Groups of idealistic Americans have often sought to create utopias within the bounds of American culture. From America’s first settlers to modern countercultural revolutions, a tension has often existed between supporting the ideals of American cultural life and removing oneself from those values in order to exemplify them more purely. Most of these movements have attempted to manifest through communes, or intentional communities of people sharing resources and common interests in order to provide the living necessities for each member. These communes have historically been created for a plethora of ideals, both religious and secular. American communes and utopias have often attempted to put socialist principles into action, with varying degrees of success.
America’s first settlers, the Puritans, exemplified the desire to create separate societies to live out a belief system. The Puritans first colonizd New England in the seventeenth century. They voluntarily left England in order to find a place to practice their religious beliefs in a community that would be the example of God’s kingdom on earth. According to John Winthrop, one of the most important Puritan leaders, the New England settlements would be a “city on a hill,” a reference to a Biblical passage noting the glory of God’s kingdom. The Puritans were to live, as their name suggests, purely. Though they were not socialist in a political sense, since the idea of socialism had not yet developed and since Puritans were not discouraged from keeping the results of their labor, many of the beliefs of the community, including shared resources, exemplified some of the ideals of later socialist movements. The town church and its clergy functioned as leaders and government, and each person was expected to become members of the Church over time through becoming progressively freer from sin. The Puritan experiment in America collapsed for a number of economic and social reasons. Most importantly, a burgeoning population could simply not function under the ideals of behavior and belief mandated by Puritan laws and regulations.
The ideal of the socialist commune continued in the imagination of many American religious groups. One of the most ambitious early experiments was New Harmony, Indiana, in 1814. The founder George Rapp envisioned New Harmony as a refuge for 2,000 members of the German Pietist movement, as a basis for a society built upon the ideals of the great thinkers of history including Plato, Bacon, and More. One of the most important ideals of the community was the banning of currency or any other type of system of exchange for goods and services, in order to ensure that the community would be dependent on the generosity and work ethic of each member for its survival. The community ended up being a failure however, because of constant quarreling over the direction of the society and the inability of community members to come to consensus on the needs and work of members. New Harmony failed only four years after its founding.
The first secular experiment in socialist community occurred in Massachusetts in the 1840s. Brook Farm was a socialist communal experiment founded by George Ripley and his wife Sophia in West Roxbury, Massachusetts. Nathanial Hawthorne, author of such famous novels as The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables, was also an early supporter and member. Ripley was a part of the Transcendentalist movement and an active participant in the famous “Transcendentalist Club,” a religious, philosophical, and literary movement that came out of liberal Unitarianism. Members of the Massachusetts Transcendentalist movement included Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The idea of Brook Farm was that each member of the community would share in the labor of the farm, performing whatever work they felt suited them best, which would leave time for artistic and philosophical endeavors. The community used revenue that it generated from farming and garment making to help support each member equally. A school was erected and run by Mrs. Ripley. The community also published a journal entitled "The Harbinger," which was an early tract for socialist writing. The commune suffered from financial instability, however, and when one of its main buildings burned, the community never recovered and disbanded in the late 1840s.
Socialism became a more organized political movement in the late 1800s with the advent of large immigrant populations in industrial urban cities. Upton Sinclair, author of The Jungle, became an important voice for the Socialist movement when his novel became a national sensation for its portrayal of abuses in the food industry. Using the proceeds of his novel, Sinclair founded Helicon Home, a colony built upon socialist principles, in Englewood, New Jersey. Much like Brook Farm, Sinclair envisioned the community as a refuge for artists and thinkers. It would allow them to escape the drudgeries of modern life in order to live simply on a farm, sharing in the tasks needed to provide for a simple life. Sinclair created Boards of Directors to oversee the affairs of the commune. At one point, Sinclair’s community attracted almost 200 members, yet like previous experiments, it struggled financially. The colony was eventually abandoned after one of its main buildings burned down suspiciously. Some believed that arson was to blame, an intentional act meant to ruin the experiment financially.
Many of the most famous twentieth-century communes came out of the hippie movements of the 1960s and 1970s. One of the most enduring communes is the Hog Farm, a community established in Tujunga, California, by Wavy Gravy, a famous hippie clown and cultural figure of the counter cultural movement in the late 1960s. The Hog Farm initially organized at the Woodstock music festival where they were in charge of security. The group then moved to New Mexico and California. Today, the Hog Farm has various locations and is headquartered in Berkeley, California. The Hog Farm does not run on socialist principles, but instead functions more as a modern non-profit organization. The group still provides free services and programs for members of the community both in and outside of the commune. The Hog Farm can be considered an amalgamation of previous socialist idealism combined with a pragmatic approach to the business and funding realities of running such a community.
In the American commune, one can understand the dynamic influence of socialism in American society. One can also see how difficult it is to run and sustain such communities using the ideals of pure socialism. As with all radical political ideas, the ideal of implementation often succumbs to the reality of practical concerns and human nature.