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James Burnham

The Future of Roosevelt

(September 1939)

From The New International, Vol. V No. 9, September 1939, pp. 260–263.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

EXTENT of the “Congressional revolt against the President”, in particular of the inner-party Democratic revolt, has been exaggerated, and its meaning obscured. Let us review the major enactments of the session in an effort to come to a better understanding:

1. Armaments: The enormous armament expenditures – totalling nearly two billion dollars for the present fiscal year, the highest in the peace-time history of the country – were in all cases proposed by the President. In most cases the proposals were adopted unanimously by Congress; on a few minor items there were a half-dozen scattered Nays.

2. Relief: The over-all figure for relief during the current fiscal year, which compels the reduction of WPA rolls to an average of 2,000,000, was proposed by the President. The abolition of the prevailing wage was proposed by Roosevelt through Harrington. Congress added the clauses on the 18-months provision and the cutting down of geographical wage differentials, together with minor amendments. A rumor was allowed to circulate that the administration opposed these amendments. Nevertheless, here is the fact: Congress passed the Relief Bill by a vote of 373 to 21. Only 9 Democrats voted in opposition. The President signed the bill.

3. WPA Investigation: The motion for a WPA investigation was motivated by the wish to prepare for a still more drastic attack on the unemployed in the future. The motion, passed 351 to 27, with only 26 Democrats voting against it.

4. Dies Committee: Huge funds were voted to the labor-baiting, arch-reactionary Dies Committee, by a count of 344 to 35. Here, as with the WPA investigation, the Roosevelt men in Congress voted with the majority.

5. Taxes: Corporate tax laws, including the undistributed profits tax and laws concerning deductions for losses and status of capital stock, were revised in accordance with Wall Street demands. The changes were proposed by the administration, and voted without opposition by Congress.

6. Social Security: The present social security setup is not in the least what its name implies, but merely a device for increasing taxation and carrying a small part of the relief load. Certain changes were made in the earlier law, a few of them liberalizing some payments, the most important freezing the tax payment at 1% for the next three years. All the changes were voted by a majority of 361 to 2.

7. Executive Reorganization: The revised bill to reorganize the executive departments was submitted by the President and voted with no opposition.

8. Agriculture: Subsidies to farmers were revised upward from the President’s figures by Congress to the highest sum in US history. The Republicans made some objections to the “parity payments”, but the bill was overwhelmingly passed, and was signed by Roosevelt.

9. Appointments: In a few cases, Roosevelt’s nominations were objected to. In the most conspicuous of these – Amlie to the Interstate Commerce Commission – Roosevelt capitulated and withdraw the name. The three big appointments – Douglas to the Supreme Court, Leiserson to the NLRB and McNutt to the Security Administration – were overwhelmingly approved of by Congress.

Where the Squabbles Came

10. Labor Relations: No direct legislation on labor relations was passed, or even considered on the floor of this session of Congress. The most significant governmental act in this connection was the revision of the rules of the NLRB. These revisions, all of them in the interests of the bosses, were carried out by Roosevelt’s appointed officials, and were heartily welcomed by both parties in Congress. Roosevelt’s appointment of Leiserson shifted the NLRB sharply to the right. A motion to investigate the NLRB was, as in the case of the other investigations, motivated by the desire to prepare for reactionary legislation in the future. The motion carried 254 to 134. On the vote the Democrats were almost evenly divided: 103 to 123.

11. The Hatch Bill, restricting the political activities of Federal office holders, occasioned a sharp fight. It passed by 241 to 134. After horsing around a week and writing a wordy message, Roosevelt knuckled under and signed it. (It should be remembered that, except when a veto is over-ridden – and there were no vetoes over-ridden during the last session – a bill passed by Congress does not become law until the President signs it. And when a President signs a bill, he thereby accepts his full share of the responsibility for it.)

12. One of the most bitter struggles of the session took place over the so-called monetary bill. As this finally shaped up, it involved continuance of Presidential power to devaluate the dollar further in terms of gold, the existence of and his control over the $2,000,000,000 stabilization fund, and the price paid by the Treasury for domestic mined silver. After first being defeated, the President rallied and won his points by a small margin.

13. Spending-Lending: Toward the end of the session, Roosevelt proposed some additional pump-priming. He used a new formula which would have kept the money from appearing as an addition to the national debt. The first headlines announced that the new program was for $3,600,000,000. In actuality, $800,000,000 at most would have been spent during the current fiscal year: a tiny drop in the bucket when measured alongside the economy as a whole, or the $13,000,000,000 Federal budget alone for that matter. Congress ended by shelving the whole matter, 47 Democrats voting with the Republicans to defeat it.

14. Housing: A similar outcome held for the proposal to add $800,000,000 to the funds of the USHA, with 54 Democrats here joining the Republicans. It should be noted here also that the President’s proposal was extremely vague, and, as the dismal past history of the administration in housing has proved, did not in the least mean that many actual dwellings would be constructed.

15. Foreign Policy: Foreign policy is for the most part in the hands of the President, without much intervention from Congress. Throughout the session, the White House and the State Department continued and deepened the aggressive, provocative, war-mongering policy which has distinguished their acts since the Chicago speech of October 1937. Secret military negotiations with France and Great Britain came momentarily to the surface when the French military attaché was killed in California. The open letter to Hitler plunged Roosevelt into the European crisis. Spy scares and spy trials flourished from New York to California to Panama. Latin American dictators took time off from their butchering of workers to be feted in Washington. The nation was swarming with “democratic” European royalty. Franco was recognized, and an ambassador sent to hail him as a savior. The tough policy toward Japan was climaxed with the denunciation of the treaty, while the United States meantime kept supplying the bulk of Japan’s munitions. Most of these moves were hailed by all members of both parties in Congress; a few aroused timid squeals from the isolationists. On one point, however, Congress, feeling the pressure of constituents, turned the President down. He wanted repeal of the law providing for a compulsory embargo of munitions for either side in a war. He asked for either a unilateral embargo, applying only to the side which he designated as “aggressor”, or a “cash and carry” policy with no embargo, which would permit manipulation as desired. By a small vote, he was refused.

Where the Compass Points

THERE IS THE RECORD, spread out right before you. This is not what somebody thinks or wishes or dreams, but the facts.

If we look over this record carefully, study and analyze it, what do we find? The first and most striking discovery is certainly not that of a universal fight between Roosevelt and Congress or between Roosevelt and the Tories or between Roosevelt and anyone else. The first discovery is, rather, how, on the whole, in the great majority of the most important cases, Roosevelt and Congress, the executive and the legislature, have supplemented each other, have travelled together in one direction, have been running along the same, not different roads: at different paces, perhaps, but along the same road.

What is that road? Here again the record gives the unambiguous answer: the road of war and social reaction. With the tiny exceptions of some of the amendments to the social security act and some of the provisions of the agriculture bill, every other measure taken by Congress and the President since the beginning of the year has been reactionary, reactionary not merely in the light of what might be done by an ideal government, but reactionary in comparison with what has been the case in this country. Does anyone doubt this? Look at the list.

The division of the US government into three branches is, in reality, designed for one key purpose: to hide from the people the truth about the government, that the government as a whole, in all three branches, is nothing but the political agent of the bosses. The Sixty Families have decreed that their interests demand a rapid march toward war and social reaction, and all three branches obey. The record of the Congress and the President since the session opened is paralleled by the record of the courts, as all who remember the Fansteel and Apex decisions will recognize.

We have, then, full evidence in experience of the thesis which we have been putting forward first as a prediction and then as a commentary on immediate events: that the remnants of New Dealism, insofar as New Dealism included certain progressive phases and social concessions to the masses (which was never very far) have been liquidated; that the New Deal has been replaced by the War Deal, which is also a deal of social reaction; and that both parties and all branches of the government, Roosevelt as well as Garner and Taft and Vandenberg, have joined in the common burial.

This conclusion is reinforced in another impressive way by analysis of the record. The major conflicts between Roosevelt and the Congressional opposition did not occur over the chief steps in the reaction. On the contrary, Roosevelt and his forces in Congress joined with the Republicans in these steps; and the split occurred for the most part over issues which were secondary from the point of view of the fundamental reactionary direction.

There can be no disputing that Roosevelt has taken the clear lead in the super-armament building and in the aggressive, war-mongering policy generally. Congress has on the whole merely tagged along; and on the few occasions when it has protested, has been feebly resisting the speed of Roosevelt’s drive toward the war.

The greatest single step in the reaction was the relief bill, with its slash of a billion dollars from last year. This is the joint product and responsibility of Roosevelt, the administration Congressmen, the Democratic right wing, and the Republicans.

