From New International, Vol.12 No.10, December 1946, pp.291-293.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
For the first time in fourteen lean years the hungry politicians of the Republican Party have won a major election. On November 5 of this year their vote gained them substantial majorities in the Senate and the House and for the first time since 1930 they control both legislative bodies of Congress.
For hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of the new generation, the defeat of what was once Roosevelt’s party came as a shock caused by the sudden shattering of a fourteen-year tradition. If millions of youth knew no other President than Roosevelt, they also knew no other administration than that of the Democrats. A man of thirty reached consciousness about the time that the New Deal made its appearance. Older voters also came to regard Republican rule as a dim chapter in history while a Democratic majority appeared as a living tradition.
What was behind the Republican victory?
Given the two party system in this country, i.e., the complete domination of politics by two political panics having more or less identical programs, there is some justification for explaining electoral changes by cycles of rule: exchanging the “ins” for the “outs.” But behind the cycles of rule are concrete economic and political factors which explain the victory of one party or the other. It is a crude mechanical materialism which simplifies an analysis of the conduct of the Democratic and Republican Parties with the affirmation that they are both capitalist parties. Unquestionably, they are. But they are also, in the very nature of American politics, coalition parties, i.e., parties which are made up of conflicting elements in the capitalist political superstructure. Example: The Republican Party has not only been the party of big capital, but also the party of isolationism, of small business, of the farmer. Example: The Democratic Party is not only a party of big capital, it is also the party of Southern reaction and the party of the urban population. Example: The Republican Party was the party of the Negro until Roosevelt either smashed or neutralized that alliance. Example: The Democratic Party was once the party of “states’ rights,” but, under Roosevelt, the Republican Party took over that mantle, at least as a propaganda instrument, while New Dealism became the highest form of federalist policy the country has ever known in peacetime.
Thus each party, in general, has represented specific capitalist interests to meet specific conditions as they materialized in the particular manner in which American capitalism developed (lack of a direct feudal background, the factor of slavery, capitalist development almost immediately on a large-scale, trustified basis, years of constant expansion and on a historical scale, a recent formation and solidification of the basic social classes).
The two party system in the United States has served as a battleground for intra-capitalist class conflicts and as a safety valve through which mass dissatisfaction finds an outlet. For the latter purpose especially, the two party system has been an ingenious device. When the crisis of ’29 destroyed the hold of the Republican Party on the masses, the bourgeoisie was able to offer up the Democratic Party – Roosevelt and the New Deal. Thus, no matter how many changes have taken place in the administration of the country, at no time was the bourgeois domination threatened by the victory of one or the other of the parties. At most, it could be said that one section of the. bourgeoisie triumphed over another.
It is true, however, that the New Deal did serve to change the heretofore placid course of American politics. Roosevelt came to power at the depth of the severest crisis in national economic and political history. The shattered economy required correspondingly severe measures to keep it from disintegrating totally. The course open to Roosevelt was more or less ordained: he had to organize measures of state intervention to prevent a complete economic collapse, to begin the operation of the machinery of production once more, and to give succor to the masses, lest the dissatisfactions of the millions of unemployed give way to rebellion against the very social system itself.
Historically speaking, the New Deal was nothing more than the enactment of social legislation for sound economic and political reasons. Its main purpose was to save American capitalism. The reformism of the New Deal not only signified that American capitalism was critically ill, but also that it had reached a point European capitalism passed many years ago. Reformism, and the social legislation it produced, came late to this country because the youthful American capitalism had hitherto been strong, its resources enormous, its wealth tremendous – a combination of factors that permitted it to overcome crises with relative ease. European capitalism was already old when the American was reaching its young manhood. But the inexorable laws of capitalist decline finally reached these shores and required a “savior” in Roosevelt and the New Deal. The New Deal, however, served only as a blood transfusion for the dying capitalist organism, to prolong its life. After eight years of the most elaborate plans and the expenditure of an immense amount of money, the system remained chronically ill. Production rose a little, but did not reveal organic strength. Not until the war broke out in Europe and the United States became the “arsenal of democracy” did the economy begin to make strides forward. But even then, in 1940, when production reached its highest peacetime level, there were still from eight to nine million unemployed. The inability of capitalism, with all the assistance given to it by the state, to overcome this symptom of permanent economic illness, indicated that the future social relations in this country would take on European forms. A sharp change occurred when the United States entered the war, for the requirements of a new and total war, with its terrifying destruction of materials, created an unusual situation for the economy: there were not enough production facilities, raw materials, or labor. From too much to too little, overnight! American capitalism then began an expansion that surpassed the expectations of even the most optimistic, but this very expansion contains within itself the seeds of a more severe and lasting crisis in the future. The war economy destroyed any possibility that the Republicans had of taking power from the “magician” in the White House whose “luck” seemed endless. But it wasn’t merely a matter of “luck.” Compared to Roosevelt, the leaders of the GOP gave the appearance of a lot of hardened old men who never woke up to the facts of modern life. Even Willkie, a “Republican Roosevelt,” had to be forced on the party, riven as it was with inner disputes and conflicting interests. The fact that isolationism remained a strong current in the party throughout the war years illustrated the party’s backwardness and guaranteed its wartime defeat.
