THE REVOLUTION WAS: 1938
There are those who still think they are holding the pass against a revolution that may be coming up the road. But they are gazing in the wrong direction. The revolution is behind them. It went by in the Night of Depression, singing songs to freedom.
There are those who have never ceased to say very earnestly, "Something is going to happen to the American form of government if we don't watch out."
These were the innocent disarmers. Their trust was in words. They had forgotten their Aristotle. More than 2,000 years ago he wrote of what can happen within the form, when "one thing takes the place of another, so that the ancient laws will remain, while the power will be in the hands of those who have brought about revolution in the state."
Worse outwitted were those who kept trying to make sense of the New Deal from the point of view of all that was implicit in the American scheme, charging it therefore with contradiction, fallacy, economic ignorance, and general incompetence to govern.
But it could not be so embarrassed and all that line was wasted, because, in the first place, it never intended to make that kind of sense, and secondly, it took off from nothing that was implicit in the American scheme.
It took off from a revolutionary base. The design was European. Regarded from the point of view of revolutionary technic it made perfect sense. Its meaning was revolutionary and it had no other. For what it meant to do it was from the beginning consistent in principle, resourceful, intelligent, masterly in workmanship, and it made not one mistake.
The test came in the first one hundred days.
No matter how carefully a revolution may have been planned there is bound to be a crucial time. That comes when the actual seizure of power is taking place. In this case certain steps were necessary. They were difficult and daring steps. But more than that, they had to be taken in a certain sequence, with forethought and precision of timing. One out of place might have been fatal. What happened was that one followed another in exactly the right order, not one out of time or out of place.
Having passed this crisis, the New Deal went on from one problem to another, taking them in the proper order, according to revolutionary technic; and if the handling of one was inconsistent with the handling of another, even to the point of nullity, that was blunder in reverse. The effect was to keep people excited about one thing at a time, and divided, while steadily through all the uproar of outrage and confusion a certain end, held constantly in view, was pursued by main intention.
The end held constantly in view was power.
In a revolutionary situation mistakes and failures are not what they seem. They are scaffolding. Error is not repealed. It is compounded by a longer law, by more decrees and regulations, by further extensions of the administrative hand. As deLawd said in The Green Pastures, that when you have passed a miracle you have to pass another one to take care of it, so it was with the New Deal. Every miracle it passed, whether it went right or wrong, had one result. Executive power over the social and economic life of the nation was increased. Draw a curve to represent the rise of executive power and look there for the mistakes. You will not find them. The curve is consistent.
At the end of the first year, in his annual message to the Congress, January 4, 1934, President Roosevelt said: "It is to the eternal credit of the American people that this tremendous readjustment of our national life is being accomplished peacefully."
Peacefully if possible—of course.
But the revolutionary historian will go much further.
Writing at some distance in time he will be much less impressed by the fact that it was peacefully accomplished than by the marvelous technic of bringing it to pass not only within the form but within the word, so that people were all the while fixed in the delusion that they were talking about the same things because they were using the same words. Opposite and violently hostile ideas were represented by the same word signs. This was the American people's first experience with dialectic according to Marx and Lenin.
Until it was too late few understood one like Julius C. Smith, of the American Bar Association, saying: "Is there any labor leader, any businessman, any lawyer or any other citizen of America so blind that he cannot see that this country is drifting at an accelerated pace into administrative absolutism similar to that which prevailed in the governments of antiquity, the governments of the Middle Ages, and in the great totalitarian governments of today? Make no mistake about it. Even as Mussolini and Hitler rose to absolute power under the forms of law . . . so may administrative absolutism be fastened upon this country within the Constitution and within the forms of law."
For a significant illustration of what has happened to words—of the double meaning that inhabits them— put in contrast what the New Deal means when it speaks of preserving the American system of free private enterprise and what American business means when it speaks of defending it. To the New Deal these words—the American system of free private enterprise —stand for a conquered province. To the businessman the same words stand for a world that is in danger and may have to be defended.
The New Deal is right.
Business is wrong.
You do not defend a world that is already lost. When was it lost? That you cannot say precisely. It is a point for the revolutionary historian to ponder. We know only that it was surrendered peacefully, without a struggle, almost unawares. There was no day, no hour, no celebration of the event—and yet definitely, the ultimate power of initiative did pass from the hands of private enterprise to government.
