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Communes and the Quest for Utopia

Social Science, Philosophy and Religion Department, Central Library,
The Arcadian or Pastoral State, second painting in The Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole
The Arcadian or Pastoral State, second painting in The Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole

If you live in Los Angeles or any other major city, you may sometimes dream of abandoning the traffic, congestion, and high cost of living for a simpler life. The idealization of country life, of living at one with nature, and creating a community with like-minded individuals has been a part of the American saga throughout the nation’s history. While the idea of communal living may conjure images of hippies in the 1960s and ’70s, communes were nothing new in the 20th century, and were derived from a centuries-long quest for a utopian society.

Since the 1516 publication of Thomas More’s groundbreaking work, Utopia, other philosophers and scholars have published their own versions of utopia. And while scholars may focus on utopia in the abstract, many idealistic Americans took matters into their own hands and began creating communes which reflected their principles. Between 1663 and 1858, 138 communal settlements were established in North America, the first such commune being founded by Dutch Mennonites in Delaware. Most communes had a religious focus, such as the Oneida Community, founded in 1841. They believed that socialism was impossible without religion, and practiced “complex marriage,” in which all husbands and wives were shared. One of the first secular communities was New Harmony, founded in 1825. It was cooperative rather than communist, and it sponsored the first kindergarten, trade school, free library, and community-supported public school in the United States. Other notable communal groups included Shaker, Mormon, Amish, Brook Farm, and Amana.

The communistic societies of the United States (1875) by Charles Nordhoff
The communistic societies of the United States (1875) by Charles Nordhoff

After the Civil War, enthusiasm for utopian experiments declined, and the lives of subsequent communal groups were short-lived. However, a resurgence of interest in communal life emerged in the 1960s. While most modern communes promoted rural, community, and natural values in an urban setting, popular culture depicted these communes as isolated and run-down farms in rural areas. Despite these communes being run more democratically than earlier communes, most suffered from internal disputes and folded within one to two years. The legacy of these communes does live on in the American consciousness, in such spheres as environmental issues, the importance of health and nutrition, a rise in New Age spiritualism, and an increase in socially conscious businesses. Some communes, or intentional communities (the more common term used today), continue to thrive, from Twin Oaks in Virginia to the Farm in Tennessee to the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center here in California.

There is an abundance of material on utopias and communes at Los Angeles Public Library. Visit the Social Science, Philosophy, and Religion Department to view our special collections on microfilm of the Shaker and Oneida communities. The Oneida collection includes books, pamphlets, and serials. The Shaker collection includes manuscripts, printed material, and photographs. Both include original writings by the communities’ founders.

Here are some book titles on the subject:

All things new: American communes and utopian movements, 1860-1914 by Robert S. Fogarty
335.973 F655 2003

Communes USA; a personal tour by Richard Fairfield
335.973 F169

Communes: a social history and guide by John Mercer
335.9 M554

Co-ops, communes & collectives: experiments in social change in the 1960s and 1970s
309.73 C7785

Dreams of peace and freedom: utopian moments in the twentieth century by J. M. Winter
321.07 W785

Families of Eden; communes and the new anarchism by Judson Jerome
335.973 J56

The Family, communes, and utopian societies by Sellie McFague TeSelle
309.73 T337

Finding community: how to join an ecovillage or intentional community by Diana Leafe Christian
335.9 C555-1

A modern utopia by H. G. Wells
321.07 W454 -1 

People of the rainbow: a nomadic utopia by Michael I. Niman
321.07 N713

The Republic by Plato
184 P71-8B

Two hundred years of American communes by Iaacov Oved
335.973 O96

Utopia by Saint Thomas More
321.07 M836

Utopian episodes: daily life in experimental colonies dedicated to changing the world by Seymour R. Kesten
335.973 K42

Utopianism: a very short introduction by Lyman Tower Sargent
321.07 S2445

Visions of utopia by Edward Rothstein
321.07 R847

Voyages to Utopia: from monastery to commune, the search for the perfect society in modern times by William Maxwell McCord
335 M131

The Arcadian or Pastoral State, second painting in The Course of Empire, by Thomas Cole from Wikimedia Commons http://tinyurl.com/cole-courseofempire
The communistic societies of the United States (1875) by Charles Nordhoff from Wikimedia Commons http://tinyurl.com/nordoff-communisticsocieties


 

 

 

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