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Dwight Macdonald

They, the People

(September 1938)

From New International, Vol.4 No.9, September 1938, pp.271-273.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE CHIEF IMPRESSION one gets from this month’s columnists is that it is a complicated world we live in – and getting more so every day. As the crisis of capitalist democracy sharpens, the clash of economic interests, the conflict of social classes and their ideologies become more and more confused. Consider the case of Boake Carter, who has just lost his job as news commentator on the General Foods radio program. The liberal columnist Dorothy Dunbar Bromley thinks there was dirty work involved and asks for an investigation. For this, she is violently abused by her fellow liberal columnist, Heywood Broun. The angles in the Carter affair are enough to give one a headache. Carter is a virulent critic of both the CIO and the New Deal. This pleases Colby M. Chester, president of General Foods and former president of the National Association of Manufacturers. But one of the directors of General Foods and owner of 12% of its common stock is Marjorie Post Hutton Davies, who is also the wife of Joseph Davies, 100% New Dealer and recently ambassador to the Soviet Union. There is evidence that the Davieses brought New Deal pressure to bear on President Chester to let Carter’s contract lapse. So far, a clean-cut victory for righteousness. But Boake Carter, for reasons not clear, is also a critic of collective security, a Big Navy, and the Administration’s imperialistic foreign policy, and the reactionary State Department is supposed to have played a big part in forcing him off the air. The line-up is thus: on one side, the State Department, a large section of liberal and labor opinion, Marjorie Post Hutton Davies, and the Communist Party; on the other, President Chester, the National Association of Manufacturers, and another large section of liberal and labor opinion which opposes a new war to make the world safe for democracy.

* * *

Nowhere has confusion been worse confounded than in the current Democratic primaries. Here the contradictions of the New Deal have emerged with tragic – or comic – effect. Last winter the liberals were hoping – and therefore, as is their custom, predicting – that Roosevelt would create a New Deal party, sloughing off the right wing of the Democratic Party and adding progressive Republicans like Norris and LaFollette. The battle lines between the Forces of Good and the Forces of Evil would thus be clearly drawn, and the New Deal could really get somewhere. The liberals forgot – also as is their custom – that it is the essence of Roosevelt’s strategy that the battle lines not be drawn sharply and that the New Deal progress in ever more grandiose circles. The primaries ought to dispel any illusions on the subject. The President’s much-advertised “purge” – except in such cases of pressing political necessity as Senators George and Tydings and Representative O’Connor – has boiled down to a matter of Roosevelt’s punishing his “enemies” within the party by referring to them as “my friend” instead of “my dear friend”. The Battle of Armageddon has turned out to be a routine political manoeuvre. Far from being clarified, this political meaning of the New Deal has been increasingly obscured. In California, the President is backing McAdoo, a Baruch Democrat who opposed his nomination in 1932, against a liberal EPIC leader who backed his nomination in 1932. In Tennessee, the conservative Senator McKellar and the notorious Ed Crump, immemorial boss of Memphis, successfully defended the New Deal against the onslaught of Senator Berry, head of the printing pressmen’s union and formerly president of Labor’s Non-Partisan League. In Pennsylvania the CIO fights it out with New Deal Governor Earle, each supported by a group of disreputable old-line politicians. In Idaho a conservative Democrat beats out a New Dealer with the help of votes from the state’s Republicans – and from the Townsendites. And in New Jersey, the New Deal has joined hands with Mayor Hague’s political machine to nominate for senator the state’s WPA administrator, W.H.J. Ely. Battles like these, meaningless except in terms of immediate power politics, have, been going on all over the country. It is a discouraging summer for liberals. The columnists have labored heroically to “interpret” these mighty struggles of Tweedledee versus Tweedledum. Mark Sullivan rejoices over another victory for the forces of sanity in the morning, and Jay Franklin announces another smashing defeat for Bourbonism in the evening. Confusion reached a climax when O’Daniel won the Democratic nomination for Governor of Texas on a platform of hillbilly music, the Ten Commandments, and old age pensions. Sullivan explained that O’Daniel was a big flour manufacturer and a past president of the Dallas Chamber of Commerce, in a column headed:


But the same event seemed to Jay Franklin a defeat of the conservative Garner state machine by a candidate who spoke the language of “The People”. He suggested it would be well “to put the Roosevelt brand on the O’Daniel candidacy”. Franklin, by the way, seems to have a weakness for hillbilly demagogues – cf. his often expressed admiration for the late Huey Long.

