52 of 55 people found the following review helpful
Seldom in our nation's history have there been widespread, grass-roots challenges to the economic and political system. According to the author, the agrarian movement of the late 1880s, otherwise known as Populism, was in fact the last such great challenge. Beyond the history of the movement, the author is much concerned with the implications for future democratic movements.
The small farmers in western Texas in the 1880s recognized that the economic cards were stacked against them. The crop lien system and the "furnishing" merchant, the exorbitant prices paid for goods combined with low prices paid for cash crops, and the price gouging of railroads - all of these inspired some farmers to begin forming local alliances that would try to use cooperative methods to bypass those powerful interests that placed farmers in economic thralldom. Lecturers that spread across the South, and even westward and northward, drew upon close-knit farming community ties to eventually establish some 40,000 "sub-alliances" involving two million people, all finally part of a National Farmers Alliance. Through local trade stores, warehouses, and state exchanges, these sub-alliances attempted to buy and sell in bulk. But these efforts met with varying and limited success. Banking interests, grain elevator operators, and stockyards, among others, refused to deal with these farming groups, to accept their notes based on their cash crops and land.
It is hardly surprising, given their radical critique of economic interests, that agrarian organizers would turn to political action to seek redress for farmer grievances. Yet the turn to politics was a highly complicating development for agrarian reform. The agrarian platform was highly radical for the times involving such issues as land reform, labor rights, government ownership and control of transportation and communication, and banking and currency reform with the elimination of the gold standard. But the hold of generational allegiances to the Democratic and Republican parties prevented many farmers from shifting to independent politics despite the fact that their traditional parties were resolutely opposed to many of the farmers' measures. Attempts at reform through the traditional parties were met by cooptation and demagoguery.
The People's Party was formed at Omaha in July, 1892. The party's platform was the agrarian platform containing not only the National Alliance's sub-treasury plan, which was a plan for the issuance of greenbacks, but also calling for the free coinage of silver, both planks having the effect of increasing the money supply. Electoral success was limited. The Democratic Party through coopting of the silver issue and flagrant electoral fraud was able to defeat the Populists throughout the South, where they had their greatest support. In 1896 the People's Party through pre-convention intrigue actually nominated a staunch silver Democrat, William Jennings Bryan, for president, thus essentially ending the Populist movement. According to the author, Populism had become a "shadow" movement, a mere shell of its former orientation.
For the author, democratic mass movements that take issue with core aspects of society face almost insurmountable odds. In the first place, there are the assumptions that the "system" works, that the system contains mechanisms for continual progress and for overcoming problems. In fact, there exists an entire school of thought among historians that contends that the Populists were cranks unwilling to accept social progress and sought only to maintain an antiquated way of life. That school of thought is most closely associated with historian Richard Hofstadter. However, the author finds that the Populists' grievances were real enough while admitting the difficulties of overcoming the received culture. In addition, the author contends that the hierarchical nature of social structures and the accompanying deferential behavior make independent thought and action exceedingly difficult.
Genuine mass movements cannot be top-down driven. The formation of a mass movement that can achieve political viability must proceed from the ground up. Key to any such movement is the establishment of an independent institution that through the participation of its members develops an ideology and strategy that counters prevailing authority. The counter organization must educate and recruit new adherents. The agrarian movement was based on the sub-alliances and their cooperative ventures and achieved extensive recruitment and education through a lecturing system. The politicization step is often difficult to take and sustain because member activism takes on an indirect element in that it is geared to electoral success allowing party elites to then fully engage in the governmental process. Populism was ultimately unable to successfully take the political step.
The author suggests that the failures of Populism essentially defined the boundaries of the possible in fundamentally changing basic structures of American culture. First Progressivism and then liberalism all operated on a basis of incremental reform. In other words, the system works. The policies forming the Federal Reserve, allowing the constant rise of farm tenantry, and permitting the continued centralization and rise in influence of corporations all rejected or minimized the scope of the Populist program.
This book is a short form of the author's complete work, "The Democratic Promise." At times the book takes on the feel of an overview. For example, it would have been interesting to see far more details concerning the actually workings of the various cooperative efforts at the sub-alliance level. And following the twin threads of the Alliance and the People's Party across many states and conventions over a ten year period can be a little sketchy.
The author's insights into forming mass democratic movements and mounting cultural challenges are outstanding. Those insights add to the understanding of Populism. It should give anyone pause when considering the ability of modern movements to impact the status quo.
44 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2005
Most college kids in the 70's were force-fed RICHARD HOFSTADTER's book, The Age of Reform, which ridiculed populism.
But having grown up the son of a immigrant farm boy and county agent, my view of the midwestern populism and farm culture was much much different.
So Goodwyn's book was a welcome documentation of what I had known all along--that populism was a uniquely American movement, and the spirit of the frontier was never rugged individualism, but community.
The Farmer-Laborer Alliances of the late 19th Century, and the People's Party that resulted, always referred to their reform movement as 'cooperation', and quoted Thomas Jefferson, and the founding fathers. In this context, populism was uniquely American. It was a struggle between democratic capitalism vs. speculative and monopoly capitalism.
Real populism was about creating cooperative systems to consolidate farmer's economic power in competition with the railroads and the banks. It was the alternative to the disasterous crop-lien system of the rural south that turned so many of Jefferson's yoeman farmers into destitute sharecroppers, that forced them out of their homes to settle the western plains.
Goodwyn's book debunks the idea the William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" speech was the defining highpoint of populism, when in fact it was it's destruction. Goodwyn points out that free silver was never more then a shadow movement of an immensely popular political movement.
Goodwyn also debunks the later-day revisionists like Michael Kazin's book, author of The Populist Persuasion, that populism was a style of rhetoric than a coherent set of political ideas or reforms.
While the People's Party was co-opted and destroyed by the Democrat Party, most of the reforms advocated by the populists came to pass in the 1930's with the agricultural reforms of the 1930's. Things like the rural electrification, the regulation of the railroads, the Farm Credit Administration, and the federal reserve all grew out the original populist ideas. Because of the populist complaints, eventually government intervention in the grain and other food commodies marketplace was recognized as the means of democraticizing and strengthing the market system, stablizing the food supply, and strengthening the market system.
But most importantly, the dignity of the common man against the rich and powerful urban elite entered American political discourse.
This is an important book, and a welcome understanding of perhaps the most successful movement by common folks to control their own destiny.
39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
on February 18, 2000
Obviously influenced by the New Social history and the Sixties' social movements, Lawrence Goodwyn attempts a major reinterpretation of the Populist movement in The Populist Moment, an abridged version of his epic Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America. Although Goodwyn's main project is a redefinition of Populism and stress on the movement's culture, he also provides a theory for social action that serves as the narrative structure for his history and a useful philosophy in itself. Placing the origins of Populism in Texas and conceptualizing the Farmers' Alliance as the movement's ideological core, Goodwyn's analysis marginalizes the Fusionists and Free Silverites, providing a powerful reinterpretation and the main strength of the book. However, by stressing these aspects of the movement, Goodwyn fails to take in the whole of Populism in all its disparate manifestations.
Before proceeding to the history of Populism, Goodwyn begins his book by introducing his "sequential process of democratic movement-building:" forming, recruiting, educating, and politicizing. (xviii) It is this theory of building and maintaining a movement culture, which provides the outline for Goodwyn's history. For Goodwyn, the movement successfully formed, recruited, and educated a large body of supporters. However, in politicizing, the movement failed to maintain its educational program and cooperative institutions, thereby opening the way for Silverites and Fusionists while losing its movement culture that attracted and held the base supporters.
Throughout the book Goodwyn centers Populism in the Farmers' Alliance of Texas and sees Charles Macune and William Lamb as the movement's unofficial leaders. In response to increasing poverty, drastically reduced farm prices, and, most importantly, the centralization of power and resources, the Farmers' Alliance sprung forth from communities in central Texas as a way for tenants, sharecroppers, and small farmers to educate themselves about politics, economics, and agriculture. Building membership and loyalty through cooperatives stores and the joint marketing of crops, the Alliance expanded across the South and Midwest through a phalanx of itinerant lecturers spreading the group's message. As their cooperatives fell victim to the ongoing economic recession, Charles Macune developed a federal sub-treasury plan that would create a fiat currency for farmers, essentially issuing greenbacks as loans backed by the harvest. While the sub-treasury never came to fruition, Goodwyn defines true Populists as unaligned supporters of the plan and members of the Farmers' Alliance. Consequently for Goodwyn, everyone else falls under the 'shadow' movement of Silverites and Fusionists. With this conception of Populism, Goodwyn locates the movement's demise not in the failure of Bryan's campaign, but in the People's Party support of the free silver Democratic ticket.
Goodwyn attempts a major reinterpretation of the Populist movement and largely succeeds by marginalizing the 'shadow' movement. Furthermore, his detailed analysis of Populism's development posits a truly democratic movement of common folk united by a shared set of concerns. By tying the rise and fall of Populism to his movement theory, Goodwyn provides a tremendously useful framework for understanding the broad implications, successes, and failures of the movement. While his reinterpretation can not be overemphasized, his book falls short by not paying more attention to the 'shadow' movement in the West and Midwest. The 'shadow' movement of free silver and fusion was an important and influential component of Populism; by not giving it attention, Goodwyn tells only half the story. Finally, Goodwyn's analysis of Populism could have benefited from talking more about race. Despite the connection with the Colored Farmers' Alliance, at its heart, Populism was based on white supremacy, deeply problematizing Goodwyn's eulogy of Populism as the last truly democratic American social movement.
20 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 1998
This book is a stunning revisionist look at the received wisdom about the history of populism in the late 19th century. Rooting through old trunks in attics and forgotten county library newspaper archives, Goodwyn discovers the true radicalism of the populist movement, and why so much of what we were taught about the populists is wrong, distorted to cover up their fundamental challenge to the consolidation of industrial capitalism that was sweeping the world. A great book, a tragic story.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
I was moved, impressed, and inspired by this book. There are a couple of other reviews that do excellent jobs of summarizing, so I will try to limit my ten pages of notes to a few highlights, and some other books that I believe can help the 3 out of 5 Americans that want "none of those now running." The Republican and Democratic parties have sold out (this is best documented in Running on Empty: How the Democratic and Republican Parties Are Bankrupting Our Future and What Americans Can Do About It) and it is time we restored the Constitution and demanded Electoral Reform to restore We the People as sovereign.
Written in 1978, this book could not have come to me, and others in the transpartisan movement, at a better time.
The author opens with very helpful overviews of how a mass culture, a mass indoctrination, if you will, is a much cheaper and easier way to keep the mass docile, than a forced or fascist solution. He reminds me of Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
He then moves to the manner in which industrialization eroded democracy, making it a poor facade. I am reminded of Manufacture of Evil: Ethics, Evolution, and the Industrial System
He then stresses how in a damaged or constrained democracy, public resignation and private escapism are the dominant features of the mass public.
He then moves into an overview of the agrarian-based populist movement that was crushed by the railroads, Pinkerton's as an illegal army, and the banks, with the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 being the consummation of the banking victory over the people.
He notes that mass protest requires a higher order of culture, education, and achievement, especially in harmonization of disparate nodes. He identifies four steps within which the third is clearly of vital importance:
1. Autonomous institution emerges as a hub
2. Recruiting of masses takes place
3. Educating of masses takes place (40,000 "lecturers")
4. Politicization of the masses actualizes their power to good effect.
The author does a superb job of stressing the importance of internal communication, and says that IF this can be achieved, THEN a new plateau of social responsibility is possible. He calls this plateau of cooperative and democratic conduct "the movement culture."
The populists achieved a "sense of somebodyness." I am reminded of All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (Bk Currents) as well as Society's Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People.
He examines the Civil War and concludes that it changed everything--it fragmented the nation into sectarian, religious, and racial prejudices. Latter in the book he examines the pernicious effects of white supremacy, which ultimately undid the potential collaboration among poor whites, poor blacks, and poor Catholics factory workers in the Northeast.
The populists tried to break free of the railroads and banks that conspired to keep them in debt forever. Among their brilliant leaders, one stood out, conceptualizing both a large scale credit cooperative (i.e. public ownership of the essentials of society including food, water, energy, and communications), and a sub-treasury that would ensure that natural resources were applied to the needs of the people and not to squatter or absentee landlords.
The seven "demands" of the populists, ultimately crushed by the banks:
1) Abolishment of banks, issuance of government tender
2) Government ownership of the means of communication & transportation
3) Prohibition of alien ownership of USA land
4) Free and unlimited coinage in silver
5) Equitable taxation among classes
6) Fractional paper currency
7) Government economy
The populists opposed "organized capital", emphasized living issues over dead or archaic contracts, and tried to establish their own newspapers because they understood that the mainstream media had been co-opted by the railroads and the banks.
The following quote on page 168, from the year 1892, is eerily relevant to today:
"The people are demoralized. ...The newspapers are subsidized or muzzled; public opinion silenced; business prostrate; our homes covered with mortgages; labor impoverished; and the land concentrated in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right of organization for self-protection; imported pauperized labor beats down our own wages; a hireling standing army (Pinkerton's), unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down; and they are rapidly disintegrating to European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes, unprecedented, while their possessors despise the republic and endanger liberty."
Wow. I am reminded of virtually every book I have read in the past four years on unilateral militarism, virtual colonialism, and predatory immoral capitalism. Just a couple can be mentioned here:
The Soul of Capitalism: Opening Paths to a Moral Economy
Crossing the Rubicon: The Decline of the American Empire at the End of the Age of Oil
The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (The American Empire Project)
The Global Class War: How America's Bipartisan Elite Lost Our Future - and What It Will Take to Win It Back
The Working Poor: Invisible in America
The author draws the book to a close by observing four trends that spelled the demise of the populist movement:
1. Banishment of "financial issue" from public debate
2. Corporate mergers (and one could add, corporate "personality")
3. Decline of public participation in democracy
4. Corporate domination of mass communications
He identifies three persistent flaws in the existing American economy:
1. Land ownership permitting alien, absentee, and predatory landlords
2. Basic financial structure that imposes debt rather than credit
3. Corporate centralization
He stresses that populism is not socialism, but rather a democratic promise emergent. He is optemistic that lessons from the populist failure could be used by farmers, laborers, and others to do a mass insurgency, to "work together to be free individually."
If we are to defeat the current corrupt Republican and Democratic parties, we must do so in a transpartisan fashion: a third party must be based on the disaffected from both of the corrupt "main parties" while attracting back to the debate and the electoral process the lapsed voters and the new voters. I think we can do that for 2008.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on December 17, 2010
There are many good, thorough reviews of this book so far. Read those if you want some in-depth analysis. I just want to give my opinion of this book.
Lawrence Goodwyn's The Populist Moment (1978) is a very well written book that takes a revisionist approach to the study of populism and protests in America in the late nineteenth century. The main things that are focused on are the agrarian revolt by farmers and, on the whole, the idea that Americans really have less democracy than they think they have. This is even more true today than it was in the late nineteenth century. American commerce was working against the American worker. Economic depressions during the 1870s and 1890s contributed to the populist movement. Also discussed is the quest for a national monetary standard. Many other topics are discussed as well.
All in all, a very good read and a thorough analysis.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on January 18, 2014
The short period of Populist influence on American politics is sadly unknown. Goodwyn writes a very detailed chronicle of the rise and fall of the Populists and pays special attention on the movement's impact in the South during a very turmoil ridden time. Well written, informative, and I believe a great addition to anyone who is interested in 19th century politics.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on April 28, 2012
Usually histories of economics put me to sleep. But Lawrence Goodwyn's "The Populist Movement" is an enthralling gem that will give you numerous "Aha!" moments as it shows how and why populist movements, particularly that of the post-Civil War era (with its inception in Texas), began, grew, and failed in competing with big banks and business. There are many surprises to someone like me, who is not an economist but has been led (or pushed) to care about it from what has happened in and to America these past 30 years. Goodwyn shows clearly why the small farmers of southern and Plains America were driven to do something about the crushing control of big banks, growing commercial interests, and Wall Street. Ultimately, they failed because all power and control was in the hands of men like Gould and Morgan and the other Robber Barons. There is, however, a lesson to be taken from "The Populist Movement," that knowing and anticipating what massive blockages stand in the way of economic and political change can help people work around them. No one who reads Goodwyn's book can claim, "Well, I just didn't know."
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on December 19, 2008
This author does an excellent job of explaining the agrarian revolt which was instrumental in the rise of populism and the People's Party of the 1890's.
Mr. Goodwyn details the causes of unrest for farmers in particular. The root cause was financial under the practices of the crop lien system and specie payments. He also details the factor that money played in both major parties of that era with the "gold standard" and "free silver" being advocated by an assortment of national politicians.
The author also provides profiles of some of the major leaders of the populist movement- Charles Macune, William Lamb, "Stump" Ashby, S.O.Daws to name a few.
I found the information on the Farmer's Alliance and the cooperatives quite interesting. These co-ops introduced wholesale and retail competition to rural areas. The idea of cooperative stores remind me of the old "Farmer's Store" that we frequented during my childhood.
The various platforms of the party were detailed as well as the struggles for control of leadership and some of the less than ethical leaders that appeared during the movements short history.
Mr. Goodwyn sheds a lot of critical light on fusion as the monumental, internal battle for direction in general. He makes the point that the movement opposed the banking and large business communities, and yet, some in leadership supported the vice presidential nomination of a banker!
Another aspect that he examines closely is the differences in strength and specific ideology of populism that was found in individual states.
The information on Mark Hanna and the McKinley campaign was timely considering how critical a factor money has become in presidential campaigns. There are historical parallels in the Republican party.
There were many memorable quotes in the book, this one from page 269 summarizes the sentiments of the agrarian revolt- "In many ways, land centralization in American agriculture was a decades-long product of farm credit policies acceptable to the American banking community."
For a clear explanation of American populism this is the book to read!
Populism basically boils down to one Constitutional phrase-"We the people". It's politics for the people with humble roots stretching back to the farmers and rural folk of the late 1890's.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on February 5, 1999
In a very thorough manner, Mr. Goodwyn covers the history of the populist movement thru its years as the farmers' alliance and the Peoples' Party! The leading people, the main party newspapers,the conventions, experiments and actions of this great movement are covered in this excellent book! Put this powerfully written book next to the classics by Hicks and McMath! A must have!