Red Harvest

The past generation of conservative rule in America has, among other things, dislodged the once unquestioned interpretation of American history as a study in the consolidation of liberal power. The shock of Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 initially struck the keepers of the meliorative liberal “consensus” view of our political past as a momentary aberration—half backlash and half tantrum. Liberal scholars argued that Reagan and his backers were engaged in a massive exercise in magical thinking, seeking to blot out the fractious political controversies of ’60s liberalism with an unstable compound of supply-side dogma and family-values nostalgia. It was a rebellion against nothing less than the logic of history itself, and it could never last.

But that was then. Now, three and a half decades after the Reagan revolution, liberal ideology seems like the spasmodic departure from an overarching span of conservative dominance. For the past twenty years, historians have detected the roots of our conservative age everywhere from the megachurches of Southern California to the oil fields of Texas to the anguished racial conflicts still convulsing America’s inner cities.

Kathryn S. Olmsted, a historian of anti-Communism at the University of California, Davis, espies an older, less familiar tributary of modern conservative revolt: the wrenching labor struggles that wracked California’s Imperial and San Joaquin valleys at the height of the New Deal. Olmsted manages to make the Right’s recent resurgence stand out more sharply by situating it in a union-busting crusade rather than in bald plutocratic cunning or long-simmering cultural discontents. She uncovers the origins of modern conservatism in its open hostility to organized labor and its allies. In its campaign to crush farmworkers, California’s agribusiness establishment invented a political ideology that is with us still.

Where prior historians of the New Right have concentrated on backlash mascots such as Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon as the movement’s godfathers, Olmsted focuses on a less flamboyant figurehead: the embittered and widely scorned ex-president Herbert Hoover, exiled to the foothills of Stanford University, devoting his long post-presidency to assiduously assembling financial and intellectual networks of right-wing counterrevolution. In Olmsted’s telling, Hoover is a prophetic figure: an augur of the great post–New Deal backlash to come—or perhaps more precisely, in propounding a robustly union-busting, anti-immigrant gospel of resurgent economic privilege, a seer of the frontlash, foreshadowing the present-day conservative movement, in which a billionaire real-estate mogul has summoned an unlikely spirit of nativist-populist revolt. And while Donald Trump’s political ascendancy is a more postmodern, mediagenic tale than Olmsted’s saga of the produce fields of the Golden State interior, it’s not hard to sense premonitions of the Trump revolt in her depiction of California’s farm-labor wars. We should look for the roots of reactionary Californian politics, she writes, “not in [the state’s] suburbs, but in its fields, where racial conflict shaped political attitudes. California agribusiness leaders consciously manipulated fears of cultural change . . . to mobilize grassroots opposition to Roosevelt’s labor policies.”

As Olmsted points out, the sheer scale of California agriculture ensured that the onset of labor troubles would be a high-stakes challenge to the state’s landed oligarchy. In the 1930s, farming in California was big business; 70 percent of all farms were owned by corporations and just 30 percent by families—a ratio that, as Olmsted notes, was the inverse of the dominant pattern of agricultural-land ownership in the rest of the country at the time. With the advent of the Depression and the New Deal, farmworkers remained virtually forgotten men, women, and children. New Deal programs administered by the Agricultural Adjustment Administration handed out big subsidies to the state’s large growers to stabilize crop production—while also investing in large-scale improvements to California farms such as dams and irrigation projects. However, in a sop to southern Democratic supporters of the New Deal, the Roosevelt administration explicitly excluded agricultural workers from the new federal protections of collective-bargaining rights. So here, too, was an early example of a familiar contradiction besetting later conservative rebellion: Some of the greatest beneficiaries of federal largesse—California’s farm-factory moguls—soon mobilized to block the expansion of similar protections to workers and immigrant families beneath them on the socioeconomic scale, much as the most coddled members of the 1 percent have inveighed against the redistributive “outrages” of the inheritance tax and Medicare beneficiaries have decried the Affordable Care Act.

