Saturday, January 2, 2010
Collectivism and Rural Citizenship
Previously, I briefly described the Liberal inclinations of my mother, Grace Boyd. This Liberalism evolved as a result of a complex discourse and exchange of ideas with socialism. In some ways, Liberalism accepted many of the premises of socialism; in other ways, it defined itself in opposition to Marxism. Grace’s father, my grandfather, claimed to be more directly aligned with socialism. Although my grandfather, Montelle Boyd, died when I was less than a year old, I find it interesting to see how Montelle translated socialism into rural America.
Fortunately, Montelle edited a small newspaper, the Boone County Courier, for about 40 years. If my math is correct, this means that he was writing about socialism between 1931 and 1971. During this time, we know that global socialism moved from triumph to triumph. It defeated NAZI Germany, expanded throughout Eastern European, and eventually spread through China, Southeast Asia, and many other parts of the de-colonized world. Back in America, Montelle thought that socialism could be reconciled with American political, cultural, and indeed religious traditions. He also thought that American socialism—or collectivism, the term he preferred—could avoid the twin evils of capitalism and Russian-style communism, which had noble objectives but involved a “class dictatorship” rather than democracy, which he favored.
Apparently Montelle learned his socialism from articulate Harvard professors. I have a few of his books about collectivism, and intend to post about them sometime in the future. (I have his personal testimony about these influences, published in a Harvard alumni book that encouraged alumni to explain their worldview at some length). But it’s also evident from his newspaper that his collectivism was profoundly influenced by autochthonous agrarian movements. One even suspects that Montelle’s faith in collectivism resulted from the loss of a family farm early in his life. For Montelle’s editorials relentlessly critique the boom and bust cycles of American capitalism and the impact these cycles have on family farmers.
For Montelle, a devout Protestant Christian, socialism looked something like anarchism, devoid of any trace of violence. Montelle wanted local American communities to take ownership over their own political and economic destinies. He wanted workers to decide the destinies of their own industries or companies, and farmers to work together to set higher prices for their produce. One of Montelle’s pet projects was the establishment of local credit unions. According to the Boone County Courier of 30 January 1947, Credit Unions were authorized in Illinois in 1925. The one in Boone County, called The People’s Credit Union, was organized five years later on what Montelle called a “membership basis, with the COMMON welfare being kept ever as a major objective” (Montelle’s capitalization). Montelle didn’t always follow the standard journalistic practice of revealing his own involvement in the creation of one of Illinois’ first credit unions, probably because everybody in Boone County knew about it already.
Montelle’s newspapers from the 1940s repeatedly touch about his faith in collectivism, but the economic philosophy he propounded was somewhat ill-defined. It wasn’t capitalism, and it certainly wasn’t Marxist-Leninism. Looking beyond the editorials, what these papers bring to mind to me is Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone, which traces the precipitous decline of participation of modern American life. According to Putnam, Americans are now less engaged in almost every type of measurable political, civic, or cultural participation. With the notable exception of a fairly narrow form of evangelical religious activity, Americans no longer demonstrate any of the qualities of free association that Tocqueville praised when he first compared us with European counterparts. We don’t even go bowling in bowling teams anymore but prefer to “bowl alone,” as Putnam’s title denotes.
In Montelle’s world, collectivism—if it be defined as active citizenship and local self-determination—was alive and well. People were of course building local credit unions and growers associations, but, more importantly, they were going to functions related to church, family, civic pride (e.g., Rockford’s annual Milk Day), politics, business, local society, school, sports, veteran affairs, farming interests, municipal planning, and more. In short, in the 1940s, the concept of citizenship was still very meaningful, whether or not one accepted Montelle’s slightly blurry version of how this form of active citizenship was fundamentally at odds with capitalism. It’s hard to picture anything less revolutionary than small town life in Boone County. However, the history of modern revolution began with a very charged contest about the significance of the French word, citoyen.