George Novack

The Function of the New Deal

A Criticism and a Reply

(April 1936)

Source: New International, Vol.3 No.2, April 1936, pp.44-47.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: George Novak Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

DEAR Sirs:

I have just read American Intellectuals and the Crisis, by George Novak, in your February issue. I seldom protest against misrepresentation in critical discussion, but this is such a flagrant case that I cannot overlook it. It is even worse than the review of The Coming American Revolution which was printed in the New Masses.

The trick of distorting the position of an author by quoting a single passage without its context is an old one; the most charitable interpretation in this case is that the writer never read the book, but picked up the quotation elsewhere.

When I said that the dependence of the New Deal on “the forefront of the white collar workers, the productive professions” gave us a foretaste of a shift in class power, and that these professions have a superior competence in matters of technique and social theory, I was contrasting them, of course, not with the industrial workers or any claimants to the role of the forefront of the proletariat, but with the owners of industry, the finance capitalists and their political representatives. The entire burden of the book is that the white-collar workers (including the professions) and the industrial workers suffer from the same evils and must unite to remove them.

Mr. Novack is 100 percent wrong in saying that “George Soule and the New Republicans saw in the professional kitchen cabinet the brain which they had called for not long before.” I stated exactly the contrary both in the New Republic and in The Coming American Revolution – the main conclusion from which is that the New Deal is not social-economic planning and that no such attempt can succeed under capitalism.


Very truly yours,
George SOULE

Dear Comrades:

I would like first to deal with the personal questions raised by Mr. Soule. Let me assure him that I had no intention of misrepresenting his views in order to score a point. Such cheap trickery may be the stock-in-trade of the New Masses but it should have no place in a Marxian magazine like The New International. The best theoreticians of our movement always endeavored to acquire a thorough knowledge of their opponent’s views; to characterize them correctly in their criticism; and to distinguish the precise shade of opinion they represented.

If I am guilty of falsification in this instance, it was not, as Mr. Soule suggests, because I relied upon second-hand sources for my information. The New Republic under Mr. Soule’s editorship was my political nursemaid. Ever since we parted political company a few years ago, I have closely followed the progress of Mr. Soule’s opinions as they appeared in its pages. Before writing my article, I carefully read his book twice, and read it again upon receiving his letter. After due consideration, I cannot see that I have misrepresented his views or need to alter my interpretation of them. I believe that I have faithfully reflected his views, and that his wrath is not directed at me but at the reflection of his former features in the glass.

Since we are completely at loggerheads, the reader will have to decide for himself between us. Perhaps it will help clarify the issues involved if I amplify my cursory treatment of Mr. Soule’s political development in the light of his objections.

Mr. Soule’s first complaint is that I have distorted his attitude toward the Brain Trust by tearing a single passage from its context. Let us then consider the entire section from which the quotation is taken and see whether I have misinterpreted his meaning. In this discussion of the character and accomplishments of the Brain Trust, Mr. Soule undertakes to defend them against the critics of the extreme Right and the extreme Left. Both the reactionaries, he says, who regarded the Brain Trusters as Bolshevik conspirators attempting to impose socialism on an unsuspecting people, and the Stalinists, who saw them as an instrument of a capitalist plot to establish a Fascist dictatorship, were wrong. The Brain Trust was in fact neither the one thing nor the other.

What then, according to Mr. Soule, was it? It was a completely confused and heterogeneous group of well-meaning people with different qualifications, backgrounds, interests and ideas, who were constantly at cross-purposes, not only with each other, but with the dominant forces in the Roosevelt regime. In this respect it reflected the main features of the administration itself.

“Whatever the result, the administration was not a purposeful unit which had as its goal the strengthening of capitalism. There were within it Right and Left wings; it was a battleground between opposite interests and opinions.”

