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Jack Weber

Roosevelt and the State

(September 1934)

From New International, Vol.1 No.3, September-October 1934, pp.85-87.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE capitalist state throughout its history represents the embodiment of the rule of the bourgeoisie. So long as capitalism exists, the government is endowed with the powers of the state as the executive committee of the big bourgeoisie. But as the system of capitalist exploitation changes, as it undergoes the inevitable development towards ever greater concentration of capital, towards the coalescence of industry into powerful monopolies under the all-pervasive domination of finance capital, as the capitalist nation follows, in short, those iron laws of economic necessity that rule underneath all the anarchy of capitalist production, new demands are made on the national state in accordance with the new needs that have arisen. The present rapid growth in the duties and powers of the state, its “authoritarian” regulation and control of business and industry, did not begin with Roosevelt. But it is rapidly coming to the point where quantity changes to quality, where it is beginning to be clearly recognized that the system of individual capitalism, having given way to monopoly finance capitalism, is taking the form of state capitalism. The implications of this process are manifold in relation to the class struggle and the workers’ movement.

In the United States the transformations that catapulted into power as their final outcome a Mussolini and a Hitler in Europe, commence with Roosevelt under the guise of liberalism. The politics of liberalism are possible during the cataclysm of the general world crisis only because of the political backwardness of the American masses, and only so long as the working class remains politically weak, without a strong, active vanguard party. The moment masses of workers rally to such a party, that moment the capitalists can no longer rule behind the screen of liberal democracy and the big bourgeoisie will have to resort to new forms of state power. But it is hardly sufficient to characterize Roosevelt as a liberal without analyzing the philosophy and mode of operation of liberalism itself.

Liberalism accepts the revisionist view of the state as being above, the classes, acting as mediator and buffer between the classes. The liberals believe, for this reason, in government by “experts” (state bureaucrats) who can act in the interests, the common interests, of all, as against the special interests of any single class or “section” of capitalist society. And since the state is to “hold the arena” for the preservation of “fair play” in the class struggle, the liberals are the upholders of bourgeois democracy. We are not concerned at the moment in exposing the hypocrisy and dishonesty of this entire “philosophy”, in showing the impossibility of reconciling the irreconcilable in which liberalism pretends to be engaged. Accepting the system of capitalist exploitation as socially necessary, the liberals theorize in terms of “bourgeois socialism” which aims to eliminate the “evils” of the capitalist mode of production (that is, its glaringly rotten features). Fundamentally they aim to preserve the capitalist system in its bourgeois democratic form.

To preserve capitalism today, to organize society in the form essential for the support of the conditions underlying the capitalist mode of production as against the encroachments of the workers as well as of individual capitalists, the state is forced to intervene more and more directly and on a greater and greater scale. It was the middle class, including the farmers, that placed Roosevelt in the saddle. But the middle class has no independent policies for the solution of capitalist contradictions. So long as it remains under the illusions of bourgeois democracy, it follows the lead of the big bourgeoisie; its representatives and spokesmen carry out, in properly disguised form, the behests of finance capital. Thus under the auspices of the liberal Roosevelt, the state becomes as never before to the same extent the “ideal personification of the total national capital”. This superstructure of capitalism extends its bureaucratic tentacles throughout the vitals of the body politic. Individual initiative gives way to the functioning of salaried state employees operating as “expert” administrators of industry, regulators of production, dictators over the relations between capital and labor, over hours and conditions of work. This process is far from completion, nor could it be completed under the forms of bourgeois democracy.

The process continues without the volition or willingness of the participants or of the individual capitalists. Roosevelt was far from realizing all the consequences of the program of the NRA. That program was necessitated by an “emergency” but emergencies (crises), are integral parts of social evolution, they are focal points hastening the otherwise normal development of society, but in the same direction. There goes on at present a concerted attack on the NRA by the forces of reactionary capitalism that would like to cancel it out, to wipe it from the slate now that its apparent usefulness has passed. But that is more easily said than done, for the NRA is the first step in the direction that capitalist development must take, towards ever greater concentration of power in the national state – before its downfall and disappearance historically. As Engels pointed out, the capitalists fear nothing so much as this development which yields up ultimately their sacrosanct social functions to a salaried bureaucracy, thereby plainly revealing their utter uselessness and their reactionary role as fetters on the means of production. American capitalism, just as its European counterpart, is forced by the exigencies of the crisis and the need to recover profits, to turn to the state for help despite the fact that the more the state helps, the greater the threat to capitalism, for state concentration of power (state capitalism leading towards possible state ownership) tends to bring the class struggle “to a head”.

The ideology of the New Deal, fundamentally liberal opportunism, is not a clear and fixed set of concepts. But in its operation it finds itself continually and apologetically at variance with reality. Richberg, reporting on the present status of the NRA, shows clearly that the building of the “superstate” commenced by the present regime, is not a matter of volition: “The very thing that we in the administration are trying to do is get away from the superstate. We are trying to decentralize problems by balancing forces. We are letting private initiative handle things.” But if private initiative (private property) could have handled things then there would have been no need for an NRA. Like it or not, Roosevelt is paving the way towards a new form of state power. In the period of upturn, and the aftermath of the crisis, Roosevelt has cast for himself the role of mediator between the classes. To carry out this role, Roosevelt relies in turn on wings of the NRA extending to right and to left, on the class collaborationists in the camp of the bosses and those in the camp of the proletariat, on the Johnsons, Harrimans and Swopes on the one hand, and the Perkinses, Greens and Gormans on the other. The role of mediator is possible only if the economic situation does not force an intensification of class warfare to the breaking point between the classes, only while the wings of class collaboration remain intact and do not crumple up. So long as Johnson can persuade the bosses that they have nothing to fear from the NRA, that they will receive the substance and the workers the shadow; so long as the labor lieutenants of capitalism can save face by misleading the working class in sham battles, Roosevelt can disarm the workers and place on their necks the yoke of arbitration. But this gaining of time for the salvation of capitalism solves nothing and acts in fact under conditions that inexorably drive the workers to fight for existence itself, to set the stage for an ever fiercer struggle on a widening arena. Deeper strata of the working class become involved in the conflict and the strikes of whole industries take on the elemental character of natural forces.

