One of the most common complaints from professional liberals about Obama is that he has failed to deliver on the hopes they had for a new New Deal. After reading Alan Brinkley’s slim (116 pages) but informed biography of FDR, I can assure them that there’s not really that much difference between the two Democratic Party presidents. While not quite in the same category as the chapter on the New Deal in Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the USA, it certainly borders on damning with faint praise.
Even before he was elected, FDR was displaying some rather reactionary tendencies, although it should be added completely in line with the standards of the time (no doubt the same flaw demonstrated by Obama in spades.) Appointed by Woodrow Wilson to the post of assistant secretary of the Navy, FDR initiated a crack-down on gays in the area around the large naval base at Newport, Rhode Island. Enlisted men were assigned to entrap sailors and others (including a prominent Protestant clergyman). A scandal erupted over the excesses of the action and a Senate investigation led by Republicans rebuked FDR in 1921. Ah, the good old days…
As I have already mentioned in my article on the Bonus Army, one of FDR’s first major pieces of legislation in 1932 was a deficit-hawk Economy Act that cut benefits for veterans and government employees, ignoring the advice of the left.
The next piece of legislation in the First Hundred Days favored rich farmers over the poor ones. The Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) was supposedly designed to aid all farmers but in the hands of the Farm Bureau Administration, it tilted in favor of the agribusinesses of the day. Farm income for them grew by 50 percent over the next three years, but the dispossession of small farmers, tenants, and sharecroppers continued and even accelerated. Especially hard-hit were Black farmers in the South who were targeted by the Dixiecrats. If you think of all this in terms of David Harvey’s accumulation by dispossession, it all made perfect sense. If Ford, GM, US Steel et al needed wage slaves, where else to get them except from the Deep South—either Black or white poor farmers.
In terms of Ford, GM and company, help arrived in the form of the National Industrial Recovery Act that created the National Recovery Administration. The goal of the NRA was to create trusts of the largest corporations that would establish price floors and check deflation. While there were some progressive aspects (elimination of child labor, maximum workweek hours of 35-40, and creation of Section 7(a) that would enable industrial trade unions), the main result was economic stagnation since the NRA was based on the assumption that overproduction of manufactured goods was at the root of the Great Depression. Here’s Clarence Darrow denouncing the NRA:
Not surprisingly, as Brinkley admits, FDR “faced growing disillusionment from the vast pool of the unemployed, and even from members of his own administration, who felt he was ineffectually improvising and was in danger of failing.”
Like Obama, FDR was rather loath to raise taxes on the rich despite rhetoric to the contrary. The Revenue Act of 1935 raised taxes on income over $50,000 but the bill had little impact on increasing government revenues or on “soaking the rich”. The bill was largely symbolic and helped to craft his image as some kind of leftist. In a campaign speech in October 1936, FDR spoke about welcoming the hatred of the rich but really did little to deserve it. His faux progressivism did help him beat Alf Landon, however, by a landslide.
Although his victory gave him a progressive mandate, FDR decided to move in exactly the opposite direction. Goaded by Henry Morgenthau, his secretary of the treasury and the Tim Geithner of his age, Roosevelt decided to balance the federal budget. The consequences were disastrous. Unemployment went from a low of 14.3 percent in 1937 (!) to a 19 percent in 1938 while the GNP declined by 5 percent.
He reversed himself in 1938 but by that time the New Deal was virtually finished. Brinkley states, “It did not end the Great Depression and the massive unemployment that accompanied it; only the enormous public and private spending for WWII finally did that.” In other words, he concurred with Harry Magdoff.
Needless to say, Alan Brinkley’s book—despite its overall integrity from a liberal standpoint—is totally insufficient. I read it to get oriented to a research project that might culminate in a book if I can ever discipline myself to stick to a single topic for more than a week.
Basically there has never been a book-length Marxist critique of New Deal liberalism to the best of my knowledge. The best things out there, besides Zinn, is an essay by Ronald Radosh titled “The Myth of the New Deal” that was a chapter in a book he co-edited with libertarian Murray Rothbard titled A New History of Leviathan. There’s also an article by Barton Bernstein in a book titled “Towards a New Past”–a collection of radical articles on American history that I plan to read before long.
About the best thing out there is Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step” that is focused on the creation of the CIO and that exposes FDR’s “plague on both your houses” politics that implicitly favored big business. Preis was a leader of the SWP and a first-rate journalist and working-class scholar.
I have all this material at home, as well as some other useful items on the WPA, etc.
I believe that it is absolutely necessary for the left to take on New Deal mythology and smash it once and for all. As is the case with Kemalism in Turkey and the PRI in Mexico, FDR’s liberalism is a kind of foundational myth for our own powerful bourgeois party crafted in progressive terms.
Even if this does not turn into a book, I will be filing reports on what I find out in the months to come.