Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 26, 2008


Filed under: economics,parliamentary cretinism — louisproyect @ 10:59 pm

Franklin D. Roosevelt

This week’s Nation Magazine has a special issue on “The New Deal [Re]Turns 75” in commemoration of the 75th anniversary of FDR’s welfare state. There’s a longish article by Richard Parker (an Oxford-trained economist who teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and a biographer of John Kenneth Galbraith) titled “Why the New Deal Matters”. There’s also Toward a New New Deal (Forum) that includes contributions by liberals as well as radicals like Howard Zinn and Adolph Reed.

What’s missing is any acknowledgment that the New Deal failed to lift the U.S. out of the Great Depression. There’s also a rather shocking failure to come to terms with New Deal foreign policy with its Wilsonian arrogance, also now on display in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is no accident that George W. Bush invoked Harry Truman, FDR’s vice president, in a speech defending his “war on terror”. Finally, and most importantly, there’s little understanding of the economic changes since the 1960s that make a New Deal a utopian fantasy.

Richard Parker’s article begins with the startling observation that “when ’60s students began calling themselves the New Left, it may have distinguished them from the Old Left–but perhaps it also evoked the keystone of all postwar American politics, the New Deal.” I was so stunned by this amalgam that I could not resist dropping a note to the Harvard professor:

Dr. Parker, the Old Left was all about the New Deal. If you read the CPUSA press in 1965, there was nothing but the same kind of cloying nostalgia for the New Deal as in your article. Furthermore, New Left scholarship was very much involved with debunking the New Deal. I refer you to Gabriel Kolko’s work, not to speak of the general disdain for the Democrats that prevailed in SDS in this period.

Before I address some of the more general points made above, I think it would be useful to deal with some of the more glaring misunderstandings about the actual New Deal versus the idealized version found in the Nation.

Bill McKibben, a long-time environmental journalist, is nostalgic for the Civilian Conservation Corps that grew Red Pine forests in the Pacific Northwest. He also admires other New Deal public works projects that produced: “Hiking trails, city halls, bridges, park gazebos, public plazas, dams, and on and on.” In his eyes, “that’s the kind of work that needs doing now, as we face a crisis even greater than the Depression: the quick unraveling of the planet’s climate system in the face of our endless emissions of carbon dioxide.”

Now I understand that Bill McKibben is rather fixated on global warming, but is astonishing that he can offer up New Deal dams as evidence of the kind of spirit that can resolve the environmental crisis of today, for the fact is that those dams are monumental evidence of a failure to think in terms of environmental sustainability. These New Deal mega-dams have left behind a legacy of soil infertility and mammoth damage to marine life everywhere.

Maybe McKibben’s ideas on these dams were influenced by the old Woody Guthrie tune, written in homage to the Grand Coulee Dam:

Uncle Sam took up the challenge in the year of ‘thirty-three,
For the farmer and the factory and all of you and me,

He said, “Roll along, Columbia, you can ramble to the sea,
But river, while you’re rambling, you can do some work for me.”

Now in Washington and Oregon you can hear the factories hum,
Making chrome and making manganese and light aluminum,

And there roars the flying fortress now to fight for Uncle Sam,
Spawned upon the King Columbia by the big Grand Coulee Dam.

The Grand Coulee might have been good for those “flying fortresses” but they have been hell for the fish that lived in the Columbia River. In a review of “A River Lost: The Life and Death of the Columbia” by Blaine Harden (“The New Deal’s Stagnant Legacy”, June 2, 1996”), T.J. Watkins wrote:

WE ARE a nation whose history has been written in its rivers, but we have done poorly by them in return — certainly in the West. There is not a single major river system anywhere west of the Mississippi that has not been chopped up into reservoirs by dams for flood control, irrigation water, and electric power production. Most of this development was the child of the New Deal, which saw in the “underutilized” rivers of the West the image of an idealized America in which cheap water and electricity would combine to support a dreamy new world of self-sufficient family farms and prosperous middle-class democratic hamlets. What it gave us — in addition to the electricity that went a long way toward winning World War II — was river-basin developments that transformed much of the arid West into booming pockets of uncontrolled urban growth surrounded by single-crop, migrant-labor agribusiness empires the size of Balkan nations, the whole business nourished by federal subsidies and controlled by oligarchic knots of money and power.

