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Communism In The United States

by Austin Bierbower


Nowhere in the history of the world have we any example of successful communism. The ancient Cretan and Lacedemonian experiments, the efforts of the Essenes and early Christians, the modified communities of St. Anthony and several orders of monks, the schemes of the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, together with all the experiments of modern times, have proved essential failures. Setting out with ideas of perfection in the social state, and undertaking nothing less than the entire abolition of the miseries of the world, the communists of all times have lived in a condition the least ideal that can be imagined. The usual course of socialistic communities has been to start out with a great flourish, to quarrel and divide after a few months, and then to decrease and degenerate until a final dispersion by general consent ended the attempt. During the short existence of nearly all such communities the members have lived in want of the ordinary comforts of life, in dispute about their respective rights and duties, at law with retiring members, and battling with the wilds and malarias of the countries in which alone anything like practical communism has been usually possible. The most successful (so far as any of these attempts can be called successful) have been those communities which have been founded on a religion and which have consisted entirely of members of one faith. But all political communism has utterly failed, and the name is little more than a synonym for the most egregious blunders, excesses and crimes of which visionary and unpractical people can be guilty.

The United States seem ill suited for the spread of communistic ideas, notwithstanding they contain almost the only socialistic communities to be found anywhere. Though the people are free to live in common if they desire, and although land and every facility are offered on easy terms for the realization of communism—which is not the case in Europe (and which is, therefore, the reason why the New World is chosen for communistic experiments)—yet there is felt no need of communism here. There are neither the political nor the social inducements for it which exist in Europe, and all efforts to excite an enthusiasm on the subject have invariably failed. Almost the only agitators are foreigners, and nearly all the existing communities are composed of foreigners. Of these, two only are political, the Icarian and the Cedar Vale, while the rest are religious.

The Icarian Community in Adams county, Iowa, about two miles from Corning, a station on the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad, is the result of an effort to realize the communistic theory of M. Cabet, a French writer and politician of some note. It is perhaps the most just and practical of all communistic systems; for the reader will remember that social systems are as numerous in France as religious systems are in this country, and take much the same place in the passions and bigotries of the people of France, where there is but one religion, as our various sects do here, where there are so many. The system of M. Cabet differs from the others in much the same manner as our religious sects differ from one another; which is not of much importance to the outside world, as they all contain the one principle of a community of goods. M. Cabet first promulgated his system in the shape of a romance entitled A Voyage to Icaria, in which he represented the community at work under the most favorable circumstances and in a high degree of prosperity. According to his system, all goods are to be held in common, and all the people are to have an equal voice in the disposal of them. Each is to contribute of labor and capital all that he can for the common good, and to get all that he needs from the common fund. "From each according to his ability—to each according to his wants," is the formula of principles. The practical working of the community will further illustrate the system.

In 1848, M. Cabet, with some three thousand of his followers, sailed from France for New Orleans, intending to take up land in Texas or Arkansas on which to establish a community, having the promise that he would soon be followed by ten thousand more of his disciples. After spending several months in reconnoitring, during which half of his followers got discontented and left him, he settled with about fifteen hundred at Nauvoo, Illinois, where they bought out the property of the Mormons, who had recently been driven from that place. There they commenced operations, establishing a saw- and grist-mill, and carrying on farming and several branches of domestic manufacturing. In a little while they sent out a branch colony to Icaria, in Adams county, Iowa, where they purchased, or entered under the Homestead Act, four thousand acres of land. In this place likewise they built a mill and went to farming and carrying on the more simple trades. In a little while, however, a quarrel arose in the principal community at Nauvoo in regard to the use and abuse of power, when, after a rage of passion not unlike that which they had exhibited in the Revolution of 1848 in France, M. Cabet, with a large minority, seceded and went to St. Louis, where they expected to form another and more perfect community. They never formed this community, however, and were soon dispersed. The community at Nauvoo, being now harassed with debts and with lawsuits growing out of the withdrawal of M. Cabet and his party, repaired to their branch colony at Icaria, where they have been ever since. Here they had likewise frequent disputes and withdrawals, often giving rise to lawsuits and a loss of property, until in 1866, when the writer first visited them, they were reduced to thirty-five members. Since that time they have picked up a few members, mostly old companions who had left them for individual life, until now they have about sixty in all. They own at present about two thousand acres of land, of which three hundred and fifty are under cultivation. They have good stock, consisting of about one hundred and twenty head of cattle, five hundred sheep, two hundred and fifty hogs and thirty horses. They still have their saw- and grist-mill, now run by steam, but give most of their time to farming. They preserve the family relation, and observe the strictest rules of chastity. Each family lives in a separate house, but they all eat at a common table. By an economic division of labor one man cooks for all these persons, another bakes, another attends to the dairy, another makes the shoes, another the clothes; and in general one man manages some special work for the whole. No one has any money or need of any. All purchases are made from the common purse, and each gets what he needs. The government is a pure democracy. The officers are chosen once a year by universal (male) suffrage, and consist of a president, secretary (and treasurer), director of agriculture and director of industry. They have no religion, but, like most of the European communists, are free-thinkers. They are highly moral, however, and much esteemed by their neighbors. Some of them are quite learned, and all of them may be pronounced decidedly heroic for the terrible privations they have undergone in order to realize their political principles, to which they are as strongly and sincerely devoted as any Christian to his religion.

