Anarchists and the Rise of the Welfare State


By Andrew Cornell
University of California Press

This article is excerpted from Unruly Equality: US Anarchism in the 20th Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016).

During the presidential campaign of 1931, the patrician Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt instilled hope in a deeply shaken electorate by claiming "the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid" deserved a "new deal." During his famous first hundred days in office, Roosevelt proposed a flurry of new programs and policy changes aimed at reversing the downward spiral of the domestic economy, then already in its third year.

US anarchists approached the New Deal with their typical skepticism toward government initiatives heightened by suspicions stemming from the manipulative ways in which Mussolini and Hitler had recently ascended to power. In the April 1933 issue of the insurrectionary anarchist newspaper Man!, editor Marcus Graham dubbed FDR's approach a "new hoax" and reminded readers that they could expect nothing from government but "deceit and treachery." He took particular umbrage with the Civilian Conservation Corps, the first experiment with a work-relief program, in which young men would be paid a modest wage to develop natural resources under the auspices of the War Department. "What this dastardly scheme really implies isn't hard to guess," Graham wrote. "It will be used for a two-fold purpose: first, to further lower the workers' wage scale; second to have a standing army ready to drown in blood any uprising that appears now so imminent." By August, Graham had concluded that the New Deal was a plot to introduce "American Fascism" under the guise of assisting the unemployed.

In early articles on the subject, contributors to the anarcho-syndicalist journal Vanguard focused more attention on Roosevelt's National Industrial Recovery Act (NIRA) but arrived at similarly pessimistic conclusions. The act suspended antitrust laws and created boards to establish "industrial codes" with the intention of raising commodity prices by limiting competition. It also affirmed the right to organize, called for labor to be represented on its industrial boards, and set a minimum wage and maximum hours for participating corporations. Writing in May 1933, Mark Schmidt critiqued the "rigging and freezing up of prices" that the NIRA's industrial codes attempted, and predicted that the NIRA would dangerously increase the government's role in labor conflicts. "Democracy will become attenuated to the vanishing point, the powerful trusts merging with bureaucratic State apparatus, the workers' organizations deprived of any right to strike and act independently, 'coordinated' with the State…. This is the trend toward Fascism." Melchior Steele, a contributor to Man!, likewise believed that with the government acting as "a party to contracts," strikes would amount to "rebellion against the government," further disinclining patriotic workers from taking part.

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