Commentary Magazine

The Communard

Had his world not promised to be a rather different place from the one they themselves had grown up in, they might have been extremely worried for their son. He was so sweet and gentle. There was not to be discerned in him a single drop of the kind of harshness or aggression that had once been thought necessary to the successful completion of the masculine character. All the fierce drive with which as a very little boy he had rollicked through the household had been tamed to some inner, higher purpose, had got relocated, as it were, from his limbs to the secret places of his soul. One simply could not imagine his pushing, pounding, scheming, racing anyone for anything, or offering a gratuitous cruelty. Since the onset of adolescence, he had barely even raised his voice.

There had of course been signs of this in him all along. As a small child, whenever he had been injured or done down in some way by one of his fellows, he had responded by weeping bitterly—more in shock and disappointment at the discovery that life held arbitrary suffering, his parents felt, than over the particular injury at hand—but he had rarely engaged in any form of retaliation. He had taken whatever comfort was to be had from his mother’s repeated assertion that the little boy or little girl who had done ill by him was to be accounted far more unhappy, at bottom, than he. He had always hung back from playing games where there were winners and losers, finding it difficult to understand why an activity whose end was supposed to be the pleasure and entertainment of its participants should carry the built-in necessity of hurt feelings. And for the same reason, he had resisted taking part in competitions. Invidiousness of any kind had from the very first struck him as a form of outright cruelty to people. He himself, for example, showed a gift for drawing; sketches and cartoons dashed off by him dotted the walls of his house and elicited admiring comments from all visitors; but when one of his teachers had informed him that she meant to enter a couple of pieces of his work in a school contest, he had put away his crayons and papers for several years.

Most of all, however, the quality of tenderness—of quickened response to the possibility of hurt and suffering and determination to set all such possibility aside—had revealed itself to them in his relation to the issue of property. There was nothing he owned, with the possible exception of a ragged stuffed animal or two, that he would not after the first day’s gusto for its newness happily hand over to a playmate. By the same token, he was utterly bewildered by anyone else’s refusal to share on exactly the same basis with him. More than once they had noticed the uncomprehending stare with which he evinced his puzzlement as some angry child snatched a belonging from his hands. Now and then, for the sake of social peace, they were forced to admonish him not to lay hands on objects that did not belong to him. It sickened them to do this, for they knew how genuinely little he understood or credited the sanctity of property and how few rights in it he on his side ever wished to claim for himself. Nor was his attitude to money in any essential way different. Whatever money was given to him—and, with the presence in his life of doting grandparents and relatives, he was sometimes in possession of what were, for his age, fairly hefty sums—was quickly spent, a major part of it on his friends or even strangers who happened by.

All of it together—his gentleness, lack of violence, detestation of competition, unconcern for his possessions, incapacity to horde his money—spelled out the dynamics of a noble and loving nature. Any small annoyance they felt with him (for naturally, his easy indifference to property-and money included their property and money as well) paled to less than nothing beside the recognition of his extraordinary, and extraordinarily precocious, spiritual gifts.

Such gifts, they believed, had at least in part to be a happy accident, a coming together of the right fundamental endowments with the right enabling circumstances. It seemed reasonable to them that something open and giving had been fixed in the boy’s personality very early in his life, if not indeed in the womb. That this something had required the proper set of opportunities to come to full flower was only common sense. Had they for instance subjected him to cruelty of any kind, he would surely have learned the ways of cruelty. Had they pinched him with privations, he would no doubt have grown up with a far meaner spirit. Had they dealt with him violently, he would have had no model of behavior for his impulse of gentleness—the impulse itself would very likely have died aborning. And they had to admit, though by itself they regarded this as a minor and trivial point, that had they been less economically secure, some element of their own worry about money might have escaped into the atmosphere and put a crimp or damper to his largesse.

As it happened, they had never knowingly been cruel to him and never violent. Even in their worst states of annoyance or aggrievement with something he had done, they tried to keep in mind that they had the power to wound him far more, than he to wound them, and to tread carefully lest some uncontrolled display of their emotions have deeper consequences than they intended. They had slapped him occasionally but only by the dictates of policy, having decided to reserve this extreme and unaccustomed measure for situations involving some danger to him. On each of these occasions, as soon as he appeared in no uncertain terms to have received their message, they hastened to take him in their arms and console him so that he should understand there was nothing personal in their anger.

And above all, they realized, they had enabled him to fulfill his own tendency toward generosity and selflessness by their behavior with respect to mere material things. They were not rich, at least not as that condition is reckoned by the really rich themselves, but they had, somewhat to their surprise, reached a point of prosperity where they need not feel that money was any sort of an issue except on the very highest levels. Certainly as far as the upbringing, education, and entertainment of their child were concerned, they could not imagine ever being faced with the decision that he would have to be deprived of anything he seriously wanted. This fact was not, of course, by itself so important: neither of them had grown up poor, and yet they had been brought up—as they were to discover only in adult life, far in excess of what had been dictated by the financial condition of their respective families—in the morality of self-denial. Somehow it had been considered “good” for one, good for one’s character and grasp of life, to be left in a kind of steady state of yearning and wanting and wishing. The obverse consequence of this idea—only on the surface was it an ironic one—was that the things of this world purchasable with money took on an abiding, indeed an overriding, significance in the calculus of human happiness. It had taken them years of catching up on their unsated youthful appetites before they had been able to liberate themselves from the idea that there was any basic satisfaction to be had from the accumulation of money and the things money could buy.

