HUEY P. LONG: BAYOU FASCISM?
by Lance Hill
Urgent Tasks No. 14/Fascism in the U.S.?
There wants to be revolution, I tell you. I seen this
domination of capital, seen it for seventy years. What do
these rich folks care for the poor man? They care
nothing — not for his pain, his sickness nor his death.
And now they're talking again about keeping the poor
folks from voting — that same talk. I say there wants to
be a revolution.
- Huey P. Long's father, 1935
When I was about fifteen years old I happened across two pictures in my school history book that appeared so peculiar that the images are vivid in my mind today. One was a photograph of a strangely dressed Black man reclining regally in the back seat of a large car. He was surrounded by imposing-looking men, apparently bodyguards. It was Marcus Garvey. The other picture was of a roly-poly, jovial-looking man, dressed in a rumpled suit. It was Huey P. Long.
Neither of these men, nor the movements that they had led, could be explained by the text. Nothing in the historian's tedious recitation of dates and wearisome analysis could explain this apparent ripple of unrest.
Now it seems that Huey is being resurrected because he is perceived as a symbol of recalcitrance and radicalism, traits that do not appear immediately among white people. He was feared by big business, he outraged pompous politicians, and he carefully created an image as the voice of the impoverished and disenchanted.
The Houston Opera has commissioned an opera based loosely on his life; Gore Vidal is writing the screenplay for a movie about Huey; people are reprinting his Share Our Wealth programs as a nostrum for modern ills. His revival makes it imperative that the fascist character of his movement and the lessons therein be grasped.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF HUEY'S LIFE
Historians are fond of rummaging about in Long's early life, attempting to trace his later politics to some influence or trauma of early life. I will touch on this only briefly since it is central to my perspective that the "great leader" of any movement is transformed by the various political, economic, and social forces of the epoch. Early influences can only enable us to apprehend the diversity of experiences, but they should not be confused with the impelling force of a movement.
Huey was born in 1893 in Winnfield, Louisiana, a small town in the backwoods of the verdant rolling hills. The son of a populist partisan, Huey grew up comfortably in the midst of powerless, abjectly impoverished white farmers. Probably no other section of the country witnessed such chronic want, often bordering on famine. With none of the customary decencies of life afforded laborers elsewhere, these people sporadically entered into the radical white populism that convulsed the northern part of the state.
Wobblies, anti-racist populists, white supremacist populists, and white supremacist reactionaries all discovered impassioned adherents on the same terrain. Democracy was an institution that was to be rendered harmless if any one of these political currents were to become an influential force. For Huey, a hybrid of petty bourgeois populism and white supremacy were essential influences on his early life, but more important, an abiding conviction that democratic institutions were tools of subjugation, obstructions to the revolution he envisioned.
Huey left home to pursue a career as an itinerant salesman. This phase of his life was more rewarding politically than financially, since Huey was to hone his understanding of the political dynamics of the backwoods settlements. But Huey was soon to grow restless, so in 1914 he entered law school and quickly passed the bar in one year, a result of his phenomenal memory and equally formidable talent of manipulation. He returned to his home in Winn Parish to pursue a practice that relied heavily on workmen's compensation cases. It was this area that first introduced him to public political life.
Huey had been drawn to the state capital to engage in a campaign to rewrite the workmen's compensation laws that were heavily biased toward the employers. It was there that he was befriended by Senator S. J. Harper, a radical anti-capital advocate of workers' rights and non-intervention in World War I. Senator Harper had the misfortune of offending the patriotic sentiments of his fellow solons, and soon he faced a ludicrous espionage charge. Huey took to his legal defense and successfully won his acquittal.
An interesting quality of Senator Harper's that receives little attention was his anti-Semitism: the senator was a dedicated anti-Semite and routinely corresponded with other virulent proponents. No doubt Huey was exposed to the senator's diatribes against "Jewish capital," nor was this kind of talk new to him. I mention it because Huey's recurring association with anti-Semites at least provides credence to the speculation that his movement could forge ideological links with other fascist organizations.
