assumed the aspect of one of his victims. The same cry, springing from the depths of the past, rings forever through the Scythian desert.

So utopia runs awry. But little utopias run amuck too, and in looking at them we can often discern, in smaller gauge, the same dynamics and utopian dreams at work, scaled down from the proportions of a tragedy to the dimensions of a farce. Little utopias are peopled not by the Saint-Justs of history, but by obscure cranks and crackpots: the inventor of a world calendar or an international language, or the crusader for whom harmonic convergence as practiced by a tribe of monkeys is the key to world peace.

Much the same dissatisfaction with the limitations of human existence moves the crackpot utopian, and much the same expectation that this scheme, if only it can be implemented-- with only a slight retailoring of human nature, thank you-- will usher in a golden age of peace and harmony. But the crackpot utopian affords us glimpses as well into sides of the utopian temper which the large-scale utopian succeeds most of the time in guarding more carefully. With the crank, things slip out freely around the edges. Only in a rare moment of extremity does a Saint-Just scrawl in his journal, "The Revolution is congealed. All principles have been weakened. All you have left are red caps borne by intrigue." The secretary of the West Hartlepool Esperanto Club has little occasion, and is under little pressure, to practice the impassive guile of the cold and virtuous archangel of the Jacobins.


As long as one people has dwelt alongside neighbors whose language they found incomprehensible, it has no doubt been obvious how useful a common language might be. In one setting or another, various tongues have served for a time as a lingua franca: Greek in the eastern Mediterranean in Roman times, Latin in medieval Europe. But the idea that Babel might be taken in hand and overcome by an artificially constructed language seems to have arisen in Europe in the seventeenth century. Descartes' fusion of algebra and geometry had made a mathesis universalis seem a very real possibility. Leibniz, after his discovery of the calculus, envisioned a language of analogous power, a language of "truly real and philosophical characters" which would manipulate ideas and extend insight just as the new mathematics was now doing in the natural sciences. Dalgarno and Wilkins attempted to draw up a list of categories and subcategories to serve as a framework for the construction of such a language. They worked as collaborators until Dalgarno refused to use a table of genera drawn up by Wilkins.

These early workers on an artificial language were encouraged by a belief that Chinese writing, as well as ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics, represented ideas directly and not individual words. But their attempts at an a priori philosophical language were not met with encouraging results. Their lists of categories seemed arbitrary even to their contemporaries. A friend whom Wilkins asked to categorize plant species for his language later complained: "In arranging the tables I was not allowed to follow the lead of nature, but was required to fit the plants to the author's own system. I had to divide herbs into three squadrons of kinds as nearly equal as possible; I had to divide each squadron into nine lesser kinds of 'differences'... How could anyone ever hope that a method of this sort would be satisfactory, and not transparently absurd and imperfect?"

Such philosophical languages, even when brought through to completion, proved difficult to learn and almost impossible to speak. Nonetheless, one language of this kind, Solresol, retained a following until the First World War. The invention of a Frenchman named Jean François Sudre, Solresol employed as its sounds the seven notes of the musical scale. It could be not only spoken, but sung, whistled, or even played on a musical instrument. It was suggested that, at sea, ships could employ Solresol by means of flags, or lamps in the seven colors of the spectrum.

The first universal language to achieve wide appeal, however, was based loosely on European languages already in existence. Volapük (the name of the language meant "world speech") was the creation of Johann Martin Schleyer, a parish priest from near Lake Constance. According to Schleyer, the idea for Volapük came to him one sleepless night in 1879, in a moment of sudden inspiration. It was to be "a contribution to the unity and fraternity of mankind," a harbinger of international peace.

Schleyer's invented tongue caught on rapidly in Europe, and in 1884 the First Volapük International Congress was held. Thousands took Volapük classes. Clubs were organized as far away as Sydney and San Francisco. Then came the Third Congress in 1889, and the Volapük movement foundered over a slight and unforeseen obstacle: the meetings were, for the first time, to be conducted in Volapük itself, but unfortunately the language proved almost unspeakable in practice.

The Volapük verb, though regular, was so complex that it possessed 505,440 different inflected forms. The Volapük noun came complete with a set of four noun cases. Nor were learning and speaking the language made any easier by the fact that many of the word roots adopted from other languages were mutilated, in the name of phonetic principles, beyond all recognition. Who could see the English "father," "mother," and "prince" in the Volapük "fat," "mot," and "plin"? A cry went out to the Academy of Volapük to reform and simplify the language.

Here events took a turn which was to prove hardly unique in the annals of the undoing of Babel. Schleyer, who retained a veto, would hear nothing of the proposed changes in his beloved creation. The Academy itself defied him and pressed for reform. Schleyer formed a new Academy which would accede to his authority. The supporters of Volapük, divided and discouraged, faded away almost overnight. Volapük disintegrated, leaving in its wake a number of short-lived offspring: Bopal, Spelin, Dil, Balta, Orba.

