The promise and failure of populism

Nancy MacLean tells the story of the Populist movement of the 1890s--when it briefly challenged the hold of white supremacy in the U.S. South.

The History of Black America

IT WAS an event without precedent in the South. On a few day's notice, 2,000 white farmers dropped their work, picked up their guns and rode in from across the state to Thomson, Ga. They came to defend a young Black preacher threatened with lynching for his political activities.

The year was 1892, an election year. The Black man, H.S. Doyle, was under attack by the Southern ruling class for having made 63 speeches in support of Tom Watson, the white congressional candidate of the newly formed People's (Populist) Party, and the main leader of the southern and most radical wing of that party.

Populism emerged in response to the frightful conditions faced by small farmers, tenants and sharecroppers in the 1880s and 1890s. In these years, steadily growing numbers of them became dependent on the "crop-lien system" for credit--a system that turned them into virtual debt slaves and forced them to plant more and more of their land in cotton.

Yet the price of cotton continued to fall, from a dollar a pound at the end of the Civil War to 7 cents a pound in 1891--less than it cost to produce. To these already poor farmers, the depression of the 1890s--the worst in American history until the 1930s--was the last straw. For many, their survival was at stake.

All this had taken place under the reign of the "Bourbon Democrats," an alliance of planters and new industrialists who ruled the South unchallenged since the defeat of Reconstruction in the 1870s. These Democrats had relied upon racism to keep themselves in power, using the specter of "Black rule" to keep poor whites in line.

But faced with the crisis conditions of the 1880s and 1890s, many Southern farmers, Black and white, began to think for themselves. They realized that their only hope lay in united struggle against the big planters and capitalists.

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IN THE late 1880s, they began to organize cooperative efforts to deal with their problems. By 1890, some 3 million white farmers belonged to the Southern Farmers' Alliance, and 1.25 million southern Black farmers belonged to the Colored Farmers' National Alliance. These groups, along with fledgling unions in urban areas, provided the basis for the Populist Party, founded in St. Louis in 1892.

Denouncing both major parties as "tools of the capitalists," the Populists adopted a broad platform. It included: changes in the currency system that would help debt-stricken farmers and workers; support for organized labor and for a shorter workday for industrial workers; government ownership of public utilities; a graduated income tax; and many democratic reforms of the nation's political system, such as the right to referendums, recall and female suffrage.

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Millions of farmers and workers found in the Populist program a voice for their anger at the gross inequalities and injustices of American society at the time.

In 1892, the Populist presidential candidate won over a million votes--8.5 percent of the total electorate--and over 1,500 Populist candidates won election to state legislatures.

Clearly, the Populists were a force to be reckoned with. Yet their greatest threat was not in the specific reforms they called for, but rather in the future they looked to. In the South, the Populists threatened the mainstay of ruling class power: division among the exploited. As Tom Watson explained to Black and white farmers:

You are kept apart that you may be fleeced separately of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred rests the financial despotism that enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a system that beggars both."

The Populists were not explicitly anti-racist, but they emphatically defended political rights and equality for Blacks and insisted on the common economic interests of the oppressed and exploited. As Watson said, "The accident of color can make no difference in the interests of farmers, croppers and laborers."

For the South--indeed, for the entire U.S. at that time--this was a revolutionary stand. Its result was to briefly bring Blacks and whites together in a common class struggle the likes of which had never been seen before or since in the South.

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THE RESPONSE of the Southern ruling class was swift and effective. Through fraud, bribery, intimidation, violence and terror, they denied Populists their rights and stole their hard-won electoral victories. In 1892 alone, 155 Blacks and 100 whites died at the hands of lynchers. Throughout the South, armed planters hauled their Black sharecroppers to the polls in wagonloads and forced them to vote for the Democratic Party.

But brutality and fraud were not the only tools in the chest of the ruling class. Another was to rekindle irrational white fears of Blacks through vicious racist propaganda.

And then there was co-optation. The Democratic Party did an about-face in 1896, putting forth a presidential candidate who spouted the rhetoric of reform in order to steal the Populists' thunder. The Democrats had no intention of making any real changes, but the more far-sighted realized that they had to pay lip service to reform in order to contain the spread of radicalism.

Through such tactics, the Democrats managed to defeat the Populist movement and defuse its threat to ruling class power.

The movement had its own internal problems that contributed to defeat, of course. It was neither a working class-based nor socialist movement, and as such, it had no chance of fundamentally changing the capitalist society in which it grew. Likewise, class conflicts existed even within the movement, between medium-sized planters like Watson, and the Black and white tenants they employed.

But even with its limitations, the Populist movement gives us an inspiring glimpse of what a united struggle by the exploited can achieve, and of how quickly old prejudices and fears can change in a common fight around common interests. No other movement of the time held such promise for the rural poor.

Its defeat, therefore, ushered in an era of disaster for the 90 percent of Black Americans who still lived on the land, and for their one-time allies among poor whites.

The defeat of Populism led to unprecedented reaction and repression. Beginning with Mississippi in 1890, the ruling Democrats devised a series of limits on voting rights that effectively disenfranchised Blacks--and later many poor whites--throughout the South. At the same time, they wrote the practice of segregation into Jim Crow laws.

The disillusionment and bitterness bred by defeat made poor whites vulnerable to the worst sort of demagoguery. Democratic Party politicians made the manipulation of racism their stock in trade, using it to distract poor whites from their real problems and their real enemies, while their own conditions grew worse by the year. Many former populists, including Tom Watson, became virulent racists.

The demise of the Populist movement was thus a defeat for almost all concerned. All, that is, except the ruling class that organized this defeat, and the Democratic Party, which stole only enough of the Populists' platform to derail the movement.

Once again, the Democratic Party earned its reputation as the graveyard of American radicalism.

First published in the April 1985 edition of Socialist Worker.