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The New International, August/September 1945


Willie Gorman

Agrarian Struggles in the United States

Populism and Its Lessons for Today

(August/September 1945)


From New International, Vol. XI No. 5, August 1945, pp. 140–144, & Vol. XI No. 6, September 1945, pp. 187–192.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


New International, Vol. XI No. 5, August 1945, pp. 140–144

The question of a mass labor party is on the order of the day as the practical task of our party precisely because it is an inherent stage in the development of the American working class and the entire history of American society. Only American history itself can explain the oft-lamented political “backwardness” of American labor; and correctly anticipate the coming radicalization and politicization of the working class of this country. This study is undertaken not merely to recount the history of Populism, but to emphasize: a) the relation of farmers and labor during that period; b) the class relations within the Agrarian movement; c) the role of the Negroes; d) a comparison of Populism with the present stage of the class struggle.

Agrarian Politics before the Triumph of Industrial Capitalism

The role of the agrarian masses in America is unique in world history. Indeed American history from the birth of the nation to the Civil War can almost be condensed into two words “free soil.” While in western Europe the bourgeois democratic revolution, i.e., political and legal equality, was pushed forward by the old plebeian masses – laborer, artisan and mechanic – in America small landed property was the material basis for social individualism, theoretical equality, civil rights and popular rule. Rousseau’s natural rights of man and hatred of the corruption of cities was effectively transplanted on the American soil, and personified by Jefferson. In Europe the proletariat was counterposed to the bourgeoisie in the very making of the bourgeois democratic revolution. There the peasant proprietors were indifferent, and later were tools of the counterrevolution. In America the social, economic and political scene at that very same time was dominated by agrarian expansionism. In England, far example, the proletarianization of the peasantry took place in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and mass proletarian movements arose in the nineteenth century. In America the historical development is almost in reverie. The working class was very fluid in its composition due to the open frontier. The workers were in the main farmers-to-be and thus played a very subordinate role to the agrarian political struggle.

Every time the commercial, traditional, aristocratic New England was pitted against the newly immigrated and equalitarian West, the frontiersmen won. The commercial bourgeoisie split almost in half during the revolutionary struggle against England. The pro-British “Loyalists” were willing to serve as a comprador ruling class. But the agrarian debtors and southern planters showed a good deal more consistent and solidarity. After the war, the newly reunited commercial ruling class succeeded in having the states ratify the economic documents drafted in a near-conspiracy – the American constitution. But increasing the burden of the agrarian debtors and attacking the democratic rights of the great masses of people brought forth some of the most violent anti-capitalist agitation in American history followed by the agrarian upheaval of 1800. While the capitalist Federalist party stood helplessly by, this country doubled in size with the purchase of Louisiana. Territorial expansionism meant agrarian expansionism.

Paradoxically too, the war of 1812, the second stage of the triumph of American capitalism was precipitated by the agrarian “War Hawks.” While Federalist New England threatened secession, Jackson’s backwoodsmen defeated the British Regulars. Federalism died, and less than two decades later Jacksonian democracy rose triumphantly into power.

In the struggle against slavery, “the second American revolution,” the agrarians played a most decisive role. The northern bourgeoisie was in a thousand ways intimately connected with the southern plantation economy. “The nation is united by the thread of cotton,” said Emerson. The northern bourgeoisie conciliated and compromised. But northwestern wheat triumphed over southern cotton nationally and abroad. In 1856 the farmers joined to a large extent by the working class, organized the Republican party. “Vote yourself a homestead,” was their battle-cry in 1856 and 1860. They were joined by a far-sighted section of the industrial bourgeoisie and the Civil War was on.

Yet this is no attempt to idealize the agrarian petty bourgeoisie. Though the vigorous, articulate, equalitarian frontiersman is admirable, his defeats were more lasting than his victories. The anti-capitalist agitation was loud and long, but capitalism was not uprooted. On the contrary. The bitter creditor-debtor struggle of 1800 was not resolved by social change but by national expansionism – the increase in available land and in foreign commerce. It is true that Jackson, the idol of the agrarian debtors, abolished the national bank. But his struggle for the protective tariff sheltered the rise of American industry. And the Republican Party, organized almost spontaneously by the Agrarians, became in a short time the political tool of monopolized big business, bitter enemy of the agrarians.

The farmers tried to fetter and limit the growing productive forces of this country. They could not succeed, no matter how many political victories they achieved. The high point in the self-contradictory, self-defeating struggle of the rural masses is Populism.

Agriculture after the Civil War

The triumph of American capitalism in the Civil War was not limited to a mere military victory over the Southern armies. The war had spurred on a gigantic expansion of manufacture and industry. In 1860 little more than a billion dollars was invested was six and a half billion, with the products worth more than nine and a quarter billion. Thirty thousand miles of railroad track enmeshed the country between 1865 and 1873. Stock companies, corporations, and consequently absentee ownership, arose everywhere. Within the industries, trustification and centralization began to make such headway that in 1890 the pretentious government battle against monopolies had begun.

The vanguard of capitalism within the western territories were the railroads. True to their election slogans, the Republicans passed the Homestead Act in 1862. “The Homestead Act was the crowning achievement of middle class agrarianism in national politics.” This “crowning achievement” was a bonanza for the American railroads. The free dispensation of western lands was severely limited by the open and secret speculators. Mass migrations were then organized by the rail-appropriations of large strips of territory by the railroads and roads to sell the lands they had seized. In addition the growth of fanning communities in the west meant increased freight for the expanding railroads. So great was the demand for land by the foreign immigrants and dissatisfied native workers, that not only were the western territories settled with incredible speed, but in addition the land values were inflated by rapacious speculators.

The capitalization of agriculture – the triumph of urban manufacture and commerce over the rural agricultural economy was a result of the following:

  1. The technological revolution in agriculture and the growth of agricultural machinery. Farmers with larger amounts of capital could increase their productivity and thus occupy a superior position on the market. In the evolution from extensive to intensive farming, machinery and fertilizer were becoming increasingly necessary.
  2. The growth of the domestic market. The farmer ceased to be a free, individual producer. Self-subsistence farming became subordinate to farming for a surplus to be sold on the market. Marketing and market prices were completely taken out of the producers’ control. The price of wheat, for example, was decided by the extent of world supply, native unemployment, and artificial speculation on Wall Street. The ever more frequent and more disastrous capitalist crises in 1873, 1877, 1884, and 1893 caused severe drops in agricultural prices. From 1870 to 1897 the price of wheat dropped by forty per cent, corn by thirty-three per cent, and cotton by almost two hundred per cent! Service, storage, and food processing – all trustified and interlocked – cut deeply into the farmers’ income. A host of speculators, middle-men, brokers, and railroad agents fattened themselves at the expense of the farm producer.
  3. Collapse of the European market. Before the Civil War America was the granary of Europe. However, it was not many years before American wheat was competing with Argentinean, Russian, Australian, and Canadian food commodities on the foreign market.
  4. Reliance upon manufacture for consumption goods. This is in sharp contrast with earlier frontier days when the farmer relied to a large extent on domestic industry and natural resources for his living needs. Needless to add, all the products of these industries were – considering the farmers’ income – fantastically high-priced. This was a natural result of trustified industry which grew up in the shelter of a high protective tariff.
  5. The final result and the real crux of the dominance of capitalism over agriculture was that the most simple homesteading demanded a large amount of capital to be even temporarily successful. Eastern capital was quick in coming, in the form of usurious loans with farm mortgages for security. The ever increasing need for credit combined with the steadily collapsing farm prices led to mass indebtedness and foreclosures, the impoverishment and expropriation of the once-free peasant proprietors.