Even as this first practical effort at a universal language was self-destructing, a second project was coming on the scene, a project whose name is to many people still almost synonymous with the universal language movement: Esperanto, the brainchild of a Jewish oculist from Bialystok in Poland, a young man named Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof.

Zamenhof grew up in a city where, as he later wrote, "Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews, each spoke a different language and was hostile to the other elements." Was not the main cause of this their lack of a common language? If all the world were provided with a common speech, would not people rapidly realize that "all men were brothers"? Zamenhof set about the construction of an easy, regular language whose vocabulary was based on those of the major European languages. He published a book on his new creation in 1887, under the pseudonym of Doktoro Esperanto ("one who hopes"). The name stuck to the language itself.

Esperanto caught on even more quickly than Volapük; it had the slight advantage of being actually speakable. Within four years, it had 15,000 speakers. Proposals for reform arose as they had with Volapük, and a referendum was held among the newly founded Esperanto Clubs which were scattered across Europe. But Zamenhof himself campaigned successfully behind the scenes to have the reforms voted down. Original literature in Esperanto, often in the form of utopian poetry, began to appear. One of Zamenhof's own compositions, La Espero, became the official anthem of the Esperanto movement: "A new feeling has come into the world, A mighty call sounds through the world... To the world, eternally at war, It promises sacred harmony."

The new movement acquired other symbols too. Green became the color of Esperanto, and the green star its symbol. Many Esperantists took to wearing the star as a badge of identification. A diffuse spiritual ideal, known as la interna ideo, became the heart of Esperanto for many Esperantists, to whom the language itself was only the outward expression of the real "inner idea" of brotherhood and unity. This ideal took on further substance at the Esperanto Congresses first held shortly after the turn of the century; at one Congress, Zamenhof addressed his fellow Esperantists to thunderous shouting and applause:

I greet you, dear fellow idealists (samideanoj), brothers and sisters of the great world family... After many thousands of years of being deaf and dumb, and fighting one another, mutual understanding and brotherhood of the members of different peoples of humanity is now... really largely beginning; and once begun, it will not stop, but go forward ever more powerfully, until the last shadows of eternal darkness will disappear for ever.

The crowd responded with cries of "Long live Zamenhof! Long live Esperanto!"

Encouraged by the growing enthusiasm and success of the Esperanto movement, Zamenhof began to frame another, even more utopian project: a proposal for a world religion, to be known as homaranismo (homarano being Esperanto for "a member of the human race"). Zamenhof published an anonymous pamphlet on homaranismo, and planned to introduce his new idea in his speech at the next Esperanto Congress. He was only just dissuaded from this course by other leaders of the Esperanto movement, who felt that the growing religious and mystical overtones associated with the movement could undermine the accelerating success of the language. One leader complained to another, "No doubt soon we shall be told who are the initiators, prophets or priests of this new theosophy, whose liturgical language is, so we are told, Esperanto. While we await the opening of the temples (Homaranist temples!) which the brochure mentions, we could perform the rites beneath the green of the forests, in green robes covered in gold or silver stars. Very poetic, isn't it?"

Nonetheless, the idealistic interpretation of Esperanto according to a vague interna ideo continued to prove popular among many Esperantists. To others, however, it was an embarrassment. Particularly in France, Esperantists of a more practical turn of mind began to agitate once again for reforms aimed at strengthening the chances of the widespread acceptance of Esperanto. For the International Academy of Sciences was convening in Paris a Délégation pour l'adoption d'une langue auxiliaire internationale, and Esperanto faced competition from other contenders, such as Idiom Neutral, which were now being proposed.

Meanwhile, within the Esperanto ranks, it was being pointed out that Zamenhof, as an amateur, had produced a regular but not fully rational grammar. Kroni meant "to crown" in Esperanto; did krono then mean "crown" or "coronation"? The Esperanto alphabet required a special type font to handle circumflexed letters such as ĉ, ĝ, ŝ; it was proposed that these be eliminated. Why did the noun possess a special accusative form? And were all the word roots truly as international as they might be?

Esperanto appeared to be the first choice of the Delegation Committee, and even those in the Esperanto movement who had criticized Zamenhof's creation and called for reform assured him of their support before the Delegation. Then an anonymous pamphlet appeared before the Delegation Committee, putting forth a new project, Ido ("Offspring"), a revision of Esperanto along some of the more rational lines which had been proposed. Before the work of the Delegation dissolved into confusion over a suggested compromise between Esperanto and Ido, Zamenhof had cut off negotiations with the Delegation at the mention of modifying Esperanto, and the leader of the French Esperantists, up till then one of Zamenhof's most trusted lieutenants, had come forth and confessed that he was the inventor of Ido. Relations between conservatives and reformists in the Esperanto movement became strained, and the "Idists," as the Esperantists now called them, began a steady drift toward schism. As many as a quarter of the leaders of the movement eventually went with Ido, though only three or four per cent of the Esperanto rank and file defected.

The Ido rift hardened over the next few years into a permanent and remarkably bitter schism. Bertrand Russell wrote of an encounter with one of the new Ido leaders: "According to his conversation, no human beings in the whole previous history of the human race had ever been quite as depraved as the Esperantists. He lamented that the word Ido did not lend itself to the formation of a word similar to Esperantist. I suggested 'idiot' but he was not quite pleased."

