The Utopian Democracy of the Alberta Farm Movement, by Steven R.D. Henderson

Passing through the countryside of the Prairie West, it is easy to find oneself awestruck. Rolling fields covered in wheat stretch out as far as the eye can see, while the sky reaches to meet the horizon as great billowing clouds sail upon it. Taken in at once, it brings forth a feeling of enormity—of freedom. Amidst these endless fields exists the town of Vulcan. As you enter the town it is impossible to miss the iconic replica of the USS Enterprise, lifted off the ground by a pedestal. Nearby, an outlet for the United Farmers of Alberta serves the needs of this Prairie town. It is here in Vulcan that historic fact meets science fiction—past meets future—held together by a shared dream of utopia.

For the pioneers of Western Canada—the last, best West—the settling of this land was infused with utopian idealism. For them the West was the Promised Land: the land of milk and honey. It was with this vision in their minds that hundreds of thousands of immigrants flocked to the Canadian West, believing that it was a land where a real, viable utopia could be created. Broadly speaking, the unique form of utopianism found in Western Canada assumed three forms.[1] The first was that of a fecund, Edenic paradise—that of a vision of a land of abundance and of commune with nature. The second form was that of the West as a perfect society where only the virtuous would reside. This image is typical of the social gospellers, who believed that the West was destined to be a New Jerusalem or the Kingdom of God on Earth. The last form was a secular utopia: that of the West as a tabula rasa—a blank slate—a place of new beginnings. All three of these visions of utopia were present in the Alberta farm movement, which reached its apex in the United Farmers of Alberta.

The United Farmers of Alberta

            While throughout this essay I plan to discuss certain elements of the farm movement which I find admirable, there are other aspects that must be categorically rejected as having no place in a future free society. To name only the most obvious, this includes the role of the Alberta farm movement in colonisation and its attendant racism. Likewise, the movement’s embrace of eugenics with its zoological denigration of our humanity. Yet the purpose of revisiting this history is not to nostalgically pine for a lost traditional Alberta farmer, but rather to illuminate the aspects of this history which can reinvigorate our utopian dreams in the present. A further discussion of the parochial aspects of the farm movement, while necessary, is outside of the scope of this short essay and will be explored in the future.

            On January 14th, 1909, the convention of the Alberta Farmer’s Association took place at the Mechanics’ Hall in Edmonton. With the announcement of the amalgamation of the Alberta Farmer’s Association and the Society of Equity the hall erupted with a chorus of “For They Are Jolly Good Fellows”, and three hearty cheers filled the air. The United Farmers of Alberta was born. None of the delegates at the founding meeting of the UFA could have imagined the future that the new organisation would cultivate—that the UFA would be one of the greatest grassroots democratic movements in Canadian history, and one of the most successful farm movements in North American history. They could not have predicted that in the coming decade UFA membership would grow into the tens of thousands; that the organisation would spawn a great co-operative movement culminating in the creation of the Wheat Pool; that it would be responsible for important achievements in women’s rights; and would be responsible for immutably changing the political culture of Alberta, forming a permanent populist bias that lingers to the present. Nor could they have predicted that the UFA would form a majority provincial government and ignite a populist wave—a Prairie fire—that would burn across the provinces from West to East.

Although the UFA would form government at the provincial level and be involved at the national level, it would be a mistake to look at the movement as merely a provincial or national one. Within the UFA these levels of government were understood only as two arenas of organisation. The creative, radical, and oppositional energies of the UFA found other outlets as well. One was the Wheat Pool, with its parallel structure based on delegate democracy. The other was, as Roger Epp tells us, “the entire range of local institutions—municipal councils and school boards, mutual telephone companies, creamery and other co-operatives—that constituted the fabric of self-directed community affairs in which democratic politics was an experiential reality.” Unbeknownst to many, the Alberta farm movement was in this regard intensely municipalist, reminiscent of New England town meetings. If the Greeks of ancient Athens had their ekklesia, and the New Englanders had their town meetings, it can be said that the pioneers of the Prairie West had their schoolhouse meetings. Roger Epp continues:

Agrarian populism in Alberta had inherited two contradictory impulses from the American experience: on one hand, towards technocratic, honest, business-like government; on the other, towards local autonomy and direct democracy in a Jeffersonian vein. Within the UFA, it was an open question whether the aims of the farmers’ movement were to be carried out primarily at a local, as opposed to a provincial or national, level. Certainly there was a level of office-holding and participation in rural Alberta reminiscent of ancient Athens. There was also a fairly sophisticated understanding, regularly promoted in The UFA newspaper, that local schoolhouses and halls were also the “schoolhouses of democracy”’ that it was important to “develop the mentality, public spirit, and power of self-expression of every member,” through debates, courses, and readings; and that agrarian self-defence against economic predators and a distant, indifferent national government would be, at the same time, an “object lesson in true democracy.” […] Numerous instances of local political and economic initiatives particularly in the 1920s bear out the claim that Alberta farm people, even in the midst of hardship, had developed the collective capacity and self-confidence necessary for democratic self-government.[2]

Indeed, the UFA was a truly democratic organisation. While the schoolhouse or hall may have been the loci of the political realm of the Western frontier, the bedrock of UFA democracy was its delegate system.[3] Inheriting its structure from its predecessors, the early UFA consisted of its locals, a central office, an executive, and a board of directors. It was however the rank and file of the UFA that set the organisation’s agenda. Such decision making was done through the convention, which was attended by delegates sent by the locals. Most locals would discuss resolutions to come before the convention and instruct their delegates how to vote, assuming they would exercise some discretion based on convention debate. Direct democracy had reached a degree of sophistication in the Prairie West that even today we can admire.

            The history shared by the Prairie West with classical Athens and the New Englanders is more rich that merely a shared history of direct democracy. Like the yeomen of Athens and the New Englanders, for the pioneers of the Prairie West, agriculture was viewed as an inherently moral activity.  The Athenian ideal of the farmer citizen was one which was considered to be materially independent, so as to be an autonomous participant in political decision making and whose interests were not dependent on the exogenous influence of the market. In Athens and again in New England, we see this association of the yeoman farmer with independence and virtue. As for the particular form it assumed with the Prairie West, Bradford J. Rennie explains:

            Not only was farming the source of all wealth, but it was the wellspring of happiness and virtue. Tregillus preached that farming was “the most natural and healthful life we can live”; moreover, farmers were “not subject to the temptation to rob and ruin their fellows, as in so many other lines of endeavour, for in agriculture integrity and absolute honesty must be observed. Here was the Jeffersonian ideal of the honest, contented yeoman—the moral fabric of the nation—tilling an Edenic paradise.[4]

Rennie’s statement regarding the yeomanry and the moral fabric of the nation notwithstanding, to emphasise the role of Canadian nationalism on the western frontier would be a mistake. Despite the presence of romantic nationalism within UFA publications and from its leaders, nationalism on the Western frontier was far from an established fact. Rather, as noted by Steve Hewitt, it was the experience of war that served in the social construction of a Canadian identity.[5] Of particular importance to this process was wartime propaganda. In the recent film Shameless Propaganda, produced by Canada’s National Film Board, director Robert Lower succinctly states the relevance of wartime propaganda to Canadian nation-building—even up to World War Two—when he says, “… The real story of the [NFB’s] early years, the real story this film tells, is not about convincing us to die for our country. But rather, convincing us we had a country worth dying for.”[6] This statement holds true for earlier wartime propaganda efforts as well.

Speaking more broadly than just the Prairie West, Lower explains that in 1940, the term “Canadian” was attached to 11 million people, strung out along 6,000 kilometres of railway, with only CBC radio to connect them. The meaning of “Canadian” depended very much where you got off the train. Many still considered themselves British—sons and daughters of the empire. Those who had arrived from France and had been here long before Wolfe’s invasion had a different idea. Others were “Canadian” only by colonisation and conquest. But for many more, it was a break with the past and a leap of faith into something new: a utopian vision of a blank slate—a tabula rasa.

