A letter on the difference between intentional communities and socialism, between communes and communism

I was writing a friend of mine a letter and decided that, since it was already written, I’d post it publicly. So here it is. I am still staying off of the internet (or trying, at least, and definitely off of FB), so if you want to get in touch, email or text me.

Hey, _____.

I wanted to say something when you offered “intentional community” as something that might be understood as being similar to or the same as socialism when _____ briefly brought it up earlier. As I’ve often found myself after a social situation has ended, I felt a little slow on the draw. But that’s okay. Anyway: I think it is a mistake to conflate these two things, socialism and intentional community. You may have meant something different by the term “intentional community,” but I’m going to assume you intended the most common use of that specific term. You may not have, but if nothing else this will help us get on the same page.

To start: socialism is by definition something that can’t be achieved until capitalism has been defeated in a given country. Socialism is a situation in which the working class and its allies are in power in a given territory and are working to consolidate that power and liberate all other territories from capitalism. This is related to but also in contrast to communism, which is a stateless, classless, moneyless society. While socialism can (and must) be achieved in certain places while capitalism prevails elsewhere, communism is not something we can achieve until all of the capitalist governments have been overthrown. At its most fundamental level this is because capitalism is in utter contradiction with communism, and capitalist governments literally make war on the communist movement wherever they find it, so the communist movement necessarily has to employ a state–an armed body to enforce a specific social order–in order to defend itself and defeat capitalism. Socialism is a society with a state that is trying to become more communist in the here and now but is simultaneously trying to win the global war against capitalism.

This is in contrast to intentional community, which is something that attempts to immediately make as close a thing to communism as possible in a confined region (and often a confined timespan). I think communes, Rainbow Gathering, and Burning Man all exemplify both the possibilities and the enormous limitations with what is most commonly meant by the term “intentional community.”

Intentional communities may create something wonderful, but they are by definition only available to the privileged. They try to create, at least materially (that is, in being stateless and moneyless), a kind of communism-in-miniature, but they constitute a withdrawal from the world, one that people without resources (e.g., the working class) can’t partake in. In doing so, they abandon the communist project in order to seek to immediately enjoy the fruits of their privilege. Intentional communities also invariably suffer from the fact that the consciousness of the people who try to create them was created and shaped by the desperately fucked up world we live in. It is for this reason that they invariably fail to become truly classless–and by “class” here I do include the domination of non–straight cis male people as a class by straight cis men as a class, and of non-Euro-descended/nonwhite people as a class by Euro-descended/white people as a class. Intentional communities are not a solution for abolishing cisheteropatriarchy and racism. All sorts of hierarchies live on in deep and subconscious (and even sometimes totally explicit) ways in these communities. If we’re going to move on from these things, it will have to be because we as a species move through many generations in which literally everyone on the planet has literally everything they need to be fully empowered.

Don’t get me wrong, there may be room for intentional community here and there. I know that seeing the good parts of Rainbow Gathering helped convince me that global communism was indeed a real possibility–and “room for it” or no, intentional communities will definitely keep springing up anyway until we actually get to communism, if we do.

So, socialism is necessarily a global and universal political movement, in contrast to intentional community, which is necessarily local and exclusive. That is not to say that we as socialists should not immediately and always try to be as communist in mentality as possible. But that doesn’t mean we all should feel obligated to immediately share everything material with each other; it means trying to adopt and put into practice the attitude and ethic of true equality and true respect that we hope the material conditions of communism will reinforce–in other words, actually thinking and behaving like a comrade.