Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Fourth International, May 1940


C. Curtiss

California Agriculture – Ripe for Unionism

A Book Review


From Fourth International, Vol. I No. 1, May 1940, p. 31.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Factories in the Field
By Carey McWilliams
334 pp. Little Brown and Company

Highly centralized and trustified factory farms controlled by the banks, rapid elimination of the small independent farmer, a large super-exploited agricultural proletariat virtually without civil rights – this is California agriculture, ably depicted by Mr. Carey McWilliams in his book, Factories in the Field. And California merely shows the other states of the Union their immediate future. The adversaries of Marxism have always held up the farmers as a refutation of the Marxist concept of the centralization and concentration of industry and wealth. Once more the intellectual defenders of capitalism have been proved wrong.

The “primitive accumulation” of the main item of agricultural constant capital, the land, was accomplished as ruthlesslyin California as elsewhere. The old Spanish and Mexican land grants, essentially feudal in their character, were bought for a song, or secured by force and cheating. In 1860, some 9,000,000 acres were concentrated in the hands of some 800 grantees.

The railroads were granted, in addition to a Federal subsidy equivalent to the complete cost of extending the system to California, every other section of land along the right of way. In this manner, the railroads were given 18 per cent of the State government land.

The third method of securing large stretches of land was through plain ordinary everyday swindling. For example, no limit was placed on the acreage of swamp land that a single person could buy. So one of the land barons hitched a team of horses to a rowboat and had it dragged over perfectly dry land, thereby “proving” the valuable land to be swamp and securing it for less than a dollar an acre.

That patriotism pays, was rediscovered by the growers who bought at extremely depressed prices the land which the Japanese owners were forced to sell upon the passage of the California alien land laws.

These methods together with the elimination of the small landowner by the ordinary process of concentration and centralization, have placed huge stretches of land under the domination of single companies or individuals.

From all over the world low paid workers were inveigled into toiling upon this land. In the beginning the native Indians were used; then the bindle-stiff appeared, ex-miners and ruined farmers; then followed the Chinese, Japanese, the Hindus, Mexicans, Greeks, Italians, Filipinos, Negroes and last the “Okies” driven from the lands of Texas and Oklahoma by natural and social disasters.The growers have been able to use group against group to prevent the workers from organizing.

From 1865 to 1880 the crop of first importance was wheat. Then followed fruit, sugar beets, vegetables, and finally cotton. The transition from dry, wheat farming to irrigated farming required huge engineering projects. California’s ranches and irrigation projects have been and still are a point of investmentfor world capital. Fifty per cent of the land in central and northern California, for example, is under the control of the Bank of America.

The organization of the agricultural industry from a capitalist point of view is highly involved. The completely parasitic ownership is entirely distinct from control and management. For example, Mr. McWilliams points out:

“... the owners of 309,000 citrus growing acres, valued at close to $618,000,000, sell their crops through the California Fruit Growers’ Exchange. The exchange picks, packs, pools, grades, ships and sells the orange crop ... The Fruit Growers’ Supply Company, an agency of the exchange, owns vast tracts of timber and a lumber mill, and thus buys boxes and crates at cost ... As Mr. Stokes (a grower) pointed out: ‘I irrigate my orchard with water delivered by a non-profit combination of growers. My trees are sprayed or fumigated by a non-profit partnership.’ The exchange even notifies the grower when he is supposed to start the smudge pots burning to protect his crop from frost.”

The hiring of labor has reached an unusual degree of centralization and organization as well. The employers cooperate to keep wages down:

“... the growers in a given area, involved in the production of a particular crop, would create an employment agency or exchange. This agency would estimate the labor requirements for the coming harvest season, fix a prevailing wage rate, and then proceed to recruit the necessary workers ... Under this practice, the workers more and more began to be employed by the industry rather than by individual growers.”

The success of the employers in keeping wages down can be estimated by the fact that it is more advantageous for the workers to stay on the miserable relief than to work in the fields. As a matter of fact the growers have forced the relief administration to drive workers off the relief rolls, otherwise the growers could get no workers at the wages they offer. This is the basis of their drive to have relief placed in the hands of the counties. In 1937, wages of a migratory agricultural family were estimated at $350 to $400 a year, which is an increase from 1935 when wages were $289.

The agricultural workers, even the “Okies,” are considered an inferior breed. They are not allowed to vote because of residential requirements. Labor laws do not include them as the legal fiction holds that agriculture is not an industry. Attempts at organization and strikes are met with brutal repression jointly by vigilante fascist groups and the local governments. The growers control legislation through their control of the state senate,and, with reason, oppose all moves for a unicameral legislature.

Here we have all the factors of a colony: foreign, often absentee, capital, trustification, control by the banks, a super-exploited proletariat without rights.

Such is the background for the waves of desperate and heroic strikes which in the last decade have shaken the state like earthquakes. Dozens have been killed, hundreds wounded and hurt, thousands arrested, many imprisoned for years. But the strikes continue. They have been mainly under the leadership of left-wing groups (IWW, CP, SWP) as the aristocratic craft union bureaucrats of the AFL look down with disdain upon the agricultural worker.

The agricultural industry in California is over-ripe for a basic social change. While we disagree with some of the ideas expressed in the book (his estimate of the national government which Mr. McWilliams pictures as a saviour for the agricultural workers; and his estimate of the subsistence homesteads), we thoroughly agree with his conclusion when he says:

“Agricultural workers can be organized. Once they are organized they can work out the solutions for most of their immediate problems ... But the final solution will come only when the present ... system of agricultural ownership in California is abolished. The abolition of this system involves at most merely a change in ownership. The collective principle is already there; large units of operation have been established, only they are being exploited by private interests for their own ends. California agriculture is a magnificent achievement: in its scope, efficiency, organization and amazing abundance.”

The book by Mr. McWilliams is clearly and interestingly written, and we urge that every worker interested in one of the great tasks facing American labor, the organization of agriculture, read it.

Top of page

Main FI Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on 26 February 2016