The Green Corn Rebellion and
the struggle for socialism

The anti-war struggles of the past in the U.S. have not always been mere protest movements of a passive character composed mainly of middle class elements and the youth. Those earlier struggles against wars of U.S. imperialism were altogether different, particularly the movement against the first imperialist world war of 1914-1918.

The truth of the matter is that at that time the struggles had mainly a working class and socialist character. Opposition to the war took on many forms and was often militant in character resorting to direct action and armed resistance. Opposition to the draft was widespread, and took on massive proportions in many of the cities of the U.S.

To understand the character of the militant opposition to the war, it is necessary to know that the socialist movement in general and the Socialist Party in particular were very strong. The Socialist Party had become a truly mass party of the working class as it existed at the time.

Historians sometimes allude to the 1912 elections as the high point of mass socialist activity in the U.S. Still others assert that the movement increased its relative strength in relation to the capitalist parties even in 1916, when the Wilson administration and the capitalist government had already had several years to inculcate a vicious jingoism and chauvinism in preparation for U.S. intervention into the imperialist war.

The socialist movement had a splendid press at the time. James Weinstein, in his book The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, [1] estimates that total circulation of the socialist press exceeded two million copies in 1913. There were several weekly and monthly newspapers with a national circulation, as well as daily and weekly local papers. There were also trade union papers with a socialist perspective and a considerable number of foreign language socialist dailies and weeklies, in addition to cultural and theoretical magazines.

The International Socialist Review, it should be noted, had a truly international reputation and was widely read. The Appeal to Reason,the Socialist Party's principal organ, had an average weekly circulation of 761,747; the National Rip-Saw, 150,000; and so on.

From far-off czarist Russia, Lenin hailed the growth in the circulation of the Appeal to Reason. "The latest issue of the American labor weekly Appeal to Reason reports that its circulation has increased to 984,000 copies," Lenin wrote in "The Successes of the American Workers", and he went on to quote from a current issue " 'The letters and demands coming in,' writes the editor (No. 875, Sept. 7), 'indicates beyond doubt that we shall exceed one million copies in the next few weeks.' " [2]

The election of 1912 gave the Socialist standard bearer, Eugene Debs, the largest vote ever -- 897,000, or 6% of the national total. When one considers that this was at a time when Black people were virtually disenfranchised and when women could not vote, the election results are of considerable political significance in the working class history of the U.S.

But it wasn't only in the national elections for president that the party showed its influence. It also came through in many city and state elections.

About 1,200 socialists were elected to public office in 343 municipalities throughout the country, including 79 mayors in 24 states. Two socialist congressmen, Victor Berger from Wisconsin and Meyer London from New York, were elected, although London was never seated.

With this as background, it is easy to see that it was mainly socialist and working class organizations which conducted the anti-war struggle at that time, making it part and parcel of the struggle against capitalism.

There were few demonstrations or anti-war struggles which were not conducted under the banner of socialist agitation against capitalism. In this respect the anti-war movement of that period differs fundamentally from the later movement of the 1960s during the Viet Nam war.

We have already described how the outbreak of the imperialist war in Europe caught all the socialist parties of the world by surprise. They were particularly demoralized to learn that the European parties had by and large capitulated on the question of participation in imperialist war and joined their own capitalist governments in world slaughter.

However, as we said earlier, not all the socialist parties renounced their fidelity to socialist internationalism. The Serbian, Bulgarian, and Italian parties opposed the war, and the stand of the Bolshevik Party in Russia is well known. And it is significant that the Socialist Party of the U.S. condemned the war at the outset.

Eugene Debs, the party's presidential candidate who was later jailed for opposing the war, wrote in 1915: "I am not a capitalist soldier; I am a proletarian revolutionist. I do not belong to the regular army of the plutocracy, but to the irregular army of the people. I refuse to obey any command to fight from the ruling class. I am opposed to every war but one; I am for that war with heart and soul, and that is the world-wide war of the social revolution."

It is true, however, that the Socialist Party as a whole faltered to some extent in the period between the outbreak of the war in Europe and the historic St. Louis convention of April 1917. But by and large it conducted tremendous mass meetings and demonstrations against the war, and continued an aggressive electoral campaign right up to and including the war years.

Pacifist organizations such as the American Union Against Militarism and the American Peace Society had little if any influence. However, in response to the socialist and working class movement, workers and farmers were opposed to the war.

John Hays Hammond, a prominent Republican and mining engineer, told an annual meeting of the National Civic Federation in January 1917, "Some influence or combination of influences has brought about a weakening of the patriotic spirit in this country when we find that neither the working man nor the farmers -- the two great groups upon which our national life depends -- are taking any part or interest in the efforts of the security or defense leagues or other movements of national preparedness." [3]

The combination of influences which Hammond refers to by innuendo is that of the working class and socialist agitation which was becoming ever more widespread in the period, taking hold of a large mass of the population.

