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"CT 09-109(1)" from FDR Presidential Library and Museum licensed under CC 2.0 / cropped from original. Links at bottom of article.

FDR’s reputation as a workers’ President should be rejected along with Boris Johnson’s attempt to channel his legacy, argues Sean Ledwith

Speaking in Dudley recently in a lame attempt to reboot his ailing premiership, Boris Johnson plagiarised the language of one of the most popular US Presidents of the twentieth century.

"It sounds positively Rooseveltian. It sounds like a New Deal. All I can say is that if so, then that is how it is meant to sound and to be, because that is what the times demand. A government that is powerful and determined and that puts its arms around people at a time of crisis."

The Spell of Franklin D Roosevelt

The spending plans that Johnson committed to turned out to be derisory compared to Roosevelt’s turbocharging of the US economy in the 1930s. The US President’s total investment of 40% GDP on projects such as the Hoover Dam and the interstate highways was 200 times greater than Johnson’s risible plan for 0.2% on leaky school roofs and imaginary hospitals. The fact that Johnson thought that referencing FDR and the New Deal would enhance his credibility, however, illustrates that America’s 32nd President continues to cast a spell on bourgeois politicians. Michael Gove has also recently sought to invoke the stardust of FDR in a much-heralded speech to government advisers:

"Roosevelt recognised that, faced with a crisis that had shaken faith in government, it was not simply a change of personnel and rhetoric that was required, but a change in structure, ambition, and organisation."

A President for the left?

Tony Blair and Gordon Brown also launched their own pale imitations of the New Deal that are now consigned to oblivion. Roosevelt’s unprecedented four election victories and consistently high position in ratings of America’s great Presidents understandably make him a role model for political office-seekers. What makes FDR even more unusual among US Presidents is that he remains a popular figure on the left and is frequently cited as the benchmark for how the occupant of the White House can serve the interests of the working class. Just a few days ago, Bernie Sanders commented on the negotiations between himself and Joe Biden regarding the Democrat platform for the November election:

"The compromise they came up with, if implemented, will make Biden the most progressive president since FDR. It did not have, needless to say, everything that I wanted, everything that Biden wanted."

Saviour of capitalism

We can expect Biden to name-check Roosevelt frequently over the next few months to cover his electoral left flank. Even an ideological nemesis like Ronald Reagan in the 1980s did not want to question his predecessor’s status and incongruously cited him as an inspiration. A study of Roosevelt’s actual record in the Oval Office, however, reveals that in no way should he be regarded as a standard-bearer for the left and that the grandiosity of his measures only reflected the scale of the crisis that capitalism inflicted on America in the 1930s.

1Roosevelt was not a socialist and never claimed to be one. He explicitly set out to salvage US capitalism from the trainwreck of the Wall Street Crash. The Great Depression that followed pushed unemployment up to 30% and slashed wages across all sectors by 20%. FDR described himself as “the best friend the profit system ever had.”

2On the campaign trail in 1932, Roosevelt backed the use of tanks and teargas to break up a demonstration of the unemployed in Washington. He referenced a New Deal in some speeches but criticised the incumbent President for excessive spending in others.

3He only shifted left in response to an intensified financial crisis and a run on the banks before his inauguration that made him realise that if the free market “hadn’t proved to be bankrupt, Herbert Hoover would be sitting here right now.” In his iconic First 100 Days, FDR shut the banks for two weeks but later gave Wall Street corporate bankers places on the Federal Reserve Bank Committee to shape monetary policy.

4The famous Alphabet Laws that created federal agencies such as the Civil Conservation Corps and the Civil Works Administration undoubtedly provided jobs and welfare on a massive scale. However, millions were still left out in the cold - 7 million people were turned away by the CWA. In his second term, Roosevelt actually cut social security spending.

5Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas correctly identified the real political agenda of the New Deal at the time:

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.

6The National Industrial Recovery Act did provide greater rights for US workers such as the right to unionise, a minimum wage and maximum hours. However, Roosevelt warned workers not to set up and control their own rank and file unions but to accept the tame ones provided by big corporations such as US Steel and the Rockefeller oil company.

7When US workers did fight for authentic unions in epic battle such as Minneapolis in 1934, and Flint in 1937, they faced massive repression by the police and army, condoned by Roosevelt. Hundreds of trade union activists were murdered by private security agencies and ten steelworkers were killed by the Chicago PD in the 1938 Memorial Day massacre. Roosevelt’s comment on the clash between workers and cops was a Trump-like ‘plague on both your houses’.

8Shamefully, greater rights for US workers did not apply to African Americans in the Jim Crow states. Roosevelt cynically abandoned them as he relied on the voting bloc of pro-segregationist Democrats in the South. The civil rights movement developed in the years after the President’s death as a response to his refusal to tackle racism.

9The New Deal did not pull the country out of the Great Depression. The recession of 1937/8 was steeper than the one at the start of the decade and the worst in US history up to that point. Unemployment remained at 15% up to the eve of WW2.

10Full employment and productive capacity only returned when Roosevelt took the US into WW2 in 1941 (breaking an electoral pledge from one year earlier). As economist John Galbraith commented,

“The Great Depression of the 1930s never ended. It merely disappeared in the great mobilisation of the 1940s.”

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Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith

Sean Ledwith is a Counterfire member and Lecturer in History at York College, where he is also UCU branch negotiator. Sean is also a regular contributor to Marx and Philosophy Review of Books and Culture Matters