Red state 

The intriguing roots of Montana communism

Sheridan County, circa 1920s and '30s: either a Communist or a soon-to-be Communist holds every major political office in the region, including that of county surveyor. Left-wing agitators have their own newspaper, a Youth Communist Training School, along with the awe and approval of New York's Communist International (Comintern) and Moscow bureaucrats. The populace, mostly weather-ravaged Protestant farmers, has become rabid activists in the fight against the moneyed-interests of oppression. For a time it seems that the county's largest town, Plentywood (sarcastically dubbed "Little Moscow" at the time), has morphed into a utopia of revolutionary sentiments. For a split second, in a landscape not widely regarded for its dynamic progressivism, the dreams of the far left and the nightmares of the far right become a reality.

No, this is not some pre-McCarthy drivel of what could happen if reds infiltrated the Great Plains. This is northeastern Montana just prior to the Great Depression as told in The Red Corner, Verlaine Stoner McDonald's explosive history of America's "Communist laboratory." The author, a descendent of farmer movement organizer Clair Stoner, was raised in the area, and with verve and passion for Harry Truman's dictum that "there is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know," gives an entirely new meaning to the term "red harvest".

click to enlarge The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern Montana - Verlaine Stoner McDonald - paperback, Montana Historical Society Press - 220 pages, $16.95
  • The Red Corner: The Rise and Fall of Communism in Northeastern MontanaVerlaine Stoner McDonaldpaperback, Montana Historical Society Press220 pages, $16.95

Prefacing The Red Corner (the title is borrowed from a passage in Ivan Doig's Bucking the Sun) with the social forces that would allow the inexplicable to happen in the United States—droughts, market exploitation and low crop yields being only a few—McDonald turns to those organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) that would inspire agrarian revolt under the auspices of the Farmer-Labor Party. There were a number of reasons why farmers went left and stayed left for nearly a decade, McDonald says: the vast following of the Populist Party at the beginning of the 20th century, the "vagaries of the agricultural economy," the public relations skills of leftist organizers and the inherent socialism of Scandinavian immigrants who settled the area.

At the epicenter of the farmers' movement was the Producer's News, an inflammatory, entertaining newspaper founded in 1918 on the behalf of the Nonpartisan League by Charles E. Taylor, a closeted Commie who would go on to state senatorship and drift ever leftward until 1931, when the Communists gave the paper a national distribution with fateful consequences. Some of the best moments of the book concern the fierce, printed repartee between Taylor and Burley Bowler, sometime FBI informant and editor of Scobey, Mont.'s Daniels County Leader. Otherwise, McDonald's notes, the red celebrities of Plentywood would also include county sheriff Rodney Salisbury, a man viewed simultaneously as a crusader for humanity and a gangster making friends with known criminals and Prohibition rum-runners. By pointing out the virtues and the flaws of her cast, McDonald never loses contact with the strangeness of her narrative, grasping the nuances of frontier politicking and showing those paradoxes to be indispensable tics of the American political mind.

Especially in her handling of the hubris of Communist policy, the shifting allegiances of election time and her analysis of the origins of Montana Communism, McDonald proves herself a capable investigative journalist as well as a rousing chronicler. The book smells and looks like one of those information-laden local tracts destined to be enjoyed by nine regionalists and a slew of high school teachers, but don't let that deter you. The Red Corner's events are absorbing, a little shocking, and ultimately satisfying, no matter where your politics reside. Biographies of those involved could have been expanded and certain key episodes elucidated further, but these are minor squabbles.

The failure of the Communist Party in Sheridan County in the late '30s—an era that would see the party gaining influence in other parts of the country—was due to many factors, McDonald contends: the alienating tone of the Producer's News as it came to be dominated by hardliner East Coast editors; scandals in the private lives of early organizers; the recent press leaks of Stalin's atrocities; and, perhaps more crucially (and ironically), Roosevelt's New Deal infrastructure and civil service projects, which gave to farmers the rights and stability they had been seeking for so long.

McDonald has taken a bursting corner of forgotten Americana and made it unforgettable. As "one of the most of class-conscious areas in the nation," Sheridan County violated the capitalist ethos, organized itself into a formidable haven of radicals, then quietly reinstated itself "as an ordinary farming community once again." The Red Corner is a definitive account of the rise and fall of prairie socialism; a compulsively balanced tale of scheming, bootleggers, charismatic provocateurs, newspaper wars, Wild West violence, farming and Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. One lingering criticism might be that it ends about 100 pages too quickly.

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