Mr. Soule forgets to mention the important fact that all the conflicts of opinion and interests within the administration revolved around the methods of reforming the structure of capitalism; all were agreed on the necessity of saving it from ruin. The big bankers and industrialists wanted it reconstructed in their interests; the Brain Trusters in the interests of the middle classes. A short struggle took place between the two forces which ended in the utter rout of the liberal intellectuals.

What did Mr. Soule conclude from this?

“This sort of endeavor may [!] have the weakness of liberalism; its lack of well-defined plan or method and its belief that fundamentally diverse interests may be made to cooperate may [!] lead to a temporary victory of the old order.”

This was written when the New Deal was over a year old and it was possible to determine its direction and assay its results. Mr. Soule is still reluctant to admit that this is precisely what had happened, although the facts keep forcing him to that conclusion.

If the above statements of Mr. Soule had been more positively expressed and more firmly based upon a Marxian analysis of the failure of the Brain Trust, it would coincide with the substance of our criticism – before the fact. We did not believe with the Stalinists that the combined actions of the Brain Trust, or even of the Roosevelt administration, constituted “a calculated plot to bring upon the triumph of reaction”. As Marxists we were not concerned with the conscious motives of these politicians, but with the political content and direction of their policies. The liberal intellectuals who set themselves up as presidential advisors may have been, as Mr. Soule is careful to point out, “deeply sincere”. But he fails to explain that they were also, and more significantly, completely muddle-headed and powerless to reform capitalism except in the interests of their masters. For all the books they had read and written, for all the bright ideas in their heads, they just didn’t know what they were doing nor what they were struggling against.

Like gallant Don Quixotes, they armed themselves with wooden swords and set out to capture the capitalist state. Instead of overthrowing the owners of that citadel, the ogres of monopoly capital, they were themselves overthrown by them and made their captives. Instead of securing control of the government, they were from beginning to end controlled by it. They became, willy-nilly, first the catspaws, and finally the victims, of social forces much too powerful for them to conquer or outwit.

Mr. Soule played the part of Sancho Panza to these Don Quixotes. While they plunged into the fray in Washington, he stayed on the sidelines in New York, offering his friends advice through the pages of the New Republic, warning them of dangers, of the manoeuvres of their enemies, etc. While he was dubious of the outcome of the conflict, he believed – and, above all, hoped against hope – that the Brain Trust would be victorious. Alas, it was not to be. They were ingloriously vanquished.

Then again, like Sancho, in The Coming American Revolution, Mr. Soule held the basin in which they could wash their wounds and drop their tears. Do not be too harsh upon these unhappy warriors, he pleads at the end of this apology for the Brain Trust.

“To condemn it as an unconscious cabal is to miss the chance for education which it presents. It is to falsify its place in history. It is to forgo the opportunity to mobilize opinion and action about the fundamental questions which the New Deal dramatizes.”

We do not wish to forego any opportunities for political education. But what, to a Marxist, is the lesson to be learned from the experience of the Brain Trust? Precisely this, that it provided a minor demonstration of the truth of the Marxian axiom that all attempts to use the machinery of the bourgeois state to combat capitalism is Utopian in character and reactionary in its results. All efforts to reform the capitalist state from within instead of smashing it from without with the organized might of the revolutionary working class – whether by liberal reformists, socialists, or Stalinists – are doomed to failure. In this alone lies the political and historical significance of the Brain Trust.

Mr. Soule, however, sees much more in it than this, and what he sees is wrong and exceedingly dangerous in its implications. The New Deal, he contends, “gave us a foretaste of a shift in class power toward the forefront of the white-collar workers and the productive professions”. I pointed out in my original article that it indicated nothing of the sort. At most, it indicated how the agents of monopoly capital will use such deluded petty bourgeois intellectuals in similar emergencies in the future, when, let us say, war or Fascism is on the order of the day.

