B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century


19. Étienne Cabet

20. Hutterites Again

EPILOGUE — Post-Apocalyptic Communalism


19. Étienne Cabet

Étienne Cabet was born in 1788, a year before the fall of the Bastille. For the first forty years of his life he was the typical radical Jacobin of the post-revolutionary generation, untouched by the disillusionment of older men whose youth and young manhood was lived under the Terror, the Directory, and the Napoleonic Empire. In 1820 he gave up a law practice in Dijon and became a director of the French conspiratorial revolutionary organization, the Carbonari. In the Revolution of 1830 he was a member of the Insurrection Committee. Louis Philippe appointed him Attorney General of Corsica, but he was dismissed for his attacks on the government in his book Histoire de la révolution de 1830, and in his journal Le Populaire. He returned to Dijon and was elected Deputy, whereupon he was arraigned on a charge of lčse-majesté and was condemned to two years’ imprisonment and five years’ exile. He went to Brussels, was expelled, and emigrated to England, where he became a disciple of Robert Owen.

In the amnesty of 1839, Cabet returned to France and in the next year published a history of the French Revolution, and Voyage en Icarie, a semi-fictional account of a communist society, which he considered a modern version of Thomas More’s Utopia, as improved by the economic theories of Robert Owen. There is nothing particularly original or exciting about Cabet’s plans for a new society, but like More’s Utopia, Voyage en Icarie includes a devastating criticism of the contemporary social order — which was probably, for Cabet, its most important part. Its success must have amazed him. It became a bestseller, read or at least talked about by every radical working man and intellectual. For the next seven years in Le Populaire and a new journal, L’Almanach Icarienne, he built up a following which he claimed to number about half a million. At first, like Edward Bellamy, author of Looking Backward at the end of the century, it did not occur to him that people would wish to put his utopian ideas to practical application, but the great success of his movement finally persuaded him. His followers were demanding that he lead them into the commonwealth of the future, and he had already started a number of ill-conceived and abortive Icaries in France.

In 1847 Cabet issued a call, “Forward to Icarie.” France was crowded, worn-out with a despotic government, and would never permit the establishment of modern communities, which soon would, by their example, revolutionize the society. In America it would be possible to build a communist colony of ten or twenty thousand people on the frontier, and in a few years millions would be converted. The response was tremendous. He was deluged with gifts, pledges, and recruits.

Since Cabet had neither picked a site nor made any definite plans for settlement, he must have been a little frightened, and went to London to consult with Robert Owen. At the moment, Owen was enthusiastic about Texas, which had just been admitted to the Union and was anxious for settlers. A short time later, a Texas land agent in London persuaded Cabet to contract for a million acres on the Red River, “easily accessible by boat.”

On February 3, 1848, the advance party sailed for Texas. In New Orleans they discovered that they had bought a hundred thousand, not a million, acres in the wilderness, two hundred and fifty miles from the river, allotted in checkerboard fashion, the alternate squares still in possession of the state; and by the terms of the agreement, they were obliged to build a log house on each of their sections before July. Furthermore, the Red River was not navigable beyond Shreveport, Louisiana, where it was blocked by an immense, permanent log jam.

Undaunted, sixty-nine enthusiastic Frenchmen, totally inexperienced in coping with the wilderness, stored most of their goods and set off overland with one wagon drawn by oxen. They did not even know how to manage the wagon and oxen. They broke down and became stuck in marshes. People began to get malaria. They ran out of food, but at last they reached the site of Icaria, and met the land agents of the Peters Land Company, who informed them that any land which was not occupied by a cabin and resident in each half-square mile would revert to the company, which would be glad to resell it at a dollar an acre. There was no possibility of fulfilling the contract, but the sixty-nine pioneers wrote a desperate letter to Cabet and set to work. Although many of them were skilled mechanics, almost none was a farmer or, curiously, a builder. They did not know how to plough, and the thirty-two cabins they were able to build were hovels. More and more people became sick, probably with malaria. Their doctor said it was yellow fever, but all of his diagnoses were for fatal diseases, and it soon turned out that he was insane. Most of the members became ill — the water was undrinkable, but few died. In the spring, ten more settlers arrived out of the five hundred Cabet had promised.

Meanwhile, back in France, the Revolution of 1848 had overthrown Louis Philippe, and in the next few months revolutionary leaders like the poet Lamartine, Cabet, his friend Louis Blanc, and others of the left were discredited, partly by their own mistakes, but even more by the organized opposition of the right and the Bonapartists. On December 15, Cabet sailed for America with almost five hundred new colonists to find the shattered remnants of the pioneer settlement back in New Orleans. Cabet wished to return to Texas, but those who remained from the pioneer group rebelled. The winter was spent in bitter conflict, and eventually almost two hundred, mostly members of the group that had just come with Cabet, returned to France, and the others found temporary employment in New Orleans while Cabet shopped for a new site. In the spring he bought all the available property of the town of Nauvoo in Illinois from which the Mormons had recently migrated to Utah. For a down-payment and a large mortgage he got a variety of mills and shops, a distillery, a large community dwelling, numerous family houses, the ruins of the burnt-out temple, and fifteen hundred acres of land. Two hundred and eighty faithful Icarians went up the river with Cabet to their new home. Typical of the fate that dogged them, twenty died of cholera on the way.

Nauvoo would seem to have been ideal. Like Owen at New Harmony, Cabet took over a completely equipped village, or rather, small town, which the Mormon Church had operated until driven out by persecution, not just successfully, but with such prosperity as to arouse the envy of their neighbors. For a while, the Icarians seemed to prosper too. Cabet had a tried-and-tested membership — tried, if not by fire, at least by mud, mosquitoes, disease, and hunger. Most of the people were experienced artisans, and soon the mills and craft shops were back in operation. Strangely enough, there were very few farmers, so much of the fifteen hundred acres remained uncultivated. During the year, new arrivals from France doubled the size of the colony. But the imbalance of craftsmen and farmers increased.

With all the immense amount of propaganda which Cabet put out in France, he never seems to have made the slightest effort to recruit specific kinds of workers to meet the needs of the colony. With fifteen hundred acres of some of the best land in the Mississippi Valley, Icarian Nauvoo did not, as similar unbalanced colonies had often done, hire farm laborers. Instead, they bought most of their food on the market. The work of the shops could not even begin to meet the steadily growing deficit, which was made up by the contributions of cash which Madame Cabet kept flowing from France. It does not seem to have occurred to Cabet that there was anything wrong with that. His letters and reports from the time are uniformly optimistic, in fact euphoric.

As usual, the colonists started a progressive school, with instruction in both French and English for their children and English classes for adults. They printed a newspaper and several pamphlets. They had an orchestra, a band, and a theatrical company, lectures by visitors and residents, and discussion and study groups. Cabet, however, was not content. He still hoped to found a utopian city, not a village, in which the habitations would be palaces, the labors of the people mere pastimes, and their whole lives pleasant dreams.

In 1852 the colonists who had left him at New Orleans sued him for embezzlement and he went back to contest the suit. The French courts acquitted him and he returned to a welcoming banquet in New York, a triumphant journey across country, and another celebration in Nauvoo. By this time, the colony was a modest success. Even the farming problem was on the way to being solved, and the deficit was steadily declining. To Cabet this was just the beginning. He went off to Iowa and purchased three thousand acres on a mortgage for the site of his dream city and communist Garden of Eden.