* * *

As befits the political wiseacre of the country’s most authoritative newspapers, the NY Times, Arthur Krock never forgets his dignity. His tone is dispassionate, urbane, judicial. At most he permits himself such phrases as “the serpentine and furtive course pursued by the Administration politicians in the Democratic primaries”. In a dignified way, he has been carrying on a campaign to amend the Wagner Act. He points out that now that the Supreme Court has sustained the Act, “the only corrective lies in the legislative process”. Translated into plainer language, this means that in the short space of a year, Congress and the Supreme Court have changed roles in the melodrama which the press daily sets in motion: Congress is now the wavy-haired hero who is looked to as the rescuer of the lovely Miss American Way from the immoral embraces of a liberalized Supreme Court. So we find Krock urging Senator Wagner to keep his splendid liberal record unsmirched by running for reelection this fall on a platform promising – revision of the Wagner Act.

Sullivan and Kent plume themselves on their profound knowledge of the political game. “Amateur politicians!” is Kent’s contemptuous description of Roosevelt’s liberal advisers. Not the least cause of these gentlemen’s irritation with the New Deal is that, by all their rules, it should have been swept out of office years ago. Yet it persists in flourishing. They view Roosevelt much as the British rowing experts look on Mr. Burk, the New Jersey farmer who recently won the Henley regatta in record time although he violated every principle of rowing form.


“Better wages, better sanitation, and better education will add much to the standard of living of the people as a whole.” Eleanor Roosevelt, July 27.

“I may be an idealist, but I feel that Mr. Landon belongs far more in the Roosevelt camp than he does in the present GOP, and I should like to see the President offer responsible and patriotic employment to the man he defeated in 1936 ... Perhaps Mr. Landon could serve on the National Labor Relations Board.” Jay Franklin, August 10.

“President Cardenas is an Indian, and Indian Communism ... is a very different thing from Marxian Communism. I am reliably informed that Trotsky, who is in Mexico, doesn’t regard Mr. Cardenas as a Communist at all.” Hugh Johnson, August 16.

“Though the moral condition of Europe has become progressively degraded, there is no reason to think that things are yet so bad that the honor of Great Britain, when clearly and decisively engaged, is of no account.” Walter Lippmann, July 28, apropos of the Runciman Mission to sell out the Czechs to Hitler.

“Excessive migration to the cities is one of the causes of the commotion through which the country is passing. Mark Sullivan, July 19.

“No government in our history ever had the degree of cooperation from business that was given Mr. Roosevelt in 1930. He simply asked over the radio one night for a voluntary maximum hours and minimum wages schedule and the abolition of child labor. He got it to the tune of nearly 3,000,000 jobs within the week.” Hugh Johnson, July 26.

“It is a fact insufficiently perceived that a vote for prosperity is a vote for depression because it concedes the government the power to dictate the economic life of the nation.” Isabel Paterson, July 27.

Among the liberal columnists, by far the best job is being done by a newcomer: Dorothy Dunbar Bromley, who several months ago left the Woman’s Page of the NY World-Telegram to do a column of general news comment for the NY Post. While Franklin is explaining why Senator Gulch of Arkansas is a staunch New Dealer despite his participation in a recent lynching, and Broun is being whimsical about the class struggle at the Miami race track, Bromley takes up such serious themes as the working conditions of servants, the union-smashing campaign of certain big New York hospitals, the AMA fight on socialized medicine (pointing out, by the way, that a bigger percentage of mothers die in childbirth in this country than in any other civilized nation), and the sub rosa loans which the government’s Export-Import Bank has been making to various South American dictatorships. This sort of muckraking should be part of every left-wing columnist’s job. Bromley is also distinguished among her liberal colleagues by the possession of both courage and intellectual honesty. She is critical of Stalinism both in the USSR and the USA – and says so. She thinks the American Labor Party has prostituted itself in its deal with the Republicans in New York – and says so. Recently she put comrade Broun and the League for Peace & You-know in a neat hole by asking the simple question: if you are such believers in democracy, why aren’t you willing to let the people decide about collective security for themselves through the Ludlow Amendment?

