Thursday, February 13, 2014

In memoriam, Lawrence Goodwyn

One of Jon Larson's greatest gifts to me was to introduce me to the history of the US populist movement, and especially to the work of Lawrence Goodwyn, author of the book, The Populist Moment: A Short History of the Agrarian Revolt in America. (Here is a link to the book's Introduction, just to give you a taste of this masterpiece of political economy.)

I was greatly impressed with the book, and when I so informed Jon, he urged me to contact Professor Goodwyn and at least have lunch with him. Goodwyn had retired from teaching at Duke University in 2003.  Duke is in Durham, NC, about 20 miles from me, and Goodwyn still lived in the area. So, a year ago, in February 2013, I called him and invited him to speak to a small book reading group in Chapel Hill. We had been reading Ellen Brown's Web of Debt: The Shocking Truth About Our Money System and How We Can Break Free, and I had caused the group to pause for a longer look at the mid-nineteenth century fight over greenbacks, by telling the group about Goodwyn's book. They were delighted with the idea of inviting Professor Goodwyn to join our little group for an evening. And there was a great turnout, the usual attendamce by a dozen or so people more than doubled to thirty or more. We also had at least three people video recording him, since I had found that there were no YouTube videos of Goodwyn and thought it important we capture him in video. Here's a still shot I took:

All during the summer, as I was out in the hinterland peddling books, I kept thinking I had to call Professor Goodwyn and ask him some questions. I even managed to type up two pages of questions and my own observations that I wanted to share with him. But I'm a terrible procrastinator, and never did try to call him.

And then, last week, I was shocked to learn that Professor Goodwyn had passed on at the end of September: Duke Flags Lowered: Historian Lawrence Goodwyn Dies. But it was gratifying to search the tubez, and read the tributes to the man. Goodwyn was a giant, who influenced the lives of countless people for the better. As the Duke Univesity article above notes, in the 1950s, Goodwn "served as U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough's advance man during Yarborough's campaigns for Texas governor and the Senate.  As a writer and editor for the muckraking periodical, The Texas Observer, Goodwyn laid bare the corrupt workings of a Texas legislature soaked in oil money during the era that preceded the iconic Observer editor Molly Ivins." In 1971, Goodwyn was hired by Duke to initiate a oral history program chronicling the US civil rights movement.
The graduates of the Duke Oral History program helped rewrite the history of the civil rights movement, focusing on the role of black activists in local communities who created the infrastructure of the civil rights revolution.
A majority of the students who came to Duke as part of the oral history program were African American. They published nearly 20 books, and won numerous national history prizes. Their work helped transform the way civil rights history is written in America, and the way history is taught in universities across the country.  
But, of course, Goodwyn's most important work was his history of populism in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. He showed that the populists were not an unruly mob of bigots and racists with an inchoate rage against ruling elites, but a highly disciplined group of battle-hardened political organizers, armed with a methodical critique of economic and monetary affairs, and a very specific series of proposals to reform the financial and monetary system of the country. Moreover, these reform proposals were carefully designed to fit the purpose of smashing the hierarchical structures of authoritarian power and privilege, and replacing them with structures more in keeping with Jeffersonian aspirations for an democratic economics of egalitarianism. Hence, the title of Goodwyn's magnus opus: Democratic Promise: The Populist Movement in America.  (The  Populist Moment is an abridged and unannotated version of Democratic Promise.)

Goodwyn's work is made all the more remarkable because it included a strong critique of socialism as well. For Goodwyn, the most important human struggle was not capitalism versus socialism, but the people versus the powerful and privileged. Or my terms, democratic republicanism versus oligarchy. Socialism, Goodwyn saw, was just as terribly flawed as capitalism. Quite simply, Goodwyn noted, socialist societies were just as prone as capitalist ones to create oppressive regimes of hierarchical power: "the history of successful socialist accessions to power in the twentieth century has had a common thread-victory through a red army directed by a central political committee. No socialist citizenry has been able to bring the post-revolutionary army or central party apparatus under democratic control..." After the collapse of populism following the 1896 election, Goodwyn wrote, "socialists reacted to continued cultural isolation by celebrating the purity of their 'radicalism.' Thus individual righteousness and endless sectarian warfare over ideology came to characterize the politics of a creed rigidified in the prose of nineteenth-century prophets." Thus, it was naturally Goodwyn's next major endeavor to study, measure, and explain the revolutions of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. And in 1991, Goodwyn gave us Breaking the Barrier: The Rise of Solidarity in Poland.

After our book discussion last February, a number of us gathered at a local tavern along with Professor Goodwyn. I remember being shocked by his rejection of my despondent listing of my disappointments in President Obama. For him, focusing only on what one person, in the office of the President, could or could not accomplish, was missing the more important big picture. As an example, he pointed out that the public's shift from a majority opposing to a majority supporting gay marriage had occurred in a remarkably short period of time, of a decade or less. By that measure, the potential for a truly democratic restructuring of our society and economy was gaining momentum every day.

Which is exactly the theme Jim Hightower sounds at the very beginning of his tribute to Professor Goodwyn.

Seeds of a movement: A 21st century Populist renewal is flourishing at America's grassroots

In November, I spoke to an overflow crowd gathered in Duke University's Lilly Library for Larry Goodwyn's unusual memorial service. Unusual? Well, it was the first memorial I'd ever been to that had to have an intermission!

That was because the "honoree" himself was such an unusual character (pugnacious populist agitator, rebellious scholar, powerful writer, demanding mentor, and passionate protagonist for social justice), so a long line of folks had tales to tell. But what struck me as most unusual was that the attendees were not merely spending three hours looking back at a life well lived, but almost gleefully looking forward.

Goodwyn was the modern-day guru of American Populism. He'd been on the front lines of both progressive academics and activism for more than six decades, blending his work as a renowned scholar of the 19th century Populist movement with his own practice of populism as a strategist and foot soldier in the civil rights, labor, and other grassroots social movements of his time. In 1976, he literally rewrote the textbooks with his path-changing work, Democratic Promise: The Populist Moment In American History. This penetrating volume thoroughly debunked the ivory tower historians of the establishment who had condescendingly dismissed the Populists of the late 1800s as nothing but a bumbling bunch of demagogic, racist rubes in southern backwaters.

Au contraire, as we Texans say. Professor Goodwyn showed that the populist revolt against the unbridled greed of the robber baron era was a highly sophisticated mass movement. It gave downtrodden millions a voice and an empowering sense of themselves as democratic citizens. Through the movement's cooperative structure, grassroots people--who'd been isolated from each other, were mostly impoverished, and were often illiterate--learned how to address their own conditions and created new ways to work together to achieve their aspirations. Radically progressive, the movement included both African-Americans and urban unionists in its ranks and leadership, and it aimed for major structural changes to democratize the economic and political systems. Populism surged across the country into 43 states, from California to New York.  Read more

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