It’s a new day in Joe Biden’s America, and as some would have it, the raft of reforms and grand promises we are seeing today can be attributed to the increasing influence of the left in congress and in the Biden administration.
On Wednesday, Biden layered his previously announced infrastructure spending plan with a number of important social programs, long demanded by working people and the left, including plans to make childcare, college, and early childhood education more financially accessible to working people. These programs are desperately needed by millions of people across the US, and the signals by the Biden administration in this direction are a welcome sign after the sadist Trump administration. It remains unclear, however, whether these reforms will ultimately be implemented, despite the Democrats’ control of the presidency and both houses of Congress.
Where did this radical, seemingly Keynesian turn come from? The Wall Street Journal, mouthpiece of the US ruling class, has called it a shift toward the “belief that government can be a primary driver for growth,” and “an attempt to recalibrate assumptions that have shaped economic policy of both parties since the 1980s.” It’s a turn away from neoliberalism, the capitalist class cries, toward a welfare policy for workers!
Beyond shoring up childcare and education, the centerpiece of Biden’s new plans is a massive infrastructure policy to robustify American manufacturing, research, and development. In a context where worker organization has struggled to make big strides, it’s not entirely clear that these reforms represent overtures to the workers’ movement or the left. In reality, Biden’s new plans can be better understood in terms of the United States’ imperialist project and the requirements of rejuvenating American geopolitical hegemony in its increasing competition with China.
The reforms on offer, however, are substantive. Whether the proposals actually redound to working people, not to mention whether the imperialist machine can be dismantled, will depend most importantly upon the outcome of the class struggle. There is a crucial difference, however, between a strategy that relies upon connections with powerful people in Congress and the imperialist state, and a strategy that targets capitalists’ bottom line through economic and social disruption, and therefore compels our class enemies to concede vital reforms that can improve our lives.
If we hope to win the kind of massive social programs that Biden promises, and beyond that, radically transform society through the revolutionary expropriation and redistribution of capitalist private property, we should have an accurate understanding of how such reforms were won in the past.
The New Deal
The New Deal, a series of sweeping reforms pushed through in the midst of the Great Depression in the 1930s, is often referenced as a high point for achieving meaningful legal and economic reforms. Under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), social protections and programs were created that included minimum wages, banking regulations, social security and retirement benefits, and a massive government jobs program run through the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
One reform in particular has been described as “perhaps the most radical piece of legislation ever enacted by the United States Congress”1Karl Klare, “Judicial Deradicalization of the Wagner Act and the Origins of Modern Legal Consciousness, 1937-1941,” in Minnesota Law Review 62 (1978), pp. 265-339: the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Wagner Act) of 1935. Before this legislation, labor unions were de facto illegal in the United States, and workers had no legal recourse against abuses by bosses. The NLRA legalized unions and compelled employers to recognize any employees wanting to unionize. The Wagner Act can be considered the centerpiece of the New Deal, and understanding how it was won can provide useful insight into present-day struggles for similar reforms such as the PRO Act, but also other proposed sweeping social programs.
FDR was elected in 1932 in the midst of the Great Depression. During his campaign for president and even after he was elected, he was not known as a progressive and didn’t put forward much of a progressive vision at all. He was, however, able to ride a wave of resentment against the former president who oversaw the great crash of 1929, President Herbert Hoover. All kinds of policies were circulating in government circles at the time, but the first year of the presidency actually saw the creation of some pro-corporate policy designed primarily to restore business profitability (the National Industrial Recovery Act). To see how things shifted toward the historic reform program we now identify with the New Deal, we have to look beyond the White House at what was happening in society at the time.
After the depression began in 1929, millions were suddenly unemployed. These newly unemployed workers started organizing in the new context, resulting in massive, militant protests of the unemployed between 1930 and 1932, led almost entirely by open Communists. The Communist Party (CP) would organize mass demonstrations at funerals of party members killed by the cops. In Chicago in 1931, police opened fire on a Black community on the South Side, killing three people. The funeral procession consisted of sixty thousand participants and fifty thousand more cheering onlookers, led by workers carrying Communist banners. The demonstration dominated the national news.
