Posts tagged Franklin Roosevelt

A brief history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the “Friend of Labor”

Because of the late unpleasantness, there’s been a lot of debate among a certain kind of Leftist as to what attitude the Left ought to take towards the Democratic Party’s big win at the polls, and the grassroots efforts by eager young Obamarchists to help bring it about. In the name of critical support, many state Leftists — particularly those who fancy themselves Progressives — urge other Leftists to hop on board the Democratic Party train; those who are a bit more skeptical, point out that, for people seriously concerned with peace, civil liberties, labor radicalism, anti-racism, ending bail-out capitalism,and so on, an Obama Presidency is an extremely limited victory at best, and those who know a bit of history point out that the Democratic Party has been the graveyard of social movements for over a century now, with one movement after another being diverted from grassroots action on behalf of their primary goals into the secondary or tertiary goals of bureaucratic maneuvering, party politicking, canvassing, fund-raising, or shamelessly apologizing for Democratic Party politicians. And once they go in, movements more or less never come out.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the current economic crisis, in discussions like these a lot of electoralist Progressives very quickly dig up the decaying corpse of Franklin Roosevelt, apparently in order to demonstrate a case where so-called critical support from the Left worked — that is, it supposedly worked because it supposedly got us the New Deal, and the New Deal supposedly represents a series of victories that Leftists should feel good about. The problem is that this picture is false in just about every detail. The New Deal was achieved in spite of the grassroots efforts of the American Left, not because of them. It was, in fact, put through largely as a means to co-opt or stifle the American Left. And what was put through ought to be considered a travesty by anyone for whom economic Leftism is supposed to mean an increase in workers’ power to control the conditions of their own lives and labor, rather than an increase in government’s power to make businessmen do what politicians want them to do.

So here is a brief history, contributed by a member of the Movement for a Democratic Society listserv (in response to a series of uncritical critical support apologetics and name-drops to Roosevelt), of the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the friend of labor and patron saint of the American Progressive Left.

From: bob
To: MDS-Announce
Date: 5 November 2008 7:51 PM

Oct. 1933, 4 strikers killed in Pixley Ca. textile strike.

Early 1934, Roosevelt intervenes in the auto industry on behalf of company unions as opposed to worker organized unions.

In 1934, General Strikes in Toledo, San Francisco and Minneapolis began to threaten the capitalist order.

IN 1935, the Wagner Act was passed to regularize labor relations. The NLRB was set up to mediate between labor and capital ending the surge of general strikes.

In 1936-7, workers began to use the sit down strike to great advantage. In 1937, the Roosevelt appointed National Labor Relations Board declared them to be illegal. Later the Supreme Court in 1939, dominated by pro-Roosevelt judges, declared sit-down strikes to be illegal, taking the wind out of the sails of the labor movement.

When labor leaders tried to gain Roosevelt’s support in critiquing the killing of 18 peaceful workers in the steel strikes of ‘37, Roosevelt refused, thus condoning the killings.

IN 1938 and 39 with rising unemployment, Roosevelt cut programs for the poor and unemployed.

The passing of the Social Security Act institutionalized the incredibly regressive payroll tax while postponing and benefits and establishing a retirement age beyond the life expectancy of workers so that payments would be minimal. Additionally, most women and Afro-Americans were purposefully not covered by the Act. At the time it was established the NAACP protested the racism inherent in the exclusions of most job categories employing blacks. The original act was also blamed for contributing to the economic downturn of 1937 because the government collected taxes from workers but paid no benefits to workers during this time period. Initially, no benefits whatsoever were to be paid until at least 1942. Amendments in 1939 changed that to 1940 but only encompassed a tiny minority.

Friend of Labor Roosevelt in 1940 signed the Smith Act which had been proposed by a Democrat and passed by a Democratic Congress. The first prosecutions were ordered by Roosevelt’s Attorney General Francis Biddle. Unfortunately, the split between the orthodox communists and the Trotskyists resulted in the persecution of the Trotskyists.

When the Federal Theater Project planned a musical production in 1937 attacking corporate greed, Roosevelt shut it down. He then had the theatre padlocked and surrounded by armed soldiers.

So much for the concept of political space under the Democrats.

