Remembering the Mojave's Socialist Utopia
Speeding through the Mojave Desert along California’s narrow Pearblossom Highway, one would not be faulted for missing two cobblestone chimneys jutting up from the dusty flat of juniper and scrub brush, just off of the shoulder. Even if you were to notice the structure, pull over to take a closer look and there’s no indication of its significance — no plaque to denote its status as a California historical landmark, much less the details of its history as an attempt to germinate socialism in the Southwest.
The chimneys are but one of an archipelago of rocky skeletal remains that stretch out over a mile, bisected now by a paved highway, which once made up the infrastructure of the Llano Del Rio commune. Between 1914 and 1918, Llano would expand at a rate which rivaled the pace of nearby Los Angeles, drawing in more than 1,500 colonists on the promise of social and economic cooperation, cultivating the arid land for agricultural production, and appearing to offer an escape from the stranglehold of capital. Despite its initial success however, machinations from both within and without the colony would lead to a premature demise, and relegate it to a mere historical footnote in the struggle to build socialism in the United States.
To excavate Llano, and to better understand its significance, we have to begin by examining the events and conditions which paved the way for its creation.
Job Harriman, a magnetic figure in California’s socialist movement during the late 1800’s, had not always been as such. Growing up and attending seminary in the midwest, he had grown discontented with the church and its seeming inability to address or alleviate the suffering of common people. Upon relocating to San Francisco in 1886, Harriman earned a law degree and soon came into contact with the robust labor movement of the Bay Area. Introduced to the writing of Marx, DeLeon, and others, the minister turned lawyer soon came to embrace the socialist cause.
Harriman, who joined the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), showed early promise in the organization thanks to his fiery oration and prowess in public debates. Rising through the ranks, Harriman would go on to lead an energized, albeit unsuccessful, bid as the SLP candidate for governor of California in 1898.
After a bitter split rendered the SLP paralyzed in 1899, Harriman jumped ship to join the Social Democratic Party (SDP) of Eugene V. Debs. During the 1900 election, Harriman ran on the SDP presidential ticket as Debs’ VP — an event which would mark the first entrance of socialist candidates in a U.S. presidential election. Unfortunately, the SDP received little traction with this initial foray, only garnering half a percentage point in returns.
After the defeat in the 1900 election, Harriman relocated with his family from San Francisco to Los Angeles, a move that would set the stage for his reentry into electoral politics at the local level, and the hatching of a scheme to create socialism in the desert.
Bombs and Ballots
The struggle to build a militant labor movement in the Southwest of the United States had long been acrimonious, and at times, violent. This was especially true in Los Angeles, where industrialists had early organized themselves into the Merchants and Manufacturers Association (M&M), the aim of which was to wage a preemptive open shop campaign against encroaching unionism. Key to this effort was publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Harrison Gray Otis, who used the paper to promulgate a steady stream of extraordinarily hostile anti-union invective.
By the turn of the century, the open shop push had been largely successful in L.A., preventing labor organizations from making any significant inroads in the city. Entering the early 1900’s, open shop tactics had proliferated across the whole of the U.S. — posing a significant existential threat to organized labor and the gains that it had made over the last half century. Reeling from a series of defeats that had nearly eviscerated their organization, officials within the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers (also known simply as the Iron Workers), began laying the groundwork for a retaliatory bombing campaign, aimed at anti-union heads of industry.
In 1910, secretary-treasurer of the Iron Workers J.J. McNamara enlisted his younger brother, J.B. McNamara, to carry out the next in a series of attacks that had, up to that point, mainly targeted infrastructure constructed using scab labor. J.B.’s targets were chosen to signal an escalation in the campaign; The L.A. Times building, as well as the homes of Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, and M&M secretary Felix Zeehandelaar.
Just after 1 a.m. on October 1st, 1910, the first of the bombs planted by the younger McNamara exploded in an alley beside the Times building. The blast triggered a series of gas pipe explosions and resulted in the collapse of one of the building’s major retaining walls. All told, the explosion killed 21 Times employees. Due to faulty wiring, the other two bombs did not detonate and were soon discovered by police — leading to the arrests of both J.J. and J.B. McNamara.
The arrest of the McNamaras sent shockwaves through the union movement, many of whose adherents were sure that the brothers had been framed. Given his status and politics, Job Harriman was initially chosen to represent the brothers. Despite the fact that Harriman was in the middle of waging a campaign for mayor of Los Angeles, he agreed to take on the case, assured of the brothers’ innocence. As preparations for the trial got underway, the case became a national cause célèbre for labor. Recognizing the case as a referendum on the whole of the union movement, the AFL mobilized resources in order to help retain high profile lawyer Clarence Darrow to serve as chief defense for the McNamara brothers.
At the brothers’ arraignment on May 5, 1911, they entered a plea of not guilty. Over the course of the next months, Harriman worked closely with Darrow to assemble a defense strategy. As jury selection began in late October however, Darrow began a series of closed door meetings with the publisher of the Times, as well as other key members of the M&M. Unbeknownst to Harriman, Darrow had promised in these meetings that the McNamara’s would change their plea to guilty, so long as the industrialists agreed to lobby the prosecutor for a lighter sentence.