In contrast to Roosevelt’s world approach, his understanding that the future of US capitalism was bound up with a victory over German imperialism and its powerful economy in the war, the GOP hierarchy was still howling about the WPA, boondoggling, excessive bureaucracy in Washington and high taxes – all of them issues that carry weight only in normal times when the economy is more or less prosperous. That the GOP finally caught up with what was really important expresses not so much its astuteness as the penetrating effect of the larger economic and political problems which face the United States.
The end of the war offered many opportunities to the Republican Party. The death of Roosevelt stripped the Democratic Party of the one person who could lead it in a vigorous political struggle. His authority inside the party was immense. He alone kept its centripetal force in check and if in recent years he could not always command Congressional support for his measures, he could always unite his brethren in an election campaign. The trough of patronage and the strength of unity kept his party of Southern bourbons and northern city bosses together. Both of these wings knew that with Roosevelt they could win; without him they were lost. For despite the abuse heaped upon him for years by the press of the country, the chief of the New Deal reforms maintained his great hold on the support of labor and, in large measure, the lower middle classes.
When one recalls the vigorous administration and the colorful campaigning of the Roosevelt machine, the Democratic Party of Truman and Hannegan appears positively ludicrous. Can one imagine Roosevelt, the leader of his party, remaining silent in the most dangerous national elections the Democrats have faced in fourteen years? But that is precisely what happened in the case of Truman. The party hierarchy gagged the leader! Of his schedule of five major speeches, not one was delivered! Several of the state machines of the Democratic Party gave out the word: We do not want Truman. But we must confess that Truman did not ask for his post. It was thrust on him, an unwilling recipient. It is only necessary to recall his comment, “My Godl” when the news of Roosevelt’s death was brought to him, in order to grasp his feeling of futility.
It was Truman’s misfortune to inherit Roosevelt’s administration toward the close of the war and to find thrust at him the whole problem of administering the country through the reconversion period, the struggle for “peace,” and the reorganization of the political program of American capitalism to meet post-war conditions. He is obviously incompetent in his post. Moreover, his party is today a shambles, similar in its decomposition to the Republican Party in 1932. In its present disintegration, produced by great inner schisms, the party proves itself incompetent to respond to the needs of American imperialism with the kind of unity and vigor necessary. There is truth to the charge that the party has grown old in office.
The war economy brought prosperity to America’s ruling class. It not only raised its profits, but maintained them throughout the first year and a half of the post-war period at the highest level ever experienced. The continuation of the post-war boom with total employment meant that the demand by the bourgeoisie for an immediate relaxation of war measures would grow. The administration bungled its job there. It also played ’possum with the masses. It did not stop a reactionary Congress from making the masses pay for reconversion as they paid for the war economy. It did not halt price increases; on the contrary, it paved the way for them by lying to the people at large, insisting that it would keep price controls. It promised housing to veterans and workers and helped to pass legislation that prevents a meaningful housing program from being carried out. While it permitted uncontrolled price rises, it maintained control of wages. Admittedly, many other charges against the Truman administration were exaggerated. He was merely the mildly recalcitrant adjutant of a wild Congress hell-bent on answering its masters’ voice.
Whatever the precise relationships between Truman and Congress in this period, the fact remains that all the responsibility for the post-war chaos in the country was successfully placed on his shoulders.
Taking advantage of war weariness and deep dissatisfaction, the Republicans swam with the tide. They did not have to campaign on a program. All they needed to do was to follow a negative line of attacking the Democratic Party. That was sufficient to win the “balance of power” vote, i.e., the overwhelming majority of the middle class. It was the labor vote plus a deep inroad upon the middle class that gave Roosevelt and the New Deal their victories. The middle class vote – above all, the farmers – was in the nature of a protest. Strangely enough, it was the war economy and all the difficulties that it created for the middle class which started its movement toward the Republican Party, beginning in 1942. It voted for the political representative of the most powerful section of monopoly capitalism, the most powerful economic enemy of the middle class. But no other political force was present to draw the middle class to it.
