MARCH 18, 1931
AT THE present time it seems almost silly to advance an argument for the formation of a new party. In a general way the need for one speaks for itself, and clamorously. Of the first ten persons you meet who have no definite connection with one of the old parties, either officially or through some form of self-interest, at least seven or eight will not question the fact that a new party is needed. What they will question is the practicability of trying to form one. For the old parties are so firmly entrenched throughout the nation, and the organizations are so closely bound to the business system, that unorganized individuals feel themselves helpless. Nevertheless, a statement of the nature of the need and an account of why it is so generally felt are necessary preliminaries to any discussion of how a new party may grow up and what its program will be. For it is the pressure of necessity which creates and directs all political changes.
There has long been an indifference to political parties. Masses of voters have been more than apathetic; they have been jaded. They have lost all confidence that politics can accomplish anything significant. They have even accepted the cynical belief that the parties are dominated by big business. But the present revulsion against parties has two striking characteristics which make it unique. Every depression has produced a certain amount of revulsion, but usually it has assumed the form of a repudiation of the party in power and a general support of the other. In the next campaign this sentiment may be sufficiently strong to elect a Democratic President, but the sentiment will not be accompanied by any hope or expectation. On the contrary, it is generally believed that organized finance and industry have already taken this possibility into account and are casting about for a candidate who will be “reasonable”—a practical synonym for subservient.
The second difference is even more important. In the past, the dissatisfied masses have been stirred by one particular measure. Cheap money, free silver, trust-busting, have been proposed and accepted as panaceas. There is no cure-all in sight now, and people show no disposition to seek for one. The industrial crisis is so severe that even dull eyes can see the foolishness of adopting any measure which leaves the underlying structure just as it was. To offer a panacea now would be to open oneself to ridicule. Dissatisfaction thus proves to be much deeper than it ever was during former depressions. In fact it amounts to unrest. And though it may assume the form of resentment rather than of thought, the tendency among most people is to think much more deeply than before and to go farther into action.
There is a deep-seated reason why the common man is convinced that neither the Democratic nor the Republican party represents him or his interests. The Republican party has played the role of Providence. It has told the people that its leaders in alliance with big business are the guardians of that general prosperity which is attained under the direction of organized capital. It has declared that when big capitalists were made prosperous, a general state of welfare would seep down and be enjoyed by the masses. It was not for the masses to do anything; they had only to wait, hold out their hands and receive what the gods above would give them. The masses did not exactly believe this gospel, but they saw nothing that they could do—and so they waited. The conviction that prosperity begins above and then descends below has been the underlying doctrine of every Republican policy since the War. It is typified in every utterance and every act of that representative of the Messiahship of big business—Secretary Mellon.
President Hoover is a willing and to all appearances a sincere believer in the gospel. There were those who thought the “engineering mind” would effect some healthful regeneration. They forgot that the engineer at present looks two ways. On the one hand, he looks to the efficient use of materials and processes: he is the servant of technological progress. But on the other hand, he is the servant of capital employed for private profit. He is used to thinking in the same terms and speaking the same language as his masters. And when his engineering ability has been employed, not in actual engineering enterprises, but in some eminently profitable undertaking, he is completely identified with the gospel current among men of large business and wealth, who have to rationalize their behavior by making themselves believe that it is in the interest of general welfare. However, this gospel begins to be questioned when the income of the majority of the people falls below a decent subsistence level, as it has during the present depression. Providence can maintain itself securely only when it provides. A self-professed Providence which not only does not provide, but shakes the very structure of economic society and endangers the elementary securities of life, is a self-confessed fraud.
Unfortunately for the permanent prospects of the Democratic party, its leaders prematurely accepted the gospel truth of the doctrine that prosperity descends from above. For the Democrats during the process of assuring the people that they would be just as “safe” as the Republicans, and in assuring big business—and asking for campaign contributions on that basis—that they would be as good and obedient boys as the Republican leaders, not only habituated themselves to the Republican mode of thought, but committed themselves to the policy of alliance with big business. Many independents who voted for Smith in the last presidential campaign did so under mental protest. They disliked the leadership of Raskob and the campaign of “hush-hush” on the economic issues which he fostered. Their fears of what would happen under this overt committal, which was the culmination of the covert committals practised for some time, were borne out by the feeble action of the Democratic party in the new tariff legislation, and in the subservience of the leaders to the demands of finance in connection with drought relief and unemployment. The generally acknowledged absence of genuine leadership in the Democratic party is a necessary by-product. No carbon copy of an original can pretend to leadership or force.