The moral character of this utopia has, to a certain extent, been previously stressed. But more than just an Edenic paradise, the UFA/UFWA members saw themselves as a city on the hill and a beacon of virtue amidst darkness, pointing the way to the Promised Land—not unlike the New England pilgrims. This moral vision of the “good society” was infused with the social gospel overtones of the era. Of particular relevance to this within the UFA was the dialectical philosophy of Henry Wise Wood. It would be a mistake however to label Wood as a “great man” who imposed his philosophy on the farm movement. His doctrines reflected movement assumptions and an already existing movement culture. His theory was not purely his own; he was as much a preacher of already existing ideas as he was a prophet of new ones.

A type of social gospel theology, the basis of Wood’s philosophy was that history progressed through a dialectic between the two “social laws” of competition and co-operation. Competition “acted” to force a “reaction” of the formation of larger co-operative units which competed at higher levels themselves, and in turn prompted the creation of greater co-operative units for competitive use. In Wood’s view, it was in this way that competition for survival and trade drove the earliest people to form family groups, family groups to form tribes, tribes to form nations, and nations to form allied units.

A particular influence on Wood’s mind was the experience of World War One. To Wood, “Germany and her allies represented the greatest co-operative national unit of strength the world had ever seen […] built by co-operation, but built for competitive purposes.” In Wood’s view, international competition had become so dangerous that higher levels of military efficiency could destroy the world and thus were unthinkable: competition was forcing nations to pursue co-operation. However, peace would be impossible until international trade competition (in Wood’s view the cause of the war) was eliminated. More specifically, Wood viewed the economic and political control of nations by plutocracy as responsible for the recent wars.

Wood warned that social, economic, and military advancement had been so rapid that if the people did not organise to oppose plutocracy civilisation would veer off the path of progress into a quagmire of warfare and autocratic rule. His stark warnings not withstanding, he never doubted that the people would succeed: he believed they would respond to the competitive force of plutocracy with nature’s call to “group government”. In Wood’s view, once the people had developed their intelligence and citizenship skills to the highest degree, they would federate their economic groups into a co-operative and democratic force, meeting plutocracy in an apocalyptic conflict. Wood prophesised that this conflict would be that of one between “… democracy and plutocracy, between civilization and barbarism, between man and money, between co-operation and competition, between God and Mammon.” The result would be peace, as well as a just and democratic order. That is, the kingdom of heaven on earth. Rennie details the importance of co-operation to Wood’s philosophy:

Wood loathed the individualistic struggle-for-existence ethic. He criticized Darwin, Huxley, and Haeckel for failing to discern that humanity must ‘throw off this animal spirit’ and develop a co-operative spirit. ‘Science tells us that the law of the survival of the fittest is the true primary animal law,’ Wood conceded, ‘but only the fool will tell us that it is the true ultimate social law.’ Here Wood echoes evolutionists such as Henry Drummond and Kropotkin, who, like him, saw group co-operation — between families, tribes, nations, and classes — as integral to survival and progress.[7]

            There’s certainly much that we can criticise in Wood’s philosophy. However a critique of his philosophy or rigorous exploration of its differences from other evolutionary thinkers is outside of the scope of this essay. What I want to draw attention to here is that Wood’s philosophy was firmly in the same evolutionist tradition as Kropotkin, a major pioneering figure in Communalist thought, as both viewed mutual aid as a key factor of evolution.

Recontextualising Prairie Visions of Utopia

The economics of the future are somewhat different. You see, money doesn’t exist in the 24th century… The acquisition of wealth is no longer the driving force in our lives. We work to better ourselves and the rest of humanity. – Capt. Jean-Luc Picard

Today, as forest fires stain the wide, clear blue skies of the West like a scene from the dystopian film Bladerunner, we’re reminded of our place as a part of the natural world and of looming ecological crisis. It is precisely because of the extent of the crises that we currently face that we cannot afford to abandon utopian thinking. I believe the political philosophy most suited to continuing this history of utopianism in Western Canada is that of Communalism. Developed by Murray Bookchin, Communalism is a utopian, directly democratic philosophy that seeks to reharmonise the relationship of humanity to the natural world. It reflects important elements of our local history and addresses the root causes of the ecological crisis we face today.

