The Lies Social Democrats Tell: FDR, the New Deal, and Social Fascism

Zach Medeiros | Politics & Government | Commentary | June 18th, 2019

On June 12, Bernie Sanders gave a much-advertised speech about democratic socialism at George Washington University. Stuck in a distant second to perennial, burning-human-garbage-pile Joe Biden, eclipsed in media coverage by mildly charismatic mediocrities like Pete Buttigieg and even Elizabeth Warren, a charitable interpretation of this move could see it as a well-intentioned effort to assuage some very Amerikan fears about socialism, and perhaps gain some traction in the polls in the process. No doubt electoral opportunism played a role, because you don't get to stick around in the Senate for so long without learning how to play the game. While some may argue that Sanders was trying to make socialism more palatable for a US audience, I believe the speech represented something far more significant. Last week, Bernie Sanders ripped his mask off and with a heavy dose of historical revisionism showed his so-called socialism for what it truly is: social fascism.

Social fascism is a phrase that's unfamiliar to most people in the United States, who typically have better or more pressing things to do than study the internal debates of the Communist International in the 1930s. In imperialist countries like the US, Canada, Australia, and much of Europe, social democracy (a mixed capitalist economy with a more or less robust welfare state, originally designed to take the sting out of revolutionary socialist movements) takes the form of a "kinder, gentler" fascism, at least for citizens. You can look at how Europe and its children treat refugees to understand what social democracy means for non-citizens. The wealth and privileges of Western social democracy, of course, are impossible without the looting of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and Third World diasporas within Western countries - in other words, imperialism. [1] Whereas socialists believe in class conflict and class struggle, social democrats/fascists believe in class collaboration. This is the dangerous notion that classes with completely, inherently contradictory interests (capitalists and workers) can unite and work towards a mutually-beneficial goal. As an ideology and practice, class collaboration produces and rationalizes such phenomena as millionaires and billionaires in supposed Communist parties, toothless unions led by labor aristocrats who like to golf with the boss on weekends, and the total suppression of worker's power in the name of national unity or the 99%. It is intellectual and material quicksand. As George Jackson wrote, "the only way we can destroy it [fascism] is to refuse to compromise with the enemy state and its ruling class." [2]

Just as social imperialism is nothing but the same old imperialist gore and exploitation hiding behind socialist trappings, social fascism is essentially fascism wearing a socialist mask. The social fascist is the one whose heart bleeds for the struggling worker while sending the cops or the troops to break up an unauthorized strike, or the modern-day Gestapo to deport workers who dared to cross colonial borders without permission. The social fascist is the one who calls not for an end to the mass robbery of the Third World, but a fairer distribution of the stolen goods. The social fascist is the one who preaches revolution and revolt, just so long as it ends right before the power of the capitalist class begins.

With that in mind, we can return to Bernie's speech. Parsing through the usual populist spiel, we get to the heart of his argument: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) was a democratic socialist, and his New Deal programs, while incomplete, were outstanding examples of what democratic socialism is all about. In an age of resurgent right-wing extremism and oligarchic domination, Sanders argues that the solution is taking up the "unfinished business of the New Deal" and carrying it to completion. Anyone who peddles this line with a straight face is a damn fool, a liar, or both.

Actual socialists and revolutionaries like George Jackson pegged Roosevelt and his New Deal for what they were decades ago. Casting aside all of the glittering myths about that era and grinding them into dust, Jackson identified Roosevelt as a fascist, plain as day. Writing about the beginning of the Great Depression, Jackson said "under the threat of revolution, the ruling class, true to Marxian theory, became all the more co-optive and dangerous. FDR was born and bred in this ruling class of families. His role was to form the first fascist regime, to merge the economic, political, and labor elites. Governing elites/corporative state/fascism - his role was to limit competition, replace it with the dream of cooperation; to put laissez faire to rest, and initiate the acceptance of government intervention into economic affairs." [3] Roosevelt was not some great, noble champion of the common people. He and his advisers, along with the capitalists who backed them, were simply farsighted enough to see that an unprecedented capitalist crisis required an unprecedented capitalist solution: fascism. Like so many of their counterparts at the time, the Amerikan bourgeoise had to come up with a way to contain the upsurge in revolutionary consciousness without fundamentally undermining the capitalist system. The draw of fascism, which extolls class collaboration instead of class struggle, the violent repression of leftist alternatives and "dangerous" minorities, and a shower of crumbs to satisfy the restless masses, must have been obvious.

