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( Latin communis .)

In its more general signification communism refers to any social system in which all property, or at least all productive property, is owned by the group, or community, instead of by individuals. Thus understood it comprises communistic anarchism, socialism, and communism in the strict sense. Communistic anarchism (as distinguished from the philosophic variety) would abolish not only private property, but political government. Socialism means the collective ownership and management not of all property, but only of the material agencies of production. Communism in the strict sense demands that both production-goods, such as land, railways, and factories, and consumption-goods, such as dwellings, furniture, food, and clothing, should be the property of the whole community. Previous to the middle of the nineteenth century the term was used in its more general sense, even by socialists. Marx and Engels called the celebrated document in which they gave to socialism its first "scientific" expression, the "Communist Manifesto". They could scarcely do otherwise, since the word Socialism was used for the first time in the year 1833, in England. Before long, however, most of the followers of the new movement preferred to call their economic creed Socialism and themselves Socialists. To-day no socialist who believes that individuals should be allowed to retain ownership of consumption-goods would class himself as a communist. Hence the word is at present pretty generally employed in the narrower sense. Its use to designate merely common ownership of capital is for the most part confined to the uninformed, and to those who seek to injure socialism by giving it a bad name.

Communism in the strict sense is also distinguished from socialism by the fact that it usually connotes a greater degree of common life. In the words of the Rev. W.D.P. Bliss, "socialism puts its emphasis on common production and distribution; communism, on life in common" ("Handbook of Socialism ", p. 12). Communism aims, therefore, at a greater measure of equality than socialism. It would obtain more uniformity in the matter of marriage, education, food, clothing, dwellings, and the general life of the community. Hence the various attempts that have been made by small groups of persons living a common life to establish common ownership of industry and common enjoyment of its products, have generally been described as experiments in communism. In fact socialism, in its proper sense of ownership and operation of capital-instruments by the entire democratic State, has never been tried anywhere. This calls to mind the further distinction that communism, even as a present-day ideal, implies the organization of industry and life by small federated communities, rather than by a centralized State. William Morris thus distinguishes them, and hopes that socialism will finally develop into communism ("Modern Socialism ", edited by R.C.K. Ensor, p. 88). Combining all these notes into a formal definition, we might say that complete communism means the common ownership of both industry and its products by small federated communities, living a common life.


The earliest operation of the communistic principle of which we have any record, took place in Crete about 1300 B. C. All the citizens were educated by the State in a uniform way, and all ate at the public tables. According to tradition, it was this experiment that moved Lycurgus to set up his celebrated regime in Sparta. Under his rule, Plutarch informs us, there was a common system of education, gymnastics, and military training for all the youth of both sexes. Public meals and public sleeping apartments were provided for all the citizens. The land was redistributed so that all had equal shares. Although marriage existed, it was modified by a certain degree of promiscuity in the interest of race-culture. The principles of equality and common life were also enforced in many other matters. As Plutarch says, "no man was at liberty to live as he pleased, the city being like one great camp where all had their stated allowance". In several other respects, however, the regime of Lycurgus fell short of normal communism: though the land was equally distributed it was privately owned; the political system was not a democracy but a limited monarchy, and later an oligarchy; and the privileges of citizenship and equality were not enjoyed by the entire population. The Helots, who performed all the disagreeable work, were slaves in the worst sense of that term. Indeed, the purpose of the whole organization was military and political rather than economic and social. As Lycurgus was inspired by the Cretan experiment, so Plato was impressed by the achievement of Lycurgus. His "Republic" describes an ideal commonwealth in which there was to be community of property, meals, and even of women. The State was to control education, marriage, births, the occupation of the citizens, and the distribution and enjoyment of goods. It would enforce perfect equality of conditions and careers for all citizens and for both sexes. Plato's motive in outlining this imaginary social order was individual welfare, not State aggrandizement. He wanted to call the attention of the world to a State which was unique in that it was not composed of two classes constantly at war with each other, the rich and the poor. But his model commonwealth was to have slaves.

