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The New International, February 1939


David Cowles

Behind the Farmers’ Vote


From The New International, Vol.5 No.2, February 1939, pp.49-50.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The editors find themselves in disagreement with a number of the points raised in this article, and in particular with the apparent failure of the writer to understand the role of agriculture as a whole in the economy of monopoly capitalism or to differentiate in his analysis among the various strata of the agricultural population. They nevertheless believe the material presented to be of sufficient interest to merit publication. The columns of the magazine will be open to comment and discussion of the problem herein raised. – Ed.

THE ELECTIONS DEALT a powerful blow at the Roosevelt administration and Democratic control of the national government The Democratic majority in the Senate, which had been 57 before the elections, was reduced to 41 after the election returns. That a more severe defeat would have been certain if all Senators were up for election instead of the one-third provided by the Constitution is proved by what happened in the House of Representatives. There the Democratic majority, 233 before the elections was slashed almost two-thirds and reduced to 88.

Not only were the elections a blow at the reformist wing of finance capital, represented by the New Deal Democrats, but it was also accompanied by the virtual decimation of the Progressives and the Farmer-Laborites. Before the elections there were five Farmer-Laborites and seven Progressives – twelve in all. Only four survived the election returns. The middle ground upon which all these reformists were trying to stabilize capitalism was crumbling beneath their feet. As usual, the tight-rope walkers and the unconnected “friends of labor” were the ones to feel most sharply the political impact of the crisis.

The most important reason for the Democratic defeat was the revolt of the middle class and the farmers. The farmers were especially important, defeating the Democratic candidates with monotonous regularity throughout the middle and far west. The farmers will become politically more and more important with the passing years. It would be wise to see why they turned against the Democratic Party.

One reason given is that the farmers were hostile to the curtailment of crops imposed upon them by the New Deal. The implication is that the farmers like to produce big crops, that the enforced curtailment of production ran against the farmers’ “instinct of workmanship” and that they considered the New deal economy of scarcity immoral, unnatural, and ungodly. For these and similar reasons they turned upon the Democrats and cast them forth from office.

Such an explanation has much in its favor. It has been widely publicized by the Republicans. It can be easily accepted, since it is current coin. Moreover, no one can question the truth that the farmers are hostile to the Democrats – witness the elections – and the Democrats are friendly to curtailment of crops. Therefore, and the logic seems so obvious, the farmers are also hostile to curtailment of crops. Many a muddle-headed reformist has repeated this logic and it is beginning to seep into our own ranks.

If this were true, the New Deal should have been overwhelmingly defeated in 1934. By that year the crop-curtailment policy of the Roosevelt Administration was in full swing. The production of wheat was curtailed to 526 millions of bushels, and one had to hark back to 1896 to find a wheat crop that was so small. Corn was down to 1,478 million bushels for the United States, and even the year 1880 had a greater growth. Cotton was down to 9.5 million running bales, the smallest crop produced in the twelve years preceding. If this explanation were true, and the crop-curtailment policy of the New Deal is the reason why the farmers voted the Democrats out of office, then they should have voted them out much more quickly in 1934. Perhaps the proverbial backwardness of the farmer may be invoked. Then certainly the farmers would have awakened by 1936 and refrained from voting the Democrats into office by the greatest landslide in the history of American politics.

If their curtailing crops were the basic reason for defeating the Democrats, then conversely the Democrats would have been voted into office overwhelmingly in 1938. For wheat production, which was so low in 1934, had risen to 874 million bushels in 1937. This was 250 million bushels more than 1936 and 200 million more bushels than could be consumed in the United States at the current rate of consumption. Cotton production, which had fallen so low in 1934, rose to an all-time high in 1937 of 18.7 million bales. Corn harvested as grain, which had dropped to 1,253.8 million bushels in 1936, returned almost to normal in 1937 with an output estimated at 2,343.6 million bushels. These hard facts shatter to smithereens the myth that they had limited production. Had the fate of the Democrats risen and fallen with the production of crops, they would have been voted into office with far greater acclaim today than in 1934 and 1936.

The fact is, the farmers did not defeat the Democrats because the latter curtailed the crops. The plain facts show that they did not. And that is precisely why the farmers tossed the Democrats out of office – because they did not curtail the production of crops.

For this reason it would be disastrous to interpret the vote against the Democratic party as a vote against the New Deal aims in agriculture. On the contrary, it is a defeat for the Democrats because they did not carry out in practise the aims of die New Deal. The clue to what these aims are is given by the one word “adjustment” – adjustment of prices upward in order to increase profits for the farmers; adjustment of production downwards in order to make it equal domestic demand and in this way ensure a more stable and higher price; adjustment of purchasing power of the farmers, through control of production and prices on the one hand and through government subsidies on the other, in order to make it equal the one they had during 1909-1914, the golden age of the farmers.