The dreams of a democratic society still exists amongst Canadians, evident in the spread of movements like Occupy with their message of grassroots participation and reclaiming public space. Communalism’s political vision of confederal municipalities evokes the schoolhouse democracy of the pioneers of the Prairie West. In this politics, city government is organised from the grassroots up, through directly democratic neighbourhood assemblies. Communalists are not merely municipalists, but confederal municipalists. By this, I do not mean “confederation” in the same sense as the “confederation” of Canada, whereby the nation-state uses a variety of intermediaries like provincial governments to create the illusion of local control. Rather, by confederation I mean something more reminiscent of indigenous confederacies. In the context of the Prairie West, a local example of this would be the history of the Blackfoot Confederacy.

This means a network of councils where delegates are elected from their local assemblies to administer policies decided at the base, yet are strictly mandated, recallable, and responsible to the assemblies who select them. Echoing the directly democratic practices of the pioneers such as their use of delegation and local indigenous histories of confederalism to scale up across large distances, Communalism resonates with the most democratic parts of our history.

Of course, it may be argued that most people do not have the ability to regularly be involved in democratic assemblies in their neighbourhoods due to the need to work to provide for themselves and their families. Undeniably these material facts of life must be acknowledged. But far from maintaining the status quo with regards to our present economic organisation, Communalism proposes the democratic abolition of our market society and in its place the municipalisation of economic production. This means bringing all productive enterprise under the purview of municipal assemblies and providing for all on the basis of “from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her need”. The enormous growth of productive forces has rendered the age-old question of material scarcity moot, if only these capacities were employed rationally and ecologically for social rather than private ends. The image of the materially independent yeoman farmer of the Western frontier perhaps brings to mind notions of post-scarcity, where all have the freedom to engage in politics and what brings joy into their lives—a utopian vision that suggests the world of science fiction embodied by Star Trek.

Of course, a Communalist society would not only be a democratic utopia, but also an ethical one. The pioneers of the Prairie West saw the land as the place where a perfect society where only the virtuous would reside, and this vision found theoretical sophistication in the dialectical philosophy of Henry Wise Wood. Somewhat similarly though with important differences, the ethical underpinnings of Communalism are also its dialectical philosophy: that of dialectical naturalism. A holistic philosophy, dialectical naturalism conceptualises relationships within and between ecological and social communities in terms of the mutualistic interdependence of the parts of the whole. Understood in this context, Communalism views the relationship between nature and human society as a dialectical continuum of natural and social evolution, one that ought to reflect an ethic of complementarity or mutualism—an ethical vision pioneered in the works of Kropotkin and echoed by Wood’s philosophy and the farm movement culture in the Prairie West.

Communalism presents a vision of a world where ecological crises have been resolved, domination in human society has been replaced by democracy and mutualism, and where an ethic of complementarity guides our interaction with nature. Indeed, it is a vision wherein humanity has become nature rendered self-conscious and embodies its creativity. Such a vision does not constitute an “end of history” but rather a new beginning: of an ecosocial history and a renaissance of our most utopian aspirations. A world free from domination and without ecological crises awaits at the horizon, if we are willing to fight for it.

Notes

  1. The Prairie West as Promised Land. R. Douglas Francis & Chris Kitzan. “Introduction”, pg. X-XII
  2. The Prairie Agrarian Movement Revisited: Centenary Symposium on the Foundation of the Territorial Grain Growers Association. Murray Knuttila & Bob Stirling. “The Agrarian Movement in Alberta”, pg. 140-1.
  3. The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: The United Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921. Bradford James Rennie. Pg. 56.
  4. The Prairie West as Promised Land. R. Douglas Francis & Chris Kitzan. Bradford J. Rennie. “The Utopianism of the Alberta Farm Movement”, pg. 246.
  5. The Prairie West as Promised Land. R. Douglas Francis & Chris Kitzan. Steve Hewitt. “Policing the Promised Land: The RCMP and Negative Nation Building in Alberta and Saskatchewan in the Interwar Period”, pg. 314-5.
  6. Shameless Propaganda. Robert Lower. https://www.nfb.ca/film/shameless_propaganda/ (2:28)
  7. The Rise of Agrarian Democracy: The United Farm Women of Alberta, 1909-1921. Bradford James Rennie. Pg. 212.

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