Ralph Nader and the Legacy of Revolt (Part 2)

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

Walt Contreras Sheasby

OUR ELECTORAL DILEMMA today derives from a political realignment a hundred years ago, when a faction of populists joined in fusion with William Jennings Bryan and the “Free Silver” Democratic Party. After 1896 the two major parties evolved into what they have remained, electoral machines organized from the top down, from elites to ward heelers and courthouse gangs, as vote-catching operations for factions of big business.

This development had its roots in the contradictions of populism. Populism arose during the period of the emergence of the modern corporation, guided by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment, so its anticapitalism was directed against corporatization, monopolies, and trusts, rather than against private property itself.

The Populist base was made up primarily of small, free landholders, burdened with debt. Yet many subscribed to the ideal of a Cooperative Commonwealth preached by Lawrence Gronlund in his book of 1884.

Populism had many phases, including the Grange (1867), the National Labor Union (1871), the Greenback Party (1876-84), the Farmers’ Alliance (1877) and the Union Labor Party (1888). It included the 1883 New York mayoralty campaign of Henry George, as the candidate of the United Labor Party, endorsed by Friedrich Engels, who decided “That the first program of this party is still confused and extremely deficient, that it has raised the banner of Henry George, these are unavoidable evils but also merely transitory ones.” (Marx and Engels 1953, 163)

There were many regional steps toward a farmer-labor coalition, culminating in the People’s Party (1891-1908). It was a diverse movement regionally and in terms of its leading personalities from Tom Watkins to James B. Weaver to William Jennings Bryan. The National Farmers Alliance and Industrial Union grew into an institution with 150 newspapers and 40,000 lecturers. Its official history was happily titled “The Impending Revolution.” (Woodward 1963, 143)

By 1890 the Southern Alliance boasted of its alleged three million members and the Colored Alliance asserted it had 750,000 adult male members, 300,000 females, and 150,000 youths. Historian Jack Abramowitz, writing in The Journal of Negro History (July 1953), argued that “Acting separately and jointly these Alliances stirred the South and carried the hope of an economic and social regeneration of the region.” (Abramowitz 1968, 40)

Sections of the neo-Klan or neo-Nazi movement today also claim the legacy of populism. The Populist Party of Washington State declares, “The original Populist Party of the 19th century, also known as the `Peoples Party,’ was organized in 1891 with the unity of the Grange movement, the Farmer’s Alliance and the Knights of Labor. It was a nativist alternative to the two major political parties and it opposed Marxism and socialism which was infesting the organized labor movement.” (Washington State Populist Party, 2000)

Ironically, the far-right interpretation of Populism matched the “blithe ideological fictions of the 1950s which dismissed Populism as an atavistic, neofascist, anti-Semitic phenomenon (it having been none of those things),” and critical historians today “show it to be the most truly libertarian social force relative to both the regions in which it temporarily emerged as a factor in the Midwest and South.” (Kolko 1976, 26)

The “Cooperative Commonwealth” As Nationalism

“Class rule is always detrimental to the welfare of the whole social organism, because classes, when in power, cannot help considering themselves preeminently the State . . . This class state will develop into a commonwealth — bless the Puritans for that splendid English word! It will develop into a State that will know of no “classes” either in theory or practice; in other words into a State where the whole population is incorporated into society . . . This interdependence will find its practical expression in The Cooperative Commonwealth.” (Moore 1973: 96, 100)

“So declared Lawrence Gronlund in his 1884 work The Cooperative Commonwealth, a book that had a profound impact on social reform movements at the turn of the century, but more through its influence on key leaders rather than a wide readership. Gronlund, a Danish-born attorney and lecturer, in fact welcomed a utopian novel published four years later as a vivid popularization of his ideas.” (101)

In Edward Bellamy’s famous 1887 utopian novel Looking Backward, 2000-1887, set in Boston in the year 2000, the host explains to his visitor from another time, the preceding epoch of monopoly capital, that America was now “the Great Trust,” or “The nation . . . organized as the one great business corporation in which all other corporations were absorbed; it became the one capitalist in the place of all other capitalists, the sole employer, the final monopoly.” (Bellamy 1926, 56)

Bellamy confidently expected that by the year 2000 the nation would have long-before peacefully enacted his prophecy of “Nationalism,” a term he coined in opposition to Marxian socialism, i.e. the rule of the associated producers. Bellamy believed only the State could reconcile interests, and he rejected class conflict and internationalist labor solidarity as had been preached by the International Workingmen’s Association (also known as the First International –ed.).

