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Reclaiming the History of California’s Counterculture and Resistance Movements

Book Review: West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California

If you favor the Occupy Wall Street movement, you might also savor the personal and political flavors of communal living during the 1960s and 1970s. In West of Eden: Communes and Utopia in Northern California, 13 contributors enlighten us about these alternative living and working arrangements.

West of Eden

Of the editorial quartet — Iain Boal, Janferi Stone, Michael Watts, and Cal Winslow ‑ — who oversaw this book, seven years in the making, two are from the city and two from the country. Iain Boal of Berkeley situates West of Eden’s four-part focus around the historic dynamics of rural and urban “communing.” His interview with the influential artist, communalist, and writer Ramón Sender helps us understand the social context of his inspired invention to counter the mainstream culture.

Historian Timothy Miller opens part one, titled “Context,” placing the trend for communes in the Golden State a half-century ago as “part of the larger emerging Zeitgeist,” with a nod to the communalism of American Indians. Their relationship to the land stands in stark contrast to the regime of private property that marks a capitalist order based on alienated labor. Michael William Doyle evaluates the San

Francisco-based Diggers. In the 1960s, they made food free for all via ingenious means and foreshadowed current groups, such as Food Not Bombs.

Jeff Lustig, dean of California studies and a professor of government at Sacramento State, who passed away on June 14, highlights the crucial role of common lands of UC Berkeley and San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in nurturing communalism. Such venues partly provided people the space and time to emulate those in the Civil Rights movement, where putting one’s body on the line paved the way to overturning Jim Crow segregation.

Jesse Drew recalls his time as a teenage runaway in “networked” communes, a modern-day Underground Railroad that sheltered the marginalized — from draft resisters to military deserters. Communards flourished in “a Badlands…that brought the euphoria of utopia and the freedom of autonomy, a tonic that showed that a new world is possible.”

In part two, “The City,” Felicity D. Scott addresses what violent measures the state took against communes’ “open lands” in places such as Sonoma County. There, authorities used bulldozers to flatten shelters of communards attempting to live outside the capitalist system.

Simon Sadler, an architecture and urban history professor at the University of California, Davis, connects the idealism and pragmatism of communes and the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller. Sadler argues that the result was a “design ethos,” which, mostly rejecting Fuller, attempted to recapture what American culture had destroyed, specifically a “respect for nature.”

Co-editor Janferie Stone, who lived in two communes on the Mendocino Coast in the early 1970s, recalls the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay with help from students and teachers in the Native American Program at UC Davis. There, in late November 1969, Native Americans recaptured their culture of self-provisioning that U.S. government intervention tried to end via boarding schools from the 1870s to 1960s.

Robyn C. Spencer contributes an eye-opening chapter on the practice of communalism within the Black Panther Party. Spencer’s scholarship provides detailed analysis of the Panther’s community programs and living arrangements as covert police disruption took a grim toll on members, two-thirds of whom were female.

Stone and co-editor Cal Winslow, in the book’s third part, “The Country,” reflect on the ebbs and flows of communal living in Mendocino’s Albion Ridge. According to Winslow, the communards based there “shared no grand vision, no religion, no structures; they were not the followers of a particular leader, there were no gurus.”

Reading him, you appreciate the promises and perils of these utopian living arrangements, as his interviews with participants make clear.

Stone gives form and shape to the dynamics of sexual politics in the communal movements of the 1960s. Two examples she examines center on childbearing and rearing.

In the final section, “Legacies,” Ray Raphael unpacks the contradictions of marijuana production and back-to-the-land communards in California’s backcountry. You might read this trend as a triumph of small businesspeople.

Lee Worden hits the nail on the head in his critical essay about the rise of a commercialized techno-counterculture and communal living that entrepreneurs such as Stewart Brand personified. This is a cautionary tale of individuals commoditizing social movements for the purpose of accumulating wealth.

Berkeley-based co-editor Michael Watts ties together many threads of “radical individualism” and social activism culminating in the global upsurges of 1968. What propelled such utopian experiments stateside, of course, was rebellion against an “American Dream” of consumerism, militarism, racism, and the right-wing reaction.

You can read in West of Eden about communal living experiments as generational spirits of today’s OWS movement for justice. I did.

Seth Sandronsky lives and writes in Sacramento  

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