In the introduction to his 1965 book The Making of the English Working Class, English social historian E.P. Thompson described his motivation as being to rescue “from the enormous condescension of posterity” the “lower orders” of people in 18th and 19th century Britain who resisted the brutal emergence of industrial society. In this famous phrase, Thompson was referring to the patronizing treatment oppressed groups of people receive from propagandists for the ruling class, whose main goal in writing history is inevitably to trumpet the virtues of the present order.
A group of Northern California historians, some of whom once studied under Thompson at Warwick University in the UK, set out eight years ago to recover, for the benefit of posterity, a non-patronizing history of Northern California's communal movements. The culmination of that effort, which originated with a series of conferences at UC Berkeley and on the Mendocino Coast in 2004, is an excellent new book titled West of Eden: Communes and Utopias in Northern California, published last month by Oakland-based PM Press.
“Condescension?” It would be hard to think of a category of people who are more universally treated with disdain than the communards of the '60s and '70s. According to the dominant view, thousands of rural “hippies” fled to the country, selfishly seeking refuge from the roiling social conflicts of the time, having little contact with the outside world from that point on. These rustic enclaves were quickly overrun by deadbeats, loafers, and crazies, who bathed only infrequently and commonly became perma-fried on account of too many bad acid trips. Or, at best, the communes were naïve, destined to be short-lived experiments that the most sensible people involved quickly outgrew, before returning to mainstream society.
Given the prevalence of negative stereotypes, it's easy to lose sight of what was truly revolutionary about the flowering of communalism that marked the period. At the pinnacle of the US' post-World War II prosperity (the late-'60s marked the peak of American economic growth), tens of thousands of young people rejected their assigned roles in the corporate capitalist, Cold War-dominated social order. In spite of their many pitfalls, these communards commendably set out to create models for the new society they wished to create, which were based on cooperation and equality, as well as greater harmony between humans and the natural world.
While offering well-informed criticisms of the communal movements' many limitations and shortcomings, West of Eden offers an equally informed description of what makes them worthy of admiration. The book gets away from viewing specific communal projects as either successes or failures based strictly on their level of staying power. As co-editor Iain Boal notes in the introduction, “The sharing of a house in common that might have lasted but one summer often had effects that continue to resonate forty years on in the lived experience of those involved, far beyond the brief moment.”
One of the book's main goals is to break down, in a sense, the distinction between city and country. Rural communes in places like Mendocino County were were embedded in a broad network of collective endeavors and experiments throughout Northern California. Contributor Jeff Lustig insightfully traces their origins to “to the two great commonses” of the Bay Area: Golden Gate Park and the UC Berkeley campus. In this view, Haight-Ashbury's gift economy — its free clinic, concerts, and street theatre — and Berkeley's liberated zones — Sproul Plaza, Telegraph Avenue, and People's Park — were the well-springs of countless co-ops, communes, and collectivist organizations throughout NorCal and beyond.
The book does a superb job of recapturing how widespread the communitarian ethic was among radical movements and organizations. At the peak, over 1,000 communes existed in San Francisco alone, many if not most of which were bases of activity for the women's liberation, civil rights, black power, anti-war, American Indian, and other movements. A pair of important chapters examine the communal structure of the Black Panther Party and the Indians of All Tribes, the pan-American Indian group that occupied Alcatraz Island from 1969-71 — two among many political tendencies at the time not commonly recognized for the communal ethos that infused them.
Further rejecting the view that communes were isolated from the wider world, Jesse Drew recounts in a chapter called “The Communes as Badlands as Utopia as Autonomous Zone” her experience as a runaway teen who traveled across a sort of “underground railroad” between the various communes, always staying one step ahead of law enforcement's pursuit of them. In the process, she was exposed to the way in which draft dodgers and people wanted by the FBI as a result of their political activity traveled the same figurative railroad as they eluded the long arm of the law (for better and sometimes for worse). It took people living at these communes who were intimately involved with the political movements of the time to maintain this sort of infrastructure.
At its core, perhaps West of Eden's greatest contribution is to cast '60s-'70s communalism as part of the long struggle against private property and “enclosure.” At least two of the authors have produced other important work promoting the idea of “the commons: that which is traditionally shared, used and enjoyed by all, originally referring to the shared access to forest, rivers, fisheries and grazing land that rural people throughout the world enjoyed prior to the emergence of capitalism in the 15th-18th centuries.
