The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, , at sacred-texts.com
I remark, in the first place, that all the successful communes are composed of what are customarily called "common people."
You look in vain for highly educated, refined, cultivated, or elegant men or women. They profess no exalted views of humanity or destiny; they are not enthusiasts; they do not speak much of the Beautiful with a big B. They are utilitarians. Some do not even like flowers; some reject instrumental music. They build solidly, often of stone; but they care nothing for
architectural effects. Art is not known among them; mere beauty and grace are undervalued, even despised. Amusements, too, they do not value; only a few communes have general libraries, and even these are of very limited extent, except perhaps the library at Oneida, which is well supplied with new books and newspapers. The Perfectionists also encourage musical and theatrical entertainments, and make amusement so large a part of their lives that they have nearly half a dozen committees to devise and superintend them.
At Amana and Economy, as well as among the Shakers, religious meetings are the principal recreations; though the Shaker union meetings, where the members of a family visit each other in small groups, may be called a kind of diversion. At Economy, in the summer, the people enjoy themselves in flower-gardens, where they gather to be entertained by the music of a band.
2. The communists do not toil severely. Usually they rise early—among the Shakers at half-past four in the summer, and five in winter; and in most of the other communes before or about sunrise. They labor industriously, but not exhaustingly, all the day; and in such ways as to make their toil comfortable and pleasant. "Two hired workmen would do as much as three of our people," said a Shaker to me; and at Amana they told me that three hired men would do the work of five or even six of their members. "We aim to make work not a pain, but a pleasure," I was told; and I think they succeed. The workshops are usually very comfortably arranged, thoroughly warmed and ventilated, and in this they all display a nice care.
3. They are all very cleanly. Even in those communes, as at Aurora, where the German peasant appears to have changed but very little most of his habits, cleanliness is a conspicuous virtue. The Shaker neatness is proverbial; at Economy every thing looks as though it had been cleaned up for a Sunday examination.
[paragraph continues] In the other German communes the neatness is as conspicuous within the houses, but it does not extend to the streets and spaces out of doors. The people do not appear to be offended at the sight of mud in winter, and, like most of our Western farmers, do not know what good roads are. The Perfectionists pay a little attention to landscape-gardening, and have laid out their grounds very tastefully.
4. The communists are honest. They like thorough and good work; and value their reputation for honesty and fair dealing. Their neighbors always speak highly of them in this respect.
5. They are humane and charitable. In Kentucky, during the slavery period, the Shakers always had their pick of Negroes to be hired, because they were known to treat them well. At New Lebanon I was told that a farm-hand was thought fortunate who was engaged by the Mount Lebanon Shakers. At Amana and at Economy the hired people value their situations so highly that they willingly conform to the peculiarities of the commune, so far as it is demanded. At Oneida, where a large number of men and women are employed in the factories, they speak very highly of their employers, though these are the objects of prejudice on account of their social system. So, too, the animals of a commune are always better lodged and more carefully attended than is usual among its neighbors.
6. The communist's life is full of devices for personal ease and comfort. At Icaria, owing to their poverty, comfort was, until within a year or two, out of the question—but they did what they could. Among the other and more prosperous communes, a good deal of thought is given to the conveniences of life. One sees very perfectly fitted laundries; covered ways by which to pass from house to outhouses in stormy weather; ingenious contrivances for ventilation, and against drafts, etc.
7. They all live well, according to their different tastes.
[paragraph continues] Food is abundant, and well cooked. In some Shaker communes a part of the family eat no meat, and special provision is made for these. Fruit is every where very abundant, and forms a large part of their diet; and this no doubt helps to keep them healthy. They take a pride in their store-rooms and kitchens, universally eat good bread and butter, and live much more wholesomely than the average farmer among their neighbors.
8. They are usually healthy, though in some communes they have a habit of doctoring themselves for fancied diseases. In almost all the Shaker communes I found hospitals, or "nurse-shops," as they call them, but oftenest they were empty. In the other societies I saw no such special provision for serious or chronic diseases.
9. I have no doubt that the communists are the most long-lived of our population. This is natural; they eat regularly and well, rise and retire early, and do not use ardent spirits; they are entirely relieved of the care and worry which in individual life beset every one who must provide by the labor of hand or head for a family; they are tenderly cared for when ill; and in old age their lives are made very easy and pleasant. They live a great deal in the open air also. Moreover, among the American communists, health and longevity are made objects of special study; and the so-called health journals are read with great interest. It results that eighty is not an uncommon age for a communist; and in every society, except perhaps in Icaria, I saw or heard of people over ninety, and still hale and active.
10. They are temperate in the use of wine or spirits, and drunkenness is unknown in all the communes, although among the Germans the use of wine and beer is universal. The American communes do not use either at all. But at Economy or Amana or Zoar the people receive either beer or wine daily, and especially in harvest-time, when they think
these more wholesome than water. At Economy they have very large, substantially built wine-cellars, where some excellent wine is stored.
