by Noel Ignatiev
In 1892 Thomas E. Watson ran for Congress on the People’s Party ticket (also known as the Populist Party) in Georgia’s tenth district. Watson himself was a native Georgian, son of a Confederate veteran. He had served in the State Legislature since 1882, and had been elected to Congress in 1890 as a Democrat. In 1892, he threw his support to the newly founded People’s Party. Among People’s Party campaigners was Sebastian Doyle, a black preacher. When Doyle was threatened with lynching, Watson called upon Populists to rally to his defense; two thousand white farmers marched to the Thomson village courthouse under arms, where they heard speeches by Doyle and by Watson, who declared, “We are determined in this free country that the humblest white or black man that wants to talk our doctrine shall do it…” Two thousand white farmers rallying to defend a black man threatened with lynching was not an everyday occurrence in Georgia. It was a redneck revolt.
The People’s Party had grown out of the Farmers’ Alliance, part of a radical upsurge that swept the country in the 1880s following the long agricultural depression that began in 1873. The Party’s founding convention declared (in a statement that could have been written yesterday):
We meet in the midst of a nation brought to the verge of moral, political, and material ruin. Corruption dominates the ballot-box, the Legislatures, the Congress, and touches even the ermine of the bench. The people are demoralized; most of the States have been compelled to isolate the voters at the polling places to prevent universal intimidation and bribery. The newspapers are largely subsidized or muzzled, public opinion silenced, business prostrated, homes covered with mortgages, labor impoverished, and the land concentrating in the hands of capitalists. The urban workmen are denied the right to organize for self-protection, imported pauperized labor beats down their wages, a hireling standing army, unrecognized by our laws, is established to shoot them down, and they are rapidly degenerating into European conditions. The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few, unprecedented in the history of mankind; and the possessors of those, in turn, despise the republic and endanger liberty. From the same prolific womb of governmental injustice we breed the two great classes—tramps and millionaires.
The Party adopted a platform which included nationalization of transportation and communication, land to the tiller, a graduated income tax, abolition of the standing army, direct election of senators, the eight-hour work day and free coinage of silver.
Watson was aware of the importance of the race problem, and in particular its effect in holding back whites. He wrote:
You might beseech a Southern white tenant to listen to you upon questions of finance, taxation and transportation; you might demonstrate with mathematical precision that herein lay his way out of poverty into comfort; you might have him “almost persuaded” to the truth, but if the merchant who furnished his farm supplies (at tremendous usury) or the town politician (who never spoke to him except at election times) came along and cried “Negro rule,” the entire fabric of reason and common sense which you had patiently constructed would fall, and the poor tenant would joyously hug the chains of an actual wretchedness rather than do any experimenting on a question of mere sentiment . . . the argument against the independent movement in the South may be boiled down into one word — nigger.
He added, “Now the People’s Party says to these two men, ‘You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both.’”
Watson’s call for unity of black and white poor was widely perceived as the most subversive aspect of his teachings. One editor wrote, “The South and especially the tenth district is threatened with anarchy and communism” because of ‘the direful teachings of Thomas E. Watson.’”
Yet within a few years, Watson was reborn as a white supremacist demagogue, one of the first in a line that stretched from “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, “Sockless” Jerry Simpson, Theodore Bilbo, Strom Thurmond, James Eastland and George Wallace up to Donald Trump—all claiming to defend the interests of the hard-working white man against those who would drag him down.
There is not enough space here to tell in detail the next few years of Watson’s life. Briefly what happened is as follows:
Watson ran for reelection in 1892 and again in 1894, but was defeated both times by fraud and violence; in one election, his opponent received a majority of 13,780 votes in a county with only 11,240 eligible voters! Nevertheless, the Populists made gains in the Congressional elections of 1894, winning several governorships and gaining support in cities in the wake of the Depression of 1893 and the 1894 Pullman Strike.
In 1896, the national Democratic Party, feeling the heat of Populism, nominated William Jennings Bryan for President on a platform that borrowed planks from Populism. Now the Party was confronted with a dilemma, to go with Bryan or hold out for the complete platform. At its St. Louis Convention, the Party split, some voting to support Bryan, others to remain independent. As a compromise Watson agreed to accept the Populist nomination for vice-president on a ticket headed by Bryan.
The election, won by Republican William McKinley, was a debacle for Populism, leaving its supporters embittered and leading to the Party’s demise. Watson withdrew from politics, turning his attention to writing histories, biographies, and a novel. Then in 1904 he returned to politics, now as an advocate of disfranchising black voters. (At that time, black people still voted in the South even though their political organizations had been repressed and their power reduced when Reconstruction was overturned.)
