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James Burnham

Roosevelt Faces The Future [1]

(February 1938)


From The New International, Vol. 4 No. 2, February 1938, pp. 43–45.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).


FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT is probably the most daring and brilliant politician whom this country has yet produced. He is, in the first place, remarkable among American Presidents in being in the fullest sense a trained, professional politician, and not a lawyer, general, or schoolteacher raised to political office as a temporarily convenient spokesman for the ruling class. He has fitted himself with the most precise and painstaking care, acquiring every knowledge and talent relevant to his chosen function. He has studied the history of the United States itself until he handles it and molds its tradition to his purpose with easy and conscious mastery. A magnificent orator, he has not been content to learn from the past, but has adapted his delivery to the new requirements of loudspeakers and above all the radio. His speeches – whose continuity of style proves that their final form is not left in the hands of ghost-writers – show an amazing grasp of wide fields of contemporary science and culture. Much more remarkable – indeed almost unprecedented – in an American politician, his actions prove him a close and critical student of international politics and their methods; he has made his own the lessons to be drawn from the political experiences of the great European nations.

In addition, in striking contrast to the three Presidents who preceded him, especially to Coolidge and Harding, and indeed to the great majority of Presidents from the beginning, Roosevelt is in the full sense a political leader. Harding and Coolidge, for example, were narrow, stupid, weak, uncultured men, trivial pawns pulled back and forth by the major forces within American society. They had no coherent and distinctive policies. They were not conscious of the true meaning of their own roles. In entire contrast, Roosevelt is fully conscious; and vigorously, indeed ruthlessly, pursues integrated and deliberately thought-out policies.

Roosevelt knows that it is his business to represent, in the political sphere, the general interests of the American bourgeoisie as a whole, knows that he is the standard bearer of American imperialism in its present phase. It is precisely because of this, and because he is by far the ablest present representative of American imperialism, that he enters so frequently into collision with individuals and groups within the bourgeoisie. The very nature of capitalism, with its life-and-death internal competitive struggle, makes it exceedingly difficult for any member or section of the bourgeoisie to rise to the point of view of the historical interests of the class as a whole. The struggle of individual against individual, corporation against corporation, monopoly against monopoly, one branch of industry against another, blots out the longer-term perspective, and makes the individual bourgeois – unless confronted with a definite social crisis – grasp at immediate practical advantage at the expense of the general interests of the class. When such an individual is told, in effect, that he must sacrifice in one degree or another some immediate practical advantage for the sake of the longer perspective, he is ordinarily resentful and resists. It is the very bitterness against Roosevelt on the part of such large numbers of the bourgeoisie that is the surest sign of Roosevelt’s class leadership.

This bitterness is increased by the boldness and imperiousness with which Roosevelt announces his policies and carries them through. He hurts people’s feelings because he tells them what to do instead of waiting around and asking advice, and flattering Congressmen or bankers by suggesting that he is merely following their superior wisdom. Roosevelt closes the banks, launches the NRA, PWA, WPA, builds dams, changes the gold content of the dollar, makes treaties, reforms Stock Exchange practise, demands a change in the Supreme Court; and in all such measures, he calls the turn first and lets the grumblers and delayers fall into line afterwards.

But more than this: Not only does Roosevelt understand clearly his role as general representative of American imperialism; he knows too that a chief – perhaps the primary – task of the bourgeois politician is to keep the confidence of the masses in the bourgeois state and the capitalist order. He is extraordinarily sensitive to the moods of the masses, and unscrupulous to the last degree in exploiting those moods. And this is why Roosevelt, in spite of all his brilliance and knowledge and abilities, is and must remain a demagogue; why every successful bourgeois politician, in the epoch of the decline of capitalism, must be a demagogue. They cannot tell the truth to the masses; for that would be to tell them that the continuance of capitalism dooms them to increasing misery, starvation, tyranny, war. They can only exploit, pervert, distort, with one or another brand of demagogy, the moods of discontent and despair, and the half-conscious search by the masses for a way out In 1932, these moods of discontent and despair were enormously widespread in this country. It was Roosevelt’s dramatic actions and his far more dramatic demagogy that seized hold of these moods, transformed them, and re-forged the chains that tied the minds of the masses to capitalism. It is hard to see how it could have been done in any other than Roosevelt’s way.