The communistic principle governed for a time the lives of the first Christians of Jerusalem. In the fourth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles we learn that none of the brethren called anything that he possessed his own; that those who had houses and lands sold them and laid the price at the feet of the Apostles, who distributed "to everyone according as he had need". Inasmuch as they made no distinction between citizens and slaves, these primitive Christians were in advance of the communism of Plato. Their communism was, moreover, entirely voluntary and spontaneous. The words of St. Peter to Ananias prove that individual Christians were quite free to retain their private property. Finally, the arrangement did not long continue, nor was it adopted by any of the other Christian bodies outside of Jerusalem. Hence the assertion that Christianity was in the beginning communistic is a gross exaggeration. And the claim that certain Fathers of the Church , notably Ambrose, Augustine, Basil, Chrysostum, and Jerome, condemned all private property and advocated communism, is likewise unwarranted. Most of the religious, that is, ascetic and monastic orders and communities which have existed, both within and without the Christian fold, exhibit some of the features of communism. The Buddhist monks in India, the Essenes in Judea, and the Therapeutæ in Egypt, all excluded private ownership and led a common life. The religious communities of the Catholic Church have always practised common ownership of goods, both productive (whenever they possessed these) and non-productive. Their communism differs, however, from that of the economic communists in that its primary object is not and never has been social reform or a more just distribution of goods. The spiritual improvement of the individual member and the better fulfilment of their charitable mission, such as instructing the young or caring for the sick and infirm, are the ends that they have chiefly sought. These communities insist, moreover, that their mode of life is adapted only to the few. For these reasons we find them always apart from the world, making no attempt to bring in any considerable portion of those without, and observing celibacy. One important feature of economic communism is wanting to nearly all religious communities, namely, common ownership and management of the material agents of production from which they derive their sustenance. In this respect they are more akin to wage-earning bodies than to communistic organizations.

During the Middle Ages communism was held, and in various degrees practised, by several heretical sects. In this they professed to imitate the example of the primitive Christians. Their communism was, therefore, like that of the monastic orders, religious rather than economic. On the other hand, the motive of the religious orders was Christ's counsel to seek perfection. Chief among the communistic heretical sects were: the Catharists, the Apostolics, the Brothers and Sisters of the Free Spirit, the Hussites, the Moravians, and the Anabaptists. None of them presents facts of any great importance to the student of communism. The next notable event in the history of communism is the appearance of St. Thomas More's "Utopia" (1516). The purpose of this romantic account of an ideal commonwealth was economic, not military or religious. The withdrawal of large tracts of land from cultivation to be used for sheep-raising, the curtailment of the tenant's rights to the common, and the rise in rents had already begun to produce that insecurity, poverty, and pauperism which later on became so distressing in England, and which still constitute a most perplexing problem. By way of contrast to these conditions, More drew his ideal picture of the State of Utopia. In his conception of industrial conditions, needs, and tendencies, More was ages ahead of his time. "I can have", he says, "no other notion of all the other governments that I see or know than that they are a conspiracy of the rich, who on pretence of managing the public only pursue their private ends, and devise all the ways and arts they can find out: first, that they may without danger preserve all that they have so ill acquired, and then that they may engage the poor to toil and labour for them at as low rates as possible, and oppress them as much as they please." This reads more like an outburst from some radical reformer of the twentieth century than the testimony of a state chancellor of the early sixteenth. In "Utopia" all goods are held and enjoyed in common, and all meals are taken at the public tables. But there is no community of wives. The disagreeable work is done by slaves, but the slaves are all convicted criminals. Concerning both the family and the dignity and rights of the individual, "Utopia" is, therefore, on higher ground than the "Republic". There are several other descriptions of ideal States which owe their inspiration to "Utopia". The most important are: "Oceana" (1656) by James Harrington; "The City of the Sun" (1625) by Thomas Campanella ; and Francis Bacon's "New Atlantis" (1629). None of them has been nearly so widely read nor so influential as their prototype. Campanella, who was a Dominican monk, represents the authorities of "The City of the Sun" as compelling the best-developed women to mate with the best-developed men, in order that the children may be as perfect as possible. Children are to be trained by the State not by the parents, for they "are bred for the preservation of the species and not for individual pleasure".