It certainly helped stoke the mood of overclass resentment that the most active union presence in the California farm economy was led by bona fide Communists. In 1933, there were thirty-seven strikes involving almost fifty thousand workers. These strikes delayed the harvests and jeopardized the enormous revenues that the state’s big growers reaped at the end of the growing season. At the forefront of these actions was the Communist-led Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union, which relied on the resourcefulness of a charismatic organizer named Pat Chambers. Chambers downplayed traditional party dogmas in favor of wildcat work stoppages—and wound up getting peach growers to agree to a nearly 50 percent increase in farmworkers’ pay.

Months later, San Joaquin Valley cotton pickers went on strike, forcing a major showdown. This time, area growers responded with a concerted campaign of strikebreaking vigilantism, prompting President Roosevelt to send George Creel, West Coast head of the National Recovery Administration, to investigate conditions in the valley. Creel eventually appointed a commission that issued a blistering indictment of the growers’ economic and political stranglehold. The panel included two religious leaders and a University of California professor, which spurred the cotton growers to label it an elitist group of meddlesome outsiders—another antiliberal rhetorical gambit that would prove to have a very long shelf life in American political debate. The Roosevelt administration, again bowing to pressure from conservative rural Democrats in the New Deal coalition, rushed to downplay Creel’s findings. But in political terms, the damage was done: “Despite the fact that the New Deal’s efforts were timid, limited, and quickly disavowed,” Olmsted writes, “the growers felt victimized by them.”

Edna Valley, California. Malcolm Carlaw/Flickr

Thus emboldened by a mounting sense of privileged grievance, the growers created the Associated Farmers (AF) to fight what they saw as the twin evils of Communism and liberalism: “The presence of Reds on the farms gave the growers the opportunity to discredit the whole idea of unions, and of liberal reform.” And by 1934, when a longshoremen’s uprising led to a general strike in San Francisco, the growers and their big-money corporate backers could invoke the specter of a full-scale Communist takeover of the California economy. As William Randolph Hearst fulminated at the time: “The revolution in California against stable government and established order would never have occurred except for the sympathy and encouragement which the fermenters of revolution were receiving or believed they were receiving from those in the counsel of the Federal Administration.”

The tumult of 1934—which also included the big-money defeat of socialist novelist Upton Sinclair, who unexpectedly captured the state’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination—was but the opening act in the new red-baiting career of the agribusiness establishment. The AF also funded an underground anti-red surveillance network to dig up dirt—and on July 20, 1934, Sacramento police raided the local Communist Party headquarters and charged its leaders with vagrancy and criminal syndicalism. The trial was largely a spectacle for showcasing the newfound political muscle of the growers; as Olmsted writes, it “demonstrated the agribusiness barons’ success in using fear—fear about changes in race relations and in women’s roles—to attack their opponents in the labor movement and to win allies among people who would not have sided with them simply on class interests.” Meanwhile, in targeting figures such as labor journalist Carey McWilliams and novelist John Steinbeck together with liberal strike sympathizers in the movie industry, the AF pioneered the postwar red-baiting tactics famously adopted by Wisconsin senator Joseph McCarthy.

With the advent of World War II, national attention shifted away from the labor troubles of the California farm economy. The war brought better-paid work, and increased labor demand changed the federal government’s view of how farmworkers should be treated in California. During the war, growers got the federal government to institute the “bracero program,” a special arrangement to import Mexican workers on a temporary basis to harvest the state’s enormous farm output. As Olmsted notes, “The bracero program amounted to a federal government subsidy for big business at the expense of organized labor”—an effort that also, far from coincidentally, “killed unionization efforts on California farms,” at least until the United Farm Workers organizing campaigns of the ’60s.

As Olmsted astutely shows, the political fallout from the ’30s California farm wars was—is—broad and deep, persisting into the Trumpified GOP’s latest assault on immigrant workers. And the logic of the conservative resurgence was right there at the creation of the grievance-driven campaigns of the AF network. Olmsted writes: “As the center defined the left as the enemy, the right claimed that the center was the left.”

Richard Greenwald is a professor of history and the dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Brooklyn College, CUNY. His last book, coedited with Daniel Katz, is Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in America (The New Press, 2012).