Der Mythos vom Keynesianismus als Erfolgsstory während der Großen Depression

Den folgenden Auszug habe ich einer Rede von Ed Clarkson entnommen, ZK-Mitglied der Spartacist League/U.S. (IKL), der in „Workers Vanguard“, der Zeitung der SL/U.S. No. 945, 23 October 2009, erschienen ist und auch auf der Webseite der IKL veröffentlicht wurde:

I happened to grow up in the heyday of American imperialism. Unfortunately, I now lose my rights as a geezer to tell people “I had it harder than you did.” It’s simply not true. And so in the last three or four decades of considerable economic decline, we see the erosion of living standards of ordinary people, with occasional huge gouges (for example, the “end of welfare,” orchestrated by Bill Clinton); the ratcheting up of attacks on rights (the “war on drugs,” the “war against terror”); a goodly percentage of the black population now finds its “housing” in prisons. In general, things look pretty grim for people.

But one might ask, “With all this rot, why are we better off today than we were in the Great Depression?”—which we are, it must be frankly said. Let me go back for a minute to where we started. The presidency since Lincoln has generally been a succession of nonentities. What did Calvin Coolidge do, what did Chester Alan Arthur do, what did Grover Cleveland do, what did Woodrow Wilson do? Nobody did anything, because they operated within the confines of the system, and the office has never been used, nor will it ever be used, to challenge those confines. There’s one putative exception: Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was known as some combination of Lenin and Satan by the right wing, and as the guy, for the liberals, who really proved that capitalism can be decent. Both because of the similarities between the Great Depression and now, and because of the sainthood of FDR, it’s useful to examine this question. I hope to refute it.

There are two major differences in the world now from the time of the Great Depression: first, the 1917 October Revolution was then a beacon for the working class, and, second, the United States was a growing industrial country at that time, the strongest in the world. That no longer pertains. Those are important qualifiers.

Let’s compare and contrast Obama and FDR a little bit. There are some similarities: the primary act of both was to stabilize the banks, although they did this by different mechanisms. Roosevelt essentially just closed the bad banks. Obama showered money on the bad banks. The net result was the same: the banks sat on money, they did nothing with it. Why? Because the important thing for capitalists is the ability to realize a profit, and that money will not move until then. It doesn’t matter how much money Obama prints. Now the other thing that was similar is that the bigger banks ate the smaller ones, the more stable ate the weaker. That happened both times.

During Roosevelt’s “First New Deal,” he formed the NRA, the National Industrial Recovery Act, which mainly promoted worker-management “cooperation,” if you can imagine that, creating very few jobs. The same with the Tennessee Valley Authority and what became the Civilian Conservation Corps—a minuscule number of jobs were created. What the NRA mostly did is set the basis for the formation of company unions. This did not enchant the working class a great deal, so workers for the most part walked away from them, because a company union is not much good when you want to fight the company.

Now let’s look at what’s called the “Second New Deal”—that’s in 1935. The Works Progress Administration hired more people, still a small percentage of those unemployed, but a couple million people. Social Security was initiated, and from Social Security came unemployment relief, ADC (welfare), etc. And then to supplant the NRA, which had been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935, there was something called the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act, which was passed later in 1935. This was supposedly to allow the workers to organize—if they behaved well and legally under the system of capitalism.

So one should ask the question: does this reflect the fact that the FDR administration—the executive committee of the capitalist rulers—developed a heart? No, it developed the pretense of a heart, and there’s a difference. What really extracted these social concessions from the bourgeoisie were the giant strikes of 1934 in Toledo, on the West Coast in longshore and the Minneapolis trucking strike. Militants began at that time to organize the unemployed as a section of the labor movement. Just to show you FDR’s great ambivalence about even the small reforms he initiated, he raised the number of people employed by the government in the Works Progress Administration in 1935, then cut it drastically in 1937 because he thought there was an upturn, and that ushered in another recession. The Great Depression was actually constructed of two recessions—in 1929-33 and 1937-38.

