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Agrarian Socialism in America
Courtesy of the University of Oklahoma Press


It comes as something of a surprise that the strongest state expression of socialism in the United States occurred, not in the urban citadels of the American working class, but in the remote towns and hamlets of rural Oklahoma. There, in the first two decades of the twentieth century, a remarkable movement emerged that successfully elected its candidates to a myriad of state and local offices. In many areas of the state, socialists surpassed Republicans as the Democratic Party's most potent challengers for political office, and between 1914 and 1917 the Socialist Party of Oklahoma was without question a major political force in the Sooner State. Although the Party's demise during the war years was rapid, for a brief and singular moment political leaders in Oklahoma confronted the prospect of sharing power with the Socialist Party.

Why was the Sooner State, of all places, more hospitable to Marxian socialism than any other state in America? Economic reasons are an indisputable factor. But, although the severe agricultural crisis that gripped the South during the early twentieth century provided the context for socialist success, it provides only part of the explanation. The twin evils of low crop prices and high credit costs consigned most Oklahoma farmers to a life of poverty and indebtedness, and many responded to this plight by turning to the Socialist Party. Yet difficult conditions prevailed throughout the South, and in no other southern state did a mature socialist movement emerge on a scale even approaching Oklahoma's. The question, therefore, must become a bit more precise. Given the economic hard times endured by millions of farmers throughout America, why did Oklahomans alone respond by mounting an organized, effective movement to fundamentally restructure the institutions of capitalist society?

The answer to this question lies in the unique qualities that Oklahoma socialists brought to their party. My task in the pages that follow is to make these qualities visible among the scores of events and developments constituting the historical phenomenon known as Oklahoma socialism. While an understanding of the complex and fascinating world in which the Oklahoma socialists operated is necessary in order to fully explain why their movement was so successful, it may be helpful here to outline briefly the principal components of that understanding.

One elemental characteristic of the movement deserves primary consideration, for it suffuses the other explanations for the Party's success. Most Oklahoma socialists had participated in other social movements prior to joining the Party, coming into the organization as experienced activists. With such experience came important lessons in movement building, and socialists in the Sooner State naturally applied these lessons to their party. As a result, the Oklahoma Socialist Party drew upon a critical mass of extraordinarily gifted social activists who understood better than most how to conduct the tactical campaigns necessary to win political battles.

This vital core of Oklahoma socialists came into the Party having internalized important lessons learned in the late nineteenth century in the Farmers Alliance, lessons refined through participation in a later agrarian movement, the Farmers' Union. Organized in 1902 as a conscious attempt to recapture the cooperative spirit of the Farmers Alliance, the Farmers' Union quickly spread northward from Texas into the Oklahoma and Indian territories, the region that in 1907 became the state of Oklahoma. Following the decline of the Farmers' Union after 1907, many of its members migrated into the Socialist Party. Clearly, these socialists were extraordinarily skilled as social activists, and their practical experience in the agrarian movement brought great vitality to the Party.

In a very real sense, then, the Oklahoma Socialist Party benefitted from two generations of activism; the insights of the Populist movement, filtered through the lessons learned in the Farmers' Union, enriched the ability of the Party to affect fundamental change in society. As a result, the rise and fall of the Farmers' Union in the territories becomes a crucial part of the Oklahoma socialist experience.

A second important ingredient in the Oklahoma socialists' success is intimately related to their experience in the Farmers Alliance and the Farmers' Union. Because of their previous efforts to reform the institutions of commercial agriculture, these activists possessed unparalleled sophistication in their understanding of that system. Indeed, the knowledge of agricultural issues among the party faithful in the Sooner State was deepened by the Jeffersonian perspective of the Alliance, eclipsing the national socialist debate on such questions. While socialists elsewhere were mired in discussion over whether those farmers who owned land could be legitimate members of the working class, Party members in Oklahoma perfected a reasoned and effective attack on the system of commercial agriculture that was dominant in early twentieth-century America. Grounded in the life experiences of its members and drawing upon Jefferson's emphasis on the farmer's "natural right" to the land, the Oklahoma Party's analysis of commercial agriculture was far more sophisticated, and far more damning, than the conventional wisdom emanating from national socialist leaders. In the pages that follow, the process by which small farmers in the Oklahoma Socialist Party succeeded in redefining their organization's position on agricultural issues assumes central importance.

These ideological and tactical advances resulted from genuine dialogue between the leadership and the rank and file, pointing to yet another crucial attribute of the Oklahoma Party. Through their experience in other social movements, Oklahoma socialists developed a set of democratic principles and expectations, which they applied to their new organization. In the process, participants in the Oklahoma socialist movement attempted to create a kind of working democracy, where organizational authority was exercised according to the demands of the membership. And to an extent not generally reached by American political parties, they succeeded.

