When Michael Anderson was a senior in high school, he had an independent study. He decided to do a year-long overview of intentional communities in the nineteenth century.
I concentrated on the pretty well-known ones like Oneida, Brook Farm, on Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. The books I had access to were pretty standardized texts that didn't go in depth. Essentially, my paper was a plagiarized text: I lined up sections of these books and once in a while threw in a transition of my own. At the end there was a sort of hypothesis about how it translated into the present time--and this would have been '74, at the height of the hippie communes--I designed on paper the idea of a utopian commune that would specialize in arts.
During its colonization, America was popularly thought of as simultaneously savage and pristine, a wild virgin to be tamed, a broad blank slate to be written upon. By now it is virtually a palimpsest of utopian dreams, written one upon another for hundreds of years. The Europeans who first arrived in North America were all utopians of different degrees and varieties. Many of them established intentional communities based on religious, moral or ideological principles. Before Britain took firm hold on all of the colonies, Europe's America was a patchwork of autonomous settlements, each living according to its own ideals. While the modern intentional community movement may little resemble its ancestors, and even be ignorant of them, many of the themes that dominate life at Dreamtime Village and other communities are old and familiar.
The colonization of America was made possible by pairings of apparently contradictory characteristics which had been lurking in European culture. These contradictions remain the Janus faces of the intentional community movement: rugged individualism and communitarian ideals; authoritarianism and anarchism; piety and atheism; ascetic quietism and ecstatic festivity; the desires for both honest sweat and intellectual freedom.
The first intentional communities were religious, pietistic. They were almost all founded by members of English, German and Eastern European sects who were motivated by persecution in their homelands and the desire to live autonomously, far from the rest of society. Millenarian beliefs further intensified many groups' urges to separate from things mundane.
One such community was Ephrata, founded by the German pietist mystic Johann Conrad Beissel during the 1720's. Upon arrival in America, he visited the two intentional communities that were active, Bohemia Manor and Woman in the Wilderness, and must have gained insight from their successes and failures (Oved, 22). He and some like-minded friends built log cabins in the backwoods of Pennsylvania to live simple, spiritual lives "as recluses on mutual aid" (ibid, 23). For several years, Beissel formulated a spiritual doctrine that resulted in the forming of the Seventh-Day German Baptists, a sect that looked to Beissel as their leader.
Disciples moved in to be near Beissel, so the commune was formed somewhat organically. It grew, and eventually outlasted Beissel. Ephrata survived longer than one generation, and was visited by William Penn, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington (ibid, 31). It was Washington, in fact, who brought his troops there during one of their most difficult times during Revolution. Many were suffering from typhus. Out of their sense of charity, members of Ephrata tended to the needs of the troops, but many caught the disease themselves. A large part of Ephrata's population died as a result; the commune dwindled, and disbanded by the dawn of the 19th century.
The Hutterites are one religious communal group that deserve special attention due to the unparalleled longevity and economic success their communities have had. They possess a distinct culture that traces its roots back to Eastern European anabaptism in the 16th century. Fleeing persecution in Russia after the Bolshevik revolution (highly ironic, considering that the Hutterites were natural communists from whom the new state could have learned much), several Hutterite groups established communities in the Dakotas, where their numbers and their farms both flourished. At the onset of World War II, however, the Hutterites became the focus of legal and physical attacks; as a result of their pacifism, Hutterite men refused to serve in battle (Hutterites also refused to vote or hold office). Their communities were attacked, and young Hutterite draft-resisters were put in jail and tortured there.
Used to this kind of persecution in Europe, the Hutterites moved again, this time to Canada, which was delighted to have them. The group continues to thrive today, and does not lose its children as groups like the Amish have. Hutterites are neither millenarian nor strictly anti-technology. Although they do have elected leaders, Hutterites "...are governed more by custom than by written law" (Rexroth, 284). Jobs are rotated, as in Israel's kibbutzim, so that "a man may be a cobbler one year, a beekeeper the next, and a farmer the third year" (ibid, 284).
John Humphrey Noyes was an upperclass Vermonter born in 1811. He became deeply religious at a revival meeting when he was twenty, and switched his studies from law to theology. While leading a small congregation in upstate New York, Noyes came up with his doctrine. The Second Coming, he believed, had already happened (in 70 a.d.), and like other heretical Christians before him, Noyes believed it was possible to become incapable of sinning.
