Massive Protest and Organizing Created the New Deal
The kind of electoral victories we need will take far more than standard electioneering and Facebook debates. Let’s look at what it took to create the New Deal so we can see just how challenging the task ahead is. During the Great Depression massive organizing efforts and protest movements were necessary just to reform the two-party system. New Deal history strongly suggests that the current dementer v. demexit debate is largely a waste of time until we organize movements powerful enough to upset the existing order.
In our memory Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the standard bearer of the New Deal but it did not start that way. FDR was a reluctant reformer pushed into progressive action because millions of people were willing to experiment with radical solutions.
Mass movements, third parties and revolutionary parties, labor upheaval, agrarian unrest, powerful populists, discontented veterans, and Democratic congressmen more radical than FDR pushed the New Deal into being. Setting aside for the moment the long-standing debates about the racial, class and other limitations of the New Deal — we can still learn about how the deep conservatism of a major party was partially overcome, for a time, by the forces of reform and revolution pushing from the bottom up.
Workers, Farmers and Veterans
Widespread labor upheavals changed the political climate. The mass production industries were organized for the first time as thousands of new leaders –including significant numbers of women and people of color — led the revolt from the shop floor. There were strikes waves that included sit-down strikes where workers actually occupied the workplace. Autoworkers in Flint Michigan kicked off the wave of sit-down strikes that spread into all sorts of workplaces.
Strikes for better conditions and union recognition were massive. For example, in 1934 alone, there were 1,856 strikes waged by 1,470,000 workers. Six million workers formed unions during the decade. Of the 38 new industrial unions, 18 were led by communists or other leftists until McCarthyism and the 1947 Taft-Hartly Act expelled them from the AFL-CIO. So furious was the class war that the New Deal was forced to recognize worker’s rights in an attempt to pacify labor relations.
Agrarian unrest rocked the heartland. The Farm Holiday Movement claimed 30,000 members and led protests of thousands demanding a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures. They blocked roads to disrupt markets and destroyed crops and products. In the 1933 the Wisconsin Milk Strike, lead by farmer cooperatives, destroyed milk products in an attempt to raise prices. Thousands of pounds of milk were trashed, creameries were bombed and protestors were shot by police.
Veterans were on the move. In 1932 “The Bonus Army” marched over 40,000 people on Washington DC where they occupied a corner of the national mall to demand the early payment of a bonus they already had coming. The veterans’ tent city was attacked by the US Army under the command of Douglass MacArthur and George Patton. Two veterans were killed and over a thousand injured. The threat of another march was headed off by the offer of jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corp — a federal jobs program. But still no bonus — instead FDR actually reappointed MacArthur. When FDR vetoed legislation passed by Congress in 1936 to secure an early bonus the Congress returned the bill with a veto-proof majority. The Bonus became law and the foundation was laid for the GI Bill.
Unemployed workers formed Unemployed Councils and demanded jobs and reliefs. Unemployment grew to 25% at times and there was unrest and protest across the country. In March 1930, 500,000 people marched in 25 cities to demand relief. Many local demonstrations were brutally attacked by police. People died but we won unemployment insurance. The Workers Alliance of America originally demanded “the abolition of the profit system” and claimed to represent 400,000 people. They pushed for legislative reforms and progressive candidates. The unemployed movement was lead by communists, socialists, and assorted radicals.
Populists Leaders Push
Nationally known populist leaders also pushed FDR to the left for a while. Huey Long is best know for his “Share the Wealth” program. He proposed to cap personal wealth and personal income and inheritance for the rich. Long proposed a guaranteed income, thirty hour work week, four week vacation, old age pension, free college or vocational training. As Governor of Louisiana and then US Senator he used the resources of the state to build hospitals, schools and roads. An estimated 20 Million listened to his radio broadcasts and he received 60,000 pieces of mail a week as a US Senator. Long tried to form an independent party to challenge the Democrats.
Robert Townsend was a doctor from California that proposed an old age pension. It generated extraordinary nationwide support and was part of the reason we have Social Security today. There were over 7,000 “Townsend Clubs” with over 2.2 million members and they called for the nationalization of banks. In 1936 Townsend was able to deliver petitions to Congress containing 10 million hard copy signatures in support of the Townsend Plan.