Leaving aside the detailed grievances and the particular situation in the South, this is the background of the powerful and turbulent agrarian struggle for the redress of grievances and in defense of small property and individual agricultural production.

The Concentration of Political Power

Before the Civil War, various sections of the ruling class, i.e., classes based on different forms of property, had contended for national power. But in 1870, the disputed Hayes-Tilden election was settled by a gentlemen’s agreement. Northern troops were to be removed from the South, thus ending any possible sectional dissension. Bourgeois historians bemoan the fact that the period of 1876–1896 was devoid of notable legislation, though full of unprincipled political fights and scandalous corruption. Arthur Hanson, Garfield and Hayes were presidents during this period, but it is impossible to remember their names, let alone what they did.

Once in office, the affairs of the bourgeoisie were managed quite well, thought the nation suffered. Four times as much land was donated to speculators, miners, and railroads as to actual homesteaders. No matter how much the agrarians writhed under unfair freight rates, the Republican government took no action. Currency and credit reform was not forthcoming. The banks bought government bonds and then issued national currency on the basis of the purchased bonds. The banks then lent the money at high interest: rates, thus collecting interest from the government and the unfortunate agrarians. The Republicans maintained the high tariff to bar any foreign disturbances to trustification and price-fixing in this country. The tax burden fell most heavily on landed property, lightly on corporate wealth and not at all on the privately amassed fortunes of the millionaires. Court injunctions, state militias, and Federal troops were consistently used against rebellious labor. Finally, the Supreme Court of hand-picked Republican judges, became a graveyard for any state legislation infringing on the rights and privileges of corporate wealth.

The two-party system was in effect a one-party system. The political fortunes of the Democratic Party were very low for it was formerly 1) the party of slavery; 2) the party of secession; 3) the party of corruptionist city machines developed in Jackson’s day and before the birth of Republicanism. The stronghold of the Democratic party, the solid South, was in control of the bankers and merchants who were merely an offshoot and subordinate section of northern industry.

On the other hand the Republican Party: 1) was originally bused on an alliance between farmers and workers; 2) had abolished slavery and maintained the Union; 3) was the party of capitalist expansion after the war; 4) claimed to have given jobs to workers; 5) homesteads to farmers; 6) was less corrupt than the Democratic Party. Thus the political successes of the Republican Party during those years are easily explained. Within the party no voice of opposition could be heard. It was the political handmaiden of a bold and triumphant class of robber barons. Individual reformers and agrarian radicals were either bought off or isolated or excluded from Party councils. Senators were elected by state legislatures filled with reliable party hacks. Congressional committees contained the most agile parliamentary maneuverers who could defeat reform bills without much effort. There were no primary elections or any public intervention in the choice of party nominees. There was no popular recall of public servants who had committed political offences. The rumblings in the west were too distant and ineffective, and the temporary discontent in the cities too unimportant, to seriously affect the Republican monopoly of political power. Altogether, it is doubtful if such a period of unchallenged, brazen robbery, oppression and deceit will again be repeated in American history.

The Rise of Third Parties

The actual organizers of the Republican Party had been idealists, reformers, abolitionists, even politically conscious workers. But as the majority of the big bourgeoisie crept in under the Republican tent and the party was taken over by the plutocracy, these elements were quickly squeezed out. They consequently became the organizers and agitators of the small crop of third parties which arose during the 1870’s and 1880’s.

Significantly enough, the first independent action after the Civil War was taken by politicized trade unionists. In 1872 the National Labor Reform Party participated in the national elections on a program of land reform, cheap currency, and the eight hour day. At the same time, the Prohibition Party was organized in the Midwest, adding a strong plank against land speculation to its main plank of prohibition. In 1876 the Greenback Party entered the national election demanding continued use of the Civil War currency and the government’s resumption of gold purchasing. The bitterly violent railroad strikes of 1877 brought in new allies from the ranks of labor, so that in 1878 the Greenback Party became the Greenback Labor Party. The issues of land reform, cheap currency and legal limits to the working day dominated the program. This alliance between class conscious farmers and workers netted a million votes: in the Congressional elections of 1873. This vole was fairly evenly divided between the East, South, and Western regions of the country. Temporary agricultural prosperity cut down the Greenback Labor Party vote by more than two thirds in the presidential elections of 1880. In 1884 the Anti-Monopoly Party was set up mainly by delegates from the Eastern industrial states. The program consisted of anti-monopoly planks in the language and manner with which we are so familiar today; and sympathy to labor’s economic demands.

The rise and fall of these third parties previous to the Populist Party of 1892 lead us to the following conclusions: 1) the classes leading in the formation of third parties were, in the order of their importance, farmers, urban petty bourgeoisie, and workers; 2) the programs were mainly agrarian, the increase of available currency – “Greenbackism” – being the main political theme; 3) rural distress was not as acute between 1872 and 1884 as afterwards; 4) the successes, such as they were, were mainly local, limited to various states – no great alliance between labor, the petty bourgeoisie, and farmers could be affected; 5) the majority of the agrarians were not resorting to political action, or were pushing their class demands in the existing parties.

The Grange and the Alliances

The organization of the Populist Party evolved from the mass agrarian organizations, the Granges and the Farmers’ Alliances. In the period after the Civil War the farmers Grange movement predominated in the West and South. The material difficulties and physical loneliness of rural life led to the organization of farmers groups which were mainly non-political in nature. Among the organizations’ purposes were technical education on agricultural problems, self-help projects such as crop insurance, cheaper credit facilities, and cooperative marketing of their products.

It was soon to become evident (after twenty-five years!) to the timid, conservative peasant proprietors that these meek efforts could not defeat the stranglehold of the railroads and monopolies on the farmers’ economic existence. Though agricultural education might somewhat affect the productivity of his crops, if could not increase their market price. Nor could the farmers obtain the necessary credit by merely pooling their meager financial resources. Their efforts at independent marketing of their crops could not challenge the established marketing practices of the gigantic railroad system and the trustified food processors. The futility of their efforts at economic self-help turned their attention to political action. The unbridled economic supremacy of big business demanded intervention and regulation by the state power under pressure of the small agrarian producers. This was their political conception.