Such is a sketch of the most perfect system and most successful experiment of political communism in the United States—not very encouraging, it will be confessed. The other example of political communism is the Cedar Vale Community in Howard county, Kansas, which needs only to be mentioned here, as it has as yet no history. It was commenced in 1871, and is composed of Russian materialists and American spiritualists. They have a community of goods like the Icarians, and in general their principles are the same. They had only about a dozen members at last accounts. Another and similar community was established in 1874 in Chesterfield county, Virginia, called the "Social Freedom Community," its principles being enunciated as a "unity of interest and political, religious and social freedom;" but we cannot discover whether it is yet in existence, as at last accounts it had only two full members and eight probationers. It will be seen from these examples that the prospects of political communism are far from promising. Its principal power has always been as a sentiment, and it can be dreaded only as an appeal to the destitute and lawless to rise in acts of violence. It has been powerful in France in revolutions, riots and mobs, and in this country in aiding the late strikers in their work of destruction.

The other existing communities are founded on some religious basis, being efforts on the part of their founders to secure their religious rights or to live with those of the same faith in closer relations. And although their measures have been similar in many respects to those of the political communists, they have resorted to them not on account of any political principles, but because they believed them to be commanded by Scripture or to grow out of some peculiarity of religious faith or duty. Most of them have been formed after the model of the society of the apostles, who had their goods in common, and because of their example. None, so far as we know, have ever proposed to establish communities by force or to have the whole people embraced in them. Held together by their peculiar religious principles, they have been far more successful (especially when under some shrewd leader whom they believed to have a spiritual authority) than when actuated purely by reason.

Perhaps the most successful of these religious communities is that of the "True Inspirationists," known as the Amana Community, in Iowa, seventy-eight miles west of Iowa City, on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. These are all Germans, who came to this country in 1842, and settled at first near Buffalo, New York, on a tract of land called Ebenezer, from which they are sometimes known as "Ebenezers." This tract comprised five thousand acres of land, including what is now a part of the city of Buffalo. In 1855 they moved to their present locality in Iowa. They pretend to be under direct inspiration, receiving from God the model and general orders for the direction of their community. The present head, both spiritual and temporal, is a woman, a sort of sibyl who negotiates the inspirations. Their business affairs are managed by thirteen trustees, chosen annually by the male members, who also choose the president. They are very religious, though having but little outward form. There are fourteen hundred and fifty members, who live in seven different towns or villages, which are all known by the name of Amana—East Amana, West Amana, etc. They have their property for the most part in common. Each family has a house, to which food is daily distributed. The work is done by a prudent division of labor, as in the Icarian community. But instead of providing clothing and incidentals, the community makes to each person an allowance for this purpose—to the men of from forty to one hundred dollars a year, to the women from twenty-five to thirty dollars, and to the children from five to ten dollars. There are public stores in the community at which the members can get all they need besides food, and at which also strangers can deal. They dress very plainly, use simple food, and are quite industrious. They aim to keep the men and women apart as much as possible. They sit apart at the tables and in church, and when divine service is dismissed the men remain in their ranks until the women get out of church and nearly home. In their games and amusements they keep apart, as well as in all combinations whether for business or pleasure. The boys play with boys and the girls with girls. They marry at twenty-four. They own at present twenty-five thousand acres of land, a considerable part of which is under cultivation. They have, in round numbers, three thousand sheep, fifteen hundred head of cattle, two hundred horses and twenty-five hundred hogs. Besides farming, they carry on two woollen-mills, four saw-mills, two grist-mills and a tannery. They are almost entirely self-supporting in the arts, working up their own products and living off the result. In medicine they are homœopathists.