At the age of 25 Huey campaigned like a thunderbolt through his old sales territory, Northern Louisiana, and won a seat on the heretofore effete State Railroad Commission. Here he began a turbulent career, part myth and part fact, that endeared him to the masses of desperate white farmers as a rebel and populist. Huey quickly maneuvered on the commission to allow for a wider construction of its jurisdiction, rapidly bringing the great nemesis of the poor, Standard Oil, under his control.
Over the years Huey managed to harass the utilities, big oil companies, and Bell Telephone as a head of the crusading regulatory commission, and actually won several concessions from them. Using this position he managed to catapult himself into the governor's office in 1928. He built a pervasive political machine through patronage and survived the ill-conceived assaults of his arch-rivals, the New Orleans old regulars' machine.
In 1932 Huey secured the U.S. Senate seat in Washington, and through an obsequious governor, simultaneously ruled the state government. Louisiana had become a complete and total dictatorship. All three branches of government were controlled by the "Kingfish," and they functioned purely as rubber stamps for Huey's mandates. Capital negotiated directly with Huey.
By 1935 Huey was the single most influential political figure on the horizon. He had carefully nurtured a dynamic image through massive propaganda and national radio programs. He headed what was potentially the first mass fascist organization with a membership of over four and a half million.
Roosevelt considered him the principal obstacle to his continued tenure, as Huey hinted strongly at mounting a third party challenge in 1936. On September 8, 1935, a somber young doctor named Seymore Weiss walked casually into the state capitol building in Baton Rouge and shot Huey to death. Weiss was instantly set upon by armed guards, who riddled his body beyond recognition. The Kingfish died and his empire rapidly crumbled.
LONG'S POLITICAL PROGRAM
Actually, Huey's politics have to be viewed on three levels in order to appreciate the import of his movement. These are not easily separated out, but let me outline them as follows:
First, there is the arena of social legislation, those accomplishments that he pursued and subsequently publicized as embodying his social program. Secondly, there are corporative programs, those which represent an approach to the state that foreshadowed the American fascist response to capitalist crisis. Finally there is the essential effect of all of these combined — the essential, objective quality of the Long movement, which I hold to be fascist.
From the beginning of his political life Huey had talked about the maldistribution of wealth, and he sought ways through social legislation to redress this problem. (Ultimately this was distilled in the Share Our Wealth program which called for a guaranteed annual income, limited work days, and ceilings on earnings, although these programs were not advocated together until 1934.)
During his tenure, Huey managed to provide old age pensions, free books for school children, adult education programs, and free medical care in some areas. He substantially eased the tax burden for poor whites, completely eliminating property tax for Blacks.
There is some debate surrounding the sweep and effectiveness of his programs, but all agree that in the eyes of poor whites he was a crusader for their needs. Roosevelt's New Deal program was consciously engineered to deflect the Long movement as well as to arrogate aspects of Huey's program as the New Deal's unique contribution.
More revealing for this analysis was the increasing importance Long placed on the role of the state in salvaging capitalism from its apocalyptic crisis. Similar to Mussolini (of whom Huey genuinely knew little), Long had arrived at the conclusion that the solution to economic crisis was the intervention of the state as a reconciling force detached from the interests of labor or capital.
This corporatist approach was not just bombast on Huey's part: he did not hesitate to lend the full weight of his machine to the claim that he opposed super-government, be it the capitalist, the working class, or other fascists (the Ku Klux Klan). In pursuit of this, Huey set out to rescue Louisiana from the suffocating grasp of the antiquated laissez faire policy of a rapidly collapsing capitalist class.
His policy toward extensive bridge and road development was not, as some suggest, merely a ploy to facilitate his constituency's travel to the polls. The massive effort created thousands of jobs, prefiguring the WPA programs of the New Deal, while at the same time creating the arteries for increased capitalist development. The old Bourbons had ignored the elementary prerequisites for industrialization in the South, and Louisiana had struggled into the thirties on roads of mud, untravelable by truck or auto.