There is no hope that either of the old main parties is going to change. The reason lies even deeper than the self-interest which binds leaders and office holders so closely to “business” that they can be freed only by acts of treachery. Their mental habits are formed in the pattern of this alliance. Conservatism tends to come with age, and the two parties are old. It comes the more surely and exercises its reactionary effect the more disastrously when professed leaders have based the very structure of their beliefs on the doctrine of popular salvation by means of dependence on property interests. Whatever may be the convictions of individuals within the parties, the parties themselves are property-minded. In the clash between property interests and human interests, all their habits of thought and action fatally impel them to side with the former. They make concessions, but do not change the direction of their belief or behavior.
I do not mean that the whole alliance of the parties with organized business is consciously sinister and corrupt, though it is easily demonstrable that this is somewhat true. I mean rather that both old parties represent that stage of American life when the American people as a whole felt that society was to advance by means of industrial inventions and their application; by the development of manufacturing, of railways and commerce. It was that stage of American life when all but a few took for granted the natural control of industry and trade by the profit motive and the necessity of accumulating money capital.
This idea may once have played a part in the development of the country. It has now ceased to be anything but an obstruction. But the two old parties are so wedded to this belief, both by mental habit and by external alliance with organized industry and finance, that there is no hope of their ever cutting loose. They mouth the watchwords of bygone generations, they appeal to Jefferson and Lincoln, because they are themselves anachronisms. Quite apart from a deliberate and sinister connection with malefactors of great wealth, the parties are out of touch with present needs and realities. They perpetuate and cling to ideas and ideals of a past that has forever departed. The realization of this fact is the cause of the present fundamental discontent with both old parties. These are so outof vital contact with the times, that the people are out of touch with them.
I should like to make the point definite. The needs and the troubles of the people are connected with problems of consumption, with problems of the maintenance of a reasonably decent and secure standard of living. Our political life, proceeding under whichever of the old parties happens to be in power, deals with production. The tariffs have not only established certain producing interests as economic power, but they are based upon a consistent disregard of the consumer. Special privilege entrenches itself at the cost of consumption. Transportation and the mechanism of distribution are connected with production and they have been constantly fostered with no regard for the consumer or his standard of living. Our land system, our mines, our forests and now our water power have, when politics has touched them, fallen under control of ownership by the “producer.” Our taxation system is controlled by the same interest. Mr. Mellon's solicitude for the incomes of those in the higher brackets was openly an anxiety concerning the forces of production.
The statement that our politics has been controlled for production purposes at the cost of consumption cannot be overemphasized, nor can it be too sweeping. Let anyone consider the history of politics for the last fifty years and he will find no policy which does not come under this generalization. Exceptions are mere passing episodes. The latest proof of it is the controversy regarding relief for those suffering from drought and unemployment. There is no great difficulty in getting help from Congress to promote processes of production, such as loans for tools and seed, for animals and other productive instrumentalities. But there is the greatest difficulty in getting help for living beings to maintain themselves even at the lowest standard of living. The veterans get attention on the express ground that their relief will stimulate buying and thus help business. Even with a powerful organization behind them they might have pled in vain if the plea were decided wholly on the human grounds of subsistence. Complete failure to provide legislation to stabilize employment is glaring evidence of the general subordination of consumption to immediate production.
The problems and needs of life for the masses have to do with consumption. Even business men have learned that overproduction and cycles of depression are closely connected with underconsumption, and hence those whose consuming power is unimpaired are taking an unprecedented interest in consumption. The middle class finds its income from investments sharply impaired because of the prevailing lack of effective capacity in consumption. And the unemployed—the five to nine millions who face starvation, or live on charity, and who are losing courage, hope and self-respect—do not need to have the problem of consumption brought to their attention.
Here again we have the reason why the present political unrest is so unlike any in the previous history of our country. The needs, experienced where men live, concern the standards of living for themselves and their families. They find themselves in a political situation where no provision is made for this necessity, where interest is centered almost wholly upon stimulating production and distribution without any reference to the way they impinge upon consumption. I do not say the contradiction has been thought out or formulated. But it is felt, and political discontent and immense resentment is the consequence. Here is the need for something radically new in our political life which only a new party can promulgate and execute.
It demands a new party to meet a new social situation. I shall not repeat what I have said about the old parties. But this fact explains why fundamental needs cannot be met by the insurgents in the old parties or by a coalition of those elements. They can serve a useful purpose in obstructing the worst measure of predatory greed; they are useful brakes. But it is Utopian to expect that they can recreate the parties under whose standards they eke out their precarious existence; for these parties are too committed and too habituated to purposes and policies diametrically at war with their intentions. The dough is too extensive and too sodden for the leaven to take effect. They might form, conceivably, the nucleus of a new party. But their own ideas will remain truncated and half-formed until they break loose and associate themselves openly with new interests, needs and companions. A Lucas, representing a Hoover, will always get the better of a Norris within the party, no matter how personally independent the latter may be; and a Raskob will dominate a Wheeler or a Walsh.
This article appeared in the March 18, 1931 issue of the magazine.