February 2008   

Not a “New New Deal,” But a
Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution

What the entire gamut of liberals and reformists is seeking is for Obama to launch a “New Deal” like that of Roosevelt in the 1930s. Following the November election, this was all the rage in the bourgeois media. The New York Times (8 November 2008) ran a piece on Obama’s stimulus package titled, “75 Years Later, a Nation Hopes for Another F.D.R.” Liberal economist Paul Krugman wrote on his blog the same day, “Everybody’s talking new New Deal these days.”  Before the election, Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel and Eric Schlosser wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal (27 September 2008) calling for exactly that: “What we really need is a new New Deal: a systematic approach to the financial and economic problems of the United States. Firstly, we need relief for ordinary Americans.” More recently, the Monthly Review (February 2009), a non-denominational organ of Stalinist reformism, ran an article by John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney, “A New New Deal under Obama?” saying, “The possibility of a new New Deal is to be welcomed by all of those on the left, as promising some relief to a hard-pressed working population.”

The social-democratic reformists of the International Socialist Organization is singing from the same hymnal. In an article, “Who Made the New Deal?” in Socialist Worker (19 November 2008), SW editor Lance Selfa “recounts the history of an era that is still remembered for the important changes that benefited the working majority.” That is, of course, how the liberals remember it, and obscures the fact that FDR’s purpose was quite different. So Selfa adds: “The New Deal was, first and foremost, a program to save a U.S. economy in crisis.” But it’s not just “the economy” in generic terms, as Daniel Gross wrote in piece on “The New ‘New Deal’” (Newsweek, 25 March 2008), “In the 1930s Franklin Delano Roosevelt saved American capitalism from its own self-inflicted wounds.” And FDR himself wrote, “I am the best friend the profit system ever had.” The ISO tries to get around this by saying: “That American workers made gains was the result of huge struggles that gave a radical content to that program.” Yet the content of the New Deal was hardly radical, and the workers’ struggles were often waged in the face of efforts by the Roosevelt administration to call them off.

Battle of the Market during 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike led by Trotskyists. Pickets disperse attack on strike by police and bosses' vigilantes. (Photo: Minnesota Historical Society)

The New Deal was a program to save capitalism. It didn’t even end the Depression – it took World War II to do that. To the extent the New Deal offered anything to the working class, it was in an effort to keep it under control and stave off the spectre of “red revolution.” It was the leaders of the conservative AFL unions who preached reliance on Roosevelt, not “the left,” and certainly not the revolutionaries. The issue came to a head in a series of strikes in 1934, in Toledo (auto parts), San Francisco (maritime), Minneapolis (truckers) and a national textile walkout. Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon wrote, “Now, as in the labor upsurge of last year, the attitude of the workers toward the NRA [National Recovery Administration] occupies a central place.” Compared to the walkouts of 1933, there “has been a heavy shift in emphasis from faith in the NRA to reliance on their own strength.” Workers dubbed the NRA the “National Run Around.” But leadership was key. Only in Minneapolis, where the Trotskyists led the strikes, was there a clear-cut victory. Cannon compared the outcome there with the other strikes:

“In most of the other strikes the leaders blunted the edge of the fight – where they could not head it off altogether, as in the case of the auto workers – and preached reliance on the NRA, on General Johnson, or the president. In Minneapolis the leaders taught the workers to fight for their rights and fought with them.”1

–James P. Cannon, “Minneapolis and Its Meaning,” New International, July 1934

The key question, in the 1930s and today, is revolutionary leadership. Now as then, the opportunists look to the capitalist government, taking their cue from presidents Roosevelt and Obama. Thus the leadership of the largest “antiwar coalition,” United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), essentially called off national antiwar mobilizations for the duration of the election campaign, in order not to embarrass the Democratic Party candidate. Subsequently it has resisted calling for immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan (although reluctantly ceding on this) or directly confronting the Obama administration. So it will call a demonstration on April 4 in New York City, not Washington, on the slogan “Yes We Can ... End the War.” Sound familiar? Yet the UFPJ is just more up-front in its opportunism. The fact is that all the reformists have sought to build a class-collaborationist “antiwar movement” geared to what is acceptable to Democrats. Now that the Democratic Party, with their aid, controls the executive and both houses of Congress, the bankruptcy of this policy is starkly revealed: the war in Iraq goes on, and in Afghanistan and Pakistan it is escalating under Obama, while the U.S. backs the Israeli slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza.

