By Ben Prostine
In 1851, Wilhelm Weitling, the utopian communist tailor and theorist, visited the German settlement of Communia in the hills of northeast Iowa. He wrote, “For the first time I am standing on the holy soil of fraternal community whose inhabitants have undertaken to live, not half and one-sidedly, but wholly for the sacred cause of Communism.”
Communia was founded by German craftsmen in 1847. Before settling on the name Communia (Latin for “common”), the settlers considered Münzerstadt, a nod to the radical German theologian Thomas Münzer. In 1525, Münzer was captured and tortured after leading a massive peasant revolt with flags and ensigns bearing rainbows. In a final confession before his execution, he declared the aim of the revolt was omnia sunt communia – “all things held in common,” a throwback to the communal practices of early Christians as described in the Book of Acts. In the Articles of Association drafted by the settlers of Communia, “all things in common” was the guiding principle.
Early industrialization fell especially hard, although not evenly, on urban craftsmen across Europe. With the introduction of new machinery, tailors and cobblers may have suffered the worst. In a period of revolutionary hope and utopian visions, many fled to the American frontier to enact the commune.
As sociologist Erik Olin Wright recognized, escape is a persistent anti-capitalist strategy, though it may be more accurate to describe this process as retreat. Within a generation of the founding of Communia, the farmers of the Middle West were firmly entrenched in the global-spanning reaches of capitalist relations. They produced grain for national and international markets, fought corrupt railroad companies and the exploitative credit of Wall Street – and they organized: the Farmers Alliance of the 1880s sought to establish, in their words, a “cooperative commonwealth.”
If industrial capitalism dispossessed artisans of their livelihoods in Europe, the escape to utopia on the American prairie involved its own form of dispossession. Fifteen years before the Communia settlers came to Iowa, the land was usurped from the Sauk and Meskwaki after the Black Hawk War of 1832. The German settlers received their land warrants by serving in another empire expanding U.S. venture: the Mexican-American War.
Communia and Wilhelm Weitling, the Revolutionary Utopian Tailor
Weitling, an autodidact tailor, was influenced by utopian thinkers such as Charles Fourier, Robert Owen and Etienne Cabet. His appearance in Communia in 1851 further connected the settlement to the trans-Atlantic debates on socialism in the mid-nineteenth century. In the 1840s, the word “communism” was just coming into use and its meaning was far from stable.
For his argument that Jesus Christ was both a communist and an illegitimate son, as conveyed in his book Humanity as it is and as it ought to be, Weitling would be incarcerated in a Swiss prison. When the German poet Heinrich Heine met him, he described how the tailor kept rubbing his ankle. Weitling explained how he had developed a chronic skin irritation from the ankle chains he was forced to wear in prison (Weitling’s experiences in German and Swiss prisons would make him an early advocate for the end of incarceration. There are no prisons in his blueprints for utopia).
Weitling’s social theories mixed utopian socialism and early Christian principles. He also advocated a new insurrectionary tactic: soziale Anarchie. This included Robin Hood-style robbing of the rich and the combination of urban guerilla conflict and a large army of freed convicts he believed the military and police would be unable to suppress. He was immensely popular among the workers and a prominent influence in the League of the Just, a predecessor of the Communist League formed in 1847.
Marx and Weitling
The young Karl Marx referred to Weitling’s 1842 book Guarantees of Harmony and Freedom as the “tremendous and brilliant debut of the German working class.” But in a meeting with Weitling several years later in Brussels, as described in Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, Marx was intensely critical. Weitling, he argued, was awakening “fantastic hopes” in the working classes but offered no basis in concrete doctrine. Weitling responded that his efforts were more important than Marx’s “closet analysis and criticism carried out far from the suffering world.” This enraged Marx, who struck the table with his fist and shouted, “Ignorance has never helped anybody yet!” The meeting soon ended. By the end of the decade, Marx and Friedrich Engels had published The Communist Manifesto and Weitling had departed for North America, a refugee of the failed revolutions of 1848. “In a sense,” writes Kenneth Rexroth, “Marx and Engels joined his communist movement and took it over.”
