Archive for the ‘History of American Left’ Category

Rehabilitating the Kingfish

March 25, 2013

J+B-164_Huey-Long-the-Kingfisher
Huey P. Long, a.k.a. The Kingfish.

Mike Whitney has posted an article on CounterPunch titled Our Chavez: Huey Long. There seems to be an effort in recent years on the part of some people to to try to portray the sometime governor of Louisiana and U.S.Senator as a great champion of the people, no doubt because of his ant-capitalist rhetoric. Yet when one takes a closer look at his life, it becomes clear that things were not that simple.

During Long’s lifetime, most of the Left regarded him with deep wariness, if not outright hostility. There were good reasons for that. First of all, he governed Louisiana as a virtual dictator. He even organized a secret police force to keep watch on his opponents as well as on his followers.

Long was also a white supremacist. He maintained Louisisana’s Jim Crow laws. (Long would sometimes smear his opponents by spreading rumors that they had “coffee blood”. This gives a bitter irony to calling him “our Chavez”.) Long’s apologists point out that he didn’t talk about white supremacy in his speeches. This was perhaps because he didn’t need to. In 1935, Roy Wilkins interviewed Long for The Criis. They discussed an anti-lynching bill that Long opposed in the Senate:

    How about lynching. Senator? About the Costigan-Wagner bill in congress and that lynching down there yesterday in Franklinton…”

    He ducked the Costigan-Wagner bill, but of course, everyone knows he is aganst it. He cut me off on the Franklinton lynching and hastened in with his “pat” explanation:

    “You mean down in Washington parish (county)? Oh, that? That one slipped up on us. Too bad, but those slips will happen. You know while I was governor there were no lynchings and since this man (Governor Allen) has been in he hasn’t had any. (There have been 7 lynchings in Louisiana in the last two years.) This one slipped up. I can’t do nothing about it. No sir. Can’t do the dead nigra no good. Why, if I tried to go after those lynchers it might cause a hundred more niggers to be killed. You wouldn’t want that, would you?”

    “But you control Louisiana,” I persisted, “you could…”

    “Yeah, but it’s not that simple. I told you there are some things even Huey Long can’t get away with. We’ll just have to watch out for the next one. Anyway that nigger was guilty of coldblooded murder.”

    “But your own supreme court had just granted him a new trial.”

    “Sure we got a law which allows a reversal on technical points. This nigger got hold of a smart lawyer somewhere and proved a technicality. He was guilty as hell. But we’ll catch the next lynching.”

    My guess is that Huey is a hard, ambitious, practical politician. He is far shrewder than he is given credit for being. My further guess is that he wouldn’t hesitate to throw Negroes to the wolves if it became necessary; neither would he hesitate to carry them along if the good they did him was greater than the harm. He will walk a tight rope and go along as far as he can. He told New York newspapermen he welcomed Negroes in the share-the-wealth clubs in the North where they could vote, but down South? Down South they can’t vote: they are no good to him. So he lets them strictly alone. After all, Huey comes first.

In 1934, Long created the Share Our Wealth Society, which had clubs all over the country. He chose as its national organizer Gerald L.K. Smith, an outspoken anti-Semite and a former member of a fascist group called the Silver Shirts. Long also formed a political alliance with the ant-Semitic radio broadcaster, Father Coughlin, who expressed sympathy for Hitler and Mussolini and who claimed that the Russian Revolution was the work of Jewish bankers. Lance Hill has argued that the Share Our Wealth movement was an incipient form of fascism.

According to Wikipedia:

    Long .. planned to challenge Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936, knowing he would lose the nomination but gain valuable publicity in the process. Then he would break from the Democrats and form a third party using the Share Our Wealth plan as its basis … The new party would run someone else as its 1936 candidate, but Long would be the primary campaigner. This candidate would split the progressive vote with Roosevelt, causing the election of a Republican but proving the electoral appeal of Share Our Wealth. Long would then run for president as a Democrat in 1940. In the spring of 1935, Long undertook a national speaking tour and regular radio appearances, attracting large crowds and increasing his stature.

