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Lessons from American Populism

The closing decades of the nineteenth century gave America the most radical and formative political movement of its entire post-Civil War history. Populism was the social response to consolidation of political rule by huge industrial and financial corporations after America’s last great social revolution – the one accompanying the transition from agricultural to industrial means of production.

On the one hand, populism projected an extraordinary democratic vision of a country and economy that rightfully exists for the benefit of the people, not corporations. However, its objective and subjective weaknesses made defeat inevitable. Although it included tenants, sharecroppers, and some workers, urban and rural, populism was in the main the movement of the dying class of America’s yeoman farmers.

As such, its guiding ideology was one of Jeffersonian-Jacksonian all-class unity. This was its fatal flaw. Especially in the South, all-class unity took on the form of the all-class white unity of white supremacy. Despite many efforts, and lacking a class analysis, Southern populism was never able to move beyond it. When the movement began to decline, this opened the door to its total subversion from inside and outside by rabid, terroristic Jim Crow fascism, laying the foundation for capital’s control over labor in America ever since.

In 2011 America has entered a new and entirely different social revolution: the one created by the transition from industrial to electronic means of production. The break in continuity we experience today is resurrecting many political forms and ideas of the populist era. We are called to reexamine them to separate out and reject their politics of all-class unity, while embracing those ideas and forms that can be put to the service of authentic working class politics.

The Farmer’s Alliance

Populism as we know it grew out of the Farmers Alliance originally established in Texas in the 1880s, in response to the shocking descent of millions of farmers into spiraling poverty. Southern cotton prices fell from a dollar a pound in 1865 to 20 cents in the 1870s, 9 cents in the 1880s, and 4.6 cents in 1894. In the West, “sod-house” farm families typically went barefoot in summer and wrapped rags around their feet in winter.

Farmers correctly blamed their oppression on the crop lien system that effectively enslaved them to the town supply merchants. The merchants loaned them supplies for the year at exorbitant interest in return for a lien on their crop. As farmers began to organize, they learned that this was only one part of an immense system of exploitation that included storage operators, railroads, manufacturing trusts, commodity speculators, and banks. In the South in particular, the crop lien was the method of choice for Wall Street to squeeze colonial tribute from the Southern poor and further consolidate its iron economic grip by bankrupting the farmers and seizing their land.

The Alliance grew dramatically from 1887-92 to some three million members, with an additional 1 1/4 million in the Colored Alliance. It organized a vast system of cooperatives that gave the farmers negotiating strength and a sense of their power, but was not sufficient to break the monopolies or abolish the crop lien.

When neither Democrats nor Republicans responded to their demands, the populists began a steady process of politicization and education. Their National Reform Press Association grew to include some 1500 newspapers by 1896, and their Lecture Bureau grew to some 35,000 lecturers. The broad networks of cooperatives and sub-alliances formed dynamic lines of communication for both lecturers and the printed word. Farmers broke free of the dominant conservative media of the day and embraced the populist doctrines on a mass scale. As historian C. Vann Woodward wrote, “Like water from a duck’s back, the hoary platitudes of professional politicians rolled from heads wrapped in forbidden notions of government ownership and cooperatives.”

The People’s Party

The populist campaign culminated in the organization of the People’s Party in Omaha, Nebraska in 1892, to this day the last significant effort to organize a third party in America. The response of the ruling class was twofold. On the one hand, populists in the South were mercilessly attacked as communists, anarchists, and advocates of “Negro domination”. Time after time they were denied election in the South by open violence and orchestrated fraud. On the other hand, at the same time, there was an epidemic of politicians, both North and South, who falsely converted to the populist program (or parts of it) in an effort to corral its followers and take the movement off course.

This culminated in the 1896 Democratic Party nomination of phony populist William Jennings Bryan for President on a weak free silver program. At the same time, the People’s Party itself was infiltrated by a mass of office-seekers who advocated “fusionism” with one of the two major parties in order to get elected regardless of principle. The fusionists hijacked the People’s Party convention and nominated the Democrat Bryan as its presidential candidate, effectively destroying the political independence it had painstakingly built over years, and abandoning the Southern populists to the escalating fascist offensive there.

Deserted by Northern populists and politically adrift, many Southern populists reacted by colluding with Democrats to disenfranchise African Americans. This was done in a series of Democratic-controlled state conventions all across the South from 1890-1908, and approved by the Republican-controlled U.S. Supreme Court. In the process of disenfranchisement, hundreds of thousands of “undesirable” Southern whites also lost the vote as well. The total number of voters declined by some 50-80% all across the South during this period, Populism was obliterated, and open fascism enthroned.