The government of the colony had been as vaguely conceived as its economics. While in France Cabet had been accepted as dictator for ten years, and this arrangement was renewed in New Orleans and again at Nauvoo. But in 1850, convinced of the success of the colony and its readiness for a pure communist government, Cabet gave up his dictatorship. A constitution was adopted in 1850 with a board of six governors, and a variety of administrative committees to take care of the details of the work and community life. Cabot was elected president each year until 1855. That December he proposed that the constitution be rewritten providing for the election of a president with dictatorial powers to appoint the members of the board of directors and all committees.

The constitution had provided for annual revision in March, so the community rebelled, and in the election of February 1856 elected J.B. Gerard president. This led to so severe a conflict that Gerard resigned and Cabet was re-elected under the old constitution for another year. For six months the majority of directors supported him, but most of the general assembly of the whole community opposed him. The principal reason for this opposition seems to have been Cabet’s increasing eccentricity. He had forbidden alcoholic drinks in the community and insisted that the whole product of the distillery be sold outside. He then proposed to forbid all use of tobacco and began to try to enforce his own notions of diet and his eccentric but puritanical sexual morality. The fact of the matter is that Cabet was becoming an old man, impractical in his visionary schemes, rigid in his attempts at their application, and cranky in temperament — a typical product of a lifetime spent on the fringes of radicalism. At the summer election, he lost his majority on the board of directors and the colony broke down in chaos.

In no other communist community do we have records of such violent conflict. At first factions stopped speaking to each other, withdrew to separate parts of the dining room, and engaged in separate social activities. Work ceased in the mills and fields. The children quarreled with each other in school, and soon the members were literally fighting in the streets. At this point the anti-Cabet board of directors decided that those who did not work should not eat, and cut off the rations of the strikers on August 13. Cabet and the minority responded by petitioning the state legislature to revoke the charter of the community. The majority answered this move by voting unanimously to expel Cabet and his followers, who boycotted the meeting. Four weeks later, Cabet and a hundred and seventy faithful followers, many of whom had been with him from the beginning in Texas, arrived in St. Louis and, as they had long ago in New Orleans, sought individual jobs as mechanics. A week later, Cabet was dead.

Cabet’s death was by no means the end of the Icarians. The majority at Nauvoo reacted with guilt and repentance. In the course of time, the memory of his faults and crankiness and the bitter factionalism of the last few years faded. Cabet became a kind of culture hero, the founder of a new civilization, like Theseus or Romulus in the opening pages of Plutarch, and selections from his wisdom were read at meetings, like the Gospels and epistles in church.

The St. Louis group established itself in three large cooperative houses and pooled all its resources. The members sent their children to public schools, but organized classes in adult education, especially in English, in which they were still deficient. They had been allotted a share of the large community library, and they added to it to furnish their large recreation and study room. Weeknights they continued to have music and theatrical entertainments, and on Sunday they met for instruction in the principles of Jesus Christ and Étienne Cabet. They also issued their own journal, the Revue Icarienne. Faithful to the end, they forswore the consumption of alcoholic drinks and tobacco in any form.

The movement in France recognized the St. Louis group as the legal Icarian community, and so it received steady income of contributions and periodic recruits of new members from abroad. The men found employment at good wages and the community was functioning as a quite successful urban commune, one of the very first of its kind. But they were not content.

They purchased a farm, the Cheltenham estate, a site now well within the city limits of St. Louis, and moved back to the land. Many of the members continued to go to their jobs in St. Louis, but the income from that source dropped considerably. The site was unhealthy — the whole Mississippi Valley seems to have been ridden with malaria in those days; and communist colonies seem fated always to find the most malarial sites. There were still not enough farmers, so that the land did not even feed the community. There were no shops or mills, only a few log huts and one strong house. Within a year, the same faction that had split Nauvoo developed in Cheltenham. The majority wished to perpetuate the dictatorship established by Cabet. A minority insisted on complete democracy. Forty-two of the democrats withdrew, and the colony was unable to recover from their secession, since they comprised the majority of the skilled craftsmen and wage-earners. In 1864 only eight men, seven women, and their children were left. The French movement had withered and no money or recruits came any more from France. The mortgage was foreclosed and Icaria at Cheltenham ceased to exist.

After the secession of the minority, the community of two hundred and fifty at Nauvoo declined rapidly. Profits from the mills, shops, and distillery dried up, probably for lack of skilled workers, most of whom had gone to St. Louis. The Mormons, who still held the very considerable mortgage, threatened them with foreclosure. The plant was simply too large for the members to operate. They decided to migrate to the site in Iowa where Cabet had planned to build the palatial City of Utopia. They took over undeveloped land, far from any settlement, encumbered with a mortgage at ten percent. In 1863 only thirty-five ill-fed, ill-housed, and overworked communists were left.

They were saved only by the outbreak of the Civil War. Settlers flooded into Iowa to save it for the Union. The colony found a ready market for its products at good prices, and they sold two thousand acres which they were unable to cultivate for ten thousand dollars. For twelve years they prospered, so much so that they bought back some of the land. They built decent houses, laid out orchards and vineyards, and began to go in for more intensive farming. Since they had had to learn by doing the art of agriculture, they probably had to work too hard to waste time in quarreling. At least, considering their past history, their personal relations were remarkably equable.

In 1876 there were seventy-five members. They had a dozen family dwellings on three sides of a square, a large central building with a community kitchen and dining room, used also for assemblies and recreation, a bakery and laundry, a dairyhouse, stables and barns and a large number of log outbuildings, all on a handsome site on a bluff above the valley of the Nodaway River; and behind them were two thousand fertile acres, seven hundred under cultivation with timberland, meadows, and pastures. They had six hundred sheep, a hundred and forty cattle, most of them milch cows, and raised corn, wheat, potatoes, sorghum, vegetables, and small fruits besides vineyards and orchards. All meals were taken in common, and many services like laundry were performed for the community as a whole. In the evening after dinner there was dancing, music, organized or spontaneous recreation, and on Sundays a service which included a lecture, singing of their own songs, and readings from the works of Étienne Cabet.

The disastrous blow dealt to the French radical movement by the Terror which followed the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871 had brought them new recruits and had wrought changes, some obvious, some subtle but profound, in the ideology of the community. France itself has never recovered from the Commune, so it is not surprising that its effects were felt so far away from Paris, amongst a little community of French radicals in the midst of the Iowa prairies.

As the years had gone by, changes had taken place in the production economy of the colony. Except for grains and other large-scale crops, the produce of the individual plots attached to the family dwellings had come to dominate the food supply, produce, vegetables, and milk. Similarly the small craftsmen functioned as almost independent operators and commonly sold their products or took part-time jobs on the outside. The situation was not unlike that on the Russian collective farms before Stalin’s wholesale purges. It was the older generation of revolutionaries who had pioneered with Cabet who insisted on this limited private enterprise. The young people, especially the refugees from the Paris Commune, demanded a complete communism of production. Many of them were disciples of Proudhon, Bakunin, Weitling (Weitling’s own colony, Communia, had been in northeast Iowa, in Clayton County about fifteen miles from Gutenberg), or Marx, and the massacres and deportations that followed the suppression of the Commune had pushed them even further to the left. Communism had ceased to be a generalized life philosophy, a sentiment or an attitude, and had become an ideology, or rather a number of mutually antagonistic systems.

