Communal Living


Communal Living, voluntary sharing of a way of life by a small group of people who believe that they can live better together than they can alone. In a commune, the welfare of the group is considered more important than the comfort of the individual. Communal groups sometimes strive to build durable institutions that will maintain Utopian values. Utopian communities are based on the principles that people can achieve an ideal society by living and working together.



Communal societies have long existed as reactions against the prevailing social order. In the past they were often established by religious groups or by political and economic reformers. Religious communal groups that practise celibacy have the longest and most successful history. By the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church had established monasteries and convents all over Europe. Indeed, many monastic orders are still in existence today. Persecution of certain sects during the Protestant Reformation provoked a wave of communal movements; some of these groups migrated to America, where a few, such as the Shakers and the Amish, still survive, although in very small numbers. Others, such as the Moravian and Bohemian Brethren, have been a continuing and powerful influence on Protestant thought.

In Israel, the Kibbutz, a form of collective settlement, is home to many Jewish people. Members of a Kibbutz live and work communally, and all property is held in common. Decision-making is done on a collective basis, and childrearing is performed collectively, although the special connection between biological parent and child is still strong. Certain religious communities, such as the ashrams of India, have attracted people from all over the world.

Many secular communal groups were formed in the early 1800s, often as a response to the growing industrialization of society. The greatest number arose in England, the most industrialized nation of the time. Most of these early socialist communes were, however, short-lived.

Many communal movements, arising as social experiments, have emerged in the United States. Two early religious communes—the Oneida Community and the Amana Society, a sect that is now an agricultural cooperative in Iowa—became so prosperous that they were reorganized as business firms. Political and economic communes such as New Harmony flourished in the three decades before the American Civil War (1861-1865) and at the end of the 19th century.

A resurgence of communal movements occurred in Western Europe and the United States during the 1960s. Members of these new communes often felt alienated from their societies and stifled by social constraints. An example of this later movement is Twin Oaks, near Louisa, Virginia, based on the principles in the American psychologist B. F. Skinner’s book Walden Two (1948). Religious communes continue to be founded, including the Bruderhof (Society of Brothers), first organized in the United States in 1953; and the People’s Temple, which ended in mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978. A 51-day stand-off between law-enforcement officials and members of a religious group calling themselves the Branch Davidians took place near Waco in Texas in 1993, resulting in the death of 87 commune members and four federal agents.

Except in the United States and Europe, some major recent communal movements are sponsored or supported by governments. Jews went in large numbers to Palestine to live early in the 20th century, and the first kibbutz there was established in 1909. Before the Chinese government introduced a system gradually to abolish communes in 1979, an estimated four of every five citizens lived in rural communes. Communal movements on a smaller scale are found worldwide.

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