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Dwight Macdonald

Reading from Left To Right

(May 1939)

From New International, Vol. V No. 5, May 1939, pp. 153–155.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Descent into the Maelstrom

For months now the vessel of world capitalism has been in the situation of that ship described by Edgar Allen Poe which was sucked down, slowly and inexorably, into the maelstrom.

“The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth ... Round and round we swept—not with any uniform movement—but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred yards, sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward at each revolution was slow but very perceptible ... The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf, but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped ... This mist or spray was no doubt occasioned by the clashing of the great walls of the funnel as they all met together at the bottom, but the yell that went up to Heaven from out of that mist I dare not attempt to describe.”

As Poe’s sailor lay on the slanting deck of his ship and looked down with horror into the chaos he was gradually nearing, so the peoples of Europe and America watch their social system slide downward to war. The sailor escaped death by a simple strategem, but no tricks will save us. No one doubts that if war doesn’t come this month, it will come next month, and if not next month, next year. There have been war crises before in this country, but they have always been resolved one way or the other within a relatively short time. The present crisis, however, has been going on for an unheard-of period, and by now the tension has become almost unbearable. Day after day the thing drags on, generating ever-increasing pressures which are deforming all social and political forms. As the pressure slowly mounts, people are coming to accept war as not only inevitable but as the normal social function of the state, as the understood end towards which all social activity is directed. In “normal” periods of capitalism, war is popularly regarded as a regrettable accident which interrupts the march of progress. Today, war has become the supreme reality and meaning of the whole system: the only questions asked are, “When?” and “Where?” And as the crisis drags itself out, our responses to each day’s scare headlines become exhausted, our sensibilities become blunted. We understand Macbeth’s speech at the end of the play:

“The time has been, my senses would have cool’d
To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair
Would at a dismal treatise rouse, and stir,
As life were in’t. I have supp’d full with horrors:
Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,
Cannot once start me.”

The President’s Private World

A striking example of the effect of the interminable war crisis is the political deterioration of the New Deal. It is not simply a matter of the President abandoning his reformist program and seeking peace with business: that turn was inevitable. It is a matter of the New Deal program, never too firmly anchored to realities, floating entirely free from the actual world into a cloud cuckoo land of its own. Until recently I was inclined to dismiss as Republican canards those stories about the President bursting into peals of maniacal laughter in the midst of a startled and shocked press conference. Nor do I, speaking seriously, swallow them today. But there is certainly something peculiar about the tone of recent White House utterances. While not actually bereft of his senses, the President does appear to be more and more living in his own private world.

On the front page of today’s Times, for example, are three separate news stories, two of them with three-column heads. In each of them, the President is the principal actor. The first states that the Times’ Washington correspondent has just discovered that some months ago, the President invited Mussolini to board a warship and steam out to meet him somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean and talk things over. Il Duce was also requested to invite Hitler to get on a warship and meet at the appointed meridians of latitude and longitude.

“The President’s purpose was to learn from the dictators at first hand their minimum terms for pledging lasting peace, and, if he found them practicable, to offer his services as intermediary.”

American liberal statesmen have always held the illusion that the conflicts of capitalist interests could all be peacefully adjusted by a few people talking things over, but not even Wilson’s exploits at the Peace Conference can match this scheme of the President. Hitler and Mussolini, it is hardly necessary to add, did not keep the tryst.

The second news story began,

“President Roosevelt challenged the nation today to end ‘an unfounded prejudice based on age alone’, which he said, was preventing men past forty from sharing with other age groups in revival of employment, and urged all employers to determine whether middle-aged workers were receiving a ‘fair opportunity to qualify for jobs’.”

This represents his attempt to grapple with one of the great social problems today. But let it not be thought the President failed to implement his words with action. He proclaimed, over the Great Seal of the US, that Sunday, April 30, should be known as “Employment Sunday” and the following week as “Employment Week”. One pictures industrialists retiring to their studies on “Employment Sunday” to mull over the President’s proclamation, following this period of quiet thought with “Employment Week”, six—or rather, five — days of busy planning with their aides as to how to take on more workers over forty. The opening sentences of the President’s proclamation must have caused them to knit their brows in earnest:

“As industry and business make substantial progress towards recovery, there are ever-increasing employment opportunities for all groups.”

From this, it follows logically that the older worker can and should be given his fair share of these new jobs. Yet, actually, the older worker is being laid off wholesale. It would seem that this returning prosperity and increasing employment exist only in the same private dream world which produced this amazing state paper.

The third and most important news story was headlined: “PRESIDENT ASKS $1,750,000,000 FOR THE 1940 RELIEF PROGRAM.” In the current fiscal year (which ends July 1) relief appropriations have totalled $2,250,000,000 and an average of 3,000,000 persons have been employed on WPA. Next year, the President proposes to cut down the appropriation by one-third, and to reduce the WPA rolls to 2,000,000.