The older members had learned that ideology was not enough and insisted on keeping the membership strictly limited. The younger members pointed out that the colony was poor and overworked, seriously understaffed with only eighty people, and demanded that as many members be admitted as the colony could support.

During the 1870s conflict became irreconcilable, and at last the younger group went to the courts and sued to revoke the charter, on the technicality that the colony was registered as an agricultural cooperative but engaged in manufacture. The court granted the suit, and the rebels incorporated under a new charter in 1879, while the older members were granted a thousand acres and several houses and other buildings — and no debt. The debts were assumed by the rebels. The older group, which ironically called itself the New Icarians, was modestly successful. The insurgents increased their membership, opened new industries, cultivated more land with improved agricultural methods, and more than doubled their membership. For the first time in the long life of the Icarian communities, women were permitted to vote and hold office. The colony was officially declared non-religious.

The economic expansion entailed an unmanageable debt, and the expansion of the membership soon resulted in the growth of new, irreconcilable factions. By the fall of 1881 the younger community was disintegrating and unable to satisfy its creditors. Efforts were made to move to California and combine with the Speranza colony at Cloverdale, but in the meantime the Cloverdale project itself collapsed, and the property was sold off to satisfy the creditors — some of it to the New Icarians.

The older party went on in their new community much as they had for many years. They planted orchards and vineyards, worked hard, ate simply, dressed poorly — they wore sabots to the end, and occupied their leisure with music and lectures by their members, and with their library of more than a thousand books, all of them in French. In 1883 they had thirty-four members. Their children left. They grew old. One by one they dropped away. By the end of the century a large proportion of the remaining members were in their eighties and unable to operate the property any longer, so it was sold off, all debts paid, and the very considerable remaining money divided pro rata according to the time of service. Each member got enough money to support him or her modestly to the end of life.

At least New Icaria ended in mutual good will and financial solvency. Cabet’s utopia had lasted, in one form or another, from 1848 to 1901, one of the longest lived of all secular communist ventures. Most remarkable, it lasted through incredible difficulties, suffering, and sickness, almost continuous factionalism, hard labor, much of it wasted due to lack of experience, and impractical and naďve financing, loss of money, and accumulation of debts. Life was always poor in the Icarian communities. Life at Brook Farm was sybaritic by comparison. At the end, the handful of survivors were still enthusiastically committed communists, although it is difficult to say what they were committed to. The theories of Cabet, where they were definite, were impracticable. Where they were not, they were vague and sentimental or, as in his position on sexual relations, women’s rights, and the use of tobacco, destructive or irrelevant. Its charismatic leader was expelled early in the life of the colony and no one ever took his place. Yet Icaria endured, and even the dissidents and secessionists remained, most of them, convinced communists, and many of them migrated to other communes after Icaria was sold off.


20. Hutterites Again

We left the Hutterites in 1770, invited to settle in the Ukraine and the Volga region by Catherine the Great. In 1763 the Russian government issued a manifesto offering foreign settlers free land — as it happened, some of the best agricultural land in the world — complete religious freedom, their own schools, instruction in their own language, exemption from military service, and considerable tax exemptions, on the sole condition that they did not proselytize Russians of the Orthodox faith. Twenty-three thousand Germans, mostly Pietists or Anabaptists, had responded. Many more came in the following years. Until their settlements were broken up during the Second World War and they were exiled to Siberia or exterminated by Stalin, the “Volga Germans” were a small but significant portion of the population of European Russia.

In Rumania and Transylvania the Hutterites found themselves, as absolute pacifists, at the mercy of the marauding troops of both sides. They appealed to the commander of the Russian forces, Count Rumiantsev, and he invited them to settle on his own estates near Kiev, under even more favorable terms than those offered by Catherine’s manifesto. They arrived in the autumn of 1770, and before winter had already established the essential plant of the colony. They brought with them their craftsmen; and in a few years their village, known as Vishenky, had become a showplace, with a textile mill, a blacksmith’s shop, distillery, and pottery. While they had been in the Austrian Empire their ceramics had become famous, and examples can be found today in the museums of Central Europe.

In 1796 Rumiantsev died and his sons attempted to cancel the old count’s written agreement with the community. The Hutterites appealed to the new emperor, Paul I, who upheld the original agreement and granted them all the privileges given to the Mennonites who were migrating to Russia from Prussia by the thousands. After thirty-two years they moved from Vishenky to Radichev, eight miles away, on land granted them by the government. At this time they numbered a little more than two hundred adults.

Soon the Hutterites expanded their manufacturing enterprises and began to grow and weave fine linen and silk. They were probably the first to raise silk worms successfully in Russia. In these years, the life of the community differed little from that of the Hutterite settlements in the United States and Canada at the present time — except that there was far more manufacturing. Land was parceled out at a rate of about two and a half acres per family, only enough to feed the members. There was complete communism of consumption. They ate in a community dining room, men and women at separate tables. They wore clothes issued to all alike. They were permitted a minimum of personal possessions. Their children were raised in nurseries. The day began and ended with religious services, and Sundays were spent mostly in their stark, unornamented chapel.

Their communism of production, which they had practiced from the beginning, had the curious result of making them amongst the very first pioneers of the factory system. The manufacture of products such as pots was broken down into a series of separate operations, each performed by different individuals. However, people were permitted to change their tasks, and even their occupation, to avoid monotony. The reports of Russian officials who visited were enthusiastic, as well they might have been. Around the Hutterite settlement were villages of Russian peasants, inefficient, disorderly, and filthy, virtually unchanged since neolithic times.

By 1840 the land had ceased to be able to support the increased population, and in 1842 the Hutterites were moved by the government to the Mennonite settlements in the Crimea, where they were granted land as individual farmers; and an effort was made, both by the government and by the administration of the Mennonite communities, to break up their communist mode of life. Some were absorbed into the Mennonites, but within a few years, most had re-established the old communal patterns and were prospering. Although many of their manufacturing enterprises continued on a small scale, it was in these years that the emphasis shifted to agriculture.

In 1864 a law was passed putting all the schools in the entire empire under the supervision of the State, and making the Russian language the exclusive and compulsory medium of instruction. The government also announced that military service would be made compulsory within ten years. The Hutterites, unanimously, and most of the Mennonites, decided to emigrate. Members of both groups were sent to the United States, Canada, and South America to find suitable land and governments which would permit them to preserve their way of life. At the last moment the Russian government, anxious to retain such valuable citizens, offered to grant most of the original terms of settlement, but only a very few Hutterites, although a considerable number of Mennonites, remained behind. Those who persisted in practicing communism were exterminated by the Bolsheviks during the Civil War and World War II.

The first group of Hutterites, one hundred and nine people, left for Nebraska in 1874, and soon moved from there to southeastern South Dakota to the James River Valley. They were followed in the next three years by all the others who wished to migrate. In those days the Dakota Territory was scarcely settled. The Indian Wars were still going on. Custer’s defeat in 1876 and the Black Hills Gold Rush began at the same time. But in 1872 there were only twelve thousand people in what later became North and South Dakota. Each colony as it came in spent its first Dakota winter in sod huts, but in the spring immediately began work on stone houses and barns, and by the second winter were decently housed. The colonies were far out of the way. The world ignored them and they ignored the world. At last they were able to return to strict orthodoxy, discipline, and uncompromised communal living; and due to their isolation they necessarily became almost entirely self-sufficient. They spun and wove their own clothes, made their own shoes, did all their own blacksmithing and iron work, and made their own simple farm machinery. However, except for these absolutely necessary crafts, the Hutterites became purely agricultural colonies in America. They were never to return to the craft and manufacturing enterprises of the first hundred years.