Their son was certainly not growing up as they had in this regard. They saw no reason, on any particular occasion, to deny him what he asked for. No doubt they were moved by old memories of their own disappointments; no doubt somewhere inside them there lurked old resentments at the effort and importance they had been forced to attach to the most commonplace items of childish desire. In any case, they were not only willing but, they found, positively eager, to fill his requests—and grateful that they were in a position to do so without giving it any thought.

His response to all this, as might have been predicted, was an admirable unconcern for his possessions. They lay heaped about his room, in a cozy disarray that signalled his perfect ease in assimilating them to his life without the need for any careful inventory or stock-taking. Money itself, he had grasped with an instinctive sophistication that put him well ahead of even the wisest heads in the 19th century, was there to be used. Outside of what it could provide, money was mere garbage, an inhuman abstraction that, if taken seriously, atrophied the best part of the spirit. If they now and then wished on the one hand that he had somehow acquired a more reasoned sense of the connection between money and the future, they knew on the other hand that such a notion was precisely what impelled people to be mean and small in their dealings with others.

Thus it could be said that in some sense they had taught him to be open and generous—by actual precept as well as by an underlying attitude of refusal to uphold in any way the old morality of self-denial, which was in the end preeminently a morality of denying others. But he had also taught them something. For whereas beneath their intention to take as little notice as possible of the goods with which they had filled their life there still persisted some traces of their former nervousness about acquisition, his own indifference was genuine and totally without art or thought. He provided for them a model of what real transcendence looked like. Real transcendence was not the transcendence of desire—he wanted something new virtually every day—nor of the passion to possess—he could not rest until a request of his was fulfilled—but of the feeling that what one possessed was of any lasting importance. It was nothing for him to see his belongings destroyed or to give them away. Sometimes his mother felt herself to be the lowliest bourgeois money-grubber by comparison.



Taken all together, then, these qualities in their son—whatever might, from the point of view of his parent’s own momentary convenience, be his shortcomings—promised a kind of new moral and social start for man kind. Having no occasion for envy, and no natural inclination to it, he might grow up without the single most compelling basis for hostility to his fellows. Having no truck with violence, and no taste for it, he might also take part in constituting a more decent and civilized social order. Having no outer need, and clearly no inner pressure, to husband his stock of goods, he might learn to take true possession of the world instead of being possessed by it.

They did not, to be sure, often think about him in connection with so grand and large an issue as the future of society—especially when he was still a child. In the midst of their daily dealings and inevitable small troubles with him, they continued in an entirely private way to wonder at him and be gratified by him and to puzzle over the question of what would be the end translation, in practical terms, of the very special loveliness of his nature. But though they were for the most part too taken up with the particularities of his character to talk much about it, they were aware that he was living in a world significantly altered from the one in which they had first taken their bearings. If American society as a whole had from their point of view grown rather ugly in its piggish intoxication with new-found wealth, that unique and blessed corner of American society in which he was privileged to grow up seemed to be in the throes of a kind of spiritual revolution. Thus, some part of the happy influence on him was coming also, to a certain extent anyway, from his surroundings.

The ethic of violence, for example, of an eye for an eye, or, in the parlance of classroom and playground, of “hitting back,” was quite as alien to his school and to the streets and backyards and homes where he played as it was to his own home. Disputes among the children were adjudicated by adults, parents, teachers, sometimes even passing strangers, always with appeals to reason and mutual understanding. Each altercation provided a fresh occasion for encouraging the children to discuss and define the course of justice, and was brought, wherever possible, satisfactorily to term by an exchange of apologies accompanied by a heightened appreciation of the feelings of all concerned.

The old principle of competition had been considerably vitiated: grades, contests, prizes for academic achievement had pretty much gone by the boards; the children tended to be praised and rewarded far more for effort than for outcome; even at birthday parties the traditional games of skill were generally concluded with the distribution of the same small favors to everyone who had participated. The petty triumphs and real heartbreaks of simple success and failure were being supplanted virtually everywhere in the children’s special province by the far more kindly and humanizing standards of performance in relation only to individual capacities.

And finally, there had been the enthronement of the idea of sharing. This had no doubt always been paid lip-service as a nice and virtuous idea—certainly few educators or guardians of children could ever have been so philosophically rebellious as to preach the superiority of plain selfishness. But in their son’s world sharing was no longer merely a pretty and harmless ideal; it had become an ironclad, enforceable rule of conduct. Gone was any of the virtue hitherto attached to the assertion, “This is mine.” And gone with it was the whole ancient puritan structure of training and belief created to insure the sanctity of property: the idea that one worked alone—school-work was now conducted in group projects; the idea that one earned the rewards and punishments of one’s conduct alone—rewards and punishments were also almost always meted out to groups or classes; and the idea that what belonged to one, in the way of goods or praise or even feelings, was a kind of sacred private trust. These ideas, it was now understood, had been at bottom nothing more than the old-fashioned capitalist property-worshipping ethos masked as a religion of private conscience. Sharing was more than a form of primitive Christian kindliness, then; it was a discipline for learning that one’s responsibilities as well as one’s advantages always implicated others.

Not all the children with whom he occupied his spiritually privileged corner of American society, of course, had responded to its prevailing influences as readily as their son had. But the influences were nevertheless there. His schools, his books, the conversation of the adults with whom he came most closely into contact, even the camps to which he had sometimes been sent to spend the summer, had all more or less reflected a new feeling that the highest virtues for him to attain to were the virtues of gentleness, sociability, and the spirit of cooperation.



