When we talk about class struggle in the United States, we tend to focus on urban areas. In some ways, this is understandable – inequalities are more obvious in cities like New York, where the unimaginably rich and the desperately poor rub shoulders on the sidewalk. But it’s important to remember that farmers have always had an important role in the struggle. Indeed, it was a farmer’s movement—the Populist movement—that led this country closer to revolution than it has ever been.
After the Civil War, prices for agricultural goods collapsed. This meant that farmers were getting even less return for their labor, which worsened an already dire situation. You see, most farmers in the American South were bound to what was called the “Crop Lien System.” This was an economic relationship in which farmers bought all of the basic goods they needed to survive from a local merchant on credit, who then took a share of their crops as reimbursement for this credit. Usually the local merchant was the only credit provider in town, which meant that he had total control over interest rates, payment schedules, even the kinds of crops the farmer had to grow. Somehow, when tallying time came around at the end of the year, the prices never quite added up, and the farmer was forced to stay in debt for another year (sound familiar?).
No one can keep an oppressed people down forever. After the price collapse, conditions got so bad that farmers began to organize. In 1877, a small group of farmers convened in Lampsasas County, Texas, under the name “Knights of Reliance.” They pooled their resources and sponsored speaking tours across the state, encouraging communal buying and selling of crops in order to break the monopoly power of the creditors. Eventually, the Knights gave way to what was called simply the Farmer’s Alliance. By 1885, the Farmer’s Alliance numbered 50,000 people.
Increasing struggles with credit arrangements brought the Alliance around to the opinion that mere “reform” of the economic system would be impossible. In 1892, they ran a Populist candidate for president. Senator Weaver of Iowa won 8.5% of the popular vote but lost to President Cleveland. After the election, the movement was largely in disarray—a combination of financial crises and cooption by the Democratic Party took a lot of the energy out of the movement. But they left a lasting impression on American politics, and paved the way for a series of reforms.
As we work to regain control of our food base, we must learn from those who came before us. Next week I’ll showcase Cesar Chaves and the United Farm Workers. Wooo! History!