An Invisible Army

Hidden in the bowels of the University of Iowa library are the papers of Lement Harris (1904-2002). Harris came from money (his father co-founded Texaco) and he took his degree from Harvard. When he graduated in 1926 he decided to avoid the careers associated with his class and went to work on a Pennsylvania farm. During this three-year sojourn, Lem, as he was called, read the agrarian pacifism of Tolstoy and Gandhi, and met a worker who had been to the Soviet Union. Lem contacted Harold Ware, an old IWW hand and communist, who ran a farm south of Moscow in Verblud (camel). Ware, the son of “Mother” Bloor, transplanted American technology to Soviet farms (particularly the tractor) and did so with a team of radical American farmers (including six from North Dakota’s Non-Partisan League). Lem arrived at Verblud in June 1929 (there is some terrific material in the J. B. Davidson papers, also at Iowa, including the pictures that you can see in Deborah Fitzgerald’s useful book, Every Farm a Factory). Lem’s experience on Ware’s farm changed him, and he became a lifelong communist.
When Gandhi returned to India from South Africa in 1916, he went on a trip around the country to learn, for the first time, the conditions of the people. This was an antidote to his upper caste and privileged background. Lem did the same, spending nine months on the road in 1930 learning about rural America, accompanied by Ware. Their work was published in The American Farmer (and for the sheer breath of their research, it should be in print as a volume today); Ware and Harris also published in mainstream journals, such as Reader’s Digest (September 1932, “In the Jungle”). The experience moved Lem to join the Communist Party of America, to which he belonged for the rest of his life (I met him briefly in New York when he was in his 90s, when I accompanied my wife to an event in Chelsea). Harris was one of the main organizers of the National Farmers’ Relief Conference in 1931. At the second conference in 1932, Lem belted out his war cry against the mendacity of Wall Street. There are two kinds of enemies, he said, “those who carry bayonets and gas, who arrest, sentence and imprison our farmer leaders,” and “the false friends who get into positions of leadership and talk radically as they betray us.” The latter are the people whom Lem called the “mis-leaders,” most of whom bring in the “red scare” to terrorize farmers into quiescence. “Fellow farmers,” Lem said, “we most certainly are radical – present distress demands intelligent, radical action.”
With depth in the Dakotas and in Montana, in the heartland of American farming, Harris and Ware, Bloor and Charlie Taylor were able to give vitality to the United Farmers’ League (UFL) and to agrarian radicalism in general. Down in the Deep South, similar trends were at work. The Share Croppers Union (SCU), led by the Communists, emerged through the initiative of Ralph and Tommy Gray, of Mack Coad, of Eula Gray, of Al Murphy, of Clyde Johnson and countless others. Historian Robin Kelley unearthed a 1930s labor song that celebrated these “hunted vagrants, parish poor,” these “prentices in cities, prisoners for debt,” who “move an invisible army.” Violence met the movements, but so too did the federal government’s reform interventions (in the 1930s) and the wartime jobs (in the 1940s). Absorbed for a few decades into new opportunities, the farmers of the heartland turned away from the battered populists and communists. But theirs is a mighty heritage.
Red State Rebels: Tales of Grassroots Resistance in the Heartland (AK Press, 2008), edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, aim to revive this living tradition. The book is an important contribution to breaking the idea that radicalism lives on the coasts and reaction huddles in the heartland. Rich in minable resources and in arable land, the West and the Mid-West have been plundered by big business in collusion with their lap-dogs, the politicians who are a paid-off subsidiary of Corporate America. For these interests, the lives of workers and the health of the earth are simply “external costs,” nothing to interest the balance sheet obsessed financiers of Wall Street (who have tied the rest of us into this kind of thinking by the yoking of our pension funds into the rhythms of the double entry account book). Pushed against the limit, the people of the heartland have fought back to preserve their dignity, their health and their lifeworld. Red State Rebels catalogues these fights: how the people of Oregon beat back Newmont’s desire to slice up Grassy Mountain; how the good people of the Coalition for Human Rights in Tucson, Arizona works among those who have to cross the US-Mexico border to survive; how the El Partido Verde tries to launch a new electoral wave in the Southwest; how Elouise Cobell, leader of the Blackfeet tribe, fought back against theft of the federal trust funds owed to Indians; how Ed Wiley saved the Marsh Fork Elementary School; how Todd Leake and the Dakota Resource Council wants to take back farming from the “factories in the fields.” These stories, and more, catalogue the initiatives on the ground on bread and butter issues that confound the mainstream political elite. The idea of the heartland as “white” is tossed out by this more realistic assessment of how complicated the farmlands and mountains, the deltas and prairies have always been.
Because Red State Rebels is a collection it is unable to lay out the fullness of this story, but only suggest it. Blessed with the very fine journalism of St. Clair, one is even able to forgive some of the more pedestrian writing that clutters the book. But this is all beside the point. What to make of St. Clair’s claim that “the spirit of this new movement won’t be found within the confines of any club. It’s out on the streets and in the woods, where’s it’s always been. Hurry. It’s not too late to join. No membership card required.” It is true that there are many, many episodic acts of rebellion; some of them are individual acts of resistance (Ruby Ridge, Rainbow Farm, Echo 9) that end in mythic death, some are small-scale legal challenges. What these gestures or indications are unable to do is to break the general public’s faith in the two-party system and in Americanism (which Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz calls “the true religion”). When I read Thomas Frank’s book about the misplaced interests of the heartland (away from class interests to social conservatism), I felt that it was a transposition of the old argument that race/gender/sexuality movements have overrun class movements (think Todd Gitlin and Richard Rorty). In neither case does this analysis work. Class is never a simple matter, always intersected by various identities that could both drive and hinder political action. Class struggle is something that happens ceaselessly, but this does not mean that such existential struggles are experienced as such by those who are in the midst of them. That’s the problem which Frank tried to address, although I think his own lack of familiarity with on-the-ground politics impoverished his analysis. What is it that prevents the organizers we meet in Red State Rebels from broadening their base, from making their view of the environmental and human destruction of their lands the common sense of their neighbors? Religious fatalism plays a role here, but so does the mass media, and certainly so do the two political parties in which interest the current system operates. All are welcome to the opposition, but why don’t they come, even when no membership card is required? This is the main question before us.
People like Lem Harris, who worked to build resilient organizations, get short shrift in our popular memory (St. Clair remembers the Non-Partisan League, but apart from that there is little indication of the long-standing attempt by the organized left to produce a different kind of heartland). We need to study them, to plough through those archives in Iowa and the memories of the old timers, not only to understand the movements, but to seek out the causes of their failure. A study of the failure to capture the imagination of the people is a crucial starting point for an attempt to galvanize the current rebels and the mass of the population toward a new horizon. Anything less than that might move small agendas, but it might not rescue us from the oblivion that nudges itself into our future.

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