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James Burnham

Plea for Liberalism Is Roosevelt Hoax

Drop ‘Principles’ in California Primaries; Pension Hit

(September 1938)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 37, 10 September 1938, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The tremendous popular support of Franklin Roosevelt has been, and is, based upon the feeling that he is the Great Liberal, the champion of the masses and their needs and hopes against the machinations of the Tories.

From the 1932 election campaign onward, therefore, Roosevelt has been compelled to nourish this feeling, to find suitable gestures in order to keep it alive and breathing. To accomplish this task while at the same time carrying out firmly his fundamental job of preserving U.S. capitalism against the blows of the crisis: this is the heart of the remarkable, and up to now successful, Roosevelt demagogy, the key to the unique value of his services to the bourgeoisie.

Purpose of “Purge”

The chief purpose of Roosevelt’s current “purge” is to bolster up his standing as a Great Liberal and champion of the masses. The mechanism of the purge shows that this purpose is paramount over the secondary object of strengthening the hold of the Roosevelt faction on the Democratic Party machinery.

Against the advice of the leading machine politicians, Roosevelt was compelled to undertake the purge: compelled not by the desire for “unlimited personal power” – the stock public explanation of his bourgeois opponents, nor by lofty adherence to abstract principles – the explanation which he and his sycophants would like to have believed, but because only such a gesture as the purge could re-consolidate the popular faith in New Dealism, shaken by the depression of the past year.

This is why it is not at all necessary for Roosevelt to win out in most of his purge attempts. He knew that Smith would win the nomination in South Carolina: he had himself predicted so. But the glamorous popular effect of his opposition to Smith was as great, perhaps even greater, in spite of Smith’s victory. So also in the cases of George, Tydings and O’Connor – though, it is true, he has more at stake in actually defeating the latter two.

The real nature of the purge comes out most sharply in what it omits – Hague, for example, is not touched by It – and in the California contest.

Left Defeats F.D.R.

The California Primary campaign was entirely different from all others. There Roosevelt supported the conservative and doddering old William McAdoo; and the opponent was not in the least a “disguised Republican” or a Tory, but the “radical” Sheridan Downey, champion of the California Pension Plan. And on the issue of the Pension Plan, Roosevelt was for the first time defeated from the left: Downey carried the Senatorial nomination by more than 100,000 votes.

The California Pension Plan, whatever its utopianism and unworkable as it unquestionably would be in practice, represents in its aims legitimate aspirations of the people, in particular of the middle classes. It is analogous in many respects to the Ludlow Amendment, which expressed the hope and need of the people for peace.

Cracks Down on Masses

In one case as in the other, when confronted with concrete demands, for peace or for decent pensions, the Great Liberal cracked down with the full force of his machine. In spite of overwhelming majority support for the Ludlow Amendment, revealed in accurate unofficial polls, Roosevelt was able to smash it in Congress. The California Primaries, however, permitted popular support for the Pension Plan to came into the open at this stage, and to nominate Downey.

Roosevelt’s manner of intervening in California exposes the demagogy of his purge in the mine way that his intervention against the Ludlow Amendment exposed the demagogy of his “anti-war” declarations. In both instances, New Dealism is shown to be a means not of fulfilling the needs and desires of the masses, but of leashing the masses to the interests of capitalism.

It is true that the California Plan cannot work, that it would either have no discernible effect (through refusal to accept the script for goods) or result in unbridled inflation.

But the answer to this must not be the condemnation, and rejection of its aims, and what these express on the part of the masses. On the contrary, we must affirm the legitimacy of these aims, call for their extension, and show how they may be implemented.

A Thirty Dollar Minimum

We must demand $30.00 weekly as a minimum income not merely for the aged, but for every worker and farmer, employed, unemployed or part-time unemployed, in the country. This is a paltry enough claim in a country of literally unlimited resources, in a country where Sixty Families own and control for their own private delights untold billions of dollars.

Is such a demand “utopian”? It is utopian only so long as we grant the right of capitalists to shut down and sabotage industry, to confiscate for themselves billions of dollars, millions of annual income. It is paltry, over-modest even, if we look at what the factories are able to turn out, the land to produce.

It is utopian if we put our faith in the smiles and demagogy of New Dealism. But it lies only a short way ahead if the masses cast from their backs their worst enemy – their illusions, and take control of their own destiny.

The sweep of the California Plan shows once more, in its own destiny.

The sweep of the California Plan shows once more, in its own way, that the masses are ready to respond to bold and far-reaching perspectives. Let labor learn that lesson: for if labor does not give such a perspective, it will be supplied in good time by labor’s grave-digger.

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