When I was in eighth grade (it was probably 1965), one of the nuns teaching us declared that the Apostles were the first communists. I doubt (as I’ll show) they were the first, but it seems that they really did try to live communally. From Acts of the Apostles (4:32,34-35): “Now the multitude of those who believed were of one heart and one soul; neither did anyone say that any of the things he possessed was his own, but they had all things in common. … Nor was there anyone among them that lacked, for all who were possessors of land or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of the things that were sold, and laid them at the feet of apostles’ feet; and they were distributed to each as anyone had need.” (Gideons International, New King James Version) It sounds pretty communal to me.
However, Marx and Engles reference hunter-gatherer tribes as Primitive Communism, citing Lewis Henry Morgan’s discussion of the communal living arrangements of the Haudenosaunee (or ‘Five Nations’ also called the Iroquois). Wikipedia points out that “Egalitarian and communist-like hunter gatherer societies have been studied and described by many well-known social anthropologists including James Woodburn, Richard Lee, Alan Barnard and, more recently, Jerome Lewis.” Human beings are tribal animals. I’ve written about this on my personal blog. I think that communal living is an attempt to recreate tribal societies, where everyone shared what they had.
The nineteenth century was filled with attempts at creating “Utopian Communities” and many of them were rather communal. The Oneida Community (according to Wikipedia) “…practiced communalism (in the sense of communal property and possessions)…” It lasted thirty-one years (from 1848 to 1879). The Amana Colonies were founded in 1856 and (again according to Wikipedia) “They lived a communal life until the mid-1930s.” Wikipedia also notes, “The Amana Society, Inc., corporate heir to the land and economic assets of communal Amana, continues to own and manage some 26,000 acres (105 km²) of farm, pasture and forest land. … Because the land was not divided up with the end of communalism, the landscape of Amana still reflects its communal heritage.”
Las Indias has given us a bit of communal history in their essay on “Communal Postcards“, starting with Fourierism and going onto the early Kibbutz movement.
The Bruderhof is a group of Christian communities, founded in 1920, in Germany, and currently comprised of “more than 2,700 people living in twenty-three settlements on four continents.” They take biblical sharing very seriously. “…at the Bruderhof, we believe that sharing our lives and finances in Christian community is the answer to all that is wrong with society today. Here we are building a life where there are no rich or poor. Where everyone is cared for, everyone belongs, and everyone can contribute.”
In the US, a second wave of communalism occurred with the commune movement of the nineteen sixties and seventies. (Probably starting just about the time that that nun was pointing out apostolic communism.) While many of these attempts were communes in name only and most of them are long gone, at least four of them are around in one form or another.
Twin Oaks was founded in 1967 and turns fifty this year. They have been sharing income since their beginning. Unlike many of the communes of the sixties, it is around and going strong. The Farm, in Tennesee, was founded in 1971. While at its beginning “…Farm members took vows of poverty and owned no personal possessions other than clothing and tools…”, this changed. “In 1983, due to financial difficulties … the Farm changed its residential community agreement and began requiring members to support themselves with their own income rather than to donate all income to The Foundation central corporation. This decollectivization was called the Changeover, or the Exodus.” (Quotes from Wikipedia.) While The Farm is still around, it is no longer communal. East Wind community was founded in 1973 by some folks from Twin Oaks. As they say on their website: “We hold our land, labor, and resources in common.” It continues strong and communal. And, finally, there’s Sandhill Farm, a small community founded in 1974, where they are still farming and living communally. (Here’s a brief history of Sandhill.)
And communes (income sharing communities) are still being formed. Compersia, a new commune in Washington, DC, just had its first birthday. Communal history is old, at least if you believe that tribal societies were communal, but it is still being written. You can read the latest dispatches from those living communally on this blog.