The struggle of the western agrarians was directed against the railroads and for the regulation of trade rates. In 1874 the National Grange claimed one and one half million members and some twenty thousand local Granges. Yet so involved were the Granges in non-political activities that its full organized strength was not used in the elections. Instead the farmers moved to influence the existing political machines in the states. When this strategy was not successful, independent state parties and slates were put forward. Thus between 1872 and 1892 eleven state parties were organized.

Though seats were won in the legislatures of many western states and though the farmers waged aggressive political campaigns, the results of their efforts during the Granger period were negligible. The railroads were too powerful and too important in the scheme of capitalism as a whole to be unseated by election majorities and agrarian agitation. Commerce was an interstate matter and could not be effectively controlled by the strict state legislation. Besides, the railroads could engage in every type of subterfuge, legal and illegal evasions of legislation, and intimidation of agrarian reformers. The furious political battles against the economic and political power of the railroads ended only in futility and despair.

The economic crisis of 1873 combined with the severe natural drought sent streams of wagons rolling eastward bearing the sign “In God We Trusted, in Kansas We Busted.” In the attempt to maintain profitable price levels and thus save themselves from foreclosures and tenantry, the western farmers rallied around the slogan of “Inflate the Currency” and the Greenback Party. The temporary prosperity from 1878 to 1884 weakened the combativity of the farmers. But the struggle was to rise to yet greater heights after the panic of 1884.

By 1890 the mass wave of organized farmers numbered over four millions. By 1896 the new organization, the Farmers’ Alliances, published more than fifteen hundred newspapers. Unlike the loosely federated Granges, the Farmers’ Alliance maintained strong sectional and even national solidarity. In the beginning, they were not decisively political; nevertheless, they succeeded in sending a large number of “Independent” congressmen to Washington. It is true that the great mass strength of these Alliances created the illusory possibility of challenging capitalist supremacy over agriculture, by means of economic projects in credit and marketing. This is a familiar belief of the embattled small property owners. In turn, the ineffectiveness of these economic, projects turned the agrarian masses ever more violently onto the road of political action. The economic roots of this mass movement are not difficult to ascertain. The rates of interest on agrarian debts were ever increasing, while prices were steadily sinking. Land was passing into the hands of loan companies and tenantry increased from less than fifteen per cent of the farming population in 1870 to twenty-eight per cent in 1885. To use Marx’s classic phrase “the free producer was divorced from his means of production.” These landless and propertyless agrarians were the radical ferment of an entire mass movement. In previous periods the high land values enabled the indebted farmer to sell his property and start life anew. With the diminishing of free land, such a solution became impossible. The repeated shocks of depression, panic, and collapse in American economy climaxed a long period of agrarian resentment. The government’s violent assault upon striking workers and legal assaults upon labor unions all revealed to the class conscious farmers, even if not to the workers, the active economic bias of the national government. The growth of trusts and large fortunes, the prevalence of economic swindles and political scandals, the stolid indifference of the large capitalist parties – these were the reasons for the greater political emphasis of the Farmers’ Alliances and the birth of the People’s Party.

Background of Southern Populism

The Southern Populists are clearly recognized as being the aggressive, radical, and numerically powerful section of the Populist movement. The inter-twining elements of race, class, and party resulted in a complex maze of southern politics. Mere superficial acquaintance with Populism in the South gives the impression only of contradiction and confusion. Leading Populists were pro-Negro and anti-Negro; pro-Third Party and anti-Third Party: allied with Southern Republicans, Southern Democrats, or remaining independent: standing on occasion on the Right wing of western Populism, or on its Left Wing. To achieve any clarity at all, it is necessary to trace the movement historically and with strict economic emphasis even where all the necessary data is not always available.

The breakdown in the plantation system presented serious difficulties in maintaining cotton culture and a one-crop agricultural economy. Material devastation, indebtedness, the bankruptcy of the planter class, and the general backwardness of southern society hindered any immediate economic recuperation. What was to substitute for the plantation economy? Since the land-hunger of the poor whites and newly-freed slaves was extraordinary, many large estates were divided. Thus in South Carolina the number of landowners had increased from thirty-three thousand in 1860 to fifty-one thousand in 1870. Due to the manipulation of the old planters and the shortage of credit necessary for small farming the plantation system was maintained in a new form. The decisive position in the post-Civil War Southern agriculture was occupied by merchants’ capital and credit. To a large extent this was northern capital in a new guise, and this, together with the important role of the railroad lines, led to the belief that the South was being “colonized” by the North. Commercial capitalism played this important part in the very slow transition from agricultural toward an industrial economy. Peculiar to the South is the fact that commercial capitalism maintained the vestiges of slave economy, i.e., the sharecropping system. Two different types of the lien-crop are noticeable. In one case the free farmer would mortgage his farm to the merchant in return for the necessary cash credit or supplies. Not being able to pay back the debt in cash, due to the lack of individual marketing facilities and the sinking price of cotton, the farmer would pay back his debt by giving a share of his crop to the merchant in return for more credit. Since this credit system was really exorbitant usury, his indebtedness grew and the farmer found himself tied hand and foot to the merchant and often reduced to semi-peonage.

An important variation of crop-tenantry was the system where the planter maintained a share-cropping system that was in turn dominated by the banks and merchants in his need for credit, and by the railroads and cotton brokers in his need for transportation and marketing.

The social and economic struggles in the last decade of the nineteenth century followed the classic line of city versus country. Aligned on one side were the merchants and bankers, professional classes, and a large section of the working class (although the latter participated in this struggle with some indifference); on the other side were: a) planters and landlords who themselves exploited and dominated tenants and agricultural laborers, b) individual, self-sustaining property owners employing few or no agricultural laborers and suffering various decrees of indebtedness, c) tenants, d) agricultural laborers.

It is only by delineating the class lines within the agrarian movement itself, that we can explain the crossing of lines in the conflict between agrarian debtors and merchant creditors at the various critical points of this struggle.

Populism Sweeps the South

“The New Bourbon regime in Georgia was essentially a businessman’s regime. To a greater or lesser extent this was undoubtedly true of other Southern states.” [1] Having ruled the South for more than a century, the Southern planters found themselves replaced by the representatives of capital and commerce.

The political battles revolved around a number of issues, some already familiar. Poorer elements of the population attempted to whittle down payment of the Civil War debts. This was the cause of West Virginia’s secession and separate statehood. Anti-railroad legislation and the demand for currency inflation were important political issues. “The frequent change in the Lien laws evidenced a conflict between landlord and merchant.” Most fundamental was the fight for enfranchisement of the poor whites and their participation in the government. Up-country farmers battled with the coast-city business men for the control of the Democratic political machine. Due to their numerical majority, the farmers often succeeded in winning.