The strikes themselves tend to aggravate the economic situation and the instability of capitalism. They therefore stand more and more in the way of Roosevelt’s plans to “force” recovery; strikes become more and more anathema to the bureaucrats who want to balance forces and regulate business for profits. For the working class the strikes above all else act as political lessons, revealing the true nature of Roosevelt and the NRA as well as that of the supporters of class collaboration in the trade union ranks. Thus the NRA itself becomes a precipitant aiding to crystallize out the two major forces striving for power in capitalist society. This crystallization, this molecular process of cleavage, is an indication that the proletariat is learning to rely for the solution of its problems on its own militant action. Once that lesson is learned, the whole system of mediation is challenged, and this in turn becomes a challenge to the capitalist state. Sooner or later Roosevelt, personifying this state, may be compelled to resort to the use of military force to break the resistance of the strikers to the plan of capitalism to solve its problems by loading all the burdens on the backs of the workers. In relation to the capitalists, the NRA is the exercize of the police powers of the state in the interests of the entire class; in relation to the workers the NRA will then become the use of the state’s military force to impose the will of the capitalists. Roosevelt and his Secretary of War, Dern, fear the necessity of resorting to martial law and Federal troops because that will mean the end of class collaboration. The class struggle going on underneath the NRA, will then have remorselessly superseded it and will take its own irresistible course. Roosevelt’s balancing of forces, his attempt to achieve social equilibrium, is doomed to give way to a more deadly use of the state apparatus of repression.

Liberal politics operates within the framework of bourgeois democracy; and bourgeois democracy is a deceptive screen which hides the real relation of forces in capitalist society. This cover or screen will be torn aside when the workers take the road of revolutionary struggle. The mounting wave of strike struggles is the prelude to more militant action, possibly to the revolutionary storm. In this period, when capitalism is forced to support millions of workers and of the middle class instead of the workers and the oppressed petty bourgeoisie supporting and maintaining the capitalists, the big bourgeoisie is undergoing a slow but steady process of weakening by the defection of the middle class. Wide strata of the petty bourgeoisie feel their normal ties with the big bourgeoisie broken. Large sections could be won over to the support of an independent communist party pursuing a correct revolutionary policy, but no such party now exists. Hence desperate elements of the middle class allied with the lumpenproletariat turn for a “solution” of their uprooted situation to Fascism.

Elements and tendencies that advocate extreme measures of force and violence to suppress the trade unions and working class parties, to get rid of bourgeois democracy as well as working class democracy, exist in capitalist society at all times. But normally these elements, these roots of Fascism are held in check by the inter-relationship of class forces. The most reactionary wing of the capitalist class is ready at all times to wage relentless war on the oppressed toilers who dare to fight for better conditions and a greater share of capitalist income. This wing demands the immediate use of the police and military force of the state to put down the rebellious workers. Generally such repressions remain localized and are of short duration. It is only when the struggle begins to take on major proportions, only when it engrosses the entire nation, that the extremists of capitalist reaction gain a wider hearing in their own class. And it is only under conditions of crisis that pauperize and render desperate the middle class that the Fascist tendencies inherent at all times in capitalist society can seek mass support and make a bid for state power. It is in serious sectional conflicts that the Fascist forces begin to recruit and organize before they can close their ranks on a national scale. And it is therefore in these sectional conflicts, already occurring in the United States, that the working class must smash and crush the incipient Fascism by united action.

Let the working class take matters more and more into its own hands – and the whole situation impels it on this path – and Roosevelt, like Bruning in Germany, will be compelled to tolerate the Fascists and even to patronize them, since his main task is to save capitalism. Just as the liberal Wilson, faced with Bolshevism in Europe, was pushed in the World War into the closest alliance with European reaction, so Roosevelt and the liberals, in the national class struggle, will be forced by the threat of proletarian victory, into the camp of reaction.

One cannot predict in advance the stages of the struggles ahead. But it is clear that Roosevelt’s program is building up a stronger and more powerful state structure. This apparatus is designed to meet the needs of capitalist imperialism at home and abroad. The same strengthened military forces being expanded for the purposes of the imperialist war, will also be useful in the suppression of working class resistance at home. The imperialist war is merely the external manifestation of the class struggle. With the trend towards the superstate, it is no accident that military figures, generals, colonels, majors, are found located in strategic positions in industry and politics. For the state will be called upon to exert its police and military powers to a greater and greater degree.

When the state intervenes in the class struggle by the use of its military-police forces to act as “mediator” between the classes, the state appearing, because of the balance of class forces, to be independent of classes, it has taken on the character of Bonapartism, The executive wielding the power of such a state becomes Bonapartist. This stage has not been reached yet in America. Roosevelt is neither Bonapartist nor Fascist. Bonapartism does not and cannot decide the issues of the class struggle, it cuts no Gordian knots. But it precedes, if developments follow the German rather than the Polish sequence, the decisive clash that brings either proletarian victory or the catastrophe of Fascism. By his contribution in building up the state along the lines needed to salvage capitalism in decay, the liberal Roosevelt is paving the way toward Bonapartism. He is giving a Bonapartist tinge to the state. Unless there comes a decisive change in the current of events, – something that we do not visualize at this stage of development – we may look forward to the increasing use of the state’s power for repression.

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