“Share Our Wealth” and the 99% vs. the 1%

The Great Depression of the 1930s saw the outbreak of a multitude of radical social movements on the Left and on the Right — or ones that were simply sui generis like the “Share Our Wealth” campaign launched by the fiery Louisiana populist politician Huey P. Long, Jr.  Long came from a poor pinewoods parish of Civil War unionist sympathies that had given 36% of its vote in 1912 for the Socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs.  Shades of the current battle cry of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Long targeted the super-rich, the tiny handful of men who owned as much wealth as the rest of the 120 million Americans of that time.  Such an enormous economic disparity, when hundreds of thousands were on the verge of starvation, ran grossly counter, Long declared, to the basic American foundational values of the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and of all men [sic] being created equal.  Long also cited, in support of his proposals, the hoary Biblical practice of “Jubilee” — the periodic forgiveness of debts.

Under Long’s plan, a cap would be imposed on family fortunes like the Mellon’s and Rockefeller’s greater than $50 million dollars (later lowered to $5 million), a goal to be achieved through taxation.  This revenue would be redistributed so that each American family could enjoy a minimum wealth of c. $5,000 (over $80,000 in today’s dollars) — “enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences, and the opportunity to educate their children” (Long, “Every Man a King” national radio broadcast, 2/23/1934).  After the leveling, there would be a government-guaranteed annual income of two to three thousand dollars.  Long also proposed a $30 monthly old-age pension, the immediate payment of the bonus that had been promised veterans from the Great War, care for sick and disabled veterans, and the reduction of working hours based on labor-saving devices to preclude further economic overproduction and in order that ordinary people might benefit from leisure time to do things like going back to school (which would be free to all based on ability).  For badly-stressed agriculture, Long advocated a government system to balance out supply and demand.

Long was not averse to using the N-word and was evasive on the paramount anti-racist issues of lynching and the southern deprivation of black voting rights (Roy Wilkins interview with Long, The Crisis, 2/1935).  But, in an era when white demagogic politicians in the South very much liked to play the divide-and-conquer race card and when the South and much of the rest of the country were heavily segregated de jure or de facto, Long’s class-based movement was open to persons of all races.  The later Black Panther co-founder and leader, Huey P. Newton, whose sharecropper parents removed their family from Louisiana to Oakland, California in 1945 to take advantage of wartime shipyard jobs open to African-Americans, was named for Huey Long whom they admired as a champion of the downtrodden.  While governor of Louisiana, Long had launched public works projects to build roads and bridges and had the state provide free textbooks to school children of all races.  By September 1935, when Long was assassinated by a Louisiana political enemy in the state capitol at Baton Rouge, over seven million people nationwide were involved with the “Share Our Wealth” clubs.  Millions more listened to Long’s national radio messages or read his mass mailings.

As the historian Alan Brinkley has described them, the local clubs were often highly autonomous — not unlike today’s local Occupations.  But without Long’s dynamic leadership and oratory, the movement faltered and collapsed.  In the succession fight for control of his Louisiana political machine, the all-important national mailing list was destroyed at the behest of two wealthy New Orleans millionaires who had helped finance Long politically for their own gain but who were not too keen on sharing the wealth.  The Third Party “Union” candidacy of North Dakota Congressman William Lemke fared poorly in the November 1936 elections which saw a Roosevelt landslide over the Republicans.  Long’s chief movement organizer, the Shreveport fundamentalist minister Gerald L. K. Smith, went off in a direction of ugly racist and anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Nevertheless, Long’s movement had a lasting effect.  President Roosevelt — whose advisers and poll-takers feared that an independent Long presidential candidacy if it came off, with backing from the nationally-popular Detroit radio priest, Father Coughlin, and California old-age reformer, Dr. Townsend (who had his own large network of clubs), might siphon away enough votes from the Democrats in some parts of the country to tip the 1936 elections through the electoral college to the Republicans — had sought to foreclose that possibility by enacting some watered-down aspects of Long’s more radical program.  (Progressives like Wisconsin’s U.S. Senator Robert LaFollette, Jr. were also calling for wealth redistribution and hinting at a possible electoral challenge to FDR if he did not move his policies more to the left.)  Out of this “Second New Deal” in the summer of 1935 came Social Security, the National Labor Relations Act, the WPA, rural electrification, and a significantly more progressive, if not Long-style confiscatory, reform to the federal tax structure.

In his message to Congress introducing the Revenue Act of 1935, Roosevelt coopted some of the “Share Our Wealth” rhetoric by denouncing the existing tax structure for having “operated in many ways to the undue advantage of a few” and having “done little to prevent an unjust concentration of wealth and economic power.”  Wealth, he emphasized, is the creation not only of individual effort and ingenuity but is also the result of “mass cooperation.”  A tax was put on incomes above $50,000, with a maximum on the highest income bracket above $10 million placed at 75%.  The inheritance tax was upped to 70% for estates in excess of $50,000,000.  The top corporate income tax rate was increased to 15% — plus an “excess profits tax” to a maximum 12% was imposed on net income greater than 15% of the value of the corporation’s capital.  (By contrast, in 2011, the highest tax rates are only 35% for individuals with incomes of $379,150 and above — millionaires and billionaires pay no differently — and basically the same income tax rate prevails for large corporations — though they often find loopholes that enable them to pay little or nothing.  There is no excess profits tax today.)

Civil libertarians and others excoriated the “Kingfish” for the high-handed and often vindictive methods he used as Louisiana Governor and U.S. Senator.  Some compared him to Italy’s fascist dictator Mussolini, a former socialist who had swung to the right and established an authoritarian regime.  More accurately, critics of Long in and around the Communist Party observed that under his Plan the rich capitalists, with their excesses of wealth trimmed through taxation, would still remain in ownership and control of the means of production.  As long as that were the case, the bourgeoisie would do whatever it could to sabotage the redistribution of the wealth.  Moreover, workers would still be exploited by the capitalist owning class and capitalistic relations of all sorts reproduced.  The other primary motto of the “Share Our Wealth” movement, “Every Man a King,” betrays the movement’s rural petit-bourgeois, not urban working-class, origins and orientation.  Nor can a complex modern society be run effectively or justly by a set of small individual producers, however equal they’ve been made in their share of income and wealth.  Society needs to be democratically planned and managed by the associated producers who have attained political power.  These observations are germane with respect to the Occupy Wall Street movement today.  More fundamental than the gap between the 99% and the 1% (or the .01%) is the division of society between the few who own the means of production and the rest of us who must work for a living.

I have written previously about the great Bonus March of Veterans on Washington D.C. in 1932 — its tremendous successes in galvanizing large numbers of people to camp and protest and its ultimate violent dispersal by the armed forces of the state launched against them by President Hoover.  By contrast, the “Share Our Wealth” movement was coopted by the “liberal” Democratic Party rather than being put down by force, and it fell victim to its reliance on a single charismatic leader — pitfalls that Occupy Wall Street has consciously and conscientiously avoided.  With both these movements, history shows once again that the System’s political front men must be put on notice and alarmed by intemperate radical mass uprisings from below before it will sanction meaningful reforms.  So that’s a compelling argument, even if an anti-capitalist revolution for the 99% against the 1% is not on the immediate horizon (as it ought to be) in this country, for getting out there in the streets, parks, and other public spaces during 2012 and giving them the fright that the bastards so richly deserve.

Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.

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