Pente on Lee and Cox, 'When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America'

Author: 
R. Alton Lee, Steven Cox
Reviewer: 
Graeme Pente

R. Alton Lee, Steven Cox. When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2020. Illustrations. 352 pp. $29.95 (e-book), ISBN 978-1-4962-1982-4; $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-1623-6.

Reviewed by Graeme Pente (University of Colorado Boulder) Published on H-Socialisms (November, 2020) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=55309

Agrarian Socialism

In When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America, R. Alton Lee and Steven Cox offer a wide-ranging account of the electoral and organizing successes and failures of Kansas radicals in the first third of the twentieth century. Through individual biographies and descriptions of electoral races and worker organizing, Lee and Cox aim to show how “Kansans played a key part in the growth of national radicalism” (p. 9). With their Populist past, parts of the Sunflower State became hotbeds of organizing for members of the Socialist Party, Industrial Workers of the World (Wobblies), and Kansas Allied Workers.

Due to the flurry of radical activity in the first two decades of the twentieth century, Lee and Cox organize much of the book thematically, and the first chapters provide a series of biographies of important radicals in Kansas history. Only the last chapters draw the narrative forward chronologically. Chapter 1 begins logically enough with Julius A. Wayland, the editor of the influential and widely read Appeal to Reason. Wayland printed his paper in Girard, a town in the tristate region of southeastern Kansas and a bastion of Socialist Party support in the state. The chapter also covers Henry Laurens Call and Christian Balzac Hoffman, two other Socialists who remained comfortable making money under capitalism despite their concern for workers. Biographical sketches of lawyer G. C. Clemens and women organizers Annie Diggs, Kate Richards O’Hare, Caroline Lowe, May Wood Simons, and Josephine Conger round out the other early chapters. Lee and Cox then relate the successes and—more often—failures of Kansas Socialists in organizing the miners of the tristate region, of Socialist candidates at the ballot box, of the Wobblies in organizing transient farm hands and oil and mine workers, of North Dakotan Arthur C. Townley’s Nonpartisan League’s attempt to expand into Kansas, and of a new generation of radicals in pursuing poor relief under the New Deal during the Depression years.

One theme that emerges from Lee and Cox’s study is the force of establishment reaction to even the slightest Socialist success, either at the polls or organizing in the work camps. Traditional party politicians in the state legislature denied seats to Socialist victors, tried to impose candidate taxes, and required credentials and experience to protect elected offices from common workers. Other parties collaborated to oppose radicals in subsequent elections, bankers organized advertising boycotts to starve worker newspapers of operating funds, and police and vigilante forces broke up meetings and poured hot tar on or otherwise assaulted organizers. Despite historical arguments about the availability of land and consumer goods in sapping the radicalism of American workers and their class consciousness, it is worth remembering the sheer force of state and extralegal repression as a factor in explaining why there is no socialism in America.

For all the detailed information in the book, When Sunflowers Bloomed Red is not carefully organized. The thematic organization early on works well enough, as such figures as Wayland or Clemens intersect with the subjects of later chapters, by which time the reader is familiar with their careers. Chapter 7’s study of the Nonpartisan League finally starts to advance the chronology by beginning in the late 1910s, rather than retreading the early 1900s. And the final chapter jumps ahead to the Great Depression and organizing during the New Deal. Being such an outlier and treating a new generation of radicals largely removed from those of the rest of the book makes the final chapter feel out of place. Of greater concern, however, are the chronological jumps within chapters. The chapter on the mining Socialists, for instance, moves from a discussion of events in 1908 to an explanatory interlude on the red flag in World War I before jumping back to 1900. As a similar example, the fifth chapter moves from a political science-inflected discussion of the relative voting strength of the Socialists in different quadrants of the state to a twelve-page account of the rise and fall of the People’s College the Socialists established in Fort Smith, with little connective tissue. It is unclear if subheadings within the chapters would have alleviated these more disjointed moments or if this is the result of the book having multiple authors, but the absence of clear signposting can leave the reader dizzied in places.

A related issue is the book’s lack of a strong central argument. The litany of major and minor figures in the Socialist movement who were born in or operated out of Kansas lends some weight to the state’s importance to American radicalism. However, Lee and Cox offer scant analysis as to why this was the case. The authors seem to rely on the existence of these figures as enough. The historic strength of Populism in Kansas looms in the background, but Lee and Cox do little to draw out its importance in boosting—or limiting—the Socialist Party’s success in the state. The Populists receive some mention in the introduction, but given that Kansas was one of the few states where the People’s Party formed a state government, they surely merit an early chapter of their own in a study of radicalism in the state. Indeed, the brief Populist rule continued to influence even establishment parties into the early twentieth century, as Kyle Williams has recently shown.[1] Lee and Cox seem to suggest that the Socialist appeal failed to bridge the divide between trade unionists and farmers, given “the agrarian-dominated legislature” (p. 174). But this explanation is not carefully or consistently argued.

Some of these shortcomings may stem from what the authors admit is a “paucity of sources” that probably prevents “a definitive history of socialism in Kansas” from ever being written (p. 9). Nonetheless, the book depends almost entirely on newspaper accounts of Socialist activities and organizing when it does not rely on secondary sources for some of the individual biographies. Though Lee and Cox are usually careful to note the political position and bias of the newspaper accounts from which they are drawing, the reliance on newspapers alone may have contributed to the somewhat disjointed feel of the book’s narrative. Despite these limitations, When Sunflowers Bloomed Red offers a worthwhile reminder of the vast cast of characters who comprise the tradition of prairie radicalism.

Note

[1]. Kyle Williams, “Roosevelt’s Populism: The Kansas Oil War of 1905 and the Making of Corporate Capitalism,” The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 19, no. 1 (January 2020): 96-121.

Citation: Graeme Pente. Review of Lee, R. Alton; Cox, Steven, When Sunflowers Bloomed Red: Kansas and the Rise of Socialism in America. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. November, 2020. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=55309

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