Haskell, Burnette G. (1857–1907)

Burnette G. Haskell served a significant role in the labor and utopian community movements of California in the late nineteenth century. Haskell is best known as the founder of San Francisco's International Workingman's Association and for his leadership role in the utopian Kaweah Co-operative Commonwealth near Visalia, California. At various times before in death in 1907, Haskell was a self-avowed socialist, communist-anarchist, cooperatist, and Bellamy Nationalist.

A first-generation native Californian, Burnette G. Haskell was born in Sierra County in June 1857 to pioneer parents. After attending, but failing to graduate from, the University of California, University of Illinois, and Oberlin College, Haskell took and passed the California bar in 1879. He soon eschewed a career in law in favor of journalism. This opportunity presented itself as his uncle offered the young man a position as editor of his newly created weekly newspaper Truth.

As editor of Truth, Haskell stumbled upon the issue that ignited his passion and defined the course that his life was to take. While covering the meetings of San Francisco's Trades and Labor Assembly, the young reporter began to identify with laborers. He subsequently immersed himself in the study of labor and labor organization, quickly becoming known as the most well-read man in the California labor movement. Haskell's studies led him to the conclusion that San Francisco's existing labor organizations were too restrictive and conservative. By then a self-confirmed socialist, he founded the International Workingman's Association (IWA).

Haskell's IWA prospered early on. Drawing inspiration from Marx's and Engel's First Socialist International and Bakunin's International Working People's Associations, the group attracted between 5,000 and 10,000 members by the early 1880s. The IWA's strongest areas proved to be the Pacific Coast and Rocky Mountain states. Truth served as its official mouthpiece, with articles often noted for their violent tone in regard to the working-class struggle.

By the mid-1880s, Haskell's interest in the IWA waned as he found the prospects of successful class revolution less likely and the allure of utopian separatism increasingly attractive. After reading Laurence Gronlund's Cooperative Commonwealth in 1884, Haskell joined with James J. Martin to found the Kaweah Co-operative Commonwealth colony in the area that became, six years later, the Sequoia National Park. The colony aimed to show that practical socialism could succeed in a self-supportive cooperative settlement. As the Kaweah colony consumed Haskell's interest, the IWA suffered. Without Haskell's leadership, the organization fell into decline and dissolved by the late 1880s.

As Haskell attempted to keep the Kaweah colony afloat, he also became deeply involved with Bellamy Nationalism. This movement took its inspiration from Edward Bellamy's 1888 utopian novel Looking Backward. Bellamyites across the country formed Nationalist Clubs in the years following the book's publication. These clubs stressed the development of a classless society defined by cooperation rather than competition. All means of production, including land, industry, and retail establishments, would be owned by the government and operated for the benefit of the people. Haskell founded an influential Bellamyite Nationalist Club in San Francisco in the spring of 1889. While he hoped to employ the popularity of such clubs to recruit new colonists to Kaweah, he also promoted the transformation of San Francisco into a Nationalist city. While this failed to occur, California Nationalist clubs proved popular, accounting for more than half of all such clubs nationwide in 1890. Many of these Nationalists ultimately joined with Farmers’ Alliance members to form California's Populist People's Party in 1891.

Following his flirtation with Bellamy Nationalism and the ultimate failure of the Kaweah colony, Haskell spent the remaining years of his life in obscurity, attempting to gain compensation from the federal government for losses incurred as the result of the Kaweah colony's failure. Specifically, he sought compensation for the $50,000 road the Kaweans constructed leading into the Giant Forest. This road served for decades as the only entrance into Sequoia National Park. Disgruntled, alone, and rumored to be addicted to alcohol and opium, the socialist, communist-anarchist, and cooperative utopian died in a shack overlooking the Pacific Ocean near San Francisco in June 1907. His funeral was conducted by the Sailors Union of the Pacific.

Jonathan Lavon Foster

See also: Bellamy, Edward (1850–1898) ; Gilded Age ; Gronlund, Laurence (1846–1899) ; Haskell, Anna Fader (1858–1942) ; Kaweah Colony ; People's Party


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