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  • Writer's pictureAnneliese Abbott

What did Organic Mean in the 1930s? The Idea of an Organic Society

Raymond Williams
Raymond Williams discussed how the word "organic" was used in a social sense in the early 20th century

Organic farming did not start in a vacuum. It was part of a broad range of social, political, and agricultural movements that were rapidly changing Europe and America in the 1920s and 1930s. And so to fully understand what the word “organic” meant when it was first applied to farming, it’s worth looking at how others were using the word in the 1930s.


Back when I was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I had the privilege of discussing my organic history research with the environmental historian William Cronon. He recommended that I look up the word “organic” in Raymond Williams 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. It took me three years, but this month I finally took the time to get a copy of Keywords and see what Williams said about “organic.” Williams was a left-leaning philologist who was very interested in the role of language in social discourse. He published his book in 1976 but compiled his list of words shortly after World War II—right when the phrase “organic farming” originated, making it a relevant snapshot of how the word “organic” was being used in the early twentieth century.


So what does Williams say about “organic”? Well, he starts out by saying that “it is an especially difficult word” and that its history is “exceptionally complicated.” Beginning in the 19th century, the word “organic” was used in a holistic sense (in the same way Goethe used it) by the German Nature Philosophy movement and the Romantic movement in Europe and the US. Organic was the opposite of mechanical; “an organic society was one that has ‘grown’ rather than been ‘made.’”


Up through the mid-twentieth century, Williams notes that the word “organic” was “often used in social thought, mainly of a conservative kind.” Social reformers emphasized the superiority of an organic, agrarian society over a mechanistic, industrial one. Like a living organism, an organic society was greater than the sum of its parts. It was this concept of an organic society that Ralph Borsodi referred to when he promoted “organic homesteads” in his 1929 book This Ugly Civilization—"organic in that they are consciously and with the maximum of intelligence organized to function not only biologically and socially but also economically.”


Similarly, National Catholic Rural Life Conference leaders Luigi Ligutti and John Rawe referenced an organic society in their 1940 book Rural Roads to Security. “The concept of the organic in society must return as the basis of thought and action,” they wrote. “The farmer lives in a natural world. The city man lives in an injurious, artificial world. The farmer’s thoughts are largely organic, biological, while the city man’s thoughts are industrial, mechanical. The farmer thinks in terms of plants and animals, and the city man tends to think of wheels and machines, buying and selling. The movement away from the farm and to the city has not merely meant a change in the post-office address. A far-reaching change in one’s philosophy of life is often involved in the move.”


So an “organic homestead” in 1940 referred primarily to a holistic, natural, agrarian philosophy that saw a farm not as a food factory, but as a living organism. I do not know to what extent, if any, J.I. Rodale was familiar with this social use of the word “organic.” But when he chose to use the phrase “organic farming” in the title of his magazine, it brought all of the holistic and social meanings of the word into his farming system.

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