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What Bernie Sees in the New Deal

Seth Ackerman

Bernie Sanders’s embrace of the New Deal legacy is an opportunity to dispel some pernicious historical myths about the New Deal’s relationship with socialism and its attitude toward the struggle for racial equality.

Bernie Sanders speaks on health care at George Washington University on July 17, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Alex Wong / Getty Images)

Interview by
Micah Uetricht

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’s speech on socialism, Jacobin’s Seth Ackerman spoke with managing editor Micah Uetricht about Bernie, the New Deal, socialism, and civil rights for our podcast The Vast Majority.

You can listen to the episode here. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


MU

Was the New Deal socialist?

SA

Yes and no. I wrote the article because I was struck by how a lot of liberal pundits were reacting to Bernie Sanders’s socialism speech — basically with a line that reminded me of the most ultra-left troll that you encounter on internet message boards: “that’s not ‘real socialism,’ man!” There’s obviously a grain of truth in that; FDR never identified as a socialist nor did his administration socialize the means of production.

But the New Deal was seen by socialists, and by enemies of socialism, as a form of “socialism in government” or “socialism in practice.” Socialists normally think there’s a tension between socialist politics, which involves a fundamental transformation of the economy and the state, and being an elected representative in a capitalist state where you have to govern according to capitalist rules. Yet, ironically, Roosevelt, who was not a socialist, ended up governing in a way that socialists around the world looked to for inspiration. Enemies of the New Deal pointed out over and over again that Roosevelt’s policies looked much more like the platform of the Socialist Party than that of the Democratic Party.

So these pundits laughing at Bernie Sanders for seeing the New Deal as an example of democratic socialism are correct in that he is not going to socialize the whole economy. But pointing to one of the major historical models of a socialist-style governance in a capitalist state is not so ludicrous. It makes sense for him.

MU

I feel like people expected Bernie, in this speech and the one he gave at Georgetown, to give his end-all-be-all definition of democratic socialism, but instead he mostly referenced progressive victories from history, like the New Deal, and said democratic socialism is about making social goods like health care, education, or good jobs a human right.

So he’s not explaining democratic socialism in its entirety, but he is directing focus to policies that spread vast amounts of wealth back to the people and improved their lives, like the New Deal did, by expanding workers’ rights and investment in things like education and infrastructure. He’s more about the immediate benefits of democratic socialism than the final goal.

SA

Yes. He also says his campaign is about extending the principle of democracy to the economy with ideas like worker ownership funds. Decommodification and democracy at work are big parts of what socialism has meant from the very beginning. The earliest models of socialism that people fought for would sound remarkably modest today. In the early nineteenth century, the first socialist mass movement in France was pretty vague about socialism’s definition, but what it often meant in practice was a government program to give unemployed workers loans to start cooperatives. That was the de facto program of a literal revolutionary movement, with bloodshed, barricades, and all the rest of it.

Politics changes over time and so do definitions of socialism. When we look at Bernie’s concept of socialism, we should remember that Marx and Engels always said it was more important to have a real movement of workers who understand their real interests than it is to have a perfect, doctrinally correct program. When Engels talked about American politics in the late nineteenth century, he said he much preferred the populistic Knights of Labor or “agrarian reformers” to the hyper-orthodox Marxists of the Socialist Labor Party, who sounded like Marxoid robots when they talked. He much preferred the messy, ideologically incoherent Knights of Labor because they actually represented a real movement of workers fighting for some kind of egalitarian vision in opposition to the established order.

MU

Those were the people wrestling with the real challenges of going up against the established order. The difficulties they faced came from the arena of real-life political action.

SA

Yeah. It’s easy to sit in front of your computer on the internet and type away at the absolutely correct definition of socialism but —

SA

We try to! A lot of typing about socialism. But “recipes for the cookshop of the future” is not a very practical, or a very Marxist, basis for socialism. We never get to start where we want to start, but we have to grapple with the realities of our time. Go back to 2014, when the American left was at such a low point. How on earth could we have revived socialist politics? Bernie Sanders could have run for president on a platform of full collective ownership of the means of production or whatever else we want to call “real socialism,” but what would have been the point of that? What would that have accomplished for reviving socialist politics? I am sure there are people who would argue that it would’ve been a better approach than what Bernie ended up doing. But I think that you could make a much better argument, that if you were trying your best to create a socialist movement, you would do what Bernie actually did.

