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Communities in the 20th Century

Excerpts from a lecture - by Prof Yaacov Oved, kibbutz member and expert on the history of communes, that was delivered at the 6th International Communal Studies Association conference, in Amsterdam. Copied from CALL, No. 16.

We can state, without a shadow of a doubt, that the twentieth century was the richest of all for voluntary communes. In an overall review of the history of communes we can discern a number of characteristic lines:
From the first years of the present century, large communal movements, which developed over the years, have existed continuously. The first of these is the Israeli kibbutz movement which had its beginnings in the first decade of the century and which at present has a total population of 125,000 souls living in 270 settlements.
The second-largest communal group is the Hutterite movement, which is also the oldest communal order, and which was established in Central Europe in the sixteenth century. At the beginning of the twentieth century its communities in the United States had a population of approximately 2,000 souls, while today the number some 40,000 people living in 400 communes.
A smaller movement that has maintained its stability and growth is the Bruderhof, which had its beginning in Germany in 1920 and which today has a population of 2,500 souls in eight settlements in the United States and Great Britain.
In the present century there has been an uninterrupted series of emergences of communes. Not a decade has gone by without the appearance of new communes. While in previous centuries, new communes were mostly isolated communities, and mainly in the United States, in the present century we have witnessed the extensive establishment of communes in numerous countries on different continents. These waves appeared against the background of significant historical events.

In the second decade of the century, for example, immediately after the Russian Revolution, thousands of communes appeared in the rural areas of that country.

In the mid-1920s the foundations were laid for the establishment of the kibbutz movements in what was then Palestine, and within a short time period these encompassed scores of settlements with thousands of members. Their founders were young, idealistic Jews whose motivation was to establish agricultural communes. They were inspired by the Zionist-socialist vision of a new society based upon social justice under the historic circumstances of the modem national Jewish revival, and the return of the Jews to their historical homeland.

In the 1930s a wave of communes arose in Spain, with the outbreak of a social revolution led by Anarchists and Socialists Their defeat in the Spanish Civil War put a bloody end to this experiment.



Outside the dining room at Kibbutz Naan
(by courtesy of the Yad Tabenkin Archives)


After World War II, there was a wave of searching for communal life in various parts of the world. In the United States, the Fellowship of Intentional Communities was founded. In Japan the Yamagishi Kai communes appeared, while Europe saw the arrival of the Communities of Work and Mondragon in Spain. Towards the end of the 1950s thousands of communes also appeared in China. The scope was large but differed from everything that had occurred in the West, as these communes were
non-voluntary and initiated by government policy. These collectives constitute a different chapter in the history of modern communes.

Undoubtedly the biggest and most significant wave in the history of twentieth-century communes began in the United States in the 1960s. Its influence rapidly crossed the frontiers of that country, spreading across European countries and Australia, marking the beginning of the globalization of modern communalism.

The beginnings of this wave were in the American hippie movement. This generation (the "baby boomers") which had witnessed the civil rights struggle in the United States, later fought against the Vietnam War, was shocked by a wave of political assassinations, and rebelled against traditional politics and the politicians' materialistic and cynical approaches to governance.

Communal life itself has remained on the agenda of the modern world over the course of the last generation. The impression left by the communes of the 1960s has not been erased from the awareness of younger generations in America and throughout the world, and the following decades have seen the continued establishment of new, more stable communes that have sought ways of instituting an alterative way of life based on sound foundations. Moreover, from the 1970s onward, the communal phenomena have become much more variegated. The philosophical roots and spiritual sources have become much more complex, encompassing different and varied worlds; from the fundamentalist Christians, to the disciples of Oriental religions, anthroposophists, back-to-nature followers, ecologists, pacifists, anarchists, and many others.


A view of the artistic urban commune, Ufa-Fabrik,
Berlin (from their website, with thanks)


Beyond the diversity of their spiritual sources, there are a number of attributes that characterize the communes of our time:
The majority of the communes of the 1990s are more realistic and economically well established. Their realism provides them with greater stability and opens up channels of communication with the outside society.
There is increasing interest in the communes for the fostering of inter-communal relations. Communication networks and federation have resulted.
The second half of the twentieth century has witnessedthe emergence of urban communes of a scope and magnitude almost unknown to previous generations. The majority of these are small and enable intimacy in societal relations.
In the modern communes of the twentieth century there is a heightened awareness of the status of women in the community, even though only some of them have succeeded in suitably achieving it.
Ecological awareness characterizes the majority of modem communes. Many have established training centers for sustainable agriculture and technologies suitable for organic agriculture.

Also noteworthy is that over the last two decade we have seen signs of change in modem communes in the direction of a balance between collectivism and individualism, and a departure from integral communal structures. At the basis of these changes lies a broadening of individual freedom and the individual's responsibility for his life and livelihood.

This kind of trend is also currently evident in the oldest and biggest secular communal movement - the kibbutz movement. A bitter internal struggle is ongoing within the movement between the supporters of change (which started with the aim of achieving economic solvency and proceeded with the purpose of adapting kibbutz society to the outside world) and the supporters of full communal life, who are seeking ways of adopting the lessons of the new era to deepen and consolidate communal fundamentals.

In conclusion, I beg to add a personal note as both a historian of communes and a kibbutz member for tine past fifty years. I have no doubt at all that the communal movement will cross the threshold of the twenty-first century. It will not do so along the main highway, but rather along a multitude of narrower paths. The communal movement will not be a uniform camp, but large and variegated, which will be comprised of numerous communal streams.

I hope that when the communal movement does cross the threshold into the twenty-first century, that the greater part of it will have adopted a way of life, that will combine integral economic cooperation, collective responsibility and mutual aid, with freedom for personal aspirations and development of the individual.

If it passes thus into the next century, communalism will bring with it not only a rich past but also a message for the future. For the commune has the potential of being a source of hope for the fulfillment of social relations of human brotherhood, interpersonal harmony and peace.
harmony and peace.

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