Article in the Encyclopedia Brittanica 11th Edition 1910
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COMMUNISM, the name loosely given to schemes of social organizations depending on the abolition of private property and its absorption into the property of a community as such. It is a form of what is now generally called socialism, the terminology of which has varied a good deal according to time and place; but the expression “communism” may be conveniently used, as opposed to “socialism” in its wider political sense, or to the political and municipal varieties known as “collectivism,” “state socialism,” &c., in order to indicate more particularly the historical schemes propounded or put into practice for establishing certain ideally arranged communities composed of individuals living and working on the basis of holding their property in common. It has nothing, of course, to do with the Paris Commune, overthrown in May 1871, which was a political and not an economic movement. Communistic schemes have been advocated in almost every age and country, and have to be distinguished from mere anarchism or from the selfish desire to transfer other people’s property into one’s own pockets. The opinion that a communist is merely a man who has no property to lose, and therefore advocates a redistribution of wealth, is contrary to the established facts as to those who have historically supported the theory of communism. The Corn-law Rhymer’s lines on this subject are amusing, but only apply to the baser sort:—
“What is a Communist! One that hath yearnings
For equal division of unequal earnings.
Idler or bungler, or both, he is willing
To fork out his penny and pocket your shilling.”
This is the communist of hostile criticism—a criticism, no doubt, ultimately based on certain fundamental facts in human nature, which have usually wrecked communistic schemes of a purely altruistic type in conception. But the great communists, like Plato, More, Saint-Simon, Robert Owen, were the very reverse of selfish or idle in their aims; and communism as a force in the historical evolution of economic and social opinion must be regarded on its ideal side, and not merely in its lapses, however natural the latter may be in operation, owing to the defects of human character. As a theory it has inspired not only some of the finest characters in history, but also much of the gradual evolution of economic organization—especially in the case of co-operation; and its opportunities have naturally varied according to the state of social organization in particular countries. The communism of the early Christians, for instance, was rather a voluntary sharing of private property than any abnegation of property as such. The Essenes and the Therapeutae, however, in Palestine, had a stricter form of communism, and the former required the surrender of individual property; and in the middle ages various religious sects, followed by the monastic orders, were based on the communistic principle.
Sir Thomas More’s Utopia has very many of the characteristics of The Republic. There is in it the same wonderful power of shaking off the prejudices of the place and time in which it was written. The government of Utopia is described as founded on popular election; community of goods prevailed, the magistrates distributed the instruments of production among the inhabitants, and the wealth resulting from their industry was shared by all. The use of money and all outward ostentation of wealth were forbidden. All meals were taken in common, and they were rendered attractive by the accompaniment of sweet strains of music, while the air was filled by the scent of the most delicate perfumes. More’s ideal state differs in one important respect from Plato’s. There was no community of wives in Utopia. The sacredness of the family relation and fidelity to the marriage contract were recognized by More as indispensable to the well-being of modern society. Plato, notwithstanding all the extraordinary originality with which he advocated the emancipation of women, was not able to free himself from the theory and practice of regarding the wife as part and parcel of the property of her husband. The fact, therefore, that he advocated community of property led him also to advocate community of wives. He speaks of “the possession and use of women and children,” and proceeds to show how this possession and use must be regulated in his ideal state. Monogamy was to him mere exclusive possession on the part of one man of a piece of property which ought to be for the benefit of the public. The circumstance that he could not think of wives otherwise than as the property of their husbands only makes it the more remarkable that he claimed for women absolute equality of training and careers. The circumstance that communists have so frequently wrecked their projects by attacking marriage and advocating promiscuous intercourse between the sexes may probably be traced to the notion which regards a wife as being a mere item among the goods and chattels of her husband. It is not difficult to find evidence of the survival of this ancient habit of mind. “I will be master of what is mine own,” says Petruchio. “She is my goods, my chattels.”
