Something in english!
Kommune Niederkaufungen 1986 -2011
an anthology by frank richardson schäfer
Somewhere over the rainbow …
1986-2006 – Twenty Years of Commune Life -Kommune Niederkaufungen.
Should you visit our commune in Niederkaufungen, near Kassel (central Germany),
you would immediately notice the mixture of un-renovated and renovated buildings,
some half-timbered, some more modern in appearance, and you would probably find
people working on at least one building site somewhere in our grounds. It was true
for most of the past years, it is true today, and it looks like being true for the
coming years too. Our original aim to “build” an ecologically sustainable,
non-hierarchical commune of up to 100 adults plus children and teenagers is only
partly realised. Today, twenty years from the start, we are nearly 60 grown-ups and
almost 20 youngsters : one of the biggest of the “commuja” network of german political
communes. We are non-religious and non-spiritual – being the largest secular,
left-wing egalitarian community in Germany.
From the beginning, consensus decision-making and the full and equal participation
of all members was one of its guiding principles, as was the aim to develop collective,
co-operative and non-hierarchical structures and to reduce the patriarchal and
competitive ones. We try to apply the principle of; “From each according to ability,
to each according to need.”, with a completely socialized internal communal economy,
with its common purse, and common ownership of all buildings, facilities, motor-vehicles, and the means of production. In addition, although not explicitly set down in the commune’s aims and principles, an important aim is to be as environmentally friendly and sustainable as possible.
The commune was founded in late 1986. The 4-acre property (ca. 10,000 square metres)
is located right in the heart of Niederkaufungen, one of the three villages that
together form the borough of Kaufungen (population, ca.15, 000). The village has
many old half-timbered houses in its centre, but in the last three decades it has
seen the construction of many new housing estates, and the borough has developed
into a suburb of the city of Kassel, to which it is linked with a tram line.
The main group of commune buildings in the Kirchweg were originally a large manor
farm, with a complex of houses, workshops, stalls, sheds and stores. In the 1960s,
the central agricultural building was converted into housing for foreign guest
workers, a few of who were still here when the buildings were purchased. By
modern standards, it was poor and spartan accommodation; badly insulated,
single glazed windows, the workers packed in, two per room, with a washbasin in
an alcove in the corner of each room. When the first communards arrived some parts
could be used immediately, but others were in urgent need of renovation. Today a large part of the housing has been redeveloped in an environmentally friendly way, well insulated, with double-glazing, and using non-polluting and partly recycled materials.
In 1996, the commune bought a small farm (Hof Birkengrund) just outside the village. The stalls, barn and outhouses are used by the agricultural collective. (The farmhouse itself is rented out to a local social work project caring for “difficult” children when school hours are over). Some of the old (asbestos) roofing on the farm has been replaced and a dairy room for cheese making has been built.
Over the years, the group has grown and developed too, and we have become the largest non-religious/spiritual community in Germany, involved in a wide range of economic, cultural and political activities. We are at present (2006) 57 adult members and 18 children and teenagers, living in ten main “living groups”; seven are mixed sex groups with kids, two are women only groups, and one is a men’s group.
Aims and principles
The Niederkaufungen Commune has a number of guiding ideas that were first formulated
in a pamphlet of aims and principles written by the founding group at the end of 1983,
before the buildings were discovered and purchased. The pamphlet begins with a criticism
of capitalism, with the consumerist and competitive society that results from this
economic system, and proposes a co-operative, non-hierarchical, social-ecologist
model as an alternative. The main principles of the commune follow logically from
this model, and we try, with some success, to put them into practice in our daily lives.
We are an undogmatic left wing group, with positions that range from radical and social feminist, through green/ecologist standpoints, over Marxism and communism, to syndicalist and anarchist positions. Many communards are active in political groups and campaigns in Kaufungen and Kassel.
The majority of the people who work inside the commune work in collectives. We have, as far as possible, an ecological approach to work and lifestyle.
We have consensus decision making within the commune and within the work collectives, every individual member has the possibility to express a veto.
We have a completely collectivised internal economy, with no private ownership of buildings, of the means of production or of motor vehicles. All income is pooled and each person takes out what she or he needs.