Roosevelt enjoyed four and a half years of virtually uninterrupted success. Against the business upturn – part of the international upturn, but also in part stimulated and supported here by Roosevelt’s own measures, against the grandiose plans and real though much less grandiose governmental achievements, against the triumphant New Deal ideology, no attack from any quarter stood a chance. A popular whirlwind carried him into office for his second term.

His first major political crisis occurred over the Bill to reorganize the Supreme Court. But it would be a superficial error to imagine that the rejection of this Bill was half the defeat to Roosevelt that his opponents fondly imagined and his friends timorously feared. On the one hand, through advocacy of the reorganization, Roosevelt terrorized the Court into upholding all of his important measures which came before it last year; and he has already forced out two of the anti-Roosevelt Justices. On the other hand, through his championing of the Bill, Roosevelt was mightily aided in maintaining his psychological position as the leader of the masses against the “Tories”.

The real crisis, or rather its beginning, has a more substantial foundation: the economic slump which began last autumn and continues downward with a velocity twice that of 1929; and the deepening of the war crisis. It is these which Roosevelt is now called upon to solve, after his own manner.


How does Roosevelt understand his own general problem? It would seem to be something as follows: American capitalism is the most vigorous and powerful section of international capitalism. It does not yet need to turn toward fascism for preservation. It can continue, and thereby uphold and even extend the strength and privileges of the American bourgeoisie, for a considerable future period. But it can do so only if three conditions, themselves integrally related, are fulfilled.

First, it must “modernize”. It must abandon the remnants and the attitudes of laisser-faire. It must draw the lessons from the older capitalisms of Europe, including the lessons from reformist politics and from the totalitarian states. It must try to reduce the excessive anarchy of industry on the one side; and in the relations between capital and labor on the other – recognizing that a working class organized and closely related to the governmental structure can, if properly managed, be less dangerous in the present period than a disorganized and chaotic working class. The parts must accept “controls” for the sake of the well-being of the whole. Above all, it must recognize that modern capitalism can work only with the extension of the function of the state into wider and wider spheres.

Second (as I have already discussed), the loyalty of the masses toward the capitalist order must be kept. This cannot be done through the ideologies carried over by the Republican and Democratic parties from earlier and no longer relevant periods. Those ideologies make use of myths no longer convincing. The United States requires a New Deal in ideology. The New Deal ideology is not, of course, an invention by Roosevelt, but merely an adaptation. He has taken over traditional reformism, up to and including the Popular Front, mixed in an American sauce of Jeffersonianism and Populism, and with new seasoning and decoration brought up to date as a native American product. The object of the ideology is to convince the masses that the government – at least while Roosevelt is at its head – is their government; that their enemies are neither capitalism nor its state, but merely “the sixty families”. This ideology must be backed up with a necessary minimum of actual or apparent concessions, a running expense which American capitalism cannot at present afford to eliminate.

This third and most vital condition for the continuance of American capitalism is the extension of its capital market. The most vigorous and powerful section of international capitalism must take its place openly and aggressively as the dominant power in the world. The internal market is already completely inadequate to sustain U.S. economy on a profitable basis; but today’s inadequacy is only a foreshadowing of the future. The economy must expand, or be destroyed. From the beginning Roosevelt has understood this. That is why he and his lieutenants have brushed aside so unceremoniously the Borahs, the isolationists and provincials, and have made one series after another of commercial treaties designed to further trade. That is why the Soviet Union was recognized as one of the first acts of his regime. It is this that explains the “good neighbor” policy toward South and Central America, Cuba, the Philippines, Porto Rico – a policy which in exchange for surface concessions in terms of political prestige strengthens the base of economic advantage and genuine political control. That is what explains the participation in and domination of the Buenos Aires Conference a year ago.