But twenty-five Alliance men in the state legislature of South Caroline could not prevent the flow of Northern capital to the South for the purpose of accumulation through a system of usurious credit. Nor could they dictate to the monopolists the prices to be charged for necessary commodities. Many professional Alliance politicians went over to their political opponents, and with the infusion of this new blood, the Bourbon Democratic machine was again consolidated. In the meantime, the Southern agrarian masses had to be satisfied with the formal political victory, some technical help in agriculture and shadow-boxing motions against the railroads.

The economic circumstances of the cotton farmers were becoming so desperate that leaders of Southern populism devised a scheme whereby agrarians would influence the control of the issuance of national currency, and the marketing of agricultural produces would become the government’s responsibility. Under the “Sub-treasury plan,” as it was called, the government would build warehouses for the storage and grading of agriculture products. Legal government tender would be issued to the farmers based on 80 percent of their produce. As a result, the farmer would the assured of cash credit instead of the exorbitantly priced supplies of the merchant-creditor. The middlemen would be almost entirely eliminated from the marketing process. Southern Populism pushed the Sub-treasury scheme against the bitter opposition of financial circles and the indifference of the Northern Farmer’s Alliance.

The Southern wing of the national Populist movement was more powerful and radical than its Northwestern counterpart, for the following reasons: (a) Northern farmers struggled against big business “in general.” The banks and loan companies who were oppressive creditors, did not play a large or important political and social role within the immediate areas of the farmers’ existence. In the South, however, the town merchants were the local and clearly recognized medium of exploitation, since agricultural credit in the South took the form of supplies rather than cash. (b) The greater prevalence of tenantry and agricultural labor in the South. Northern farmers were indebted property owners, Southern farmers were to a much greater extent, propertyless and landless. (c) In the South, the political struggles were for the fundamental right of suffrage and political action, while the Northern farmers were politically expressive by tradition, having organized and provided the mass backing for the Republican Party in 1856. (d) The severe crisis in cotton culture and the general backwardness and impoverishment of the South. The drop in cotton prices was always greater than that of other agricultural commodities.

New International, Vol. XI No .6, September 1945, pp. 187–192

Southern Populism and the Negro

Intimately connected, if not completely identified with the vicissitudes of Southern Populism, was the Negro question in the South. The period of Reconstruction marked the first time that the masses of Negroes participated in Southern society under formal conditions of equality. But the Negro’s social rights and economic opportunities were maintained only by the force of Northern arms, the political power and temporary interest of the Northern bourgeoisie. A new Southern ruling class – agents of Northern capital – arose, to whom power could be entrusted and the Federal troops were withdrawn. The Negroes were pushed out of Southern politics by terroristic and legal methods of the new Bourbons and old planters.

Though some poor whites obtained land during the Reconstruction days, the Negro fell back into agricultural labor or sharecropping. With the crisis in cotton culture, the whites became farm-tenants. Tenancy is a higher economic level than sharecropping or agricultural labor. A tenant owns his farming tools, seed and crop. He is free from supervision. However, the Negro laborers or sharecroppers owned nothing and often worked in gangs.

By 1900, 73.6% of the Negro farm population were share-tenants and 25.2% were property owners, as contrasted to the white, of whom 36.1% were tenants and 63% were owners. [2] It is no wonder that by 1891 the Colored Farmers Alliance had a million and a quarter members. There is a sad dearth of material on Negro populism [3] but there is enough to indicate the pivotal role of the Negro agrarian masses.

It is misleading merely to comment that both the Populists and the Bourbon Democrats courted the Negro vote. Though planters and small farmers led Southern Populism, the militancy and forceful politics originated with the direly impoverished tenants and share-croppers. Populism flourished among Southern Negroes as no movement had spread among them before or since. The Negro people, predominantly rural and propertyless, quickly realized that their struggle was identified with their century-long struggle for democratic rights and political equality. To a greater or lesser extent, the poor white farmers recognized that only their class solidarity would gain them any victory at all. In spite of numerous defections, equality for the Negro became almost a principle of Southern Populism. On the opposite side, elimination of the Negro from Southern politics was a firm principle of the Southern Bourbons. They began to search desperately for Negro support only when Populism became a veritable tidal wave which threatened to engulf them.

In 1892 the Alabama People’s Party platform contained the following: “We favor protection of the colored race in their legal rights ... through the means of kindness, fair treatment and a just reward for them, a better understanding and more satisfactory condition may exist between the races.” [4] In Texas, two Negro leaders were on the People’s Party state committee. In Louisiana the Populists issued an appeal that the people “not let the scarecrow of Negro domination longer drive them to the Democratic, wigwam.” [5] In South Carolina Ben R. Tillman, an agrarian champion who became anti-Negro and a loyal Democrat, attempted to implement discriminatory legislation. For some time, the Populist state legislature prevented him. In Arkansas the People’s Party adopted the resolution: “It is the object of the People’s Party to elevate the downtrodden sons and daughters of industry in all matters before the people irrespective of race and color.” [6] To sum it up, “For the first time in his political history, the Negro was not regarded as an incompetent ward of white supremacy, nor as a ward of military intervention, but as an integral part of Southern society, with a place in its economy.” “Never before or since have the two races come so close together as they did during the Populist struggles.” [7]

The planters and other prosperous farmers were caught between two fires. They were in strong opposition to the oppressive merchants, but they undoubtedly looked with increasing alarm at the rise of political activity among tenants and agricultural laborers, the majority of whom were Negroes. As a result, the rich farmers tended to conciliate their differences with the urban capitalists and lead Populism back into the Democratic Party. They partially succeeded; due to their superior economic and educational position they controlled the agrarian movement; and apparently won victories, taking over important positions in the Democratic Party from the Bourbon businessmen. White-supremacy and the one-party system, twin phenomena, were thus maintained. But the steady worsening of economic conditions spurred the landless agrarians on. The well-to-do farmers could foresee the consequences of a real agrarian triumph – expropriation of the large landowners by a land-hungry peasantry. So they deserted Populism. Thus it came about that after 1892, radical Populism (one can almost say Negro Populism) came to the fore and dominated the Southern agrarian movement.

The Negroes were outstanding in their advanced demand for a third party. In 1890, at the convention of the Northern and Southern Alliances, at Ocala, Florida, the Colored Farmers Alliance came with a strong condemnation of the vacillating Jim Crow policy of the Southern white Populists, and in full support of the Force Bill, whereby the Federal Government would enforce Negro suffrage in the South. Boldly striking out for an immediate third party, they were condemned by the white Populisms who were busily engaged in maneuvers within the Democratic Party. Powderly, leader of the Knights of labor and an active Populist, heartily commended the action of the Colored Farmers Alliance.

At the 1891 Cincinnati convention of the Farmers’ Alliance, the Southern Alliance was scarcely represented. But a good many of their representatives were Negroes who were obviously for a third party. One Negro delegate explained that more Negroes did not attend the convention only for lack of funds. “Much cheering for the Colored Alliance followed.”

