Felix Morrow

What Was Roosevelt’s Real Role?

A Marxist Evaluation

(28 April 1945)

Source: The Militant, Vol. IX No. 17, 28 April 1945, p. 5
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2018 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Copyleft: Felix Morrow Internet Archive (www.marx.org) 2018. Permission is granted to copy and/or distribute this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0.

I. What Was the Cause of the Depression?

With the passing of Roosevelt, the country has been deluged with evaluations of his role. The verdict has been well-nigh unanimous. Whatever the political label of the evaluator – Republican, “liberal” or conservative Democrat, or Stalinist – all have united in concluding that America and the world progressed as a result of his twelve years’ rule.

The Republicans and his opponents in his own party forgot their differences with him. Nor was this merely a sentimental gesture on the occasion of his death. It was much more than that. It was the recognition that far transcending their differences was the leadership which he provided to the capitalist class as a whole in its war for world domination.

The Stalinists long ago forgot their differences with him. During his first term they called him a “semi-fascist” and condemned his preparations for war, only to switch to support of him in 1938 in the name of “collective security" for “world peace.” In the 1940 campaign – and during the whole period of the Stalin-Hitler Pact – they branded him as a war-monger, only once again to switch to him on June 22, 1941. Now they praise everything he did, including what was once “semi-fascist” and “war-monger.”

The CIO and AFL national leadership had found it growingly difficult to defend Roosevelt’s policies – the wage-freeze, the National Service Act which he was still seeking on the eve of his death, the shackling of the unions through participation in the War Labor Board and the observance of the no-strike pledge, etc. To the end, however, the union leaders maintained their strange system of double-bookkeeping whereby they attributed labor’s gains to Roosevelt while blaming labor’s losses on Roosevelt’s subordinates in the various government agencies to which the unions are subjected. The loss of Roosevelt’s prestige weighs heavily on the CIO and AFL leadership as they face the grim future of increasing opposition in the ranks of the workers.

This unanimity, however, has been arrived at only by avoiding an analysis of the basic questions of our epoch. In contrast to this, we propose to state and answer these questions in this and subsequent articles.

The first question is: Did Roosevelt have a policy for solving the economic crisis ? Did he find a way to avoid the cyclical crises of capitalism and maintain full employment?

Roosevelt and the Economic Crisis

The record shows that he did not. Those who grew up during the war may not remember, but the rest of us should recall vividly enough that mass unemployment continued until well after the war was in full progress in Europe and Roosevelt had begun the gigantic armament program which led into America’s participation in the war. The depression which began in 1929 was still going on in 1940. The most that could be claimed for Roosevelt was that he reduced

unemployment from twenty millions in 1932 to eleven millions in 1940. But eleven million unemployed still represented a mortal crisis for the capitalist system. Production for war – the one unlimited market which exists under capitalism – could only be an interlude for a renewal of the crisis in a more intensified form at a later stage.

But – the protagonists, of Roosevelt say – why blame Roosevelt for the crisis? He could not in the few short years of peace undo the national and international consequences of the crisis which had gone so far in 1929–1933 under Hoover.

Suppose we grant this. But this brings us to the crucial question: what if Roosevelt and not Hoover had been president from 1928 on (or from 1924 on instead of Coolidge), would the depression have been avoided?

This was in effect the claim of Roosevelt’s election campaign of 1932 against Hoover. And after election, in his first inaugural address, Roosevelt blamed the depression on “the unscrupulous money changers” who now had “fled from their high seats in the temple of our administration.” Likewise in succeeding elections, the CIO and PAC contrasted Hoover and Roosevelt as though their policies were polar opposites, leading to opposite consequences.

It is necessary, therefore, to analyze precisely wherein Hoover and Roosevelt differed – and wherein they remained in basic agreement.

It so happens that for many years Roosevelt and Hoover were close friends. They met in 1913, when Roosevelt became assistant secretary of the Navy. The older man became Food Administrator and a member of Wilson’s War Cabinet. Hoover was without party label, but of course his basic views were already firmly formed: for Big Business. Roosevelt wanted Hoover to be the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party in 1924 and, needless to say, he was not asking Hoover to change his economic views. As the N.Y. Times obituary of Roosevelt states, it:

“Mr. Roosevelt sought to prevail upon Mr. Hoover to become a Democrat with a view to grooming him for the Democratic nomination for President in 1924, and actually thought he had succeeded when Republicans of prominence managed to persuade Mr. Hoover that he would profit politically by becoming a Republican.”

