From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century


INTRODUCTION — The Libertarian Tradition
1. The Neolithic Village
2. Essenes, Therapeutae, Qumran
3. The Early Church, Monasticism





The Libertarian Tradition

Prior to 1918 the word “communism” did not mean Left Social Democracy of the sort represented by the Russian Bolsheviks, a radical, revolutionary form of State socialism. Quite the contrary, it was used of those who wished in one way or another to abolish the State, who believed that socialism was not a matter of seizing power, but of doing away with power and returning society to an organic community of non-coercive human relations. They believed that this was what society was naturally, and that the State was only a morbid growth on the normal body of oeconomia, the housekeeping of the human family, grouped in voluntary association. Even the word “socialism” itself was originally applied to the free communist communities which were so common in America in the nineteenth century.

People who believe in libertarian communism can be grouped roughly under three general theories, each with its old masters, theoreticians, leaders, organizations, and literature. First there are the anarchists in a rather limited variety: communist-anarchists, mutualists, anarcho-syndicalists, individual anarchists, and a few minor groups and combinations. Second, the members of intentional communities, usually but by no means always religious in inspiration. The words “communalism” and “communalist” seem to have died out and it would be good to appropriate them to this group, although the by now too confusing word “communist” actually fits them best of all. Third, there are the Left Marxists, who prior to 1918 had become a widespread movement challenging the Social Democratic Second International. It was to them the Bolsheviks appealed for support in the early days of their revolution. Lenin’s The State and Revolution is an authoritarian parody of their ideas. They in turn have called it “the greatest pre-election pamphlet ever written: ‘Elect us and we will wither away’.” Against them Lenin wrote Leftism: An Infantile Disorder. There is a story that, when the Communist International was formed, a delegate objected to the name. Referring to all these groups he said: “But there are already communists.” Lenin answered: “Nobody ever heard of them, and when we get through with them nobody ever will.” Today these ideas are more influential than they ever have been.

East Germany, Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, each of the revolts against the Russian power has taken the same form as the first, the revolt of the Kronstadt sailors in 1921 — free soviets, workers’ councils, neighborhood committees, and peasant communes — the same social forms that were so common in the first years of the Spanish Civil War in Barcelona and in the countryside in Catalonia and Andalusia. In no instance have these revolts been reactionary, anti-communist. The slogan “Back to Free Enterprise” has never been raised. The fact is that once a society has been converted to the bureaucratic State capitalism of the Bolsheviks with the Communist Manifesto and The State and Revolution taught to all school children, a society, when it rejects the power structure, has no place else to go. The only possible fulfillment of Official Communism is free communism. Like capitalism before it, Marxism as a policy of the ruling class contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. In Yugoslavia, where a Communist Party did manage to break free from Russian hegemony, the march toward ever greater workers’ participation in industry, political and economic devolution, and federated communes has been irresistible. The Yugoslav Communist Party may be what Milovan Djilas calls it, the new ruling class; but for that class to withstand the Russian pressure, it must continuously grant concessions to ensure popular support, and these concessions of course take place within an ideological context common to both the bureaucracy and the workers — a commitment to “communism.”

Since the Great Cultural Revolution in China a similar process has been going on, but from the top down. The Chinese Communist Party is trying to create and preserve at all levels of an immense population the social relations of the first two years of the Russian Bolshevik revolution, not by democratic methods but by the most rigid, coercive authoritarianism.

This is the situation in the so-called socialist half of the world: in the capitalist half, ideological development is much further advanced, but the practical results are blocked by a power structure inherited from the industrial and financial organization of nineteenth-century capitalism. Tendencies toward decentralization, and initiative at the point of production, are masked by the outworn juridical apparatus. It is in the freer areas of the social interpersonal relations of individuals, away from factory or governmental bureaucracy, that the revolutionary developments are most apparent. Effective attack on the State and the economic system requires power, and the State, which is simply the police force of the economic system, has, so far, all the effective power. Demonstrations or Molotov cocktails are equally powerless before the hydrogen bomb. This is why the important changes are taking place in what the youth revolt calls “life style.” And this is why their elders of both Old Left and Right accuse them of parasitism. Communes seem to the older generation as much luxuries of late capitalism as the immensely profitable exploitation of music — or drugs.

As concentration and depersonalization increase in the dominant society, as the concentration of capital increases with the takeover of ever larger businesses by conglomerates and international corporations, as more and more local initiative is abandoned to the rule of the central State, and as computerization and automation narrow the role of human initiative in both labor and administration, life becomes ever more unreal, aimless, and empty of meaning for all but a tiny elite who still cling to the illusion they possess initiative. Action and reaction — thesis and antithesis — this state of affairs produces its opposite. All over the world we are witnessing an instinctive revolt against dehumanization. Marxism proposed to overcome the alienation of man from his work, from his fellows, and from himself by changing the economic system. The economic system has been changed, but human self-alienation has only increased. Whether it is called socialism or capitalism, in terms of humane satisfactions and life-meaning it is the same East and West. So today the present revolt is not primarily concerned with changing political or economic structures but is a head-on attack on human self-alienation as such.

The alternative society which is the form of this revolt has largely come about instinctively. Two centuries of revolutions have exhausted the options. There is no place else to turn.

It is right that ecology should have become so enormously popular at this juncture. It is not just that man is destroying the planet on which he lives, and driving himself toward extinction by mining his environment and reducing all business enterprise to the form of an extractive industry. The human race is a certain kind of species, developed in a specific environment, with specific relations internally, man to man, and externally to other species. Had this situation not existed, the human race would not have evolved, and had it not continued within a narrow range of modification, man would have become extinct. The present relation of man to his environment and man to man has become so unlike the optimum necessary for the evolution of the species that humanity as we know it cannot endure. In such a situation a demand for readjustment is as instinctive as the reaction of an invertebrate animal subject to electric shock. This is what all the schools and tendencies of the libertarian and communal tradition have in common, a primary emphasis on man as a member of an organic community, a biota, in creative, non-exploitative relationship with his fellows and his environment. The communist-anarchists Élisée Reclus and Peter Kropotkin were both geographers and, if anyone was, they were also the founders of the science of ecology.

Before the eighteenth century man had to collaborate with his environment to survive. Even so the disappearance of the great mammals, who flourished until after the end of the Ice Age, has been blamed on human hunters, then a very small portion of the biota indeed; and deforestation, slash-and-burn agriculture, and the salting up of irrigated lands have destroyed whole civilizations. With the onset of the industrial and scientific age business enterprise has tended more and more to treat the planet as a mine rather than a farm and to treat human resources in the same way. It is now obvious that if the human race continues on this course it will not last beyond the end of the century.

The workings of the economic system have produced, in true Marxist fashion, many of the phenomena of communalism and anarchism. Most obvious is the tremendous growth throughout the Western world of communal living itself. With the runaway inflation of a moribund Keynesian economy, thousands of young people, particularly young people with children, find it impossible to preserve the standard of living they had encountered in a middle-class affluent society and are able to escape real poverty only in small communes. Meanwhile, the kind of life lived in stately homes, and twelve-room apartments, has ceased, and these places are taken over by groups who share expenses and responsibilities — moving always ahead of the redevelopers’ wrecking ball. As urban life becomes too expensive, distraught, and filthy — as well as dangerous — and as tax money goes to war rather than to community life, more and more people flee the city and set up rural communes on the old-fashioned sixty to two-hundred-acre general farms which can no longer compete with industrialized agriculture.

One could not ask for a clearer relationship between economics and what Engels used to call the “superstructure.” It is true that such communes at present are in a sense humane parasites on the dehumanized dominant society, but the assumption is that at least the rural ones may survive when the dominant society breaks down in chaos and nuclear war. To become economically independent the communes would have to develop an economy of their own as a systematic devolution of the ever more concentrated dominant economy. This would require an entirely different standard of living, in the fundamental sense of an entirely different scale of life values. But this, of course, is what is slowly taking place.

