The Dysfunctional Life of Leftist Communes and other Collectives

Posted on Sun 12/01/2013 by

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by Norman Simms   ~

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Despite a few successes (the kibbutzim in Israel in the early 20th century) in their history from the great waves of idealism that swept through intellectual circles from the nineteenth through the twentieth century, the founding and maintaining of communes and collectives did not work out very well.  The latest revelations about the three virtual women slaves in London allows us to reflect on some problems intrinsic to this mode of socialist or anarchist cooperation.  All this happened under the careful watchful eye of Big Brother in Brixton.   Aravindan Balakrishnan, so-called Comrade Bela, was the founder of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, all all-inclusive mouthful even for back in the 1970s when each of these “ways” was usually at each other’s necks.  But can everything be reduced to saying this aging gentleman and his wife were cult leaders and their three victims dupes of an ideology that failed?

In my own experience, the whole idea of groups of like-minded idealistic people living together, sharing work and wealth. Moving away from what to young enthusiastic minds seems like the depressing oppression of bourgeois responsibilities and the corruption and dullness of ordinary urban living is strong.  It was the 1960s, I was young, and almost every day there seemed to be another leader assassinated.  I was tempted and toyed with the idea, spoke with some university friends, and then thankfully decided not to drop everything, move into the wilderness, and fulfil myself as a human being, along the way giving my eventual children an opportunity to breathe free in unpolluted air and in the midst of nature’s raw splendors.  A few more years of growing up and watching young men and women I knew commit themselves to these high ideals and their seemingly empowering ideologies showed me it was a lucky thing I never did join in the mess that was the commune or the collective.

Despite the impeccable theoretical base of the ideologies that said under the proper conditions all members of a group would eagerly share tasks, would respect one another’s privacy and be able to intuit the needs of one’s fellows because that was the natural condition of mankind once the chains of conformity and capitalism were broken by an act of the collective will, somehow things never quite turned out that way… at least not for very long.  What did tend to happen was that older, more mature couples-perhaps in their late thirties or early forties-went in; they had made careful, considered and rational plans to purchase land, organize a legal structure for the group, and set about putting in place the basic amenities needed for human beings to live, labour and reproduce and care for and educate their families.  These were the true idealists, usually university graduates, more often than not sociologists.  They were not “losers”, though perhaps there were secret psychological lapses no one outside of their intimate relations could see.  Then there were the young people, boys and girls in their late teens and early twenties.  Their reasons for entering the collective were quite different.  They were almost all from dysfunctional homes where they were abused physically and psychologically, were rebellious at school, and well on their way towards becoming drug addicts and petty criminals.  They went into the commune to get away from nagging parents and teachers and because they were too lazy and dumb to actually figure out how to live on the streets.  These were the real “losers”. 

This was obviously not a good mixture of people.  Therefore three things seemed to  happen.  First and most often, the whole project quickly fell apart and everyone returned to their old separate ways.  The middle-aged founders became more bourgeois than ever in their domestic relationships, raising of children, and career trajectories, that is, sadder but wiser folk; although in a few instances they retained some remnants of their sartorial dress and hairstyles.  The young, well, they became what we saw out on the streets over the next twenty or thirty years.

Second, driven by the idealism and sense of responsibility in the founding older members of the group, an illusion of cooperation was created, while barely below the surface some crazy and apparently unforeseen and even unpredictable changes were made to the original plans.  While the husband or senior male of the group undertook to perform all the heavy-duty jobs, various farming chores, household repairs, and negotiating with outside authorities, he began to think it his right to have a controlling access to all females in the group, including adults and children; this was deemed proper compensation for the loss of his previous career in a university or other professional activity.  This was the guru phenomenon, but not quite the cult leader.  The wife or senior female, officially or tacitly undertaking the role of Earth Mother, served as the main provider of food, healthcare and whatever minimal formal education was required both by the state and for the proper running of the commune; then, also noticing that her erstwhile husband or partner, was more actively interested in younger and more sexually receptive and obedient partners, she began to cohabit with one or more of the vigorous young men who, in their own ways, profited from this continuous access to a mature female body, satisfied unconscious Oeidipal urges, and deemed the entire process as a hilarious joke and a massive snub at bourgeois propriety.  Eventually, thanks to the loss of idealism and the unproductivity of the venture-laziness, stupidity, and endless bickering and jealousies-the whole enterprise collapsed.  The young people went back on to the streets.  The older ones, their families and careers in tatters, somehow drifted back into a relatively lower middle class existence marked by bitterness and regret.