The Nationalists, Bellamy said, “propose no revolutionary methods, no hasty or ill-considered measures provocative of reaction . . . but an orderly progress, of which each step shall logically follow the last . . .” (Quint 1953, 93) The term “socialism,” he felt, conveyed atheism, revolution, and sexual novelties, and his friend Lawrence Gronlund contended that the class struggle doctrine “never obtained among Anglo Saxons” and added “God preserve us here from such a doctrine.”

When a Nationalist Club was formed in Boston, Bellamy commended the organizer for recruiting the “cultured and conservative class . . . for whom Looking Backward was written.” (Quint 1953, 80-87) Yet Bellamy’s ideas were to become a major influence on populism, socialism and progressivism.

His relative obscurity today is in sharp contrast to the phenomenal success of his book. In its first year Looking Backward sold 10,000 copies, and the year after 200,000 copies. (Madison 1947, 146) By the early 1890s it had sold more than a million copies in the United States and England, becoming one of the most influential books in modern history. (Sadler 1944, 530-55). It was translated into twenty-six languages.

By 1891 more than 165 Nationalist Clubs disseminated the idea of “Nationalization” throughout the country, particularly west of the Mississippi. Looking Backward was the most widely read “socialist” text in many other countries as well, especially Canada, England and Australia, and played a significant role in Russia, Hungary, Holland, Indonesia and Japan.

While Bellamy’s statism, seen as a natural evolution of the gigantic monopolistic corporations, was enormously influential in shaping the socialist definition, William Morris was one of the leading English socialists who objected to Bellamy’s Nationalism and proposed an alternative vision of socialist democracy.

Immediately after Marx’s death, a movement to define socialism in closer harmony with Marx’s views began. William Morris, the founder of the Socialist League in England, set forth a communist vision in News from Nowhere (1889). Morris, who worked closely with Frederick Engels, Eleanor Marx, and others in the late 1880s and 1890s, expressed the Marxian view in opposition to the State Socialism of Ferdinand Lasalle and very directly in opposition to the Nationalism of Edward Bellamy and of Lawrence Gronlund.

But News from Nowhere had little circulation in William Morris’ lifetime, and the U.S. Socialist Party leader, Morris Hillquit, simply conflated all three visions of the socialist state without any distinction. (Hillquit, 1909) Socialist John Spargo also objected to all utopian visions, saying, “many earnest and well-meaning people have tried to hold Socialism responsible for the vagaries of these visionaries” such as “the various ingenious devices of Bellamy’s very mechanical and uninviting dreamworld, and treated them as if they were essential features of the great modern Socialist movement.” (Spargo 1906, 14).

For Hillquit and Spargo, the statism of Bellamy’s and Gronlund’s vision of the future was not itself an issue. William Morris, however, criticized all such statism, saying “I neither believe in State Socialism as desirable in itself, or, indeed, as a complete scheme do I think it possible. Nevertheless, some approach to it is sure to be tried, and in my mind this will precede any complete enlightenment on the new order of things. The success of Mr. Bellamy’s Utopian book, deadly dull as it is, is a straw to show which way the wind blows.” (Morton 1973, 225)

Morris sensed that because of the popularity of Looking Backward, it was “sure to be quoted as an authority for what Socialists believe.” Bellamy had written, “Since the nation is the sole employer, the government must fix the rate of wages and determine just how much everybody shall earn, from doctors to the diggers.” (Bellamy 1926, 73) Hence Morris responded, “(I)t is necessary to point out that there are socialists who do not think that the problem of the organization of life and necessary labour can be dealt with by a huge national centralization . . . for which no one feels himself responsible.”

Instead, Morris said, “(I)t will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself responsible for its details.” (Wilmer 1993, 358) In opposition to Bellamy’s scheme of “Nationalization,” with its conscription of workers and the insatiable accumulation of commodities, he argued that the only incentive to labour “is and must be pleasure in the work itself.” Individuals “cannot shuffle off this business of life on to the shoulders of an abstraction called the State, but must deal with it in conscious association with each other.” (Wilmer 1993, 357-58)

Nevertheless, Bellamy’s Nationalist movement continued to gain momentum. In the Presidential campaign of 1892 the Nationalists united with the Populists and exerted a considerable influence among the Western farmers and organized labor. Bellamy’s work was widely read in the rural West and praised by some western farm leaders.

