Van Gosse What the New Deal Accomplished



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Explanations of the New Deal


The New Deal is a classic example of competing historiographies. During the 1930s and the war years, a deep sense of participating in an unprecedented if unstable alliance of liberal and radical forces permeated how participants wrote, talked and thought about the New Deal and the Roosevelt Administration. Political lines were drawn more sharply in American politics than at any time since the Civil War. The rancor and virulent partisanship of the time is easily forgotten, but it was intensely real. In 1936, FDR could say about his overwhelming repudiation by America's corporate and business leaders, "I welcome their hate," and no one accused him of exaggeration. The reasons for this are simple. The New Deal, as already indicated, violated many (though not all) of the established premises of American political life. It legalized, and indeed frankly favored, aggressive union activity. It unequivocally asserted that the national government, not the local community or the family, was the final and best provider of relief for old people and those who out of work; more than a third of the populace received some form of government relief during the Depression. It directly employed a large percentage of the work force, thereby increasing pressure greatly on private enterprise. It effectively ended the free market in agricultural goods. To many at the time, these seemed like quasi-revolutionary measures, though we take them for granted as necessary for minimal social stability.

In the Fifties, at the Cold War's height when the Democratic Party was under fire for its alleged leftwing tendencies, most scholarship focused on Roosevelt as the key individual who brought about lasting change (making this "the Age of Roosevelt," in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s telling). FDR remained a commanding, enormously popular political figure even in death, and Democratic activists like Schlesinger sought to safeguard their party's legitimacy by linking it as closely as possible to Roosevelt. These books also stressed how the New Deal was mainly the fruit of unplanned, pragmatic improvisation, almost a series of accidents and reactions to events. Certainly this is an accurate representation of how day-to-day politics operated in the chaos of the Depression, as the Democratic Party re-made itself, from a fractured minority dominated by big city machines and Southern reactionaries, to a reform-oriented majority coalition. But Schlesinger and others of the "consensus school" wrote as if all that finally mattered about politics were the decisions of the powerful. Social movements from unions to the unemployed to farmers to radical organizations appear in their narrative as external factors, rather than as agents of history. In sum, the Cold War liberal historians of the Fifties and after de-radicalized the New Deal, both to protect its legacy from Republican attacks, and to assert their own role as its rightful inheritors.

Interestingly, the New Left historians of the Sixties who defined themselves in opposition to the "consensus school" largely agreed with the latter's assertions about the New Deal's unplanned, limited character. Rather than trying to demonstrate the moderate character of the New Deal so as to legitimize it, however, they gave this assessment a pronounced critical twist. To New Left scholars, it was vital to debunk liberal apologias for FDR so as to clear the decks for a genuine radicalism. Paul Conkin's The New Deal (1965), and Barton Bernstein's oft-cited 1967 article, "The New Deal: the Conservative Achievements of Liberal Reform," effectively argued that the main thrust of the New Deal was shoring up capitalism, and its best-known programs were piecemeal concessions intended to stave off more profound challenges to the status-quo. Thus the Wagner Act and the NLRB, while providing legal protections for union organizing, also made unions dependent on the federal government. From the standpoint of the later Sixties, when the Democratic Party was in tatters, and the labor movement appeared to many activists as a backward force, this critique made sense, and indeed it continues to be widely asserted among scholars. One of the newer and most widely praised textbooks in American history (The American People) introduces the New Deal by asserting that it was "not a radical movement," and served mainly "to preserve corporate capitalism." Though it is conceded that it "did establish a minimum welfare state," it comes as no surprise that this textbook devotes very little time to the vast social movements of the New Deal era.

Reading the Thirties through the lens of the Sixties' profound disgust with liberalism, however, obscures the reality of the New Deal's legislative programs, social policies and cultural milieus through an insistently "presentist" perspective. In fact, almost any period of great reforms and great dreams will look shortsighted, limited, and a little foolish if looked at from the perspective of what we know now. It is crucial, therefore, to respect "the pastness of the past," to quote the historian Warren Susman, avoiding the arrogance of hindsight, and nowhere is this more true than with the tangled legacy of the New Deal.

Since the 1980s, a balanced view has emerged that recognizes the incompleteness of the New Deal and its deep silence about race, but stresses how open it remained to more radical visions, and the genuinely social-democratic politics shared by its major constituencies. Books examining the radical movements of the time have demonstrated their considerable support among working people. Many of these books have focused, not surprisingly, on the CIO's upsurge. Books like Roger Horowitz's "Negro and White Unite and Fight!": A Social History of Industrial Unionism in Meatpacking (1997), Ronald Schatz's The Electrical Workers: A History of Labor at General Electric and Westinghouse, 1923-1960 (1983), Steve Fraser's Labor Will Rule: Sidney Hillman and the Rise of American Labor (1991) and Roger Keeran's The Communist Party and the Auto Workers Unions (1980) have looked at key industries, major unions and their leaders, demonstrating conclusively that a mass workingclass movement prepared to confront corporate power existed, and by disciplined strength and innovative tactics wrested concessions that business leaders had spent a generations opposing. There has also been a renaissance in our understanding of black politics from this period, a subject virtually untouched by academic historians until the late Sixties. Mark Naison's Communists in Harlem During the Depression ( 1983) and Robin D.G. Kelley's Hammer and Hoe: the Communist Party in Alabama During the Great Depression (1990) are widely cited for their wealth of evidence that radicals were particularly well-received in the African American community, achieving a level of acceptance among even middle-class blacks that was unique. Harvard Sitkoff's A New Deal for Blacks: the Emergence of Civil Rights as a National Issue (1978) and Weiss's Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: Black Politics in the Age of FDR (1983) document the initial growth of black political power within the Democratic mainstream, from virtual invisibility to new prominence.