By the time he reached college, everything they had seen developing in him had come to full flower. He cared very little for his possessions, with the exception of his record player, and even that he fussed over in an uncharacteristic way only for the fact that it brought music, rather than a sense of spreading ownership, into his life. He owned many things, and used them, lent them, or parted with them in a totally casual manner. The father had been impressed, indeed a little overwhelmed, by his relation to the car they had bought him for his high-school graduation gift. The boy thought nothing of making it available to his friends, or of using it for such potentially damaging purposes as hauling furniture, cartons, skiing equipment, or as many as a dozen people at a time; in a year’s time, the vehicle had the cozy, used-up look of something very old that had been treated as a mere convenience. The father, remembering both the thrill and the leaden sense of responsibility he himself had experienced on the acquisition of his first car—an experience that had not to that day entirely departed from him—and the measures of painstaking care and worry it had led him to, found it almost incomprehensible how the boy could be so masterfully matter-of-fact about so major a species of owning. Like his wife, he too suffered many moments of shame mingled with pride in his son for this new and obviously proper and healthy sang-froid about the world’s goods.

The boy cared, if anything, even less about his appearance. He dressed himself and groomed himself without the least consideration of all those issues of taste and ascriptive class status that had once, for his parents at his age, made the subject of clothes a sometimes painful one. As with everything else in his life, they had stinted on nothing in the area of clothing and personal equipment. When he was a little child, it had pleased them to see him moving about with perfect ease in the best that money could buy. It meant more than that he was making a showing to the world which would reflect credit on his home and background. It meant that he was growing up taking for granted all those graces, social and sartorial, that they had strained mightily to provide themselves. They were amused, therefore—and also, it must be admitted, sometimes considerably irritated—by the revelation vouchsafed to them in his adolescence that taking such things for granted ultimately meant wishing to divest oneself of them entirely. Both their amusement and their irritation, however, were superficial as compared with their deeper recognition that his appearance contained a sober and important message about himself: his values were such as to preclude any display of economic advantage or personal vanity. No matter how much they wished that he might pay just a tiny bit more attention to the conventional requirements of ordinary propriety, they would be the first to concede that his refusal to do so bespoke his commitment to the higher morality.

The most important evidence that his childhood sweetness and generosity had ripened into major features of his adult character, though, was to be found in his ideas about society and his own future role in it. He believed as fiercely as he had when he was four years old in the simple categories of fair and not fair. With each new step in the process of his coming to maturity these categories had expanded to include more of the world outside himself until, finally, he was able to apply them pointedly to the institutions, customs, and practices of the entire country and then the entire world. Just as certain things had self-evidently been unfair in the days of those earliest encounters with his own little universe of social action—that some child should have more than another, for instance, or go unpunished for a punishable misdeed or, obversely, suffer punishment for something of which he was innocent—so it was now with the affairs of society as a whole. For those with eyes to see, and hearts to feel, and spirits to care, the boy knew, injustices of every kind nakedly revealed themselves. They were injustices of a not very different order from the ones that had outraged his childish innocence, only writ much larger.

He spoke to his parents a great deal about all this, never, to their minds miraculously, allowing his passion to overcome his soft-tongued composure. They were not at all surprised to hear him inveighing against poverty, against the abominable condition of black people, against the rapacity and cruelty that permitted women and children to walk around starving in a land of unbelievable plenty, or of the cynicism that deprived young men of a decent chance to realize themselves and then slimily reproached them for being failures. None of this surprised them because it was so naturally a product of the concerned and loving nature they had long ago discerned in him.

How such commitment would actually be translated in his future life neither they nor, as it appeared, he could be quite sure. Through his first two or three years of college, when asked by their friends or relatives about his plans, he would reply that he meant to do something “for others.” There was nothing surprising to them in this announcement, neither in its expressed determination to make some direct and palpable contribution to his fellow men nor in its implicit de-emphasis of the whole issue of worldly ambition and wealth. That he refused to think of work in terms of private gain was of a piece with everything they most admired in him—his purity of heart and his freedom from that all-consuming love of vainglory which had driven so many of their own contemporaries to offer up their very lives in pursuit of a few paltry baubles of status. They could not deny themselves the satisfaction of feeling that at least some of this freedom was a product of their own teachings and values; for as Americans, the children and grandchildren of anxiety-filled immigrants, they too had taken part—rather successfully, they might say—in the mad scramble for success and money and had understood, in time to release their son from it, just how murderous and destructive that scramble was. And they were grateful to have been in the position to bring the boy up without any pressure from the dread of economic insecurity.



What one did “for others,” however, was not the easiest of questions to answer. In terms of the kinds of careers most familiar to them, one could be a doctor, for example, or a social worker or a psychologist or an engineer. None of these careers made much of an appeal to him, and they could not in all honesty say they blamed him. The benefits brought to people by a bold and imaginative engineer could be very great, but they were long-range and indirect benefits, so long-range that they could never satisfy an urge like their son’s to touch actual people’s lives in a personal way. And at the moment it was nearly impossible to imagine what kind of work an engineer might do that would not sooner or later be pressed into the service of society’s more evil impulses, the making of war or the furthering of the intolerable dehumanizations of technology. Besides, he had never been particularly adept at mathematics or science, finding them too abstract for his kind of intelligence, which was essentially empathetic and emotive. Psychology, then, would have seemed to be a field far more congenial to him; but he could not convince himself—just as they were no longer convinced—that easing the strictly private pain of individuals, who were in any case more likely than not to be middle-class individuals, had much connection with the urgent problems of the people who were nowadays most in need. Besides, the road from where he was to becoming an accredited psychologist would be a dreary obstacle course of irrelevant experimentation, lengthy and demanding and mechanical research, and studies so remote from real people and the societies they lived in that one could, from sheer distraction, be carried far. afield from one’s original purpose.

