The Idiocy of Abandoning “idiotismus” — The American Left and the Countryside

In recent decades, American leftist groups have concentrated on organizing city-based constituents: urban communities of color, urban working class whites and college students. This falls in line with areas that the Left has usually organized, and it has been successful to varying degrees; however, there is a noticeable lack of trying to organize rural workers, farmers and the like.

This lack of organization is for a variety of reasons, which are important but not as important as the consequence. The consequence being: rural communities ignored by the left have allowed right-wing organizers to come in and take advantage of rural commitment to their church, family values and rural lifestyle. Due to this, rural communities and small towns are frequently the political targets of culture battles. The most recent example of this culture battle in the news comes from Ohio, where a small town (Uniopolis, Ohio) faces disincorporation due to budget cuts.

(Make no mistake that budget cuts are a culture war right now. Programs are being cut because of the perception that programs meant to help poor people are wasteful, while tax breaks for the rich are helpful. As Warren Buffet made clear, “there’s been class warfare going on for the last 20 years, and my class has won.”)

For all the established labor history in America, there is scant popular history regarding the socialist and populist histories of the Left in the countryside. The best known full-on study I’ve found is “Agrarian Socialism in America: Marx, Jefferson and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside.” Thomas Frank’s popular book “What’s The Matter with Kansas?” also covers the issue. For Canadians, there’s the academic “Agrarian Socialism: Cooperative Commonwealth in Saskatchewan.”

Even though there are relatively few sources, what we have suggests that the countryside in America was teeming with leftists, organizing for better living conditions for themselves and, ultimately, a better way of life. However, as explained in “Agrarian Socialism in America,” capitalists were successful in playing off poor white’s prejudices of blacks and Amerindians who wanted to join the movement, and the capitalists were able to shutter the movement in maneuvers that have become standard whenever American politicians wanted to stoke racial tensions for political favor (see: the Southern strategy.)

A few things have changed since the time of socialist popularity on the countryside.

One: rural communities have increasingly become Latino and much less tied to the racism that influenced the political decisions of poor and rural whites. For that matter, I speculate that poor whites have become much less tied to the racism that influenced their past generation’s political decisions. I further speculate that this is due to poor rural whites and white farmers being cut off from their family property and resources (through foreclosure crises from the 1980s and on), where family property and the ability to pass it down is a major factor in institutionalized bias.

Two: the aforementioned foreclosure crises have been brought on due to the economic decisions of the right-wing politicians (of the Republican and Democratic parties) voted into office by now “conservative” strongholds in rural areas. Some feel, after a few decades of this, rural communities have become more skeptical of the two-parties that have dominated American politics for the last century.

Three:  there is a younger generation moving to the countryside. Though this younger generation is probably more interested in “capitalism with a happy face” policy, they are nonetheless concerned with issues that are of importance to leftists, such as the downturn, social and economic security of their families and communities. Per the article, these are primarily people who have been alienated by the system and are moving to rural areas as a reaction to that.

With all of this in mind, liberalism is a dead fish in the countryside. Conservatism is electorally popular, but, per point two, it’s starting to catch on that the economic policies are hurting families and communities tremendously. To date, American Leftists effectively bypassed going back to the countryside and clarifying what it means to be a socialist and what a socialist program would bring to the rural areas, and that’s to the left’s detriment.

However, encouragingly, there have been pockets of realization around the country, separated almost wholly from the organization efforts in the cities. The Appalachians have continued to be an ecological battleground, with groups fighting to protect the mountains and communities from coal and shale drilling companies. Traditionally, organizing in the Appalachians has taken on a Leftist tone. Occupy the Food System (though not necessarily leftist) has recently sprung up in order to fight corporate capitalist attacks on seeds, production and family farms. Occupy Rural America is a small occupy contingent that hasn’t gained much steam, but deserves attention.

What needs to happen is the major leftist parties need to convene and come up with a solid, relevant plan for rural communities, for the farm and ranch system and to bring rural areas into the technological fold through encouraging municipal or cooperative telecommunication utilities. Until this is done, or serious steps have been taken to get to that point, the Left will be at a standstill. Even though many Americans don’t see the damage that has been done to rural communities or our farm system, it is there. The damage is there despite the fact that farmers and rural folks are held in high regard in American iconography, even fetishised to a point.

I’ll cover in future posts what a good program from the Left can do for rural folks.

A couple of end-notes:

A.)   When I refer to “the Left” – in this blog or any other writings – I am not including liberals. I want to make that very clear, since the point of this blog is for everyone to read and most readers will conflate “liberals” with the “the Left.” When I refer to the Left, I am talking about anti-capitalists who are broadly in favor of a democratic society and favor some form of common private property ownership. In other words, the old-school definition of “the Left.”

B.)    Marx was famously translated as denigrating “the idiocy of rural life” in the Communist Manifesto. This led to ample controversy about Marxist analysis with regard to peasant and rural working life, and it still does. Marxist theorist Hal Draper faced this head on:

IDIOCY OF RURAL LIFE. This oft-quoted A.ET. [authorized English translation] expression is a mistranslation. The German word Idiotismus did not, and does not, mean “idiocy” (Idiotie); it usually means idiom, like its French cognate idiotisme. But here [in paragraph 28 of The Communist Manifesto] it means neither. In the nineteenth century, German still retained the original Greek meaning of forms based on the word idiotes: a private person, withdrawn from public (communal) concerns, apolitical in the original sense of isolation from the larger community. In the Manifesto, it was being used by a scholar who had recently written his doctoral dissertation on Greek philosophy and liked to read Aeschylus in the original. (For a more detailed account of the philological background and evidence, see [Hal Draper], KMTR [Karl Marxs Theory of Revolution, New York, Monthly Review Press, 1978] 2:344f.) What the rural population had to be saved from, then, was the privatized apartness of a life-style isolated from the larger society: the classic stasis of peasant life. To inject the English idiocy into this thought is to muddle everything. The original Greek meaning (which in the 19th century was still alive in German alongside the idiom meaning) had been lost in English centuries ago. Moore [the translator of the authorized English translation] was probably not aware of this problem; Engels had probably known it forty years before. He was certainly familiar with the thought behind it: in his Condition of the Working Class in England (1845), he had written about the rural weavers as a class “which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” (MECW [Marx and Engels, Collected Works] 4:309.) In 1873 he made exactly the Manifesto’s point without using the word “idiocy”: the abolition of the town-country antithesis “will be able to deliver the rural population from the isolation and stupor in which it has vegetated almost unchanged for thousands of years” (Housing Question, Pt. III, Chapter 3).

I’m comfortable enough with Draper’s interpretation unless there is a rebuttal that I haven’t seen yet. If so, I’d appreciate it being forwarded to me. I’m noting this in order to assert that farmers and rural workers are not “exempt” or irrelevant to Marxist/Marxian analysis, which has been overwhelmingly geared toward industrialization and workers in the cities.

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1 comment
  1. The distinction between “liberals” and “the left” is really worth its own post. I agree with the distinction, but i don’t really know how I feel about… well, there is a tone of exclusion from action. I don’t think that liberals should be written off as allies.

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