In our discussion of Pilgrim and Puritan Socialism in our previous essay, we of course simplified what are sometimes nuanced issues, and in this medium we rarely footnote all the sources which relate to a subject. However, if one looks at various pop articles and secondary sources relating to the subject of early New England socialism, you will find a distinct bias to those articles. Largely penned by Conservative Christian apologists, they strain to emphasize what a failure these early efforts at communal economic organization were and interpret it as the triumph of Capitalism over Socialism.
First off, modern Conservative Christians stand in relation to Christianity in the way National Socialists stand in relation to Socialism—while they may sound the same, in the main it’s in name only.
Another thing to consider is that Capitalism did not exist in the seventeenth century; Capitalism was a by-product of the growth of industrialization, which did not really begin until the late eighteenth century and came to the fore in the nineteenth. Mercantilism was the dominant economic system of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and even at the beginning seventeenth century England still retained many vestiges of Medieval Manorial economics, such as the open field system. So, to a certain degree, discussing “Capitalism” versus Puritan socialism is irrelevant and anachronous. Apparently, some modern Conservative dogmatists feel threatened by the fact that their forefathers were not as ideologically pure as they.
That being said, there were other factors at work, especially in the Plymouth Bay Colony, that I did not go into in part 1. Not all the colonists on the Mayflower were coming to the New World for religious liberty or enamored of Biblical economic justice; seventeenth century sources refer to “adventurers and planters” and clearly the Congregationalists were not among the “adventurers” in the group.
So, the more secular settlers were of course unhappy about the austere communal (or “communistic”) system initially set up, where all their resources (mostly food) were stored in one communal warehouse and everybody shared work duties according to their ability and resources were shared equally. To a large extent this austere form of socialistic practice was out of necessity. The colonists did not land until November of 1620, far too late to plant any crops; many were already suffering from diseases such as scurvy due to the long sea journey and were too sick to pull their own weight as far as work was concerned. As it was, the settlers had to steal parched corn from the nearby Indians due to lack of food. Half of the colonists died that first winter; more, maybe all, would have died had they not pooled their resources and instead practiced “rugged individualism.”
Even after the first winter, the colonists tried to plant crops unsuited to the harsh New England climate and it wasn’t until the Native Americans (who most definitely were practicing a form of tribal communism) taught the immigrants how to plant native crops and cultivate them, that the food shortages truly disappeared.
It should be noted that Jamestown, which did not practice communism or socialistic economics at all, had an even worse time of it at the start because everybody did try to do their own thing (mainly looking for gold and trying to enslave the local tribesmen) and they were so short of food at one point that they started digging up corpses from the ground and engaged in cannibalism. That is what “Capitalism” (sic) resulted in. So, from a comparative viewpoint, the Pilgrims early form of communistic austerity was relatively successful. However, as their governor, William Bradford, noted, many were far from happy with such a strict economic regimen and after the initial hard times, in 1623 loosened discipline to where land was parceled out to individual families, although ownership was still held in common by the colony as a whole.
So, was Pilgrim socialism successful? The modern ideologues would have you believe it was a failure; but bear in mind the colony had been set up as a proprietary charter from the start and owed money to the financial backers of the colony in England, who expected their investment back within a certain time. The colony was set up as a communal endeavor from the beginning, with the profits from the colony earmarked to pay back the investors, after which there would be a division of the assets among the colonists. In fact, despite all the hardships and delays, the Plymouth colonists did pay back the investors, after which there was an equitable division of the assets of the colony among the surviving colonists. So, while the “socialist experiment” did not continue on, neither was it a failure.
The situation could best be likened to the Lutherans of the Amana Colony of Iowa; they too set up a religious commune, which included both agriculture and manufacturing; eventually they sold the manufacturing rights to a corporation—which is why you can still buy Amana refrigerators to this day. The Amana commune did not continue, true; but I would hardly call it a failure. Much the same could be said of the Plymouth Colony and, with somewhat different circumstances, the Puritan’s economic experiment. Today, about 35 million Americans claim ancestry from the Pilgrims; despite the challenges and hardships, I would say that is something of a success story.