Training to be a social worker or a teacher had these disadvantages and even more: far from opening the soul, or instructing it, in the ways of love and guidance, such training merely deadened. Besides, he had heard unpleasant things about the regimen and academic requirements of a post-graduate education in these fields and could not see himself devoting years to the acquisition of something he would then be obliged simply to throw off. Medicine, of course, was quite simply out of the question. In theory, doctors helped people; in practice, they only helped themselves—to heaps upon heaps of brutally and for the most part illegitimately gotten money. There was something else about the study of medicine: it was a form of insuring that one would be wealthy and respected which had been so ardently urged upon the members of their generation by ignorant and status-hungry parents that it had actually become a kind of inter-generational joke with them. They would no more have dreamed of suggesting to their son that he might one day become a doctor, even in the idleness of playing the old game of “What are you going to be?” when he was a very little boy, than they would have dreamed of giving him a shoeshine box and sending him out on the streets to bring home some contribution to the family finances. Besides, he had always been an unusually squeamish child—probably, they felt, as part of his keen and primitive hatred of violence. In high school, a special arrangement had been made with his biology teacher to have him excused from assignments involving dissection.

They knew that such a list of careers was in itself a symptom of their own limited and tradition-bound perception of the world’s work. No doubt there were hundreds of different ways in which a young man might express his concern for and involvement in the condition of his fellow men. The very revolution in standards which had made it possible for their son to be gentle without shame must also have broadened, far beyond their own narrow ken, the possibilities for incorporating his extraordinary values at, so to speak, the workplace.

The trouble was that, for the time being anyway, he had so little margin for the slow but necessary process of finding himself in the world. He himself had frequently questioned the value of his even remaining in school at all, because it seemed to him so poignantly a waste of time to be fooling around with books and papers and examinations whose main purpose was to fit him for becoming part of the system it was his highest ambition to avoid. Under normal circumstances, they would have advised him to take time off and look around him a bit—travel around the world, say, or try his hand on an amateur basis at one thing or another—for they were aware of how special and meaningful would have to be his niche in life for him to be happy there. But the circumstances, alas, happened to be far from normal: it was a time when young men were being drafted into the army. In school, he was safe from conscription.

Staying out of the army had naturally become the very first item in the young man’s order of priorities. There was a war on, a beastly war, an evil war, a war in which no man of conscience could serve. It was criminal for the government to imperil the lives of any young men in such a war, but in his case it somehow seemed even more so.



As the years had worn on, the parents had found themselves agreeing with their son in most important things. True, they had struggled with him from time to time over the question of his appearance, but they did not, deep down, take that question very seriously. Had it been necessary to do so, they would have struggled with him fiercely about whether it was valuable for him to have a college degree; but as things were, he would have his degree and would one day, they knew, be grateful for it. They sometimes thought his views about how both society and the people living in it ought to be transformed were a bit excessive. But they chalked his excesses up to his youth and his bitterness over the war. Fundamentally, they were very proud of him for being the sort of person who held such views. In everything that counted, then, they felt themselves to be at one with him.

About nothing, however, did they agree with him more unreservedly then about the subject of his going into the army. They were not principled pacifists. In their own youth there had been a war which they had supported with their whole being; the father had himself served in that war, and while far from happy with the life of a soldier, had not suffered the least qualm of doubt that he was doing something good. But in the case of this particular war they shared their son’s views wholeheartedly. It was a senseless blood-letting, based at best on an outmoded notion of the country’s interest and at worst on the mere egomania of the country’s President, and since it had no just cause, every single individual who fell in that war was as far as they were concerned the victim of plain murder. And beyond their staunch opposition to the government’s Vietnam policy in general, there was the problem of their son in particular. Even in peacetime, it would have seemed to them quite out of the question that the boy be subjected to army life—a life so completely at odds with everything best in his temperament and feeling and upbringing. He was by nature totally unfitted for training in the arts of battle. He could no more learn to kill than he could fly. Not to mention the sheer brutality of the military ethos: how could so tender and spiritually open a creature survive in that world of brute, naked force? How could a child who had grown up with so delicately tuned a sense of right and so elegantly sensitive a system of human and social values be forced, now, to make his way, faceless and alone, in a jungle of ranking, bullying, and coercion? Their hearts ached merely for the fact that he had been confronted with such a possibility at all.

They were grateful at least that he had been allowed to seek protection in school. Yet the times were out of joint, for him no less than for the young men actually being marched off to war. He certainly did not feel grateful but rather raged at the thought that he and his friends and hundreds of thousands like them had been trapped between two unconditional alternatives; and while his parents did not at all share his views about his education, they sympathized with him. Even more than for his sense of entrapment, they pitied him for so shocking and brutal a discovery of the kind of evil that persisted in the world. He had been brought up to an altogether different vision of life from the one which greeted him daily in the newspaper and on the television screen. Until this dirty business could be settled, young men like him—the very flower of mankind’s best enlightenment on the meaning of social existence—were bound to remain fretful and disoriented. Nor could they as the boy’s parents offer him any of the kind of wisdom and consolation they had once been able to bring when he was a child facing some strictly local cruelty. The world he now reviled, they had to confess, was a world long accepted and acquiesced in by the members of their generation. About some things he had a wisdom far beyond their own.



So they were both shocked and not shocked when he announced to them a few days before his graduation from college that some people he knew had leased a farm where they were planning to retreat from society and live communally, subsisting on the labor of then own hands, and that he had made up his mind to join them. Everything among the members of the commune was to be shared equally—work, food, space, money—and each was to devote his life to a brotherly love and care for every other. They were shocked because while they admired and to some extent shared his view that the drive for worldly success and goods emptied people’s lives and deadened their souls, and while they had always recognized how serious a person he was, they had nevertheless looked forward to his pursuing a respectable and comfortable career. Retreating from the ruthlessness and crudity of the cash nexus, of society’s worship of commercialism and its attendant corruption of the order of human worth, was something they themselves had always attempted to practice. But to retreat bodily from the world itself, and to create a way of life directly contradictory to the way this world has forever been organized was, it seemed to them, an attempt to make a startlingly literal truth out of a purely figurative vision.