It took a great effort on the part of the Wilson administration to "turn the country around." It was done with a variety of methods, even including fraudulent incidents like the sinking of the Lusitania (a civilian passenger ship secretly loaded with munitions, making it a prime target of German attack) and a vicious campaign of jingoism in the capitalist press.

The Wilson administration resorted to arrest, indictment, and imprisonment of thousands of socialist anti-war agitators in an effort to silence the movement. It struck out against the many socialist and working class papers and magazines by revoking their second-class mailing rights, thereby making it financially extremely difficult for them to continue to publish.

Utilizing the so-called Espionage Act the Wilson administration inaugurated a period of witch-hunting which in many respects exceeded that of the McCarthy period of the 1950s. Nevertheless, the movement was not cowed. It continued to fight on and in some areas became more aggressive than ever.

One key election in 1917 showed the temper of the ruling class press and the kind of opposition to the war which continued despite repression. Commenting on the forthcoming election, the New York World, a liberal daily, had this to say, "Today's election will determine whether New York is a traitor town, a quasi-copperhead town, or an American town devoted to American ideals and pledged without reservation to the war policies of the U.S. government." [4]

While this was directed at the Democratic candidate, who had a wishy-washy attitude toward the war, the brunt of the attack was against Morris Hillquit, the Socialist candidate. The interesting thing about the election is that Hillquit nevertheless received 21%, a large increase over the usual socialist vote.

In addition several Socialist aldermen and ten assemblymen were elected. These results were a stunning blow to the Wilson administration, especially after all the hysteria the government and press had whipped up, the repression, and the jailing of prominent leaders such as Debs and other outspoken anti-war figures. Anti-capitalist propaganda continued to be strong and widespread, notwithstanding the defection of middle class intellectuals, writers and publicists.

More than during the later period of McCarthyism and the Korean War, the witch-hunt of the Wilson administration met resistance. Nor was this response confined to Eastern cities like New York, as is sometimes presumed. On the contrary, the more militant opposition came from the Western and Central states as well as the South.

The Socialist Party's declaration against the war as embodied in the main resolution of its St. Louis convention of April 1917 was representative of a broad and growing section of the working class that was opposed to the war and capitalist exploitation. It was not merely a paper resolution embodying the thinking of a small, isolated sector of the population. On the contrary, it gave voice to the most viable section of the working class.

This resolution opens: "The Socialist Party of the United States in the present grave crisis solemnly reaffirms its allegiance to the principle of internationalism and working-class solidarity the world over, and proclaims its unalterable opposition to the war just declared by the government of the United States."

After characterizing all modern wars as being only for the benefit of the capitalists, the resolution continues: "The Socialist Party of the United States is unalterably opposed to the system of exploitation and class rule which is upheld and strengthened by military power and sham national patriotism. We therefore call upon the workers of all countries to refuse support to their governments in their wars. The wars of the contending national groups of capitalists are not the concern of the workers. The only struggle which would justify the workers in taking up arms is the great struggle of the working class of the world to free itself of economic exploitation and political oppression, and we particularly warn the workers against the snare and delusion of so-called defensive wars." [5]

The resolution was approved by a huge majority. But there was also a considerable minority of 50 opposed to the forthright anti-imperialist position taken at the St. Louis convention. They basically reflected the fear, intimidation, hysteria, and chauvinism manufactured by the capitalist press and the Wilson administration. But while chauvinism and capitulationism were growing in some areas as a result of the pressures exerted by the capitalist class, in other areas socialists took an entirely different cue in the struggle against the war.

Some took the road of arming themselves to resist. This took place in several areas, especially in the South. Socialists were arrested in Dallas, Texas, for possession of arms. In North Carolina, farmers in Chatham County organized an armed revolt against the draft. Outside Toledo, Ohio, someone fired on a troop train. These were scattered and unorganized efforts against the war, often not well directed. However, one very significant and dramatic struggle, really an armed rebellion, took place in the heart of Oklahoma.

The Green Corn Rebellion of August 1917 was a genuine working class attempt at an anti-war insurrection in what had formerly been called the Indian Territory of Oklahoma. It had in its ranks mostly poor tenant farmers, dispossessed people who had been forced off their land, and former railroad workers who had lost their jobs when the railroad strike led by Debs was broken in the 1890s. Among the participants were many Black people as well as Native people from the Seminole nation.

The rebellion was organized by the Working Class Union, the left wing of the Socialist movement in Oklahoma and Arkansas. It had a strong affinity if not direct ties to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a syndicalist union movement which also opposed the war and was a vigorous part of the socialist movement.

The Working Class Union had a membership estimated as high as 35,000, and may have had many more than the 2,000 armed men and women they are given credit for today. A conspiracy of silence and an effort to obliterate them from history has characterized events since the rebellion.