In a letter to a friend, Noyes wrote, "When the will of God is done on earth, as it is in heaven, there will be no marriage" (Oved, 169). The letter was published, arousing controversy, but also gaining Noyes his first followers, who came to live with him in his hometown of Putney. Noyes developed the doctrine of "complex marriage." Individuals were free to choose their sexual partners, and all children were raised cooperatively. Their lifestyle aroused anger and fear (and no doubt, jealousy), and group was driven out of Putney in 1847. A convert offered his land on the Oneida Indian reserve, where Noyes' group lived for 33 years.
The commune started off with about 50 members. In 1851, they were up to 250, and four years later had stabilized at 150. The group supported several prosperous cottage industries, one of which survives as a maker of silverware (Amana appliances and Hershey's chocolate all similarly began as religious communitarian ventures). After the Civil War, Oneida was prosperous.
The younger generation was not as pious as the first, and questioned the leadership of Noyes, who handed the reins over to his son Theodore. Oneida also absorbed another commune whose members had practiced free love. These new Oneidans engaged in factional struggle with younger members, who wanted the commune to be less eccentric, and original members, who wanted to hold onto complex marriage, communalism, and John Humphrey Noyes' leadership. Dissent increased, and the fabric of the community--belief in perfectionism and Noyes' doctrine--was falling apart. After years of bitter dispute, an agreement was reached, and the commune became The Oneida Holding Company, Ltd., with shares and benefits being distributed among members, most of whom remained as a tight-knit community.
Oneida, while still religious commune, displayed a characteristic that would define the secular communes to follow. While previous religious communes seemed loosely patterned after some combination of monastery, hermitage, and village, Oneida was founded not only on novel ideals and doctrines, but also on an invented social form. John Humphrey Noyes, in his book History of the American Socialism (reprinted as Strange Cults and Utopias of the Nineteenth Century) had called for the merging of religious conviction and socialism.
The revolutions in America and France, or the forces that drove them, changed the nature of the intentional community. It was announced that God was dead; Rationality and the State took his place. Philosophers now looked on society as an unruly but perfectible system. Groups like Oneida and the Hutterites were easy enough to dismiss for their faith, but the commune and the communal impulse both survived.
The early nineteenth century was an age of great spiritual, social, and political upheavals in Europe and the United States. The religious communes were considered to exemplify the possibilities inherent in communal life as an alternative to the system of private property. These communes inspired European thinkers, reformers, and utopians. As had occurred earlier, Old World thinkers sought the realization of their dreams in the New World. The United States absorbed these utopian theories which influenced the nation's society and spiritual world... (Oved 8-9).
Pre-Marxist socialism was the ideology that gave birth to the first secular intentional communities. Early socialist philosophers wanted to restructure the economic and social world in order to check the unrestrained growth of industrialism and make life more harmonious. Although its attitude towards religion ranged from ambivalence to hostility, socialism was as moral as any religion. It only claimed that freedom was the highest moral good.
The first of the secular utopians to influence American intentional communities was Robert Owen. Owen ran a textile mill in Britain, dramatically improving working conditions and efficiency. He was one of the first to address the problems of the new industrial world. Owen developed a complex theory of community, which he began to implement in the Scottish mill town of New Lanark. Many practices which he introduced, such as progressive schooling and evening dances, attracted criticism from traditional and pious quarters. However, Owen's successes attracted attention from high places, and he was asked to submit a report to the House of Commons in 1817.
Owenist clubs began to appear, and Owenite communities were founded in England, Scotland and Ireland, most failing quickly. When Americans began to take his ideas seriously, Owen took personal control of the founding of the New Harmony community in Pennsylvania. The site was an already-functioning village with residences, churches, small industries and agricultural land. In advertisements and lectures, Owen set about enticing upper-class intellectuals to settle there. And they did; nearly a thousand, most of them unskilled. New Harmony's two years of existence were an inevitable plunge into dissolution. As Kenneth Rexroth points out, the key difference between New Lanark and New Harmony might have been that Lanark's residents were bound to the community because they were employees (228). Unfortunately, New Harmony could supply no bond as strong.
