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Arne Swabeck

The Long and Coughlin Movements

(May 1935)

From New International, Vol.2 No.3, May 1935, pp.103-106.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE RECENT battle of vituperation between General Hugh S. Johnson, Senator Huey P. Long and Father Coughlin brought the latter two into particular public prominence. Apparently the choice gibes flung across the field attracted the most immediate attention and aroused the celebrated sporting instinct of the average American citizen. Johnson pictured the two reading a lurid story of an American Hitler riding into Washington at the head of troops and exclaimed: “That would be definite enough for Huey because he knows what part of the horse he can be.” Long came back pronouncing his contempt for the “lately lamented, pampered ex-Crown Prince, General Hugh S. Johnson, one of those satellites loaned by Wall Street to run the Government”. “What do you call it [the New Deal] ?” he demanded. “Is it government? It looks more like the St. Vitus dance to me.” The political padre rolled up the sleeves on his priestly robe and called the General the “New Deal’s greatest casualty, who never faced an enemy nor successfully faced an issue.”

In official bourgeois political circles the Kingfish had previously been looked upon as a bumptious clown, seeking mainly personal attention. Apparently he had not made up his mind whether to confine himself in politics to his personal domain, the State of Louisiana, where he rules supreme in the style of the late Tammany boss Tweed over what he calls “the finest collection of lawmakers money can buy,” or to aim for a broader national career. Little attention was paid in these official circles to Father Coughlin or to the pompous messages issuing from the Shrine of the Little Flower in the Detroit suburb of Royal Oak. Now they are taken seriously. It should not surprise anybody if the politicians of the New Deal already anticipate the cold shivers when contemplating the next presidential elections. Huey Long has announced that there will be a third party candidate in the field. While Father Coughlin still insists it is “Roosevelt or ruin”, there are certain signs of a political affinity between these two master demagogues.

Revolutionists also face the necessity of turning their attention in all seriousness to Long and Coughlin. We cannot be concerned merely with their personal attributes and their demagoguery. More than that is needed, for they represent a specific phenomenon of the epoch of capitalist decline and decay. They have become originators of movements of a specific kind, corresponding tothe conditions created by the appearance of certain elements of capitalist decay in the United States. What is the role of these movements represented by Long and Coughlin? What constitutes their class basis? In which direction are they headed? Do they represent Leftward movements – that is, Leftward of the traditional capitalist parties – or are they Fascist movements, actual or potential? These are some of the most important questions that will have to be answered. It is quite possible to speak of both the Share-the-Wealth Clubs of Huey Long and the National Union for Social Justice of Father Coughlin in similar terms because in so far as their role, their class basis and their general direction are concerned, they have much in common. However, both are today still in the making and it is hardly possible to make a final analysis regarding their prospects and perspectives. It is therefore necessary at the present time to limit ourselves to a preliminary examination of their general background, their main trend and more particularly of the historical setting out of which they have emerged.

It would be false to set out with a preconceived notion that for reasons of certain similarity in demagoguery with the early Nazi movement, or for reasons of the distinct pro-capitalist and anti-revolutionary utterances of both Long and Coughlin, or because of their large middle class following, that they are Fascists or their organizations the beginnings of a Fascist movement in the United States. To the ruling bourgeoisie they unquestionably appear as dangerous radicals. It may be assumed with equal certainty that their present large radio following sees in them a hope of a radical remedying of what they call the social injustices and the economic maladjustments. And it is well to remember that the class struggle does create “circumstances and relationships that enable a grotesque mediocrity to strut about in a hero’s garb”. Under special distress the quack appears as the healer for the; despairing. Economic distress helps to provide an audience also for the political quack.

The small business man has watched his shrinking volume of business with dreadful forbodings and he has seen many of his fellow victims swallowed up by the chain stores or squeezed out by the advancing monopoly concerns. The once better situated white collared worker has witnessed his life savings swept away by bank failures or has lost his home by bank foreclosures. Those still among the fortunate are fearful of the job which exists today and may be gone tomorrow. Of the general working class conditions during the crisis, it is needless to remind ourselves. Living in the shadows of economic insecurity it was easy to lose faith in the promises of a chicken in every pot and the great mass of the middle class and the workers plumped for Roosevelt in 1932. Now they are not so sure that Roosevelt remembers the forgotten man; nor are they so sure of his promises of a “more equitable opportunity to share in the distribution, of national wealth”. That wealth is available in abundance, they know. That the country can pro-

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do. Their appeal is addressed essentially to the middle class, to the battered, smarting small business men, farmers and petty bosses; but their appeal is also designed to rope in the working class. And despite all that can very correctly be said about their directly anti-labor and anti-trade union record – which, by the way, in times of economic distress is easily overshadowwed by the glamor of a panacea – there need be no doubt that at this particular stage they rally considerable support from working class layers. The Chicago Federation of Labor has indorsed the Huey Long program. Wm. Green gives his legislative labor record a clean bill of health. Coughlin claims a membership for his National Union of Social Justice of upward of 7,000,000. Huey Long claims a total of 27,431 Share-the-Wealth Clubs organized with a membership of 4,684,000.

