Shakers

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 24 08:30:46 MST 2002


Although I am extremely critical of the kind of utopian socialism that
exists in academia today, consisting mainly of professors vying with each
other over who has the best plan for a future society as if they were
submitting proposals for a new World Trade Center or something, I do
strongly identify with pre-Marxist attempts to create alternative communal
societies. These experiments were often religiously inspired and really did
not project themselves as anything more than as little pockets of morality
and sanity in a corrupt and materialistic world. What we gain from them,
however, is a sense of the feasibility of a different kind of life geared
more to human needs than private profit. One such experiment was the
Shakers, a religious sect that had about 6000 adherents at its peak.

The Shakers were the subject of a 60 minute Ken Burns documentary on PBS
last night (12/23/02) and USA'ers who missed it can look forward to a
repeat, since Burns's documentaries tend to be relentless recycled. I also
recommend the website at: http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/shakers/, which has
lots of interesting information including interview clips with a couple of
members of this virtually extinct group. Originally shown in 1985, it has
fewer of Burns's stylistic mannerisms that have grown increasingly
aggravating over the years.

Although their proper name was the United Society of Believers in Christ's
Second Appearing, their ecstatic dancing earned them the name Shakers. An
illiterate English factory worker named Ann Lee launched the sect in
England. Fleeing persecution, she and eight co-religionists came to the USA
in 1774. Like all millenarian sects, they were fixated on the prospects of
an Apocalypse. With the deprivations being visited daily on their fellow
workers in England and the USA, it is no surprise that religious people
would think in terms of deliverance from the world as they knew it.

They believed that Christ had indeed been reincarnated in their leader Ann
Lee but also believed that he was present in every Shaker within whom
"Christ consciousness" had been awakened. As the PBS website states and as
Burns film amply illustrated, "It was therefore the duty of each believer
to live purely in 'the kingdom come' and to strive for perfection in
everything he or she did."

In terms of praxis, this meant that Shaker communities stressed celibacy
and hard work, especially in farming and handicrafts. Shaker furniture
turned out in workshops exemplified a kind of simplicity that want against
the kind of ornate and garish over-decoration characteristic of furniture
in a bourgeois household. It anticipated the design principles of the
Bauhaus and Swedish Modern, whose founders were committed to socialism
although on a secular and scientific basis.

Shaker values also went against the grain of American society in their
egalitarianism and repudiation of all sexual and racial privilege. On
Shaker retreats, men and women lived in full equality. Furthermore, by in
1817 the Shakers' southern societies were freeing slaves belonging to
members. They also began buying black believers out of slavery.

The opening chapter titled "Green Dreamers" in Paul Buhle and Edmund B.
Sullivan's "Images of American Radicalism" treats the Shakers and other
millenarian sects from the standpoint of how they saw the New World. Unlike
the acquisitive capitalist class and their small proprietor shock troops,
they saw the new country as a paradise given in trust by a Higher Power
rather than as raw material to be converted into commodities. To one extent
or another, they also repudiated capitalism, slavery and marriage. Unlike
those imbued with the Puritan spirit, they did not regard the forest as a
hostile fort to be conquered, nor did they harbor an ethnocentric hatred
toward the indigenous peoples who co-existed with nature rather than
striving to conquer it.

This passage from Buhle and Sullivan's book fills in some details missing
in Burns's narrative:

 >>Establishing their villages, Shakers carefully chose good land with
reliable water sources. They became famed for their orchards and for their
gardens which provided the food for villagers and also supplied the basis
for herbal medicines which they packaged for sale to the outside world.
Although Shakers used hides for boots and other necessities, eating meat
created as a byproduct, they sought as much as possible to avoid cruelty to
animals. (A song related: "Remember: He -who made the brute/Who gave the
speech and reason, found him mute; He can't complain; but God's omniscient
eye/Beholds his cruelty. He hears his cry.") Humane mousetraps in Shaker
barns captured rodents without injuring them.

 >>Their famous textiles and furniture designs closely reflected their
world-view, and the look of the heaven they expected to enter. Shakers
believed that their domestic environment, their work, its products and even
the tools used to produce them should all reflect the moral order. The
simplicity of surroundings, the absence of knickknacks, and the variety of
useful self-invented folding devices like serving tables provided great
open space, in exceptionally airy and light rooms. Their patterns showed
perfectly straight lines quite unlike the medieval bent of the Ephratans,
furniture constructed with almost mathematical precision that carpenters
believed to be the precise expression of their own religious commitment.
Great effort went into perfecting each object, aged members often assisting
in small ways. Clothing used the least quantity of material necessary and
cooks measured out exact amounts. Long before architect Louis Sullivan
proclaimed "form follows function," the Shakers had found their own way to
this truth.

 >>Above all, the Shakers had created a society or mini-society without
waste. Space, talent, fruit, animal, all belonged to God, on loan only
temporarily to Man's care. Continued recycling of buildings and various
materials was not only proof of their adaptive genius, but of their faith.
As an elder wrote, "if we were extravagant or wasted any useful thing, it
was a loss to the Consecrated and in proportion to its value would prove a
spiritual loss to our souls." Children were trained to pick up any useful
item, needle, cloth, bit of thread, kernel of corn, offering anything extra
as charity to the poor. Shakers felt similarly to everything that grew.
While their neighbors consigned felled tree limbs and scraps to the fire,
Shakers turned its branches into workboxes through a complex process of
shredding wood while frozen in winter and weaving strips like cloth. They
eagerly learned from nearby Indian tribes how to weave baskets from grass
and how to make herbal medicines from bark.<<

Finally, we should recall another Shaker legacy. The hymn "Simple Gifts"
figured as a theme in Aaron Copland's 3rd Symphony. This is no accident,
since the composer had close ties to the Communist Party and strived to
create a kind of classical music that embodied the same egalitarian and
social justice themes found in Shaker communities. To hear the hymn and to
discover other Shaker resources, go to
http://www.contemplator.com/folk3/simple.html

'Tis the gift to be simple,
'Tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
It will be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,
to bow and to bend, we will not be ashamed
To turn, turn, will be our delight,
'Til by turning, turning, we come round right.



Louis Proyect, Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org


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