One mistake rather consistently made by a good chunk of progressives is to frame an analysis based on the paranoia of the extreme right wing, taking their statements as if they were facts.

So if Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh and their ilk criticize some facet of American life or history (for example FDR as being some sort of left enabler), the progressives then want to disagree completely with Hannity et al and thus accept whatever BS he put forward but take the opposite point of view on it. So we then have progressives defending Roosevelt’s supposed progressive leanings or opening political space for the left or whatever phrasing suits their purposes. It’s not helpful to let the extreme right thereby define the nature of political discourse. It leads to an incredibly false and warped view of society and history.

Rather than helping to create an opening for the left in the 1930s, Roosevelt did what he could to shut off all openings that had been created by the workers themselves. He ended the surge of general strikes, then he ended the surge of sit down strikes. He put a stop to progressive artists. Clamped down on the radicals of the time period. Condoned the police and national guard killing of protesting workers. Collected regressive taxes from workers while promising them pension benefits at a point in the future for those fortunate enough to survive their employment and avoid an early death.. He continued racist and sexist policies especially relating to employment, government sanctioned discrimination and unfair dispersal of social benefits.

The main thing I would want to add to the analysis is that, unfortunately, I don’t think that the veneration of St. Franklin is solely due to the rush to take an equal-but-opposite reaction to the vilification of Roosevelt by plutocratic Right-wing hacks like Limbaugh or Hannity. The attitude is much older than Right-wing hate radio, and I think it is deeply rooted in the historical narratives and the self-conception of the Progressive wing of the Left. At the time Roosevelt went on a full-bore attack against the radical Left but enjoyed the support of the professional-class Progressive Left — whose influence he dramatically increased, and whose fortunes he subsidized on the taxpayer’s dime, with his massive expansion of the civil service and government planning bureaucracy. And he is venerated today by so many on the Left because so many on the Left continue allow their message to be set by the agendas of the political parties and by the nostrums of mid-20th century vital center corporate liberal politics. The counter-historical hagiography isn’t just a way of reacting to the Right; it’s also a way that the Establishmentarian Left keeps the radical Left in line, diverts all too many of us into the failed strategy of increasing workers’ power by increasing government power, and blinds all too many to the fact that their efforts within or on behalf of the Democratic Party are failing repeatedly, or when they succeed, inevitably succeed in increasing the power of professional government planners, without any significant gains for ordinary workers.

So it is really refreshing, at this historical moment, to see some folks challenging St. Franklin from the Left. And it’s deeply unfortunate, but not surprising, that it is refreshing to see that. It ought to be easy and common to make the Leftist case against a millionaire dynastic politician who officially kicked off his administration with a series of massive bank bail-outs, systematically attacked labor radicals, created a bureaucratic apparatus intended to buy off and domesticate labor moderates and conservatives, while sidelining or criminalizing labor’s most effective tactics, and presided over repeated physical attacks on organized workers. A millionaire dynastic politician who, in 1936, ordered J. Edgar Hoover to ramp up federal surveillance of questionable domestic political groups, and who aggressively dispensed with traditional restraints on unilateral executive power in order to pack the courts in favor of his own policies and to elevate himself to President-for-Life. A President-for-Life who conscripted millions of workers in the United States’ first ever peacetime military draft, who then spent a couple years deliberately wangling his way into a position where he could throw his new conscript army into the largest and most destructive war in the history of the world, who then, using the exigencies of a global war on tyranny as his excuse, drove Congress to create the House Un-American Activities Committee, imprisoned war protesters and political opponents on sedition and espionage charges, extracted no-strike agreements from the now-politically-controlled labor unions, commandeered virtually every good and imposed massive rationing and government-mandated wage freezes on American workers, created the modern military-industrial complex, ordered the firebombing of hundreds of German and Japanese cities, and, with a series of unilateral executive orders and military proclamations, summarily seized the property of hundreds of thousands of Japanese Americans, imposed arbitrary curfews on them based solely on their nationality, and finally sent in the military to roust them out of their homes and march them into concentration camps scattered across the American West.

