Monday, December 5, 2011

The Truth About Communal Living

     Every Thanksgiving, the Libertarian blogs I read pass around narratives of the Pilgrims' experience with their new home in America, and those narratives are true stories about the failure of a socialist system.  The Pilgrims first initially employed a communal lifestyle without property, where one was supposed to work out of loyalty to everyone else, and the amount of food one received was largely independent of one's own effort, but heavily dependent upon the effort of others.
     If we are to be objective researchers, however, we must also admit that there have been many instances when communal living was successful.  Many monasteries are an example, especially the Benedictine kind, where monks grew food and engaged in crafts for self-consumption and sale and all the proceeds are given to the monastery as a whole, to be distributed by the monastery.  Some Mendicant Orders might be included, and some nunneries.
     Better examples are found in the eighteenth and nineteenth societies formed in Germany and carried to the U.S., where hundreds and sometimes thousands of people lived and worked diligently for the society itself, with no personal property of their own.  They go by the names Amana Society, Harmonists, Separatists of Zoar, and the most widely known society, the Shakers.  I consider these Protestant and independent monasteries.  There are others: The Oneida and Wallingford Protectionists, Aurora and Bethel Communities, Icarians, the Bishop Hill Colony, and the Cedar Vale Commune.  I want to say the Transcendentalists created a commune, as well as the famous U.S. socialist Upton Sinclair, but I can't say for sure (I know Sinclair lived in a commune at one time, but I can't remember what kind of commune).
     While it is true that few such communes exist today, neither do some nations that existed in the nineteenth century (e.g., Prussia).  Most of these did thrive for decades though, and left behind large estates with fertile land and large, sturdy buildings.  They lived a socialist lifestyle, without property, and for them it worked.  Plenty of communes have failed after a vigorous startthink hippiesbut plenty did not.
     I certainly would never want to live in such a place, but neither would I want to spread the story of the Pilgrims without the story of these other societies.  Communal living, without property, and with labor motivated by altruism and strict social norms, can work.  It seems the key to their success resides in their voluntary nature (by contrast, communism was mandatory in Russia, and initially for the Pilgrims), the religious fervor of their members, and a diligently monitored set of social customs (either work, or live someplace else).
     Communal living is a possibility in some instances, and Libertarians can admit this while still arguing that the possibilities are fewand for them personally, non-existent.

Inspired and partially informed by...
Charles Nordhoff
American Utopias
Originally published in 1875 as The Communistic Societies of the United States.

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