As Blaine Harden makes abundantly clear in A River Lost, nowhere was the gap between dream and reality shown to be wider than on the Columbia River System, which drains most of Washington, Oregon and Idaho, as well as a chunk of western Montana. Harden, a Washington Post reporter, knows the river well, having grown up on it himself, but in revisiting it now he refuses to let the soft glow of family memory distort what he sees as he talks with bargemen and Indians, farmers and dam-workers, scientists and bureaucrats, each of whom has a different vision of what the river can and cannot do.

To Harden, the river represents “an American West that for most of the past two centuries has summed up progress, patriotism, and virtue in a single word: conquest.” Beginning with the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams as two of the New Deal’s most ambitious projects, the Columbia and its tributaries have been stoppered with no fewer than 113 dams over the past 60 years. On the Columbia itself, Harden notes with fine irony, the only stretch of the river that has remained generally free is the Hanford Reach, where the Hanford Engineering Works began manufacturing plutonium for the first atomic bombs during World War II. Non-military enterprise was forbidden along this part of the river, and as a result, he says, “It is a fine place to see an eagle hunt, deer graze, or fish spawn. But best not drink the groundwater for a quarter million years.”

The loss is not merely a matter of aesthetics, of once untrammeled wild rivers now converted into long, slackwater ponds on which float bargeloads of garbage and wheat, lentils and computer games, while engineers raise and lower water levels according to the dictates of irrigation farmers and a power grid that lights the Pacific Northwest from Seattle to Portland. That is dismal enough, but it is in the loss of salmon in which the truest measure of damage can be taken. When Lewis and Clark encountered the Columbia nearly two centuries ago, they found “the multitudes of this fish” to be “almost inconceivable,” salmon big as a man’s thigh, streams of salmon so thick as to be indistinguishable from the river itself, each of the silvery creatures fighting its way upriver to ancient gravel beds as far east as the Northern Rockies, there to spawn and then to die, exhausted.

One hopes that Bill McKibben might find the time to investigate these New Deal dams at some point for the water and food crisis is surely as grave as global warming. To look back nostalgically at these New Deal dams hardly seems warranted in light of the historical record.

Turning to Michael J. Copps, a Democratic member of the FCC and a former assistant secretary of commerce in the Clinton Administration, we get another highly inflated version of Roosevelt’s legacy, this time in mass media. Copps views FDR’s appointments to the FCC as a challenge to the “Roaring Twenties” emphasis on media commercialism and consolidation. Leaving aside the question of how Copps’s boss Bill Clinton aided exactly these same tendencies toward media commercialism and consolidation, there is still that troubling little issue of whether FDR’s support for media diversity included the American Trotskyists.

In 1941, the FBI arrested 19 leaders of the SWP under the provisions of the Smith Act for having the temerity to oppose Franklin Roosevelt’s war. When asked by the prosecutor what form opposition to war to Europe would take, party leader James P. Cannon answered “we would not become supporters of the war, even after the war was declared”. For this thought crime, Cannon and the others were sentenced up to 16 months in prison.

Despite having a job as an economist in the New Deal, the late Harry Magdoff was dubious about the notion that Roosevelt ended the depression. Harry wrote a letter to the author of an article that contained the following: “Today’s neo-liberal state is a different kind of capitalist class than the social-democratic, Keynesian interventionist state of the previous period.” The author had the same kind of nostalgia for the New Deal apparently that Nation Magazine did.

Harry explained:

[D]espite a promise of heavy government spending, and Keynes’s theoretical support, the New Dealers were stumped by the 1937-38 recession, which interrupted what looked like a strong recovery. There was then as there is now an underlying faith that capitalism is a self-generating mechanism. If it slowed down or got into trouble, all that was needed was a jolt to get back on track. In those days, when farm life supplied useful metaphors, the needed boost was referred to as priming the pump. The onset of a marked recession after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war.

