Alternate Societies:
A Brief Survey of Intentional Community In European History

By Gary Moffatt

Having previously outlined some of the means through which we can meet our economic needs without depending on our decaying social system (Towards An Alternative Economy, KIO #29), I propose in this article to briefly outline the history of attempts in western society to create living arrangements which would complement, and in some cases further, efforts to become economically independent. Since most of the economic alternatives are based on some measure of people working together cooperatively, it seems reasonable to expect that they will be best carried out by people who have extended this spirit to their social and cultural lives.

Living together in intentional communities may not be suitable for all temperaments or circumstances, nor is it an essential prerequisite for participation in cooperative work arrangements, but sharing our lives does require the same interpersonal skills as does sharing our means of livelihood, and so the one experience will complement and enhance the other. We are not born with any innate ability to live or work together, and the socialization processes of growing up in a competitive society are unlikely to imbue them in us, so we must help one another through the difficult process of acquiring them through the living and working experiences we create (under-estimation of this difficulty is the primary reason so many communal and cooperative experiments fail).

What do we mean by intentional community? The term community itself means different things to different people. I propose to define it as a group of acquainted people who share some aspect(s) of their lives. There can be residential communities (provided one knows one's neighbours) or communities of people who gather together regularly to promote some mutual interest. An "intentional" community requires more commitment: I'll use Helen Forsey's definition as one whose members have chosen to live and work together with clear common agreements and ties to a particular place (1), but I'd like to add the concept of consensus decision-making in order to exclude such authoritarian institutions as monasteries and universities. The history of intentional community is the history of people attempting to share their lives for their mutual economic and/or spiritual enhancement.

Not all modern writers have regarded community favourably. Bertrand de Jouvenal wrote: "utopias in the real are beyond question abominable," and castigated their founders for "reducing to moral slavery those whose views differ from their own." Sidney Webb accused communities of having too little faith in human nature, while his Fabian colleague Bernard Shaw ridiculed them. When the Fellowship of the New Life broke from the Fabians, Shaw noted that they would go their separate ways "one to sit among the dandelions, the other to organize the docks." Arnold Toynbee damned them with faith praise: "they aspire to arrest a downward movement." Perhaps the most serious charge of all came from William H. Whyte, who contended that they share with the Organization Man who runs today's business a philosophy which he defined as a belief in the group as a source of creativity, belongingness as the ultimate end of the individual, and the application of science to achieve belongingness.


Attempts to create intentional communities may be traced through the recorded history of western civilization, though of course they extend back even further to tribal societies who lived in harmony with their eco-systems and provided women with roles of influence (at least until agriculture produced a division of labour). With the coming of written history, it becomes necessary to distinguish between those who merely proposed blueprints for running an ideal society and those who actually tried to effect their proposals by creating communities. The former group's blueprints are frequently referred to as utopias, that being the title given by Sir Thomas More to his ideal community.

Many of the early proposals involved redesigning society as a whole rather than retreating from it to form communities of like-minded people. As such, they incorporated many of the values held by society as a whole. For instance, the ancient Greek utopias, of which the most famous is of course Plato's Republic, were based on commonly held notions of human inequality and the justification of slavery. Plato had three classes in his final city: the guardians (rulers), their executive assistants and everybody else, with membership determined by educational streaming and movement from one class to another prohibited except under very stringent controls.

More suggested that his title could be derived from either of the two Greek words, eutopia (the good place) or outopia (no place). His communistic utopia borrowed many aspects of monasticism, i.e. - undyed wool dress, readings and controlled conversation during meals, apportioning of crafts and manual trades. Other aspects of his society in included pursuit of natural science (he was among the first to suggest that knowledge of nature would alleviate peoples' lot on earth), town planning, abolition of money, enslavement of those who committed anti-social acts, communal dining, toleration of all creeds, and prohibition of travelling and adultery. Living in a time when there was no party or class to champion socialism, the most More could do to further his ideals was to dedicate his book to his monarch Henry VIII, and ask him to consider its implementation. But Henry, who liked the social system the way it was, has More beheaded, and after that there was no more talk of state-sponsored utopias until some 20th century groups looked with equal naivete for government grants to further their proposals.

During the 17th century, such writers as James Harrington and Cyrano de Bergerac devised "ideal" societies, in the ocean and on the moon respectively, as a means of satirizing existing society rather than in the expectation of realizing their utopias. Often such social criticism hit home: Fenelon was banished permanently from court when Louis XIV saw in his utopia's simple frugality an attack on the opulence of Versailles, and Thomas Spence was convicted of sedition after advocating a model community (which he modestly named Spenceonia) based on corporate ownership of the land by the parish, with the occupants accepting it on a parochial lease. Today, several writers of science fiction and fantasy continue to use utopias as a relatively safe channel of social criticism. They also use the reverse side of the coin, dystopias, to depict the society which will emerge if trends they dislike continue. The most influential of these, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, depict societies in which the state keeps the people in total control through drugs and police terror respectively.

If utopias and the state are incompatible, some writers hoped to use private capital to turn their visions into reality. In the 19th century, Charles Fourier proposed dividing the population into "phalanxes" of 1600 each to undertake communal farming and living not dissimilar to that of the contemporary kibbutz, save that private property was to be maintained and profits to be divided between sharing (guaranteeing a minimum living standard for all) and dividends to be paid according to the amounts of stock each member held. For ten years, he waited punctually but vainly at noon each day for somebody to show up who would finance his proposals. He also prayed for a wealthy visitor each evening, and is said to have thus been engaged when murdered by a housebreaker in 1837. He got no farther with the privately rich than had More with the state.

