Is the New Deal Socialism?
By Norman Thomas
(This pamphlet is
taken from a speech delivered by Norman Thomas over the Columbia
Broadcasting System on February 2, 1936.)
An Answer to Al Smith and
the American Liberty League
The air rings, the newspapers are filled
with the politics of bedlam. There are still around 10,000,000
unemployed in the United States. Re-employment lags behind the
increase of production, and the increase of money wages in industry
lags behind both. The burden of debt piles higher and higher.
The world, and America with it, drifts toward new war of inconceivable
horror -- war from which we shall not be delivered by spending
out of our poverty more than a billion dollars a year on naval
and military preparations without so much as squarely facing
the issue: what are we protecting and how shall we protect it?
In this situation the leaders of our
two major political parties have begun speaking, or rather shouting.
And what do they say? First President Roosevelt makes a fighting
speech to Congress and the nation defending the record he has
made, but proposing no new program. Scarcely has he finished
his speech when the AAA decision of the Supreme Court and the
enactment of the bonus legislation by Congress compel him to
seek new laws and new taxes.
Then Mr. Roosevelt's one-time dearest
political friend and sponsor, Alfred E. Smith, rushes to the
fray. This erstwhile man of the people chooses a dinner of the
Liberty League at which to proclaim the religion of Constitution
worship, favorable incidental mention of the Holy Bible, Washington
as the nation's capital and Stars and Stripes forever.
It was attended, the newspapers tell
us, by twelve duPonts -- twelve apostles, not of liberty but
of big business and the profits of war and preparation for war.
Indeed, the record of Mr. Smith's new friends shows that that
organization is as much entitled to the name Liberty League as
was the disease commonly known as German measles to be called
liberty measles in the hysteria of war.
Mr. Smith was promptly answered in a
speech read, if not written, by Senator Robinson, who is the
close political and personal friend of the utility magnate, Harvey
Crouch, and the protector of the plantation system which in his
own State is now answering the demands of the exploited share-croppers
by wholesale evictions and organized terror. On this subject
Senator Robinson and other defenders of the New Deal preserve
a profound silence.
Then the Governor of Georgia jumped
into the fray along with an oil baron and Huey Long's share-the-wealth
clergyman to exploit race and sectional prejudice in the name
of States' rights. These are all Democrats.
Meanwhile the Republicans who defeated
Alfred E. Smith in 1928 rise to applaud him. Ex-President Hoover,
rejuvenated by the skillful services of a new ghost writer, denounces
Mr. Roosevelt's administration and proposes a plan of farm relief
quite similar to Roosevelt's substitute for AAA.
Between him and the States' Rights Senator
Borah, who still believes that the country can be saved by the
simple device of trying to smash monopoly, there is a deep a
gulf fixed as there is in the Democratic party. Alf Landon floats
somewhere in between that gulf.
Yet basically beneath all the alarms
and confusion these worthy warriors, happy and unhappy, are acting
upon a common assumption -- an assumption which is dangerously
false. All of them are assuming the durability of the profit
system, the security of a capitalist nationalist system in which
our highest loyalties are to the principle of private profit
and to the political power of an absolute jingoistic nationalist
State. They assume that prosperity is coming back again to stay
for a while.
Impartial in Smith - Roosevelt
Mr. Roosevelt aand his followers assume
that prosperity is coming back because of the New Deal. Al Smith
and the rest of Roosevelt's assorted critics assume that it is
in spite of the New Deal and perhaps because of the Supreme Court.
Mr. Hoover plaintively protests that the catastrophic depression
of January - February, 1933, was due merely to the shudders of
the body politic anticipating the economic horrors of the New
As a Socialist, I view the Smith - Roosevelt
controversy with complete impartiality. I am little concerned
to point out the inconsistencies in Al Smith's record, or to
remind him that in 1924 and 1928, when I happened to be the Socialist
candidate for high office against him, more than one of his close
political friends came to me to urge me as a Socialist not to
attack him too severely since he really stood for so many of
the things that Socialists and other progressive workers wanted.
But I am concerned to point out how
false is the charge that Roosevelt and the New Deal represent
socialism. What is at state is not prestige or sentimental devotion
to a particular name. What is at state is a clear understanding
of the issues on which the peace and prosperity of generations
-- perhaps centuries -- depend. A nation which misunderstands
socialism as completely as Al Smith misunderstands it is a nation
which weakens its defense against the coming of war and fascism.
