Communal Living at Twin Oaks

Read an account of the authors' visit to the still-operational Twin Oaks Community in 1969, including details about the commune's power structure, source of income and interpersonal dynamics.

| January/February 1970

Person with Cow

A Twin Oaks member tends to a cow.


They publish a little booklet titled The Revolution is Over: We Won, or as the subtitle says, The Radical Commune Approach to Revolution.

All of which is a good introduction to the Twin Oaks Community quietly thriving in its third year down in the heart of Virginia. They live on 123 acres of what used to be a tobacco farm — the first year on the place they even raised a crop of the noxious weed under the direction of a friendly local farmer. But now farming gets less attention as their hammock manufacturing industry grows large enough to satisfy much of their "outside" economic needs. When we visited the place there were 13 actual community members along with five or six visitors. These visitors were part of a never-ending stream of people who come to see the new life at Twin Oaks and their presence raises the actual population at Twin Oaks to about 20 people at any given time during the summer.

Visitors from the outside, like we two, are very important to the revolution they speak of. Because, although Twin Oaks was designed to be a living experiment in community, it also aims to stimulate others to do the same. As one member said, "We generally hold to the opinion that people who don't start communities are slightly immoral." It's all part of the revolution being over — they define revolution as a "radical restructuring" of society, both economic and, more important, cultural. (But, maybe you can't really separate the two.) One member summed up a desirable post-revolutionary society as, "A society that creates people who are committed to non-aggression; a society of people concerned for one another; a society where one man's gain is not another man's loss; a society where disagreeable work is minimized and leisure is valued; a society in which people come first; an economic system of equality; a society which is constantly trying to improve in its many will, of course, dismiss all of this as mere rhetoric claiming that communities are escapist or that, if they ever did become a real threat to society, then society would destroy them.

But Twin Oaks people see themselves as only the beginning of what they expect will become a very large movement — a movement of young people forming groups so alternate social structures may be experimented with to find the structures that produce the things that people value. Twin Oaks people will tell you that the size of this movement and its obviously better way of life will make it impossible to repress. You can get the impression — because of the strength of their belief — that some of them even get kind of religious about these notions. But religious or mystical they are not. Their first and foremost belief is that answers to social questions come only from social experimentation and scientific observance of the results of these experiments. They think of philosophers and politicians as being on the same level as religion — dead! The ideas behind Twin Oaks originated in behavioral psychology and the community is in a great many ways modeled after psychologist B.F. Skinner's Walden II, which is a description of a fictional utopian society.

Twin Oaks was started by a group of people who met while attending an "academic" conference during 1966, at Ann Arbor, Mich., on the formation of a Walden Il community. (Former Grinnel professor George Eastman was a committee chairman of this 1966 meeting.) One of the Twin Oakers related how this conference resulted in a very elaborate, academic type plan on how to get a Walden II community going. But when the conference was over the professors all returned to their teaching posts and nobody had any idea where they would get the several million dollars that the plan called for to start the thing. So, eight people decided to start right away with whatever resources they could get together. One of the original founders had enough money to purchase the farm where they are presently located — he has since left due to a disagreement about the way the community was being run, but he is leasing the farm to the group on a 12-year lease at the end of which time he will deed the farm over to the community.

Twin Oaks Community either already is, or is working toward, all of the above — hence, the members think of themselves as a post-revolutionary society with the ability to create happy, productive, creative people.

Twin Oaks is different than most other rural communes in three important respects: It is not an agricultural subsistence commune; they raise only part of their food — the rest they purchase with money earned by their hammock-making industry. They consider this a more efficient use of time (hence fewer hours of work) than trying to raise all their own food. Second, Twin Oaks embraces rather than rejects modern technology — their aim is to use technology in every way possible to reduce the per-person work load and enable people to lead more satisfying lives. Twin Oaks is working hard to develop a strong economic base. And third, Twin Oaks is not a religious or drug-mystical community. Rather, it is based on experimentally altering societal structures so as to discover structures that are most satisfying to the people of the community. This process is an ongoing thing that will take into account peoples' changing values — this is especially important for the first transitional generation that will only gradually be able to throw off their previous conditioning by straight society.

Ideas at Twin Oaks are oriented towards an ever-expanding group of people. Twin Oakers hope their own community will grow to encompass a large number of people, perhaps 500 to 1,000. Then other communities will be formed, some by people who have lived at Twin Oaks. All of these communities will hopefully cooperate economically and in other ways. They don't want to be isolationist, rather, they and their counterparts want to eventually have a system of living, government if you will, that can be successfully applied to whole nations of people.

Community-Style Labor at Twin Oaks

Central to Twin Oaks is the "labor credit" system of dividing labor among the members. Briefly described, the community decides each week how much work and what jobs need to be done. Then people sign up for the jobs they want to do. The number of hours each person must do is determined by dividing the total number of hours of work for that week by the number of people there are to do it. The various jobs are given different "labor credits" depending on their "desirability" or "non-desirability" and this is determined by the number of people who sign up to do any given job. If not enough people sign up to do a certain job, say dishwashing, the labor credit value of it is increased (hence, a person will have to work less hours doing that job to receive the same labor credit) until enough people want to do the job. The labor credits are constantly changing as people get tired of a job, the seasons change, etc. Visitor labor ("slave" labor as one member referred to it) is figured into the system and materially lowers the total amount of work a person must do. When we visited the community, people were doing about a 40 hour week — actually comparatively little compared to the typical straight-world person, as the 40 hours at Twin Oaks included such things as cooking, dishwashing, shopping, etc. And at Twin Oaks, a week is seven days long; work, play and rest going on every day — as opposed to the straight world's five day "work" week and two days of "rest."

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