Charles Fourier was another utopian socialist of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He was a middle-class silk merchant from Lyons, France who lived through the French Revolution and the emergence of industrialism, events which proved to him that the world was sick. Fourier's prescription for the world was thorough, and utterly unique. Central to Fourier's theories was the idea that passional attraction in the realm of the social was equivalent to the force of gravity in the solar system. If each person lived according to their passions, then each would find their proper orbit, resulting in a state harmony and abundance.
Fourier made elaborations on his theory that sometimes took the form of speculative fiction. He predicted that people living in harmony would grow useful tails, among other things. His stories portrayed a world of complete opulence and sexual freedom that he declared were the "utopian minimum." In manuscripts pertaining to the "New Amorous World," unreleased until 1967, Fourier dwelled on many of these details. A re-evaluation of Fourier's theories came as a generation of American youth were flocking to the largest wave of intentional communities that history has ever seen.
In 1841, a former Unitarian minister, George Ripley, proposed the founding of a commune to his friends and associates. Ripley was part of the Transcendentalists, a circle of Boston intellectuals that included Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau. He had been visiting Shaker communities and speaking with former members of New Harmony in order to learn from previous successes and failures. Originally around twenty people, mostly Boston abolitionists and Unitarians, bought shares and joined Ripley at Brook Farm in New Roxbury, Massachusetts.
Fourier's ideas fell on fertile ground at Brook Farm, and after some debate, the community decided to adopt many of his schemes, including the building of a large, central building called a phalanstery. As with every other experiment in Fourierism, Brook Farm failed to meet the requirements of population and resources that Fourier deemed necessary for success. Added to this was the predictable failure of many intellectuals to work productively. The night the phalanstery was opened, in 1846, it burned down, ruining the morale and finances of the community. In 1849, its buildings were sold, although members continued to live together every summer at a camp in the Adirondacks that they called Summer Brook Farm.
Many anarchist communities, with their aims of decentralization, spontaneity and mutual aid, often lasted longer than well-planned socialist utopias, though few survived for more than a decade. Some early anarchist communities were founded by former members of Owenist and Fourierist communities, expanding on the qualities of those earlier experiments that they had most enjoyed. The first anarchist communities avoided the inflexible overplanning that was the downfall of many of the utopian schemes, but suffered instead from underplanning.
The history of intentional communities, from one perspective, is composed almost entirely of failures. Although the religious communes have had good records in terms of longevity and self-sufficiency, some suffered from abuses of authority and from steady depopulation as a result of either celibacy or the appeal of the "outside world" to the young. While they are inspiring examples, the religious communes would be found culturally stagnant by many people today. It seems as if their success, especially compared to that of anarchist and socialist communities, stems from the integral bonds that deeply-held beliefs can foster.
Utopian socialist communities emerged from an impulse to reform society, but their naive idealism and inflexible overplanning doomed them all to short life-spans. Utopianism seemed to betray all of the hidden frailties of the Enlightenment project, which had written so many pages of philosophy and severed so many heads in its explosion in Europe and America. The utopians failed to take into account the structure and content of everyday life; they seemed to think that old ways could be erased and new ones written just as easily. This way of thinking reached its fullest and most grotesque flowering in Walden Two, by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, and received its best critical treatment in Huxley's Brave New World.
Early anarchist communities were some of the most idealistically appealing, but their open-door policies made them half-way homes for disgruntled political extremists (not to mention the just plain lazy), who sewed factionalism and strife. Throughout their history, intentional communities have usually been the projects of intellectuals, middle-class urbanites with little agricultural experience. There are many examples of communities that were planned, founded and led by intellectuals with education but no skills, and whose members were mostly rural farmers and mechanics with many skills but little formal education. (It would seem to be a better idea to reverse the formula!)
Although these summaries are highly generalized, they point to the strengths and weaknesses of different utopian schemes. After over two hundred years of experimentation, a keen sense of history--and the desire not to repeat it--are essential to the intentional community movement in North America. Intentional communities in America tend to come in waves. There were quite a few founded in the 1940's, as a generation of intellectuals expressed their lack of confidence in a civilization that could participate in World War II. But it would be in the late 1960's that an intentional community movement would arise that matched the earliest communities in terms of conviction and potential for changing society.
Michael Anderson grew up amidst the smoke and confusion of this era: he was already publishing poetry under the name Miekal And. When his senior project was long behind him, the past came back into play.