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James Burnham

Their Government

(11 August 1939)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. III No. 58, 11 August 1939, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Of all forms of politics, “centrism” is the lowest. Centrism in politics is the equivalent of hypocrisy in personal morality. The centrist, without a firm program or clear perspective of his own, tries to make a career out of playing the left wing against the right. He talks big and acts little. Today he is a radical and tomorrow a conservative. His words never correspond to his deeds.

In confused times, the centrist can for a while make most people, including himself, think he is God Almighty. But, as the lines get drawn more sharply, every centrist meets the same fate: he is first squeezed and then crushed between the right and the left: He squawks and yowls a bit, and then either capitulates or gets thrown into the junkheap. As a matter of fact, he usually ends up in the junkheap even when he capitulates, since both right and left have only contempt for him.

Roosevelt as Centrist

In relation to boss politics generally, and specifically in relation to his own party, Roosevelt is a centrist. He is an outstanding, shrewd and brilliant centrist, true enough, but not all his qualities exempt him from the operation of the general laws of his kind of politics.

Basing himself upon wide mass support among the people, he has tried to raise himself above the factional struggle within the Democratic Party. He has thought that, with the help of Farley and the party’s center, he could mediate between and reconcile the right wing (Garner) and the left (John L. Lewis).

While always serving the interests of the right wing in major matters, for five years most of his speeches and some of his acts were designed to appease the left. In the confusion of 1933-38, this worked well enough; but times have grown harder, the crisis sharper, and the right wing more definite in what it wants, so that the right now demands an end to playing around.

After getting a taste of the right wing whip in the defeat of the Supreme Court expansion plan, the first bill for Executive reorganization, and the failure of the “purge”, Roosevelt – who, like all centrists, is a coward – was willing and anxious to buckle down.

From last November on, he has tried to prove to the right, in action, that he is ready to do their bidding. He began the drive against the unemployed. He set the shamefully low figure for the new WPA appropriation. His man, Harrington, demanded the end of the prevailing wage. He appointed the right-winger, Leiserson, to the Labor Board, and compelled the Board to alter its rules in favor of employers. He revised taxation along the Wall Street lines. He appointed McNutt, the Hoosier Hitler. He announced to the world that “You cannot strike against the government”. He stopped the sniping at the private Utilities.

In other words, Roosevelt abandoned the substance of the New Deal, insofar as the New Deal meant those social concessions to the masses which were the stock-in-trade of the Democratic Party’s reformist left wing.

The Ungrateful Right Wing

Having thus given the right wing virtually all it demanded, having done its dirty work for it (as is the universal custom with centrists), Roosevelt doubtless expected a little gratitude. He must have felt he had the “right” to some party harmony and a few minor face-saving bills to patch up his record with “the people”. He sent along to Congress his fake “spending-lending” bill, which didn’t amount to a pinch of snuff anyway, and a bill for increased authorization for housing loans (though the present authorization is by no means used up by his snail-paced housing program).

But when a right wing gets going, it develops a prodigious appetite. And it delights in humiliating a centrist, as well as defeating him, in order to teach him a few lessons for the future.

Roosevelt’s capitulation, far from pacifying the right wing, only hardened it. The bloc with the Republicans was, in the last weeks of the session, solidified into a working majority, and the President was mercilessly pounded with one sharp blow after another. Not only were all of his proposals thrown out of the window, but the Hatch Bill, planned to weaken his influence on the Party machinery, was thrust down his throat. Roosevelt, cutting the same contemptible figure as all centrists under the same circumstances, could do nothing but sit back impotently; and, in spite of whining complaints to the press, did not have the guts even to veto the Hatch Bill.

Meanwhile the miserable left wing of the Democratic Party, whose whole policy boils down to “put faith in Roosevelt”, tried to cover its own bankruptcy with a rhetorical demonstration: John L. Lewis’ denunciation of Garner.

What’s Left for Roosevelt

The session of Congress just ended has written finis to the New Deal chapter. The New Deal has gone, and no one has the power to summon it back. It went, basically, because its socio-economic function in the United States was finished; and this was reflected by the political collapse of its previous supporters, and the rise to control of its opponents.

If the internal situation were all that had to be taken into account, we could now say that Roosevelt would have finished his important part in U.S. politics and would be on his way out of the picture – except perhaps for window-dressing in the future.

One element of Rooseveltism, however, remains, and this is enough to take precedence, by itself, over all the rest: his war. On the issue of foreign policy and the war, Roosevelt remains the first and authentic spokesman for U.S. imperialism. “The Great Reformer” is as dead as the decaying remnants of the sloppy pseudo-reforms of his New Dealism. What remains politically alive is only the chief War-Monger.

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