A leading Esperantist returned insult for insult:

What, then, now remains of Ido? An embalmed doll, wound in the swaddling clothes of dogmatic logic-- pardon, di dogmatifanta logikozeso-- and it will never die because it never began to live. The glorious Paris philosopher was not capable of inspiring into it that animating spirit which the unknown Bialystok student gave to his creation. That proves that one can be an excellent anatomist and a bad midwife, and that neither erudition nor pride are ever a substitute for love.

An Ido journal, Progreso, has survived until the present day, although the Ido movement maintains only a tenuous lease on life. Esperantists are still vitriolic in their attacks on Ido; nor is Ido the only schismatic reform which Esperanto has spawned. An incomplete list of others would include Perio, Ekselsioro, Ulla, Mondlingvo, Antido, Mez-Voio, Romanizat, Romanal, Reform-Esperanto de Rodet, Reform-Esperanto de Hugon, Latin-Esperanto, lingw Adelfenzal, Esperanto de Stelzner, Europeo, Nepo, Hom Idyomo, Espido, Néo, Esperantuisho, and Globaqo. Ido itself has suffered, from within much smaller ranks, some twenty splits.

The Esperanto movement, which had grown steadily up until 1914, suffered during the First World War a setback from which it has never fully recovered. It also suffered the death of its Majstro, Zamenhof, whom Esperantists had come to hold in something akin to reverence. It was not until the late forties that the movement was again to acquire a leader of stature, in the person of the Yugoslavian lawyer Dr. Ivo Lapenna.

Lapenna was already known outside of Esperanto circles as a widely published authority on international and East European law. He had served as Counsel-Advocate at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, and later taught at the London School of Economics. He was fluent in several languages. A sportsman and a musician, he was sophisticated and cosmopolitan. As Peter Forster notes in his history of Esperanto, "Qualities such as Lapenna's are unusual in the Esperanto movement."

One of Lapenna's first priorities was to "clean up" the image of the movement-- his so-called "prestige" policy. At the 1947 Esperanto Congress in Berne, Lapenna delivered an address in which he deplored the "strong and accented religious-mystical-spiritualistic colour, with a mass of naivities and frivolities, which only compromises the cause of the International Language." He noted the special-interest Esperanto clubs, organized for the Barrier-Breakers, stamp collectors, Rotarians, To Abundance, Spiritualists, Oxford Group, Baha'i, Spiritualists again... "Do people still not understand that one of the most serious hindrances to the dissemination of Esperanto among serious people is exactly that strange mysticism which incessantly encircles the movement?" Lapenna moved on to the climax of his address:

Finally, there is certainly no shortage of cranks. On the contrary, they are abundant. One woman with green stockings explained to me that every lady Esperantist should wear only green stockings for propaganda purposes. One came to the ball in a dress, like a nightdress, with masses of green stars, large, medium, and small. I saw a loud yellow tie with an even louder green star woven into it. In general, one could see stars everywhere: on the chest, in the hair, on belts, rings, etc...

Among the many "proposals," a remarkable one came from Vilĉjo Verda (Will Green) of England. His prescription is: at the beginning of the propaganda season, all Esperantists gather together in the town church, where they take part in a service. Afterwards they should go in procession through the town with the green insignia and carry green flags.

Asked Lapenna: "Could we not kindly request such cranks not to hinder the spread of Esperanto by their standpoint and external appearance?"

But Lapenna's "prestige" policy has not altogether succeeded. Who is the typical Esperantist today? According to Forster, the average British Esperantist is much more likely than his neighbors to be a political splinter group adherent, an agnostic, a dissenter from urban industrial society, a vegetarian, or a pacifist. Two percent are both vegetarian and pacifist. Forster reports an Esperanto luncheon at which he found himself seated at a table with three Esperantists, two of whom carried on a concerned conversation at length over whether their pea soup had been made with chicken stock. One was a Baha'i. At the next table, leaflets in Esperanto were being passed around. They concerned the benefits of switching to the duodecimal system of numbers.

Meanwhile, other proposals for a universal language, unconnected with the Esperanto movement, continue to be put forth. The tally of artificial languages now stands at something like six hundred, and it grows year by year. Glosa, one recent example among many, boasts a vocabulary of only 1,000 words: "familiar words-- no grammar!" runs its slogan. Indeed, not even a textbook is required, since "you speak straight from the Glosa dictionary." For purposes of "literature, poetry, and stylistic variety," an "extended vocabulary" of more than 100,000 words is available.

And the creators of Glosa are hardly reticent about their aims: "Glosa is not an end in itself, but a means of helping to rid the world of poverty and ignorance... [There is] an enthusiastic nucleus of Glosa speakers in every continent, and we are continually receiving enquiries from influential organizations."


