Saturday, July 08, 2023

Lane's New Australia

In the 1890s a charismatic Australian journalist named William Lane attempted to establish a socialist utopia in Paraguay. A book published about this enterprise in 1912 has been republished by Bonfire Books (None but the Crocodiles by Stewart Grahame). 

What is so interesting about the New Australia Movement is that it had so much in its favour....and yet it nonetheless rapidly failed.

The socialist experiment in Paraguay had every reason to prosper. Paraguay had recently experienced a war and had lost much of its adult male population. Its government was therefore keen to attract new settlers and so offered William Lane a large amount of quality land. At the same time, some bitter labour disputes in Australia led to a large number of skilled and experienced workers joining the movement. Lane himself was genuinely idealistic and principled and an inspiring leader. Nor was the experiment overly radical; for instance, members were allowed to continue to live in families.

The idea of the new society was a socialist one: what was produced would be held in common and then distributed equally to each member. 

I won't go into the details about how this unfolded, as it is described so well in the book (which you can purchase here). It is curious, though, that the reason for failure was predicted some 600 years earlier by the medieval theologian St Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas justified the holding of private property as follows:

Firstly, because everyone is more solicitous about procuring what belongs to himself alone than that which is common to all or many, since each shunning labour leaves to another what is the common burden of all, as happens with a multitude of servants. Secondly, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly fashion if each has his own duty of procuring a certain thing, while there would be confusion if each should procure things haphazard. Thirdly, because in this way the peace of men is better preserved, for each is content with his own. 

All three of these principles played out in New Australia, but especially the first. 

Socialist Australians in Paraguay in the 1890s.

What lessons do we draw from the failure of the New Australia colony? The basic one, I think, is that the family is one of the natural settings for human life. Men are more motivated to work industrially if they can direct the fruits of their labours to their own wife and children. If, instead, those fruits are directed toward a common store to be distributed equally, then the work is more likely to be left to others and, as Aquinas so shrewdly predicted, there will be discontent about how the work of a community is apportioned.

Stewart Grahame was optimistic in 1912 that the combination of the free market and Christianity would prove a winning formula. History didn't work out that way: Christianity gradually lost its influence in the culture and the bigger corporations have increasingly adopted a leftist social agenda. 

One final point. Although pure socialist experiments like the one in Paraguay are doomed to failure, a certain kind of state socialism is increasingly influential in the West. This is perhaps where the real argument about socialism is to be had.


  1. Considering the harshly anti-communist history of Paraguay in the 20th century, an effort to create a commie paradise is particularly amusing.

    1. Yeah. But it happens again and again because ..... 'but that wasn't real communism' is an endless delusion.

  2. From 1814 - 1870, Paraguay had a series of Supreme dictators. One, José Gaspar Rodríguez de Francia (1814-184 was quite radical even by today's standards. He forbade Europeans from marrying other Europeans, for example
    His policies were basically communist.

  3. I'm increasingly interested in ideas around intentional community and how they fail or flourish. Many religion-based societies of this type operate very successfully. The Amish or Bruderhof, being examples. Others operate in a more dislocated way, such as Mormons. If the best ingredients can be determined and the hazards avoided, then it offers a cooperative alternative for those Western European peoples, who are growing pessimistic about their own peoples acting in time to save their societies.

    PS why not consider a joint posting on Substack too, so people can receive alerts on new posts? Some may also contribute financially.

    1. On which topic, I'm relistening to a discussion (Haidt, p576) on the plethora of communes outlined by Sosis on the success of communes and the much greater success of religious versus secular (socialist) communities. Based on the sacrilization of sacrifice by religious based groups under gene-culture evolution.