Shakers: Socialists & Capitalists

I was listening to an interview on the radio last night. It was about a legal battle that happened a couple centuries ago in the US. A man joined the Shakers and took his children with him, but his wife didn’t want to join the Shakers. She sought to get a divorce and get her children back. At the time, it was hard for a woman get a divorce. She did finally succeed and it set an important precedent.

The history of this incident was interesting, but I was more just fascinated by the Shakers themselves. I’m already somewhat familiar with them. My great grandfather was raised in a Shaker orphanage and some years ago I visited a Shaker village. Of course, there were all kinds of religious communities in early American history, but there are several things that make the Shakers stand out in my mind.

They believed in abstinence and in not bringing more children into the world, but they did have orphanages where they took in other people’s children and where the children of new members were raised. They believed living a simple life. They farmed together and lived together, men on one side of the hall and women on the other side. They believed in equality which was impressive for the time. Women were considered equal to men and blacks were considered equal to whites. At the time of the legal incident, the Shakers had as their leader a woman. She was the most powerful woman in the US. Most women had no rights at all, but she was the head of a national organization which was quite powerful and wealthy. The Shakers were more than a century ahead of the rest of the country when it came to civil rights.

Here is the interesting part. They lived a communal life and so were socialists. Christians from the beginning have always been attracted to socialism, from early Christian communities (which valued equality like the Shakers did) to Catholic monasteries. However, in America, we always like to think of socialism as being alien to our culture. But Shakers were as American as any other group. Many like to say that socialism can’t work and it’s true the Shakers have mostly died out by now, but that is mostly because they didn’t have children which creates a minor problem in sustaining the Shaker lifestyle. In their heyday, they were wealthy and this partly came about because new members gave all their money and property to the Shakers. Still, the Shakers didn’t merely live off of the wealth of new members.

They were a very successful community. They were leaders in the field of agriculture. They were technologically innovative and they produced some of the best seeds in the entire US which other farmers would buy from them. Even though they were socialists among themselves, they were capitalists within larger society. They didn’t merely isolate themselves.

I just thought this was interesting. The example of the Shakers goes against the assumptions of conservatives, libertarians and objectivists. Socialism and capitalism are seen as opposed, but China has proven that this is not the case even on the level of global markets. Socialism and capitalism not only weren’t opposed but seemed to operate in balance within the Shaker community. How could socialists living in a commune be among the greatest technological innovators of their time? It goes against everything most Americans believe… and yet such a community did exist.

Also, they didn’t just produce innovative technology and high quality seeds. They also produced very skilled people. As I said, my great grandfather was raised by Shakers. He learned how to care for plants. When he left the Shakers, he got a job as the head groundskeeper on the estate of a very wealthy family. A child raised by the Shakers was better educated and better prepared to be successful than most Americans were in the past. My great grandfather came from a poor family which is why he was given to the Shakers to be raised. Many poor children today in the US would be lucky if Shaker orphanages were still around.

In conclusion, I’d just like to say that Glenn Beck can put that in his pipe and smoke it.

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