Along about kindergarten age, most school children learn, if they didn't know it already, a rhyme that runs, "Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November..." Some-- those who are up-to-the-minute on strange but true trivia-- learn by and by that you can also figure the long and the short months by counting along on and between your knuckles. And a few-- those who read somewhat more extensively than their homework requires!-- learn how Julius Cæsar tried to set the calendar straight, and how it took Pope Gregory XIII and the excision of eleven days from the year 1582 to get it finally right; that is, except for the rule for leap years (1900 was not, 2000 will be), which still leaves us one day off every 4,000 years...

The calendar is still not quite a study in absolute perfection, and that makes it fair game for the minor league utopians. In the past century, plans for calendar reform have included a year of twelve equal months with an extra week every five or six years; a calendar with weeks of five, six, or ten days; a version with eleven months of thirty days, and a December of thirty-five; a change in the date of New Year's Day; and the transfer of the last day of August to the end of February. One plan which actually garnered a measure of support called for dividing the year into thirteen months of twenty-eight days each, the thirteenth month of Sol to be inserted between June and July.

But perhaps the best known and most widely touted scheme has been the "World Calendar" which was the perennial cause of a New Yorker named Elisabeth Achelis. Achelis' proposal called for dividing the year into four equal quarters, with the first month of each quarter thirty-one days in length, and the others thirty days each. Twelve months would thus total 364 days; a 365th day, outside the seven day cycle of the week, was to be known as World Day, and would complete the year by falling between Saturday, December 30, and Sunday, January 1. In leap years, a Leap Year Day, likewise outside the weekly cycle, would follow June 30. Thus, each day of the year would fall every year on the same day of the week, and so the same perpetual calendar could be used year after year.

Starting around 1930, Achelis promoted her plan energetically by speaking before any group that expressed an interest. Her audiences included the American Bar Association and the International Chamber of Commerce. She spoke more than once to a calendar reform commission of the League of Nations. Pamphlets were printed, a World Calendar Association was organized, and a Journal of Calendar Reform was published for some years.

Achelis' initial efforts focused on the practical benefits which would accrue to business under a regular calendar with equal and identical quarters. Her tone of advocacy went up the scale only when she was excoriating the rival thirteen-month plan: "My imagination utterly fails me when I try to conceive what such a tampering might mean." Or there were the recurrent disputes with Orthodox Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists over the break in the seven day week which the odd World Day holiday would introduce. At least at first, Achelis managed to be fairly diplomatic.

But by the late thirties a different note started to creep into Achelis' writings. It was to become more and more pronounced as the years went by. It began with fairly innocuous references to the psychological benefits which might be expected from coping with a simple calendar purified of needless irregularities. It progressed until a faintly millenarian aura came to surround World Day, which was to be a holiday of world peace and brotherhood.

Two cartoons appeared in an article dated 1937. In the first, the days, weeks, months, and seasons quarrel with one another, "one unhappy family of time," while a troubled Father Time remarks, "No wonder the world is confused and unhappy with my children in constant disagreement!" In the second, the World Calendar time units are gathered into a tidy circle, "one happy family of time," as Father Time exclaims, "How happy it is for my children to live in brotherly relationship! By finding harmony and agreement among themselves they will help to bring peace and order to the world!"

These sentiments, perhaps not too distracting in a cartoon, began to find their way into Achelis' articles and pamphlets as well. Of World Day she now wrote: "the new world holiday becomes a great unifying day for all nations, peoples, races, governments, and religions. During its 24-hour-day observance, there will radiate a spirit of greater solidarity, of understanding, of amity and goodwill... the new world holiday may become, as its name implies, the all-inclusive World Day of universal brotherhood and unity."

While she was busy envisioning the utopian potential of World Day, Achelis and her World Calendar Association were acting out their "amity and goodwill" by slipping into more and more acrimonious debate with conservative religious leaders over the disruption of the seven day week by none other than... World Day!

At first, Achelis' tack was to suggest that the calendar was "beyond ritual, dogma, and theology." When her critics remained unswayed by her arguments that World Day could not disrupt the seven day cycle because it was outside of that cycle, Achelis made vague remarks to the effect that "all time-units have equal value," and that the week could not be singled out for favoritism over the day or month. Finally, she was drawn into a series of angry letters exchanged in the pages of The Churchman with the secretary of the Orthodox Jewish League for Safeguarding the Fixity of the Sabbath. Here Achelis accused her opponents of "vocal opposition" at the expense of the majority, on whom "no religious minority has the right to impose its particular 'conscience.'" She questioned the antiquity of the "unbroken sequence of the seven-day week," and performed her own exegesis on a text out of Leviticus to invoke for her World Day the precedent of the ancient biblical year of jubilee. "Who," she asked, "would wish to deprive mankind of these days [World Day and Leap Year Day] dedicated to universal brotherhood and coöperation?"

