Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)
This is not an easy question to answer, since there is no authoritative definition of the term. One dictionary gives the following: "A relatively small, often rural, community whose members share common interests, work and income and often own property collectively".
Internationally recognized researcher of the history of communes and kibbutz member, Prof. Yaacov Oved, defined the term as "an autonomous community whose members have agreed, by free choice, to live a life of sharing by the principle 'from each according to his ability, to each according to his need' ."
In his illuminating book, Shared Visions, Shared Lives, world authority, Australian Dr. Bill Metcalf, ex-President of ICSA, explains, "Communal living takes place in either a commune or an intentional community, the distinction depending on the degree of intimate sharing. Commune members place the group ahead of the nuclear family unit, generally maintain a 'common-purse' and collective household and make intimate as well as general decisions as a group."
Here are some of Bill's further thoughts: "I think that 'commune' should be retained for the more extreme dramatic forms of communal living, those with a high level of commitment to the community. (This) is shown in one of two ways, and in the purest case, in both ways. These ways are economic and social. Of course almost no groups make it all the way to the end of the spectrum on either of these dimensions..... There is a spectrum from commune to neighbourhood, with intentional communities toward the former end".
Kibbutzim - Bill Metcalf again - went "a long way down the track on the economic sharing line but never so far on the social line, still retaining nuclear families, sexual bounds, etc.... The early kibbutzim were very extreme in their material sharing, but this wasn't so difficult when they had next to nothing. In recent years, more and more kibbutzim are retreating from the principle: 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need' ".
More from Bill: "Some groups, who I feel deserve the title of commune, do not share so much on the material plane but much more on the social plane, and this is where, in the ideal notion, the family and the commune almost become one. I think of groups like Oneida, Twin Oaks, ZEGG, Commonground, etc.".
"And then I have found groups whom I would clearly classify as 'communes' who reject the term, as it conjures up images of hippies, and/or Jonesville, Manson etc.... Then there are other groups who want to be known as 'communes' but are really just a close-knit group of friends".
How can they be "kept out" if there is no clear definition? Then again, does it really matter if they're in? Perhaps the best answer is that a commune is a group that defines itself as such.
This is a relatively new term, coined because of the reluctance of many communities to use the word "commune", as a result of stigmas including its presumed similarity to communism. In actual fact, the term is much less exclusive than the word 'commune', because it covers any group of people living together, who have a common purpose. Thus the FIC List of Intentional Communities, available on internet, includes a wide variety of committed groups, including at least one monastery.
The following illuminating extract is taken from"Intentional Communities - Ideology and Alienation in Communal Living", by the late Barry Shenker, researcher and ex-kibbutznik.
The term "intentional communities" is not an everyday one, hence some definition is needed. Intentional communities share certain features with organizations, sects and social movements, yet are none of these. An intentional community is a relatively small group of people who have created a whole way of life for the attainment of a certain set of goals. The two elements of the term are equally important. They are intentional communities in that they are not like, say, a tribe or village, which has arisen or developed spontaneously over the years. Intentional communities have emerged as a result of a number of people consciously and purposefully coalescing as a group in order to realize a set of aims (although the founders may have existed as an informal group prior to declaring their "intentionality"). These aims are not partial: they attempt to create an entire way of life, hence, unlike organizations or social movements, they are intentional communities. Their being a community has two further qualities: they are characterized by face-to-face relations and they embrace communalism as an ethical end in itself (apart from its instrumental value). Clearly there can be degrees of "intentionality" and degrees of "community-ness". To what degrees these must exist in order to qualify as intentional communities I cannot say since this is an undertaking in itself but the foregoing gives us the essence of an intentional community.
Without specifying quantities, I suggest that an intentional community exists if, "by and large", the following conditions are met:
(1) It was founded as a conscious and purposive act;
(2) Membership is voluntary and based on a conscious act (even if the member was born in the community);
(3) The group sees itself as separate from and different to its environment and relates as a group to (or withdraws as a group from) its environment;
(4) The community is relatively self-contained - most members can potentially live their entire lives in it (or for the period during which they are members);
(5) Sharing is part of the community's ideology;
(6) The community has collective goals and needs and expects members to work towards their satisfaction;
(7) The ideology claims that the goals of the community, even if orientated to the benefit of the individual, can only be obtained in a collective framework;
(8) Ultimately the community, or people appointed by the community, but not the individual, is the source of authority;
(9) The general way of life of the community is considered to be inherently good, i.e. is an end in itself over and above its instrumental value;
(10) The community's existence has a moral value and purpose, which transcend the time-span of individual membership.
We should emphasize that these qualities can exist not only in varying degrees, but in various ways. Sharing, equality, self-containment and so on can be interpreted in many ways and, as we shall see, this is an important factor in the persistence of intentional communities. The point is that where these qualities exist in the eyes of both the outside observer and the members themselves, we have an intentional community.
It should be noted that any particular community may belong to more than one of these categories.
The similarity between the two words has caused a great deal of confusion, and indeed animosity towards communes in various parts of the world. From the outset, it should be noted that the Communist Parties are (and have always been) opposed on principle to the idea of voluntary communal living. They view(ed) communes as utopian, escapist and harmful, since they distract from solving the real ills of mankind.
However, there is no doubt that both words are derived from the same Latin root "communis", meaning "sharing". Moreover the basic principle of many communes, "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need", was formulated by Karl Marx as a theoretical definition of communism. The fact is that no Communist regime has ever attempted to live up to this principle. The Russian kolhozes and the short-lived communes set up by the Chinese Communist Party were a far cry from the free, voluntary communes, which are our concern.
In the Sixties the Hippies founded several thousand communes, mainly in the US. They arose from the protest movement of young people against society and sought to form an alternative life-style. Although they were generally ideologically undefined and most were very short-lived, their existence was well known worldwide. Common lack of hygiene, sexual permissivity and drug use created a stigma in many minds, that persists to this day. Several dozens of these communes have survived to this day, much altered from their original way of life.
There are many successful non-religious communities, including some that are anti-religious. However, there is no doubt that common religious belief and practice help to bind together the members of a community. The long-lived Hutterite and the Bruderhof communes in America and the Integrierte Gemeinde in Germany are but outstanding successful examples. Similarly, firm adherence to a non-religious philosophy, or to some higher cause, contribute to the stability and success of other communities. Eco-villages, such as Findhorn, and care-providing communities, such as those of the Camphill movement, are outstanding examples.
A considerable number of communes were founded around the personality of a charismatic leader or leaders. Prominent examples are Auroville, Findhorn and Padanaram, and communal movements such as the Bruderhof and the Integrierte Gemeinde. Undoubtedly, this situation united the members around the philosophy of the strong leader/s, male or female, and gave added strength to the community. Usually, the problems arose when the central figure/s passed away. Experience shows cases of the community breaking up, whereas there are other examples of successful adaptation to the new reality. At the same time, there are many examples of communes and intentional communities that were founded and carried on succesfully without charismatic leadership.
Despite the general impression, research has shown that the average age of members of alternative communities is over forty. Most of them are not youngsters copping out of society, but people who, after experiencing "normal living", are seriously looking for something better. Here you can find an article about an extremely fast-growing niche of intentional communities: those by and for the 50+ agegroup.