Max Shachtman

U.S. Capitalism Lost Its Ablest Statesman

Roosevelt, Far-Sighted
Strategist of His Class

(April 1945)

From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 17, 23 April 1945, pp. 1 & 4.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

With the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt, American capitalism has lost its ablest statesman.

His breadth of vision and his political stature in general may well be measured by comparison with the man he succeeded in the presidency of the country, Herbert Hoover. The “Great Engineer” was helpless in the crisis that began in 1929. His answer to the mounting problems of the day was the pious hope that somehow, soon, the machinery of production would start moving again. Meanwhile, all the unemployed, whose number increased every week, were freely offered the opportunity to go into business for themselves – selling: apples. The farmers of the country, with agricultural prices tumbling down to an all-time law, and their farms, being foreclosed by the thousands, were advised to pray.

The result was a growing dissatisfaction in the industrial and agricultural population. Workers gathered in the streets for the largest and most menacing protest demonstrations seen in this country in generations. Farmers rioted with guns in hand against evictions and foreclosures. Increasingly, this dissatisfaction was directed not only against the government but against the whole social system of capitalism. People began to understand that there was something fundamentally wrong with the famous system of “free enterprise” if millions could remain out of work, hungry and homeless, in the face of the most powerful and wealthy economic machine in the history of the world. The continuation of Hooverism for another period would undoubtedly have stimulated the growth of an independent and aggressive class movement of the American workers. Hoover could do nothing about it except to hope, to pray, and to have veterans shot in Washington.

Roosevelt undoubtedly saved the situation for American capitalism. He was intelligent enough to see that things could not continue as they were for much longer without the country facing sharp class conflicts. With a series of swift measures, he began to free the hands which capitalism had got caught in the stopped gears of its own productive machinery.

Drawing heavily on the tremendous financial resources of a wealthy country, he proceeded to “prime the pump.” Farm prices were artificially raised in order to appease the: agricultural population, or considerable sections of it. Public funds were poured into the purses of the big industries and transportation systems, which were mighty quiet in those days about “government intervention” into the precious system of “free enterprise.” Millions of unemployed were given jobs, mostly wasteful, by civil and public works administrations. Other millions of unemployed were put on a modest relief list. Hundreds of thousands of young nieri were taken away to “conservation” camps.

FDR’s Labor Policy

By some masterly strokes, the new administration won the warm allegiance of the workers in general and the organized labor movement in particular. Labor’s right to organize and bargain collectively was legally recognized. The uglier aspects of, the capitalist anti-labor machinery, like the spy-system and private armies of thugs, were either outlawed or toned down. Labor looked upon Roosevelt as its most powerful friend and protector, the best man it had ever had in the White House.

Better than any capitalist in the country, Roosevelt understood that unless these concessions were made to labor “from above,” labor would not only take these concessions by itself, but would surely take much more, and take it in pugnacious battle against the “economic loyalists.” No other President had ever intervened so directly and continuously in the affairs of the labor movement. None saw so clearly the importance of keeping the labor movement under the velvet-touch control of the government, in which labor was given a few concessions for the surrender of the independence by which it could have made gains that would make these concessions look exactly as modest and tiny as they really were.

But not even Roosevelt could move beyond the limits set by the crisis of American capitalism, despite all the resources at his disposal. His second term ended with the announcement by the American Federation of Labor in January 1940 that there were still 10,000,000 workers unemployed. Roosevelt was able to moderate the class struggle, but not to abolish it. Labor, though appeased, had acquired new confidence in itself by virtue of the increase in the number of organized workers. It demanded more. Capital, though its profits were rising at a brisk rate, had also acquired the confidence it lost in the earlier days of the crisis and demanded still more for itself and less for labor.

Roosevelt was able really to get out of the crisis and the depression only because the country was plunged into the war. Ten million unemployed were eliminated – and more than ten million men were put under arms. The industrial machine that not even Roosevelt could get to operate to maintain and enrich the life of all in peacetime proved to be a high-speed, full-time mechanism only for the purpose of killing millions in wartime.

Saw Ahead of His Class

Yet even in the question of the war, Roosevelt saw farther ahead than his class. He knew that the United States would have to take an active and dominant part in the battle for world rule, not only in Europe, but in Asia. To the best of his ability he sought to prepare for that participation, and for a post-war world in which American imperialism would have the greatest gains and the decisive, say. The capitalist class, it must be said, was certainly not grateful, or not grateful enough, to Roosevelt. For every scratch they suffered under his administration, he saved them a bone that would otherwise have been broken. He lifted them all out of the profitlessness of the Hoover days into the fabulous pots of gold they have been accumulating for the last few years. He lifted them out of their provincial isolation and into the dominating position in the world of imperialism. He was a thousand times more loyal to them than they were to him. Far from being a renegade from his class, he was its savior. Their condemnation of him as a “radical” or “friend of radicals,” was due primarily to their bigoted, stupid, reactionary bourbonism, their venomous contempt and hatred of the “mob,” the workers, their failure to understand that capitalism, and they themselves, are sometimes better served by a few concessions to labor than by the brutal blackjack.

As for labor, it was badly served, because it served itself badly. At a time when it numbered more organized millions than ever before in history, and became the largest social and political power in the country, it traded off its ability to get independent action a hundred times more than it did get – to get everything it wanted and needed, and should have, in fact! – for reliance upon a benevolent patron, in the ranks of the enemy class.

How much clearer that is, now that the patron is gone! What is left is the Democratic Party – reactionary at its heart, divided among the corrupt machines of the North, the Bourbon bigots of the South, and a handful of bewildered New Dealers who are being readied for the axe. Something else is left, however – the mighty, irresistible labor movement. More exactly, it will be mighty “and irresistible if it acquires self-reliance, if it acquires the consciousness of its position in this world, and of its duty and ability to reorganize the world so that it becomes a place where mankind can live amidst freedom, abundance, brotherhood and peace.

The Future for Labor

Labor supported Roosevelt because it believed that this is the kind of world he was going to establish. This support was at once a sign of its awakening and of its backwardness. Of its awakening, because it showed that it no longer wanted the old capitalist world, but something new, in which the working people would finally come into their own, in which the interests of the “economic royalists” would not be dominant. Of its backwardness, because it relied on capitalist politics and politicians to accomplish its aim, instead of relying on its own organized, independent class strength.

The death of Roosevelt has been felt so keenly by the common people only because of their awakening in this past decade. But his death only emphasizes the tragedy of labor in placing all its reliance and hope in a benevolent patron, in a “savior” tied to capitalist society.

The future, so full of vital problems, will put the working class to the severest tests. It cannot pass them without being fully equipped. Now is the time for it to form a militant, working class party of its own. Now is the time to work out a working class program which sets itself the, aim of a new social order, with liberty and plenty for all.

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 8 June 2016