Dirty South Bureau

March 8, 2009

Huey Long lives. In Brooklyn?

Filed under: Class,Louisiana — christian @ 1:26 am

So those of you who know me personally are probably aware of the monster project I have been working on for the last few years, the book on public services and political movements in New Orleans, tentatively titled The New Deal In Reverse. Yesterday this seemingly endless effort got a shot in the arm with the publication of an article that outlines one of the historical arguments that the book makes, that Long influenced the second New Deal (the one where we got all the good social-democratic stuff like social security) by threatening Roosevelt. My old friend Ted Hamm agreed to take it for his arts/culture/politics weekly Brooklyn Rail.


Of course, it’s easier to write historically about Long given the economic crisis the nation has been experiencing. But why the emphasis on Long?

There’s a couple of reasons. First, it seems that radical movements for economic justice are something that we talk about happening elsewhere- perhaps in Latin America, in Russia one hundred years ago, but not in 20th century America. And if we do talk about such movements in America, they are usually marginal and/or doomed, like the IWW, American Communists in the 1930′s, or revolutionary union movements in 1970′s Detroit. This approach implies that such ideas are not intrinsically American or that such movements can never succeed here. Which is hogwash.

Long was not marginal. As flawed as it was, his ‘Share The Wealth’ movement drew millions of adherents. He was a powerful national political figure who had a shot at becoming president, and he scared the wealthy, the powerful and the complacent. He also motivated Southern whites on the basis of class, while so may of his contemporaries instead focused white resentments against African-Americans. He was a genuine American radical and he left a profound mark on the state and the nation.

This is also an argument about agency. Before studying these histories, the story that I have heard my whole life about the South is that progressive movements are something imported from the outside and imposed on inherently regressive Southern whites. If something good happens, it is because yankees did it – from freeing the slaves to the New Deal to the Civil Rights movement.

In these stories the South doesn’t get credit for being a crucible of social change, and, in some cases, for leading the nation. Pop history of the New Deal is no different, where Roosevelt the great father comes down from Washington to help the poor. It took a lot of reading to learn exactly how specific social pressures influenced the New Deal, and how some of the most significant of those pressures came from the South – both in the case of the first New Deal, which was driven by a desire to derail Alabama Senator Hugo Black’s Thirty Hour Bill (Rhonda Levine covers this well in Class Struggle and the New Deal) and the second New Deal, crafted when a strike wave and Huey Long were both scaring the hell out of Roosevelt.

Now I’m certainly not saying that it was healthy to put this social motion in the hands of one person, or that Long was an ideal champion- far from it. But it’s high time that Huey Long and the poor whites who supported him got credit for their part in changing 20th century America for the better.

It’s a little ironic that this has come out so far away, in Brooklyn. Another article on Long is scheduled for Against the Current this May, and if any of my readers know of a suitable Louisiana publication to talk about Long’s legacy in, Share the Wealth and send it my way.


  1. Fascinating.

    I would be interested to hear what you think Long should have done differently. That is, what populist movements today should do differently. I think the Left is hamstrung by the 60′s paradigm of activism, which is not meant as a criticism of the 60′s per se.

    Also, are you familiar with two-time Louisiana gubernatorial candidate Buddy Leach? He ran on a populist agenda. Two of his planks were significantly increasing taxes on the oil industry and raising the minimum wage, among others. He also bore a passing resemblance to Huey Long. I would tell friends, “Vote for Leach. He’s the second coming of Huey Long!”

    Comment by David — March 26, 2009 @ 8:59 am

  2. For me it is not what Long should have done differently. I think Long accomplished a great deal for Louisiana, especially for poor and working people, and particularly given prevalent attitudes about race among whites in Louisiana at that time. Long also did what was politically pragmatic. While that wasn’t always pretty it kept him in a position to make such top-down changes.

    I strongly differentiate this from what mass movements should do differently, and am more interested in bottom-up movements than movements, like Long’s, that depend on a powerful individual. However I think the Left could learn a lot from Long’s ability to motivate ordinary people on the basis of class interest, and his ability to craft simple, powerful messages. The Right certainly has learned to use populist appeals, in a perverse way. Tom Frank explains this well in _What’s the Matter with Kansas_.

    What do you mean by the “60′s paradigm of activism?”

    I voted for Leach when he ran for governor. He seemed to have Longite elements to his platform, and I don’t think this form of populism is entirely discredited in the minds of Louisiana voters. I see Foster Campbell as wanting to wear the mantle of Long as well, particularly in his proposals around taxing the oil industry when he ran for governor.

    Unfortunately, the political coalitions that late Longites like Edwards were dependent on may have broken down. And as much as I like many of the things I see both Leach and Campbell do (particularly Campbell in the LPSC), they have not won the broad support that Long and Edwards did.

    I have puzzled over this. Do you have any thoughts as to why neither of them were more successful?

    Comment by christian — March 29, 2009 @ 10:10 pm

  3. Here’s what I mean by the 60′s paradigm of activism. In broad terms, for liberals under 40, I think there’s an over emphasis on the visible aspects activism, like having a march or a rally, and less emphasis on doing the nitty-gritty work like getting a liberal (or at least more liberal) politician elected.

    I know that the 60′s were about more than marches. But any time the media refers to 60′s activism, nine times out of ten there’ll be footage of a march. For a lot of people, I think being seen and heard is just as satisfying as getting something accomplished.

    When I would mention voting for Leach, I heard from a number of somewhat open-minded people that taxing the oil industry would mean a loss of jobs. Of course, that’s B.S., but I thought it demonstrated how deeply the oil industry’s propaganda had penetrated.

    Ironically, I thought all the attention paid to Sarah Palin gave oil-tax proponents an opportunity to make their case. Essentially, they should point out all the revenue Alaska receives and make the case that, in terms of oil infrastructure, Louisiana is comparably positioned but giving away her resources for nothing.

    Comment by David — March 30, 2009 @ 5:08 pm

  4. I agree with you about the “feel-good” nature of protest marches, and of a lack of deep commitment in some circles. But I think commitment can be expressed in many ways, and I sympathize with those who feel that present day electoral politics are limiting. That’s not to excuse those who use cynicism about politics to be uninformed and/or do nothing about our circumstances.

    I also agree that we need to come down to more substantive issues, such as the free lunch that the oil companies are having at our expense.

    Comment by Christian — March 30, 2009 @ 11:19 pm

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