In 1908, H. L. Mencken was approached by an editor and author named Robert Rives La Monte, who was keen on persuading the 28-year-old Mencken to join him in an epistolary debate about the benefits of socialism: La Monte would argue for and Mencken could argue against. Despite his misgivings, Mencken agreed, and shortly thereafter, the now-largely-forgotten Men versus the Man (1910) appeared. The first letter from La Monte was suitably provocative: “If you wish to see better manners, more worthy fiction, higher art, and nobler drama, as I know you do, your only course is to become a Socialist comrade, and give us your aid in hastening the advent of the Social Revolution.” Mencken’s response was categorical: “Your ideal picture of the best possible world seems to me a fair picture of the worst possible world”—and so the book proceeded. Looking back on this venture, Mencken concluded that, although Men versus the Man proved a commercial and critical failure, it forced him to sort out what he might have called his Weltanschauung, which was far from utopian.

My basic point of view .  .  . went back to my early teens, and has never changed in any essential during the half century since. Under the influence of my father .  .  . I emerged into sentience with an almost instinctive distrust of all schemes of revolution and reform. They were, to me, only signs and symptoms of a fundamental hallucination, to wit, the hallucination that human nature could be changed by passing statutes and preaching gospels—that natural law could be repealed by taking thought.

In Paradise Now, Chris Jennings revisits five utopian groups—the Shakers, the Owenites, the Fourierists, the Icarians, and the Perfectionists—to show that, if there was one thing that all of these socialist groups had in common, it was a passionate belief not only that natural law could be repealed but that its repeal would benefit mankind.

Utopianism has a curious history. Although the word utopia (from the Greek meaning “nowhere”) was coined by Sir Thomas More in his 1516 satire of the same name, in which the great humanist took Europe to task for its lack of Christian caritas. But the father of the utopianism to which most 19th-century utopians subscribed was Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825), who fought in the American Revolution, made a pile speculating in confiscated property, went bankrupt during the Directory, and wrote several highly influential books touting his vision of a technocratic socialism. For Saint-Simon, the Industrial Revolution required a more scientific social order, and enlightened industrialists would supply it. If not all utopians shared his fanciful respect for the good-heartedness of captains of industry, they did share his conviction, as Jennings notes, that the “golden age of mankind is not behind, but before us.”

They also shared Saint-Simon’s conviction that human nature is perfectible. In his magisterial history of the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy (1996), Orlando Figes quotes a passage from Leon Trotsky, which nicely sums up this quintessentially utopian conviction.

What is man? He is by no means a finished or harmonious being. No, he is still a highly awkward creature. Man, as animal, has not evolved by plan but spontaneously, and has accumulated many contradictions. The question of how to educate and regulate, how to improve and complete the physical and spiritual construction of man, is a colossal problem which can only be conceived on the basis of Socialism. We can construct a railway across the Sahara, we can build the Eiffel Tower and talk directly with New York, but we surely cannot improve man. No, we can! To produce a new, “improved version” of man—that is the future task of Communism.

Here, in a nutshell, is the utopian belief in social engineering that animates all of Jennings’s utopians. And with convictions like these, it was not surprising that American utopians, like their European and Russian counterparts, sought to accomplish their greater communal good by redefining the family—convinced, as Jennings writes, “that the narrow, superseding loyalties engendered by marriage and the biological family were anathema to progress.”

Charles Fourier (1772-1837), for example, one of whose claims to fame was his belief that we should increase the gaiety of nations by draining the sea of salt to make lemonade, regarded marriage as “nothing more than a prison built to enslave women and lock both of its captives into lives of deceit, intellectual malaise, and sexual nullity.” Then, again, John Humphrey Noyes (1811-86), one of the millenarian Perfectionists who settled in Oneida, New York, based his contempt for marriage on the Bible, citing the Gospel of St. Matthew, “For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage.” Jennings has fun with this otherwise serious idiocy:

Noyes had begun to wonder whether there might be a reciprocal relationship between the coming of God’s kingdom and the abolition of marriage. If free love was going to define life in the millennium, maybe free love would help trigger the millennium.

