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Editor’s Note: This essay is excerpted from Toward a Cooperative Commonwealth: The Transplanted Roots of Peasant-Worker Radicalism in Texasby Thomas Alter II, published in April 2022 by the University of Illinois Press. Copyright 2022 by the University of Illinois Board of Trustees.
“I was born in Fayette County, Texas to German parents, and I ran from reaction [to] the 1848 revolution. I think I inherited some of my revolutionary skills. I am not responsible for them. I can’t help it.”
So testified EO Meitzen before the Industrial Relations Commission in March 1915 why he got involved in the political struggles of working farmers. At the time, Meitzen was a former leader of the Socialist Party of Texas. Nearly thirty years earlier, his legacy led him to help organize and lead the Fayette County Farmers’ Alliance. When the Farmers’ Alliance failed to bring relief to the farmers, Meitzen joined the populist revolt, becoming a leader of the statewide People’s Party. Meitzen’s political legacy extended to EO’s children, particularly his son ER, who successively served as leader of the Farmers’ Union, Socialist Party, Nonpartisan League, and Farm-Labor Union of America. For three generations, from the 1840her 1940s, the Meitzens spearheaded movements and organizations that fought for the economic and political rights of workers and farmers.
After the failure of the revolution 1848a large number of Germans 48ers, including the Meitzens, fled the counter-revolution to make new beginnings in Texas and other parts of the United States. They carried with them their revolutionary experiences and their radical politics. At the national level, as historian Mark Lause has shown, the German 48The ers helped accelerate the already underway transition of American agrarian radicals from utopian communal socialism to political activism through the formation of parties as a primary tactic to achieve labor reforms and an end to slavery. german texan 48ers were the first to introduce a radical farmer labor policy in Texas.
The Meitzens sought to shape the political and economic contours of democracy at a time when war, industrialization, and immigration radically transformed the United States. Industrial capitalism replaced the independent artisan and the yeoman with the factory worker and sharecropper. After the genocidal expulsion of many indigenous peoples from the continent, the owners of capital encouraged the workers of the world to immigrate to the United States to fill the factories and fields. These massive migrations changed the racial and ethnic makeup of the nation. These transformations, however, did not go unchallenged, as workers and farmers collectively organized, in ways that were both forward-looking and reactionary, to resist the economic, political and social demands of capitalism.
Much of the working class saw land ownership as the key to independence and self-sufficiency. Until the early 20th century, many working people aspired to land ownership, clinging to popular republican notions that equate freedom with land ownership. From Tom Paine Agrarian Justice and Thomas Skidmore’s agrarian party to the broken promise of forty acres and a mule for freedmen to the promise of cheap land attracting wave after wave of immigrants, land meant freedom. Salaried status, in the minds of many workers, was to be only temporary – until they could earn enough money to secure land. This condition, however, proved to be more permanent as the percentage of farmers in the labor force declined by 53% in 1870 for
27% in 1920, the same year, the United States transformed from a predominantly rural nation to a predominantly urban nation. Yet many workers remained tied to the land in occupations such as transporting farm produce and making agricultural implements.
For those who worked the land, especially in the South, they did so not as owners but as sharecroppers or sharecroppers. In many rural southern counties, tenants were overwhelmingly farmers. The living and working conditions of sharecroppers were comparable to the worst faced by factory workers. Whether working as a coal miner in West Virginia or as a farmer in a cotton field in Texas, their economic, social, and political status places them both in the working class. Despite the traditional notion of an inherent hostility between urban workers and rural tillers of the soil, land property claims had been an integral part of working class political platforms from the 1840her 1920s.
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The presence of organizations and parties, of 1870s across the 1920s, representing the interests of farmers and workers, demonstrates the existence of a decades-long worker-farmer bloc in American political culture. Although its origins go back further, the supported peasant-worker bloc began with the Knights of Labor, the Greenback Labor Party and the Grange of the 1870s. The peasant-worker bloc then progressed through the Farmers’ Alliance, the Populist movement, the Socialist Party, the non-partisan League and the peasant-worker conventions of the 1920s. The peasant-worker bloc was not something that flared up from time to time, punctuated by periods of hibernation, third parties and protest movements often being frowned upon. The bloc has been a regular feature of American political culture for more than five decades. Land, as powerfully as wages, has shaped working class ideology and politics in the United States.
A shared productive philosophy linked the organizations of the peasant-worker bloc. The belief that those who work should control what they produce differed radically from the corporate practice of controlling and profiting from the work of others. Working independently of the Democratic and Republican parties, the bloc served as a bulwark against rampant capitalism. Although enacted in much watered down versions by Democrats and Republicans alike, many of the landmark reforms of the Progressive and New Deal eras saw the light of day and were tirelessly championed by individuals and organizations within the bloc. peasant-worker. Indeed, without their efforts, a Progressive Era or a New Deal would probably never have happened.
Almost a century has passed since the collapse of the agrarian bloc of agricultural workers. The general public has largely forgotten the people of the peasant-worker bloc and the parties and mass mobilizations they created. When historians discuss the farmer-worker bloc, they are developing a characterization of stray hayseeds, isolated in their local communities, who looked more to the past than to the future. Intellectuals dismissed peasant-worker radicalism as messianic, wild-eyed evangelism or a product of a commercial orientation or stemming from undefined middle-class values. Yet closer analysis shows that were it not for the actions and organizations of these country thugs who challenged the robber barons, we might never have left the golden age and would be robbed of their example in the fight against our own latter-day robber barons.