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The New International, July 1943

Notes of the Month

The Struggle Between Congress and Roosevelt


From The New International, Vol. IX No. 7, July 1943, pp. 195–197.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


What has been called the revolt of Congress against the President is a significant sign of the times in this country, and not the only one.

Before its adjournment, Congress blocked such important political appointments as the presidential nomination of former Democratic Party National Committee Chairman Edward J. Flynn as Ambassador to Australia, of Texas’ New Deal Governor James V. Allred to the United States Circuit Court of Appeals, and the designation of Vito Marcantonio to membership on the House Judiciary Committee, that modest payment the Administration tried to make to the Stalinists for their zealous support.

Congress ran amok against a number of special wards of the Executive. Appropriation requests of the OPA were cut down, and the presidential propaganda ministry, the OWI, was ordered to abandon its domestic activity. Only liquidation funds were granted the National Youth Administration, the federal crop insurance program, and the National Resources Planning Board. A rider on the urgency deficiency appropriation bill, constitutionally dubious, provided for the dismissal of Robert Morss Lovett, government secretary of the Virgin Islands, and Goodwin B. Watson and William E. Dodd, Jr., of the Federal Communications Commission, suspect of entertaining ideas in advance of the average Mississippi congressman. The Home Owners Loan Corporation was granted a reprieve until February of next year, when it must walk through the little green door.

The presidential program to subsidize the “rollback” of retail butter, meat and coffee prices, after being rejected by both Houses, was saved in the Senate by the impressive majority of one vote. But the modified Ruml gift-plan to tax-weary plutocrats, which the President threatened to veto, was nevertheless carried by the recalcitrant Congress, which at the same time nullified the executive order limiting salaries to $25,000 a year after taxes. And, most spectacular of all, the elaborate veto of the Connally-Smith anti-strike bill was overridden by both Houses by a better than two-to-one vote and in record time.

So much for the relationship between the War Congress and the War President.

On the executive and administrative front itself, there is no quiet either. Turmoil, turbulence and confusion prevail. The struggle for control of production materials and allocations between the War Department and the War Production Board is not a new one nor has it been resolved. The battle between Ickes and Perkins, on one side, and the War Labor Board, on the other, was all but public during the miners’ strikes. The departure (or sacking) of the meat packers’ darling, Chester C. Davis, from his post as War Food Administrator, was only one of the outstanding examples of chaos in administration. Much more spectacular is the violent public dispute between Vice-President Wallace and Secretary of Commerce Jones, both members of the Cabinet.

The general domestic front, so to speak, runs no smoother than the various Washington fronts. Three times in a row, half a million coal miners responded unanimously to a strike call, unmoved by threats or by pseudo-patriotic adjurations, not even by those coming from the White House. In one city after another, the most violent pogroms against Negroes and Mexicans have taken place, and even after the horrors of Detroit, there is no sign that an end has come to what are erroneously described as race riots. In the important field of price control and rationing, the Administration program, carried through by the hopeless, helpless, planless OPA, has completely collapsed, generating the most widespread discontentment since the United States entered the war.

What is the meaning of this unprecedented chaos and conflict right in the midst of the most decisive war ever fought in history, certainly in the history of the United States, and where is it leading?

That some of the conflict and disorder is due to petty political maneuvering, to a campaign to embarrass Roosevelt and prevent his inevitable nomination for a fourth term, is undoubtedly true. But that explains some of it, and only a very small and minor part of it. That it is due to a “reactionary Congress” which is not “wholeheartedly for all-out war” is not true; for although the adjourned Congress was undoubtedly the most reactionary within living memory, it has not hesitated to grant every one of the staggering war appropriations asked for by the President – all the money made available to various government institutions for war purposes alone since January 6 of this year amount to almost one hundred and twenty-five billion dollars. One Washington report, after detailing the Congressional rebuffs to the President, nevertheless concludes with the obvious truth that “On questions touching on the war and foreign policy, Mr. Roosevelt met with little opposition.”

The conflict between the legislative and executive arms of government is explained differently by Arthur Krock: “The British people exercise constant restraints on their executives by their power to remove them at any time. The American people, able to use the axe quadriennially only, must in the meantime resort to blunt instruments of correction or set no restraints at all.” A “blunt instrument” is standard police parlance for an unknown homicidal weapon and is therefore not very flattering as a description of Congress or of its intentions. Be that as it may, the important thing in the New York Times writer’s analysis is that the inner-governmental rioting is depicted as a proud tribute to and evidence of the virility of American democracy. Mr. Krock thereby comes closer to an important truth – to the important truth – than he realizes.

The muddling, confusion, conflict, chaos, planlessness or disruption of plans that are increasingly evident throughout the country are only a reflection or a product of the contradiction between the inescapable need of totalitarian organization and control in modern warfare and the patent inability of the present economic and political setup in the country to comply fully with that need. Put more simply, the organization of a country for modern total war is incompatible with bourgeois democracy. To prosecute such a war effectively (it is not the Spanish-American or the French and Indian wars that are involved, but World War II), requires the restriction of bourgeois democracy to the point of extinction.

