The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, , at sacred-texts.com
Nothing surprised me more, in my investigations of the communistic societies, than to discover—
1st. The amount and variety of business and mechanical skill which is found in every commune, no matter what is the character or intelligence of its members; and,
2d. The ease and certainty with which the brains come to the top. Of course this last is a transcendent merit in any system of government.
The fundamental principle of communal life is the subordination of the individual's will to the general interest or the general will: practically, this takes the shape of unquestioning obedience by the members toward the leaders, elders, or chiefs of their society.
But as the leaders take no important step without the unanimous consent of the membership; and as it is a part of the communal policy to set each member to that work which he can do best, and so far as possible to please all; and as the communist takes life easily, and does not toil as severely as the individualist—so, given a general assent to the principle of obedience, and practically little hardship occurs.
The political system of the Icarians appears to me the worst, or most faulty, and that of the Shakers, Rappists, and Amana Communists the best and most successful, among all the societies.
The Icarian system is as nearly as possible a pure democracy. The president, elected for a year, is simply an executive officer to do the will of the majority, which is expressed or ascertained every Saturday night, and is his rule of conduct for the following week. "The president could not sell a bushel of corn without instructions from the meeting of the people," said an Icarian to me—and thereby seemed to me to condemn the system of which he was evidently proud.
At Amana, and among the Shaker communes, the "leading characters," as the Shakers quaintly call them, are selected by the highest spiritual authority, are seldom changed, and have almost, but not quite, unlimited power and authority. The limitations are that they shall so manage as to preserve harmony, and that they shall act within the general rules of the societies—shall not contract debts, for instance, or enter upon speculative or hazardous enterprises.
The democracy which exists at Oneida and Wallingford is held in check by the overshadowing conservative influence of their leader, Noyes; it remains to be seen how it will work after his death. But it differs from the Icarian system in this important respect, that it does give large powers to leaders and executive officers. Moreover, the members of these two Perfectionist communes are almost all overseers of hired laborers; and Oneida is in reality more a large and prosperous manufacturing corporation, with a great number of partners all actively engaged in the work, than a commune in the common sense of the word.
At Economy the chiefs have always been appointed by the spiritual head, and for life; and the people, as among the Shakers and Eben-Ezers, trouble themselves but little about the management. The same is true of Zoar and Bethel, practically, though the Bäumelers elect trustees. Aurora is still under the rule of its founder.
Aside from the religious bond, and I believe of equal strength
with that in the minds of most communists, is the fact that in a commune there is absolute equality. The leader is only the chief servant; his food and lodgings are no better than those of the members. At Economy, the people, to be sure, built a larger house for Rapp, but this was when he had become old, and when he had to entertain strangers—visitors. But even there the garden which adjoins the house is frequented by the whole society—is, in fact, its pleasure-ground; and the present leaders live in the old house as simply and plainly as the humblest members in theirs. At Zoar, Bäumeler occupied a commodious dwelling, but it was used also as a storehouse. At Aurora, Dr. Keil's house accommodates a dozen or twenty of the older unmarried people, who live in common with him. At Amana, the houses of the leaders are so inconspicuous and plain that they are not distinguishable from the rest. A Shaker elder sits at the head of the table of his family or commune, and even the highest elder or bishop of the society has not a room to himself, and is expected to work at some manual occupation when not employed in spiritual duties.
In a commune no member is a servant; if any servants are kept, they are hired from among the world's people. When the Kentucky Shakers organized, they not only liberated their slaves, but such of them as became Shakers were established in an independent commune or family by their former masters. They "ceased to be servants, and became brethren in the Lord."
Any one who has felt the oppressive burden of even the highest and best-paid kinds of service will see that independence and equality are great boons, for which many a man willingly sacrifices much else.
Moreover, the security against want and misfortune, the sure provision for old age and inability, which the communal system offers—is no doubt an inducement with a great many
to whom the struggle for existence appears difficult and beset by terrible chances.
I do not mean here to undervalue the higher motives which lead men and women into religious communities, and which control the leaders, and no doubt a considerable part of the membership in such communes; but not all. For even among the most spiritual societies there are, and must be, members controlled by lower motives, and looking mainly to sufficient bread and butter, a regular and healthful life, easy tasks, and equality of condition.
Finally, the communal life secures order and system—certainly at the expense of variety and amusement; but a man or woman born with what the Shakers would call a gift of order, finds, I imagine, a singular charm in the precision, method, regularity, and perfect system of a communal village. An eternal Sabbath seems to reign in a Shaker settlement, or at Economy, or Amana. There is no hurly-burly. This systematic arrangement of life, combined with the cleanliness which is a conspicuous feature in every commune which I have visited, gives a decency and dignity to humble life which in general society is too often without.
"How do you manage with the lazy people?" I asked in many places; but there are no idlers in a commune. I conclude that men are not naturally idle. Even the "winter Shakers"—the shiftless fellows who, as cold weather approaches, take refuge in Shaker and other communes, professing a desire to become members; who come at the beginning of winter, as a Shaker elder said to me, "with empty stomachs and empty trunks, and go off with both full as soon as the roses begin to bloom"—even these poor creatures succumb to the systematic and orderly rules of the place, and do their share of work without shirking, until the mild spring sun tempts them to a freer life.