Shortly after the jury selection process got underway, the McNamaras plead to the murder and terrorism charges in open court. The revelation of the brothers’ guilt caught Harriman off guard and all but quashed what, up to that point, was a near assured victory in the mayoral race. Where Harriman had lead the pack in the primary, earning 44% of votes — the general election, held after the close of the McNamara affair, saw Harriman lose to his Democratic opponent by double digits.
Undeterred, Harriman once again ran for mayoral office in 1913. Still dogged by an association with the Times bombing, the ever hopeful socialist candidate was once again unsuccessful in securing a place in office. This defeat would send Harriman into a period of reflection, not only about his chances as a candidate, but about socialist strategy in general.
Llano Del Rio
When he returned to the public stage, Harriman would do so not as a candidate, but as a visionary asserting that examples of existing socialism were necessary to demonstrate the viability of the socialist programme. Harriman remarked that “people would never abandon their means of livelihood, good or bad, capitalistic or otherwise, until other methods were developed which would promise advantages at least as good as those by which they were living”. Thus, he set about enlisting the help of other prominent L.A. socialists in realizing the project to build a living socialist utopia.
Harriman and the others soon found an opportunity when they came across the Mescal Water and Land Company, which owned more than 10,000 acres near the Antelope Valley, situated about 80 miles north of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert. Financially insolvent and looking to offload their holdings, the Mescal Company agreed to sell a parcel of 9,000 acres, crucially accompanied by water rights. The site was especially appealing to the socialists, as it had already been partially developed as a camp by the temperance movement. Harriman and five partners were also able to purchase the bonds that had been used to finance the earlier camp’s efforts, buying them up at a cut rate price, thus giving them control of the Mescal Company.
Once in control of the Mescal Company, the socialists promptly reorganized and renamed the firm. The Llano Del Rio Company would oversee sale of stock to help fund the project, as well as to prepare the settlement for future inhabitants. With help from Corona banker and socialist Gentry P. McCorkle, the board determined that potential colonists should be required to purchase 2,000 shares of stock, at $1 a share, to help ensure the project’s financial viability and ostensibly give every resident an equal share in the project. In exchange, colonists would be guaranteed a wage of $4 a day, along with access to necessary tools, housing, and life essentials.
While dealing simultaneously with the purchase of the Mescal Company, Harriman also sought out the owners of the recently minted socialist weekly, The Western Comrade, which was based out of Los Angeles. Harriman was able to purchase the publication, from thereon utilizing it as a means to help advertise the Llano project and attract potential members to the colony. After being informed of the necessary financial commitment, applicants were chosen based on their dedication to socialist ideals, their sobriety, and their ability to provide three personal references.
In early 1914, a team of future colonists traveled to the proposed site and began the back breaking work of digging irrigation ditches, clearing the rocky soil, and laying foundations for future buildings. Most of these workers labored in exchange for the requisite shares in the colony, while others were paid the promised $4 daily wage.
In preparation for the opening of the commune, slated to take place on May Day 1914, the first starry eyed settlers began their journey to the site of their future home. Initially occupied by only 5 individuals and a herd of farm animals, the conditions were expectedly difficult. With no permanent structures yet erected, early colonists lived in canvas tents and bathed in the nearby Big Rock Creek. Despite the adversity they faced, the idealism of the early tenants was unshaken — in his book California’s Utopian Colonies, author Robert Hine quotes one Millie Miller, a Llano inhabitant, as stating early on: “We felt happy, exhilarated, and confident that the Llano del Rio Co-operative Colony would, indeed, become a paradise on earth”.
Slowly but surely, the settlement expanded in both population and scope. By January of 1915, the number of residents at Llano had grown to 150. With the necessary labor force now on site, plans to expand the infrastructure of the settlement could begin in earnest. Architect and socialist-feminist Alice Constance Austin was entrusted with city planning for Llano. Austin developed an ambitious circular design for the town, which situated a general assembly hall at its center, with row houses, gardens, restaurants, schools, and workshops radiating outwards. Austin also brought her feminist politics to bear on designs for personal dwellings at the settlement, intentionally leaving houses without kitchens or facilities for washing clothes. Instead she opted to lay plans for communal kitchens, laundries, and daycare facilities. Unfortunately, Llano would not survive long enough to see most of Austin’s plans come to fruition.
By late 1915, numerous buildings had been completed at the colony, including a lime kiln, sawmill, laundry, fish hatchery, cannery, and various machine shops. With its open floor plan, large cobblestone fireplaces, and communal dining room however, the crowning achievement of the commune was undoubtedly the hotel. Colonists and intrigued visitors alike would flock to the craggy building to discuss and debate issues, eat, dance, and gather around the open hearths on cold desert nights. The hotel was also where the commune’s main decision making body, the General Assembly, met to democratically render decisions about the trajectory of Llano.
At the close of 1915, the growth of the colony was self evident, its number of inhabitants having more than tripled over the course of the year. While there was a steady turnover rate in residents, the overall population continued on an upward trend.
