Hundreds of communities based on Marxist ethics were established in the United States in the nineteenth century. There was a second wave in the 60s. Most of the groups didn’t even last a few years. Indeed, only a few success stories survive. Of these the Hutterites is the clearest example. They’ve survived over three generations and tell us much about commonism.
Why have idealistic communities committed to the Marxist ethic failed to persist?
Part of the answer can be found in Garrett Hardin’s Filters Against Folly.
The Marxist ethic “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” sounds simple enough, but it evades the question: Who decides what a person needs and what he can do? If the state decides, that’s socialism. If each individual decides for himself, that’s anarchism or commonism. When dreamers set up an idealistic community they almost invariably opt for commonism, since it appears to be the most compatible with the selfish and individualistic impulses that have been selected for over thousands of millennia, the selection being operative long before homo sapiens evolved.
This chosen system often works for a while, but then it breaks down. Why?
The Marxist system is critically sensitive to scale. Hutterites found this out long ago when they noticed that as their community grew in size, the relative numbers of goldbricks increased. Workers found excuses for going to down “to get a part for the tractor” or whatnot, lingering for a long time before returning. What were at first the actions of a few became the actions of many, as some of the hardest workers decided they were unwilling to carry the burden of the whole community. Altruism diminished as envy and resentment took over. Instead of working, people argued about working. Exercised abilities declined: expressed needs increased.
The answer, the Hutterites found, lay in controlling the scale. As long as the community was less than some apparently critical number (about 100 to 150), the Marxist distribution system worked. Above that not precisely defined number the system failed, and failed even more badly as the number increased. So the Hutterites adopted a development program that plans for the automatic splitting of a community into two as soon as its numbers have doubled. One farming community becomes two, two become four, and so on, at intervals of about fifteen years. So long as abilities and needs are determined within a really small community, commonism works.
Why the sensitivity to scale?
What is the force that keeps individuals from abusing the right to determine their own abilities and needs in a small community, but not in a larger one? The effective force is shame. A potential goldbrick in a small community can be shamed by public opinion into doing his share of the work and not taking more than a fair share of the proceeds. As the community grows in size, the effectiveness of shame diminishes. Why? Perhaps because each individual is less visible. …
The essential point is that commonism will not work in a community that is ‘sizable,’ where this word means more than 100 to 150 members. The statement of this great principle of political economy is only roughly numerate, but it suffices to rule out of consideration most Utopian writings, which show no consciousness of the effects of scale.
No purely commonistic community that transcends the Hutterian limit has persisted for three generations.