But, some of you will say, isn't it
true, as Alfred E. Smith and a host of others before him have
charged, that Roosevelt carried out most of the demands of the
This charge is by no means peculiar
to Mr. Smith. I am told that a Republican speaker alleged that
Norman Thomas rather than Franklin D. Roosevelt has been President
of the United States. I deny the allegation and defy the allegator,
and I suspect I have Mr. Roosevelt's support in this denial.
Matthew Woll, leader of the forces of reaction in the American
Federation of Labor, is among the latest to make the same sort
Roosevelt Not Socialist
Emphatically, Mr. Roosevelt did not
carry out the Socialist platform, unless he carried it out on
a stretcher. What is true is that when Mr. Roosevelt took office
he had to act vigorously.
We had demanded Federal relief for unemployment.
Hence any attempts Mr. Roosevelt made at Federal relief could
perhaps be called by his enemies an imitation of the Socialists
platform. It was an extraordinarily poor imitation. We demanded
Federal unemployment insurance. Hence any attempt to get Federal
security legislation could be regarded as an imitation of the
Socialist platform. It was an amazingly bad imitation.
Indeed, at various times Mr. Roosevelt
has taken particular and rather unnecessary pains to explain
that he was not a Socialist, that he was trying to support the
profit system, which by the way, he defined incorrectly. In his
last message to Congress his attack was not upon the profit system
but on the sins of big business.
His slogan was not the Socialist cry:
"Workers of the world, workers with hand and brain, in town
and country, unite!" His cry was: "Workers and small
stockholders unite, clean up Wall Street." That cry is at
least as old as Andrew Jackson.
What Mr. Roosevelt and his brain trust
and practical political advisers did to such of the Socialist
immediate demands as he copied at all merely illustrates the
principle that if you want a child brought up right you had better
leave the child with his parents and not farm him out to strangers.
Some of it was good reformism, but there
is nothing Socialist about trying to regulate or reform Wall
Street. Socialism wants to abolish the system of which Wall Street
is an appropriate expression. There is nothing Socialist about
trying to break up great holding companies. We Socialists would
prefer to acquire holding companies in order to socialize the
utilities now subject to them.
There is no socialism at all about taking
over all the banks which fell in Uncle Sam's lap, putting them
on their feet again, and turning them back to the bankers to
see if they can bring them once more to ruin. There was no socialism
at all about putting in a Coordinator to see if he could make
the bankrupt railroad systems profitable so they would be more
expensive for the government to acquire as sooner or later the
government, even a Republican party government, under capitalism
Mr. Roosevelt torpedoed the London Economic
Conference; he went blindly rushing in to a big army and navy
program; he maintained, as he still maintains, an Ambassador
to Cuba who, as the agent of American financial interests, supports
the brutal reaction in Cuba. While professing friendship for
China, he blithely supported a silver purchase policy of no meaning
for America except the enrichment of silver mine owners which
nearly ruined the Chinese Government in the face of Japanese
imperialism. These things which Al Smith or Alf Landon might
also have done are anything but Socialist.
Mr. Smith presumably feels that the
President's Security Bill, so-called, was socialism. Let us see.
We Socialists have long advocated unemployment insurance or unemployment
indemnity by which honest men who cannot find work are indemnified
by a society so brutal or so stupid that it denies them the opportunity
to work. This insurance or indemnification should be on a prearranged
basis which will take account of the size of the family. It should
be Federal because only the national government can act uniformly,
consistently and effectively.
What did Mr. Roosevelt give us? In the
name of security, he gave us a bill where in order to get security
the unemployed workers will first have to get a job, then lose
a job. He will have to be surge that he gets the job and loses
the job in a State which has an unemployment insurance law.
He will then have to be sure that the
State which has the law will have the funds and the zeal to get
the money to fulfill the terms of the law. This will largely
depend upon whether it proves to be practical and constitutional
for the Federal Government to collect a sufficient tax on payrolls
so that 90 percent of it when rebated to employers to turn over
to the State officers will be sufficient to give some kind of
security to those who are unemployed!
The whole proceeding is so complicated,
the danger of forty-eight competing State laws -- competing,
by the way, for minimum, not for maximum benefits-- is so dangerous
that the President's bill can justly be called an in-Security
"Billions of Words"
If Mr. Smith means that the programs
of public works either under PWA or WPA is Socialist, again he
is mistaken. We do not tolerate the standards of pay set on much
WPA work -- $19 a month, for instance, in some States in the
South. We do insist not upon talk but upon action to re-house
the third of America which lives in houses unfit for human habitation,
which is possible given the present state of the mechanic arts
in a nation of builders.
