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John West

Will Roosevelt Be Re-elected?

(April 1936)


From New International, Vol.3 No.2, pp.33-36.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

IN AN article written last summer for The New International, I remarked that Roosevelt would be re-elected in November, 1936, unless the business upturn were greatly broadened and deepened. This remark aroused many queries and a number of protests. How, it was argued, would this follow? Why would a big increase of prosperity hurt Roosevelt? Just the opposite would seem more logical. If Roosevelt brings back good times, then a grateful people should be anxious to reward and keep him. And, certainly, this would seem more fair and just. Indeed, Roosevelt supporters such as the liberal New York Evening Post are indignant these days at the ingratitude of bankers and industrialists. As the Post points out in bewilderment, the higher the profits mount, the more viciously does finance-capital rail against its benefactor in the White House.

Politics, however, proceeds according to political and not according to moral laws.

During these first months of this election year, the attack against Roosevelt has reached new and almost lyric heights. The sins of mankind—so Hearst and the Liberty League, Hoover and Sloan and Chester and Smith and Mills inform us—are now concentrated in Washington. Chaos and disaster poise to alight on the day of Roosevelt’s re-election. “Public relations counsels” find a rich market for their most extravagant adjectives. The Literary Digest and skillfully weighted statistical polls show us in detail that the policies of the New Deal are repudiated by three-fourths of the population, and by all honest men. The balloons of the candidates for Republican nomination bob one another into the political sky.

What are we to make of all this? How do things really stand with Roosevelt?

It must be kept in mind that Marxists analyze political problems from the point of view of the dynamics of class relationships, not by meaningless statistics and questions asked of country editors. The Marxian method of analysis applies no less adequately to the present than to every other major political problem.


Let us consider to begin with the situation in the United States during the winter of 1932-33, the period of Roosevelt’s election campaign, his election and inauguration. This was the low point of the worst cyclical depression so far experienced by capitalism. The crisis was international in scope, and specially characterized as a movement in the decline of capitalism as a whole—that is, as part of the now permanent general crisis of capitalism—rather than a temporary recession in the advance of capitalism as a whole. In this country, unemployment had reached the undreamed of figures of nearly 18 millions. Profits had all but disappeared—in fact, industry as a whole was probably operating at a loss. Wages were drastically down. Prices of all commodities were tremendously deflated. Competition for the narrowed market had reached a stage of unbridled anarchy, which was further exaggerating the deflationary process. Bankruptcies were widespread and increasing. The whole banking system had reached a condition of nervous instability, and was in fact on the edge of total collapse. The enormous weight of capital debt, expanded in the boom times, was hanging over the market, in part artificially maintained against liquidation by the RFC loans; and the federal and state debts were rapidly mounting.

These material conditions, naturally, provoked their response in the consciousness of the citizens. Fear was widespread. Roosevelt, with his usual sensitiveness to popular moods, summed this up aptly in his inaugural address: “The only thing we have to fear,” he said, “is fear itself.” There was a general feeling of disorientation and helplessness. As usual, to all except Marxists, the natural functioning of the capitalist economy in crisis appeared to all classes of the people as the blind working of unalterable law, against which the plans of men are helpless. Unrest was slowly growing.

The attitude of the various sections of the population can be more specifically defined:

(1) The bourgeoisie proper was genuinely frightened. Many of them feared the breakdown of the system which sustained them. For several years, after 1929, they had kept up their courage by the whistlings of their agents in the Hoover Administration: they had told each other that bad times would soon be over, that the corner would be soon reached, that nothing unusual had happened. But after nearly four years, the indices were still hurtling downward, and the whistlings no longer sounded convincing. They and their spokesmen had no solution to offer to bring back the lost profits, and knew they had none. Thus they were ready to grasp at any that came along.

(2) The farmers were discouraged, and also resentful. It is interesting to remember that the first important outbreaks of “direct action” involved farmers (in Northwestern New York, Wisconsin, Iowa, etc.) and not workers—though, of course, these were sporadic and soon slipped out of sight when industrial strikes began. The farmers saw the solution to their problems in the raising of prices of commodities, the lowering of taxes and mortgage burdens, and in direct subsidies.

