Book Review: Jim Bissett’s Agrarian Socialism In America

21 Dec

[Blogger’s note, 12/4/13: I recently found this review. It goes into more detail and in other ways is better than the one below.]

Agrarian socialism, is such a thing possible? That’s one of the questions the Socialist Party of Oklahoma endeavored to sort out.

The subtitle of the book is Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside 1904-1920, and I have never read anything quite like it. In theory, the issue of religion was resolved, for Marxists anyway, in Erfurt long ago when it was determined that it would remain a personal and not a doctrinal matter. However, the debate has never abated. Some Lefties are happy to welcome theists into the revolutionary fold, while others see supernaturalism as inherently reactionary. I am in the former camp and have long denounced the Left’s war on the pulpit. Bissett’s book does not attempt to decide the point, rather it is a simple narrative of those tenant farmers and smallholders who grappled with these concerns and forged an unlikely, working synthesis of the seemingly irreconcilable ideas of the three aforementioned thinkers.

After capital had successfully subverted a recently formed farmers’ union, many of the disgruntled drifted into the Socialist Party, swelling its ranks with experienced organizers. But here they encountered a political culture whose goals conflicted with their own. Were farmers workers? Private ownership of land? For orthodox Marxists, the aspirations of the Oklahoma peasantry were counterrevolutionary. However, by force of numbers, these and other issues were resolved in favor of the farmers and a socialist party like no other began to take shape.

The Party leadership understood that rural Oklahoma was God’s country and Sooner socialism early on had an unmistakable Protestant fundamentalist ethos. Party events were staged like tent revival evangelism and organizers peppered their exhortations with quotes from Marx and the Gospels. A few bible-thumping preachers joined the Party and led the assault on the Oklahoma plutocracy.

The Marx-Jefferson-Jesus synergy proved a potent one and came to threaten the hegemony of the Democrat-Republican duopoly. Reaction came quickly enough. What is perhaps of greatest interest for contemporary radicals is that the strategy adopted by the oligarchs was to sunder the Cross from Socialism. A propaganda campaign which disputed the piety of the Christian socialists was launched and a custody battle over Jesus ensued. Whether this tack would have proved successful, and if so whether it would have brought the demise of the Socialist Party of Oklahoma, we will never know as the effort coincided with Woodrow Wilson’s war to make the world safe for capitalism. In the jingoist tumult which resulted, the Party’s implacable anti-war position, commendable as it was, was its undoing. Defeated and demonized, the brief yet impressive rise of Sooner socialism came to an end.

This book is a neglected labor gem. Bissett’s exposition and analysis of the thorny issues entailed is skillful. And his genial, breezy prose style is engaging (halfway through the first chapter I wanted to pour him a cup of coffee). Agrarian Socialism forms an odd symmetry with Robin D. G. Kelley’s Hammer and Hoe. If pressed, I’m not sure I could say why, but one might consider reading them in tandem.

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