The Basis of Communal Living

George Woodcock
George Woodcock

While doing the research for Communes Britannica  I came across the writings of a few dedicated folk who had taken their own trip around the communal groups of the time and then published their findings / thoughts in some now long out of print book. Perhaps the earliest of these fellow travellers that I came across was the Anglo/Canadian anarchist writer George Woodcock (1912 – 1995). http://www.georgewoodcock.com/GeorgeWoodcock.html

Woodcock had returned from Canada to England in 1913 with his mother and spent his early working life as a clerk for the Great Western Railway. His mother died shortly after the outbreak of war in 1940 and the 28 year old applied for exemption from military service as a conscientious objector and agreed to perform alternative civilian service with the War Agricultural Committee. He worked for a while labouring on farm in Essex, before deciding to use his inheritance to try  making his living as a fulltime writer in London. Here he started to move in radical literary and anarchist circles rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Orwell, Herbert Read, Vernon Richards and the charismatic Italian anarchist Marie Louise Berneri  (http://theanarchistlibrary.org/library/various-authors-marie-louise-berneri-1918-1949-a-tribute), with whom the young writer became  became increasingly infatuated. George established and edited the  NOW journal a mixture of anarchist, pacifist and anti-Soviet socialist commentaries which came out between 1940 and 1947.  He was also co-editor of War Commentary. Sometime in the early years of the war he did a tour of pacifist land groups which formed the basis of a now little know book published by Freedom Press in 1944 under the title The Basis of Communal Living.

“In the years before and during the war, there has been a strong movement to found communities in Britain, arising largely out of the peculiar circumstances of the British pacifist movement at the beginning of the war. The communities which arose during this period were numerous, running to several hundreds. Some lasted only a few months – others are still alive and thriving after seven or eight years.” George Woodcock, The Basis of Communal Living 

In the book Woodcock chose to protect the identity of the communities by referring to them anonymously only as community number 1,2,3 etc – a touch of paranoia brought on, presumably, by the fact that some communities may well have been harbouring  conscientious objectors  still on the run from the authorities at the time. The picture that comes across from Woodcock’s writing is one of somewhat unprepared pacifists struggling to make a go of unfamiliar farm work more often than no hampered by a lack of skills and resources. At Community 10 members were ‘labouring gallantly under difficulties since only one of them had previous experience of farming’. While at Community 3 ploughing was being done ‘… with the aid of a pony and a very old horse which has to be rested at the end of every furrow’. Community 6 complained it was ‘… painfully short of implements and stock, and our immediate wants in the way of harness, wirenetting, pig troughs, beehives … would fill a book’, and funds were so short at Community 5 that they were no longer able to accept new members.

Other groups were struggling with matching their principles to the reality of communal living, with one member of Community 13 stating that ‘… the anarchic principle is the only one consistent with freedom and individual integrity. But this does not presuppose absence of discipline, but rather a condition of ‘unrepressed self-discipline …’ and yet others were trying to keep members: Community 9, which at one time had 20 members, was faced with dwindling numbers: ‘Now there are plenty of jobs going at the minimum wage of £3 a week, and it requires a strong feeling of worthwhileness of a land settlement for a CO to put up with a very low subsistence and the nervous wear and tear of communal living.’ Overall Woodcock paints a picture of a struggling, but thriving, communities movement during the war. 

I was very sceptical when I first read Woodcock’s statement that there were ‘several hundred’ small intentional communities in Britain during the war time period. The written material available seemed to point to only a few dozen groups, not hundreds. Woodcock’s own evidence is problematic because he chose not to identify any of the groups he wrote about – referring to them only anonymously means that it is nigh on impossible to verify the existence of any of the twenty or so groups that he catalogued. However, as I delved into the primary material from the period – I read through every copy of Peace News from 1936 to 1950 – I slowly came to believe his estimate. If you take into account the myriad types of groups: the pacifist farms and training centres; the land and forestry units; the Jewish refugee kibbutz training farms; the urban social centres; the Bruderhof; the Quaker initiatives; the socialist groups; the Christian groups; and then add in the existing pre-war communities like Whiteway and the Brotherhood Church; plus a sprinkling of as yet undiscovered ventures; and there could well have been in the region of several hundred. There was both an organised pacifist network and an overlapping communities movement with their own publications and support networks.

Much of the impetus for the growth in communal living in the period was due to the wartime circumstances and the burgeoning number of conscientious objectors searching for both a place to live and to work during the war, and a place where they could attempt to live out their ideals. The roots of this wave of communal experiment, however, can be found in those groups active in the late 1930’s who saw communities as a potential way of perhaps avoiding a possible war or at least a preferable way of living should one occur. And even, possibly, a way of rebuilding a society where war would no longer occur.

“There was also in the minds of the founders a realisation of the fundamental warlike nature of capitalist society, and an idea that the communities might create an alternative pattern of social organisation which would not be based on acquisitive values and would not lead to war … They saw their communities as examples from which other people would learn, as the nuclei from which a communal structure could spread through society and take the place of the state. The most pessimistic … hoped the seeds of freedom and culture could be preserved until the dark ages they foresaw had passed away.” George Woodcock, The Basis of Communal Living

Here are the seeds of the idea of an alternative society that could be brought into being by setting up experimental examples of how the future might be. The period of growth of communities during the war years and the link to the pacifist and peace movements, most notably through the pages of Peace News, created an alliance between communal living, peace and non-violence that resonated for decades after, with Peace News still carrying articles about and adverts for intentional communities right through until the late 1980’s. http://peacenews.info/

Sooke cabin
George Woodcock’s Sooke cabin

After the war George Woodcock married Ingeborg Linzer Roskelly, and in 1949 the two of them emigrated to Canada where inspired by the example of the Doukhobors (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doukhobor) George and ‘Inge’ tried their hand at smallholding near Sooke on Vancouver Island, clearing some land for a market garden and building a small wooden house. He later became a respected Canadian literary figure.

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