Partly as a result of the immersion into the activism of the Peoples’ Party, the visible presence of Nationalism waned after 1892, and was barely noticeable by 1894. Hundreds of Nationalists joined the Populists, leaving the clubs virtually hollow shells. (Quint 1953, 101) But Bellamy had bequeathed a powerful ideology to the Populist movement, one that survived even his widely-shared but disastrous enthusiasm for what he called the issue of “Money or Men” in 1896.

From Populism to Debsian Socialism

William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold 1896 Presidential campaign, on a fusion ticket of the Peoples Party and the free-silver Democratic Party, is usually seen as the end of Populism, even though the party sputtered on under Tom Watson until 1908. The 1896 election marked the realignment of the post-bellum major parties into a two-party system dominated by big business, as well as the birth of a Socialist movement as a strong labor-farmer third party opposition.

“Is the People’s Party Socialistic?” asked Frank LeRond McVey is his 1896 book on The Populist Movement. He pointed out that before the party’s Omaha convention, the silver and financial reform advocates had hoped to oust the more radical elements of the Party, with the <MI>National Watchman<D> declaring, “The time for Populism and Socialism to part has come, and those who fail to realize the situation will have, in the future, ample time to reflect upon their error in judgment. What we want now is clear-cut aggressive, intelligent propaganda upon financial reform.”

But the radicals prevailed in Omaha. McVey concluded that, “The People’s Party could not have adopted a platform in so many ways akin to that of the socialists if there had not been a previous tendency in that direction.” (McVey 1968: 52, 54).

At the People’s Party convention in St. Louis on July 22, 1896 many of the delegates agreed with Tom Watson that the fusion Democrats’ “object in adopting our platform was not so much to get free silver as it was to bury the People’s Party.” (Woodward 1963, 304)

In an attempt to head off fusion with Bryan’s Democrats, the more radical Populists, led by the Farmers Alliance in Texas and its paper, The Mercury, called on state parties to send delegates “who are honest and sincere, pledging them to support the Omaha Platform in its entirety, and instructing them to vote for the most broadminded statesman and patriot of the country, Eugene V. Debs, for president.” (Goodwyn 1978, 251)

The majority of delegates in twenty-two states were pledged to Debs, with strong support in six other states, for at least a third of convention delegates (Ginger 1949, 205). The plan was for his nomination by an Alabama congressman, with seconds coming from the full delegations from Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and Indiana. (Salvatore 1982, 157)

But Debs wired Henry Demarest Lloyd forbidding the use of his name as a candidate against Bryan, and advised union labor to support the Democratic nominee. As Debs later explained, “I was a populist in my party affiliations, and as Bryan was the nominee of my party, I gave him my support.” (Salvatore 1982, 158; Woodward 1963, 302)

Had Debs accepted a draft and won over the anti-fusion groups supporting Tom Watson, he might have won the nomination and enabled the populists to consolidate the Farmer-Labor alliance they had sought for many years. In the years after 1896, however, most of the left wing of the People’s Party went over to Debs’ Socialist Party, which became particularly strong in the state where the Farmers Alliance had been born, Texas, and in nearby Oklahoma.

As Debs wrote in 1900, “There is no longer any room for a Populist party, and progressive Populists realize it, and hence the `strongholds’ of Populism are becoming the `hot-beds’ of Socialism.” (Debs 1908, 92) Within a few years there were fifty-five weekly socialist newspapers in Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana and Arkansas, and summer encampments that drew thousands of people. (Zinn 1980, 45)

In 1905 Theodore Roosevelt wrote to a friend: “The growth of the socialistic party [is] far more ominous than any populist or similar movement in times past.” (Ginger 1949, 199-200). By 1907 reports poured in to Tom Watson of defections of younger members like those in Texas “sliding into the Socialist party or what they think is such, but which is really an aggravated case of Populism.” Watson thought Socialism “would sweep the rural districts like a prairie fire if not opposed in time.” (Woodward 1963, 404-5)

While many of the delegates to the first Socialist Party convention in 1901 had bolted from Daniel DeLeon’s Marxian Socialist Labor Party, few had any real encounters with theoretical Marxism, as David Shannon points out:

“Certainly the anti-capitalism of many of the delegates derived more from Edward Bellamy’s Looking Backward than from Das Kapital. In fact, many Socialists had formerly been members of Bellamy Nationalist Clubs. Others came to Indianapolis [in 1901] from an experience in the Populist Party or Eugene V. Debs’s American Railway Union or both. (Shannon 1955, 3)

Shortly after Bryan’s defeat, Eugene V. Debs declared, “There is no hope for the toiling masses of my countrymen, except by the pathway mapped out by the Socialists, the advocates of the Cooperative Commonwealth.” (Madison 1947, 453).

