Robert Brenner: I would say that the key to the emergence of the New Deal reforms was the transformation in the level and character of working-class struggle. Within a year or two of Roosevelt’s election, we saw the sudden emergence of a mass militant working-class movement. This provided the material base, so to speak, for the transformation of working-class consciousness and politics that made Roosevelt’s reforms possible.
Following the labor upsurge and radicalization that came in the wake of World War I, workers’ militancy tailed off, and the 1920s saw the American capitalist class at the peak of its power, confidence, and productiveness, in total command of industry and politics. Manufacturing productivity rose more rapidly during this decade than ever before or since, the open shop (which banned union contracts) prevailed everywhere, the Republican Party of big business reigned supreme, and the stock market broke all records.
In the second part of a three-part essay on social democracy in the United States Robert Brenner discusses two cycles of attempted reform of American capitalism in the 1930s and 1960s, the decline of those reformist cycles, and the consequences of the crisis of American capitalism in the 1970s. Brenner is the author of many penetrating studies of global economics including: The Boom and the Bubble, Merchants and Revolution, and The Economics of Global Turbulence. The essay first appeared in the 1985 edition of The Year Left: An American Socialist Yearbook. You can read parts one and three of the essay here and here.