Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 9, 2011

Preliminary notes on the New Deal

Filed under: liberalism,New Deal — louisproyect @ 7:57 pm

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.


  1. looking forward to future installments

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 9, 2011 @ 8:34 pm

  2. “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”

    Yes, never forget that the apartheid Solid South was the Rock of Gibraltar that kept the DP in play as a “national party” even since the 1876 sellout of Reconstruction. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that numerous “developmental” tidbits were thrown to the Dixiecrats. Indeed, there is a good case to be made that the New Deal was in essence a development project for the still underdeveloped West and South, rather than the “great progressive reform” of liberal mythology. See “The New Dealers: Power Politics in the Age of Roosevelt” by J.A. Schwartz for more insight on this point.

    Another key reason to critique the myth involves the question of political regime: the relative ease by which the US bourgeoisie slid from the ostensible Age of Reform, 1932-1976 – as the Civil Rights era is seen in this same mythology as a re-continuation of the impetus of the New Deal – into the Age of Reagan and neo-liberalism. If the New Deal was not the progressive “regime change” we thought it was, then neither was the later shift beginning with Reagan a similar shift in the “opposite” direction. This would explain many things about the political dynamics of the USA otherwise inexplicable according to the myth.

    My own view is that we are still subject to the same fundamental political regime that first crystallized in the 1890’s after the massive anarcho-syndicalist worker uprisings of the 1870-80s, and that all other reforms (reactionary or progressive) have been “sub-regime” changes – changes located somewhere between mere alterations in government and political revolution that produces actual regime change within the same class form of the state.

    That would be the recommended angle of approach, rather than to directly debunk the progressive character of particular reform efforts.


    Comment by Matt — November 9, 2011 @ 8:50 pm

  3. yes, very interesting, consistent with this view is that FDR created the Sunbelt of the 1960s and 1970s through the defense spending associated with World War II

    San Diego still reveres him because he opened the first military bases there

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 9, 2011 @ 9:12 pm

  4. Hope you’ll have some comments on Domhoff’s recent “Class and Power in the New Deal.” His analysis of the policies will be congenial. But of course, he has his axe to grind with the Marxists, which seems to mean three works he cites.

    Comment by Chuckie K — November 9, 2011 @ 9:14 pm

  5. Roosevelt was a mixed bag. His labor secretary, Francis Perkins, was a socialist in her youth, and evidence suggests that she abandoned this label only for opportunistic reasons. To the extent that she influenced policy, it tended to be very good: the integrated WPA and CCC, the peaceful settlement of the San Francisco longshoremen’s strike in the strikers’ favor, the social security act, &c. There is also the small matter of the Wagner Act, which Roosevelt signed (albeit reluctantly) and the huge wave of unionization in the 30s, spurred in part by the erroneous perception that Roosevelt favored unionization. In any case, it’s not black and white.

    I’ll say that although I have and like another of the early Radosh’s work (Prophets on the Right), the fact that he collaborated with Murray Rothbard really should raise a red flag.

    Comment by Will — November 10, 2011 @ 3:04 am

  6. I’d add that the possibility of this sort of intermediate “sub-regime” change is a characteristic of large countries, where the possibilities of internal uneven development are greater.

    Comment by Matt — November 10, 2011 @ 4:29 am

  7. OT: (11/10 12:22 AM) mass action of 2000 to 3000 people at right now UC Berkeley, with support from Occupy Oakland, third attempt to establish occupation in Sproul Plaza, only 50 to 70 cops present, impromptu general assembly under way addressing proposals for systemwide UC protest action

    watch live here:
    reports that 30,000 people are watching worldwide

    follow tweets at Occupy Oakland:

    Comment by Richard Estes — November 10, 2011 @ 8:24 am

  8. There is one big difference between Roosevelt and Democrats today which can’t be missed. That is that Roosevelt tended to take an active political offensive which generally set the framework for Republican versus Democrat debates. One needn’t really approve of any specifics in his policies to note the difference. In the USA since the late Carter era the predominant fashion has been that Republicans take the political offensive and set the framework of much of the debate. Democrats then go on to talk about what a great moderate compromiser Ronald Reagan really was and how we all need to try to follow such examples. Debates around social security are a perfect example of this. In Roosevelt’s day it was Roosevelt’s administration which set the terms of debate on this for Republicans. In today’s world the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation and other such rackets all set the terms for any debate which ever happens around social security. That doesn’t mean that I think we need to seek better Democrats, but there is a distinction to be noted there.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — November 10, 2011 @ 11:03 am

  9. FDR opposed the Black-Connery bill which would have created a 30 hour week at 40 hours pay (he initially supported it). FDR’s “left” turn in 1935 on taxes and the passage of Social Security that year were due to general strikes in 1934 in San Francisco (kudos to the CP), Minneapolis (kudos to the SWP), and Toledo.