(3) Among the middle classes generally, fear was everywhere. They were completely confused and disoriented. Before them were the ghosts of proletarianization and unemployment taking on flesh and blood. Their formerly “privileged” position—as compared with the workers—was being rudely undermined. Unlike certain sections of the farmers, however, the middle classes generally were not so much resentful as merely bewildered. When the middle classes are not only afraid and disoriented, but also resentful, the ground has become ripe for Fascism. But the time for this has not yet come.

Above all it is important to understand that in 1932-33 the middle classes had lost confidence in their former leaders—the finance capitalists and their avowed spokesmen. And this they had done not merely because times were so bad for the middle classes, but in large part because the finance capitalists had temporarily lost confidence in themselves. The middle classes, being unable to formulate an independent program of their own, or to furnish independent leadership, must always follow another as leader. And they will not follow unless the leader is himself assured and confident, and looks like a winner.

(4) The unemployed were largely defeatist in their attitude, and in some measure resentful. They asked primarily for a small pittance of relief, and to a lesser extent for jobs.

(5) The proletariat was completely disoriented, both because of the absence of revolutionary leadership and because of the active presence of a corrupt and reactionary leadership. The workers were beginning to stir and mutter, and the turmoil of mass struggle lay ahead. They saw no political solution to their problems; but they were turning toward direct action as a means for gaining their most immediate needs.

Roosevelt was the Lochinvar sent as the answer to these conditions and these attitudes. He swung triumphantly into office with the fundamental program of tiding capitalism over the depths of the crisis, of using the state on a scale unprecedented in this country to supplement the “natural forces” of the economic cycle working for the upturn. Thus, on the economic scene, he quickly formulated his answers to the crucial difficulties. The deflationary trend was reversed by inflationary measures: cessation of the free gold market, silver manipulation, lowering of the gold content of the dollar. The banking structure was revived by the Bank Holiday, the liquidation of the weakest banks, the Federal Deposite Insurance Corporation, and government loans. The NRA gave industry a breathing space from the excessive price-cutting and too anarchic competition. Government loans, and spending, relief and public works, “primed the pump”.

However, the economic measures were not enough to tide capitalism over. There was also a political and ideological task to perform. The problems raised by the consciousness and attitudes of the various sections of the population had to be met. This is the peculiar business of politicians, and not so clearly understood by the bourgeoisie proper.

Roosevelt’s pre-election speeches, the form and wording of his program were designed to answer just these problems. And, drawing heavily from the United States Populist tradition, from liberalism and social-democracy, they did so remarkably well. It is worth while noticing how the form of his program affected the various sections:

  1. Roosevelt appeared on the surface as the champion of “the people” and the sworn enemy of the big bourgeoisie. He lashed out (verbally) at the Tories and the money-changers. In ringing words he sounded the clarion. In spite of this, at the beginning there was little consistent opposition to Roosevelt from the bourgeoisie. For one thing, they were too worried, and felt they had to take a chance. Besides, they knew that they could control the basic direction of his regime, and they therefore concentrated their efforts (successfully) on getting their own desires written into the new “business legislation”. Certain groups of the bourgeoisie, particularly those in already unionized industries, were actively in favor of the Administration.
  2. The farmers were delighted with the fine old Jeffersonian phrases with which Roosevelt’s speeches were well larded. And they were more substantially delighted with the actual economic benefits to themselves which Roosevelt engineered: higher prices for their crops, mortgage relief, and direct subsidies.
  3. The middle classes were on the heights. In Roosevelt they saw themselves reflected—not their actual confused and frightened selves, but their hopes and dreams. Confidence sprung up again. Here were just the kind of hazy, grandiose generalities to warm the cockles of a middle-class heart. Here was indeed a new leader, sure, firm, smiling and friendly. And here was a New Life to be had just for the asking. They jumped gayly onto the bandwagon.
  4. The unemployed, too, got for a time at least new hope to replace their defeatism. This sounded like good stuff, these promises for the Forgotten Man, And relief conditions were in fact improved. CWA, PWA, and CCC were at any rate better than Hoover.
  5. The proletariat was tied to the White House through the trade union bureaucracy. The ambiguous Section 7A, while left vague enough to fulfill the requirements of Roosevelt’s basic economic program, also met the ideological need of permitting Roosevelt to appear as labor’s President.

