THE FARMERS MARCH
IT HAS long been customary for American farmers to drive to town on Saturday evening to buy supplies for the coming week. At seven o'clock the stores of the town were usually crowded. Despite the crisis the farmers continued to follow this custom; that is to say, they still drove to town on Saturday evening. A county seat in Illinois, which I visited one Saturday evening, presented a scene that could be duplicated in hundreds of country towns throughout the Middle West. About eighty automobiles were parked around the town square. More than two hundred farmers were standing about in small groups, talking or listening. But the stores were empty. Indeed, more than half of the stores had been closed for lack of trade. The farmers had not come to buy, for they had no money. They had come merely to assert their independence, to show their neighbors that they still owned automobiles and still had enough ingenuity to find a handful of cash somewhere with which to buy gasoline.
What were these men talking about? Not of the condition of their crops, nor yet of the state of the grain market. They were talking, to use their own phrase, of revolution! "There'll be revolution if this thing keeps up," one man declared, while another solemnly asserted: "All we need to do is get our guns, and the people in the East will wake up to the fact that we mean business when we ask for a square deal." A lot of romantic nonsense has been written about this rebellious mood of the farmer. In a sense, of course, it was significant that the farmer had dared to use the word "revolution." If his thoughts inclined in that direction, he might in the event of extreme necessity decide to act upon such thoughts. Nevertheless, a large majority of the farmers were anything but revolutionary. The average farmer is conservative to the core. He appeared radical only because of his long struggle with the bankers of the East. This struggle most clearly manifested itself in Congress, where the farm bloc time and again showed its strength against the financial and commercial interests of the country. But the differences between the agrarians and the bankers are more apparent than real. Both groups are by their very nature capitalistic, ultra-conservative; the farmers the more so, if that be possible. They have disagreed from time to time over the distribution of the profits of capitalism, as for instance when the bankers restricted credits the farmers needed, but they have been united in defending the fundamentals of capitalism. In fact, the farmers have been our most ardent champions of the rights of private property.
It is absurd to suggest that because the farmers had in hundreds of communities resorted to direct-action methods they were as a class becoming radical or revolutionary.It is more correct to say that they had become increasingly reactionary. (There is an important exception to this rule, an exception that might in time displace the rule.) Why were groups of farmers blocking foreclosure sales and tax sales? Why were they threatening county authorities and the representatives of mortgage-holders with violence and lynching? To pave the way for a new social order? Not at all. The farmers were interested onlyin preserving and defending the existing order. They were fighting to save their private property, their homes and equipment and the soil they had been tilling for many generations.
It was to protect these symbols of the established order that the farmers took the offensive. The farmers were in possession of the land and of the necessary tools, which, according to the classical economists, should have brought them the benefits of ownership. Yet actual ownership reposed not with them but with the banks and insurance companies which held their mortgages and with the political authorities who had the power of taxation. It lay with the distant capitalist and the local tax-gatherer to say whether the farmer should or should not be permitted to continue to live on his land and at least raise food enough for himself and his family. But after more than a decade of depression-for the agricultural depression began in 1920, not 1929-the farmer was beginning to learn that the substitution of a Democratic for a Republican tax-gatherer would not lighten his tax burden, and that, whatever party happened to be in power in Washington, the courts would still uphold the legality of the mortgage upon which he had to pay interest, not in the commodities which he could grow, but in the official currency of the country. So this traditional upholder of the status quo found it necessary to attack the machinery of the State in order to (4) defend himself and his economic interests. He began by refusing to pay taxes on the one hand, and by interfering with the normal processes of the courts on the other.
THE PERENNIAL SWINDLE
Having lost the political supremacy of the country in the middle of the last century, the agrarian class had ever since been at a disadvantage on the political field. The farmer had been repelled at every turn by the manufacturing and financial interests. The latter used the tariff, the railroads, and their control of financial credits to keep the farmer in his place. And they also prevented him from recapturing political control through their ownership and management of the two major parties. Every effort the farmer made to break through this stone wall of industrial and financial domination met with failure. The Greenback and Populist movements, the several Bryan campaigns, the Progressive revolt of 1912, the La Follette movement of 1924-all had the same barren result. True, the farm bloc in Congress succeeded upon occasion in gaining a few meager and temporary advantages for the agrarian class by deft manipulation of its balance of power. But the farm bloc was never able to break through the tariff and credit barriers erected by the manufacturing and financial East. Indeed, the majority of these farm representatives were so duped by the opposition's propaganda that they themselves supported the very tariff measures which were designed to perpetuate the economic and political control of the country by the Eastern interests. In the political field the odds had long been overwhelmingly against the farmer. Yet the farmer, naturally and ideologically conservative, until the third summer of the economic crisis clung tenaciously to his belief that his problems could be solved by democratic political methods.
In this he played directly into the hands of the enemy. He helped to elect every one of the Republican administrations that sat in Washington from 1921 to 1933. But the financial East, operating mainly through these administrations, continued to deceive and mislead the farmer, to withhold from him what he considered his just share of the profits of capitalism. Its hold upon the political machinery of the federal government, together with its domination of the press and other propaganda vehicles, enabled it to put through the highest protective tariff schedule in the country's history and to defeat the equalization-fee and export-debenture plans. The latter were subsidy schemes pure and simple. They would have employed the power of the State to transfer wealth from one class to another precisely as the manufacturers had been using the tariff to transfer wealth from the consumers to themselves. The manufacturing and banking class had no intention of permitting the farmers to use this device, over which it theretofore had exercised monopoly rights. So both proposals were conveniently killed by administrations that had been put into power with the votes of the agrarian class.
Yet when the world crisis broke and farm prices began to fall with disconcerting rapidity, the Hoover Administration realized that it had to do something to quiet the farmer lest agrarian unrest should compel Congress to accept one or another of the various subsidy schemes. Moreover, it was clear that this unrest might drive farm votes from the Republican Party. Secretary of Agriculture Hyde accused Bolshevik agents of attempting to manipulate the American grain market. They were selling wheat short in order to drive prices down, ostensibly, it would appear, to stir up unrest and disorders among the farmers. By exposing this diabolical plot Secretary Hyde obviously hoped to save the Hoover Administration from the political consequences of the fall in grain prices and at the same time to strike a telling blow at the Soviet Union, which then was making impressive progress with its Five-Year Plan. Had the economic crisis been only a temporary affair, as Washington believed it was, the Hyde maneuver might have succeeded. But grain prices continued to slump, and subsequently it was established that there had been no Bolshevik plot to depress them. On the contrary, the Soviet Union was at the time trying to sell its wheat in this country to raise credit with which to buy machinery needed for its economic program; it was interested in getting as much as it could for its wheat, not in driving grain prices down.
The pressure of the farmers for some sort of relief or subsidy scheme increased thereafter. The farm bloc had high hopes of putting the export-debenture plan through Congress. But President Hoover forestalled enactment of the debenture bill by taking the patriotic position that "no Government agency should engage in buying and selling price-fixing of products." (1) He advocated the creation of a Federal Farm Board, to be given only incidental authority to stabilize agricultural prices. His plan was adopted. When the Farm Board was organized, it set out promptly to "engage in buying and selling and pricefixing of products." But not, of course, with a view to subsidizing the farmer. The board hoped rather to help the farmer by a process of involved speculation. It began by announcing through its chief counsel that it would not consider itself bound by the provisions of the Agricultural Marketing Act, under which the board was created . Although the language of that law suggested that the Farm Board was organized for the specific purpose of encouraging the co-operative marketing movement, the board sought to deliver the co-operative movement into the hands of the private grain trade. It organized its own marketing co-operatives, although there were many farmer-controlled co-operatives already in existence, and these it tried to force down the throats of the producers. For the wheat-growers it organized the Farmers National Grain Corporation and the Grain Stabilization Corporation. When it came time to find a manager for these two companies, the then chairman of the Farm Board, Alexander Legge, head of the International Harvester Corporation, coolly offered the job to James H. Murray, president of the Chicago Board of Trade and vice-president of the Quaker Oats Company! Murray was appealed to not only on the ground of
patriotism, but on the ground that it would be good business for him to take the post. When he refused the
rather questionable honor, Legge turned to other highplaced men in the private grain trade, and they too declined the "appointment." Finally he had to accept a little-known miller from Alton, Illinois, George S. Milnor, a man who was not himself a producer, but whose main business in life had been to buy grain from the farmer as cheaply as possible. And for the privilege of directing the efforts of the government to make the grainproducer co-operation-conscious, Milnor was paid the munificent wage of fifty-thousand dollars annually, this sum coming out of the profits of the co-operative movement.
