Historian of the city, politics, and society
(Co-written with Colin Coates and originally posted at Activehistory.ca)
“The rise and fall of America’s largest socialist utopian experiment”
-Program blurb from the 2013 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival
This post, inspired by the documentary film American Commune (2013) by Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo, takes two different looks at the history of a 1970s countercultural commune located in the southern US. The first is a broad reflection on how we frame the stories of utopian experiments, while the second explores how communes were the subject of special scrutiny by the North American state.
“DOOMED TO FAIL?”: HOW WE REMEMBER UTOPIAN EXPERIMENTS
It is a standard to describe the history of utopian communities as involving a “rise and fall.” In fact, what often makes utopian experiments so appealing to writers is their fall, the result of disastrous, wooly-headed dreams that could not adjust to the realities within which the communities were located. The very idealism that underpinned their foundation, and led to their “rise,” also ensured their inability to survive. It is a tidy narrative, where the utopians’ hubris guarantees their downfall. But is it too tidy? Maybe utopians fail for the same mundane reasons that the rest of us do.
This compelling documentary film tells the story of two sisters who come to terms with their childhood. Born on “The Farm,” the archetypical hippy commune of the 1970s, Rena Mundo Croshere and Nadine Mundo left the community as their parents’ marriage disintegrated, an event which seems tied chronologically and causally to the end of the utopian phase of “The Farm.” They weave home movies shot on The Farm, contemporary news reports of the famous (and infamous) commune, and family photos with recent footage of a reunion and interviews with their family and many former adult and children members of the community.
(For access to a gallery of historical photographs from the farm, click here)
Founder Stephen Gaskin looms large in American Commune, a religious inspiration, solver of community discord, and occasional authoritarian. The film states that he forbade birth control on The Farm, and hence the eldest daughter was conceived and the family was formed. On this remote acreage in Tennessee, firmly in the Bible Belt – though Gaskin is a compelling spiritual leader in his own right – the sisters, and their brother (who appears only briefly), spent their early years in the isolated, safe, treed environment, surrounded by children their own age and a large community of adults who shared a counterculture dream.
Family structures could be fluid, though the filmmakers’ parents apparently remained together until their acrimonious divorce. Members of the community contributed their labour to the collective good, and cash was almost entirely absent. The Farm attempted to reach the goal of self-sufficiency that many 1960s and 1970s back-to-the-land readers of Thoreau’s Walden believed they could attain. Members swore an oath of poverty and turned over their wealth to the whole. The Farm epitomizes many of the standard features of a utopian settlement: separation from whatever is deemed the “mainstream,” a charismatic leader, communal property, an overarching goal of bettering the world. In one key way it was different. Gaskin did not exclude anyone who wished to join The Farm, regardless of whatever wealth they could contribute. There were no metaphorical gates on the farm.
As a result, The Farm could not last, the film states. Early in the film we see the ramshackle huts in which the early families had lived being torn down; the buses on which the founding members had travelled from California to Tennessee in 1971 were rusting. The Farm of the women’s childhood was no more. However, an interview partway through shows that it shifted from a commune to a decollectivized intentional community after its crisis in the early 1980s. The film ends by commenting that the The Farm was the longest utopian experiment in American history. This detail is not true – a number of other communes have lasted longer. The Oneida Community lasted from 1848 to 1881, New Llano in Louisiana from 1917 to 1939, and various Hutterite colonies in the United States and Canada dating back over 80 years are still going strong. But the film also accepts that The Farm experiment continues into the present. After all, there was a place in which to hold the reunion, and Stephen and Ina May Gaskin still live on the land. And poignantly, the former members rally around one of filmmakers at a time of personal need. The spirit of the community transcends the decades.
A few events led to the end of Gaskin’s leadership in the early 1980s: an FBI raid in search of a marijuana plantation (they found milkweed patches instead), the limitations of self-sufficiency, and bank decisions to call in loans, which were supposedly linked to the police raids. I think that here the filmmakers may have touched on a key moment for a variety of utopian settlements in both Canada and the United States. Undercapitalized in general, communes depended on cheap land. Land was often cheapest when it was rather unproductive. And it was easiest to live on cheap, marginal land when the financial costs of remaining there were lower. By 1981 and 1982, interest rates neared 20% in the United States and Canada. Few utopians, or non-utopians for that matter, were prepared for such an increase in borrowing costs, and particularly for those who believed in self-sufficiency and cashlessness, the costs were too burdensome. I would suggest that the historical context of utopias must be acknowledged as well. Utopias are not ipso facto fated to fail, any more than any attempt at agrarian settlement or business creation is fated to succeed.
But to tell the story of the fall of the utopian experiment is to reassure ourselves that, as wonderful as the dreams may be, they really are not practical. We don’t really have to bother with such reveries. But sometimes the historical contingency of a mundane issue like high interest rates can actually influence the rise and fall of utopia.
HARMLESS HIPPIES OR DANGEROUS SUBVERSIVES? NATIONAL SECURITY AND COUNTERCULTURAL COMMUNES
In retrospective, utopian experiments may appear as beautiful but necessarily ephemeral experiments. From the point of view of the state, this was not always the case. Before nostalgia for countercultural living, there was anxiety, particularly on the part of the Cold War-era state. Considerable government resources were devoted to the surveillance of the seemingly harmless Farm residents in the United States, and, it turns out, in Canada as well.
