Kaweah: The Utopia That Flourished in the Shade of California's Redwoods
A community made the California forest the setting for a utopian dream.
Why have humanity, intelligent as it is, never managed to find a way to live in peace, tranquility, or balance with itself, with its peers, and with the environment? Perhaps we’ve found such a way many times though the course of history, but we simply don’t want to, or we’re unable to sustain such a way of life.
The 19th-century was rich in utopian ideas. In Europe, it was a century of revolutions, in most cases, fueled by ideas of equality and justice. It was also, it must be noted, the epoch of the Industrial Revolution. While the revolution flooded workplaces with machines of all kinds, it made some people dream of a not too distant future when people would leave their jobs producing things, to dedicate themselves to the cultivation of the arts, of philosophy, and a collective life of wellbeing.
Partly animated by such a spirit, in 1885 a group of like-minded people settled in the vicinity of the Sierra Nevada, in California. It was that legendary area of the American passage populated with sequoia trees, among the longest living of all species on the planet. They named their community Kaweah, the same name used for multiple geographical features in the area and a name taken from the Yokutsan languages, originally of the same region.
Inspired by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and other theorists of anarchism, the members of the commune did not believe in private property, in the sense that the land could not belong to anyone but to itself. The only work of the human being should be to take care of the land, to protect it and in any case to use it, but never to possess it, and with always a mind toward future generations.
Admirers of Karl Marx and Laurence Gronlund (one of the first to introduce Marxism into American culture) the people of Kaweah thus thought it possible to lead a peaceful revolution against the capitalist system of exploitation. In fact, they renamed one great redwood “Karl Marx” and made it a symbol of the community. The tree had been known as “General Sherman,” in honor of one of the Civil War’s most ruthless military leaders.
In Kaweah, a way of life which today we’d call “sustainable” was thought possible. That is, it was thought that people could coexist with the environment without undermining one thing or another.
The society was organized based on the equality of the value of all work. This was taken into account with reference to a time scale which fixed the values of numbers of credits. These credits could then be exchanged for what each person needed. One of the main tasks was the work building roads, bridges and other means of communication; many of these remained the only ones in the area for a long time. Members of Kaweah also built for their own social use, in picnic areas, blacksmith shops, a printshop, and a post office, demonstrating their willingness to be connected with the outside world and to not die in isolation, as sometimes happened with similar communities.
Unfortunately, it was the outside world which ended their utopian dream. This was especially as a result of the forest’s designation as a National Park in 1890. The Kaweah community became, after-the-fact, illegal. A powerful group coalesced against the commune, encouraged in large measure by the Southern Pacific Railroad and other conservative-minded businessmen and politicians. The railroad was very interested in the area where it had already invested a significant amount of money to cut down the trees that would allow passage to the Pacific Northwest, even then symbolic of the railroad’s monopoly in the western United States. The presence of a community like Kaweah stood plainly in the face of the railroad’s ambition.
By 1892, the community disintegrated and its members dispersed. It’s said that, at most, some 300 people lived under the communities agreed upon principles. Some 200 others supported to the movement but never fully adapted their way of life.
Burnette Haskell, one of Kaweah’s leading members and a notable figure of American socialism, wrote in his diary shortly before his death:
Is there no remedy, then, for the evils that oppress the poor? And is there no surety that the day is coming when justice and right shall reign on Earth? I do not know; but I believe, and I hope, and I trust.
Also in Faena Aleph: Utopia: Believing the Impossible as a Stimulus to Perfection
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