A Brief Communal History

by Raven

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.

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The grounds of the Oneida Community

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.

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The Oneida residence at Twin Oaks

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.

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A scene from Compersia
A Brief Communal History

Communal Postcards

by las Indias

Postcards were created in Austria for first time in 1869 but its «golden age» started with the Paris Universal exhibition of 1900. When tens of thousands of visitors from the whole world arrived to Paris, postcards illustrated with all kind of modern wonders and monuments were waiting for them. Among them, a few images of the phalansteries and the famous Guise’s Familistere, the most successful social experiment of the time and the most remarkable edification of communitarism since the Antiquity. Even if Fourierism was a cooperative movement, not a communal one, we could say it was the first image of an intentional community recorded in a postcard.

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Familistere de Guise. Postcard sent in 1900 part of our collection. The Familistère was created in 1858 by famous Fourierist activist and innovator Jean Baptiste Andre Godin. It endured as a worker’s cooperative until 1968.

Ten years later, postcards already were an usual media for promoting «advanced ideas», specially of those groups and movements with a transnational aim, as Esperanto… and communitarism. Only few months after the birth of Degania, the first kibbutz, they produced their first postcard. In the one we have in our dining room wall, you still can recognize the young faces -all of them were around 20 years old- of the founders of the first egalitarian community of the twentieth century. It probably was the first photographic image of a living egalitarian community ever seen in Europe. Since then, Degania and dozens of other egalitarian Israeli kibbutzim made hundreds of them. You could explain the rise, trouble, differences and decay of the kibbutz movement just with them, covering decades of history.

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Postcard of the 1909 Universal Congress of Esperanto in Barcelona.

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Postcard sent from Degania, the first kibbutz, in 1910 after the first crop, also in our collection.

When we moved back to Madrid in 2015 we decided to get back to this tradition, making postcards a media for recording and sharing our own history as a community. We made then our first one and we sent it during the New Year celebration. The picture chosen was very symbolic: it was shot during the presentation of «The book of Community» in Gijón, an industrial town in the North of Spain and in the back you can see a gigantic reproduction of «Il quarto stato », the painting that has been «the» symbol of the worker’s movement in the twentieth century. We got the idea of adding to it a present. So, we prepared a web page optimized for smartphones with an electronic edition some of our books and we added a QR code in order to allow the receivers to easily download them in their cell phones.

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Postcard send by us at the end of 2015 during the new year’s celebrations of 2016

This year we made a second postcard. But, what was the image of the year? We made a lot of things during 2016: we published «The Communard’s Manifesto» and a book of readings, Caro became the first communard accepting a political responsibility in a national government since the seventies, our workers cooperative grew until 40 people and with them we made beer and for first time we successfully crowdfunded a project, we made a lot of activism, we also made new products and customers in the midst of the Spanish economic crisis… But the picture we choose was not related to any of this good news, nor it was as beautiful as the one in 2015. It was shot in Madrid’s airport very early in the morning, our eyes were almost closed but we were specially happy because it was the day Caro came back to Madrid from Buenos Aires to celebrate with the rest of us our 14th anniversary as a community. We added a QR code too, it has became a tradition.

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Postcard send by us at the end of 2016 during the new year’s celebrations of this year

As the postcards of Fourierist, kibbutznik or Esperanto propagandist, our postcards crossed the world and got into the houses of hundreds of friends an image of other possible way of living during a very troubled year. Many of them sent us back pictures of our postcards framed and exhibited in a wall of their homes. It meant a lot to them and to us. In a world of instantaneous massive free media, postcards are slow, small scale and low cost, nobody will expect anything great from them, won’t they? But they also are personal and full of meaning and ours is a movement focused in persons and full of meaningfulness.

Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we start a regular correspondence between communities and between every community and their friends with postcards of our own creation? Will it not be empowering to spread the world with meaningful letters and images telling of our way of live, values and aesthetics?

Communal Postcards

40 Years in the Wilderness

by Laird Schaub, excerpted from his post on Laird’s Commentary on Community and Consensus, Friday, May 2, 2014

Tomorrow, Sandhill will celebrate it’s 40th anniversary. While not quite a feat of biblical proportions, it’s still a big deal.

The phrase “40 years in the wilderness” comes from the book of Numbers (while that seems an odd name for a chapter in the Good Book, think of it as a precursor to Sesame Street, “Today’s religious story, boys and girls, is brought to you by the number 40… “), and recounts the wanderings of the Israelites after Charlton Heston led them in their just-in-time escape from Egypt (remember the cool trick with the Red Sea where he washed away pharaoh’s army?).

 Moses

After peregrinating at length (enough to conduct the Olympics 10 times) and surviving a series of single elimination competitions with unhappy landowners whose property they’d drifted onto, the wandering Jews* finally settled in Canaan, the Promised Land. Now that’s taking the long view.