Now, as for the powers of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the employers ignored the NLRB because they thought that it too would be overturned by the Supreme Court. The workers tended to ignore it too, which was a good thing. In other words, what followed was a strike wave. Let me give you a sense of its proportions. In 1934, there were 1,800 strikes; in 1935, there were 2,000; in 1936, 2,100 strikes; in 1937, during the beginning of the second recession, there were 4,700; in 1938, 2,700; in 1939, 2,600 strikes. Nobody was trotting down to the offices of the NLRB and asking “please.” They were out there kicking ass on the streets, and some dying in the process.

The great Flint sit-down strike occurred in 1936-37. Anybody remember the NLRB intervening into that? No, it did not. It might have attempted to, but it had no impact as such. Incidentally, the strike wave beginning in 1935 resulted in a doubling of the trade union movement in five years. So it was quite substantial. These workers were betrayed, however, by the reformists, especially the Stalinist Communist Party, in the service of their ties with the Democrats, and in the service of going into the war on the side of Roosevelt.

There is much talk today about Keynesianism. FDR was not a Keynesian. He was a balanced-budget kind of guy. Government expenditures went up some during the Great Depression, accompanied by tax increases. In other words, the government was going to pay its way, unlike with Obama where you just run the printing press and see what happens. For Keynesianism, the answer is supposedly to put money into consumers’ hands. You do deficit spending. It wasn’t until 1939 that the government started on a course toward significant deficit spending, and the reason for that did not have to do with the economy, it had to do with building weapons. Capitalist governments do need Keynesianism for war, unless they have a very fat treasury and unless they are going to show up on the battlefield without any guns, without any planes, without any tanks. So Keynesianism in fact played no role, has never played any role, in that kind of situation as occurred in the Great Depression. Of course what solved the Depression, as we all know, was World War II: automatic improvement to joblessness, since half the working population was sent off to kill and die on the battlefield.

Having said that, Obama has done nothing like even the stinting sort of things that FDR did, except to pay off the banks. Moreover, as far as I can tell, there’s no talk of doing anything. But Obama doesn’t have the spur of class struggle, like FDR did. On the other hand, we know the limits within which the capitalist system operates.

Going into the Second World War, wages were frozen and the right to strike was taken away, with the complete complicity of the trade-union bureaucracy in support of the government’s war plan. People worked throughout the course of the war at Depression-level wages, leading to the giant strike wave at the end of the war in 1946. Obama’s policy, insofar as he seems to have one, seems more like right-wing economist Milton Friedman’s. It’s essentially monetarist, you keep the Federal Reserve interest rate very low, at zero percent. Japan brought its federal bank rate to zero percent starting in the mid 1990s. It didn’t stimulate the economy, because, again, capitalism depends on generating profits. If profits aren’t available, it’s very slow. If there are a lot of profits available, it runs very fast and creates the basis for the next crisis.

Today, money going to the consumer is not apparent, as consumer spending continues to fall because people are losing jobs. Those that have money expect to lose their jobs, so they are not going to give it up quite as easily. Or they expect to lose their health care, or they expect to lose their homes—and their fears have reason.

So, are we materially better off today than we were in the Depression? I would say so, but why? Because Social Security exists, because unemployment insurance exists, because food stamps exist—all those things that were the by-products of the social struggles of the 1930s now exist. They didn’t exist until later in the Great Depression, and barely then. You can speculate that maybe the more rabid sections of the bourgeoisie could just abolish these, but that’s not quite a political reality. If they did that, the Codgers for a Democratic Society would be rolling the guillotines down Pennsylvania Avenue. You’re not just going to take everything that people have away from them in one fell swoop. But codgers, unfortunately, are not an adequate social force.

I’ve tried to argue that the myth about FDR is just that, a myth. Key events that occurred in the course of his administration were, in an important way, a loss for humanity. The United States’ victory in World War II, its domination of the world, is a loss for humanity, a tremendous blow. And in particular, those things that seem to be benefits, he had nothing directly to do with, except to respond in an effort to buy off and placate the class struggle that was seriously ignited at that time.