MU

I will only support Bernie Sanders’s campaign if he refers to the United States exclusively as the Great Satan. Nothing less than that will I accept!

SA

Well, you’re a moderate. I insist on “AmeriKKKa,” and he has to pronounce each K.

MU

So it sounds like you’re saying that people aren’t necessarily wrong to point out that the democratic socialist vision goes beyond Bernie, but it is wrongheaded to say Bernie is not a democratic socialist. Whether it comes from an actual sectarian Marxist or a finger-wagging liberal in a mainstream newspaper, it’s wrong to simply point out how his vision of socialism falls short of some ideal instead of how it has pushed class-struggle politics forward for the first time in a long time.

SA

Nobody could deny that his approach, as moderate as it sounds, has objectively advanced socialist politics. He ran for president in 2016, and then suddenly there were sixty thousand people who wanted to become members of a socialist organization. We haven’t seen that for a hundred years. People are now talking about socialism, and when they do, it’s not just Bernie Sanders’s New Deal–style socialism; ideas going beyond social democracy are in the air in a way they haven’t been in our time. I mean, there are more people who know what the Meidner Plan is now by a factor of hundreds than there were five years ago. What I find interesting is the “not real socialism” criticism isn’t coming from keyboard warriors, but from mainstream pundits like Chris Hayes or Jordan Weisman. They’re aghast at what Sanders is doing!

MU

Why is that? Do they just fashion whatever they can grab as a political weapon?

SA

It’s the mirror image of Republicans using socialism as a scare word. Conservatives accuse Democrats of being socialists because they think the idea of socialism is so horrific to Americans that voters will run away from those candidates. Liberal pundits start from the same premise, so they’re horrified that a figure who calls himself a democratic socialist has become one of the leading figures of the party, even though he wasn’t a Democrat before. Bernie is extremely popular among average Democrats, so he’s forcing the party to associate itself indirectly with the concept of socialism. People who buy into the scare image of socialism don’t want to be associated with it. So if they have to share a party with him it’s important to deny that he’s a socialist. They have to say he’s just a New Dealer. But the New Deal itself isn’t totally unconnected to socialism. They’ve sanitized the radical history of the New Deal just like they did with the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.

MU

Cornel West calls it the “Santa Clausification” of Martin Luther King, and the same thing with the New Deal — we don’t remember how radically bold it really was.

SA

There’s a quote I put in that article from Eric Hobsbawm’s memoirs where he’s reminiscing about how much he and his fellow young communists in Germany and England in the 1930s admired Roosevelt. He was the only “bourgeois politician” in any country who they felt they could have not just voted for, but voted for enthusiastically. The reason he gives is jarring if you have the Santa Claus image of the New Deal in mind. He says Roosevelt’s administration was visibly a government for the poor, for the unions, and it was hated, loathed, and denounced by big business and capitalists. And for European communists, the American capitalist was the cartoon villain of world politics. That is the side of the New Deal people have forgotten — the degree to which Roosevelt’s politics embraced class conflict. That’s a point where the New Deal mirrors Bernie’s approach. People often ask what’s the difference between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren since they have many similar policies, and one of the main differences is that Bernie Sanders names the enemy and embraces a polarized view of politics. Other politicians, even very progressive politicians, don’t.

FDR took that approach, too — and it had even more impact because he was the president of the United States. So when he gives a speech three days before his landslide 1936 reelection and says the whole business class of the United States was arrayed against him and unanimous in their hatred of him and he welcomes their hatred — that made it pretty clear which side he was on. Compare that with Barack Obama who talked about how we’re all Americans, we’re all one country, and telling Wall Street bankers he was the only one person standing between them and the pitchforks.