Is it not possible that the general moderation with which life is pursued in a commune, the quiet, absence of exciting or worrying cares, regularity of habit and easy work, by keeping their blood cool, decrease the tendency to misuse alcoholic beverages? There is no doubt that in the German communes wine and beer are used, and have been for many years, in a way which would be thought dangerous by our temperance people; but I have reason to believe without the occurrence of any case of habitual intemperance. Possibly scientific advocates of temperance may hereafter urge a more temperate and sensible pursuit of wealth and happiness, a less eager life and greater contentment, as more conducive to what we narrowly call "temperance" than all the total-abstinence pledges.
11. It is a fixed principle in all the communes to keep out of debt, and to avoid all speculative and hazardous enterprises. They are content with small gains, and in an old-fashioned way study rather to moderate their outlays than to increase their profits. Naturally—as they own in common—they are not in haste to be rich. Those of them who have suffered from debt feel it to be both a danger and a curse. None of the communes make the acquisition of wealth a leading object of life. They have greater regard to independence and comfort. Their surplus capital they invest in land or in the best securities, such as United States bonds.
12. In those communes where the family relation is upheld, as the people are prosperous, they marry young. At Amana they do not permit the young men to marry before they reach the age of twenty-four.
In the celibate societies a number of precautions are used to keep the sexes apart. Among the Shakers, especially, there are usually separate doors and stairways in the dwelling-houses;
the workshops of the sexes are in different buildings; they eat at separate tables; and in their meetings men and women are ranged on opposite sides of the hall. Moreover, no one is lodged alone, even the elders and ministry sharing the sleeping-room with some other brother. It is not even permitted that a man and woman shall stand and talk together on the public walk. In most of their schools the sexes are also separated. In some of their dwellings, where but a single staircase exists, there is a rule that two persons of opposite sexes shall not pass each other on the stairs. They are not allowed to keep pet animals; nor to enter the room of another sex without knocking and receiving permission; nor to visit, except by appointment of the elders or ministry; nor to make presents to each other; nor to visit the shops of the other sex alone. At Economy there are separate entrance-ways to the dwellings for the two sexes.
It is not pretended in the celibate communes that the celibate life is easy; they confess it to be a sacrifice; but as they are moved to it by their religious faith, they rigorously maintain their rule. I am satisfied that very few cases of sexual irregularity have occurred among them, and they rigorously expel all those who transgress their rules.
It is natural that they should assert that celibacy is healthful; and, indeed, they point to the long life and general good health of their members in proof; and the fresh and fair complexions of a great number of their middle-aged people might be cited as another proof. Yet I have been told that the women are apt to suffer in health, particularly at the critical period of life. I must add, however, that I could hear of no cases of insanity or idiocy traceable to the celibate condition. Of course there is no force used to keep members in a commune; and those who are uncomfortable leave and go out into the world. The celibate communes keep very few of the young people whom they train up.
13. The communal life appears to be, at first view, inexorably dull and dreary; and the surprise was the greater to a visitor like myself to find the people every where cheerful, merry in their quiet way, and with a sufficient number and variety of healthful interests in life. But, after all, the life of the communist has much more varied interests and excitements than that of the farmer or his family; for a commune is a village, and usually forms a tolerably densely crowded aggregation of people—more like a small section cut out of a city than like even a village. There is also a wholesome variety of occupations; and country life, to those who love it, presents an infinite fund of amusement and healthful work.
That this is a correct view is shown by the curious fact that at Amana, when the farmers of the surrounding country bring in their wool, which they sell to the society, they bring with them their wives and children, who find enjoyment in a stay at the little inn; at Zoar the commune's hotel is a favorite resort of the country people; the neighbors of the Icarians come from miles around to attend the school exhibitions and other diversions of these communists; and about Aurora, in Oregon, the farmers speak of the commune's life as admirably arranged for amusement and variety.
14. Several of the societies have contrived ingenious mechanical means for securing harmony and eliminating without violence improper or rather uncongenial members; and these appear to me to be of high importance. The Shakers use what they call "Confession of sins to the elders;" the Amana people have an annual "untersuchung," or inquiry into the sins and the spiritual condition of the members; the Perfectionists use what they rightly call "Criticism"—perhaps the most effective of all, as in it the subject is not left to tell his own tale, but sits at the oyer of his sins and disagreeable conduct, being judge rather than witness. But all these devices are meritorious, because by their means petty disputes
are quieted, grievances are aired and thus dispersed, and harmony is maintained; while to one not in general agreement with the commune either is unbearable, and will drive him off. As I have described these practices in detail, under their proper heads, I need not here do more than mention them.