By this time-- the mid 1950's-- Achelis was openly comparing the twelve months of her World Calendar to the twelve gates of the new Jerusalem out of the book of Revelation, and World Day to the tree of life in the city bearing twelve kinds of fruit, with its leaves for the healing of nations. "I often ponder: 'Can it be that the World Calendar is a fulfillment of ancient prophecy?'" She wrote a pamphlet in which it was revealed for the first time-- "looking backward over twenty-three years"-- how she had first come to undertake calendar reform, after learning of the "thirteen-month plan":

It was a fortnight later that I was reading in my room the Sunday New York Times, and found there a letter describing another kind of calendar reform, one which had originated in Europe... I was immediately attracted to its simplicity, order and symmetry. As I was contemplating it, I heard a clear voice: You must work for this plan.

Although the call was distinct and convincing, my first reaction was "How can I? I have no experience." ...I then recalled that Moses through the flaming bush, Samuel in the watches of the night, and St. Paul on the Damascus road, had each received his divine message. Now I had experienced a "calling." I set out immediately to begin my preparations...

Finally, the day before Thanksgiving, 1957, Achelis mailed a pamphlet entitled "Workable World Harmony" to the President, Vice President, officers of the Cabinet, and every member of Congress. Herein she stressed the importance of harmony and rhythm in human affairs: "I like to think of the power of harmony and order as fundamental to peace... and relationships of good will." This she illustrated by examples: the harmony of planetary orbits in the solar system, and of the stars in the sky; the division of land and sea on the earth, the distribution of different flowers in one garden and various trees in one forest. She considered the "harmony and wholesome rhythm" of the members and organs of the human body, whose disequilibrium leads to illness. Harmony is also important in the home, as among the nations. At last, Achelis focused on the crucial importance of harmony and rhythm in the measurement of time. Our present calendar, with all its irregularities, is contributing, she claimed, to the disorder of civilization just as surely as bodily disharmony does to physical illness:

The calendar with its irregular rhythm is slowly infiltrating the very core of civilization. Our world is sick, living is sick, civilization is sick insomuch as life is compelled to function every second, every minute, every hour, every day and every year with this definitely sick time-rhythm. Today we are feeling the overwhelming effect of a bad calendar. Scientists tell us that all is vibration and that vibration exerts a profound influence on everything and everyone. Rhythm is related to vibration.

The key to restoring this cosmic scheme of rhythm to harmony, Achelis informed the president and other national leaders, is the adoption of her World Calendar. It is a completely harmonious "time-instrument"-- its adoption would benefit world thinking, world business, world politics, and ultimately help usher in world peace in a "Golden Age where harmony reigns supreme." These final results of her World Calendar Achelis described in utopian terms:

...with passing years happier conditions will pervade our world because an outmoded calendar with its discordant parts and faulty rhythm will have been removed from our midst. There is no doubt whatsoever but that the World Calendar will be increasingly vital and effective in obtaining greater order, fair dealing, just consideration and harmony. In Biblical phraseology, the light of God will lighten our days and the Lord shall dwell therein.


To paraphrase George Orwell's famous remark on cranks, one sometimes gets the impression that the mere words "nuclear disarmament" draw toward them "with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, 'Nature-Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist" around. No nineteenth century Saint-Simonian or Fourierist ever entertained a vision of utopian community stranger than some which have been presented to the world on behalf of protest for disarmament.

The "women's peace camp" at Greenham Common, England, was organized in September 1981 outside the Greenham Common Royal Air Force base to protest NATO's plans to deploy cruise and Pershing II missiles in Britain. When, in 1987, Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev were meeting to discuss real matters of nuclear disarmament, the Greenham Common women's peace camp was still going strong, and according to one report evidenced "no awareness" that an agreement was at hand. In the interim, in addition to the usual rounds of demonstrations, sit-ins, and arrests, there were elements which lent the Greenham Common "collective" the air of a cross between New Age and guerilla theater.

There were circle-dances atop the missile silos, and the special spring equinox events, and the journalling of dreams, and the exploration of "early matriarchal religion." Women camped out through the winter, sleeping under plastic and living out in the rain and mud. In one not atypical event, the Greenham Common women tried to "make connection" emotionally with members of Parliament by "keening" at them, a form of protest which one woman described by saying: "It's a means of expression without words, without having to get tied up in various arguments, facts and figures, whys and wherefores. You can just show how you feel." As another woman warned, facts can become "a source of power and mystification."

Of the coverage they received from the media, the protesters complained that it was often designed to "alienate" readers by portraying the women as odd, or as "living like gypsies." Especially unfair, according to one woman, were the photographs often taken: "People want to express themselves without worrying about how they might be represented, but photos of women with 'unusual' clothes or painted faces, which some women like and which anyway are thought of as a personal matter, are used by unsympathetic editors as part of this stereotyping and undermining process."

What did the protesters see as the purpose of their "peace camp"? Many were quite forthright in delimiting the intended scope of their actions: "What we want to change is immense. It's not just getting rid of nuclear weapons, it's getting rid of the whole structure that created the possibility of nuclear weapons in the first place." A world transformed, through "keening" and painted faces...

An even more utopian plan for peace is to be found in the recommendations of one Ken Keyes, whose book The Hundredth Monkey applies to nuclear disarmament a curious piece of pseudo-scientific folklore which turns up again and again in various New Age and "human potential" publications.