On the other hand, if anyone could be expected to take part in such an attempt, futile though they believed that attempt over the long haul to be, it would be their son. He knew no distinction—had never known a distinction—between thought and deed. They had been hearing for a few years now about young people banding together to form communes, making themselves into a kind of living embodiment of the principles of love and equality, of nonaggression and community. They ought to have known (perhaps, in talking it over later they agreed, they had really known) that their child was an obvious candidate for this sort of experiment.

The rules of the commune were simple, he told them. Everyone was to bring his relevant possessions and place them in the common pool. The work would be allotted on the basis of special skills or preferences, or failing that, by a system of rotation. They would grow food for themselves to eat and something extra to sell in order to keep themselves in incidentals, such as cigarettes, records, medical care, and so on. One of their number—he was in fact the original organizer of the project—knew something about farming and had volunteered to teach the others. The farm had been leased in the name of one of the young man’s good friends, who was collecting the earnings from a sizable trust fund left him by his grandparents, so they had a possible line of credit until they should be self-supporting. The “farmer” among them happened, along with his “old lady,” to be receiving a welfare stipend. and that, too, would be helpful.

Since they would have been willing to send him to graduate school if he had wanted to go, he said, he thought it would be all right for them to give him some of the money they would otherwise be spending. To begin with, there would be eight or nine on the commune, and before they got things organized, there might be something of a problem about supplying their table. None of the others was on good enough terms with his or her parents to ask for help.

At this last, the mother and father shuddered a little. The idea that there were contemporary parents, members of their own generation, so taken up with the issue of money that they would use it as a weapon of control over their children, never failed to chill them. By all accounts, there were children roaming throughout the country, footloose and unprotected, children of middle-class parents (they supposed it was mostly lower-middle-class parents) so embittered by the disappointments and failures of their own lives that they would allow their children to sink or swim as they had once been forced to do. How could people like the mother and father in this situation not take at least one minute off from their anxiety over what their son was about to do to taste the pleasure of his serene confidence in them?

They agreed on a sum to be their son’s founding contribution to his community, amused by the innocence in him that made him think it would be enough to get along with. They did not mean to stint him but only to reinforce their unspoken hope that he would not long remain in his new-found life. There was also the draft. It no longer seemed likely that he would be called, but one could not tell about these things. They made him promise them, which was not all that difficult to do, that should there be even the faintest hint of a danger of his being drafted he would give up his plans and settle himself in graduate school.

And there was, in the end they had to face it, the possibility that these young people might truly be pointing the way for the future. Something was surely happening among the young these days—some higher demand from themselves and from life being made, some refusal to settle for or compromise with the way things were—that even sympathetic elders were too sunk in the past to take any measure of. They had seen it in their son from almost the outset of his existence. Did they imagine that children could be fashioned from so utterly new a mold and there would be no lifelong, perhaps humanly transforming, consequences from it? They had to consider the question: was it really concern for their son’s welfare, or was it only an unconscious fealty to the worship of money and status, that had dictated all their old, conventional ambitions for him?

In any case, as much as they might have thought they understood about their son’s extraordinary selflessness, they found themselves overwhelmed that a boy who had grown up in the kind of ease and comfort he had grown up in should even be willing to undertake a life of such hardship as he had described to them. Perhaps, as their son had so long given them reason to suspect, they really were standing at the brink of a new era.




The young man himself, of course, would never have uttered such a phrase as “new era.” For if any one thing could have been said to characterize both his speech and his demeanor, it was a marked loathing for pomposity of any kind. Nevertheless, driving through the countryside to his new home—blanket, knapsack, skis, stereo equipment, and several cartons of record albums crammed into the back of his car—he was taken with the sensation of moving into some new field of human possibility. His journey to the commune was not a journey to a farm but rather was a journey toward the two things people have always wanted and had never before found the real means of achieving: namely, love and freedom. In that farmhouse, with his fellow communitarians, he was about to find the realization of the only genuinely saving human ideals.

Love and freedom were forms of the social revolution upon which the highest accolades had been bestowed by everyone he had ever known and everything he had read and heard in the course of his entire life. They had been honored, however, as had most other ideals in a relentlessly materialist civilization, largely in the breach. For the secret of true love was that it was a relation which could obtain only in a condition of equality; it was nothing less than a full and honest and open acceptance of one another without extraneous demands, without conditions, without any elements of subordination and superordination. The model of love which had had the greatest influence over the traditional definition of the term, that is, the love between parent and child, had been a snare and a delusion, trapping people into habits of obedience and tyranny that had extended beyond the family into the whole of society. This relation of authority and dependency, traditionally deemed by mankind of all relations to be worthiest of the very name of love, had served as the model for many of society’s most flagrant enactments of tyranny: boss and worker, government and people, black and white, husband and wife. The love of and for one’s fellows, growing out of a situation in which there was no such thing as rank or distinction or ascription of roles, he visualized as a kind of “revolution backward into being.” (He had read the phrase once—he could not remember where—and it had seemed to him the perfect name for his desire.)