Perhaps the sappiest comment about FDR’s foreign policy can be found in Richard Parker’s article:

There’s a third facet to Roosevelt that is vital for Democrats to celebrate today: he was the last Democratic President truly committed to multilateralism and to a nonmilitarized American presence in the world. It was FDR who pushed through–in the form of the United Nations, the IMF and the World Bank–the architecture of internationalism that Woodrow Wilson had dreamed of but failed to achieve. And we know from his wartime politics and diplomacy that he was fully committed, on the one hand, to the decolonization of the world and, on the other, to finding means to engage Moscow after the war, a policy that might have headed off the cold war, or at least its worst excesses.

This is, I suppose, what might expect from a Harvard professor, who are widely regarded as some of the most intellectually backward in the U.S. Given the impact of the IMF and the World Bank on developing countries over the past 50 years or so, it is simply shocking to see them lauded in the pages of the Nation. A true internationalism would call for their abolition.

With respect to wartime politics and diplomacy having anything to do with “decolonization”, one can only refer Parker to a rafter of New Left historians who thoroughly debunked this notion. And for the last word on FDR’s pure as the driven snow motivations in launching the UN, I would refer you to Peter Gowan’s article “US : UN” that appeared in New Left Review 24, November-December 2003.

Roosevelt was well equipped to develop the grand strategy required by the United States, once it was clear that Stalingrad had settled the military outcome of the Second World War. Fascinated by international politics from his youth, he studied Mahan enthusiastically at school and accumulated a personal library of books on naval warfare while at Harvard. A fierce admirer of his cousin Theodore Roosevelt, whose niece Eleanor he married, FDR followed quite consciously in the footsteps of his outspokenly expansionist relative. His political career began with what, for an American of his generation, was a crucial school in military strategy: the Navy Department, where he became Assistant Secretary in 1912. There he was a Big Navy man, pushing for a fleet to rival Britain’s. In 1914, he looked forward to all-out war with Mexico to ‘clean up the political mess’ occasioned by the Mexican Revolution. In that same year he declared: ‘Our national defence must extend all over the western hemisphere, must go out a thousand miles into the sea, must embrace the Philippines and over the seas wherever our commerce may be.’ Contemptuous of his superior, Navy Secretary Daniels, a pacific Methodist from North Carolina, he chafed to thrust America into the First World War.

At the end of that war Roosevelt backed Wilson on the League of Nations, but also—positioning himself to shape the Democratic Party’s thinking on foreign policy—wanted to beef up American military power. Once installed in the Presidency, he sent Sumner Welles to crush the revolution of 1933 and install Batista’s dictatorship in Cuba, pampered clients like Somoza in Nicaragua and—mindful of the need for Catholic votes at home—took care to assist Franco by embargoing arms to the Spanish Republic during the Civil War. Fascism had few terrors for him. Relations with Mussolini were excellent; Vichy a normal diplomatic partner. Nazi Germany, on the other hand, FDR—although unwilling to offer any shelter to Jewish refugees—viewed as the resurgence of an unmitigated expansionist menace; much as did Churchill, also of First World War naval background. Thus once fighting broke out in Europe, and even before the US had entered the war, the Roosevelt Administration was already looking ahead to a new, American-led world beyond it.

Any grand design for us global dominance had to address one fundamental problem: how to restructure American domestic politics for such an external role. Wilson had been defeated by this challenge, but the configuration of domestic political forces had shifted by the end of the 1930s. In the first place, the dominant sectors of the American business class were now overwhelmingly wedded to the idea of us global leadership. The rise of Wilkie amongst Republicans and Dewey’s candidacy against Roosevelt (advised by John Foster Dulles) during the war demonstrated the new consensus. So too did the important group of Republicans within the Roosevelt Administration itself, among them Stimson, Lovett and McCloy. What this bipartisan coalition of big capital wanted from Roosevelt was an assurance that international expansion would be in safe hands from the point of view of American business. In these quarters the brand of internationalism represented by Vice-President Henry Wallace was judged to be unreliably liberal, so Roosevelt dumped him and picked Harry Truman for his running-mate instead, as a man unlikely to offend conservatives.