Almost all the problems which face the development of an alternative society have been realized and discussed in theory somewhere in the libertarian tradition. Friedrich Engels made the contrast Socialism — Utopian or Scientific. The scientific socialism of Marx and Engels was supposed to demonstrate almost mathematically that socialist revolution was inevitable and that therefore the duty of the revolutionary was to collaborate with history and never ask where, when, why, how, or what. Any attempt to answer those questions beforehand was “utopian.” But history has produced only more of the same and called it socialism. By not answering the fundamental questions beforehand, by not having a plan for what a new society should be, Marxism has turned out to be not very far removed from “revolution for the hell of it.” Today we realize that social change must move toward a rather clearly envisaged future or it will move toward disaster. It is either utopia or catastrophe.

As the technology has moved past a critical point, a point at which quantity changes into quality, as water turns into steam, it becomes ever more incompatible with the social structures, especially the power structure of nineteenth-century industrial and financial exploitation. The same kind of contradiction between social forms and economic content is occurring as in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when capitalist methods of exploitation burst through the crust of feudal and mercantile forms. Although the existing tendencies of the capitalist system and of the State are to use the ongoing technological revolution for purposes of ever greater industrial, administrative, and political concentration, the real potential of these changes moves in the opposite direction. Over wide areas of the economy it becomes increasingly possible to begin a radical devolution and decentralization of production. At the same time labor power, in the sense of brute muscular energy, declines in importance; and it is questionable if today it would be possible to construct a model of economic theory in which, as in the economics of Marx and Ricardo, labor power in that sense was the sole or even the primary source of value.

If the aim of production was life-enhancement and not profit, it would be quite possible to begin now to make more and more kinds of work easy, interesting, and creative. Notoriously already, certain kinds of monotonous work — assembly-line production of automobiles, old-fashioned mining, and so forth — are suffering from a breakdown of morale on the job and from an inability to recruit sufficient workers at full production. Drug use in Detroit is almost as common as it was in Vietnam and for similar reasons — the rejection of an intolerable way of life.

The demand for change in the way of life presses continuously against the blockage of obsolete social structures and, in cases where the power structure can permit it, overthrows and breaks through them. The special economic marriage peculiar to the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries has become obsolete as a cog in the machinery of production. (It was beginning to do so when Ibsen wrote The Doll’s House.) The present political, economic, and religious systems offer no meaningful alternative. As a result, a sexual revolution is taking place surpassing the wildest dreams of feminists and the free lovers of the old anarchist movement. Over twenty years ago a woman friend of mine remarked: “There’s an Emma Goldman in every car parked along the beach tonight.” Today the demand is for, not random and promiscuous relationships, but ones with a new kind of interpersonal and personal significance. As these relationships become common they are profoundly modifying the social structure. Not so long ago an anarchist life style was confined to a tiny minority of self-conscious bohemians and revolutionaries. Bohemianism is the subculture of the alienated. Unknown in previous societies, it grew up with capitalism itself. William Blake and William Godwin and their circles are roughly contemporary with the French Revolution and the onset of the industrial age. It has been said of bohemia that it is a parasitic utopia whose inhabitants live as if the revolution were over; or again, that the bohemian foregoes the necessities of the poor to enjoy the luxuries of the rich. What this simply means is that from the beginning capitalism secreted, as a kind of natural product, a small, slowly growing class of people who flatly rejected its alienation and lack of meaning. Even in the hard days of primitive accumulation of capital, the system was so inefficient that it was possible to live a different kind of life in its interstices, if one was lucky, well, usually self-educated, and born above the level of dire poverty. Today interstices have opened up everywhere in an affluent society. The fact that thousands of people can desert the industrial capitalist economy and live by making pots or batiks or leather work or strumming guitars may seem superficial and trivial. It is not. The problem is to reorganize the economy so that the automobiles are made in the same way.

Today everyone knows that a major war would result in the extermination of the human race, but that nevertheless as long as any of the existing political or economic systems continue the impossible war is certain to come eventually. The two largest conflicts since the Second World War, in Korea and Vietnam, broke down in a complete collapse of morale. Without war the economic and political systems produce the same kind of demoralization. The symptoms of the collapse of the civilization are all about us, and they are far more pronounced than they were in the last years of the Roman Empire. Yet not all of these symptoms are necessarily pathological. The contemporary world is being pulled apart by two contrary tendencies — one toward social death, one toward the birth of a new society. Many of the phenomena of the present crisis are ambivalent and can either mean death or birth depending on how the crisis is resolved.

The crisis of a civilization is a mass phenomenon and moves onward without benefit of ideology. The demand for freedom, community, life significance, the attack on alienation, is largely inchoate and instinctive. In the libertarian revolutionary movement these objectives were ideological, confined to books, or realized with difficulty, usually only temporarily in small experimental communities, or in individual lives and tiny social circles. It has been said of the contemporary revolutionary wave that it is a revolution without theory, anti-ideological. But the theory, the ideology, already exists in a tradition as old as capitalism itself. Furthermore, just as individuals specially gifted have been able to live free lives in the interstices of an exploitative, competitive system, so in periods when the developing capitalist system has temporarily and locally broken down due to the drag of outworn forms there have existed brief revolutionary honeymoons in which freer communal organization has prevailed. Whenever the power structure falters or fails the general tendency is to replace it with free communism. This is almost a law of revolution. In every instance so far, either the old power structure, as in the Paris Commune or the Spanish Civil War, or a new one, as in the French and Bolshevik Revolutions, has suppressed these free revolutionary societies with wholesale terror and bloodshed.



1. The Neolithic Village

The idea that early man had gone through a long stage of primitive communism is by no means confined to Marx and Engels, Lewis Morgan, Tylor, and the orthodox anthropologists influenced by Darwin in the late nineteenth century. It is shared by all the classical historians from Greece to China and is part of the mythological history of almost all cultures. This much is self-evident. People who hunt and gather cannot be anything but communist. Even in the most favorable environments the land can only support a very small number of people in any one group who live only by taking what nature is able to offer. Division of labor is minimal — hunting for the man, gathering for the woman. A few men may be more expert in chipping flints; a few women more expert in dressing skins. Here and there an individual may have more intense religious experiences than others in a small band.

Sometimes these primitive specialists may have become known over fairly wide areas. We have archaeological evidence for paleolithic “flint factories” in the form of great heaps of chips and rejects, and for trade in finished flints over long distances. It is improbable that extensively painted caves like Lascaux or Altamira were of interest only to the few people in the locality. Presumably they were religious centers to which many bands came from a wide territory. Also it is difficult to believe that the very high degree of skill shown in many paleolithic painted caves was not the result of specialization. Altamira and Lascaux were painted by artists. It is true, of course, that modern Stone Age peoples show almost as widely diffused artistic talent as do kindergarten children. It is the specialization demanded by society which destroys aesthetic response and artistic ability.

This is about the limit of the division of labor possible in a hunting and gathering society, and to survive no individual can be too specialized. The women gathering bulbs must be able to cope with any animal, herbivorous or carnivorous, they encounter; and it is obvious prima-facie that the artists of Altamira had a thorough anatomical knowledge of the animals they painted. In a hunting and gathering society it is impossible to accumulate much of a surplus. The mammoth rots away before he can be eaten up. Rodents make off with the store of roots and wild grain — we have no archaeological evidence for grain pits and other methods of storage before the advent of “incipient agriculture.”

In such a society it is impossible for class structure to arise. Although it is an unwarranted assumption that present hunting and gathering peoples are exactly like their and our paleolithic ancestors, nevertheless the ecology is determinative — form follows function. They are without exception “communistic”; they cannot be anything else.

Until recent years archaeologists have not been too familiar with anthropological studies of surviving hunting and gathering peoples. Most of them live even today surprisingly well while having to do surprisingly little work — which is one reason why they refuse to become civilized. This continues to be true in spite of the fact they have been segregated into lands nobody else wants — the Bushmen into the Kalahari Desert in Africa; Blackfellows into the deserts of Central Australia, or the dense jungles in Northwest Australia; others into the wildernesses of Malaysia, India, Ceylon, South America, and other parts of Africa. Very often they live alongside people who practice slash-and-burn agriculture in the jungle; and the hunters and gatherers seem to have fully as adequate and a far more varied diet.

