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Dwight Macdonald

They, the People

(August 1938)

From New International, Vol.4 No.8, August 1938, pp.248-249.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THIS MONTH I PROPOSE to follow chiefly the conservative columnists: Frank R. Kent, whose The Great Game of Politics is syndicated to 112 papers; David Lawrence (Today in Washington – 100 papers), Mark Sullivan (54 papers) and Arthur Krock, whose column in the New York Times is not syndicated hut has a nationwide influence because so many small town editors take their cue from the Times. The output of this group is on the dull side compared to that of the gloriously confused centrist school of Lippmann-Pegler-Thompson-Johnson, just as integrated personalities are often less interesting than schizoids. Their definitely fixed right-wing position doesn’t allow them the brilliant rationalization, the remarkable intellectual manoeuvres of the centrists. They also labor under the handicap of knowing their field thoroughly – Time long ago demonstrated that amateurs can always write more intriguingly on any subject than experts. Lawrence, still in his early forties, is the editor of the United States Daily, a specialized paper, designed for business men, which reports on the day-by-day course of government in Washington. Kent is a veteran political writer and the author of several excellent books on American politics. Sullivan has been writing on national politics for some forty years. His six volume work, Our Times, a running journalistic chronicle of post-1900 events, is well known. Krock is the head of the Washington bureau of the Times.

These men write with an impersonal weight of authority which, among the centrists, only Lippmann can achieve. On specific issues, what they write is often acute. But they are as confused as any Liberty Leaguer by the broader aspects of contemporary politics. Their blindness is basic: a failure to recognize that the capitalism of the Coolidge era can no longer satisfy the needs of society and that some major modification is necessary. This failure, of course, derives from the fact that to them “the American people” means the handful who have incomes of $5,000 a year or over. This obtuseness may render them highly immoral, from a Popular Front-New Deal viewpoint, but it also renders them highly ineffective.

Trustworthy on details, these columnists are dangerously misleading – from the bourgeois point of view – when it comes to larger issues. Every year their political approach becomes more academic, every year it presents less possibility of solving capitalism’s problems. So long as the bourgeoisie continues to follow tile lead of such writers – and of their counterparts now in control of the Republican party – the danger of fascism is remote. But when the business community turns from Lawrence and Sullivan to Pegler and Johnson, from Hoover and Landon to LaGuardia and the National Progressives, then the threat of fascism will become really serious. Meanwhile, it is safe to predict that the New Deal will remain securely entrenched in power, for all Mark Sullivan’s brave whistling in the dark to the tune of 120 additional Republican seats in the next Congress. It is reactionaries and not conservatives who are to be feared by the Left.

* * *

The impotence of the conservative position is illustrated by Lawrence’s June 27 column, which attacks the New Deal as “an experiment in State Socialism” and which concludes with a call to arms:

“Clean government, moral government, honest elections, complete divorcement of governmental power from any control of the voting system of America furnish issues of public policy and public morality as old as democracy itself. They are the only real issues in the 1938 congressional campaign.”

It is hardly necessary to point out that any candidate rash enough to campaign on such issues would be snowed under – were his opponent Earl Browder himself. The Laurentian approach is unrealistic from both the long and the short range viewpoints. From the long term view, the victory of “clean” and “moral” government would have about as much effect on capitalism’s vast problems as a reorganization of the US Forestry Service. And considered as an immediate political manoeuvre, Lawrence’s slogans are to those of the New Deal as ice water is to straight whiskey.

* * *

There is evidently a double standard of political as well as of sexual morality. The favorite theme of the columnists of the center and right last month was the sinfulness of President Roosevelt’s intervention in the Democratic primaries. But nothing was said about one reason for his intervening: the fact that some of his bitterest Senatorial opponents have not been above claiming his support in their primary battles.

“Most politicians,” writes Krock casually, “find it essential to ... pay lip service to a President of their own party in the campaign, however much they may disagree with his policies.”

This is either a very cynical or a very naïve statement, depending on how highly one rates Mr. Krock’s intelligence.

* * *

Kent and Sullivan vote the straight anti-New Deal ticket, refusing to admit that any good can come out of Nazareth. When Sullivan can’t find anything else to complain about, he writes a column about his pet hate, the AAA –


Kent seems to have a personal grudge against the entire New Deal, and an especially corrosive hatred of the President. Compared to these fire-eaters, Lawrence is sober, realistic, and judicial. Writing exclusively and consciously for business men – who read him for information rather than emotional release – Lawrence doesn’t hesitate to give the New Deal credit when its policies are “sound” – i.e., favorable to business. He admitted the Federal reorganization bill was a wise and necessary measure (though he blamed its failure to pass on Roosevelt for having aroused the “distrust” of Congress!). And while Kent was denouncing the pending monopoly investigation as “calculated demagoguery” and Johnson was fulminating about “a mass production of witch-finding with a St. Bartholomew’s massacre of all business opponents of the New Deal at the end”, Lawrence was predicting that the inquiry would be “reasonable” and “objective” and advising business men to cooperate. Later reports seem to indicate he was right in his appraisal.

