Alternative Thinking: The Past and Present Connections of Communal Life

Volume 23

6 April 2023

By Emma Smith 

Last summer, I decided to try out life in a commune. This involved setting up a canvas tent in the corner of a field and inviting various people to come and try living with me. The summer passed in a long breezy sigh, peppered with social gatherings and general al fresco life. But despite the fact my memories are filled with the faces of various lovely guests, essentially I was the sole resident. Due to busy summer schedules and a lack of groundwork to the idea, no one else stuck around long enough to classify as resident. Aware of the blaring oxymoron, I’d founded a commune of one. Let’s bulk that up to three: me, myself and, last but not least, I (just to make me feel better). Since then, those memories have snowballed into a wider fascination with the past and current development of communal living as an alternative to conventional modern life in the UK.

Soon after the ‘move-in’ to the commune of one, I was signposted by a friend to one of the most significant historical communes: that of the Communards, formed in Paris during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71. The brief yet radical period saw the government of Paris by a socialist committee, known as the Paris Commune, who proposed that the Church should no longer be under state-control, amongst many other decrees. The Paris Commune was curtailed by the French army after just two months, but its challenge to centralised government inspired the development of later re-imaginings of state power. For example, the movement provided inspiration for the work of Marx and Engels, whose ideas contributed to the formation of contemporary communes such as those of the 1960s counterculture movement - this time with minimal bloodshed involved, thankfully.

Such Marxist ideas have begun to filter through my English degree since my summer commune-of-one. According to Marx, workers are estranged from their labour in a capitalist society. This rings true when I recollect the contrasting feeling of satisfaction from gathering wood to build the fire I used to cook over. I was carrying out every stage of the work myself and, crucially, reaping its rewards. In other words, there was no disconnect between worker and labour as I could recognise myself in my own work. In a nostalgic haze for those summer evenings, I stumbled across the life of Dick Proenneke. In the late sixties, Proenneke moved to the wilderness of Alaska to start a self-sufficient life amongst the trees, alone. Documented through his own idyllic footage, his move embodied the Marxist dream of unalienated labour. Contemporary activist Simon Fairlie is convinced that “people are so detached from the land”, and has practised what he preaches throughout his life, living Proenneke-esque, but amongst various communities. (His memoir Going To Seed lays out the various communes he has been part of in typical entertaining style, if you’re interested.) 

For many, however, this kind of alternative life would involve too much disentanglement from the modern capitalist lifestyle. But there is another form of alternative living, which doesn’t necessarily involve complete isolation from society: co-living. Places of co-living, or cohousing, can be defined as “the practice of living with other people in a group of homes that include some shared facilities; a new way for people to live in cities, focused on community and convenience”. They are a relatively recent development, amassing increasing interest. Co-living especially appeals to urban communities of similar ages and lifestyles, such as single women aged over fifty. I recently met someone in Berlin who lives in such a set-up; from talking with them, what stuck out most was the amount of coordination it takes, as community living models are based on ‘top-down’ policy and must be managed accordingly. The person in question was sofa-surfing at my friend’s flat, illustrating how overwhelming this can become at times. But, they said, it was worthwhile as they could feel the essence of community spirit flowing through their lifestyle. On a larger scale, the concept of a ‘sharing economy’ encompasses these same ideals. This involves the replacement of individual ownership with assets, such as cars, that are not owned but shared. 

These paradigms work since communal ideas can exist alongside established conventions, without the need for a revolutionary upheaval. In the spirit of ‘community’ as a theme, I asked two friends with significant experience of communal life what its most valuable aspect is to them:

Ruby, 21: “Community makes something out of nothing; some essence comes out of the reality of a larger group acting as one. That said, what is essential in communities is having a surplus of things that people need and value- this includes people’s time for each other, communal care, sharing jobs and tasks- but also this needs to stretch to individual materialistic needs, resources that people require in order to maintain a comfortable enough life for themselves.”

Jyoti, 79: “I would suggest that the unique potential in egalitarian systems of community is the inherent levelling of all who fully participate, stemming from the active recognition that we (adult humans) share basic needs to similar degrees; and that these can best be met in such a communal system. However, there will always be a need to repeatedly articulate, deepen and explore those, and to put energy into exploring innovative ways to do that, in a dynamic and growthful situation”. 

So maybe, with gradual change, a shift towards a more community-based society is possible. This can only be a good thing, as a disconnected lifestyle is harmful to mental health and wellbeing. I think that’s where this fascination has stemmed from for me, having taken what feels like too-close-for-comfort a look at the ways in which we appear to have strayed from communal ideas and their beauty. Whether this return occurs in line with Marxism, capitalism, or communes of one, I say: Bring It On!

Category: Modern