The Mendocino Institute

The Commune Project
September 2004

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There is a long and rich tradition of communitarian living in the new world, and in California in particular. Kenneth Rexroth’s history of communalism in North America documents the panoply of communes from Vermont to the Pacific. This project focuses on the extraordinary efflorescence of secular communal experiments initiated in the mid to late sixties and flourishing in the seventies. Despite the communal crisis of the mid 1980s, a significant number of communes endured and laid the groundwork for a new flowering of collective experiments.

There was no singular point of origin for the remarkable burst of communal energy. There were simultaneous experiments in metropolitan and rural settings across a swath of different environments, and encompassing a variety of ethnic and racial communities. Although the phenomenon was ubiquitous, it is incontestable that the Bay Area and its hinterland provided one of the most generative settings in which the communal movement came to fruition. This project focuses specifically on the Bay Area and the Mendocino coast as one of the richest sites of communal living since the inception of the long postwar capitalist boom.

The history of this movement has not been told, even though the legacy of Californian communes of that period permeates the wider culture in ways that are mostly unacknowledged and urgently demand documentation and analysis. For tens of thousands of Americans the experiencing of a life in common, even if later disavowed or apparently forgotten, was formative. The great communal experiment was a major thread in the development of the US left, and its aftermath can be detected in many facets of contemporary American life - for example, in foodways, in the protocols of group meetings and decision-making, in sexual politics and child-rearing, in the practices of civic life and local politics, in a very widespread green sensibility, and in a valorization of “community”.

The heterogeneity of communal experiences, even in  the greater Bay Area, compels us to address communards of many sorts and conditions: back-to-the-land socialists, feminist smallholders, urban food conspirators, Black Panther cadres, lesbian separatists, hippie artisans, rusticating anarchists, Aquarian spiritualists, technocratic Bucky Fullerites…

This is a cooperative endeavor linking the Institute of International Studies at Berkeley and the Mendocino Institute. There are various phases to this project. The first was a planning workshop held in the Spring of 2004 at Jughandle Farm on Caspar Creek. The second is a series of events, including a scholarly workshop to be held on the Berkeley campus in the Fall of 2004, a public event in Mendocino celebrating the history of communes centered on Albion Ridge, and a course to be taught at the University of California Santa Cruz.

Running through these various events are a number of cross-cutting themes which are central to any understanding of the past, and the future, of communalism. These themes include, but are not limited to: the history of New World utopias; communes and the Cold War family; communes and sexual politics; the city and the country; building in Eden (architectural traditions and practices); charisma, leadership and anti-authoritarianism; communes and the state (“code wars”, the drug economy); the political economy of collective living; communes and ideology; reproduction, education and childraising; the material bases of the commune; when communes fail; barter, potlatch and gleaning.

The organizers of the Commune Project have in mind a number of outcomes. In the short term, there are the ongoing events themselves for 2004. Beyond the projected gatherings, the organizers intend to produce a scholarly volume based on edited material from the Mendocino and Berkeley meetings, as well as fresh research and commissioned essays. We are planning to formalize the collection of communards’ memories insofar as they constitute an important aspect of the oral history of California in the second half of the twentieth century and to that end discussions have begun with the Regional Oral History Office of the Bancroft Library. In the longer view, it is hoped that the Commune Project will play a part in stimulating further critical reflection and scholarship on the topic of communes and the shared lives of those of the postwar generations who formed, inhabited and were born into them.                                                                         


Iain Boal, Michael Watts, Cal Winslow
Institute of International Studies, Berkeley
& The Mendocino Institute, Mendocino, CA

The Mendocino Institute
PO Box 1281
Mendocino, CA 95460
(707) 962-9213