The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, , at sacred-texts.com
p. 384 p. 385
THOUGH brief accounts are given in the preceding pages of several recently established communistic societies, it is evident that only those which have been in practical operation during a term of years are useful for purposes of comparison, and to show the actually accomplished results of communistic effort in the United States, as well as the means by which these results have been achieved.
The societies which may thus be properly used as illustrations of successful communism in this country are the SHAKERS, established in the Eastern States in 1794, and in the West about 1808; the RAPPISTS, established in 1805; the BAUMELERS, or ZOARITES, established in 1817; the EBEN-EZERS, or AMANA Communists, established in 1844; the BETHEL Commune, established in 1844; the ONEIDA PERFECTIONISTS, established in 1848; the ICARIANS, who date from 1849; and the AURORA Commune, from 1852.
Though in name there are thus but eight societies, these consist in fact of not less than seventy-two communes: the Shakers having fifty-eight of these; the Amana Society seven; and the Perfectionists two. The remaining societies consist of but a single commune for each.
It will be seen that the oldest of these communes have existed for eighty years; the youngest cited here for review has been founded twenty-two years. Of all, only two societies remain under the guidance of their founders; though it may be
said that the Amana Communes have still the advantage of the presence among them of some of the original leading members. The common assertion that a commune must break up on the death of its founder would thus appear to be erroneous.
These seventy-two communes make but little noise in the world; they live quiet and peaceful lives, and do not like to admit strangers to their privacy. They numbered in 1874 about five thousand persons, including children, and were then scattered through thirteen states, in which they own over one hundred and fifty thousand acres of land—probably nearer one hundred and eighty thousand, for the more prosperous frequently own farms at a distance, and the exact amount of their holdings is not easily ascertained. As they have sometimes been accused of being land monopolists, it is curious to see that even at the highest amount I have given they would own only about thirty-six acres per head, which is, for this country, a comparatively small holding of land.
It is probably a low estimate of the wealth of the seventy-two communes to place it at twelve millions of dollars. This wealth is not equally divided, some of the older societies holding the larger share. But if it were, the members would be worth over two thousand dollars per head, counting men, women, and children. It is not an exaggeration to say that almost the whole of this wealth has been created by the patient industry and strict economy and honesty of its owners, without a positive or eager desire on their part to accumulate riches, and without painful toil.
Moreover—and this is another important consideration—I am satisfied that during its accumulation the Communists enjoyed a greater amount of comfort, and vastly greater security against want and demoralization, than were attained by their neighbors or the surrounding population, with better schools and opportunities of training for their children, and far less exposure for the women, and the aged and infirm.
In origin the Icarians are French; the Shakers and Perfectionists Americans; the others are Germans; and these outnumber all the American communists. In fact, the Germans make better communists than any other people—unless the Chinese should some day turn their attention to communistic attempts. What I have seen of these people in California and the Sandwich Islands leads me to believe that they are well calculated for communistic experiments.
All the communes under consideration have as their bond of union some form of religious belief. It is asserted by some writers who theorize about communism that a commune can not exist long without some fanatical religious thought as its cementing force; while others assert with equal positiveness that it is possible to maintain a commune in which the members shall have diverse and diverging beliefs in religious matters. It seems to me that both these theories are wrong; but that it is true that a commune to exist harmoniously, must be composed of persons who are of one mind upon some question which to them shall appear so important as to take the place of a religion, if it is not essentially religions; though it need not be fanatically held.
Thus the Icarians reject Christianity; but they have adopted the communistic idea as their religion. This any one will see who speaks with them. But devotion to this idea has supported them under the most deplorable poverty and long-continued hardships for twenty years.
Again, the Bethel and Aurora Communes, whose members make singularly little of outward religious observances, are held together by their belief that the essence of all religion, and of Christianity, is unselfishness, and that this requires community of goods.
I do not think that any of these people can be justly called fanatics.
On the other hand, the Shakers, Rappists, Bäumelers, Eben-Ezers,
and Perfectionists have each a very positive and deeply rooted religious faith; but none of them can properly be called fanatics, except by a person who holds every body to be a fanatic, who believes differently from himself. For none of these people believe that they are alone good or alone right; all admit freely that there is room in the world for various and varying religious beliefs; and that neither wisdom nor righteousness ends with them.
It is also commonly said that all the communistic societies in this country oppose the family-life, and that in general they advocate some abnormal relation of the sexes, which they make a fundamental part of their communistic plan. This, too, is an error. Of all the communes I am now considering, only the Perfectionists of Oneida and Wallingford have established what can be fairly called unnatural sexual relations.
At Icaria, Amana, Aurora, Bethel, and Zoar the family relation is held in honor, and each family has its own separate household. The Icarians even forbid celibacy. None of these five societies maintain what is called a "unitary household;" and in only two, Icaria and Amana, do the people eat in common dining-halls.
