The myth promulgated by sections of the left and right is that there was once a time when the Democrats fought for workers, the poor and Black people. That FDR, JFK and LBJ—evidently, true liberal Democrats are scions of elites incapable of packing enough punch with just two names—stood up for the little people against the titans and all of U.S. society is better for it.
Every last one of us was raised on this myth, myself included. But then I met socialists and was introduced to books about theory and history that blew this phantasm away.
Since readers tend to prefer pithy blog posts to lengthy tomes, I’ll pick apart just one aspect of this tempting tale in the hopes of not depressing the hell out of you, but of promoting a more historically accurate potential for our post–Nov. 2 dilemma.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s platform in 1932 called for balancing the budget and cutting federal spending by 25 percent, which meant “the removal of government from all fields of private enterprise.” Hmm, that sounds familiar.
Many non-socialist historians, such as David Brody, contend that FDR’s National Recovery Act (NRA) had nothing to do with making a clean break from Republican Herbert Hoover’s pro-business policies. Far from it. FDR sought greater collaboration between business and government through the NRA, but the law of unintended consequences intervened.
By inserting a rather innocuous sounding Section 7 (a) into one of his pieces of legislation—FDR inadvertently opened the way for union organizing. However, and this is a big one, he and the Dems acted at every turn, often violently, to stop workers from actually mobilizing themselves into unions. Here’s how one historian, cited in Sharon Smith’s magnificent Subterranean Fire, summed it up:
In both the South and New England, the United Textile Workers’ strike taught mill workers to distrust the Democratic Party, whose representatives had fought the strike. The Massachusetts Committee for a Labor Partydeclared in March 1936, “The New Deal was supposed to give us the right to organize. Yet when the textile workers went on strike in 1934for recognition of their union and to stop speed-up, Democratic governors in 12 states called out the militia to drive the workers back to work and break the strike. In fact, 14 workers were killed by militia called out by Democratic governors.
Employers’ and Democrats’ open hostility to workers’ organizing efforts led many to refer to the NRA, a key plank of the New Deal, as the “National Run Around.” Because FDR appeased the Southern segregationist wing of his party, the NRA actually legalized racial discrimination throughout industry leading many Blacks to refer to it as the “Negro Removal Act,” “Negroes Ruined Again,” or “Negroes Robbed Again.”
In fact, the entire Depression Decade is littered with examples of treacherous behavior by FDR, who lived up to his self-pronouncement as “the best friend the profit system ever had.” It was the militant and often illegal actions of American workers, with organized socialists, communists and anarchists in the lead, that transformed U.S. society and delivered massive gains like Social Security, better wages, interracial unions, etc.
FDR’s pro-labor and anti-corporate legacy actually dates to his 1936 campaign pronouncements when Corporate America was bolting from the Democrats as a result of the mammoth general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco led by red workers. It was FDR’s inability to contain labor unrest that compelled him to take a more pro-labor stance, declaring of business, “I welcome their hatred,” when they had already deserted him and FDR desperately needed labor’s vote.
The massive discontent that year even led to a unanimous vote at the 1936 UAW convention to support a national farmer-labor party and reject Roosevelt and the Dems. It was a time when a real left break from the Democrats was possible and the creation of a genuinely independent labor party was in the offing.
Sections of the left, centrally the Communist Party—which to this day supports the Democrats—engineered the biannual trudge to the polls to vote for a party that consistently disappoints the hopes of working and poor people under the banner of lesser-evilism.
If in fact the Republicans do retake at least one house of Congress next Tuesday we will be treated to all manner of eulogies about how the greatest hope for change is over. I don’t deny the horrendous political circumstances ahead, but my point here is that the Dems never were our saviors.
As times toughen, we need to shed the myths of the past and get on with the real task of building a fighting alternative to attacks and phantasms.
If you want to learn more about these ideas, check out one of these Marxism Day Schools in your area.