And when judging the movements of the 30’s, remember that the US population was only 130 million or so, less than a third of current levels.
Legislators on the Left
The grassroots rebellion reached into the halls of Congress. In the mid-term election of 1934 the Democrats won a super-majority but much more important — at least 35 Democrats stood to FDR’s left. Pressure groups like the Washington Commonwealth Federation worked to elect progressive Democrats. Third parties helped push the New Deal as well.
- The 73rd congress elected in 1932 had five members of Congress from the Farmer-Labor party, 313 Democrats, 117 Republicans.
- The 74th Congress elected in 1934 had seven members from the newly founded Progressive Party (Wisconsin), three from the Farmer-Labor, 322 Democrats and 103 Republicans.
- The 75th congress elected in 1936 had eight members from the Progressive Party, five from the Farmer Labor, 334 Democrats and 88 Republicans. Two senators were outside the major parties: Robert La Follette from the Wisconsin Progressive Party and George Norris a progressive Republican from Nebraska that left the party to run as an independent.
Here are the facts: as the number Democrats grew, the number of radical Democrats grew and the number of the third parties representatives grew. At the same time socialist and communist parties were polling about 5% combined. All progressives grew at the same time! What happened to the spoiler? The lesser of two evils? Those arguments did not yet exist and only exist now to frighten and control the weak minded.
Imagine Bernie Sanders as president with 35 Democrats in the House to his left and 13 Green Party congress members to their left with significant electoral campaigns by self-styled revolutionary parties in the context of a vast popular rebellion — that might be what another New Deal would look like.
In periods of dramatic change old categories are transformed or reconstructed. Before the New Deal, the Democrats had been the conservative party — during the New Deal they became the more progressive party. The Republicans — the last successful revolutionary party, the last third party to become a major party — became the more conservative party. Mass political upheaval, third parties and revolutionary organizations fueled the flames of political change.
That Was Then. This Is Now.
You might dismiss this history by saying the conditions were so much worse back then. Maybe — maybe not. But, answer me this: are our conditions not bad enough for you? Inequality crushes millions. Most Americans cannot cover a minor emergency. We have the greatest childhood poverty in the industrialized world and life-spans are decreasing. The corporate power has a monopoly over the political system and democracy is but a dim memory. Incarceration rates are without precedent and the Bill of Rights is in shambles. And we have existential problems never dreamed of in the Great Depression: endless war, the threat of nuclear war and impending environmental catastrophe. The empire is slowly collapsing. Will it take us all with it?
If we cannot make revolt out of this, then we are not revolutionaries.
The big difference between then and now is in our minds. There is little evidence that the ideas that control electoral activity in our time existed in any meaningful way during the New Deal. Controlling narratives like “incremental change” were not the watchword of the time. The guiding principle was a determined struggle over economic interests and and political ideals — not surrender in the name of lesser of two evils. The principle was not the spoiler, not the dementer/demexit trap, not either/or thinking, not falsely checking privilege to support the machine — the principle was fierce stormy struggle. That is what real change is. Change requires the both/and approach of the inside/outside strategy because it uses all the means at our disposal not allowing the bosses to divide and conquer or pick our tactics for us. The corporate power wins because it still controls our minds. And the best means we have to contest their control and raise consciousness is organizing and movement building.
In the tug of war to pull the New Deal toward the people all progressives pulled in the same direction if not from the same position. Some pulled from inside, some pulled from outside. Some were heavyweights, like the industrial unions, that provided a solid center of gravity, but some, like the radicals, had better rhythm knowing when to pull hard and when to dig in their heels. There were different players but all of them were necessary.
The New Deal and the 60’s revolution that soon followed could well be taken as the minimum standard for the kind of popular unrest that will be required for transformational change. How can we approach the revolutionary threshold in our time? If we do not commit ourselves to organizing and movement building we will never find out.
 I relied on an excellent and detailed summary, by Puakev, “How Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal Were Pulled to the Left.” See also Howard Zinn’s lost classic, New Deal Thought.
 Bert Cochran, “Labor and Communism: the Conflict that Shaped American Unions” cited in Sharon Smith, The 1930’s Turning Point for US Labor