The Communistic Societies of the United States, by Charles Nordhoff, , at sacred-texts.com
Reviewing what I have seen and written, these questions occur:
I. On what terms, if at all, could a carefully selected and homogeneous company of men and women hope to establish themselves as a commune?
II. Would they improve their lives and condition?
III. Have the existing societies brought communal life to its highest point; or is a higher and more intellectual life compatible with that degree of pecuniary success and harmonious living which is absolutely indispensable?
I. I doubt if men and women in good circumstances, or given to an intellectual life, can hope to succeed in such an experiment. In the beginning, the members of a commune must expect to work hard; and, to be successful, they ought always to retain the frugal habits, the early hours, and the patient industry and contentment with manual labor which belong to what we call the working class. Men cannot play at communism. It is not amateur work. It requires patience, submission; self-sacrifice, often in little matters where self-sacrifice
is peculiarly irksome; faith in a leader; pleasure in plain living and healthful hours and occupations.
"Do you have no grumblers?" I asked Elder Frederick Evans at Mount Lebanon; and he replied, "Yes, of course—and they grumble at the elder. That is what he is for. It is necessary to have some one man to grumble at, for that avoids confusion."
"Do you have no scandal?" I asked at Aurora, and they said, "Oh yes—women will talk; but we have learned not to mind it."
"Are you not troubled sometimes with disagreeable members?" I asked at Oneida; and they answered, "Yes; but what we cannot criticize out of them we bear with. That is part of our life."
"Bear ye one another's burdens" might well be written over the gates of every commune.
Some things the communist must surrender; and the most precious of these is solitude.
The man to whom at intervals the faces and voices of his kind become hateful, whose bitterest need it is to be sometimes alone—this man need not try communism. For in a well-ordered commune there is hardly the possibility of privacy. You are part of a great family, all whose interests and all whose life must necessarily be in common. At Oneida, when a man leaves the house he sticks a peg in a board, to tell all his little world where he is to be found. In a Shaker family, the elder is expected to know where every man is at all hours of the day. Moses, wandering over the desert with his great commune, occasionally went up into a mountain; but he never returned to the dead level of his Israelites without finding his heart fill with rage and despair. Nor is this surprising; for in the commune there must be absolute equality; there can be no special privileges; and when the great Leader, resting his spirit on the mountain, and enjoying the luxury of solitude
and retirement from the hateful sight and sounds of human kind, "delayed to come down," his fellow-communists began at once to murmur, "As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we wot not what is become of him."
Fortunately—else there would be no communes—to the greater part of mankind the faces and voices of their kind are necessary.
A company of fifty, or even of twenty-five families, well known to each other, belonging to the same Christian Church, or at least united upon some one form of religious faith, composed of farmers or mechanics, or both, and strongly desirous to better their circumstances, and to live a life of greater independence and of greater social advantages than is attainable to the majority of farmers and mechanics, could, I believe, if they were so fortunate as to possess a leader of sufficient wisdom and unselfishness, in whom all would implicitly trust, make an attempt at communistic living with strong hopes of success; and they would undoubtedly, if they maintained their experiment only ten years, materially improve their condition; and, what to me seems more important, the life would affect their characters and those of their children in many ways beneficially.
I think it would be a mistake in such a company of people to live in a "unitary home." They should be numerous enough to form a village; they should begin with means sufficient to own a considerable tract of land, sufficient to supply themselves with food, and to keep as much stock as they required for their own use. They should so locate their village as to make it central to their agricultural land. They should determine, as the Rappists did, upon a uniform and simple dress and house, and upon absolute equality of living. They should place all the power in the hands of their leader, and solemnly promise him unhesitating trust and obedience; specifying
only that he should contract no debts, should attempt no new enterprise without unanimous consent, and should at all times open his purposes and his acts to the whole society. Finally, they should expect in the beginning to live economically—very economically, perhaps; and in every case within their income.
They would, of course, adopt rules as to hours of labor and of meals; but if they had the spirit which alone can give success, these matters would be easily settled—for in a community men are more apt to over-work than to be idle. The lazy men, who are the bugbears of speculative communists, are not, so far as I have heard, to be found in the existing communes, and I have often and in different places been told, especially of the early days: "We worked late and early, each trying how much he could accomplish, and singing at our work."