John Muir has estimated that the pine nuts of the one-leaf piñon in the open forests on the western slope of the Sierras gave the Piutes more calories per acre than the corn plots of the Iroquois. In California, west of the Sierras, the harvest of acorns, buckeye, roots, and seeds, as well as small game, mostly rabbits, supported the densest Indian population on the continent. Several tribes which had once practiced big-game hunting or agriculture, abandoned these pursuits when they entered California’s natural abundance. Most of this largesse has disappeared, destroyed by modern grazing and agriculture. The highly nutritious camass bulb whose blossoms once made the western meadows look like lakes, and the wild seeds rich in protein of the original perennial grass cover, are both gone forever, but still today it would be perfectly possible for a family of five to live by fishing and harvesting of a few oak trees and some wild plants.

Natural foods were almost as abundant in the deciduous forests of Eastern America and Northern Europe, which is why an exclusive dependence on agriculture took so long to evolve. This forest life produced a peculiar power structure. In California, power simply dissolved in abundance that offered no Archimedes’ fulcrum. In the deciduous forest, power came to be internalized in the organization of warfare as a sport and in the exploitation of the bearers of what culture there was — the women. The men were hunters and warriors and held on by force to a way of life that was a kind of revival of the paleolithic big-game hunters. The women were the weavers, basketmakers, potters, dressers of skins, food gatherers and agriculturalists, even porters and builders when the camp was moved — and were beaten for their pains. The conquest of civilized Europe by peoples with a forest background established this ethic, especially amongst the ruling class, where it endures today.

Paleolithic and neolithic are out-of-date terms; but it is still not too widely realized that chipped flint tools are by and large better for the work they were called upon to do than are polished stone ones, and chipped flint for many purposes survived all through the neolithic. Polished stone came in with agriculture (chipped flint microliths remain better for sickles) and with the use of a far wider range of stones, especially hard metamorphic rocks like quartzite which do not have regular fracture.

Social stratification in the village economy of early agriculture was never more than at arm’s length. The war leader or shaman was immersed in the community and subject to it. Only with large-scale systematic agriculture and irrigation and the urban revolution do specialists, castes, and classes become remote from one another.

The typical early agricultural community is Jarmo on the edge of the Persian plateau, twenty-five small houses, possibly one hundred and fifty people. However, at Jericho, at a spring in the Palestinian desert, there seems to have been a town even before there was agriculture. In the valleys above the Mesopotamian plain, social stratifications, class, and status appear in the grave goods of the burials during the transition from village to town, contemporary with small-scale systematic irrigation, free-threshing cereals, woolly sheep (that is, deliberate breeding of domestic plants and animals), and the plow, soon to be ox-drawn; but the towns were still widely separated. With large-scale irrigation and cities man ceased to be in ecological balance with the biota. An accelerated imbalance becomes apparent in the flourishing of weeds and the salting of irrigated land. This resulted in a political dynamism in which life became ever more “unnatural” in internal and external relations.

Towns and cities developed in the richer lands opened up by the new technology in the Mesopotamian plain. In the piedmont valleys the ancient villages were left to the old ways. By 4000 B.C. village life in the Near and Middle East was established in all of its essentials as it was to endure until the mid-twentieth century. The State would remain a distant reality and impinge on village life only in a violent role — in war, in the collection of taxes, and, rarely, in the pursuit of a major criminal.

In Europe the “megalithic religion” that produced monuments like Stonehenge seems to have preceded the rise of towns. The deciduous slash-and-burn culture produced a priestly class and a widespread cult at a technologically more primitive level than in the Mediterranean world, as witness the history of Mayan civilization.

In village life religion took the form of group activity in which the entire community participated: the rites of spring and harvest, group marriage in the fields, clay “mother goddesses” with exaggerated sexual characteristics in domestic shrines. With the growth of towns religion became a ceremonial cult in which the populace participated as spectators or, at best, marchers in procession.

Agricultural surpluses permitted the growth of specialist craftsmen. In the early priestly states of Mesopotamia we find records of highly organized communities — herdsmen, craftsmen, fieldworkers, scribes — all united in a kind of religious syndicalism. Eventually priests and warriors took advantage of the increased specialization to develop a rigid caste structure topped by imaginary crafts supposedly vital to survival, and then to force the peasant to contribute more work to support this superstructure. Here was the origin of alienation: in work for a distant authority and in unpaid labor. But this early alienation was overcome by supernatural and patriotic sanctions and never reached the degree, even with slavery, that it did under industrialism. The results of work remained clearly visible. The peasant way of life always produces tangible goods from this closest of all work with nature. As long as the results of work are visible, work preserves some creativity and is not psychologically destructive. Of course the early craftsmen and scribes did not suffer from this primitive alienation at all, quite the reverse, and we have abundant literature praising their way of life.

As agriculture developed and became the principal means of livelihood, larger buildings began to appear, as we see in some of the ruins in upland Iraq and Iran. Some have hearths every five meters or so and may have been family dormitories like the long houses of the Iroquois. Others have none and perhaps served as assembly halls or early temples, although they lack altars. A few have a single large hearth and may have been communal dining halls.

To judge from the evidence of the earliest agricultural societies that we know, at Jericho and on the Persian plateau, for instance, life still must have been almost as communistic as amongst hunting and gathering people. The neolithic revolution — agriculture, domestication of plants and animals, weaving, pottery, polished stone tools and weapons, sedentary village communities — altered life profoundly. Still the archaeological evidence is that the division of labor and the class structure were little more developed than they had been in the paleolithic. The community was still small; the structure was still communalistic; but the surplus admitted a greater degree of specialization. Where such societies still existed into modern times we find potters, weavers, shamans, shamanesses, medicine men, tool-makers, and sometimes, especially in Africa, professional artists. But we do not find individuals who live by power over their fellows. Exploitation of man by man and by the State come in together with the second revolution, the urban revolution — the development of towns and agriculture over wide areas. Kings, priests, and a caste of traders appear together with the first small cities, as do warfare with organized armies, large-scale irrigation, and, a little later, writing.

We think of the civilizations of the late neolithic and early Bronze Age as having left primitive communism far behind. As a matter of fact, most of them were what we would call today State socialist. This term is often applied to the Inca civilization of Peru. What might be called the myth of Chinese civilization, not just Confucianism, but the whole universe of discourse in which Chinese political and economic theory operate from the beginnings to the present day, is what, if we were to translate it into Western terms, we would certainly call State socialist.

Communistic societies survive well into the neolithic revolution both historically and amongst people in that stage of development today. The most immediately obvious are the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. These are people speaking various languages and with differing historical antecedents and they lie within the radiation zone of the highly structured civilizations of the Mexican plateau. Nevertheless they all share a passionately guarded communal life which they have managed to protect even until now against the onslaughts of Spanish missionaries and American free enterprise. In some the communal ethic is more apparent than in others. The Zuni may well be the most homogeneous people on earth. Some Pueblos are yielding to the enveloping American civilization and becoming at best a kind of human zoo for tourists; and others are disintegrating altogether. Even where the economic life of the community has become largely Americanized, it is still the community with its councils and committees that rules, however riven by conflicts between the old ways and the new. Similarly the religious life of the Pueblos is not controlled by an exploiting caste of priests but is in the hands of traditionally sanctioned groups, to at least one of which everyone in the community belongs.

Perhaps it was religious brotherhoods such as the Pueblo communities which made the transition to the monasticism which we find in most of the later city and nation-state civilizations. A monastic order is by definition a communistic, usually authoritarian, religious society. We know that there were such societies in Egyptian civilization; there were thousands of what we would call monks in great centers such as Heliopolis, in the Aztec, Mayan, and Peruvian civilizations of the New World, in Mesopotamia at least after Sumeria, and possibly earlier, and of course India. The only major civilization in which monasticism does not seem to have arisen was the Chinese before Buddhism. Life amongst the servitors in the temples in pre-Exilic Palestine must have been organized on something like monastic principles.

The remarkable thing is that we know almost nothing about these communities. Even Egypt with its enormous mass of surviving records provides us with little direct evidence. Our evidence comes from Herodotus and other Greek and Roman historians. We know close to nothing whatever about the Druids. It is disputed if they even existed as an organized religious brotherhood. The life and teachings of early monasticism are the province of the occultists who have certainly made the most out of them. Perhaps it is characteristic of such communities that they are in fact occult. Their way of life and their teachings are kept secret from the general population, even though they are, in the great “hydraulic civilizations,” to use Wittvogel’s term, part of the State apparatus.