The only way to prevent a recurrence of the fiasco is to understand clearly how and why the Brain Trust came to grief. Mr. Soule, in this book at least, had not yet done so. He attempts to palliate the miserable role of the Brain Trust on the ground that “they mobilized opinion and action about the fundamental questions which the New Deal dramatizes”. This is utterly false. Instead of helping to mobilize the only effective opinion and action around the questions of security, peace, a better life confronting the American masses, which would be revolutionary labor opinion and action, these gentlemen completely obscured them by their policies of class cooperation. They fostered illusions in the minds of the masses about the real character of the Roosevelt regime by lending it a liberal complexion; they helped screen the drive of the monopoly capitalists to impose their starvation program upon the people. Such New Deal intellectuals as Leo Wolman even became direct agents of finance capital, helping it strangle strike after strike by fake arbitration. No amount of soft-soaping can wash them clean of this dirty work.

Mr. Soule believes that such people “have a superior competence in matters of technique and social theory”. I cannot, in this connection, share his high regard for their political competence. He will doubtless himself today admit that in this case their technique was childish and their social theory unsound. He objects, however, that he was comparing them, not to the vanguard of the industrial workers, but to the political representatives of finance capital. Still, our estimates are diametrically opposed. Mr. Soule, in my opinion, grossly exaggerates the political intelligence of his liberal friends and underrates the capacities of our mutual enemy.

What do the facts prove? Both groups marched on Washington at the beginning of the Roosevelt Revolution. The owners of industry knew exactly what they wanted from the Democratic administration and they managed in large measure to get it. Cravath, De Giersdorf, Swaine and Wood, the lawyers of the US Steel Corporation, to take a single instance, drafted the code for the steel industry in their own offices and had it adopted by the NRA. The Brain Trusters, on the other hand, also outlined their fancy schemes and then saw them ignored, shelved, wrecked or eviscerated. Why shouldn’t monopoly capital get what it needs, loans from the RFC, codes from the NRA, and what not? Isn’t the government theirs? All “the forefront of the productive professional workers” could have expected to get in the end was the backside of the administration, which had sooner or later to turn its face toward its master.

Mr. Soule also complains that I misrepresented his views in regard to social planning under capitalism and the New Deal. The main conclusion of his writings in the New Republic and in The Coming American Revolution is, he says, “that the New Deal is not social-economic planning and that no such attempt can succeed under capitalism”.

I am glad to have Mr. Soule confirm the fact that he no longer believes social planning to be possible under capitalism. But he neglects to state that such was not always his position during the period under consideration.

In tracing the political development of Mr. Soule and the body of liberal opinion he represented, I took two main points of reference: his article entitled National Planning: The Problem of Creating a Brain for Our Economy, which appeared in the New Republic of March 4, 1931, and his book, The Coming American Revolution, published in June 1934. The first was written before Roosevelt’s nomination; the second after the New Deal had been in operation over a year.

During that time Mr. Soule’s position on the possibility of social planning under capitalism underwent a critical transformation, passing through three distinct phases, corresponding to three different stages in the objective political situation. In March, 1931, Mr. Soule believed – with certain doubts and reservations proper to his liberal position – that social planning was not only possible under capitalism, but even under a Republican or Democratic administration. The question that chiefly concerned him was whether the progressives he addressed himself to should take the lead in the movement. He was not very confident that the experiment would succeed, but he thought it might be put over, and, in any case, was worth trying.

In answering expected objections, he expressed himself as follows:

“Progressives ought to be perfectly clear about their relationship to proposals of this sort. Such proposals are being made, and will continue to be made, whether we favor them or not. They might, just conceivably, be put into practise by Republicans, or Democrats, or big industrialists.” (My emphasis. G.N.)

Covering himself against criticism from the Left, he then stated:

“The second objection will come from those who regard any proposal to set up control before the establishment of socialism either as a step toward a fascist dictatorship or as a muddle-headed liberal proposal for amelioration which cannot possibly work. The primary objective, they will say, in tones and emphasis varying according to the speaker, is to establish the power of the workers, or to abolish private ownership of the means of production, or to do away with the profit motive. The primary agency of change, they will declare, is the class struggle, whether in the economic or political realm. Nothing can be done so long as those who stand to gain either from lack of planning, or from planning solely in private interest, are in positions of power.