To that end, it's interesting to note that two famous NorCal communes, the Morning Star Ranch and Wheeler's Ranch in Occidental, originally sought to “exist far beyond the domain of patriarchs and landlords,” as so-called Open Land communes, as Felicity D. Scott recounts in a largely sympathetic chapter that also describes the heavy-handed assaults on these two communes by local authorities.
As for critiques, a reprint of a chapter from Humboldt-based historian Ray Raphael's book, concerning how marijuana farmers' dominant motif transformed from peace-loving hippies to gun-toting libertarians, kicks off the final of four sections of the book, called “Legacies.” The following chapter, “Cyberculture, Counter-Culture, and The Third Culture,” traces one of the main ways the counter-culture largely turned into merely another form of consumer identity: the techno-utopian ideology associated with the Whole Earth Catalog. Whole Earth, was a monthly sales magazine mainly aimed at people living on communes. It listed tools, machines, and books for sale with the idea of enabling people to live more self-sufficiently.
The politics underlying the publication, however, dovetailed almost perfectly with '90s neo-liberalism. Writes the chapter's author, Lee Worden, the “ideology of design, with its faith in the power of ideas, and denial of the persistence of inequality and exploitation, is almost identitical to the mythology of the dot-com era — that new technology can bring with it a new social order that will set everyone free without hardly trying, and power disparities aren't worth worrying about except where bad governments interfere with free thought and free speech.” Not coincidentally, the staff of the Whole Earth Catalog largely went on to found the bible of Silicon Valley techno-culture, the monthly magazine Wired.
The chapter with the greatest local resonance is a study of the Albion Nation network of communes written by Cal Winslow. Included in his description: “There was a weaving co-op. There was music; there were routine festivals, including the 'Albion People's Fair,” though some felt that it 'got too big, too many drugs. (Helen) There were craft fairs and outdoor dances on Navarro Ridge. The Country Women collective engaged in national/international feminist movements; the magazine was widely read, and its staff participated in national and regional conferences and hosted women's retreats and festivals at the Woodlands, a nearby lodge and campgrounds built in the 1930s by the [Works Progress Administration]. Times Changes Press at Salmon Creek Farm published accounts of communal life (January Thaw), as well as, among other things, Emma Goldman's feminist writings.” Several local people — Dawn Hofberg, Bill Heilberg, and someone named “Weed” — contribute extended accounts of the factors that led them to take up residence in Albion.
The chapter also describes the dark side, though certainly in a non-sensational way. “There were frustrations and there were predators, though the latter not always in guru form. There was exploitation, people were taken advantage of; there was one well-known cae of pedophilia. There were real dangers — including the perils of country lanes, archetypically in the form of young rednecks I a pick-up. Some deny this: 'It was never dangerous — or stressful.' (Peter) But others remember 'tales of rape, near rape, and then bodies... a girl from Toronto on Big River beach...'“
West of Eden has a lot to offer people drawn to the communal life today. I've recently begun living in a cooperative house on the west side of Ukiah, where I and the seven other residents share food, meals, and other costs of living, also conducting at our house irregular musical and political events. I've already passed on my copy of West of Eden on to one of my housemates, who reports that she has learned a great deal from it so far, and another housemate is also in line to read it.
More than that, the book has a lot to offer people in Mendocino County and elsewhere who are experimenting with new, more cooperative ways of relating to one another on larger scales, such as we see in the renewal of local foods and crafts cultures, embodied by activities such as the “Not-So-Simple Living Fair” in Boonville and the “Mendo Free Skool” in Ukiah, by the many food co-ops and communes that have existed here dating from the '70s, among many other such things. Iain Boal reminds readers of what “rights of common” fundamentally involve: “first and before all, the earth and its productions — the fields, the gardens, the pastures, the woods and forests, the streams and rivers, the quarries and the orchards, and the gathering and the dwelling places. These mostly were, and must be again, not 'resources' but the very ground of our lives. Above all, commoning is a social relation.” ¥¥
For more information, see www.pmpress.org or www.mendocinoinstitute.org.