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How Communism Influenced The Writing Of 'Little Women’

By Meghan Dillon··  5 min read
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How Communism Influenced The Writing Of 'Little Women’

Louisa May Alcott is celebrated as one of the greatest female American authors of all time for publishing “Little Women” in 1868.

Little Women is still celebrated today for its portrayal of femininity and sisterhood during and after the American Civil War, making the March sisters some of the most beloved characters in American literature. The novel has several film and television adaptations, including Greta Gerwig’s 2019 masterpiece, which I love (although the 1933 version with Katharine Hepburn as Jo will always have a special place in my heart).

Alcott’s much-deserved legacy is still celebrated today, but even her most devoted fans don’t know she once lived in a socialist commune.

Alcott’s Experience at a Commune

Before she became a world-famous writer, 11-year-old Louisa May Alcott moved to a socialist utopian commune called Fruitland in Massachusetts with her family. The commune was far from a utopia, as members had to follow strict rules. Eating meat, using animal labor, and drinking anything other than water were all banned. They couldn’t use candles or oil lamps made from animal products or take hot baths. They couldn’t raise livestock or grow vegetables that grow down into the earth, like carrots and potatoes. No one could sell any item they made or produced – private property wasn’t allowed. Furthermore, married couples had to abstain from sex.

Author and journalist Lawrence W. Reed summed up the spirit of Fruitlands, saying, “In a selfless ‘spirit of community’ and a ‘brotherly cooperation instead of competition,’ there would be virtually no divisions of class or income. Everybody would then live happily ever after (which, as readers know, is a popular final line of many a fairy tale).”

Eating meat, using animal labor, and drinking anything other than water were all banned. 

Despite the commune’s aspirations to become a self-sufficient farming community, the founders of the commune (including Alcott’s father) knew nothing about farming. So, like every other 19th-century commune in the United States, Fruitlands dissolved (after just seven months). But you can visit the Fruitlands Museum if you want to see how the Alcotts lived. 

Alcott described her experience at Fruitlands in her 1873 essay, “Transcendental Wild Oats.” She wrote, “Money was abjured as the root of all evil. The produce of the land was to provide most of their wants, or be exchanged for the few things they could not grow. This idea had its inconveniences; but self-denial was the fashion, and it was surprising how many things one can do without.” 

Little Women and Intellectualism

Though Alcott doesn’t explicitly promote socialism in her novels, she romanticizes intellectualism, which has close ties to Marxist thought. The intelligentsia's deep roots to socialism and Marxist thought are evident throughout history, from their involvement in the Russian Revolution to the popularity of socialism on college campuses today.

Alcott romanticizes intellectualism in Little Women through Jo March’s relationship with Professor Bhaer, whom she marries at the end of the book. Though this may seem like a stretch for those unfamiliar with Little Women, it’s important to remember that the novel is semi-autobiographical and that Jo's character represents Alcott. Though it wasn’t in the original book, the 2017 BBC version of Little Women even shows Jo attending a socialist meeting and discussing Marx, playing into the belief that Jo March was a socialist.

Alcott romanticizes intellectualism in Little Women through Jo March’s relationship with Professor Bhaer.

To be fair to Alcott (don’t get me wrong, she’s one of my favorite writers, and I’ve always loved Little Women), Little Women was published in 1868, and Alcott died in 1888. There’s a chance Alcott read Marx’s Communist Manifesto, which was first translated into English in 1850, and an even smaller chance she read Das Kapital, which was translated into English in 1886, as she was still alive at that time.

However, she didn’t live to see the horrors of Marx’s socialist ideas play out in the real world. Atrocities of history like the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Communist Revolution, and the Cuban Revolution all ended in brutal Marxist dictatorships and millions of people killed. Her limited experience as a child in a farming commune couldn’t have prepared her for that.

Socialism Is Still Romanticized Today

It’s incredibly common for young women and teenagers today to embrace socialism, Marxism, and communism, so this isn’t an entirely new phenomenon. (Let us not forget how Teen Vogue is now openly promoting communism.) Though the latest wave of young women and teenagers embracing socialism can be linked to the popularity of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the rise of Marxist professors on college campuses, partisan politics, economic crises like the Great Recession, and the economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, young people have always been idealistic and easily misled by ideas that sound good.

Today’s youth have no memory of the Cold War and the negative effects of socialism in the 1900s.

Idealism often leads to embracing radical ideologies, and the most popular radical ideologies today are socialism, Marxism, and communism. And unlike older generations, who may remember better the atrocities committed in the name of social progress, young people in their twenties today have no memory of the Cold War and the negative effects of socialism and communism in the mid to late 20th century.

Closing Thoughts

Louisa May Alcott is remembered for writing Little Women, but her childhood experience in a socialist commune is stranger than fiction. Though it’s interesting to learn about and see how it affected her outlook on life and influenced her work, it’s enlightening to see that the phenomenon of young women being seduced by ideologies like socialism is nothing new.

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