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by John Spritzler

February, 1999

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A common stereotype of Americans is that we believe in rugged individualism and competition, and want nothing to do with radical notions of social change. And the most rugged individualist, conservative Americans were supposedly farmers from places like Nebraska and Kansas back before the turn of the century.

An excellent book, The Populist Response to Industrial America, by Norman Pollack (Harvard University Press, 1962) puts quite a different light on this topic. Pollack dug into libraries in Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin to see what the newspapers serving farm communities were saying during the 1890's. He found that people in these communities saw capitalism as an attack on their values.

The Farmers Alliance of Lincoln, Nebraska wrote, "The plutocracy of to-day is the logical result of the individual freedom which we have always considered the pride of our system...The tendency of the competitive system is to antagonize and disassociate men... The survival of the fittest is a satanic creed... A stage must be reached in which each will be for all and all for each. The welfare of the individual must be the object and end of all effort... Competition is only another name for war...[W]ithout a complete eradication of this system the people cannot for once hope for relief of a permanent character." Three years later, under its new name, Alliance-Independent, it wrote, "A reigning plutocracy with the masses enslaved, is the natural development and end of individualism....The only possible permanent democracy is the democracy of unselfish socialism."

A Walnut Grove, Minnesota paper wrote, "The calamities that have heretofore and that now are upon us—as a nation—are but the measure or indicator of the extent that the standard of political and economic equality has been departed from in the practice of the competitive system."

The Platte County Argus described the "so-called great men" who rose to the top in the competition for the survival of the fittest as "moral cowards and public plunderers [who have] reversed the code of morals and stand up like hypocrites of olden times and thank god they are not like other men are...."

The Topeka Advocate wrote, "Look at the multitudes who have been but recently thrown out of employment, and whose families have been destitute in consequence...It is cruel, it is inhuman, to attribute these conditions to laziness, drunkenness and incompetence. They are the natural product of a false and vicious system by which the few grow rich beyond all human need, and the many are doomed to eternal poverty and want...Remember that tramps are men, and that they are a natural product of our social system. There must be discovered some way to deal with them consistently with these facts. Can it be done without a revolution of our system? We think not."

In calling for revolution against the plutocrats, we in are not turning our backs on the historic values of ordinary Americans. We are rediscovering them.

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