The New Deal: Roosevelt’s answer to ‘radicalism’

April 2019 Roosevelt
Franklin D. Roosevelt.


Four score and seven years ago … Franklin Roosevelt brought forth in this country a New Deal. Not a Square Deal (Teddy Roosevelt) or a Fair Deal (Truman) but a NEW DEAL. New York Governor Roosevelt was nominated for president at the Democratic Party national convention in Chicago on July 2, 1932. In his acceptance speech he said, “I pledge you and I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people.”*

FDR’s Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins, revealed that when Roosevelt took office in March 1933, “the New Deal was not a plan with form or content. It was a happy phrase he had coined during the campaign and its value was psychological. It made people feel better.”

Fundamentally, the New Deal was a series of recovery programs designed as aids to businesses and banks. Congress passed and Roosevelt signed during his first 100 days in office the First New Deal Program (1933–5), including an Emergency Banking Act (March 1933), an Economy Act (March 1933), and the establishment of a Federal Emergency Relief Administration (March 1933), to be followed in June by the creation of a National Recovery Administration.

Participation in the NRA was merely voluntary, and participating businesses were supposed to put the NRA’s symbol, the Blue Eagle, in their windows. The Wobblies called it “The Blue Vulture.” At the same time, there was a program of public works legislation, the WPA. Most significant and enduring for workers are three measures:

1) The National Labor Relations Act, passed in 1935, which gives unions whatever legal status they have in this country.

2) The Social Security Act, passed in 1935, was a watered down version of Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party Representative Ernest Lundeen’s bill proposing a comprehensive social insurance system “for all workers, including all wage earners, all salaried workers, farmers, professional workers and the self-employed.” The bill provided for compensation equal to average earnings for wages lost due to layoffs, injuries, illnesses, maternity, and old age. Mothers of children under 18 also would receive allowances if they lacked male support.

The Lundeen Bill was reported out of the House Labor Committee in 1935, but Congress failed to enact it. Instead, the Congress passed and President Roosevelt signed the restrictive and discriminatory Social Security Act, which excluded almost all African American workers—i.e., agricultural laborers, as in the cotton fields—and (mostly African American) female domestic workers.

3) The Fair Labor Standards Act, passed in 1938, which required overtime pay after 40 hours at the time and one half rate, outlawed most child labor and established a national minimum wage. Most embedded in the memory of the working class, perhaps, is the public works program known as the Works Progress Administration, or WPA. I happen to remember that Mad magazine, reviewing FDR’s first term in office, with its alphabet soup of new federal agencies and programs, (NIRA, AAA, FCA, FSA, CCC, TVA, WPA, CCC, FHA FTC) said “Roosevelt’s first term was an initial success.” It’s probably needless to say that all three of these threshold standards are under relentless attack and have been for the last 40 years or so.

In July 1932, Roosevelt was speaking as unemployment, which had surged up from around 4% after the October 1929 stock market crash, was now, nearly three years into the Depression, approaching 25% and still rising. There was virtually no social safety net, and people were obviously desperate.

Men Waiting Outside Al Capone Soup Kitchen
Despite the New Deal, high unemployment persisted during the Roosevelt administration until the beginning of World War II.

There had been depressions before in American history, but FDR assured the delegates that “the great social phenomenon of this depression, unlike others before it, is that it has produced but a few of the disorderly manifestations that too often attend upon such times.

Wild radicalism has made few converts, and the greatest tribute that I can pay to my countrymen is that in these days of crushing want there persists an orderly and hopeful spirit on the part of the millions of our people who have suffered so much. To fail to offer them a new chance is not only to betray their hopes but to misunderstand their patience.”

Of course, this was in July 1932. Their patience wore thin pretty quickly. “To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster,” Roosevelt said. “Reaction is no barrier to the radical. It is a challenge, a provocation. The way to meet that danger is to offer a workable program of reconstruction, and the party to offer it is the party with clean hands.”

Why did FDR have the danger of “wild radicalism” on his mind? This was not just an abstract consideration, or even simply a recollection of the social turmoil during the depressions of the late 19th century. Roosevelt, in fact, had every reason to be especially aware of and sensitive to “wild radicalism.”

FDR had been involved in New York and national politics for decades. At the time of his nomination for president he had been serving as governor of New York for the previous four years, and he had earlier been a member of the New York state legislature. New York, and New York City in particular, was the center of working-class radicalism in the United States, with tens of thousands of workers who supported left-wing parties and made up the membership of militant unions, particularly in the garment industry. In 1920, five socialists whom workers in New York City had elected to the state legislature were denied their seats by the Democratic/Republican majority on the grounds that they were “elected on a platform that is absolutely inimical to the best interests of the state of New York and the United States.”