With the aim of reducing traditional patriarchal structures and roles, we live in small living groups rather than nuclear families. Childcare is shared between parents and some non-parents, sometimes adults chosen by the children themselves.
Work in the commune
“Our experiences of the dominant sphere of labour and the possibilities of satisfying
our basic needs are depressing. We come to know work as being senseless, with the sole
significance being to earn enough money to buy as much as possible. Any relationship
to the goods that we produce or consume gets lost. What is more reasonable then, than
starting a project in which work can be useful and at the same time meaningfully
satisfy basic needs.” (Pamphlet of Aims and Principles, 1983).
Right from the start, our commune had the ambitious goal of proving that a group of committed people could survive financially within capitalist society without having to surrender to the seemingly unchangeable and sometimes barbaric rules of the system. We did not want to “drop out” and create an unspoiled little island in the middle of nowhere (impossible in a densely populated and industrialised state like Germany), but rather aimed at setting up collectively run enterprises which produce for the local market as well as for community needs and which provide a variety of services.
Within the commune, there are now a number of collective enterprises. There is a construction firm with builders and metal workers, a carpentry workshop, an organic market gardening collective, a kindergarten, a seminar centre team, an organic dairy farm, a kitchen and catering group, and an administrative collective. A number of people work together more informally as a consulting group, giving advice and help to other self managed projects and communes. In addition, a new collective activity is coming into being at the moment, the day-care centre for old people, which opened on 1st April 2006. Officially, the collectives have varied legal forms, but in practice have similar structures, with planning meetings where the collective members decide how we work (hours, holidays, responsibilities and division of labour) and what we want to do. Sustainability and other environmental factors are high on our list of priorities, as is job satisfaction.
A few individuals work alone; there are a physiotherapist and a psychologist
who both have their practices here in the commune. One person works in the
leather workshop, producing leather clothes and specialising in moccasins for
small children. In addition, a small number of communards work outside the commune,
e.g. two teachers, or are on training courses.
“From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs”.
The set up is fairly simple and clear: Members of the commune hand over all their assets to the commune trust, which owns the property, all means of production and all of the commune businesses/companies no matter what their legal forms are. The trust, consisting of all adult members of the commune, decides in consensus what to do with the money, where and how to invest it. It is not intended or possible to privatise businesses or property.
All earnings, no matter where they come from, go into one fund out of which all daily expenses are paid. There are no fixed wages and there is no personal allowance or pocket money. People decide for themselves what they need and take the money directly from the cash box in our administrative office (and write it down themselves in the cash book there). Surprise, surprise, this has worked for twenty years now, though, of course, not without discussion when our expenditure exceeded our earnings. Our financial situation has been quite stable through most of the commune’s existence and our material standard of living has slowly but steadily risen; a fact which is applauded by some members and criticised by others.
Joining the Commune
People interested in joining the commune can visit for an “information weekend” in which our aims, principles, history and daily life are described and discussed. This weekend, with accommodation in the commune guest apartment in our seminar house, includes a guided tour of the commune buildings and workplaces, and takes place every two months.
When a person has further interest in membership she/he can stay in the guest apartment for a week, take part in the daily life of the commune, attend the plenary meeting and work with us in our work collectives. Over the following months, further weeklong visits take place, giving the person the possibility to make friends here, to find a future work collective and a living group. The person must also find three or four communards who are willing to sponsor and support her/him during the probationary test period.
The next step is for the new person to write a membership application with information about herself/himself, biography, interests, work and finances. Then the person must visit each living group in the commune (usually for one evening) in order that we can get to know each other a little bit more. When all of the visits are complete, each communard writes a short statement about whether she/he accepts, supports or has doubts about the person starting the test period.
When there is no veto, then the person may start the probationary period, live with us, be integrated into the daily economy of the commune but still have her/his assets (or debts) outside the commune.
The probationary period lasts a minimum of 3 months, at the end of which each communard writes a statement accepting (or vetoing) the probationary member for full membership of the commune. This period may be extended at the request of communards who are still uncertain.
When the new member has been accepted, she/he has a further 3 months to decide whether to stay. This period may also be extended if necessary. When the person has finally decided to stay, her/his capital (or overdraft) is collectivised, and the new member formally joins the trust association, which own and control the financial assets, the buildings, land, means of production and motor vehicles of the commune.