“The sums asked,” reports the Times, “produced little unfavorable reaction in Congress.”

The sham battle between the White House and Congress over relief has now ended in the former’s going over completely to the “enemy” camp. And how does the President justify his proposal to cut off 1,000,000 American citizens from relief? In the entire message, whose text takes up four full newspaper columns, I can find just one sentence of explanation:

“Barring unforeseen and unpredictable developments, we are justified in expecting an upward trend in the volume of employment between now and June 30, 1940, and the sum just named represents my judgment as to the amount that should be provided on the basis of that expectation.”

The President does not give the data by which he arrived at this conclusion. Certainly, the dry, humdrum, everyday figures of carloadings and steel tonnage and employment totals which are to be found in the financial pages of the papers don’t bear him out.

But as one reads his message, one realizes that the President apparently doesn’t think he is cutting relief. With a noble humanitarian scorn he writes:

“When those who talk glibly or without information about cutting down the cost of relief are pinned down to the facts, they are obliged to admit that they can offer only two alternative plans: to cut down the number of needy persons receiving relief or to cut down the per capita work payments.”

To the ordinary, earthbound observer, it would seem that to propose reducing the WPA rolls by one-third would be “to cut down the number of needy persons receiving relief”.

But this is cloud cuckoo land, where the head of the most powerful capitalist state in the world proposes to solve the problems of war and unemployment by proposing, respectively, a meeting of three men in the middle of the Atlantic and the proclamation of “National Employment Week”. If the President acts thus, it is not because there is some malign streak of insanity in his make-up. It is simply because these last few months have subjected the whole structure of bourgeois society to such unheard-of strains that all statesmen unfortunate enough to be in power at this time are acting like lunatics.

The Monopoly Committee (Continued)

The present Congress is one of the most reactionary in our history. It has voted funds to continue the Dies Committee, and it has killed off the LaFollette Committee just as the whole story of the most threatening quasi-fascist group in the country, the Associated Farmers out on the West coast, was about to be spread on the committee’s records. It seems to me, therefore, of some significance that this Congress several weeks ago voted, without even a formal debate, the full $600,000 which the Monopoly Committee asked for its next year’s work. Clearly, the Monopoly Committee is considered “safe” on Capitol Hill.

Since the last New International went to press, the strategy of the Monopoly Committee has emerged with unmistakable clarity. This strategy is, roughly, to offset the solid concession’s it makes to big business with piously phrased professions of goodwill towards little business. Thus on April 4, the papers carried a story: “NEW DEAL MAPS AID TO SMALL BUSINESS,” which announced that the SEC, the Monopoly Committee, and the Junior Chamber of Commerce (composed of small business firms) were working together on a survey “to get the facts behind all the talk about small business enterprises not being able to get adequate capital and to provide for the small business unit the kind of research and economic advisory services which big business provides for itself.” Douglas, Frank, and Hopkins are all mixed up in this scheme, whose beauty is that it sounds fine and doesn’t actually mean anything at all. To finance a research bureau to serve the hundreds of thousands of small business enterprises throughout the land, Messrs. Frank and Douglas propose a governmental appropriation of $2,000,000 or $3,000,000, which is less than a single great corporation like US Steel or General Electric spends annually on industrial research. And as for federal loans to small businesses, the more the government pours into such enterprises, the bigger the pool of capital to be annexed by the great corporations when they get around to it. Not lack of financing but ruthless competition from big business is behind the rapid expropriation of small capital in this country. It would be insulting to the intelligence of Messrs. Douglas and Frank to suggest that they don’t know this perfectly well.

Six days later, on April 10, the tactical meaning of this gesture came out. That morning the Times carried a frontpage story headlined: “SENATE COMMITTEE INVITES BUSINESS TO TELL GRIEVANCES.” According to Chairman O’Mahoney, the hearings conducted to date by the Monopoly Committee represent the more aggressive and inquisitorial phase of the Committee’s work—the real old-fashioned trust-busting stuff. Now, the Chairman announced, business is to have “its turn”: the Committee is opening up “a new phase of its duties, particularly designed to afford business and industry an opportunity, in cooperation with the Committee, to present its own story of the nation’s economic problems”. The witness stand will now be turned over to all business groups which request it. There is no restriction on the kind of testimony, which may include “criticism of existing governmental ... policies”. So now, after three months of the most timid and innocuous sort of hearings, the Committee is offering itself as a sounding board for business propaganda. At once, the oil and the milk industries requested—and were granted—the use of the Committee’s witness stand. It is probably merely a coincidence that both these industries have recently been in difficulties with the Attorney General’s office over a little matter of anti-trust law violation. And so we shall soon have the comic spectacle of Assistant Attorney General Thurman Arnold prosecuting Sherman Law violators in the morning and listening in the afternoon to the same gentlemen lecture him and his colleagues on the iniquities of the Sherman Law.

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