Keyes' work on "megaton madness," which he dedicates to "the Dinosaurs," wastes no time in getting down to brass tacks: "There is a phenomenon I'd like to tell you about. In it may lie the only hope of a future for our species! Here is the story of the Hundredth Monkey..."

Keyes' story, as André Ryerson has reported [André Ryerson, "The Scandal of 'Peace Education,'" Commentary, June 1986], is based on a core of original fact. In 1952, scientists observing a tribe of macaque monkeys on an island off the coast of Japan left sweet potatoes scattered on the beach for the monkeys as part of an experiment. One of the monkeys, a young female, hit on the trick of washing the sand off the sweet potatoes in the water nearby. The other monkeys, first the younger and then the older ones, soon took to copying this behavior until it had become a general habit among the tribe.

Under Keyes' telling of the story, however, these facts are peculiarly embellished. "An 18-month-old female named Imo" discovers the trick of washing the potatoes and teaches it to her mother and her playmates. "This cultural innovation was gradually picked up by various monkeys before the eyes of the scientists," writes Keyes. "Only the adults who imitated their children learned this social improvement. Other adults kept eating the dirty sweet potatoes."

Here Keyes' account of the experiment leaves the facts behind and enters the realm of utopian science fiction:

Then something startling took place. In the autumn of 1958, a certain number of Koshima monkeys were washing potatoes-- the exact number is not known. Let us suppose that when the sun rose one morning there were 99 monkeys on Koshima Island who had learned to wash their sweet potatoes. Let's further suppose that later that morning the hundredth monkey learned to wash potatoes. THEN IT HAPPENED! By that evening almost everyone in the tribe was washing sweet potatoes before eating them. The added energy of this hundredth monkey somehow created an ideological breakthrough!

But notice. The most surprising thing observed by these scientists was that the habit of washing sweet potatoes then spontaneously jumped over the sea-- Colonies of monkeys on other islands and the mainland troop of monkeys at Takasakiyama began washing their sweet potatoes!

Thus, when a certain critical number achieves an awareness, this new awareness may be communicated from mind to mind. Although the exact number may vary, the Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon means that when only a limited number of people know of a new way, it may remain the consciousness property of these people. But there is a point at which if only one more person tunes-in to a new awareness, a field is strengthened so that this awareness reaches almost everyone!

The experiments of Dr. J.B. Rhine at Duke University repeatedly demonstrated that individuals can communicate private information to each other even though located in different places. We now know that the strength of this extrasensory communication can be amplified to a powerfully effective level when the consciousness of the "hundredth person" is added.

Your awareness is needed in saving the world from nuclear war. You may be the "Hundredth Monkey"... You may furnish the added consciousness to create the shared awareness of the urgent necessity to rapidly achieve a nuclear-free world.

In fact, Keyes' utopian fantasy of simian "harmonic convergence" has no basis whatsoever in the facts of the original experiment. The habit of washing sweet potatoes was not suddenly acquired by the rest of the monkeys when some critical threshold was reached, the scientists did not observe evidence of anything other than ordinary "monkey see, monkey do," and the habit was not observed to be communicated to monkeys on other islands. Yet Keyes puts his embellished version of the experiment forth as sober fact, as a serious account of how we may "rapidly achieve a nuclear-free world"!

This instance of the utopian mind at work would be astounding enough even without the additional fact that the tale of the "Hundredth Monkey" has been taken up and widely told time and time again. Keyes, who says he learned about the "Hundredth Monkey" from Marilyn Ferguson and Carl Rogers(!), proved to have authored an especially popular "version" of the story, as his book went into its third printing of 100,000 copies in only ten months. One bibliography on the "Hundredth Monkey" lists almost a hundred places where different versions have appeared over the years. Ryerson has taken a look at one such case, a junior high teaching unit sponsored in 1983 by the National Education Association and entitled Choices: A Unit on Conflict and Nuclear War.

"The Hundredth Monkey" appears in Choices in the very first lesson. It follows Keyes' text almost verbatim, omitting only the references to Dr. Rhine and inter-island monkey telepathy, items which no doubt would not play too well in Peoria. As Ryerson puts it, the tale is referred back to "reverently in subsequent lessons as though to the founding myth of a religion." The curriculum puts forth the "Hundredth Monkey Phenomenon" as scientific fact, and tells the students: "The experiment illustrates the concept of 'critical number' whereby the attainment of a certain level of concentration causes some quality, property, or phenomenon to undergo a definite change." Questions for discussion drive home the point: "How are people who learn about nuclear war like the monkeys who learned to wash the sweet potatoes?" "Can adults learn about nuclear war from young people?"

Perhaps-- though if the Hundredth Monkey is our best hope for averting nuclear war, we really are in trouble!