Unfortunately, that kind of talk doesn’t square with the preferred historical narrative of Democratic Party politicians, and (therefore) it doesn’t much suit those who have ambitions that depend on currying favor with Democratic Party politicians. So it’s not the sort of thing that you hear much about. But it is the sort of thing that we can remember, and that we can talk about, whether they want us to or not.

See also:

Refuge of oppression #3: Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Here is a piece of correspondence that I actually received quite a long time ago, but which I just noticed recently as I was cleaning old out e-mail. The letter is apparently in response to my remarks in GT 2005-01-03: Robert E. Lee owned slaves and defended slavery. I suppose that it’s better late than never, when it comes to reprinting such valiant efforts to clear the name of such a great man and great American.

From: Todd
Subject: Hero
Date: 11 May 2006

General Lee is and will ever be my hero. Despite Slavery. He was a Great American. One can look with hind sight and say things, but we are careful about this. Never damning such people as Washington, or Jefferson. My point is we make our history to meet the PC thought of the day.

Lee was a loyal patriot, that had history provided a different out come, would be the model of every young person of every race.

The one thing I don’t like about America is we dismiss the brave heroes of our past because they don’t fit the PC world of today. We have a rich history, of which we should be proud. Men like Lee should be praised along side others like Washington, Lincoln, F.D.R. and so on.. They are part of what made us American.

I have traveled to the former USSR many times, and the subject of Gen Lee came up with ex Soviet Army Vets. All knew him as a great General. They had studied his tactics. When I told them that Americans were ashamed and renamed schools which once bore his name, they always laughed, saying you Americans have become weak, and cant honor your own This was hurtful words, but true words.

Slavery was an evil, one we should always remember, but something more important we should know , it still exist. In the heart of Africa it is there, why don’t we do something ? The only answerer I can provide myself is that, it isn’t PC. If it were P.C. every Hollywood actor, and Liberal Political would be screaming from roof tops. Dear Lord, it would be the biggest political thing in 150 years.Because we don’t here about it leaves me to wonder about the legitimate cry over the history American Slavery. It is just an agenda of the left. Because if they really cared they would do something to help the people around the world still enslaved. I don’t think they really care, but blaming men like Robert E. Lee makes them feel better.

For the record, I would like to admit that I have been convinced, in spite of the seditious libel spread throughout the P.C. world of today, that Robert E. Lee should indeed be praised about as much as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and whichever of their own nationalist heroes as may be honored by the proud veterans of the Red Army.

Further reading:

Evildoers

For the past week, there’s been a lot of hubbub over All Things Beautiful’s Ten Worst Americans challenge. For a lot of reasons, I don’t have a comprehensive list, and I’m not that keen on the whole project (there’s lots of evil and ugliness in the world without going out of your way to seek it out, compile it, and cross-index it; I have no idea what the criteria would be for choosing ten people as more evil than any others; and I think that most of us are already far too fascinated with and fixated on demonology as it is). So I don’t have a Worst Ten list to provide. But I do have a list of additions that I think ought to be there, if lists are to be made. Coming out for the left-liberal corner we have Ampersand at Alas, A Blog (2005-12-27) with a list of seven villains, Patrick at Tiberius and Gaius Speaking… with a list of ten, and Glenn Greenwald and Hypatia at Unclaimed Territory (2005-12-28) with another ten to throw on the barbie. With the exception of Glenn’s silly inclusion of Harry Blackmun, they are pretty much right, as far as it goes, but there are some notable names that I notice tend to get left out. I suggested some additions at Alas and some dishonorable mentions at Tiberius and Gaius, which have been followed up with some debate.

Here’s my contribution of evildoers. I make no attempt to be comprehensive — there are lots of truly rotten people who aren’t on the list, mainly because they are mentioned elsewhere. But these folks are truly rotten, and often overlooked — sometimes because they get shoved out of the way by contemporary contenders that contemporary writers tend to give disproportionate space to, sometimes because the villains are overlooked by pop history anyway, and sometimes simply because political blinders prevent their names from being given serious consideration. The interesting thing is that the blinders rarely constitute defenses of their deeds — although in at least two of the three cases I discuss with Patrick that is what’s happening. It’s just that, for whatever reason, some folks whose crimes are readily admitted, if mentioned, aren’t thought of when you sit down thinking Who should I put down as a terrible evil-doer? I have some ideas about the reasons behind that, but I’d be interested to hear what you think in comments, too.