Huey complemented this with legislative packages that included cold storage facilities for farmers' crops and health care for a physically deteriorating class. He intervened as the monolithic state in the Louisiana banking crisis and cajoled large Eastern banks into rescuing the local banks from collapse. His local experience carried over into national politics, where he became a constant nuisance to the Roosevelt administration with his demand for a radical banking policy that included federally insured deposit programs.
As early as 1931 Huey was vigorously enacting legislation to stem the crisis of overproduction, using methods that were reluctantly adopted years later by Roosevelt. Huey had decided that the only way to eliminate the surplus of cotton that had driven prices down was to completely ban its production in 1932.
He quickly rammed the legislation through the Louisiana House and Senate, only to have surrounding states abstain from his scheme. His grasp of the necessity of radical intervention by the state, as well as his disregard for legal obstructions to these actions, made him far more effective at rendering the crisis less severe.
All of this culminated in an event that most historians mention casually but which reveals to me the depth and the vision of his philosophy of the state (I'm speaking of an implied viewpoint). In 1935 Standard Oil responded to a five-cent-a-barrel tax on their oil produced in Louisiana by laying off thousands of employees and threatening to close their Baton Rouge refinery, the largest in the world. Without reserve, Huey promptly informed Standard Oil that he was prepared to expropriate the refinery, or run them out of the state and build a publicly owned refinery (the profits of which, either way, would go to send poor people's children to college).
While the national office of Standard scoffed at the idea, the local Standard officials panicked at what they knew was entirely possible in Huey's Louisiana. What ensued was a negotiated agreement with Huey and an amicable resolution. But Huey had revealed two things: first, that he was willing to move decisively to salvage capitalism from itself; and second, in his form of government one need not negotiate with labor, legislatures, or courts. Huey was the state.
These were the things that Huey said of himself, the things that he wanted to be known as his vision. But none of these programs are particularly hallmarks, or proof, of fascism. They do resemble closely the political directions of European fascist movements, however. Two features of the Long movement are salient features in fascism — the preservation of capital in crisis and the elimination of mediating institutions in the class struggle (unions, parliamentary democracy, a free press).
I believe the first feature is borne out in the above-mentioned programs. On this point Huey once entreated his fellow senators that his campaign ". . . is no campaign to soak the rich, it is a campaign to save the rich. It is a campaign the success of which they will wish for when it is too late." When queried about the similarity of his politics to fascist policy, he replied that he was democratic.
What was his definition of democracy?
My theory is that a leader gets up a program and then he goes out and explains it, patiently and patiently until they get it. He asks for a mandate, and if they give it to him he goes ahead with the program, hell or high water. He don't tolerate no opposition from the old gang politicians, the legislatures, the courts, the corporations or anybody.
Compare Huey's perspective with one of his contemporaries:
We only made use of democratic means in order to gain power, and . . . after the seizure of power we would ruthlessly deny to our opponents all those means which they had granted to us during the time of our opposition.
- Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels
Huey's theory of democracy was profoundly anti-democratic, but it did recognize the mass character of the fascist movement, the fact that fascism rose to power with the support of a significant majority of the masses. What most historians have failed to understand is that Huey's ruthlessness was not the result of gaining power, it was the condition of his rise to power.
THE LONG MACHINE
The fact that Huey evolved from a rather traditional political boss career has tended to obfuscate the fascistic form of the political machine which he built. Fascism appears in many forms, but the definitive rule is that it always reflects the entire history of the bourgeoisie's attempt to contain the class struggle.
Lacking a tradition of clearly defined class organizations, fascism in its incipient form in Louisiana absorbed itself in the electoral machines, the only arena of political life. White supremacy's sway over poor whites had rendered appeals to direct action and class consciousness superfluous.
The thing that made Huey's machine unique was that it was not designed to compete with other machines; it was designed to eliminate them. Accordingly, the machine itself developed a structure that would atomize its own followers as well as yield up a variety of devices to ensure implementation of its policies. (The Long machine was essentially the bureaucratic power base for what was to be the mass organization, Share Our Wealth clubs [SOW]. In Louisiana the machine committees actually became SOW clubs and Long culled cadre for the national campaign from his old machine.)