Finally, we should turn to the all important question of whether it is feasible to call for a new New Deal, even assuming that such a goal is desirable. The dynamics of the world capitalist system for the past 40 years or so establishes that such a goal is utopian. Put simply, there are no Roosevelt type proposals coming from major Democratic Party candidates for the simple reason that the capitalist system since the 1970s at least demands Herbert Hoover type policies. In other words, the neoliberalism of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush alike flows from global competition that forces both capitalist parties to attack all the institutions of the welfare state, including the crown jewels–the Social Security system.

The need to attack such institutions is not driven by ideology or by the failure of the leading Democrats to follow the wise counsel of the Nation. It is rather driven by increased competition from capitalist powers everywhere, whether they are traditional rivals in Europe or from China. The U.S. ruling class can’t afford to allow powerful trade unions or enlightened social legislation, including a single-payer health plan. It needs an atomized working class that can settle for lower wages and it needs to dismantle Social Security because it is an onerous burden on the national treasury, especially when funds are required for the U.S. military which is the sole guarantee of American hegemony in facing of increased competition.

As Harry Shutt points out in “The Trouble with Capitalism,” a conspicuous feature of industrialized economies from the early 1980s has been:

the tendency of established companies, in the service sector as well as manufacturing, to regard the application of cost-cutting new technology to their existing operations (without necessarily expanding capacity) as one of the most profitable ways reinvest their accumulating profits. This has effectively turned on its head one of the most sacred assumptions of post-war political economy, namely that increased investment has a positive impact on employment (a still cherished shibboleth of the British Labour Party and trade unions). At the same time the resulting process of corporate ‘downsizing’ reinforced a gathering tendency on the part of governments quietly to abandon their commitment to full employment as an overriding goal of public policy.

The upshot of these tendencies has been a further increase in joblessness since the early 1980s, giving rise (particularly in Europe) to the phenomenon of ‘jobless growth’. This has meant that, taking the 1974-1994 period as a whole, there has been negligible growth in the numbers of employed people in the countries of the European Union at a time when the level of economic activity (GDP) has expanded significantly, albeit at a much slower rate than in the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed in the most extreme case, that of Spain, employment actually fell by over 8 per cent over the period as a whole, at a time when the economy virtually doubled in size.

It is doubtful that these tendencies will be reversed through the normal capital accumulation process. The bitter truth is that it will take war, at ever escalating levels, to stave off the inevitable just as it did during the Great Depression. In order to confront attacks on the working class and put an end to imperialist, it will take the same kind of radicalism that landed the American Trotskyists in prison in 1943. This time around, however, we should surely try to avoid the sectarian mistakes that these good comrades made. The stakes are too high.


  1. Grey Brechin has an interesting project documenting the New Deal contribution in constructing useful monuments and buildings. Although it is not part of his work, he would also be sympathetic to your ideas about the negative legacy of the New Deal.

    Comment by mperelman — March 26, 2008 @ 11:28 pm

  2. I’m surprised you don’t mention the arts. In a country that never did anything for them before or after the New Deal, the Federal Theatre and the Federal Writers Project stand out as admirable novelties.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 27, 2008 @ 7:25 am

  3. A lot of our grandparents were Rooseveltomaniacs. See Studs Terkel’s oral history of Chicagoans. These idolizers didn’t care about FDR’s Wilsonian foreign policy, and least of all about whether he extended media diversity to include American Trotskyists. They were people who had trouble getting through the obituaries in the morning Tribune. But their first pay from the WPA struck them as a small miracle. And what other gods were there around to worship, Father Coughlin, Colonel McCormick? The present enthusiasm for the New Deal is surely a good part “utopian fantasy”. But so is some of the present criticism of the New Deal.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 27, 2008 @ 10:19 pm

  4. A little off topic but still on government economic programs.
    Economics is not my forte,but none the less the article does raise my suspicions as to the political bias of the author.
    Anyway,was wonder if you had any thoughts….