The Farm Board succeeded finally in turning the cooperative movement over to one or two small groups of professional promoters. Moreover, it allowed the $500,000,000 revolving fund placed at its disposal by Congress to be used as a club to beat the grain, livestock, cotton, and other producers into submitting to the dictation of these promoters. Republican politics, personal favoritism, and outright corruption, to say nothing of the naive attempt to stabilize prices by gambling in grain and cotton, marked the activities of the Farm Board for two and a half years. At the end of that period the board had gambled or given away virtually all of its assets, a few men had enriched themselves at the expense of the taxpayers and producers, farm prices were at or near the lowest points in history, and thousands of farmers were v in open rebellion. Few swindles to compare with this one could be found in the annals of American government. Adding to the annoyance of the farmer was the recurrent prosperity ballyhoo which issued from the metropolitan press and even from his own country newspaper every time prices went up a few points. From October 5 to November 7, 1931, there was a rise of twenty-three cents in wheat futures. Market reporters and business experts saw in this a definite indication that prosperity was returning. A Chicago dispatch to the New York Times declared 3 that "business in the West is already reflecting benefits from the approximately $500,000,000 tacked onto the potential value of corn belt products through advancing prices." Bradstreet's weekly review' was confident that the rise had "brought about a decidedly better feeling in Chicago and throughout the West. The disposition is to look for a steady improvement in practically all leading lines. Farmers are benefited by the advance and their buying is expected to be a factor in helping a return to prosperity." From London the Associated Press dutifully cabled 5 that "the upward swing of wheat prices in the United States was regarded in several European capitals today as presaging the return of prosperity." The farmer, however, as the New York Evening Post frankly acknowledged 6 was not helped either by the publicity or the price rise. He was able to market very little of his grain while prices were going up. Before the peak was reached, "big Chicago and Eastern and Western speculators took advantage of the advance to unload." They had built up the boom slowly and carefully, and when the rise had gone far enough to attract grain from the farms, the gamblers took their profits and ran away, letting the boom collapse overnight.
The process was repeated several times, though only once again on a really formidable scale. That was in June and July 1932. Hog prices went up from $3.50 on May 28 to $5.55 on July 12. Again the deceptive ballyhoo was ground out. The Associated Press reported' from Chicago on July 17 that "down in the `yards,' that seething theater of the animal industry, they will tell you that the livestock raiser is `sitting on top of the world.' " President Ralph Budd of the Burlington Railroad declared (8) that "no other thing since the depression began has heartened me so much as the continued rise in livestock prices. . . . If commodity prices go up, then the purchasing power of the farmer will be restored. The rest of the country cannot be restored until the farmer has purchasing power." And the New York Times, faithful to tradition, joined in the chorus with the assertion (9) that "a boom has come to the livestock industry, with the rapid rise in hog and cattle prices causing the Western farmer to smile again and the nation in general to feel that beef and pork may be leading the way upward from the depression." I was out in the Middle West at the time and I found very few hog-raisers smiling. Buried far down in the Times dispatch from Chicago, away from the sight of the casual or hurried newspaper-reader, appeared the following candid explanation (9) When prices were lowest early in the Spring no one apparently wanted cattle, hogs or sheep. Farmers were broke, or so nearly so that they were almost panicky in trying to sell their livestock to pay rent, mortgages, and other expenses. It was said to be one of the best cleanouts that the industry has known in years. Packers had their cellars full of chilled and frozen meats and complained about their inability to find buyers. The business depression, it was said, had left the majority of the consumers unable to buy meats. Suddenly it was discovered that the liquidation from the farms had run its
And then, naturally, prices began to go up. The farmer was forced to sell at the bottom, and when he had got rid of virtually all of his marketable stock-in "one of the best clean-outs that the industry has known in years"-- the speculators and packers started to bid up prices. They had bought at the bottom and now intended to dispose of their holdings to the wholesale and retail trade on a rising market.
