Episode 40: Little Socialist Women

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.

Today we’re going to take a look at one of the odder episodes in the prehistory of communism:  the short-lived socialist commune where Louisa May Alcott spent time as a child in the 1840s.   Yes, I’m talking about THAT Louisa May Alcott, the author of the children’s classic “Little Women”.   One lesser known historical tidbit is that her father, the Reverend Bronson Alcott, fancied himself a philosopher, and decided that he needed to create a new life for his family, and separate himself from the corrupt modern economy whose, as he described it, “root is selfishness, whose trunk is property, whose fruit is gold.”   He managed to convince a small group of followers to join him, and one, Charles Lane, had enough money to buy a farm in Massachusetts where they could put Alcott’s ideas into practice.   They called this commune Fruitlands, in honor of the abundance of fruit they expected to produce.   A collection of memoirs and writings about Fruitlands was eventually published many years later by someone named Clara Endicott Sears, and is available to read at Project Gutenberg.   

The Reverend Alcott was an eloquent writer, and became friendly with numerous literary figures of the time such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.   Here is how he described his objectives and philosophy:

First, to obtain the free use of a spot of land adequate by our own labor to support…

    Secondly, to live independently of foreign aids by being sufficiently elevate to procure all articles for subsistence in the productions of the spot, under a regimen of healthful labor and recreation;  with benignity toward all creatures, human and inferior; with beauty and refinement in all economics; and the purest charity throughout our demeanor…

  …we are not without hope that Providence will use us progressively for beneficial effects in the great work of human regeneration, and the restoration of the highest life on earth.

[Loc 267]

…We do not recognize the purchase of land; but its redemption from the debasing state of proprium, or property, to divine uses, we clearly understand when those whom the world esteems as owners are found yielding their individual rights to the Supreme Owner. …

Trade we hope entirely to avoid at an early day. As a nursery for many evil propensities it is almost universally felt to be a most undesirable course. Such needful articles as we cannot yet raise by our own hand labor from the soil, thus redeemed from human ownership, we shall endeavor to obtain by friendly exchanges, and, as nearly as possible, without the intervention of money.

Of all the traffic in which civilized society is involved, that of human labor is perhaps the most detrimental. From the state of serfdom to the receipt of wages may be a step in human progress; but it is certainly full time for taking a new step out of the hiring system.

[Loc 619]

As you can see, some of his ideas had a lot in common with those that Marx would write a few years later, idealizing labor and claiming that paid employment amounts to slavery.     Alcott also added in a few more quirky ideas and philosophies, such as strict vegetarianism, which didn’t make his project any easier.    Nevertheless, his follower and chief financier, Charles Lane, was full of optimism, worrying that their great improvement to the human condition might attract those who wanted to use their ideas for the villainous goal of making money:

Perhaps the external revelations of success ought always to be kept secret, for every improvement discovered is only turned to a money making account and to the further degradation of man, as we see in the march of science to this very moment. If we knew how to double the crops of the earth, it is scarcely to be hoped that any good would come by revealing the mode. On the contrary, the bounties of God are already made the means by which man debases himself more and more. We will therefore say little concerning the sources of external wealth until man is himself secured to the End which rightly uses these means.

[Loc 478]

Of course, once Alcott started working to actually put together the community, there were a number of details that seemed a bit challenging.   Fortunately, Lane had enough money to buy the farm, and was sufficiently committed to the cause to purchase and donate it to the group.   But when they started recruiting potential residents, it got a bit harder.   As one observer wrote,


The matter of getting the right kind of persons to join the Community required a keen insight into human nature, and on this point Mr Alcott was not very strong.   His own sincerity and depth of purpose were so great that he looked for these same attributes in everyone who approached him, and often failed to detect the superficial qualities that lurked underneath the surface enthusiasm of some of his followers…  

[Loc 335]

One of the Fruitlanders took it into his head that clothes were an impediment to spiritual growth, and that the light of day was equally pernicious. He accordingly secluded himself in his room in a state of nature during the day, and only went out at night for exercise, with a single white cotton garment reaching from his neck to his knees.

[Loc 542]

When it got time to actually do the hard work of farming the fields, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as Alcott had hoped.   Concern quickly grew about Alcott’s dogmatism and refusal to compromise.  As some of the residents and observers wrote:

He thinks Mr. Alcott is arbitrary or despotic, as some others do, but I shall endeavour (and, I think, not in vain) to urge him to the noblest conduct of which our position is capable. He must not complain nor walk off, but cheerfully amend whatever is amiss. 

[Loc 488]

[Alcott] was very strict, rather despotic in his rule of the Community, and some of the members have told me they were nearly starved to death there; nay, absolutely would have perished with hunger if they had not furtively gone among the surrounding farmers and begged for food.

[Loc 542]

Interestingly, the journal kept by his daughter Anna, and later incorporated into Sears’s collection, had the second half completely torn out, apparently intentionally destroyed.   One has to wonder whether, in the later stages of the experiment, she actually had similar complaints, and her father didn’t want to risk those being shared with the world.  This theory is supported by the fact that the surviving portion of the diary contains occasional notes in the Reverend’s handwriting.

The biggest problem at Fruitlands was simply the fact that farming is hard work, and doing it right involves leveraging the collective learnings of many thousands of years of human experience— not rebooting the core concepts based on idealized philosophies.  During the short life of the commune, Alcott and Lane were constantly lecturing, entertaining visitors, and doing other work that did not contribute to the farm.   The small group of able farmers didn’t seem to be progressing fast enough in their field work, but their leader’s philosophy prevented the obvious solutions:

Hired laborers and beasts of burden were against the principles of the Community, but in order to make headway against the advancing season they seemed to be a necessity. This concession, however, troubled the philosophers, and it was decided to carry out the original plan and rely wholly on the spade instead of the plough, even at a cost of valuable time. The results were rather disastrous: Charles Lane’s hands became sore and painful, and lame backs seriously interfered with progress. 