What is amazing is the similarity of the machine to the fascist organization as described by Hannah Arendt in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism. The backbone of the machine was the local committee, typically consisting of the sheriff, officeholders, and a few political allies, their allegiance more opportunist than ideological. Reinforced with 26,000 patronage jobs, the machine demanded complete loyalty.
They were kept in a state of perpetual suspicion and infighting, something Huey encouraged. In fact, Huey made it a policy when "fixing" elections that none of his candidates would win by wide margins. This was intended to create a sense of uncertainty and dependence in his own organization.
At times he would even arrange to have one of his own candidates lose, thus feeding the anxiety and fear that permeated the machine and the state as a whole. This conscious manipulation is disturbingly similar to Arendt's analysis of various fascist forms of organization.
Another striking similarity is the fluidity of the high command, or inner circle of the machine. Huey's inner circle, just like Hitler's, was a diverse grouping of people who played different roles in his organization. In both cases the effectiveness of the leader depended on his ability to control the intrigue and machinations to his own benefit.
Most books written about Long spend a great deal of time on his abuses of the democratic process. Suffice it to say that Huey flagrantly violated every legal restraint imaginable with impunity. His machine made full use of a secret police force (State Bureau of Investigation) that operated in plain clothes, their identities known only to the machine.
People were occasionally seized by these goons, known as Huey's cossacks, and secreted away, sometimes held incommunicado without legal charges. On at least two occasions Huey declared martial law and called out the national guard to carry out his dirty work. He used the myriad state agencies to destroy opposition newspapers or businesses.
When all else failed he allegedly kept secret files on all his opponents (and interestingly, his supporters) which he could use for various seamy schemes. The development of a para-military political group never occurred in Huey's time, yet ample evidence exists to indicate that the machine could muster up large forces to do physical battle with anti-Longs.
The point here is that Long seized control of a provincial government power before embarking on a fascist project, thus obviating the immediate need for a political-military wing such as the Italian squadrista.
SHARE OUR WEALTH: THE FASCIST METEOR
Early in 1933 the Roosevelt high command was eyeing this rumpled, outlandish demagogue from the Pelican State with increasing trepidation. Roosevelt considered Huey as a "strongman" threat from the left, with Gen. Douglas MacArthur posing the same challenge from the right.
Apparently Roosevelt's apprehension was confirmed in a secret poll that his organization commissioned: Huey could sweep the South on a third party ticket.
In fact, Huey's strategy was flexible, but he was convinced he would be in the White House by 1940. His plan was to field a third party candidate in 1936, stealing the Southern Dixiecrat and left vote from Roosevelt and throwing the election to the Republicans. After four years of conservative and devastating Republican rule, the country would be on the verge of economic collapse, and Huey would sally forth to sweep the country off its feet. It was a shrewd strategy, and at all points realizable.
Huey had rapidly developing support in Northern industrial areas, and news stands in California ordered his newspaper in lots of one thousand. Yet no poll could fathom the explosive power of the Long machine.
For instance, in 1932 Huey moved his forces into Arkansas to back a sympathetic longshot for the Senate, Hattie Caraway. Using whirlwind tactics, masterful propaganda, and his own prodigious energy, Long steamrolled her into office to the amazement of all observers.
It was once said that the history of fascism was the history of underestimation, and certainly in 1932 only a few anxious observers felt the earth tremble when Huey spoke.
Since Roosevelt was firmly entrenched in the Democratic Party and Huey had neither the time nor the disposition to try to win its nomination, Huey initiated his first mass political organization: the Share Our Wealth Society. SOWS was in existence for a brief 18 months of Huey's life. The organization was comprised of clubs in all states, although most were in the South. Most people joined as a result of listening to one of Huey's folksy national radio programs.
Many assume that it was the formal structure for a vast mass fascist organization or at least a mass electoral party. What should concern us here is the phenomenal growth of the organization, an event that paralyzed the left yet slowly disappears from history books with time's passage.
