The Socialists of the Prairies

In March 2017, I reviewed Yale Strom’s documentary on Eugene V. Debs for CounterPunch, a work that looked at Red states when they were really Red. I wrote: “Indeed, the IWW and the SP reached the most oppressed members of the working class (fruit pickers, longshoremen, miners, lumberjacks) in the boondocks. Oklahoma, a state most liberals would consider particularly retrograde, was fertile territory for the radical left at the turn of the 20th century.” For those who missed Yale’s documentary at the festival last year or at its brief theater run in April of this year, the good news is that it is available now from iTunes.

And equally good news is the arrival of the Prairie Trilogy at the Metrograph Theater on Friday, July 27th. The trilogy consists of three documentaries made in 1978 by John Hanson and Rob Nilsson about the radical movement in North Dakota during the heyday of the IWW, the Socialist Party, and the Nonpartisan League (NPL). Since the radical movement in North Dakota in the early 1900s was largely made up of homesteaders, the focus is on the Nonpartisan League, a farmer’s movement motivated by the same grievances that fueled the Populist Party in the south.

Hanson and Nilsson also made a narrative film titled “Northern Lights” around the same time that depicts the formation of the NPL. It received the Caméra d’Or prize at the 1980 Cannes Film Festival for best first feature film and is probably worth tracking down based on the stunning Prairie Trilogy. Nilsson has his own credit for a documentary titled “What Happened Here” that can be seen on Fandor. SF Weekly described it as “little more than an intellectual crush on Leon Trotsky” so that should be recommendation enough. This is the sort of work you might expect from founding members of Cine Manifest, a collective that came together in 1972 as a political group making films instead of artists making political films. Their roots were in Karl Marx and Wilhelm Reich, and unabashedly so.

Eight years ago former members of Cine Manifest showed up for a retrospective of their work at Anthology Film Archives. An article at Fanzine will give you feel for the heady atmosphere of the time, which evokes a Godard film:

Cine Manifest’s original nucleus came together around the formation of an independent trade union. They wanted to live and make films collectively; their pooled and distributed salaries from other jobs – Lighthill worked for CBS and provided about half – supported about a dozen people and allowed them to do their own projects. Their subjects were those left out of mainstream narratives – for example, farmers, factory workers, women – and they understood all cinema as occurring in some political context. But, although they did immerse themselves in Chinese commune-style self-criticism that eventually led to ruptures, they were not to occupy themselves as filmmakers with simple agit prop. As Hanson later recalled, “We spent the entire time trying to figure out what ‘political’ meant.”

I would submit that the Prairie Trilogy is conclusive evidence that they damned well knew what political meant.

The first film in the Prairie Trilogy is titled “Prairie Fire” and has the look of a Ken Burns documentary, made up entirely of archival photos and film clips. Since “Prairie Fire” predates Burns’s first film by 3 years, you might even say his documentaries were following the trail blazed by Hanson and Nilsson. “Prairie Fire” is narrated by Henry Martinson who was 97 at the time and who lived through the class battles led by the Nonpartisan League. For farmers, the “gift” of 160 acres mandated by the Homestead Act had strings attached. Maybe chains would be a better word since after wheat was delivered to grain elevators used for storage near railway stations, the farmer had to put up with extortionary charges that left them with about enough money to buy a couple of pounds of coffee, as Martinson puts it. Going further up the food chain, it was the railroad barons who got the lion’s share. Although Martinson, a Norwegian immigrant and homesteader, started out as a Debsian socialist, the farmer’s cause was the one that demanded his skills as a political organizer.

As so often happens, the Nonpartisan League’s ambitions could not be realized in a reactionary period. Coinciding with Debs’s imprisonment and the witch-hunt against the left during WWI, it found its electoral ambitions thwarted. Led by A.C. Townley, whose background was in the Socialist Party like Martinson’s, it hoped to take over the North Dakota state government and adopt a pro-farmer program, starting with a state-owned network of grain elevators that would not screw the farmer. Despite some real reforms, the NPL failed to change class relations in the countryside and limped along through the 1920s.

