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The New Deal and progressive liberalism

Clint Montgomery

Platypus Review 123 | February 2020

A CENTRAL PLANK OF BERNIE SANDERS’ CURRENT BID for the nomination of the Democratic Party and of Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for Prime Minister before it collapsed is the Green New Deal.

The proposals of Bernie’s Green New Deal are certainly possible — even if Bernie’s ability as president to form the political coalition necessary to implement them appear less plausible. The idea is: take leadership of the Democratic Party to gain access to state-power, then use Keynesian economic tools to transition to a carbon net-zero economy and gain the support of the working class through public investment and job creation. This is certainly possible within capitalism, and the Green New Deal has already been taken up by the Right in Europe with Ursula von der Leyen and Macron. Often, just as with Lassalle and Bismarck, what the Left proposes the Right pushes through: therefore, we need a better Left if we want a better Right.

Even if Europe does go carbon-neutral by 2050 it is worth recognizing that at present Europe is responsible for 5% of total carbon emissions — this is down from 99% in 1850. This is why the Chinese Communist Party is also taking significant steps to reduce their carbon-footprint. The damage of industrialization is already done — nothing will reverse the environmental effects that have already accumulated — and once again, the global reduction of carbon-emissions is certainly possible within capitalism. So, the issue at stake is not state-policies to reduce the carbon-footprint, much less the historical dialectic of man and nature. Rather the issue is the state as a function of politics, and politics as a function of the state, because these state-led projects to globally reduce carbon emissions will take place within a fundamental horizon of the need to increase the productivity of national capital vis-a-vis global trade and to manage surplus populations of global labor. Where these come together is the state as the democratic manager of discontents. These discontents are expressed through organized political parties vying to use state-power in order to satisfy, through more or less liberal means, enough of the electorate to maintain social order and therefore to retain their position in state-power. This is Marx’s concept of Bonapartism.

There are two distinct conceptions of the relation between society and the state as a function of politics. The first is the liberal-progressive view, the second is the Marxist view.

In the liberal-progressive view, the state is a positive force to be used by democratic society in order to address problems that emerge in society. For Marx, however, the state emerges from society in order to manage a contradiction in society that society itself can no longer manage: he called this contradiction industry. Marx saw in the 19th century how the state took on an executive character far above the self-contradiction of society through industry in order, not to overcome that contradiction, but to manage its effects. In the Marxist view, then, the state is not a positive force for democratic good but the negative expression of bourgeois society’s industrial self-contradiction. The state is a negative index of the inability of bourgeois exchange society to regulate itself: this is because the value of labor as a measure of social wealth had been rendered historically obsolete with respect to the industrial forces of production it released. The state would then manage this contradiction on the backend and thereby become increasingly powerful and independent: prisons and welfare are the same state-mechanism for managing surplus labor populations.

But for Marx, if bourgeois society overcame its industrial self-contradiction, then the need for a state would wither away. In this way, Marx stands in firm continuity with the deeper roots of liberalism. His difference with progressive liberalism was in the way they saw the social question being posed through the state under conditions of industrialization: for progressive liberals, the state would reconcile society’s various antagonisms; for Marx, the state is an index of the inability to reconcile them and therefore an index of the continued need to overcome the industrial commodification of labor-power. Of course, this could be possible only through the social-political self-education of the working-class through its party into a self-conscious social-political force.

20th century progressive capitalism

There are two phases of progressive liberalism in the United States. The first is the post-Civil War populist progressivism that gives rise to Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson and which has a second wave in the 1930s with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Coalition. This coalition would oversee the architecture of the post-war order, ushering in the second phase. However, as a function of changes in global capital and as a result of the New Left in the 1960s, this New Deal coalition collapses and the new ‘popular’ reorientation is toward identity-based issues that get reified into voting-rackets. The 1972 McGovern coalition, where the Clintons begin their political career, signals this political transition. The two sides of these voting-rackets, organized labor coming out of the New Deal and the horse-trade of the Dixiecrat South for progressive identitarian issues (blacks, women, and minorities), are the Democratic Party of the last 40 years of neoliberalism. This “progressive” aspect of the Democratic Party had a second wave in the 2016 election around Bernie Sanders, whose political origins lie in the “radicalism” of the 60s.