Another Frenchman, Étienne Cabet (1788-1856), whose novel Voyage en Icarie (1840) won utopian devotees in Texas, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, and California, claimed to be in favor of marriage and the family, but it is difficult to see how either could flourish in an earthly paradise where communal conformity was so strictly enforced. Indeed, as Theodore Zeldin points out, Cabet’s ideal state was one in which everyone would wear the same clothes. Why? Because “bizarre and tasteless designs” would be outlawed.

This utopian edict would certainly have met with the approval of the honorary American P. G. Wodehouse, who went out of his way in his collection of essays Louder and Funnier (1932) to console those traveling on ocean liners with ill-clad fellow passengers: “When you see a fat man in a yachting cap, horn-rimmed spectacles, plus fours, and black and white buckskin shoes,” he wrote, “I maintain that there is convincing evidence of premeditation and that the matter should be firmly dealt with by the proper authorities.” Cabet and the Icarians would have agreed. Certainly, if any of our contemporary utopians could find a way to outlaw the “bizarre and tasteless” dress of passengers on airplanes, they would do the utopian cause immeasurable good.

In taking up these utopians and their movements, Jennings argues that, without utopian convictions of some sort, our political life would stagnate. Indeed, he takes particular issue with Tony Judt for arguing that the charge of sensible political philosophers should be “not to imagine better worlds but rather to think how to prevent worse ones.” For Jennings, this is tantamount to “finding the least bad version of the status quo—the assumption being that what we have is well enough and well enough ought to be left alone.” Instead, Jennings urges his readers to join his 19th-century utopians in reimagining America in order to create a better America. For those who might demur, Jennings has his answer ready, arguing that the utopians have much to teach us:

Some of the things that the nineteenth-century utopians got right, decades in advance of their fellow citizens—the equality of women, the importance of public education in a democratic society, the need for a social safety net, the edifying vitality of a diverse society, the hazards of unchecked markets—show the social dividends of contemplating idealized futures with a relatively soft commitment to the present state of affairs.

Not all readers will find such pleading persuasive. Mencken, in his unreconstructed way, regarded progressive reform as “only a conspiracy of prehensile charlatans to mulct taxpayers.” Even Thoreau was dubious, telling Emerson of Brook Farm, the Fourierist experiment in communal living about which Hawthorne wrote in Blithedale Romance (1852), “I’d rather keep bachelor’s hall in hell than go to board in heaven.”

Readers interested in the pathologies of socialism, however, will benefit from Jennings’s lively account of the yearnings of his utopian subjects. Needless to say, such yearnings are still with us, though Jennings often writes as though they were absent in our ardently progressive age. After all, we are inundated by advocates of what the utopians liked to regard as the “science of society,” which would “not just be descriptive,” as Jennings accurately points out, “telling us when and why people act the way they do,” but would also “allow us to change how people act, to fix every social problem.”

Whether such a “science of society” is as benign as Jennings would have us believe is another matter. Since so much of the utopianism discussed here originated in Europe, readers would be wise to look at Michael Burleigh’s superb study, Earthly Powers: The Clash of Religion and Politics in Europe from the French Revolution to the Great War (2005), which puts this complicated and consequential history in some context. The best critic of American utopianism, however, remains a high-toned old Christian woman from East Hampton named Catherine Beecher (1800-1878), sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Jennings might have given his readers a more critical account of his utopians and their schemes if he had quoted something that this shrewd educator said about the Welsh utopian Robert Owen (1771-1858) and his New Harmony community in Indiana, which failed two years after it was founded in 1825—though it still garners wistful praise from our own would-be utopians.

To collect together a company of persons of all varieties of age, taste, habits, and preconceived opinions, and teach them that there is no God, no future state, no retributions after death, no revealed standard of right and wrong, and no free agency; that the laws that secure private property are a nuisance, that religion is a curse, that marriage is a vexatious restraint, that the family state is needless and unwise, and then to expect such a community to dwell together in harmony, and practice upon the rules of benevolence, what can be conceived more childish or improbable, by any person who has seen the world or known any thing of human nature! And yet such is the plan and expectation of the leaders of practical Atheism.

Edward Short is the author, most recently, of Adventures in the Book Pages: Essays and Reviews.