The constitution of the WCU said that all members of the working class over the age of 18, "regardless of race, sex, color, or occupation," could join, and that "any means necessary" would be used to better the conditions of the working people. Their first demand was for the "total abolition of the crime, disease, and death-producing practice of rent, interest, and profit-taking as iniquities that have been and are now being imposed upon the working class of the world."

All accounts of the rebellion come from sources hostile to a militant anti-war struggle and/or to socialism. A disparaging description of the people and locality can be found in an unpublished thesis submitted in 1932 to the Graduate Faculty of the University of Oklahoma by Charles D. Bush. Here is part of Bush's material:

Participants in the revolt were almost wholly native Americans. A few Negroes, usually coerced into joining the disaffected party, and a very small number of irreconcilable Snake Indians made up a minority racial group, but the vast majority of the people were white American citizens. Hardly a foreign name appears in the list. They could truthfully claim to be "one-hundred-percent Americans."

The first thing to notice about this paragraph is the racism. It is inconceivable that Black people would have to be coerced into a struggle for land and against a capitalist war, let alone a foreign war. The reference to the Snake Indians as "irreconcilable" does nothing to illuminate the nature of their irreconcilability. But it could not have been to whites in general, since this was a genuine rainbow coalition of poor whites, Indians, and Blacks.

But let Bush continue:

A majority of these people were from the hill country of Arkansas, Tennessee, and other Southern states, migrating from the poorer sections of these older communities. These people were generally lacking in education. Actual illiteracy was common, and even a grade-school education was very rare. A man was locally considered well-educated if he was able to write a little and read the columns of the weekly paper.

Their schools, for the most part, were poor and attended by the children only during the seasons when the crops were "laid by" in July and for a brief period in winter. Frequently, they did not attend at all. Good schools could not be brought to these people because the districts were poor.

Bush then gives his views on their religion.

Shrouded in superstition, and frequently in a peculiar mysticism, their religion was intolerant and often wildly demonstrative. ...

Economically these people were generally very poor and chronically in debt. They were too restless to stay long in one location and consequently they accumulated little property. Practically all were tenant farmers. Farm improvements, provided by absentee owners, were of the very poorest kind. Untutored even in agriculture, they generally depended on one crop -- cotton -- and measured their prosperity or poverty by the price of cotton and the prevalence of the boll weevil.

In many respects these men were little more than serfs or peons, slaves to a "cash crop" demanded by their landlords. Yet they did but little to help themselves. When they did have money, they spent it freely and often foolishly. The practice of saving was generally neglected, and they lived from crop to crop, year to year, vaguely dissatisfied, always dreaming of a new country somewhere. ...

Many turned to Socialism as a sort of gospel of despair.

The finer tenets of Socialism were undoubtedly but faintly understood by these people, but it offered a hope that neither of the major parties promised, and a recognition that had long been denied them except during the hot days of the summer primaries. Socialism gained rapidly in strength. It not only became a real third party but it also had its third of the total area vote and its share of county officers, at the time the world was plunged into the Great War.

Probably the fullest account of the rebellion is contained in the book, If You Don't Weaken, [6] the autobiography of Oscar Ameringer. Ameringer had direct contact with some members of the Green Corn Rebellion. He was also a socialist of sorts, who says he was in the camp of the "Yellows" as against the "Reds" or left wing.

His account begins with a characterization of the event as the "worst" thing that had happened during his absence from Oklahoma. He explains that the rebellion got its name from the green corn, or roasting ears, which constituted the principal diet of the rebels. (Other versions, however, say it came from the annual green corn dance of the Shawnee Indians.)

Ameringer's account is most tendentious where he ex post facto relates how he warned the rebels about what would befall the splendid Socialist organization if the Working Class Union decided to take up arms in the anti-war struggle.

My own connection was that of an adviser whose advice was not followed. I had heard rumors of an intended putsch, but knew nothing about it until I was invited to attend a meeting of a small group of extreme leftwingers. In this connection I should add that farmers are naturally given to direct action, or self-help. This trait is primarily due to their isolation and the strong individualism arising from that fact. To these extreme leftists, the policy and tactics of the Socialists, as expressed in education, organization, and political action, were too slow. They were the true Reds; we of the center and right wing were "compromisers," "opportunists," and "yellows."

Evidently Ameringer had been sent by the right wing of the party to frighten the organizers of the rebellion into giving up their plans. The leader, Tad Cumbie, must have refused to meet with him, knowing what he was up to, but out of courtesy he sent a few people just to listen. The right wing of the Socialist Party was notoriously hostile to such a multi-national, working class coalition.

In order to secure speedy action they had organized the Working Class Union and the Jones Family. Both of these were secret societies, as contrasted to the open and aboveboard organization of the Socialists. ... The real leaders of the two organizations were not present at that meeting for the simple reason that they knew well enough that we "yellows" had done everything in our power to destroy their influence among our people. After the customary preliminaries, we got down to business. They had, I was told, sent for me to give me a chance to change from yellow to red.

"And what, precisely, have you boys in mind in relation to my changing color?"

