The New Deal in America
A Social Revolution in the 1930's ?
March 9, 2010:
How Revolutionary was the New Deal
and What is its Legacy in American society ?
Allan Lewis, 2003
"Revolution" is defined by one version of Webster's Dictionary as, firstly, "a fundamental change in political organization,
especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed" and
secondly, as "an activity or movement designed to effect fundamental change in the socioeconomic situation". Was Franklin
Delano Roosevelt's New Deal program during the Great Depression of the 1930's in the United States a revolution as
described by either or both of the above definitions?
The Great Depression began with the stock market collapse in October of 1929. Republican Herbert Hoover was the incumbent
president and would be in office until succeded by Roosevelt, a Democrat, in early 1933. Hoover's economic and social
policies had been mostly a traditional laissez-faire stance: minimal government intervention, balanced budgets, low taxes
on the wealthy, and high protective tariffs. He had served as Secretary of Commerce and assumed that the traditional
rugged individualism of the American Republic would see the country through any recession. But, the usual forms of
social security provided by private charity, municipal and state governments were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the
Depression. The election of Roosevelt (a successful reform governor from New York), signalled the beginnings of more
active state intervention to help alleviate the hardship endured by millions of persons as a result of downturns in the
business cycle -- hardships to which they were subjected through no fault of their own.
Here is a brief summary of the major measures of the New Deal: During the first 100 days Roosevelt undertook an ambitious
legislative program to stabilize the national financial system. He separated commercial banking from investment banking
and created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration Act (FERA), the
Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Tenessee Valley Authority (TVA) all provided direct relief and public works
for the unemployed. The Homeowners' Loan Corporation assisted individuals with mortgage refinancing for their homes.
The agriculture industry was assisted by the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA). It's objective was to rationalize the
farming industry by removing excess land from cultivation in turn for government payments. The Soil Conservation
Service of 1935 encouraged farmers to plant grains other than wheat and instructed farmers in soil conservation practises.
The Second New Deal of 1935 was a response to a growing populism and labour unrest prior to the upcoming Presidential
Roosevelt introduced two main programs which had long-term social benefits for the country: the Social Security Act (SSA)
and the National Labour Relations Act (NLRA), also known as the Wagner Act. The SSA and the Wagner Act were not designed
to be just short-term relief for specific sectors of the economy -- they were designed to effect fundamental change in
the socioeconomic situation (Webster's second definition of the term "revolution", above).
Part of Webster's first definition of revolution (above), "the renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution
of another by the governed" applies here. However, the term "revolution" often implies a violent overthrow of government.
The Hoover government was replaced by Roosevelt and the Democrats, not through violent means (as occurred during the
American Revolution), but by the normal democratic electoral process.
Webster's second definition of revolution is somewhat more applicable to the New Deal. Roosevelt and his team of professional
social scientists, especially economists who were influenced by the early teachings of John Maynard Keynes, were able
to gradually "effect fundamental change in the socioeconomic situation". Although the manifestations of the Depression,
for example high unemployment rates, persisted throughout the thirties, a fundamental change was taking place during the
period. This change led to a great increase in the role of the federal government. It assumed more responsibility for
the welfare of all American citizens.
How revolutionary was the New Deal? A revolution may be primarily conservative in nature, i.e. it's goals may be to retain
or restore the status quo. There is little doubt that the New Deal programs contained conservative elements. Writing from
the New Left perspective in 1968, Barton Bernstein laments the feeble attempts at economic and social reform undertaken
during the New Deal. "Operating within very safe channels, Roosevelt not only avoided Marxism and the socialization of
property, but he also stopped far short of other possibilities -- communal direction of production or the organized
distribution of surplus. The President and many of his associates were doctrinaires of the center, and their maneuvers
(sic) in social reform were limited to cautious excursions". Aspersions to Marxism were fashionable in liberal circles
in the 1960's. The achievement of a Marxist system in the United States would have been revolutionary. The fact that
nothing close to Marxism was attained by the New Deal leads us to believe that the New Deal was not revolutionary.
A revolution which is primarily radical or liberal seeks to overturn the existing socioeconomic or political system.
