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Southern History Series: Sen. Huey Long’s Share Our Wealth Society

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In my view, the Right doesn’t need to reclaim socialism from the Left so much as it needs to embrace economic populism for moral, political and economic reasons. We need a broad redistribution of wealth in this country like we had in the 1930s to crush the oligarchy, stabilize capitalism and reduce extremes of income inequality. The New Deal was conservative and fully consistent with the Jeffersonian tradition and the alternative was far worse.

The following excerpt comes from T. Harry Williams book Huey Long:

“On February 23, 1934, Senator Long spoke over a national radio hookup for thirty minutes. He had exciting news for his listeners. The fight to decentralize wealth in America had entered a new phase, he proclaimed: it had achieved the advantage of organization. The organization had been created by people whom he identified only as “we,” and it had a name, the Share Our Wealth Society and a slogan, Every Man a King. He exhorted his hearers to join the society, to get together in their communities and form local chapters. If they needed instructions on how to proceed, they should write him. He emphasized that in the society there would be no national dues.

Huey was being prudently modest when he indicated that other persons had joined with him to form the society. It was completely his own creation, the idea for it coming to him, according to one account, at three o’clock one morning in his rooms at the Mayflower Hotel. Excited and wanting someone to discuss the idea with, he telephoned his secretary and another assistant to come over immediately. He explained his plan to them and then sat down and sketched on sheets of yellow foolscap paper the whole design of the society – its name, motto, structure, and the principles it would advocate.

The principles were not entirely new. They were essentially the same proposals that Huey had been advancing in his Senate speeches since 1932, with the addition of some features that were the result of his recent reading. The federal government would impose a capital-levy tax that would prevent a family from owning a fortune of more than five million dollars, or more than three hundred times the fortune of the average American family. The government would impose an income tax that would prohibit a family from earning more than one million dollars in a year, or more than three hundred times the income of the average American family. From the revenue derived from these taxes the government would provide every family in the country with a “homestead” of five thousand dollars, or “enough for a home, an automobile, a radio, and the ordinary conveniences.” The government would further guarantee that every family would receive an annual income of two thousand to three thousand dollars, or one third of the average family income. Other benefits would be furnished by the government. It would give pensions of thirty dollars a month to the aged (this figure was later deleted and the world “adequate” substituted), finance the college education of youths of proven ability (Huey eventually suggested that the federal government and the state should jointly bear the costs of educating also children below the federal level), and pay generous bonuses to veterans. Lastly, the government would exercise greater regulation over the economy. It would limit the hours of labor to thirty hours a week and eleven months a year, thus increasing the need for workers. And it would purchase and store agricultural surpluses, thus balancing farm supply with demand.

Huey’s announcement of the Share Our Wealth Society received wide publicity. It also set off an extensive discussion by commentators and critics as to the nature of the society’s program. Was Share Our Wealth a radical formula or did it only seem radical? Was it compatible with capitalism or would it subtly transform the American system into something quite different? Some critics denounced the plan as a form of socialism, charging that the rate of taxation would eventually have the effect of eliminating all fortunes and reducing all persons to approximately the same income level. This charge Huey repeatedly and indignantly denied. The socialists advocated government ownership of wealth, which was equivalent to the destruction of wealth, he said. He, on the contrary, would retain the profit motive. His plan, by preventing the concentration of great incomes in the hands of a few men, would actually create more, not fewer, millionaires. Moreover, by redistributing wealth it would remove the worst abuse of capitalism and really strengthen the system. Once he made this argument to a reporter from a leftist magazine, who suggested that the senator must mean to save the magnates who he denounced. “That would be one of the unfortunate effects of my program,” he admitted. “I’d cut their nails and fil their teeth and let them live.”

Grasping at all opportunities to disassociate Share Our Wealth from socialism, Huey accepted in March 1934 an invitation to debate the leader of the Socialist Party, Norman Thomas. The request came from a New York City group, which intended to sell tickets to the meeting and, to entire Huey, offered him a fee of five hundred dollars. The crowd that turned out must have astonished the sponsors – twenty-five hundred persons assembled to hear the debaters discuss the questions: “Resolved, that capitalism is doomed and cannot now be saved by redistribution of wealth.”

Thomas spoke first and advocated his philosophy of moderate socialism. His remarks were well received by the audience, which was largely made up of Socialists and urban leftists. Huey realized the mood of the crowd, and to disarm it he affected when he began a Southern rustic pose. He didn’t understand what Thomas had said, he claimed, but when he did, he would write his rival a letter. Striding back and forth, he bellowed that all debts should be “ipso facto remitted.” “Maybe you don’t know what I mean by ipso facto,” he continued. “Well, I don’t neither.” The audience roared with appreciative laughter. A perceptive reporter noticed that in this phase of the speech he made studied grammatical errors but that when he launched into an analysis of Share Our Wealth he talked like a college professor. At the end of the debate a mob of autograph seekers followed Huey out of the building, but no one attended Thomas.”

The choice is populism or socialism:

Let’s keep millionaires.

We don’t need a proletariat of gig economy workers drowning in debt or billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and Michael Bloomberg. There needs to be a ceiling on capitalism.

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