"We are going to stop this damned war the gang out East has foisted on us."

"But how?"

"On a given signal we'll slam the bankers, county officials, and newspaper owners in jail."

In relating his own version of what was said, Ameringer tells how he continued to question them on how they would keep the insurrection secret. Finally he advises them to "scatter right now," and adds, for the "benefit" of any spies who may be present:

"The only thing any one of us can do is to work for a speedy peace through all the legal and constitutional means still open to us. This is what I am going to do. This is what I advise all of you and your followers to do. . . ."

When the Green Corn Rebellion had fizzled out, as we "yellows" predicted, a veritable white terror swept Oklahoma, and of course, we were on the receiving end. ...

Though not a single official of the Party was connected with the Green Corn Rebellion, thousands of our members were arrested. Jails were so overcrowded that four hundred prisoners were shipped to the state penitentiary for safekeeping. Thousands sought safety in the Winding Stairs Mountains, in adjoining Colorado, Texas, and Arkansas.

Of the Green Corn rebels convicted, some thirty-odd went to Leavenworth, the federal prison, from which the last of them were released after Kate Richards O'Hare had marched their wives and children to Washington, where they picketed the White House. ...

Shortly after the trial of the Green Corn rebels an emergency convention of the mortally wounded Party was held in Oklahoma City. It was at that convention that Patrick S. Nagle, one of the leading attorneys of the rebels, sponsored and succeeded in passing a resolution disbanding the Socialist Party of Oklahoma.

Ameringer blames the Oklahoma rebels for the destruction of the Socialist Party, whose leaders were soon thereafter put on trial in Chicago on charges of conspiracy to obstruct the war. But in reality the SP dissolved its Oklahoma organization in a panic and a cowardly surrender to the war hysteria. The leaders of the SP on trial in Chicago had not been indicted for the Green Corn Rebellion.

To dissolve a party branch usually required ratification by referendum. But this was not done, even though the Oklahoma organization was one of the strongest locals of the SP.

Ameringer gives only a sketchy description of the rebellion itself. Not too much more of substance is provided in this account by Garin Burbank, author of When Farmers Voted Red:

When the Socialist party resolved that its members should refuse to serve the "militarists" and die "fighting the enemies of Humanity" in their own country, some of the tenants took the advice literally. When distant Europe's troubles were officially declared to be America's own and when federal and state authorities prepared to enforce the 1917 Conscription Act in Oklahoma, country people rebelled. On August 3, 1917 an ill-organized band of country rebels met a well-armed posse along the banks of the South Canadian River between Seminole, Pontotoc, and Hughes counties. The country rebels did not know that their plans had been largely betrayed by an informer in their own ranks. Catching sight of the advancing townsmen, the country people fired a few desultory shots and fled in disorder. This was the pathetic end of their overt resistance to the incursions of outside political authority.[7]

A paragraph in Howard Zinn's, A People's History of the United States includes this information on the rebellion: "At a mass meeting of the [Working Class] Union, plans were made to destroy a railroad bridge and cut telegraph wires in order to block military enlistments. A march on Washington was planned for draft objectors throughout the country." [8]

A more detailed account of the Green Corn Rebellion is found in Grass-Roots Socialism by James R. Green. Here is what he has to say:

Although two of its leaders, "Rube" Munson and Homer Spence, had already been indicted for obstructing the draft, the Working Class Union continued to organize in eastern Oklahoma and by midsummer it had recruited a membership estimated at between eighteen thousand and thirty-five thousand. On August 22, the Seminole County sheriff and some deputies set out from Wewoka to investigate mysterious radical activities in a district with WCU loyalties. The lawmen were ambushed and driven away by five black men who belonged to the secret order. That night, just a day after the body of Oklahoma-born Wobbly, Frank Little, was found hanging from a trestle outside of Butte, Montana, the WCU called a secret meeting on a sandbar in the Canadian River and decided to take action. Munson and Spence, who were free on bail, had been agitating in and around Seminole County for several days, urging resisters to arm themselves and to prepare for a fight. Sentiment against the war and the draft had been rising since the spring. As pressure for conscription increased, the isolated tenants of the old Indian Nations grew more determined to resist the patriotic demands of President Wilson and his agents in the country seats. They were not going to let the "Big Slick" in Washington send them off to die in France.

On the morning of August 3, resisters from the WCU and the Jones Family gathered on a bluff near the farm of "old man" Spears who had raised the "red flag of rebellion" above his barn a few days before. During the night raiding parties went out to cut telegraph and telephone wires and to bum railroad bridges in the area. They also blew up some oil pipelines leading out of the Healdton fields. On the previous day WCU agitators had been blamed for a spontaneous "political" strike at a large coal mine in Wilberton, where the Socialist party had one of its largest locals. The new secretary of District 21, a Democrat who had replaced Fred Holt, failed to persuade the militant miners to return to work. He suspended the charter of this UMW local which he said was under the influence of the IWW. Agents of resistance also moved into the poor cotton country south of the Canadian River, where they encouraged armed action against the draft. Incendiary posters like the following were found along the country roads in Marshall and Bryan counties: "Now is the time to rebel against this war with Germany boys. Get together boys and don't go. Rich mans war. Poor mans fight. If you don't go J.P. Morgan Co. is lost. Speculation is the only cause of war. Rebel now."