The Perfectionists of Oneida, on the other hand, held that there was “no intrinsic difference between property in persons and property in things; and that the same spirit which abolished exclusiveness in regard to money would abolish, if circumstances allowed full scope to it, exclusiveness in regard to women and children” (Nordhoff’s Communistic Societies of the United States). It is this notion of a wife as property that is responsible for the wild opinions communists have often held in favour of a community of wives and the break-up of family relations. If they could shake off this notion and take hold of the conception of marriage as a contract, there is no reason why their views on the community of property should lead them to think that this contract should not include mutual fidelity and remain in force during the life of the contracting parties. It was probably not this conception of the marriage relation so much as the influence of Christianity which led More to discountenance community of wives in Utopia. It is strange that the same influence did not make him include the absence of slavery as one of the characteristics of his ideal state. On the contrary, however, we find in Utopia the anomaly of slavery existing side by side with institutions which otherwise embody the most absolute personal, political and religious freedom. The presence of slaves in Utopia is made use of to get rid of one of the practical difficulties of communism, viz. the performance of disagreeable work. In a society where one man is as good as another, and the means of subsistence are guaranteed to all alike, it is easy to imagine that it would be difficult to ensure the performance of the more laborious, dangerous and offensive kinds of labour. In Utopia, therefore, we are expressly told that “all the uneasy and sordid services” are performed by slaves. The institution of slavery was also made supplementary to the criminal system of Utopia, as the slaves were for the most part men who had been convicted of crime; slavery for life was made a substitute for capital punishment.
In many respects, however, More’s views on the labour question were vastly in advance of his own time. He repeats the indignant protest of the Republic that existing society is a warfare between rich and poor. “The rich,” he says, “desire every means by which they may in the first place secure to themselves what they have amassed by wrong, and then take to their own use and profit, at the lowest possible price, the work and labour of the poor. And so soon as the rich decide on adopting these devices in the name of the public, then they become law.” One might imagine these words had been quoted from the programme of The International, so completely is their tone in sympathy with the hardships of the poor in all ages. More shared to the full the keen sympathy with the hopeless misery of the poor which has been the strong motive power of nearly all speculative communism. The life of the poor as he saw it was so wretched that he said, “Even a beast’s life seems enviable!” Besides community of goods and equality of conditions, More advocated other means of ameliorating the condition of the people. Although the hours of labour were limited to six a day there was no scarcity, for in Utopia every one worked; there was no idle class, no idle individual even. The importance of this from an economic point of view is insisted on by More in a passage remarkable for the importance which he attaches to the industrial condition of women. “And this you will easily apprehend,” he says, “if you consider how great a part of all other nations is quite idle. First, women generally do little, who are the half of mankind.” Translated into modern language his proposals comprise universal compulsory education, a reduction of the hours of labour to six a day, the most modern principles of sanitary reform, a complete revision of criminal legislation, and the most absolute religious toleration. The romantic form which Sir Thomas More gave to his dream of a new social order found many imitators. The Utopia may be regarded as the prototype of Campanella’s City of the Sun, Harrington’s Oceana, Bacon’s Nova Atlantis, Defoe’s Essay on Projects, Fénelon’s Voyage dans l’Île des Plaisirs, and other works of minor importance.
All communists have made a great point of the importance of universal education. All ideal communes have been provided by their authors with a perfect machinery for securing the education of every child. One of the first things done in every attempt to carry communistic theories into practice has been to establish a good school and guarantee education to every child. The first impulse to national education in the 19th century probably sprang from the very marked success of Robert Owen’s schools in connexion with the cotton mills at New Lanark. Compulsory education, free trade, and law reform, the various movements connected with the improvement of the condition of women, have found their earliest advocates among theoretical and practical communists. The communists denounce the evils of the present state of society; the hopeless poverty of the poor, side by side with the self-regarding luxury of the rich, seems to them to cry aloud to Heaven for the creation of a new social organization. They proclaim the necessity of sweeping away the institution of private property, and insist that this great revolution, accompanied by universal education, free trade, a perfect administration of justice, and a due limitation of the numbers of the community, would put an end to half the self-made distress of humanity.