The leader of the first colony, Michael Waldner, was a blacksmith, hence Schmiedenleute, the Blacksmith People. The leader of the Dariusleute was Darius Walther. And of the last group to arrive, the leader was Jacob Wipf, a teacher, hence the Lehrerleute, the Teacher’s People.

Left to themselves, the colonies flourished. By 1915 there were over seventeen hundred members in seventeen colonies, fifteen in South Dakota and two in Montana. The increase was almost entirely natural. They made practically no converts. But they had, and still have, one of the highest birth rates of any group in America. By 1917 they were no longer isolated. Montana and the Dakotas were states, and the colonies were surrounded by settled farms, and there were towns nearby.

The United States entered the war and the draft laws made no provision for conscientious objectors, even on the part of members of the historic peace churches, or even, as in the case of the Hutterites, though the government had originally promised that the settlers, whom they were so anxious to attract, would be forever exempted from bearing arms. The pacifist Secretary of War, and author of the draft law, Newton D. Baker, advised all young men from the historic peace churches to join the army, go to camp, and ask the commanding officer for noncombatant service. As might be imagined, this advice resulted in imprisonment, torture, inspired persecution, and mob violence.

The Hutterites were absolutists and refused to have anything to do with the draft or with war work. Besides very few of them spoke anything but German. They went to prison, and in prison were subjected to relentless persecution. Two Hutterite boys died under the torture of prison guards. Once again the Hutterites were forced to migrate. Not only were their young men imprisoned as draft evaders, but mob violence and arson and wholesale theft of their livestock by the neighboring farmers was steadily increasing. The state of South Dakota revoked their incorporation, with the announced objective to “absolutely exterminate the Hutterites in South Dakota.” Delegations were sent to the Canadian government in Ottawa, and the provincial governments of Alberta and Manitoba, and arrangements were made with the Canadian Pacific Railway. The State agreed to respect their pacifism and refusal to vote or hold office. In fact, the Canadian government had been trying to get the Hutterites to come since 1898. In the fall of 1918 the entire body arrived and was soon distributed on new settlements, the Schmiedenleute in Manitoba, the Darius and Lehrer in Alberta. Within ten years they had bought back the old South Dakota sites and established new colonies in Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and Saskatchewan.

The Canadian government had never deliberately provoked anti-German feeling against its own citizens, as had Wilson’s propaganda machine, directed by the liberal intellectual George Creel. The war ended soon after the arrival of the colonists in Canada, and for several years they were more than welcome, and once again prospered. However, their high birth rate continued, and the colonies were continuously budding off into new land, which they farmed far more successfully than did their Gentile neighbors. They ceased to do their own weaving, although most colonists still make their own shoes, and all knitwear. Blacksmithing is largely confined to horseshoeing and machine repair. The old one-man ploughs, scythes, and cradle-scythes are a thing of the past. Unlike the stricter Amish, the Hutterites believe in using all the latest farm machinery. In fact, they have often been criticized for overcapitalizing their farms. Since they still live lives of strict austerity and spend no money on entertainment or domestic utilities, except refrigerators, which they usually get from the Amana Colony, and since radios, televison, musical instruments, and all but the simplest clothing are completely forbidden, and their farms are uniformly successful, they have little else to do with their money except to spend it for farm machinery.

Only in recent years have the Hutterites permitted a very few carefully selected members to continue their education beyond the legal minimum, although there is now a growing feeling that they should produce their own doctors and teachers. In the past, a rare member has withdrawn from the community, obtained a college education, returned, repented, and served the community as a resident professional. Since they do not believe in ever going to court, they at least do not need to produce their own lawyers. They have always trained their own midwives and nurses.

Although the Hutterites have often adopted the policy of buying less desirable land than that of their neighbors, they have always made more money out of it, and soon improved it to the point where it was better than anything around. Their dress is odd, although nowhere near as odd as the stricter Amish. They speak a bygone German dialect amongst themselves, although they all speak English. Like the Quakers, they never haggle over prices. They buy almost all outside goods wholesale, and even the heaviest farm machinery is often bought for several colonies at once. They do not drive automobiles for pleasure — women, incidentally, are forbidden to drive them at all. They are a “peculiar people,” and in all contacts with Gentile society conspicuously practice the apostolic virtues. Hence they are hated and envied. Canadian prejudice against the Hutterites has steadily grown. It has never reached the fantastic degree of persecution suffered by the Doukhobors, but simply because the Hutterites have only responded by turning the other cheek. Unlike the Doukhobors, they do not believe in confrontation or nonviolent demonstrations. They do not burn down their own buildings or take off their clothes, parade naked through towns, or when their men are locked up surround the prisons with a crowd of hymn-singing, naked women. Canadian prejudice and pressure has so far operated under the guise of legality. Abusive gossip and malicious myth-making are to be expected amongst competing farmers in the barrooms of the neighboring towns. But what is astonishing is prejudice amounting to a rigid refusal to see anything good in the Hutterites, and a kind of sniggering contempt amongst educated professional people, including professors in Canadian universities, among them scholars in the sociology of religion.

On the other hand, the Gentile Dakotans seem to have learned their lesson; and although the Hutterites may be envied, they are rather admired. The brutal fact of the matter is that, as was prophesied by its founder, a strictly lived Christianity inspires hatred and fear in “the world.” The Roman State persecuted the early Christians because they refused to burn incense to Caesar. The general populace hated them because they were seclusive, dressed differently, supported each other economically, were honest and direct in their dealings, and did not attend the gladiatorial combats in the circus, except as unwilling participants.

The Hutterites form by far the oldest communist society in the world — or in history, except for pre-literate tribes still more or less in the condition of “primitive communism.” It is over four hundred and fifty years since Jacob Hutter in 1533 joined the Anabaptist communities, gathered together from Switzerland, Bohemia, Moravia, and the Austrian Tyrol, and persuaded them to adopt a completely communal life. In the golden age of the Moravian settlements, there were over twenty thousand members in more than ninety villages. Today in Canada and the United States, there are more than a hundred and fifty colonies, yet the number of surnames is amazingly small. All existing Hutterites are descended from the few families that survived centuries of migration, persecution, and desertion.

It has often been pointed out that one of the principal factors in the failure of most nineteenth-century communes, particularly the secular ones, was the lack of discrimination in the acceptance of members. The contemporary Hutterite communities are the end-products of the most rigorous selection imaginable. They have survived both martyrdom and prosperity, and migration to and through the most incongruous political environments, although their physical environment has remained remarkably uniform, the ecology of the Ukrainian blacklands, the long grass prairie, and the Danubian basin. At the beginning they deliberately recruited members with the necessary skills, both craftsmen and successful peasants. In Moravia, and for a while in Russia, they were settled on large manorial estates, where the self-sufficiency of the economy of a feudal community survived, and which they were able to perfect. To this day they still profit from lessons learned in centuries of a manorial way of life. Although modern liberal Christians might call them fundamentalists, the Hutterite confession of faith is in fact more flexible, less strict and, what is most important, more capable of etherealization than that of most Anabaptist sects of the past or millenarian and pentecostal contemporary churches. In fact, the chiliasm and millenarianism have died away.

