The American as Anarchist: Reflections on Indigenous Radicalism
Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895-1943
A decade or so ago it seemed to some—even to a few Frenchmen—that American radicalism was setting the pace, or was about to do so. Student risings of 1968 in various countries hailed the American model and exchanged representatives and slogans across the Atlantic. Jean-François Revel assured the world that “the revolution of the twentieth century will take place in the United States. It is only there that it can happen. And it has already begun.” He went on to declare, “It is the revolution of our time…. It therefore offers the only possible escape for mankind today.”1
Talk of this exceptional revolutionary model soon subsided, however, and we have returned to the discussion of a much older kind of American “exceptionalism.” This is the historic question of why of all the advanced capitalist countries in the world the United States is the only one where socialism never gained a mass following, where Marxism never caught on, and where the working class has never produced a mass-based party of its own. Only recently was the first full translation of Werner Sombart’s Why Is There No Socialism in the United States? (1905) published in this country.2 The controversy is much older than that and the literature on the subject is vast, but the scholars seem no nearer to a consensus on the answers than they are on the causes of the American Civil War.
Marx and Engels themselves wrote copiously on the question but produced no coherent explanation for the failure of socialism in America. Like most of their followers down to the First World War, they clung to the faith that the most advanced capitalist nation would lead the way to socialism and that America was the “Promised Land” of the socialists. Lenin, Trotsky, and Gramsci worried the problem unsuccessfully. Lenin emphasized “the longstanding political liberty and the exceptionally favorable conditions” for capitalism; Trotsky declared Marx was not to “be taken literally” on the subject; and Gramsci stressed the complete ideological hegemony of “Fordism,” and Americanism as a sort of surrogate socialism.
While neither of the two books at hand addresses this historical problem as such, both speak to it directly and indirectly as a consequence of questions raised by their own subjects. David DeLeon has written what is essentially an essay on national character as it relates to the ideals, behavior, expectations, and goals of American radicals. He starts at the beginnings and comes down to the present, drawing his types and illustrations mainly from the Northeastern states but speaking of radicals in the country as a whole. James Green writes of socialism in a specific region of the Southwest in a limited period and treats its history concretely and in detail. DeLeon, in trying to characterize indigenous radicalism as it was, is necessarily (and often mainly) concerned with defining and explaining what it was not and could not be. Green, in telling the neglected and heretofore virtually unknown history of a grass-roots socialist movement, is obliged to explain its failure. Both therefore contribute to the ever-growing literature on the failure of socialism in America.
As between the two camps of American radicals, the indigenous and the imitative, DeLeon believes the imitators of foreign radicalism have received more attention but are “the least culturally significant” and have been “a resounding failure.” It is time, he thinks, to recognize “that our native radicalism is fundamentally different from that of Europe, Russia, China, or the Third World,” that it is “rooted in centuries of our history and assumes that however much this society may be changed or transformed, it is unlikely to become something wholly dissimilar to what it has been.” He thinks of himself as writing of “The American Radical” in the “same sense that Emerson wrote ‘The American Scholar’in 1837, calling for the decolonization of our literature and the construction of an authentically American culture built from national experience…. Borrowed, imitative art still has its equivalent in borrowed, imitative radicalism.” He continues:
My book, following Emerson’s advice, is an intellectual declaration of independence from alien modes of interpretation, finding the spirit of our radicalism not in Lenin but in Debs, not in the USSR, but in the IWW, not in Chinese peasants, but in the Populists…. Our radicals have concentrated on emancipation, on breaking the prisons of authority, rather than on planning any reconstruction. They are abolitionists, not institution builders; advocates of women’s liberation, gay liberation, liberation theology, black liberation; prophets, not priests; anarchists, not administrators. They generally presume that the freed spirit will require little or no guidance.
The hallmarks of indigenous radicalism, the traits of national character that make it unique, would include a basic suspicion or even hostility toward all centralized discipline. The heritage of this radicalism is pervaded by anti-authoritarianism, anti-institutionalism, and antistatism. DeLeon’s characterization was anticipated by Gus Tyler, former Socialist Party leader and trade union official. Tyler pointed out that the continent was “peopled by runaways from authority” who expressed their antiauthoritarianism in “a visceral kind of anarchism.” In this country, he wrote, “the bent of the worker has been toward individualism rather than collectivism. Add militancy and violence to this individualism and the result was the IWW—the first important anarcho-syndicalism anywhere in the world.” The element of anarchism in American radicals could turn from resistance to authority to rejection of authority, but not elimination of all authority. They might prefer Emerson’s “government without governors” or rely on what Tocqueville perceived (with some horror) as the powerfully coercive authority of mores and values of public opinion over an apparently atomized population.
