Populism then and now

By Lynn Koh
Jan 17, 2011

Back blogging after a lingering flu...

I just finished The Populist Moment, by Lawrence Goodwyn. It describes a period of radicalism - the 1880s and 1890s - that is far less well-known than either the 1930s or the 60s. Goodwyn describes Populism as the country's largest mass democratic movement, which is a mildly curious judgment for an author writing just after the civil rights movement scored enormous victories.

The history is indeed thrilling. Farmers - both landowners and tenant farmers - were economically strangled by the 'crop lien' system, in which farmers were able to get supplies by essentially mortgaging their crop to the furnishing merchant. In Texas and other states, farmers attempted to build agrarian cooperatives, collective warehouses, and other projects in order to counterbalance the power of the merchant. These projects then ran into the power of moneyed interests - bankers, railroad companies, etc. - who either refused to lend money to the cooperatives or do business with them.

The escalating conflict with the power centers of the capitalist economy provided a political education to the masses of farmers, and also drove them towards adopting a radical program of reform, which included the right to appropriate the property of monopoly capital in order to administer it for the common good, and a democratically controlled money system. When neither major political party would endorse the platform, the farmers moved to build their own political party.

In the end, the farmers' party was absorbed - through no small amount of arm-twisting - into the Democratic Party, which attempted to co-opt rising discontent with a demand to coin silver metal. Overall, the story does remind us of the basics of organizing - drawing masses of people into a political process, which allows them to draw common lessons about the nature of power; using the experiences to formulate a program of demands, and then building the political vehicle to win those demands. Whatever we may think of the third-party as a vehicle, there is no substitute for this basic trajectory.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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