The same goes for such other openly reactionary moves as the WPA investigation, the Dies Committee, and the tax revisions. There was a fight, it is true, on the NLRB investigation, but before this fight started Roosevelt had already swung the NLRB far to the right by the appointment of Leiserson and the revision of its rules.

The big disputes came over: (1) the Monetary Bill and the Neutrality Act, where the underlying issue was in both cases administrative control over foreign policy (part of the war question, therefore, and not in this case involving “progress vs. reaction”); (2) the Hatch Bill, where the issue was purely one of factional politics; (3) Spending-Lending, which was in actuality a matter of how best to increase profits.

What’s All the Shooting About?

IF, THEN, THE GOVERNMENT as a whole, both parties, Roosevelt and Garner and Vandenberg are all moving in the same direction, why was there so much trouble, and why did the Democratic party fall at least temporarily to pieces during the last two weeks of Congress?

Part of the trouble in the Democratic Party, and a not inconsiderable part, is simply the struggle between rival groups for control of the party machinery and all the privileges and opportunities that go with such control. This is not a minor question.

But there is also a severe complication in the position of Roosevelt, which is a source of recurring irritation between him and the right (Garner) wing of the Democratic Party. Roosevelt still has by far the greatest popular following of anyone in the party. This following, found especially in the proletariat, the unemployed and the youth, supports him because they associate him with “progress”, with social concessions to themselves. Now when a political leader has – however demagogically – built up his status and mass following on the basis of a progressive ideology, it is a painful and awkward business for him to have to assume direction of a more and more openly reactionary program. He, indeed, cannot do so openly. He has to cover his tracks, continue the old language, go slow once in a while, make a brief leftward foray in a minor act to hide the rightward advance on the major issues. He feels the burden of his past, but cannot shake it off all at once.

Meanwhile, the right wing presses impatiently, demanding greater speed, objecting to hesitations, growing bolder and beginning to swing the whip more imperiously. However, up to a certain point the “progressive” is necessary to the right wing. Only by keeping him as a front can the right wing deceive the people about what is happening and consolidate the reactionary position at a stage where the progressive can, and must, be dispensed with.

All this follows from the laws of politics. MacDonald and Blum and Caballero are as good examples as Roosevelt.

The Democratic Party is divided into a right wing (which may be symbolized by Garner), a politically impotent and cowardly left wing (John L. Lewis) and a center (Roosevelt). Roosevelt has had the illusory dream that he could rise above the party factions, and in the confusion of 1933-38, with the help of his public support, the dream almost seemed to come true. In the last two weeks of the Congressional session, the party dissolved into its elements: the hardened section of the right in a coalition with the Republicans; Roosevelt fluttering and helpless in the center, demanding “record votes” (but making no real fight for anything else) ; and Lewis doing nothing at all, but compelled to talk big in his rhetorical damning of Garner (Roosevelt, of course, has never yet uttered a peep against Garner).

Naturally, under these circumstances, as always under similar circumstances, there is friction. Roosevelt, poor man, is trying his best to keep in the saddle of the reaction as successfully as he did in that of the “progress”. But he has got his rear, his followers, to think of, whom he can’t betray too crassly – or he will not have anyone left and will be thrown out of the window as useless. The right wing wants action, and to make sure that it gets action, it delivers a stiff blow at suitable intervals.

Will the Democratic Party Split?

HOW DEEP IS THE division in the Democratic Party? Will it lead to a split at next year’s convention? We may answer that, so far as the outcome depends on the Democratic politicians of all wings, the division, though serious, is not sufficient to bring about a split.

Weighty influences work against a split. To begin with, we may observe that a split to the right of more than a few isolated individuals is virtually excluded. The right wing is sitting pretty, and has no reason to split. Through its own strength and particularly through the vacillations and timidity of its party opponents, the right wing can get close enough to what it wants within the party.

But how about a split to the left? This, too, from the point of view of the party machine, is unlikely, though

from entirely different causes.

The outbreak of war, or the intensification of the war crisis would, in the first place, reconsolidate the party under Roosevelt’s leadership. Roosevelt has had the boldest and most consistent line on the war, and, with his sanctimonious hypocrisy of a super-Wilson, is peculiarly suited to be a popular war chief.

Secondly, a split, with two separate Presidential candidates in the field against the Republicans, would automatically mean the loss of the Presidency; and this is naturally a tremendous argument against a split.