DeLeon undertakes to account for American anarchism (a term he uses unpejoratively) by the influence of three features of national life and history and their interaction. These are religious, economic, and environmental; and religious influences stand foremost in his scheme of generative forces. The basic factor, for him, was the ultra-Protestantism of the colonial founders and the questions they were constantly raising about who and what is authority. Religious antinomianism, “the priesthood of all believers,” and the preeminence of individual conscience easily spilled over into secular doctrines of “each man a state” and natural law that challenged worldly authority. “Church and State are responsible to me; not I to them,” declared Bronson Alcott. “They cease to deserve our veneration from the moment they violate our consciences…. Why not govern myself?” Here, says DeLeon, was “an American version of the withering away of the state.”
One impact of capitalism, in DeLeon’s view, has been the withering of authority in favor of self-interest and the pursuit of happiness and profits, and another has been the encouragement of self-reliance. Any influence so pervasive and powerful as the hegemony of capitalist values, psychology, and habits in the United States inevitably shaped all things American, including American radicalism. Traditional authority was further diffused and weakened by an environment of physical and social space and unprecedented opportunity. Distances and mobility discouraged respect for discipline, organization, and law. Egalitarianism among whites flourished uninhibited by feudal lords, formal aristocracy, state church, or army caste, and unhandicapped by backgrounds of crushed peasantry or classical proletariat. In such a national environment, DeLeon thinks, it is little wonder that authoritarian and statist radicalism has attracted few adherents and that it has regularly retreated into sterile sects.
We are left a bit mystified, however, that an environment which so thoroughly discouraged centralization and organization among radicals should have proved so hospitable to those same tendencies in government, military, and business. A huge federal bureaucracy, a great military establishment, and multinational corporations, not to mention big labor, seem to have successfully surmounted all the handicaps to centralization. How they did so is not a question about which DeLeon is very helpful.
He admits that the tradition of anarchistic leftism dwindled in the 1940s and was forgotten or shelved in the 1950s as an archaic echo from a simpler society. But it proved to be “only dormant, not dead,” for the 1960s “witnessed the revival of anarchism” in all its anti-institutional and antiauthoritarian modes, including both right-wing and left-wing manifestations with multitudinous splinterings on each side. Sharing opposition to regimentation, coercion, and statism, the activists on the left and right in the Sixties were constantly discovering how much they had in common—including a long national heritage. As a Marxist once dryly remarked, the New Left collegians “find the transition from Republican to anarchist much less difficult than may be imagined.” Emerson’s discussion of his party of the future in 1867 might have covered them—“fanatics in freedom: they hated tolls, taxes, turnpikes, banks, hierarchies, governors, yea, almost laws.”
While mainly protective and defensive of “our home-grown radicalism,” which he considers “an alternative to both traditional socialism and capitalism,” DeLeon does not spare it criticism. “Rather than learning from both accumulated wisdom and the contradictions of the past,” he writes, “American radicalism has always lived in the eternal present of childlike innocence. Its speech has usually been the infantile or adolescent expression of a cluster of assumptions ingrained in our society, never formulated as a conscious philosophy.” He then suggests “learning from foreign experiences that are compatible with advancing an American libertarian revolution,” among which he mentions the Paris Commune of 1871, Russia during 1905, Spain during 1936-1939, Hungary in 1956, France in 1968, and Chile in the 1970s—all of them, it happens, failures. One hopes that they are not compatible, at least in that respect, with his own model of a mass democratic revolutionary movement presented in his last pages. This attractively emphasizes decentralization, “regional socialism,” “cooperative individualism,” and local control.
