Special Orders  

 Democracy and Agrarian Socialism

Mildred A. Schwartz
University of Illinois at Chicago
The CCF in Saskatchewan 

In 1944, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) came to power in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. The CCF had been founded as an amalgam of farmer and labor movements and small political parties, some with a Marxist orientation. At its first national convention in 1933, the CCF adopted a socialist agenda. The Saskatchewan party was an outgrowth of the national party, though with an independent streak that reflected its particular environment.1 Saskatchewan was then (and even now) a largely agricultural province dominated by wheat, sparsely populated, and ethnically diverse. Agrarian socialism was produced from this setting. When Seymour Martin Lipset became a graduate student at Columbia University, the CCF victory gave him an opportunity to explain why socialism could take root among wheat-belt farmers, including those in the United States, even though the United States itself could not generate a viable socialist party with a more traditional urban working class base.2 

Lipset came to the study of the CCF already committed to democratic socialism. In the introduction to the 1950 publication of his dissertation, Agrarian Socialism, Lipset tells us that he was disturbed by the discrepancy between ideology and action within democratic socialist governments.3 Although at that point he did not specify those troubling discrepancies, two soon become evident in the text. One relates to the failure to carry out socialist programs; the other, to sustain democratic practices. Although only the second concern may appear relevant to our current evaluation of Lipset's contributions to democratic theory, in fact, both are equally pertinent. In Lipset's conception of socialism, the two failures were both sides of the same coin. 

The apparent discrepancies between ideology and the legislative agenda of democratic socialist parties led Lipset to ask how change comes about. He saw two choices open to political parties with a radical agenda. They can, on the one hand, attempt to persuade a majority in the rightness of their objectives. Then, when elected to form a government, they can pursue their goals without compromise. However, the likelihood that they will be able to win over a majority in ways that will lead to electoral victory are slight. An unwillingness to compromise more generally relegates parties to a narrow base. Alternatively, radical parties can compromise their principles in the interests of first winning power.4 The Saskatchewan CCF exemplified the pressures that lead a party to make the second tactical choice. 

When the CCF failed to win office in the 1934 provincial election and its candidates performed poorly in the following federal election, this led its leaders to downplay socialism. They did so in the next year's convention program by avoiding the concept of socialism itself. In addition, earlier proposals to nationalize land were dropped. But even when socialism was kept on the agenda, it could not always be put into action. For example, on taking office, the CCF government tried to institute a provincial form of socialized health service. There was already some precedent for the program in the province, where rural communities were successful in hiring medical doctors on salary. The larger scheme, however, incorporated government intervention in the training and supervision of medical personnel. Opposition from the medical profession as well as the business community led to a number of major compromises that allowed medical doctors to continue controlling their profession.5 

Socialism and Democracy 

From instances like these Lipset is led to observe that democracy necessarily constrains what a government can do. This is particularly likely to happen when the government is opposed by entrenched interests, as in the case of health care, and the electorate itself seems largely indifferent to major changes. More generally, 

The social changes introduced by democratic radical movements appear to result more from objective pressures in the society for such changes than from a small doctrinaire minority converting the majority of the population. The stronger a radical social movement becomes in a democracy, the less radical it appears in terms of the general cultural values.6 

If the changes introduced seem relatively modest ones, that is because they are all the community can bear. 

The question of why socialist legislation does not live up to socialist ideals is now answered in a way unanticipated by the original formulation. The answer that evolves from Agrarian Socialism is that socialism is constrained by democracy. But we should not conclude that democracy is necessarily a higher good, distinct from socialism. Instead, socialism (always in its democratic forms) is itself a higher form of democracy. In this sense the CCF could claim that its policies and programs were ways to produce a more democratic society. 

In Saskatchewan, the conditions that produced political radicalism were also the underpinnings of democracy. Factors that made life so precarious for farmers took place in an environment that stimulated a search for solutions. The vulnerabilities associated with one-crop wheat farming, arising from dependence on climate and world markets, and also on bankers and railways, encouraged farmers to organize. Although there were economic differences among farmers, these were modest compared to the differences experienced in contrast to the outside world. Farmers were then able to share in a kind of class consciousness. In sparsely populated areas, services could only be provided if farmers would unite. Meanwhile, they were encouraged to take part in political activities because the province was divided into many small electoral units. As Lipset observed, "Political participation of the ordinary citizen in Saskatchewan is not restricted to the intermittently recurring elections. Politics is organized to be a daily concern and responsibility of the common citizen."7 All these conditions resulted in a healthy democracy and a willingness to experiment with new political approaches and organizations. 

As a consequence of this analysis, Lipset finds that his second concern, about the absence or decline of democracy within democratic socialist parties, is not a failing of the CCF. The CCF was able to retain a commitment to internal democracy because the party was itself the result of a democratic community. Early participants in the CCF were already community leaders, with strong ties to existing organizations. The CCF's ascent to power did nothing to discourage continued participation in the party's affairs. From these experiences Lipset concludes that a high level of political interest and activity mitigates the oligarchic tendencies otherwise found in large organizations. Socialism is saved by democracy. 