By 1938, when FDR was serving his second term, “wild radicalism” had made enough converts to produce a wave of mass strikes in 1934, the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organizations by the seceding unions from the American Federation of Labor, and the semi-revolutionary occupation in late 1936 of the giant General Motors plant in Flint Michigan, led by radical autoworkers.

As socialist journalist Art Preis wrote in “Labor’s Giant Step,” his history of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), “The picture of Roosevelt as a ‘friend of labor’ giving the people concessions out of the tenderness of his heart—this portrait painted by both the conservative trade union officialdom and the Stalinists—is completely false. Roosevelt was a clever, adroit politician who carefully gauged popular sentiment. His slightest concession to the workers was given grudgingly out of fear of the masses and to prevent their moving left.

“He voiced this in his 1932 acceptance speech, saying that ‘a resentment against the failure of Republican leadership … the failure of Republican leaders to solve our troubles may degenerate into unreasoning radicalism. … To meet by reaction that danger of radicalism is to invite disaster.’”

Preis quotes Raymond Moley, one of Roosevelt’s closest associates of the early “New Deal,” who wrote in his book, “After Seven Years”: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the policies which vanquished the bank crisis were thoroughly conservative policies. If ever there was a moment when things hung in a balance, it was on March 5, 1933—when unorthodoxy would have drained the last remaining strength of the capitalist system. Capitalism was saved in eight days.”

And he cites Ferdinand Lundberg, in “America’s 60 Families,” the classic study of the big capitalists who run this country, who concluded that the New Deal was neither “revolutionary nor radical; in reality it was ‘conservative.’ He wrote that ‘its mild tentative reformist coloration’ was a concession in the face of widespread unrest.”

The original draft of NIRA (National Industrial Recovery Administration) said nothing about collective bargaining rights. Long afterwards, Miss Perkins admitted that Section 7(a) was written into the bill only after protests by William Green (then president of the American Federation of Labor). She comments: “Written in general terms, 7(a) was a problem in semantics. It was a set of words to suit labor leaders, William Green in particular.”

Of course, everyone knows that FDR came from the upper class, but does anybody really know where the family got its wealth? It wasn’t from operating a farm in upstate New York (FDR identified himself on the census as a “farmer.”) Franklin Roosevelt was a member of the oldest section of the American ruling class, what is sometimes called the “Knickerbocker Aristocracy.” This group’s original fortunes derived from vast land grants along the Hudson River from the Dutch West Indies Company in the 17th century.  Eventually the Roosevelt family fortunes came to rest on banking, railroads, and shipping.  FDR’s grandfather, Warren Delano II, made a fortune in the highly profitable China opium trade.

It is interesting to note that no less than five members of the extended Roosevelt clan served as Assistant Secretary of the Navy: Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt Jr. who served from 1921 through 1924 under Harding and Coolidge, Theodore Douglas Robinson (the son of Corinne Roosevelt) who served from 1924 through 1929 under Coolidge, and finally Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, a descendant of Robert Fulton’s old friend “Steamboat Nicholas” Roosevelt, who served from 1933 through 1936 under FDR.

FDR, who received presidential compensation of $75,000 annually, also was given a $75,000 yearly allowance by his mother, Sara Delano Roosevelt, while he was in the White House. If Roosevelt knew anything about poor people, it was that God must have loved them, because he made so many of them.

Now: The Green New Deal

The first problem in calling for a Green New Deal is that it misrepresents the original, which was, if anything, miserly and conservative. It happened to coincide with the most massive labor uprising in U.S. history, but it didn’t create it. At this point in time, it is doubtful if many people under 60 years old except students of history and Democratic Party politicians have ever heard of the “New Deal.” And trying to rally people around a false version of history has obvious complications, to say the least.

The “Green New Deal” that we’re hearing about now is a response to an October 2018 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which found that in order to avoid catastrophic consequences worldwide, the global temperature must be prevented from increasing by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next 12 years. To reach this goal, global greenhouse gas emissions need to be 45 percent below 2010 levels by 2030 and be net zero by 2050.

This will require, they say, in a very limited time frame, “extraordinary transitions in transportation; in energy, land, and building infrastructure; and in industrial systems.”

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has achieved instant celebrity as an electoral phenom, at least presents the GND proposition in more sweeping terms. She calls the Green New Deal proposed in Obama’s 2008 platform a “half measure” that “will not work.” She says, “The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan. It will require the investment of trillions of dollars and the creation of millions of high-wage jobs. We must again invest in the development, manufacturing, deployment, and distribution of energy but this time green energy.”

In other words, if this statement is to be taken seriously, the model is not FDR’s “New Deal,” but an all-out and continuing mobilization of national (and international) resources of the scale and intensity of World War II, but directed at saving the ecosystem, and not destroying it in the name of  “democracy.”