The "Rappists" or Harmony Society at Economy, Pennsylvania, is composed of about one hundred members, being all that remain of a colony of six hundred who came from Germany in 1803. They were called Separatists or "Come-outers" in their own country, and much persecuted on account of their nonconformity with the established Church. They landed in Baltimore, and some of them who never found their way into the community, or who subsequently withdrew, settled in Maryland and Pennsylvania, where they are still known as a religious sect. Those who remained together purchased five thousand acres of land north of Pittsburg, in the valley of the Conoquenessing. In 1814 they moved to Posey county, Indiana, in the Wabash Valley, where they purchased thirty thousand acres of land, and in 1824 they moved back again to their present locality in Pennsylvania. In 1831 a dissension arose among them, and a division was effected by one Bernard Mueller—or "Count Maximilian" as he called himself—who went off with one-third of the members and a large share of the property, and founded a new community at Phillips, ten miles off, on eight hundred acres of land, which, however, soon disbanded on account of internal quarrels.

The peculiarity of this community is that there is no intercourse between the sexes of any kind. In 1807 they gave up marriage. The husbands parted from their wives, and have henceforth lived with them only as sisters. They claim to have authority for this in the words of the apostle: "This I say, brethren, the time is short; it remaineth that both they that have wives be as though they had none," etc. They teach that Adam in his perfect state was bi-sexual and had no need of a female, being in this respect like God; that subsequently, when he fell, the female part (rib, etc.) was separated from him and made into another person, and that when they become perfect through their religion the bi-sexual nature of the soul is restored. Christ, they claim, was also of this dual nature, and therefore never married. They believe that the world will soon come to an end, and that it is their duty to help it along by having no children, and so putting an end to the race as well as the planet.

Their property is all held in common and managed by a council of seven, from whom the trustees are chosen. From four to eight live in each house, men and women together, who regard each other as of the same sex, and are never watched. Each household cooks for itself, although there is a general bakery, from which bread is taken around to the houses as they have need. The members are fond of music and flowers, but they discard dancing. Though Germans, they have ceased to use tobacco; which loss, it is said, the men feel more heavily than that of the wives. They make considerable wine and beer, which they drink in moderation. They are said to be worth from two millions to three millions of dollars, and speculate in mines, oil-wells, saw-mills, etc., doing very little hard work, and hiring laborers from without to take their places in all drudgery. They are engaged principally in farming and the common trades, and supply nearly everything for themselves. They are nearly all aged, none of them being under forty except some adopted children. All are Germans and use the German language.

The Shakers are the oldest society of communists in the United States. The parent society at Mount Lebanon, New York, was established in 1792, being the outgrowth of a religious revival in which there were violent hysterical manifestations or "shakes," from which they took their name. In this revival one Ann Lee, known among them as "Mother Ann," was prominent. This woman, of English birth, emigrated to Niskayuna, New York, about seven miles north-west of Albany, where she pretended to speak from inspiration and work miracles, so that the people soon came to regard her as being another revelation of Christ and as having his authority. Being persecuted by the outside world, her followers, after her death, formed a community in which to live and enjoy their religion alone and: undisturbed. Their principles may be summed up as special revelation, spiritualism, celibacy, oral confession, community, non-resistance, peace, the gift of healing, miracles, physical health and separation from the world. Like the Rappists, they neither marry nor have any substitute for marriage, receiving all their children by adoption. They live in large families or communes, consisting of eighty or ninety members, in one big house, men and women together. Each brother is assigned to a sister, who mends his clothes, looks after his washing, tells him when he needs a new garment, reproves him when not orderly, and has a spiritual oversight over him generally. Though living in the same house, the sexes eat, labor and work apart. They keep apart and in separate ranks in their worship. They do not shake hands with the opposite sex, and there is rarely any scandal or gossip among them, so far as the outside world can learn. There are two orders, known as the Novitiate and the Church order, the latter having intercourse only with their own members in a sort of monkish seclusion, while the others treat with the outside world. The head of a Shaker society is a "ministry," consisting of from three to four persons, male and female. The society is divided into families, as stated above, each family having two elders, one male and one female. In their worship they are drawn up in ranks and go through various gyrations, consisting of processions and dances, during which they continually hold out their hands as if to receive something. The Shakers are industrious, hard-working, economical and cleanly. They dress uniformly. Their houses are all alike. They say "yea" and "nay," although not "thee" and "thou," and call persons by their first names. They confine themselves chiefly to the useful, and use no ornaments. There are at present eighteen societies of Shakers in the United States, scattered throughout seven States. They number in all two thousand four hundred and fifteen persons, and own one hundred thousand acres of land. Their industries are similar to those of the Rappists and True Inspirationists, and are somewhat famed for the excellence of their products. The Shakers are nearly all Americans, like the Oneidans, next mentioned, and unlike all other communistic societies in the United States.