How to explain the change? It was not a result of corruption, bribery or personal betrayal; in fact, it was not personal at all, but representative of a general problem in U.S. history, and there was logic in it.
The so-called “Negro Question” had always been his nemesis; if, he reasoned, the black vote could be eliminated as a factor in elections, poor whites would no longer be afraid to vote their interests, and the banker-industrialists dominating the New South could be overturned. Hence, he endorsed the disfranchisement of black voters. He also launched attacks against the Catholic Church, which he accused of serving a foreign power, and against Jews, whom he saw as representatives of northern capitalist interests. (His stirring up popular resentment of Jews led to the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Atlanta.)
The roots of his transubstantiation were to be found in his failure, and the failure of the movement he led, even in the days when he was preaching unity of black and white poor, to address the material basis of the disunity.
There were always fissures in the Populist coalition, largely based in differences in standing between black wage-laborers and white farm owners: for example, when the Colored Farmers’ Alliance proposed to call a strike of black cotton-pickers, the president of the (white) Alliance denounced it as an effort “to better their condition at the expense of their white brethren.”
Watson’s efforts at uniting the poor of both races had always been grounded on the premise that the “races” had divergent (as well as common) interests; it was, therefore, a small step for him to abandon those efforts when new avenues promising greater success opened.
What if black laborers were more often than whites wage-workers? What if black sharecroppers generally found themselves laboring under more unfavorable terms than whites, terms enforced by legal and extra-legal terror? What if black people made up the overwhelming majority of victims of the convict lease system? What if rural schools for black children were open a hundred days of the year, shutting down during cotton-picking season, while schools for whites stayed open year-round? Why, when the task is to unite the laborers, focus on the things that divide them? Doesn’t it make more sense to focus on the grievances they have in common, their common subordination to the banks, railroads and corrupt public officials?
The answer is, no, it does not. History shows it does not. This sort of false unity always leaves the black worker on the bottom. It is black and white together on the picket line, and after the strike is over the white workers return to the skilled trades, the machining departments and the cleaner assembly areas, and the black workers return to the labor gang, the coke plant and the open hearth. Every “victory” of this kind feeds the poison of white supremacy and pushes further off the real unity of the working class.
Today, when the gains made by workers during an extended period of economic growth have eroded, and the unions that won them have been weakened, many workers, black and white, seek to recover what they lost by appealing to the government to protect them from the so-called criminal class and immigrants. Make America Great Again.
The only way to overcome the divisions within the working class is to confront them directly. The problem of white supremacy must be fought out openly within the working class. Without a direct challenge to the race differential and to the institutions that reproduce it, all denunciations of white supremacy and all appeals for working-class unity, are empty words. In fact, they may do more harm than good, as shown in the history of Tom Watson.
For the fifteen years after his return to political life, he dominated Georgia politics, presenting himself as a champion of the poor. He opposed U.S. entry into World War I, declaring it a war fought to safeguard J.P. Morgan’s loans to Britain: “Where Morgan’s money went, your boy’s blood must go…” In 1920, he entered the U.S. Senate, where he defended the Bolshevik Revolution and opposed U.S. intervention in Russia. He denounced the League of Nations as an imperialist alliance, and fought against increased military appropriations. To the supporters of a standing army, he asked, “Whom, then, do you fear? You are afraid of your own proletariat… Such men as Mellon, and Hoover, and Elbert Gary, and J.P. Morgan… these vast combinations of capital want a standing army in order to beat down the dissatisfied.” At the same time, he continued his race-baiting, his defense of lynching and his denial of voting and civil rights to black people.
It is commonly asserted that “racism” is a tool of the ruling class to keep the poor divided. Watson’s career shows that to be at best a partial truth: for the poor whites who followed him, white supremacy was a means of securing for themselves an advantage in a competitive society; for them there was no contradiction between his economic radicalism and his defense of white supremacy, and the more radical he was, both economically and racially, the more enthusiastically they followed him. Did the mix of economic radicalism and white supremacy bring them freedom? Of course not; they remained exploited proletarians. But it brought them gains within the existing society, the only one they knew and the only one most could imagine, and that was all they asked of it.
Tom Watson died on September 26, 1922. Between seven and ten thousand people attended the funeral services at his home in Georgia. Conspicuous among the floral tributes was a cross of roses eight feet high, sent by the Ku Klux Klan.