RUMBLINGS FROM THE GRAIN BELT
High taxes and fixed debt charges had been the bane of the farmer since the end of the war, but especially since 1929. With commodity prices falling and his income sharply reduced, he had to go on paying the same interest rates and the same or frequently higher tax rates. In 1929 the gross farm income of the United States was $11,950,000,000; 10 by 1930 it had fallen to $9,403,ooo,ooo; in 1931 it had dropped to $6,955,000,000; and in 1932 it was $5,240,000,000. But net income, the balance available for capital, labor, and management after payment of operating costs, wages to hired labor, taxes, and interest or rent, fell off more than seventy-five per cent during these four years. For taxes and interest declined little, if at all, during this period. To quote the 1932 report of the Department of Agriculture: "In 1931 interest on the farm-mortgage debt absorbed about 8 per cent of the gross farm income, compared with 4 per cent in 1920 and 3 per cent in 1910. . . . With gross farm incomes down to the pre-war level, the tax load is extremely onerous. As in the case of the mortgage-debt burden, its real weight has been doubled by falling prices since 1929. It takes more than four times as many units of farm produce to pay the farm tax bill now as it took in 1914. In 1931 taxes on farm property absorbed about 11 per cent of the gross farm income, compared with only 4 per cent before the war."But the tax-gatherer and mortgage-holder were not alone in making the farmer's lot increasingly unbearable. In 1930 a number of agricultural states were visited by an unprecedented drought. Hundreds of thousands of rural families not only lost their cash crops, but had nothing left with which to feed themselves. This was especially the case with the share-croppers and tenant farmers of the Southwest. The Hoover Administration graciously set up a $45,000,000 relief fund, but hedged the distribution of relief with such paternalistic regulations as to do more harm than good. The farmer had to wade through yards of red tape,- give the government a prior lien on his crops, subscribe to a pauper's oath; and if he were fortunate enough to meet all the requirements and get a loan from the government, he was legally bound to use the money only to buy seed or fodder for his livestock. He was not permitted to spend a nickel on food for himself and his family, and as he had pledged his crops to the government, the local banker would lend him nothing for food,. clothing, or necessary tools. The first farm disturbances took place in the drought area of the Southwest, the direct fruit of the Hoover relief policy. The most serious of these occurred in Henryetta, Oklahoma, where "two hundred starving men, women, and children," (12) led by a clergyman, raided sixteen grocery and provision stores.
The Oklahoma food riots frightened the politicians in Washington. They were also alarmed by the growing . . hostility the Farm Board was encountering almost everywhere. The rising temper of the grain belt was reflected by the increasing criticism of the Hoover Administration coming from the die-hard Republican press of the Middle West. Shortly after the President had arranged a moratorium for Germany, the Kansas City Star, which had supported him even before the 1928 convention, warned him editorially (13) that "the farmer has as much claim on the United States Government as the German V people." "If the United States," the editorial declared, "can relieve Germany of $250,000,000 in debts for a year, the government can afford to pay $6o,ooo,ooo to hold back its wheat; if a foreign nation is entitled to a moratorium, the American farmer should have one." But the Star's criticism was mild and friendly compared with the bitter denunciation of Hoover and all his works that was to be heard among the bankrupt Kansas wheatgrowers. Washington did not then seem greatly perturbed by the situation in the grain country; and meanwhile farm prices continued to slump until on July 15, i 93 i they had reached the lowest level in twenty-one years.
Then arose the first positive rumblings of a new sort of unrest among the farmers. They were talking of following some other than a purely political course of action. The disaffection among the urban unemployed spread to the rural districts, partly with the help of radical agitators, partly through the movement toward the farming areas of large numbers of city jobless. Radical agitation in the smaller cities and towns of the Middle West was promptly spiked by the factory-owners and bankers of those communities. They gained control of the relief organizations and thus weeded out, or thought they were weeding out, the Communists and other radicals. But they could exercise no such rigid supervision over the farming communities. Other food riots followed in Oklahoma. Dairymen, especially in the Northwest, went on strike. During a five-day strike (14) in the Portland, Oregon, territory the dairymen blockaded all highways leading to the city. Trucks laden with milk were halted. Thousands of gallons of milk were spilled into the ditches. The dairymen even invaded the city to drive out the few trucks that had managed to slip by the blockade. At the end of five days the big milk-distributors of Portland agreed to an increase in price.
In Texas the cotton-growers were demanding 15 that Governor Sterling send the state militia into the fields to regulate the production of cotton. They were inspired by the action of Governor Murray of Oklahoma in sending troops into the oil fields to boost the price of petroleum. c And they were annoyed (16) by the ridiculous suggestion of the Federal Farm Board that they "plow under every third row of cotton now growing." Fifteen hundred Iowa farmers urged (17) Governor Turner to padlock the Iowa corn crop in the crib, with the understanding that the state would not release the corn until it had gone up in price to sixty cents a bushel. In North Dakota the influential Farmers' Union asked (18) for a farm-debt moratorium; it suggested that the governor take dictatorial action under his police power. The Farmers' Union declared with no little meaning that "the American farmer cannot be expected to much longer endure the hardships placed on his shoulders by conditions for which he is not responsible, and which were brought about by the socalled deflation and manipulation of our currency at the command of the international bankers."