The main body of militants on Spears' Bluff gathered more supporters from the surrounding tenant country, including a group of black WCU sharecroppers and several Indians led by John Harjo, one of the many relatives of the Creek renegade, Crazy Snake, who had led the last armed rebellion against white rule in the Indian Nations eight years before. A WCU organizer, W.L. Benefield, led the largest contingent, a group of about fifty well-armed tenants from the Lone Dove community near Saskawa. "Captain" Bill wearing a sabre and a dashing red sash, took overall command of the resistance army at Spears' Bluff.

Along with other revolutionaries, he railed against the "Big Slick" and the tyranny of conscription. "Rube" Munson told the men that other uprisings were occurring throughout the West. A large army of Wobblies would march on Washington to overthrow the government and put an end to the war and the draft. The Working Class Union should start its own march to the nation's capital, and link up with thousands of farmers and workers throughout the land who would also be up in arms. The Oklahoma rebels would be the vanguard of an army marching across the South to the sea, living on beef and ripe corn as it traveled. And so, this uprising came to be called the Green Corn Rebellion.

The insurgent farmers who gathered along the banks of the Canadian River on August 3 never started marching. A posse of seventy mobilized immediately after hearing about the resisters' violent activities and quickly advanced on the rebel stronghold. The undisciplined tenants disobeyed "Captain" Benefield's orders and fled when they saw the armed townsmen moving against them; the bloodless battle of Spears Bluff was a rout. The papers said we were cowards," a Green Corn rebel recalled, "but we weren't." Walter Strong explained, "Some of the men in the posse were neighbors of ours and we couldn't shoot 'em down in cold blood. That's the way we felt 'bout the Germans too. ... We didn't have no quarrel with them at all."

For the next week posses rounded up radicals, resisters, suspected rebels. They fought several bloody skirmishes with backwoods renegades, but within a week the law enforcers had crushed the organized militant antiwar movement in Oklahoma. Of the 450 men arrested for allegedly participating in the rebellion, 184 were indicted, 150 convicted, and in the fall about half that number sentenced to prison terms. After the fear of lynch mobs receded, most of the men arrested in the roundup, including many Socialists who had had no part in the rebellion, were released from the state penitentiary at McAlester. The rebel leaders, including Tad Cumbie, Socialist party gubernatorial candidate in 1910, and the WCU captains, were given stiff sentences at Leavenworth, because they were responsible for "misleading" the ignorant farmers.[9]

The published sources we have mentioned claim that the rebellion was quelled and its leaders arrested before their plans could be carried out. But Oklahoma progressives alive today who remember those times say that a march of thousands did converge on Oklahoma City. While the leaders were arrested, the courthouse was besieged by so many hundreds of their supporters that many were let go with only one-dollar fines.

Weinstein's book on the Socialist movement, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925, contains a brief account of the rebellion which does not even mention that it included Black as well as Native people, indicating solidarity between the working class and oppressed peoples. At that period in history this was a rarity and had immense significance in light of the chauvinism and racism of the right wing in the Socialist Party.

Berger and his group, unlike Debs and Haywood, looked down on the poorer workers and tenant farmers. Like the social democrats in Germany, they were oriented more toward the skilled workers and the intelligentsia. The racism of Berger and the right wing of the party was shamefully apparent. Indeed, one of the basic reasons for the eventual disintegration of the SP was its refusal to link up with the struggle of the Black masses.

Most of the authors who deal with the Green Corn Rebellion either do not know what to make of it, treat it as something way out of this world involving only a so-called lunatic fringe element, or, like Weinstein, regard it as a sad but dramatic event in the struggle against the war.

Weinstein lumps together this revolutionary development with ill-conceived individual acts of sabotage directed against soldiers. This obscures the revolutionary significance of the Green Corn Rebellion. It was a mass struggle which should not be confused with isolated individual acts. In many ways, it was an early harbinger of the future, a promise of how the working class, including Black, Latin, Asian, and Native people, can fight together as one in the struggle against capitalism.

This popular insurrection did not conform to the preconceptions of many socialists of the time or of later historians. They expected a mass antiwar movement if it unfolded to develop new creative forms within the electoral and trade union arenas. They were removed from the lives of the tenant farmers, Black and Native people, and unemployed workers in areas like Oklahoma.

As Marx pointed out in his study of the Paris Commune, new forms of development are often mistaken for older social transformations; the Commune of Paris in 1871 was likened to that of 1791. The Green Corn Rebellion was not just a repeat of earlier uprisings, as Ameringer suggests, but a very early form of a new alignment of forces that becomes more relevant as the struggle in the U.S. unfolds today.