Daily life together: Meals and mealtimes
An important part of our day-to-day living is eating together, especially our main meal at midday. Breakfast, lunch and the evening meal all take place in the large, central commune common room. The (hot) breakfast drinks are usually ready at seven in the morning, and the tables have been laid by that time too. The tables are cleared at nine, so both early and late risers are catered for. Most days the daily newspapers are also there at seven. There is a corner with sofas for reading or lounging about.
Lunch is from one until two in the early afternoon, and this is often the meal when the greatest number of communards is together in the common room. The evening meal is from six until seven in the evening, and is often a mix of hot and cold food. Lunch from Monday to Friday is prepared by the kitchen collective, the breakfast and evening meal are prepared by a rota of volunteers. Lunch at the weekends is prepared by the living groups in rotation, and the washing up is also done by commune members following a rotation plan.
Of course it is possible for individuals and groups to prepare their own meals as and when they wish, and a number of living groups regularly have Sunday breakfast together in their flats. As well as the main commune kitchen, there is a smaller commune kitchen where tea and snacks can be prepared, and this is used quite regularly by people to cook late evening meals or eat supper. Over the last few years most living groups have also chosen to have a small tea kitchen in their flats; one or two are quite well equipped, but they vary widely.
A large part of our daily life takes place in smaller groups; the living groups and the work collectives, the men’s RT group, the group of young parents, the yoga group, the commune band; but there are often other occasions when a large number of communards are together, for example to celebrate birthdays, have parties or for the monthly “community afternoon”. This regular afternoon together takes various forms. Sometimes we use it for discussion together about important themes and sometimes for large work projects. Twice a year we also have an extended weekend together, without guests, again mostly to talk about subjects that we find are important.
The other regular time when we are together is the weekly “plenum”; the plenary meeting where news is exchanged and decisions are made.
Our weekly general assembly (plenum) takes place every Tuesday evening. It is well attended by the majority of communards, and is open for guests too. The meeting is in two parts.
First, there is an informative part, with news and information from commune members, from the administrative collective, from other work collectives, sometimes from the living groups, and also some information about events in Kaufungen and in Kassel. This part is intended to be purely informative, although there is sometimes discussion about some points. At the end of this part, the decisions that we have made are read out (See Consensus), and the details of the smaller work-groups are given. Then there is an interval for snacks, cigarettes and visits to the toilet.
For three weeks out of every four, there are work-groups after the break. These groups can be quite varied. Some groups work on developing suggestions and proposals for decisions about future developments, e.g. renovation of buildings, changes to our structures, planning events etc. Other groups may discuss more theoretical topics, political or social themes. Many of these work-groups are also open for guests who may sit in and listen.
In the fourth week, the session after the interval is taken up with a report on their activities from a work collective or from communards working outside the commune. Very often, this report takes the form of a question and answer session, because a written report is hung on one of our notice boards at least a week in advance. Each collective makes a report in rotation, about once every fifteen months. Again, guests are welcome as observers.
All major, important decisions within the commune are made in consensus. (But what people think of as being important has changed over the years, leading to much discussion and some conflicts).
Proposals may be made by individual communards or by collectives, but often the decision making process begins in one of the plenum work-groups, who will discuss a theme and formulate a proposal. There is no vote on the proposal. The written proposal is “made public” and hung on the commune notice board for a minimum of one week. This gives every one the chance to read the proposal and to submit suggestions for any alterations they think are necessary or to ask for more time to think about the topic and to join the work-group.
(Critics of proposals are encouraged to join the groups in order to discuss the subject and to find a compromise that is acceptable to all parties).
The new proposal, or one which has been amended, will then be hung up for a further week, and when no new criticism is made or new alterations suggested it is read out at the following plenum and accepted as being decided. Even at this point in the decision-making procedure, it is possible for a communard to say, “Wait, I’m still not happy” and postpone the decision until further discussion has taken place. However, we do not see this “Veto” possibility as being an absolute stop to the decision, although further discussion can be difficult when people have such extreme emotions that they can no longer “stay cool” about the topic. In this situation, we have a number of possibilities for mediation, with a group of mediators, some of who have been trained in conflict resolution.