In Greece and post-Exilic Israel such communities are both occultist and alienated, or at least at cross-purposes with their dominant societies. The early Pythagorean brotherhood is shrouded in the legends of late Hellenistic neo-Pythagoreanism and neo-Platonism. There seem to be few facts ascertainable. The early followers of Pythagoras seem to have been a non-celibate monastic community devoted to the study of primitive science, especially to a mathematical mysticism, with no belief in the myths and cults of ordinary Greek religion, and with an authoritarian, caste-structured, communalistic theory of society which survives in a highly modified form in Plato’s Republic. At first they seem to have taken no part in the usual political life of the communities in which they lived in Magna Graeca, in the instep of the Italian boot. The famous fragment attributed to Pythagoras, “wretches, utter wretches, keep your hands from beans!” is supposed not to refer to diet, but to democratic politics — the Greek citizen voted yes or no with white and black beans. In the course of time the Pythagorean brotherhood became political and controlled several cities, most notably Cortona and Metapontum. Eventually people rose against them and they were massacred. How much of all this is history and how much is legend, it is impossible to say; but it is remotely possible that for a few years in a few communities, a polity vaguely like Plato’s Republic, but far more simple, actually existed.



2. Essenes, Therapeutae, Qumran

Until recent years our knowledge of religious communist groups in the classic period was quite limited. We knew almost nothing of the life of the Egyptian temple monks although it is certain that the power of the organized priesthoods was almost as great as that of the pharaohs and at certain times, notably the priesthood of Amon in the XVIII Dynasty in the sixteenth century, dominated the throne and disposed of pharaohs at will. The famous “heretic king,” Ihknaton, was more a rebel against the Amon priesthood than he was a monotheist. No more is known of the lives of the various Greek and Roman religious brotherhoods or the Persian Magi. The most information we have is about the Essenes, the communist religious cult or lay monastic movement amongst the Jews; but that amounts to little more than brief descriptions in Philo, Josephus, and Pliny. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the community at Qumran in the desert hills above the Dead Sea, which was almost certainly the same as Philo’s Essenes, we can form a pretty clear picture of the life of a communist religious sect around the beginning of the Christian era. From an anthropologist’s point of view the most outstanding characteristic of this life is that it was a highly ritualized return to the life of the primitive village community and was a conscious revolt against the life of the city, or even town, and the attendant priestly temple structure and militaristic kingship.

On these brief materials provided by Pliny, Josephus, and Philo, with echoes but little augmentation in the Church fathers, an immense structure of speculation was raised, particularly in the nineteenth century, by writers influenced by the higher criticism of the Bible and by Liberal Protestantism. The Essenes were supposed to have been Buddhists or Magi or Pythagoreans or members of an occult, eremitical Egyptian cult. It was hypothesized that Jesus was an Essene; even more, John the Baptist. Since all three classical authors were commonly read by theologians and learned religious laymen from the Renaissance on, their picture of the Essenes’ rule of life probably had a considerable influence on the rule of life of the more literate, strict Pietist sects. In the nineteenth century, the most balanced speculation on the relations between the Essenes, John, Jesus, and the first Christians was Ernest Renan’s. His ideas were to have great influence on the picture of primitive Christianity held by most radical socialists after the publication of his Life of Jesus.

In 1947 seven scrolls of leather were found by Bedouin shepherds at approximately the spot described by Pliny. In the course of the next ten years a dozen caves surrounding the ruins of a settlement on the Wadi Qumran produced scrolls and fragments in abundance — more than five hundred manuscripts — and the settlement itself was carefully excavated. The Essene community was removed from the realm of speculation and fantasy. The discoveries included large parts or fragments of almost all the books of the Old Testament and apocryphal and pseudepigraphic writings, commentaries, hymns, apocalyptic and prophetic writings peculiar to the sect, and an extensive and detailed Manual of Discipline or monastic rule. By and large the accounts of the three classic authors were substantiated. There are variations only in detail, with two important exceptions. First of all there are many skeletons of women in the Qumran cemetery. Either the sect was not celibate, or it was divided into a celibate order and an association of married laymen such as we still find in the Franciscans. Inside the community enclosure the archaeologists discovered large numbers of carefully buried jars filled with the bones of sheep, goats, and cattle, each animal buried individually. There can be little doubt that these are the remains of the sacrificial feasts of the community, so that Josephus’s statement is to be understood as meaning that the Essenes rejected the sacrificial cult of the temple at Jerusalem and carried on one of their own (as the Falasha of Ethiopia do today). This is important because it means that the Essene community did not consider itself just a stricter Jewish sect but a new Jerusalem which would replace the old.

The scrolls and the excavations expand the picture of the community given by the classic authors in very specific ways, over and above minor disagreements. The community was organized according to the strictest order. At the top was the so-called Teacher of Righteousness, followed by the priests and Levites, and below them the rank and file, each of whom had his place in the elaborate hierarchical structure. In spite of this structure the community was a complete democracy. In theological matters the authority of the priests seems to have been absolute, but the governing council consisted of twelve laymen and three priests, patterned on the government of Israel in the Wilderness, and the decisions of this council were subject to the meeting of the entire community in which every man had a vote. The theology of the community was a kind of apocalypticism, millenarianism, chiliasm, a rigorously eschatological interpretation of life and history.

Apocalyptic has been called spoiled prophecy. The prophetic books of the Old Testament envisage the fulfillment of the purpose of God in history in the normal development of this world. The apocalyptic writings of the Old and New Testaments and their respective apocryphal additions look forward to the end of history, the rule of this world, in cataclysm, and to the advent of a supermundane kingdom of God beyond history. Millenarianism is the belief in the advent of this kingdom as the fulfillment of time — the thousand years mentioned in Revelation 20 during which holiness is to be triumphant throughout the world, when Christ the anointed Messiah will reign on earth with his saints. Chiliasm is the belief in the theocratic kingdom as such, and the belief that the present community of the faithful should model themselves on the future kingdom. In an eschatological world-view all morals and ethics, every scale of values, personal or historical, are oriented toward, and organized by, the expectation of final cataclysm, judgment of the world, and advent of the transhistorical kingdom.

In immediate expectation of the apocalypse great possessions, status, power, become meaningless, and the chiliastic, millenarian community practices a strict community of goods, the sharing of voluntary poverty. Labor is reduced to its simplest terms — to the agricultural labor of the early village community and its attendant necessary crafts, all made easier by the technology taken from the dominant — and doomed — society. These three characteristics of the Essene community at Qumran were certainly not original. Many aspects of their theology, the coming war of the Sons of Darkness and the Sons of Light, for instance, are to be found in Persian religion. But Qumran is now the community about which we know not just the most, but in fact a great deal. The existence of similar communities throughout the Near East around the time of the Christian era is still largely speculative. Whatever their antecedents, these outstanding characteristics of the Essenes were to remain the distinguishing marks of almost every communalist sect from then on, and were, in a secularized form, to be perpetuated in the revolutionary movements of the nineteenth century, utopian, communist, anarchist, and socialist.

Philo of Alexandria, the Jewish neo-platonic (more or less) philosopher who wrote in the first decades of the Christian era, gives the earliest accounts of the Essenes in his book Quod Omnis Probis Liber Sit and in the Apologia pro Judaeis. The latter work is lost but the Essene passage is quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea. Philo says in the former:

The Essenes are totally dedicated to the worship of God. They do not offer animal sacrifice. They flee the cities and live in villages. Mostly they work in the fields. Others practice peaceful crafts. They do not hoard money or buy and rent land. They live without goods or property. They never make weapons or any objects which might be turned to evil purpose. They engage in no commerce. They have no slaves and condemn slavery. They avoid metaphysics, logic, and all philosophy except ethics which they study in the divinely given ancestral laws of the Jews. Every seventh day they keep holy and do no work but spend their time in religious assemblies seated strictly according to their rank, and listen to the exposition of their sacred books explained according to the ancient symbolical system. They study piety, holiness, justice, the sacred law, and the rules of their order, all leading to the love of God, of virtue, and of men, to which ends their lives are completely devoted. They refuse to take oaths and never lie. They believe that God is the cause only of good, never of evil. They treat all men with equal kindness and live together in a communal way. No one man owns his house. Their homes are always open to visiting members. They keep one purse and one budget. They eat together in a common meal and take their clothes from a common store. They care for the sick, the young, and the aged.