Is Watson’s career a historical curiosity, an anomaly, or are there lessons for today?
In 1966 SNCC adopted the slogan of Black Power. Part of the turn was its decision that it was time for whites who had been working with it in the black community on voter registration and other projects to leave it and go into the white community to organize there. White radicals who did that were faced with the question, along what lines? Many interpreted their task as organizing whites around the issues that directly affected them, expecting that struggles against a common enemy would lead to black-white unity, even without a direct challenge to the material basis of the disunity. The decline of SNCC and rise of the Black Panther Party (which happened very quickly) was convenient for them, because the main thing the BPP asked of its white supporters was to provide it with direct material support against the severe repression aimed at it. The idea that it was the duty of radical whites to challenge white supremacy among whites, which had been part of SNCC’s outlook, was allowed to lapse. The Young Patriots arose out of that sensibility, and Redneck Revolt is its continuation.
According to its website (https://www.redneckrevolt.org/about):
Redneck Revolt is a national network of community defense projects from a broad spread of political, religious, and cultural backgrounds. It is a pro-worker, anti-racist organization that focuses on working class liberation from the oppressive systems which dominate our lives. In states where it is legal to practice armed community defense, many branches choose to become John Brown Gun Clubs, training ourselves and our communities in defense and mutual aid.
The history of the white working class is one full of resistance, collectively and individually, against the rich elite that hold power over all of our lives. From massive armed uprisings like the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, to the resistance to coal mining in predominately white rural Appalachia today, white working people have been against those that uphold predatory economic, political, and social systems.
The history of the white working class is also one filled with collaboration with those same rich elite power holders. White working people have played the role of foot soldiers for the political and economic elite, participating in genocide and the enslavement of other peoples, and overall protectors of the ruling class. White working class participation in state and paramilitary organizations and formations like the Ku Klux Klan, the Minutemen, the U.S. Armed Forces, and the Council of Conservative Citizens has undermined the struggle for freedom among all people.
It is with these conflicting histories in mind that we hope to incite a movement amongst white working people that works toward the total liberation of all working people, regardless of skin color, religious background, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, or any other division that bosses and politicians have used to fragment movements for social, political, and economic freedom.
Redneck Revolt has compiled the following organizing principles:
We stand against white supremacy.
We believe in true liberty for all people.
We stand for organized defense of our communities.
We are working class and poor people.
We are an aboveground militant formation.
We stand against the nation-state and its forces which protect the bosses and the rich.
We stand against capitalism.
We stand against the wars of the rich.
We believe in the right of militant resistance.
We believe in the need for revolution.
It is easy to see why the group has attracted attention, especially after Charlottesville, from radicals and even liberals who appreciate the importance of reaching white working-class people and the value of armed self-defense both as a tactic and a statement.
With most of the above I have no problem. I do have a problem with “defense of our communities,” as I would like to know which communities are to be defended. From the Redneck Revolt statement:
We use the term “community” intentionally to describe those who share the same material conditions with us; our neighbors, our family members, our friends, the people working alongside us…. That is our community.
As everyone knows, in this society those who share our material conditions, our neighbors, our family members, our friends, the people working alongside us, usually reflect which race they (and we) are assigned to. Not to put too fine a point on it, I would like to know whether the writers accept the existence of a white community.
The goal is not to defend the white community but to abolish it, and along with it all communities defined by racial preference or oppression.
The statement says further:
We strongly believe in community defense, the basis of which must be meaningful involvement in our own communities, material support for other liberatory defense groups and survival programs…
That doesn‘t answer my question either. I urge others to read the statement; maybe they can make more sense of it than I can.
Photo of members of John Brown Gun Club in Phoenix with firearms under a banner, “We will defend our communities.” What message does this send? (I cannot reproduce the photo here. It can be found at https://shadowproof.com/2017/06/20/redneck-revolt-builds-anti-racist-anti-capitalist-movement-working-class-whites/)
Rather than base too much on a written statement, let me turn to what they do. Their website reports examples:
Charlottesville, August 12:
Five Redneck Revolt branches from nearby towns have been on the ground in Charlottesville since yesterday, and working closely with the SRA, BLM, and local organizers to develop plans to protect the local community.
