A story of incongruity: Amana Colonies and today’s notion of ‘communism’

We’ve all heard it, and it seems to come up more often during political-campaign season.  
 
It’s this: Discussions about a particular plan on taxes or regulation or health care degenerates when someone invariably suggests the thought or plan is “communism.” And when it happens, it’s sometimes instructive to ask those who make the charge what it is that they believe “communism” to be. 
 
Is it a devilish — even seditionist — form of anti-Americanism? Is it a strong, perhaps dictatorial, central government? Is it all of that along with atheism? Is it socialism on steroids?

Well, no, it isn’t any of the above. In truth, “communism” has much more in common with “capitalism” that some may care to admit. But that’s getting ahead of this story of interesting incongruity.   
 
Not so long ago, during a chance encounter with a group of relative strangers on the golf course, a mention of a particular candidate’s statement on wealth distribution drew the charge: “that’s communistic.” The mild-mannered fellow who made the statement revealed that he was an appliance salesman who took frequent trips to Amana, Iowa, where the famous brand’s freezers and refrigerators are still made in the vicinity of the historic Amana Colonies.
 
Communal existence laced with prayer
He said he’s toured the place often, and he said he enjoyed hearing about Amana’s history of how those who settled the then-remote area established a peaceful communal existence based on helping one another in sustenance laced with prayer. So when the fellow made the “communistic” charge, he was asked to help the discussion by defining “communism.” 
 
As many do, he relied on a rendition of what the world considers to be “Stalinism” — brutal, atheistic dictators who crush the notion of freedom and even shoot dissenters. He said that communists are “dictators who are anti-God.” 
 
One may wonder how that definition relates to anything said during the last national election, but it’s understandable that one’s view of communism is shaped by things heard and seen happening over the years in the former Soviet Union including Eastern Europe (Berlin Wall), and in China (Tiananmen Square) and, of course, Cuba’s Castro or Cambodia under the psychotic Khmer Rouge.  
 
In fact, each one of those infamous Communist countries stopped well short of Karl Marx’s Utopian ideal of communities (collectives) where people produce according to their ability and receive according to their needs. Rather, modern history’s Communists (capital “C” for party) imposed authoritarian rule so as to prepare the masses for the communistic ideal. The idea of a  harmonic Utopian state was by no means original with Karl Marx; he only wrote a book about it, and since his “Communist Manifesto” (1847) inspired revolutions in places like Russia and China and even Cuba, communism came to be associated with hideous dictators like Stalin who relished power and skipped the part about getting to communism.   
 
Classless and stateless
This is a fair definition of “communism”: a socioeconomic structure that promotes a classless society based on common ownership of the means of production, and property in general.  Communism, according to Marx, is the final stage in human development and is both classless and stateless. 
 
Read that again and you’ll understand why many scholars say that “communism” has more in common with American conservative or libertarian thought than it does with liberal or progressive side of the political continuum. 
 
Which gets back to Amana, Iowa. 
 
The Amana colonies were among America’s longest running and successful communes, whose history dates back to before Marx was even alive. 
 
It was in 1714 that the Pietism movement in Germany broke from the Lutheran Church; their rigid religious practices including a distain for military service made them the object of scorn,  and in 1842 their “Church of True Inspiration” migrated to America. They settled as the Ebenezer Society in New York before moving inland to remote Iowa, where in 1855 they built their seven colonies.  Followers shared a strict and intensely religious communal lifestyle until it disbanded in 1930. 
 
Like the Shakers and Oneida, the Church of True Inspiration in Amana followed the very kind of “communist” culture that Marx was later to present as his Manifesto. 
 
Amana residents received ‘credits’
In Amana, residents were all of the same class (except there were male and female divisions of labor), ate together in communal dining halls, prayed (a lot) in common places, and worked for everyone’s benefit. There were no wages or money. All received “credits” according to their needs for redemption at communal stores. 
 
The “government” was a council of elders who settled disputes and, importantly, assigned lifetime skills to the youth that they would pursue for the common good in the commune. 
 
The Amana colonies successfully practiced “communism” for more than a century.
 
So, what does “communism” in its fully developed form have to do with any plan for government in America’s democracy?  Pretty much nothing. 
 
And, what does “communism” in its fully developed form have to do dictators and atheism?  Again, pretty much nothing. 
 
Want to know what “communism” is?  Spend a weekend touring the Amana colonies (it’s well worth the trip) and pay close attention to how that deeply religious society was peaceably successful for a very long time. And, no, those in Amana would not have liked that brutal dictator who gave “communism” a bad name, Joseph Stalin.  
 
But, then, neither do the Russians.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Randy Fordice on 11/19/2008 - 11:19 am.

    My grandparents and mother grew up in Amana (where my grandmother still lives and my mom just moved back to). It’s an amazing place and the history of it is fantastic. They’ve told us stories about when it was still communal when they were young.

    Visit the Amana History Museum in Main Amana if you head there. And eat at the Ox Yoke Inn.

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