Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920

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Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904-1920. By Jim Bissett. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, c. 1999. Pp. xviii, 249. $33.95, ISBN 0-8061-3148-9.)

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the rural state of Oklahoma supported the strongest socialist movement that any American state ever produced. This apparently anomalous development has attracted considerable scholarly attention in recent years. Jim Bissett's findings in Agrarian Socialism in America share much in common with the theses of other agricultural studies: poverty, high rates of tenancy, exploitative credit and marketing arrangements, and low crop prices established the economic basis for agrarian radicalism; the 1890s Populist movement provided still relevant political analysis and lessons, experienced leadership, and farmers prepared for activism; and, although they gained considerable political strength, especially in the 1914 state elections, Oklahoma's socialists ultimately succumbed both to election fraud and voter disfranchisement that was engineered by the Democrats and, especially, to blatant repression by established authorities during World War I. Previous studies have also noted the important role of evangelical Christianity in shaping Oklahoma socialism. Bissett places more emphasis on religion, describing it not merely as the cultural idiom through which socialist leaders could communicate with rural followers but as a substantive force within the movement. Socialist organizers, who often were also ministers, incorporated religious faith into their political message and invoked the radical ethics of the Gospel to direct and justify social activism among the poor and disinherited.

Bissett argues that socialists also drew from the popular Jeffersonian democratic ideal of a strong yeomanry to build the movement and make its Oklahoma variant distinctive. Oklahoma socialists established a less centralized and more democratic organizational structure than that in the national party, and they challenged the national party positions to endorse the redistribution of land from landlords to tenants. …