The administration, having spent billions
of words, not dollars, on housing with little result, is now
turning the job over to private mortgage companies. Would not
Al Smith or Alf Landon do the same?
But even if Mr. Roosevelt and the New
Deal had far more closely approximated Socialist immediate demands
in their legislation, they would not have been Socialists, not
unless Mr. Smith is willing to argue that every reform, every
attempt to curb rampant and arrogant capitalism, every attempt
to do for the farmers something like what the tariff has done
for business interests, is socialism.
Not only is it not socialism, but in
large degree this State capitalism, this use of bread and circuses
to keep the people quiet, is so much a necessary development
of a dying social order that neither Mr. Smith nor Mr. Hoover
in office in 1937 could substantially change the present picture
or bring back the days of Andrew Jackson, Grover Cleveland or
What Roosevelt has given us, and what
Republicans cannot and will not substantially change, is not
the socialism of the cooperative commonwealth. It is a State
capitalism which the Fascist demagogues of Europe have used when
they came to power. The thing, Mr. Smith, that you ought to fear
is not that the party of Jefferson and Jackson is marching in
step with Socialists toward a Socialist goal; it is that, unwittingly,
it may be marching in step with Fascists toward a Fascist goal.
I do not mean that Mr. Roosevelt himself
is a Fascist or likely to become a Fascist. I credit him with
as liberal intentions as capitalism and his Democratic colleagues
of the South permit. I call attention to the solemn fact that
in spite of his circumspect liberalism, repression, the denial
of civil liberty, a Fascist kind of military law, stark terrorism
have been increasing under Democratic Governors for the most
part -- in Indiana, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Arkansas and,
of course, in California, where Mr. Roosevelt did not even come
to the aid of an ex-Socialists, Upton Sinclair, against the candidate
of the reactionaries.
I repeat that what Mr. Roosevelt has
given us is State capitalism: that is to say, a system under
which the State steps in to regulate and in many cases to own,
not for the purpose of establishing production for use but rather
for the purpose of maintaining in so far as may be possible the
profit system with its immense rewards of private ownership and
its grossly unfair division of the national income.
Today Mr. Roosevelt does not want fascism;
Mr. Hoover does not want fascism; not even Mr. Smith and his
friends of the Liberty League want fascism. The last-named gentlemen
want an impossible thing: the return to the unchecked private
monopoly power of the Coolidge epoch.
Must Abolish the Profit System
All the gentlemen whom I have named
want somehow to keep the profit system. Socialism means to abolish
that system. Those who want to keep it will soon find that out
of war or out of the fresh economic collapse inevitable when
business prosperity is so spotty, so temporary, so insecure as
it is today, will come the confusion to which capitalism's final
answer must be the Fascist dictator.
In America that dictator will probably
not call himself Fascist. He, like Mr. Roosevelt in his address
to Congress, will thank God that we are not like other nations.
But privately he will rejoice in the weakness of our opposition
to tyranny. Under the forms of democracy we have not preserved
liberty. It has not taken black shirts to make us docile.
Given the crisis of war or economic
collapse we, unless we awake, will accept dictatorship by violence
to perpetuate a while longer the class division of income. We
shall acknowledge the religion of the totalitarian state and
become hypnotized by the emotional appeal of a blind jingoistic
nationalism. Against this Fascist peril and its Siamese twin,
the menace of war, there is no protection in the New Deal, no
protection in the Republican party, less than no protection in
the Liberty League.
Who of them all is waging a real battle
even for such civil liberties and such democratic rights as obstensibly
are possible in a bourgeois democracy? When Al Smith appeals
to the Constitution is he thinking of the liberties of the Bill
of Rights or is he thinking of the protection the Constitution
has given to property?
As a Socialist, I was no lover of the
NRA or AAA. NRA, at least temporarily, did give the workers some
encouragement to organize, but at bottom it was an elaborate
scheme for the stabilization of capitalism under associations
of industries which could regulate production in order to maintain
profit. AAA was perhaps some relative help to many classes of
farmers. It was no help at all to the most exploited agricultural
workers and share-croppers, but rather the opposite. And it was,
as indeed it had to be under capitalism, primarily a scheme for
This was not primarily the fault of
the AAA. It was the fault of the capitalist system which Roosevelt
and Smith alike accept; that system which makes private profit
its god, which uses planning, in so far as it uses planning at
all, to stabilize and maintain the profits of private owners,
not the well being of the masses. In the last analysis the profit
system inevitably depends upon relative scarcity. Without this
relative scarcity there is no profit and there is no planning
for abundance which accepts the kingship of private profit.