Last night, Dr. Cornel West and several local faith leaders called for a prayer meeting at the St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville. Armed Redneck Revolt members were on-hand to assist with security, when word was received that the 300+ white supremacists were marching with torches across the University of Virginia campus towards the church. Across the street from the church, the fascist march encountered several anti-fascist and student counter-protestors, and a skirmish erupted. Redneck Revolt members assisted with escorting folks from the church to their cars, and everyone was evacuated safely.
Today, with hundreds more white supremacists expected to converge on Charlottesville, our Redneck Revolt branches worked together with local organizers to create and secure a staging area at Justice Park, within a short distance of the planned Unite the Right rally location, Emancipation Park (formerly Lee Park). Approximately 20 Redneck Revolt members created a security perimeter around the park, most of them open-carrying tactical rifles…
At many points during the day, groups of white supremacists approached Justice Park, but at each instance, Redneck Revolt members formed a unified skirmish line against them, and the white supremacists backed down. (Entire report at https://www.redneckrevolt.org/single-post/REPORTBACK-CHARLOTTESVILLE)
Phoenix, August 22:
A host of local organization had called for protests, rallies, and other events in response to Trump… We formed five operational fireteams on the ground, composed of four armed teams and one unarmed street medic and escort team. One of our fireteams remained at the park for the duration of the protest to guard the sanctuary area that had been established, with street medics, food, water, and Gatorade…
Throughout the protest, all of our fireteams worked closely to support Phoenix Urban Health Collective, as well as other street medic teams from around the state. (Entire report at https://www.redneckrevolt.org/single-post/REPORTBACK-PHOENIX-TRUMP-RALLY)
Houston, September 11:
We began our efforts before Harvey made landfall in Corpus Christi. Before we were able to leave our houses, we had begun gathering contacts from inside and outside of town, and consolidating local efforts between groups on social media. Members of Redneck Revolt made a Facebook group that is sympathetic to our politics and contained most of Houston’s heavy lifters in terms of organizers, and that continues to be pretty effective as a center for information with quality control. We tried our best to network rescue efforts early on as well, sometimes with people we did not know, in order to circulate information, as all emergency lines were busy. Some also began doing very careful navigation of the streets in order to try to provide care on the ground in places that had not experienced flooding but might have some people walking around. Overall, Houston Redneck Revolt did not participate directly in a rescue experience, however we did our best to support others in this.
As relief volunteers began coming in from out of town in the middle of the week, we immediately got into food and supply distribution as well as housing members of other organizations. Members of Redneck Revolt from outside the city in outlying rural areas came into town, and committed to staying for a prolonged period. We attended conference calls and had to have a lot of conversations very quickly on political questions, and which alliances we would build. We jumped right into prepping hot meals for hundreds of people, and directed supplies to shelters that were being neglected by the cross and tried to stay as knowledgeable as possible. Groups we did this alongside of, and with the help of, were Black Women’s Defense League, Phoenix John Brown Gun Club, Red Guards Austin, Revolutionary Association of Houston, and the Serve the People network, and several others. (Entire report at https://www.redneckrevolt.org/single-post/2017/09/11/REPORTBACK-HURRICANE-HARVEY)
All worthy efforts. Now let us consider what they did not report:
There were no reports of challenges to the institutions that reproduce white supremacy—neither the criminal justice system, nor the schools, nor employment discrimination, nor real estate lending and renting policies. The absence of such reports in accounts of actions during situations that might be considered dangerous if not life-threatening is neither surprising nor in and of itself evidence of a political failure. More significant is that on their entire website there is not a word of such a challenge, nor any discussion of what such a challenge might look like, nor even any discussion of the need to develop such a challenge.
Very well (people might say), two out of three ain’t bad. They go among poor whites with an “anti-racist” (and anti-capitalist) message, and carry firearms to show they are serious. What if they don’t challenge the institutions? Can’t we accept them for the good they do, and leave it for others to do what they don’t? Why focus on their shortcomings, which make no difference anyhow? Besides, they may learn.
Serious questions deserve serious answers. Here are mine:
The capitalist system tends to reduce all labor to simple, homogenous, abstract labor. At the same time, it constantly generates new hierarchies among the laborers. As befits their contradictory position (as part of capital and part of its negation), workers respond to these tendencies in contradictory ways. As producers of use-values, they act in the interests of the human community; as sellers (or would-be sellers) of labor-power, they invoke whatever hierarchies are available to give them an advantage in a competitive society. Among the various hierarchies among the laborers, “race” has played a crucial (and at times determinant) role in U.S. history. U.S. society is not merely bourgeois, it is bourgeois white-supremacist, and U.S. labor opportunism has often taken the form of white-supremacist opportunism. This remains true even though traditional forms of white supremacy and the institutions that upheld them have been eroded. After all this time, there is no reason to think that class interests will prevail over racial interests among white workers—unless their racial interests are directly challenged.