At the St. Louis contention of 1892 the Southern White-Farmers Alliance was again largely unrepresented due to its vacillation on the third party. However, 97 Negro delegates were in attendance. “Humphrey, the white missionary who had helped to organize the Negro Alliance, was bitterly detested by white Georgians, because he had advised the Negro cotton pickers of Texas to strike ... and because he was a strong third party man.” [8] Though more historical material has yet to be found, the role of the Negroes in the Populist movement is clearly discernible.

“Goodbye, Old Parties, Goodbye”

Northern Populism received a growing voting support in the slate elections of 1890. But the Populist experiences with state politics continued to be disappointing. [9] Ignatius Donnelly, devoted scholar, historian, orator and stylist of Populism, declared in the Minnesota Alliance Manifesto of 1891: “We are defeated ... but not disheartened.” Political power like economic power lay elsewhere than in the Western farm states. In 1890 the Supreme Court declared state regulation of railroads to be unconstitutional. Two years later the income-tax law was invalidated by the Supreme Court for the same reason.

Preparations for organizing the People’s Party began at the Farmers Alliance convention in 1890. The nomination convention in 1892 was put off after the Democratic and Republican nomination convention, so that the actions and programs of the two major parties could be judged beforehand. The Republican convention paid scant attention to the Populist demands. The Democratic Party convention gave weak verbal support to the doctrine of bimetallism – a doctrine professed by the Populists – but was silent on all other issues of reform. After some ten years of activity within the Republican Party and political action within the Democratic Party by the Southern farmers, the rural masses had failed to seriously affect fundamental national policies.

After due preparations and efforts to involve all middle-class reformers and labor unions, the new party was born in St. Louis in 1892. Out of 698 delegates, 82 represented the Knights of Labor and there were some few delegates from other labor unions. All the long-felt bitterness at the prevailing inequality and injustice was effectively expressed in the preamble to the party platform. “Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench… The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of these, in turn, despise the Republic and endanger liberty.” (Populist Party Platform, 1892)

The American farmers had at last reached the highest stage of independent class action possible to them. At the Omaha convention applause raged loudest for freeing the land from mortgages, least for the purchase of “free silver.” General Weaver, an old Reform Party candidate, was the People’s Party choice for President, with a Southern general as vice-presidential candidate. Their program demanded tax reforms, a flexible currency, abolition of the national banks, direct election of senators, and effective control of errant politicians through the recall and referendum. Sympathy with labor’s struggle for the eight-hour day and a denunciation of the Pinkerton Spy Agency were also included. While the nouveaux riches were extolling the almost miraculous growth of the nation’s industry and continental power, thousands of farmers struck up a new theme song with fierce pride – “Goodbye, old parties, good-bye.” [10]

The political temper of the nation’s farmers is evidenced by the whirlwind campaigns conducted by the People’s Party. “People commenced to think who had never thought before and people spoke who had seldom spoken. On mild days they gathered on street corners, on cold days they congregated in shops and offices. Everyone was talking and everyone was thinking.” Edward Bellamy’s vision of a socialist utopia, Looking Backward, and the Autobiography of Terence Powderly were read by hundreds of thousands. Women orators and agitators participated in Populist polities in such numbers and with such fury as was never before seen or heard of and thus, incidentally, pushed forward the cause of woman suffrage. The speech of Mrs. M.E. Leese stirred everyone. “Wall Street owns the country ... The great common people are slaves and monopoly is the master ... The politicians said we suffer from overproduction. Overproduction when ten thousand little children starve in the United States and over a hundred thousand shop girls in New York are forced to sell their virtue for the bread their niggardly wages deny them.” Marx had correctly explained that in the process of transforming or combating the social order the active masses themselves would be transformed.

If the election results in 1892 showed no spectacular vote-getting by the Populists, neither were they discouraging to the new party. The People’s Party obtained 1,027,329 votes or less than ten per cent of the total national vote. In the industrial states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts the party polled only six-tenths of one per cent of the vote. But even this does not tell the whole story. For in the South many rebellious agrarians had voted for the Republicans and “Independent Democrats.” Besides, in Virginia, Georgia and Kansas, the capitalist political machines “won” the elections only by the most flagrant illegality and fraud.

Economic Crisis: 1893–1896

In the years after 1892, the slogan of “free silver” was to captivate the Populist movement and predominate over all other issues. To the farmers, free silver meant a depreciated dollar or currency inflation to compensate for the declining prices and growing indebtedness. Since silver was being produced in ever greater quantities at the very time it was being driven out of the money market, its price was steadily declining. Only by government subsidization – the purchase of silver to be greater than that of gold by the ratio of sixteen to one-could the market price of silver be maintained. The United States adopted the gold standard, among other reasons, because it was adopted by the European countries as a uniform basis for monetary exchange. In order to carry on world trade, this debtor nation had to maintain a large gold reserve. To the agrarian movements, the predominance of gold over silver was only a further capitulation to finance capital and to capitalist powers abroad.

The economic crisis of 1893 struck the country with unprecedented force. Strikes, unemployment and Populist agitation spread like wildfire. The bitter strike battles at Cripple Creek and Homestead; the new sudden drop in agricultural prices; the obvious impotency and helplessness of the capitalist politicians – all these contributed to the mass discontent of 1893 to 1896. The unemployed march on Washington aroused the ire of capitalist representatives and received the active sympathy of the Populists. In turn, the AFL was swept into the free silver agitation and its leadership had to fight a strong minority which was for a complete socialist program on one hand and those who pressed for affiliation with the Populist Party on the other. In Congress the Populists took up the battle for labor’s right to strike, while the Populist governor of Colorado, after surveying a strike situation, called out the militia to protect the beleaguered strikers!

In 1893 Donnelly investigated for the Minnesota legislature the price combination and economic frauds in that state. He amassed more than adequate evidence but the court refused to indict the companies involved. Whereupon the Populists of Minnesota called an anti-monopolist convention, which was held in Chicago. Donnelly, fortified by his own experience and swept on by the radical tide, called for government confiscation of monopolies. When voted down, he declared that “the convention was a humbug.”

The Democratic President Cleveland obviously believed that the 1893 depression was a monetary crisis, caused by the depletion of our gold reserve. He, therefore, issued government bonds which could be purchased only with gold. The bankers saw in this issuance of gold bonds a heaven-sent opportunity to milk the national treasury. While they turned in gold for these bonds bearing high interest rates, they further depleted the gold reserve by exchanging the paper currency in their possession for gold. Forced to act by the severe depression, yet helplessly entrapped in a bankers’ scheme, Cleveland could only press for repeated issuance of the gold bonds. It is impossible to know how many tens of millions were netted by the bankers. But there is no doubt that the gold bonds “stirred millions of Americans to a pitch of acrimonious frenzy, for which there are few parallels in our history.” [11] Some time later the Democratic governor of Georgia wrote to Cleveland: “The conditions of this state are fearful and threatening.” Cleveland, somewhat jarred and uneasy by the turn of events, began his reply: “I hardly know how to reply to your letter of the 15th.”

