Why did most experiments with communal living in the nineteenth century ultimately fail?

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The experiments with communal living mostly failed for a number of different reasons. It is important to remember that many of these communities were founded in specific cultural contexts, and their founders and early adherents joined based on principles that became less attractive over time. The Shakers, for instance, practiced celibacy. Not only did this make them impossible to perpetuate over time, as societal values surrounding sex have changed, people have found their practices less desirable (on the other hand, the Shakers outlasted almost every other communal living experiment). Similarly, the Brook Farm community was founded on ideas about simple living that were less appealing as the Transcendentalist movement waned.

Other societies failed because they were associated with business enterprises that did not prove sustainable. Many were built around small craft workshops that were eclipsed by bigger factories as the nation industrialized. Others, perhaps most, simply lived up to the "utopian" label that is often applied to them. They were unrealistic and unsustainable from the outset. The plan to share the fruits of labor and to live highly regimented and supervised lifestyles, at Robert Owen's New Harmony community, for example, failed after just a few years. Other communities failed because of external community pressures. The Oneida settlement, for example, was forced to change its fundamental practices including what they called "complex marriage," by area leaders after about forty years of existence. The Latter-Day Saints, or Mormons, had to flee first New York and then Illinois in the face of persecution.

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Experiments in communal living were utopian. The word "utopia" literally means "no place," and therein lies the problem. A utopia, as a result of its very nature, does not exist anywhere. Many tried to establish utopian settlements, especially in nineteenth century America, but none succeeded. One reason is that societies, especially successful ones, arise naturally and slowly develop over time. Societies evolve through the needs of individuals, initially basic needs such as food, warmth, and shelter, but societies eventually bond over more sophisticated needs such as transport, defense, and communications. This is the main thing that distinguishes a natural society from a utopian experiment—in the latter, the needs of society are imposed from above as part of a blueprint based on abstract ideas.

In order to survive, healthy societies must change and adapt. However, a utopian community is unable to do so precisely because it is based on an abstract idea, one that has no practical application to the real world. Such communities are founded on an ideal, and ideals of this nature cannot be changed. Living up to an ideal, however noble, puts an enormous strain on people. Most of us live our lives according to certain moral values, but if we fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves, we can always try to do better next time. Mature societies can tolerate a fair amount of backsliding among its members. The same cannot be said of utopian communities. If their members cannot maintain an often impossible degree of fidelity to the ideals on which such communities are based, then the whole experiment will begin to unravel, and, eventually, it will collapse. That is precisely what happened in nineteenth-century America and elsewhere.

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The reason for this is that these were utopian communities which, by definition, had very radical ideas.  These ideas would typically only be attractive to a few people and would therefore be unlikely to last as the basis for a community.

For example, the utopian community of New Harmony in Indiana tried to get by without any private property or money.  The Shakers are famous for their strict segregation of the sexes, including their demand for complete celibacy.  These sorts of ideas are so radical that it is very difficult to find enough people who are willing to commit to them for long enough to create and sustain a stable community. 

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