Marx referred to blueprint utopias as seeking salvation “behind society’s back.” But to Weitling, Communia was the beginning. He envisioned a network of countryside enclaves that could eventually envelop and overrule urban class power, what he called “the Babylon of capitalists, merchants, lawyers, and preachers” who lived by “thievery, fraud, misrepresentation, and hypocrisy.”
After his first visit to Communia in 1851, Weitling soon became the settlement’s administrator, financially linking the colony to the German-American workers organization he had established in New York. If Weitling was a fiery prophet of utopian communism, he appears to have been a poor administrator. He convinced the settlers to abandon the Articles of Association and form a new constitution. The new constitution permitted privately owned farmsteads, waged services, and investment-based voting rights (which limited electoral power to a minority within the settlement). Marx, observing from the other side of the Atlantic, would refer to Weitling as “the dictator of the colony, Communia.”
From Communia to Icaria
Communia soon fell apart. The final disputes were settled in a court room in 1864. The reasons for the colony’s demise were not unlike those of other utopian experiments in nineteenth century America: internal factions and squabbles, urban artisans lacking agrarian skills, inadequate or poorly handled finances, and the continual opportunities and crises that would result from the expanding empire of the United States. After the end of Communia, some continued to live and farm the former colony’s lands and the communal spirit continued with the formation of a Turnverein society, a popular German-American organization rooted in gymnastics and conviviality with political ties to socialist movements in the U.S.
Others followed Weitling back to New York. After Communia, Weitling’s political activities mostly ended. He returned to tailoring, developed patents for button machines, worked on the formation of a universal language (as an antidote, he imagined, to the threat of nationalism) and intensely studied another kind of revolution: astronomy.
A few others kept to the dream of utopia and joined the French Icarians on their agrarian commune in western Iowa. The Icarians followed the thinking of Etienne Cabet as first articulated in his popular utopian novel, Voyage to Icaria (1839). Lasting from 1853 to 1898, the Icarian settlement in Iowa was the longest lasting secular commune of nineteenth century America. While the Icarians suffered their own splits and factions, particularly following the influx of a younger generation of revolutionaries after the violent defeat of the Paris Commune in 1871, their attempt at agrarian communism would die of old age rather than court battles.
In an 1885 article published in New Icaria’s French-language journal, Revue Icarienne, we find a description of their communal agrarian life. The international spirit of nineteenth century communism is evident as well; the article concludes by wishing the working classes of the world could enjoy the same advantages of New Icaria: “Among us the most scrupulous equality [prevails] in everything.”
The “holy soil” of Communia, south of Elkader in Clayton County, now grows government subsidized corn and soybeans for global markets. No buildings of the old commune remain and the name Communia can only be found on the gates of a cemetery. But it was once the place of revolutionary dreams.
And now dystopia, not utopia, tends to drive the political imagination. But, as China Miéville writes, “we live in utopia; it just isn’t ours.” Whether we take the faux billionaire’s red hat delusions of past American greatness or the mega billionaire’s future visions of space colonies, the crises of the present remain: global pandemics, systemic racism, ecological crisis, police and military violence, and a political economy that fails to provide reliable and meaningful work for millions of people. Utopia for the few, dystopia for the many.
However, if Marx gives us a rigorous mode of analysis for understanding history and the social system of capital, the utopian tradition may give us an imaginative mode of possibility. In the capitalist realism of today, where it’s often said that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, both traditions provide necessary tools. As Mike Davis suggests in an essay on climate catastrophe, “analytic despair” demands the rebuttal of “utopian possibility.” Such possibilities will have to be constructed, he writes, “out of the materials a desperate humanity finds at hand in insurgent communities, pirate technologies, bootlegged media, rebel science, and forgotten utopias.”
Not all of us can imagine, like Fourier, a future with seas of lemonade and interstellar perfumes, but we can try and see beyond the tear gas of dystopia and begin to imagine what omnia sunt communia could mean today – from the bottom up, in the city and on the land.
Top photo credit: The Communia Cemetery in Clayton County, Iowa, by Dana Scheffen.
Ben Prostine lives in Crawford County, Wisconsin where he works as a writer and herdsman. His poems have appeared in several publications, including Contours: A Literary Landscape. He is the host of the radio program Poems Aloud on WDRT Viroqua.