In the mid 1980's, fifty years after the Depression, and in more conservative times (relative to the late 1960's of
Bernstein's writing), William E. Leuchtenburg admits to the political, social and economic changes which resulted
from the New Deal, especially its long term bureaucratic reforms. Again, these long term changes, while fundamental
to American society were not of sufficient magnitude and speed to constitute a true revolution.
It is apparent that the New Deal legislation was a mixture of conservativism and radicalism and it is ironic that
Bernstein in the 1960's and Leuchtenburg in the 1980's reached different conclusions on the effects of the New Deal.
To some degree, present perceptions of the New Deal are dependent on its historiography.
How did the New Deal changes affect various groups in society? Geographically all regions were affected by its programs -
urban workers in the north, western and southern farmers. However, its main focus of financial and administrative
assistance was aimed at mostly large, recognizable interest groups. The banking and business sectors were crucial to
maintaining confidence and they were particularly involved and assisted. Similarly, the large agricultural interests
were beneficiaries as were urban immigrants. The formation of the CIO in 1935 and the Wagner Act strengthened the
position of organized labour. Unorganized and excluded groups benefitted to a much lesser degree. The fact that the
mainstays of the American industrial / capitalist system were protected illustrates the conservative nature of the New Deal.
Tenant farmers, blacks, native Americans and women benefitted mainly to the degree that a slowly rising tide raised all
boats - they were not targeted for specific aid.
What is the legacy of the New Deal? If it was not revolutionary, it did leave long-term effects behind. The role of the
federal government was enhanced and together with the Second World War, fostered the growth of the welfare state and the
American military and industrial machinery. The co-operation encouraged between commercial interests and the federal
government during the New Deal legitimized the federal role in the economy. Also, many of the states implemented more
limited versions of the New Deal, adding to the general increase in government presence in the lives of Americans.
Large scale public housing in the cities was initiated in the 1930's and expanded over the next few decades. Half a
million miles of highways and hundreds of bridges built with New Deal financing augmented the transportation infrastructure.
To what extent was the New Deal revolutionary? It was not a revolution as defined in the sense of a profound political
upheaval. More applicable is the idea that the New Deal was a revolution in the sense that it effected fundamental
change in the economic and social systems in the American republic. It legitimized the increased administrative power of
the federal government in American society. The federal bureaucracy became professionalized and grew quickly during the
Depression. The legislation of the New Deal contributed to modern American society by affirming the role and influence
of the federal government in the modern welfare state. If not a revolution, the New Deal was, at least, a rapid acceleration
in the rate of change towards modernity.
Traditional values survived the Depression and the New Deal with great resilience. In the end, the New Deal was
essentially a holding operation for American society, because in the democratic, capitalist United States, that was
what most Americans wanted it to be. The New Deal created change in the system, but not to the same degree or scope
as the French Revolution, the American Revolution or the Russian Revolution which all involved the rapid achievement
of major changes to the existing political systems through the use of violence.
Badger, Anthony, "Unintended Consequences" in The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-40,
Carleton University, Coursepak for History 2400, Winter term, 2004.
Bernstein, Barton, "The New Deal: The Conservative Achievement of Liberal Reform", in Bernstein (ed.)
Towards a New Past: Essays in American History (1968).
Brody, David, "The CIO After 50 Years: A Historical Reckoning", in Workers in Industrial America: Essays on the 20th Century Struggle
(2nd edition), (Oxford University Press, 1993): 135-56.
Mish, Frederick C. et al., eds., Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, (Merriam-Webster, 1987).
Murrin, John et al., eds., Liberty, Equality, Power: A History of the American People, (Belmont: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2003), 644-77.
Leuchtenberg, William E., "The Achievement of the New Deal", in Harvard Sitkoff (ed.), Fifty Years Later: The New Deal Evaluated, (McGraw-Hill): 211-30.
McElvaine, Robert, "Who Was Roaring in the Twenties? Origins of the Great Depression", in The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, (Times Books, 1984): 25-50.
Susman, Warren, "Culture and Commitment", in Culture as History: The Transformation of American Society in the Twentieth Century, (Pantheon, 1984): 150-83.
... Al Lewis
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