Philip Wallmeier, Rückzug als Widerstand: Dissidente Lebensformen in der Globalen Politik (Bielefeld: transcript, 2021), 224 pp.
The title of this book translates roughly into Retreat as Resistance: Dissident Ways of Life in Global Politics. In it, Philip Wallmeier analyzes the magazine Communities throughout its different stages of publication. He thus conducts a longitudinal study of the self-image and foci of the communal movement in the United States from 1972 to 1999, understanding the magazine as a part, and a sample, of the progressive / leftist branch of this movement. Initially, Wallmeier points out that the subject of intentional communities has been largely marginalized within political science. Since this field does not acknowledge the withdrawal of dissidents as a form of protest, intentional communities can only be awkwardly theorized within the research paradigms applied to social movements. This necessitates his assembling of theories that all somehow frame retreat (Rückzug) as resistance (Widerstand) in chapter two. For this purpose, he draws on a broad selection of works, from Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s considerations in Empire (2000) to theorizations of the biblical Exodus.
In the subsequent analysis of Communities (chapters four to eight), Wallmeier provides comparative statistical data alongside a few charming and illustrative anecdotes. Having sorted all articles into different categories (according to topics of the articles, source material [Evidenz] provided in the articles, function of the articles), he correlates these categories to the magazine’s different phases of editorship and publication. Building on this data, each chapter draws conclusions about how the self-image of the communal movement negotiates what Wallmeier calls the dialectic of retreat. That is, when retreat functions as a form of resistance, the dissidents have to negotiate between two seemingly opposed ideas: withdrawing in order to forsake a societal status quo but engaging with the very society that they reject in order to effect any kind of change. Bringing together terms such as dissidence, modes of life (Lebensformen), retreat, and resistance from works of political science, the study signposts useful pathways to approach the communal movement and aims to situate communalism within an academic discourse on resistance.
Indeed, scholars of intentional communities have noted the lack of in-depth theorizations of intentional communities (Sargent 87). Despite the lively field that is communal studies, most studies avoid broader theoretical frameworks, working either historically or sociologically, describing the set-up and development of communities as a topic sui generis (a tradition that goes all the way back to John Humphrey Noyes and continues, for example, in the expansive work of Timothy Miller). However, Gregory Claeys, Carl J. Guarneri, Rosabeth Moss-Kanter, Donald E. Pitzer, and Lyman Tower Sargent (for example) have long laid important foundations, as have studies on counterculture, on which Wallmeier does not draw. The lack of theory on intentional communities may also be due to the objections of many communards to being studied within academic frameworks, a conflict that Wallmeier addresses and tries to defuse (chapter three). Given that this publication approaches a research gap with the tools of political science, it is unfortunate that the publication’s language (German) may prove a threshold for fellow researchers in communal studies, utopian studies, and North American studies in general, who may profit from its considerations and findings.
From the perspective of these research networks, Wallmeier’s choice to frame intentional communities as a translocal phenomenon with a postnational identity (28), and thus to largely exclude U.S.-American frameworks, is unfortunate. More attention to national discourses might have gestured towards relevant questions that, sadly, remain unanswered. In this context, it is noteworthy that the theoretical underbelly includes a parallel to the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as well as Zomia farmers in southeastern Asia, but does not draw on studies of historical intentional communities in the United States. Keywords such as Leuchtturm (beacon) or Beispielgemeinschaften (model communities) evoke U.S.-American national myths and a longstanding tradition of intentional communities in the United States, yet they are not considered for the study.
Engagement with these U.S.-American discourses might enhance the relevance of the categories Wallmeier draws up. For example: the theoretical basis is constructed without considering that retreat as resistance is a paradigm with a long, and conflicted, tradition in the United States. Henry David Thoreau’s act of “Civil Disobedience” (1849) and his Walden (1854) spring to mind, as do Thoreau’s contemporaries who joined in intentional communities. Going down this historical route would have highlighted critical questions regarding the privilege (often based on Whiteness and class) of retreat and the respective self-awareness of the communards. Another route to such inquiries that highlights their importance would be current developments in the movement: a growing awareness regarding the occupation of Indigenous lands has, for example, recently begun to reshape the practice of the famous Black Bear Ranch commune. Wallmeier briefly acknowledges that this dissident mode of life is conditional (vorraussetzungsvoll) without pursuing further how this conditionality impacts the self-image of the communards. Wallmeier’s statistical categories do not investigate self-critical debates revolving around exclusionary mechanisms of race, class, gender, sexuality, etc. The categories staatsbürgerliche Konvention (civic conventions) and Aktivismus und Protest (activism and protest) may include such topics; yet the book addresses these issues only in passing, and largely avoids terms that link to relevant lenses, such as critical race theory, postcolonial studies, queer studies, gender studies, and class. Retreat as resistance has the disadvantage of potentially enabling navel gazing instead of critical self-reflection, resulting in exclusionary elitism. This charge is often brought against communards and could have been addressed by the study more explicitly and thoroughly. Attention towards such debates would enhance the usefulness of the study for multiple fields in the twenty-first century.
The conclusions drawn from the data point out that the communal movement has developed a different self-understanding since its resurgence in the 1960s. Initially, many communities posed as a “counter” to the mainstream. Over the years, the movement had to resolve different tensions in their practice and their relationship to the “outside.” By the millennium, they rather regarded themselves as innovative communities. The study also traces the development of an environmental consciousness and the growing conviction that the individual choice for a certain mode of life can impact and aid the “mainstream,” even the globe. Throughout all of the magazine’s phases, the study classifies the movement as radical resistance; with this classification arise many additional critical questions that yet remain unanswered.
Verena Adamik (Universität Potsdam)