Religious Communities

So large has been the percentage of intentional communities which sprang from wishes to effect religious belief, and so great has been their tendency to survive longer than non-religious communities, that some observers believe religious discipline to be a prerequisite of successful community. However, as Laird Sandhill points out (2), secular groups being less isolationist are much more oriented towards being agents of social change, and are more likely to do the networking essential for the growth of intentional community in modern society.

In the wake of Old Testament prophets who pleaded for a well-ordered society not unlike community (3), the Essenes established the earliest record communistic society in Syria some time before the birth of Christ. Their society was limited to males, adopted children, wore white robes, indulged in prophecy, eschewed oaths, took common meals, held many esoteric beliefs, showed vestiges of sun-worship and obeyed the Sabbath so strictly that they would not even obey the calls of nature on that day. Along with their counterparts in Egypt, the Theraputae, they formed a link between Indo-Persian religious ideals (including asceticism) and the later Gnostic ideals which seeped into Bulgaria from Provence, where the Albigenses opposed war, advocated the separation of the Church and State, and practiced a joyous, sensuous lifestyle. They were suppressed in the 13th century by a coalition of "Christian" armies led by Simon de Montford, and a religion previously noted for its gaiety become known for its melancholy instead.

In the early middle ages, a number of heresies advocated forms of communism (or at least Christian principles, which as Kautsky points out amounted to the same thing). (4) They were small, powerless minorities whose survival depended upon renouncing communistic practices not tolerated by the state and concentrating on industrious toil. Many were weavers, this being a home industry whose members had some degree of personal freedom (which the industrial revolution was created partially to curb).

It was only in the unsettled times which were created by the growing rift between church and state that the prospect emerged of the successful establishment of a communistic society. When the inhabitants of Tabor began communally to distribute their surplus production, fear of a dangerous reaction among their neighbours caused them to expel, and later to massacre, the more extreme communists, known as Adamites, whose desire to live in what Rousseau later called a "state of nature" had created such practices as nudity and the common holding of wives. Killing the Adamites didn't save the Taborites, who split into factions with differing views as to how their growing surplus should be distributed and were eventually engulfed by war. Tabor was destroyed in 1434, after an experiment of less than twenty years.

Other communities also endured varying degrees of violence. The Moravian Brethen prospered on a simple agricultural life, claiming 100,000 members by 1500. Although almost exterminated in the Thirty Years War, they rallied around John Comenius and exist in scattered congregations to this day. The Anabaptatists, described by Will Durant as "Tolstoyan anarchists three centuries before Tolstoy," spread throughout Europe despite early martyrdom of their founder Conrad Grebel. Although forced to abandon communism after the Munster massacre of 1535, they continued to adhere to simple living and eventually regrouped under Menno Simmons, in whose honour they changed their name to Mennonites. Many emigrated, and the sect exists today in several parts of the world.

Their Austrian counterpart the Hutterites, named after the martyred leader Jakob Hutter, took advantage of the relative tolerance which followed the Peace of Augsburg to form highly disciplined living units known as Bruderhofs, noted for the high quality of their ceramics, textiles and other crafts and for their relatively prosperous living conditions. Dispersed in a new wave of persecution around 1600, many brought their efficient farming methods to the new world, where their communities continued to thrive despite the frequent distrust of their neighbours. The concept of the Bruderhofs survived in Germany to our century.

In the early 17th century the English civil war created hopes that a thousand-year paradise on earth according to the true spirit of Christ's teaching could be organized, but when it became obvious that the millenium wasn't on Oliver Cromwell's agenda, some groups tried to organize it on their own. The best-remembered such attempt is that of the True Levellers, or Diggers, who tilled common land at St. George's Hill, Weybridge, for several months before being dispersed and brutalized by hostile neighbours. (Cromwell took no part in their destruction, but gave local bullies and officials a free hand, a tactic often used by the modern state to disperse unwelcome social experiments.) The Diggers were the first to attempt to build a community based on their own reasoning, or at any rate that of their leader Gerard Winstanley, as opposed to the literal Biblical interpretations of the Anabaptists. Thus, they bridged the transition from religious radical utopians who daily looked for Jesus' second coming to rationalist communism, from utopias in the sky to communities on earth.

Over the subsequent generations, religious groups such as the Moravians and the Society of Friends devised communities and cooperative working experiences as means of enabling members of the lower classes to improve their living conditions, and were often economically successful. The Shakers, an offshoot of the Society of Friends, came to America to establish a network of societies which practised celibacy and sought to incorporate into their religious ceremonies the fun they denied themselves in other areas of life, including dances and rousing hymns such as Simple Gifts. Some of their societies lasted over a century, and one still exists, but the tendency of the children they adopted to leave as soon as they learned a trade created a steady numerical decline in membership. A variety of other religious sects founded communities, but those who survived their founders' death drifted apart when the founding generation's enthusiasm was not shared by its successors. (5)

First published in Kick it Over #31, Summer 1993

Related topics in the Connexions Subject Index

Alternative Communities  –  Alternative Lifestyles  –  Alternatives  –  Christian Communities  –  Communal Property  –  Communalism  –  Communes  –  Communism  –  Communities  –  Democratization  –  Economic Alternatives  –  Free Association  –  Intentional Communities  –  Libertarian Socialism  –  Lifestyle Alternatives  –  Social Change  –  Utopias