This scheme came to naught, as Long was assassinated in 1935. The Share Our Wealth movement quickly dwindled after that. The reasons for this may be that the economic recovery of 1934-36 strengthened support for Roosevelt, and that the revitalized labor movement probably drew in people who might otherwise have been attracted to Share Our Wealth.

It is often tempting to idealize figures from the past, yet if we hope to actually learn from them, we have to look at these people for what they actually were.

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Some Thoughts on the Crisis in the British SWP

January 15, 2013

I’ve been following the discussions on the crisis in the Socialist Workers Party of Britain on the threads at Lenin’s Tomb and at The North Star. I’m reminded of the fact that this not the first time that a “democratic centralist” organization has imploded. In the 1980’s, this happened to both the American SWP and the British WRP. These implosions happened for different reasons, which suggests to me that these types of organizations are inherently fragile. Building up a layer of cadre who are financially dependent on the organization perhaps creates a structure that does not stand up to internal stress. There is also a problem, I think, in trying to build and maintain an organization with revolutionary politics during a non-revolutionary period. The promise of revolution underlies the group’s activities, but when year after year goes by without the promise being fulfilled, it can be dispiriting for some people and can perhaps create an inward-looking mentality among others. I am curious as to what other people think about this.

Reds

December 24, 2012

Redsposter

Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, Reds, tells the story of John Reed and Louise Bryant, two American journalists who were witnesses to the Russian Revolution. Beatty wrote the screenplay with Trevor Griffiths. Watching this film, one is impressed by the personal courageousness of Reed and Bryant, as well as by their commitment to social justice. They were interesting and inspiring people, so I wish I could give this film an unqualified endorsement, but unfortunately it has a number of problems with it.

At nearly three hours, Reds is too long, mainly because the first half largely consists of scenes of Reed (Warren Beatty) and Bryant (Diane Keaton), who were married, bickering with each other, as well as scenes of Bryant having an affair with Eugene O’Neil (Jack Nicholson). The film doesn’t get interesting until about halfway through when Reed and Bryant go to Russia. Beatty and Griffiths seemed to have had trouble making convincing characters out of historical figures. O’Neil, for example, mostly just drinks a lot and glowers at people. It’s hard to see why Bryant is attracted to him.

Lenin and Trotsky appear only briefly. Zinoviev (Jery Kosinski) and Radek (Jan Triska) are the only Bolshevik leaders depicted in any detail. Reed’s feud with Zinoviev provides much of the drama in the second half of the film. Zinoviev comes across as a bit of a bully and somewhat dishonest, although personally brave. Reed, on the other hand, comes across as a bit ultra-left. He opposes the idea of communists trying to work within the American Federation of Labor, for example. Unfortunately for the film, their conflict is left unresolved because of Reed’s untimely death.

Reds does not romanticize the Russian Revolution. There are discussions about the collapse of the Russian economy and the high-handed methods of the Bolsheviks. Yet the film also points out that sixteen foreign armies (including the U.S. army) invaded Russia. This is a point that often gets conveniently ignored in discussions about the Russian Revolution.

Beatty does possess skill as a director. The scene in which Bryant’s home is raided by government agents, for example, is effectively done, as is the scene in which White Army soldiers attack a train on which Reed is traveling.

The film includes interviews with “witnesses”, people who knew Reed and Bryant. Most of their comments are unilluminating, and some are downright inane. (George Jessel is inexplicably allowed to sing.) They mostly serve as a distraction from the story. I think the film would actually have been better if these had been left out.

While we are on the topic of historical portrayals, I must say I always thought Patrick Stewart would make a good Lenin. So you can imagine my pleasant surprise when I learned that Stewart actually did play Lenin in a BBC TV-series in the early 1970’s entitled The Fall of Eagles. Here is a clip from the series that depicts Lenin’s return to Russia in 1917: