Book Review: Communes in America, 1975-2000

Communes in America, 1975-2000. By Timothy Miller. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2019. 148 pp. + appendices, notes, bibliography, index.

If I asked you what decade of American history had the most active communes (1,378) and you guessed the 1970s, congratulations. But it might surprise you to learn that the first decade of the 21st century had the second most (1,252) and that there are currently far more communes than in the 1960s.

Book cover to Communes in America, 1975-2000. Include a road-sign with more than a dozen arrowed signs, each with a different place.My source? University of Kansas Professor Timothy Miller. It’s this simple: Miller is essential reading for any scholar embarking upon a project involving intentional communities. His latest work completes his survey trilogy of American utopian experiments. Miller reminds us that we need to move beyond reductionist definitions of utopianism. Sir Thomas More poisoned the well in Utopia (1516). He linked utopias with the quest for a “perfect” society, but he may not have intended a literal understanding of perfection. Utopias are always imagined in opposition to hegemonic social, political, and economic realities. As such, they have been launched with the goal of building what might more accurately be called a “better” society. Miller prefaces Communes in America with a list of four criteria–distilled from seven in an earlier work–that defines intentional communities. They are: a shared vision, “physical commonality,” “some kind of financial commonality,” and a collection of at least five adults, some of whom are unrelated (xvi). The word perfection is conspicuous by its absence.

It’s not easy to wade outside of the mainstream and Miller admits that most communal experiments are short-lived. His opening chapter notes a handful of “survivors” (2) from the 1960s, among them The Farm, Twin Oaks, and Koinonia Farm, the last of whose peace and justice agenda spawned Habitat for Humanity. Overall though, it has been difficult for secular intentional communities to remain as coherent as religiously based groups such as the Hutterites and Bruderhof, Jesus Movement settlements, and the Lama Foundation.

If the odds are against intentional communities, how do we explain the recent upsurge? Blame society. As housing costs soar, work commutes lengthen, and social isolation proliferates, the numbers of those turning to cohousing has risen. A few years ago I wrote a piece on cohousing in Amherst and Northampton. At the time there were three; now there are seven. One resident remarked that she realized that cohousing wasn’t a “perfect utopia,” but that it was “a much better way to live” than the atomized neighborhood from which she moved. Miller concludes much the same thing.

He views the emergence of sustainable “ecovillages” as reactions to climate change and environmental degradation. These are both “an experiment” and “preparation for a future time without the cheap oil and gas that so fundamentally drive contemporary society” (31). One such community is the wonderfully named Rabbit Dance in Missouri; another is Sirius, near Amherst.

Sirius also has spiritual values partly derived from Scotland’s Findhorn Ecovillage, which has been extant since 1972. Miller devotes two chapters to religious communities. He reminds us that monasteries and other such withdrawals from society meet the criteria of intentional collectives better than most secular experiments, largely because of the residents’ built-in commitment to a shared vision. Miller largely ignores mainstream religious communities, though, and looks at groups such as charismatic Catholics, non-orthodox hermitages, and groups such as Shalom Mission Communities, Quaker communes, polygamist Mormon enclaves, and Jewish-identity cooperatives such as Ofek Shalom. Miller also discusses the rise of groups such as New Medinah (African American Muslims), Hindu ashrams, Buddhist communities, Native American spiritual collectives, and pagan communities.

Name the vision and there are what Miller calls “communities on purpose” (96) associated with it: civil rights communards; social service collectives; gay, lesbian, and free love clusters; arts colonies; and many more. Nor are intentional communities confined to the political left; Miller also discusses Christian Identity groups, survivalist compounds, and skinhead enclaves. Miller also calls attention to what happens when experiments go horribly wrong, as in the case of the Branch Davidians, the Peoples Temple, Rajneespuram, MOVE, or Jeffrey Lundgren’s splinter Mormon order.

Perhaps this strikes you as an enormous amount of material for just 148 pages of text. It is. In this book and the two volumes that preceded it, Miller is more of a chronicler than a historian. The appendices contain demographic tables and a list of communes that are useful tools for beginning research projects. According to Miller’s data, in no decade since the 1860s has more than .008 percent of the American population lived in intentional communities. But if you think those handfuls are too small to have impact, you’re wrong. We study communards because the dreams generally outlive the dreamers.

Robert E. Weir
University of Massachusetts Amherst
Off-Center Views Blog

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