Through the succeeding winter and spring and into the summer of 1932 the signs of revolt among the farmers continued to multiply. In the Dakotas, Ella Reeve Bloor, organizer for the radical United Farmers' League, found 19 the wheat-growers in ever larger numbers willing to listen to Communist arguments. In the state of Washington, Governor Hartley, standpat Republican and irreconcilable foe of organized labor, declared: (20) "We cannot endure another winter of hardship such as we are now passing through. I am fearful of what may happen unless Congress comes to our aid." He was alarmed by the growing bond of sympathy between the farmers and the city unemployed; hundreds of grain farmers and fruit-growers were flocking to the mass meetings of the jobless in Seattle and Tacoma. In northern Colorado the workers in the beet fields went on strike.21
These workers, mostly Mexicans, did not hesitate to accept help from the Communists. In Wisconsin a mass
meeting of farmers threatened a tax strike .22 At Marion, North Carolina, the Crooked Creek and Oakdale locals
of the Progressive Farmers' League celebrated the Fourth of July by singing the Internationale.23
In conservative Kansas, according to W. G. Clugston, a Kansas journalist, Republican and Democratic leaders
alike were showing alarm because they do not know how soon the farmers may start a revolt, or to what extent they may go if a revolt gets under way. In Kansas the situation has many elements of seriousness for the leaders of Sunflower Puritanism. Dr. J. R. Brinkley, a goat-gland rejuvenating medico of Milford, who polled 183,000 votes as an independent candidate for governor in the last election without even having his name printed on the ballots, is threatening to run as an independent candidate again. ... The economic seriousness of the situation is occupying the attention of business men in the towns as well as worrying the farm leaders. There is uneasiness because "Coin" Harvey's new plea for a monetary revolution is getting some attention, and because A. C. Townley, who organized the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota, is now following the harvest up from Oklahoma and advocating Harvey's theories .24
DIRECT ACTION AT LAST
It was only a question of time until the smoldering rebellion of the farmers should express itself in the form of direct action. Until August 1932 the metropolitan press and most of the capitalist press in general paid little heed to the incipient farm revolt. The newspapers passed over in silence the many symptoms of rebellion.It was only when the farmers of Iowa, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Missouri, reaching the end of their patience, went on strike, blocking shipments of milk and produce to the larger towns, that the press suddenly awakened. The instinctive reaction of the law-and-order elements was to call for troops to put down the strike. The small shopkeepers and city dwellers remembered that Governor Turner of Iowa had used the state militia the year before in stopping the Iowa "cow war." But the authorities, better informed and better advised than the petit bourgeoisie of the towns, saw clearly that the farm strike was bound to end in failure. Without a disciplined, unified organization covering the entire country the farmers could never hope to stop produce from entering the cities. The farmers, too, must have known this. Yet so desperate was their plight that they went doggedly on with their strike, though time and again their leaders sold them out by arranging compromise agreements and "truces" without their consent.
In Iowa and one or two other states violence attended the strike. In the neighborhood of Des Moines a "wrecking crew" of fifty men was used to clear the roads of pickets. Sheriff. Slocum of Union County disarmed the strikers after a convincing show of force. Tear-gas bombs broke up a picket line of three hundred farmers near Council Bluffs. Fourteen men were wounded when a carload of armed strike-breakers fired into the picket lines near Cherokee. The sheriff of Cherokee County was clearly using violence as a pretext for asking that the state militia be called in. In several communities pickets were arrested on dubious charges. But at Clinton, Cherokee, Sioux City, and Des Moines the prisoners were promptly freed 25 when crowds of angry farmers threatened to storm the jails. In the meantime the strike movement spread into other states, into North Dakota, Michi
gan, Indiana, Ohio, New York, and Tennessee. In the end, however, the movement collapsed, as was perhaps inevitable, for it could not be carried along without organization. Nevertheless, this very lack of organization showed how spontaneous was the decision of the farmers to turn to direct action once they had convinced themselves that real, enduring help was not to be obtained through political channels.
