Thought into Action

Lawrence Goodwyn on Democratic Movements

The Populist Moment: A Short History of Agrarian Revolt in America
Lawrence Goodwyn

Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland
Lawrence Goodwyn

Lawrence Goodwyn got his education as a field reporter for the leftist Texas Observer in the early and mid-1960s while covering the Civil Rights Movement. When he later attended graduate school, he realized that most of the academics he encountered had no idea how people formed movements throughout history. He’d seen it firsthand from the ground floor; they’d read about it in books written from a safe remove by intellectuals. He had no use for what he saw as an inherently elitist view of movements; they had no use for an outsider who didn’t fall into simple philosophical categories. It was clear there was going to be no love lost between them.

However, despite his public harsh words for some of his fellow historians (some of which appear in critical essays on authorities printed at the end of his treatises), Goodwyn has become one of the most prominent historians in the United States on the strength of his writing and no-nonsense approach to research. He has yet to write a word about his experiences as a reporter covering the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when it was tearing down Jim Crow, piece by piece — well, not directly, at least. He’s instead used his knowledge about social movements to dissect similar movements in recent history, first domestically (with the Populist political party from the end of the 19th century) and later abroad (when Solidarity erupted in Poland in the late 1970s).

Goodwyn’s theory of social movements is based on his observations of SNCC in their prime, as well as and his common-sense arguments: 1) In order to communicate, people must have the freedom to express ideas as equals (Goodwyn describes this as creating a “democratic space”); 2) for ideas to flourish, this democratic space must be extended to others through an education and recruitment program (or, as Goodwyn names it, a “movement culture”; and 3) to successfully challenge the hegemony of received culture, the movement must become political while continuing to be led from the bottom up, so that the voice of the movement is truly democratic.

These may seem like simple guidelines, but democratic movements are surprisingly rare in history, since the vast level of organization and open lines of communication that must be built for real democratic action to occur are daunting. There must be one clear issue to catalyze the participants and inspire them to throw their differences aside. In his books The Populist Moment and Breaking the Barrier, Goodwyn has documented two notable movements in recent history that share these traits of democratic action, despite the differences in time, culture and catalyzing issue.

In The Populist Moment, Goodwyn finds the roots and raison d’être for what became one of the largest third parties of the Industrial Age in a farmers’ revolt against the crop lien system. The United States had abandoned the gold standard during the Civil War, and the banking interests that pushed the nation’s monetary policy back to the gold standard after the war devalued the worth of land and crops to the point that, by the end of the 1880s, farmers throughout the South, whether rich or poor, black or white, teetered on the edge of financial collapse.

Enter the local merchant, the sole resident of most farming communities who could actually get a loan from the bank. Farmers would take a lien from the merchants to acquire the necessities of living and working, which the merchants would provide at some undisclosed interest. At the end of the harvest season, the farmer and the merchant would meet to discuss the farmer’s debt, and somehow the farmer would always owe more. After a few years of this, the farmer’s debt to the merchant was so great that he eventually had to sell his property to cover his debt and would wind up a tenant farmer on what had been his own farm. Thus did more than half of all farmers in the South go from landowners to tenants or sharecroppers between the end of the Civil War and the turn of the century.

Goodwyn gives us perspective on the issue, reminding us of the various near-movements based around monetary policy after the Civil War such as the Greenback Party and the Grange. In the late 1870s, a few Hill Country Texas farmers decided to band together as the Farmers Alliance to fight the crop lien system using the idea of cooperative strength. The Alliance intended to get credit en masse and form their own cooperative-owned stores, but it found no banks willing to extend credit, and instead floundered for a few years until it attracted a visionary Mississippian, S.O. Daws — one of the greatest and most unsung movement organizers ever. The Alliance gave Daws the title of “Traveling Lecturer” and sent him off to organize Alliances within other counties and states. By 1885, the Alliance was 50,000 strong.

Goodwyn documents the growth of the Farmers Alliance, the early successes of the cooperative movement, and the emergence of some of the leaders of the party. He describes how the Alliance sent lecturers across the South and into Kansas and the Midwest; and he tells how everywhere the lecturers went, the allure of the cooperative store brought together massive state Alliances and suballiances, (as in Texas, January 1887, with 200,000 members out of a population of 1.6 million). Eventually, one of the emergent leaders of the Farmers Alliance, Charles Macune, hit upon the endgame idea that would liberate all Alliancemen from the crop lien system: the sub-treasury. Across the nation, the Alliance was finding its sources for credit disappearing, and the Alliance lecturers spread the word about the sub-treasury plan far and wide.