And the secret of true freedom was that it was a relation which could obtain only in a condition of mere subsistence, of living without reference to money; for freedom was nothing less than the possibility of being oneself and only oneself, without handing over one’s spirit as a hostage to some future promise of wealth or security. As with love, the traditionally defining model of freedom was a travesty of the very thing it presumed to bespeak. The so-called free man, granted just as much political liberty as was needed to make him a voluntary partner to the endless, mindless production of riches, was the very picture of enslavement. He was allowed to move about with the appearance of being unhampered only so that he might more effectively do exactly as society had decreed for him to do. The goods with which he surrounded himself he had been brainwashed to need and desire; the economic security he was so grateful to be allowed to procure for himself and his family was no more than the bait with which his oppressors had long laid their trap for him.

It was in the nature of both their enterprise and their feelings about it that he and his group should have little impulse to proselytize others. Love and freedom as they understood these terms pulled in precisely the opposite direction from zealotry—indeed, it was fundamental to the principles of the commune that its members should account themselves the kind of people who aspired only to live. This was another reason why he could never have dreamed of making so thunderous a proclamation as that he was the harbinger of a new era. Still and all, he was quietly convinced that his new commune, in concert with others like it, would in the long run have a decisive effect on American society.

There were members of his generation, some of them were friends and former close associates of his, who were calling for an actual armed revolution. They demanded the destruction of capitalism, dreamed of fomenting a massive insurrection in the armed forces, of opening the prisons, of taking over the universities in which they were being forced to serve time, of destroying the power of the police. They spoke salaciously of the time when blood might flow in the streets. They marched under a variety of flags, some of these actually the emblems of foreign powers, pledged their loyalty to this or that specific body of revolutionary doctrine, and worked feverishly to organize disciplined cadres of the faithful. He felt no stirring opposition to these revolutionaries—he was after all connected to them by the bond of their common refusal to countenance the prevailing sick and rotten values of society—but they had failed to ignite the least spark of real interest or commitment on his part. Their way was not his way; he had neither a personal taste for it nor faith in it. They wished to do, to act, to deal in categories of power. He wished only to be himself. They used the language of violence and claimed to be preparing themselves for violence. He could think of nothing which by his lights would make the risk of violence seem justified. Perhaps the recourse to force and terror was justified—he could see many of the arguments—but not for him.

In any case, he could think of no form of resistance so effective, so unanswerable, as that of passive resistance. This was not exactly a matter of doctrine, but rather more a translation of his private experience. Even as a small child, he had discovered that there was no way for those in authority to make him do what he simply and quietly refused to do. Imagine such a discovery acted upon en masse. If every young man in America of eligible age, for instance, had in the same immovable and quiet fashion simply not shown up to register for the draft, the entire history of the world might have been ineradicably altered.

The blood which according to his revolutionary friends was one day to flow in the streets, if it did—and while he was willing to make conversation about it, he could not actually imagine or believe that it would—was as likely to be revolutionary blood as capitalist blood. Aside from his revulsion at bloodshed, he could not see, then, what would be the purpose of such a conflagration. But the commune, or any similar declaration of non-participation in the system, could truly turn things around. For once people caught sight of the possibility of being loved without first submitting to authority, once they were forced to contemplate the vision of freedom that inheres in a life of being without doing, of thought and feeling untrammeled by the discipline and self-denial of the great race for wealth, the very fabric of their existence would be rent forever. They might rage for a time with envy and spite, as his parents had over his liberation from the imprisonment of attending to his personal appearance, but in the end their deathly habits of obedience and futile calculation for the future would be undermined beyond reinforcement.



His settlement in the large and shabby house belonging to the new commune’s property was thus accomplished in a mood of high hope. The weather being warm, each day the group spent several pleasurable hours sitting in the meadow, passing around sprucely rolled sticks of marijuana, and discussing plans for how to make the place habitable.

In the course of one particularly giddy session, they took to rolling about in the unmown weeds, then splashing one another with the muddy water of a little cow-pond, finally to dousing one another with great handfuls of mud. They could not stand up to return to the house for their laughter. In his mind’s eye, the young man could see the faces of middle-class America looking on, aghast and stricken with the recognition that life as they had lived it had been a waste.

His stereo, being the best of those possessed by the group, was given place of honor in the main parlor. His skis were stowed in the barn. And within the space of a couple of days, he and one of the young women in the group had arrived at an agreement to share a bedroom.

He could almost physically feel himself uncoiling from the pressures of the past few years—school, the draft, the anxiety of his parents about what was to become of him; even he had not known how great those pressures had been.

Not that there were not tensions in his new community. Some of these were almost immediately apparent. Two of the young women, for instance, had undertaken to do the cooking. They had very strong convictions on the subject of eating, how it was related to everything in life, not only to bodily health but to temperament, intelligence, mood, and spiritual setting; it was vitally important to them that the commune should eat the right food prepared in the proper way. And he did not much care for the meals that resulted from such philosophy. They were composed largely of grain and fruits and vegetables and honey. In the first couple of weeks he had found numerous pretexts for going to the village and each time had headed straight for the general store where he stood at the back and wolfed down two or three candy bars, feeling dreadfully guilty. Moreover, the cooks themselves had begun to grumble and one night, no longer able to contain themselves, had burst upon the group with the loud complaint that after having completed the chore of preparing the meals, they had also been left to put the kitchen back in order. This complaint was apparently settled by a general agreement to include kitchen clean-up in the roster of rotating duties. That, however, also proved to be unsatisfactory because when the task fell to certain of the male members of the group—most notable among them the young man himself—the job was not done with sufficient care and had to be redone the next day.