This spontaneity the farm leaders either ignored or tried to suppress. Governor Bryan of Nebraska told the farmers to go back home and plan to "battle with ballots" in November. The Grange remained silent throughout the strike. Edward O'Neal, president of the National Farm Bureau, called 26 on his followers to "back up law and order" and "put an end to hysterics." He termed the strike "a futile, sporadic effort of a few minority groups of misguided farmers" and certain "radical, non-farmer agitators." The relatively radical Farmers' Union announced that it was supporting the Farm Holiday movement, but was opposed to mass picketing. Milo Reno, originator of the Farm Holiday scheme, one day declared that "you could no more stop this movement than you could stop the revolution of 1776. I couldn't stop it if I tried." 27 And the very next day he arranged a truce with the commission merchants and milk-distributors without so much as a "by-your leave" to the strikers he was leading. Many of the farmers were not thus easily to be denied or misled. A group of deserters from Reno's organization met in Sioux City in September. They organized '6 the Farmers' National Emergency Relief Conference for Rank and File Farmers and arranged to meet in Washington in December. They invited Lem Harris, a farm student with radical inclinations, to be their national secretary. This was the beginning of the first truly revolutionary movement in American farming history. (I do
not forget the embattled farmers at Lexington; but during the War for American Independence the farmers
were used merely as pawns by the tradesmen and smugglers of New England who wanted to free themselves from the political domination of the British agrarian ruling class.)
The strike movement languished during the winter of 1932-3, but did not die out entirely. Picketing was resumed from time to time, particularly in the Iowa and South Dakota sector. There were occasional outbreaks of violence. Governors of the affected states talked a great deal about relief programs, but their aimless discussions came to nothing. The farm leaders were satisfied that the outbursts of August and September had been sufficient, according to Milo Reno, "to awaken the public conscience to the condition of the farmers of the nation." But the farmers did not think so. Having found the strike an inefficient if not an entirely ineffectual weapon, they, turned to other methods. They blocked foreclosure sales by mob action. In Oklahoma a group of farmers hauled a cannon, a relic of the World War, from the town square out to a farm where such a sale was to be held. From somewhere they obtained a half-dozen shells. Whether or not the shells were blanks is not important. The mere appearance of the field-piece was enough to frighten the sheriff into calling off the sale. In Iowa 29 a noose was dangled before the representative of an insurance company, the only bidder for a farm property that was being foreclosed. The agent was told to raise his bid to the point where the farmer about to be dispossessed could be relieved of all his indebtedness to the company. The home office of the insurance company quickly agreed to this demand. It was obviously afraid that the farmers really meant to lynch the agent.
The mob spirit spread rapidly. Thousands of foreclosure sales were stopped. In many communities threats of lynching were heard. To quote a dispatch from Omaha: 3'0 "These farmers are no longer in good humor. They are in ugly temper, intimidating sheriffs and bidders on farms. They are telling some courts what they will stand for and what they will not stand for." In one Iowa county the radical farmers actually took over a court building as their headquarters. In time the larger insurance companies in New York, holders of farm mortgages nominally worth approximately $1,700,000,000, announced 31 that they had agreed to a farm moratorium. Though they tried to make it appear an act of altruism, the insurance companies were really confessing that the farmers had won by their direct-action tactics. Unable to collect anything from the farmers in any case, the insurance companies could well afford to appear altruistic. However, an even larger proportion of farm mortgages was held by the banks, many of which had virtually all of their funds in farm paper. When they could not collect, they had either to seek assistance from the big commercial banks in Chicago and New York, or to close their doors. In either case this situation increased the strain on the sagging banking structure of the country. The Red strikes in Detroit contributed directly to the financial crash of February and March 1933; the direct-action tactics of the farmers in the Middle West and East no doubt also played a contributory though perhaps less important role.
THE CLASS WAR RAISES ITS HEAD
Until the late winter or early spring of 1933 the farm struggle had no distinct outline, followed no clear-cut course. For one thing, class lines were more or less obscured. To a large degree propertied farmers fought side by side with tenants, employers with farm hands, and even the proletarianized industrial workers from the towns, members of the radical Unemployed Councils, joined the picket lines to help the farmers defend their private property. Farm-belt editors reported 32 that the general public was "not inclined to be disturbed" by the struggle. What "the people who live in the midst of these alarums and excursions . . . see is not Red revolution, not an organized movement to defraud creditors, but a desperate effort to preserve the existing property status from wreckage. In spite of cow-testing wars, farm strikes, highway picketing, and interference with tax and mortgage foreclosure sales, the general level of respect for law and its orderly processes remains high." This characteristic middle-class view, plus the fact that propertied farmers were for the time being standing shoulder to shoulder with tenants and paupers, served to confuse the authorities. When city dwellers, their food supply threatened, demanded troops to suppress the farmers, the Governor of Iowa refused to comply.33
The class war had already come to the surface in certain rural areas-for example, among the Negro sharecroppers of the South, pauperized peasants who stood at the very bottom of the economic scale. The food riots in Oklahoma and Arkansas likewise could be traced to the suffering of a peasant class. Even in the early days of the farm troubles in the Middle West a division along class lines was faintly discernible. Wealthy farmers who stood in no danger of being dispossessed lined up with the law-and-order element, making up the bulk of the various sheriffs' forces used in attacking the picket lines. But the first major indication that the class war was raising its head came at the Rank-and-File Conference in Sioux City in September. The farmers gathered at this meeting were either tenants or dispossessed owners. The Rank-and-File Conference was the signal for a revolt not only against high taxes and fixed interest charges, not only against the tax-gatherers, banks, and insurance companies, but also against the wealthy farmers and against the leaders of the farm movement. These men who had lost their land and tools were turning against those who still had property or substantial incomes. They did not trust their former leaders, men drawing from six to twelve thousand dollars a year while they and their children were in danger of starvation; they wanted to lead their own rebellion and draw up their own program of action. Where they could they captured the machinery of the existing farm organizations; elsewhere they created their own leagues and "committees for action."
