In his article “The New Deal is Not Enough,” Dan La Botz critiques the language of the New Deal to articulate the goals and aspirations of the socialist movement in the present day. He outlines the New Deal’s deficiencies in actually generating an economic recovery from the Great Depression, and argues that the New Deal itself was administered by a coalition of capital-intensive financiers and industrialists.
While this is undoubtedly the case, the problem is that none of this has very much to do with the “new New Deal” as a political slogan.
The biggest weaknesses of La Botz’s article is its argument that “the slogan of the new New Deal tends to reinforce the idea that the Democratic Party will save the country and therefore deserves our support.” This statement is out of step with current political events as they are actually unfolding. In recent weeks, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s enthusiastic support for a Green New Deal and a green jobs program has been met with icy indifference by the bulk of congressional Democrats, including the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
If “[v]ictories by Democrats, even progressive Democrats calling for a new New Deal, strengthen the Democratic Party, not the anti-capitalist left” as La Botz claims, then why aren’t Democratic politicians flocking to the demand for the Green New Deal? Why aren’t party leaders looking to co-opt the leading issues and demands raised by Bernie Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez? Where is the coalition of capital-intensive financiers and industrialists prepared to sweep Bernie into the White House?
Similar arguments were made on the Left in 2015, when it was argued that a Bernie Sanders campaign for President would only serve to sheepdog socialists and progressives into a capitalist party. This argument, much like the one La Botz makes in his article, implies that these internal party upheavals play an essential role in ensuring its continued stability. These arguments fail to adequately account for the events of the last three years. It is very difficult to argue from the standpoint of 2018 that Sanders and similar phenomena have simply reinforced the status quo of the Democratic Party. These events have caused upheaval in the party structure rather than its consolidation and stability as party leaders find themselves more and more at odds with the policies workers want to see enacted.
La Botz’s analysis of the New Deal period similarly has very little predictive power. We are in a wildly different historical moment than we were eighty years ago, with dramatically different class dynamics at play. Historical examples, whether it’s the New Deal, the Communist Party, or Students for a Democratic Society, are only viable inasmuch as they resonate with real world conditions that we operate in as socialists today, and only to the degree that they are actually useful to our work.
Contrary to La Botz’s assertion that the slogan is “misleading and incomplete,” the demand for a Green New Deal slogan has done exactly what a good slogan should do. It’s gained a mass audience among working people because it resonates with their lived experiences. It has facilitated a class polarization within the Democratic Party and points to an upper limit of what can be achieved within a capitalist framework. What more could be expected from a politically effective slogan?
Of course the Green New Deal by itself would not avert climate change, much less end the reign of global capital. I agree with La Botz when says that socialists should push to go much further including demands for public banks, public ownership of key industries such as transportation and energy, and more. But demands themselves are not the goal. The goal is building real organizations workers can use to actually wield their collective power.
Slogans are slogans. They are necessarily limited by their nature. And even if a slogan could be “complete,” no slogan will ever relieve us of the difficult work we need to do to build mass socialist movement in the leading capitalist power.
The call for a new New Deal is not a call to move backwards. It is a call to rebuild the kind of political revolution it took to create such a policy in the first place, and to the movements that would make it possible. To quote Marx: “the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.”
Ryan Mosgrove, Metro D.C. DSA
La Botz Responds:
Ryan Mosgrove argues that DSA candidates’ use of “the new New Deal” is just a slogan, not a real political program, and that as a slogan it has proven to be quite effective. It is effective. And the effect is to align would-be socialists with the Democratic Party.
During his 2016 campaign, Sanders, who had been an independent, invoked FDR in part to establish his own Democratic Party credentials. He made a fetish of the former president. He visited FDR’s grave during his campaign. He made a campaign ad comparing himself to FDR, with photos of each speaking while making the same gesture. He wasn’t the only one who did so. Hillary Clinton, as we may remember, launched her ill-fated campaign in Roosevelt Island’s Four Freedoms Park.
The New Deal is part of Democratic Party legend and lore, the foundation of the party’s modern politics. Those politics are not necessarily progressive and certainly not socialist. John F. Kennedy praised FDR as he called for better health and education. Lyndon B. Johnson began his career as an FDR Democrat and as president extended FDR program of social reforms to black people in America. “Clinton loved FDR,” praised him, and then carried out a program of austerity, racism, and repression.
Allusion to FDR’s New Deal by Bernie Sanders, however, is more than a slogan, it is a program as well. The same Sanders’ ad that compared him to FDR talked about “breaking up the big banks.” The slogan of breaking up the banks goes back to the trust busters of the Progressive Era. There is nothing socialist about it. We socialists have no interest in breaking up the big banks—we are for their socialization.
The New Deal was not a program of structural reforms that challenges capitalism, what André Gorz called “non-reformist reforms,” and it is not a “transitional program” that advances the revolution such as Leon Trotsky proposed in the late 1930s. On the contrary, the New Deal was a social pact that saved capitalism from the Great Depression, ended the labor upheaval, and coralled the black vote. Bernie Sanders says, FDR’s New Deal “restored our faith in government.” That, we may say, is virtually the opposite of the task of socialists.
Mosgrove suggests that we pay more attention to the role of the Communist Party (CP) in the New Deal coalition as an example for DSA and socialists to emulate today. In those years, the Communist Party, after playing an important role the great labor upheavals of the early 1930s, adapted to the emerging labor bureaucracy and supported the New Deal coalition over which they could exert no real influence. The Communists dissolved their cells in the workplace, joined Democratic Party clubs, and upheld the model of socialism in Stalin’s Soviet Union.
With the outbreak of World War II, the Communists became superpatriots opposed to strikes and black civil rights activities because they might weaken the defense of the Soviet Union. The CP eventually adopted its leader Earl Browder’s slogan that “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism,” dropping the struggle against capitalism and imperialism altogether. Later the line changed, but then it was too late; McCarthyism was upon them, together with the revelation of Stalin’s crimes and the Hungarian workers revolution against Communism. What positive lessons are we to draw from all that?
Most recently Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has raised the idea of a “Green New Deal,” and this has excited progressives around the country. But as Kali Akuno of Jackson Cooperation has said, “we need to critically analyze some of the shortfalls of the capitalist logic embedded in this plan.” We should be aware then when using the term “New Deal” that we have to think carefully about its historic resonance, with FDR, with the Democratic Party and with the salvation, not the overthrow, of capitalism.