What I’ve tried to show is that reforms are the by-product of social struggle, that those reforms are eroded and endangered constantly by the trade-union bureaucracy, which, in its allegiance to capitalism, is willing to make important concessions. In the case of the once very powerful auto workers union, it’s not dead yet, but it has a moribund quality. The trade-union bureaucracy, the labor lieutenants of capital, operates to contain and/or, sometimes simultaneously, betray the class struggle. In this country that is politically expressed through its ties with the Democratic Party, of which it is a significant component. I think at any given Democratic presidential convention, 25-30 percent of the delegates are trade unionists. The Democratic Party is not a workers party, it’s a bourgeois party. But it must be recognized that there is substantial integration of the tops of the trade-union movement into that party, to the detriment of the unions.

I have also tried to demonstrate that the only way forward for humanity is the smashing of capitalism through working-class social revolution. It might be mentioned, in terms of health care, for example, that only those countries that overthrew capitalist rule—Cuba, the Soviet Union and much of East Europe—provided free health care. It wasn’t highly elegant, but it was available to everybody. (Although in Cuba they do fairly sophisticated things, and they did fairly sophisticated things in the Soviet Union, too.) And because it was available to everybody, you just got people to the doctor and treated them.

Some people ask, what’s going to happen under socialism? Well, of course, some problems are more complex than others, like restoking the industrial base of this economy, which would require some thought and planning. But I promise that, in an American workers state, the housing problem, like the health care crisis, would be quickly over. Is there any question that there are houses out there that people can live in, empty office buildings, etc.? And it’s possible in the short term to provide everybody with a job by just shrinking the number of hours you work. That’s what the Transitional Program, written by Trotsky in 1938, suggests: a manner in which revolutionaries can raise demands, unattainable in their entirety under capitalism, thus leading to the understanding that what is necessary is a revolutionary solution. There is the demand for a sliding scale of wages and hours; for the nationalization of the banks without compensation; the nationalization of important firms, again without compensation; the formation of workers defense guards. Let me read from the Transitional Program:

“The orientation of the masses is determined first by the objective conditions of decaying capitalism and second by the treacherous politics of the old workers’ organizations. Of these factors, the first of course is the decisive one: the laws of history are stronger than the bureaucratic apparatus.”

So why don’t we just go up and ask Barack Obama to nationalize the banks without compensation? Well, you’d probably be arrested for drug abuse, with some reason to think it true. So let me quote from Trotsky on how one uses this kind of program: “The difference between these demands and the muddleheaded reformist slogan of ‘nationalization’ lies in the following: (1) we reject indemnification; (2) we warn the masses against demagogues of the People’s Front”—in today’s parlance, that means reformists—“who, giving lip service to nationalization, remain in reality agents of capital; (3) we call on the masses to rely only upon their own revolutionary strength; (4) we link up the question of expropriation with that of seizure of power by the workers and farmers.” (Small farmers were a significant element in American society then, which they no longer are.)

What our reformists often do is make one demand that seems possible to them, like the call for nationalization. The problem is, in that context, it is begging. Who are you asking? Do you really think that America’s imperialist rulers are really going to grant these kinds of reforms? Well of course the reformists do, because they think that this system can be reformed.

There is class struggle in the world, incidentally, but not much in the United States, and there hasn’t been much for decades now. But, as Friedrich Engels pointed out, the capitalist order is a system that socially organizes production, on the one hand, but the product of that socially organized production is, on the other hand, anarchically appropriated by the ruling class. There are those that labor and those that own the products of that labor. This system is inherently volatile, but not predictably so. If you ask me, “When is the class struggle going to be?”, I have to say, “I don’t know.” Nor is there a recipe to engender the class struggle that we Marxists know will occur. But the very conditions that grind down the working class, the same conditions that demoralize workers and set them one against the other in a fight to survive—that is, the capitalist mode of production—these same conditions also propel the working class toward unity in battle against its exploiters. As long as capitalism exists, it will generate the conditions that spawn class struggle.

