Lem Harris, farm labor writer, dies at 98

Lem Harris, a lifelong defender of family farmers and the rural working class, died Sept. 21. 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 this newspaper, 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.

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 CPUSA member 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.

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.

Harris is survived by his wife, Louise, and her two children from a previous marriage and by his three children from an earlier marriage, as well as by thirteen grandchildren and six great grandchildren.