In any case, here’s my unordered list of overlooked evildoers, cobbled together from my suggestions elsewhere:

  • Harry S. Truman. He ordered or approved the murders of 500,000 - 1,000,000 Japanese civilians over the course of half a year in 1945.

  • Curtis LeMay. He carried out the murder of 500,000 - 1,000,000 Japanese civilians over the course of half a year in 1945. He planned and carried out the low-altitude firebombing of Kobe, Tokyo, and 65 other Japanese cities. A nuclear maniac who explicitly denied that there were any innocent bystanders in war, went on to coin the phrase bomb them back into the Stone Age (in reference to the Vietnam War), and went on to become George Wallace’s running mate in 1968, on a platform of white supremacy and more militant anticommunism. During World War II, he repeatedly indicated his belief that the Japanese deserved wholesale slaughter of civilians, and his own public statements and the reminiscences of the soldiers who served under him reveal him as simply reveling in death and destruction.

  • Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a pseudo-leftist demagogue who created the military-industrial complex; imprisoned political opponents; seized sweeping censorship powers; pandered to the worst sorts of racism, first in his political alliances with arch-segregationist Dixiecrats and then in whipping up war fever for war against Japan; ordered internment of Japanese-Americans; happily allied with, propagandized for, and consigned 1/2 of Europe to the totalitarian terror of, Joseph Stalin; and became one of the three men who came the closest to becoming a dictator in the United States.

  • Woodrow Wilson, unreprentant liar and war-monger, KKK fan, arch-segregationist, ardent anti-feminist. His published academic work delighted in white supremacist myth-making; his warmongering drew the United States needlessly into one of the worst and most senseless wars in world history; he built a slave army with the second federal draft in American history, and shredded civil liberties with abandon, happily imprisoning political opponents both during and after the War and presiding over the devastating Palmer Raids. Wilson is one of the three men who came the closest to becoming a dictator in the United States.

  • George Fitzhugh, who fused the worst elements of statist utopian socialism with a nostalgic view of feudal hierarchy to provide the most militant theoretical defense of white supremacy and race slavery in the prewar South. He authored Slavery Justified, Sociology in the South, and Cannibals All!.

  • William Tecumseh Sherman, one of the inventors of modern scorched-earth warfare, ravager of the South and murderer of Southern civilians. Sherman followed up his most famous role by pursuing genocidal campaigns against the Plains Indians and Indians in the Southwest from 1869 until his retirement in 1884.

  • James Eastland, the militant white supremacist Senator from Mississippi, mad dog McCarthyist, and founding father of the White Citizens Councils.

  • In addition to another Alas commenter’s suggestion of Larry Flynt, I’d also like to add Chuck Traynor, the pimp / pornographer / rapist / batterer / slave-driver who forced Linda Boreman into Deep Throat (among other pornography) and played an instrumental role in founding the mass-market, above-ground film pornography industry in the U.S. through repeated filmed rapes.

  • Sergio Méndez reminded me that Ronald Reagan certainly needs a mention, yet he seems notoriously absent from many of the lists. I mention him here not because I think he’s often overlooked on lefty lists of rotten people, but rather because I think the primary reasons to include him — his complicity in the formation of the death squads of El Salvador and the plainly genocidal massacre of some 200,000 Indians in Guatemala — is often overlooked in favor of a frankly silly focus on his contributions to the rhetoric of the contemporary Right in America.

The exercise, whatever its demerits, does seem to be a good conversation-starter. What do you think?

Over My Shoulder #4: Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor

You know the rules. Here’s the quote. This is again from Paul Buhle’s Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor.

Paradoxically and simultaneously, industrial unionism—though born of the radicalism of Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco—became a new mode of enforcing the contract. Attempts to seize back the initiative from foremen and time-study experts were met, now, with directives from industrial union leaders to stay in line until a greivance could be properly negotiated. Soon, union dues would be deducted automatically from wages, so that officials no longer needed to bother making personal contact and monthly appeals to the loyalty of members.