So what should people do today? Well, what we need is the kind of social overturn that I’ve talked about. But it cannot be effected without the forging of a revolutionary Trotskyist party. And it will be necessary for class-conscious workers to drive the trade-union bureaucratic betrayers out of their positions of power in the unions. So what must be done today is to begin to accrue those that have committed to forming a revolutionary workers party. Our reformist opponents have no such commitment. We are unique on the left for that commitment. Because of that, the reformists consider us kind of obnoxious, because we point out that they are opponents of socialist revolution and we show the many ways in which they betray and sell out the struggles of the working class and peddle illusions in capitalism. So, we are looking for people who would aspire to some day carry this little booklet, the Transitional Program, into their plants and factories and to play a role in mobilizing the working class in its historic task of overturning this very savage capitalist order.


4 Antworten auf „Der Mythos vom Keynesianismus als Erfolgsstory während der Großen Depression“


  1. 1 Nestor 12. November 2009 um 17:56 Uhr

    Bei diesem Text von Clarkson geht es mir wie oft bei trotzkistischen Publikationen: Man wird zwar versorgt bzw. gelangweilt mit einer Menge von Fakten und Daten und historischen Ereignissen, aber es werden eigentlich keine Schlüsse gezogen. Worauf will er hinaus? Was ist die Moral von der Geschicht? Was kann man draus lernen?

    Abgesehen von dem Fehlen jedes Erkenntnisgewinnes ist der Aufsatz eine Ansammlung ziemlich dummer Statements:

    „There’s one putative exception: Franklin D. Roosevelt. FDR was known as some combination of Lenin and Satan by the right wing, and as the guy, for the liberals, who really proved that capitalism can be decent. Both because of the similarities between the Great Depression and now, and because of the sainthood of FDR, it’s useful to examine this question. I hope to refute it.“

    Welche Frage? Ob FDR der Teufel war, den die Republikaner an die Wand malen? Oder der Mensch, der einen „Kapitalismus mit menschlichem Antlitz“ schaffen wollte? Wenn letzteres, warum es dann widerlegen? Das ist doch genau das, was in Europa die Sozialdemokraten auch immer anstreben, und recht erfolgreich. Also was gilt es zu widerlegen? Daß Kapitalismus eigentlich eine feine Sache ist, wenn man sie richtig verwaltet, oder daß es Leute gibt, die so etwas anstreben?
    Man könnte gutwillig meinen, Clarkson möchte zeigen, daß kapitalistische Ausbeutung und Arbeiterwohlstand unvereinbar sind. Allerdings ist dieser Beweiszweck im Folgenden nicht so recht erkennbar, geschweige denn wird der Beweis irgendwie geführt.

    Statt dessen wird man mit moralischen Urteilen und falschen Bestimmungen versorgt:

    „… does this reflect the fact that the FDR administration—the executive committee of the capitalist rulers—developed a heart?“

    Wenn eine Regierung wirklich nur das „Exekutivkomitee der kapitalistischen Herrscher“ wäre – wenn sie eh herrschen, wofür brauchen sie dann ein solches Komitee? – wieso sollte sie dann „Herz zeigen“? Aus der Wortwahl der sich selbst widerlegenden Behauptung leitet Clarkson dann sofort über zu dem, worum es eigentlich geht: Es tut nur so! Heuchler!
    Wie diese „Heuchelei“ ausschaut, wird etwas später ausgeführt:

    „FDR was not a Keynesian.“

    Warum nicht?

