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James Burnham

Their Government

(28 July 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 54, 28 July 1939, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is no doubt that Roosevelt’s blunt “You cannot strike against the government,” with which he accepted full responsibility for the present smashing attack on the unemployed, came as a stunning shock to millions of workers. There would have been no such shock if the same statement had been made, and attitude taken, by, say, Vice-President Garner or Senators Glass or Adams or Representative Woodrum or Republican Senators Taft or Vandenberg.

How can it be that Roosevelt, labor’s dear friend, the Roosevelt of the rosy first years of the Wagner Act and of ever-expanding relief funds, “turns traitor”?

This question is mysterious only when it is not understood exactly who Roosevelt is. If we want to explain why Roosevelt acts as he does, we must forget his flashing smile, his charming radio voice, his sweet promises, and even his personal morality and psychology. Roosevelt, in his public capacity, is the chief executive of the capitalist state, the chairman of the executive committee of United States imperialism. In minor matters he has a little leeway for expressing his personality; but on major issues he has got to fulfill his function.

The requirements of United States imperialism, of the Sixty Families who control that imperialism, imperatively demand a cutting down of social concessions granted to the masses of the people, beginning with relief funds and soon to extend to wage and living standards more generally. In such a situation, Roosevelt has no choice but to obey orders.

The Two-Party System Obscures

Certain peculiarities of the United States Constitution and of the “two-party system” make it harder to see what has happened than would be the case in France or England. In this country, the President is, in fact as well as name, the chief executive of the government. He is, however, elected independently of Congress, and continues to hold office for his full term no matter what his political relation to Congress may be.

In France (as in England), however, the actual chief executive (Premier in France and Prime Minister in England) is a “responsible” officer of the Chamber of Deputies or of Parliament. He is elected not by the people or by an electoral college, but by the Chamber. If the political relations in the Chamber (or Parliament) change sharply, the Premier is compelled to resign (unless a new general-election is called), and a new Premier is appointed, who in turn names a new Cabinet.

Thus, in France or England, a sharp shift to right or left in governmental policy is ordinarily indicated quite plainly by the change of the man who holds the chief executive post, by a different Premier or Prime Minister. At the same time, at least in France, a new “majority”, made up of a different grouping of the numerous parties, is constituted in the Chamber.

The same outward development cannot take place in the same way in the United States. But of course the same fundamental political process nevertheless goes on in the United States as in the other countries.

The New Deal in France

France also had its own kind of New Deal, similar in many key respects to the New Deal in this country. This was administered by Leon Blum as Premier, with his Popular Front majority in the Chamber of Deputies. It lasted for a little less than two years, beginning in the Spring of 1936.

But French imperialism faced the same basic problems as United States imperialism. On the one side, it had to get seriously ready for imperialist war against Germany; on the other, it found that the social concessions made through the Blum government were cutting too deeply into profits, It had to change over from its New Deal to a War Deal, which would be also a deal of social reaction. The political side of this change was accomplished in the early Spring of 1938. A crisis was precipitated in the Chamber of Deputies, and Blum resigned. After a short, interim government, Daladier was made Premier of the War Deal government, which still continues in office. Of course Daladier’s cards were not shown all at once. Indeed, both the Socialist and Communist parties voted in favor of him as Premier. But after a few months came the crises of Munich, the decree laws and the November general strike, and the true character of the Daladier government became clear. At the bidding of his masters, he has been piling up armaments for the war, and at the same time hammering away at the wages, living standards and liberties of the workers. The mystery of Roosevelt, then, is done away with if we realize that there are two Roosevelts: the first a Blum-Roosevelt; the second a Daladier-Roosevelt. Because of the Constitutional set-up in this country, and the two-party system, the same man has had to perform the two functions. In France, the transformation of New Deal into War Deal was shown openly by the shift from Blum to Daladier as Premiers. In this country, Roosevelt has to be both Jekyll and Hyde.

But the first and chief error is, after all, not that of misunderstanding Roosevelt today. It lies in the illusion that any capitalist politician, any capitalist deal – whether New Deal or War Deal, any capitalist government, can function in the interests of the workers and the masses of the people. They are all, in their own way, smiling or grim, left-sounding or right-sounding, at the service, first, last and all the time, of the bosses. They are all the sworn enemies of the workers.

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