In a commune, which is only a large family, I think it a great point gained for success to give the women equal rights in every respect with the men. They should take part in the business discussions, and their consent should be as essential as that of the men in all the affairs of the society. This gives them, I have noticed, contentment of mind, as well as enlarged views and pleasure in self-denial. Moreover, women have a conservative spirit, which is of great value in a communistic society, as in a family; and their influence is always toward a higher life.
Servants are inadmissible in a commune; but it may and ought to possess conveniences which make servants, with plain living, needless. For instance, a common laundry, a common butcher's shop, a general barn and dairy, are contrivances which almost every commune possesses, but which hardly any village in the country has. A clean, hard road within the communal village limits, and dry side-walks, would be attainable with ease. A church and a school-house ought to be
the first buildings erected; and both being centrally placed, either could be used for such evening meetings as are essential to happy and successful community living.
Finally, there should be some way to bring to the light the dissatisfaction which must exist where a number of people attempt to live together, either in a commune or in the usual life, but which in a commune needs to be wisely managed. For this purpose I know of no better means than that which the Perfectionists call "criticism"—telling a member to his face, in regular and formal meeting, what is the opinion of his fellows about him—which he or she, of course, ought to receive in silence. Those who cannot bear this ordeal are unfit for community life, and ought not to attempt it. But, in fact, this "criticism," kindly and conscientiously used, would be an excellent means of discipline in most families, and would in almost all cases abolish scolding and grumbling.
A commune is but a larger family, and its members ought to meet each other as frequently as possible. The only advantage of a unitary home lies in this, that the members may easily assemble in a common room every evening for an hour, not with any set or foreordained purpose, but for that interchange of thought and experience which makes up, or should, a large and important part of family life. Hence every commune ought to have a pleasantly arranged and conveniently accessible meeting-room, to which books and newspapers, music, and cheap, harmless amusements should draw the people-women and children as well as men—two or three times a week. Nor is such meeting a hardship in a commune, where plain living, early hours, and good order and system make the work light, and leave both time and strength for amusement.
Tobacco, spirituous liquors, and cards ought to be prohibited in every commune, as wasteful of money, strength, and time.
The training of children in strict obedience and in good habits would be insisted on by a wise leader as absolutely
necessary to concord in the society; and the school-teacher ought to have great authority. Moreover, the training of even little children, during some hours of every day, in some manual occupation, like knitting—as is done at Amana—is useful in several ways. Regular and patient industry, not exhausting toil, is the way to wealth in a commune; and children—who are indeed in general but too proud to be usefully employed, and to have the sense of accomplishing something—cannot be brought into this habit of industry too early.
What now might the members of such a community expect to gain by their experiment? Would they, to answer the second question above, improve their lives and condition?
Pecuniarily, they would begin at once a vast economy and saving of waste, which could hardly help but make them prosperous, and in time wealthy. A commune pays no wages; its members "work for their board and clothes," as the phrase is; and these supplies are either cheaply produced or bought at wholesale. A commune has no blue Mondays, or idle periods whatever; every thing is systematized, and there is useful employment for all in all kinds of weather and at all seasons of the year. A commune wastes no time in "going to town," for it has its own shops of all kinds. It totally abolishes the middleman of every kind, and saves all the large percentage of gain on which the "store-keepers" live and grow rich elsewhere. It spends neither time nor money in dram-shops or other places of common resort. It secures, by plain living and freedom from low cares, good health in all, and thus saves "doctors' bills." It does not heed the changes in fashion, and thus saves time and strength to its women. Finally, the communal life is so systematized that every thing is done well, at the right time, and thus comes another important saving of time and material. The communal wood-house is always full of well-seasoned firewood: here is a saving of time and temper which almost every Western farmer's wife will appreciate.
If you consider well these different economies, it will cease to be surprising that communistic societies become wealthy; and this without severe or exhausting toil. The Zoarites acknowledge that they could not have paid for their land had they not formed themselves into a commune; the Amana Inspirationists confess that they could not have maintained themselves near Buffalo had they not adopted the communal system.
I have said nothing about the gain of the commune by the thorough culture it is able and likely to give to land; its ability to command at any moment a large laboring force for an emergency, and its advantage in producing the best, and selling its surplus consequently at the highest market price. But these are not slight advantages. I should say that the reputation for honesty and for always selling a good article is worth to the Shakers, the Amana and other communes, at least ten per cent. over their competitors.
