In the first two decades of the twentieth century the Socialist Party of Oklahoma consistently ranked as one of the top three state socialist organizations in America. At the party's height in the elections of 1914, the Socialist Party candidate for governor, Fred W. Holt, received more than 20 percent of the vote statewide. In Marshall and Roger Mills counties, where the Socialist Party was strongest, Holt captured 41 and 35 percent of the vote, respectively. More than 175 socialists were elected to local and county offices that year, including six to the state legislature. As these statistics make clear, to a greater extent than anywhere else in the nation, the Socialist Party in Oklahoma played an active, potent role in state and local politics.
The earliest formations of the Oklahoma Socialist Party occurred during the territorial period in Grant and Kay counties near the Kansas border. By 1902 there were some twenty-three locals affiliated with the socialist organization in Oklahoma Territory. Soon the center of socialist activism shifted southward to the Indian Territory, and by 1907 the geographic shape of the Socialist Party of Oklahoma had become clear: socialists were concentrated in the old Indian Territory (especially in Marshall, Johnston, Pontotoc, Seminole, Jefferson, Stephens, Garvin, Love, and McCurtain counties), and in Roger Mills, Beckham, Dewey, and Kiowa counties in the west.
From the outset, Oklahoma socialism had a decidedly agrarian focus. Building on the expertise its members inherited from past agrarian movements (principally the Farmers' Alliance and the Farmers' Union), Oklahoma socialists directly challenged the inequities of early-twentieth-century commercial agriculture. Unlike their counterparts in the national Socialist Party, who thought of farmers as members of the petite bourgeoisie and therefore ineligible for party membership, Oklahoma socialists argued forcefully that farmers who worked the land were legitimate members of the working class. Indeed, Sooner socialists developed a pathbreaking "Farmers' Programme" that called for restoring land to working farmers. In addition, Socialist Party speakers relentlessly attacked tenancy, the crop lien system, and usury, the principal components of the agricultural crisis for small farmers.
As they made these arguments, Oklahoma socialists were careful to do so in terms that would make sense to their potential constituents. The party's goal of moving land from large owners into the hands of working farmers, they argued, was entirely consistent with the republican ideals espoused by the nation's Founding Fathers. In addition, party members worked hard to present their message in a cultural form that was familiar to most Oklahomans by using the language and imagery of fundamentalist Christianity.
Socialists in the Sooner State held that their ideals were completely in keeping with the teachings of Jesus Christ, especially as expressed in the Sermon on the Mount. Building on this idea, some Oklahoma socialists argued that capitalism was an inherently unchristian system, but socialism allowed citizens to live according to the Biblical concept of cooperation. To them, socialism was a more moral, Christian alternative than the current economic system. As a result, the message of socialist organizers and candidates was often couched in religious terms. Many party members saw Jesus as the first socialist, and they considered it natural to make their case in fundamentalist, Christian churches. In these ways, the Socialist Party of Oklahoma managed to present the message of socialism, not as an alien doctrine, but as an alternative well within the boundaries of accepted American political discourse. Such a feat was unmatched elsewhere in the United States, and it helps explain the remarkable success of Oklahoma socialism.
Thus, the party's concise indictment of some of the flaws of early-twentieth-century America, coupled with its ability to present its Marxist message in terms that many Oklahomans found reasonable, made the Socialist Party of Oklahoma especially attractive to those at the bottom of society. As these recruits joined the party, they became part of a sophisticated organization consisting of more than eight hundred Socialist Party locals, with socialist precinct chairmen appointed to virtually every voting precinct in the state. Every summer, thousands of the faithful gathered at socialist encampments to be revitalized by several days of music, entertainment, and speakers. Dozens of county and local socialist newspapers served the movement's communication needs, as did a special Oklahoma edition of the national socialist weekly, The Appeal to Reason. Charismatic and effective leaders like H. M. Sinclair, Patrick S. Nagle, Oscar Ameringer, Stanley Clark, J. T. Cumbie, H. H. Stallard, and Fred W. Holt skillfully articulated and executed the party's agenda.
In addition to its stand on agricultural issues the Oklahoma Socialist Party opposed the disfranchisement of blacks, supported women's suffrage, worked closely with organized labor, and condemned American involvement in the European war. The latter position proved to be problematic for the party, making it vulnerable to the repression and hysteria that accompanied the American declaration of war in 1917. State and national leaders responsible for war mobilization created a network of semiofficial organizations called Councils of Defense designed to promote patriotism and ensure support for the war effort. One of the primary tasks of these organizations was to identify citizens whose loyalty seemed suspect. Those identified as "disloyal" faced consequences ranging from ostracism to mob violence. As socialists spoke out against the war, they inevitably faced such consequences. Dozens of party members, many of them local leaders, were arrested during the war years, and the Socialist Party's electoral performance declined precipitously after 1916. In 1920 Eugene V. Debs, the socialist candidate for president, received only 5 percent of the vote in Oklahoma, down from the 15 percent the socialist presidential candidate had received four years earlier. Even more telling was the dismantling of the party organization as numerous locals were disbanded. By 1922 the once thriving Socialist Party of Oklahoma had virtually ceased to exist.
Even so, the legacy of the Socialist Party of Oklahoma continued. Socialists played an important role in the success of the Farmer-Labor Reconstruction League in 1922. On a deeper level, Oklahoma socialists became important political actors during a crucial time in the state's history. Their diagnosis of society's shortcomings and many of their proposed remedies foreshadowed developments that during the Great Depression, scarcely a generation removed from the party's demise, would become all too clear.
Jim Bissett, Agrarian Socialists in America: Marx, Jefferson, and Jesus in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1904–1920 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1999).
Garin Burbank, When Farmers Voted Red: The Gospel of Socialism in the Oklahoma Countryside, 1910–1924 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1976).
James R. Green, Grass-Roots Socialism: Radical Movements in the Southwest, 1895–1943 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1978).
Howard L. Meredith, "History of the Socialist Party in Oklahoma" (Ph.D. diss., University of Oklahoma, 1969).
Ellen I. Rosen, "Peasant Socialism in America? The Socialist Party in Oklahoma Before the First World War" (Ph.D. diss., City University of New York, 1975).
John Thompson, Closing the Frontier: Radical Responses in Oklahoma, 1889–1923 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1986).
The following (as per the Chicago Manual of Style, 16th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Jim Bissett, "Socialist Party," Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, www.okhistory.org (accessed June 30, 2016).
© Copyright Oklahoma Historical Society 2009.