The Commune Culture: Characteristics of Daily Life
Ketih Melville observed that communes "frequently look like a class project in a freshman anthropology class." They attempted to start what were essentially small scale societies from scratch. Thus, anyone observing them must recognize that the culture developed in these would have strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures. Indeed, "communes were more than a lifestyle; they were experiments in living that modeled new social form, in which cooperation would replace competition, everyone would be equal, cultural conditioning could be shed, and individual welfare would be one with the common good. At least, that was the idea."
In truth, living in a hippie commune, though highly romanticized by those who participated in the social experiments, was a complex struggle nearly as faceted as life in the mainstream. Although hippies fled to rural America with visions of utopia in their head, life on a commune was not always all it was cracked up to be. Members of the first hippie communes (though this total number ultimately reached over 2000) "believed that a group of autonomous individuals, actively seeking their self-identities, would inevitably create a nonexploitative, conflict-free environment." Yet there were many practical problems with this thought and this was evidenced early on by daily life on a commune.
Commune life was an interesting balance between trying to leave behind the dominant culture and trying to make a viable life through labor for the commune at large and for the self. Hippies living in communes were obviously concerned with creating a new, pastoral, ideal society. For these "communards, the wellbeing of the human body was contingent upon an intimate consumption of healthy natural environments." They thus concerned themselves with the simple life of enlightenment: that of farming, singing, dancing, loving. Life on the commune was a social revolution, but one based on virtue, not on activism or politicism. And yet, much of their daily life required that some concessions be made to the stereotypical system, and by the latter half of the life of the commune, most communal hippies found that some "constraints were now imposed."
Most of the tension underlying commune life can indeed be explained by the duality of leaving behind the dominant society, while also still requiring aspects of it to survive. In truth, this delicate balance acted as the subtext for all other communal activities. Apart from this unexpected complexity then, what were some fundamental elements of hippie life on the commune?
Poverty became an integrated aspect of life for members of a hippie commune. When they moved to a commune, many hippies came emptyhanded or relinquished their belongings to the community at large. By freeing themselves of the consumerism of traditional society, the hippies of some 2000 communes during the 1960s believed they could free their minds and spirits more fully. Members of the first hippie commune, Drop City, simplified this sentiment, "We found the waste of our society -- the detritus of our society -- so extravagant that we thought we would be able to live off of [just that]." This was such an aspect of their idealist collective mind that most did not have a problem with the poverty obligation, as evidenced by the Peter Coyote quote to the right. They may have been lacking money and possessions, but they were not culturally or spiritually poor.
At least in popular culture, hippie was almost synonymous with druggie. In some respects, this was true, though never to the extent that many people believed. An important distinction was that hippies never viewed themselves as social delinquents just doing drugs for fun. Rather, the members of the movement believed they were truly finding new ways to think, opening their minds. Marijuana and LSD became more than drugs -- they became passageways to the higher consciousness. This aspect of hippie life followed people to the communes. They sought spiritual freedom in nature and often, the drugs would help get them there. In the early days of the communes, members would gather for group trips, experimenting with grass and acid together. See the video below beginning at 19:41 for a discussion of the initial importance of drugs and trips. As the communes aged, however, the hippies needed fewer and fewer drugs to find the awakening they were looking for. As shown by the quote to the left, the communes became less about using drugs to find new perception and more about falling in love with the world and the people around you.
Also shown in the video above beginning at 25:45 is a discussion by Lisa Law about the "one tribe" mentality. More than anything, communards sought to feel a closeness with one another that traditional society was not forging for its members. One of their main criticisms of traditional industrialized society was that the people were on their own. It was constant competition that destroyed the world and fellow man. Within communes, people were therefore intended to feel a bond with each other that went beyond merely living in the same place. As Lisa Law states in the above video, "everyone was your brother, everyone was part of your tribe." This notion, although seemingly the most important, was also most affected by the aforementioned tension which managed to seep into many aspects of communal life. Eventually, the notion of everyone being equal was replaced by the practical necessity to have some bureaucracy and leadership. Building tensions ultimately resulted in the dissolution of this brotherhood and mass exoduses from many communes in the late 1970s.
More than an aspect of daily life, this was an overarching theme of many communes and thus dictated many of their actions. The heart of this inspiration goes back to the very first hippie commune, Drop City: "The terms had been adopted not from the viewpoint of meaning that he and the members of the community were dropping out of society... but rather from the viewpoint of desiring to shock society by indicating that we drop things here and there..." Communards were not dropping out of society for dropping out's sake. Rather, they were departing based on the sentiment that something fundamental had failed them. Although most hippies had no interest in politics or true activism, they were hopeful that the visibility of their new lifestyle would shock the mainstream and inspire more departures from the ills they believed plagued society. Thus, their entire agrarian existence revolved around this desire to be different and to inspire not only themselves, but a community at large.
These various characteristics of life in a commune are well supplemented by the material culture left behind by members of intentional communties. In truth, cultural artifacts found have been the biggest reference for understanding commune culture other than academic studies and surveys. These artifacts include videos of commune occurences, books, journals, records, and more. "The surviving material record of the commune can play a key role in understanding this short, intense and significant historical moment... Even in 100 years, we'll still have these collections." These will be explored in the coming pages to further contextualize the commune culture and how daily life supported and manifested many of the above aspects which largely underwrote the lifestyle.