This is the background for the nearly half a million increase in votes that the Populists received in the elections of 1894. The total Populist vote was 1,523,079. In many states a fusion took place with the party out of power; with the Republicans in the South and with the “Silver Democrats” in the West. Four senators represented the People’s Party in the upper house of Congress, with six Populists occupying seals in the House of Representatives. In some nineteen states the Populists elected an average of eighteen per cent of the legislators.

In the South, the ruling class gave up all pretensions of legality. The elections took on all the appearances of civil war. Voters were bribed and intimidated; election boxes were stuffed and destroyed. Election campaigns frequently ended as shooting frays. In one case a Negro Populist agitator, threatened with being lynched, came to Tom Watson, a leading Southern Populist, for aid. Couriers were sent out during the night and by morning two thousand white Populists had gathered to guarantee the Negro’s safety. But violence against Populists, particularly Negroes, continued unabated. The capitalist class and particularly its Southern section had good cause to be alarmed by the elections of 1891.

Populism and the Labor Movement

At this point it is necessary to review, in summary fashion, the development of the American working class from the Civil War to the rise of the People’s Party. The National Labor Union, led by William H. Sylvis, had thrown its support to Lincoln during the Civil War and by 1870 had become more of a political party than a trade union. Controlled by petty bourgeois reformers and political émigrés, the question of strike action split it wide open. But the “politicization” of the American working class was mainly agrarian in emphasis, as shown by the subordination of labor questions to currency agitation in the Greenback Labor Party. The violent strike actions of the l870’s passed them by completely.

The Knights of Labor, which followed the National Labor Union, was mainly non-industrial in its form of organization and was concentrated in small Western and Southern communities, its membership being agrarian in social origin. The Knights of Labor participated actively in the Populist movement as a minority. Though Powderly is quoted as saying “The Knights of Labor and the-farmers ask for the same things ... only the Knights ask for more, such as the environment of the farmers does not call for,” nevertheless Powderly’s politics were mildly reformist and there was no specifically delineated role aggressively pursued by labor within the Populist movement. And though thirteen working class state parties were organized during the 1870’s and 1880’s, these were undoubtedly swallowed up by the greater weight of Populism.

When the People’s Party was organized, the Knights of Labor were already in decline and was being replaced by the American Federation of Labor. This aristocratic stratum of skilled labor had no interest in challenging the political domination of capital. Its class-conscious elements were socialists unwilling to accept the currency panaceas of the Populists.

Not subject to any form of class organization were the millions of new immigrants who formed the great unskilled majority of the American working class. Untouched by elementary class organization and settled in the large cities, they were easily captured by the smoothly run political machines of the two capitalist parties. Also, while the farmers seemed hopelessly doomed to expropriation as free producers, the workers had made definite gains along the lines of class organization, improved working conditions and higher wages. Politically, they were generally inclined to give their support to an expanding capitalism, whether the issue was a high tariff or the gold standard. They voted for jobs, particularly those new waves of immigrants happy to escape hunger and disorder abroad. This combination of circumstances led to labor’s lack of political consciousness and consequently to its indecisive role in the Populist movement.

Election Battles and Defeat

The People’s Party seemed destined to challenge seriously the political power of the capitalist class in the presidential elections of 1896. As in 1892, the Populists waited for the Republican and Democratic conventions before holding one of their own.

Large sections of the Democratic Party were resentful and dissatisfied with Cleveland’s actions during the years of economic crisis. Labor had been alienated by Cleveland’s provocative use of federal troops and the court injunction. The urban middle class and small manufacturers had become declassed and impoverished by every successive capitalist depression. [12] Southern merchants and bankers, desperately on the defensive against the growing agrarian movement, readily adopted the “free silver” slogan as a means of swallowing up Southern Populism. As early as 1891 Western “silver” congressmen had supported the Southern Bourbons to defeat the “Force Bill” (which would have enforced Negro suffrage in the South) in exchange for Southern support for “free silver.” Perhaps most important of all, a rebellious, section of the capitalist class – the silver mine owners – were attempting to ride into power on the backs of the insurgent agrarian masses. Through their Bi-Metallic League they were avidly shopping for political support and had probably conspired to capture the Democratic Party long in advance.

Cleveland’s forces were utterly routed at the Democratic convention. None of the old political hacks were eligible for the presidential nomination. Instead, the convention lost its head over William Jennings Bryan, a thirty-six year old Nebraska senator, whose eloquent oratory could not be denied. [13] Indicative of the status quo orientation of the Bi-Metallic League manipulators was the convention’s choice of Sewall, an Eastern banker, as the Democratic vice-presidential candidate.

The upheaval in the Democratic Party threw the People’s Party convention into violent disagreement and dissension. What was the People’s Party to do – attempt fusion or follow its own road? Southern Populists and the labor delegates, who had more than “free silver” in mind, wanted the People’s Party to stay clear of the two bankrupt capitalist parties. But Northern Populists, more moderately inclined, were swung over to endorsing Bryan. [14] The anti-Bryan forces were swamped by a vote of 1,042 to 321. But the Populists could not adopt Sewall the banker as their champion. Instead, Watson was enthusiastically accepted as the party’s vice-presidential candidate. In addition, the endorsement of Bryan for President was made contingent upon Bryan’s endorsement of Watson as his running mate. Bryan, who had once commented that he would have nothing to do with “that radical, Watson,” now maintained complete silence. He refused to drop Sewall but didn’t care to reject the Populist nomination. The People’s Party entered the l896 election campaign confused and despairing.

The campaign was as momentous as the election was decisive. [15] Bryan traveled 16,000 miles on speaking tours. McKinley stayed at home, relying on his party lieutenants. Bryan tempered the radicalism of his supporters, but Republicans charged the Democrats with inspiring sedition. The Republicans spent sixteen million dollars, the Democrats only three-hundred thousand! Employers of labor intimidated their workers to vote for McKinley or be fired. Unrest, tenseness, excitement and agitation prevailed everywhere. The masses of people revealed an extreme consciousness of the historical moment arrived at in our nation’s history and of the class forces arrayed in this election conflict.