But all of this is not enough. Roosevelt knows that not alone the United States, but all of the imperialist powers need, to stave off death, expansion, or at the very least preservation of what they now have. And therefore he knows that this primary condition for the continuance of American imperialism entails necessarily and inevitably war. Consequently, as a serious politician, his course is deliberately and consciously set toward war, and toward the creation of the most favorable circumstances for the conduct of the war. There is no other way to understand his policy.


Right now, then, Roosevelt stands faced with the economic recession, the foreshadowing if not the first act of a major economic crisis; and with the deepening war crisis. His specific problem now is: (a) to shift the blame for the recession and impending crisis to the “Tories” and at least to a certain extent to Congress; (b) to meet the slump in such a way as not to alienate the masses from capitalism; and (c) to prepare for the war which he regards as certain. These three factors are naturally related, since in reality the war is Roosevelt’s solution for the economic crisis.

It was thought for several months that Roosevelt would meet the slump by abandoning the New Deal. The Special Session gave some evidence for this view. But in actuality Roosevelt utilized the Special Session to discredit Congress as against the Executive. And free rein, for a while, to the views of the Tories only makes it easier for Roosevelt to attribute the slump to the “sabotage” of the “sixty families”; and thus also easier to prevent the masses from discovering its true causes in capitalism itself. In this way, he is breaking up the strategy of the Republicans, with its attempt to ride back to popular favor by holding Roosevelt and the New Deal solely responsible for the slump – an attempt doomed to failure, since it proceeds from an ideology which can no longer win the faith of the popular majority.

The toothache and fishing trip of the Special Session were quickly followed by a sortie from the Roosevelt camp. Jackson and Ickes took the air and sent their New Deal shafts against the wicked monopolies. Why this, at this moment? Clearly: a major, and in this country always congenial, way to slough off responsibility for the evils of capitalism. But in addition: The appeal of an “anti-monopoly” campaign is primarily to the middle classes; Roosevelt realizes that the onslaught of the “Tories” makes its chief effect upon the middle classes, and he must move now to keep them in line. The working class is still with him, and will besides be far less affected in any case by “big business” propaganda. Roosevelt himself followed up Jackson and Ickes with a much more “reasonable” address to Congress. He is willing to cooperate with “all loyal Americans”; the “disruption” does not come from his side. But a few days later he openly declares that he is not going to balance the budget; and the tone of the Jackson Day speech is much sharper.

The New Deal is by no means dead. It is simply entering a new and fuller stage.

Roosevelt’s great and crucial weapon, however, is the war. With his Chicago speech, in October, he began its open preparation. For Roosevelt, first things come first; and in the Address to Congress, the opening and by far the most forceful section dealt with the war crisis. The new armament program is already on the way. The notes on the Panay incident, the blows at the proposed Ludlow amendment, the new tone of State Department releases, all make unmistakably clear the direction and meaning of Roosevelt’s international policy.

But his utilization of the war crisis serves not merely the general interests of the future of American imperialism; it serves also and is made to serve Roosevelt’s own interests. The war question is the decisive question. By demanding and getting pledges of national unity on the decisive question (even Landon has telegraphed his pledge of loyalty to Roosevelt’s foreign policy), the strength of the opposition on the other and subsidiary issues is dissipated – just as the British government undermines the Labour Party opposition on internal questions through the Labour Party’s support of the government’s foreign policy. Still further, Roosevelt keeps control of his mass following by explaining the war in the terms of the Popular Frontist conceptions of a crusade against fascism and dictatorship, and for peace and democracy. More and more, the Popular Frontists proper, as the Daily Worker of the last months so eloquently witnesses, become mere appendages of Roosevelt. And, just as the war itself is Roosevelt’s answer to the major crisis of US capitalism, his foundation for America’s future, so does the armaments program aid in the immediate task of alleviating the threatening slump in profits.