Thus, for a while, the magician Roosevelt did appear as all things to all men.

It is necessary to say a word about the relation of Roosevelt to Fascism. In 1933 the Daily Worker assured us that Roosevelt was a Fascist—though now it is the opposition to Roosevelt (the Supreme Court and Hearst and the Liberty League) which the Daily Worker recognizes as the “true” Fascists. Of course, Roosevelt was not and is not fascist. He and his program are a kind of distorted amalgam of liberalism, Populism, and social-democracy in theory, and even, in part, in practise. Where possible, Roosevelt uses the methods of class collaboration, not of direct class tyranny.

Nevertheless, during the decline of capitalism, the capitalist attempt to solve a deep crisis tends necessarily along fascist lines. In this case, the crisis was not deep and long enough, either economically on the one hand, or socially and politically on the other, to require Fascism itself. But because of this tendency in the decline of capitalism, the Roosevelt program and methods were a kind of pale foreshadowing of Fascism, a faint metaphor of what is to come.

Fascism, like the Roosevelt program, has a muddled middle-class appeal, building its ideology out of the dreams and despairs of the middle classes. And many Fascists are quite as “sincere” as Roosevelt. Under Roosevelt, especially in the first two years, there occurred an unprecedented concentration of power in the Executive branch of the government and a correlative weakening of the legislative—again, on a large scale, characteristic of Fascism. The code authorities of the NRA, with their attempt to sustain prices through the intervention of the state, are also analogous to the methods of Fascism. So, too, with the extension of state influence in and operation of “business”—investments in banking, railroads, industry. Likewise, in the various labor boards, the automobile code, etc., there is a foreshadowing of compulsory arbitration.

It must always be remembered that Fascism is veiled, not open reaction. It begins as a mass movement, not as an open offensive of finance-capital, and is only later taken over by finance-capital. In this Roosevelt and his program are instructive for the future.


During the last eighteen months the political meaning of the Roosevelt regime has greatly altered, because of the fact that basic economic and social conditions have greatly altered. The central development is, naturally, the upturn in the business cycle, which, after two minor spurts in 1933 and 1934, is now in a major swing. The upturn is marked above all by the return of profits—some of them remarkably enough to the highest level in history, and many to the 1930 level. The stock market has soared. Prices, after a sharp recovery in 1933-34, have for the most part continued up, though more slowly, and have been approximately level during the past year. (Wages, after a considerable rise in 1933-34 (though only a slight rise in real wages) are remaining about stationary, with a slight increase in hours since the invalidation of the NRA Unemployment has decreased about 5 millions since Roosevelt took office, but has changed little during the past year.

The forces for the upturn were substantially in operation by the beginning of 1935. Consequently, at that time Roosevelt had to alter his course. Instead of appearing as the stirring leader of the 74th Congress (as he had been of the 73rd), he had to act as brake; and, by his pseudo-Social-Security Act and the WPA, he forestalled any serious effort at more genuine social security, public works or large-scale relief. Nevertheless, at the end of the first session of the 74th Congress, he reconsolidated his formal “left” position by championing the Utilities Bill, the Neutrality Act, and the “Soak the Rich” Tax Bill. This he did in order to cut the ground from under the feet of the opposition to the bourgeois and reformist left, and thus to prevent the growth of a major third party movement.

In the autumn of 1936 he announced “the breathing spell” for business, to mark his recognition of the end of the New Deal in fact—that is, the end of the emergency measures to save capitalism in the given crisis—and to make a bid to retain some of his slipping big bourgeois support. The Supreme Court, by invalidating the NRA, AAA, Railroad Pensions Act, etc., was assigned the task of publicly burying the emergency measures. With the upturn of the business cycle, they have finished their purpose.

If we turn to the relation of Roosevelt to his opponents, we find that to his opponents on his right he has given the substance of their demands: that is, he has done his part in recovering profits. On this basis he, quite “reasonably”, asks for their votes. But they, ungrateful, get more and more abusive, invigorated by the blood of profits. They want a more direct instrument than Roosevelt.