But this superior insight applies only to details. Lawrence goes as haywire as any of them on large political issues. Like his colleagues, he is constantly seeing revolution under the bed. His June 20 column began:

“Within the last two weeks something so fundamental has happened in the history of the United States that it is doubtful whether the people generally realizes it ... Government in America has crossed the Rubicon.”

It turns out that he is referring to recent legislation on wages and hours, child labor, and flood control, which he thinks has violated states’ rights. Even allowing for a reasonable degree of journalistic exaggeration, the trump of doom Lawrence sounds is rather absurd. So long as its conservative opponents fight the battles on this juristic plane, the New Deal is in no danger.

“The new concept of government in America,” Lawrence continues, “is that a majority of both houses of Congress may at will disregard the basic rights of the minority, including property rights.”

He predicts that ultimately the masses, with a truly noble disinterestedness, will rise in their wrath and overthrow the New Deal, restoring to the minority its long-lost property rights. (Mr. Lawrence would no doubt object to Marxism as “idealistic”, “visionary”, and “contrary to human nature”.)


“The chief victims of the depression are the least numerous classes of the population.” Arthur Krock, June 17.

“I know of nobody well enough informed to have an opinion who does not believe that, with a fair degree of cooperation between government, labor and management, this depression could be turned the other way immediately.” Hugh Johnson, June 22.

“President Roosevelt’s speech before the National Education Association brought out to the full his great capacity as the articulate spokesman of American democracy. I have in mind the closing portion of his address in which he spoke of the burning of the books.” Heywood Broun, July 2. (EDITOR’S NOTE: President Roosevelt took a strong stand against book-burning.)

“We must have reached the stage in civilization where those of us who are not actually participating in a war can give something toward the help of needy children.” Eleanor Roosevelt, June 24.

“Industrial capital consists of enterprise and the human relations it creates. This, I think, is demonstrably true.” Isabel Paterson, July 13.

“Strictly speaking, poverty is a natural condition.” Isabel Paterson, June 27.

“The Democratic majority in the last Congress did nothing to alleviate the condition of the unemployed except to offer them more Federal funds.” David Lawrence, June 18.

“In all politics and all history, there is much that is fortuitous.” Mark Sullivan, June 16.

“The two rival factions within each party are by no means to be defined glibly by the words ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ but by the words ‘honest’ and ‘dishonest’.” David Lawrence, June 27.

These gentlemen still play on the antiquated pipe of laissez-faire liberalism not because of any moral repugnance to fascism but because the American bourgeoisie doesn’t need fascism yet – or doesn’t think it needs it. But already their thinking has begun to take on a faintly fascist tinge. This is especially noticeable in the crucial field of labor relations. Mark Sullivan, for example, is a plump, pink-cheeked, white-haired old gentleman who wears very high stiff collars, smokes a ruminative pipe, and, personally, is compact of genial benevolence. As nice an old gentleman as you’d care to meet. In his younger days, he was an intimate of Teddy Roosevelt, and he still thinks of himself as a bit of a liberal. All of which hasn’t prevented him from expressing approval of Boss Hague’s tactics. It is worth following his rather involved reasoning to see how the old-fashioned liberal can shade off into the fascist apologist.

“Just what the philosophy of CIO is,” he begins mildly enough, “I do not undertake to define. To attempt it would be to get involved in hairline refinements of what the radicals call ‘ideology’. Mayor Hague says the philosophy of CIO is communism. That is not true of all CIO, perhaps not of most of it. ... But let us confine ourselves to the actions of CIO. One early action was the sit-down strike. The sit-down strike is violence. True, the sit-down is only partial violence, what may be called ‘static violence’.”

He points out two ways of dealing with this “static violence” (a nice “hairline refinement of ideology”, by the way):

  1. “It can be – and of course ought to be – suppressed by the state”;
  2. failing that, vigilantes can do the job. (“Vigilante action,” he handsomely conceded, “is no more lawful than the sit-down strike.”)

“This brings us to Mayor Hague. His case is weaker than it would have been if he were a mayor of Michigan or in some other state. For, as far as we know, the Governor of New Jersey would suppress the violence of the CIO sit-down if and when it occurs.”

Therefore, one might conclude, Mayor Hague was in the wrong. But not at all:

“Mayor Hague did not wait for the actual violence to occur. He acted in advance of the violence ... Possibly some mayors in Michigan and other states wish they had acted in advance, instead of waiting until after the violence had occurred.”

What is this theory of “preventive violence” but a small-scale model of Franco’s “preventive counter-revolution”?


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