To understand both these phases we have to understand their pivot point in the 1930s New Deal Coalition. The New Deal emerges from the nineteenth century and the ‘second phase’ is only a playing out of this moment. The difference between the two phases, pre and post New Deal, is that in the first progressive liberalism is refracted through the Left, and in the second phase the Left is dead.

We can briefly recount the second phase of McGovern to Bernie by reference to this pivot point of the New Deal Coalition that is its origin.

In the decades leading up to the New Deal, there was a radical mass of organized and unorganized industrial labor for whose political leadership the communists, socialists, and liberals vied. The communists and the socialists pursued the political independence of the working-class, while the liberals pursued the integration of the industrial working-class through promising jobs and consumptive opportunity. The two sides can be posed like this: a revolutionary integrationism of the industrial working-class into the productive mechanism of bourgeois society, or a civil or ‘progressive liberal’ integration. Revolutionary integrationism is possible only through the political self-consciousness of the industrial working-class taking responsibility for capital itself, since the bourgeoisie had long since forfeited its claim to this title. This the industrial working-class would do by means of its party which was to dialectically coordinate the social and political aspects of class-struggle toward the ultimate seizure of state-power with the aim of rendering the party and the party-system and ultimately the state itself irrelevant. The party, the party-system and the state would wither away because the working-class had mastered the industrial self-contradiction at their heart. The political self-consciousness of this task was the historical self-consciousness of the proletariat and therefore the question of the industrial working class’s political leadership. In this sense, revolutionary integrationism in productive society is not an integration into that society but the intrinsic self-overcoming of that society by means of its own industrial tools.

In 1935, the Communist Party, with orders from Moscow, dropped its tactic of a united front and replaced it with a popular front. Although a fascist threat was not prominent in the U.S., this meant basically dropping the task of the independent political self-consciousness of the working-class in favor of supporting the progressive liberals of FDR’s New Deal coalition. To this day, in the office of the Communist Party of America in San Francisco hangs a picture of Barack Obama.

Of course, it was not only the literal Stalinists that proposed entering the Democratic Party in order to change it: this became the strategy of many Trotskyists as well. The Trotskyist Max Shachtman split with Trotsky over the question of whether the Soviet Union was still a living workers’ revolution that degenerated into a bureaucratic state, arguing that rather its state-capitalist character had rendered it no different from fascism and therefore not a route for the possibility of global revolution. As a consequence of his assessment, he became involved in an attempt in the 1960s to enter and realign the Democratic Party that involved other prominent socialists like Bayard Rustin. The idea was to use the crisis of the Democratic Party around the Civil Rights movement to strip away the organized labor-base away from the plutocratic elements of the Democratic Party. This meant that Shachtman and Rustin were explicitly not trying to transform the Democratic Party from within. Rather, they were trying to exploit the crisis of the two capitalist parties in order to redirect industrial labor away from the Democrats and align it with the radical elements of the Civil Rights movement in order to create the conditions for a socialist party.

This attempt fails along with the rest of the New Left, and the student of this attempt, Michael Harrington, consolidates that failure in 1983 by founding the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). When Harrington founds the DSA his goal (in contradistinction to that of Shachtman) is explicitly not to form a socialist party independent of capitalist politics but to transform the Democratic Party from within. As a result of this strategy, the stated task of ‘socialism’ goes from an independent socialist party to the DSA as the “left wing of the possible within the Democratic Party.”[1] As early as 1984 and 1985 they support Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition and vie to be the most adamant racketeers of the progressive liberal wing of the Democratic Party — namely, identity politics plus welfare-state austerity. The DSA-bump around Sanders and Trump is thus the final ghost of the 1980s: all the Marxist organizations, Maoist and Trotskyist, attempting to use the DSA and direct it toward ostensibly revolutionary aims themselves in turn liquidate their ostensible socialism into its progressive liberalism and thereby into the Democrats. The DSA is merely the way-station, the drain around which SAlt, ISO, Solidarity — the Trotskyists — and the FRSO, the RCP, and others — the Maoists — all circle before finally liquidating into progressive liberalism, but this time without leaving much of an historical memory.