When the world went in for great machinery
operated by power it went in for specialization and integration
of work. It doomed the old order of pioneers. The one chance
of using machinery for life, not death, is that we should plan
to use it for the common good. There is no planned production
for use rather than for the private profit of an owning class
which does not involve social ownership. This is the gospel of
We can have abundance. In 1929, according
to the Brookings Institute -- and that, remember, was our most
prosperous year -- a decent use of our capacity to produce would
have enabled us to raise the income of 16,400,000 families with
less than $2,000 a year to that modest level without even cutting
any at the top.
Instead, without any interference from
workers, without any pressure from agitators, the capitalist
system so dear to Al Smith and his Liberty League friends went
into a nose-spin. The earned income dropped from $83,000,000,000
to something like $38,000,000,000 in 1932, and the temporary
recovery, of which the New Deal administration boasts, has probably
not yet raised that income to the $50,000,000,000 level. It has,
moreover, burdened us with an intolerable load of debt.
What we must have is a society where
we can use our natural resources and machinery so that the children
of the share-croppers who raise cotton will no longer lack the
cotton necessary for underclothes. What we must have is a society
which can use our resources and our mechanical skill so that
the children of builders will not live in shacks and slums.
It is not that Socialists want less
private property. We want more private property in the good things
of life. We do not mean to take the carpenter's kit away from
the carpenter or Fritz Kreisler's violin away from Fritz Kreisler,
or the home or the farm in which any man lives and works away
We do intend to end private landlordism,
and to take the great natural resources -- oil, copper, coal,
iron; the great public utilities, power, transportation; the
banking system, the distributive agencies like the dairy trust,
the basic monopolies and essential manufacturing enterprises
-- out of the hands of private owners, most of them absentee
owners, for whose profits workers with hand and brain are alike
exploited. And we intend to put these things into the hands of
Tax Private Wealth
We intend to make this change to social
ownership in orderly fashion. In the meantime we can avert fresh
economic collapse by the road of crazy inflation or cruel deflation
only by an orderly process of taxing wealth in private hands,
by a graduated tax, approaching expropriation of unearned millions,
in order to wipe out debt and to help in the socialization of
We do not mean to turn socialized industries
over to political bureaucrats, to Socialist Jim Farleys, so to
speak. The adjective doesn't redeem the noun. For instance, we
intend that a socialized steel industry shall be managed under
a directorate representing the workers, including, of course,
the technicians in that industry, and the consumers.
We can do it without conscription and
without rationing our people. We ought not to pay the price Russia
has paid because we are far more industrially advanced than was
Russia and should learn from Russia's mistakes as well as her
Goal Is True Democracy
Our goal, Mr. Smith, is true democracy.
It is we who lead in the fight for liberty and justice which
you in recent years have sadly ignored. It is we who seek to
make freedom and democracy constitutional by advocating a Workers
Rights Amendment in the interest of farmers, workers and consumers,
giving to Congress power to adopt all needful social and economic
legislation, but leaving to the courts their present power to
help protect civil and religious liberty.
Our present judicial power of legislation
is as undemocratic as it is in the long run dangerous to peace.
Remember the Dred Scott decision! Congress rather than the States
must act because these issues are national. The religion of the
Constitution with the Supreme Court as the high priests and the
Liberty League as its preacher will never satisfy human hunger
for freedom, peace and plenty.
The Constitution was made for man and
not man for the Constitution. We Socialists seek now its orderly
amendment. We seek now genuine social security, real unemployment
insurance. We seek now a policy which will make it a little harder
for American business interests to involve us in war as a result
of a mad chase after the profits of war.
These, gentlemen who quarrel over the
way to save capitalism, are the things of our immediate desire.
But deepest of all is our desire for a federation of cooperative
Commonwealths. Some of you may like this far less than you like
the New Deal, but will you not agree that it is not the New Deal?
You said, Mr. Smith, in a peroration
worthy of your old enemy, William Randolph Hearst, that there
can be only one victory, of the Constitution.
And this is our reply: There is only
one victory worth the seeking by the heirs of the American Revolution.
It is the victory of a fellowship of free men, using government
as their servant, to harness our marvelous machinery for abundance,
not poverty; peace, not war; freedom, not exploitation.
This is the victory in which alone is
practicable deliverance from the house of our bondage. This is
the victory to which we dedicate ourselves.