Lessons of the Populist Movement of the 1890s

Until recently, the capitalist class believed that the class struggle was dead in America. Some of them still delude themselves that this remains the case. With the political earthquakes of Bernie Sanders, Occupy, and the Black Lives Matter, which mobilized millions of workers and youth against the “billionaire class,” this lie has been put to rest. The more farsighted capitalists, who have long leaned on the labor leaders to keep the unions in check, are coming to the realization that the sleeping giant of the American proletariat is awakening.

After Sanders’s refusal to break with the Democrats and build a new party, confusion and demoralization are understandable. A small layer of the white working class gave Donald Trump what were essentially protest votes to spite the capitalist establishment, tipping the electoral balance in his favor. Some, disgusted by Trump’s toxic views, voted for Clinton just to keep him out. The vast majority decided simply to stay home.

Millions of workers and youth across the country have rejected the Democratic Party and the Obama legacy. The Marxists believe there is only one way forward: a mass socialist party of the working class. Many American workers, even the most advanced layers, aren’t aware of the time when America nearly had such party. To understand where we stand today, it is paramount that we understand the history of the Populist movement of the 1890s.

In the period following post-Civil War Reconstruction, America was industrializing. Factories sprang up like mushrooms and railways crisscrossed the nation. Steel replaced iron as the dominant construction material, oil was put to use in the form of kerosene and gasoline, and coal was mined at rates never seen before. The market inevitably turns towards monopolization, with trusts and robber barons dominating the economy. In stride with this second industrial revolution, the proletariat also grew dramatically. Unions became mass organizations for the first time, with the ranks of the Knights of Labor swelling to more than half a million by the mid-1880s. The class struggle also reached new heights, with the Great Railroad Strike, the events in the Haymarket in Chicago, and the Homestead and Pullman Strikes all taking place during this period.

In the Western half of the country, many small farmers were in debt to creditors and helpless to compete with the robber-baron monopolies. Their grievances led to the birth of the People’s Party in 1891. A left-wing farmers’ party, they attempted to build an alliance between the Western farmers, the Eastern proletariat, and Southern sharecroppers. They advocated a scheme whereby the federal government would print silver dollars and greenback dollars to generate inflation. Inflation would benefit debtors by reducing the nominal amount they owed. They put forward a progressive and class-conscious program of nationalization of the railroad, telegraph and telephone industries; direct election of the Senate, which at the time was appointed by state legislatures; one-term presidents; an eight-hour workday; and popular referendums on unpopular laws.

James B. Weaver, the Populist candidate for President in 1892, won over a million votes, a respectable 8.5% of the vote. They were the largest party in North Dakota, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, and Kansas. In 1893, a Populist militia seized control of the Kansas Legislature when the Republicans attempted to commit electoral fraud.

An important point of discord in the Populist movement was its policy towards black Americans. In the South, black and white sharecroppers were impoverished, living as economic hostages to parasitic landlords, the descendants of the slavocracy overthrown during the Civil War. The old animosity between whites and blacks could have been overcome by uniting them in a class struggle against the Southern landlords. To their credit, the Populists originally advocated black-white unity. But the Southern landlords, recognizing the danger of black and white sharecroppers rising against their rule, used racism to divide them. The Southern elite used Jim Crow, literacy tests, and poll taxes to disenfranchise black people—not to mention lynchings and mob violence.

The Populists leaders, instead of fighting against the racist tide, betrayed the black sharecroppers and endorsed white supremacy. The ripples of this opportunism played a role in the ruin of the party. Farmers and workers across the nation were disgusted by this betrayal, and a wave of disillusionment spread over the Populists’ bases of support. This was further cemented by the decision of the Populist leaders to ally with Democrat William Jennings Bryan (who lost) in the 1896 presidential election. Instead of becoming a mass leftwing party of workers, farmers, and sharecroppers united against capitalism, it crumbled into a racist and capitulatory shadow.

The Populist Party grew at a time when most Americans were farmers. The continued process of industrialization into the 20th century meant the growth of the working class. This change, along with the co-opting of the Populists, created the conditions for the Socialist Party of America.

The fundamental problem with the Populists was their lack of a socialist program and leadership, the same problem faced by the working class today. These days, the Blairites in the British Labour Party are putting forward UKIP-lite immigration policies; Bernie Sanders sacrificed a historic chance to create a socialist mass party and instead endorsed an imperialist war criminal; and the New Democratic Party leadership in Canada is committed to pushing the party to the right instead of recognizing the thirst that exists for revolutionary change. Racism and xenophobia to divide the workers, “lesser-evilist” class collaboration, and “moderation” and reformism instead revolutionary politics led the Populist movement to disaster. The working class would do well to learn from these mistakes and fight for class unity, independence, and socialist revolution.

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