By 1934, social unrest started hitting home inside the workplace as well. Even prior to this, the Communists’ defense of the Scottsboro defendants against racist allegations led more and more Black industrial workers to join the CP and become leading labor militants. The year 1934 saw deep social upheavals centered around three historic, successful strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. All three of these great strikes were led by openly revolutionary groups with links to previously mobilized communities, and all of them were openly confrontational. “Most likely,” Michael Goldfield notes in his indispensable study of the period,
“these strikes increased the fear among the rich of revolution. In all probability, they made politicians committed to capitalism somewhat apprehensive. For AFL leaders, however, these strikes must have had the appearance of the grim reaper. They signified the existence of an emerging class-based labor movement led by radicals, completely outside their control.”2Michael Goldfield, “Worker Insurgency, Radical Organization, and New Deal Labor Legislation,” in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Dec., 1989), pp. 1257-1282. Here. 1273
It was not only the capitalists whose profits these strikes threatened, but the elected officials and state managers responsible for maintaining a generally stable business climate who were acutely aware of the threat these rolling strikes posed.
In May 1934, one Representative in the House summarized the ruling class view of the situation:
“You have seen strikes in Toledo, you have seen Minneapolis, you have seen San Francisco, and you have seen some of the southern textile strikes…but…you have not yet seen the gates of hell opened, and that is what is going to happen from now on.”3Goldfield, ibid.
Over the course of the next year, the threat of such massive strikes roiled respectable society, producing not only temporary alarm, but a deep-seated fear among the capitalist class generally. As the NLRA labor reform act was debated in hearing and floor debates, these fears permeated every discussion.
With haste, the New Deal political coalition passed the NLRA in an attempt to constrain, limit, and control the increasingly militant labor movement. Although it represented a step forward for the side of workers, it had serious limitations. It was a concession, an effort to quell the forces of radicalism and revolution posing a threat to capitalist order. Far from an exception to the rule, almost every major reform in the last century and a half has been won in such a way: not by trusting the benevolence of the ruling class, but by building power from below and forcing their hand.
Historically, it has been revolutionaries who have been the most successful fighters for the basic social changes or reforms in people’s everyday lives. Look at any major historic reforms and they were introduced as concessions to revolutionary agitation and disruptions like strikes:
The existence of a weekend off work: Anarchists.
Unemployment supports: Communists.
Racial integration: Radical Black revolutionaries.
Legalized abortion: Mass women’s marches and illegal service provision.
Even as socialists and other radicals build the relationships, shopfloor networks and tenant organizations needed for socialists and radicals to have any influence on the course of this country’s politics, we cannot forget that movement self-reliance, inclusivity, and confrontational approaches have always been the most effective way to win reforms.
Don’t Forget the Fundamentals
Although the configurations of different sectors in the ruling class within individual historical circumstances certainly play a major role in shaping the kinds of reforms that are passed in moments of political and economic crisis, it would be a massive mistake for the left to forget the ultimate source of anything good for working class people: mass disruption of business as usual. Ninety percent of what goes on in the world can be explained by vulgar Marxism, as Bob Fitch once remarked. The most effective way to combat the boss is with strikes, especially political strikes that squarely confront the racism and oppressions that the ruling class uses to divide and conquer our class.
Just as it would be a mistake to think backroom deals and individual congresspeople are the source of our power, it would also behoove us to remember that periods of mass disruption—powerful and transformative as they can be—dissipate unless there is organizational infrastructure built beforehand that can be mobilized to support social upheavals and make their effects durable over much longer periods of time. No magical uprising will arrive to do the work for us. Transformative social change—revolution—must be prepared for and organized. That can only happen when real people talk to their coworkers and neighbors about politics and build trust amongst one another through day-to-day struggles and experiences. This work is not as glamorous as the moment of mass uprising, but it is essential for those moments of possibility to open windows into a socialist future.
As Biden puts forward an imperial Keynesianism meant to restore the prestige and expand profitability for the US ruling class, we cannot afford to forget where workers’ power lies: in the struggle against the boss and the imperialist state. A Faustian bargain with US imperialism is not only an odious betrayal of international solidarity, it also won’t work.
It’s time to think strategically. Crises are inevitable under capitalism, so it doesn’t make sense to weld left-wing strategies to the benevolence of the ruling class and their hollow promises of uninterrupted prosperity. Working people have to disrupt the business climate of our class enemies. Class struggle is not just the only path to socialism, it’s the best way to win the basic reforms we need here and now.