The Pilgrims’ Short Lived Experiment in Communism
Many have credited Karl Marx with inventing what we now know as communism in the middle of the 19th century. The concept of communal living and dependence, however, came long before The Communist Manifesto. Over the centuries, the concept has been applied by different people in different places. While the reasons for applying the communal approach varied as widely as the people who attempted it, one thing did remain constant: failure. From Roman latifundiae to the Soviet Union, communism time and again proved the failure inherent in its concept. Americans do not need to look to distant lands and little known peoples for evidence of the failure of communism. They simply need to look back at one of the most celebrated groups of people in their history: the Pilgrims.
As most educated Americans know, Puritan Separatists, or Pilgrims, landed in Massachusetts in 1620. What many don’t realize is that the original economic system of their colony, Plymouth Plantation, was a form of communism. There was neither private property nor division of labor. Food was grown for the town and distributed equally amongst all. The women who washed clothes and dressed meat did so for everyone and not just for their own families. This sounds like the perfect agrarian utopia envisioned by Marx and Lenin. What happened to it? To find the answer to that question, one must turn to Of Plymouth Plantation by William Bradford. Bradford served as Governor of Plymouth Colony from 1620 to 1647 and chronicled in great detail everything that happened in the colony.
By 1623, it was obvious the colony was barely producing enough corn to keep everyone alive. Fresh supplies from England were few and far between. Without some major change, the colony would face famine again. In his chronicle, Bradford described what was going wrong and how it was solved (pardon the King James English):
All this while no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expect any. So they began to think how they might raise as much corn as they could, and obtain a better crop than they had done, that they might not still thus languish in misery. At length, after much debate of things, the Governor (with the advise of the chiefest among them) gave way that they should set corn every man for his own particular, and in that regard trust to themselves; in all other things to go in the general way as before. And so assigned to every family a parcel of land, according to the proportion of the number, for that end, only for present use (but made no division for inheritance) and ranged all boys and youth under some family. This had very good success, for it made all hands industrious, so as much more corn was planted than otherwise would have been by any means the Governor or any other could use, and saved him a great deal of trouble, and gave far better content. The women now went willingly into the field, and took their little ones with them to set corn; which before would allege weakness and inability; whom to have compelled would have been thought great tyranny and oppression.