So much for the Quod Omnis Probis Liber Sit. In the Apologia pro Judaeis Philo adds:

They live in a number of towns in Judaea and also in villages in large companies. There are no children amongst them. [This is in contradiction to his other statement.] Their variety of occupations makes them self-sufficient. Those who earn wages “in the world” turn their money over to the common fund. They do not marry.

Philo ends this account with four paragraphs of diatribe against women, marriage, and children which are usually assumed to reflect his own attitude, not that of the Essenes. Some paragraphs of his description apparently describe life in the communities of the order; others that of associates like Franciscan tertiaries who live in the world.

In De Vita Contemplativa, which is doubtfully attributed to Philo, there occurs a description of an Egyptian community similar to the Essenes — the Therapeutae. They lived in Alexandria, each member in a separate hut, with a tiny chapel for prayer, something like the arrangement of the medieval Carthusians, and met at sunrise and sunset for community prayer, and once a day for a common meal. The most ascetic members ate only every other day, and a few only once a week. On the Sabbath, they met for more extended religious service, which included a sermon. On the major Jewish holidays, especially Pentecost, they began at sunset on the eve of the Holy Days with an ascetic but ceremonial feast, a sermon, prayers, and the antiphonal chanting of psalms and singing of hymns (between the separated men and women), and choral dancing in imitation of Moses and Miriam at the Red Sea. Facing the sunrise they prayed that the Light of Truth might illumine their minds and then returned to their solitary cells for study and contemplation.

This is the only original account of the Therapeutae, and because of its resemblance to the early monasticism in the Egyptian desert, it attracted great attention from early Christian writers, many of whom believed that Philo and the Therapeutae were Christians of the apostolic age. In the nineteenth century they were often equated with the Essenes, but they seem to have been far more ascetic, city-based, and to have practiced only a minimum of community life. If we accept the account of De Vita Contemplativa at face value they would seem to be a Jewish communal monastic sect influenced by Egyptian religion and the practices of the communities of priests and priestesses at the great temples, especially that of Heliopolis, as the Essenes were undoubtedly influenced by Persian religion. Philo does not say how they made a living. The implication is that they held all goods, which were very few indeed, in common, and lived on alms. Light and the sun play a large role in the brief account. For instance, “they took care of the needs of nature only under the cover of darkness” so that they would not offend the sun. This emphasis alone would connect them with possible ritual taboos of the Heliopolitan temple, as well as with the “light metaphysics” of Philo, and this Persian philosophical concept would haunt the more mystical communalist sects down to the present time. “By Light, Light,” in the words of Philo himself.

The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus wrote The Jewish War between A.D. 70 and 75. In it he says:

The Essenes are celibate but adopt children and raise them in the order. They give all their property to the order and live a common life without poverty or wealth. They regard oil as a defilement and do not anoint their bodies. They always wear white garments. Their treasurers and other officers are elected by the whole community. They neither buy nor sell amongst themselves. Each man gives to whoever needs it and receives in return whatever he requires. [From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.] They get up, pray in the sunrise, work until about 11 A.M., bathe, clothed in loin cloths, in cold water, and go to their communal dinner of bread and one dish of food. Before and after eating a priest blesses the food and says a prayer. Afterwards they all give thanks to God, lay aside the garments which they have worn for the meal, since they are sacred garments, [says Josephus significantly,] and work until sunset, and then go to supper in the same manner as they had dined. Most of their actions are ordered by their administrators but aid and pity to others are permitted individual initiative. They do not take oaths. They study their ancient books and the herbs and minerals that heal sickness. A postulant for the order waits outside one year and is tried and tested. If he is accepted he is given a hatchet, a loin cloth, and a white robe [as in the Pythagorean brotherhood]. For two years he serves a novitiate and can take part in the purificatory rites. If he passes this trial period he is accepted into the order, admitted to the common meals, and for the only time in his life swears his loyalty to the order in the most solemn of oaths. Those guilty of the most serious faults are expelled and, still bound to their oath, perish for lack of food. Justice is dispensed in assemblies of the whole community, not less than a hundred. Not only do they do no work on the Sabbath; they do not light a fire, move any object, or go to the toilet. One use of their axes is to dig themselves a latrine and they move their bowels covered with their robes. During the Roman war they were brutally tortured, but bore their pains impassively, and refused to blaspheme or to eat forbidden food. They believe in the immortality of the soul, that the good go to the Islands of the Blessed and the bad to Hades. Some of them, studying their sacred books, become expert at predicting the future.

As an addendum Josephus mentions that there is another order of married Essenes. In the Jewish Antiquities he notes that they send offerings to the temple in Jerusalem but do not take part in the sacrifices there or enter the temple precincts but offer sacrifice amongst themselves. He estimates that there are over four thousand Essenes who live the common life.

The seventeenth chapter of the fifth book of The Natural History of Pliny the Elder in Philemon Holland’s translation made in 1601 says:

Along the west coast [of the Dead Sea] inhabite the Esseni. A nation of all others throughout the world most admirable and wonderful. Women they see none: carnall lust they know not: they handle no money: they lead their life by themselves, and keepe companie onely with date trees. Yet neverthelesse, the countrey is evermore well peopled, for that daily numbers of straungers resort thither in great frequencie from other parts: and namely, such as be wearie of this miserable life, are by the surging waves of frowning fortune driven hither, to sort with them in their manner of living. Thus for many thousand yeers (a thing incredible, and yet most true) a people hath continued without any supply of newbreed and generation. So mightily encrease they evermore, by the wearisome estate and repentance of other men. Beneath them, stood sometime Engadda, for fertilitie of soile and plentie of datetree groves, accounted the next citie in all Iudaea, to Ierusalem. Now, they say, it serveth for a place onely to interre their dead. Beyond it, there is a castle or fortresse situate upon a rocke, and the same not farre from the lake of Sodome Asphatites. And thus much as touching Iudaea.

Near the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered there was an extensive ruin, Khirbet Qumran, which had been visited by archaeologists but never explored. In 1951 excavations began and it was soon obvious that they were uncovering the community buildings of the sect that had hidden the scrolls. There were no living quarters. The members must have lived in tents and huts and in the caves in the nearby cliff. There were silos, storehouses, a bakery, a mill, a kitchen, a laundry, workshops, pottery kilns, and an elaborate waterworks, an aqueduct from the nearby Wadi Qumran, and cisterns which supplied tanks and bathing pools. The sacred water was a most important factor in the life of the community in this waterless land. There was a scriptorium where their sacred books were copied and an assembly hall and a refectory for the common meal. Two miles south of Khirbet Qumran excavations began in 1956, on the sight of Ain Feshkhah, and uncovered the agricultural center where those who worked in the fields and palm groves and cared for the herds lived and worked. Today we can form a clearer picture of this life and beliefs and cult practices of the Qumran community than of almost any other in the distant past.

Rather significantly, the Essenes chose the site of an early Iron Age fortified village and opened up its old irrigation works. They were returning to the village life that had preceded Hellenistic and even Hebrew culture. Such was their beginning. Their end is dramatically obvious. All the buildings are marked by fire and scattered over the ground are the iron arrowheads of the Roman Tenth Legion which in A.D. 76-78 marched through the desert exterminating the Jewish sectaries, pacifists, Essenes, and fighting Zealots alike. Over and over again the Qumran documents refer to the Teacher of Righteousness and his persecution by and long struggle with the Wicked Priest. There is probably more dispute about these two figures than anything else in the scrolls. Was the former the founder of the sect and the Wicked Priest a specific high priest? Was the Teacher of Righteousness the name of an office in the community and the Wicked Priest a symbol for the hierarchy at the Jerusalem temple — the establishment? Are they cosmogonic and apocalyptic figures whose warfare is in heaven? Probably all three, depending on the particular text. We should remember that it is not only the life of Christ that is treated this way; it is the general tendency of Jewish religious thought to project history onto the screen of the heavens. One thing the Teacher of Righteousness is not, and that is the Messiah; and the long dispute as to whether he anticipates Christ or is Jesus Christ himself is misconceived.