Words and deeds
Many visitors and friends are impressed by our principles and by the combination of an environmentally friendly and sustainable way of life with political activism. Our critique of the current system is more than just theoretical. We do not only struggle against nuclear power, against new super highways, or against the growth of fascism and National Socialism in Germany. We propose and live out alternatives. And we prove that environmentally friendly methods of transport, farming, energy production and building renovation can be both cost effective and social. Often the environmental and financial benefits are a result of sharing. For example, our mobility and transport.
Mobility and transport
We currently have a pool of eleven motor vehicles available for use. One is a medium sized truck belonging to the building collective; there are two vans (one each for the carpenters and the builders), and seven motor cars; five run on vegetable oil and/or diesel, one on diesel only, and one on lead free petrol. When you want to use one you just have to check our mobility plan, see what is free at the time you need a vehicle, and write in your name, your destination (in case someone else wants to go in that direction too) and the time you need it. Then you just pick up the keys at that time and away you go.
In addition, we have nine season tickets for the local public transport. These can be used by anybody, and there is a good, regular tram service to the city of Kassel. As with the motor vehicle mobility plan, you just need to write your name and the time you need the ticket on the plan, take the ticket and go. Thus, our transportation over longer distances is both economical and environmentally less damaging through our sharing the vehicles and the tickets for the local public transport. Many long journeys are made by rail, and for shorter distances, almost every one has a bicycle.
Nutrition and food production
Both the market gardening collective and the farm collective cultivate and produce organically, without the use of chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Some of our produce is sold to the public over our commune food shop, open two mornings and two afternoons a week, but a large part of the food produced is for internal consumption. Depending on the time of the year, about two thirds of the fruit and vegetables eaten in the commune come from our own vegetable gardens, and all of the milk and yoghurt comes from our small dairy herd. About 70% of the cheese we eat is made in the dairy on our farm. And the majority of the meat that we eat (which is a fairly small quantity) comes from our pigs and cows. The majority of our other foodstuff is also organic, and when possible locally or regionally produced. This is often more expensive than conventionally produced food products, but we are able to afford the organic food because it is purchased in bulk and we have a central kitchen where meals for the whole commune are prepared by the five person collective, with help from volunteers. All the meals are vegetarian, there is always a vegan alternative, and about once a week, there is meat as a third alternative. Generally, we eat very little food that is imported from outside Europe unless it comes from fair trade, e.g. coffee and tea from collectives or cooperatives. In addition to this support for fair-traded and organic produce from overseas, about 3% of our income is donated to support alternative and self-managed projects directly.
Building the commune
To get bigger and have more living and working space (and space to play) we have to build and rebuild. One of the more recent large renovation projects (2001-2003), the central house in the Kirchweg (Church Way), is completely finished, with both of the long side-facades newly insulated and plastered, and with a huge painted rainbow over the kindergarten. The roof had been replaced two years previously. The seminar centre in the Kirchweg and the house in the Mittelstrasse (Middle Street), with a view over the river Losse and the village green, were completed some years ago. However, other buildings belonging to the commune are in need of renovation. We resettled and rebuilt the carpentry workshop in August 2004 and have nearly finished work on the building where it was up to now, which has become our “service house”, with offices for our communal administration and a day-care centre for old people on the ground floor (opened April 2006), and with offices, practices and a large seminar room on the first floor. In addition, a solar energy roof over the carpentry and metal work workshops was completed at the end of 2004, all of the photovoltaic panels have been installed, and since then it has been producing electricity for sale into the grid.
The ecological survey (Ökobilanz)
Transport and food were two of the main subjects under scrutiny in the environmental survey, which we conducted here between November 2001 and November 2002. We attempted to keep track of our consumption and of what we produced for ourselves and for others outside the commune. Use of the motor vehicles, of the season tickets, purchase of food and sale of our own products was noted down in great detail with the aim of checking where we were being efficient and where there was room for improvement.
Energy consumption was also checked; again, what we consumed and the energy which we produced. (We heat part of the commune with a central wood burning heating system, and the other part with a gas burning heat and electricity generator, some of the electricity that is produced being fed back into the regional grid). The survey also documented energy consumption on our farm, where we pay Greenpeace for our electric current. (From March 2003, we have also gone over to Greenpeace energy for the rest of the commune).
