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.