The Hutterites do not look upon themselves as a remnant set apart to be saved out of a world of evil at the Second Coming and the Last Judgment. They simply consider themselves Christians, living the kind of life which self-evidently follows from the words of Jesus and the narratives of the apostolic life in the Gospels and Acts. Since the Gospels and Acts and the words of Christ are also, if read without preconceptions, marked by a dramatic eschatology, the expectation of the imminent arrival of the fire and the kingdom, this adjustment is comparable to that of the larger, respectable Christian sects. The group which most resembles the apostolic Christians is probably Jehovah’s Witnesses.

But unlike Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Black Muslims, the Hutterites are not a garrison society. If a community builds a sufficiently impenetrable wall around itself, it will be broken down. The Hutterites are almost as open to the Gentile world as are the Quakers. They quietly accept their religious beliefs and their way of life as distinguishing themselves from the rest of the world, and are content. They do not use cosmetics, or watch television, but such practices amongst the Gentiles do not arouse them to a holy fury. They not only accept their relationship to the world, but the world’s to them. This is very important. Had they been combative and indulged in massive confrontation, as a tiny minority in the midst of a world which was often bitterly antagonistic, and at the best indifferent, they would have long since been destroyed. Hutterite society is truly a peaceable kingdom.

Most communal movements have depended on the charisma of one individual leader, a Robert Owen or a John Humphrey Noyes, and have succeeded in a measure to which that leader was also a practical administrator and a man of many knowledges, as Noyes was, and Owen was not; or, at times, on the ability of the charismatic man or woman to raise up a practical leader to share the governance of the colony. We are dealing with a very ancient polity, the priest-king and war-king of the transition from the neolithic village to the town. The constitution of the Hutterite communities was carefully adjusted to raise up out of each commune individuals with just sufficient charisma and practicality to ensure the cohesion of the community and the efficiency of its economic life. Perhaps it is carefully controlled charisma which has helped the society to endure. The spectacular personalities lie back at the beginning of Hutterite history — the founders and their immediate successors, Jacob Widemann, Hans Hut, Jacob Hutter, Peter Riedemann, and Andreas Ehrenpreis — and their influence overrides that of any leader since, let alone of any contemporary. Their writings are still read in church and their hymns are still sung.

Actually, the Hutterite community owes its cohesion to a diffused charisma, of which each member is the bearer. The community, like the mystical Israel, or the Church as the Bride of Christ, is the pentecostal person. The Hutterites are well aware of this fact, but such awareness seems to mark the limits of etherealization. We know little of the interior life of the devout Hutterite, but there never seems to have occurred a mystical hypostatization of the community. There are no visions of the Shekinah as amongst the Hassidim. The round of work in the fields and kitchens, nurseries and shops, and the congregational work seem to be charged with a consciousness of mystical glory sufficient unto the needs of the very practical-minded Hutterites. There may be a contemplative life, especially amongst older people, that Gentiles never know anything about; but at least viewed from the outside, the Hutterites would seem to be a society of Brother Lawrences.

Unlike many, perhaps most, communal societies, secular or religious, the Hutterites are governed more by custom than by written law, and they have seldom found it necessary to make serious constitutional changes. At the head of each colony is a Diener am Wort, the Servant of the Word. When a new leader is to be chosen, the heads of other colonies are invited to a meeting and they, together with all the given colonies’ male members, vote for one of a list of candidates submitted by the community. After prayer, from those who receive more than five votes, one is chosen by lot. After a probationary period of two years or more, he is then ordained by the laying on of hands of two or three other leaders. He does not eat at the community table, and in many small ways lives a more individual life in his own home.

Most leaders are comparatively young when chosen — between twenty-five and forty — and serve for life or until incapacitated by sickness or old age. They are the spiritual leaders of the community, and formerly the general administrators, although it has become more and more common to elect by simple majority a practical administrator for the economic affairs, known as a Haushälter, the Householder. As colony steward he oversees the work, assigns tasks, takes care of the finances and bookkeeping, and himself takes turns at various jobs, even the most menial. It is important not to think of the Haushälter as “the colony boss.” He is more of a coordinator. Under him is a farm foreman, and if the colony has other important activities, as very few do, other foremen.

There is considerable rotation of tasks. A man may be a cobbler one year, a beekeeper the next, and a farmer the third year. In the course of time, most people settle down into a regular occupation, but often switch, even late in life. There is a similar hierarchy amongst women — a Haushälterin, who supervises the kitchen, the sewing room, the garden, and the kindergarten. There are also women who specialize in midwifery, and most of the women are competent practical nurses. Although the doctrinal constitutional documents of the Hutterites insist rather strongly on the submission of women to the governance of men, observers are unanimous in their reports that Hutterite women seem to be extraordinarily happy, working together in a state of cheerfulness verging on euphoria. And of course, due to the nature of “women’s work,” if it is done cooperatively by a large number of women, it is decidedly easier than the chores of the single farm housewife.

Hutterite families live in separate homes or apartments with their children, and are assigned larger ones as the family grows. In the past children were sometimes raised in cooperative nurseries, but this practice has been dropped — except that babies and very young children are cared for cooperatively while the mothers are working. Family relationships are even stronger than those of the old-fashioned German patriarchal family. Questionnaires submitted to children attending public school away from the colony reveal practically none of the alienation, generation gap, much less “Oedipal conflict” typical of modern youth. In spite of the lures of the outside world, with its commodity culture, conspicuous consumption, and over-stimulating entertainment, Hutterite young people almost all seem to want to be just like their parents and the five hundred years of communist ancestors behind them. Those who leave in late adolescence, usually do so to marry a Gentile spouse. They return on holidays and weekends to the colony, often settle nearby, and frequently the spouse is converted, baptized, and the couple are returned, with rejoicing, to the fold.

There is far less desertion of the Hutterite way of life than there is even of similar but non-communist sects like the Amish, Mennonites, or Mormons, or the communists of Amana. One reason for this probably is that there is nothing in the Hutterite creed so improbable as to demand a drastic effort of etherealization on the part of a person educated in modern schools. Very few Hutterites go on to college, although more do under the direction of the colony than used to, to provide professional services and further ensure the self-sufficiency of the community. Those who do, almost without exception, return to the colony.

Furthermore, the twentieth-century movement imitating the original Hutterites, the Brüderhof, founded by German and English intellectuals, and still made up largely of college-educated and quite sophisticated people, has never come in conflict with the birth-right Hutterite communities over matters of faith and morals. The disagreements have been basically about customs and folkways of two radically different classes. This was probably one of the weaknesses of the Shakers. As time went on, it became harder and harder for people to believe in Shaker doctrines, especially since they involved celibacy. So the Shakers were almost never able to hold the orphans they raised, and eventually were unable to recruit new adult members.

In practice, the result of almost five hundred years of practice, the governance of the Hutterite community is remarkable for its elasticity. The modest hierarchy of administration can always rise to an emergency. Its flexibility makes it earthquake-proof, and the general governance of the entire movement is similarly flexible. Both colony and general councils, like the Quakers, try to avoid action without unanimity; and since the Hutterite way of life is the end-product of almost every conceivable testing, this unanimity is usually easily arrived at. “Not the rule of men, but the administration of things,” as Marx said.

