By Gary Olson
"The sun was shining as I was strolling
The wheat field waving the dust clouds rolling
The fog was lifting a voice was chanting
This land was made for you and me"
— Woody Guthrie
With socialism, even in a diluted and inchoate form, assuming a higher profile, I’m reminded of my early years in North Dakota during the 1950s. On the one hand, it wasn’t the Gestapo-like scenes from Standing Rock, today’s widespread sex trafficking in the booming oil fields in the western part of the state or the Trump-friendly votes of current Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. On the other hand, it was hardly idyllic with its duck-and-cover drills, loyalty oaths, McCarthyism, and stifling Evangelical Lutheran social mores. Still, there was at least a vague awareness that things had once been better.
I wasn’t a red or even a pink diaper baby, those who for better or worse gazed at Communist Manifesto picture books for toddlers and inherited their parents’ radical politics. In fact, red, white and blue diapers would be a more apt description. However, through cultural osmosis I must have internalized some sense of what remained of North Dakota’s radical political legacy.
In the early 1900s, nine of 10 North Dakotans were farmers who were being bankrupted by ruthless out-of-state economic conglomerates. In response, they organized the Nonpartisan League (NPL) a socialist insursurgency movement. Together with elements of the Socialist Party and the IWW, the NPL quickly became a force to be reckoned with and in the 1918 election, won both houses of the state legislature. Along with new safety net legislation, among the first laws to be passed were the creation of a publicly owned grain mill, the North Dakota Mill and Elevator and a publicly owned bank, the Bank of North Dakota. The latter was envisioned as a credit-union style institution to liberate farmers from predatory lenders. Incidentally, I grew up assuming the Bank of North Dakota, a quasi-socialist institution, had a counterpart in every state. In fact it was the only one of its kind.
The initial success of the NPL also helped spawn the Democratic Farmer Labor Party (DFL) in neighboring Minnesota where both sets of my grandparents had emigrated from Norway and Sweden in the 1870s. Although never made explicit, the experiences of my elders bequeathed to me a deeply ingrained distrust toward “Big Shots” in general and more specifically, those in the Twin Cities (Mpls/St.Paul) and further east in Chicago. Such people did not have our best interests at heart. I also prefer imagining now that if monsters were hiding under my bed at night they were eastern bankers, grain merchants and railroad tycoons.
Alas, this period was short lived. Then, as now, the capitalist state performed its primary function as protector of the ruling class. The devastating effects of the government’s campaign against labor unions, embodied in anti-radical hysteria, the first Red Scare in 1920, jailing and deportation of radicals, the Palmer Raids and imprisonment of Eugene Debs, all but extinguished radical prairie populism. Both major political parties toiled endlessly to make socialism synonymous with “Un-American.” The final blow occurred when many farmers gravitated toward the Democratic Party, the graveyard of radical progressive movements.
This heinous chapter in American history joins racism, a belief in U.S. exceptionalism, nativism, and ruthless imperialism as being as American as baseball and apple pie.
But lest we forget, the less well known but countless examples of courageous resistance to these execrable episodes is also part of the American tradition. In keeping with this spirit, I recommend viewing John Hanson and Rob Nilsson’s “Prairie Trilogy,” a reissued assemblage of three short films about North Dakota’s radical past. Shot from 1978-1980, Prairie Fire, Rebel Earth and Survivor, have been lovingly restored and couldn’t be more timely.
As reviewer Joshua Brunsting, puts it, “While thousands of people are turning to what they believe to be a groundbreaking socio-political movement, they don’t stop to realize that this type of worker-focused ideology is at the very heart of the American political experience. Maybe not as those living in 2018 think of socialism, but the DNA runs deep and runs clear.” The recent surge of public activism and the rejection of capitalism by today’s millennials are fully consonant with this sanguine conclusion.
[Editor’s note: Gary Olson is professor emeritus of political science at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA.]
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