The argument one hears today — or at least heard — was that the Democratic Party is a big tent of competing interests — but this is simply the 1980s speaking, without any consciousness of the prior history of American socialism. The capitulation of the 1960s New Left to the Democratic Party repeats itself through the weak glow of the 1980s generation, as the 60ers biologically pass. The split in the original Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1968 between the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) and the Workers-Student Alliance (PL/WSA) over whether class or race is more fundamental in the political self-education of the working-class degenerates into mere technical racketeering over which electoral groups can be tactically convinced to vote for the local progressive.[2] Race and class, Jacobin says, but this just means the two aspects of Democratic Party liberal progressivism: identity politics and welfare-state austerity.

In any case, the DSA shows no immediate promise of surviving beyond Bernie’s candidacy. If the Party succeeds in booting Bernie from the ticket, there will be a debate in the organization over whether to endorse the nominee, say Biden or Warren, and whatever the organization officially does, the members will support the nominee against Trump, for the only political unity of the organization is anti-Trumpism, they being simply the louder wing of the Democratic Party. In any case, woke progressivism is already being mobilized again against Bernie, and if it succeeds in discrediting the most perfectly progressive candidate, then woke progressivism will have rendered itself obsolete as a political criterion. Indeed, the central moment of Bernie’s 2016 campaign was his switch from appealing to independent voters to trying to win over Hillary’s woke progressive base, who are now dead set on eating him alive.

Progressive liberalism and American socialism

Having discussed the evolution of 20th century progressive liberalism up to the present day, we can turn to its origins in the 19th century. We will reach back before the origins of “progressive liberalism” and start at the beginning.

The Founding Fathers brought to self-conscious political expression the revolution in human social relations that first rendered the drudgery of 10,000 years of human servitude and defilement, the tyranny of nature, an object of the past: the bourgeois revolution. By demanding government of the people, by the people, for the people, the Fathers made bourgeois society, the society that bases itself on the trade of labor and its products, the self-conscious union of free-labor itself. The American Revolution, like the French Revolution, was the political expression of the bourgeois revolution, the revolt of the third estate, the beginning of truly human history.

The Founding Fathers had good reason to expect that the natural self-expansion of free-labor would render the value of slave-labor irrelevant and therefore they tipped the scales of history in the direction of freedom with the 3/5 Compromise, which legalized humanity in black men. What contradicted this bet on freedom was something they could not foresee: the introduction of the machine. Paradoxically, the introduction of the spinning jenny in England made slave-labor in Mississippi more valuable; and by the same token, it made the value of free-labor in Massachusetts less valuable, indeed increasingly worthless. This paradox constitutes the essence of Marx’s assumption of the mantel of Adam Smith: it is a contradiction that is inherent to the exchange of free-labor itself, and it was not always there, rather it emerged when the tools of that exchange, the means, machines and methods of productions, outstripped their masters and reduced them to the role of cogs in its own self-production. This reversal of means and ends, where man becomes means of the machine, and the machine the ends of man, is the contradiction that Marx calls Capital. Where for Smith, capital was a means to the self-expansion of the productive division of free-labor, for Marx, free-labor has become the means to the self-production of capital.

In 1782, Thomas Jefferson, envisioning a republic of free and independent land-owners, looked at the growth of manufacturing in the cities and the increasing division between owners of machines and propertyless slum masses and quipped, “let our workshops remain in Europe.”[3] But in 1782, there was only one spinning jenny in use in the world. By 1816, there were eighty-seven large-scale spinning jennies in operation. Jefferson was compelled to exclaim: “within the thirty years which have since elapsed, how are circumstances changed! — experience has taught me that manufactures are now as necessary to our independence as to our comfort.”[4] A modern industrial proletariat was developing on the American continent and not just as an extraneous factor but as central to social-economic organization of free-labor in the North.

