The Hutterites have thrived as a highly successful, long-lasting communal society because of several major characteristics, such as the way they limit the size of their individual communes. Hanna Kienzler, in the current issue of Anthropos, analyzes the factors that promote the longevity of the Hutterite communal society, which she compares with the paradigms for communal longevity proposed in several works by the German anthropologist Christoph Brumann. She finds that, in a number of ways, the Hutterites ideally fit Brumann’s conditions that lead to a long-lasting commune.
Brumann evidently concluded from his research that the size of the individual commune, 75 to 500 members, is a crucial factor in its longevity, and the Hutterites, according to Kienzler, fall within that ideal range. Brumann also argues that communal groups that achieve very long-term success are those that can divide effectively into separate units when they grow to be too large, another characteristic of the Hutterites.
Kienzler describes in detail the process whereby a large Hutterite colony will buy new property and split into two halves, one of which will stay in the old location when the other group moves to establish the new one. While she reviews some interesting information here, oddly enough she does not provide the maximum size—130 to 150 according to Hostetler (1974)—when a Hutterite colony decides it has reached its maximum effective size and should prepare for a division.
The author reviews and provides a lot of details about other facets of Hutterite communal life that relate to Brumann’s arguments about long-lasting communes. For instance, monogamous communes tend to last longer than those that are not. The Hutterites fit the former pattern. In addition, the monogamy and the patriarchal family structures of the Hutterites do not impinge on their communal solidarity, other characteristics that Brumann indicates are important.
Brumann finds that charismatic leaders founded two thirds of the communes in his sample, but only a quarter of those survived more than 15 years. He concludes that the long-term successful communes, such as the Hutterites, never had successful leaders, but Kienzler disagrees with that. She argues that Jakob Hutter, the founder of the group in the 1530s, was a highly charismatic leader who thought of himself as an apostle.
To support her argument, Kienzler points out that to this day, when the name of a new preacher is to be drawn by lot—so that God will guide the hand that is making the choice—the slips of candidates are put in a hat for the drawing. Not by coincidence, she says, the German word for hat (Hut) is “a living metaphor [that] new leaders are the fruits of Hutter’s labor” (p.200).
Kienzler follows Brumann in describing the importance of a dualistic worldview on the longevity of a commune. Factors such as the separation of women from men, young from old, Hutterites from the rest of humanity, and secular from sacred all mark their dualism. The author reviews the ways that Hutterite patterns fit in with a number of Brumann’s other characteristics of communal groups that are not as critical in ensuring long-term survival. Among those less important categories are the ways Hutterites handle the ownership of personal belongings, their work patterns and economic specializations, social control issues, decision making processes, education and child-raising strategies, their acceptance of converts, gender divisions of labors, and relationships with outsiders.
Throughout this lengthy article, the author provides many important social, cultural, religious, and historical details about the Hutterites as she seeks to fit their experiences into the paradigms that Brumann has proposed. An interesting and largely successful work, her research is marred by the fact that she does not use or cite Hostetler’s magisterial study Hutterite Society (1974), probably the foremost sociological work on the group, nor does she refer to Bennett (1967), another very significant book.
Also, she states that “after fifteen years of communal life in Russia,” the Hutterites migrated to America (p.193). It would have been better to say that they lived in Russia for 104 years, the last 15 of which, from 1859 to 1874, in a communal style before they migrated to America. However, these are minor complaints about an otherwise useful contribution to the literature on the Hutterites.
Kienzler, Hanna. 2005. “Communal Longevity: The Hutterite Case.” Anthropos 100: 193-210.