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Dwight Macdonald

Sparks in the News

The Stalinists Discover Who Roosevelt Is

(21 January 1940)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. IV No. 3, 21 January 1940, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Jekyll into Hyde

In the past year, President Roosevelt has openly put himself at the head of the reactionary crusade to cut down relief and reintroduce Hoover starvation for the unemployed. (Hoover gave them breadlines and played with the idea of processing and sterilizing garbage for use by the nation’s jobless. Roosevelt gives them surplus commodities – and they have to dig out their own garbage, unprocessed and unsterilized.)

This has provoked a great wailing and gnashing of teeth among Roosevelt’s friends or ex-friends in the labor movement. Since his budget message, advocating drastic WPA cuts, there has begun in some quarters a campaign to put across the fairy tale that Roosevelt has only now “yielded” to reactionary pressure on relief, that up to 1939, he was the peerless champion of the unemployed. This line is now being peddled in the Daily Worker and the CIO News. It is an attempt to get out from under. These papers now claim the Roosevelt they so loyally supported for so long was a different fellow entirely from the Roosevelt of today. The good Dr. Jekyll has suddenly changed into the wicked Mr. Hyde.

Nothing Left but the Smile

Today’s paper brings a report of the convention of the New York state Workers Alliance. The Alliance has now become very critical of Roosevelt, for reasons which have nothing to do with the interests of the unemployed but a great deal to do with the interests of Stalin – and Hitler. “There has been a drastic change in the policies of President Roosevelt in the past year,” reported the Alliance bureaucrats, and they led the convention in singing a song which began:

There was a man named Roosevelt
Began to do what the people felt;
The New Deal came and stayed a while,
But all that’s left is Roosevelt’s smile.

Especially disillusioned by Roosevelt’s recent actions was Herbert Benjamin, the Stalinist secretary of the Alliance. “WPA is not what she used to be,” he said sadly. As for Roosevelt – “His beautiful phrases of yesterday ring hollow today.”

A Glance at the Record

Let’s look at the record as to Roosevelt and relief. When did he begin his campaign against the unemployed ? I told the story in great detail in the September 1939 issue of the New International, but a few of the basic facts may well be repeated here.

  1. The only time in the entire history of the Roosevelt Administration that its relief program came anywhere near providing for all the unemployed was during the four months of November through February, 1933–1934, when the Civil Works Administration works program gave jobs to some 4,000,000 of the 8,000,000 then unemployed, while Federal grants-in-aid to the states took care of most of the rest. (MOST, by no means all.)
  2. Roosevelt has been for years trying to cut Federal relief expenditures. Opening shot in the campaign was fired not in his budget message of a few weeks ago, but in the one he sent to Congress on January 4, 1935. This proposed that Federal relief aid to the states be discontinued and that the Government limit itself to WPA work relief. This new program was laid down at a joint meeting of the National Industrial Conference Board and the National Association of Manufacturers. The keynote of this 1935 relief message was the flat statement by Roosevelt: ‘‘The Federal Government must and shall quit this business of relief.”
  3. In theory, WPA was to provide jobs for all able-bodied unemployed. In practice, it has never provided more than 3,500,000 jobs, while the total number of such unemployed has varied between 8,000,000 and 12,000,000. At no time has WPA provided jobs for more than a third of the ABLE-BODIED, EMPLOYABLE unemployed. This means that the great majority of the employables and ALL the unemployables have been left to the mercies of the states and localities – where relief standards are only from half to a TENTH of even the very low WPA wage rates. The recent breakdown of relief in Cleveland was as much due to Roosevelt’s policies as to the brutal inhumanity of the Republican Governor of Ohio.
  4. There has been a lot of pious moaning about Roosevelt’s insistence on cutting the union wage scale out of WPA last summer, and his vicious smashing of the strike that resulted. Actually, it was merely a repeat performance. The first event in the history of WPA, in the summer of 1935, was a now forgotten strike against Roosevelt’s insistence on eliminating union wage rates from the newborn WPA. At that time, too, he issued “You can’t strike against the government!” statements, and did his best to cut strikers off all relief rolls, Federal or local. He lost out that time because the union movement was too strong for him. But he waited his chance and last summer, when labor was already in retreat, he struck his blow again – this time successfully.
  5. Finally, it is interesting to note that as early as October 23, 1935, Roosevelt was “disappointing” his left-wing admirers. The Nation of that date lamented: “The fine social consciousness which characterized the early days of the New Deal appears to have faded.” Alas!

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