The Perfectionists of Oneida and Wallingford are perhaps the most singular of all communists. They were founded by John Humphrey Noyes, who organized a community at Putney, Vermont, in 1846. In 1848 this was consolidated with others at Oneida in Madison county, New York. In 1849 a branch community was started at Brooklyn, New York, and in 1850 one at Wallingford, Connecticut, all of which have since broken up or been merged in the two communities of Oneida and Wallingford. Their principles are perfectionism, communism and free love. By "perfection" they mean freedom from sin, which they all claim to have, or to seek as practically attainable. They claim, in explaining their sense of this term, that as a man who does not drink is free from intemperance, and one who does not swear is free from profanity, so one who does not sin at all is free from sin, or morally perfect. Their communism is like that of the Icarians, so far as property is concerned, this being owned equally by all for the benefit of all as they severally have need; which state they claim is the state of man after the resurrection. But they have a community not only of goods, but also of wives; or, rather, they have no wives at all, but all women belong to all men, and all men to all women; which they assert to be the state of Nature, and therefore the most perfect state. They call it complex marriage instead of simple, and it is both polygamy and polyandry at the same time. They are enemies of all exclusiveness or selfishness, and hold that there should be no exclusiveness in money or in women or children. Their idea is to be in the most literal sense no respecters of persons. All women and children are the same to all men, and vice versâ. A man never knows his own children, and the mothers, instead of raising their children themselves, give them over to a common nursery, somewhat after the suggestion of Plato in his Republic. If any two persons are suspected of forming special attachments, and so of violating the principle of equal and universal love, or of using their sexual freedom too liberally, they are put under discipline. They are very religious, their religion, however, consisting only in keeping free from sin. They have no sermons, ceremonies, sacraments or religious manifestations whatever. There are no public prayers, and no loud prayers at all. Their method of discipline is called "criticism," and consists in bringing the offender into the presence of a committee of men and women, who each pass their criticisms on him and allow him to confess or criticise himself. The least sign of worldliness or evidence of impropriety is enough to subject one to this ordeal. They are very careful about whom they admit to their community, as there are numerous rakes and idlers who make application on the supposition that it is a harem or Turkish paradise. None are admitted who are not imbued with their doctrine of perfection, and who do not show evidences of it in their lives. In a business point of view, they are comparatively successful, the original members having contributed over one hundred thousand dollars' worth of property, which has not depreciated. They engage in farming, wine-raising and various industries, and are known in the general markets for their products.

The Separatists at Zoar, Ohio, about halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburg, are a body of Germans who fled from Würtemberg in 1817 to escape religious persecution. They are mystics, followers of Jacob Böhm, Gerhard, Terstegen, Jung Stilling and others of that class, and considerably above the average of communists in intellect and culture. They were aided to emigrate to this country by some English Quakers, with whom there is a resemblance in some of their tenets. They purchased fifty-six hundred acres of land in Ohio, but did not at first intend to form a community, having been driven to that resort subsequently in order to the better realization of their religious principles. They now own over seven thousand acres of land in Ohio, besides some in Iowa. They have a woollen-factory, two flour-mills, a saw-mill, a planing-mill, a machine-shop, a tannery and a dye-house; also a hotel and store for the accommodation of their neighbors. They are industrious, simple in their dress and food, and very economical. They use neither tobacco nor pork, and are homœopathists in medicine. In religion they are orthodox, with the usual latitude of mystics. They have no ceremonies, say "thou" and "thee," take off their hats and bow to nobody except God, refuse to fight or go to law, and settle their disputes by arbitration. At first they prohibited marriage and had their women in common, like the Perfectionists. In 1828, however, they commenced to break their rules and take wives. Now they observe the marriage state. Their officers are elected by the whole society, the women voting as well as the men.