    „For Keynesianism, the answer is supposedly to put money into consumers’ hands.“

    Damit nährt Clarkson die weitverbreitete Dummheit, „keynesianische“ Politik wäre so etwas wie den Leuten Geld in die Hand drücken und sagen: Kauft euch was Schönes, Kinder. Dabei weiß noch der naivste Keynesianer, daß „deficit spending“ soviel heißt wie Arbeitsplätze schaffen. Es gehört sich also schon ein guter Teil von entweder Ignoranz, oder, wie ich es bei so Arbeiterfreunden eher vermute, Arbeitsmoral („wer nichts arbeitet, soll auch nichts essen!“) dazu, die US-amerikanische Variante des Arbeitsdienstes mit einem Volksbeglückungsprogramm zu verwechseln, von dem man dann als Kritik hört, es sei doch gar nicht ehrlich gemeint gewesen!

    Also, als erste Zwischenbilanz läßt sich feststellen: Clarkson hält große Stücke auf den Keynesianismus, also darauf, Leute in Arbeit zu setzen, um ihnen Konsum zu ermöglichen.
    Sehr arbeiterfreundlich. Erstens, arbeiten müssen sie schon was, die braven Knechte, damit sie zu einer Existenz kommen. Zweitens, um zu konsumieren, müssen sie an Geld herankommen. Dann können sie sich auch was kaufen.
    Daß die Arbeiter die Manövriermasse des Kapitals sind, daß ein Arbeitsplatz seinem Anwender etwas bringen soll, damit er überhaupt existiert, und daß dieses p.t. Publikum dann als Konsument auftreten und anderen Arten von Kapitalisten durch ihren Einkauf die Taschen füllen soll – das ist für Leute vom Schlage Clarksons selbstverständlich!
    Und dann hat er natürlich keine andere Kritik an den Regierungsmaßnahmen, als daß sie nicht ernst gemeint sind, oder daß die Sache nicht klappt!

    „I’ve tried to argue that the myth about FDR is just that, a myth.“

    Welches Mythos? Und wenn es eins war, was soll man dann noch beweisen? Daß es eins war? Der ganze Satz ist tautologisch.

    Falls wer sich noch des Restes des Artikels annehmen will, viel Spaß. Ich schließe hiermit.

  2. 2 Neoprene 13. November 2009 um 20:53 Uhr

    Wenn Nestor sich wundert, warum ein Kommunist in den USA sich zu FDR ausläßt, dann verkennt er den enormen erdrückenden Einfluß, den die total kapitulantenhafte Pro-FDR/Pro-Demokratische-Partei- Linie der KPdUSA nicht nur in den 30er (insbesondere nach dem 7. Weltkongreß der Komintern) und 40er Jahren gehabt hat, sondern daß auch heutzutage fast Alles, was mehr und vor allem, was weniger links ist, sich an den Demokraten orientiert, sich an denen ausrichtet, deren Konzepte für grundlegend brauchbar anerkennt. Mit dem Spruch vom „Kapitalismus mit dem menschlichen Gesicht“ ist diese wichtige, zweitweilig auch vorherrschende Ideologie in den USA sicher richtig auf den Punkt gebracht.

    Wenn Nestor dann fragt, „warum es dann widerlegen? Das ist doch genau das, was in Europa die Sozialdemokraten auch immer anstreben, und recht erfolgreich.“ dann ist dem erstmal als nicht ganz kleine Fußnote entgegenzuhalten, daß es in der USA bekanntlich nie zu einer Arbeiterpartei mit Masseneinfluß gekommen ist, und in den letzten Jahrzehnten selbst die Gewerkschaften integral in die klassisch bürgerliche Partei der Demokraten eingebunden und verwoben sind. Wichtiger aber, der FDR-Keynesianismus ist das Maximum der Gefühle, daß US-Linke der Bevölkerung zutrauen und ihr seit Jahr und Tag zu verkaufen versuchen. Da lohnt es schon, ein paar kritische Worte drüber zu verlieren. „was gilt es zu widerlegen? Daß Kapitalismus eigentlich eine feine Sache ist, wenn man sie richtig verwaltet“. Genau, darum geht es ihm, und wie ich meine auch zu Recht.

