In a previous blog, I wrote:
“There are three characteristics which such primitive or “savage” societies have. The first is that everyone has a free access to subsistence land (socialism). The second is that they form small egalitarian democratic groups (anarchism). The third is that they share freely, and are prone to gift giving (communism).”
The primitive societies which I have in mind are hunter-gatherers, subsistence gardeners, and subsistence herders. Since all three have a source of subsistence on free land, they satisfy the socialist criterion as expressed by Anton Menger [see Anton Menger, The Right to the Whole Produce of Labour, 1899] which is the right to subsistence. Anarchism, on the other hand, is a political ideal which requires a bottom-up democracy — either by consensus or by majority rule — of small groups of about 100 persons. Primitive societies thus satisfy this anarchist requirement.
Whereas socialism and anarchism can be understood as a form of rule following, communism is different in requiring an attitude or disposition to sharing and gift giving as occurs most commonly in families. It cannot occur by simply bringing together different people with different backgrounds.
First, let me say that what occurred in the Soviet Union was not communism. Yes, the Bolshevik Party rechristened itself as the Communist Party. And the rest of the world acquiesced in calling their system “communistic.” But it wasn’t even socialistic since there was no free access to subsistence, unless you want to call a prison a socialist system because the inmates are provided with subsistence (having deprived them of free meandering, and forcing them to work). The Soviet Union had state-run factories and state-run agricultural collectives. The products of these factories and collectives were sold in the domestic and international markets, just like private enterprises do in other countries. The proper name for such a system is “state-capitalism.”
Socialism on a small scale would occur if these enterprises were owned and run by the workers themselves; thus determining their rate of pay by themselves. But how this is to occur has been a subject of controversy.
As I see it, communism is possible only on a small scale where everyone knows everyone else (about 150 persons) and where there prevails mutual trust and respect. It cannot occur by bringing together a bunch of 900 strangers as happened in the experiment of Robert Owen at New Harmony, Indiana, in 1824.
When discussing this experiment, what is always skipped is the fact that the town of New Harmony was successfully built by a flourishing colony of communist Rappites. This was a group of German immigrants who fled from religious persecution in Germany. They were devout Christian celibates, as are the Catholic nuns and monks who live in monasteries. They had the communistic disposition of sharing and gift giving.
If we are to examine whether communism is possible, we have to look for examples in religious communities such as the Mennonites, the Amish, the Dukhobors, as well as other denominations.
The Owen experiment was to bring together strangers into a secular environment and have communism be practiced by decree. This is impossible. If we look at the example of primitive tribes — they form an extended family by birth and custom. Strangers have nothing in common except an external bond of agreement (a social contract), which they may not be inclined to honor.
The closest a colony or a village of strangers can flourish together is when the land is owned in common but used separately. The Russian “mir” (a village) has been used as an example of a workable socialism. It is called “communism” only in the respect that the land is communal property which is shared. But it is not a sharing of work or the products of labor. The Russian mir did not have the Amish trait of, for example, communal barn raising. Individual families coped on their own.
I found the histories of American group settlements to be enlightening, especially the following three books (available on the internet):
John Humphrey Noyes, History of American Socialisms, 1870;
Charles Nordhoff, The Communistic Societies of the United States, 1875;
William Alfred Hinds, American Communities, 1878, revised 1902
Nordhoff concluded his research thus:
The societies which may thus be properly used as illustrations of successful communism in this country are the SHAKERS, established in the Eastern States in 1794, and in the West about 1808; the RAPPISTS, established in 1805; the BÄUMELERS, or ZOARITES, established in 1817; the EBEN-EZERs, or AMANA Communists, established in 1844; the BETHEL Commune, established in 1844; the ONEIDA PERFECTIONISTS, established in 1848; the ICARIANS, who date from 1849; and the AURORA Commune, from 1852.
Though in name there are thus but eight societies, these consist in fact of not less than seventy-two communes: the Shakers having fifty-eight of these; the Amana Society seven; and the Perfectionists two. The remaining societies consist of but a single commune for each.