To his left he has given lavishly of the words and phrases it looks for. He keeps the slogans and the demagogy, as in his annual message in January—now pure demagogy, since they were designed for the depths of the crisis, not for the upturn. By this means he has made a serious third party in 1936 impossible: it could not be sufficiently differentiated from Roosevelt. During 1935 the third party movement collapsed; and its impossibility was definitively sealed by the UMWA’s endorsement of Roosevelt.

If we look at the election year lineup in terms of the attitude of the social groups, we find:

  1. The bourgeoisie are again confident. Profits are miraculously returned. They are again impatient of state restraint: the ropes which helped them out of the hole have become shackles. It seems to them that the country is headed back to the good old days. They wish to run along in the uncurbed race for profits. They feel now able to handle labor alone, and toss aside the possible ultimate social consequences. Thus, on the whole, the bourgeoisie is anti-Roosevelt. Some, with special interests, still stick with him. And much of the bourgeois opposition is no doubt largely bluff. They find in “intransigent” and loud opposition the easiest way to put the screws on Roosevelt when he kicks a bit. And Roosevelt, in the face of the opposition, naturally “concedes” still more. In any case, it must be kept in mind that Roosevelt through the state fundamentally represents them since he upholds and maintains the basic interests and the social structure on which they rest; and, more particularly, he prepares carefully and ably for the war which they expect to open up mighty new markets. This the intelligent among the bourgeoisie clearly understand, and no doubt some even of the “opponents’” votes will go to Roosevelt in the secrecy of the ballot box.
  2. Large sections of the farmers (with the decided exceptions of the share-croppers and the poorest tenants) are considerably better off than in 1933. The reasons for this are various, including the drought and the dust storms, for which Roosevelt cannot plausibly take credit; but in part they are undoubtedly the Roosevelt farm measures. The majority of the farmers may be expected to stay with Roosevelt. Many are affected by the anti-Roosevelt agitation; but the Republicans offer no farm program at all.
  3. The middle classes generally (exclusive of the farmers) are not so much better off than in 1933, though their condition has to some extent improved. But the crucial point with reference to the middle classes is that their faith in their old leaders—in finance-capital—has been revived. It has revived in large part because the faith of the old leaders in themselves has revived, because they are once again confident. As usual, the middle classes go toward what looks to them like the leader. It is entirely false that to win the middle classes a “middle-class appeal” must be made, on the basis of a “middle-class program”. The middle classes answer to the voice of a master who sounds like a master. Roosevelt, mirroring in his phrases a middle-class mind, loses his appeal precisely because he makes, now, so many apologies and “concessions”. The old note rings hollow. The Liberty League is less compromising. It says in effect to the middle classes: tag along with me if you know what is good for you, because I really run things, and I intend to run them my way. (It would be well if working class politicians could learn this lesson in the ways of the middle classes.) In November, therefore, the majority of the middle classes will probably vote against Roosevelt; and still more “prosperity” will only increase the adverse majority, since it will increase the strength and confidence of the bourgeoisie.
  4. The unemployed know from experience the fakery of Roosevelt’s relief program. For this reason, some of the unemployed are turning against Roosevelt. But most (when they are not disfranchised) will vote for Roosevelt on the lesser evil principle, since the Republicans offer even less.
  5. The proletariat is on the whole better off than in 1933, though not much better off. But in spite of the revelation of the Roosevelt program in practise as thoroughly anti-working class, the treachery of the trade union bureaucracy, the fatal policy of the communist party and the vacillating policy of the socialist party during this period, ensure that a substantial majority of the working class will go to Roosevelt. This could not have been shown more decisively than by the unanimous endorsement of Roosevelt by the UMWA Convention. However paradoxical it may seem, the solidest support for Roosevelt will be drawn from the proletariat.

On the basis of the above survey, I conclude that Roosevelt will be re-elected in November, by a majority probably less than in 1932, but still considerable.


What, then, should be the broad strategy of Marxists for this election year?

Many tendencies in the labor movement, led by the communist party, hold that this is the year for a mighty Labor or Farmer-Labor party campaign. Some of them believe, or pretend to believe, that a national Farmer-Labor ticket in 1936 is realistically possible; others—many socialists, for example, that it is not possible in 1936, but that nevertheless the Farmer-Labor campaign should be carried on for its educational value and to prepare for the future.