And the list could go on. And on. And on. All the small-scale utopian schemes ever hatched, if stacked up one on top of another, might not extend all the way from the earth to the moon-- though, if laid out end to end, they just might! Bernard Shaw's proposal for a completely new phonetic alphabet was only one of the more radical schemes for English spelling reform. New blueprints for a world government come along every now and then-- such as the recent and only semicoherent Foundations for a World State by one Wayne MacLeod. (MacLeod's plan: a racially segregated scientific theocracy.) Or salvation may be expected in the form of esoterica by mail order. Ever look in the classified section of a magazine? World hunger relieved by something called the "oxygen diet." "Resurrected billions to farm ocean bottoms when seas removed by coming whirlwind!" Or some of us may recall the "greening of America." And anyone who doesn't remember the atmosphere in the flying saucer movement at the time of the Air Force's Project Bluebook and the UFO "flaps" of the sixties-- that is, before such notions became the proprietary domain of the weekly tabloids-- can take a refresher with Gray Barker's thoroughly researched and perhaps only mostly fictional thriller, They Knew Too Much About Flying Saucers.

Then there are the demiworlds of bent spoons, the Bermuda Triangle, pyramid power, psychic surgery, Charles Fort, ball lightning, rains of frogs, dowsing, perpetual motion, the "Dean Drive," the hollow earth, table rappings, Immanuel Velikovsky, astral projection, Nostradamus, levitation, crepitation, PK, metempsychosis, Al Shaver's subterranean dero, auras, sasquatch, Atlantis, the threat of the south polar icecap to the earth's rotation, Koreshanity and the cellular cosmogony (cf. "hollow earth"), Lemuria, the Akashic record, automatic writing, prenatal regression under hypnosis, the Book of Oahspe, le Comte Saint-Germain, the secret of Hunza, and the "lost" inventions of Nicola Tesla... These are perhaps the marches of crackpot utopia, but they communicate with it by a network of well-travelled roads. Next time you visit your local Walden's or B. Dalton's, check out not just the "Occult" or "New Age/Metaphysical" sections, but also the section labelled "Philosophy." Chances are Carlos Castañeda alone will outnumber everybody you ever heard of in your philosophy classes put together.

Common to the examples we have looked into at greater length-- universal languages, world calendars, disarmament by altered consciousness-- are several features which also occur in many of these other cases: a general sense of spirituality or religion, God expected or hope denied... a premonition of world-altering possibilities in the offing, a coming age of blessing or perhaps of curse... the intolerability of a certain facet of human existence heretofore taken for granted or at least taken for ineluctable... the firm belief that we few have the key, solitary in the face of a world grown indifferent or even hostile... bitter sectarian disputes, rivals to the true faith, and treacherous apostates... the expectation, often short on concrete detail, that with the changed world will come a transformation of human nature, or vice versa... (Let's call this list "List A.")

Most or all of these items could characterize each case we have looked at. But other traits also stand out: first absorption and then outright obsession with a cause seen, more and more, only in tunnel vision... dedication to tactics and strategies irrelevant, or even downright counterproductive, to the achievement of the movement's goals... a virtual suspension, where the cause is concerned, of critical faculties and of reality testing... an inability to moderate, nuance, or refine one's judgments... (Let's call this list "List B.")

These sound, one and all, like the symptoms Camus attributes to the syndrome of "metaphysical revolt" in The Rebel, from the French Revolution right up through twentieth-century Marxism in its "fifty-seven varieties." [One might also trace most of these symptoms in Eric Hoffer's account of The True Believer (Harper & Row, 1951)] Of course, in the case of the crackpot utopia the symptoms are sometimes attenuated, and the outcome in any event is seldom more than a tempest in a Mad Hatter's teacup. We have the luxury of chuckling indulgently when somebody exhibits all the symptoms of the utopian mania on behalf of the green star of Esperanto, or the parapsychology of monkeys. But the time for indulgence is long past when utopia goes major league, and its peculiar mania works itself out on the guillotine or in the Gulag or in the killing fields-- a fine logical distinction some on the Left have always had trouble grasping, as Camus realized when he wrote The Rebel.

Nor does there seem to be any clean discontinuity between the crank's utopia and that of the full-blown Prometheus-become-Cæsar. There are too many examples which lie disquietingly somewhere along that middle range that runs between the farcical and the tragic. The People's Temple, with its odd farrago of fundamentalism, social activism, vulgar Marxism, and crude psychological reconditioning, seemed at first merely like one of the more sordid variations on the theme of petty utopianism. But even as Jim Jones led the group by degrees out across that middle range, there still clung to them much of the farcical and the cranky-- until that day in November of 1978 when Jonestown edged off into the abyss and became a tragic symbol of where utopian intentions can lead. According to Rebecca Moore, who lost two sisters and a nephew to Jonestown, and who had become acquainted with Jim Jones before the group left for Guyana:

It would have been so much simpler to believe that the members of Peoples Temple were merely brainwashed or on drugs... We had no such easy out. The majority of people we knew in Peoples Temple simply couldn't be dismissed as cultists... [For many, Jonestown] became a cultural aberration rather than a human tragedy... We were assured that we weren't like them, and they weren't like us. But Carolyn, and Annie, and Carolyn's four-year-old son Kimo were very much like us... [As] John said in his sermon that first Sunday [after Jonestown], 'We have shared the same vision, the vision of justice rolling down like a mighty stream, and swords forged into plows. We have shared the same hope. We have shared the same commitment.' ...The people involved, their goodness, their evil-- it doesn't make sense.