The lesson of Tom Watson is that even physical defense of black people combined with denunciations of race prejudice, without a challenge to the institutions that feed that prejudice, laid the groundwork for a later turn.
According to a recent article,
Considering Redneck Revolt’s vision, their embrace of the term ‘redneck,’ their belief in building solidarity with working and poor communities, their recruitment within rural white communities, and their embrace of late ‘60’s-style survival programs, it is hard not to draw parallels to the original Rainbow Coalition, and specifically to the Young Patriots (YPO).
The Rainbow Coalition was an attempt—initially lead by Fred Hampton and the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party in the late 1960s—to unify the Black Power movement led by the Black Panther Party, the Puerto Rican Nationalist movement led by the Young Lords, and a white working class movement led by the YPO in Chicago.
The YPO is a huge inspiration for us, specifically because it’s one of the most visible instances of that sort of rupturing racial lines when folks from different demographics were able to step back and realize that their interests allied with one another not with a politician or a company. There was a real tangible understanding that their liberation was bound up with one another’s liberation. So we draw a lot of really explicit inspiration from the YPO and the work that they did with the Chicago Panthers and the Young Lords.
The groups in the Rainbow Coalition of 1968 (not to be confused with Jesse Jackson’s 1984 electoral coalition of the same name) held joint press conferences, issued statements of mutual support, and appeared at each other’s rallies, but they never challenged the existence of a white community. Their spirit was expressed in a slogan popular at the time: Black Power to Black people, Brown power to Brown people, and White power to White people—a slogan that provided political legitimacy to “white” interests, in violation of the most elementary principle of class struggle in the U.S., namely, that a “white working class” is at best a contradiction and at worst a nightmare. The Coalition reached a low point in 1968, when the Peace and Freedom Party nominated Black Panther Party leader Eldridge Cleaver for president and white southerner Peggy Terry for vice-president. The campaigns were conducted as if there was no connection between them, like the Democratic Party: an Irish name to get Irish votes, a Polish name to get Polish votes, a black man on the ticket to get black votes, etc.
Campaign poster from Peace and Freedom Party 1968 showing vice-presidential candidate Peggy Terry and supporters, all white. (I cannot reproduce the poster here. It can be found at https://www.redneckrevolt.org/)
Is there any reason to think that Redneck Revolt and the new Rainbow Coalition will turn out differently from the People’s Party? American history shows that any political group, left, right or center, that fails to challenge in practice the white community and the institutions and patterns that maintain it will reinforce an identity that has led countless potentially progressive movements to ruin and whose capacity to do harm is by no means exhausted—no matter how vigorously it denounces “racism” and capitalism and how many coalitions it enters with non-whites. Simply put, white people organized as whites are dangerous to the working class and to humanity, and white people with guns organized as whites are doubly so—and this is true regardless of the intentions of the organizers.
This article does not necessarily represent the views of the editors.
 The best account is Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel, by. C. Vann Woodward.
 For an account of how reform victories widened the gap in living standards between black and white, see George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness.
 Without white supremacy, the white community would not exist. People’s standing determines their race, not the other way around: people from Africa were not enslaved because they were black; rather, they were defined as a race because they were enslaved; and the same is true (in reverse) for whites: people from Europe were not free because they were white; rather they were defined as “white” because they were “free.” See Barbara J. Fields, “Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United States of America” (http://www.solidarity-us.org/pdfs/cadreschool/fields.pdf) and “Ideology and Race in American History” (http://history.berkeley.edu/sites/default/files/slides/ideology.pdf).
 One hundred fifty years ago, Karl Marx wrote in a letter to Abraham Lincoln, “While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.” We can see how well that worked out.
 Interview with Shaun, Pittsburgh RR organizer. (https://shadowproof.com/2017/06/20/redneck-revolt-builds-anti-racist-anti-capitalist-movement-working-class-whites/). See also (https://www.redneckrevolt.org/single-post/2016/09/24/Revolutionary-Hillbilly-An-Interview-with-Hy-Thurman-of-the-Young-Patriots-Organization).
 Confession: while I spoke out against the campaign conducted by the Terry supporters, I was taken in temporarily by the inter-racial coalition headed by the Black Panther Party.