The farm belt was inclined at first to applaud. It did not immediately perceive the class characteristics which set this group apart from other farm organizations. Nor was the difference readily apparent to the federal authorities in Washington. When some thousands of rankand-file farmers descended upon the national capital in December, they were openly welcomed as members of the broad and substantial lower middle class. Their radical demands for relief were sympathetically received by Congress, and their program published in full in the Congressional Record. By coincidence or otherwise a hunger march of the industrial unemployed reached Washington at about the same time. The marchers were drawn from the same social and economic stratum as were the rank-and-file farmers; they had the same type of leadership and wanted to present the same sort of demands. But while Police Superintendent Brown assured the farmers that they could come and go as they pleased, he sent several hundred armed men to guard the hunger marchers, for they were openly parading as Communists.
The average farmer took a friendly attitude toward the Rank-and-File Conference, later to be known as the Farmers' National Committee for Action. For the average farmer had reached or was rapidly reaching that state of peasantry against which the Sioux City conferees had declared open war. Something like 2,'750,000 farmers, or almost half of the national total, were tenants, and this number was growing because of the unending tax and mortgage sales. Other thousands of farmers were facing eviction. This vast group was propertyless; a large majority did not even own their own tools. In addition, there were more than a million harvest hands and other itinerant farm workers who not only had no property or tools, but were homeless as well. Here was a vast peasant class, numbering in all perhaps as many as ten million human beings, upon which the Rank-and-File Conference could draw for inspiration and membership. That this class should have sought spontaneously to organize itself was significant. That it should have turned to known radicals for expert assistance in this work had far greater significance.
As the rank-and-file movement spread across the country, drawing in conservative food-growers in Pennsylvania, New York, and New England as well as farmers from the Northwest, its class aspects were revealed in ever larger measure by its tactics. The National Committee for Action organized protest parades 34 which marched upon the state legislatures in Iowa, Nebraska, and elsewhere; stirred up tax strikes in Indiana, Michigan, and other states; and aroused the dairymen in New York. True, some of the less radical groups, such as the Farm Holiday Association and Farmers' Union, participated to a certain extent in these activities, but they did so largely because of the defections in their own ranks. Their leaders were alarmed by the apparent success of the rank-and-file movement; they saw their comfortable salaries disappearing as their followers deserted them. Milo Reno, for example, who had admitted 35 that he was being paid eight thousand dollars a year as head of various subsidiaries of the Farmers' Union, tried desperately to capture control of the left-wing group so that he could dictate its policies and program. What really disturbed him was that the rank-and-file farmers were opposed to paying salaries to their officials; they felt that men who had to be paid to lead them in their struggle could not be trusted, for these men thereby proved that they were purchasable.
Meanwhile the "better element" in the farming communities openly deserted their fellow farmers. In cooperation with business men in the towns and with the sheriffs' offices, they formed bands of vigilantes to act as bodyguards for auctioneers at foreclosure sales and to break up picket lines. By March 1933 it had become apparent to even the most casual observer in the Middle West that the left-wing movement was "an organization of the interest of the American mujik as opposed to the American kulak-the tenant and heavily debt-ridden farmer as against the landowning farmer who has no debts or debts so small that they do not worry him."
So long as the class struggle was obscured, the authorities had hesitated to act with vigor and determination, but the moment a clear-cut division on class lines appeared, the authorities promptly resorted to the use of violence in protecting the propertied farmers and the business interests in the towns. Thus they followed the traditional tactics of the police and militia in the coal fields, steel towns, automobile centers like Detroit, and larger cities like Chicago, for wherever a struggle between property rights and human rights developed, there the authorities were inevitably to be found on the side of property.