The total vote was the largest of any presidential election up to that time. McKinley received approximately eight million votes against seven and a half million for Bryan. Bryan won the West and South and lost the populous Northeastern and Middle Atlantic states to McKinley. Victory for Bryan was dependent on working class support, and the workers voted for jobs, i.e., stable capitalism, i.e., the Republican Party. This is not as incongruous as it may seem in these days. The Democrats had no real program for labor, though its supporters vehemently expressed their sympathy for the exploited. The working class could not be inspired by the slogan of free silver – a hopeless panacea that would only interfere with and disturb the productive economy without advancing it or transforming it. True, the labor supporters of the Democratic Party were wary of the “free silver” cry and attempted to give the Democratic program a strong working class emphasis.” [16] Considering the relation of forcer, within the Democratic camp, their efforts were of little avail. The alliance of petty bourgeois and workers had at this critical point only served to drive the majority of the working class toward the bourgeoisie and social peace. Certainly an independent Populist ticket and campaign in the 1896 elections would have unloosed tremendous class forces and immeasurably speeded up the revolutionary development of the American working class. For the People’s Party would have had to stand to the left of the newly renovated Democratic Party and fight the election on clear and sharp class issues. In the fateful year of 1896, the People’s Party could have passed into the hands of Southern tenants Negro agricultural laborers, and class conscious workers. Instead the party was inherited by the silver mine owners, Southern planters and businessmen, the small bourgeoisie and the sagacious Democratic politicians. Due to the fundamental historical limitations of that period, and secondary historical “accidents,” the People’s Party followed the one course rather than the other.

In the South the development is particularly interesting. The political setting for the 1896 elections was as follows: In North Carolina and Virginia there was a coalition of Republicans and/or the Negroes making up the greatest majority in the anti-Bourbon movement. In Georgia and Texas, there existed strong Negro-white Populist solidarity. The businessmen and planters were clearly threatened with upheaval. In South Carolina, the Negro was disenfranchised in 1891 by a planter-led Farmers Alliance allied with the new Southern bourgeoisie. By 1896, as we have seen, the Populists lost their programmatic independence and willingly or unwillingly went back into a Democratic Party which was passionately espousing “White Supremacy” and planning to eliminate the Negroes from politics. The Negroes, alienated from their Populist allies, streamed once again to the Republicans in their attempt to defend themselves from the strengthened Bourbon Democracy. This explains the high vote obtained by McKinley in many Southern states. The tortuous political road of the Southern Negro during Populism can be broken up into three periods: a) 1886-1892 – Negroes are organized and come out for a third party. The class and racial (democratic) demands become clearly identical, b) 1892-1896 – A section of the white Populists come out for a third party. With the class unity as base, fundamental political and social changes are imminent in the South, c) 1896 and after – The white agrarians reunite with the southern ruling class. The Negro reunites with the northern ruling class. The agrarian class program is split off from and subordinated to the program of democratic equality as promised by the big bourgeoisie.

Having broken the Populist movement, the Southern ruling class perpetrated legislation for the repression of the Negroes in particular and the impoverished masses in general. This was accompanied by physical terror and violent slander against the Negro masses. The Bourbons were so shaken up by the Populist revolt, they searched wildly for any and all means to prevent its recurrence. Many poor whites fought against the disenfranchisement of the Negro but they were too weak and demoralized to halt the feudal-capitalist counterrevolution.

The Aftermath of Populism

The decline of Populism marked the end of one stage of the class struggle and its beginning on a new and higher level. After his experience with Populism, Eugene V. Debs helped found the Socialist Party in 1900. The party paper, Appeal to Reason, was published and widely read in the mid-west. A Texas Populist editor complained that younger Populists were sliding into the Socialist Party. Similar reports came from other states in the South and Northwest. [17]

At the other pole, former Populists were becoming arrogant, vociferous Southern Bourbons. Tom Watson, a fiery radical Southern Populist, now found his place comfortably among the dominant planters and businessmen. When Socialism made advances on the American scene, this “Jeffersonian Democrat” penned ferocious attacks upon it, commenting that Socialism would “never make a white woman safe from the lusts of a negro.” Daniel De Leon excellently characterized Watson as “a feudal Junker,” adding “Hit the capitalist and the Junker will shriek – we are seeing this spectacle in Mr. Watson s deportment.”

The explanation for Watson’s “conversion” is very simple. As tenantry increased, Watson took the side of the landlord. Previously, the farmers were arrayed against the merchants. Now, the possessing farmers stood opposed to the dispossessed farmers. Agricultural prosperity prevailed in the South – for prosperous farmers, landlords and planters. As a result of the capital accumulation by merchants’ usury, the mills were now brought to the cotton. The landless agrarian was a source for cheap mill labor. The urban population doubled and trebled. The capital invested in manufacturing in the South increased by 325.4% between 1880 and 1900. Cotton culture was intensified. In Georgia, 156 lbs. of cotton were produced per acre, in 1879. In 1909 it was 201 lbs. [18] The gross value of all farm products in:







87 million dollars

151 million dollars


91 million dollars

171 million dollars

South Carolina

68 million dollars

156 million dollars

There was no longer any question of credit for the small landowner who were steadily being dispossessed. For the planters and businessmen, there existed in 1909 7,391 banks in contrast with 1,007 banks in 1881. The ruling Bourbons were saved not only by the political defeat of their enemies but by a decisive economic revival as well.

In the country as a whole, the same phenomenon took place. The value of farm products rose as fellows (in millions of dollars):








This was due to the growth of the native and foreign markets, the growth of food processing, the intensification of agriculture by means of machinery and capital investment, co-operative marketing which eliminated middlemen, and new lands opened by irrigation. A special point must be made of the increasing importance of government intervention. The railroads, occupying a smaller place on the scheme of capitalist production as a whole, were regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission. The Federal Reserve Act of 1914 allowed for an elastic and adequate currency and facilitated agricultural credit. Under the AAA program, the Roosevelt administration attempted to abolish speculation in the futures of crops and made effort to maintain price levels by avoiding crop surpluses. Crop insurance, flood prevention and technical aid to agriculture; all were government sponsored.

In the years since 1900, many Populist grievances have been ameliorated or have disappeared. The hue and cry about the gold shortage in the 1890’s faded into the past when gold was discovered in Alaska and quicker means of processing gold were discovered as well. The nominating primary and secret ballot the recall and referendum are now familiar political institutions. And the farmers are not without representation in the state and national governments. The anti-capitalist agitation was continued mainly by the urban petty-bourgeoisie, who felt the oppressive weight of centralized capitalism after 1900 as the agrarians felt it before. Finally the Populist agitation was freely appropriated by the demagogic vote-catchers of both capitalist parties.

Conclusions for Today

The agrarian struggles of 1870 to 1900 are pregnant with lessons for our time. The most general lesson which can escape no one pertains to the social energy of the American people. Living in a period of comparative class peace and social stability, it is possible to appreciate the speedy and spontaneous growth of the Populist movement. The brilliant agitation of Tom Watson, the mellowed wisdom of Ignatius Donnelly, the analytical lucidity of Henry Demarest Lloyd, are all forceful individual representations of a multi-millioned movement which broke all historical precedent with enormous speed. At the high point of a socio-historical development the traditional, legal and ideological boundaries cannot limit the living movement. Such was also the case with the Committees of Correspondence the Revolutionary War, and the Republican Party before tin Civil War. The spirited growth of the Progressive Party in 1912 and 1924; and the almost overnight rise and effectiveness of the CIO and the CIO-PAC, are vital indications of the socio-political nature or the American masses. The intermittent periods of quietude are only a repository for the accumulation of grievances, conscious social energy.