But, third and most important, there is no independent left wing in the Democratic Party. The left wing, such as it is (Lewis and the rest of the labor bureaucracy, the young radical intellectuals in or close to the administration), has and has had as its sole policy: put faith in Roosevelt. Roosevelt, however, is at the center, with his firm links to the right. Roosevelt and the right wing are, in fact, supplements to each other. Roosevelt keeps the left in line and, above all, by his progressive coloration holds the workers and the unemployed, whom the right wing by itself could not keep. The right wing runs most of the State machines, and through it comes the financial backing from big business. The right wing could ill afford to let Roosevelt go; and Roosevelt, from all indications (though there is always an incalculable element in centrists), would be afraid to try it alone.

Consequently, we find the party apparatus straining toward compromise in the very midst of the Congressional chaos. Farley, as in the past, spends his time cementing relations between Roosevelt and the right wing. Amusingly enough, Mayor Hague of Jersey City and Mayor (Bloody Sunday) Kelly of Chicago have lately taken the lead in the third-term-for-Roosevelt movement. These men are corrupt, old-line machine politicians in industrial centers. By their recent pronouncements they are pointing out to the right wing how necessary it is, for the sake of the proletarian vote, to keep the film of Rooseveltism on the party; and at the same time they are holding Roosevelt firm within the party. Roosevelt himself, while his bills were being contemptuously shoved into pigeon-holes by Congress, kept “a good temper”, according to the reporters, and refrained from any harsh direct attacks.

The tendency toward compromise brings about a search for a compromise candidate, acceptable to both Roosevelt and the right wing – under the theory that the left wing will accept anyone OK’d by Roosevelt. Roosevelt himself, the new Roosevelt of the War Deal and social reaction, properly tamed and chastened, would be such a compromise. But others are being primed. Paul McNutt is the latest, and the process of grooming him is entertaining to watch. McNutt is at heart a confirmed reactionary, with a record in Indiana and the Phillipines to prove it fully in action. The right wing knows that he is their man. And the right wing watches in amusement while he is given a coat of Rooseveltism for public consumption: foreign policy in the speech at the Cleveland Poultry convention; liberalism in the Pittsburgh speech to the Young Democrats. But Garner, too, is a “compromise”. Why not? Did not Roosevelt take him twice as running mate? Has either of them ever said a harsh word about the other?

The One Possible Variant

TO THE EXTENT THAT the outcome depends on the party politicians, things are already in the bag, and from all the smoke there will be no fire – not next year, at any rate. But there is one imponderable: the attitude of the masses, above all of the workers and unemployed who today still go along with the Democratic party. The Democrats have got to keep their support, or be slaughtered next year. Disillusionment is already setting in. A too obvious ascendancy of the right wing, and a right wing candidate, would put a too heavy strain on the allegiance of the workers. Feeling them slip away, the Democratic left wing, perhaps with Roosevelt, might find itself compelled to split away and to run its own candidate on a radical third-party ticket.

Against this possibility, however, is the fact that the right wing understands the problem, and realizes that it must make certain formal concessions to liberalism – in words, in the party candidate, and even in measures enacted in the next session of Congress, the session of election year.

Equally against it is the fact that no individual or group is preparing for a new party or candidate: and these are not brought into being overnight.

Here is where the black treachery of John L. Lewis’ politics comes most clearly into the open. The Democratic Party is moving headlong to the right, and nothing is going to stop it. Roosevelt is proving the most effective leader in driving home the blows, one after another, against the masses. The workers, who have so vainly and so loyally supported Roosevelt, are up against a blind wall. And Lewis continues to act exclusively as a cover for Roosevelt, just as Roosevelt covers the right wing. Lewis continues his abominable policy of the past, as proved a few weeks ago in the Kentucky primaries, where he ran his man for Democratic nomination and saw him roundly defeated by Happy Chandler’s candidate (Chandler, whom Lewis elected Governor). What now in Kentucky? Lewis will turn around and support Chandler’s ticket, just as he supported Earle’s ticket last year in Pennsylvania, after Kennedy was whipped (and it was Kennedy, in 1932, who was chief seconder of Garner).

Everything is ripe for a bold and independent policy on the part of the workers. The session of Congress just completed and the prospect of the future gives the entire case for striking out on an altogether new line, for breaking forever with all varieties of boss politics and beginning the building of a labor party, with a workers’ candidate in the field next year. But this is not going to happen so long as the workers’ eyes are on the Democratic Party, on Roosevelt, or on Lewis. It will not happen until the workers decide to take their own future into their own hands.


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