The elaborate hierarchical structure of the Qumran community is not just one of religious initiation or group order. It is military. The common term for the “local chapters” and settlements of the community is usually translated “camps.” Not only did Khirbet Qumran with its tents and huts surrounding the buildings on the site of an old fort look like a military camp; it was one, the general headquarters of the salvation army engaged in a holy war, the war of the Sons of Light against the Sons of Darkness. In that war each man had one place and no other in the ranks — “ ’Tis the final conflict; let each stand in his place.” This marshaled army was thought of as fighting along with and paralleling the order of the hosts of heaven. This is why the secret names of the angels are part of the initiation of the novice. The battle was going on in eternity, in time the community was standing at attention awaiting the order to engage the enemy. History would come to an end with the winning of the holy war and the establishment of the messianic kingdom.

The sacramental character of the communal meal as an outward physical sign of an inward spiritual reality is obvious, but it differs radically from the Christian Eucharist, at least as that first appears to us at the end of the first century. It is an anticipation of the messianic banquet celebrating the victory in the holy war and the inauguration of the new kingdom. The meal begins with the blessing of bread and wine by a priest and by the lay administrator, who are referred to in the liturgical texts as the Priest Messiah, the descendant of Aaron, and the King Messiah, the descendant of David. The Sons of Light, the victorious army of the Lord, are seated at the table, each in his ordained place. Twice a day each member of the community is permitted to live in the eschaton, the end of time.

The camp at Qumran was not only the camp of the Army of the Future, it was the camp of the Army of the Past, of Israel in the Wilderness, and of the conquest of Canaan. Again, the hierarchical structure duplicated that of Israel at the beginning of significant history, the time of the giving of the Covenant and the Law. The governing council is modeled exactly on that of the Exodus, the lay “kings of the twelve tribes,” and the three high priests. History repeats itself, but on a transcendent plane.

Many of the disputes over the Qumran documents are generated by careful choice of words to translate key terms. Some people translate ’esah as “church.” Dupont-Sommer translates it as “party.” This enables him to speak of the Party of the Community and the Councils of the Party but this of course could be pushed further, to make a comparison which is obvious — “soviet” means council — and we can complete the quotation with a Bolshevik version of the International: “The international soviet shall be the human race.” This way lies not madness but certainly crankiness.

Apocalypse is a disappointed prophecy — true, but what does that mean? It means that apocalypticism arises when the historical conditions become apocalyptic, when there is no way out. The Qumran Essenes were not wrong. Although the holy war did not come, both the old and new Israel were defeated. And the tradition was established and with it a new way of life. As Renan said, Christianity was an Essenism which succeeded — more or less.



3. The Early Church, Monasticism

Ever since Christianity became a church, as we understand the word, a power structure, the doctors of the Church have played down or denied the communal nature of early Christianity. On the other hand, social radicals have made much of it, and of the early Church’s close connections, or even identity, with the Essenes. An unprejudiced reader, uninvolved in this controversy, reading the New Testament for the first time, would certainly form the impression that primitive Christianity was communist and that its “communal life” endured throughout the ministry of Paul, and, if he were to read them, on through the time of the apostolic fathers. The statements in Acts are indisputable.

Acts 2.44-47:

And all that believe were together, and held all things common; and sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God, and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

Acts 4.32-37 and 5.1-10:

And the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul: neither said any of them that ought of the things which he possessed was his own: but they had all things common. And with great power gave the apostles witness of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus: and great grace was upon them all. Neither was there any among them that lacked: for as many as were possessors of lands or houses, sold them, and brought the prices of the things that were sold, and laid them down at the apostles’ feet: and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need. And Joses, who by the apostles was surnamed Barnabas, (which is, being interpreted, the son of consolation,) a Levite, and of the country of Cyprus, having land, sold it, and brought the money, and laid it at the apostles’ feet.
      But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? Why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost; and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband.

This narrative is given in full because it is the crux. It certainly leaves no doubt whatever that the apostolic Church was communalist. Both the Epistle of James and the Epistle of Jude fit best into this context and it is significant that both documents claim to be by brothers of the Lord. Scattered through the Pauline epistles are remarks which can be interpreted as antagonistic to the communalist life of the so-called “Jerusalem Church” of which James, the brother of Jesus, was supposed to have been the bishop, or even in later accounts “bishop of bishops.” When the attack on the celebration of the Eucharist as part of the common meal of the whole Christian community began, the key passage was I Corinthians 11:20-22, in which St. Paul seems, or certainly can be made to seem, to reject the practice.

Those early heresies, the Ebionites and Nazarenes, which preserved the communal life rejected the Pauline epistles and claimed direct descent from James and the Jerusalem Church, practiced a Jewish life, obeying the Old Law as well as the New, and have often been called Essene-Christians. “Ebionites” means “poor men,” and the term “Nazarene” may have been employed for an Essene-like sect even before the ministry of Jesus.

Eusebius, Hippolitus, and Origen, who were already beginning to etherealize the eschatology of the Gospels, remark on the extreme millenarianism of the Ebionites. They seem to have lived in separate communities and, like the Essenes, took frequent baths of purification. The pseudo-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions are usually attributed to them and the curious can read their ideas there. Centuries later the Mennonites would refer to the Clementine Homilies and Recognitions as primitive Christian authorities authenticating their own beliefs. We read in the early fathers of various other heretical communist sects but we know almost nothing about them. There does seem to be a general tendency amongst those who split from the Church over doctrinal matters also to reject its worldliness and to revive the communalism of the apostolic Church. These heresies come and go all through the centuries before the establishment of the State Church by Constantine and definition of its dogmas in the ecumenical councils called by the emperor. The remarkable thing about the Ebionites is that they survived as communities in the marginal lands of the Near East until they were absorbed or overrun by Islam in the seventh century.

In the Orthodox Church communism was taken away from the laity and made a privilege of the monks, but monasticism is simply authoritarian, celibate communism. Christian monastic communities first appear in the deserts of Egypt and then of Syria, Palestine, and Sinai — in the same kinds of place as the Essene community at Qumran and the Essene-like Egyptian Therapeutae described by Philo. In Toynbee’s terms these monastic communities could be described as “successor states” to the Essenes.

The earliest monks known to us were hermits who did not live in organized communities but, as it were, in loosely associated hamlets, on the edges of the desert above the Nile in Lower Egypt. Curiously they do not seem to have always been celibate. Many of them lived with a female companion, a soror mystica. What this means we have no way of knowing but the practice survived in the eremitical life and reappears in the early Irish Church.

St. Pachomius is said to have established the first organized monasteries in Upper Egypt. Although the earlier hamlets of hermits must have had some kind of community, they apparently did not live together, much less share meals and work in common or live by rule. All these factors in the monastic life were introduced by Pachomius and from his foundations, which eventually came to number seven thousand people in his lifetime, descend all future orthodox monastic orders.

The significant thing about St. Pachomius is that he had been an officer in the army of Constantine. Organized monasticism appears as a reflex of the State Church. Even under the most tolerant emperors the Christian communities had been at cross-purposes with the dominant society. Christians were still awaiting the Second Coming. Although the most extreme chiliasm was dying out amongst the orthodox as the years went by, and the apocalypse receded from the immediate to the remote future, the Church was still the community of the remnant that would be saved, antagonistic in all its values to those of secular society. The apostolic life was held binding on all its members, although the early communism was abandoned for a simple community of people forced to live in the world. In practice the Gospels’ constant insistence on charity led to a considerable measure of “communism of consumption.” Pre-Constantinian monasticism was simply a more extreme form of the life of the ordinary Christian. Due to the fact that it was not governed by any communal discipline it tended to push ascetic practices to ever greater extremes.

With Constantine’s establishment the very nature of the Church and the entire concept of the kingdom changed. The Church ceased to be a remnant, but thought of itself as coterminous with society itself. Its bishops became part of the state structure. Its theological disputes were settled by councils of state attended by functionaries appointed by the emperor. Its congregations became parishes fixed in place, its bishops administrators of a given territory. The apostolic and Pauline organization of intervisitation, correspondence, and wandering missioners ceased. All the future monastic rules were to have paragraphs condemning wandering monks and preachers. The contrast is so great that it is easy to see why future heretical and Protestant sects would come to look on the established Church as an organization for the suppression of Christianity and its heads — emperor or pope — as Antichrist.