The survey here was part of a project on sustainability, which included data gathered at two other alternative communities and data gathered from small family households.
The project was conducted in cooperation with the university of Kassel. The results show the commune to be much closer to sustainability than the average German family, better than families who try to live in an environmentally friendly way, but that we are still using more resources than we are entitled to when the world’s resources are equally shared between all of the planets citizens. The results of the survey are available in German on the Internet: www.usf.uni-kassel.de/glww and a 17-minute English language video about the project is also now available.
It can be clearly seen from our list of guiding principles, and from the practical measures that we undertake to realise them, that the commune in Niederkaufungen is an explicitly political project. It has political influence at various (non parliamentary) levels. Sometimes the influence is due to the activities of individual communards, and sometimes it is directly from the commune as a whole.
Locally, some communards have been very active in starting the local “Genetic technology” free zone, organising meetings and persuading Kaufungen’s farmers to sign a declaration that they will not plant genetically modified crops or use genetically modified animal foodstuffs.
A number of communards were influential in starting the ATTAC group in Kassel, and they continue to be active in this organisation, bringing our ideas into various workgroups.
In addition, members of the commune are active in the women’s centre in Kassel, the autonomous social centre, Bazille, and the non-commercial, non-governmental “Free Radio Kassel.”
At another level, a number of ex-communards have influenced the local community by staying on in Kaufungen, settling down here after leaving the commune itself.
The continued existence of the commune is also important for the anti-authoritarian left in the region. We are the largest libertarian-left group in the area, and many local activists see us as an example of how society could (or should) be.
And, of course, the commune is an important member of the network of political communes, which has groups throughout Germany. Together with a couple of other communes (Waltershausen, Villa Locomuna) we regularly organise the “Los Geht’s” meeting, where people looking for communes or who want to start communes come together with representatives of many existing communes for 3 or 4 days of workshops, discussions and fun.
Social and sexual relationships
Within the Niederkaufungen commune, there is a wide range of sorts of relationships. The popular “cliché” idea of commune relationships as “everyone sleeps with everyone else” is not true. But most other forms of relationship exist here, and, in fact, the two most important forms of relationship we have here, work collectives and living groups, exist comparatively seldom elsewhere. Otherwise, there are many couples, both heterosexual and lesbian, there are couples who have been together for over 20 years with teenage kids, and other, younger couples with toddlers and pre-school kids, there are people of both sexes experimenting with open relationships, there are bi-sexuals, and there are singles. At present, there are no exclusively homosexual men here, but there is a MRT (Men’s Radical Therapy) group where men regularly meet to share their joys, emotions and problems. Furthermore, when relationships encounter problems, there is a group of supervisors and mediators, and a group of people practicing non-violent communication (NVC), the conflict resolution method developed by Marshall B. Rosenberg.
(See: www.cnvc.org for info in English, and www.gewaltfrei-niederkaufungen.de, the German language homepage of our commune NVC group).
Living in Intertwined structures
The members of Niederkaufungen are not just linked together in one big group, the commune. We live in a network of intertwined structures; our living groups, our work collectives, our partnerships and friendships. This can result in a very structured life, with quite clear regular commitments and appointments, e.g. collective meetings, living group evenings, plenary meeting work groups, rehearsals etc . Each individual communard is a member of a number of communal sub-groups, which are interlinked in various ways through the common members. In addition, communards are often members of other groups outside, resulting in a network of close links to local structures external to the commune. Collectives have various working contacts with one another, for example, the kitchen collective cook the meals for the kindergarten, the seminar house, and for the day care centre for old people. The welders in the metal workshop of our construction firm repair the farm machines of the agricultural collectives. We are all in a close-knit web of interconnected relationships.
Just as sharing motor vehicles brings us economic and ecological benefits, the pooling and common use of many other things enables us to have various facilities which most people living alone or in couples cannot generally afford. The commune has an extensive library of several thousand books, well organised into various sections but (sadly) not catalogued. Similarly, we have a media room with a large collection of videos and a couple of video recorders, which can be used by all communards. (There is also now a DVD player, but, as yet, very few DVDs to play). One communard has made a list of the (many hundred) CDs that we have throughout the commune, making it possible to see what other people have in their collections before buying new ones and making borrowing much easier. For those communards who prefer to make music, there is a music room with a large collection of musical instruments (both collective and private) plus a PA system with mixing desk for discos and concerts. We have a room for meditation and being still.
