Last month saw the 75th anniversary of the inauguration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) as US president. His election took place at a critical moment in the country’s history.
The growing whirlpool of the Great Depression was threatening to rip US capitalism apart. Unemployment rose to 13 million while wages dropped by around 60 percent. The poor lost their savings, jobs and homes.
FDR proposed policies similar to what we today call Keynesianism – favouring a powerful, centralised government that intervenes in markets and plans the economy. His government said it would not stand by and let “market forces” sort out the crisis – it would intervene by spending millions of dollars to kickstart the economy.
A pragmatic politician, FDR touched the heart of the US working class, appealing directly to those whose lives had been shattered by the Great Depression and endorsing “social values more noble than mere monetary profit”.
Roosevelt’s most enduring legacy was the New Deal, which promised to restart the US economy by spending millions on government initiatives.
It also set up programmes to create jobs and introduced a US version of unemployment benefit – or the “dole”, as it was called – after the soup given out on food lines.
Roosevelt’s aim was to save US capitalism by forging an alliance with labour. In 1935 he passed the National Labour Relations Act, which recognised the right of US workers to collective bargaining and to belong to a trade union.
These laws recognised the wave of union organisation taking place in the new industrial sectors that the old craft unions of the American Federation of Labour (AFL) refused to touch.
This wave gave birth to the Congress of Industrial Organisations (CIO) – a new group that organised genuine unions for factory workers employed in industries such as car production.
These workers fought huge battles in cities such as Minneapolis and Flint. New unions such as the Teamsters and the United Auto Workers created a huge wave of strikes.
It is these often victorious struggles that are the most inspiring aspects of the period of the New Deal. But strikes such as these scared the living daylights out of the US ruling classes – and in turn revealed another side to FDR.
Roosevelt was happy to let bosses use their thugs to attack workers who were trying to organise. He licensed government intervention in disputes. This intervention often occurred just as the workers were winning.
The police and National Guard regularly intervened on behalf of the bosses to try and smash the strikes.
With the onset of the 1937 recession, the unions began to retreat. Unemployment rose once more as the Second World War loomed on the horizon. Roosevelt dropped the New Deal and switched to a drive to war.
Welfare programmes were reined in while federal cash went on armaments. The New Deal was now the “War Deal”.
As the writer Art Preis puts it, “The New Deal proved to be a brief, ephemeral period of mild reforms granted under pressure of militant mass action by organised workers.”
Roosevelt’s New Deal also rebranded the Democratic Party. It lost its image as the party of slavery and forged a new political umbrella that was to act as a siren call for much of the left in the US.
In the end the unions became just another machine to deliver votes for the Democrats. The onset of McCarthyism and the Cold War meant the traditions of radical mass organisation were more or less destroyed.
A political vacuum was created on the left just as the great movements of the 1960s were emerging.
This allowed presidents such as John F Kennedy and Lyndon B Johnson to co-opt the movements’ leaderships, promising reforms provided they preach moderation.
This is a process that will occur again if the Democrats win the 2008 presidential elections. It will only be ended when a movement emerges in the US that is not beholden to the myth of the Democratic Party and forges its own radical traditions instead.