Ultimately, the elected officials of the NPL ended up functioning just like the Republicans and Democrats, treating those who voted for them as means to an end—their own professional ambitions. In the 1950s, the NPL entered the Democratic Party in North Dakota where it would be tamed into submission just like every other insurgency foolish enough to think that the donkey could be mounted and rode to the promised land.

The second film in the trilogy is titled “Rebel Earth” and is a leisurely walking tour through the farms and villages of the farm belt of North Dakota in the mid-70s led by a radical, young farmer named Jon Ness and Henry Martinson as they defend socialism against all comers, including a man in a cowboy hat with latent Trumpish politics who is drinking beer in the stool next to theirs in a local roadhouse. At the age of 97, Martinson not only is unrepentant about his socialist beliefs but defends them with great vigor and intelligence. Is it possible that his belief in socialism has kept him alert and energetic into his late 90s? For personal reasons, I hope so.

The final film is titled “Survivor” and once again features Henry Martinson as he reflects on a lifetime of devotion to the socialist cause and to working people. Serving as the Labor Commissioner in North Dakota for decades, he openly admits that he was in favor of the workers and didn’t care if that was obvious during mediation sessions with the bosses. In other words, he was the leftist version of the capitalist tools that Donald Trump appoints and just the sort of person we need to elect today. Whether that will happen through the Democratic Party is open to question.

In one of the more eye-opening scenes, John Hanson and Rob Nilsson round up octogenarian and nonagenarians who were active in the Nonpartisan League to discuss its legacy, as well as young radical historians. The consensus was that the NPL politicians lost touch with the grass roots. Additionally, as farmers grew more prosperous while the U.S. replaced Great Britain as the leading imperialist power, they forgot about their lowly past and grew cozy with the bankers. Elmer Cart, who was an NPL state legislator in the 1930s, looks back on the Roosevelt administration and regrets that farmers, who were in desperate conditions at the time, took the president at his word. He told the nation to bring their problems to Washington and they would be solved from on high. That bargain—votes in exchange for governmental intervention—turned out to be detrimental to the activism that created the NPL in the first place and eventually resulted in it being just another brick in the capitalist edifice.

You get a considerably rosier picture of the NPL in Jacobin magazine from Eric Blanc, a doctoral student at NYU and activist who provided excellent coverage of the teachers’ wildcat strikes.

In an article titled “The Ballot and the Break”, Blanc finds considerable merit in the NPL’s decision to run in both the Democratic and Republican Party primaries. This supposedly allowed them to present their radical message without worrying about being tied to the duopoly’s capitalist agenda. Additionally, he extols the NPL’s role in helping to launch the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota as proof that a “dirty break” (what I would call half-assed) with the Democrats can midwife third parties, even if only temporarily. Without mentioning the DSA electoral strategy, it is clear that Blanc endorses not only their running in the primaries like the NPL but getting elected as open Democrats. On Facebook, Blanc comes across as a straight-up Swedish-style “democratic socialist” despite his rather considerable Marxist scholarship on Bolshevik history:

It’s important to keep the big picture in mind: Over the last month, since the election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, socialism and class politics have been forced into the mainstream of US political life. Millions of workers are currently being exposed day after day to these ideas, setting up many tens of thousands to soon become activists at work and/or organized socialists. Expectations are being raised, rapidly. This is a huge development, a game-changer — and it vastly outweighs the (real) limitations we can point to regarding Ocasio-Cortez’s particular political strategy.

Has socialism really been forced into the mainstream of US political life? It depends on what you mean by socialism. It certainly isn’t the socialism of Eugene V. Debs. Even Victor Berger, the first SP member to be elected to the House of Representatives and who epitomized the gradualist “sewer socialism” so alien to Marxism, was audacious enough to say the things likely never to be heard from Bernie Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez if they wanted to be invited back on “Meet the Press”. Here’s Berger in the chapter titled “Are Socialists Practical?” in “Berger’s Broadsides”:

There is but one deliverance from the rule of the people by capitalism, and that is the rule of capital by the people. If so much of what has been considered private property is to be absorbed in great monopolistic ownership and there is nothing that can stop it—then, if we are to remain a politically free people, the inevitable outcome will be that the people must take possession collectively of the production and distribution.

And this is called Socialism.

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.