KATHRYN S. OLMSTED. Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism. New York: The New Press, 2015. Pp. 336. $27.95. Hardback. ISBN: 978-1-62097-096-6.

Right Out of California is the fourth book written by Kathryn S. Olmsted, Professor of History and Department Chair in History at the University of California, Davis. Following up on her 2011 journal article, “Quelling Dissent: The Sacramento Conspiracy Trial and the Birth of the New Right,” Olmsted presents her thesis that the ideological and political origins of modern conservatism are to be found in the concerted response of California agribusiness leaders to the progressive reforms of the New Deal. Olmsted’s work provides a substantial intervention to the existing literature of twentieth-century American conservatism. Traditionally, scholars have traced the origins of the modern conservative movement to different times: the late-1950s with the Taft Hartley Act, the early 1960s with the failed presidential election of Barry Goldwater, or even the 1970s with the Moral Majority. Some have traced the ‘New Right’ to grassroots organizing by suburban, Republican clubwomen in the Sunbelt; others have argued that modern conservatism was a cultural backlash to 1960s civil rights activism in the American South; and still others have situated its geographical roots on the east coast, with the formation of the Liberty League in 1934. Olmsted revises all of these narratives, arguing that “By the end of the Depression decade, the philosophy, tactics, and leaders of modern conservatism had emerged in California.”[1]

Here is a summary of the story: agricultural business leaders in California had relied upon the support of a strong federal government from the 1870s to the 1930s. Particularly, the government deployed federal troops to suppress labor organizing while local, state, and federal law supported the rights of growers to pass anti-labor legislation and commit acts of violence. When the New Deal started in 1933, growers continued to benefit from big government. They received subsidies through the Agricultural Adjustment Act, loans through the Farm Credit Administration, and improved infrastructure (dams, irrigation canals, railroads, et cetera) through the Public Works Administration, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, and the Bureau of Reclamation. However, for the first time, the federal government also dedicated itself (albeit unintentionally) to supporting the rights of migrant pickers to organize for higher wages and better working conditions. Even though Section 7a of the National Industrial Recovery Act excluded agricultural workers, its language provided the impetus for a series of thirty California strikes in 1933.

The 1933 strikes were managed by Communist Party organizers from the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Union (CAWIU). The strikes threatened not only the economic hierarchy of the growers, but also their racial and gender hierarchies, since women were prevalent among the organizers and most of the pickers (75-95%, given the area) were dark-skinned minorities. When the California strikes escalated to acts of violence—in towns like Pixley, Harvin, and Visalia—and the time-sensitive crops lay unpicked, on the brink of waste, New Deal officials stepped in to mediate between the unions and the growers. Growers saw this action as a betrayal of the federal government and switched their allegiance wholesale to the Republican Party.

New Deal officials were far from socialists or communists, and FDR did not want to destroy capitalism. He actually wanted to reform capitalism in order to preserve it. Nonetheless, the growers began to develop unique strategies for branding both union leaders and New Deal progressives as outside “agitators.” They hired the first political consultants in American history—a firm called Campaign Inc.—and they made the first “news” coverage that depicted opponents as socialists, communists, atheists, anti-family, race-baiters, and the enemies of core American values like individualism, free-market capitalism, Christianity, and “proper” gender roles. In the efforts of this agribusiness coalition, Olmsted finds all of the political tactics that are now commonplace among right-wing Republicans. Her chapters provide case studies that allow the reader to trace these tactical developments from vigilante intimidation to sophisticated, multi-media political campaigns. Readers see the evolution of these “red-baiting” tactics in the cotton strike of the Central Valley in 1933; the melon-pickers strike in the Imperial Valley, the apricot strike in Contra Costa, and the gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair in 1934; and the conspiracy trial of CAWIU leaders in Sacramento in 1935.

Right Out of California is a concise and beautifully narrated book. Olmsted demonstrates the making of the ‘New Right’ or modern conservatism’s political machine in the propaganda of agribusiness leaders from about 1933 to 1935. A final chapter drives the argument home by establishing direct connections between agribusiness leaders of the 1930s and the rest of the Republican tradition. The growers of the Depression-era originally coalesced around an embittered Herbert Hoover, then living in the hills of Palo Alto and resenting his loss to FDR in the recent election. Later, the very same Hoover-led business collation went on to support the senate campaigns of the iconic California Republicans Richard Nixon, in 1946, and Ronald Raegan, in 1967. This connection is not tangential, but explicit. The exact same public relations firm, Campaigns Inc., and many of the same growers and anti-communists, as well as both their real and ideological descendants, were directly involved in this tradition.