Actually, Debs had taken the Gronlund term from the Populists, using it, for instance, in testimony before being sent to Woodstock prison for the Pullman strike in 1894: “No sir; I do not call myself a socialist. There is a wide difference in the interpretation or definition of the term. I believe in the cooperative commonwealth upon the principles laid down by Lawrence Gronlund.” (Salvatore 1982, 151)

Debs had started his career as a Democrat and a craft unionist, but when a Democratic President, Grover Cleveland, broke the American Railway Union strike of 1894 and Debs went to jail, he became a socialist-oriented Populist. (Madison 1947, 494)

He explained to the court in 1894, “I believe in a cooperative commonwealth as a substitute for the wage system.” Debs, however, soon invested the term Cooperative Commonwealth with a radical democratic ethos, derived in part from Thomas Paine, and with a commitment to the class struggle that was entirely foreign to Gronlund and Bellamy.

He particularly objected to the idea that society should be administered from above, that as Bellamy put it, “It is easier for a general up in a balloon, with perfect survey of the fields, to manoeuvre a million men to victory than for a sergeant to manage a platoon in a thicket.” (Bellamy 1926, 187)

As his biographer noted, “Debs was also critical of the middle-class Nationalist movement, what he called `the Yankee Doodleisms of the Boston savants,’ although he did enjoy Edward Bellamy’s book, Looking Backward. Yet he detected in the movement, as in the book, a paternalist attitude `which dwarfs out of sight the individual, while it indefinitely expands government control to absolutism.’” (Salvatore 1982, 101)

Debs said, “Although not an exposition of scientific socialism, Bellamy’s social romance, Looking Backward, with its sequel, Equality, were valuable and timely contributions to the literature of Socialism and not only aroused the people but started many on the road to the revolutionary movement.” (Debs 1908, 111)

Hal Draper drew attention to the contrast: “Bellamyism started many on the road to socialism, but the road forked. By the turn of the century, American social<->ism developed the world’s most vibrant antithesis to Socialism-from-Above in all its forms: Eugene V. Debs.” (Draper, 1996)

Parties and Progressivism After 1896

The 1896 election, with the fusion of the conservative wing of Populism with Bryan’s Democrats, brings us to the problem of twentieth-century politics.

Of today’s major parties, Ralph Nader says, “Just remember they have no membership, they have no grass-roots — it’s all electronic combat<197>raising money, writing checks and putting these absolutely ridiculous 30-second ads on TV.” (Nader, 2000a)

As a leading Republican said of the 1896 election, “For the first time corporations began to make political contributions directly from their corporate treasuries. Prior to that time no such thing would have been tolerated.” (Polakoff 1994, 263) Even the Banker’s Magazine complained in 1901: “As the business of the country has learned the secret of combination, it is gradually subverting the power of the politician and rendering him subservient to its purposes.” (Zinn 1980, 53)

As Progressivism emerged in the major parties, there was no mistaking the top-down nature of the formations. The absence of any organized membership base with delegation upward insured that unruly rabble-rousers could not capture the parties. Although the major parties still appeared infinitely permeable to reformers, this would become a recurring mirage. There was unintended irony in Will Rogers’ lament in 1935: “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.”

Demise and Legacy Of Populist Nationalism

In an anonymous 1897 article in the Progressive Review in London, “The Progressive Movement Abroad,” Henry Demarest Lloyd surveyed the remains of Populism:

“At this moment the most distracted and helpless body of political radicalism in the world is, perhaps, that which in the United States has no place to lay its head. There has been no more striking development in the evolution of public opinion anywhere of late years than the growth of Socialism. But this Socialism is unrepresented. It hoped to effectuate itself through the People’s Party, but the betrayal of that promising movement to the Democrats and free silver has put an end to those hopes. (Quint 1953, 244)

Bellamy proposed to Lloyd that they convene a reform conference that would come out unqualifiedly for a program of “full nationalization of the productive and distributive machinery.” (Quint 1953, 245) But Bellamy, ill and growing frustrated with the persistence of inequality, was out of touch with the reform mainstream, which rejected Nationalization as even a very long-term Fabian goal.

