And They’ll Like Louisiana

Apparatchik
State Library of Louisiana []

It appears, at first, that Huey Long defies all historical classification. He has been remembered, variously, as a working-class populist amidst capitalist crisis, as a “soak-the-rich and spread-the-wealth” leveller “molded in the criminal brains of the leaders of the Paris Commune and sanctified in the brains of an Oriental fanatic, Nicolai Lenin [sic],” and, of course, as a narrowly-avoided American Hitler.¹ A contemporaneous journalist called Long “ruthless, ambitious, and indeed plausible enough to Hitlerize America,” New Deal planner Hugh S. Johnson called him “the Hitler of one of our sovereign states,” Westbrook Pegler called him “Der Kingfish,” and Long’s own brother Julius reportedly remarked that “I don’t want my children to be branded… [because] their uncle is trying to be a Hitler in this state.”²

Despite these perennial comparisons, Long was not a National Socialist. The heart of Nazism was a program of super-accelerated settler-colonialism that found its base in, to use the phrase of J. Sakai, “failed men,”³ i.e. “declassed professionals, disgraced officers, and immiserated farmers and small craftsmen,”⁴ who were promised purification through war and the settlement of the East. Long, on the other hand, was an unreconstructed isolationist and avowed opponent of “imperialistic finance” in the Old South reactionary tradition. He called Standard Oil “the promoter of revolutions in Central America, South America, and Mexico”⁵ and denounced the League of Nations in much the same manner as Senator Thomas E. Watson, a former Populist who believed standing armies the products of “such men as Mellon, and Hoover, and Elbert Gary, and J.P. Morgan” while defending lynching and black disenfranchisement.⁶ The isolationism, not to be confused with anti-imperialism, espoused by Long and his predecessors was a form of reaction specific to America as a mature settler-colony.

His vaunted working-class populism, moreover, crumbles when examined in any detail. The state legislature, which Long exercised functionally absolute control over, defeated an eight-hour working day for women, a law regulating conditions for railroad workers, and a state equivalent to the National Industrial Recovery Act which protected collective bargaining.⁷ Throughout his tenure “Louisiana had no old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, minimum wage requirements, or child labor laws.”⁸ Despite New Deal guidelines calling for a forty-cent minimum hourly wage, workers employed in the massive road- and bridge-building program were paid only thirty cents per hour and sometimes as little as ten. Long reportedly told Jack Ruth, President of the New Orleans Building Trades Council, that “The prevailing wage in this state is the lowest wage we can get men to work for.” Long also refused to intervene on behalf of striking longshoremen or streetcar workers even as the latter were targeted and in some cases murdered.⁹ According to the Southern Worker, a clandestine newspaper distributed to impoverished black sharecroppers and urban workers, “the Communist Party was able to mobilize 5,000 workers in New Orleans to demonstrate for unemployed relief under the fixed bayonets and machine guns of Mayor Walmsley’s police and Huey Long’s national guards.”¹⁰

In the field of civil rights too his achievements were more heat than light. When asked about the abolition of the poll tax, Long told an interviewer that “The poll tax doesn’t change the status of the n-r one damn bit! All it does is eliminate the one-dollar poll tax. Of course the n-rs are still registering in droves, but the Registrar of Voters still has charge of setting the qualifications for all voters.”¹¹ The Registrar of Voters was R. “Bud” Gregory, an ardent segregationist who remarked that “Oh, sure, [black voters] are coming down here alright, but we’re turning ’em down by the hundreds because they don’t qualify. The monkeys just waste our ink and paper.”¹² Between 1928 and 1935 the number of black voters actually declined from 2,054 to 2,043. The abolition of the poll tax primarily benefitted white, not black, voters, who Long himself noted could “ke[pt] out of our elections” through “the registration law and the white primary.” Long was also resolutely opposed to federal anti-lynching legislation, saying that “We just lynch an occasional n-r. No federal anti-lynching bill would help that.”¹³

As his Presidential ambitions grew his most visible spokesman was Gerald L.K. Smith, who Hal Draper, in a 1945 pamphlet, called “a Fascist strikebreaker… considered by the Detroit corporations as one of their most effective anti-labor weapons.”¹⁴ In the early 1930s Smith was an organizer for the Silver Shirts, a fascist paramilitary, and by the 1940s had moved back onto the margins of reaction. Theodore Bilbo, the Governor and later Senator from Mississippi notorious for defending lynching, was an ardent supporter of Long.¹⁵

Communist pamphleteer Sender Garlin wrote that the audience for one of Long’s speeches was “composed of small business men, harassed professionals, state employees of the Long machine and a scattering of workers,”¹⁶ and Richard B. Whitten, Secretary of the New Orleans branch of the Socialist Party, described Long’s supporters as “the middle class and the more ‘prosperous’ farmers… and the large real-estate owners,” concluding that his movement was “not against capitalism, but against the big capitalist corporations, for the small capitalists.”¹⁷ In introducing a six percent rather than a promised twenty-five percent tax on incomes above $50,000, abolishing the tax on automobiles, and granting a $2,000 exemption on property taxes¹⁸ despite the vast majority of farmers being tenants Long consistently favored the white middle-class stratum while neglecting or acting as an active antagonist to the white working class and even moreso to the black working class.