There it is and there it will remain until, if ever, it shall be reconquered. Certainly government will never surrender it without a struggle.
To the revolutionary mind the American vista must have been almost as incredible as Genghis Khan's first view of China—so rich, so soft, so unaware.
No politically adult people could ever have been so little conscious of revolution. There was here no revolutionary tradition, as in Europe, but in place of it the strongest tradition of subject government that had ever been evolved—that is, government subject to the will of the people, not its people but the people. Why should anyone fear government?
In the naive American mind the word revolution had never grown up. The meaning of it had not changed since horse-and-buggy days, when Oliver Wendell Holmes said: "Revolutions are not made by men in spectacles." It called up scenes from Carlyle and Victor Hugo, or it meant killing the Czar with a bomb, as he may have deserved for oppressing his people. Definitely, it meant the overthrow of government by force; and nothing like that could happen here. We had passed a law against it.
Well, certainly nothing like that was going to happen here. That it probably could not happen, and that everybody was so sure it couldn't made everything easier for what did happen.
Revolution in the modern case is no longer an uncouth business. The ancient demagogic art, like every other art, has, as we say, advanced. It has become in fact a science—the science of political dynamics. And your scientific revolutionary in spectacles regards force in a cold, impartial manner. It may or may not be necessary. If not, so much the better; to employ it wantonly, or for the love of it, when it is not necessary, is vulgar, unintelligent and wasteful. Destruction is not the aim. The more you destroy the less there is to take over. Always the single end in view is a transfer of power.
Outside of the Communist party and its aurora of radical intellectuals few Americans seemed to know that revolution had become a department of knowledge, with a philosophy and a doctorate of its own, a language, a great body of experimental data, schools of method, textbooks, and manuals—and this was revolution regarded not as an act of heroic redress in a particular situation, but revolution as a means to power in the abstract case.
There was a prodigious literature of revolutionary thought concealed only by the respectability of its dress.
Americans generally associated dangerous doctrine with bad printing, rude grammar, and stealthy distribution.
Here was revolutionary doctrine in well printed and well written books, alongside of best sellers at your bookstore or in competition with detectives on your news-dealer's counter. As such it was all probably harmless, or it was about something that could happen in Europe, not here. A little communism on the newsstand like that might be good for us, in fact, regarded as a twinge of pain in a robust, somewhat reckless social body. One ought to read it, perhaps, just to know.
But one had tried, and what dreary stuff it had turned out to be!
To the revolutionary this same dreary stuff was the most exciting reading in the world. It was knowledge that gave him a sense of power. One who mastered the subject to the point of excellence could be fairly sure of a livelihood by teaching and writing, that is, by imparting it to others, and meanwhile dream of passing at a single leap from this mean obscurity to the prestige of one who assists in the manipulation of great happenings; while one who mastered it to the point of genius— that one might dream of becoming himself the next Lenin.
A society so largely founded on material success and the rewards of individualism in a system of free competitive enterprise would be liable to underestimate both the intellectual content of the revolutionary thesis and the quality of the revolutionary mind that was evolving in a disaffected and envious academic world.
At any rate, this society did, and from the revolutionary point of view that was one of the peculiar felicities of the American opportunity. The revolutionary mind that did at length evolve was one of really superior intelligence, clothed with academic dignity, always sure of itself, supercilious and at ease in all circumstances. To entertain it became fashionable. You might encounter it anywhere, and nowhere more amusingly than at a banker's dinner table discussing the banker's trade in a manner sometimes very embarrassing to the banker. Which of these brilliant young men in spectacles was of the cult and which was of the cabal— if there was a cabal—one never knew. Indeed, it was possible that they were not sure of it among themselves, a time having come when some were only playing with the thought of extremes while others were in deadly earnest, all making the same sounds. This was the beginning of mask and guise.
The scientific study of revolution included of course analysis of opportunity. First and always the master of revolutionary technic is an opportunist. He must know opportunity when he sees it in the becoming; he must know how to stalk it, how to let it ripen, how to adapt his means to the realities. The basic ingredients of opportunity are few; nearly always it is how they are mixed that matters. But the one indispensable ingredient is economic distress, and if there is enough of that the mixture will take care of itself.
The Great Depression as it developed here was such an opportunity as might have been made to order. The economic distress was relative, which is to say that at the worst of it living in this country was better than living almost anywhere else in the world. The pain, nevertheless, was very acute; and much worse than any actual hurt was a nameless fear, a kind of active despair, that assumed the proportions of a national psychosis.
