The New Deal: starting socialism or saving capitalism?

Submitted by AWL on 4 December, 2019 - 5:07

The above is a cartoon from the US Trotskyist paper Socialist Appeal, 11 July 1939, portrays Roosevelt (“FDR”) making a show of attacking conservative plutocrats (“Tories”).

In parts of his speech not reprinted here, Bernie Sanders expands on the idea that his socialism is a continuation and expansion from where the New Deal of Roosevelt, president from 1933 to 1945, left off.

Roosevelt himself saw it differently. In 1935 he explained: “I am fighting Communism… I want to save our system, the capitalist system…

“To combat crackpot ideas, it may be necessary to throw to the wolves the forty-six men who are reported to have incomes in excess of one million dollars a year. This can be accomplished through taxation”.

Roosevelt increased taxes on the highest incomes. The federal tax rate on the highest slices of income remained over 70% until 1981, even under conservative Republican administrations. But the plutocrats found those “wolf” taxes easy to evade, and remained plutocrats.

Roosevelt also introduced some laws to protect trade-union rights, the beginnings of old age pensions, and some public-works jobs for the unemployed.

That was done when US capitalism was in a huge slump, and workers’ struggles and radical dissent were running at a high pitch. The measures were victories for those struggles and for that dissent, but they were far short of socialism, meaning the social ownership and democratic control of majority industry and banks.

As the socialist writer Max Shachtman put it, “Roosevelt pointed out that in order to save capitalism from chaos… it was necessary… to grant to the American working class the much-belated economic concessions which the fellow workers in the advanced European countries had obtained in struggle years and decades before”.

Other capitalist governments resorted to fascism. But, Shachtman argued, the USA had sufficient economic “layers of fat” to make a softer response possible there.

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