It was too late in the year to attempt much more than cutting down the fields for the next spring’s planting. Here the bulk of the task fell to the man who had taken it upon himself to be the commune’s agricultural expert. Everyone was assigned some share in the mowing. A couple of people claimed to find the work rather soothing and enjoyable for an hour or two a day. The others found it quite tedious and invented certain small diversions—hay fights, for instance—in order to keep themselves mindful of the joys and glories of their new life. In the end, at the suggestion of the one whose income it was that for the time being was keeping them going, they hired a neighboring farmer to come in with his tractor for a few days. But before they had hit upon this expedient, the expert had grown ever so slightly irascible about getting them all down to serious work. The young man had not liked the tone in his voice that week. It carried, he thought, something of the melody of that will to subordinate, to be the acknowledged leader in a race for power, which the commune had been created precisely to eradicate. The man had after all chosen to be responsible for the group’s efforts at farming. Others had made a different choice. Who was he to set his choice above theirs? The habits of the world Out There would clearly take a certain time to die among individuals less conscious and certain than the young idealist of their moral purpose.

Very quickly, two schools of thought developed about what to do with the house. One party recommendel that they should spend the slow winter months ahead in painting the place and fixing it up. The other party favored leaving the house as it was, a symbol of the group’s determination to live without the intrusion of any bourgeois frivolities. The discussions on this point became rather acrimonious, the would-be decorators taking umbrage at the association of their wish to create an agreeable environment with mere middle-class convention. In the end it was settled, again by the man who was footing-most of their bills, that a limited amount of shopping for amenities would be undertaken, but no more than would be enhancing to their physical comfort. The young man, who had no very strong feelings on either side, though he had looked with pleasure on the prospect of painting and mixing colors, was nevertheless disquieted by the weight that was being given to money, and particularly to the man who was dispensing the money, in so many of their deliberations. He and his girl discussed this several times in the privacy of their bedroom and came to the conclusion that in all future decisions of the group the man with the money should be given the least, not the most, attention, for his views were likely to be tainted.



As the cold weather set in, and they were drawn more and more to the comforts of long indoor afternoons around the stereo set, they ventured far into the intimacy that would finally seal their cohesion as a new and true family. They spoke of themselves and of one another, of their respective pasts, of their present pain and pleasure, of their ideas and of their feelings—passing from lips to lips the pipe filled with marijuana that was both the goad to, and totem of, their brotherhood. Their talk was unorganized and seemingly aimless—the final and most significant throwing off of the lonely privacy that lay at the heart of the ethic of selfish acquisition and property.

But by no one’s express intention, these conversations began to take on a ritual aspect, a sort of prescribed and predictable back-and-forth that gave hint of a focused purpose. One of the members of the group would be reminded by something in the afternoon of a past experience, and the others would be prompted by his narrative to launch upon a gentle, loving, but instructive analysis of his character. From there they would somehow, imperceptibly but inevitably, move onto the subject of his relation to the group, his particular role therein, and especially the emotional difficulties he was having with that role. Sometimes there would be anger; sometimes, particularly if the elected center of these attentions happened to be one of the young women, there would be tears; but everyone agreed that talk of this kind was vitally important, indeed essential, to both the quality and survival of their community.

The young man had enjoyed these sessions enormously at first. He had much to say to his new-found brothers and sisters, so much that sometimes he was aware of a flood of words tumbling from his lips in no controllable order. But after the first rush of unburdening himself, he began to notice certain disparities and inequities in the group’s conduct. His turn to be laid bare seemed to come around less often than those of others. Two or three people were subtly managing, by laying unspoken claim to problems and neurotic sensitivities greater than those of the rest of the group, to preempt the major part of their attentions. Moreover, on those few occasions when the group did appear to be willing to concern itself with him, he thought he detected a certain uncalled-for abruptness in their comments, a certain lack of sensitivity in the response to what he said, a certain implicit urging that he get done and move offstage.

By Christmas time, he and his girl were quarreling badly, at first exchanging tight-lipped, whispered reproaches behind closed doors and finally shouting at each other, stamping up and down in the cold, out behind the barn. She had acquired a peculiar habit of speaking of and to him contemptuously, even sneeringly, in the presence of the others. In the course of one particularly edgy circle-jerk (as he and she had come in private to call the daily sessions of the group), she had betrayed a confidence of their bed. He had never before in his life known the kind of violence she could inspire in him. When he had called her a cruel, selfish, murdering bitch, she had countered by heaping upon his head a veritable avalanche of scorn for being, as she put it, “a cowardly shit-eater.” He had never once, she told him, defended her against the snide and nasty treatment she was forced to put up with every single day from the other girls in the house. He had come to her for comforting with every hurt, real or imagined, down to the tiniest splinter in his toe; and yet he had looked on passively while this one had hassled her, that one had spread ugly stories about her, and the other one had contrived to stick her with dirty jobs it was not her turn to do. He was like all the others, the ones she had come here to get away from, regarding her as just another sexual dumping-ground.

His girl was to leave the commune soon after, spending a long mysterious afternoon in the village making phone calls and being whisked away the following afternoon in a battered old car that had been dispatched to call for her. She barely said goodbye.

In late March or early April the group intended to do their planting. There was one small but contained battle over the issue of whether or not to use chemical fertilizer, but at the contemplation of how much work there was to be done, the general inclination was to abide by the judgment of their agricultural expert.

Who was once more, the young man noted, coming into his own. A further mental note was made to stay out of the fields. He had already had a sufficient foretaste of what could become of equality and brotherhood, even in a commune, under conditions where one man arrogated unto himself some special responsibility or expertise. So he set up a makeshift easel in a little-used back parlor, got himself some supplies, and set about busying himself with painting.

There were many other signs, besides the growing swagger of the self-styled expert, that things could never be quite as promised in this community. A certain acerbity had entered into their relations. Intimacy had not made them tenderer or freer with one another, but on the contrary had pushed them into assuming ever more rigid roles. The women had grown restive and touchy, watchful about a whole range of trivial issues of male-female manners and status. They refused duty in the kitchen and laundry.