The various communistic experiments in America are the most interesting in modern times, opportunities being naturally greater there for such deviations from the normal forms of regulations as compared with the closely organized states of Europe, and particularly in the means of obtaining land cheaply for social settlements with peculiar views. They have been classified by Morris Hillquit (History of Socialism in the United States, 1903) as (1) sectarian, (2) Owenite, (3) Fourieristic, (4) Icarian.
1. The oldest of the sectarian group was the society of the Shakers, whose first settlement at Watervliet was founded in 1776. The Harmony Society or Rappist Community was introduced into Pennsylvania by George Rapp (1770-1847) from Württemberg in 1804, and in 1815 they moved to a settlement (New Harmony) in Indiana, returning to Pennsylvania again in 1824, and founding the village of Economy, from which they were 793 also known as Economites. Emigrants from Württemberg also founded the community of Zoar in Ohio in 1817, being incorporated in 1832 as the Society of Separatists of Zoar; it was dissolved in 1898. The Amana community, the strongest of all American communistic societies, originated in Germany in the early part of the 18th century as “the True Inspiration Society,” and some 600 members removed to America in 1842-1844. The Bethel (Missouri) and Aurora (Oregon) sister communities were founded by Dr Keil (1812-1877) in 1844 and 1856 respectively, and were dissolved in 1880 and 1881. The Oneida Community, created by John Humphrey Noyes (1811-1886), the author of a famous History of American Socialisms (1870), was established in 1848 as a settlement for the Society of Perfectionists. All these bodies had a religious basis, and were formed with the object of enjoying the free exercise of their beliefs, and though communistic in character they had no political or strictly economic doctrine to propagate.
2. The Owenite communities rose under the influence of Robert Owen’s work at New Lanark, and his propaganda in America from 1824 onwards, the principal being New Harmony (acquired from the Rappists in 1825); Yellow Springs, near Cincinnati, 1824; Nashoba, Tennessee, 1825; Haverstraw, New York, 1826; its short-lived successors, Coxsackie, New York, and the Kendal Community, Canton, Ohio, 1826. All these had more or less short existences, and were founded on Owen’s theories of labour and economics.
3. The Fourierist communities similarly were due to the Utopian teachings of the Frenchman Charles Fourier, introduced into America by his disciple Albert Brisbane (1809-1890), author of The Social Destiny of Man (1840), who was efficiently helped by Horace Greeley, George Ripley and others. The North American Phalanx, in New Jersey, was started in 1843 and lasted till 1855. Brook Farm was started as a Fourierist Phalanx in 1844, after three years’ independent career, and became the centre of Fourierist propaganda, lasting till 1847. The Wisconsin Phalanx, or Ceresco, was organized in 1844, and lasted till 1850. In Pennsylvania seven communities were established between 1843 and 1845, the chief of which were the Sylvania Association, the Peace Union Settlement, the Social Reform Unity, and the Leraysville Phalanx. In New York state the chief were the Clarkson Phalanx, the Sodus Bay Phalanx, the Bloomfield Association, and the Ontario Union. In Ohio the principal were the Trumbull Phalanx, the Ohio Phalanx, the Clermont Phalanx, the Integral Phalanx, and the Columbian Phalanx; and of the remainder the Alphadelphia Phalanx, in Michigan, was the best-known. It is pointed out by Morris Hillquit that while only two Fourierist Phalanxes were established in France, over forty were started in the United States.
4. The Icarian communities were due to the communistic teachings of another Frenchman, Étienne Cabet (1788-1856), the name being derived from his social romance, Voyage en Icarie (1840), sketching the advantages of an imaginary country called Icaria, with a co-operative system, and criticizing the existing social organization. It was his idea, in fact, of a Utopia. Robert Owen advised him to establish his followers, already numerous, in Texas, and thither about 1500 went in 1848. But disappointment resulted, and their numbers dwindled to less than 500 in 1849; some 280 went to Nauvoo, Illinois; after a schism in 1856 some formed a new colony (1858) at Cheltenham, near St Louis; others went to Iowa, others to California. The last branch was dissolved in 1895.