Sacred Texts  Utopia  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, [1875], at

p. 331




p. 332 p. 333


ETIENNE CABET had a pretty dream; this dream took hold of his mind, and he spent sixteen years of his life in trying to turn it into real life.

One cannot help respecting the handful of men and women who, in the wilderness of Iowa, have for more than twenty years faithfully endeavored to work out the problem of Communism according to the system he left them; but Cabet's own writings persuade me that he was little more than a vain dreamer, without the grim patience and steadfast unselfishness which must rule the nature of one who wishes to found a successful communistic society.

Cabet was born at Dijon, in France, in 1788. He was educated for the bar, but became a politician and writer. He was a leader of the Carbonari; was a member of the French Legislature; wrote a history of the French Revolution of July; established a newspaper; was condemned to two years' imprisonment for an article in it, but evaded his sentence by flying to London; in 1839 returned to France, and published a history of the French Revolution in four volumes; and the next year issued a book somewhat famous in its day—the voyage to Icaria. In this romance he described a communistic Utopia, whose terms he had dreamed out; and he began at once to try to realize his dream. He framed a constitution for an actual Icaria; sought for means and members to establish it; selected Texas as its field of operations, and early in 1848 actually persuaded a number of persons to set sail for the Red River country.

p. 334

Sixty-nine persons formed the advance guard of his Utopia. They were attacked by yellow fever, and suffered greatly; and by the time next year when Cabet arrived at New Orleans with a second band, the first was already disorganized. He heard, on his arrival, that the Mormons had been driven from Nauvoo, in Illinois, leaving their town deserted; and in May, 1850, he established his followers there.

They bought at Nauvoo houses sufficient to accommodate them, but very little land, renting such farms as they needed. They lived there on a communal system, and ate in a great dining-room. But Cabet, I have been told, did not intend to form his colony permanently there, but regarded Nauvoo only as a rendezvous for those who should join the community, intending to draft them thence to the real settlements, which he wished to found in Iowa.

If Cabet had been a leader of the right temper, he might, I believe, have succeeded; for he appears to have secured the only element indispensable to success—a large number of followers. He had at Nauvoo at one time not less than fifteen hundred people. With so many members, a wise leader with business skill ought to be able to accomplish very much in a single year; in ten years his commune, if he could keep it together, ought to be wealthy.

The Icarians labored and planted with success at Nauvoo; they established trades of different kinds, as well as manufactures; and Cabet set up a printing-office, and issued a number of books and pamphlets in French and German, intended to attract attention to the community. Among these, a pamphlet of twelve pages, entitled, "Wenn ich $500,000 hätte" ("If I had half a million dollars"), which bears date Nauvoo, 1854, gives in some detail his plans and desires. It is a statement of what he could and would achieve for a commune if some one would start him with a capital of half a million; and the fact that four years after he came to Nauvoo

p. 335

he should still have spent his time in such an impracticable dream, shows, I think, that he was not a fit leader for the enterprise. For nothing appears to me more certain than that a communistic society, to be successful, needs above all things to have the training, mental and physical, which comes out of a life of privation, spent in the patient accumulation of property by the labors of the members.

Moreover, in Cabet's first paragraph he shows contempt for one of the vital principles of a communistic society. "If I had five hundred thousand dollars," he writes, "this would open to us an immense credit, and in this way vastly increase our means." But it is absolutely certain that debt is the bane of such societies; and the remnant of Icarians who have so tenaciously and bravely held together in Iowa would be the first to confess this, for they suffered hardships for years because of debt.

If he had half a million, Cabet goes on to say, he would be able to establish his commune upon a broad and generous scale; and he draws a pretty picture of dwellings supplied with gas and hot and cold water; of factories fitted up on the largest scale; of fertile farms under the best culture; of schools, high and elementary; of theatres, and other places of amusement; of elegantly kept pleasure-grounds, and so on. Alas for the dreams of a dreamer! I turned over the leaves of his pamphlet while wandering through the muddy lanes of the present Icaria, on one chilly Sunday in March, with a keen sense of pain at the contrast between the comfort and elegance he so glowingly described and the dreary poverty of the life which a few determined men and women have there chosen to follow, for the sake of principles which they hold both true and valuable.

I have heard that Cabet developed at Nauvoo a dictatorial spirit, and that this produced in time a split in the society. The leader and his adherents went off to St. Louis, where he

p. 336

died in 1856. Meantime some of the members were already settled in Iowa, and those who remained at Nauvoo after Cabet's desertion or flight dispersed; the property was sold, and the Illinois colony came to an end. The greater part of the members went off, more or less disappointed. Between fifty and sixty settled upon the Iowa estate, and here began life, very poor and with a debt of twenty thousand dollars in some way fixed upon their land.

Their narrow means allowed them to build at first only the meanest mud hovels. They thought themselves prosperous when they were able to build log-cabins, though these were so wretched that comfort must have been unknown among them for years. They were obliged to raise all that they consumed; and they lived, and indeed still live, in the narrowest way.

