By John Weeks


Not the closest of friends it would appear. Outgoing President Herbert Hoover and president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt, driving to the inauguration, 4 March 1933.

On a cold day in March 1933, Americans heard their new president tell them things they hardly expected from one of the country’s richest men,

Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. …

Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing.

[Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, 4 March 1933]

“Practices of the unscrupulous money changers”, “falsity of material wealth”, “an end to…selfish wrongdoing” – one of America’s 1% shoveling out a real load of rhetorical rubbish, right?

Fancy phrases to cover the real agenda, saving US capitalism from itself, right? All those so-called progressive reforms of the New Deal resulted from a split within the bourgeoisie and had nothing to do with the people, right?

In these dark days of misery-inducing budget cuts and venal politicians it is difficult for most Americans to believe that it was ever otherwise. Perhaps even more difficult to believe is that our country was once quite different because of what the 99% could and did do, not because of bickering and rivalry within the 1%.

FDR became president on March 4, 1933, riding the rising wave of the 99%, not the fear-driven and grudging reformism of part of the US capitalist class, and he surfed that wave politically until war broke out in late 1941 (see chart). FDR’s current detractors, as well as many of his contemporaries, will provide you with a litany of his political sins in an attempt to convince people that a progressive American was a naïve illusion.

FDR Rides the Union Tide, 1930-1941 Union membership and person days lost to strikes (both in millions)

Union statistics and strike days from Bureau of Labor Statistics, Handbook of Labor Statistics.

For example, they tell us that Roosevelt was a failure in reviving the economy, because in 1940 on the eve of the war, the unemployment rate remained at almost fifteen percent. The detractors usually fail to add that the rate had been 25 percent in 1933. Unemployment declined because during 1933-1940 the US economy grew at an annual average of almost eight percent per year, its fastest peace time growth in the twentieth century or so far in the twenty-first (and that includes the 3.5 percent decline in 1938).

A judgment about whether on not FDR “saved capitalism” depends on your assessment of whether it faced impending demise. This accusation or compliment on FDR’s policies tends to go hand in hand with the suggestion that he made it into the White House only because part of the capital class wanted him there.

If the chart does not create some doubt about that enlightened-faction-of-the-bourgeoisie argument, it is worth recalling that FDR had hardly warmed the seat in the Oval Office before the 1% Americans set in motion a plot to remove him. This coup was no nutty conspiracy by fringe right-wingers, and may have had as its moving spirit Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush (father of one president and grandfather of another).

The coup-organizers planned to depose Roosevelt, have him declared unfit for office due to poor health, and replaced by retired Marine Corp general Smedley Butler (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smedley_Butler). Rather to the bad luck of these US Bonapartists, the general turned out to be a patriot. In one of those twists of history you could not make up, Butler’s blew the whistle on the coup before the House Un-American Activities Committee, which would later devote itself to a quite different type of investigation. Rumor has it that FDR gave the coup-sters the choice of prosecution or abandoning their reactionary fight against the New Deal (Listen to a detailed description of the coup on the BBC program originally aired in July 2007, http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/document/document_20070723.shtml, and read about it at http://www.prisonplanet.com/articles/july2007/240707fascistcoup.htm).

Millions of working class Americans took to the streets in the early 1930, demanding change. They were the ones that took Roosevelt to the White House, not a faction of the capitalists. Did those Americans get any pay-back for their efforts? Let’s start with the following:

  1. unemployment compensation, which hardly existed before 1933;
  2. retirement pensions indexed to the inflation, the most important anti-poverty program in the history of the United States;
  3. strict regulation of the financial sector that prevented a banking crisis in the United States for the next fifty years (i.e., until it was amended in the late 1970s);
  4. public works programs employing millions, part of which brought electricity to America’s rural poor (hear Woody Guthrie sing “Roll on Colombia” about the Grand Coolee Dam, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sH6CcsTafw); and
  5. legal protection of organized labor, facilitating the almost continuous growth from less than 4 million workers in 1935 when the National Labor Relations Act passed, to 21 million in 1980 when membership peaked (now down to about ten million).

14 August 1935, FDR signs the Social Security Act for the 99%, not for the 1%.

I can recall canvassing in 1962 for a progressive making a serious challenge for the governorship of Texas, Don Yarborough, who came within twenty thousand votes of beating John Connally (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Don_Yarborough). With trepidation I went into an extremely modest house in the rural environs of Austin having little hope of finding votes for a progressive. There lived a rural proletarian family (aka “poor white trash” or “cedar choppers”) with two photographs on the wall. They were, I was told, the two greatest Americans of their lifetime, “Franklin D” and “Jimmy” (the latter, James Allred, was the most progressive governor of Texas in the twentieth century, more so than the better known Ann Richards, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Allred).

FDR, Texas Governor Jimmy Allred and Congressman Lyndon Johnson, May 1937. The reader might image what the right wingers said about Jimmy’s surname. He was governor for two 2 year terms 1935-39.

The central political problem in the United States today is not the strength of financial capital, but the weakness of the labor movement. In the early 1930s the American labor movement went from insular craft based weakness to broadly-based inclusive unionism, without the legal protection of the NLRA that its militancy would force through Congress.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt won election as the thirty-second president of the United States over the bitter opposition of US capital. Any major capitalist that supported him in 1932 had with few exceptions abandoned him soon after. While campaigning for re-election in October 1936, FDR told his audience in the old Madison Square Garden,

…[In the 1920s] this Nation was afflicted with hear-nothing, see-nothing, do-nothing Government. Powerful influences strive today to restore that kind of government with its doctrine that government is best which is most indifferent.

It took them over thirty years, but restore such a government those “powerful influences” have. They did it by weakening, then crushing the core of progressive politics, the labor movement. Therein lies a lesson for all progressives.

Listen to FDR’s 1993 Inaugural Address: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_inauguration_of_Franklin_D._Roosevelt

John Weeks

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus and Senior Researcher at the Centre for Development Policy and Research, and Research on Money and Finance Group at the School of Oriental & African Studies at the University of London.