Confronted with “that bane of Yankee history: ‘What about the South?”’ David DeLeon decides that the South “does not so readily fit into my structure.” While in all other American regions, he writes, “models for my categories can easily be found,” he regards the South as “a regional curiosity, whereas the Puritan-influenced New Englander became the model ‘Yankee.”’ Attempting to account for “this Southern exceptionalism,” he speculates that “it is easier to control people when they are isolated on small farms, plantations, or villages,” and that therefore “radical critics have been less prominent” in the South and “have not been as vigorous as elsewhere.” These speculations about the South as well as the bold characterizations of historic American radicalism provide a provocative background for James R. Green’s GrassRoots Socialism in the South, and Green in turn provides a testing ground for some of DeLeon’s ideas.
The story Green has to tell is not going to fit so readily into any prevailing ideas of American radicalism—particularly not those of the Northeast. His grassroots Socialists inhabited Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, and Arkansas—redneck territory, legendary breeding ground of national bigotry and reactionism. Yet its tenant farmers, miners, lumberjacks, preachers, and teachers built the strongest regional socialist movement in American history. Oklahoma alone, the strongest Socialist state in the country, had more “red-card” members of its party in 1910 than New York State, and in 1914 cast 15,000 more votes for Socialist candidates than did New York, which had a population more than ten times larger.
This had been Populist territory before it bred Socialists. Before we had a recent book by Lawrence Goodwyn,3 it was hard to make people believe how deeply rooted and preeminent Populism was in the Southwest. Socialism was never nearly that strong, but Green is careful to show how the two movements were related and not to exaggerate their interrelationship. He shows there was a substantial continuity in leadership, membership, doctrine, and appeal. In the early 1900s, he says, “most of the southwestern Socialist party leaders were former Populist militants,” and as late as 1910, “most of their demands were anchored firmly in the Populist tradition.” The old party’s constituency overlapped the new, and their rhetoric was often indistinguishable. But in their ideas and organizing activities the Socialists gradually moved away from the indebted yeoman farmers toward the tenants and their peonage. Populists often spoke of revolution, but they never moved beyond radical reform, whereas the Socialists aspired to revolutionary change.
When Oscar Ameringer, one of the few German-born Socialist leaders in the Southwest, complained in 1907 that farmers were petty capitalists and exploiters of labor, the secretary of the state Socialist Party observed, “There wasn’t much of a proletariat in Oklahoma to build a proletarian revolution on.” Southwestern Socialism, in fact, remained basically agrarian in constituency, though its tenant and cropper members were about as miserably exploited as proletarians get and often about as militant as they become. And they did find thousands of more-or-less authentically proletarian comrades among Arkansas miners of the UMW, Louisiana timber workers of the IWW, and Texas trade unionists of the AFL, along with oil-field mule skinners and railroad stiffs. Black comrades there were (in Jim Crow locals, being of “African decent” [sic], but blacks, Mexicans, and Indians had been effectively disfranchised by “progressive” Democrats. The ethnic groups, along with white immigrants, were always peripheral to the Southwestern Socialists. These grass-roots reds were basically old-stock whites—quid chewin’, snuff dippin’, cotton pickin’ whites, and Southern to their bone marrow. They were, in short, about as “indigenous” as radicals get.
Eugene Debs was their hero, and he could speak their language and came often to speak it. They read Julius Wayland’s weekly paper, Appeal to Reason, published in Kansas. But they had fiftyfive socialist newspapers of their own (one called Rebel that outdid Wayland in calling for the revolution), and native spellbinders from the camp-meeting revival circuit that could put any Union Square soapboxer to shame. They knew little and cared less about orthodox Marxism, but their native leaders spoke plainly and directly to them of their own very real problems and issues of class conflict—evictions, poverty, hunger—and of doing something effective about them by seizing “the powers of government.” The annals of these vanished straw-hat, sun-bonnet revolutionaries are obscure and hard to get at. James Green has gone to the grass-roots sources for his grass-roots history and come forth with the best and most moving account we have.
How does this story fit the sophisticated models of indigenous radicalism explored in DeLeon’s book? The answer is a mixed one. Religious influences were powerful enough, all right, and these radicals were as thoroughly Protestant as they come. But their churches had divided along class lines and they were segregated in those beyond the railroad tracks. Debs observed that “holiness people make good Socialists.” Pentecostal churches were full of poor people. As Green puts it, they “integrated socialism into a religious world view,” and he quotes a Texan saying, “Give us Socialism and the religion of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Comrades faithfully attended week-long “protracted”. Socialist camp meeting revivals and “Holy Roller” revivals as well, and heard the same preachers at both. “Red Tom” Hickey of Texas came on as a fire-and-brimstone revivalist preaching a second coming “lighted with the lamp of Socialism.”
But what about all that anarchism, individualism, antiauthoritarianism, and antistatism of DeLeon’s “indigenous models”? Here the picture is clearer. Green reports that his “Sooner” Reds were “less bureaucratic and more democratic than their northeastern comrades,” that they “bridled under bureaucratic party discipline,” and would have none of it. They debated and roundly rejected centralized administration of their own state parties in favor of “local autonomy”—meaning individual autonomy. When the Texas state secretary tried a bit of “tight discipline,” his comrades summarily kicked him out of office. Submission to any thing resembling European socialist or communist party discipline was inconceivable to these individualists. And the religious among them were not about to seek out any charismatic father figure to plan their lives or their deaths. Authority was something they were against—in church, state, or party.
Certainly the party could not control its own members. It could make rules against “direct action,” vigilantism, syndicalism, sabotage, and incendiarism, but it was helpless to enforce them. Card-carrying Socialists were often members of other organizations such as the IWW, vigilante committees, or the Working Class Union. The WCU was founded at “Hobo’s Hollow” near Fort Smith, Arkansas, during the depression of 1914 by Dr. Wells LeFevre, an old Arkansas Socialist. It was a secret society established to abolish rent, interest, and profits “by any means necessary.” The union endorsed the principles of the Socialist Party, but the party did not endorse the union. The WCU attracted twenty thousand or more members and reflected the influence of the Wobblies, but it went further to engage in barn burning, bank robbing, dynamiting, and night riding.
Impatient with Socialist law-and-order, unorganized Ozark hillbillies easily accommodated their ancient war against “revenooers” to the higher law of “social banditry” in the way of bank robbing and store looting. Then there was the Jones Family, a redneck Mafia that entered the field. Green thinks of the latter as resembling Eric Hobsbawm’s “primitive rebels.” Oklahoma led the country in bank robberies in 1912. That year the warden of the Oklahoma penitentiary took a poll of the prisoners that showed Debs by far the most popular candidate for president among the white convicts. Black inmates voted Republican.
Not content with defiance of state and local authority, the anarcho-socialists of the Southwest next took on the federal government. With Mexican revolutionists raiding towns along the Rio Grande and the US army preparing retaliatory invasion, Texas Reds were whooping it up for Zapata and Pancho Villa. “Red Tom” Hickey, head of Texas Socialists, lionized them as “class conscious revolutionists” and warned US landlords to “look for another Zapata to rise on this side of the Rio Grande.”
More serious and more fatal to their cause was their violent resistance to American intervention in the First World War and to the draft law. The Oklahoma party in 1914 resolved to refuse enlistment and if forced to enter service “to die fighting the enemies of humanity in our ranks” rather than fellow workers. The party later declared against armed resistance to the draft law, but uncontrollable WCU and Jones Family members armed themselves in August of 1917 and rallied for the suicidal Green Corn Rebellion. After a few bloody skirmishes law enforcers crushed the antiwar movement within a week. Many Socialists were among those arrested, and the party got the blame. There followed the Red Scare of 1917 and wartime repression that killed the Socialist Party in the Southwest.
The simplest answer to the question of what caused the failure of Socialism—at least in the Southwest—was repression—by law as well as by illegal or vigilante methods. But Green would admit that the answer was more complicated. When a comeback was tried in the 1930s, they were gone with the wind, gone with the Dust Bowl, the Okies, and the Arkies, gone to the cities. But even when they were there in full force it seemed impossible to discipline them. As Green admits, the movement never transformed their incorrigible individualism into collectivism.
As for the larger questions raised by DeLeon, it would be unfair to make this provincial movement—another “bane of Yankee history”—a test of his hypothesis. And of course it is unreasonable to assume that the movement was typical of American radicalism or of American socialism. Even so, it acted out a generous measure of the allegedly indigenous anarchisms—Southern style. Perhaps it is not unreasonable to suggest that any attempt to characterize American radicalism had best take the South into account.
Jean-François Revel, Without Marx or Jesus: The New American Revolution Has Begun (Doubleday, 1971), pp. 1,242.↩
Reviewed in NYR, February 8, 1979.↩
Lawrence Goodwyn, Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America (Oxford University Press, 1976).↩