An interesting and possibly significant detail is that the Hutterite colonies, like many villages of primitive people, practice a limited exogamy. Couples choose one another from nearby colonies more often than from within a single colony. This, of course, creates a web of cohesive family relationships, radiating out from the original settlements, and preserves a wider hereditary range, a bigger “gene pool.” The gene pool is small enough as it is. Outsiders are always saying “Hutterites all look alike.” In 1965, there were only fifteen surnames of the Haushälters of all one hundred and fifty-five colonies. The Hutterites may all look alike, but they certainly do not look like what is commonly meant by “inbred.” Hereditary diseases and dysfunctions are practically unknown amongst them. They suffer less from such things than the general population.


Post-Apocalyptic Communalism

It would be possible to go on describing nineteenth-century American communes indefinitely, but such work would be little better than a dictionary, and there is little point in devoting space to what were really cooperative farms or boarding houses or to abortive colonies that lasted only a few months. There were in the nineteenth century and still are today communal religious cults, most bizarre in their doctrines and despotically ruled by a leader who is the keeper of special revelations. It is a mistake, however, to classify these as communes. They are actually rackets, large-scale collective confidence games operated at immense profit to their leaders. Their history is an entirely different subject and merits another book.

Earlier we referred briefly to a most significant movement in the early history of communalism, the Jesuit settlements in Paraguay. There is amazingly little literature on this subject in English. Still the best book is R.B. Cunninghame Graham’s A Vanished Arcadia, published in 1924. When the Jesuits entered the territory in 1607 it was still “wild,” almost completely untouched by Spanish or Portuguese influence. In the course of time their communities came to dominate much of the eastern watershed of the River Paraguay. Their villages were really reconstituted tribes, provided with as much of the technology of Europe as they could absorb; and ruled, or rather guided, by a handful of priests, whose instruments of government seem to have been almost exclusively the sacraments of penance and communion. The Indians were harried by slave raiders from Sao Paulo and the Jesuits were almost as badly harried by ecclesiastical jealousy. Yet they survived until the expulsion of the order in 1767, when most of the Indian villages were destroyed. Their fields reverted to the wilderness, the Indians were scattered and returned to a savage mode of life, or were enslaved, and their immense herds of cattle roamed wild over the pampas.

The Jesuits did not establish their villages as communes deliberately. They simply adapted the social organization of the Indians. The little societies were rather highly structured. Status derived both from offices in the community government and from eagerly sought-after roles in the various ceremonials. Life must have been very like that in one of the more communal pueblos of the American Southwest — Zuni, for instance — but in an environment far more bountiful and therefore permissive of much greater leisure, much of which was devoted to ceremonial — Catholic, much modified by aboriginal elements. Contrary to popular belief, the eminently successful missionary activity in Paraguay was closely watched by the Church, and attempts were made to found similar communities elsewhere in Spanish America, notably by the Jesuits in Arizona. Had the order not been suppressed just as it was entering California, the story of the California Indians would be quite different. The Franciscan missions were far from being communes. The Indians were little better than slaves, and the turnover due to mortality was appalling. After the Americans took over in the Gold Rush, the Indians were hunted down like jack rabbits, California grizzlies, coyotes, and condors, until almost none of them was left in the arable parts of the state. In Paraguay a few villages founded by the Jesuits survive to this day. The social and economic relationships are those of free enterprise, but the memory of the communities of three hundred years ago lingers on. In many ways the Jesuit “reductions,” as they were called in Paraguay, are one of the best organizations of society ever to exist, either in theory or in actuality. The Indians were certainly happier than anyone would be in Plato’s Republic, or St. Thomas More’s Utopia. Life was an almost uninterrupted ritual, a kind of group contemplation suffused with joy. The extraordinary thing is that nothing like it has ever happened at any other time in history, certainly not since the neolithic village.

At the opposite pole from the Jesuit “reductions” was the colony of Topolobampo, founded in 1872 on the Gulf of California. This was the scheme of a professional land developer, Albert K. Owen, who seems to have believed that the most profitable way to develop a remarkably valuable site on a sheltered, deep-water bay was to organize a settlement as a cooperative colony and joint-stock company. The initial plans were certainly communalist, but in a very short time the colonists split into private-enterprise and communalist factions. Separately, they did an immense amount of work in opening up the country, digging by hand an irrigation canal eight miles long, one hundred feet wide and fifteen feet deep, and many miles of ditches. The colony was open to anyone who would buy stock, and in fact to anyone who managed to get there. Owen’s schemes for a great port and commercial center came to nothing. The Mexican government reneged on its promises. The colonists rapidly declined from six hundred to two hundred members, most of them private enterprisers. A few descendants of the colony survive in the area today, married into Mexican families. Topolobampo may be the only example of communism as a form of capitalist business enterprise. Considering the scale on which Topolobampo was planned, and the number of people involved, both colonists and nonresident stockholders in the corporation, which was known as the Credit Foncier, there is an extraordinary lack of information. A Southwestern Utopia by Thomas A. Robertson, whose childhood was spent in the colony, was published in 1947, with a new edition in 1963 by Ward Ritchie in Los Angeles. The book is folksy and anecdotal, and unfortunately Robertson’s family were members of the group that chose private enterprise, so there is very little about the commune. The book has neither bibliography nor index.

One of the colonists at Topolobampo was Burnette G. Haskell, whom Robertson places there in 1887, with his wife and family, and who, one would judge from Robertson’s note, also died there. As a matter of fact, in those years Haskell was editing the anarchist magazine Truth in San Francisco and busy founding and leading the Kaweah Kooperative Kommonwealth in the foothills of the Sierras, in what became Sequoia National Park, above the town of Three Rivers. Haskell seems to have been an unstable, brilliant, and highly emotional person; and apparently he and James Martin, a socialist and practical labor leader, quarreled from the settlement’s beginnings. Haskell and a man named Buchanan, who led the great Kansas Railroad Strike, claimed to have presided over an organization which was the legitimate successor of the First International after it was split between the followers of Marx and Bakunin, and moved by Marx to America. At immense, in fact incredible effort, the colonists built a road from Three Rivers into Giant Forest, where they named the largest Sequoia, now known as the General Sherman Tree, the Karl Marx Tree. The federal government invalidated the land claims of the colony under the pressure of the railroads and lumber companies, but the latter were disappointed. The whole area and the high country behind it was declared a national park. Haskell must have gone to Topolobampo after this time.

Another even more famous revolutionary connected with American communalism was Wilhelm Weitling, the working-class leader and theoretician, who in the 1840s had a much greater influence than Marx and Engels, who borrowed liberally from him in their early days. Weitling evolved a rigid system, secular but with a heavy millenarian and apocalyptic emphasis. His communism really involved a rejection of industrialism and a return to a cooperative handicraft system of production. The apocalypticism of Marx and Engels’s Communist Manifesto reflects the influence of, and competes with, Weitling. After the failure of the revolutionary movements of 1848, Weitling migrated to America and ran a newspaper and founded a workers’ association which provided insurance, financial aid, and pensions to its members, what Marx called a “coffin club.” In 1851 he became interested in Communia, one of the many small colonies founded, mostly by German émigrés from the Forty-Eight, into which he poured much of the money of his Arbeiterbund. Quarreling and plain laziness soon bankrupted the colony and ruined Weitling. This failure seems to have affected him far more than the failure of the 1848 revolutions. He became a crank and evolved a universal system from cosmogony to economics, and his last years were spent in profound eccentricity. Weitling is too little regarded in the history of revolutionary thought. Quite independently of Hegel, and before Marx, he developed a theory of human self-alienation as the primary evil of capitalist production, and some years before Marx or Proudhon he was an avowed communist. In a sense, Marx and Engels joined his communist movement and took it over. His only monument is the large building on the site of Communia, which still functions as a social center and dance hall.