Huey Long’s program can be summed up in his proclamations for the redistribution of wealth. He proposes to reduce the big fortunes by a capital levy tax to a point where no one person may own more than from three to four million dollars and have a yearly income of not more than one million dollars. The surplus is to be distributed so that every family may have at least $5,000. From his paper calculations he already sees $165,000,000,000 available to be thus distributed with something to spare for a college education for all youth, for old age pensions, for reduction of the hours of labor to do away with unemployment and to guarantee a minimum yearly earning of $5,000 per family. The agricultural problem he proposes to take care of in the manner specified by the Bible. It is all very grandiose.

Father Coughlin is more careful in his paper calculations of wealth. He distinguishes between money in its accepted currency form and pen-and-ink-plus-check-book money. Among the planks in his platform he emphasizes: Liberty of conscience and liberty of education; a just and living wage for all citizens willing and able to work – whatever that means. He proposes nationalization – that is, government ownership – of banking, credit and currency, power, light, oil and natural gas and the “God-given” natural resources. He stands for: Private ownership of all other property, in the sense of “upholding the right to private property, yet controlling it for the public good”. Abolition of tax-exempt bonds, broadening of the base of taxation founded upon the ownership of wealth and the capacity to pay, together with alleviation of taxation. He asserts the rights of labor to organize in unions and insists it is the duty of the government to protect these organizations against the vested interests of wealth. In his radio addresses he adds that strikes and lockouts are absolutely unnecessary, which would strongly suggest that by his demand for government “protection” of unions, he means an actual form of state control, including compulsory arbitration. His program is quite vague and contradictory but this allows him to play on feelings and emotions and to appeal to all classes. It is particularly noteworthy that this self-styled champion of the common people maintains intimate contacts with Wall Street bankers in the promotion of inflationary schemes under the innocuous title of monetary reforms which have already netted him handsome profits in margin speculations in silver. But his bourgeois patriotism cannot be questioned. He broadcasts: “Let us build ten thousand airplanes to guard our coasts ... to keep America safe for Americans.”

“I believe in capitalism,” exclaims Huey Long, “but you cannot stimulate it unless there is buying power. You’ve got to have a foundation under the house and that is a more even distribution of wealth.” Yes, there could hardly be any doubt as to where the Louisiana Kingfish stands politically. He knows the power of the catch-phrase: “Share-the-Wealth”; but when he began in his own state and imposed a five cent a gallon tax on gasoline, there followed some conferences between Long and President Hilton of Louisiana Standard Oil and after that the Legislature was summoned in a special session and rebated four to the five cents. On the other hand, in his own state, where he rules supreme, he has made no move to ratify the child labor amendment, or to enact old age pensions, or minimum wages, or unemployment insurance. Thus the demand to “Share-the-Wealth” is not meant to include everybody. Moreover, from his labor record the following facts stand out. The courts and the civil authorities of his state were used to break the strike of the longshoremen and to defeat the efforts of the textile workers’ union to end conditions of virtual peonage in the Lane Cotton Mills. Huey Long is a staunch supporter of Governor Talmadge of Georgia who declared martial law during the national textile strike and put the strikers wholesale into concentration camps.

In this respect Father Coughlin’s position is equally clear. He declares: “While I am most interested in the recovery of our nation, I eschew all radicalism, and desire only one thing – that we will restore the principles of Jesus Christ into practise.” For years he thundered against the “red serpent” and later proceeded to build his church of the Little Flower with non-union labor, paying wages 20 to 40 percent below the union scale and flatly refused to deal with the unions. The San Francisco AF of L convention unanimously adopted a resolution condemning Father Coughlin for his anti-labor stand.