None of the accounts mentioned here takes into consideration the relationship between the progressive anti-capitalist and antiwar propaganda of the socialist movement and the insurrection. The insurrection, as these historians see it, was something that arose out of the blue and carried to the very extreme in a distorted way the socialist program for working class emancipation from imperialist war. That, however, is not so.

The Working Class Union was not isolated from the rest of the socialist movement in the country. It certainly was not isolated from the Socialist Party of Oklahoma, which Weinstein tells us had at the time as many as 1,500 locals in the state. Ameringer himself says there were 57,000 members of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma alone. Daniel Bell writes in Marxian Socialism in the U.S. [10] that per capita it was the largest local in the country. Tad Cumbie, leader of the Working Class Union, was well known and had politically drawn swords with Victor Berger from Milwaukee, leader of the right wing of the Socialist Party, over questions of tactics and strategy.

As Ameringer himself relates, "At the convention of 1912 in Indianapolis a rather bitter controversy had broken out among the simon-pure Marxists and the revisionists, to which latter group both Victor (Berger) and I were adherents. In one of his usual brief remarks he had pointed out the folly of separating ourselves from the body of the nation. 'Don't,' he warned, 'be like the ancient Hebrews who, when going on a journey, carried a bundle of hay to sleep on so as not to come in contact with a place on which a Gentile had previously slept.'

"That afternoon," he says, "Tad Cumbie, 'the Gray Horse of the Prairie,' and one of our irreconcilables, who was to become commander in chief of the Green Corn Rebellion, appeared with a tiny bundle of hay pinned to his flaming red shirt.

" 'Well, Victor,' said Tad, 'here is my bundle of hay.'

" 'Well, well,' replied Victor, 'I see you brought your lunch with you.' "

The idea that the rebellion was an isolated event, that the mass of the participants in the Green Corn Rebellion had no idea what they were for or what the struggle between the left and the right was all about, is a complete distortion.

It is equally false to portray the rebellious workers and farmers -- Black, Native, and white -- as ignorant, lacking in common sense, and being taken in by a momentary impulse.

The Working Class Union leadership was intent on taking to heart what the program of the Socialist Party called for in the eventuality of an imperialist war. Even more to the point, they tried to carry out the historic resolution of the St. Louis convention of the Socialist Party which had taken place immediately after the U.S. entered the war.

That resolution not only condemned the war, but as we have shown above, reaffirmed the principle of working class internationalism. "The only struggle," said the resolution, "which would justify the workers in taking up arms is the great struggle of the working class of the world to free itself from economic exploitation and political oppression."

The slogan of "War against war!" had originated among the European socialists before their leadership turned renegade. To serious revolutionary socialists, whose sons were about to shed their blood, as they put it, "for Morgan and the bankers," the alternative was to take up arms. There were several such mutinies in Western Europe toward the close of the world imperialist slaughter.

This was also precisely the strategic outlook fought for by Lenin which enabled the Bolsheviks to turn the imperialist war into civil war, overturn the czarist autocracy and establish the first successful workers' state in history.

The Green Corn Rebellion should not be confused with isolated, anarchistic acts by a small group of petty bourgeois leaders divorced from the masses, who seek to substitute their own adventurism for the mass activity of the working class. It is altogether unlikely that Tad Cumbie and his comrades were unacquainted with the stirring developments at the St. Louis convention or that he himself was not a participant in it. He was on speaking terms with the Socialist leaders, as Ameringer himself relates. The conclusions he drew were diametrically opposite to the ones drawn by those who wanted to confine the struggle to mere electoral bouts and protests or who were for throwing in the towel altogether and joining the chauvinists.

The St. Louis resolution did not specifically forbid armed struggle to defeat the imperialist war. It in fact could be interpreted as a call to arms, certainly under circumstances which favored such a struggle.

The St. Louis resolution was virtually a reaffirmation of the famous resolution passed at the International Socialist Congress of 1907 at Stuttgart and reaffirmed in 1912 at Basel. These resolutions, as we have already said, had been widely disseminated and discussed for years. A variety of divergent tactics were discussed at these congresses. Once the war broke out, however, a capitulationist position was taken by most of the European parties, led by the most famous of the German Social Democrats, Karl Kautsky. In the U.S., Berger was a representative of this same trend.

Even such measures as the calling of a general strike to stop the war had been proposed at these early conferences. This, however, was generally opposed so as to leave the propriety of such a decision up to the discretion of each section of the International and not pin all hopes on just one tactic. In some countries a general strike was not feasible in light of the weakness of the socialists in the trade union movement. In other places revolutionary mass actions were more suitable.

Big Bill Haywood, a leader of the IWW and the representative of the U.S. at the 1912 International Congress, had urged a general strike. The issue here is not whether he was correct in proposing it as a practical measure, but rather how it demonstrates that the movement in the U.S. was oriented toward stopping an imperialist war by mass intervention and not confining the movement to mere protests or electoral procedures.