The apostolic life, said the established Church, was a council of perfection meant only for those with a special vocation — monks and nuns. In the future the term “religious” would be applied to them only, in distinction to the laity. Since the dynamism of the apostolic life was so great that if it were allowed to run loose in society it would bring down both established Church and empire, or for that matter any worldly polity, then or now, it was necessary to isolate this dynamism. Organized monasticism was a method of quarantining the Christian life. This is why the Church has always insisted that monasticism be celibate. There have been only a very few religious orders which have associated monks, nuns, and married people in one community, and they were only created to counteract heretical associations. Lay monasticism, a community of families holding all things in common, living a life modeled on that of the apostles, unavoidably becomes a counter-culture, a remnant awaiting the coming of the messianic kingdom. Time and the emperor postponed the Second Coming to the remote future — the established Church is the kingdom.

These ideas are usually attributed to St. Augustine, but they are only worked out in systematic detail in his City of God, and are adjusted there to the collapse of the empire in the West. It is significant that Augustine’s master, St. Ambrose, still believed, or half-believed, in the communism of the apostolic life, while Augustine not only preached against it, but denounced again and again the merging of the Eucharist in the agapê, the community meal. The two most important rites of the Christian cult ceased to be communal functions and were reorganized and directed toward support of the State religion. The Eucharist became a sacrifice performed by the priest in which the laity participated only as praying spectators. The important meaning of the insistence on infant baptism was that it tied the lay family to the parish, to the territorial administration — as in the future both the Anabaptists on the one side, and Luther and the Catholics on the other, were to insist, each for different ends.

In areas remote from the control of Church and Empire like Ireland and, to a lesser degree, Britain, or both remote and heretical like the Nestorian Church, which left the Roman for the Persian Empire, monasticism was both more eremitical and more socially effective, both on the Church and on the surrounding secular society, Christian or pagan — an apparent measure of the quarantine established by St. Pachomius, St. Basil, and St. Benedict.

The social effectiveness of organized monasticism was due to the founders’ insistence upon work, an insistence that increased from Pachomius to Basil to Benedict. The early monks of the desert must have been parasitic on the ordinary Christian community. Considering where they lived, there is no other way they could have supported themselves. They devoted themselves to prayer, meditation, fasting and other austerities. St. Pachomius’s foundations were governed by an elaborate rule. The members lived in dormitories instead of separately in caves and huts and had their meals and prayers in common. The abbot of the motherhouse was the superior of all the other convents whether of men or women, appointed their superiors, visited them periodically, and presided at a general chapter held annually at the motherhouse. As tightly organized a system as this would not appear again until the Benedictine reforms in the early Middle Ages. Time not spent in prayer was spent in work. Each monastery had its own farmlands and craft workshops and was largely self-sufficient. In other words, they achieved a large measure of “communism of production.” Pachomian monasticism flourished until the Muslim conquest of Egypt, when it entered into a long decline; and it is now almost extinct except in Ethiopia.

St. Basil owed his advance from scholar to priest, and from priest to bishop and monastic founder, to his forcefulness as a polemicist against the Arian heresy which was threatening the integrity of Church and empire. The monastic life in Greece and Asia Minor had largely been eremitical and not subject to any discipline either in way of life or in theology. St. Basil adapted the rule of the Pachomian monks to the conditions of the patriarchate of Constantinople and established the type that would prevail to this day in Eastern Orthodoxy. Originally there was great insistence in the rule on work and on strict obedience to Orthodox doctrine. As time went on monasticism in the East became more and more parasitic economically. The monks lived on land that they did not farm but left to peasants on shares and hired laborers, while they devoted themselves to prayer and contemplation. Perhaps due to this rather hothouse atmosphere, the heresies, schisms, and enthusiastic movements which have arisen in Orthodoxy have originated in the monasteries. Eventually there would arise monastic cities like Mount Athos, not at all self-supporting, isolated from, yet parasitic on, lay society.

Monasticism in the Western empire was the creation of Benedict of Nursia. Although the entire meaning and purpose of the monastic life as he conceived it was prayer and contemplation centered around the “work of God,” eight “hours” of the Divine Office when the community solemnly chanted psalms, sang hymns, and prayed together in chapel, there was in fact a much greater emphasis on work in the field, in shops, in copying manuscripts, than in Eastern monasticism. The reason for this is simple. What had been the Roman Empire in the West was in ruins. Cities were being deserted, land went out of cultivation, population declined unbelievably, to perhaps a fifth of what it had been under Marcus Aurelius, and the appurtenances of civilization, namely, literature and the arts, ceased to be produced by the secular society. Irish monasticism was a special exception, unlike any other, with probably pre-Christian sources.

The Benedictines cleared forests, drained land that had gone back to marsh, reorganized peasant cultivation, carved and painted religious statues and pictures, and copied manuscripts, mostly religious, but some also of the classic culture of Rome. Many monastic leaders in the West were quite conscious of their role as preservers of civilization. Cassiodorus founded a monastery devoted to saving the literary heritage of Latin civilization. In the case of the Benedictines the “quarantine” of organized monasticism had a reverse effect. The secular society had broken down in chaos. Within the monasteries civilization survived in what was really a garrison state, protected by supernatural sanctions, within the barbaric secular state.

Each Benedictine monastery was an entity unto itself. There was no central administration. Early Benedictinism was not a religious order in the later sense of the word. The reason for this too was simple. Centralization requires ease of communication and communication had broken down. The Benedictine rule is in some ways stricter than that of Basilian or of Pachomian monasticism but it is still more rational, more flexible, and more communitarian. The abbot functions as the president of the chapter, the council of monks in which all the professed have a vote. The monks are vowed to obey the rule and the abbot and therefore the rule is not easy to change, but the abbot rules as the head of a kind of democratic centralism. Decisions are subject to discussion and vote, but once made must be obeyed absolutely. There are officers in charge of all the various activities of the community, whether in the fields, the workshops, the hospital, the kitchen, or the scriptorium and library, and each overseer is subject to the control of the abbot and the chapter.

Unlike the Essenes at Qumran or the earliest monks, the Benedictines did not look upon themselves as a saved remnant, antagonistic to a world doomed to perdition. Quite the contrary; they were called to save the world in the most literal sense. Not only were they called to save and rehabilitate a shattered civilization, but they thought of themselves as called to spread the Gospel to the heathens beyond the limits of the former empire. The Benedictines, together with the Irish monks of the Rule of St. Columba, inaugurated a second wave of missionary activity, after that of the early Church, and were responsible for Christianizing Middle Europe and Scandinavia. The strategic importance of such missionary activity as a defense of Latin civilization was obvious.

The Benedictine rule and bylaws and administrative measures are a priceless deposit of information on the techniques and the problems of a communal fellowship in dynamic relationship with a disorganized society. Unfortunately, although some Church historians have thought otherwise, the example of the Benedictine life seems to have had little direct effect on later communalist religious groups, whether heretical sects or movements within the Church.

There is only one religious order of any importance which included priests, monks, nuns, and married people all living in one community, usually a village with a monastery at one end, a nunnery at the other, and the lay people in between. This was the order founded in England by St. Gilbert of Sempringham. It never spread beyond England, although its example influenced a very few small continental foundations. Since the Church had always feared such an organization it is strange that the Gilbertines seem to have had very little influence on society and were not in any way connected with the lay monasticism which was to become so popular on the continent on the eve of the Reformation, specifically the Béghards and Béguines, the Brethren of the Common Life, and the Gottesfreunde or Friends of God.

This dynamic relationship was to come with the friars, especially the Franciscans. It is significant that St. Francis himself always refused ordination to the priesthood. Both Franciscans and Dominicans were lay-oriented. The proper name of the Society founded by St. Dominic is the Order of Preachers and the Franciscans were dedicated to preaching, hearing confessions, and to manifest poverty both as a virtue in itself and as a witness to the world. The life of St. Francis, like that of Pope John XXIII, is a perfect example of what happens to the Church when it accidentally permits a person who models his life closely on that of the historical Jesus to attain a position of influence or power.

