"Share Our Wealth": Huey Long's Radical Alternative

Posted by Pete on Sep 17th 2019

84 years ago, one of the fiercest progressive voices in Depression-era America fell silent. The story of Huey Long is a reminder of Americans’ age-old capacity to dream of a more progressive economy.

In one popular telling of the Great Depression, the New Deal policies of Franklin Roosevelt fixed the American economy with a progressive program of public and social investment, aimed at addressing America's many economic ills.

But while there's a lot of truth to this narrative, some of FDR's contemporaries saw things a little differently. 

Huey ‘The Kingfish’ Long towered over interwar politics in Louisiana (and beyond) until his death, in 1935.

Every Man a King: The Rise of The Kingfish 

Born in Winn Parish (one of the poorest parts of one of America's poorest states) in 1893, Huey Long stormed into politics like Robin Hood on the Bayou.

He first made a name for himself on the Louisiana Railroad Commission, battling against the domination of state politics by big corporations like Standard Oil.

Over the 1920s, Long’s fame as a champion of the downtrodden grew until he was elected Governor of Louisiana as a Democrat in 1928 – with 96.1% of the vote.

His campaign shook the state, as Long charged from rally to rally with the battle cry “Every man a king.”

Long's campaign slogan captured the future governor's egalitarian vision, which was aimed at rebalancing the scales of wealth and power in plutocratic Louisiana.

He introduced free school textbooks and adult literacy classes to take on inequality in education, and whacked taxes on big business to fund a massive public works program in the state.

With his politics seemingly well-aligned with the 'New Deal' vision of FDR, Long – now in Washington as a US senator – got behind Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential campaign.

But as the 'New Deal' got underway, Senator Long began to think it wasn’t doing enough to solve the economic problems created by American capitalism and its excesses.

Click to see our design honouring " The Kingfish" of Louisiana politics - Huey Long

'Share Our Wealth': Longs ambition for a more equal America 

In February 1934, Long announced a new plan called 'Share Our Wealth' – aimed at bringing about a more fundamental transformation of America's economy.

Calling for a government grant of $5,000 to all US households and a guaranteed annual income of between $2,000 and $3,000 – financed by an increased tax on millionaires – Long’s dream marked a clear attack on FDR from the left.

And for all its progressive goals, there was nothing in the New Deal which could match the radical ambition of ‘Share Our Wealth’.

Institutionalised as a nationwide Share Our Wealth Society, Long’s movement soon had no fewer than 7.5 million members.

But on September 10th 1935, Huey Long died after being shot by the vengeful son of a local political rival in New Orleans, leaving the Share Our Wealth movement and its dream of economic transformation to slip away.

Huey Long wasn’t perfect – far from it – but his story shows that the New Deal wasn’t either.

A progressive icon for a progressive era 

Though FDR was no doubt one of America’s greatest presidents, the sheer popularity of Huey Long’s radical ‘Share Our Wealth’ alternative shows that many people wanted something more.

And while that something more may not have been realized in the exact form Huey Long envisioned, the radical pressure of politicians like Long helped shape an entire generation of American politics which resulted in Social Security, Medicare, and a host of other progressive milestones.

From Huey Long and Emma Goldman to Bernie Sanders and Howard Zinn, countless American radicals have sought – and continue to seek – the answer to economic and social injustice in the most transformative terms possible.

Their stories inspire us to keep dreaming big.

Uniting the progressives: click to continue the discussion on our new Radical History Facebook group.