In the third outcome, the free-flowing (“go with the flow”) commune found that to survive it had to put aside its democratic socialistic ideals and its anarchist freedom for all, including free speech, sex, drugs, and take up strict concentration of leadership-it became a dictatorship not of the proletarian but of the all-knowing father (and sometimes mother)-the cult leader(s).  Suicide, violent punishments, madness, in other words, violence became the glue that kept everything together.

This is what seems to have happened in London.  Rather than a rather general and vague group of people coming together, Comrade Bela came up through the ranks of various Communist parties in England, shifting from one collective to another, and being forced out from another because of his rigid and uncompromising style of leadership.  In the process his entourage was reduced to the three women who stayed with him for more than thirty years, as well as his wife or partner.  In the late 1990s someone in his household “fell” out of a window and died, the police investigated, but found no reason to treat the case as criminal.  But that is not all. Other people seem to have “fallen” from view, disappearing into some indeterminate other existences.  But the three women who remained, one in her late 60s, another in her 50s, and the last in her early 30s who may or may not have been born into this moral captivity, are now “freed” from the virtual psychological slavery they had experienced.

To the neighbors and to any official outsiders who interviewed the five co-dependent members of this household, they seemed eccentric, but not criminal.  The three “captivated” women could walk outside in the streets and shop locally, provided they did not go out alone, so that there were no obvious chains or handcuffs to keep them in check.  They could have, as seems to have happened, tossed letters out to neighbors and passers-by and have made phone calls, but they did not until a few weeks ago take any of these opportunities to flee or seek help from the police.

Why?  Fear of retribution, shame of being exposed as weak and submissive, inability to imagine a life other than the one they had grown accustomed over for three decades, belief in the original ideologies that brought them into the collective in the first place-who knows?  What is clear, however, is that some people fall into situations where they become so frightened of the outside world that they accept the humiliations, discomforts and pains of the mind-control of other masterful leaders as preferable to anything else.  That means there are aspects of personality that choose slavery over freedom because they fear they will otherwise fall apart, collapse, shrivel up.  They are reduced to near total childish dependence on the leaders and then in a strange dynamics of mutuality within the group, wherein violence towards themselves and severe limitations on what they can do, say and even feel are felt as deserved punishment for their weaknesses.

Is this condition an exaggerated version of how all of us learn to live in the world, to make so many compromises with our principles and ambitions, that we are finally too ashamed to admit that we ever had such ideals?  Or are these type of groups hold-overs from the social rebellions of the 1960s and 1970s, very time and culture-specific?   Whatever the psychological explanations for such group dynamics,  with all their psychotic implications, the arrogance of the leaders, the resistance by the victims to seek help over the years, and the failures of police, social agencies, and others to pick up the clues indicates something “rotten” in the core of modern society.


FSM_ NormanSimms__biosarchives20080507Norman Simms is the author of Alfred Dreyfus: Man, Milieu, Mentality and Midrash (Academic Studies Press, 2011).  The second volume in the series, Alfred Dreyfus: In the Context of His Times: Alfred Dreyfus as Lover, Intellectual, Poet and Jew  (also by Academic Studies Press) was published in July 2013; and the third Alfred and Lucie Dreyfus in the Phantasmagoria (Cambridge Scholars Publisher, UK) in September 2013.