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The New International, February 1946


Martin Harvey

Big Business in a Democracy


From New International, Vol. XII No. 2, February 1946, pp. 53–54.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Big Business in a Democracy
by James Truslow Adams
Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1945. $2.75.

The direct subservience of American colleges and scholars to the needs and interests of the ruling class is amply demonstrated by the latest production of James Truslow Adams, Big Business in a Democracy. Adams is always boosted in the newspaper reviews as an eminent American historian. The only basis for this judgment is the quantity of Adams’ production and the large sales of his works, assured by the official support of college boards of trustees, school boards and the like. Adams acquired this status, not by scholarly attainments, but by hewing strictly to the line of complete and uncritical support of American capitalism.

Big Business in a Democracy is a defense of big business that surpasses in crudity and candor the pronouncements of the National Association of Manufacturers. The NAM defends monopoly capitalism by pretending to defend “little business,” competition and free enterprise. Adams makes no such pretense. He defends big business as such and even as against small competitive business, using General Motors, the largest aggregation of monopoly capital in the country, as a typical example.

Two features of the book, apart from the contents, have special significance. One is the timing. It was published several months ago at a time when both capital and the organized labor movement were preparing for the inevitable post-war showdown. What could the book be but part of the arsenal assembled by America’s Sixty Ruling Families to beat back the present labor offensive? This is borne out by a second consideration, the style in which it is written. In this respect the book departs radically from the usual academic work written for students and intellectuals and even from Adams’ manner of writing other of his books. It is slangy, full of personal anecdotes that are as often as not totally irrelevant and is written generally in the manner of a ten-year-old trying to make things simple to a youngster of five. Obviously the book was written, not as an analysis of the history and significance of big business but as a propaganda tract directed against the widest possible middle class audience. Its aim is to mobilize the middle class behind the very power that is grinding it into the dust.

How GM Gives Facts

Adams’ argument is developed on the basis of lies, half-truths, distortions. The chapters on General Motors, which deal with matters that are familiar to most workers, particularly today when the relation of GM to its workers and to the country as a whole has been brought under the floodlight glare of the GM strike, would provide endless amusement to a GM worker. A few samples are sufficient to damn the whole book. “GM has,” says our Mr. Adams, who never lets the facts stand in his way, “throughout the years, conscientiously observed a policy of ‘giving the facts ...’” (p. 179). And a GM executive says publicly: “Open the books? Hell, no! We don’t even open the books to our stockholders.”

Or this little gem:

“I do not hesitate to say that there is today infinitely more chance for the intelligent hard-working worker to become president of a mammoth corporation such as GM than there was, in the old days, for the ablest workman to become even a minor executive of a small family-owned and family-run mill in some obscure New England valley.” (p. 218)

A bit of the flavor of the book can be gleaned from the following, which follows a vicious attack on the “criminals,” “thugs” and “lawless elements” that led the great Michigan sit-down strikes for recognition of the union.

“Not trying to make out a case but just trying to see for myself, it does not appear to me that a large part of the labor troubles of the past few years, including the sit-down strikes in Michigan, have been the fault of Big Business. A bad labor policy, or none, on the part of the New Deal, and internecine feuds among labor unions, as well as bad leadership in labor, have been just as much, and I think more, responsible for the difficulties. I have read over the agreements made between GM and the CIO in 1940, 1941 and 1942, and although I am far from a specialist in labor relations, I cannot see that GM could do more than it is doing to satisfy both government and labor.” (pp. 232–233)

This paid hack gives GM credit for union contracts which had to be fought for bitterly, at the cost of tremendous sacrifices, including the sacrifice of life itself, in the very sit-downs that so horrify our Mr. Adams! What the whole thing amounts to, and Adams says it explicitly, is that anything good that ever happened – not just under capitalism, but throughout human history – was done by big business. He starts his book with the formation of the first living cell from inert matter and it is with considerable restraint that he refrains from crediting big business with even that development.

Significance of the Book

The whole book might be dismissed as trash which no one could possibly fall for. But there seems to be a special value in discussing it. The very crudity of the book states the arguments for capitalism in their simplest and final form. Tear aside the involved arguments and infinite rationalizations of the liberals and you have – Adams. In essence, every defense of capitalism boils down to Adams’ defense. And in Adams’ defense of monopoly capital there is a central thesis that is much more significant than the lies and distortions that clutter up his book, a thesis that, in the final analysis, is the only real defense that capitalism has – or rather, had. This is the proposition that the ruling classes today and in earlier, pre-capitalist societies, with all their faults and weaknessses, have nevertheless succeeded in continually raising the living standards of broader and broader masses of people.

Every social system finds its historical justification in the development of the productive forces and the increase in the physical goods and comforts of society as a whole and, flowing from this, the social and intellectual advance of mankind. All humanity has been fundamentally moved by the struggle to conquer nature, to make nature subservient to man. In this struggle man has moved ahead. That is, he has constantly developed his productive forces, built new tools, improved his instruments of production, ferreted out the laws of nature. These productive forces at any particular level require a social organization that corresponds to its needs. The social relations of men are determined in the final analysis by the level of development of the means of production. The totality of these social relations, economic, political, cultural, etc., form a social system. The social system, in tum, of course, spurs the further development of man’s productivity. But in doing this it raises the productive forces to a new and higher level and insures its own doom. The social organization becomes a fetter on the productive forces and must give way to a new system that corresponds to the new needs and possibilities of society.

What part does the ruling class of a society play in this? A part that is determined for it by the total social relations. It can only conform to the laws of the society which it rules. It is not the ruling class that develops the forces of production, consciously and planfully or even accidentally, but society as a whole. The ruling class can play a progressive role in history when the social system that it represents and is a part of plays a progressive role. When a social system has outlived its usefulness it must be discarded. First and foremost this means that its ruling class, whether feudal nobility or capitalists, must be overthrown.

How Productive Forces Developed

During most of its history a social system assures social stability precisely because it results in the development of the productive forces. In essence every defense of a system in which a minority class rules, ideological, military or otherwise, must be based on the satisfaction of the material wants of the people. When the organization of society interferes with the further satisfaction of these wants no defense can long remain effective. The brevity of this presentation permits of touching only the broadest and crudest outlines but, realizing the importance of a host of additional factors, the outline is essentially valid.

It is this which Adams does not see and cannot see, for he accepts the rule of capitalism as eternal. In the years of its growth and development, capitalism, despite all resentments, disturbances or revolts, did retain the allegiance of the masses of the people, in particular of the working class, because it did assure the development of the productive forces and with it, no matter. in how distorted and restricted a form, the raising of the living standards of the people. But this capitalism can no longer do. It has become a fetter on the productive forces and a brake on the future development of mankind. It is in a period of decay and decline, of permanent crisis, in which it can no longer assure to the people the satisfaction of their minimum needs – work, food, shelter, life. It is this historical fact that is the refutation of Adams’ book. Adams can point to the past as much as he likes. It will do him no good. The working class is concerned with the present and with the future. And the future is socialism.

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