During 1916, Llano’s agricultural initiatives began to bear fruit, in the most literal sense of the phrase. The sandy, rock filled soil, while far from ideal, was cleared and tilled until it was ready for planting. Rows of corn, alfalfa, beans, and wheat produced an astonishing abundance. The co-operative labor of the colony even began to plant hundreds of acres of orchards, with the intent to produce pears as a staple crop. A Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued in 1916, detailing the first year of agricultural production at Llano, surmised that the colony was nearly self sufficient thanks to its agricultural ventures, having to import less than 10% of the food it consumed.
With food security firmly in place, the colony expanded at an increasingly rapid clip. By mid-1916, permanent residents number more than one thousand. The General Assembly established new facilities and departments to meet the needs and desires of colonists. These included a bakery, art studios, carpentry, beekeeping, medical services, a post office, library, sanitation, shoe and clothing workshops, a printing press for The Western Comrade, tannery, and soap production, among others industries.
The cultural life at Llano was also booming, with bi-weekly dances usually turning into raucous events that the whole town turned out for. Sports teams were formed and intra-colony league games were well attended. A vast library furnished those with intellectual proclivities, while individuals who were less inclined to engage in academic pursuits could build their skills in the industrial school, join the colony’s orchestra, or participate in the shooting club. Interestingly, Llano also hosted the first Montessori school on the west coast, ensuring that the children of the settlement received an education.
Even with the continued growth and success of the commune and its initiatives, by 1917, all was not well. While the Generally Assembly had been established as the democratic organ of Llano, the initial board of directors who oversaw the Llano Del Rio Company retained a great deal of control. Justifying their power, the board members claimed that they only intervened when a matter necessitated the type of expediency that the General Assembly could not offer. A faction of colonists claimed that the mere existence of the board flew in the face of Llano’s egalitarian ideals. Political tensions in the commune drove some to desert the project, fearing that it would soon devolve into a dictatorial regime.
But it wasn’t political strife that sounded a death knell for the desert utopia, it was the loss of its water. By mid 1917, the colony hosted an astounding 1,500 residents — a number that necessitated further development of infrastructure. The water provided by Big Rock Creek, used for everything from irrigation, to washing, to industrial processes, was abundant if not intermittent in its flow. To ensure an ample year round water supply for the growing settlement, the colonists applied for a state permit so as to construct a dam and reservoir on the creek. The state commissioner, H.L. Carnahan, returned his ruling: “Your people do not seem to have the necessary amount of experience and maybe the sums of money it will involve [...]”. The permit was denied.
Now thrown into the depths of a water crisis, Llano’s board of directors frantically began searching for a location to move the settlement, all the while keeping the extent of the problems from the General Assembly. Areas to the north in California’s San Joaquin valley were scouted, but none fit the specifications necessary to sustain the colony. In the summer of 1917, the commune hosted a visiting socialist lecturer, Jake Rhodes, who informed Harriman of a land tract for sale in Louisiana that he felt would be ideal for Llano’s relocation. After contacting the owners of the parcel and negotiating a price, the deal was done — the colony would pick up and move some 1,700 miles to its new home.
Understandably taken by surprise, when the news was announced to the General Assembly, it set off of wave of desertions and denouncements. For the first time in its short history, the population of the colony began to retract.
In March of 1918, the last communal meal was held in Llano’s hotel. Only about 100 original colonists had made plans to relocate to Louisiana. Among them is Harriman who, playing the eternal optimist, is quoted by Paul Conkin in his book Two Paths Two Utopia, as stating that Llano had “progressed from a ‘Utopian, chimerical idea’ to a concrete practicality – from a dozen dreamers to a thousand determined doers”.
Harriman would only spend a short time in Louisiana, where the damp climate induced bronchial infections in the aging man. Moving back to Los Angeles soon after the relocation of the colony was complete, Harriman would go to his grave with his pet project damaged, but intact. Job Harriman died at the age of 61.
New Llano, as it was called, would linger on in its Louisiana home until the early 1930’s. Sadly, it would never achieve the same success that its earlier incarnation had. In its twilight, New Llano would serve as a refuge for socialists and communists to ride out the Depression, until it too folded and its residents dispersed.
The Meaning of Llano
One hundred years on from Llano’s demise, we can look back on the experiment and marvel over the ability of its cohort to not only carve out an existence in the harshest of conditions, but to provide for themselves abundance and leisure.
While not igniting a socialist flame in the hearts of Americans as Harriman had hoped, Llano did and does stand as a testament to what can be achieved when cooperation is a central tenet of any project.
The 1970’s would see a resurgence of the utopian community model, prompting radicals frustrated by their inability to marshal social change on a mass scale, to construct their ideal societies in miniature. Dropping out to build utopia did in the late 1800’s, as it did in the 1970’s, as it does now, appeal to some as the way forward. Unfortunately, as history has demonstrated, cloistering oneself away in these sorts of communities only produces change in isolation, if it does at all.
If there is a path to utopia, surely it will not be as direct as what the denizens of Llano Del Rio had imagined it to be. Instead, it will be hard won through self organization, engaging with our material reality, and the building of mass movements.
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