    Comment by dirk — March 28, 2008 @ 5:28 am

  5. In response to #3, it’s true that the New Deal programs helped a great many people. However, the aims of the New Deal were not primarily altruistic. They were meant to shore up a society that was unraveling under the pressures of the Depression. After 1938, there were no new reforms, because Roosevelt didn’t need them any more.

    Comment by austin k — March 28, 2008 @ 7:17 am

  6. With all respect, austin k, aren’t you illustrating the utopian criticism of the New Deal that I refer to in #3? Where in history can you find an “altruistic” government? To slow the unraveling was quite enough for the Rooseveltomaniacs.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 28, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  7. austin, I agree.

    The Bonus Army March took place the spring/summer of 1932. Its bad PR when you have to send out the military to supress wwi vets. Upton Sinclair ran for gov. of CA in 1934(the rumor I heard was that Louis B. Mayer threw his money & weight to the Republican winner.) Then there was Huey Long, who Roosevelt must have been seriously afraid of politically….

    Comment by m.c. — March 28, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

  8. With all respect, Peter Byrne, both of my parents grew up in the 1930’s. They both experienced the miseries of the Great Depression. They both worshiped Roosevelt, and I actually admire them for that.

    So many times I have heard people say, “What we need is another Roosevelt”. We are not going to get “another Roosevelt”, for reasons that Louis Proyect outlined in his article. Explaining this to people requires, among other things, explaining that Roosevelt was actually defending the interests of the ruling class.

    Comment by austin k — March 29, 2008 @ 7:43 am

  9. I can’t find any altruistic governments when I look at history. Real governments only give anything away when they must in order to keep the lid on. Nor can I find any that aren’t run by the ruling class primarily in the interest of the ruling class. This was also true of the US government between Hoover and Truman. At the same time, I can see in history that some governments have been better for ordinary people than others. Not to make this distinction clearly isn’t helpful – to use the euphemism dear to our rulers. The New Deal won’t be back. Something worse will.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 29, 2008 @ 9:56 am

  10. There were major Labor Union Strikes in the U.S. in 1934 I forgot to mention.

    Comment by m.c. — March 29, 2008 @ 9:17 pm

  11. m.c. mentions Upton Sinclair and his campaign for governor in 1934. FDR’s slippery ways can be seen in how he handled the situation. He met Sinclair who outlined his “Epic Plan”. The president listened with sympathy and a straight face. But it wasn’t only Louis B. Mayer who opposed Sinclair. It was William Randolph Hearst and California money in general. “We’ll think about it Upton…” What FDR’s people did was enter into a secret agreement with the Republican incumbent Merriam. He defeated Sinclair and as returning governor supported the New Deal.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — March 30, 2008 @ 10:27 am

  12. I should have mentioned Hearst. He probably had more influece than Mayer but Mayer let his studio lots be used for the propaganda reels.

    Norman Mailer once described a 1948 social engagement where Katherine Hepburn said she was going to publically endorse Henry Wallace for Pres.& Mayer (or was it Cecille Demille[sp?]) told her is she did he would wreck her career. Demille got Ayn Rand her start as a writer…

    Comment by m.c. — March 30, 2008 @ 6:25 pm

  13. The Nation should advocate WWIII to get the U.S. out of the slump since they love FDR’s “solution” for the economy so much. Too bad they didn’t cover FDR’s shrewd and ultimately successful effort to maneuver the Japanese empire into firing the first shot, or the fact that FDR and his top generals knew of the impending attack on Pearl Harbor and put U.S. carriers out to sea while over one thousand sailors lost their lives on that day of infamy.

    Comment by Binh — April 1, 2008 @ 4:28 pm

  14. I saw that this topic was being discussed on Michael J. Smith’s site (http://stopmebeforeivoteagain.org/2008/04/this_time_were_goin_for_the_wh.html#comments) recently. While the post was meant to bash roseanna dunbar-ortiz’s article on the depression, someone mentioned the above article, which lead Proyect to likewise come in for a beating as well. Not sure what all this pro-new dealism is all about, but it apparently runs deep in the left…

    Comment by dermocrat — April 4, 2008 @ 9:21 pm

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