Three books in particular sum up the richness of the latest scholarship on the Depression, the New Deal, and their implications for American politics through the rest of the century. One is a collection of essays by leading scholars of labor, politics and political economy; another, a study of the multiethnic workingclass of Chicago, America's central industrial metropolis, from the end of the First World War to the eve of the Second; the third, a dense examination of the radical cultural milieu of the Thirties combined with a pioneering analysis of the New Deal's leftwing, the "Popular Front," so-called.

Perhaps the most sophisticated take on the New Deal's relationship to popular insurgency can be found in the series of authoritative essays that together make up the narrative of The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (1989) edited by Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle. The individual authors in this very influential book do not always agree. Fraser's own essay ("The `Labor Question'") stresses how several decades of effort by enlightened trade unionists and liberal and radical intellectuals seeking "industrial democracy" came to fruition in the mid-1930s with the Wagner Act and the subsequent explosion of union organizing in America's major industries. He also stresses the resistance to this progressive multicultural vision among craft unionists and native-stock workers, and the longterm effects of the labor movement's incorporation into the Democratic Party from 1936 on. No one could read his essay, however, and imagine that the New Deal was mainly the work of FDR and a few brilliant "Brain Trusters."

In contrast, Thomas Ferguson in "Industrial Conflict and the Coming of the New Deal: The Triumph of Multinational Liberalism in America" advances a complex and brilliant argument for how the New Deal was essentially a contest between different elite groups of capitalists, forward-looking financiers focused on exports, who backed FDR, versus the traditional industrial interests personified by the House of Morgan and the U.S. Steel corporation that were allied with the Republicans. Ferguson's thesis emphasizes the secondary role that labor and popular movements played, without denying their relevance. Even this somewhat jaundiced view makes it clear that, however subordinated, there were basic structural reasons why FDR and his backers needed an alliance with the working-class movement. The "multinational liberals" were genuine liberals in the sense that they wanted a participatory politics and the widest possible base of support for their new, internationalist and anti-protectionist vision of capitalism (not at all unlike that of the Clinton-Gore wing of the Democratic Party today).

Two other essays in The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order are also crucial to our understanding of the 1930s as a period of massive reform based in popular and working-class support. In "The New Deal and the Idea of the State," Alan Brinkley shows how through the end of the 1930s, key Administration policymakers like Thurman Arnold took seriously the possibility of permanent government intervention in the economy to ensure social justice, control unemployment and limit the power of Big Business. Up until 1940-41, when the U.S. began to prepare for a global war, no other way seemed likely to avoid more Great Depressions and the possibility of violent chaos or even fascism. Brinkley demonstrates convincingly that it was the unprecedented economic stimulus of World War II which effectively de-radicalized the New Deal, so that its legacy became tax-and-spend liberal tinkering (later demonized by conservatives as "throwing money at problems") rather than longterm social-democratic planning, as in Europe. Finally, Nelson Lichtenstein completes the picture of how the New Deal was tamed in "From Corporatism to Collective Bargaining: Organized Labor and the Eclipse of Social Democracy in the Postwar Era." The eminent labor historian shows that the utter failure of the much-ballyhooed "Operation Dixie" in 1946-48, a campaign intended to bring unions into the Deep South, in tandem with the onset of the Cold War, McCarthyism and Taft-Hartley, effectively gutted the labor movement's ability to be a driving force for change.

Lizabeth Cohen's Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (1990) provides an excellent counterpoint to the essays in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order. In one sense, it is truly social and community history, "from the bottom up" instead the top-down, but Cohen connects the particular to the highest levels of national politics by showing why so many different groups of Americans came together behind Franklin Roosevelt, the CIO and the New Deal. With its vivid detailing of the daily lives of distinct groups of working people (Poles, Italians, recent black immigrants from the South) in their own neighborhoods, Cohen is able to show how the vast social changes brought about by the Twenties' prosperity broke down the sharp distinctions among the workingclass. In the Thirties, partially "Americanized" workers, having already redefined ethnic and racial identity on their own terms, were more than ready for the CIO organizers in the steel and packing plants (many of them Communists with an explicit message of unity) who brought them together in industrial unions. These CIO unions, in tandem with Chicago's newly-built Democratic "machine," reached out to blacks who had traditionally voted Republican and others who had not voted at all, and brought them into the New Deal coalition.

Most recently, Michael Denning's The Cultural Front: the Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (1996) has painted a rich tapestry of the apparatus of theaters, radio programs, cafes and cabarets, literary magazines and even Disney Studio cartoonists that participated avidly in the cultural politics and artistic production linked to the New Deal. Focusing on key figures like Orson Welles, Denning shows that during the Thirties American culture reinvented itself from top to bottom, for the first time focusing not on Protestant farmers and New England intellectuals, but on the new working class of the twentieth century, virtually all immigrants from somewhere else--Southern or Eastern Europe, the American South, Latin America or Asia. This far-reaching "front" of liberal and radical artists was part of a broader social movement that called itself the Popular Front, in emulation of the left-liberal coalitions that took power in some European and Latin American countries. Among his book's many strengths, Denning reminds us that the New Deal was linked to major international developments.

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