“Marxian Socialism in the United States” by Daniel Bell, from the book Socialism in American Life, ed. by Donald Drew Egbert (1952, Princeton University Press) – Available via JStor (available at many academic libraries). Excerpts also available via Google Books.
If the populist pressure for immediate reform led some socialists to the tactic of the North Dakota Non-Partisan League, the strain of adventurism and agrarian violence led others to the Green Corn Rebellion and the destruction of the socialist movement in Oklahoma. Because the rebellion illustrates the other side of the populist aspect of American socialism, it is a story worth explaining.
Sparsely settled Oklahoma may not have had a working class, but it did have, in the most literal sense of the word, a proletariat—a dispossessed propertyless group with little visible means of support. These rural “proles” were an “aggregation of moisture, steam, dirt, rags, unshaven men and slatternly women and fretting children,”150 tenant farmers who were little more than serfs to the cash crop demanded by the landlords. Many had settled as early as 1894 when the Cherokee strip had been thrown open; others had been members of Debs’s American Railway Union who after defeat and blacklist had wandered into the area. Like most of the South and West, Oklahoma had been swept by populism. But, recalcitrant to the last, Oklahoma’s populists had not softened and gone with Bryan into the Democratic Party. They were ridden by an all-consuming hatred of their lot—the bare and uncertain living which a thin topsoil could provide.151 This resentment was fueled by a stomping revivalism whose periodical outbursts provided relief for pent-up feelings and stifled emotions. The volatile mixture that resulted found its outlet in socialism.152 It was the adaptation to this religious temper that gave Oklahoma socialism its peculiar flavor. The new gospel was spread through the medium of week-long encampments, similar in form to the old-style evangelist camp meetings. Thousands of families would come from miles around, arriving in old buggies, chuck wagons, and buckboards, pitch their tents, cook, eat, and sleep on the camp grounds. A typical encampment would be opened with a rousing horseback parade, followed by a pickup mixed chorus which sang socialist versions of old populist songs to the tune of well-known religious melodies. Then followed the fire and brimstone oratory, often by noted socialist spellbinders such as Gene Debs, Kate Richards O’Hare, and Walter Thomas Mills. So went the week with a tumultuous round of singing, concerts, speeches, campfires, and memories to last for the next few months of dreary labor.
At its height, the socialist vote in Oklahoma was close to one-third of the total vote. Six socialists sat in the state legislature and the party elected numerous county officers. Proportionately, Oklahoma was the strongest socialist state in the country. But most of these socialists were “reds,” and therefore against the reformist “yellows” who led the national party. Tad Cumbie (“the gray horse of the prairies”), the leader of Oklahoma’s intransigeants, always flaunted a flaming red shirt at party conventions in order to show his convictions.153 Because the official Socialist Party was considered too tame, the left-wingers organized two secret societies, the Working Class Union and the Jones Family. The members met at appointed rendezvous, gathered arms and dynamite, and waited for a moment to demonstrate that direct action could gain their ends. In the spring of 1917, these secret societies, which had spread through Arkansas as well, claimed 34,000 members.154 When the United States entered World War I and the draft act was passed, the night riders moved into action. With Tad Cumbie as commander-in-chief, they proposed, like Daniel Shays of old, to secede from the Union. They thought they could halt Oklahoma’s participation in the war by seizing the banks and county offices, controlling the money and the press of the state. Several “armies” did take the field and, raiding at night, burned down some railroad bridges, cut telephone lines, and destroyed some pipelines. Because they subsisted on barbecued beeves and Indian green corn, the insurrection was called the Green Corn Rebellion.155
The rebellion, which involved in all some two thousand farmers, including Negroes and Seminole Indians, collapsed early in August 1917 when 450 of the rebels were rounded up by the militia. Three persons were killed and eighty-six convicted and sent to the penitentiary. Though not a single official of the Socialist Party was connected with the Green Corn Rebellion, thousands of socialists were arrested: other thousands fled to the Winding Stairs mountains of adjacent Colorado, Arkansas, and Texas to escape arrest. (See GreenCorn.org editor’s note)156 Shortly after the trial of the ringleaders, an emergency convention disbanded the Oklahoma Socialist Party. The move was taken to prevent the government from linking the overt acts in Oklahoma to Victor Berger, who was then on trial in Chicago for violating the “Espionage Act.”