In 1897 Equality, Bellamy’s sequel to his blockbuster novel, was finally published, and Gronlund’s sequel The New Economy came out in 1898. Both men died the year after their works were published, and the Nationalist cause passed into the hands of their followers.

As it turned out, several major reform organizations were formed as Nationalism was passing from the scene, and these efforts are still at the forefront of Ralph Nader’s crusade a hundred years later. The National Direct Legislation League was actually founded in St. Louis the day before the 1892 People’s Party convention opened.

Eltweed Pomeroy, a glue manufacturer and social gospel Protestant (regarded by Bellamy as “one of his most able coadjutors”), was the leader. This current drew from Nationalist reform panaceas, and it is described by one historian as an “attempt to shift the emphasis of the radical attack away from the demand for socialization of the means of production to that for direct legislation.” (Quint 1953, 245-46)

This aspect has not been widely recognized, and sociologist Arthur Lipow says, “one of the discoveries I made about Edward Bellamy’s `Nationalist’ movement was the way in which Bellamy’s technocratic politics, a forerunner of Progressivism … took up and adopted the `populist’ demand for direct democracy.” As Lipow says, “This pairing was to be, of course, at the heart of the new liberalism, especially its `administrative’ wing, most closely identified with the ideas of Herbert Croly and the New Republic liberals.” (Lipow 1996, 4)

Actually, he says, the direct-democracy movement grew up outside of the Populist movement proper, and a resolution (supplementing the platform) on the initiative and referendum was accepted at the 1892 Omaha convention only through the efforts of Samuel Gompers. The anti-socialist labor leader strongly backed the Direct Legislation League, and he even put J.W. Sullivan, whose book Direct Legislation by the Citizenship had been published by the Nationalists, on the AFL payroll. (42)

Sullivan claimed that through the Initiative and Recall the Swiss “have forestalled monopolies, improved and reduced taxation, avoided incurring heavy public debts, and made a better distribution of their land than any other foreign country.” (Cronin 1989, 49)

The electoral innovators also realized that any third political party bringing together workers and farmers would have a decidedly anti-capitalist animus; perhaps that could be blunted by reorganizing the two-party system through the direct primary and the initiative, referendum, and recall.

Lloyd held back from the other Nationalists, arguing that the plutocracy would control the initiative and referendum as easily as it manipulated existing political parties. When Lloyd was told in January 1899 that he had been named president of the new Union Reform League, a broad new group devoted to direct legislation, he turned down the honor. He also expressed relief he had stayed away in 1898 from the Social Democracy of Eugene Debs, which would surely wreck itself over “pure and simple selfishness.” (Quint 1953, 294)

As to the beliefs of the other Nationalists, Lipow says: “The Bellamyites saw, rightly, no inconsistency in the rule of experts and strong administrative power and the use of plebiscitarian devices such as the initiative and recall.” While the direct legislation reform groups in South Dakota, California and Ohio laid the basis in the 1890s, most of the victories would come after the turn of the century.

The principle of direct legislation was incorporated into the platforms of the various populist parties over the years. The Socialist Labor Party in 1896 was also an early supporter of direct legislation, but apparently dropped the demand as too reformist in later campaigns. Ironically, although direct legislation was intended to blunt radical third parties, the Populists who joined Debs inserted a plank in the 1900 platform of the Social Democratic Party demanding: “The adoption of the initiative and referendum, proportional representation, and the right of recall of representatives by the voters.” (128).

The plank was incorporated into the Socialist Party platforms of 1904 and 1908, and in 1912 and 1916 the demand was expanded to apply “nationally as well as locally.” (190, 210) In 1920 the Socialists, with several leaders in jail for opposing the war, called for the right of recall of the President and the amending of the Constitution by initiative. (241) In 1924, joined by the Socialist Party, Robert LaFollette’s Progressive Party took up the extension of the initiative and referendum to the federal government and demanded a referendum on the declaration of war. (255)

Whether the plutocracy had co-opted the left, or vice versa, is an issue still much in debate. The proposals of the initiative and referendum were adopted by nineteen states between 1898 and 1918. Ralph Nader has supported campaigns to add New York, Texas and other states to the list, but so far the efforts have been unsuccessful.