Seizures of that kind were not unknown in American history. Indeed, they were characteristic of the American temperament. But never before had there been one so hard and never before had there been the danger that a revolutionary elite would be waiting to take advantage of it.
This revolutionary elite was nothing you could define as a party. It had no name, no habitat, no rigid line. The only party was the Communist Party, and it was included; but its attack was too obvious and its proletarianism too crude, and moreover, it was under the stigma of not belonging. Nobody could say that about the elite above. It did belong, it was eminently respectable, and it knew the American scene. What it represented was a quantity of bitter intellectual radicalism infiltrated from the top downward as a doctorhood of professors, writers, critics, analysts, advisers, administrators, directors of research, and so on—a prepared revolutionary intelligence in spectacles. There was no plan to begin with. But there was a shibboleth that united them all: "Capitalism is finished." There was one idea in which all differences could be resolved, namely, the idea of a transfer of power. For that a united front; after that, anything. And the wine of communion was a passion to play upon history with a scientific revolutionary technic.
The prestige of the elite was natural for many reasons; but it rested also upon one practical consideration. When the opportunity came a Gracchus would be needed. The elite could produce one. And that was something the Communist Party could not hope to do.
(1) the opportunity,
(2) a country whose fabulous wealth was in the
modern forms—dynamic, functional, non-portable,
(3) a people so politically naïve as to have passed a
law against any attempt to overthrow their
government by force—and,
(4) the intention to bring about what Aristotle
called a revolution in the state, within the frame
of existing law—
Then from the point of view of scientific revolutionary technic what would the problems be? They set themselves down in sequence as follows:
The first, naturally, would be to capture the seat of government.
The second would be to seize economic power.
The third would be to mobilize by propaganda the forces of hatred.
The fourth would be to reconcile and then attach to the revolution the two great classes whose adherence is indispensable but whose interests are economically antagonistic, namely, the industrial wage earners and the farmers, called in Europe workers and peasants.
The fifth would be what to do with business— whether to liquidate or shackle it.
(These five would have a certain imperative order in time and require immediate decisions because they belong to the program of conquest. That would not be the end. What would then ensue? A program of consolidation. Under that head the problems continue.)
The sixth, in Burckhardt's devastating phrase, would be "the domestication of individuality"—by any means that would make the individual more dependent upon government.
The seventh would be the systematic reduction of all forms of rival authority.
The eighth would be to sustain popular faith in an unlimited public debt, for if that faith should break the government would be unable to borrow, if it could not borrow it could not spend, and the revolution must be able to borrow and spend the wealth of the rich or else it will be bankrupt.
The ninth would be to make the government itself the great capitalist and enterpriser, so that the ultimate power in initiative would pass from the hands of private enterprise to the all-powerful state.
Each one of these problems would have two sides, one the obverse and one the reverse, like a coin. One side only would represent the revolutionary intention. The other side in each case would represent Recovery— and that was the side the New Deal constantly held up to view. Nearly everything it did was in the name of Recovery. But in no case was it true that for the ends of economic recovery alone one solution or one course and one only was feasible. In each case there was an alternative and therefore a choice to make.
What we shall see is that in every case the choice was one that could not fail:
(a) To ramify the authority and power of executive government—its power, that is, to rule by decrees and rules and regulations of its own making;
(b) To strengthen its hold upon the economic life of the nation;
(c) To extend its power over the individual;
(d) To degrade the parliamentary principle;
(e) To impair the great American tradition of an independent, Constitutional judicial power;
(f) To weaken all other powers—the power of private enterprise, the power of private finance, the power of state and local government.
(g) To exalt the leader principle.
There was endless controversy as to whether the acts of the New Deal did actually move recovery or retard it, and nothing final could ever come of that bitter debate because it is forever impossible to prove what might have happened in place of what did. But a positive result is obtained if you ask: Where was the New Deal going?
The answer to that question is too obvious to be debated.
Every choice it made, whether it was one that moved recovery or not, was a choice unerringly true to the essential design of totalitarian government, never of course called by that name either here or anywhere else.
How it worked, how the decisions were made, and how acts that were inconsistent from one point of view were consistent indeed from the other—that now is the matter to be explored, seriatim.