The SOWS program was simple: redistribution of wealth, guaranteed annual income, guaranteed pensions, new cars and new homes from the money expropriated from the rich. The response to this nostrum was sudden; within 18 months the society had enlisted 26,000 clubs with over 4,600,000 members.
The average mail load for the 24- hour-a-day office in Washington was 60,000 letters a week, but on occasion (after a national radio speech by Huey) the office received 30,000 letters a day for over three weeks. Interestingly, office workers observed that at first the letters were crudely written, probably sent by poor rural whites. But near the end of Huey's life there was a steady increase in letters indicating a middle-class background.
It would be safe to assume that Long was forging a mass petty-bourgeois organization beyond his old constituency. Given that the adult population of the U.S. was roughly 55 million then, the 7,550,000 people on the SOWS mailing list reflect the seriousness of the movement's scope. Coupled with Huey's own personal newspaper, American Progress (peak subscription of 375,000), the Long propaganda machine presented one of the most formidable challenges to traditional bourgeois rule in the thirties.
Sitting at the administrative head of this organization was Reverend Gerald L. K. Smith. Smith was handpicked by Huey to head up SOWS, and the young radical preacher from Shreveport took up his duties with the passion of a true zealot.
He was an extremely capable organizer, in many ways the actual organizational mind of SOWS. He and Huey had extensive contact, although Smith's servile devotion to his new-found deity sometimes rubbed the Kingfish the wrong way.
Often described as a LaFollette Progressive, only a few admit that Smith was a militant anti-Semite and fascist thinker before he joined Huey's organization. Only a year before, Smith had written America's self-pronounced fuehrer, William Dudley Pelley, offering to help set up America's first fascist "silver shirts."
Some historians ruminate that Smith put aside these politics temporarily during his tenure as SOWS head. The suggestion is absurd. Smith later became a stalwart in the anti-Semitic, racist right-wing organizations agitating against the civil rights movement. Both apologists and detractors of Long are increasingly reluctant to concede that one of the largest mass organizations of the thirties was administered by an anti-Semitic fascist.
The view of many of Long's contemporaries that his movement constituted a left-wing insurgency has prevented many historians from identifying Huey with fascism as an ideology. But the European experience is replete with examples of fascist movements coming to power on populist-sounding programs with significant left-wing factions operating within them.
The example of Mussolini is enlightening since his transformation from Marxist leader to fascist ideologue paralleled the movement of large numbers of socialists into the fascist ranks. Also the Italian experience did not emphasize the anti-Semitism of the Nazis, nor was it particularly concerned with programs and ideology.
As Arendt shows in her book, all the fascist movements spent tremendous energy trying to deny they ever promoted progressive-sounding programs, since the actual tasks of salvaging capitalism demanded the opposite.
It appears that Huey was serious about organizing an electoral third party, and the likelihood of this evolving into a serious fascist challenge was strong. For several months Huey had met with radio right-winger and fascist admirer Father Charles Cougglin, and the only comment that they would make about their parleys was that they agreed on their general aims.
No doubt Huey could have pulled together a motley coalition of Townsendites, white populists, and even Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in America Clubs (large numbers of Sinclair's activists were members of California SOW clubs). Whatever left wing that developed in the party could be dealt with later on, perhaps in the same manner Hitler "eliminated" his troublesome Strasser grouping.
Certainly all of the links with overt fascists already existed in the coalition, as well as in the person of Gerald L. K. Smith. Fascist theoretician Lawrence Dennis commented that Huey was the closest approach to a "national fascist leader," and Dennis urged Huey to take the reins of American fascism with his endorsement.
HUEY LONG AND RACISM
It defies all logic why there is still a debate over whether Huey was a white supremacist. He ruled a state that subjugated Blacks in virtual slavery with no political rights whatsoever. He openly proclaimed himself in favor of white-supremacist rule. The evidence that historians dredge up to substantiate their claim that Huey was a closet liberal is his apparent hesitancy to use race as an issue in his campaigns, and also the tangible benefits accruing to Blacks under the Long administration.