Farmers were arrested for debt. Stephen Duhan of Bethel, Connecticut, who was fourteen months behind in his rent and owed other money on a judgment note, was hauled off to Danbury jail because he could not meet these debts.36 The crops he left behind him rotted in the fields; his family had to go hungry; but the law was satisfied. Other farmers were forcibly evicted from their homes. Max Cichon, living near Elkhorn, Wisconsin, refused to surrender his home and farm to the sheriff. That officer assembled 37 "an army of deputy sheriffs" which "laid down a barrage with machine guns, rifles, shotguns, and tear gas bombs." This violent method succeeded and Cichon was lodged in the jail at Elkhorn. Military force was used against farmers picketing the roads. New York state troopers used their riot-guns (33) in keeping open the highways over which milk was being transported to Rochester and other cities. A group of Pennsylvania farmers, gathered to prevent a sale at Braeburn, was fired upon by the police,39 the first time the authorities had employed anything more violent than gas bombs or clubs in suppressing the militant farmers. Elsewhere as well-in Utah, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan-the authorities were stiffening in their resistance to mob action, were frequently taking the offensive against the militant farmers. Sheriffs who a few months before had been gracefully yielding when beset by crowds of angry farmers were in the spring of 1933 beginning to fight back. Aggressive leaders of the tenants and dispossessed farmers were arrested on spurious charges. As a climax came the military intervention in Iowa. The petit bourgeoisie and their public representatives had at last determined to use the power of the State to suppress the spreading rebellion of the peasant class.
The farm strike of August 1932 started in the neighborhood of Lemars, Iowa. It was in the same neighborhood that the attack upon District Judge Charles C. Bradley took place in the following April. (40) This was the result of no accident or coincidence. In the country about Lemars the proprtion of teneant farmers was higher than elsewhere in Iowa, and perhaps higher than in any other section of the Middle West. There the farm rebellion had made the greatest headway. The members of the mob that kidnapped Judge Bradley, "choked him until he was only partly conscious, smeared grease on his face, and stole his trousers," were all tenants and all participants in the left-wing movement. This assault upon the dignity of the American courts naturally outraged the sensibilities of he press and the general public. Governor Herring of Iowa responded quickly and effectively. Martial law was proclaimed throughout the affected area; troops were sent in to enforce the Governor's proclamation to round up the militant tenants; all civil courts in Plymouth County were ordered to suspend. (41) SUch action is taken only when the ordinary machinery of government breaks down or seems likely to break down as the result of popular rebellion. Even in the coal states, where miners were in revolt, the authorities did not go to such extreme lengths.
1. St Louis Post-Dispatch, January 4, 1933.
2. The story of the Farm Board scandal is told in detail in two articles of mine in The Nation of December 2 and 9,
3. New York Times, November 6, 1931.
4. Ibid., November 6, 1931.
5. Associated Press, November 5, 1931.
6. New York Evening Post, November 28, 1931.
7. Associated Press, July 17, 1932.
8. Ibid., July 17, 1932.
9. New York Times, July 1o, 1932.
10.. U. S. Department of Agriculture press release, November 19, 1932.
11. Scripps-Howard dispatch to New York Telegram, February 9, 1931.
12. New York Herald Tribune, July 19, 1931.
13. Quoted in dispatch to New York Times, July 15, 1931.
14. Federated Press, August 10, 1931
15. New York Times, August 30, 1931
16. Federated Press, August 13, 1931
17. New York Times, September 20, 1931.
18. Federated Press, September 3, 1931.
19 Ibid., April 12, 1932.
20. Ibid., April 20, 1932.
21. Ibid., May 26, 1932.
22. Ibid., May 10, 1932.
23.Ibid., July 8, 1932.
24.The Nation, August 5, 1931.
25.Farm News Letter, Farm Research, Inc., Washington, D. C., September 8, 1932.
26.New York Times, August 31, 1932.
27. Ibid., August 31, 1932
28. Farm News Letter, September 16, 1932.
29. New York Herald Tribune, January 5, 1933.
30. New York Times, January 22, 1933.
31. Ibid., February 1, 1933.
32. Ibid., February 12, 1933.
33. Associated Press, September 16, 1932.
34. Farmers National Weekly, March 3, 1933.
35. Farm News Letter, September 28, 1932.
36. New York Herald Tribune, January 4, 1933.
37. Milwaukee Leader, December 6, 1932.
38. New York Times, March 31, 1933.
39. Associated Press, March 30, 1933.
40. Ibid., April 27, 1933.
41. Ibid., April 30, 1933.