Kingfish Down

Huey Long was assassinated 80 years ago. Whatever its appeal, his populism offered no real alternative for ordinary workers.

Huey Long speaks on the radio about his "Share the Wealth" program in May 1935. Hulton Archive

Huey P. Long rose to prominence during the Great Depression, when more than two million Americans were homeless and more than a quarter of the nation’s workers were unemployed. Revolution was not on the immediate horizon, but many at the time recognized capitalism as the source of their ruin and searched for alternatives.

Long embodied one alternative for hundreds of thousands of Louisiana voters, declaring every man a king and promising a government that would break up large bank accounts and provide a base level income to every citizen. For Louisiana’s poor — small farmers and itinerant laborers alike — it was an inspiring promise.

But Long was no socialist. He was an agrarian populist who sought to strengthen American capitalism by mitigating its inequalities, not by subverting it. In fact, when he was accused of Communist sympathies for his redistributive program — cleverly called the “Share Our Wealth” plan — he replied, “Communism? Hell no! This plan is the only defense this country’s got against Communism.”

Socialists of the time recognized the differences between Long and themselves. Socialist Party of America leader Norman Thomas famously debated Long in 1934, counterposing the Share Our Wealth program with his party’s vision. The next year, Socialist Appeal published an essay accusing Long of “old fascist stunts” and calling the Louisiana governor a “potential fascist leader.”

But it was impossible for socialists to deny that Long’s charisma and criticism of the wealthy struck a chord with working-class Americans in a way that organized revolutionaries could not. In an era when socialists struggled to achieve even the smallest electoral foothold, Long drew on Americans’ mass dissatisfaction with capitalism to establish a powerful political machine, turning Louisiana into something of a private fiefdom and fashioning himself into a real presidential contender.

Although organizations like Thomas’s Socialist Party and the Communist Party often exerted influence in unions and workplaces — including in sections of the agrarian South — this influence rarely managed to translate into real electoral potential.

Thomas ran for president on the Socialist Party ticket for the second time in 1932, more than tripling his votes from four years prior but still only managing to win 2% of the national vote. His vote total slipped back below 1% in 1936. Things were even worse for the Communists — they never managed to win more than 0.3% in any presidential election.

At the same time, there was a dramatic shift in many areas of American politics. Although most were unwilling to accept the revolutionary alternatives offered by organizations like the Communist Party, there was widespread skepticism towards capitalism. Leaders across the political spectrum called the system’s fairness and sustainability into question.

But not all of those who diagnosed capitalist crisis as the source of society’s ills drew revolutionary conclusions, or even socialist ones.

Populists like Long relied on the support of small producers — mostly farmers who owned plots of land and sold goods at market, all of whom were severely affected by the scarcity of the Great Depression. These populists offered an analysis that charged big banks and tycoons with betraying capitalism’s supposedly egalitarian promise.

Their mission wasn’t to dismantle capitalism, but to rearrange the economy in favor of their popular constituents — market-reliant farmers and small entrepreneurs.

Buoyed by mass resentment towards the wealthy, populist administrations launched rhetorical attacks on powerful capitalists, but stopped short of threatening the class structure at the root of capitalism. As a result, the relationship between organized workers and populist administrations was often unpredictable, and could be contentious.

For example, Minnesota Gov. Floyd Olson openly advocated an end to capitalism, and in 1934 his Farmer-Labor Party officially resolved that “capitalism has failed and immediate steps must be taken by the people to abolish capitalism in a peaceful and lawful manner.”

Olson proposed state ownership of key industries (including mining, oil extraction, and meatpacking) and advocated a form of popular economic control he termed “collectivism.” As governor, he even threatened to forcibly dispossess the wealthy to provide enhanced relief for workers hard-hit by the Depression — speaking from the steps of the state capital, he announced that those who “happen to possess considerable wealth will be brought before the provost guard” and forced to pay up.

But despite these positions, Olson’s allegiance to organized labor was inconsistent. In 1934, he declared martial law and used the National Guard to brutally suppress a teamsters strike in Minneapolis, betraying the trust of many of his supporters.

Olson, as a member of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party, was a proponent of a kind of third-party populism that advocated a break from both the Democrats and the Republicans. Robert La Follette of Wisconsin shared this distrust of the dominant parties, leaving the GOP while still a sitting senator to form the Progressive Party. La Follete ran for president as a Progressive in 1924, winning 17% of the popular vote and carrying his home state. Later, he advocated an alliance between Olson’s Farmer-Labor Party, the Wisconsin Progressives, and other left-wing formations to form “a national third party — a real leftist party.”

Long would come to be associated with a similar third-party orientation as his presidential ambitions intensified towards the end of the life.

Though he had been elected governor as a Democrat, Long famously renounced the party in his so-called “High Popalorum Speech,” in which he described Democrats and Republicans as the same snake-oil potion in different bottles. His Share Our Wealth Society — which in 1935 had more than 7.5 million members in 27,000 clubs throughout the country — was organized outside of the Democratic Party and in specific opposition to the Roosevelt administration, laying the foundation for a third-party presidential campaign.

But while Long and others envisioned a populist alternative to the two-party system, some Depression-era reformers articulated their own anticapitalist programs from within it.

In 1934, Upton Sinclair left the Socialist Party to become a Democrat before embarking on his own gubernatorial run as part of his Ending Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign, advocating an economy run by a network of workers cooperatives as a replacement to capitalism.

Sinclair viewed the state seizure of under-used private lands and factories as central to his plan — a forceful attack on private capital that set him apart from softer Democrats like President Roosevelt, who refused to endorse his candidacy. And Sinclair’s suggestion that unemployed film workers take over idle studios and begin producing their own cinema so outraged the Hollywood elite that they threatened to move the American film industry to Florida should he be elected.

Sinclair was defeated, but he managed to win an impressive 37.4% of the vote, more than double what any previous Democratic candidate had won in California.

The political content of such populist challenges to capitalism wasn’t always obvious, with committed socialists often torn between supporting much-needed reforms on one hand, and opposing political formations made up primarily of small business owners whose interests did not always align with workers on the other.

But the reactionary core of some populists was crystal clear.

Father Charles Coughlin was a Catholic priest and radio personality who combined intense American jingoism with a moral critique of capitalism, advocating a “corporate state” that could end the Depression by reorganizing the economy according to Christian moral standards. He supported Roosevelt’s New Deal, coining the phrase “Roosevelt or ruin,” and appealed to both poor farmers and middle-class smallholders, condemning with equal fervor “the heinous greed of modern capitalism” and international socialism — which he claimed “robs us of the next world’s happiness.”

Coughlin’s National Union for Social Justice had membership in the millions, though it was poorly organized at the grassroots level. His fascist character became undeniable in the late 1930s, when he turned away from Roosevelt and began openly supporting Hitler and Mussolini in Europe.

Long’s place in this populist milieu remains controversial, but most interpret him as an opportunistic and ideologically inconsistent figure, more similar to right-wing nativists than socialist egalitarians. One radical historian characterizes his politics as “bayou fascism,” connecting his legacy to the rise of Louisiana lawmaker and proud Klansman David Duke in the 1980s.

But the radical potential of Long’s Share Our Wealth program is undeniable. The program would have limited annual income to $1 million and capped inheritances to $5 million, seizing the excess wealth to guarantee every family a basic “homestead allowance” of $5,000, plus an additional $2,000 in guaranteed annual income. In the long term, the plan also envisioned free higher education for all, increased pensions, guaranteed vacation time for all workers, and a thirty-hour work week, among other quality-of-life reforms.

And during his tenure as governor of Louisiana, Long consistently prioritized the needs of the state’s poorest residents. Though his critics then and now claimed that this was nothing more than a cynical way to corral voters, it is impossible to dispute that Long’s extensive network of free schools, hospitals, highways, and bridges greatly improved the lives of poor laborers throughout Louisiana.

Long was assassinated in the Louisiana State Capitol on September 10, 1935, just days after announcing his intention to run for president. The circumstances of Long’s death are a valuable reminder of his corrupt cronyism — the assassin was the son-in-law of a Louisiana judge who Long had gerrymandered out of his district over a petty rivalry.

Long’s assassination abruptly severed the progress of his Share Our Wealth program, making it difficult to draw firm conclusions about its potential. But it seems clear that Long’s political trajectory was moving rightward toward the end of his life. His biographers have speculated that winning the endorsement of reactionary leaders like Coughlin was central to his projected presidential strategy, and socialists had already begun to remark on the similarities between the two charismatic leaders even before Long’s murder.

As novelist Robert Penn Warren notes in a fictionalized account of his life, Huey Long was a “complicated contraption” indeed. Through the political heft of his Share Our Wealth clubs, he managed to represent one of the gravest challenges to American capitalism, even while emphatically positioning himself as one of the system’s strongest lines of defense. His popularity among poor and working-class Americans is an indication of his mastery of the mechanics of US electoral politics as well as the massive appeal of anticapitalist ways of thinking during the Great Depression. And despite its obvious deficits — not to mention its opportunistic slips into racism and xenophobia — Long’s platform offered hope to millions of poor Americans who identified capitalism as a source of their misery and desperately wanted to participate in building an alternative.

With apparently no viable socialist alternative on offer, Long’s simple redistributive program attracted widespread support.

The US was an outlier during the interwar years, as revolutionary workers parties all over Europe swelled in size and threatened to overturn their governments in the name of international communism. But despite the severity of the Great Depression, American misgivings about capitalism didn’t cohere into a revolutionary workers movement of anything approaching the scale of those in Europe.

Despite the relative strength of the Communist Party and other formations, radical ideas had trouble penetrating the American mainstream. Instead, popular dissatisfaction with capitalism was expressed through the lens of agrarian populism — a politically disjointed vision that did little to connect individualistic self-interest with the collective interests of a class. And often, as in the case of Long, this populist demand for a more equitable economy was explicitly anti-socialist — an apparent paradox that confused many leading radicals of the day.

Writing in 1970, socialist Michael Harrington argued that there was nothing paradoxical about this at all. He claimed that the ethos of free land in North America held a unique influence over American workers, making a “confused, pro-capitalist radicalism not only possible and progressive in the United States, but inevitable as well.”

Winning individual plots of land for each American worker in the seemingly endless American West appeared to be an easier pathway out of capitalism than workers revolution in the industrial centers, Harrington said. Although this is absurd economics — land in the West was never endless, nor was it ever especially cheap — Harrington contended that for American workers it was the most intuitive political response to the Great Depression, “a vital expression of mass hostility toward industrial capitalism” articulated from within the frame of the American frontier dream.

But there is little material basis for this thesis. As popular front historians demonstrated, land ownership was an impossible ambition for most American workers, even as early as the nineteenth century.

Advocating an agrarian pathway out of capitalism during the Great Depression was hardly intuitive. It took charismatic populists like Long to put that vision forward, dismissing the revolutionary socialist vision gaining traction in other parts of the world in favor of a reimagined capitalism, organized around preserving an economy of small producers.

To one historian, Long represents “the slack side of the American dream: a vision of total social equality mixed with fantasies of unlimited individual privilege” — in other words, a bridge between American laborers skeptical of socialism (which they viewed as “too preoccupied with dividing the pie and not enough with making it bigger”) and the socialistic vision of a strong state that could seize the property of the rich and redistribute it in the service of the poor.

But American populism proved itself unable to solve the problems posed by capitalism. Long’s message only challenged the status quo insofar as it sought to limit the influence of the largest capitalists in order to open up room for smaller ones.

And it generated a whole host of its own perverse consequences as well — including the corrupt patronage system that came to characterize much of Long’s career.

Then, as now, there was a possible alternative — a socialist movement grounded in material reality and the collective interests of workers. But then, as now, it remained elusive.