George Novack

Pluperfect Plutocracy

(March 1938)

Source: New International, Vol.4 No.3, March 1938, pp.91-92.
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.

America’s 60 Families
by Ferdinand Lundberg
xxii+544 pp. New York. Vanguard Press. $3.75.

In his History of the Great American Fortunes, published in 1909, Gustavus Myers laid bare the foundations of the fortunes that were even then the envy and wonder of the capitalist world. In America’s 60 Families Ferdinand Lundberg measures the heights these moneybags have since attained. The riches of today’s multi-millionaires tower above these earlier accumulations as Rockfeller Center outsoars the primitive skyscrapers of that period. They are the greatest in history.

The United States, we are told, is a democracy, blessed with a government of, for, and by the people. Let us, however, listen to Mr. Lundberg.

“The United States is owned and administered today by a hierarchy of its sixty richest families, buttressed by no more than ninety families of lesser wealth ... These families are the living center of the modern industrial oligarchy which dominates the United States, functioning discreetly under a de jure democratic form of government behind which a de facto government, absolutist and plutocratic in its lineaments, has gradually taken form since the Civil War. This de facto government is actually the government of the United States – informal, invisible, shadowy. It is the government of money in a dollar democracy.”

Mr. Lundberg sets out to prove this thesis in his book. With bloodhound pertinacity this sociological sleuth tracks down the carefully concealed movements of the monied masters and their minions through the traces their complex operations have left over the past fifty years. He shows the plutocracy at work and at play, in Washington and Wall Street, at home and abroad. He exposes the mechanisms of their control over the economic and political system of the United States, over its cultural institutions, over the lives of the people. The irrefutable facts and figures amassed in his investigations contain material evidence enough to convince any unprejudiced person that the real rulers of America are not the masses of its citizens but the financial oligarchy of its richest families.

Mr. Lundberg’s detailed description of monopoly capital in its purest incarnation is a notable contribution to social science. It illustrates how, in its latest and final phase of development, contemporary capitalism approaches more and more in its typical features a perfected feudal hierarchy. The resemblances are both striking and significant. They demonstrate from living reality that, in every society based upon private property, the means of production and the mass of wealth irresistibly tend to become the monopoly of a ruling clique, which grows ever more exclusive, arrogant, rigid and parasitic until it is absolutely separated and opposed to the producing masses of the population.

Just as the old landed aristocracy preserved its property through entail and primogeniture, so the plutocratic caste maintains its fortunes through the transmission of inherited wealth by trust down to the fourth generation. Its power is re-enforced by intra-family and dynastic alliances, including excursions into European royalty.

“The wealthiest Americans, with few exceptions, are already joined by a multiplicity of family ties, just as they are joined by interlocking directorates and mutual participation in economic and social undertakings.”

The princely houses of Rockefeller, Morgan, Mellon, Du Pont head this modern American nobility.

“The big fortunes are mobilized in protective phalanxes that recall feudal dynastic alignments wherein many small but powerful families pledged allegiance to one dominant family of more than average strength, courage, daring, and intelligence, and obtained mutual benefits. The Morgans may be likened to American Bourbons who have slowly, remorselessly, broken down the power of scores that refused to bend the knee, surrounding themselves with a host that accepts Morgan leadership. The Rockefellers may be likened to the Hapsburgs; the Mellons to the Hohenzollerns; the Du Ponts to the Romanovs, etc. Whereas the titled dynasties of feudal Europe divided the continent territorially, their untitled American capitalist counterparts have divided their continent by industries.”

These principals act as executive directors for the lesser fortunes under their hegemony. Their command of vast financial resources gives them control of the big banks and trust companies, insurance institutions, and mammoth industrial corporations, which they use to protect and build up their wealth at the expense of the inferior orders of the people.

The royal families and their agents exercize a no less decisive control over the political life of the nation. The working alliance between Washington and Wall Street is cemented by campaign contributions, strategic placement of key men, personal connections. The strings of monopoly capital reach into the White House through the back door and sometimes through the front. Lundberg reveals how every president from Grant to Roosevelt, Democratic or Republican, has, to a greater or lesser degree, been manipulated by the omnipotent plutocracy.

Lundberg ruthlessly strips off the camouflages with which the plutocracy is usually painted in order to give it a useful, healthy, and sanctified appearance. Freedom of the press?

“The journalism of the United States, from top to bottom, is the personal affair – bought and paid for – of the wealthy families ... The press lords of America are actually to be found among the multimillionaire families.”

Philanthropy? Lundberg’s statistics prove that the munificence of the millionaires is grossly exaggerated and takes only a small slice of their incomes. The foundations and museums, so benevolently bestowed upon the public, are simply devices for evading taxes, retaining family control of huge fortunes, and for gulling the people. Morality? Lundberg’s picture of the monstrous extravagance and criminal wastefulness of the rich in the face of mass destitution makes provincial purselings of the imperial Romans. Social usefulness? Hundreds of men with stupendous incomes have never worked a day in their lives. They are nothing but social pensioners on rich relief, as the WPA’ers are state pensioners on poor relief.

America’s ruling caste is corrupt, parasitic, reactionary to the core.

The final chapter on the New Deal is the weakest in the book. It reveals Mr. Lundberg as a shrewd, but superficial and indulgent, critic of the reigning political agency of the plutocracy. Although he is not deceived by the most blatant claims of the Roosevelt administration and perceives its conservative capitalist character, he does not grasp the profoundly social-reactionary nature of its major policies. Just as light industry which, in his opinion, the New Deal directly represents, must submit to the burdensome exploitation of heavy industry dominated by finance capital, so the Roosevelt regime must yield and has yielded on all vital questions to the dictates and pressures of the monopolists.

Lundberg criticizes monopoly capital and its Democratic hand-maiden from the standpoint of a left liberal. Forbearing to dig down into the social subsoil in which they are rooted, he fails to see that the plutocracy is the necessary crown and completion of capitalist evolution, and that the process of concentration of wealth and power in their hands must continue as long as capitalism endures. His suggestions for drawing the teeth of the plutocracy by means of tax reforms appear futile even in the light of his own disclosures. His account of the domestic activities of the monopolists needs to be supplemented by a similar exposure of the imperialist role of American finance capital, which he barely touches. These shortcomings, however, hardly impair the value of his work or the soundness of his main conclusions.

Although the New Deal demagogues have taken the title of America’s 60 Families as a slogan in their sham battle with the unabashed reactionaries, the materials inside the book will prove most useful to the revolutionary Marxists. Here is enough dynamite to blow to bits half a hundred democratic illustions and social myths by which the real rulers of America bamboozle the people. America’s 60 Families ought to be studied by every militant in our movement.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006