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Cacotopianism, the Paris Commune, and England's Anti-Communist Imaginary, 1870-1900

From: ELH
Volume 73, Number 2, Summer 2006
pp. 465-487 | 10.1353/elh.2006.0012

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ELH 73.2 (2006) 465-487

Matthew Beaumont

University College London

I. Introduction

After the Paris Commune of 1871, the spectre of communism, forgotten for a generation after 1848, once again stalked Europe. The democratic experiment of the Commune lasted only two months, but it had a disproportionate impact on the political imaginary of the European middle classes. In England, panicked reports of its depredations in the daily press helped to shape an anti-communist imaginary that was excitedly reanimated in the 1880s and 1890s, when the domestic working class appeared to threaten insurrection. The distinctive product of this imaginary, I want to argue, was the fictional "cacotopia."

Coined by Jeremy Bentham in 1818, the word "cacotopia" (from the Greek kakos meaning "bad") was used by John Stuart Mill in 1868, only three years before the Commune, during a debate in parliament on the state of Ireland. Mill accused the Conservative government not of being "Utopians" in their policymaking—for that, he said, would be too complimentary—but of being "dys-topians, or cacotopians": "What is commonly called Utopian is something too good to be practicable; but what they appear to favour is too bad to be practicable." In this article I use the term "cacotopian" in a slightly different sense, to specify a particular manifestation of the anti-utopian, or dystopian, imagination. While the dominant current of anti-utopianism in the late Victorian period proceeds by satirizing the utopian form itself, "cacotopianism" is concerned less with repudiating the literary expression of utopianism than with combating its practical embodiment in the proletariat.

Cacotopia implies not simply the opposite of utopia but something pernicious in its own right (as Anthony Burgess said, it "sounds worse than dystopia"). It depicts the working class, in corpore, as dystopian. So its grisly fascination is with chthonic insurrection rather than with the corrupt power structures of the putative socialist state. According to Krishan Kumar, the anti-utopia can be understood "as an invention to combat socialism, in so far as socialism was seen to be the fullest and most sophisticated expression of the modern worship of science, technology and organization." The cacotopia can be understood by contrast as an invention to combat communism, insofar as communism (so Friedrich Engels claimed) was seen to be the "very opposite" of a "respectable" middle-class movement. A fiction of social catastrophe, cacotopianism portrays revolution as a sexual and political apocalypse. I deploy the term "cacotopia" in an attempt to reproduce the sheer pungency of the form's anti-communist politics.

In novels and fictional pamphlets, up until the end of the century, the fantastic image of an "English Commune," which one correspondent for the Times rightly regarded as "no sort of danger," was nevertheless fostered. The cacotopia, which mapped the menacing figure of an insurgent working class onto the political geography of London, was an effect of the rise of organized labor during the so-called Great Depression as well as of the Commune itself. An imaginary history of the present, in the form of a prospective history, it reflected the intensifying class struggle of the final decades of the nineteenth century. The 1880s and 1890s marked an important moment in the formation of the English working class. As the New Unionism testified, it was increasingly organized and at least seemed alarmingly homogeneous. The emerging socialist movement promised to glue it together all the more securely. It is no accident that Émile de Laveleye's survey of Le socialisme contemporain (1881)—which warned that "we may see our capitals ravaged by dynamite and petroleum in a more ruthless and systematic manner than even that which Paris experienced at the hands of the Commune"—was translated into English in the mid-1880s. Domestic anxieties about social conflict oxidized the residues deposited in the European political imagination by the events in Paris of the early 1870s.

In this article, I anatomize the anti-communist or anti-insurrectionary imagination identifiable in England after the Commune and show how it shaped the body of literary texts which I designate "cacotopian." Its second section examines the cacotopia's conditions of possibility from the late 1860s and early 1870s, with reference...