There is a temptation to go on and on describing at least briefly colony after colony. Many of the religious ones were bizarre in the extreme but most of them differed from communities like Oneida or the Shakers in that the founders and leaders were obviously religious racketeers, in it for the money. Many of these people seem to have realized that the more outrageous their gospel, the more dupes they would attract. The will to believe things because they are impossible was not confined to Tertullian, but is a widespread failing of the human race. Most of these movements held all things in common, but always excepting the leaders who led lives of vulgar, ostentatious luxury. Such groups therefore probably should not be called communes. The end in view was always to get the members to give their life savings and from then on work hard without pay.

What are the conclusions to be drawn from a survey of the long history of communalism? They are pretty much the conclusions that were drawn by intelligent leaders when nineteenth-century communalism was at its height — by John Humphrey Noyes of Oneida and Frederick Evans of the Shakers — and with few exceptions the colonies were open to the criticisms of Marx and Engels.

To take the Marxist criticism first, what they called utopian socialism always represented a return to an earlier, more primitive form of production and social relationships. With few exceptions, communalist colonies were revivals of the neolithic village with more or less modern technology. This is still true today. Communalism has been haunted by a gospel of “back to the land” and in so many instances the colonies have failed because the members have insisted upon basing their economy almost exclusively on agriculture, even though the colonists knew nothing about farming, least of all what hard work it was. In some instances, they even determined upon limiting themselves to the most primitive agricultural technology, although this is more true of the communes that have proliferated after the Second World War.

Secular communes have almost always failed in very short order. It is astonishing that Robert Owen’s New Harmony should bulk so large in the history of communalism. It lasted so short a while and managed to do everything wrong. A simple belief that all men should live together as brothers is not sufficiently well defined to inspire a strong commitment. And where the community is open to anyone who wishes to come and enroll himself as a member, disaster is certain. Commitment is weak at best, but such colonies attract the redundant individuals cast off by the dominant society — idlers, cranks, and those who cannot get along with anybody at home or on the job, and who therefore think themselves qualified to get along with the delicately balanced extended family of a commune. An open-gate policy also admits sociopaths and criminals who, at the worst, seize power or split the community, and at the least run off with whatever cash and movable assets they can lay hands on.

Almost every commune has tried to be self-sustaining and to achieve both communism of consumption and production. Only the Hutterites have managed to be financially successful agriculturalists, and in their earliest days they too were primarily craftsmen. Ideally, a community should have sufficient land to feed itself, and in addition have some specialized manufacture which can compete in the market place because of its high quality. Oneida, Amana, and in the twentieth century the Brüderhof are good examples.

Not only have the longest-lived colonies owed their cohesion and commitment to supernatural sanctions, but they have also been governed by individuals of powerful charisma. In some instances the leadership has been divided exactly as it was at the end of the neolithic, between the religious leader and the practical leader, the priest king and the war king, the apostle and the business manager.

A certain degree of interpersonal tension seems to further the cohesion of a colony. The celibacy of the Shakers, which in their ceremonials verged on orgies without sexual intercourse, and the group marriages and special techniques of sexual intercourse and eugenics of Oneida, are really two forms of the same thing, two faces of the coin of generalized erotic tension.

It should be emphasized again that communal living in theory is very advantageous to women. Most of the work of a housewife or mother can be divided and distributed. Children can be taken care of in a nursery by one or two women. Cooking, sewing, laundry, housecleaning, all the tasks that were considered “women’s work,” can be distributed so that each woman has considerable leisure. This, of course, is why Mormon polygamy was more popular with women than with men. Thousands of women walked from St. Louis to Salt Lake to take part in it.

However, just as today in many hippie communes the only work done seems to be done by women, so in the history of many of the secular communes of the nineteenth century. Women rebelled, because all the work was shifted to them, while the men sat around, drank whiskey, chewed tobacco, and discussed communism, the equality of the sexes, and the freedom of women.

Communism as such does not seem to have been a factor in the failure of most colonies. Many, perhaps most that fail, do so for economic reasons. Commonly, they bought too much land on expensive mortgages and were unable to use it profitably. Many enjoyed a considerable income from non-resident members. Even the Kaweah Kooperative Kommonwealth received money from a non-resident membership, both in the United States and Europe. The secular colony Icaria, which persisted longest, received very considerable funds from France until the final schism. Its special mistake was undertaking to farm too much land, but it is difficult to understand why throughout the lifetime of the Icarian movement the community life was one of desperately hard work and involuntary poverty.

Wherever there existed powerful forces for commitment and cohesion, a carefully screened membership, and intelligent leaders with wide practical experience, communism proved to be, economically, extremely successful. The model in this regard is the Hutterite colony. Their principal problem today is the envy inspired by their uniform success and prosperity.

It is difficult to relate the thousands of groups that call themselves communes that have sprung up all over the world — except in the Communist countries — since the Second World War. Many are not communes at all, but cooperative boarding houses in university towns of the sort which have always existed. These are the groups that have attracted the most attention from journalists because they are most accessible. Just because their members smoke marijuana and sleep with each other indiscriminately does not make them fundamentally different from the Greek-letter fraternities. Some open-gate rural communes are in fact outdoor “crash pads.” Three hundred adolescent hitchhikers bivouacking on three hundred acres which the more or less permanent members do not bother to farm does not constitute a commune. Here again, sensationalist journalism has had a field day. It is true that for many, perhaps most, contemporary groups that call themselves communes, sex and drugs have taken the place of chiliasm and charisma. Even so, a large number have managed to organize themselves as genuine communes — of consumption, and a very few, of production.

The modern communalist movement is held together by a secular version of the old millenarianism. It began with the dropping of the atom bomb. The fire and the judgment ceased to be a matter of faith and became not too distant facts. A “saving remnant” began to withdraw from the centers of population, and in many instances from the northern hemisphere. In the early years of the Cold War the apocalypse did not seem to be very far away and at least twice, once at Dien Bien Phu and again during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was imminent. People no longer talk very much about the bomb. It has been taken for granted. However, a number of opinion surveys have shown that a majority of college students do not expect to be alive in the twenty-first century. Shortly after Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Alex Comfort said that if the Americans had not invented the atom bomb, the modern capitalist State would have secreted it as a kind of natural product. Just so, modern warfare has also produced an immense number of totally alienated people, who matter-of-factly regard Western civilization as having come to an end in August 1914.

It is this pervasive and absolute alienation that takes the place of religion or ideology amongst contemporary communards; and the modern communalist movement is a direct attack on human self-alienation as such, discarding the roundabout maneuvers of socialism or communism. “After all,” as someone once said in a meeting of the Italian Communist Party, “we have had socialism over one-sixth of the earth for fifty years and over an additional area and over twice as many people for twenty-five, and human self-alienation has not declined but increased. What are we doing?”