    Comment by Binh — November 10, 2011 @ 2:30 pm

  10. A detailed nuanced analysis can point to all sorts of ways that strikes led by Marxist groups served to push FDR’s hand to the Left. But Democrats from Carter to Obama have also had multiple chances to point to signs of civil unrest and thereby argue that “This is why nutbars like Newt Gingrich must be stopped!” They haven’t done so, and the main reason why is because the capitalist class of today sees less hope of sustaining profits in today’s economy without a drastic cutback in social welfare.

    Comment by PatrickSMcNally — November 10, 2011 @ 10:04 pm

  11. U.S. imperialism under the New Deal would be an interesting angle I think. Smedley Bulter, who later led the Bonus Army became an radical opponent of U.S. foreign policy, was a commanding officer during the occupation of Haiti.

    On FDR and the brutal 1915-1934 U.S. occupation of Haiti, see:

    Taking Haiti, by Mary Renda
    The United States Occupation of Haiti, by Hans Schmidt
    Haiti: State Against Nation by Michel Rolph Trouillot


    Franklin D. Roosevelt on Haiti in 1928
    Bob Corbett

    I’m working on my library files these days, and today I came across an article by Franklin D. Roosevelt from 1928. “Our Foreign Policy: A Democratic View.” In general this article is defending the U.S. from an attack that Roosevelt says the rest of the world is launching that the U.S. is irresponsibly isolationist.

    Along the way he says this of the U.S. occupation of Haiti:

    “In Haiti a worse situation faced us. That Republic was in chronic trouble, and it as it is close to Cuba the bad influence was felt across the water. Presidents were murdered, governments fled, several time a year. [sic: he really said that!] We landed our marines and sailors only when the unfortunate Chief Magistrate of the moment was dragged out of the French Legation, cut into six pieces and thrown to the mob. Here again we cleaned house, restored order, built public works and put governmental operation on a sound and honest basis. We are still there. It is true, however, that in Santo Domingo and especially in Haiti we seem to have paid too little attention to making the citizens of these states more capable of reassuming the control of their own governments. But we have done a fine piece of material work, and the world ought to thank us.” (p. 584)

    Foreign Affairs, Vol. VI, 1928. Pp. 573-586.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt became the first U.S. president to visit Haiti when, on July 5, 1934 he came ashore at Cap Haitien from the U.S.S. Houston. He met with President Stenio Vincent and an agreement was signed that would have the U.S. marines out of Haiti by mid-August.

    This was the only U.S. president to ever visit Haiti as president until President Bill Clinton visited on March 31, 1995.



    The United States intervened with armed force in Haiti in 1915 to restore order and to forestall possible intervention by some European power. Following the brutal murder of President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam, when a reign of terror gripped the Haitian capital, Woodrow Wilson sent marines to that country. The immediate reason for intervention was to protect the lives and property of Americans and other foreigners, but Wilson’s concern over the possible extension of German, British, or French influence over Haiti was a more basic consideration. Haiti, strategically located in the Caribbean, covers the Windward Passage and is scarcely more than six hundred miles from the Panama Canal. Consequently, as a security measure, the United States intervened during the second year of World War I.

    An agreement finally concluded between the United States and Haiti in 1916 was similar to the Platt Amendment: Haiti virtually became a protectorate of this country. Herbert Hoover sent a special mission to Haiti in 1930 to investigate the possibility of withdrawing the marines earlier than the scheduled date of 1936. This mission, headed by W. Cameron Forbes, advised against the immediate termination of the intervention, but Hoover somewhat relaxed American supervision. The Haitians, impatient for full independence, were embittered by the delay. President Stenio Vincent’s comment on the refusal of the United States to withdraw the marines in 1930 was that “for a miserable $15,ooo,ooo owing to a handful of American capitalists,” the United States continued an unwarranted intervention in Haitian affairs.

    Shortly before the end of the Hoover Administration, the United States signed a treaty with Haiti which provided for the end of the armed intervention on December 31, 1934. This agreement, however, contained two provisions distasteful to the Haitians. One stipulated that should serious disturbances occur before December 31, 1934, the United States might not withdraw the marines. The other provided that this country would maintain control of the Haitian customs until the debt, largely owed to United States citizens, was fully liquidated.



    On the debt, see:

    The Debt that Obama and Clinton Owe to the Haitian Poor
    Paul Jackson | February 8th 2010

    Comment by Nik Barry-Shaw — November 10, 2011 @ 11:16 pm

  12. Binh said:

    “FDR’s “left” turn in 1935 on taxes and the passage of Social Security that year were due to general strikes in 1934 in San Francisco (kudos to the CP), Minneapolis (kudos to the SWP), and Toledo.”

    It’s hard to know exactly what motivated the left turn, but what I’ve read suggests that it had more to do with the near-success of the radical End Poverty In California ticket and the threat that the populist demagogue Huey Long posed to Roosevelt’s re-nomination.

    Comment by Will — November 10, 2011 @ 11:36 pm

  13. ^- The Democrats created a third party to split the left vote after a socialist (Upton Sinclair) won the party’s nomination for governor, proof positive that we can’t take over the party even when it’s headed by a “progressive.”

    Comment by Binh — November 11, 2011 @ 5:43 am

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