The sub-treasury was a simple plan: all Alliancemen, whether landowner or tenant, black or white, would donate their assets to a central state Alliance bank. Each state would buy supplies collectively for all members and would market their crops collectively. The landowners would provide collateral, and the tenant farmers would mortgage a portion of their crops. As Goodwyn puts it, “The farmers would sink or swim together; the landless would escape the crop lien, too, or none of them would.” Dramatic stuff.

However, there were laws against this type of action. The Farmers Alliance had to become explicitly political, which led to the formation of the Populist Party. Goodwyn’s narrative carries the story in a near-breathless way as the burgeoning hope of the Populists inevitably goes sour. Eventually, in-fighting between the true believers and the politically opportunistic resulted in a betrayal of the ideals of the party; but it is a testament to Goodwyn’s strengths as a writer and a philosopher that you hope, as you read their tale, these plucky, smart farmers will buck the system and their movement will succeed. But, of course, history tells us otherwise. The farmers were doomed, their movement stolen by opportunistic and powerful men without a connection to the grassroots, men who didn’t understand the need for a sub-treasury. The Party leadership eventually endorsed William Jennings Bryan (the Democratic Party nominee in 1896, a bearer of the silver monetary standard) for President, an endorsement Bryan himself disdained. The Populist moment passed and left shattered hopes in its wake.

Despite what you may remember about the eventual downfall of the original Solidarity movement, Breaking the Barrier is a more optimistic story. Goodwyn again provides the perspective, plumbing the history of Poland’s various labor uprisings from the 1950s through the early 1970s to show us how shipyard workers could bank their demand of worker-controlled trade unions on the threat of a General Strike. Goodwyn details the means of communication for the Solidarity movement: where the Populists had a web of lecturers able to pass messages across the South and Midwest in days, the Solidarity movement had not just loudspeakers in the Gdansk shipyard so that all of the striking workers in the shipyard could hear the negotiations of the strike committee, but also a secret web of messengers carrying word to and from shipyards in other cities about the strike’s progress. Goodwyn discusses how Lech Walesa, an electrician and one of the principal leaders of the Gdansk shipyard strike, had spent 10 years following the 1970 revolt discussing with his friends and coworkers the possibility of their catalytic issue — worker-run free trade unions within a Soviet satellite state like Poland. He also points out the difference between the intellectuals who arrived to help by listening and those who arrived with the assumption that their credentials gave them reason to be in charge.

Most of us remember that Solidarity made the Polish government blink. For most of 1981, Solidarity spread the hope of democratic culture throughout the country, but it was, unfortunately, too much too fast for most who participated in it. Without the time spent forging bonds over the catalytic issue, as the shipyard workers had done for 10 years in Gdansk, most workers in Poland saw this as an opportunity to make greater demands of government and many intellectuals throughout the county saw Solidarity as a means to greater power. The Soviets threatened removal of the Polish government, and the government responded by cracking down on the workers and establishing a military dictatorship. When Solidarity re-emerged in 1989, it was a pale shell of itself, and Walesa, re-elected as its leader, was notably unsure of the task before him.

Again, Goodwyn’s writing and thought turns what could be dry history into a page-turner. Again, the reader longs for these smart shipyard workers to succeed against the terrible odds. And again, the promise of far-reaching democratic action proves to be too fragile to survive entry into the political arena.

Breaking the Barrier may be the more accessible of the two books; sadly, Oxford University Press has long since allowed it to fall out of print. Still, copies show up on eBay and campus bookstores.

This generation is blessed and cursed by not having the clear moral choices of past movements. The forces of oppression and control are as alive today as they were in the late 19th century U.S. or in 1980 Poland, but they have grown more subtle and the choices more elusive. This doesn’t mean, however, that it’s not worth fighting them. As Goodwyn shows, battling corrupt power starts with a conversation. The trick, one of the most precious and difficult tricks ever conceived by man, is turning that conversation into lasting action. Goodwyn tells us that creating democracy is earth-shatteringly difficult, but it is the most important thing that we can do.