The farmers defeated the Democrats because they did not fulfill the first aim of the New Deal: the adjustment of prices upward. Prices averaged considerably lower during the period of Roosevelt regulation. This becomes crystal clear when we compare the average prices for wheat, corn, and cotton, the three great crops around which the whole agricultural program is built, and see how they fared during the five years preceding the New Deal and the five years of regulation. The price of wheat during 1928-1932, the five years preceding the New Deal, averaged 69 cents a bushel on the farm. In the years 1933-1937, which were five years of regulation, the price had fallen to 50 cents, a drop of almost thirty per cent. In cotton, too, the Democrats failed to fulfill the aims of the New Deal, since the price here also fell about thirty percent, being cut from 11.28 cents to less than 8 cents a pound on the farm; and in corn, the 57 cents a bushel received on the farm during Democratic regulation was one half what they got before. The farmers wanted higher prices. – Here is the cause of the farm revolt. The New Deal promise was higher prices. The Democratic betrayed their promise and the farmers. The farmers kicked them out of office.

Nor, for that matter, did the Democrats succeed in adjusting production to equal domestic consumption by curtailing crops. This second aim of the New Deal had to be fulfilled if prices were to be stabilized at a high level. As has been shown before, the Democrats succeeded at the beginning in curtailing production. The farmers elected them then. They failed to curtail crops in 1937. The over-supply in relation to the domestic demand, in addition to the general recession, drove farm prices down precipitately during the latter half of 1937 and the first half of 1938.

This double failure – failure to keep up prices and keep down production – shattered the vision encouraged by the New Deal – purchasing power parity. Not that the Democrats did nothing to aid the achievement of this vision. They contributed enough to give the hopes a foundation in reality. “Cash income from the sale of farm products and from government payments in 1937 totaled $8,521,000,000 (according to the estimates of the Bureau of Agricultural Economics) or 7.6 percent more than the $7,920,000,000 received during 1936 and about double the $4,328,000,000 from marketings in 1932,” says the Survey of Current Business of March 1938. But this was far short of the 11 to 12 billion dollars that the farmers averaged between 1923 and 1929. And while the purchasing power of the farmers went up much faster than their income, because of government aid, the recession that swooped down struck them even harder. 1937 marked a turning point in their onward march to purchasing power parity. “The year began with the purchasing power of farm products at the highest level since November 1925; but, with prices received declining sharply in the course of the year and prices paid showing relatively little change, the ratio dropped from 101 in January to 81 in December,” continues the same issue. This 20% slash in the purchasing power of the farmer continued and grew in 1938, and showed the Democrats unable and unwilling to achieve the aims of the New Deal for agriculture.

That the farmers should defeat the Democrats was to be expected. Sentiment played quite a subordinate part in the elections. The Democrats had not delivered the bacon – higher prices and purchasing power parity. The farmers were willing to do anything- – restrict the bounty of nature, destroy the plenty inherent in mechanized agriculture, mutilate their “instinct of workmanship”, submit to the reactionary aims of the New Deal and forget the myth of individualism to take farm relief – so long as prices and purchasing power could be restored. Farmers in only two communities of the 140 surveyed by the thorough Rural Trends in Depression Years were quoted as saying, when they received the subsidies, “We don’t believe it’s right but if Uncle Sam insists on giving away money we might as well get ours.” And even here the feeling of righteousness was harnessed safely to – profits.

However, the farmers’ swing from the Democrats to the Republicans was the agitated action of men whose day is ending and whose doom is sealed. For neither Republicans, LaFollette Progressives, nor any other capitalist party can save them. The cause of their doom is this: The farmers as a class have become antagonistic to the needs of society and to the requirements of the dominating forces of modern capitalism.

The antagonism today between the farming class and the needs of society is basic. Society requires an increasing output in order to raise constantly the per capita consumption of the great majority, and in order to increase constantly the standard of living. But the farmers strangle the productive forces and restrict the bounty inherent in modern agriculture. Based as they are upon capitalist property-relationships the farmers, as a class, must reduce acreage and output in order the better to boost up declining prices and profits. This economic struggle between profits and plenty is the basis for the fundamental conflict between the needs of society, and the needs of the farmers.

The farmers as a class come into conflict not only with the needs of society but also with the requirements of the dominating forces of modern capitalism. High prices for farm goods have a depressing effect upon the prices of manufactured goods sold in the cities. Higher profits for the farmers mean lower profits for industrial and finance capital. Agriculture, whose profitable expansion was at one time indispensable to the expansion of industry and finance, is now a drag upon both. Like men in a sinking submarine, the capitalist groups are grasping for the same life-giving oxygen – profits. The destruction of the prices and profits of the farming class is essential to keeping up the prices and profits of industrial and finance capital.

Their anomalous position makes the farmers an easy adherent of fascism. Mulcted by industrial and finance capital, betrayed by the Republican and Democratic parties, tortured by economic decline, the farmers cannot rest. The fascists, whose grandiose promises and aggressive actions that seem to indicate a desire for fulfilling their promises, are certain to attract them.

The only alternative for the revolutionary party is to put forward and carry into action a concrete program directed to driving a wedge between the most oppressed strata of the agricultural population and the well-to-do farmers, putting the oppressed of the farm areas in motion behind the revolutionary leadership of the city workers. This will break them off from ideological and political submission to capitalism. But we can free them from their ideological submission only if we free ourselves first. To ensure this, never subordinate ourselves to prevailing “sentiment” and the capitalist propaganda organs which dominate it. We must ourselves decide perspectives after analysis of economic trends, class needs and the level of the class struggle instead of following the “sentiment” of the moment.

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