Episode 27: The First Massachusetts Commune
Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism. This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Today we’re taking another historical dive into the pre-Marx days: we’ll be discussing the Puritans who arrived at Plymouth in 1620. An often overlooked aspect of this early American colony was the fact that initially, they formed a government that had much in common with modern ideas of Communism. I’d heard this story secondhand a few times, but recently discovered that the original journal of William Bradford, one of Plymouth’s early governors, is freely available online at gutenberg.org. I took a look, and was surprised how modern some of it sounded— there are some parts that, aside from the slightly archaic language, would not be out of place in a Cuban propaganda film, or a Bernie Sanders campaign brochure.
The initial agreement that the colonists made was to hold all property in common, and all work for the common good. Perhaps realizing this was an experiment in a new form of government, they initially set the agreement to run for a term of 7 years. Here are some of the highlights:
…all profits & benifits that are gott by trade, traffick, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remaine still in the com̅one stock …
That all such persons as are of this collonie, are to have their meate, drink, apparell, and all provissions out of the com̅on stock & goods of the said collonie.
William Bradford. Bradford's History of 'Plimoth Plantation' / From the Original Manuscript. With a Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts (Kindle Locations 1282-1298).
There was a lot of grumbling by some of the party about these conditions. In particular, some were investing more than others into the venture, and didn’t think it was quite fair that everyone should be in this state of forced labor and equal possessions for the first seven years. But one of their leaders, Robert Cushmans, explained the reasoning:
Consider wheraboute we are, not giveing almes, but furnishing a store house; no one shall be porer then another for 7. years, and if any be rich, none can be pore. At the least, we must not in such bussines crie, Pore, pore, mercie, mercie….
This will hinder the building of good and faire houses, contrarie to the advise of pollitiks… So we would have it; our purpose is to build for the presente such houses as, if need be, we may with litle greefe set a fire, and rune away by the lighte; our riches shall not be in pompe, but in strenght; if God send us riches, we will imploye them to provid more men, ships, munition, &c. You may see it amongst the best pollitiks, that a com̅onwele is readier to ebe then to flow, when once fine houses and gay cloaths come up.
…I say he that is not contente his neighbour shall have as good a house, fare, means, &c. as him selfe, is not of a good qualitie… . Such retired persons, as have aneie only to them selves, … are fitter to live alone, then in any societie, either civill or religious.
… Our freinds with us that adventure mind not their owne profite, as did the old adventurers… Then they are better then we, who for a litle matter of profite are readie to draw back, and it is more apparente brethern looke too it, that make profite your maine end; repente of this, els goe not least you be like Jonas to Tarshis.
(Kindle Locations 1393-1409).
Sounds great, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, in reality, the colonists’ first couple of years at Massachusetts were very difficult: somehow they never planted or gathered enough food, and the colony was soon on the verge of starvation. Desperate colonists traded everything they had to the local Indians, and were reduced to begging or stealing from them when they ran out of possessions to trade.
It may be thought strang that these people should fall to these extremities in so short a time, being left competently provided when the ship left them, and had an addition… of corn that was got by trade, besids much they gott of the Indans wher they lived, by one means & other. It must needs be their great disorder, for they spent excesseivly whilst they had, or could get it; and, it may be, wasted parte away among the Indeans … And after they begane to come into wants, many sould away their cloathes and bed coverings; others (so base were they) became servants to the Indeans, and would cutt them woode & fetch them water, for a cap full of corne; others fell to plaine stealing, both night & day, from the Indeans, of which they greevosly complained.
In the end, they came to that misery, that some starved & dyed with could & hunger. One in geathering shell-fish was so weake as he stuck fast in the mudd, and was found dead in the place. At last most of them left their dwellings & scatered up & downe in the woods, & by the water sids, wher they could find ground nuts & clames,
(Kindle Locations 2534-2543).
The starving colonists realized that something fundamental had gone wrong, and got together to try to figure out some kind of radical solution to their problems. Listen to the solution they came up with:
All this whille no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Gov r (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves…
And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end…
This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Gov r or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression.
(Kindle Locations 2593-2602).
What I find most important here is Bradford’s insightful reflection on these events. He talks about the fact that the dream of communal living and equality of property had appealed to humanity since ancient times— but it fundamentally ignores realities of human nature. You could easily imagine some of these passages being written today in response to modern socialists and communists.
The experience that was had in this com̅one course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos & other ancients, applauded by some of later times;—that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in com̅unitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God.
For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion & discontent, and retard much imploymēt that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour & service did repine that they should spend their time & streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence.
The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails & cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, &c., with the meaner & yonger sorte, thought it some indignite & disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, &c., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it. …
Let none objecte this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course it selfe. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdome saw another course fiter for them.
(Kindle Locations 2603-2616).
In some sense, this is an old story, as you may have heard conservative authors allude to it periodically on Thanksgiving or at similar times. But as I mentioned, Bradford’s original memoir is surprisingly relevant to a lot of today’s discussion of capitalism vs communism and socialism. I think it’s especially important to share his recognition that the idea of eliminating private property and living in a communal paradise of sharing and equality is a universal human impulse has been around for thousands of years— it didn’t originate with Marx, though he gave it its modern form and language. Some of the key concepts were shared with Plato’s Republic, written in ancient Greece. And Plato was probably not the first to speculate along those lines.
This philosophy comes from a place of caring and empathy, and many other fundamentally admirable and moral motives. But as we’ve seen in the many episodes of this podcast, the societies that have tried to turn this ideal into a reality have created conflict, violence, slavery, and starvation. A logical conclusion is that the idea of private property is somehow built into human nature. If you are religious like Bradford, you might even share his view that it’s somehow ordained by God.
<closing conversation with Manuel>
Before we go, we’d also like to thank listeners “blkconserve” and “AokiGolf”, who left us nice reviews on Apple Podcasts. If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider clicking the link at http://storiesofcommunism.com and doing the same! You can also find links to Bradford’s journal and other references in our show notes there.
And this has been your story of Communism for today.
on May 30, 2020