Nader has used the initiative process a number of times. In 1996, for example, Nader campaigned throughout California for Prop. 216, the Patient Protection Act, co-sponsored by the California Nurses Association (CNA), which became the model of many HMO reform measures since adopted in California and other states. The 31,000 member CNA has endorsed Nader this year.

National Civic Federation

Not only is direct legislation a very live issue today in Nader’s work, but also the ideas for corporate reform proposed in the early years of the 20th century are still major concerns of the Nader coalition in the year 2000.

In 1897 Richard T. Ely, the founder of the American Economics Association, announced that he was consid<->er<->ing writing a program around which all reformers could agree, meaning one which tied the movement to progressive reforms acceptable to the leaders of industry. His intent was realized, in a fashion, in 1900.

Ralph M. Easley, a former schoolteacher who had worked with Kansas populists and Chicago socialists before joining the Chicago Civic Federation in the 1890s, organized the National Civic Federation in 1900. Despite his reform zeal, he remained a Republican and self-styled conservative. (Weinstein 1968, 9)

The NCF evolved into a “Progressive” coalition of corporation leaders who favored the rationalization and regulation of big industry, moderate labor leaders fighting off the radicals boring within their ranks, and public officials who favored progressive reform as an alternative to class conflict.

As Ralph Easley wrote of the NCF, “In fact, our enemies are the Socialists among the labor people and the anarchists among the capitalists.” (Weinstein 1968, 7-11) The NCF Board of Directors included Samuel Gompers of the AFL, John Mitchell of the Coal Miners, Mark Hanna, August Belmont, J. Pierpont Morgan, George W. Perkins, and other corporate leaders.

When the conservative victor against “boy Bryan” in 1896 and 1900, William McKinley, was assassinated in 1901, the mantle fell to Vice-president Theodore Roosevelt. In his Autobiography he said, “I cannot say that I entered the presidency with any deliberately planned and far-reaching scheme of social betterment.” (Hofstadter 1948, 290)

In his correspondence Roosevelt he avowed, “I intend to be most conservative, but in the interests of the corporations themselves and above all in the interests of the country …” Richard Hofstadter pointed out, “The advisors to whom Roosevelt listened were almost exclusively representatives of industrial and finance capital — men like Hanna, Robert Bacon, and George W. Perkins of the House of Morgan, Elihu Root, Senator Nelson W. Aldrich, A.J. Cassatt of the Pennsylvania Railroad, Philander C. Knox, and James Stillman of the Rockefeller interests.” (286-87).

During the Pullman strike of 1894, dubbed the Debs Rebellion by the newspapers, Roosevelt wrote: <169>I know the Populists and the laboring men well and their faults … I like to see a mob handled by the regulars, or by good State-Guards, not over-scrupulous about bloodshed.<170> (283) He wished to see this ferment “suppressed as the Commune of Paris was suppressed … I believe it will come to that. These leaders are plotting a social revolution and the subversion of the American republic.” (184)

To perceptive historians, the real intent of the Progressive reformers is hardly in doubt. Roosevelt espoused social reform only as “a corrective to Socialism and an antidote to anarchy.” Woodrow Wilson also insisted that he was a Progressive because “to be progressive was to preserve the essentials of our institutions.”

As Wilson put it, “If you want to oust socialism, you have got to propose something better. . . You cannot oppose hopeful programs by negations.” (Fine 1967, 383) As historian Gabriel Kolko has concluded, “The prevention of the emergence of an aggressive working class was a primary goal of the entire progressive theory.” (Kolko 1976, 31)

Progressive Reform, Imperialism and Racism

The jingoism of the Progressives was in stark contrast to the anti-imperialism of turn-of-the-century populism. By and large, populist leaders like Tom Watson opposed the Spanish-American War declared on April 25, 1898, although William Jennings Bryan decided to back McKinley and Hearst (the financier of Bryan’s campaign in 1896), and he even volunteered in the Nebraska Guard. (Coletta 1964, 223)

Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), like some radicals, initially approved of the “Cuba Libre” campaign, but soon learned the dimensions of the horror in the Philippines and in 1900 became very involved in the Anti-Imperialism League. (Foner 1958, 262) However, Herbert D. Croly and others who founded the Progressives went over to nationalism and militarism without hesitation.

