October 15, 2020 — While buoyed by the fall of Czarist Russia, the international Communist Party faced stiff resistance from Western democracies by the early 1920s. Combined with the failure of revolutions in Poland, Hungary and Germany, party officials realized they needed a more subtle method to spread their ideology.

Instead of directly fighting the capitalist structure, communist organizations worked to undermine it from within: through political activism and communist outreach. Organizations such as the Red Youth International and the International Red Relief were thus created to disseminate communist propaganda globally and by this way recruit and discipline a new army of Communist Party members.

Among the most promising of these new organizations was Red Peasant International. Organized in St. Petersburg on this date in 1923, Red Peasant leaders believed that only by uniting the efforts of rural and urban labor could communist revolutions in Europe and the Americas succeed.

The American branch of Red Peasant International was established three years later in 1926 through the efforts of a Norwegian immigrant, Alfred Knutson. Following graduation from the University of South Dakota in 1912, Knutson moved to North Dakota and soon became involved in the radical politics bubbling up throughout the state. He first joined the Non-Partisan League; a relatively radical wing of the Republican Party, but by 1919 Knutson had grown disillusioned with its slow pace of reform and so joined the Communist Party.

Throughout the early 1920s, Knutson worked as a communist organizer in North Dakota and endeavored to raise awareness of the difficulties facing American farmers. Knutson’s work proved influential among the American communist leadership, and in 1925 he was asked to start an American branch of Red Peasant International. Knowing the sensibilities of American farmers, Knutson rebranded his communist group the United Farmers Educational League and based his organization out of Bismarck.

Knutson’s United Farmers Educational League worked with like-minded organizations around the nation, educating farmers about the evils of capitalism, promoting socialist causes and nominating appropriately radical politicians to office.

For a while, his organization grew, attracting farmers and a number of Non-Partisan League stalwarts, including future North Dakota governor Walter Maddock. However, the United Farmers Educational League successes were short lived. In the late 1920s, believing that capitalism was nearing its end, the international communist leadership, dominated by Joseph Stalin, argued that it was time to take a more hardline stance against capitalism, and groups that looked to work for reform within the capitalist system were viewed with distrust as potential deviants from pure communist theology.

Organizations such as Knutson’s United Farmers Educational League were thus purged from the Communist Party and Knutson cast from his role as a communist leader. The Farmers Educational League was rebranded and moved to Minnesota. Knutson, having dedicated his life to the communist cause, remained an active member. But given the changes in communist policy and leadership, he was forced to change his name, move to the American South and there served in lower levels of communist leadership.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast, or buy the Dakota Datebook book at shopprairiepublic.org.

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