Over the past twenty years, scholars have documented amply how agencies like the FBI in the United States, and CSIS and the RCMP in Canada devoted considerable resources to policing political dissent in the 1960s and 1970s. Surveillance and undercover operations produced information on, and directly influenced the fate of groups ranging from the Black Panthers (see my previous post here) to Canadian hippies. As persistent use of access to information legislation on both sides of the border has demonstrated, it was a rare non-conformist who did not have a file with the RCMP or FBI – or both. Recently, for example, it has come out that both singer Rita McNeil and father of Medicare and former premier of Saskatchewan Tommy Douglas had extensive RCMP files.
Stephen Gaskin and The Farm were no exception. From 1970 until well into the 1980s, the FBI generated reams of reports on the commune and its residents, investigating whether their socialist lifestyle, drug use, cultish behaviour, and links to the peace movement made them criminals or threats to national security. Farm resident Albert Bates has documented how agents followed Gaskin and his fellow communards on their trek east looking for land, and surveilled their activities once they were established in Tennessee. At least one agent seems to have infiltrated the community, and Gaskin was interviewed on several occasions by the agency (who referred to him as a “very reliable source”). Yet these investigations seem to have turned up little that could harm The Farm, although Bates and other long-time residents maintain that the FBI had a hand in the unfavourable loan renegotiations that eventually bankrupted the community in the 1980s.
The story does not end there, however. An access to information request made earlier this year reveals a Canadian dimension to state concern with The Farm and its projects. In the late 1970s—if not before—the Intelligence Division of Canadian Immigration had its own file on the commune. Heavily redacted and in part destroyed, the file remains interesting reading for its insight into state methods and concerns.
In 1977 two groups of communards from The Farm crossed the border north into Canada, settling in rural Hampton, Nova Scotia and Lanark, Ontario, where they established branch offices of the commune’s international aid NGO, called PLENTY, and began fundraising. Since 1974, PLENTY had been involved in providing aid to disaster victims around the world, mostly in the form of food and reconstruction projects. In 1976 and 1977 PLENTY volunteers from The Farm were working hand in hand with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) providing earthquake relief in Guatemala.
The Farm residents who moved to Canada in 1977 were quickly flagged by Immigration Intelligence officers for further investigation. It was the communards’ international aid activities—as detailed in an article in the local Perth Courier—that originally brought them to the attention of immigration, but it is not clear why they merited investigation. Immigration status may have been an issue for the group that settled in Hampton, but it was not for the couple who moved to Lanark, Canadian Allan Brown and his American wife Susan, who was a landed immigrant. Instead, it is likely that the PLENTY activists were targeted in the context of a larger investigation of American immigration to eastern Ontario communes: authorities seem to have seen the Browns as part of a potentially dangerous chain migration of radicals and long-haired do-gooders from south of the border. One label applied to associated records was “Non-Immigrants – Vagrant Control,” suggesting their potential to be a burden on the state or to attract other unproductive (and illegal) immigrants.
Officials in both Nova Scotia and Ontario created files on the PLENTY organizers. Investigators reported to Ottawa that “PLENTY claims to be a non-profit charitable organization with headquarters in Nova Scotia. They claim they are engaged in raising money for Guatemala relief.” However, they raised doubts as to where the money being raised was actually going, arguing that controls on CIDA programs were “very lax and a group such as PLENTY could use funds for their own purpose”. In the 1960s and 1970s a number of government efforts to build infrastructure and civil society—including the Company of Young Canadians and the Local Initiatives and Opportunities for Youth programs—raised similar doubts from security services and conservative politicians, who felt that taxpayers’ dollars were being used to fund dissent. The press often echoed this concern, or at least played upon the incongruity of state funding of so-called “shit-disturbers”. In the case of PLENTY, a 1977 Toronto Star article mused that Canada was “giving U.S. hippies $70,000 to rebuild Guatemala town”.
Background checks revealed that none of those concerned had criminal records in Canada, but the investigation did not end there. Officers communicated with authorities in the United States to learn more about The Farm and Stephen Gaskin, receiving in response newspaper clippings about the commune as well as a copy of a detailed file on Gaskin, produced by the Tennessee Department of Corrections following his 1974-5 imprisonment on marijuana charges (received for growing plants at The Farm). The report describes Gaskin as intelligent, energetic, and responsive to counselling: an ideal prisoner, apart from the fact that the main entry under his “Interests and Activities” was the growing and use of marijuana.
For the moment it is impossible to say what, if anything, was done with this information. The file does not seem to have been widely read: it was checked out seven times over the course of 1977, and then just once more in 1979. What is clear, however, is that the Canadian security services, like their American counterparts, were invested in keeping an eye on those citizens who had decided that the best solution to a society they did not accept was to build a better one. If the goal of many countercultural utopias of the 1960s and 1970s was to escape from an oppressive and unjust system, the suspicions generated by that ideal ensured that back-to-the-landers never strayed too far from the watchful eye of the state.
American Commune reminds us of the optimism and idealism that underlay this attempt to create a different way of living, just as the state-produced records underscore the obstacles that faced those who wished to imagine alternative futures.
Timothy Miller, The 60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999).
Reg Whitaker, Gregory S. Kealey, and Andrew Parnaby, Secret Service: Political Policing in Canada from the Fenians to Fortress America (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2012).
Ivan Greenberg, Surveillance in America: Critical Analysis of the FBI, 1920 to the Present (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2012).