In his speech, Sanders claimed that "We [in the United States] rejected the ideology of Mussolini and Hitler - we instead embraced the bold and visionary leadership of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, then the leader of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party." This is ahistorical nonsense. Roosevelt was an unabashed admirer of Benito Mussolini, the Founding Father of fascism. In June 1933, Roosevelt praised Mussolini in a letter to Breckenridge Long, the US Ambassador to Italy, writing that he was "much interested and deeply impressed by what [Mussolini] has accomplished and by his evidenced honest purpose of restoring Italy and seeking to prevent general European trouble." In another letter a few weeks later, Roosevelt told a friend who had also complimented Mussolini: "I don't mind telling you in confidence that I am keeping in fairly close touch with the admirable Italian gentleman." [4]

These were private letters not meant for public consumption, so one could hardly rationalize them as simple diplomatic flattery. They were also written over a decade after Mussolini seized power and abandoned all pretense of democratic rule, so Roosevelt could hardly claim naivete. After meeting with Roosevelt in 1934, the Italian general and fascist hero Italo Balbo reported to Mussolini that the president "manifested toward Your Excellency feelings of the highest esteem and liking because of the work of restoration performed in Italy…the President also spoke words of appreciation for the labor organization of our country and displayed in general a spirit of true understanding for Italy." [5] So much for FDR's rejection of fascist ideology! Like so much of the Amerikan bourgeoise, who published glowing tributes to Fascist Italy in outlets like Fortune magazine, Roosevelt looked at what Mussolini was doing not with horror, but with open glee and envy. Why wouldn't they? The Fascists had literally beaten the revolutionary sectors of the working class into submission, co-opted the rest of the population into the tight embrace of the new corporate state, and seemingly resolved the crises facing modern industrial capitalism. As far as Mussolini was concerned, the feelings were mutual.[6] It was only with the outbreak of World War II that Mussolini and Fascism had to become enemies in the eyes of the United States.

As telling as personal affinities can be, they are not sufficient for demonstrating the fascist nature of Roosevelt and the New Deal. To return to Jackson, we must see the New Deal as an essential part of Amerika's long walk into fascism. When we move past the "deceptively better working conditions and illusory wage increases," the softer hand directed towards (white) labor, we can see that the New Deal was hardly more than capitalist reformism.[7] To prevent a revolution and save capitalism from itself - indeed, to entrench capitalism even deeper than before - the ruling class had to reexamine the role of the state. Contrary to libertarian capitalist dogma, the state has always played an essential role in the establishment, defense, and spread of capitalism, but the chaos of the 1920s and 30s required a qualitative change. Monopoly capital and the state had to undergo a corporate-style merger. The military-industrial complex and massive consumers' market (boosted to incredible heights by the productive boom of World War II) satisfied the short-term economic interests of white labor, which cared little for social liberation. Their leaders were brought into the fold and provided with cushy perks. The radicals and revolutionaries were killed, jailed, exiled, or ostracized into irrelevance. [8] This is the part of the picture that Bernie Sanders doesn't paint.

As J. Sakai put it, "the victory [the Euro-Amerikan proletariat] gained was the firm positioning of the Euro-Amerikan working class in the settler ranks, reestablishing the rights of all Europeans here to share the privileges of the oppressor nation. This was the essence of the equality that they won. This bold move was in the settler tradition, sharing the Amerikan pie with more European reinforcements so that the Empire could be strengthened. This formula had partially broken down during the transition from the Amerika of the Frontier to the Industrial Amerika. It was the brilliant accomplishment of the New Deal to mend this break." [9] New Africans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and other oppressed nations under the heel of the United States saw no such benefits. They were lynched, deported, massacred, impoverished, and brutalized during the New Deal years as surely as they were before and after. Social democracy for whites, fascism for everyone else: this is the legacy that Bernie Sanders eulogizes, the model that he asks us to "complete." This is not socialism. It's a damn lie.

Socialists, and anyone serious about building revolutionary change in Amerika, should not defraud or lie to the people. It is our responsibility to speak plainly, to own up to hard, unpleasant truths, and educate and be educated by the masses. That is the exact opposite of what Bernie Sanders is doing. Like his idol Roosevelt, Sanders isn't interested in dismantling capitalism. He wants to save it. He isn't interested in establishing a revolutionary socialist society and a worker's state. He would sooner die, and no doubt would vote to send in the troops to crush anyone who tried. He has no curiosity for decolonization, no appetite for anti-imperialism, not a shred of concern for the most basic principles of socialist internationalism.

Instead, he offers only a few adjustments to the machinery of death that is the United States. He wants to piss on your leg and tell you it's raining. Would some of these adjustments help some people, if by some miracle he could get half of them enacted? Undoubtedly. But at what cost? With more stolen wealth taken from the colonized world and colonized people? At the direction of a state-owned lock, stock, and barrel by the capitalists and imperialists? We no longer have the luxury of time to tinker with the machinery of death. Reformism is the shovel we'll dig our own grave with. Anyone who identifies as a socialist must understand that the task before us is not to "reclaim" Amerika, but replace it with something better: for the sake of oppressed and exploited people here, for the sake of oppressed and exploited people everywhere, and for the sake of all life on this planet.


[1] Black Red Guard, "Ideological Social Democracy Is Social Fascism: Yet Again."

[2] George Jackson, Blood in My Eye. 120.

[3] Ibid. 164.

[4] David F. Schmitz, Thank God They're On Our Side: The United States and Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965. 190.

[5] David F. Schmitz, The United States and Fascist Italy, 1922-1940.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Jackson, 170-171.

[8] Ibid, 173-174.

[9] J. Sakai, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat from Mayflower to Modern.