Labor’s role in this election was pitiful in the extreme. The PAC failed ignominiously to bring out the vote in the same way that it did in 1944. The death of Roosevelt is only a partial explanation of this fact. Equally as important as this is the fact that the capitalist politicians whom the PAC helped to elect, treated the labor movement with the contempt it deserved for allying itself with one of the parties of capitalism. Large sections of the working class were simply weary of repeating experiences which showed them the absolute hopelessness of the political course pursued by their leaders.
Those who believe that the Republican victory will result in a complete overturn of the accomplishments of the New Deal, of the basic foreign policy of the present administration and a wild transformation of labor laws are mistaken. The Republican Party comes to power today with full realization that it cannot turn the clock back without creating domestic chaos. The leaders of the Republican Party will adhere to the main orientation of the big bourgeoisie, now committed to an “internationalist” policy flowing out of its necessity to dominate the world market. Since the base of American capitalism has been transferred from a national to an international one, the Republican Party must go through a mutation and pursue an analogous political course. The American bourgeoisie cannot, for example, withdraw from the United Nations, which is the arena in which the “peaceful” stage of the new world competition is being fought out. Republican foreign policy will therefore continue along the main highway which this country traveled during Roosevelt’s reign, and now Truman’s. Undoubtedly this policy will be accompanied by different nuances, but it will be basically identical. To believe otherwise is to believe that the class interests of the two parties are antagonistic or that the Democrats followed a policy inimical to the interests of American imperialism.
Corresponding to international needs, the Republican Party will not and cannot destroy the main social legislation of the New Deal. The internal chaos which would ensue from such a policy would paralyze the imperialist program of the bourgeoisie. What the Republican Party will do, however, is modify some of the labor laws (the Wagner Act) and adopt more stringent anti-strike legislation in order to give the state a stronger hold on the reins in the class struggle. In contrast to the statements of their more militant comrades, the Senate leaders of the GOP have already declared that they will not engage in any “punitive arts” against labor and its union movement. The enactment of greater controls over the working class is quite different from a policy aiming at the destruction of the labor movement. That big business would like to return to the open shop conditions of the “prosperity period” is not to say that it is able or ready to achieve such a goal. No, it will proceed with considerable caution in this field.
Nor will the Republicans go in for a hazardous financial policy by a drastic alteration of the budget and an immediate rescinding of the tax laws. That they will seek to cut the budget and reduce taxes is without doubt true. But even now, before the new Congress has convened, they have warned the country at large (and some of their own die-hards) that the budget cut must be approached carefully, that taxes cannot be reduced simply across-the-board and that it is impossible at this time to reduce corporation taxes. The chief GOP leaders are really saying to their followers: let us take it easy, let us wait and see. After all, we don’t want to be held responsible for another 1932; we are really only preparing for the elections of 1948. And the competition between the leaders of the party for the post of leader is so strong that each of them, Taft, Vandenberg, Bricker, Stassen, Warren and Dewey, necessarily engages in a great deal of shadow boxing in order to build up a record of constructiveness for himself in the next two years.
For a clear understanding of the meaning of the Republican Party victory it is only necessary to realize that what has happened is that the more conservative wing of the two major American political parties has taken power. Thus while its actions will be aimed at increasing the power of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the working class through legislative acts, no fundamental overturn has taken place in the country. That labor will have to fight against the policies of the Republican Party goes without saying, but it cannot even begin this struggle without dearly understanding what it is fighting against, and even more important than this, what it is fighting for.
Here we come to the heart of the question. The lessons of the labor struggles of the past year are, we think, abundantly clear. It is not in the field of economic struggle that labor is weak; on the contrary, it has shown tremendous vitality, ingenuity and skill. But it is in the political field of struggle that labor has conducted itself with a sense of inferiority, defeat and hopelessness, which springs from its backward, conservative and often reactionary political policies. The labor movement is tied to bourgeois politics and it cannot and will not make any fundamental progress until it breaks decisively with this course. Its economic struggles will always be hampered unless and until the working class becomes a class unto itself. That means that it acts as a working class politically by breaking completely with bourgeois politics and its political parties. The need for an independent Labor Party in this country is to be sought in the economic and political conditions in the country. So long as the working class remains politically unorganized, its economic struggles will be characterized by its limitations, no matter how militant and “farsighted” they may appear to be.
The elections just held only emphasize the above. The great task which confronts the conscious and militant progressives of the union movement is to begin at once the work of creating such a working class political party. The PAC in its short period of existence has shown not only how fatal is the bourgeois political course it has followed, but also how relatively easy it would be to form a Labor Party if the union movement were to put all its resources behind it. The formation of a Labor Party will require a struggle against the conservative, bourgeois-minded labor leaders. This is in the very nature of things. But it is a necessary struggle. It arises because the Labor Party is an indispensable need for the working class to guarantee its first steps toward political progress and economic emancipation.
Last updated on 4.9.2005