The Long-Coughlin programs propose to redistribute wealth, to increase earnings so that higher prices can be paid, so that interests can be paid on inflated bond issues, so that dividends can be paid on watered stocks and the flow of profits continue, which is the same thing as to stabilize exploitation. But their programs also assume the continuation of capitalism, the continuation of large unearned incomes and of corporate profits taken out of the exploitation of labor, as there is no other source from which it can be taken. The profit system presupposes a return for the laborer in form of wages merely sufficient to reproduce his labor power and it would make the boasted of $2,500 yearly income per family impossible. Their programs further assume the continuation of the bourgeois ownership of the means of production, i.e., the means of exploitation of labor. And it is this economic relationship that governs political action, which is another way of saying that those who own and control the means of production are those who rule. By virtue of their economic power they decide the elections in their bourgeois democracy. They furnish the campaign contributions and use their ownership of the means of production to control the machinery of the political state and to dictate the programs for those who are placed in its executive positions, thereby clearly determining whose government it is. Their power rests on their legal right to exploitation and their legal right to appropriate the surplus value produced by labor. These rulers are to be counted upon, according to the Louisiana Kingfish, to reduce and split up the large holdings of accumulated capital and to redistribute the wealth acquired by the exploitation of labor; in other words, they are to be counted upon to give up the basis upon which their economic power rests! They will not yield this power or yield any part of their privilege without a fierce struggle. However, to take up such a struggle is furthest from the intentions of the Long and Coughlin demagogues. It could not be expected of them. They have cast their lot with the system of privilege to exploit labor and they are a part of it. For themselves they have accepted a task which they proclaim to be the restoration of certain liberties and conditions existing before monopoly capital was known but which means in reality the perpetration of a huge fraud. Their self-accepted task is to buttress and fortify American capitalism for continuation of its ruthless exploitation while swerving the working class off from its path to revolution which alone can guarantee a redistribution of wealth and social security.

With the world war American capitalism extended its economic structure to a world-wide base and became an integral part of the system of world capitalism. But its highly advanced technological development and the enormous overproduction of capital in the means of production serving for the exploitation of labor, subordinated it more directly to the destructive influence of the decay of the world capitalist system. The crisis struck here with greater swiftness and force and became more deep-going than elsewhere And yet, while European countries have experienced revolutionary situations and Fascism, in the United States we have moved on a “normal” plane toward greater state intervention to strengthen monopoly capital. In the make-up of the large mass of the population there is no lack of ready material for explosive actions or dynamic mass movements. We need remind ourselves in this respect on the one hand only of the various essentially middle class and reactionary lynch mobs and vigilante bands. On the other hand we have seen the American working class, not yet conscious of its class role, but displaying in brilliant fashion its rebellious calibre and militant qualities in powerful strikes. But the actually revolutionary forces still lack development. We do not even have a mass social reform movement of the kind known in Europe for decades. Is it likely that such a movement in its specific social democratic form will become a decisive factor in the United States ? Hardly. The accelerated contradictions of capitalism and the swiftly developing class antagonisms unfolding in a condition of retarded consciousness are much more likely to produce a special American phenomena of hybrid social reform movements. In the United States the capitalist equilibrium is not upset but it has been shaken by the crisis and the contradictions of the present economic reorganization. Elements of capitalist decay have produced their special American conditions and the movements holding out various illusory panaceas are thrust forward and thrive on the existing uncertainty and social insecurity. It seems that the Huey Long and Father Coughlin movements are destined to become the most important phenomena of this kind. Both of these representatives are playing with the idea of a third party formation – a third capitalist party with a perverted social reform program. Both appear to be its loudest and most spectacular spokesmen.

Other forces are heading in a third party direction. The alleged Roosevelt betrayal of his promises to the people may serve as their battlecry. In Wisconsin the La Follette Progressive Party is endeavoring to establish an independent state-wide base. The Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party leaders, who are concerned about the farmer and labor substance only in so far as it means support on election day, appear to lend a sympathetic ear to the third party idea. It is quite possible that some such manifestations may also come from the farmer movements in the various middle western states and from the EPICs in California. Even the navericks in Congress are straws in the wind. Of course, it is to be expected that there will be more mutual dislikes than unity of purpose in such a motley combination. Most certainly that is today the attitude to the blatant showman style of both Long and Coughlin. But Huey Long, especially, is edging into a leading position and will surely be willing to trim down on the most jarring notes in his program to suit the more cautious among the petty bourgeois champions.

In this whole trend of development there is to be found in its outward appearance much in common with the old Populist movement and with later Populist revivals such as the La Follette trust-busting and government ownership movement of 1924. Although it calls upon the shades of this dead past to embellish the present endeavors we have here in the main an up-to-date edition of an essentially petty bourgeois movement of the lower middle classes for the separation of the liberal from the Tory. However, in the process of historical development the progressive features of such a movement under conditions of capitalist growth and expansion turn into their opposite under conditions of capitalist decline and decay.

