A wry view of life for the world-weary

A Better Life – Part Eleven

The Kaweah Cooperative Community

It was whilst reading John Bew’s fascinating biography of Clement Attlee that I came across Edward Bellamy’s best-selling book, Looking Backwards – 2000 to 1887. It was described as “one of the few books ever published that created almost immediately on its appearance a political mass movement”. It advocated the nationalisation of private property and in an attempt to eschew the label socialist its adherents were known as Nationalists. Within months of its publication in 1888 and subsequently revised and amended in 1889, some 162 Bellamy Clubs sprang up in the States to discuss and propagate its radical message.

The Kaweah Cooperative Colony was located, unsurprisingly enough, by the Kaweah river in Tulare County in California in 1886. Growing out of the International Workers Association in San Francisco it first manifested itself as a tented community on the laudable principles of equal work and equal pay for men and women alike. It embraced Bennett’s Nationalism but the author, whilst recommending his most earnest adherents to the community, distanced himself from the project. He thought that his ideas had to be adopted at a national level rather than through small, relatively insignificant communities.

The founders and leading lights of the Kaweahns were Burnette G Haskell and James J Martin who picked the location because of its proximity to swathes of sequoia forests. They thought that the community could sustain itself by logging and selling the trees. As we shall see, this was misplaced optimism. Membership cost $500, of which $100 had to be paid up front with the remainder paid either in cash or through their hard graft. At its peak membership was estimated at around three to five hundred, although many were sponsors rather than residents. Many of the members were drawn from the skilled artisans in the State or trade union representatives. They were described as “all, perhaps without exception, intelligent, thoughtful, earnest, readers of books and journals, alive to the great economic and social questions of the day”.

Because of the need to make good the gap between the down payment and the overall cost of membership, the Kaweahns devised a rather complex system of monetising the value of the work done. They decided that all work was of equal value and that the appropriate way of valuing effort was on time spent. So ten minutes of labour would earn you five cents and a linear scale was developed. This introduced a bureaucratic aspect to their life which was further hampered by a rather complicated governance system in which work responsibilities were divided up into hundreds of sub divisions. It must have been a nightmare to implement and administer.

Worse still, the make-up of the community and their particular interest in Marxist and socialist dialectic meant that more time was spent discussing political issues then getting to grips with the things that would have made the community successful like felling trees and building homes and roads. Despite that, they scored some minor achievements including publishing the area’s first newspaper and naming the giant sequoia which is now known as the General Sherman Tree as the Karl Marx Tree.

What struck the final death-knell for the community was the decision taken in 1890 by the government to turn the area into California’s first national park, the Sequoia National Park. A Los Angeles court found them guilty of illegal logging and the Kaweahns were turfed off their land. They spent the next forty years or so fighting for compensation for their lost logging rights but were unsuccessful. All that is left of their community is a rather basic wood cabin known as the Squatter’s Cabin.


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