26 January 2012
In my recent post on neo-agriculturalism I mentioned the back-to-the-land movement that was especially prevalent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Often the back-to-the-land movement was undertaken (when it was in fact undertaken) as a family affair. In its more radical and ideologically-motivated forms, however, the back-to-the-land movement involved the founding of communes.
Communes are a venerable American tradition. In the nineteenth century there were several American experiments with communes — proving the durability of the “back-to-the-land” movement — the most famous of which was the Brook Farm. Brook Farm became famous not least because Nathaniel Hawthorne lived there for a time and based his novel The Blithedale Romance on his experiences there.
A number of utopian currents fed into the nineteenth century vogue for communes, so they were probably doomed from the start. Take a little socialism, mix in Fourierism and some New England transcendentalism, liberally season with naïveté and youthful ideals, and you get a nineteenth century American commune. Since most of these short-lived institutions were founded by intellectuals with more experience of books and writing than of farming and animal husbandry, the stories that come out of these noble social experiments often sounds like a frighteningly close anticipation of Orwell’s Animal Farm, where one or a few members of the community (like the workhorse in Orwell’s fictional account) take on the actual burden of engaging in the unpleasant but necessary labor that makes life possible, while the rest shut themselves in their cottages to read and write.
One thing that can be said for the nineteenth century communes is that these visionaries and idealists actually tried to put their visions and ideals into practice. They not only talked the talk, they also tried to walk the walk — at least for a time. Which brings me to my theme: while there are a few experiments in communal living today, relative to the size of the global population these experiments are quite rare.
For those on the political left who favor cooperativism over individualism (the tension between which two I recently discussed in Addendum on Marxist Eschatology), and for those who have strongly advocated for communal living and cooperativist ideals — whether on the basis of a social philosophy or a particular understanding of economics — the establishment of a commune provides the possibility of a concrete experiment in communal living. And almost all of these have been failures. I find this to be highly significant, and the absence both of voluntary communism and discussion of the failure of communes to be also very significant.
For quite some time I have been meaning to write about the absence of voluntary communism and voluntary communes, which is, sociological speaking, very interesting. Yes, I know there are a few communes that are functioning, and there are long-term experiments in communal living such as the Kibbutz movement in Israel, but these amount to little when compared to what might have been… or what might yet be. If one really believes that a communal way of life is a good thing, or that the economics of communal living are superior to the economics of anarchic, unplanned and individualist capitalism, then one is free to make common cause with others of similar beliefs and to create a little utopia of one’s own — or rather of the community doing so together, in a spirit of mutual cooperation and shared sacrifice — even in the midst of capitalism.
In the twentieth century — so different from the experience of the nineteenth century — it became the tradition not to voluntarily establish communes, but to attempt to create communal living arrangements by threat of force and military coercion. This was the fundamental idea of what I have called The Stalin Doctrine, which Stalin himself formulated as: “Everyone imposes his own system as far as his army can reach. It cannot be otherwise. If now there is not a communist government in Paris, the cause of this is Russia has no army that can reach Paris in 1945.” This is the paradigm of non-voluntary communism.
These twentieth century “experiments” — which we might call “socialism under duress” — were enormous, catastrophic failures. We must not allow the short-sightedness of contemporary institutions or the nostalgia of memory to attempt to paper over the complete and utter failure of large-scale collectivism. The nation-states that attempted to put collectivism into practice, whether by a complete attempt at communism or a more gradual process of the nationalization of industry and expanding the social welfare state, are still suffering from the effects of this, and will continue to suffer for many decades, if not centuries.
What then of small-scale collectivism? Why should not those who are alive today, who believe strongly in collectivist ideals and who campaign and protest for these ideals, when there are precious few large-scale social experiments under way, get together and try socialism on a voluntary basis, without barbed wire and without armed guards in watchtowers forcing the residents of a presumptively communal society to remain against their will? Why not demonstrate to the world entire that collectivism is not dependent upon The Stalin Doctrine and that a social system need not have an army at its command in order to succeed?
Please don’t try to tell me that it can’t work. We know that one of the few Western institutions that functioned during the Middle Ages was that of cenobitic monasticism, which were isolated and nearly closed communities that not only survived, but ultimately thrived in the lawless conditions of medieval Europe. In fact, medieval monastic communities were so successful that they eventually became multi-national corporations that held enormous properties and governed some of the largest industries of the late middle ages. This was why Henry VIII dissolved them and expropriated their properties (and the revenues from these properties) for the crown.
Please don’t try to tell me that communal and cooperativist living must be global or the system simply won’t work, because the same cenobitic monastic communities just mentioned were almost always isolated islands of communal living. And, again, please don’t try to tell met that the initial capital for such an experiment is lacking, because there are quite a few wealthy individuals with collectivist sentiments who could easily sponsor a few hundred acres and a few dozen buildings as the seed for a contemporary voluntary commune.
What is lacking today is not the means or the opportunity to engage in voluntary collectivist living, but the will. The fact of the matter is that individualism has become what Fukuyama has called, “a systematic idea of political and social justice” much more so than the idea of liberal democracy, and this is because individualism is the practical implementation of what Fukuyama has called “The Drive for Dignity.” People today rarely if ever advocate individualism as a political philosophy — it sounds selfish when expressed explicitly — but they don’t need to advocate for individualism when then live its doctrines 24/7.
Whether in the heyday of non-voluntary communism during the twentieth century, or those who protest today for collectivist ideals, communism is always seems to be something for other people. Just as the Kim dynasty has lived in personal luxury while the people of North Korea starve, or Presidente Gonzalo lived in an upscale Lima apartment while directing the Maoist insurgency in Peru, or the Nomenklatura enjoyed the privileges of the elite under the Soviet Union, or the Princelings (children of communist party leaders) in China use their connections to become wealthy, those with presumably the greatest stake in collectivist living never want to live collectively themselves.
It is important to point out that when we speak of voluntary or non-voluntary communism we talking about a social arrangement that can be chosen or rejected. In the sense in which Marx discussed communism, and the sense in which I have recently written about communism in Marxist Eschatology and Addendum on Marxist Eschatology, communism is an historical force that is larger than the individual, and not something that can be chosen or rejected.
Thus we are talking about two fundamentally different things here:
1. communism as a political idea, which as such behaves according to the presuppositions of political society, being chosen by individuals or imposed by force, and…
2. communism as an historical idea, which as such is a category of historical understanding whereby we interpret and understand the large-scale movements and patterns of human society
The distinction is a subtle one, because a political idea often emerges from an historical idea implicit within a given political milieu, while an historical idea will often be used to analyze political ideas. But the difference, while subtle, is important, because the two kinds of ideas are opposed as contraries: with a political idea, essence precedes existence, while with an historical idea, existence precedes essence.
We should expect to find that the other possible futures that I have discussed alongside communism — extraterrestrialization, pastoralization, singularization, and now also neo-agriculturalism — will be expressed as both political ideas and historical ideas. And, in fact, when we pause to think it over, we do find that there are those thinking of political terms who want to foster the creation of a society that embodies these historical movements, while there are others thinking in historical terms of these possibilities as ideas already present at history and only discovered upon analysis.
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