Both conceptions are entirely incorrect. We have already seen that a genuine Labor or Farmer-Labor party, including the bulk of the organized labor movement, in 1936 is impossible; it is blocked by Roosevelt’s political strategy. A fake Labor party is still, indeed, possible, cooked up by bureaucratic and opportunistic maneuvers: and it should be noticed that any kind of Labor party campaign, even one of the most “genuine” sort, plays into the hands of those who would like a fake Labor party, either this year or in the future.

It is not my intention to enter into the general “theory” of the Labor party. The main considerations are well enough known by Marxists: that a Labor party is hopelessly reformist, and thus unable to defend the interests of the working class, we know; that in actuality it offers no protection whatever against either war or Fascism, we know; we know that, in the decline of capitalism, a Labor party cannot win even any important temporary concessions from the bourgeoisie; and we know also that the whole ideology of the Labor party blurs the central and decisive question: what class holds state power? We know also that in this country the Labor party movement connects up with the traditional Populist and Progressive tradition, and thus loses even its nominal class base.

The present question, however, is not one of general theory, but of the concrete meaning of the Labor party campaign in 1936. And, concretely, we must conclude that the Labor party campaign this year plays directly into the hands of Roosevelt—that is, into the hands of finance-capital. The Labor and Farmer-Labor campaign, particularly in its Stalinist version, utilizes the very same ideology as Roosevelt. Nothing could have made this clearer than Roosevelt’s Annual Message to Congress. Ninety percent of this message might have appeared unchanged in the Daily Worker—even the same rhetorical devices. Roosevelt declared himself “unequivocally” for strong neutrality measures; against Fascist tyrannies; against war; against the Tories; against unscrupulous financiers; against Wall Street; against invasion of the people’s rights by the courts; for the common man; for—a “people’s government” (in just those words). On what possible grounds could Roosevelt be kept out of the People’s Front?

The Farmer-Labor advocates, especially the Stalinists, now join with the Administration spokesmen in attacking the Liberty League as “Fascist” (as I have pointed out, for the communist party it was once Roosevelt who was Fascist). This is entirely false and extremely dangerous. The Liberty League is simply old-fashioned reactionary. Naturally, the present backers of the Liberty League will some day be supporting a Fascist movement in this country. But they will be hidden, not on the front pages, as they now are in stories about the Liberty League. Fascism simply does not work this way. And Fascism is built out of crisis and depression; not out of an upturn, when the middle classes are on the whole pleased with the Tories. Actually, Roosevelt is closer to Fascism than the Liberty League, though we have seen that he is not Fascist. It is he who, like Fascism, represents “veiled” reaction. Making purely reformist distinctions between “friendly” and “unfriendly” sections of the ruling class (backers of Roosevelt and backers of the Liberty League), and friendly and unfriendly organs of the capitalist state (Congress, the people’s representative, and the Supreme Court, representative of Wall Street) plays directly into the hands of the future Fascist developments.

Because, then, of the incidence of their political ideology, we shall see that many of the “boldest” supporters of the Farmer-Labor campaign now, in November will line up the votes for Roosevelt. It is not excluded that the communist party itself—especially if the Far Eastern crisis deepens—will declare for Roosevelt.

No. In 1936 it is the business of Marxists to understand that this election year is an opportune time to build—not reformist—but revolutionary ideas, to strengthen vastly the revolutionary movement in this country. It is a year for Marxists to redouble their participation in independent working-class actions. In this, good beginnings have already been made in 1936. And direct struggle is the most educational of all schools for the masses of the workers. Perhaps in November they will still vote for Roosevelt; but if they have participated in direct struggles, properly led, they will be far along politically.

And this election year is a splendid year for a mighty educational campaign: not against the Liberty League or Wall Street or the Supreme Court or Roosevelt, but against the capitalist state; and not for a reformist party to take governmental office as a handmaiden of capitalism, but for a party to overthrow the state. It is a splendid year, that is to say, for a campaign for the revolutionary party, for utilizing the ferment of the election year and the war crisis and the labor struggles for the forging of the revolutionary leadership of the American working class.


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