The Bethel and Aurora communities—the former in Shelby county, Missouri, forty-eight miles from Hannibal, and the latter in Oregon, twenty-nine miles south of Portland, on the Oregon and California Railroad—were founded in 1848 by Dr. Kiel, a Prussian mystic, who practised medicine a while in New York and Pittsburg, and subsequently formed a religious sect of which these communists are members. He was subsequently joined by some of "Count Maximilian's" people, who had left Rapp's colony at Economy, which this closely resembles except as to celibacy. He first founded the colony in Missouri, where he took up two thousand five hundred and sixty acres of land, and established the usual trades needed by farmers. In 1847 there were the inevitable quarrel and division. In 1855 he set out to establish a similar community on the Pacific coast. The first settlement was made at Shoalwater Bay, Washington Territory, which was, however, subsequently abandoned for the present one at Aurora. There are now about four hundred members at Aurora, who own eighteen thousand acres of land, and have the usual shops and occupations of communists mentioned above, carrying on a considerable trade with their neighbors. The members of both communities are all either Germans or Pennsylvania Dutch, and thrive by the industry and economy peculiar to those people. Their government is parental, intended to be like God's. Kiel is the temporal and spiritual head. Their religion consists in practical benevolence, the forms of worship being Lutheran. They are thought to be exceedingly wealthy, but if their property were divided among them there would be less than three thousand dollars to each family, which, though more than the property of most other communities would average, is but small savings for twenty years. They preserve the usual family relations.

The Bishop Hill Community, in Henry county, Illinois, was formed by a party of Swedes who came to this country in 1846 under Eric Janson, who had been their religious leader in the Old World, where they were greatly persecuted on account of their peculiar religious views. They suffered great hardships in effecting a first settlement, some of them going off, in the interest of the community, to dig gold in California, and others taking to stock-raising and speculating. In this they were quite successful, so that jobs and speculations became the peculiar work of this community. They took various public and private contracts; among others, one to grade a large portion of the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad and to build some of its bridges. In 1859 they owned ten thousand acres of good land, and had the finest cattle in the State. In 1859, however, the young people became discontented and wished to dissolve the community. They divided the property in 1860, when one faction continued the community with its share. In 1861 this party also broke up, separating into three divisions. In 1862 these again divided the property after numerous lawsuits. A small fraction, I believe, still continues a community on the ruins. In this community the families lived separately, but ate all together. They had no president or single head, the business being transacted by a board of trustees. Their religion was their principal concern.

Such are the strictly communistic societies in the United States. It will be seen that they are each of such very peculiar views that they are specially fitted by their very oddity for a life in common, and specially disqualified from the same cause to extend or embrace others; for while their community of oddity makes them, by a necessarily strong sympathy, fit associates to be together, it separates them by an impassable gulf from the appreciation and sympathy of the rest of mankind, who are interested only in the ordinary common-sense concerns of life.

Besides these, there are several other colonies which, though not communistic, have grown out of an attempt to solve some of the questions raised by socialism. They are for the most part co-operative. The following are the principal: The Anaheim colony in California, thirty-six miles from Los Angelos, which was formed by a large number of Germans in 1857, who banded together and purchased a large tract of land, on which they successfully cultivate the vine in large quantities. The property is held and worked all together, but the interests are separate, and will be divided in due time. Vineland, New Jersey, on the railroad between Philadelphia and Cape May, is another. It was purchased and laid out by Charles K. Landis in 1861 as a private speculation, and to draw the overcrowded population of Philadelphia into the country, where the people could all have comfortable homes and support themselves by their own labor. Some fifty thousand acres of land were purchased, and sold at a low rate and on long time to actual settlers and improvers. As a result, some twelve thousand people have been drawn thither, who cultivate all this tract and work numerous industries besides. No liquors are allowed to be sold in the place, so that the population is exceptionally moral as well as industrious, and offers a model example of low rates and good government. A successful colony exists also at Prairie Home in Franklin county, Kansas, which was founded by a Frenchman, Monsieur E.V. Boissière. It is designed to be an association and co-operation based on attractive industry; a large number of persons contributing their capital and labor under stringent laws, the proceeds to be divided among them whenever a majority shall so desire. I might mention other associations of this kind, which are, in fact, however, only a variety of partnership or corporation.

It strikes me, however, that this is the only practical remedy for the evils which are aimed at by the communists, as far as they are remedial by social means. If a number of working people, with the capital which their small savings will amount to (which is always large enough for any ordinary business if there be any considerable number of them), can be induced to organize themselves under competent leaders, and work for a few years together as faithfully as they ordinarily do for employers, they might realize considerable results, and get the advantage of their own work instead of enriching capitalists. But the difficulty is, that this class have not, as a rule, learned either to manage great enterprises or to submit to those who are wisest among them, but break up in disorder and divisions when their individual preferences are crossed. The first lesson that a man must learn who proposes to do anything in common with others (and the more so if there be many of them) is to submit and forbear. With a little schooling our people ought, to a greater extent than at present, to be able to co-operate in large numbers in firms and corporations where the members and stockholders shall themselves do all the work and receive all the profits, and so avoid the two extremes of making profits for capitalists and paying their earnings to officers and directors.