Marx thought that the industrial process would teach the working class class-consciousness, by which he meant Marxism. This is not particularly noticeable in Detroit or Gary. But the breakdown of Western civilization has taught an immense number of people, not all of them young, an almost instinctive response both to the dominant society, as enemy, and to their peers as comrades, which greatly resembles the Communist anarchism of Bakunin and Berkman, of whom few of them have ever heard. It is remarkable how all-pervasive this is. Highly authoritarian groups like the Black Muslims, the Black Panthers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Brüderhof, and the Jesus People may be defiant of the outside world and present to it a highly structured exterior, but within each movement a communal ethic has developed. This is true even of neo-Bolshevik organizations like the Trotskyites or Maoists, which can no longer enforce the old Leninist rigid organizational forms, and which also constantly spin off guerrilla grouplets, whose interpersonal relations are as communist-anarchist as Kropotkin could have wished, and whose relations to the dominant society are those of the terrorist-anarchist groups in France at the end of the nineteenth century. Grouplets like this are born totally without ideology — except that of total alienation. Modern secession is a continuum which stretches from the Manson Family and the Symbionese Liberation Army to the religious anarcho-pacifists’ commune whose members spend at least two hours a day sitting in meditation.

One of the factors making for cohesion is cult. Medieval monasticism, with its continuous round of Mass, Divine Office — the chanting of psalms, hymns, canticles, and prayers every few hours throughout the day and night — and the continuously varying rites of the year, so involved the monk or nun and so identified him or her with the community that it was difficult even to think of breaking away. In America in the nineteenth century the Shakers undoubtedly had the most highly developed cult. But even the successful secular communes originated a ceremonial life, although doubtless the members did not think of it as such.

Another factor often part of the ceremonies of the community was confession, a powerful binding force in the Shakers and surviving today in many communal groups, the most famous of which, in this regard, is Synanon, where the harshest group criticism of the members and the most abject confession have been elevated to a governing principle in the community. Any technique which systematically attacks the least appearance of egocentricity obviously increases group cohesion, except of course that it runs the danger of pushing the individual to the breaking point where he simply leaves.

Only the religious communities, and not all of them, have been able to hold their children. This seems to be no problem at all to the Hutterites, who now can safely risk sending selected young people away to college. One of the most important functions of the Shakers was their care of orphans and abandoned children in a day when the orphanages were few and bad. The children were raised in the Shaker life, but almost none of them remained in the community. On the other hand, many secular communities survived principally as “progressive schools.” With all its disasters and follies, this was the principal contribution of Owen’s New Harmony; and the anarchist colony at Stelton, New Jersey, soon became a cooperative suburban “development,” except for the school, which kept the community alive until it was overwhelmed by spreading suburbia (it is now almost entirely a Negro district). Some twentieth-century communes have been primarily schools, the best example being Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas. It is doubtful if Black Mountain College could be called a commune. Antioch College, however, is the ultimate descendant of a number of converging communal groups, some of them spun off from New Harmony.

In all the many books which have been written about the communalist movement in America in the nineteenth century, there is little disagreement as to the factors that make for success. They are:

A religion, or at least a powerful ideology which all the members of the group accept, which should include the belief that the dominant society fails to provide sufficient value for a happy life, and is sick, or doomed, or dying, or, nowadays, already dead, and that the commune is a saving remnant plucked from the burning.

A leader with powerful charisma and, even more important, the ability to persuade people to his will, and also with considerable equanimity. Noyes, for instance, seems to have been blissfully unruffled by any of the contentions that developed at Oneida. Such a personality can be extremely authoritarian and coercive. About fifty percent of the people attracted to a communal life seem to be characterized by an extreme social masochism, and they have little trouble finding communities ruled by small tyrants. The other fifty percent are strong individualists and require the leadership of a highly skilled manipulator, able to persuade them that his ideas originated with themselves. All the charisma in the world cannot make up for a wide range of talents. Noyes, again, was a truly universal man, who apparently could do anything well; and the Hutterite leadership commonly revolved through most of the tasks of the community in their lifetime. If one leader has only charisma, he has to have a business manager, and this dual leadership has not been uncommon.

There should be an accepted method of assigning and rotating tasks, with both sexes sharing the boring jobs of housekeeping. The laundry has traditionally been the focus of discontent amongst women. And of course the members should be responsible — the tasks should be done. Many contemporary communes, urban and rural, are characterized by disorder, filth, and undone jobs.

Farming is very hard work. It is hard work even for experienced farmers. It is not just the concentration of capital which created American agribusiness. For over a generation it has been impossible to hold the sons on the small, two-hundred-acre or so family-run general farm. And all over the semi-tropical and tropical world peasants desert their little farms and move to the slums of the cities, where mostly they starve in squalor. Farming today in America on a small marginal or worn-out general farm is a nearly impossible proposition, and of course the acreage cannot sustain much capital investment in machinery. A large truck garden and a couple of milch goats and some chickens can provide a considerable proportion of the food for a medium-sized commune, and leave ample work time free for some easily distributed specialized manufacture. This is the only solution for a big-city commune, although some of them rent land for garden plots on the outskirts of the city. “Back to the land” and “contact with Mother Earth” are part of the mystique of most contemporary rural communes, whose members find it more desirable to work hard and inefficiently for small returns than to shift the economic base to crafts or manufacture. To each his own.

There is a certain unreality, moreover, about an old mansion or a twelve-room Riverside Drive apartment occupied by lawyers, professors, psychiatrists, and social workers who share expenses, play musical beds, and call themselves a commune. The nearer a community comes to being potentially completely self-sustaining, the nearer it approaches its ideal of a saving remnant, the nucleus of a society which will survive when the dominant society perishes. There are a few urban communes which operate with a communism of production as well as of consumption. They seem to be mostly religious and under extremely authoritarian leadership. Of course, in the apocalypse the urban communes will perish along with the cities, which is the best final argument for establishing communities in remote parts of the country. The only trouble is that the war-making State has the same idea. The New Mexico communes are in the midst of the original centers for atomic warfare, and even the Hutterite colonies in North Dakota are within range of the silos for intercontinental ballistic missiles. Sunburst Farms near Santa Barbara, one of the most successful agricultural communities, is in the direct line of a blast on Vandenburg Air Base, and the San Francisco Bay area is liberally dotted with atomic-war installations and communes on a sort of share-and-share-alike basis.

A complete “Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law” total individual anarchism simply does not work. A good many contemporary communes operate on this basis, but they seem to have an average one hundred percent turnover every year. The commune persists, essentially, as just an address. Most groups of this sort have come together to share drugs and sex, and they are held together, insofar as they are, by the enmity of the dominant society. All the contemporary methods making for group cohesion exist in one community or another. Group sex, encounter groups, group confession and criticism — many communes practice them all, and each group has its antecedents, not just in the nineteenth century, but in the radical Reformation.

Finally, a community can endure as an immense “crash pad” with a completely open-gate policy, but it cannot endure as a commune. Selectivity is the first law of communalism. Even the most anarchistic, where nobody believes in laws, must at least believe in anarchism. The communes that are most successful today either do not allow visitors at all, or do not allow them to stay more than overnight, and prospective members are subjected to a searching novitiate. In the early days of the post-World War II movement, when every hitchhiker was welcomed with open arms, the communes not only filled up with loafers and sociopaths, but they all faced serious problems with abandoned dogs and abandoned children, left behind by wandering communards. The Rule of St. Benedict has a chapter devoted to the menace of such people at the beginning of Western monasticism. Abandoned dogs and abandoned children are social problems, but there is an aesthetic, even ecological problem. Most rural hippie communes are approached by a dirt road lined with dead and abandoned automobiles, which make great playground equipment for the scrambling, naked children, but which are nonetheless an eyesore, and ultimately an expensive disposal problem.

End of Kenneth Rexroth’s book Communalism.

Copyright 1974. Reproduced  by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

[Communalism contents and index]




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