He did not feel well, either. During that winter all of them had come down with some kind of flu that made their bones ache and left them debilitated for weeks. They were given a variety of herbal brews by the superintendents of the group’s health—now quite enlivened at the prospect of so massive an opportunity to minister to the ailing—and endless lectures on the evils of antibiotics. Eventually he stopped aching but never seemed to enjoy a complete recovery.



By the time it was announced that they were ready to begin plowing, he was spending most of his time in hiding, shut up in his room with a book or buried behind his easel. He made one effort to join the group at work, breaking his resolution not to put himself at the mercy of their games of power. The sun was shining, and he was drawn by the loud voices and laughter he could hear through his window: the voices and laughter held out the promise that things would once more be the way they were in those first glorious weeks when they had rolled around in the grass easing the constriction and phony purposefulness of the city.

There was no doubt about it, his comrades were out that day to do him down. The agriculturist had become no more than a mere work boss, barking orders, making decisions, instructing everybody what he was to do, growing impatient with those who appeared to be lagging, raising his voice, shunting them all about. He began to suspect that the reason the group had been persuaded to take up farming in the first place was that they had been manipulated into doing so by someone just looking for a cheap shot at leadership. They had managed through the winter without this self-appointed dictator, buying their groceries in a grocery store; no doubt it was only because they were a bunch of blind sheep that they were being led into the pasture like this now that spring had come.

They were certainly an altered group from the one which had cavorted in the outdoors less than a year ago—altered perhaps most of all, he could not help feeling, bitterly, in their relations with him. For not only was the “boss” expressing annoyance with the inadequacy of his efforts, the whole group appeared to be following the leader and presuming to remark upon the young man’s clumsiness, his failure to pull his fair share of the collective weight, the sloppiness of his results. His outrage at last found proper speech. He had volunteered for his work, he reminded them heatedly, or had they forgotten that they had come here originally to learn how to be free men? He returned to the house with aching back and scraped knuckles, ruing the impulse that had brought him out and anguished for the way his former friends were being contaminated by the same trivial morality they had once set out so bravely to destroy.



Some days after he had stormed back to the house from the fields he made one last-ditch effort to turn the group aside from its growing entrapment in the worldly order. While they were gathered at dinner, he proposed that they rethink their plan to become actual farmers. Planting was scheduled to begin any time now, and it would soon be too late for them to step back and consider what they were doing to themselves. He filled the pipe with marijuana, passed it around, and delivered a speech in which he painted for them the picture of the life they had set out here to find: a life lived in so pure, so insistent an ignorance of the trivia of getting and spending that they might become a kind of band of holy fools who could overturn the world. Instead they were opting for a life that would be nasty, brutish, and short—no less nasty, brutish, and short than the lives of any people organized into a community of production, with its overseers and underlings, leaders and led, its saving and scraping and planning and putting-off, its sacrifice of equality and the concern of every being for every other to the great chimera of security. There was to be a baby born in the commune in early autumn. A new generation. Did they not owe it to this baby to make something better of its community than a dingy, dreary version of the community they themselves had grown up in? Over the past several months they had talked for hours and hours and hours about their parents, about the pinched spirits and mean intentions of middle-class people who had sold themselves into the slavery of house holding and job-holding and worry for the future. Was not the same thing happening to them now, and would not the nervous system of their own new generation be branded with the same repression and anxiety?

He could sense as he was speaking that some of the members of the group were being swayed by him. The smoke from the pipe was bringing back the old familiar odor of softening affection, eyes had grown wide, and the long-absent talk of dreams and ideals was warming some of the icy chill that had set in to a number of eager laboring-men’s spines.

The mood was broken, however, when the man with the trust fund—the inevitable one, the young man told himself later, big daddy, the man who pays the bills—raised the question of how they would eat and meet the rent. He had been carrying them for nearly a year now, the man said; his bank account, one check from the young man’s father, and a few welfare payments—stopped after a statewide investigation of welfare fraud—had put the food into all their mouths and kept a roof over all their heads (the young man laughed silently to himself at the way the issue of money always and inevitably bred the same rhetoric of food and shelter). He was willing to carry them further, had not dreamed of withdrawing his support or even keeping books about who was contributing how much. But he was after all not going to be some mere moneybags they had all got their hooks into. For his part, that was not his ideal of equality. He would not call that community or brotherhood. He would call that being played for a sucker. So now he wanted to know: was this group or was this group not aiming to live by the sweat of its own brow and to eat of the fruit of its own land and all that other stuff about which so many pretty speeches had been made? Or did they expect him merely to go on playing Sugar Daddy?

Thus diverted from the young man’s visions and exhortations, the group proceeded to embark upon a discussion of just what each of them had done, had meant to do, had not meant to do, had fallen short of doing, or had succeeded in doing, for every other. The discussion went on far into the night. Never, they all agreed, had they attained to such heights of sincerity.

The young man himself took no part in this discussion, since at the conclusion of the attack upon him he had simply stood up and left the room. All night he lay on his bed seething, tossing from side to side, muttering, now and then weeping tears of rage. He felt as if he had been playing his best and hardest at a game whose rules had been changed in the middle without his having been told. Talk about having been taken! He tried to apply his mother’s old suggestion, and imagine that the man with the money was more unhappy, more to be pitied, at this moment than he, but that only made him angry with his mother. The truth was—he had been working his way toward it for months but had till now kept turning it aside for the sake of his daily comfort and convenience—the truth was, that neither the commune nor the revolution it was supposed to be setting an example for would ever e

About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.