The direct action supporters, while militant and revolutionary, did not possess the necessary Marxist approach which Lenin elaborated at the very beginning of the war and relentlessly and successfully pursued to the very end. Lenin reshaped and refined the rather generalized 1907 and 1912 resolutions of the Socialist International on war. They had called for the abolition of the capitalist system and the end of exploitation, for "War upon war." He made it more concrete. Lenin's program embodied the idea of revolutionary defeatism: that the defeat of one's own capitalist government was the lesser evil in the struggle against imperialist war. He called for converting the imperialist war into civil war.

The Green Corn Rebellion leaders were on the right track!

The right-wing Socialists were on another track. They ultimately succumbed to the war hysteria, the intimidation and repression. None of the accounts of the rebellion show the slightest interest in assessing what tactics should have been employed to actually stop the war.

The Leninist approach was to carry out both legal and illegal work in the struggle against the war; to utilize legal parliamentary struggles and combine them with extra-parlamentary, or illegal, work. The Bolsheviks combined all forms of tactics which could stop the war and conceivably transform it into a war of liberation of the working class against the capitalist class.

That is what those who were fighting and dying on the war front really wanted. Everyone in the U.S. movement was in favor of legal activity where it was available, but the government under the Wilson administration was bent on curtailing and destroying it as it suppressed the socialist press and carried out an early version of the McCarthy witch-hunt.

Ameringer poses himself as an adviser to the revolutionary leaders of the Green Corn Rebellion. But he must have appeared to them as a city slicker, a bourgeois socialist bent on confining the movement to paltry reforms. He paints them as either stupid or naive. But these men and women from Oklahoma who lived near to the earth and the forms of exploitation existing in that era, who knew what it was like to risk life and limb, were hardly taken to flights of fancy.

The peasant stock everywhere and working class people in general may not attain the level of academic education of middle class socialists, who in that period had surged to the top and won many elected offices in the party and in local elections. But they were not bereft of common sense and the shrewdness that comes with the difficult struggle for existence. They were idealistic and believed in the justness of their cause, and the propriety of taking up arms. They also probably had good reason to think that, with more than just an abstract affinity to the great centers where the IWW was strong, it conceivably would link up with them once the initiative was taken to do so.

That they faltered as the result of an uneven struggle and the collapse of the socialist movement is because they were hit by a double-barreled load that came both from the government and from the surrender of the Socialist Party leadership of Oklahoma.

The planning of the insurrection could not have been a secret in Oklahoma. It could not have been a secret to the Socialist Party leadership there, with which the Working Class Union was in contact, and all of whom were considered to be in one camp. Had the official Socialist Party leadership been bent on opposition to the war rather than dissolving the party and running away from the struggle, who knows what may have developed as a result of the revolutionary initiative. It is easy to condemn, scorn, and deride it in hindsight. What was necessary and indispensable was a coordination of the socialist electoral struggle with an extra-legal, revolutionary struggle against the war.

The Green Corn Rebellion was an echo of the revolutionary defeatism practiced in Russia by the Bolsheviks and in Germany by the left-wing socialists headed by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg.

In France, too, a rebellion broke out in the armed forces led by Andre Marti, who was then a heroic revolutionary figure. Had the Russian Revolution not been victorious, wouldn't Marti have been regarded with scorn, if not amusement, the way Tad Cumbie is treated in these accounts? But Marti was lifted to revolutionary fame at a later date when the left wing of the Socialist Party of France reconstituted itself as the Communist Party.

Had Marx not analyzed the Paris Commune as an early model of working class revolution and the seizure of state power, had Lenin not drawn on those lessons from Marx, had the Bolshevik Revolution not triumphed, the Paris Commune would have gone down only as a futile uprising which cost a great many lives.

Marx did not urge the Parisian workers to rise up during the Franco-Prussian War. On the contrary, he warned against it and said it would be folly to undertake such a course. But once the insurrection was on, Marx immediately declared his solidarity with the workers of Paris and proceeded to draw revolutionary lessons from the Commune which the international working class is still learning.

The revolutionary socialist and class-conscious leadership which sees that a premature uprising is in the making by an authentic detachment of the working class and oppressed people has a duty to act in solidarity with the objective of the general uprising. It also must concentrate on finding ways and means to cut the losses and guide the struggle through a difficult period so as to preserve this splendid detachment of the working class, learn from what errors there were in calculation, strengthen the bonds of solidarity with them in the face of persecution, and move on to higher ground to prepare for the next offensive, even if that involves a tactical retreat on the part of both elements of the movement.

To have dissolved the Socialist Party in Oklahoma, this "splendid" organization as Ameringer puts it, was a cowardly act in the face of fire from the enemy. It abandoned a singularly significant detachment of the army of the working class during the socialist struggle against imperialist war.