In the 1928 presidential contest between Hoover and Smith, Roosevelt spoke for Smith. Comb his speeches – not to speak of the Democratic platform – and you will find no real differences. No less than Hoover, Roosevelt looked upon the prevailing prosperity as proof of the efficiency of Big Business.

It was not until some time after the depression came in 1929 that Roosevelt began to adopt views differing from those of Hoover. It was therefore pure demagogy on Roosevelt’s part, when he later blamed Hoover’s policies as the cause of the depression. It was good campaign material, but had nothing to do with the facts.

Could Roosevelt Prevent the Depression?

Suppose, however, that Roosevelt’s later program had been the law of the land in 1928. Would it have prevented the depression, as he and his propagandists have claimed?

One has only to get down to itemizing the specific legislation adopted under Roosevelt to realize the absurdity of such a claim.

What would NRA have done in 1928? Stripped of the ballyhoo which accompanied it, it was nothing but legalization of trade associations in each industry which were enabled to curtail production and regulate competition in ways that were illegal under the anti-trust laws. It enabled the monopolies to get a stronger hold in some industries, but it had little effect on increasing employment. Roosevelt himself was well content when the Supreme Court took it off his hands by declaring it unconstitutional in 1935.

What would Roosevelt’s farm program have done in 1928? It would have simply started earlier the outrageous spectacle of destroying pigs and plowing under cotton and wheat.

Would Roosevelt’s banking laws and SEC regulation of stocks have prevented the stock market rise and speculation which preceded the crash of 1929? Nothing in these laws gives the slightest warrant for thinking so. When wartime prosperity began in 1941, these laws did not stand in the way of any of the forms of speculation and manipulation of stocks which have invariably accompanied an increase of business activity.

Would the Minimum Wage and Hour Act have prevented the depression? But the fact is that on the eve of the crash prevailing wages were far higher than the miserable minimums established by the law. It is, indeed, a fact that wages are always at their highest point, as part of the general prosperity, just on the eve of a new crisis.

As for the rest of Roosevelt’s legislation, no one can even pretend that it would have affected the factors making for the depression.

The essential point to understand is that the depression would have come when it did no matter who was president, and no matter what his policies, given the fact that industry was in the hands of the capitalists. Depressions are an inevitable aspect of the capitalist system. They come under liberals like Wilson or conservatives like Taft. One must look for their basic cause beyond the immediate incident which ushers them in. Sometimes, as in 1929, that incident is a stock-market crash. At other times, as in 1907, it may be a wave of bankruptcies and bank failures. In 1920, it looked like the aftermath of the war. But back of these different immediate incidents is the basic character of capitalism itself.

The Basic Cause Is Capitalism

A look abroad will serve to make this clear. The Weimar Republic of Germany operated under legislation far more liberal than that of the New Deal. Indeed, Roosevelt merely copied part of it. Yet the German republic was engulfed by economic depression, and the failure of the workers’ parties to go beyond a “New Deal” to socialism was the essential cause of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933.

The basic cause of economic crises is capitalism itself. It is a system where industry operates only if it makes profit and not directly to feed and clothe the population. The drive for profit takes precedence over human needs. There is no way under capitalism to make the abundance, brought about by science and mass production, available to the masses.

In the past, the periodic crises were temporarily overcome by finding new fields for capital expansion both at home and abroad. In the course of time the great capitalist powers thus divided the whole world among themselves. After that, every new crisis became a driving force to try to re-divide the world by force – that was the cause of the first World War, and of the second, which was made inevitable by the world crisis which began in 1929.

Neither in 1924, when Roosevelt wanted Hoover to be president, nor in 1928, nor during his twelve years’ rule, did Roosevelt’s basic attitude toward economic crisis differ from that of Hoover. Both of them, like the capitalist class as a whole, had no solution for these periodic cataclysms and their end in war. The capitalists do much wishful thinking during periods of economic upturn, claiming that at last they have solved the problem of crises which have wracked the capitalist system ever since its rise and which grow ever worse. But at bottom the capitalists know that these cyclical crises are an inevitable accompaniment of the capitalist system. They know that capitalism itself is the cause of crisis. They have no intention of removing that cause. Against the revolutionary socialist movement which would remove that cause, Hoover and Roosevelt always saw eye to eye.

(This is the first of a series of articles evaluating the role of Roosevelt. The second will appear next week.)


Last updated on: 7 November 2018