While the main argument of Right Out of California concerns the origins of modern conservatism, the book is also great cultural history. Olmsted grapples with how cultural figures like John Steinbeck, Langston Hughes, Lincoln Steffens, Ella Winters, Dorothea Lange, and James Cagney interacted—to varying degrees, and for better or worse—with the Communist organizing in the California fields. In particular, she offers detailed, nuanced portraits of two captivating labor leaders named Pat Chambers and Caroline Decker. Her explorations of the artistic compromises that Steinbeck made with his novel on the 1933 strikes, In Dubious Battle (1936), and her discussion of the gendered dynamics of Decker’s participation in the labor movement are worth a read on their own. In a rare historical find, Olmsted not only claims that Decker was silenced by court reporters for being a radical female labor leader, but she proves it in the historical record.

Overall, if Right Out of California is reduced to a one-sentence thesis about the origins of conservatism among 1930s agribusiness leaders in California, then many of its best contributions will be lost. Among other topics, Olmsted touches upon questions regarding the extent of racism, anti-communist, and sexism in 1930s California, not just among the agribusiness leaders, but among novelists like Steinbeck—who cut out all of the minorities and women from his book and branded the Communists as villains instead of heroes—and Decker, who dropped her Jewish name and emphasized traditional notions of femininity in order to appear less threatening. Right Out of California is filled with complex characters like these, many of which defy stereotypes or easy answers.

Perhaps the biggest critique of Right Out of California is that Olmsted may be guilty of committing a similar kind of error as Steinbeck: she writes the entire book with white characters at the center. Even though the pickers are almost all dark-skinned people (Mexican, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, and African-American), there seem to be only two non-white pickers mentioned in the entire book. Their names are Roy and Pauline Dominguez. They are mentioned only in passing, as part of an introductory anecdote to a chapter about the 1933 strike. To be fair, unlike Steinbeck, Olmsted neither removes the non-white characters from the narrative or denies their existence. They are simply never the subject of the story.

Olmsted states, “Not until the 1960s and Cesar Chavez’s labor and civil rights movement would Mexican workers move to the center of the story of California labor struggles.” But, after reading the book, this quote seems like more of a rationalization for creating absence than a fair statement. Of course, if we chose to define “the center of the story of California labor struggles” as the lives of the migrants themselves, then how could these people not be at the center of the struggle the entire time? Were there not attempts to unionize among the largely Mexican-American workers without the white Communist leaders? Did the workers not engage in acts of “day-to-day” resistance against the growers? Or, approached from another angle, what is it about the culture of the workers that makes them so receptive to Communist-led organizing. These are just a few of the questions Olmsted does not explore–questions that would have put workers back at “the center of the story,” if only for a chapter. [2]

Surely, there are very formidable source difficulties here, but they are worth overcoming or at least addressing in the narrative. For example, is there any literature written in Spanish about these migrants? Can we read Factories in the Field, the multiracial work of Carey McWilliams, back a few years in order to recapture, or at least imagine, the lived experiences of these non-white pickers? What about An American Exodus by Dorothea Lange and Paul Taylor? At one point, Olmsted writes, “Decker was one of the most interesting figures in these great strikes, yet we must search hard to find her voice in the historical record.” This is a powerful statement about the act of silencing in history, and it recalls just how much harder we must work to find the voices of the pickers themselves. But while Olmsted is willing to get creative in order to uncover the silenced experiences of women like Decker, she does not seem interested in doing the same for the pickers. Then again, it is just not that kind of book.

There are at least two specific moments where Olmsted suggests opportunities for the appearance of non-white characters in the narrative (other than Langston Hughes, who Olmsted employs very well). She says that Decker and Chambers appointed ethnic leaders for the 1933 strike, yet she does not provide their names or even tell us if those names were lost to history. She states that investigators found a list of Mexican-American actors on a paper in Decker’s home, but she does not tell us those names, even though we hear about James Cagney’s support at least twice. All of this is brought into sharp relief by the racial omissions of Steinbeck and the fact that Olmsted does not include any discussion about the source material regarding the migrants. Regardless of the causes, the end result is this: Right Out of California is a book based around the strikes of mostly non-white workers, and it does not include any non-white workers besides a token amount. This critique aside, the work is a captivating and well-focused study of California conservatism during the New Deal. Olmsted is a talented writer with an eye for a thrilling story. Readers will have a hard time putting this one down.

[1]Kathryn S. Olmsted, Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism (New York: The New Press, 2015), 4.

[2]Ibid. 54.