Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book Review: “Agrarian Socialism in America:

Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside 1904-1920” by Jim Bissett  - More, please!

Published by the University of Oklahoma, this book is one of the few books available which cover in depth what was one of the most vibrant socialist movements in the United States. I was extremely surprised and elated to find a copy in circulation in the Oklahoma City Metropolitan Library System.
From the introduction, Bissett works to refute the claim that Oklahoma socialists were "not socialist enough" by East coast socialist standards at the time, and certain remarks and conclusions made by academics today.
He traces the roots of the Oklahoma Socialist movement in the Indiahoma Farmer's Union, and  the early struggle between tenant farmers and wealthy landowners for control of the union, to the merging of some of those farmers from the union into the fledgling Socialist Party of Oklahoma. The Party had up till that time been largely reluctant to take up the cause of land reform on behalf of tenant farmers, declaring that land ownership makes farmers not part of the working class. In 1912, the Socialist Party began to fully support the giving of ownership of lands to the farmers that work  them, a huge shift in previous platforms which at most advocated a land-lease by the government to working farmers. This shift in attitude brought the large numbers of impoverished tenant farmers who had been ousted by the Farmers Union for leftist sympathies into the Socialist fold.
This marked an important watershed moment in the growth of the socialist movement in Oklahoma, which at its height in 1914 elected more than 175 Socialists to local and county offices.
Bissett explores in detail the unique flavor of Oklahoma socialism with its blend of Jeffersonian Agrarianism and Social Christianity which was preached with as much fervor in travelling political tent meetings as any revival sermon. He shows how their devout faith and ardent socialism blended together to form a message of equality and justice which appealed broadly to the impoverished and religious Oklahoma working class.
The downfall of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma in 1917-1922 is well known, as the reactionary forces of the Capitalist's Klansman thugs and judicial persecution brought on by a war-frenzied state and federal governments hounded, terrorized and exterminated the once strong Socialist party from the state. Bissett ends with an analysis of the Party's legacy, and the contributions it made to Oklahoma history and culture.
The book is written from a strongly academic position, painstakingly researched with fully a third of the book being comprised of footnotes, charts, and references. It makes for excellent source material for a deeper understanding of the State's history. An independent analysis of the information shows that the conditions existing for tenement farmers and the strong religious background of the Oklahoma people are not that different today—our tenement farmers are now immigrant and poor white and black unskilled laborers and industrial workers, and religion still plays as much a role in many Oklahoman's lives today as it did in the early 20th century. We can use the successes and failures of the Oklahoma Socialist Party as a guidebook and resource to help us organize and build our Party today. In Oklahoma, Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus may yet be the winning ticket for a working-class revival.

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