From New International, Vol.4 No.9, September 1938, pp.259-260.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
HAVE GROWN accustomed to Franklin Roosevelt, and we are likely, therefore, not to notice how unprecedented are his actions during this current Primary campaign. The conservative commentators are justified in their shocked surprise. Imagine Hoover or Coolidge or Harding cracking down publicly, before the masses, on leading members of their own party! Even where, in the past, Presidents have intervened in off-year Primaries, they have usually done so only indirectly, without public fanfare. They have made a quiet deal with the appropriate boss; or have written a “letter to a friend”, expressing a dignified opinion which later wandered into the press. But Roosevelt has gone bluntly and dramatically “to the people”.
The last occasion in any way comparable was 1918, when Wilson carried out a minor purge. Naturally, the petty and hypocritical weakling did it in a far less spectacular manner. But he was compelled to act, and there is a genuine analogy between 1918 and today. He was under the pressure of mighty issues: in the summer of 1918 the War was being fought, and the Armistice was not even in sight. US capitalism, world imperialism as a whole, trembled in the scale.
So, today, it is the depth of the issues that smashes through precedent. US capitalism, ground in the economic crisis, getting mightily ready for the new War, trembles. Roosevelt is convinced that only his way can achieve the salvation of US capitalism. He believes that the “Tories”, with their present blindness to the moods of the people, would send the whole cart toppling over. With his passionate attachment to the great ships of the expanding Navy, he feels in his blood an imperialist destiny for the United States as unchallengeable world leader, resting firmly on control of the two Americas and gradually setting up as supreme arbiter for Asia and Europe. In addition, and by no means minor, he finds himself bound by the claims of the enormous bureaucracy. Government has become by far the most vast of modern industries, the chief employer and the chief consumer. Control of the governmental machinery is the richest of all prizes.
Postmaster-General Farley, Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, has himself declared that this Summer’s Democratic Primaries are a preliminary battle in the struggle for control of the 1940 Democratic National Convention. And in the years immediately following 1940 every serious observer expects the real crisis to come. Small wonder, then, at the bitterness of the preliminary battle. But more than the Democratic Party is involved, for the old party lines are being irregularly but cumulatively blasted.
It was plainly symptomatic that Roosevelt, in his first radio speech last Spring on the Primaries, made his appeal not at all exclusively to Democrats, but to liberals and progressives of all parties. The issues, he stated, cut across party lines; he urged opposition to Tories and reactionaries, in whatever ranks they were to be found. The same disregard of traditional party lines is conspicuous in the current campaign in Maryland. There Representative Lewis, backed by the White House group, is contending for the Senatorial nomination with the incumbent Senator, Millard Tydings. Lewis’ main thesis has been that Tydings uses the Democratic Party only as a cover; that Tydings is in actuality a Republican, backed by Republican wealth, and that he would be an honest politician only if he ran frankly on a Republican ticket. In other words, Lewis is fighting for a re-alignment of the parties in Maryland.
THE PROCESS OF the breaking up of old party lines goes, as might be expected, rapidly in the State of New York, financial center of the country, with its residents the most advanced in political consciousness. After swallowing at the outset the bulk of the Election Day Socialists, the semi-independent American Labor Party last year swung several hundred thousand previously Republican and Democratic voters under its label. There is no reason to expect the ALP to lose many of these in November; indeed, it may increase its voting strength considerably.
The ALP is, moreover, running a much greater number of independent candidates, for local, State and national offices, than at any time in its brief past. Several of these, especially State candidates but in all probability a few national Congressmen as well, will doubtless be elected over both Democratic and Republican opponents.
The ALP coalition policy, shocking as are the deals with Republicans and Democrats to which it has led, and heavy as is the blow which it strikes at the development of genuinely independent working-class political action, is nevertheless in its own way a symptom of this same breakdown in the traditional party lineup. It is particularly striking because the deals have been carried through with sections of both the old parties. This demonstrates that even within the boundaries of the single State of New York, the old party frameworks no longer correspond with any sort of basic social divisions. The up-State Republicans are brothers of the Southern Democrats and cousins of Tammany in Manhattan, a very different breed from the bright young Republicans of New York City who are bringing to the front such men as Tom Dewey and Newbold Morris, President of the City Council.
The fluidity of the party lines has been remarkably indicated at the State Constitutional Convention, just concluded. Thanks to the gerrymandered election districts in New York, Republicans held a majority, and were able to organize the Convention proceedings and Committees. The proposals carried by the Convention, which will be placed on the November ballot, constitute without doubt one of the most reactionary documents of recent years. Every socially progressive bill on any major subject was either voted down or amended to death. Those who preach that the Republican Party is fascist and the Democratic Party the defender of the people might suppose that the explanation for this result is simply the Republican majority. Examination, however, shows that this is not at all the case. The Convention was not controlled by the Republicans on the major issues. It was in the hands of a bloc consisting of an alliance between one section of the Republicans, Al Smith, and Tammany. The minority was likewise a Republican-Democratic bloc (the ALP was not directly represented among the delegates, though it had endorsed many of them). It was the up-State Republican-Smith-Tammany bloc which smashed what socially progressive meastires were proposed, ending up the business sessions with a Constitutional prohibition of proportional representation in the State or in any of its sub-divisions.
THE PRESIDENT, as always, proves himself a skillful demagogue. The “purge”, however horrifying to Westbrook Pegler, Hugh Johnson, Walter Lippman and even Arthur Krock, captures the popular imagination. Here, again, is the Knight in Shining Armor, riding out on the highroad to give battle to the treacherous “enemies of the people”. He smites them, Tory hip and reactionary thigh; the goodly sword, New Dealism, flashing in the August sunlight. It is brilliant grandstand play. The reformist cheerleaders give the signal to applaud: “You can see that he is our man, brothers and comrades.”