On the moral side the gain is evidently great. In a society so intimately bound together, if there are slight tendencies to evil in any member, they are checked and controlled by the prevailing public sentiment. The possibility of providing with ease and without the expenditure of money good training and education for children, is an immense advantage for the commune over the individualist who is a farmer or mechanic in a new country. The social advantages are very great and evident. Finally, the effect of the communal life upon the character of the individual is good. Diversity of employments, as I have noticed in another chapter, broadens the men's faculties. Ingenuity and mechanical dexterity are developed to a surprising degree in a commune, as well as business skill. The constant necessity of living in intimate association with others, and taking into consideration their prejudices and weaknesses, makes the communist somewhat a man of the world; teaches him self-restraint; gives him a liberal
and tolerant spirit; makes him an amiable being. Why are all communists remarkably cleanly? I imagine largely because filth or carelessness would be unendurable in so large a family, and because system and method are absolutely necessary to existence.
But, to come to my third question, the communes I have visited do not appear to me to make nearly as much of their lives as they might. Most of them are ascetics, who avoid the beautiful as tending to sin; and most of them, moreover, out of the force of old habits, and a conservative spirit which dreads change, rigidly maintain the old ways.
In the beginning, a commune must live with great economy, and deny itself many things desirable and proper. It is an advantage that it should have to do this, just as it is undoubtedly an advantage to a young couple just starting out in life to be compelled by narrow circumstances to frugal living and self-denial. It gives unselfishness and a wholesome development of character. But I cannot see why a prosperous commune should not own the best books; why it should not have music; why it should not hear the most eloquent lecturers; why it should not have pleasant pleasure-grounds, and devote some means to the highest form of material art—fine architecture. It seems to me that in these respects the communes I have visited have failed of their proper and just development; and I believe this inattention to the higher and intellectual wants of men to be the main reason of their generally failing numbers. They keep their lives on the plane of the common farmer's life out of which most of the older members were gathered—and their young people leave them, just as the farmers of our country complain that their boys run off to the cities. The individual farmer or country mechanic cannot control this; he cannot greatly beautify his life, or make it intellectually richer. But to the commune, once well established and prosperous, all needful things are possible, so far as
money cost is concerned; and it is my belief that neither books nor music, nor eloquence nor flowers, nor finely kept pleasure-grounds nor good architecture would be dangerous to the success of a commune.
In another respect, the communistic societies fall short of what they ought to be and do. The permanence of their establishments gives them extraordinary advantages for observing the phenomena of climate and nature; and it would add greatly to the interest of their lives did they busy and interest themselves with observations of temperature, and of the various natural phenomena which depend upon or denote climate: the arrival and departure of birds; the first and last frosts; the blossoming of flowers and trees. A Shaker family ought to produce records of this kind of great value and interest; and I wonder that such a book as White's "Selborne" has not empted some communist to such observations. But I nowhere, except at Oneida, found more than a very superficial interest in natural phenomena.
It is easy to see that here is a field of innocent and healthful amusement which, with the abundant leisure the members of a prosperous commune enjoy, could be worked so as to give a new and ever-fresh interest to the lives of young and old.
I find fault also with the isolation in which communal societies live. They would be the better if they communicated fully and frequently among each other, and interchanged thoughts and experiences. Not only do the different societies hold aloof from each other, but among the Shakers even families do not communicate or advise with others living at a distance. But I believe this is to be remedied.
Finally, I repeat that one cannot play at communism. It is earnest work, and requires perseverance, patience, and all other manly qualities. But if I compare the life in a contented and prosperous, that is to say a successful commune, with the life of an ordinary farmer or mechanic even in our
prosperous country, and more especially with the lives of the working-men and their families in our great cities, I must confess that the communist life is so much freer from care and risk, so much easier, so much better in many ways, and in all material aspects, that I sincerely wish it might have a farther development in the United States.
With this wish I conclude a work which has interested me extremely—the record of an investigation which was certainly the strangest and most remarkable I ever made, and which forced me to take some views of the nature and capacities of the average man which I had not before.
That communistic societies will rapidly increase in this or any other country, I do not believe. The chances are always great against the success of any newly formed society of this kind. But that men and women can, if they will, live pleasantly and prosperously in a communal society is, I think, proved beyond a doubt; and thus we have a right to count this another way by which the dissatisfied laborer may, if he chooses, better his condition. This seems to me a matter of some importance, and justifies, to myself at least, the trouble I have taken in this investigation.