The Icarian Commune lies about four miles from Corning, a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, in Iowa. They began here with four thousand acres of land, pretty well selected, and twenty thousand dollars of debt. After some years of struggle they gave up the land to their creditors, with the condition that they might redeem one half of it within a certain stipulated time. This they were able to do by hard work and pinching economy; and they own at present one thousand nine hundred and thirty-six acres, part of which is in timber, and valuable on that account.

There are in all sixty-five members, and eleven families. The families are not large, for there are twenty children and only twenty-three voters in the community.

They possess a saw-mill and grist-mill, built out of their savings within five years, and now a source of income. They cultivate three hundred and fifty acres of land, and have one hundred and twenty head of cattle, five hundred head of sheep, two hundred and fifty hogs, and thirty horses. Until within three years the settlement contained only log-cabins, and these very small, and not commodiously arranged. Since then they

p. 337

have got entirely out of debt, and have begun to build frame houses. The most conspicuous of these is a two-story building, sixty by twenty-four feet in dimensions, which contains the common dining-room, kitchen, a provision cellar, and up stairs a room for a library, and apartments for a family. In the spring of 1874 they had nearly a dozen frame houses, which included the dining-hall, a wash-house, dairy, and school-house. All the dwellings are small and very cheaply built. They have small shops for carpentry, blacksmithing, wagon-making, and shoemaking; and they make, as far as possible, all they use.

Most of the people are French, and this is the language mainly spoken, though I found that German was also understood. Besides the French, there are among the members one American, one Swiss, a Swede, and a Spaniard, and two Germans. The children look remarkably healthy, and on Sunday were dressed with great taste. The living is still of the plainest. In the common dining-hall they assemble in groups at the tables, which were without a cloth, and they drink out of tin cups, and pour their water from tin cans. "It is very plain," said one to me; "but we are independent—no man's servants—and we are content."

They sell about two thousand five hundred pounds of wool each year, and a certain number of cattle and hogs; and these, with the earnings of their mills, are the sources of their income.

Their number does not increase, though four or five years ago they were reduced to thirty members; but since then seven who went off have returned. I should say that they had passed over the hardest times, and that a moderate degree of prosperity is possible to them now; but they have waited long for it. I judge that they had but poor skill in management and no business talent; but certainly they had abundant courage and determination.

They live under a somewhat elaborate constitution, made

p. 338

for them by Cabet, which lays down with great care the equality and brotherhood of mankind, and the duty of holding all things in common; abolishes servitude and service (or servants); commands marriage, under penalties; provides for education; and requires that the majority shall rule. In practice they elect a president once a year, who is the executive officer, but whose powers are strictly limited to carrying out the commands of the society. "He could not even sell a bushel of corn without instructions," said one to me. Every Saturday evening they hold a meeting of all the adults, women as well as men, for the discussion of business and other affairs. Officers are chosen at every meeting to preside and keep the records; the president may present subjects for discussion; and women may speak, but have no vote. The conclusions of the meeting are to rule the president during the next week. All accounts are made up monthly, and presented to the society for discussion and criticism. Besides the president, there are four directors—of agriculture, clothing, general industry, and building. These carry on the necessary work, and direct the other members. They buy at wholesale twice a year, and just before these purchases are made each member in public meeting makes his or her wants known. Luxury is prohibited in the constitution, but they have not been much tempted in that direction so far. They use tobacco, however.

They have no religious observances. Sunday is a day of rest from labor, when the young men go out with guns, and the society sometimes has theatrical representations, or music, or some kind of amusement. The principle is to let each one do as he pleases.

They employ two or three hired men to chop wood and labor on the farm.

They have a school for the children, the president being teacher.

The people are opposed to what is called a "unitary home," and prefer to have a separate dwelling for each family.

p. 339

The children are kept in school until they are sixteen; and the people lamented their poverty, which prevented them from providing better education for them.

Members are received by a three-fourths' majority.

This is Icaria. It is the least prosperous of all the communities I have visited; and I could not help feeling pity, if not for the men, yet for the women and children of the settlement, who have lived through all the penury and hardship of these many years. A gentleman who knew of my visit there writes me: "Please deal gently and cautiously with Icaria. The man who sees only the chaotic village and the wooden shoes, and only chronicles those, will commit a serious error. In that village are buried fortunes, noble hopes, and the aspirations of good and great men like Cabet. Fertilized by these deaths, a great and beneficent growth yet awaits Icaria. It has an eventful and extremely interesting history, but its future is destined to be still more interesting. It, and it alone, represents in America a great idea—rational democratic communism."

I am far from belittling the effort of the men of Icaria. They have shown, as I have said, astonishing courage and perseverance. They have proved their faith in the communistic idea by labors and sufferings which seem to me pitiful. In fact, communism is their religion. But their long siege at fortune's door only shows how important, and indeed indispensable to the success of such an effort, it is to have an able leader, and to give to him almost unlimited power and absolute obedience.

Next: The Bishop Hill Commune.