Agrarianism aside, there are two major reform movements in America of the nineteenth century up leading to the second American Revolution in the Civil War: first, the movement to abolish slavery in the South; and second, the beginnings of the formulation of a sort of ‘wage-slavery’ in the North. By 1829, you already have the self-conscious theorization of a form of social bondage that goes beyond the free and equal wage-contract, one which legal self-ownership does not and cannot address. This new social dependence emerging from the industrial wage-contract is described in literally the same terms that Marx will use later, when the industrial self-contradiction of bourgeois right had grown more acute, the doubly-free wage-laborer. Here is Thomas Skidmore: “Necessity compels us to work for such prices as are offered, and pay such prices as are demanded for every thing we need; we must either do this — resort to fraud or theft — or perish by hunger and nakedness.”[5]

While both these movements supported the immediate abolition of slavery, tensions had already begun to emerge between the two senses of the task of the social emancipation of labor. The abolitionists driven by bourgeois right saw the stain of slavery as a force that was not going away of its own accord and must be removed through a conscious political act. This is the birth of the Republican Party. Lincoln brings both the abolitionists and the labor-reformers within the same tent of the Republican Party and successfully prosecutes the war. With slavery abolished, the submerged tensions flared out into the open. The American bourgeoisie continued to play a revolutionary role through the Civil War — completing the American Revolution. After the war, they stuttered on their limits for they were the limits of bourgeois society, the social-political manifestation of which Marx had diagnosed in more acute form across the ocean in Europe. The Republican Party becomes the party of big-capital, supporting the expansive industrial needs of the productive nation; the Democratic Party remains the organ of the southern states and the party of petit-bourgeois middle-class discontent in the North.

The social-political manifestation of the industrial contradiction was a rich cauldron pot of international proportions: this comes to highest political self-expression first in the First International and then, more self-consciously in the Second. However, just as in the other industrializing countries of the First International, the social and political aspects of this manifestation did not come together. The trade-union activity was widespread and militant: often the trade-unions were organized within a particular labor-sector to protect the agreed upon wage-rule; sometimes, they even took over management functions by advising how best to economize labor and other productive resources. Further, labor associations like the Knights of Labor organized workers across America with the aim of converting the factories into sites of common enterprise. The first nationwide railroad strike is in 1877, when union troops are removed from protecting democracy in the South to put down strikes in the North.

However, the question was what the actual aims of this social-economic struggle of labor pursued. This answer was supplied politically by the labor-reformers, who at a level lower than their radical-labor forebearers, argued that the massive federal state expanded through Lincoln should legislate a common eight-hour day; by 1870, this political demand was reduced to the federal state’s providing merely an example to the rest of industry by implementing it for its own employees. That, or labor-reformers trying to give common political shape to the social-economic struggles simply took up Greenbackism, or manipulating the money-supply and tariff-ordinance to better encourage the profitability of wages.

Both of these aspects, the social-economic struggle and a political task to give this struggle shape, were theorized by Marx historically, i.e. in terms of the emergent industrial self-contradiction of formally equal bourgeois right. This struggle had reached a more acute, advanced form in what would become the social democratic parties of Europe. The basis of the social-democratic party, according to Marx’s critique, was the historical task of the proletariat to overcome itself, the self-contradiction of industrial wage-labor. The party was an instrument of leadership of the working-class for learning and giving ultimate shape to the labor-struggle itself by pointing to the necessity for political revolution in order to enable the global-historical function of industrial wage-labor. Otherwise, the trade-unions and the nation-states would become mere labor-rackets.

In the United States, the Socialist Party is founded in 1901, after the agrarian-populist and labor-reform movements had come to naught in the progressive liberalism of the Democratic Party umbrella. In his founding speech in Chicago, Eugene Debs specifies imperialism as the contradiction whose task was adequate to the global industrial proletariat in its national section of the North American republic. The Republican Party, being the party of big capital encouraged the exercise of economic and soft imperialism as conducive to its productive needs; the Democratic Party, being the party of the unwilling middle class, decried imperialism. In short, while both parties were aiming to avoid stagnation, the interests of the republican party were large enough to need to seek foreign markets, but the interests of the Democratic party, being easily swallowed by larger interests, would have welcomed this stagnation as a possible opening for petit-bourgeois pursuits.

Against both of these, the task of the Socialist Party of America was to turn imperialism into a dialectical object: the integration of financial and industrial capital is progressive and the task adequate to the global working-class, do not break up the monopolies but set them in the service of society, not the redistribution of the cuts of capital but the appropriation of the private means of industrial production by the proletariat and its setting formerly national capital in the service of global-labor in its task to complete the bourgeois revolution through overcoming the industrial self-contradiction whose subject it was.