The comprehensive criticism of, and revolt against social institutions carried on by French writers in the eighteenth century naturally included theories for the reconstruction of the economic order. Gabriel de Mably (Doutes proposés aux philosophes économiques, 1768) who seems to have borrowed partly from Plato and partly from Rousseau, declared that community of goods would secure equality of condition and the highest welfare of the race; but he shrank from advocating this as a practical remedy for the ills of his own time. Morelly (Code de la nature, 1755) agreed with Rousseau that all social evils were due to institutions, and urged the ownership and management of all property and industry by the State. Both de Mably and Morelly were apostate priests. Morelly's views were adopted by one of the French Revolutionists , F. N. Baboeuf, who was the first modern to take practical steps toward the formation of a communistic society. His plans included compulsory labour on the part of all, and public distribution of the product according to individual needs. To convert his theories into reality, he founded the "Society of Equals" (1796) and projected an armed insurrection; but the conspirators were soon betrayed and their leader guillotined (1797). Count Henri de Saint-Simon, whose theories received their final shape in his "Nouveau Christianisme" (1825), did not demand common ownership of all property. Hence he is looked upon as the first socialist rather than as a communist. He was the first to emphasize the division of modern society into employers and workingmen, and the first to advocate a reconstruction of the industrial and political order on the basis of labour and in the particular interest of the working classes. According to his view, the State should become the directer of industry, assigning tasks in proportion to capacity and rewards in proportion to work. He is also a socialist rather than a communist in his desire that reforms should be brought about by the central Government, instead of by local authority or voluntary associations. Charles Fourier (Traité de l'association domestique-agricole, 1822) did not even ask for the abolition of all capital. Yet he was more of a communist than Saint-Simon because his plans were to be carried out by the local communities, to which he gave the name of "phalanxes", and because the members were to live a common life. All would dwell in one large building called the "phalansterie". Tasks were to be assigned with some regard to the preferences of the individual, but there were to be frequent changes of occupation. Every worker would get a minimum wage adequate to a comfortable livelihood. The surplus product would be divided among labour, capital, and talent, but in such a way that those doing the most disagreeable work would obtain the highest compensation. Marriage would be terminable by the parties themselves. An attempt to establish a phalanx at Versailles in 1832 resulted in complete failure.

Etienne Cabet drew up a communistic programme in his "Voyage en Icarie" (1840), which was modelled upon the work of Sir Thomas More. He would abolish private property and private education, but not marriage nor the family life. Goods were to be produced and distributed by the community as a whole, and there was to be complete equality among all its members. In 1848 he emigrated with a band of his disciples to America, and established the community of Icaria in Texas. In 1849 they moved to the abandoned Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois. Here the community prospered for several years, until the usual solvent appeared in the shape of internal dissension. In 1856 the small minority that sided with Cabet settled at Cheltenham, near St. Louis, while the greater number moved to Southern Iowa, where they established a new community to which they gave the old name of Icaria. The latter settlement flourished until 1878, when there began a final series of disruptions, secessions, and migrations. The last band of Icarians was dissolved in 1895. At that time the community numbered only twenty-one members; in Nauvoo there were five hundred. Icaria has been called "the most typical experiment ever made in democratic communism" and "more wonderful than any other similar colony, in that it endured so long without any dogmatic basis". The Icarians practised no religion. In his "Organisation du travail" (1840) Louis Blanc demanded that the State establish national workshops, with a view to ultimate State ownership and management of all production. After the Revolution of 1848 the French Government did introduce several national workshops, but it made no honest effort to conduct them according to the ideas of M. Blanc. They were all unsuccessful and short-lived. Like Saint-Simon, Louis Blanc was a socialist rather than a communist in his theories of social reorganization, property, and individual freedom. From his time forward all the important theories and movements concerning the reorganization of society, in the other countries of Europe as well as in France, fall properly under the head of socialism. The remainder of the history of communism describes events that occurred in the United States. In his "American Communities" William A. Hinds enumerates some thirty-five different associations in which communistic principles were either partially or wholly put into operation.


The Ephrata Community (Pennsylvania) was, with two unimportant exceptions, the earliest. It was founded in 1732 by Conrad Beissel, a German, who had for some years led the life of a religious hermit. Three men and two women who shared his views on the Sabbath were permitted to join him, and thus the six became a community. The members held property in common, laboured in common, lived in common, and observed complete equality of conditions. They regarded celibacy as preferable to the wedded state, and during the early years of the community the majority remained unmarried. Their primary aim, therefore, was religious and spiritual instead of social and economic. The community never had more than three hundred members; in 1900 it had only seventeen.

The most important communistic organization in the United States is that of the Shakers. Their first community was founded at Mt. Lebanon, N. Y., in 1787. At present there are thirty-five separate communities with a total membership of one thousand; once they aggregated five thousand. Like the Ephratans, the Shakers are a religious sect and live a community life for a religious purpose. The founders of their first American settlement were a band of English Quakers to whom the name Shakers was given because of their bodily agitations under the supposed influence of spiritual forces in their religious meetings. In the Shaker communities property is held in common (except in the ease of members who have not reached the Third, or Senior Order), meals are taken in common, there is a common hour for rising, modes of dress are uniform, and there are minute rules governing manners and conduct generally. While all members are on a footing of equality, the government is hierarchical rather than democratic. They make confession of sin before entering, observe celibacy, abstain from alcoholic drinks, discourage the use of tobacco, and endeavour to avoid "all worldly usages, manners, customs, loves and affections, which interpose between the individual citizen of the heavenly kingdom and his duties and privileges therein". Owing to its principles and practices, Shaker communism is as little suited to the generality of men as monasticism. Their membership is recruited mostly through religious revivals and the reception of homeless children. Nevertheless the community has not been a complete failure as regards those who have remained faithful to its life. "For more than a hundred years", they maintain, "they have lived prosperous, contented, happy lives, making their land bloom like the fairest garden; and during all these years have never spent among themselves a penny for police, for lawyers, for judges, for poor-houses, for penal institutions or any like 'improvements' of the outside world."

