Utopian Communities, Communes (Issue)

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During the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries numerous European and American idealists sought to create examples of the perfect society in which everyone would benefit and there would be no conflict. Most of these experiments were set up in America where it was believed they would be relatively free from interference or persecution. That hope sometimes proved to be unfounded, but nevertheless many such communities did indeed experience a remarkable level of success and survived for many years.

There were two types of communitarian societies: sectarian and secular. The former were based upon a philosophy that was essentially religious, and the latter were not. Aside from religion, however, the two types shared many characteristics. They were usually small with seldom more than a few hundred people in a community. They all had charismatic leaders who were often very able, they all had developed some method of acquiring and maintaining land, they all developed some means of governing gender relationsranging from celibacy to "communal marriage"and they all developed a workable means of making a living for their members.

The history of communitarian societies in America began in 1663 with the arrival of a group of Dutch Mennonites in Delaware. This settlement was destroyed when the British conquered New Netherlands in 1664. There was no similar attempt for several years until 1683 when settlers came to Maryland who were followers of Jean de Labadie, a German perfectionist thinker. Their community lasted for about twenty years before internal dissension caused it to split up and decline.

The first communal experiment to survive for a considerable period of time was founded by Johann Conrad Beissel, a German who had migrated to America in 1720. In 1732 Beissel founded a settlement in Pennsylvania which he called Ephrata. This community prospered until Beissel's death in 1768. After that it went into a period of decline until 1814 when the few remaining residents incorporated as the Seventh Day German Baptist Church which survived until 1934.

It was not until 1774 that an English-speaking group arrived who would exert significant influence on American society at large. These were the followers of "Mother" Ann Lee, who were commonly known as "The Shakers." This designation was assigned to them because of their habit of dancing during their religious services. "Mother" Ann and her people came from Manchester, England, and settled in upstate New York. Although "Mother" Ann died in 1784, the community survived under the able leadership of her American successors. They established their first fully communal town in Columbia County, New York, in 1787. From there they went on to establish twenty-two villages in seven states, continuing to expand until 1836. They were very good at attracting converts and, in fact, relied upon these skills for their survival because one tenet of their philosophy was strict adherence to celibacy. Their villages usually had an economy based on agriculture.

There was a surge in the appearance of communal societies in the early nineteenth century. By that time American nationalism had begun to develop; along with it came a growing interest in social reform. There was a widespread belief between 1820 and 1850 that American society could be improved or perfected in many ways. Thus the idea of perfectionist communities fit in very well with currently prevailing attitudes.

One of the first societies to develop in this era was headed by "Father" George Rapp who founded a community near Pittsburgh in 1804. He preached that the Second Coming of Christ was near and attracted many followers who believed that life in his community would prepare them for the millennial event. In 1814, the "Rappites" moved to Indiana where they remained for ten years. Then they returned to Pennsylvania and established a village (named Economy) near the site of their original community. They built woolen and cotton mills and a sawmill; they grew fruit, made wine, and produced silk. They were very successful and their community continued to operate at Economy until well into the 20th century.

Another perfectionist leader of this period was Robert Owen. Owen was a self-made businessman and for twenty-five years (18001825) was manager of New Lanark Mills, one of Scotland's largest cotton-spinning mills. During his career Owen became convinced that reforms in the factory system that would improve the standard of living of the workers were vital. He came to believe that improvements in human living conditions would lead to improved results in business. Eventually, he rejected the free enterprise philosophy entirely and adopted a pre-Marxian form of socialism. He called his idea the "New Moral World." In it everything would be accomplished by means of cooperation rather than competition. By 1824, he had decided to transform his dream into reality in America.

Owen purchased the Rappite property in Indiana for $150,000, renamed it New Harmony, and began his experiment in 1825. He did not have to start from scratch because the Rappites left him a ready-made community complete with houses, mills, shops, churches, factories, vineyards, and orchards.

Owen's idea was that New Harmony would be a fully communal society. There would be no private property, everyone would receive "credit" for their production, and all necessities would be supplied by the communal store. Unfortunately, the experiment did not work. The system was not well organized or managed, production lagged, there was no unity, morale collapsed, and by 1827, the experiment was over. Owen abandoned New Harmony and returned to England. It would be more than ten years before another experiment of this type was attempted.

Beginning in the 1840s new communal experiments began in America. These were based on the ideas of the French Socialist Charles Fourier as translated into English by his disciple Albert Brisbane. Many of Fourier's ideas were similar to those of Robert Owen. He declared that concern and cooperation were the secrets of social success. He argued that a cooperative society would lead to an immense increase in production. The fruits of all labor would be divided among all workers according to the contribution of each worker. Like Owen, Fourier believed that communities should be small and well-planned in all aspects. He called his ideal community a "phalanx."

Beginning in 1841, through 1848, there were 28 Fourierite phalanxes attempted in America. The first and most famous was Brook Farm in Suffolk County, Massachusetts. A number of famous Americans, including the author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, participated in this experiment which lasted until 1847. Other Fourier phalanxes were formed in New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Texas. All but three were founded between 1841 and 1847, the period during which Brook Farm operated; most of them (thirteen) originated in 1844.

One of the most interesting and successful of the communitarian experiments in America was John Humphrey Noyes' Oneida Community. In 1834 Noyes announced that he had attained a state of perfection and was incapable of sin. He then formed the Perfectionist Church in Putney, Vermont, where he and his followers held all things, including marriage partners, in common. Such radical ideas caused the local authorities to charge Noyes with adultery whereupon he and his congregation fled to New York.

Noyes purchased forty acres of land near the town of Oneida in upstate New York where he began to build a Perfectionist Society. Not only were all things held in common, including marriage partners, but the group practiced "scientific reproduction," which Noyes called "stripiculture." This meant that partners who were "morally perfect" were selected to produce children who would inherit their parents' moral characteristics. The community would then educate the children and this process would eventually lead to the emergence of a superior class of people.

For several years the community made a successful living growing fruit, but later they added business and manufacturing to their activities and eventually began to concentrate on silverware. The community was well-planned, well-organized, and well-administered, and it prospered. People in surrounding communities, however, did not approve of the Oneida lifestyle. Threatened with legal action in 1879, for immorality, Noyes fled to Canada, and the colony soon broke up. It was converted to a joint stock company in 1881, and continued the successful manufacturing of silverware.

In the late nineteenth century the idea of perfecting society through the operation of small, socialized communities gave way to the idea of individual growth and development within a democratic system. Hence interest in communitarism declined, but that society is capable of improvement was an idea that never died.

See also: Utopia


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Hayden, Delores. Seven American Utopias: The Architecture of Communitarian Societies, 17901875. Cambridge, MA: M I T Press, 1976.

Holloway, Mark. Heavens on Earth: Utopian Communities in America, 16801880. New York: Dover, 1966.

Kern, Louis, J. An Ordered Love: Sex Roles and Sexuality in Victorian Utopias-The Shakers, The Mormons, and The Oneida Community. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1981.

Rexroth, Kenneth. Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century. New York: Seabury Press, 1974.