In contrast, the Internationalist Group, section of the League for the Fourth International, calls for defense of the Afghan, Iraqi and Palestinian peoples and the defeat of U.S. imperialism and Zionism, for workers strikes against the war, for transportation unions to hot cargo war materiel, for mobilizing the power of the international proletariat rather than appealing to the capitalist Democrats. The first-ever workers strike in the United States against a U.S. imperialist war, the walkout last May 1 by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union that shut down all 27 ports on the West Coast, was a step in this direction. The union ranks, fed up with the Democrats’ failure to stop the war, carried out this action over repeated attempts by the union leadership to sabotage and distort it. The IG fought for and helped build and publicize this action.

Currently, labor officialdom and the reformist left are concentrating on building support for the Employee Free Choice Act, since Obama and the Democrats have endorsed this. Meanwhile, the new administration is shoving a “stimulus” bill down the throat of auto workers which will eliminate their right to strike, slash billions of dollars of company contributions to their health and pension funds, close at least 15 additional auto plants and lay off 50,000 auto workers, just from the Detroit 3, while giving $39 billion to their bosses. The UAW leadership is going along with this devastating plan. What should the response of labor militants be? In a December 17 statement, the CPUSA calls to “get behind President-Elect Barack Obama's economic stimulus and public works jobs program,” and suggests “public ownership of the domestic auto industry.” How? Simple. “The United States government could buy all the common shares of stock in General Motors.” This takeover could even be temporary, these “communists” suggest. The ISO likewise calls, in a November 10 article, for “nationalization” of auto, while urging that “the Obama government should insist on a moratorium on layoffs and guarantees of job security.”

Such calls build dangerous illusions. The Obama administration is committed to slashing auto jobs wholesale in order to make the industry “competitive.” If it does go for a temporary de facto nationalization, it would only be to hold onto a key industry for “national security,” and auto companies would still be subject to the dictates of the capitalist market. Instead of calls on the capitalist government to save the workers, in the face of the threat of a wholesale shutdown of productive capacity, with auto plants across the country laying idle, class-struggle unionists should call for workers action to occupy the plants, not only those threatened with closing but of the entire chains, and impose workers control. Audacious? Certainly. Impossible? Certainly not, as demonstrated by the recent occupation of Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago and the enthusiastic response it received from workers around the country. Militant workers should raise demands for 30 hours work for 40 hours pay, form workers committees to open the books of the auto companies, demand full socialized medicine (not just “single payer” health insurance) as well as a massive program of public works at union-scale wages and under union control.

Under those conditions, demands for expropriation of the bankrupt auto manufacturers (not compensated nationalization), whose discredited management has run the industry into the ground, would have a very different content. They would point directly to the need for a socialist planned economy, which would produce to fill human needs rather than for profit, and to the only way to achieve this: through workers revolution. As Leon Trotsky wrote in the founding program of the Fourth International, written in the depths of the last Great Depression, with special attention to the struggles of American workers:

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”

The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International (The Transitional Program)

1 In the Toledo Auto-Lite strike, the AFL leadership accepted the findings of an FDR-appointed federal mediation board, which included recognition of a company union, but the ranks rose up against it. In San Francisco, the AFL tops managed to seize control from the militant maritime workers, led by the Stalinist CP, and sold out a general strike. In the national textile strike, which marked the peak of the strike wave, even as victory was in the their grasp the workers were stabbed in the back by the AFL tops who, fearing that the power of the mass struggle could unseat them, accepted a mediation board “settlement” pushed by Roosevelt that gave the strikers nothing. Of the textile strike, Cannon wrote:

“This was the greatest strike in American labor history in point of numbers, and the equal of any in militancy. Called into being by the pressure of the rank and file at the convention against the resistance of the leadership, it was frankly aimed at the NRA and the whole devilish circle of governmental machination, trickery and fraud. The workers, the majority of them new to the trade union movement, fought like lions, only to see the fruits of their struggle snatched from their hands, leaving them bewildered, demoralized, and defeated – they knew not how....

“The mainspring of the new left wing can only be a revolutionary Marxian party. Its creation is our foremost task.”

–James P. Cannon, “The Strike Wave and the Left Wing,” New International, September-October 1934

General Hugh Johnson was a top official of the NRA who saw Mussolini’s fascist Italy as a model.

See also:  Obama Presidency: U.S. Imperialism Tries a Makeover  (23 February 2009)
Why Marxists Oppose All Government Intervention in the Unions  (23 February 2009)
                 The “Obama Socialists” (23 February 2009)
Barack Obama vs. Black Liberation  (23 February 2009)

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com