Two communities that had a considerable resemblance to each other were the Harmonists, established in Pennsylvania in 1805 by George Rapp, and the Separatists of Zoar, founded in 1818 by Joseph Baumeler in Ohio. Both communities were German, were religious rather than economic, held the same religious views, and practised celibacy. Early in their history the Separatists abandoned celibacy, but continued to regard it as a higher state than marriage. The Harmonists had at one time one thousand members, but by the year 1900 dissensions had reduced them to nine. The Separatists never numbered more than five hundred. They ceased to exist as a community in 1898. The New Harmony Community was established in 1825 on land in Indiana that had once been occupied by the Harmonists. Its founder was Robert Owen, a Welshman, who had managed with remarkable success the New Lanark mills in Scotland. He was the first to introduce the ten-hour day into factories and to refuse to employ very young children and pauper children. He also established the first infant schools in England. He made the village of New Lanark a model of good order, temperance, thrift, comfort, and contentment. He was a humanitarian and reformer who did not shrink from large sacrifices on behalf of his theories. Encouraged by the success of his efforts at New Lanark, and believing that men were good by nature and needed only the proper environment to become virtuous, strong, intelligent, and contented, he began to dream of a communism that should be world-wide. He would have all persons gathered into villages of between three hundred and two thousand souls, each of whom was to have from one-half to one and one-half acres of land. The dwellings of each village would be arranged in a parallelogram, with common kitchens, eating-houses, and schools in the centre. Individual property was to be abolished. Such were the plans that he intended to try for the first time in the community of New Harmony. Before the end of its first year this community had nine hundred souls and thirty thousand acres of land. Before two years had passed dissensions had arisen, two new communities had been formed by seceders, and the original community had been dissolved. Several other communistic settlements which owed their existence to the teaching and example of Owen, were established in different States, but none of them outlived New Harmony. Like the latter, they all expressly rejected any religious basis. This seems to have been one of the chief reasons for their early dissolution. Toward the end of his life Owen gave up his materialistic notions, and admitted the supreme importance of spiritual forces in the formation of sound character.

The Oneida Community of Oneida, N. Y., was founded in 1848 by J. H. Noyes. Its purpose was primarily religious, "the establishment of the kingdom of God ". At one period it had five hundred members. For more than thirty years its members practised not only community of property and of life generally, but also of women, through their so-called "complex marriages". The rearing of children was partly a parental but chiefly a community function. In deference to public sentiment outside, the practice of "complex marriage" was in 1879 discontinued. They then divided themselves into two classes, "the married and the celibate, both legitimate but the last preferred". However, nearly all of them got married within a very short time. In 1881 the community was converted into a joint-stock company, the members owning individual shares. Financially, the new corporation has been a success, but most of its common-life features disappeared with "complex marriage".

Between 1840 and 1850 some thirty communities modelled upon the phalanxes of Fourier were established in different parts of the United States. Only one lasted longer than six years, and the great majority disappeared within three years. Their rise was due chiefly to the writings and efforts of an exceptionally able, cultured, and enthusiastic group of writers which included Horace Greeley, Albert Brisbane, George Ripley, Parke Goodwin, William Henry Channing, Charles A. Dana, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Elizabeth Peabody. The most notable of these experiments was the one at Brook Farm. Although it took the form of a joint-stock company, paying five per cent interest, it exemplified the principles of communism in many particulars. The industries were managed by the community and all the members took turns at the various tasks; all received the same wages, all were guaranteed support for themselves and their dependents, and all enjoyed the same advantages in the matter of food, clothing, and dwellings. For the first two years (1841-43) the life was charming; but the enterprise was not a success financially. In 1844 the organization was converted into a Fourieristic phalanx, which had an unsuccessful existence of a few brief months. Brook Farm failed thus early because it had too many philosophers and too few "hard-fisted toilers".