The Progressives, according to Croly in The Promise of American Life (1909), evoked “a new sense of delight in the rise of the U.S. as a world power,” and “consequently saw nothing inglorious in supporting American investments abroad.” The Spanish-American War, “far from hindering the process of domestic amelioration, gave a tremendous impulse to the work of national reform.” (Feuer 1986, 7)

There is no question about the class nature of this Progressive movement, any more than there is about the opposing class character of the Populists, despite the eccentricities of some middle-class political leaders like George and Bryan.

Herbert Croly, who founded The New Republic in 1914, was a firm supporter of eugenics, like Edwin L. Godkin, the founder of The Nation in 1865. In the words of one historian, “Like many of the eugenists of his time, Croly saw reform as a process of restoration, of repairing the `earlier homogeneity of American society.’ In this way, reform was a higher species of conservatism … Progressives hated the class warfare concept, for it weakened class loyalty to the nation and thus damaged national efficiency which was central to the progressive credo.” (Pickens 1968, 111)

Populism, on the other hand, had been premised on the idea that the “producing class” included not only small farm owners, but also tenant farmers and sharecroppers, as well as laborers, mechanics and artisans. As Howard Zinn notes, “When the Texas People’s Party was founded in Dallas in the summer of 1891 it was interracial, and radical.”

Zinn cites the debate then in which a Black delegate, active in the Knights of Labor (which at its peak in 1886 had 21,208 members in 487 Southern locals) probed what was meant by equality: “I want to tell my people what the People’s Party is going to do. I want to tell them if it is going to work a black and white horse in the same field.” (Zinn 1999, 280).

A white delegate stood and said, “We have got to work with the black people. They are in the same ditch, just as we are.” (Goodwyn, 1997). Yet in the long run, Southern white populists were unable to maintain a promise of organizational equality among all “producers” in the face of the race baiting of the “party of the fathers.” As Tom Watson, who himself later capitulated to Jim Crow, put it, “The argument against the independent political movement in the South may be boiled down into one word — NIGGER!” (Kazin 1995, 41)

Although the heroic efforts of Black and white Southern populists could not prevail against the ideological pressure and terrorism of the old Bourbon Democracy, the contrast with the Progressive reformers is clear, for the later movement was entirely the affair of prosperous white men with unquestioned racist beliefs.

This Progressivism was entirely bourgeois, and arose only in opposition to the growth of Socialism in America. It mimicked the Bismarckism that arose in Germany in opposition to Social Democracy. In terms of its leadership structure, funding, and brains, the Progressive movement had nothing to do with farmer-labor movements organized from the bottom-up.

Sunset of Agrarian Radicalism

Historians for some time have debated the reasons behind the decline of agrarian radicalism in America by the end of World War I. Gabriel Kolko argues, “The problem of Populism’s challenge to the emergence of a stable national capitalist society was not ended by co-option, prosperity for the dissidents, illusions of fickleness on the part of agrarian radicals, or any of the standard historical explanations.” Rather, Kolko says, “(I)t was resolved when the farm radicals, as in numerous other nations, left the regions in which they had created a politically cohesive force.” (Kolko 1976, 27)

In the Midwest in the decade 1890-1900 over 100,000 folks left, and fifty Plains counties — mainly in Kansas and Nebraska — lost nearly a third of the population. Kolko says, “Mass politics in the Midwest disappeared without the slightest factual evidence, as Hofstadter implied, that poor farmers had been bought off with farm-parity prosperity.” (26) Even when farm prices rose after 1900, departures increased, especially in the eastern halves of Kansas and Nebraska, becoming more intense from 1910 to 1920.

In the Northern wheat belt, the exodus had dramatic effects:

“Perhaps most disturbing of all to conventional wisdom is the fact that between 1898 and 1914 about one million American residents, the vast majority of whom had been previously in the states with large agrarian radical movements, moved to Canada, predominantly in the rich wheat-growing provinces.” (29)

Many who emigrated had been Populists, and their ranks included some outstanding former Populist political leaders. Many were from the first-generation ethnics who composed the majority of the population of the Dakotas and Minnesota. This constituency and its inheritance became an important strand in the Canadian social democratic movement, in a rather different evolution from the land they left behind.