I should not be greatly surprised if this prediction turned out to be correct. But it will not be accepted, in advance of trial, by many of those who must now be relied upon to support and carry out the planning and control. It is therefore more useful, for the time being, to regard such statements neither as true or untrue, but as hypotheses which may be tested only by experiment – or, if you prefer, as conclusions which can have a general force only as the result of social experience.

“In any case,” he concluded, “there must be a body of opinion, or a group, or a party, which not only wants master planning but also has a clear idea of what it wants, that planning to do, and is prepared to carry its program against opposition.” (My emphasis. G.N.)

I have deliberately quoted at length so that Mr. Soule’s position is presented without distortion. The reader should remember that Mr. Soule is a very cautious thinker, who invariably hedges about his statements with many qualifications, which not only make it difficult to determine his exact position but which also leave him the possibility of moving in two opposite directions. Despite his doubts and reservations, his attitude toward the problem of social planning under capitalism is clear. His approach was completely pragmatic.

“Let us attempt the experiment; it may well prove to be impossible; but even if it fails, the experience will have been educative.”

Two years later to a day the Roosevelt Revolution began. Here was a perfect laboratory for the experiment. Equipped with ideas gathered in large part from such sources as the New Republic, the Brain Trusters entered the administration, eager to put their plans into practise. Mr. Soule recognized some of the difficulties in their way but on the whole his attitude was one of critical cooperation. He was willing to extend a limited line of credit to the Roosevelt regime while his liberal friends were prominent in the enterprise. He backed them, and through them the administration, on a thou-sand-to-one chance that they might, “just conceivably”, put over their policies and wrest control of the national corporation from the conservatives.

After a period of suspended judgment while he followed the progress of their struggle, he declared a vote of non-confidence in the New Deal and withdrew his qualified support; and delivered the following verdict:

“The Roosevelt Revolution has come and gone; the noble experiment of the Brain Trusters has failed; the possibilities presented for the reconstruction of American society have been squandered; social planning is impossible under capitalism.”

I do not know at what precise point Mr. Soule changed his mind and finally arrived at the conclusion that the New Deal expert ment in social planning had given a negative result. That does not much matter. It is only necessary to recognize that he had shifted his position three times in three years before he became convinced that social planning was impossible under capitalism.

The Coming American Revolution was his funeral sermon over the grave of the New Deal. The text of his oration is:

“The Roosevelt Revolution is dead; our hopes for liberal reform from monopoly capital lie buried with it; but let us not despair, fellow liberals and white-collar workers. We have the coming American Revolution to look forward to, which we will lead together with the industrial workers.”

This is as it should be. The middle classes can play no independent political role in modern capitalist society. Having been rebuffed and disappointed by the capitalist regime, Mr. Soule advises liberals to turn towards the working class and conclude a political alliance with them. But the progressives will no more lead the one than the other – except to disaster.

The Coming American Revolution contains much perspicacious criticism of the New Deal together with mournful expressions of regret at its failure. But it is still full of liberal illusions and errors. For example, in the closing pages, Mr. Soule asks why the Roosevelt Revolution was not a real revolution. He answers in part in this fashion:

“One of the principal reasons why it was not a revolution was that neither the President nor his advisers nor the people in general were mentally prepared to exercise real power over industry. They handed the system back to the old rulers, with enough help so that they were able to carry on.” (My emphasis. G.N.)

This remarkably revealing passage casts a glaring light on Mr. Soule’s position. He first implies that if the President, his advisers or “the people in general” had had the advantages of a correct education (possibly through reading the New Republic and following its advice) they might have been able to effect a social revolution. This is absurd and dangerous doctrine.