In addition, we have a large collective “wardrobe” room, with a large collection of clothes that everyone can take from or contribute to. (As well as this, there is a big collection of clothes for dressing up, with costumes for parties and festivals). In addition to the commune administration office, there are two office rooms for all communards that have computers and other necessary equipment for communication and writing (Fax, photocopier, typewriter, stationary and postage stamps).
Finally, as well as the workshops used by our work collectives, we have a couple of workrooms for “private” use, with wood-working tools, painting and decorating materials, camping gear and other useful goods.
We usually try to welcome visitors, especially people coming from other communes and communities, but also people looking for orientation or interested in joining us. However, like most other communes, we prefer people to contact us sometime in advance to tell us something about themselves and why they wish to visit. We do not have a special person responsible for visitors, but requests to visit are either hung up on one of our notice boards or announced during the weekly plenum. Individual communards then volunteer to look after the guest. (This also means that sometimes no one is willing to look after a visitor). Most visitors are usually interested in working with us in some way. Occasionally, visitors come as part of study or research projects. Unlike some communities, we do not have a hostel/guest house for paying guests. Please, when possible, leave your pets at home.
For environmental reasons, we prefer visitors to use public transport when they come. There is a very good tram service from the main railway station in Kassel and the nearest tram stop is five minutes walk away from the commune. We hope that guests from outside Europe who wish to visit us are aware of the immense damage done to our planet by pollution caused by air travel, and are in Europe for a longer period than just a visit to Kaufungen. (See what is possible by looking at the website: www.economads.com – the Evolulog section).
Recommended reading and useful websites in English
“The Findhorn book of Community Living” by Bill Metcalf (Findhorn Press 2004). Contains a section about the Niederkaufungen Commune. (See: www.findhornpress.com)
“Eurotopia” – the new English language edition of this European communities directory out again 2005. (See: www.eurotopia.de/englindex.html).
“Diggers and Dreamers” – the directory of intentional communities in the UK.
www.radicalroutes.org.uk – Website of the “Radical Routes” network of housing and workers cooperatives in the U.K.
www.utopia-britannica.org.uk – The history of the British commune movement from 1325 to 1945, originally a book, now a regularly updated Website.
“Design your own Utopia” by Chaz Bufe and Libby Hubbard. A very useful pamphlet for people interested in clarifying their visions about what their future community should be like. Download at: www.seesharppress.com/utopia.html
“C.A.L.L. – Communities At Large Letter”. Periodical of the International Communes Desk. See their homepage at: www.communa.org.il
“Communities” magazine – Quarterly “Journal of Cooperative Living”. Published by the Fellowship of Intentional Communities in the USA.
www.ic.org – Fellowship of Intentional Communities website, with a huge directory section, including an entry with information about Niederkaufungen.
www.thefec.org – Federation of Egalitarian Communities, US American political community network.
As a conclusion, here is what one guest wrote in our commune visitors book:
“It is true! Heaven exists! ….. The kommune is a living proof that the civilisation of the future already exists.”
Perhaps a little optimistic, for we were all born and brought up in some form of patriarchal, hierarchical, competitive system, whether West or East German, or any other nation-state on the planet. We still mostly behave in the way we learned in our families, in our schools, and from the mass media. Maybe the way we now live, with our attempts to live ecologically, without leaders or people under us, sharing and cooperating, will eventually modify our consciousness and our patterns of behaviour. Perhaps the children who grow up here will be different from us, despite the influences of the capitalist world around us. At least they have chances which few of us had as children. And certainly, we, as adults, benefit from the social structures and physical infrastructure we have created here in many, many ways. Without attempts to create alternatives to the present system, the future is bleak. The commune in Niederkaufungen is not Paradise, but at least it is proof that the civilisation of the future can exist.
“The philosophers have just interpreted the world in different ways, but the point is to change it”. Karl Marx – “Thesis on Feuerbach”).