To date, both parties have ignored the question.

* * *

When Dorothy Thompson went on vacation early this summer, the editors of the NY Herald-Tribune turned her space over to Isabel Paterson. Miss Paterson is a lady book reviewer who used to conduct a literary chitchat department in the book section. On the strength of this background, she is now telling the world her views on price-fixing, monopoly, taxation, wartime conscription, and the “real” nature of capitalism. Her prose is even more exclamatory than her predecessor’s, her store of worldly knowledge even slighter. Her stuff, in fact, represents the all-time nadir of the Thompson-Pegler-Johnson “home talent” school of poltical columnism. The incoherence of her style and viewpoint is only equalled by the dogmatism with which she lays down the law.

“INDUSTRY WARNED WAGE SLASHES MUST BE PREVENTED AT ALL COSTS: Isabel Paterson Says Existing Scales Are Certainly Not Too High to Live On, and Can Be Kept Up if ‘Waste and Political Grab’ Are Ended.”

And that is that. Miss Paterson has had her Big Moments. The President mentioned her column in a recent press conference. “He laughingly remarked that she seemed to be for monopoly,” the papers reported. The next day, Miss Paterson, obviously thrilled to the marrow, wrote a column explaining to the President that no, indeed, she was not for monopoly, but.... Her train of thought, too involved to follow here, was headlined:


The question seems well-nigh unanswerable.

But the really Big Moment came when she refuted both Adam Smith and Karl Marx in a single column. “ALL TALK GLIBLY ABOUT ‘CAPITAL’ – BUT WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN?” ran the head:

“Isabel Paterson Says Both Adam Smith and Marx May Be Wrong: Wealth Isn’t Just Machinery, but Relationships That Make It Function.”

It seems that in Marx’s time, machinery was more durable both as to wear and obsolescence than it is today. Miss Paterson graphically demonstrates this by referring to an ancient sewing machine she owns –

“If I don’t set a stitch for a year, it runs well enough when I start it again. I don’t know when it was last oiled.”

On the other hand, “if a motor car of recent make were left in the garage for an equal period, it would be long past use.” Therefore:

“In Marx’s time, it was natural to think of industrial capital as something essentially physical, fairly durable, and capable of being seized and taken over for the benefit of a new political system.”

Modern capitalism, however, is dynamic – imagine! – and its essence lies not in the physical machinery but in the social forms under which production is organized. Hence, revolution is impossible – as simple as that. We may shortly expect Miss Paterson to discover that capitalism produces wars – a fact Marx unfortunately was born too early to understand.

The late Arthur Brisbane’s columnar style has been compared to the conversation of two traveling men, relaxing in a saloon after a hard day on the road. (The asterisks Brisbane used so liberally would correspond to pauses to spit on the sawdust floor.) Miss Paterson reminds one of a schoolmistress, maidenly and severe. She raps backward pupils sharply over the knuckles with her ruler, she scribbles her simple texts vigorously on the blackboard. That dunce, Frankie Roosevelt, gives her much trouble. A recent column bore the blunt headline:


“The spendthrift cannot be convinced or reformed,” concluded Miss Paterson primly. “The only recourse is to avoid him.” Sometimes she loses all patience with the class, as when she recently burst out, “What is the matter with Europe, anyhow?” The odd thing about this school is that the teacher seems to be educating herself as she goes along. Miss Paterson’s columns are so much thinking-out-loud inflicted on the public. It would be interesting to know – as a rough index of the political sophistication of the big bourgeoisie – how seriously the readers of the Tribune take her stuff.

Suggested item for the Tribune’s Agony Column:


* * *

The Collective security boys found deep, though conflicting significance in the Hughes round-the-world flight. Heywood Broun pronounced it “a victory for democracy”. Jay Franklin, equally delighted, wrote:

“It won’t be long now before our Atlantic Coast will be as exposed to European raiders as are the coasts of England today.”


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