In judging of the quality of the communal life, I have found myself constantly falling into the error of comparing it with my own, or with the life of men and women in pleasant circumstances in our great cities. Even when thus studied it has merits—for the commune gives its members serenity of spirit, and relieves them from many of the follies to which even the most sensible men and women nowadays are reluctantly compelled to submit; not to speak of the petty and lowering cares which these follies and the general spirit of society bring to almost every one. It is undoubtedly an advantage to live simply, not to be the slave of fashion or of the opinion of others, and to keep the body under control.
But to be fairly judged, the communal life, as I have seen and tried to report it, must be compared with that of the mechanic and laborer in our cities, and of the farmer in the country; and when thus put in judgment, I do not hesitate to say that it is in many ways—and in almost all ways—a higher and better, and also a pleasanter life.
It provides a greater variety of employment for each individual, and thus increases the dexterity and broadens the faculties of men. It offers a wider range of wholesome enjoyments, and also greater restraints against debasing pleasures. It gives independence, and inculcates prudence and frugality. It demands self-sacrifice, and restrains selfishness and greed; and thus increases the happiness which comes from the moral side of human nature. Finally, it relieves the individual's life from a great mass of carking cares, from the necessity of over-severe and exhausting toil, from the dread of misfortune or exposure in old age.
If the communal life did not offer such or equivalent rewards, no commune could exist. For though in almost all of those I have described a religious thought and theory enter in, it may nevertheless be justly said that all arose out of a deep-seated dissatisfaction with society as it is constituted—a feeling which is well-nigh universal, and affects men and women more the more thoughtful they are; that they continue only because this want of something better is gratified; but that a commune could not long continue whose members had not, in the first place, by adverse circumstances, oppression, or wrong, been made to feel very keenly the need of something better. Hence it is that the German peasant or weaver makes so good a communist; and hence, too, the numerous failures of communistic experiments in this country, begun by people of culture and means, with a sincere desire to live the "better life." J. H. Noyes, the founder of the Perfectionist communes, gives, in his book on "American Socialisms," brief accounts of not less than forty-seven failures, * many of them experiments which promised well at first, and whose founders were high-minded, highly cultivated men and women, with sufficient means, one would think, to achieve success.
Now, why these successes in the face of so many failures? Certainly there was not among the Shakers, the Rappists, the Bäumelers, the Eben-Ezers, the Perfectionists, greater business
ability or more powerful leadership? Greater wealth there was not, for most of the successful societies began poor. If education or intellectual culture are important forces, the unsuccessful societies had these, the successful ones had them not.
Mr. Noyes believes that religion must be the base of a successful commune. Mr. Greeley agreed with him. I believe that religion must be the foundation of every human society which is to be orderly, virtuous, and therefore self-denying, and so far I do not doubt that they are right. But if it is meant, as I understand them, that in order to success there must be some peculiar religious faith, fanatically held, I do not believe it at all.
I believe that success depends—together with a general agreement in religious faith, and a real and spiritual religion leavening the mass—upon another sentiment—upon a feeling of the unbearableness of the circumstances in which they find themselves. The general feeling of modern society is blindly right at bottom: communism is a mutiny against society.
Only, whether the communist shall rebel with a bludgeon and a petroleum torch, or with a plow and a church, depends upon whether he has not or has faith in God—whether he is a religious being or not. If priestcraft and tyranny have sapped his faith and debauched his moral sense, then he will attack society as the French commune recently attacked Paris—animated by a furious envy of his more fortunate fellow-creatures, and an undiscriminating hatred toward every thing which reminds him of his oppressors, or of the social system from which he has or imagines he has suffered wrong. If, on the contrary, he believes in God, he finds hope and comfort in the social theory which Jesus propounded; and he will seek another way out, as did the Rappists, the Eben-Ezers, the Jansenists, the Zoarites, and not less the Shakers and the Perfectionists, each giving his own interpretation to that brief narrative
of Luke in which he describes the primitive Christian Church:
"And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and goods; and parted them to all men as every man had need."
These words have had a singular power over men in all ages since they were written. They form the charter of every communistic society of which I have spoken—for even the Icarians recall them.
407:* Here is a list of titles, which I take from Noyes: The Alphadelphia Phalanx, Hopedale Community, Leroysville Phalanx, Bloomfield Association, Blue Springs Community, North American Phalanx, Ohio Phalanx, Brook Farm, Bureau County Phalanx, Raritan Bay Union, Wisconsin Phalanx; the Clarkson, Clermont, Columbian, Coxsackie, Skaneateles, Integral, Iowa Pioneer, Jefferson County, La Grange, Turnbull, Sodus Bay, and Washtenaw Phalanxes; the Forrestville, Franklin, Garden Grove, Goose Pond, Haverstraw, Kendall, One Mentian, and Yellow Springs Communities; the Marlborough, McKean County, Mixville, Northampton, Spring Farm, and Sylvania Associations; the Moorehouse and the Ontario Unions; the Prairie Home; New Harmony, Nashoba, New Lanark, the Social Reform Unity, and the Peace Union Settlement.