For the fact of the matter is, as Mr. Soule himself states, “they handed the system back to the old rulers, with enough help so that they were able to carry on.” This is the old, old story reenacted a hundred times on the historical stage since the war in other countries under various forms and circumstances. The German social democrats passed the power over to Briining who handed it over to Hitler; MacDonold placed the power in Baldwin’s hands; Daladier bowed before Doumergue, and, like all liberal reformist governments, whatever their social basis or political form, the Roosevelt regime “handed the system back to the old rulers”.

Again this was no surprise to the Marxists who remember the teachings of Lenin:

“The economy of capitalist society is such that the ruling power can only be capital or the proletariat which overthrows it. Other forces there are none in the economics of this society.” (Works, Vol.XVI, p.217)

With the aid of the scientific methods of analysis and the wealth of historical experience at their disposal, the Marxists could predict that such would be the outcome of Roosevelt’s policies and guide themselves and their followers accordingly.

Mr. Soule, however, is not a Marxist but a liberal. He could not say categorically that Roosevelt must act (consciously or unconsciously, it matters not) on all major questions as the agent of monopoly capital. He allowed himself to be momentarily deceived by the demagogic utterances Roosevelt was compelled to make in order to obtain the political support and trust of the workers and the middle classes. He had to learn by bitter experience what Marxists could have told him in advance. It is to his credit that he never adopted an uncritical attitude toward the Roosevelt administration and that he soon recognized its reactionary character. In this respect he compares favorably with many of his fellow liberals, and that is why I characterized him as a “hard-headed liberal” in my original article.

In his capacity as a liberal journalist, Mr. Soule speaks, quite consciously, as his letter suggests, for the most progressive section of the middle classes, the liberal intellectuals who constitute the vanguard of the professional and white-collar workers. In 1931 he formulated their faith in social planning as a means of reforming capitalism; in 1933 he expressed their hopes in the success of the Brain Trust; in 1934 he voiced their disillusion with the New Deal. Today in company with his fellow editors on the New Republic he is advocating another political program for these same people, the program of the “People’s Front”. I intend to deal with this question elsewhere. It suffices to state here that all the teachings of Marxism and all the historical experience of this century inform us that this particular panacea, which Mr. Soule has borrowed from the Stalinists, is as Utopian in character and can only be as reactionary in its outcome as such earlier experiments in liberal reformism, and even more disastrous in its consequences than their former belief in the possibility of social planning under capitalism.

* * *

I should like to end, as I began, on a personal note. Despite my irreconcilable opposition to Mr. Soule’s ideas, I have in common with many others a high regard for his intellectual abilities. He has shown himself to be one of the most realistic and honest of the leaders of liberal thought in the United States. Until recently he has not allowed himself to become infected with the poison of Stalinism. Today, however, he finds himself in the same bed with them. Politics indeed makes strange bedfellows! The rapproachement is not of his making; he, as before, remains a pragmatist in philosophy; an institutionalist in economics; a progressive in politics. He remains true to the liberal faith; it is the Communist party that has gone over to his position.

In the past five years not a few liberal intellectuals have taken the road leading from liberalism to Marxism – and the procession is by no means ended. I, for one, would like to see Mr. Soule at the head of that procession. There exists a great historical precedent for such an action in the case of Franz Mehring, whose biography of Marx has just been published here. Until middle life Mehring was an intellectual opponent of Marxism and a political enemy of the German social democratic party. After having become convinced of the correctness of Marxism, he changed sides; became a member of the social democracy; and one of the outstanding Marxists. I hope the day will come when Mr. Soule decides to follow in Mehring’s footsteps. To join the People’s Front of the Stalinists, however, is to travel in the opposite direction. Therefore, for the sake of clarity, we must continue to combat and expose his false and dangerous ideas and clearly distinguish our banner from his.


New York
Feb. 26, 1936


Last updated on: 4.2.2006