Opposed to American socialism was progressive liberalism, who in the name of liberalism sought to implement a program less progressive than capital itself. It was capital that integrated global work-forces, not the progressive liberals pretending to represent their nation-state. The progressivism of the liberals was a certain way of taming the industrial-financial force of self-monopolizing capital by mitigating its worst effects and directing its investorial thrust. In the end, the Progressive’s (and their presidential candidate Teddy Roosevelt’s) response to industrializing imperialism was manipulating the monetary supply, democratizing various organs of bourgeois management and breaking up the monopolies.

The aim of the Socialist Party of Debs was to realize the constitution by completing it. The basis of the working-class demand for their fair share of labor’s product was bourgeois right itself. This meant that the American working class demanding their bourgeois right was already the German and Russian working class demanding theirs. The global subject of labor was already beyond the nationalist state-Bonapartist form: the task of liberalism had fallen to the global working class. Therefore, only the international working class as a self-conscious political force could realize the aim of the Founding Fathers, namely an internally self-regulating and self-expanding union of liberty.

The horizon of the 19th century

Nothing essential changed about this progressive approach when the familied heir of Roosevelt the First in response to the Great Depression offered the American electorate a New Deal. The liberal progressive wing of FDR’s New Deal Coalition was split in two. Some around Richberg and Berry said that what was needed was greater cooperation either between monopolized capital and the state or between the trusts and cartels as mediated by the state. The American worker was crucified on the cross of competition: the anarchic production conditions required greater cooperation at the productive level between the owners of the means of production, and ultimately between them and labor. This was decried by their opponents as price-fixing for a privileged few. Against this, the opponents said the American worker was crucified on the cross of cooperation: too much monopoly, feudalistic chain-stores eating up mom and pop. They went so far as to declare on radio that the 80 great families had entered into a capital-strike, refusing to invest their proceeds to the good of society for their own gain. The only force adequate to this state-mediated contradiction between cooperation and competition would have been the self-conscious party of the working class.[6]

The path that was taken was the middling sort that was truer to progressivism’s (Greenback) origins in the Civil War and the expanded Bonapartist state-apparatus it had erected. The progressive achievement of the New Deal was simply the expansion of the federal executive over monetary and fiscal policy. Central to this democratic ideal was the right of the people to a say in the distributions of the cuts of national capital as mediated by the international Bonapartist state — or to say the same, the right of the people to the cuts of international capital by means of the national Bonapartist state. A Lassallean-Bismarckian mode of redistributing the cuts of capital, this was then the democratic ideal implemented by the Democratic Party after Bretton Woods for the right of the nation to national self-determination: it concerns the right of the ‘people’ in managing their own labor-and-capital racket. It is the democratic nation-state specification of the Wilsonian League of Nations, and it is in terms of this ideal of democratic self-determination that the former colonies become nations.

This language of New Deal progressive liberalism is, for example, the self-conscious ideal of Jacobin magazine, who orient from 1976 Swedish social democracy.[7] The authors around Jacobin support a federal jobs guarantee harkening back to FDR’s proposed economic bill of rights. They argue that closing the persistent unemployment gap through a federal jobs guarantee will stabilize the economy by reducing poverty and that it will put the profoundly unequal nature of work — both its content and its distribution — into question.[8] This Federal Jobs Guarantee is then seen by Bhaskar Sunkara as a ‘transitional policy’ on the way to building socialism.[9]

The problem is that Sunkara and the authors at Jacobin consider the implementation of various federal-executive programs such as the guarantee of labor as themselves socialism. In this way they confuse means and ends: the end that socialists originally had in mind was building the party for socialism, that is, building the social-political force out of the working-class that could itself see to it that state and industry cooperate in such a way as to render both irrelevant. Instead, what Sunkara does is to reify the New Deal state-cooperatist vision of 1930s progressive liberalism, make the Democratic Party the end and aim of political consciousness, and trade the self-organization of the working-class for reliance on the Bonapartist state to manage the cuts of capital ‘democratically’.