But how much removed Roosevelt’s purge is from principled politics, how little the whole New Deal means from the point of view of the basic interests of the workers, can be readily enough seen if we take even a short look around.
There should be little dispute that during the past year the politician who has stood out in the entire country as an enemy of labor is Mayor Frank Hague of Jersey City. Mayor Hague doesn’t bother about making speeches in Congress – he has henchmen in both Senate and House to do that for him; and, by the way, they make 100% New Deal speeches. He carries his attack on labor directly into the factories, into the streets. He smashes unions and runs union organizers out of town. He suspends civil liberties at a nod to his Chief of Police. And when the police department isn’t enough, he calls his riff-raff together to finish off his jobs.
But no breath from the purge has touched the doughty Mayor. Hague still continues as Vice-Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the leading committee of Roosevelt’s Party. Hague still makes and unmakes Senators and Representatives and State legislators and judges, still distributes the patronage of the Roosevelt Administration. Hague names his own man, Ely, as Democratic nominee in November for the Senate; and the New Deal stands solidly back of him.
This is not a little matter. The sins of George and Tydings and O’Connor against labor are venial compared to the sins of Hague. Roosevelt is responsible, from start to finish, for Hague. And, consequently, those who support Roosevelt are thereby necessarily assuming also their share of the responsibility for Hague and Hagueism. It does not do the slightest good for them to make speeches and write editorials “denouncing” Hague. Their political allegiance to the New Deal of Roosevelt makes them upholders of Hague: because Hague is part and parcel of the New Deal. They cannot genuinely attack Hague and Hague-ism without at the same time breaking politically with Roosevelt. That is why their anti-Hague agitation is no more than a showy cover for their profoundly anti-working class politics.
And how about Boss Crump of Tennessee? Or the municipal Democratic machines in Missouri and Illinois? The lofty atmosphere of the purge seems to run well above their heads.
More immediately, how about Jimmy Hines of Manhattan, now on trial before Justice Pecora as political director of the Dutch Schultz policy racket? Hines’ name was not nationally known before this trial. He is, of course, a Tammany district leader. But, much more important, he was the leading representative of the national Democratic Party in Manhattan, the chief dispenser of Roosevelt-Farley patronage. It does not matter much whether Hines is convicted or acquitted in the trial; the peculiarities of the law with respect to lotteries and the nature of the policy racket leave the legal position of his activities obscure. Whatever happens, the trial is painting a picture of immeasurable political corruption – which, besides, has been well known for years. And against this corruption not a word, not a step, not an act by the purgers. For Hines, also, and all that corruption, the supporters of Roosevelt likewise must take their share of responsibility.
IT IS A COMMONPLACE of Marxian analysis to predict that the pressure of economic crisis stimulates vast, unstable, chaotic movements of unrest among the middle classes. Such movements become, when the crisis goes sufficiently deep, a decisive factor in the consolidation of fascism. During the period from 1931 on we witnessed many of them in this country: Share-the-Wealth, Utopian Society, Epic, Townsend, half a hundred others on smaller scales. Economic revival sent them temporarily into the background. During this year they are again springing to life; and some of them are already amazingly extensive.
The most important at the moment are various kinds of old-age pension plans, new editions of Townsend. Large groups are now working for such plans in a dozen of the Middle and Far Western States. In several of these States, which have initiative provisions in their Constitutions, the plans will appear on this autumn’s ballot.
The California Pension Plan is perhaps the most remarkable. Around eight hundred thousand names were secured for the initiative petition, three times as many as required by law. It has gathered together most of the remains of Epic, the Utopian Society, and the Townsend movement, all of which had huge followings in California. The Plan proposes that every elderly individual in the State shall be paid thirty dollars each Thursday. Payment is to be made in self-liquidating scrip to which a 2% tax is to be attached each week, thereby allegedly paying it off within a year and ensuring rapid circulation.
With the objectives of such a plan, revolutionary socialists are naturally in complete accord. There are few more pitiful tragedies in contemporary civilization than the old, cast aside by capitalism, living broken lives burdensome alike to themselves and others. A thirty dollar weekly pension is sufficiently modest in the light of this country’s mighty resources. Revolutionary socialists of course go much further: the demand for a minimum income of thirty dollars weekly is altogether legitimate for every man and woman in the United States, working full-time or part-time, or unemployed. The Socialist Workers Party supports and advances such a demand.
Unfortunately, the present methods and leaderships of the California Pension Plan and the similar movements in other States not merely dooms the aspirations of the aged to disillusioned failure, but constitutes a dangerous exploitation of the aged and the others who support the Plans. Decent incomes and adequate pensions will not, alas, be won by long petitions and radio programs. Nor is there any magic circulating scrip scheme which will provide the financing by a kind of numerology. If, by some odd chance, the Plan should carry a majority in California, the courts will soon enough embalm it. Even if they should not, its own financial fantasies would effectively complete the burial. The fate of Social Credit in Alberta was not at all an accident.
There are both hopes and grave dangers in these huge sporadic movements. They are signs of the breaches appearing in the bulwarks of existing society, signs of middle-class strivings to find the right way out. In the hands of demagogues and exploiters, they are turned with ease, when the time comes, toward fascism; and the hopes they express are ruthlessly trampled. Those seeking the simple justice of such things as insurance and pensions must be made to understand that only in a powerful and advancing working class can they find a force able to gain and grant them. And labor must, on its side, make its own such aims. The destiny of labor is the emancipation of all mankind. It is not an exclusive or a partisan goal.
Last updated on 6.8.2006