Early Experiments in Communism by Thomas Nixon Carver - 1920
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The primitive Christian Church is frequently referred to as an example of communism. One or two passages in the Acts of the Apostles indicate that the first Christians, at least, maintained a communistic fund for the maintenance of impecunious members. For a short time they appear to have put practically all of their possessions into a common fund. It will also be noticed that they not only put their possessions into a common fund but they stopped working and remained together in one place, awaiting the second coming of the Lord. This makes it appear as though communism were not with them an ideal scheme of social organization, but merely a convenient arrangement by means of which they could live while preparing for the end of the world and their sudden translation to heaven. They soon went back to work and forgot their communism.
The Spartans. The Spartan commonwealth is likewise referred to as a communistic society. According to the account given in Plutarch's "Life of Lycurgus," there were many communistic features about the life of the Spartans. It appears to have been the communism of a military camp, however, for the Spartans themselves were only a small clan, or caste, ruling over a much larger population of subject people. In order that they might be strong in a military sense, and hold the masses of the people in subjection, they organized themselves very much as a military camp has always been organized. There was no communism whatever for the mass of the people. It extended only to the small aristocratic and ruling class called Spartans.
The monasteries. Most of the monasteries of the Middle Ages were organized on a communistic basis. They also practiced celibacy, showing that they did not regard communism as the ideal basis of a continuing human society. The whole monastic life was organized for the purpose of promoting spirituality rather than for the purpose of reforming human society.
The Taborites. Certain extreme sects among the early Protestants attempted some kind of communistic life without celibacy, but never made much of a success. Conspicuous among these were the Taborites, an extreme faction of the followers of John Huss, the Bohemian reformer. They withdrew from the city of Prague and started a community on a hill to which they gave the name of "Mount Tabor." They hence became known as the Taborites. So long as they were thoroughly united by their religious sentiments they worked very successfully, not only in productive industry but even in war, for the great Austrian Empire sent army after army against them. They defeated the imperial armies because of the superiority of their organization. But eventually dissensions arose among them; they were divided and overthrown, and their community was broken up.
American experiments. America has been a fruitful field for the trying out of all sorts of experiments. Many of the first colonists came here because they were inspired by religious sentiments. They founded colonies where their religious ideas could flourish. This continent presented a virgin field where people with peculiar ideas of religious organization or of social economy could come and put their ideals to the test.
The outline on the following page gives a rough classification of the more important of these experiments. There were many not included in this list, which were either unimportant as to numbers or so short-lived as to make them unworthy of mention. It will be noticed that the long-lived communities were all religious in their nature. Of the non-religious communities only one, namely, the Icarians, lasted a single generation, whereas several of the religious communities have lasted half a century, and one group of communities (the Shakers) has several colonies that have survived for more than a century.
Religious communities. Many of the religious communities, it will be noticed, are of foreign origin, and most of these are of German origin. The Shakers are placed among those of American origin. As a religious sect the Shakers originated in England, but they made their experiments in communism in this country. They have established numerous colonies from Maine to Kentucky. They are celibates, and therefore their continuing existence depends upon their ability to make converts. This they have failed to do in recent years, and consequently the Shaker communities are dying out as the old people drop away.
The Perfectionists originated in Vermont under the leadership of Mr. John Humphrey Noyes. They afterwards moved to Oneida, New York. They have given up communism and have organized themselves in the form of a joint-stock society and are still prosperous and doing a thriving business, having found that the practical experience of the real world is a better guide than pure idealism.
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A multitude of other experiments of a more or less religious nature have been carried out by faith healers, Adventists, and other people of rather extreme religious views.
Of the religious communities of foreign origin that at Ephrata, Pennsylvania, was the first to be organized on a durable basis in this country. Like the Shakers, they were celibates and were therefore doomed to extinction.
One of the most successful of all these experiments was started in western Pennsylvania by some German pietists among the followers of one Georg Rapp, from whom they were given the name "Rappists." They afterwards moved to Indiana, where they sojourned for a time at New Harmony in the southwestern corner of the state. After a few years they sold out and moved back to Pennsylvania. Their colony, known as Economy, was a place for sightseers for many years.
The Separatists of Zoar and the Amana Society were somewhat similar in their origin and in their subsequent history. They did not practice celibacy. They prospered amazingly and presented a very attractive life as seen by visitors from the outside. They were animated by intense religious enthusiasm and by devotion to their own leaders. The Separatists of Zoar, however, gave up communism in 1898, largely because the younger generation had lost something of the religious zeal of the older generations and decided that they preferred the individualistic type of life to the communistic. The Amana Society is still flourishing, and the people are apparently satisfied.
