Epilogue: Post-Apocalyptic Communalism

Submitted by Ross Arctor on October 3, 2014

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.