The Marshall Plan, it should be noted, was a forthright attempt, largely successful, to resuscitate capitalist Western Europe and inaugurate the Cold War, notably with the help of Nazi war criminals in West Germany.

This at least has the merit of posing or strongly implying that the challenge to humanity demands an unprecedented social, economic and political effort. However, it is historically out of context. The economic, military, and human mobilizations by the United States during World War II were directed towards achieving maximum human and material destruction, the only goal around which the ruling class could coalesce effectively. The greatest technical accomplishment was at the same time the most sinister—the atom bomb—used to immediately extinguish the lives of more than 200,000 non-combatant human beings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, in August 1945.

All these things were carried out with the full force and credit of the U.S. ruling class, and primarily through executive fiat by FDR. (Nuclear war against Japan was authorized by Harry Truman after FDR’s death in April 1945.)

But how is this green transformation to be accomplished? Several socialist organizations have explored this question.

For example, Socialist Alternative, the newspaper of the organization of the same name, writes (Dec. 18, 2018), “We have seen young people propelled into action on this issue, as shown by the occupations of Nancy Pelosi’s office in November demanding a ‘Green New Deal,’ and it is likely this movement for climate justice will develop further in the coming year. We need a massive green infrastructure program to create millions of good paying jobs transitioning the U.S. away from fossil fuels and to renewable energy!”

The goals enunciated are compelling, but vague. There is little sense here of the utter urgency of taking on the unpostponable crisis of climate change. While Socialist Alternative scores what it calls the “corporate Democrats,” like Pelosi, it champions the Democratic Party’s main proponent of the Green New Deal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This reinforces the delusion that any progress can be achieved by people of good will, through the medium of the capitalist Democratic Party, not to say the Congress of the United States.

Directing this movement into the Democratic Party, and the U.S. Congress, will suffocate it: “Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch’entrate” (”Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”).

Even FDR, with all the unilateral power of the Oval Office and the momentum of a landslide victory, was repeatedly stymied by the Supreme Court and reactionary inertia and sabotage of Congress. And all he was trying to do was save capitalism.

It is absolutely true that the emerging crisis cannot be seriously and effectively addressed without the elimination of fossil fuels. But the extraction and use of fossil fuels is not even slowing down; pipelines, crude oil trains, supertankers—it’s too fabulously profitable and it has been so for over a century. This is the most arrogant and richest class in the history of the world—and the most destructive. They will not give this up; they are incapable of it. They want more. What are they doing in Venezuela, which has the world’s largest proven reserves of oil?

Leon Trotsky explained, in his introduction to “The History of the Russian Revolution,” what makes a revolution possible: “The most indubitable feature of a revolution is the direct intervention of the masses in historical events. In ordinary times the state, be it monarchical or democratic, elevates itself above the nation, and history is made by specialists in that line of business—kings, ministers, bureaucrats, parliamentarians, journalists. But at those crucial moments when the old order becomes no longer endurable to the masses, they break over the barriers excluding them from the political arena, sweep aside their traditional representatives, and create by their own intervention the initial groundwork for a new regime….

“The history of a revolution is for us first of all a history of the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”

It’s no accident that the majority of young people express a preference for socialism over capitalism. They don’t know much about the theory of surplus value or dialectical materialism, but they sense that capitalism is dog-eat-dog and that socialism holds out the promise of a society of peace and human solidarity, and a genuinely green planet.

And they are beginning to move into the streets to demand change. We’ve recently seen demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of young people—people under 18—in many countries. This is the beginning. This is the vanguard that doesn’t want to compromise with self-serving politicians, that demands action now. These are the youthful legions that are on the threshold of becoming the vanguard of the working class of the world—a movement in the streets that can begin to express political independence and can educate and inspire others.

It is clear from the testimony of history that there is no other social force that can push aside, overthrow, and repress the architects of the overwhelming disaster facing the human race other than the masses, the workers, the farmers, the wretched of the earth. Can it be done in time? That is, of course, impossible to say. But we do know that when a window opens up, when an opening is created by a social and human crisis of unprecedented depth and intensity, the historic possibility is there.

If a crucial minority has been assembled that is prepared to act decisively to “create by their own intervention the initial groundwork for a new regime,” it can be done. And all history shows there is no other way.

*FDR’s distant cousin, Theodore Roosevelt, had introduced the “Square Deal: “…if there is one thing that I do desire to stand for it is for a square deal, for an attitude of kindly justice as between man and man, without regard to what any man’s creed or birthplace or social position may be, so long as, in his life and in his work, he shows the qualities that entitle him to the respect of his fellows.”

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