In some countries this point is reached sooner, in some later. Basically, if more or less constant considerations like geography are allowed for, two factors determine the speed and depth of totalitarian development in the capitalist countries at war or while preparing for war: one is the economic strength of the country; the other is the resistivity of the only fundamentally democratic class in modern society, the proletariat. Merely to make adequate preparations for large-scale war, to say nothing of prosecuting it year-in and year-out, imperialist Germany found itself compelled to shake off the burdensome trappings of bourgeois democracy, reorganize its economic and political life on the basis of totalitarian control, and of course to extirpate the labor movement and enslave the working class. All wills are now subordinated to one by directly forcible means. In Germany, there are no conflicts between the Reichstag and the Reichskanzler, no public feuds between Wallaces and Joneses, Wilsons and Eberstadts, Perkinses and Davises, no pogroms except those organized, directed and controlled by the state, and of course no strikes. The war machine functions fairly smoothly at home and on the battlefield, profits are high and undisturbed by public clamor, the booty of conquest is fairly distributed to finance capital, the people are gagged while endless columns of troops are sent to their graves, the masses toil like slaves and mass hunger and suffering are planfully organized.

If the United States has not yet reached such a point of restriction (that is, of abolition) of bourgeois democracy, it is not at all because it is immune to the workings of the same basic forces that brought Germany to its present state. It is merely because the virulence of these forces is reduced by the greater economic strength of this country and by the existence of a great and still undefeated labor movement. A formula of almost mathematical exactness can be worked out for the development of totalitarian reaction: Capitalism plus war equals an X-degree of totalitarianism, in which X is determined by the relative ability of the country to bear the costs of the war and by the resistance of the labor movement to being shouldered with the economic and political burdens of the war, the two being of course closely related.

The United States has tremendous economic resources to draw upon. When one looks at the veritable miracles of production and distribution that are being accomplished here for this futile and devastating war, accomplished in spite of the planlessness, mismanagement, incompetence and all-dominating profit lust, he cannot help thinking of the all-satisfying abundance and comforts that the people could make available to itself if society were rationally and peacefully organized, and the resources, skills and labor combined socialistically to produce for use, and not for profit and mutual destruction.

However that may be, the resources of the United States are not inexhaustible. Estimates show that this country will spend, dollar for dollar, something like five times as much on the war in 1943 as it did in 1918. In May of this year, an average of $280,400,000 a day was being spent to carry on the war, which is more than Yugoslavia spent for military purposes in the four years of 1938 to 1941. The war cost may be even more graphically presented by the fact that the amount already appropriated by the USA for the prosecution of the war through the current fiscal year, ending June 30, is four billion dollars greater than the American government spent for all purposes from the time of its founding, in 1789, to the end of June 1932!

The longer the war lasts, the more unbearable the burden. The more unbearable the burden, the more the bourgeoisie will be compelled to economize on luxuries. The war is a necessity, but democracy is a luxury, at present the main and most expensive luxury, even for American capitalism. If the war is protracted, the luxury will go faster. And at present there is no serious sign that the war is coming to an early end. If it took six months to conquer North Africa under favorable circumstances; another six months to take complete control of the jungles and swamps and one airfield of Guadalcanal, several thousands of miles from Tokyo; and weeks to conquer a godforsaken rock in the Aleutians, the end of the war by a victory of one imperialist camp over the other is hardly a matter of months.

The conflict between Roosevelt and Congress boils down, then, to a difference in estimating the speed and extent to which the democratic luxuries are to be dispensed with. The former represents that belated bourgeois reformism which burgeoned briefly in the heyday of the New Deal and of which only a few bright tatters are now left. The latter represents the growing bourgeois reaction, even though it likes to present itself, in the columns of Mr. Krock and over the airlanes of Mr. Fulton Lewis, Jr., as the virtuous defender of popular, legislative democracy holding the fort against the encroachments of executive despotism. How “fundamental” is the difference between the two may be judged from the fact that the President’s alternative to the Connally-Smith strikebreaking bill was a strikebreaking system of his own (actually, it was a plagiary from decades of European reactionary practice), by means of which the great and popular American Army of Democracy would be transformed into a penal institution to which criminals, that is, strikers, would be sentenced by their draft boards.

But if the difference is not fundamental, it is considerable enough to be important. Not in the sense in which the labor leadership of the country construes it, namely, that the unions must support Roosevelt against the reactionary Congress. Its importance lies in the fact that the bourgeoisie is obviously not yet united firmly on a domestic course during the war, except in a general way. “Domestic course” means, essentially, what to do about the working class and the labor movement, its demands and its rights, and the measure of the war burden that is to be imposed upon it. In Germany, this question was solved decisively, even if not permanently, by the advent of fascism, which united the whole bourgeoisie under the leadership of finance capital. In this country, while the general tendency of capitalist political evolution is clear, the goal has not yet been reached. No such capitalist unity as prevails in Germany exists here – not yet.

This situation is one of the factors enabling the labor movement to act with success. The other is its truly tremendous organized strength. Even so outrageous an attack upon labor and its rights as the Connally-Smith law remains a piece of precarious legislation without any real force behind it save its passive toleration by the labor movement. Decisive, independent action by the organized working class would speedily reveal the unenforceability of the act or would render it null and void.

And if the labor movement does not act decisively? Then a powerful brake upon totalitarianism will be released, and the movement toward its realization will be greatly accelerated. The only serious guarantee against the victory of fascism or of a reactionary dictatorship similar to it is not simply the existence of a labor movement, but the mobilization of that movement for independent and militant class action. Germany had a labor movement even better trained than the American and not less powerful in the country. Fascism triumphed nevertheless. It won because the labor movement relied upon its “friends” in the capitalist class and in the capitalist parties, who gradually moved further and further to the right. It did not rely upon itself and its class action. Under the circumstances, that would have sufficed for its own victory. It is worth remembering that the great German labor movement was not beaten and destroyed in battle. It collapsed without a fight and was massacred. Reaction in this country has not yet taken the form of fascism, but the tragic lessons of the German experience are nevertheless fully applicable to us here and now.

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