To this wartime opera bouffe, a tragicomic footnote needs to be appended.
The war had discredited the Socialist Party, and its leaders sought a new approach. Spurred by the example of North Dakota, Oscar Ameringer and others in 1921 organized the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League, and nominated for governor J. C. (“Our Jack”) Walton. A flamboyant character, Walton was the mayor of Oklahoma City and a cardholder in the railroad unions. His campaign was typical. He flayed the “interests” and spoke out, although side-tongued, against the Klan. This was the Indian summer of progressivism. In the Senate were Frazier and Nye of North Dakota, Shipstead and Johnson of Minnesota, Norris and Howell of Nebraska, Brookhart of Iowa, and La Follette of Wisconsin.
Oklahoma was not one to lag behind. The League captured the Democratic Party, and “Our Jack” was swept into office in 1922 by a 60,000 plurality.
The farmer-laborites waited for reforms to start. Instead disquieting rumors reached their ears. Our Jack” was seen playing golf in “tasseled knickers and silver-buckled sport shoes” on a Muskogee links, surrounded by oil derricks; worse still, remarks Ameringer, a caddy was carrying his bag! Appointments promised to farmer-laborites failed to materialize. Soon after, Our Jack” traipsed off to Cuba with lobbyists for the oil-cement-asphalt-utilities “interests” and on his return began to build an elaborate house. A year later Walton capped this betrayal by openly joining the Klan. It was the end of socialist politics and influence in Oklahoma. Populism, of a sort, finally won out when trumpeting “Alfalfa Bill” Murray was elected governor of the state in 1930 on the Democratic ticket. But Alfalfa Bill was a far cry from old populist idealism. Like Tom Watson of Georgia he had traveled a familiar course. Beginning against the “interests” he ended as a rancorous isolationist and bigoted nativist. It was a shriveled ending for a grass-roots American radicalism.
151 “A poor man ain’t got no chance in this country,” raved George Hadley, looking over his untidy acres. “I’ve worked like a nigger all my life and look what I’ve got. I should ‘a been rich by now and by God I will be if ever we get any justice in this country.” Such was the mood of one socialist, as reported by Angie Debo in her Prairie City, a composite but authentic reconstruction of Oklahoma life. Angie Debo, Prairie City (New York, 1944), p. 131.
152 “Pressure was upon them. . . . They were looking for delivery from the eastern monster whose lair they saw in Wall Street. They took their socialism like a new religion. And they fought and sacrificed for the spreading of the new faith like the martyrs of the old faith.” Oscar Ameringer, op.cit., p. 263. Ameringer, famous socialist editor and wit, had been a party organizer in Oklahoma and his salty memoirs are an invaluable sourcebook for the flavor and color of the period.
153 At the 1912 convention Victor Berger likened the simon-pure leftists to the Hebrews who on journeys carried bundles of hay so as not to sleep on spots contaminated by Gentiles. The next day Cumbie appeared with a tiny bundle of hay pinned to his shirt.
155 Another version fixes the name as resulting from the coincidence with the
annual green-corn dance of the Shawnee Indians, as well as the staple item of Indian
green corn or “tomfuller.” See the novel by Wffliam Cunningham, The Green Com
Rebellion (New York, 1935).
GreenCorn.org Editor’s Note: The Winding Stair mountains are located in Oklahoma, not in Arkansas, Colorado and Texas. I assume the author meant to say “other thousands fled to the Winding Stairs mountains of Oklahoma, as well as to the neighboring states of Arkansas, Texas and Colorado.”