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James Burnham

Futile Debates in Capitol Reveal Coming Party Rifts

(December 1937)


From Socialist Appeal, Vol. 1 No. 18, 11 December 1937, p. 7.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Special Session of Congress has now been going on for nearly a month. To date, its score in work accomplished is exactly – zero. A remarkable fact when placed against the headlines which we read every day. There is, evidently, no lack of problems that might be dealt with.

And yet the Congressmen have spent by far the greater part of their time in debating “points of procedure.” The Congressional Record these days is a rich laboratory book in the intricacies of he rules of order.

Purpose of Special Session

Roosevelt called this Special Session, early in the autumn, to enact a four-point “social program”: Farm Aid, Housing, Wages and Hours, Reorganization of the Executive Branch of the Government. No one will deny that each of these matters is of the utmost importance, bound up with the interests and needs of large sections of the American people. No one should be so foolish as to imagine that Roosevelt actually intended that these questions should be genuinely solved by the Special Session. What was needed was a gesture in each field sufficient to arouse the hopes and illusions of the masses, to reinforce their faith in Roosevelt, but at the same time so vague and limited as to guarantee no breach in bourgeois economy and no real break with bourgeois tradition. This is the perennial method of the New Deal policy and New Deal demagogy.

But when the Special Session was called, the business “recession” was just beginning, and there was still confidence that it was only a minor drop of a few weeks, to be quickly “corrected.” During the intervening weeks, the index of production, along with the prices on the Stock Exchange, hurtled downward, at a rate twice as rapid as that during the last months of 1929. Wide-scale layoffs began. Whether or not a new major cyclical crisis has begun, no one any longer doubts the seriousness of the current drop. And, in addition, the war question thrust itself heavily and abruptly forward, not as a distant cloud, but as a heavy present shadow.

The real issues in the face of which the Session gathered were simple and direct: the downward swing of the business cycle, long before the optimistically anticipated upswing had been completed according to the norms of the bourgeois statisticians; and the approach of the war.

And with these issues, so intimately affecting the lives of the masses, in face of the lay-offs, the lowering of wages, the whole gathering storm of “economic crisis” and the untold human misery which it brings with it, Congress debates points of order. The President has a toothache (one always does well do be suspicious of the toothaches of politicians) and goes fishing off Miami. Senator Connally makes wise cracks about the Anti-Lynching Bill. No clearer symbols of the decay of capitalism could be found. Confronted with genuine social problems, the bourgeoisie itself, and its spokesmen, are dismayed and floundering.

Their attitude betrays the fact that, consciously or unconsciously, they have lost confidence in their own answer, the answer which in an earlier era they had so confidently ready. Their aim was once the progressive one of expanding the productive forces of society. This is no longer possible – for them. And now they seek only rationalizing formulas for preserving their social power and privilege, before going over to the open brutality of fascism.

Battle Behind the Scenes

It should not, however, be imagined that nothing is happening in Washington. Beneath the surface debate in Congress, a real and far-reaching battle is now going on, a battle which emerged in an earlier stage last Spring during the fight over the Court Bill. The first bone of contention, from the point of view of each group, is how to slough off responsibility for the new crisis which seems to impend ?

Roosevelt must seek to attribute it to the sabotage of “economic Tories” and to a recalcitrant Congress. The “economic Tories” and their immediate spokesmen, on the other hand, must try to make New Dealism responsible in the public mind. Thus Roosevelt, by giving the rope for Congress and making “concessions to business” (himself meanwhile having toothaches and going fishing), jockeys into a position where, if it seems desirable at a later stage, he can again denounce the Tories, prove that cooperation with them was the cause of all evil, and re-assert New Dealism on a “new and higher plane.”

One point, however, and by far the, most important point, Roosevelt, the various factions in Congress and the “Tories” have completely in common: namely, the necessity for attributing the new crisis to something, anything, other than its true cause which is, of course, simply the capitalist system itself. At all costs, they must hide this conclusion. The real importance of the present crisis is in providing the final proof (if one is needed) that reformism (represented by the New Deal) is no more capable than laisser faire of solving the the great social problems of our time.

As in the Court fight, so in the Special Session, the most bitter exchanges take place not between Republicans and Democrats, but between the different factions of the Democratic Party. The division between the Republican and Democratic Parties founded in the issues focused during the Civil War has reduced itself to a Tweedledum-Tweedledee contest; and the political framework it has provided is no longer convincing enough to sustain the illusions of capitalist politics in this country. The pressure of the Labor Party movement, containing beneath its distorted and bureaucratic surface the incipient class movement of the masses, is being felt; and the need for coming to terms with it in a way that will guarantee its harmless development. If the Republican and Democratic Parties are still in the field in 1940, they will not be the same parties that have been known since the Civil War.

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