In this way, at best, the Jacobin utopia falls back to the origins of progressive liberalism itself, when Ira Steward, the leading labor-reformer, defined the political end and aim of the labor movement as the federal legislation of the eight-hour day — at worst, it would fall back on the anti-capitalist sentiment of Bryanism. In good progressive liberal fashion, both Steward and Sunkara see the state as a positive force of democratic will in society: for Steward, the federal government could enforce, or perhaps at least set an example for, the eight-hour day, all within a basic framework of Greenback utilitarianism; for Sunkara, the federal government can print jobs like money. The distance between Steward and Sunkara is the authoritarian state-capitalism of the 20th century itself, which is why Bernie and Sunkara can imagine a state-led transformation of American society only on the model of a 1940-style state of emergency.[10]

The self-consciousness of the end is the consciousness of the means: where Jacobin puts socialism as the end and the Democratic Party as the means, ‘socialism’ becomes a means to the next round of Democratic Party austerity-management, which Trump is already rendering irrelevant. It is not coincidental that Hillary Clinton found the ‘federal job guarantee’ to be the most profound and intriguing idea for the role of the federal government in answering the question of incentivizing productive jobs. If Sunkara wishes for the working class to claim their means of production as their right, then the goal he sets at the beginning should not budge one inch to the limited horizon of capitalist mismanagement: that, however, would mean opening our imagination back up to the 19th century and the task of the bourgeois revolution that national industrialization posed for the global laboring subject.

The imperialist world war (WWI) posed the question of the political agency of the working-class toward the global universalization of labor and socialization of capital. With bourgeois society hanging in ruins, two peaces were proposed: that of Vladimir Lenin and of Woodrow Wilson.  For Marx, Lenin and Luxemburg, wresting political control from the illiberal mismanagers of industrial capital was the key step in overcoming the self-contradiction of the bourgeois revolution in industrial capitalism. To do this, they had to smash the bourgeois form of state that pretended to hold industry together through trenches of dead workers, for industrial capital had itself already gone beyond the parliamentary apparatus. Would the SPD facilitate the international workers’ revolution by smashing the illiberal bourgeois state, or would it hand power back over to the leaders of the military-industrial complex in order to constitute a bourgeois state in the name of liberalism? That was the question. The American and the Russian revolutions are one revolution mediated by the failure of the German revolution: that failure is the failure of industrialism itself.

The Wilsonian nation-state basis of the League of Nations results from the failure of the working-class movement. It flattens the contradiction of capital and labor into the national-communal identity of a welfare-state. However, internally redistributive policies still express, despite their national Bonapartist form, essentially the international character of labor and capital, and therefore Bonapartism is essentially one international state in national sections. Global labor must become adequate to international Bonapartism. The origin of the ‘nation’ in the bourgeois revolutions was simply the association of producers against the internationalism of the church and aristocracy and was in this way already pointing to global cosmopolitan society: in the nineteenth century liberalism identified the nation with industrial productivity. The political form of the dictatorship of the proletariat will still be nationally-democratic in character. So the question is, is the horizon of the Left the Lassallean-Bismarckian redistributive imperialist welfare-state, or the adequacy of global labor to global capital? This question of means and ends should be posed as the next wave of liberal progressivism and its leftist tails falls away. It would mean the Left’s orientation from the 19th not the 20th century and the postulation of the Left as the unredeemed task of History.| P

[1] Victor Navasky, “The Left Wing of the Possible,” New York Times, May 28, 2000. <>

[2] See PR 117 on the break-up of the SDS <>

[3] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia

[4] Alex Gourevitch, From Slavery to Cooperative Commonwealth

[5] Gourevtich, From Slavery to Cooperative Commonweatlth

[6] This argument is made by Eugene Debs in his 1900 essay, “Competition versus Cooperation.”

[7] Sunkara, Lessons from the First Red Century (

[8] Zamora, Case Against UBI ( and Paul, Darity, Hamilton, Why We Need a Federal Job Guarantee (

[9] Sunkara, World After Capitalism (

[10] For example, on Bernie’s campaign website, his campaign writes, “Directly invest an historic $16.3 trillion public investment toward [the Green New Deal], in line with the mobilization of resources made during the New Deal and WWII, but with an explicit choice to include black, indigenous and other minority communities who were systematically excluded in the past.” <>