In a society where capitalist relations predominate there are only two decisive forces – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Politically the petty bourgeoisie vacillates between these two forces and is unable to play an independent role. So long as the bourgeoisie, under its “normal” and stable “equilibrium” and its uncontested leadership, can guarantee the limited economic rations and the limited privileges to the petty bourgeois forces these will support the traditional capitalist political parties. They will defend the capitalist regime and the conditions it imposes and often be ready to take part in vigilante expeditions against the workers in strikes. But at the time when this equilibrium is shaken, when their economic ration as a result diminishes and when a working class movement, able to give firm revolutionary leadership, has not yet developed, the petty bourgeois classes dream of turning the march of society backward to the orbit of small scale production. They will then listen most readily to the demagogue and rally to the movement that promises to reduce the big fortunes, to split up the big holdings, to bust the trusts and promise panaceas of social security that are unrealizable while the conditions of capitalism remain. Hopes arise that out of this they may restore their economic base. Futile hopes, empty dreams! In a society built around the axis of mass production, the only progressive feature of capitalism, there is no possibility of turning the clock of history backward and dismantling the technological advance. At best the petty bourgeoisie will in this manner find itself led by these demagogues through new and devious ways into a greater subordination to capitalism as its more pliant tool. If this lower middle class movement for a third party, if this American phenomenon of a hybrid social reform movement crystallizes and succeeds for a time in elevating itself into a commanding political position, it will be because the big bourgeoisie feels itself forced to utilize it as its Left wing to pacify, to deceive and to disintegrate the advancing working class movement before this movement can seriously threaten its power – before a civil war. This would not necessarily mean the strengthening of the bourgeoisie. Nor would it justify an estimate that would make the third party movement, or its specific Huey Long or Coughlin brand, identical with Fascism.

Actual Fascism signifies a condition of civil war on the part of the capitalist society facing the rebelling proletariat. However, out of the conditions of anarchy and subsequent decay of the capitalist system of mass production the working class revolutionary movement grows with greater speed and it is precisely in the dialectic relationship to this development that the formerly progressive features of a third party hybrid reformist movement becomes today a reactionary fetter. It will attempt to march ahead on the backs of the workers, attempt to corral them to its support by means of deception and thus function as a brake to arrest the revolutionary growth and advance of the working class movement. In this there need be no doubt that it will also furnish a breeding ground for Fascism. By its deceptive aims it will appeal mainly to the politically most unconscious, most backward, most indifferent and to the layers among the masses of the population that are most demoralized by the weight of capitalist corruption. In this sense its direction can be only anti-proletarian and anti-revolutionary and a preparation of the road for Fascism.

But, from this point on, it is necessary to make a clear and definite distinction. Actual Fascism will be clearly recognizable from its inception, if and when it does emerge. It was so in Italy and Germany. In each instance the Fascist movement was violent from the start and intensely nationalist; it militarized its followers and aimed openly at a national dictatorship. Terrorization of the workers’ political parties, socialist and communist alike, as well as the trade unions, break-up of their meetings and destruction of their headquarters with fire and sword, together with assassination of their leaders, marked the bloody trail of these Fascist hordes from the beginning. While the German Nazis campaigned violently against usurers and profiteers they shouted with equal ferocity for “the heads of the November criminals”. Of course, they conducted skillful propaganda in the working class ranks against the Wealthy, the usurers and the profiteers, built around demagogic promises of sharing the wealth, but there could be no mistake about their clear and outspoken Fascist character and aims. If and when it emerges in the United States we shall not need be mistaken either about an actual and serious Fascist movement. For, owing to our truly American tempo and proportions it will stand out here as a terrific monster compared to which its kind in Italy and Germany will appear tame and dwarfish.

It would be premature to attempt to make any estimates about the success a third party movement may have. Suffice to say that it appears at this moment more definitely on the horizon than the labor party movement that the Stalinists are trying to create out of nothing except their own tricky reformist, concoctions to serve the foreign policy of the Soviet bureaucracy. Should certain successes of localized labor parties follow from these endeavors, could it not be expected that we would witness a repetition of the 1924 experience when the farmer-labor party forces went to the LaFollette third party movement? What the Stalinists would have aroused today in favor of a labor party would then be swallowed up by the Huey Long third party movement. But what would happen to the honest revolutionists who are clubbed into acceptance of the idea of creating a reformist labor party; moreover, what would happen to the Stalinist party itself ? However, this question is beyond the scope of this article as is any estimate of what effect an actual war situation may have on all of these prospective developments.

One thing, nevertheless, we can affirm as an absolute certainty. The American working class will meet with new disillusionments through an actual third party experience and will have learned one more valuable lesson. Today the American worker still lacks political consciousness and he still moves in an ideologically backward atmosphere – an atmosphere of middle class ideology. But he is trying to extricate himself through militant struggle from his politically illiterate past and is learning to stand erect as a class fighter. Should we then try to outdo Long and Coughlin, and appeal to him in middle class terms ? No, he will learn to turn with fury against those who try to hold him to his past hangovers. That can not be our method. Marxism must remain our weapon and our task must be to translate it into the everyday American language and root it in the American soil. Our task is to build the revolutionary movement.


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