* [Not to be confused with ornamental spiderworts, or the apocryphal dude who is reputed to have taunted Jesus en route to the cross and was cursed to traverse the world without respite until the Second Coming.]

Sandhill’s story is a little different. We’ve actually been on the same piece of land the entire time, and our work has been to transform it into our version of Canaan—something we promised ourselves we’d attempt to do. The wilderness in our case has been mainstream society, with its competitive, hierarchic, and adversarial dynamics. Most Sandhillians had been wandering through that desert for decades before accreting in little regarded northeast Missouri to terraform cooperative culture.

Against long odds, we’ve pretty much succeeded. And that’s what we’re celebrating tomorrow (along with Beltane), cheered on by 75-100 of our closest friends.

Today—on anniversary eve—it seems appropriate to pause and reflect on some of Sandhill’s major markers along the way. While the selections are somewhat arbitrary, bear with me.

1975—We lost two of the original four members, and it dawned on Annie and me that we’d have to open up our group to people we didn’t already know if we were going to survive. Though that seems normal today, that was a disillusioning shock at the time. In fact, no one we knew from outside of Sandhill ever joined the community. All of our growth came from visitors attracted by the dream and our description in Communities Directory.

1977—We started making sorghum. After two year’s of apprenticing with Jo Pearl & Eva Grover (septuagenarians who lived about 10 miles north of us), we bought our own mill, had stainless steel pans custom made, and started cooking Sandhill sorghum—something we’re still doing 37 years later. That first year we sold a quart for $2.50 and a gallon for $9. Today we offer quarts of unadulterated sweetness at the bargain price of $12 (and you can order it online).

1979 —In December we completed the paperwork to become officially recognized by the state of Missouri as Sandhill Farm, Inc. Even though we were only three people at the time (Ann Shrader, Tim Jost, and me) it became apparent that we needed the group to own the land instead of Laird & Ann.

1980 —Stan Hildebrand joined us, marking the first time we had a bona fide farmer in our number, and we gelled into a group of five that was stable for five years. During that stretch the only turnover we experienced was one person leaving for Twin Oaks (Thea Page), and another from Twin Oaks joining us (Clarissa Gyorgy). Reaching this level of grounded coherence was crucial for us a fledgling group. Up until then it was never quite clear if we were going to last.

Also that year, Sandhill joined the Federation of Egalitarian Communities, a network of secular, income-sharing communities that we’re still associated with today.

1981—Ceilee was born to Annie and me. He was the first child at Sandhill, and I caught him myself in the middle of our bedroom floor on a cold, sunny morning in late January. He became the first kid born at an FEC community that was raised there until he left for college.

1991—Sandhill representatives went on local radio to speak against the first Gulf War. This was a highly unpopular thing to do and tested our local relations (would we get a brick through the window?) even though we were being true to our pacifist ideals. Fortunately our 17 years of careful spadework building personal connections in the local community proved strong enough to withstand the strain, and no bad thing happened. Whew.

1995—Stan became trained as an organic inspector, starting down a path that has defined much of his last two decades and created an income stream that developed into the linchpin of the community’s finances. It has turned out that inspecting farms pays much better than farming.

1997—Dancing Rabbit bought land three miles away. Attracted by affordable property values, minimal zoning, and neighbors who wanted them, the founding group took over the old Petitjean place. Today Dancing Rabbit is by far the larger and better-known group, strengthening immeasurably the foundation for our beachhead of cooperative culture. Today our combined population (counting Sandhill, Dancing Rabbit, Red Earth, and the outliers living in Rutledge who want to be near us) approaches 100 and we almost certainly have the largest number of communitarians as a percentage of registered voters of any county in the US—somewhere in the vicinity of three percent.

1998—We began experimenting with having summer interns. Today it’s automatic that we interview interns to join us during the growing season (April-October), and they are a well-integrated part of our life, but it all began with Lindsey Jones from Berkeley 18 years ago.

 2001—This was the year of too many interns. After a few years of stellar results, we figured if a little was good then perhaps a lot would be great. We were wrong. After being inundated by the dynamics of trying to manage eight at once, we learned to keep the number of interns lower than that of the members. Today our rule of thumb is no more than three at a time, which is far easier to integrate into the flow of life on the farm.

2005—Red Earth Farms was launched on 76 acres adjoining Dancing Rabbit. Now we were the tri-communities. Today REF has close to 20 members and Sandhill, while still the oldest community, is now the smallest of the three.

2013—We started construction on a high tunnel greenhouse to expand our growing season on a commercial scale. This represented a deepening of our agricultural commitment, and was an initiative of the younger generation of members—the folks who are taking over from Stan and me.

40 Years in the Wilderness