Agrarian Socialism in Hindsight 

Lipset's ear for theoretical relevance makes his account of the CCF's rise a refreshingly contemporary study of a social movement. Without relying on the explicit use of current concepts, Lipset showed his acumen by incorporating all the elements now considered so critical to understanding the emergence and organization of social movements.8 For example, as a precursor to the CCF, resources were mobilized through farmers organizing to form the Wheat Pool, a farmer-run marketing cooperative. Political opportunities that allowed the CCF to enter the political arena and eventually achieve office arose from the way the province was divided into small units, of which a significant number were solely rural in makeup. The new social movement's message of agrarian socialism was an ideology that could justify why particular policies were needed. At the same time, Lipset demonstrates how ideology is constantly modified through efforts to win votes and appease opponents. 

Although Agrarian Socialism remains the benchmark study of the CCF in Saskatchewan,9 Lipset came to look back at it with some dissatisfaction. He had selected Saskatchewan as a critical case, one that would illuminate the conditions under which socialism could arise. Even though it is set in another sovereign state, he felt that there were enough similarities to make his findings relevant to the United States. Agrarian socialism was, after all, the socialism of wheat farmers on both sides of the border, where he found strong parallels, particularly between the experiences of Saskatchewan and North Dakota. By 1968, his views had changed. In the introduction to the updated version of Agrarian Socialism he wrote that year, he chastised himself for not having paid more attention to the unique electoral system of the province as well as to the differences in political institutions and values between the two countries. It is probably fair to say that, even when he began his dissertation, Lipset was already concerned about explaining U.S. exceptionalism as manifested in the absence of a strong socialist party. Those concerns became stronger over time even while he has continued to advocate comparisons with Canada. But now the comparisons are ways of illuminating national differences more than similarities.10 

Lipset's initial reaction to the rise of the CCF was to view it as a possible portent of the future. But in 1968 he described the victory of agrarian socialism as more likely due to anachronistic forces.11 As conditions in the province changed and rural isolation was broached, the stimuli to political participation were likely to decline and Saskatchewan would become like other provinces. After two decades in office, the CCF seemed to have exhausted its radicalism, despite its unsuccessful bid to make the province home to the first socialized medical program in the country. Yet, while Lipset was correct in foretelling the decline of agrarian socialism, the CCF's transformation into the New Democratic Party (NDP) did produce a more conventional labor-oriented democratic socialism. In Saskatchewan today, although the NDP's support has declined among farmers, it is now centered among urban workers. And it has found a persuasive progressive voice, governing again between 1971 and 1982, and from 1991 to the present. 

In 1950, Lipset saw in the experiences of the Saskatchewan CCF the ways that democratic socialism could make for a more democratic society. Now Lipset no longer equates democratic socialism with an idealized form of democracy. His present position is that democracy thrives where there is a free market.12 Lipset's current take on U.S. exceptionalism continues to elaborate on his earlier observations about the absence of a working class socialist party. He has gone on to emphasize the value dimensions of exceptionalism--"personal responsibility, individual initiative, and voluntarism." But he also looks at the dark side of that exceptionalism-- "self-serving behavior, atomism, and a disregard for the common good."13 In light of this new awareness of how the United States has generated negative and costly values and behavior, it is interesting to reread Lipset's initial assessment of socialism. There we hear a youthful optimism tempered by the growing realism of a social scientist. 

It is my own belief, that in general, the democratic movements of the left since the American Revolution were and are historically justifiable and necessary to attain the values of an economic and political and social democracy. In spite of their many and obvious failings in terms of democratic values, the alternative to them was a more rigidly stratified and sometimes a dictatorial society.14 

As more countries struggle to become democratic and we contemplate the downside of democracy in the United States, it should not be anachronistic to ask how democratic movements of the left might still mitigate some of the current problems. 

Mildred A. Schwartz is a professor of sociology and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her most recent publications include A Sociological Perspective on Politics in the Foundations of Modern Sociology series (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1990) and The Party Network: The Robust Organization of Illinois Republicans (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). She is currently writing on protest movements and parties in Western Canada and the United States. 


1. Seymour Martin Lipset, Agrarian Socialism: The Cooperative Commonwealth Federation in Saskatchewan. A Study in Political Sociology, updated edition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor, 1968), 109-10, 134; Duff Spafford, "The 'Left Wing' 1921-1931," in Norman Ward and Duff Spafford, eds., Politics in Saskatchewan (Don Mills, Ont.: Prentice-Hall Canada, 1968), 44. 

2. Lipset, Agrarian Socialism, 17. 

3. Ibid, 10. 

4. Ibid, 191. 

5. It would not be until 1961 that the CCF government introduced a comprehensive health plan, one that was followed by a doctors' strike and the defeat of the government in the following election. 

6. Lipset, Agrarian Socialism, 193. Emphasis in original. 

7. Ibid, 265. Emphasis in original. 

8. Doug McAdam, John McCarthy, Meyer Zald, eds., Comparative Perspectives on Social Movements: Political Opportunities, Mobilizing Structures, and Cultural Framings (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996). 

9. John Richards, "Playing Two Games at Once," in John Richards, Robert D. Cairns, Larry Pratt, eds., Social Democracy Without Illusions: Renewal of the Canadian Left (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1991), 109; Alan Whitehorn, Canadian Socialism: Essays on the CCF-NDP (Don Mills, Ont.: Oxford University Press, 1992), 147. 

10. Seymour Martin Lipset, Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada (New York: Routledge, 1990). 

11. Lipset, Agrarian Socialism, xvii. 

12. Seymour Martin Lipset, "The Social Requisites of Democracy Revisited," American Sociological Review 59 (February 1994), 2-3. 

13. Seymour Martin Lipset, American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996). 

14. Lipset, Agrarian Socialism, 339. 

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