The Dark Ages and the early Middle Ages are remarkably free of large-scale millenarian and communist sects and heresies. The Benedictine solution seems to have been effective in satisfying the demand implicit in Christianity for a life of apostolic community and poverty. The doctrine of St. Augustine that the Church itself was the kingdom seems to have been almost universally accepted. There was a pandemic of millenary fever as the literal millennium, the year one thousand, drew near (many modern historians deny this happened except in the imagination of nineteenth-century historians who thought it must have — the evidence is slight at best); but when it passed without the end of the world, millenarianism died out, and in those days it did not take the form of separate sects claiming to be the “saving remnant” but affected the entire population. From the fall of Rome to the twelfth century the spiritual energies of men went to building medieval civilization itself with little diversion. The so-called “medieval synthesis” was a remarkably self-contained structure in the history of cultures, and as it was growing it was able to absorb all the possible activities of its society. The Church was not just coterminous with society; society was coterminous with the Church. As in primitive cultures, Catholicism was an anthropological religion, one method of defining society.

The only important heresy, that of the Paulicians-Bogomiles-Cathari-Albigenses, was not a heresy at all, but a different religion, Gnostic and Manichaean. That is, it was Oriental and pre-Christian in origin, and concerned with the progress of the soul through the stages of a cosmogonic drama, a progress abetted by the knowledge of occult mysteries. It was very far from communistic and only incidentally millenarian. The judgment, the fire, and the kingdom were internalized as stages in the salvation of the soul. The Albigensian church was governed by an elite of illuminated adepts and where it could, as briefly in Bulgaria, was quite willing to become an established church. When it threatened to become so in the south of France it was suppressed in the bloodiest of all Crusades — which took the form, significantly, of a territorial war.

Gnosticism was never totally suppressed, and vestiges of occult mysteries turn up here and there in the heresies of the later Middle Ages, but they remain occult, difficult to trace, and never important in any popular movement except possibly the Brotherhood of the Free Spirit. This did not prevent the Church from seeing Cathari everywhere, all through the later Middle Ages and the Reformation. But in fact dualist, Manichaean, or Gnostic doctrines are exceedingly rare in the evidence, although there is no way of proving or disproving the latter-day occultists’ claims that they were an esoteric teaching confined to the inner elites of various heretical movements.

Certainly as we survey the many tiny heretical groups that got in trouble with the authorities from the tenth to the twelfth century, it is possible to see emerging an orthodoxy of the heterodox, a consensus which would later form a body of doctrine characteristic of the more radical offshoots of the Reformation, of which the Taborites, the Anabaptists, and the more extreme sectaries of the English Civil War are perfect examples. For instance, eight different sects denied the existence of purgatory and the efficacy of prayers for the dead. The baptism of children was rejected by fifteen such groups; the reality of the humanity of Christ, by four; the resurrection of the body, by three. The sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was abandoned, either as communion or sacrifice, in twelve separate cases. Almost all heretics denied the doctrine of transubstantiation, which was still only in the process of definition in the Church itself. Prayers to and veneration of the saints were likewise denied. Auricular confession was rejected by an indefinite number, although many groups practiced public confession to the congregation, as in the early Church. There are nine cases of vegetarianism, ten or more admissions of the practice of free love, group sex, or ceremonial orgies, and a far larger number of unsubstantiated accusations. Catharist and Gnostic influence led some to the rejection of the Old Testament, but most groups placed greater emphasis on it than did the Church, and a few followed the letter of the Jewish law. Without exception they all rejected the authority of the established Church and condemned its clergy for simony, adultery, pederasty, ignorance, and hypocrisy.

Only a very few are known to have practiced the apostolic community of goods. Outstanding was the community of Monteforte, a castle in the archdiocese of Milan. When the archbishop discovered their existence, he had them all arrested and brought to Milan to trial. The entire population of the castle and its domain had been converted by a man we know only as Giardo. Led by him, the more articulate defendants turned their trial into a propaganda demonstration for themselves, and so we have a fairly complete record of their beliefs. They did not believe in a priesthood or in sacraments, but lived lives guided and sanctified by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They were vegetarian and ate nothing which had been begotten by sexual intercourse. Those who could lived in strict chastity with their spouses, or did not marry. When the archbishop asked how, if every one lived so, the human race could perpetuate itself, Giardo replied that when men had become pure they would reproduce asexually like bees. The elders of the group kept up a continuous chain of prayer, replacing each other night and day. They interpreted the Trinity allegorically — the Father as Creator, the Son as the soul of man, beloved of God, and the Holy Spirit as the divine wisdom in each human soul. From the countess and nobles to the lowliest peasant they practiced a complete communism and lived a largely self-sufficient life, independent of the surrounding economy. They claimed to have brethren all over Europe. They also held a belief, peculiar to themselves, that to be saved they must die in torment. They were so convinced of this that if one of them started to die a natural death, he called upon the others to torture and kill him. The archbishop set up a cross and a stake and demanded that they choose between submission to the Church and death by fire. Only a few chose the cross. Almost all went joyfully to their deaths.

This was only the second official execution for heresy in the Western Church. It had been preceded by that of a group of heretics in Orléans about 1015. They seem to have been Gnostics, more Gnostic in fact than the Cathari, and what we would call today upper-class bohemian intellectuals. They were accused by a spy, who had been initiated for the purpose of exposing them, of ritual sexual orgies and the worship of devils. As far as we know they did not practice community of goods nor was this an accusation at all common in the heresy trials of the early Middle Ages.

An important factor in later heresy was the spread of knowledge of the Bible, especially after it had been translated into the vernacular. The appeal to the communism of the apostles was an appeal to the Bible, and the sole authority of the Bible was not an important factor in early heresy. The un-Christian wealth of the Church was. It took only a slight familiarity with the Gospels and epistles read at Mass to realize that if Christianity was the patterning of one’s life on the life of Christ and his disciples, then the Church was literally Antichrist, shorn up of its apocalyptical personification as the great evil figure, Antichrist. The accusation was certainly just. Nothing was more dangerous to the power of the established Church than the little bands of laymen devoted to voluntary poverty, Bible study, and good works that began to flourish in the twelfth century in northern Italy, eastern France, the Rhineland, and Bohemia.

In 1176, a generation before St. Francis, one Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant of Lyons, sold all he had and gave it to the poor and gathered together a group of pious laymen who wished to return to the apostolic life of poverty and evangelism. Soon they were in communication with other little groups and the movement grew rapidly. Pope Alexander III approved their vow of poverty and placed them in obedience to their local bishops, who in most cases forbade them to preach, for simply by living an apostolic life they were challenging the clergy as representatives of the apostles. When the bishop of Lyons forbade them to preach they decided to obey God rather than man and were excommunicated and expelled from the city and three years later condemned by Pope Lucius III and the Council of Lyons in 1184.

So began the heretical sect of the Waldenses or Poor Men of Lyons which spread rapidly over Europe to become the largest and most widespread of any medieval heresy. Tirelessly persecuted by the Church, and the object of several Crusades, they were eventually driven into the mountain valleys of Lombardy, Savoy, the Tyrol, and Bohemia and Moravia, where they managed to survive down the centuries. The Czech Waldenses were absorbed into the Taborites or the Czech Brethren. The Lombard Waldenses were rediscovered by the Reformers and became the special care of English Protestants after the massacre immortalized in Milton’s sonnet, and a minor object of Cromwell’s foreign policy. They are still in existence in the same mountain valleys and in recent years have established chapels in some of the cities of northern Italy.

The original Poor Men of Lyons practiced community of goods and at various times embattled groups of Waldenses returned to a kind of siege communism. But through all the doctrinal changes of the sect down the centuries they never abandoned the practice of voluntary poverty. They were originally accused only of refusing to take oaths, bear arms, or approve of capital punishment. Eventually, they came to believe that any layman not in a state of mortal sin could consecrate the bread and wine of communion, rejected the sacrifice of the Mass, and denied that the papal Church was the Church of Christ, insisting rather that it was the scarlet woman of the apocalypse and that none of its special teachings or practices could be followed without sin.

During the Reformation in the sixteenth century the Waldenses were extensively proselytized by the reformers and doctrinally became assimilated to the main body of Protestantism in its Swiss Calvinist form. Throughout the nineteenth century English Protestants, led by a Colonel Beckwith, who settled amongst them, spent considerable money building schools, hospitals, churches, and other social services in their communities. Although doctrinally they differ little from the Swiss Protestants to the north of them, the entire feeling of their mountain villages is different. Although they no longer practice communism they are not acquisitive or competitive. They remain much poorer than they need be and live by a social ethic of mutual aid, cooperation, and close spiritual unity, not unlike the settlements of strict Mennonites or Amish in America.

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

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