Roosevelt wasn’t just being rhetorical — his words reflected how militant class struggle during his first term had pushed him in a more radical direction. When Roosevelt first came in, those were not his politics at all. He was more of an Elizabeth Warren type. But there was a labor explosion in 1934–35 with enormous, often chaotic mass strikes and aggressive industrial action by unskilled workers who hadn’t had unions of their own before. This was the origin of the industrial union movement that eventually became the core of Roosevelt’s base. Many of these unions were organized by socialists and communists, and they adopted a class struggle attitude and political programs based on communist or socialist politics. So when Roosevelt decided he needed to embrace that movement after being on such politically shaky ground in 1934–35, he had to come out and say, “There’s a conflict between bosses and workers, and I’m with the workers.”

MU

You write that Roosevelt was responding to this industrial chaos embodied by the 1934 general strikes in San Francisco, Toledo, and Minneapolis and the powerful unions they created. Bernie isn’t responding to that kind of militancy, because it doesn’t yet exist — it seems like he is trying to stoke it. He is using his campaign to get people out to picket lines, encouraging class conflict in the hope that his actions, plus the objectively miserable conditions of work, wages, health care, debt, and all the rest of it, can start the kind of upsurge that pushed the New Deal.

SA

That’s the fascinating part. It’s a strategy that’s never really been tried on the Left. It’s born of a desperate situation. I was brought up on the Left to believe that change doesn’t happen because some candidate runs for office, and that’s still true on some level. But on the other hand, Bernie is not just saying that if we elect him then he’s going to pass all the laws that make everything better — he uses his platform as a politician to put new ideas in people’s heads and create a sense of momentum behind egalitarian politics. The New Deal was similar. When that upsurge happened, the labor organizers involved noticed that suddenly, after all those years when workers were feeling beaten down and unwilling to take risks and strike, they were ready.

MU

The radical organizers in the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) used Roosevelt’s support when they talked to workers. They would say, “the president wants you to join the union.”

SA

Exactly: “President Roosevelt wants you to join the union.” The unions organized “Roosevelt clubs” in the workplace: you would join the club and you would have a Roosevelt pin on your shirt, and that was seen as a way of doing labor organizing. This is how they brought in unskilled, often immigrant, workers who had never had a union before. The unions and Roosevelt mutually reinforced each other. It’s funny — it was strangely like the classical Marxist strategy in Europe where socialists used unions to bring workers into politics and politics to bring workers into unions. In the New Deal you had a situation where there was no labor party, there was no socialist party, the president was from a completely capitalist party, and yet he sort of acted like a one-man labor organizer through his campaigns and his rhetoric.

MU

This is not really related to Bernie’s speech, but can you talk about the idea that some people have that the New Deal was a force for racism? Where did this notion come from and what does it miss about the nuances of that history?

SA

If there’s a kernel of truth to the “racist New Deal” myth, it comes from the fact that the New Deal took place just after the most racist period in US history post-slavery. The first two or three decades of the century were the historical “nadir” of the black experience in the United States — it wasn’t just Jim Crow in the South, there was a monolithic consensus in white society, including the North, about the inferiority and unsuitability of black Americans to exercise equal rights.

The vestiges of a kind of abolitionist tradition that had once existed in certain parts of the country had been almost completely stamped out, and intellectual and political culture were suffused with social-Darwinist, eugenicist ideas. So you’re starting from the absolute low point of racism in the United States, which means all these ideas are firmly embedded in almost all American institutions. Then, when Roosevelt came in, his mandate was not to do anything in particular in respect to racial equality, but to address the economic emergency — a situation that affected blacks more than anybody else, actually. The unemployment rate was 25–30 percent, and among blacks it was probably twice that.

So inevitably it’s very easy to find points of contact between these preexisting racist institutions and the New Deal. But if you’re trying to defend the idea that the New Deal was particularly a vector of racism, you have a stubborn set of facts that you have to explain away. Maybe the most important one is that African Americans at the time did not agree with that notion. In 1936, for the first time in the history of black voting, blacks switched en masse to the Democratic Party and have remained overwhelmingly Democratic ever since. Blacks had voted overwhelmingly Republican in all previous national elections; even in 1932 blacks had been the only group that remained loyal to Herbert Hoover after three years of depression. But by a wide margin they defected in 1936, and that happened because of Roosevelt and the New Deal. It’s hard to explain how, if the New Deal was particularly racist, that escaped the notice of the black people who actually lived through it. The trade unionist A. Philip Randolph, for example, one of the few black leaders who actually had a mass working-class black constituency, said in 1938 that Roosevelt had done more for the race than any president in history.

FDR’s was the first presidential administration since Reconstruction in which some actively antiracist figures used the machinery of the federal government to promote racial equality. It wasn’t all, or even most of officials, but a critical mass of them. Roosevelt himself was neither particularly racist nor particularly antiracist by the standards of the time, but there were figures within the administration who in their previous careers had gone out of their way to combat racial inequality. People like Aubrey Williams of the National Youth Administration, or Harry Hopkins, who was one of Roosevelt’s closest advisors and had been a president of the local NAACP chapter. And, of course, Eleanor Roosevelt had an intense commitment to the issue of black equality.

But more importantly, the origins of the modern Civil Rights Movement in this country stem from the New Deal period. That was when CIO industrial unions, in contrast to the racially exclusionary AFL craft unions, were first organized. The CIO organized black workers in all-encompassing unions that had the mass to shut down whole industries in strikes — the United Auto Workers (UAW) in Detroit, for example. The organizers of those unions were often radicals who had a prior political commitment to racial equality, but more importantly, they were forced to go to the black community — often to churches or local NAACPs — and say “we want and need you, we need a partnership with you.” That partnership between the labor movement and the early civil rights groups — both the respectable civil rights groups like the NAACP and the more scrappy and aggressive Communist-aligned organizations — became the institutional backbone of the Civil Rights Movement lasting right through the 1960s.

MU

No one would argue that the New Deal succeeded in defeating white supremacy. There were huge compromises. But to simply say, “Oh well, the New Deal was racist” discounts how it eventually led to the Civil Rights Movement and the toppling of Jim Crow.

SA

Yeah, so let’s talk about the compromises the New Deal made with white supremacy. First of all, Roosevelt never made any effort to get anti-lynching legislation passed. He never tried to confront the Southern poll tax. The whole preexisting civil rights agenda of that era was never pursued by the administration, and everyone knew the reason why. It was because FDR relied on a Democratic majority in Congress, much of which came from the South, and no Southern Democrat would vote for civil rights. In fact, they would rebel against the whole New Deal program if it moved toward black equality.

But the compromises go further than just appeasing the Dixiecrats. The classic example is housing segregation. When Roosevelt got into office, the entire economy had already collapsed. The housing market and the banks are interlinked because the banks finance the mortgages, so the collapse of housing values helped cause the collapse of the banks. The government now had to revive both.

Now, over the previous four decades, a whole apparatus had already emerged in northern cities to impose and preserve very rigid racial segregation. That apparatus included local zoning boards, real estate boards, the local banks that extended the mortgages, the appraisers, a whole ecosystem of people who manage and deal with local real estate. Not to mention white residents, who refused to live in neighborhoods where blacks lived. All of those institutions were deeply committed to racial segregation. The whole system was premised on the idea that if you had a mostly white neighborhood and even just a few black people started moving in, all the whites would leave and the property values would collapse, which would, of course, devastate the banks that extended the mortgages.

So when the New Deal had to revive the housing market, they created a Federal Housing Administration to insure mortgages and give banks the confidence to restart housing lending. And since the goal was to revive the real estate business, they just handed the FHA over to real estate interests. So, in other words, the New Deal inserted itself into a housing market that had already developed an elaborate system of overlapping institutions for enforcing racial segregation, and in the interests of reviving the housing market the FHA simply adopted wholesale the practices that had already been entrenched there. As a result, segregation, as it had existed in the previous decades, was perpetuated by the FHA.

But precisely because the New Deal, for the first time since Reconstruction, had elements of the state committed to racial equality — and increasingly had important elements of its political base, the industrial unions and civil rights groups, that were committed to racial equality — you also had housing initiatives pushing in the opposite direction. So you start seeing the first efforts by some people in the government to force the FHA to change its practices in 1948, right when Harry Truman finally announces a major civil rights program, when he pledges to end segregation in the military and support a fair employment commission. He pressures the FHA to start changing those practices.

So in the long run, the New Deal, as a historical tendency, did more to advance the movements that eventually ended de jure segregation in the ’60s than it did to advance segregation itself.