    Ans Eingemachte geht es dann, wenn man darüber redet, ob ihm das denn auch nur ansatzweise in dieser Rede gelungen ist. Nestor streitet es ihm ja recht glatt ab: „Allerdings ist dieser Beweiszweck im Folgenden nicht so recht erkennbar, geschweige denn wird der Beweis irgendwie geführt.“

    Die Frage zum bürgerlichen Staat „wenn sie eh herrschen, wofür brauchen sie dann ein solches Komitee?“ laße ich hier mal weg, welcher Zusammenhang zwischen den Willen der diversen konkurrierenden Eigentümer und ihrem abstrakt freien Willen zur Staatsgewalt als Garanten der Verlaufsform der Auseinandersetzungen dieser Konkurrenz vorliegt, darüber wurde ja auch auf diesem Blog bis vor Kurzem noch lange, lange diskutiert.

    Wenn Nestor aber Clarkson unterstellt, auch er teile wohl „die weitverbreitete Dummheit, „keynesianische“ Politik wäre so etwas wie den Leuten Geld in die Hand drücken und sagen: Kauft euch was Schönes, Kinder. Dabei weiß noch der naivste Keynesianer, daß „deficit spending“ soviel heißt wie Arbeitsplätze schaffen“, dann übergeht er mit seinem angeblichen „sofort“-Übergang bei Clarkson, daß bei dem dann ein kurzer Abriß des historischen Höhepunkts der Klassenkämpfe der US-Arbeiterklasse steht. Das ist nun gerade im Zusammenhang mit der Erklärung der staatlichen Antikrisen- und Wirtschafts- und Sozialpolitik alles andere als nebensächlich.

    Angesichts eines klaren Statements von Clarkson „So Keyne­sia­nism in fact play­ed no role, has never play­ed any role, in that kind of si­tua­ti­on as oc­cur­red in the Great De­pres­si­on. Of cour­se what sol­ved the De­pres­si­on, as we all know, was World War II: au­to­ma­tic im­pro­ve­ment to jobless­ness, since half the wor­king po­pu­la­ti­on was sent off to kill and die on the batt­le­field.“ ist mir auch schleierhaft, wie man da einen Freund der auch bei Faschisten so beliebten Arbeitsmoral „wer nichts arbeitet, soll auch nichts essen!“ rauslesen kann bzw. ihm zu unterstellen „die US-amerikanische Variante des Arbeitsdienstes mit einem Volksbeglückungsprogramm zu verwechseln“.

    Von daher ist auch sein Gesamturteil „Clarkson hält große Stücke auf den Keynesianismus, also darauf, Leute in Arbeit zu setzen, um ihnen Konsum zu ermöglichen“ wie ich meine völlig daneben. Der hat doch gerade nachgewiesen, daß es das, was Lafontaine, Bischoff et al. so gern hätten, damals nicht mal vorgeblich die Politik der USA gewesen ist, jedenfalls erst wurde, als es darum ging, den innerimperialistischen Konkurrenten Deutschland (und später dann den Erzfeind und Systemgegner Sowjetunion nieder zu ringen. Ein schönes Lob des Keynesianismus!

  3. 3 Nestor 13. November 2009 um 21:10 Uhr

    Wenn Nestor sich wundert, warum ein Kommunist in den USA sich zu FDR ausläßt

    Wundere mich nicht und schreibe das auch nirgends.

  4. 4 Nestor 13. November 2009 um 21:14 Uhr

    Meine Kritik an Clarkson ist, daß er offenbar Keynesianismus für eine feine Sache hält, ohne zu schreiben, warum, und daß diese feine Sache schon allein darüber gerechtfertigt wird, daß die böse Politik sie ja gar nicht umsetzt.

    Was ist eigentlich Keynesianismus? M.E. immer ein Ideal, das wie alle Ideale recht ungemütlich ist, wenn es einmal in die Wirklichkeit umgesetzt wird.

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