It is understandable that many people find it intensely difficult emotionally to come to grips with such claims. If between the crackpot's utopia and the utopian tragedies of the past two hundred years there is no hard and fast boundary but only a graded continuum, then utopias on whatever scale may resemble one another too closely for comfort. Little utopias may shed more light on utopia-in-the-large than many want light to see by. Ponder the crank's utopia, with all its quirks and obsessions and myopia and self-delusions, its straining at gnats and swallowing of camels-- all those things about it that just slip out around the edges. Now try beholding the larger utopias in this selfsame light. To no one's surprise, this is a little exercise the execution of which many a utopian seems to find repugnant, or impossible, or impossible because repugnant-- to the external observer, it is often not clear which. As Hollander was driven to suspect strongly by the end of his study, utopian zeal and a lively exercise of the critical faculties are about as miscible as oil and water.

"We were assured that we weren't like them, and they weren't like us." But are they really the only ones who find our idea of a continuum difficult to contemplate without flinching? Most people, one suspects, can see in themselves some of the traits from our "List A," even when it comes to their own most deeply held commitments. But the symptoms from "List B"? Does the average person really find it so much easier to see any of these in himself than does the out-and-out utopian? To see in himself, in what lies closest to the bone, something potentially analogous to visions of green stars and time-rhythms and psychic macaques?

The question is not just an academic one for many of us and for our society. As Moore quotes in her remarks on Jonestown, "We have shared the same vision, the vision of justice rolling down like a mighty stream, and swords forged into plows. We have shared the same hope." Every item on List A is a symptom, not only of utopianism, but also of the exercise of those eschatological hopes which Judaism and Christianity have entertained down through history, and without which our Western notions of history themselves would be inconceivable. Every item on List B is a concomitant of that frame of mind for which, as Camus argued, God having been banished from history, it is All or Nothing-- Everyone or No One. Though these latter symptoms are hardly new to Western history-- or to human nature-- they have received peculiar (and often unwitting) sanction in this age of metaphysical revolt. As we may observe from our tour of crackpot utopia, utopianism as rebellion against the metaphysical conditions of human existence often goes hand in hand, in this present age, with religious aspiration. If the root cause of modern utopianism lies, as Camus contended, in a Promethean revolt against the throne of God, then this combination of faith and utopianism entails a level of cognitive dissonance nothing short of the appalling. It is a dissonance understandable, from within a faith perspective, insofar as Prometheus is only Adam under a different guise, and insofar as the symptoms of utopianism and of religious faith bear to one another such a close resemblance-- "We have shared the same hope."

But all this only renders it all the more incumbent upon communities of faith to draw the fine but crucial distinctions between the utopia of metaphysical revolt on the one hand, and Jewish and Christian visions of the just reign of God on the other. That persons of faith, especially in the religious mainline, often fail today to do so, is a matter of common observation. Hollander noted religious figures often in the front ranks of that sort of political pilgrim whom Lenin referred to as the "useful idiot." And I think I can say, as a Presbyterian minister, that it is galling to see the eagerness and ease with which some clerics and theologians reconcile such injunctions as "love your neighbor as yourself" and "love your enemy" with the old Leftist cookie-cutter paradigm which irreconcilably slices up the world into victims and oppressors, the children of light versus the children of darkness. Before cognitive dissonance of such magnitude one is struck dumb. For under the former injunctions, one may conceivably strive for justice without taking the decisive ushering in of the latter days into one's own hands. But, as the history of the modern era has so graphically illustrated, the latter paradigm leads in the end only to Orwell's vision of the future: "imagine a boot stamping on a human face-- forever." The real, the eternal Prometheus has now assumed the aspect of one of the victims of Prometheus-become-Cæsar. And the same cry rings forever through the Scythian desert.

It is ironic that persons of religious faith must take lessons from Albert Camus on the differences between utopia and the reign of God. But, as we can see in the crackpot's little utopias run amuck, these confusions are more deeply woven into the whole of modern Western society than it at first appears. Camus considered it intolerable that "the cure of evil and murder" be postponed to a point beyond the span of history. At the same time, he considered it just as intolerable that this cure be illimitably administered here and now by limited human beings who inevitably end in sacrificing the present on the altar of the future. "In both cases one must wait, and meanwhile the innocent continue to die... No paradise, whether divine or revolutionary, has been realized." Camus envisioned a form of rebellion against injustice, but a "rebellion [that] cannot exist without a strange form of love," a rebellion that neither reconciles itself to, nor denies, human limitations; that knows as well which means it is not willing to employ, as which means it is. "To learn to live and to die, and, in order to be a man, [man must] refuse to be a god."

The two hundredth anniversary of the French Revolution may not be a bad occasion-- if occasion be needed-- to take stock of what two centuries of utopias large and small run amuck have bequeathed us.