Indeed, if we are to understand the success of Oklahoma socialism, we must redefine the way we think of politics and political activism. The prevailing model, in which organizational leaders and intellectuals become responsible for the movement's successes while the rest of the membership does little more than respond to direction from above, no longer suffices. Oklahoma Party members did not allow themselves to be diminished in this way, and we must search for more accurate images in describing their movement. They understood the pitfalls of movement building because they had participated in the rise and fall of previous movements.

Knowledge gained in this way brings with it a sense of urgency and a feeling of empowerment. Oklahoma socialists possessed both. As a result, in a crucial sense they created the Oklahoma Socialist Party, forcing it to conform to their expectations. In practice, the forms it took at times became cumbersome, as members insisted on participating in organizational decision making. Democratic forms are inherently disorderly, and the Oklahoma movement was no exception. But ironically, the very source of this disorder -- the heightened degree to which participants claim ownership in the movement -- also brings great power. And the socialist movement in Oklahoma was exceptionally powerful.

Finally, the explanation for Oklahoma activists' success includes another sort of redefinition. Party members in the Sooner State came to understand that the message of socialism would not succeed as long as it remained an alien doctrine expressed in terms unfamiliar to its intended constituency. As they searched for a way of conceptualizing the truths of Marxism that would be consistent with the life experiences of small farmers, Oklahoma socialists seized upon the deep communitarian components embedded in the evangelical Christian tradition. A dominant cultural folkway in the Oklahoma countryside, evangelical Protestantism was a tradition they knew well. Employing the powerful cultural form of Christianity to help express socialist ideas, Party members in Oklahoma transformed both the gospel of Christ and the gospel of socialism. While retaining the Marxist core of the socialist message, activists in the Sooner State presented that message in a form that was instantly recognizable to virtually all of its potential constituents.

Here are the essentials that comprise the Oklahoma socialist movement. Through their experiences in the Farmers Alliance and the Farmers' Union, many Oklahoma socialists had learned valuable lessons in conducting the campaigns necessary to change the institutions of society. They presented a clear and concise indictment of the existing agricultural system, grounded firmly in past movements and in the life experiences of small farmers. They demanded that their organization and their leaders behave in democratic ways. And they knew how to present the ideas of Marxism in a cultural form that made sense in the Oklahoma countryside.  

Inherent in the experience of Oklahoma socialists, in fact, was the joining of three important political and cultural traditions: (1) the Jeffersonian emphasis on the common man, the dignity of labor, and the importance of the land, brought by the Alliance and the Farmers' Union into the twentieth century; (2) the scathing indictment of capitalism set down by Karl Marx and brought to America by his disciples; and (3) the evangelical Protestant tradition that had been central to the American experience since the Great Revival of the early nineteenth century. In the hands of Oklahoma Party members, this concoction proved to be both relevant and powerful. The Marxist message of class conflict blended easily with the Jeffersonian promise of yeoman democracy to produce an especially volatile mix that became even more compelling when instilled with the moral authority of Christianity.

Yet these explanations present the Oklahoma success in terms that are almost exclusively political. As a result, they cannot completely account for its accomplishments. In the end, the energy, strength, and skill with which Oklahoma Party members built their movement was as much a cultural achievement as it was a political victory. In their party, Oklahoma socialists created a community where they could enjoy the basic privileges denied them in the larger society and through which they could work to correct the imperfections of their world.

The Oklahoma activists saw their proposed program as simply a more decent, fair, and just alternative to a world they knew to be fatally flawed. Since socialists in the Sooner State conceptualized their ideological and moral claims in a manner that fell well within accepted American boundaries, they did not think of their platform as militant or radical. Indeed, Oklahoma Party members saw the socialist program as a way of bringing their society into compliance with the democratic and moral values central to American cultural and political traditions, a goal they considered to be eminently reasonable. Even so, the core of their message remained uncompromisingly Marxist. Through their response to the European War, their stand on race, and their support for national socialist speakers and candidates, Party members in the Sooner State proved to be genuine, authentic socialists.

Here, then, was the secret to Oklahoma socialists' strength: They succeeded in presenting their views in a way that carried the power of the republican ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the moral teachings of Jesus Christ, and the political theories of Karl Marx. Only if we think of the Oklahoma movement in these terms do we begin to grasp the magnitude of its achievement. Those who were part of the movement believed absolutely in the propriety of their actions. Their story represents the life experiences of thousands of citizens who learned the lessons of democracy in the schoolroom of activism. Their sense of empowerment was deep enough to force all Oklahoma politicians -- Democrats, Republicans, and socialists -- to conduct their discourse in terms not generally present in the American political system. Presented in this context, the story of the Socialist Party of Oklahoma promises great insight into the workings of American democracy. It is well worth our careful attention.

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