Lem Harris

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Lement Harris was a leader of the Connecticut Communist Party USA.[1]

Communist

Lem Harris, a lifelong defender of family farmers and the rural working class, died Sept. 21 2002. He was 98 years old. He was a member of the Executive Board of the Connecticut Communist Party, and was active in politics up to his death.

Harris wrote regularly for People's World, as well as others, with his last World story published just before his death. When The New York Times recently carried a story denouncing a farm bill enacted by Congress, Harris’ reply defending parity farm prices was printed.

Harris was the eldest delegate to the 2001 Communist Party USA’s (CPUSA) 27th Convention, where his speech on the need for farmer-labor unity was greeted with a standing ovation.

Harris is survived by his wife, Louise Harris.[2]

Rural activism

Lement Harris was born March 1, 1904, in Chicago, the son of a wealthy grain exporter who later established a lucrative stock brokerage on Wall Street. The family moved into a Tuxedo Park mansion where presidents of banks, steamship companies and railroads were regular guests.

Harris graduated from Harvard. But he spurned a partnership in his father’s firm and decided to spend three years as a farm laborer on a Pennsylvania dairy farm. He developed a deep love for the land and the people who till it.

The Russian Revolution was still fresh and in June 1929 he sailed to the Soviet Union where he joined Harold Ware, a Communist Party USA who had settled in the Verblud region of the USSR, to help in the drive to collectivize and mechanize the farms. Harris witnessed the tremendous surge of farm production under socialism and the rising living standards and cultural life of Soviet collective farmers. It convinced him of the advantages of socialism.

That conclusion was driven home when he and Ware returned to the U.S. in 1930 to find the nation locked in the worst economic depression in history with millions, including farmers, facing starvation brought on by “overproduction.”

Ware and Harris set out on a nationwide tour to conduct a “farm survey.” It included study of impoverished African-American and white tenant sharecroppers in Alabama and Texas, as well as wheat farmers on the Great Plains ruined by grain prices a fraction of the cost of production.

Not having decided upon a career, he went to work on a farm in Pennsylvania where he was to remain for three years. While working as a farm laborer he read and was influenced by the works of Gandhi and Tolstoi. He was also exposed to a fellow worker who had been a member of a trade union delegation to the Soviet Union. Harris decided that he too must go there to see how the "new society" was working. He was introduced to Harold Ware, a communist and IWW organizer, who was running a farm in the North Caucasus area. Ware promised him employment when he came to the Soviet Union. His time in Russia was life-altering and he returned to the United States convinced that the Soviet system was in all ways superior to the West. Back home, he and Ware conducted a nine month survey of life in rural America.

[3]

In his memoirs, My Tale of Two Worlds (International Publishers, 1986), Harris tells of the grassroots movement of farmers and workers that sprang up in those years with the slogan, “Fight or starve.” He dedicates the book to many of the heroes and heroines of that movement, including Mother Ella Reeve Bloor, many of whom were Communists. Harris himself joined the CPUSA in 1931. His father took him out of his will but Lem never expressed a word of regret.

He served as Executive Secretary of the Farmers National Relief Conference, which met Dec. 8, 1932, and drafted a program calling on the federal government to set up a “price regulating body controlled by actual consumers and producers … whose function shall be to reduce prices to consumers and raise prices for all farm products sold.”

The movement employed militant tactics such as “penny auctions” to stop farm foreclosures. The “Farm Holiday” movement was a form of strike action by farmers that was subject to police violence and mass arrests. Harris was arrested moments after speaking in favor of a farm-relief bill to a crowd rallying near Sioux City, Iowa.

Political action based on unity of farmers and workers was key to winning election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and enactment of New Deal legislation, including the system of non-recourse loans for farm commodities to stem the tide of farm bankruptcies.

Fascism was rising and in 1935, Harris was selected as a delegate to the 7th World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow where the strategy of the United Front Against Fascism was first put forward.

Harris remained active during the war against fascism and throughout the Cold War years, never wavering in his work on behalf of family farmers and in defense of socialism.

As recently as last spring, he traveled to Minneapolis where he met with leaders of the National Farmers Union and the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy on the struggle against agribusiness and the ultra-right Bush Administration. [4]

Communist Party Labor Day call

The Communist Party USA paper People's Weekly World issued a statement to mark Labor Day 1995, entitled "We honor the dead and fight like hell for the living."

Of the more than 100 endorsers listed, almost all were identified members of the Communist Party USA.

Lem Harris, Norwalk Connecticut, was on the list.[5]

National Farmers Union

In the 30s Lem Harris worked in the office of the National Farmers Union.[6]

Farm Commission

According to the Communist Party USA's Tim Wheeler, writing in 2001, "we have reestablished a commission that we propose now to name the Farm and Rural Life Commission, which has met three times in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Bill Gudex, a dairy farmer from Wisconsin, is the chair of the Commission. Lem Harris, at age 96, is still going strong, traveling to Minnesota in the dead of winter to interview leaders of the farm movement and getting the stories into the PWW. Lem is a living link to the Party's pioneering work in rural America, the "farmer holiday" movement, the "penny auctions," the struggles to defend family farmers faced by ruin during the Great Depression. We were part of the struggle that won enactment of the Agricultural Adjustment Act and other New Deal legislation for farmers and farm workers.

Our goal is to build up our ties and connections with the coalition of farmer organizations including the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, the National Farmers Union, Coalition of Family Farmers, and so on. Obviously, the goal is to recruit farmers and farm workers, Black, Latino and white to our Party. We will have a workshop on the crisis of farming and rural America at the Convention to be held in "America's Dairyland."[7]

References

  1. [1] Yale Daily news, December 11. 2002, Communist Party U.S.A. holds rally
  2. [http://www.peoplesworld.org/lem-harris-farm-labor-writer-dies-at-98/ PW, Lem Harris, farm labor writer, dies at 98 by: EVELINA ALARCON & JOHN PAPPADEMOS september 27 2002]
  3. [https://www.lib.uiowa.edu/scua/msc/tomsc500/msc475/msc475.htm PAPERS OF LEMENT HARRIS Collection Dates: 1920 -- 1990]
  4. [http://www.peoplesworld.org/lem-harris-farm-labor-writer-dies-at-98/ PW, Lem Harris, farm labor writer, dies at 98 by: EVELINA ALARCON & JOHN PAPPADEMOS september 27 2002]
  5. People's Weekly World Sep 2 1995 p 14
  6. [Comrades: Tales of a Brigadista in the Spanish Civil War By Harry Fisher page 7]
  7. CPUSA, If You Eat, You're Involved in Agriculture: Report from the Rural and Farm Comm.