The character of the leaders in a commune is of the greatest importance. It affects, in the most obvious manner, the development of the society over which they rule. The "leading character" is sure to be a man of force and ability, and he forms the habits, not only of daily life, but even of thought, of those whom he governs—just as the father forms the character of his children in a family, or would if he did not give his whole life to "business."
But origin, nationality, and previous social condition are, of course, still greater powers. Thus the German communists in the United States, who came for the most part from the peasant class in their country, retain their peculiar habits of life, which are often singular, and sometimes repulsive to an American. They enjoy doubtless more abundant food than in their old homes; but it is of the same kind, and served in the same homely style to which they were used. Their dwellings may be more substantial; but they see nothing disagreeable in two or three families occupying the same house. At Icaria I saw French sabots, or wooden shoes, standing at the doors of the houses; and at dinner the water was poured from a vessel of tin—not, I imagine, because they were too poor to afford a pitcher, but because this was the custom at home.
So, too, among the American societies there are great differences. To the outer eye one Shaker is much like another; but the New Hampshire and Kentucky Shakers are as different from each other as the general population of one state is from that of the other, both in intellectual character and habits of life; and the New York Shaker differs again from both. Climate, by the habits it compels, makes trivial but still conspicuous differences; it is not possible that the Kentucky Shaker, who hears the mocking-bird sing in his pines on every sunny day the winter through, and in whose woods the blue-jay is a constant resident, should be the same being as his brother in Maine or New Hampshire, who sees the mercury fall to
twenty degrees below zero, and stores his winter's firewood in a house as big as an ordinary factory or as his own meeting-house.
I was much struck with the simplicity of the book-keeping in most of the communities, which often made it difficult for me to procure such simple statistics as I have given in previous pages. Sometimes, as at Zoar, Aurora, and Bethel, it was with great trouble that I could get even approximate figures; and this not entirely because they were unwilling to give the information, but because it was nowhere accessible in a condensed and accurate shape. "If a man owes no money—if he pays and receives cash—he needs to keep but few accounts," said a leading man at Aurora to me.
In most of the communes there is no annual or other business statement made to the members; and this plan, which at first seems to be absurdly insecure and unbusinesslike, works well in practice. Among the Shakers, the ministry, whenever they wish to, and usually once a year, overhaul the accounts of the trustees. The extensive business affairs of the Rappists have always been carried on by two leading men, without supervision, and without loss or defalcation. At Amana it is the same, as well as at Zoar, Bethel, and Aurora. The fixed rule of the communes, not to run in debt, is a wholesome check on trustees; and though defalcations have occurred in several of the Shaker communes, they remain satisfied that their plan of account-keeping is the best.
At Oneida they have a very thorough system of book-keeping—more complete than would be found, I suspect, in most large manufacturing establishments; and there I received definite and accurate statistical information with but little delay. But the Perfectionists have a more keenly mercantile spirit than any of the other communal societies; they are, as I said before, essentially a manufacturing corporation.
It is an important part of the commune's economies in living
that it buys its supplies at wholesale. Oddly enough, a person at Buffalo, with whom I spoke of the Eben-Ezer people, remarked that they were disliked in the city, because, while they sold their products there, they bought their supplies at wholesale in New York. The retailer and middle-man appear to have vested rights nowadays. People seem to have thought in Buffalo that they obliged the Eben-Ezer men by buying their vegetables. I have heard the same objection made in other states to the Shaker societies: "They are of no use to the country, for they buy every thing in the city at wholesale." As though they did not pay taxes, besides setting an excellent example of virtuous and moderate living to their neighbors.
The simplicity of dress usual among communists works also an economy not only in means, but what is of equal importance, and might be of greater, a saving of time and trouble and vexation of spirit to the women. I think it a pity that all the societies have not a uniform dress; the Shakers and Rappists have, and it is an advantage in point of neatness. The slop-made coats and trousers worn in many societies quickly turn shabby, and give a slouchy appearance to the men, which is disagreeable to the eye, and must be more or less demoralizing to the wearers. The blue jacket of the Rappist is a very suitable and comfortable working garment; and the long coat of the Shaker always looks decent and tidy.
As to the dress of the women—in Amana, and also among the Shakers, the intention seems to be to provide a style which shall conceal their beauty, and make them less attractive to male eyes; and this is successfully achieved. At Economy no such precautions are taken; the women wear the honest dress of German peasants, with a kind of Norman cap, and the dress is sensible, convenient, and by no means uncomely. At Oneida the short dress, with trousers, and the clipped locks, though convenient, are certainly ugly. Elsewhere dress is not
much thought of. But in all the societies stuffs of good quality are used; and none are the slaves of fashion. I need not point out how much time and trouble are saved to women by this alone.
The societies have generally as good schools as the average of the common schools in their neighborhoods, and often better. None but the Oneida and Wallingford Communists favor a "liberal" or extended education; these, however, have sent a number of their young men to the Sheffield scientific school at New Haven. The Shakers and Rappists teach musical notation to the children; and all the communes, except of course Icaria, give pretty careful religious instruction to the young.
But, besides the "schooling," they have all preserved the wholesome old custom of teaching the boys a trade, and the girls to sew, cook, and wash. "Our boys learn as much, perhaps more than the farmer's or village boys, in our schools; and we make them also good farmers, and give them thorough knowledge of some useful trade:" this was often said to me—and it seemed to me a good account to give of the training of youth.