The indictments of the national executive committee of the Socialist Party constituted one front of the overall struggle of the imperialist government against the working class in general and the socialist movement in particular. It didn't help these defendants one iota that their organization dissolved the Oklahoma party and denounced the Green Corn Rebellion.

It's all well and good to abide by bourgeois legality if the capitalist government itself sticks to its norms of bourgeois legality. But by suppressing the socialist and working class press, by promoting, instigating, and organizing vigilante mobs not only to harass and disrupt socialist organizations but to attempt to destroy them, the capitalist government violated its own legal norms. The war which had been perpetrated was itself illegal because it was based on fraud and deceit. Wilson had promised again and again to stay out of the war, but in reality had planned from the beginning to get the U.S. headlong into it. As the socialists said, this was done for the good of the bankers and industrialists and against the interests of the working class.

By suppressing socialist agitation, by having enacted an unconstitutional espionage law, by virtually abrogating the First Amendment, the capitalist government broke its own legal norms. The working class and oppressed people have a right to strike back in kind, especially when legal avenues have become narrow to nonexistent and the world is in the midst of a bloody slaughter.

We should not be the first to fire the shots, Engels admonished the Socialist Party toward the close of his life. But, he added, some of the early theoreticians like Montesquieu who wrote about the forms of bourgeois government taught that the relation between the people and the government is the result of a contract. Now, if that be true and the government violates its contract, then of course the working class should be free to do whatever it deems necessary to promote its own ends -- emancipation from capitalist slavery and imperialist war.

The lessons of the Green Corn Rebellion should be studied and researched again and again in relationship to the contemporary wars of U.S. imperialism.

Liberal imperialist politicians do not at all mind mere protests against imperialist wars, wars they themselves not only permit but are downright central figures in. People like Robert McNamara, McGeorge Bundy, George Kennan of cold war fame, and George Ball, who come across now as liberals but were architects of the wars in Viet Nam, the Dominican Republic, and the Middle East, do not at all mind dissent and protests against imperialist wars if they are orderly, reasonable, and show the proper decorum toward the military-industrial complex and the constituted authorities in general.

As long as the war machine is permitted to function smoothly, a little dissent and mass protest kept within bounds may even make the capitalist government operate more effectively and smooth the machinery of war.

It is all part of the "democratic way," the way of imperialist profits and the expansion of capitalist markets in the search for new sources of raw materials and cheap labor. The result of this process eventually is unemployment, increasing poverty, a declining living standard for the masses and the growth of super-profits as a result of extortionate loans on a world scale.

What were the "differences" between the liberal capitalist politicians and the Reaganites over the Grenada invasion? They came down not to a struggle over principle but to a quibble over whether the U.S. should have better methods. Should it have first invoked the War Powers Act and gotten Congressional approval; could the same results have been accomplished by methods of diversion; should the invasion have taken place with the collusion of the press and media instead of without it.

But in no case were any of them for the right of the Grenadan people to determine their own destiny, that is, a socialist destiny in alliance with other socialist countries. That, of course, was subversive of the interests of predatory imperialism.

The mass movement that attempted the Green Corn Rebellion, unlike Lenin's thoroughly Marxist working class organization, did not use a variety of forms of struggle in its effort to stop the imperialist war. It was derided and minimized by the right wing of the socialist movement for its failure.

But the capitulation of the socialist leaders to the war was a much greater failure. The First World War cost 20 million lives and many more casualties. It laid the basis for yet another holocaust just two decades later when imperialism unleashed a second world war in its insatiable drive for profits. The cost escalated to another 50 million dead. Since then the bloodshed has continued with hundreds of interventions and dozens of "local" wars instigated by U.S. imperialism. And each day the specter of nuclear war becomes more threatening.

The only response commensurate to this grave situation is the kind of all-round, revolutionary working class struggle against war and the capitalist system itself that Lenin's party carried out so successfully. The Green Corn Rebellion, a genuine revolutionary coalition of the most downtrodden workers and oppressed, showed in an early and premature form that the forces for such a struggle are being generated here on the soil of the world's greatest imperialist power.


1. James Weinstein, The Decline of Socialism in America, 1912-1925 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1967). [return]

2. V.I. Lenin, "The Successes of the American Workers," in his Collected Works (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1963), Vol. 18, p. 335. [return]

3. Weinstein, op. cit., p. 134. [return]

4. Weinstein, op. cit., pp. 153-154. [return]

5. Anthony Bimba, The History of the American Working Class (New York: International Publishers, 1927), pp. 261-262. [return]

6. Oscar Ameringer, If You Don't Weaken (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983). [return]

7. Garin Burbank, When Farmers Voted Red: The Gospel of Socialism in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1910-1924 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976), pp. 133-134. [return]

8. Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1980), p. 361. [return]

9. James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest: 1895-1943 (Louisiana State University Press, 1978). [return]

10. Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1967). [return]

11. Ameringer, op. cit., pp. 294-295. [return]

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