Saturday, July 30, 2005

Communism That Works

I've never been a communist, never wanted to be one, and never thought communism worked. But on that last point, while I'm confident I'm generally right, there's a group that proves me partially wrong.

I just finished a book on quite an interesting group of people, called the Hutterites, an Anabaptist Protestant group who date back to the Reformation. The Hutterites came to the conclusion that they should live communally, and have been doing so almost without interruption since the 1500s. Because of persecution they left Moravia (in what is now the Czech Republic) for the Ukraine, then moved to North America in the 1870s, and now they live in Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in Canada and in Montana and the Dakotas in the United States.

That a group has managed to live for such a long time communally strikes me as quite amazing since so many other communal groups have utterly failed. Here are a few of my thoughts about why they have survived:

  • Far from being atheistic - as was Russian communism - the Hutterites are deeply religious. They believe their reward is in heaven, and so they don't feel much need to "succeed" - in a financial sense - here on earth.

  • They're under no silly illusion that communal living is a utopia. They believe people have sinful tendencies, even in their "colonies," as they call their communes, so nobody is disillusioned when someone does something unchristian.

  • Their colonies are relatively small, numbering about 80 to 150. It seems to me that a smaller group like this can maintain a family feeling whereas a larger group cannot. In fact, the book, Hutterite Society (by John A Hostetler), makes this point, that the larger groups become prone to factions. To deal with that, the Hutterites intentionally split the colonies and create daughter colonies when they become too big.

  • They maintain a cultural distance from their neighbors. Their colonies are in isolated locations, the people don't mix much with non-Hutterites, they dress differently, they speak German as a first language (though they also learn English). I suspect this cultural distance makes colony members feel less at home outside the colony and thus makes it harder for colony members to leave, but at the same time I'd guess it probably annoys their neighbors, whom I suspect may feel looked-down-upon by the Hutterites.

  • They strongly teach their traditions but de-emphasize higher education, which they feel isn't useful for farm life and leads to independent thinking (they're probably right) and thus to a breakdown of communal life.

    Although the Hutterites have not only survived, but grown dramatically in numbers, one thing that strikes me about their growth is that it is almost entirely by having children. Very few non-Hutterites ever become Hutterites.

    I suspect this is because of the cultural distance I mentioned. I have a theory that for churches to grow by attracting new members, there is a sweet spot in cultural positioning. If the church is too far removed from society (as are the Hutterites and the Amish), growth by conversion drops to just about nothing. On the other hand, churches that simply reflect society have nothing to offer the seeker. If the church is just the same as the everyday world, why bother going?

    I think that sweet spot for most churches is just to obey Christ. For me, that is adequately removed from everyday society. If you go a lot further, into cultural isolation, as do the Hutterites and Amish, I think you can minimize people defecting from Christ to the world, but the cost will be to minimize defections from the world to Christ.