The Populist Vision by Charles Postel – Review

In The Populist Vision, Charles Postel examines the Populist movement during the late 19th century and revaluates the movement’s goals and objectives.  As the Populists centered in rural locales and challenged big businesses and corporate bankers, most scholars and commentators prior to Postel have characterized the movement as anti-modern.  Historians writing during the Progressive era saw Populism as a frontier revolt against the city and the East, but admired the democracy of the movement and its attempt at reform.  After the Second World War and the onset of the Cold War, historians approached the Populist with a different paradigm.  These scholars described the Populist movement as a backward looking movement and warned that movements like the Populist were signs of radicalism which could lead to fascism or communism.  Following the social turn and the social upheavals of the Vietnam War, historians writing on the Populist movement rejected the idea that the Populists were radical and again asserted that the movement was a pure form of democracy; however, they still described the movement as hostile to progress.  In revaluating the Populist movement, Postel challenges the argument that the Populists were anti-modern and asserts that the Populists were modern people connected commercially and intellectually to the wider world.

To support this argument, Postel examines how Populists engaged ideas of power and interest and developed into both a rural and urban movement.  Postel starts his narrative in Texas focusing Farmer’s Alliance and specifically on Charles Macune, the educated northerner who rallied the local Farmer’s Alliance.  Not only did Macune want to connect the local farmers to the broader economy via railroads but he also formed a national movement that included cities.  For Postel, Macune’s at once local and national ideas demonstrate that Farmer’s Alliance, which Postel sees as spurring the Populist movement, was modern from the outset.  Postel furthers his analysis demonstrating how the actions, intellectual ideas, and talking points of the Populist were modern.  He examines the Populists dedication to education and science which Populists believed would not only enlighten them but also make them more productive famers.  Postel also suggests that the Populists politics were modern and describes how the movement’s organizers sought to create a national party which could influence national politics just as bigger corporations did. Another modern aspect that Postel emphasizes is the Populists desire to form unions as the movement supported the idea of organized labor.  The author also address Populists attitudes towards women, race, and religion.  Thus for Postel, the Populists were a national movement that was modern politically, socially, and economically – not the hick farmers characterized in earlier studies.

Although Postel succeeds in breaking down the idea that the Populists were ignorant farmers, his argument that the Populists were modern remains suspect.  The author never defines be what he means by modern only giving short and unclear description in the introduction.  The concept of modernity, and what is and is not modern, is tricky and somewhat nebulous, but this term rests at the heart of Postel’s research and he needs to delve into this issue and explain how 19th century American’s would have understood what it meant to be modern.  Postel also posits that the Populists were modern in ideas and goals, but fails to demonstrate whether they were modern in their actions.  Most farmers in the south owned and worked their own land sometimes hiring help, a practice dating back hundreds of years.  contrast to urban cities with their technology, factories, and labor specializations, the farmers of the American south do not appear modern, only striving for modernity.

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