In fact, several programs directly benefitted Blacks, although the motivations behind this generosity are open to speculation. For instance, at one point Huey reduced property tax in an attempt to relieve the burden on his poor white farmer supporters. Consequently the new levy all but eliminated tax on the even poorer Black farmers.
Adult education classes were implemented to overcome illiteracy of, the poor, yet it was the mass of illiterate Blacks that made such extensive use of this program that Huey was forced to rearrange the class schedules to night classes, since whites were grumbling about their Black workers going to school instead of working. At one point a close associate of Huey's mused that it was impossible to legislate for poor whites without helping poor Blacks inadvertently.
It is true that Huey was relatively free of racist tirades in public, although he could engage in vicious racist harangues when the occasion called for it. There are several factors that militated against his use of race as an issue.
Since Blacks were held in semislavery and had not presented a revolutionary political challenge for several decades, it was difficult to convince anyone that Blacks were the source of their problems. Keep in mind that Huey shaped his program and myth out of an understanding of what was credible to poor whites as well as what was safe from co-optation by his opposition. Any other political figure could have stolen Huey's thunder if that thunder was the issue of race.
But even the Klan was hostile to Huey on only one issue — radical economics. Probably the most revealing lesson is that those Southern demagogues who did choose to exploit the white supremacy of poor whites never approached the stature of Huey in their political careers.
In reality, Huey never tampered significantly with the tradition of white supremacy, nor did he exacerbate it. But there is sufficient reason to believe that in both the area of anti-Semitism and white supremacy the Long movement could have readily transformed itself into a genocidal movement comparable to European fascism.
A young Roy Wilkins once interviewed Huey shortly before his assassination and focused on the issue of race. The "liberal populist" comforted Wilkins regarding a recent lynching in Franklinton, Louisiana, by telling him, "We just lynch an occasional nigger."
After Huey had pontificated at length about all that he had done for the Black people in Louisiana, Wilkins made one of the more astute estimates of Huey ever made by a contemporary:
My guess is that Huey is a hard, ambitious, practical politician. He is far shrewder than he is given credit for. 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.
With the passing of time, historians have become much kinder to Huey Long. In his own day he enjoyed a reputation as a demagogue at best, and the accepted analysis of most liberals and leftists was that he was a precursor to American fascist rule.
That period in history both excited liberal historians and terrified them. With the stabilization of social democratic rule over four decades, liberals have become less inclined to concede that fascism was ever a viable movement. The publication of T. Harry Williams' unabashed apologia, Huey Long, signalled the beginning of a full-scale rehabilitation of the Kingfish.
But apart from the aggravation of bourgeois revisions of history, the danger of this resurrection is its tendency to obscure how fascism develops organically out of the social conditions and needs of capital in crisis.
Huey was an evasive creature, like the mysterious chameleon that inhabits the bayou state, a creature that appears to different people as different things. To understand U.S. fascism we have to appreciate how it is an historical product, reflecting the contradictions of national capital's development.
Huey embraced populism for the same reason Hitler embraced socialism: these facades were preconditions for their success among a people steeped in either political tradition. His early experiences as political boss and small-time machine politician were the only avenues for fascism in the philistine political world of Louisiana. His relationship to the traditional left and right was ambivalent, with both groupings vascillating between claiming him and battling him. The impact of Long's movement on the national government is particularly telling, with Roosevelt's constant maneuvering to co-opt or eliminate the Long threat.
The more we come to understand the flexibility of the fascist movement, how it unfolds itself in the course of its battle for power and independence, the closer we will be to exposing and defeating it.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
John Roy Carlson, Under Cover
Hugh Davis Graham, ed., Huey Long
Harnett T. Kane, Louisiana Hayride
A. J. Liebling, The Earl of Louisiana
Huey P. Long, Every Man A King
Thomas Martin, Dynasty of the Longs of Louisiana
Emst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism
Allan P. Sindler, Huey Long's Louisiana
T. Harry Williams, Huey Long