In the U.S. wheat and corn belt, agrarian radicalism survived in subdued fashion in the National Farmers Union, officially called the Farmers Educational and Cooperative Union of America. It was founded in 1902 in Point, Texas, and currently has a membership of nearly 300,000 farm and ranch families. It is a federation, with the presidents of the 19 state and regional Farmers Union organizations serving as its board of directors. (National Farmers Union, 2000)

In 1979 the American Agriculture Movement organized a demonstration referred to as a “tractorcade” in Washington, DC. Prairie farmers rallied to Jesse Jackson’s Presidential primary campaign in 1988, surprising many observers with the news that the populist anger of the past could be rekindled.

In the South the more than one million Black agrarians were heavily concentrated in regions that sent two million African Americans to Northern cities from 1910 to 1940, providing a labor supply needed after the 1924 immigration restrictions.

In the Southern states the racial tensions within Populism were carried over into the Socialist Party after the turn of the century, but the legacy of southern Populism before Jim Crow was revived in 1934 by workers in the Mississippi Delta, who formed the Southern Tenant Farmers Union. The STFU was racially integrated and held to what has been called “an indigenous variety of democratic socialism.” (London and Anderson 1970, 39)

The STFU organizers and the original members were loyal to the Socialist Party and hostile to the New Deal agricultural polices that favored wealthy farmers. One historian says, “Socialist Party leaders, anxious to develop a mass base for their critique of the New Deal, promised unlimited aid and support.” (Naison 1968, 38).

Norman Thomas and a group from the SP arrived in the town of Birdsong in Poinsett County, Tennessee, to address a rally on March 16, 1935; they were met by a vigilante band that drove them out. Yet as late as 1940 the Union retained 160 locals with 30,000 members, spread over several states. (Shannon 1957, 94) The eventual failure of efforts like the STFU contributed to the consolidation of African-American loyalty to the Democratic Party for the remainder of the 20th century.

The STFU charter passed through a succession of CIO and AFL national unions over the decades, watched warily by its initial organizer, H.L. Mitchell, finally coming to rest with the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO, which in 1965 merged with the Farm Workers’ Association founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta (London and Anderson, 1970).

In 1961 Norman Thomas told the story of Birdsong to a multiracial convention of farm workers (the first since the Depression) in 1961 in Strathmore, California. (The unionists were amused at his story that when he asked directions, an old-timer replied, “Bird-song? Hey-ell, they oughta call it hawg-waller!”).

Shortly afterwards the AFL-CIO removed the socialist influence in the union. Despite a close relationship between the new union and the Socialist Party later in the `60s and with the Greens in the mid-’90s, farm workers have remained intensely loyal to the party of their employers, much as Black farmers and tenant workers did in the South after FDR.

There are groups, however, that are beginning to align themselves with independent political action. The Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association (BFAA) is a grassroots, volunteer organization created in 1997 in direct response to the staggering decline in African-American farmers and landowners. As of February 1998 there were BFAA chapters in twenty-one states with concentration in the South. (Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association, 2000) The BFAA is a member of the Independent Progressive Politics Network.

In 1979, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO (FLOC), was formally recognized as a labor union of farm workers in the Midwest. The founder and President of FLOC, Baldemar Velasquez, who began working in farm fields at age 6, gained national attention in 1967 when he organized farm labor in northwest Ohio. His union is affiliated with the Labor Party, of which he is Co-chair. (FLOC, 2000)

Blacks, Browns and Greens

Like the Populists a hundred years ago and like more recent third party efforts, the Green Party faces a major obstacle in its attempt to build a multiracial third party. Manning Marable has pointed out that the Black electorate represents the most progressive wing in the Democratic Party and overwhelmingly supports the Democrats because, within the framework of a two-party system, they have spoken to the policy concerns of African Americans.

Marable says, “Blacks in a presidential election vote 90 percent plus for the Democratic candidate. For Latinos, well over two-thirds or 70 percent of Latinos consistently support the Democratic candidate.” Marable believes that advocates of independent politics “must be able to negotiate and speak to blacks and Latinos who are voting for their perceived self-interest by voting for the Democratic Party, and changing that behavior won’t occur overnight.”

The Green activists are overwhelmingly white, although that is beginning to change in New York, Georgia, and California. Marable says the Greens have to change their image: “It will have to occur with the Greens being successful in recruiting black and Latino candidates, as they have begun to do. There have been several notable successes of African-American candidates being elected this past year on the Green ticket across the country. And as those successes multiply, then the Green alternative will become more real to black and Latino voters.” (Langeland, 2000)

[To be completed in our next issue.]

ATC 89, November-December 2000