NEWS: Demise of the Commune Movement, NY Times 8/3/98

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Mon, 03 Aug 1998 09:51:29 -0400

August 3, 1998, New York Times

        Excesses Blamed for Demise of the Commune Movement


              EST BRATTLEBORO, Vt. -- A gaggle of aging
              hippies gathered here over the weekend to
        assess what went right -- and wrong -- with the
        commune movement that brought them "back to the
        land" of southern Vermont 30 years ago. They
        concluded that theirs was a radical social experiment
        that died by its own hand, impaled on its excesses.=20

        The occasion for their self-criticism was a conference,
        sponsored by the University of Vermont, at the West
        Village Meeting House, a stone's throw from Guilford,
        the mecca of the commune movement that began in the
        late 1960's with the influx of disaffected urban and
        suburban youths, seeking self-sufficiency, unfettered
        freedom and an alternative to the nuclear family. The
        conference attracted about 50 people, many who had
        joined the movement at the time.=20

        In its brief heyday, the movement in southeastern
        Vermont included a loose network of communes
        clustered around the towns of Guilford and Putney,
        encompassing the Red Clover Collective, the Johnson's
        Pastures Commune, Packer Corners and the Montague
        Farm. A few of the communes, where people lived
        together as an extended family, still exist, although in
        modified form.=20

        The glue for the conference was the posthumous
        publication of the book "Communal Organization and
        Social Transition" (Peter Lang, 1997) by the
        sociologist Barry Laffan that documents the life and
        times of the counterculture over 30 months at the end of
        the 1960's. The book is one of the first ethnographies to
        deal with that brief period of American culture.=20

        The quest for a utopia soon turned into a
        self-destructive orgy of excess, many participants
        concluded, culminating symbolically in the fire that
        razed the big house at the Johnson's Pastures
        Commune, by far the largest of the communes. The
        blaze, on April 16, 1970, killed four people.=20

        Chuck Light, a witness and member of the commune at
        the time, recalled during a panel discussion that the fire
        known as J. P. was precipitated when, after a night of
        drinking and drugs, someone tipped over a candle.=20

        "I was living in a hovel in the back of a truck at the
        time," Light said. "We heard screaming and came
        running; people were leaping out of second-story
        windows. The old wooden house went up in minutes."=20

        That blaze, he concluded, "became a central symbol of
        the movement, symbolic of the personal fires and
        conflicts that were going on around us and among us."=20

        The communes inspired several spinoffs, including the
        Free Farm in Putney, intended as a place where anyone
        could grow their food.=20

        But "it was more about making political statements
        than about farming," said Robert Houriet, who moved
        to more structured communes in northern Vermont and
        is now an organic farmer in Hardwick. "The Free Farm
        was in plain view of a building where the local
        Democrats met, and they got offended by all the weeds
        and the bare-breasted women. Eventually, there was an
        ugly confrontation between hippies and an armed
        vigilante group, led by the local sheriff."=20

        Even within the movement itself, however, the patterns
        of the broader society still held, said Howard
        Lieberman, a commune member who became a
        corporate headhunter. Lieberman, who now lives in
        Minnesota, said that he and Laffan "spent years trying
        to puzzle through the class distinctions."=20

        "The Red Clover Collective was the educated, affluent
        kids," Lieberman said. "The people at the Free Farm
        were middle-class kids, emulating the Red Clover
        hippies, and the J. P. was the Ellis Island of the
        commune movement, drawing people with nowhere to
        go and nothing else to do."=20

        In fact, Johnson's Pastures and its membership
        policies, or lack thereof, became the epitome of the
        movement in its extreme. The former landowner,
        Michael Carpenter, a silent, bearded man who attended
        the weekend sessions, set an open-door policy,
        refusing to turn away anyone.=20

        The result, said Light, was that "during the summer of
        1969, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 people
        passed through the J. P. Lots of them would come in
        buses. The place became a slum. The class differences
        were very relevant; the first communards had shared
        values and education, but it quickly sank to the lowest
        common denominator -- the criminal element. What
        happened at the J. P. was a colossal failure."=20

        Others disagreed with that assessment. Verandah
        Porche, a poet and a past and current member of the
        smaller Packer Corners commune, said she "admired
        the spirit and generosity of the Carpenters, and I
        wouldn't diss it as naivet=E9."=20

        "Somebody had to try it," Ms. Porche said. "I had the
        luxury of sending along the people I didn't want at our
        house down the road to his house."=20

        What she remembered from those early years was a
        utopian life on an old farm "with a blooming peach
        orchard" and mortgage payments of $227.10 a month.
        Her memories were of a life of generosity and
        connection, both among the communards and with the
        local farm families. "Their kids didn't want to hear the
        old stories about making cheese and sap beer," said
        Ms. Porche, "but we did. We ate that stuff up. We were
        in a listening mode."=20

        Marty Jezer, a co-founder of Packer Corners, blamed
        the failure of the movement on the profound conflict
        within the counterculture. "We had a big cider press
        operation at Packer Corners," Jezer recalled, "and I
        remember being up on top of the press one day, feeding
        in apples to make cider. A bunch of hippies had come
        by to help, but instead they were dancing around the
        press, throwing apples at each other. It wasn't much
        help. We had an impractical but noble vision that was
        constantly undermined by people who came just to

        In all, Houriet concluded, the important lesson of the
        commune movement was that "open-ended, anarchistic
        communities didn't work because of problems with
        leadership, with land ownership, the role of drugs and
        booze, plus internal conflicts among the members.
        There was a lot of trauma involved, and not just from
        chemicals. The movement opened a Pandora's box of
        the liberated self, and the trauma proceeded from the
        inability of people to deal with themselves."=20

        If Johnson's Pastures went up in flames, he said, "many
        communes dissolved with a whimper as people just
        drifted away."=20

        The later, more successful communes, he said, were a
        result of lessons learned in the early movement: "that
        there has to be some leadership and decision-making,
        some control of membership, that you can't sell drugs
        to people in town, go skinny-dipping in the town pond
        and offend your neighbors."=20

        Then, all these years later, Houriet's eyes filled with
        tears and his voice choked up. "There was a brief,
        shining moment when we knew it could work," he said,
        scanning the panel of his fellow communards. "We
        knew it could work, but we blew it."=20


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