The Amana Community (Iowa) was begun in 1855 by a band of Germans who called themselves "True Inspirationists", on account of their belief that the inspiration of the Apostolic age is still vouchsafed to Christians. Their distinctive religious tenets reach back to the Pietists of the seventeenth century, but as an organization they began at Hesse, Germany, in 1714. They came to America to escape religious persecution, not to practise communism. According to their own testimony, the communistic feature was introduced solely as a means to a better Christian life. The community tolerates marriage but prefers celibacy. Those who marry suffer a decline in social standing, and are compelled to wait for some time before they can regain their former position. One of their "Rules for Daily Life" reads thus: "Fly from the society of woman-kind as much as possible, as a very highly dangerous magnet and magical fire." The families live separately, but eat in groups of from thirty-five to fifty. All property belongs to the community. In order the better to achieve their supreme purpose— and the imitation of Christ— life is very simple, and barren not only of luxury but of any considerable enjoyment. The Amana Community has for a long time been the largest community in existence, numbering between seventeen and eighteen hundred members. During sixty years the members of this community have lived in peace, comfort, and contentment, having neither lawyers, sheriffs, nor beggars.

None of the other communistic settlements of America presents features worthy of special mention. Of all the experiments made only the Amana Community and the Shakers survive. Societies like the Co-operative Brotherhood and the Equality Commonwealth of the State of Washington are examples of co-operation, or at most of socialism. Besides, they are all very young and very small.


The history of communistic societies suggests some interesting and important generalizations.


All but three of the American communities, namely those founded by Robert Owen, the Icarians, and the Fourieristic experiments, and absolutely all that enjoyed any measure of success, were organized primarily for religious ends under strong religious influences, and were maintained on a basis of definite religious convictions and practices. Many of their founders were looked upon as prophets. The religious bond seems to have been the one force capable of holding them together at critical moments of their history. Mr. Hinds, who is himself a firm believer in communism, admits that there must be unity of belief either for or against religion. The importance of the spiritual and ascetic elements is further shown by the fact that nearly all the more successful communities either enjoined, or at least preferred, celibacy. If communism needs the ascetic element to this extent it is evidently unsuited for general adoption.


It would seem that where religion and asceticism are not among the primary ends, community of wives as well as of property easily suggests itself to communists as a normal and logical feature of their system. Even Campanella declared that "all private property is acquired and improved for the reason that each one of us by himself has his own home and wife and children". Speaking of the decline of the Oneida Community, Mr. Hinds says: "The first step out of communism was taken when 'mine and thine' were applied to husband and wife; then followed naturally an exclusive interest in children; then the desire to accumulate individual property for their present and future use." The founder of this community was of opinion that if the ordinary principles of marriage are maintained, communistic associations will present greater temptations to unlawful love than ordinary society. Communism therefore seems to face the Scylla of celibacy and the Charybdis of promiscuity.


All the American communities except those founded by Owen, were composed of picked and select souls who were filled with enthusiasm and willing to make great sacrifices for their ideal. Owen admitted recruits indiscriminately, but keenly regretted it afterwards; for he recognized it as one of the chief causes of premature failure. Moreover, the other communities separated themselves from and discouraged contact with the outside world. Most of the deserters were members who had violated this injunction, and become enamoured of worldly ways.


The success attained by the American communities was in a very large measure due to exceptionally able, enthusiastic, and magnetic leaders. As soon as these were removed from leadership their communities almost invariably began to decline rapidly. This fact and the facts mentioned in the last paragraph add weight to the conclusions drawn from the first two, namely that communism is utterly unsuited to the majority.


It is possible for small groups of choice spirits, especially when actuated by motives of religion and asceticism, to maintain for more than a century a communistic organization in contentment and prosperity. The proportion of laziness is smaller and the problem of getting work done simpler than is commonly assumed. And the habit of common life does seem to root out a considerable amount of human selfishness.


The complete equality sought by communism is a well-meant but mistaken interpretation of the great moral truths, that, as persons and in the sight of God, all human beings are equal; and that all have essentially the same needs and the same ultimate destiny. In so far as they are embodied in the principle of common ownership, these truths have found varied expressions in various countries and civilizations. Many economic historians maintain that common ownership was everywhere the earliest form of land tenure. It still prevails after a fashion in the country districts of Russia. Within the last half-century, the sphere of common or public ownership has been greatly extended throughout almost all of the Western world, and it is certain to receive still wider expansion in the future. Nevertheless, the verdict of experience, the nature of man, and the attitude of the Church, all assure us that complete communism will never be adopted by any considerable section of any people. While the Church sanctions the principle of voluntary communism for the few who have a vocation to the religious life, she condemns universal, compulsory, or legally enforced communism, inasmuch as she maintains the natural right of every individual to possess private property. She has reprobated communism more specifically in the Encyclical "Rerum Novarum" of Pope Leo XIII. For the theories condemned in that document under the name of socialism certainly include communism as described in these pages. See COLLECTIVISM, SOCIALISM; PROPERTY.

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