There is no political leader in this country at present comparable to Roosevelt. It was for Roosevelt, and not for the Democratic party that the people voted a little more than a year ago. It is in Roosevelt, and not in his party, that the majority still has faith. The Democratic party itself is a strange and complex medley. Its historic origin under Jefferson, its development as the party of the slave-holders, have both little bearing on the contemporary United States. Within its ranks are represented diverse and gravely conflicting interests. Only the crisis and Roosevelt’s leadership have held it together during these past five years. It is almost certain that, within the next three years, it will undergo a major split; there are many indications that Roosevelt is deliberately preparing for a split. The only thing that might prevent the split is the pressure of the war.

In point of fact, the split in the Democratic party did begin in a small way during the 1936 election, with the break by Al Smith, Davis, Raskob, and other prominent party members. During the past year the most bitter fights in Congress have been between fellow-Democrats; for the most part the Republicans have been content to bloc up with the anti-Roosevelt Democrats, and to let the latter take the lead. Such a bloc won the majority against the Court Reorganization Bill; and sent the Wages and Hours Bill back to Committee during the Special Session. It was and is the Democratic Senator, Connally, who has lead the filibuster against the Anti-Lynching Bill; and he has made the debate a violent attack against the loyal Roosevelt Senators. It seems likely that Roosevelt will drive the wedge deeper during this current Session.

In the Republican Party there is a similar division – the division, roughly, between a kind of Americanized Popular Frontist liberals and the more traditional kind of conservatives. In the House of Representatives, especially, the outstanding progressives are Farmer-Labor, Wisconsin Progressive, or Republican, and not Democrats. The New York City mayoralty election, with the Republican LaGuardia receiving the support of most of those who voted a year before for Roosevelt, showed a complication in the same development.

At the same time, a Popular Frontist Labor Party movement is gaining headway. Though this movement represents from the side of the workers, a genuine advance in class consciousness, there is little to distinguish its avowed program or its leaders from the left Republicans or the Roosevelt Democrats.

A re-shuffling is thus in process, the first deal of which should be finished by the time of the 1940 presidential elections. The exact outcome cannot yet be predicted, but the probable general plan is already reasonably clear. On one side will be the Rooseveltians, the left Republicans, the Farmer-Laborites, Progressives, and the Labor Party movement. On the other will be a coalition of the old-line Democrats and the bulk of the Republicans. This division, however, might take any of several organizational forms. Roosevelt will probably retain the majority in the Democratic party. He might sweep into such a “purified” party all of the other forces. But it is more likely that there will be an electoral coalition. The left Republicans may well retain for a while an independent organization. The various Labor Party groups, either on a local scale or nationally, profiting by the example of the American Labor Party in New York, may and probably will keep organizational independence in an effort to hold a balance of power position for bargaining purposes. However, if (as is unlikely) Roosevelt loses the Democratic party, he may well take the initiative in forming a single all-embracing Third Party set-up for the 1940 campaign.

Whatever the alternative, it may be remarked, it is far from excluded that Roosevelt will himself be the presidential candidate. If he retains his health, who is there to take his place? If the war has not already started, it will be close enough to be made the excuse for the abandonment of the no-third-term tradition. No one will be able to claim the right to lead the war with half the justice of Roosevelt.

In any case, we are now witnessing the breakup of the inherited pattern of American politics. American capitalism is coming of age at the same time that capitalism internationally is in its death throes. This paradox promises a rate of change and a scale of struggle never before seen in history. The resulting ferment, the drastic uprooting of fixed ideas and accepted institutions, for the first time offer the revolutionary party in this country a real path of entry to the masses. These next three years may well be decisive for the next decades.




1. This article is the first of several by the same author on current problems of American politics. It will be followed in the next issue by an analysis of the Labor Party movement. – ED.

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