Agrarian Socialism In America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920. By Jim Bissett (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999.)
Most Americans are unaware of the fact that the rural state of Oklahoma supported the strongest socialist movement that any American State ever produced. This apparently anomalous development has been chronicled by a number of scholars over the past 40 years. The first modern study was Howard L. Meredith’s 1969 Ph.D. dissertation “A History of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma, ” which was soon followed by Garin Burbank’s When Farmers Voted Red and James R. Green’s Grassroots Socialism in 1976 and 1978 respectively.(1) While all three are excellent studies, a more recent book, Jim Bissett’s Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920 (1999), covers the same ground most successfully to date through clear arguments and an energetic and sympathetic point of view.
Bissett organizes his study into chronological chapters which are limited in scope to the rise and demise of The Farmer’s Union from 1904-1907 and the ascent and decline of the Oklahoma Socialist Party from 1907 to 1920. As the Farmer’s Union fell apart many of its disgruntled members found their way into the Oklahoma Socialist Party, which they would reshape into an astoundingly effective movement between 1910 and 1917. During World War I, wartime repression would destroy the Oklahoma Socialist Party by 1920.(2)
The author identifies four factors which account for the success of the Oklahoma Socialist Party. First, the Farmer’s Union provided the Socialists with experienced protest leaders. Second, the campaigns the union engaged in produced a “class conscious farmer community” with a “sophisticated” understanding of how they had been victimized by the commercial agricultural system. Third, the internecine conflicts between the rank-and- file and the leadership of the Farmer’s Union, had imparted to the farmers a preference for a more decentralized and democratic organizational structure, a preference they vigorously demanded of their adopted party. And finally, the ever-present evangelical Protestantism of rural Oklahomans buttressed their critique of market capitalism.
Even though not all of the Union’s membership crossed over to the Socialist Party, Bissett maintains that much of the rank-and -file did due to specific failings of the Farmer’s Union. The Union boomed during the years between 1904 and 1907 as long as it represented “working farmers” and advocated fundamental structural reforms to commercial agriculture. Under the leadership of old Alliancemen and Populists, the union at first rejected landlord control and pushed for cooperative projects such as “crop withholding” and “clearinghouses” for buying and selling modelled on the Farmer’s Alliance Exchanges of the 1880s. By 1906, this “radical” agenda came under attack from within the organization and without. Inside the Union the large landholders and landlords sought to seize the leadership from the reformers and turn the organization into something more resembling a professional association more amenable to their interests. They succeeded, but at an enormous cost. Certain that the Union no longer represented their interests, the ‘working farmers” (small landholders and tenants), “voted with their feet.” By 1907 , The number of members in the Farmer’s Union’s plummeted from 70,000 to 3,000. From the outside, commercial interests from furnishing merchants to banks and coal mines boycotted the Union’s cooperative marketing efforts. In short, as Bissett points out, The Farmer’s Union failed due to the coercion of the capitalists and the co-option of its leadership.
These class conscious farmers, the author’s second factor, received no relief from the Democratic party, whose leaders were the same landlords who had destroyed the Union. The detailed understanding of commercial farming that such veterans of had acquired in from 1904-1907 further alienated them the Democratic Party and its leadership. Therefore, many turned to the nascent Socialist Party just entering the state via organizers from the Midwest. Augmented by some prominent ex-Populists, the Sooner Socialist Party began attracting tenants and other “working farmers” with its opposition to the then current system.
Bissett’s third major factor in explaining the growth of the Socialist party in Oklahoma centers on the doggedly democratic tendencies of the farmer’s union veterans that comprised the rank-and-file. The Sooner radicals rejected the authoritarian party structure that was presented to them by Victor Berger’s Milwaukee-trained organizers.Their wariness, he posits, sprang from their all-too-recent betrayal by the erstwhile leaders of the Farmer’s Union. Before Oklahoma farmers voted Socialist, they would remake the Party from the bottom up in their own democratic and decentralized image. With this restructuring in place they were ready to effect another change that would win The Socialist Party its brief second party status. This substantive change centered on the clash between Marxist orthodoxy on the one hand versus the cultural expectations and practical experiences of the farmers on the other. The early Socialist Party called for the total collectivisation of landownership as per Marxist theory interpreted by Midwestern laborites. Bissett asserts that the plain folk rejected this formula immediately; and that party candidates got nowhere with Sooner voters until after The 1910 Land compromise. Oklahomans demanded a reconsideration of the land issue, explaining that farmers wanted less concentration of land ownership, not more. Since the state Party leadership was more pragmatic and less dogmatic, they freely revised Karl Marx by identifying the exploitation of labor, not land ownership, was the “sin” of property. By so doing the Sooner socialist Party would lead the Socialist Party Of America to embrace the property rights of family farmers who worked their own land. Moreover, the Party even promised toa more widespread distribution of landownership among current tenants as an alternative to public ownership of all agricultural acreage. Here is where, according to the author, the Jeffersonian connection lies, for in advocating widespread ownership of the land among the plain folk, The Oklahoma socialist were harkening back to their republican political heritage.
The author’s fourth and final factor focuses on the relationship between agrarian radicalism and evangelical Christianity. The rhetorical change that defined Sooner Socialism, Bissett argues convincingly, was the adoption of the language of the rural evangelical Protestant church as the chief method propagation. Other scholars, including James R. Green in Grassroots Socialism, have commented on this without delineating it as thoroughly or as accurately as Bissett. While Green sees the Socialist’s evangelical rhetoric as, at best a propaganda tool, and at worst, an embarrassing betrayal of true materialism, Bissett makes the connection between the rural radicals’ faith and their critique of the marketplace. Indeed, the local leadership of the rural church was often also the leadership of the Socialist Party. Southern Baptist, Methodist, church of christ and Pentecostal pastors and ministers played a disproportionately large roles as socialist candidates, organizers, and lecturers. From their perspective , the Socialist goal for society had more in common with the Gospels than did the early 20th Century marketplace.
Agrarian Socialism in America is a well-written and clearly presented study of Agrarian Radicalism in a Southwestern state. It also sheds light on a forgotten aspect of early Twentieth Century American Radical History. For both those reasons it should be highly recommended.
1) Howard L Meredith, “A History of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma. (PhD. diss.., University of Oklahoma, 1969); Garin Burbank, When Farmers Voted Red: The Gospel of Socialism in the in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1910-1924 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976); James R. Green, Grassroots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).
2) On wartime repression see Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Pres, 1955); William Preston, Jr., Aliens and Dissenters: Federal Suppression of Radicals, 1903-1933. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1963); Richard Polenberg, Fighting Faiths; The Abrams Case, The supreme Court, and Free Speech (New York: Penguin Books, 1987).