The Shakers and Rappists are celibates; and it is often said by the Shakers that communism cannot be successful except where celibacy is a part of the system. It is not unnatural that they should think so; but the success of those societies which maintain the family relation would seem to prove the Shakers mistaken. And it is useful to remember that even the Rappists were successful before they determined, under deep religious influences, to give up marriage, and adopt celibacy. Moreover, the Rappists have never used the "unitary home" or the common dining-hall; they have always lived in small "families," composed of men, women, and children.
It seems to me a fair deduction from the facts, that neither religious fanaticism nor an unnatural sexual relation (unless
voluntary celibacy is so called) is necessary to the successful prosecution of a communistic experiment. What is required I shall try to set forth in another chapter.
The Eben-Ezers and the Perfectionists are the only communes which are at this time increasing in numbers. At Icaria, Bethel, Aurora, and Zoar, they hold their own; but they, too, have lost strength during the last twenty years. The Shakers and Rappists, the only celibate communists, are decreasing, and have lost during a number of years; and this in spite of their benevolent custom of adopting and training orphan children, to whom they devote money and care with surprising and creditable liberality. The Eben-Ezers get the greater part of their accessions from among the brethren of their faith in Germany; and they live in Iowa in such rigorous seclusion, and so entirely conceal themselves and their faith and plan from the general public, that it is evident they do not wish to recruit their membership from the surrounding population. The Perfectionists publish a weekly journal, send this and their pamphlets to all who wish them, and have always used the press freely. Their peculiar doctrines are widely known, and they receive constantly applications from persons desirous to join their communes. I believe the greater number of these applicants are men; and I do not doubt that the peculiar sexual relations existing at Oneida and Wallingford are an element of attraction to a considerable proportion of the persons who apply for membership, and who are almost without exception rejected; for it is right that I should here prevent a misconception by saying that the Perfectionists are sincerely and almost fanatically attached to their peculiar faith, and accept new members only with great care and many precautions.
The Perfectionists are essentially manufacturers, using agriculture only as a subsidiary branch of business. All the other societies have agriculture as their industrial base, and many of
them manufacture but little, though all have some branch of manufacture. Also, it is the aim of all to produce and make, as far as possible, every thing they consume. To limit the expenditures and increase the income is the evident road to wealth, as they have all discovered.
Much ingenuity has been exercised by all these communists in establishing profitable branches of manufacture; and they have had the good sense and courage in whatever they undertook to make only a good article, and secure trade by rigid honesty. Thus the Shaker garden seeds have for nearly three quarters of a century been accepted as the best all over the United States; the Oneida Perfectionists established the reputation of their silk-twist in the market by giving accurate weight and sound material; the woolen stuffs of Amana command a constant market, because they are well and honestly made; and in general I have found that the communists have a reputation for honesty and fair dealing among their neighbors, and where-ever their products are bought and sold, which must be very valuable to them.
Saw and grist mills, machine shops for the manufacture and repair of agricultural implements, and woolen factories, are the principal large manufacturing enterprises in which they are engaged; to these must be added the preserving of fruits, broom and basket making, the preparation of medicinal extracts, and the gathering and drying of herbs, garden seeds, and sweet corn, chair-making, and a few other small industries. One Shaker community manufactures washing-machines and mangles on a large scale, and another makes staves for molasses hogsheads. Indeed, the Shakers have shown more skill in contriving new trades than any of the other societies, and have among their members a good deal of mechanical ingenuity.
All the communes maintain shops for making their own clothing, shoes, and often hats; as well as for carpentry,
blacksmithing, wagon-making, painting, coopering, etc., and have the reputation among their neighbors of keeping excellent breeds of cattle. The small shops and the improved cattle are important advantages to their country neighbors; and a farmer who lives within half a dozen miles of a commune is fortunate in many ways, for he gains a market for some of his produce, and he has the advantage of all their mechanical skill. I did not specially investigate the question, but I have reason to believe that land in the neighborhood of a communistic society is always more valuable for these reasons; and I know of some instances in which the existence of a commune has added very considerably to the price of real estate near its boundaries.
Almost without exception the communists are careful and thorough farmers. Their barns and other farm-buildings are usually models for convenience, labor-saving contrivances, and arrangements for the comfort of animals. Their tillage is clean and deep; and in their orchards one always finds the best varieties of fruits. In their houses they enjoy all the comforts to which they are accustomed or which they desire, and this to a greater degree than their neighbors on the same plane of life; and, especially, they are always clean. The women of a commune have, without exception, I think, far less burdensome lives than women of the same class elsewhere. This comes partly because the men are more regular in their hours and habits, and waste no time in dram-shops or other and less harmful places of dissipation; partly, too, because all the industries of a commune are systematized, and what Yankees call "chores," the small duties of the household, such as preparing and storing firewood, providing water, etc., which on our farms are often neglected by the men, and cause the women much unnecessary hardship and toil, are in a commune brought into the general plan of work, and thoroughly attended to.
Of course, the permanence of a commune adds much to the comfort of the women, for it encourages the men in providing many small conveniences which the migratory farmer's wife sighs for in vain. A commune is a fixture; its people build and arrange for all time; and if they have an ideal of comfort they work up to it.