Meany, treating industrial unionists at large as enemies, could not for many years grasp that events were bringing the CIO’s elected officials closer to him. He was steeped in a craft tradition to which the very idea of workers united into a single, roughly roughly egalitarian body hinted at revolutionary transformation. But many less conservative sectors were equally surprised by the course of the more democratic CIO unions toward the end of the 1930s. A triangle of government, business, and labor leadership brought about a compact that served mutual interest in stability, though often not in the interests of the workers left out of this power arrangement.

Not until 1937 did business unionism confirm its institutional form, when the Supreme Court upheld the Wagner Act. Now, a legitimate union (that is to say, a union legitimated by the National Labor Relation Board) with more than 50 percent of the vote in a union election became the sole bargaining agent for all. Unions stood on the brink of a membership gold-rush. The left-led Farm Equipment union could that same year, for instance, win a tremendous victory of five thousand workers at International Harvester in Chicago without a strike, thanks to the NLRB-sanctioned vote. But union leaders also prepared to reciprocate the assistance with a crackdown against membership indiscipline. The United Auto Workers, a case in point, arose out of Wobbly traditions mixed with a 1920s Communist-led Auto Workers Union and an amalgam of radicals’ efforts to work within early CIO formations. The fate of the industry, which fought back furiously against unionization, was set by the famed 1937 sit-down strikes centered in Flint, which seemed for a moment to bring the region close to class and civil war. Only the personal intercession of Michigan’s liberal Governor Murphy, it was widely believed, had prevented a bloodbath of employers’ armed goons retaking the basic means of production and setting off something like a class war. Therein lay a contradiction which the likes of George Meany could appreciate without being able to comprehend fully. The notorious willingness of UAW members to halt production until their greivances were met did not end because the union had employed the good offices of the goveronr (and the appeals of Franklin Roosevelt) to bring union recognition. On the one hand, a vast social movement of the unemployed grew up around the auto workers’ strongholds in Michigan, generating a sustained classwide movement of employed and unemployed, lasting until wartime brought near full employment. On the other hand, union leaders, including UAW leaders, swiftly traded off benefits for discipline in an uneven process complicated by strategic and often-changing conflicts within the political left.

The continuing struggle for more complete democratic participation was often restricted to the local or the particularistic, and thanks to a long-standing tradition of autonomy, sometimes to insular circles of AFL veterans. For instance, in heavily French-Canadian Woonsocket, Rhode Island, a vibrant Independent Textile Union had sprung up out of a history of severe repression and the riotous 1934 general textile strike. The ITU remained outside the CIO and set about organizing workers in many industries across Woonsocket; then, after a conservatizing wartime phase, it died slowly with the postwar shutdown of the mills. To take another example, the All Workers Union of Austin, Minnesota—an IWW-like entity which would reappear in spirit during the 1980s as rebellious Local P-9 of the United Food and Commercial Workers—held out for several years in the 1930s against merger. A model par excellence of horizontal, unionism with wide democratic participation and public support, the AWU (urged by Communist regulars and Trotskyists alike) willingly yielded its autonomy, and in so doing also its internal democracy, to the overwhelming influence of the CIO. In yet another case, the Progressive Miners of America, which grew out of a grassroots rebellion against John L. Lewis’s autocratic rule, attempted to place itself in th AFL that Lewis abandoned, on the basis of rank-and-file democracy with a strong dose of anti-foreign and sometimes anti-Semitic rhetoric. Or again: the AFL Seaman’s Union of the Pacific, reacting ferociously to Communist efforts to discipline the sea lanes, stirred syndicalist energies and like the PMA simultaneously drew upon a racist exclusionary streak far more typical of the AFL than the CIO.

These and many less dramatic experiments died or collapsed into the mainstream by wartime. But for industrial unionism at large, the damage had already been done to the possibilities of resisting creeping bureaucratization. Indeed, only where union delegates themselves decreed safety measures of decentralization, as in the UAW in 1939 (against the advice of Communists and their rivals), did conventions emerge guaranteeing participation from below, to some significant degree.

— Paul Buhle, Taking Care of Business: Samuel Gompers, George Meany, Lane Kirkland, and the Tragedy of American Labor, 119-121.