Sobered by this new experience, the philosophers met in conclave, and as a result Joseph Palmer, who always came to the rescue in trying situations, went to [town] and brought back his plough and yoke of oxen, as he called it—it really was an ox and a cow which he had trained to work together. Besides the outdoor work much writing was done indoors. Charles Lane and Bower wrote prolifically to different papers. The Herald of Freedom, the Vermont Telegraph and the New York Tribune of that summer are full of their writings.

[Loc 869]

Unfortunately farm operations were not started until well into June, and the only crop raised that was of value as dependence was barley; but the philosophers did not flinch at the thought of an exclusively barley diet. Now and then they gave a thought as to what they should do for shoes when those they now had were gone; for depriving the cow of her skin was a crime not to be tolerated. The barley crop was injured in harvesting, and before long actual want was staring them in the face.

[Loc 1528]

As the first autumn approached and the crops were clearly failing, Alcott and Lane took an ill-advised trip to the city to try to gain more followers.   This left his commune on the brink of starvation, his wife scrambling to save them at the last minute:

It was all very pleasant, this wandering off and showing their linen tunics to the world and holding conversations to enlighten people in regard to the future wonders of the New Eden, but the day they left Fruitlands Joseph Palmer was off attending to his cattle… and the crop of barley had been cut and was waiting to be harvested. Poor Mrs. Alcott looked at it with anxious eyes. The granary was almost empty and this barley meant food. She could forget herself, but she could not ignore the needs of her children. Christopher Greene and Larned and Bower were also away. The barley lay there with no one to bring it in to a safe shelter. 

The next day she looked at it again with a sinking heart. As the afternoon waned, black clouds covered the sky and flashes of lightning rent seams through them with terrifying rapidity. Then Mrs. Alcott made a quick decision. Gathering all the baskets she could find, she carried them to the barley-field with the help of the children, and in hot haste they gathered the barley into the baskets and dragged them to the granary, and then ran back as fast as they could for more. Thus they worked with all their strength, and when the storm broke, they had saved enough to last them for at least a few weeks.

[Loc 1352]

Luckily this commune was not a country— people could freely enter and leave it.   And as you would expect, the result of this pathetic attempt at farming was a stampede towards the exits, as Lane complained:

All the persons who have joined us during the summer have from some cause or other quitted, they say in consequence of Mr. Alcott’s despotic manner, which he interprets as their not being equal to the Spirit’s demands…

Mrs. Alcott has no spontaneous inclination towards a larger family than her own natural one, of spiritual ties she knows nothing, though to keep all together she does and would go through a good deal of exterior and interior toil. I hoped I had done with pecuniary affairs, but it seems I am not to be let off. The crops, I believe, will not discharge all the obligations they were expected to liquidate, … In the midst of all these events and of William’s illness, who is in bed eight or ten days with a sort of bilious fever, I am not without the consolatory hope that some measure of Spirit utilitary is bound up with our obscure doings.

[Loc 1404]

In the end, the commune did not survive its first winter.   Soon everyone was gone, and the Reverend entered a deep depression; eventually, though, he realized he needed to provide for his family, and snapped out of it to return to a somewhat normal life.   Ultimately, the best thing to come out of this commune was his daughter Louisa May Alcott’s sarcastic short memoir, “Transcendental Wild Oats”.   Hiding behind animal pseuonyms, she wrote a biting critique of many of the events at Fruitlands.   Here are some of my favorite bits of that piece:

“What part of the work do you incline to yourself?” asked Sister Hope, with a humorous glimmer in her keen eyes.

“I shall wait till it is made clear to me. Being in preference to doing is the great aim, and this comes to us rather by a resigned willingness than a willful activity, which is a check to all divine growth,” responded Brother Timon.

“I thought so.” And Mrs. Lamb sighed audibly, for during the year he had spent in her family Brother Timon had so faithfully carried out his idea of “being, not doing,” that she had found his “divine growth” both an expensive and unsatisfactory process.

[Loc 1787]

Such farming probably was never seen before since Adam delved. The band of brothers began by spading garden and field; but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly. Blistered hands and aching backs suggested the expediency of permitting the use of cattle till the workers were better fitted for noble toil by a summer of the new life.

Brother Moses brought a yoke of oxen from his farm,—at least, the philosophers thought so till it was discovered that one of the animals was a cow…

Great was Dictator Lion’s indignation at this lapse from virtue. But time pressed, the work must be done; so the meek cow was permitted to wear the yoke…

The garden was planted with a generous supply of useful roots and herbs; but, as manure was not allowed to profane the virgin soil, few of these vegetable treasures ever came up…

Transcendental wild oats were sown broadcast that year, and the fame thereof has not yet ceased in the land; for, futile as this crop seemed to outsiders, it bore an invisible harvest, worth much to those who planted in earnest.

[Loc 1825, 1879]

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

Now, of course we are not claiming that this particular experience is in itself a definitive refutation of the concept of communism:  Alcott’s many quirks, such as the strict vegetarianism and refusal to use animal labor, would probably have doomed even a group of economically literate farmers who had attempted to follow him.    But are these experiences really that different from those who, a century after, would attempt new and untried farming and economic methods on a national scale, and starved millions of their citizens with similar levels of incompetence?   It definitely is something to think about.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.