Long and his middle-class movement were creatures of the American South but were embedded in a much longer and larger historical process. According to Mike Davis, “mass emigration to the settler societies of the Americas and Australasia, as well as Siberia, provided a dynamic safety valve that prevented the rise of mega-Dublins and super-Napleses, as well as the spread of the kind of under class anarchism that had taken root in the most immiserated parts of Southern Europe.”¹⁹ The closure of the frontiers and the world wars brought about the collapse of nineteenth-century classical liberalism and gave rise to new statist forms of working-class containment. Gerald L.K. Smith portrayed Long as a heroic social revolutionary, one that “tore down the old Governor’s mansion, built a new one, built a new capitol, built new university buildings, refused to entertain socially, attended no banquets, snubbed the elite and opened the mansion to the muddy feet of his comrades.”²⁰ At the same time, we can take seriously Long’s proclamation that “I have not undertaken to persecute the rich, but, on the contrary, I have sought to favor them.”²¹ He further declared that his plan was “the only stop-gap to Communism.”²² Surpassing nervous accusations of fascism, Long occupied the outer limit of a global phenomenon: the ideology of the volkstaat, the enlightened state bureaucracy and civil service sweeping away the fossilized ruling class and modernizing underdeveloped areas of the world market. Though Long came to power in a mature capitalist settler-colony, he broke the power of the Old Regulars and the sclerotic aristocracy they represented to “raise his state from a condition of near feudalism into the modern world,”²³ a process in which the working-class had no voice and of which they were not the beneficiaries but the victims.

Who, today, cares about Huey Long? He has enjoyed something of a revival online amidst the wreckage of the Sanders campaign, a node in an alternate-history fantasy. More pressingly, Long represents the substitution of working-class struggles with national-populist, middle-class movements for reform, movements which inevitably come to the defense of capitalism. In the final analysis, the proletariat alone is the protagonist of its own liberation.

  1. Haas, Edward F. “Huey Long and the Communists.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 32, no. 1 (1991): 29–46. 
  2. Haas, Edward F. “Huey Long and the Dictators.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 47, no. 2 (2006): 133–51. .
  3. Sakai, J. “The Shock of Recognition.” Kersplebedeb, November 21, 2016. 
  4. Jamieson, K.T. “Strasserism vs ‘Strasserism’: Turning Over the Right Rocks.” Cosmonaut, April 17, 2019. 
  5. Congressional Record, Vol. 78, Part 9, May 30, 1934.
  6. Ignatiev, Noel. “Rainbow Coalition or Class War?” Verso, September 22, 2017. 
  7. Garlin, Sender. The Real Huey Long. New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1935. Page 22
  8. Jeansonne, Glen. “Challenge to the New Deal: Huey P. Long and the Redistribution of National Wealth.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 21, no. 4 (1980): 331–39. 
  9. Garlin, Sender. The Real Huey Long. New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1935. Pages 20–21
  10. Ross, Nat, and Jim Mallory. “Huey Long — Friend or Enemy of the Southern Toilers?” Southern Worker, 1935, Vol. IV, №3–4.
  11. Garlin, Sender. The Real Huey Long. New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1935. Page 42
  12. Garlin, Sender. The Real Huey Long. New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1935. Page 25
  13. Jeansonne, Glen. “Huey Long and Racism.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 33, no. 3 (1992): 265–82. 
  14. Draper, Hal. “Gerald L.K. Smith: America’s №1 Fascist,” Labor Action, August 1945, Vol. 9, №33.
  15. Snyder, Robert E. “Huey Long and the Presidential Election of 1936.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 16, no. 2 (1975): 117–43. .
  16. Garlin, Sender. The Real Huey Long. New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1935. Page 6
  17. Whitten, Richard. “Huey P. Long and the Working Class Movement,” Socialist Appeal, February 1935, Vol. 1, №1.
  18. Garlin, Sender. The Real Huey Long. New York: Workers Library Publishers, 1935. Pages 30–31
  19. Davis, Mike. Planet of Slums. London: Verso, 2005. Page 183
  20. Smith, Gerald L.K. “Huey Long is a Superman,” New Republic, 13 February 1935.
  21. Congressional Record, Vol. 75, Part 10, May 12, 1934.
  22. Lee, Rose. “Senator Long at Home,” New Republic, May 30, 1934.
  23. Snyder, Robert E. “Huey Long and the Presidential Election of 1936.” Louisiana History: The Journal of the Louisiana Historical Association 16, no. 2 (1975): 117–43. 

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