More specifically, we must view how far the American working class has advanced since its participation in the Populist movement. Because the workers trailed the farmers in consciousness and organization, a successful farmer-labor alliance was not effected. Today the increase in farm tenancy and agricultural labor makes these classes ripe for trade union organization. The organization of the small farmers – the “National Farmers Union” is politically effective only when it is supported by the powerful CIO.

How vastly different is the position of the working class in American society as a whole. Fifty years ago the agrarians swept over the Democratic Party. Just last year, the Democratic Party stood in fright before the prospect of capitulating to the CIO-PAC. But whereas in 1896 the Southern Bourbons would swallow the insurgent agrarians in a reunited Democratic Party, the same Bourbons today find it increasingly unbearable to be in the same party with representatives of organized labor. The two-party system, which has severely limited labor’s own political consciousness is showing all the signs of breaking down. Between 1892 and 1924, there arose three major third patties, because class lines had shifted, and the new class relationships had to be expressed outside of the two-party system. Today the decisive newcomer is CIO-PAC, which in spite of its misleadership and deplorable politics, is developing into the most powerful portent on the political scene. The already existing minority parties are not demanding impossible monetary inflation but labor’s share in the government. The lower petty-bourgeoisie, the “liberals,” have no mass political organization of their own. In the last election, they depended on labor’s organized strength. Here, as elsewhere, the urban and rural petty-bourgeoisie is descending from the historical stage. The working class is becoming the prime mover and maker of history.

These political phenomena only express the fundamental development of the capitalist economy in the period between 1900 and 1945. In the first twenty years of this century, America engaged in some highly successful and not very costly imperialistic adventures. These were twenty years of almost undisturbed agricultural prosperity. The last large waves of immigration expanded the domestic market. The effects of this economic well-being were felt by the higher-paid and skilled section of the working class.

Since then we have experienced a vital and decisive change in our economic existence. Concentration and centralization of capital, the irrevocable expropriation of the middle classes, the socialization of labor, constant state intervention and growth of statification, America’s contention for world domination, the accumulative and almost permanent state of economic crisis – this is the objective framework in which the class forces operate today. The expropriation of a free agriculture in an earlier period was an essential part in the affirmation and triumph of capital. Statification and centralization today are an essential part of its breakdown and its negation. Populism was a reaction to the closing of our natural frontiers. The labor movement is going forward because of the expanding technological horizons. The opposition of the agrarians to an advancing economy ended in confusion and capitulation, and it could not be otherwise. The reaction of the workers in a collapsing economy is greater struggle and greater clarity leading to the appropriation of the economy by the whole class. Here, too, it cannot be otherwise. The agrarians could not achieve state power, and even if achieved before the Civil War, there was very little they could do with it. For the working class, state power is not only a pressing necessity because of oppressive social conditions, but an opportunity created by the existing centralization, socialization and statification inherently contained in modern society. Between 1000 and 1920, the existing prosperity and stability made “middling” solutions possible. Capitalism today bears not the slightest semblance of stability and well-being. The depth of the crises poses the class issues sharply and fundamentally.

That is why we can look foreword to the coming class struggles with the greatest confidence. Given the objective crisis in the 1890’s, the farmers of this backward country revealed a class consciousness and capacity for class action which shook up American society. The agitational temper boldness and combativity of Populism will be inherited by the proletarian mass movement. The Populism of our nation’s past only confirms that America’s future belongs to its revolutionary working class. [19]

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1. This important point is thoroughly discussed in David P. Brooks’ The Agrarian Revolution in Georgia.

2. E.Q. Hawk, The Economic History of the South.

3. Hicks’ The Populist Revolt, which is considered a standard text, mentions the Colored Farmers Alliance just three times. Of Arnett (Populist Movement in Georgia) Jamie Reddick writes: “Arnett treats lightly the influence which the Negro exercised in its (Populist) activities.” Reddick herself supplies only a mass of unrelated material and ends with a superficially absurd conclusion. Anna Rochester (The Populist Movement in the US) can only comment “... it seems likely that historians have not yet told us the whole story of Populism and the Negroes.” It would indeed be unfortunate if our interpretation would be determined by the shortsightedness and limitations of the bourgeois historians rather than by fundamental Marxist analysis.

4. Anna Rochester, History of the Populist Movement in the US.

5. Melvin Johnson White in the Mississippi Valley Historical Review.

6. Helen M. Blackburn, The Populist Party in the South, an unpublished thesis.

7. C. Vann Woodward, Tom Watson. Agrarian Rebel.

8. The actions of the Negro delegates at the Populist conventions are reported in Jamie Reddick’s unpublished thesis The Negro in the Populist Movement in Georgia.

9. “In the states where the more notable Alliance victories had been scored much was expected of the newly elected legislatures but curiously enough very little was done.” John D. Hicks, The Populist Revolt.

10. When the platform was adopted “cheers and yells ... rose like a tornado from four thousand throats and raged without cessation for thirty-four minutes, during which women shrieked and wept, men embraced and kissed their neighbors ... In the ecstasy of their delirium.” Thus comments an observer at the convention as quoted by Arnett Populist Movement in Georgia.

11. Peck, Twenty Years of the Republic, quoted by A.M. Arnett.

12. In 1870 there were 19,349 establishments in eleven leading branches of manufacture. In 1900 only 11,193 (Algie Martin Simons, Class Struggles in America).

13. Donnelly wrote of Bryan: “We put him to school and he ended up by stealing the schoolbooks.”

14. Wheat went up from 64 to 82 cents a bushel in 1896. This might have been a factor contributing to political moderation.

15. It is written up extremely well in Matthew Josephson’s The Politicos.

16. The Trade Unions and the Populist Party, in Science and Society, Spring 1944.

17. Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel by C. Vann Woodward.

18. E.Q. Hawk, Economic History of the South.

19. The history of Populism would not be complete without a note about its historians, particularly the Stalinist Anna Rochester. It is no surprise that the bourgeois historians, in the main, treat the subject dryly, academically and empirically. Judging from their interpretation, the Southern historians are simply wallowing in the post-Populist anti-Negro reaction. But the political conclusions of Anna Rochester are so wretchedly confusing that one can only pity the poor reader. On one hand, she points out that Populism failed because it attacked some of the evils of capitalism, but not capitalism itself. Then we are told that we must support the war to defend the gains made by the Populist movement. This is followed by some paeans to the Soviet Union. Finally, the germ of wisdom emerges. The American people are still too deeply under Populist traditions and influence to want socialism. Rochester’s devious political mischief is its vicious purpose. The advancing American working class is to be dragged back to the vain Populist efforts of fifty years ago. More correct is the conclusion reached by A.M. Arnett, that perhaps “reform is racing with catastrophe.” The “catastrophe” is, of course, the social revolution.

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