Conclusions

The populists in any case could not have won. Even in the late nineteenth century American farmers were already a dying class. By the 1930s, half of all U.S. farmers had been forced into tenancy, and the development of modern agribusiness – “factories in the field” – sealed their fate. The populists attempted to unite with the growing class of industrial workers, but the workers themselves had neither the visionary leadership nor organization necessary for effective independent politicization.

In spite of all, however, the populists made lasting contributions that need to be studied by revolutionaries and by the working class movement of today. Their Greenback theory of economics merits revisiting in today’s era of battles over nationalization. The populists pioneered the call for nationalization of banks that remains on the agenda today as a step toward saving homes in foreclosure and preserving government programs at every level.

Secondly, the populists mastered the process of politicization in a way that has important lessons for today. They successfully combined mass political education with the practice and organization of day-to-day economic struggles to survive. Their system of newspaper routes, lecturers, and lecturing schools succeeded because it was seamlessly integrated with the movement, and taught daily lessons based on daily experiences. This made their politics and economics readily comprehensible to the millions of farmers.

Third, their “Omaha platform” adopted at their founding convention in 1892 was the first and most influential attempt to challenge the Jeffersonian concept of small government from the point of view of Jefferson’s own democratic principles. The ideal Jeffersonian agrarian society of small producers (to the extent that it ever actually existed) had undeniably been superseded by industrialization and corporate monopoly. In this situation, all true populists unequivocally called for the expansion of government, as they did in the Omaha Platform:

“We believe that the power of the government – in other words, of the people – should be expanded (as in the case of the postal service) as rapidly and as far as the good sense of an intelligent people and the teachings of experience shall justify, to the end that oppression, injustice, and poverty shall eventually cease in the land.”

The particular solution advanced by the Farmers Alliance was nationalization. At their 1896 convention they adopted the following resolution:

“We hold therefore that to preserve these rights under a republican form of government, private monopoly of public necessities for speculative purposes, whether of the means of production, distribution, or exchange, should be prohibited, and whenever any such public necessity or utility becomes a monopoly in private hands, the people of the municipality, state, or nation, as the case may be, shall appropriate the same by right of eminent domain, paying a just value therefore, and operate them for, and in the interest of, the whole people.”

The intention of the populists was to nationalize monopolies in order to preserve yeoman farming and small businesses. They could not succeed. But their experience is a precedent and an example in our efforts to demand nationalization in the interests of people under objectively more favorable conditions today. Victory in our modern battle of nationalization means taking a step toward the political power necessary to secure public ownership of all means of production for the benefit of the public.

Finally, possibly the most important lesson of populism was the glaring negative example it set of self-destruction by failure to address the role played by white supremacy and colonization of the South as instruments of ruling class political power. For all of its talk about “labor impoverished” and the “plain people”, the Omaha platform was not a working class program. It condemned immigrant workers as the “pauper and criminal classes of the world”.

C. Vann Woodward described the class politics of the populists as “confusing.” The ringing calls for nationalization of monopolies were always compromised by the populist allegiance to the twin ideologies of private property rights and all-class unity. When the Colored Alliance threatened a strike of cotton-pickers, Alliance President L.L. Polk called on farmers to crush the strike because, “reforms should not be in the interest of one portion of our farmers at the expense of another.”

These fatal equivocations were carried over into the twentieth century labor movement and influenced the politics of both left and right. The Left drew heavily on populist influences in their campaigns and were unable to break as decisively as necessary from the politics of anti-monopolism and white supremacy that permeated them.

Revolutionaries today have to rely on careful class analysis to extract the positive and negative lessons of populism. In an era of looming fascism, the dangers of populism are enhanced. The social movement of today is already under attack by a modern-day version of the 1890s disenfranchisement campaign. A new bill in Congress and similar ones in several states is seeking to strip children of immigrants of citizenship. It is not hard to see that this could lead to denials of the vote to anyone unable to provide proof of legal immigration status of one’s parents. Those who fail to learn from history will be condemned to repeat it.

June/July 2011.Vol21.Ed3
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
P.O. Box 477113 Chicago, IL 60647 rally@lrna.org
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30,000 March in Support of
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.

'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011

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Rally, Comrades! is the political paper of the League of Revolutionaries for a New America. If you are one of the thousands of revolutionaries around the country looking for a perspective on the problems we face today, and for a political strategy to achieve the goal of a world free from exploitation and poverty, then Rally, Comrades! is for you.

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