The Bishop Hill Colony in Illinois was a Swedish colony; its character and organization resembled most of the others. When they lost their intense religious zeal they likewise lost their enthusiasm for the communistic type of life and gave it up.
A series of communistic societies is still flourishing in South Dakota. They are known as the Brotherhood Societies.
Several communities of North Italian Protestants have flourished in the South, particularly in Valdese, North Carolina, and near Gainesville, Texas.
Nonreligious communities. In 1822 Robert Owen, a great English philanthropist and a firm believer in what was then called socialism, came to America for the purpose of establishing an ideal community. He delivered many addresses and created much enthusiasm. In looking about for a location he found that the Harmonists, who were then living in New Harmony, Indiana, were desirous of selling out and moving back to Pennsylvania. He bought all their real estate and proceeded to establish a colony of his own. He was a man of great ability, who had made a fortune of his own, which he devoted liberally to the propagation of his ideas. His colony, however, was made up of idealists who were more in the habit of talking about their theories of society than of working to produce wealth; it was a good illustration of the inability of any community to live on talk. It lasted a little over two years, largely at the expense of Mr. Owen. Numerous other experiments of the same kind were tried, none of which lasted for a single year. One at Yellow Springs, Ohio, lasted for several months.
About 1841 the works of a French communist, Fourier, were translated and published in this country. They created great enthusiasm, and a large number of experiments were made. The most notable of these was Brook Farm, Massachusetts, which was started independently but afterward adopted the plan of Fourier. This experiment was notable mainly because of the great names in its list of members. Some of the most distinguished men and women of that day, in letters and in scholarship, joined the Brook Farm community. The most successful of the Fourier experiments, however, was the North American Phalanx in New Jersey. It lasted for thirteen years. An experiment at Hopedale, Massachusetts, was only partially communistic; it lasted seventeen years and then became a joint-stock association.
As indicated above, the most successful of all the nonreligious communities in this country was the Icarian community in Iowa. They were followers of Etienne Cabet, a French communist, who wrote a very attractive book entitled "A Voyage in Icaria." It awoke the slumbering idealism of many French people who desired to form a commonwealth after the description of the life of the Icarians. Cabet led his followers to this country and landed in New Orleans, hoping to establish them in northeastern Texas. The land proved inaccessible and the climate not very agreeable. They returned to New Orleans discouraged, but learned that the Mormons had recently been driven out of Nauvoo, Illinois. They proceeded by boat to Nauvoo and established themselves, finding plenty of vacant houses and factory buildings. Here they prospered for a number of years, but they wished to find a situation where they could be more to themselves. A tract of land was bought in southwestern Iowa, not very far from the present town of Corning. There they lived under the communistic system until 1895, when they gave up communism and came over to an individualistic regime.
A large number of other societies have been established by the followers both of Robert Owen and of Fourier and in recent years by the admirers of Laurence Gronlund and Edward Bellamy.
Results. It may seem as though the experiences of these numerous communistic societies tended to throw discredit upon all communistic ideals. The advocates of communism, however, insist that the principles of communism are still sound, even though a thousand communities fail. To an impartial observer it looks as though communism might work very well if people were built on a communistic plan. If they have a passion for communism or a powerful religious emotion which will overcome their individualistic and particularistic tendencies, they may live together peaceably under communism. Unless they are inspired with religious zeal or a genuine passion for communism, it seems as though the natural individuality, not to say the contrariness, of human nature would continue to break up all communistic societies in the future as it has in the past.
But why, it may be asked, will not communism work in a large national group as it now works in a small family group? It does not seem to work particularly well in some families. In those few abnormal cases where the members of the family have no particular affection for one another, the question of the division of the family funds is a difficult one. If the father is selfish and cares nothing for the others, he becomes an autocrat and spends all or the greater part of his income upon himself. If the others feel the same way toward him and one another, they quarrel among themselves. But in a normal case, where an intense affection for one another prevails, there is no quarreling and everything is shared in common.
If it were possible for the members of a large national group to feel toward one another as the members of a normal family feel, communism or almost any other system might work well. But the average man's capacity for affection is limited. It would take one with a genius for friendship to feel a warm affection for even a hundred separate individuals, to say nothing of a hundred million. It would be practically impossible for any of us to feel toward each other and every one of a hundred million people, only a few of whom we have ever seen, precisely as we do toward our own brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, and other very near relatives. This is sufficient reason why communism cannot be made to work well. It would probably work very much as a family works when family affection has disappeared.
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