Early Communes

The nineteenth century dawned on a new world. The industrial revolution was well underway. The New American
government was successfully establishing itself among the nations of the world. The French revolution was in the past and
the age of enlightenment was giving way to the age of romanticism. Where the enlightenment emphasized reason as its
guiding light, romanticism emphasized feelings. The pragmatism of the enlightenment caused its enthusiasts to look on the
Industrial Revolution with optimism while the idealism of the romantic obscured the blessings of industrialization and focused
on its shortcomings.

From the viewpoint of the romantic, the Industrial Revolution brought many advances for the moneyed and aristocratic
classes in Europe while leaving the working classes and the poor in misery. With the breakdown of the feudal system that
accompanied the industrial revolution, serfs, craftsmen and proprietors of small “cottage industries” found themselves facing
an uncertain and precarious future. In order to survive, entire families were forced to take employment in factories where
they worked long hours, barely earning enough in wages to keep body and soul together. A number of reformers in Europe
sought to bring more humane conditions to the workplace and improve the condition of the workers.

One such reformer was Robert Owen, a successful Scottish industrialist who transformed life in the small village of New
Lanark into an idyllic oasis for its time. Child labor and corporal punishment were abolished. Decent homes were established
for his workers. Schools were established with evening classes for adults and villagers were provided with free health care
and good food at affordable prices. Owen and his ideas were instrumental in getting the Factory Act of 1819 passed by
Parliament. It limited the workday for textile workers to fifteen hours per day, starting at 5:30 a.m. and ending at 8:30 p.m.
Children under nine years of age were prohibited from working.

During his twenty-five years managing the textile mills and the lives of New Lanark’s inhabitants, Owen worked out the
details of what he considered to be the ideal society, consisting of collective villages of 500 to 2,500 inhabitants. Disappointed
in the narrow scope of the Factory Act and discouraged by his inability to convince England’s government to institute his
ideas, he decided to try them in America. In 1824, he made his first trip to the United States where his fame as a reformer
and successful industrialist had preceded him.

During his tour of America, he managed to meet with most of its leaders, including addressing two joint sessions of
Congress. He outlined his ideas to such luminaries as New York governor-elect De Witt Clinton, Vice President elect John C.
Calhoun, and Andrew Jackson. He also met with incoming President John Quincy Adams and outgoing President James
Monroe. He even managed to meet with former Presidents, John Adams, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, as well.

While the details of Owen’s plans were new, the idea of Utopian communities was not. There were several well-known
religious communities already in existence in America. One of the more notorious of these was the “Shaking Quakers” or
“Shakers” who were largely influenced by one of their early leaders, Ann Lee. Lee taught that she was the female
manifestation of Jesus Christ; a truth she discovered while incarcerated for a time in the Manchester, England jail. Lee
suffered severe abuse and persecution for her strange beliefs in England and eventually found her way to America in 1774
where she became a leader of the Shaking Quakers.

At first, Lee’s followers were somewhat nomadic, due to continuing persecution. Eventually they accumulated enough
money to purchase a small tract of land in Western New York and established a commune which they called, Niskeyuna.  
After Lee’s death  in 1784 her cult lived on, spreading from New York and New England to Ohio, Kentucky and beyond. By
1850 the Shakers had established 18 communes and boasted almost 4,000 members. They considered communism to be an
integral part of the Christian religion. Pointing to the Church at Pentecost, they named five basic principles of the New
Testament church; common property, celibacy, non-resistance, separate and distinct government, and power over physical
disease. “Speaking in tongues” was considered to be a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit. The nominal success of the
“Shaking Quakers” demonstrated that communism could be more than just an abstract theory and paved the way for
acceptance of other utopian communities in the early 1800s.

Another Utopian commune that claimed a small amount of success, was the Rappites or “Harmonists” as they called
themselves. In 1804 George Rapp and about six hundred of his followers migrated from Wurttemberg, Germany to a 5,000
acre site, purchased by Rapp, outside of Pittsburg, Pa. By February 1905 they had organized the Harmony Society with Rapp
as its head. Members of the group deeded all their earthly possessions to Rapp, and in return, he agreed to supply all the
necessities of life such as meat, drink, lodging, medical care and so on. Should one of the group become sick, infirm, or
otherwise unfit for work, Harmony would provide “medicine, care, attendance, and consolation”. Rapp’s word “was law on
every subject” and he ruled with an iron hand.

In 1814 the Harmonists decided that the location in the hills of Western Pennsylvania was too inconvenient for carrying on
trade with the rest of the country, and the climate was not suitable for their primary product, wine. They sold their
Pennsylvania holding to a Mennonite group for ten times what they originally paid for it and purchased 38,000 acres on the
Wabash River in Southwestern Indiana. The group prospered in Indiana, selling their products as far away as New Orleans.
By 1824 when Robert Owen came to America, the Rappites had grown weary of the hot summers, cold winters, and the
constant threat of malaria in southern Indiana and moved their commune back to Pennsylvania, near their former location
outside Pittsburg, calling their new town, Economy.

One of the stops made by Robert Owen on his tour of America was the Economy commune for a meeting with George
Rapp, with whom he had been corresponding for several years. During his visit, Owen purchased Harmony, Indiana from
Rapp for $135,000 and soon after launched an extensive propaganda and advertising campaign inviting people to apply for the
800 spaces available. The name of the town was changed to New Harmony.

Owen believed the new community would serve as a model for the “New Moral World” communities that would eventually
transform the world into a society of “enlightened” and happy citizens. In spite of the fact that Owen provided New
Harmony with everything he could conceive of that would be needed for its success, the commune disintegrated in less than
three years. One of Owen’s sons described the people of New Harmony as “a heterogeneous collection of radicals... honest
latitudinarians, and lazy theorists, with a sprinkling of unprincipled sharpers thrown in."

Owen, who was an avowed atheist, is credited with coining the word “socialist”. The word “communist” which accurately
described their communal societies sounded too much like the Christian term “communion” to suit the atheist communist. He
preferred use of the term “socialist” instead. The term was later used by Marx and other European socialists. Mainstream
American socialists, particularly those of the twentieth century would shun the term in favor of liberalism or progressivism.
Other well-known utopian communes of the nineteenth century were Brook Farm in West Roxbury, Massachusetts (1841);
the Amana Colonies, seven communities in East Central Iowa (1843); and the Oneida Community at Oneida, New York
(1848). There were hundreds of other lesser-known communes that sprang up throughout the country during the antebellum
period for a short while and then disappeared. Hardly any of the Utopian communes lasted more than a few years before
going out of existence.

Most Utopian communes, in one way or another, drew their inspiration from French Utopian socialist and philosopher
Charles Fourier. In 1808 Fourier published his first book, The Social Destiny of Man. In it he called for the establishment of
ideal communities called “Phalanxes”. These would be scientifically designed communities of about 1600 people each,
perfectly balanced between male and female and would be compatible with each member’s “natural talents, passions and
inclinations”. As these communities multiplied they would eventually cover the earth creating the perfect society.
Fourier’s ideas inspired many of America’s intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Horace
Greeley. Although no lasting phalanxes were ever established in America, Fourier's ideas influenced a generation of socialists,
anarchists, feminists, pacifists, internationalists and others questioning the morality of the capitalist system. Karl Marx and
Frederick Engels rejected Fourier’s Utopian socialism, calling for a more scientific approach. Nevertheless, they used his
ideas in developing their own theory of alienation.
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Chapter 24
Utopian Socialism
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