The picture Conkin paints of the tense interplay between the two politicians, the outgoing and the new president during the interregnum of November 1932 to March 1933 is wonderfully evocative. His tone, describing the accession of Roosevelt, almost mocking, as he tells the reader of the scene of desolation that no dramatist could have plotted, perfect for a heroes entry (complete with his flashing smile, nice slogans and gay optimism). Conkin rightly draws the readers’ attention to the ease of attributing Roosevelt’s failings in this early period of his government to the ineptness of his predecessor but he certainly bears animosity towards Roosevelt for his refusal to cooperate with Hoover during his period as president elect. He argues persuasively that Roosevelt’s inaction here exacerbated the human cost of the financial catastrophe, but in reality, Roosevelt’s ability to have enacted effective recovery measures in such a short period of time, added to the burden of establishing a new government especially one which had such comparatively radical plans, was in all probability minimal. Whether Roosevelt used his time establishing himself effectively is another matter.
Conkin sees the New Deal as a deeply personal policy, without Franklin Roosevelt at the helm, it would have emerged very differently. In his opening chapter, a personal analysis of Roosevelt himself, Conkin reserves particular vitriol for the idea of Roosevelt as a pragmatist. Here it seems that Conkin is overanalysing the concept of pragmatism. His attempt to analyse the conception of the pragmatic Roosevelt in the sense of pragmatism as a philosophical mode of inquiry seems to be an over analysis of the issue, and is, in a book of this length a discussion rather surplus to requirements. Yes Roosevelt had been seen as a pragmatist by earlier historians, but they were on the whole not attempting to place Roosevelt within a philosophical movement, Roosevelt himself would certainly not have viewed himself as a pragmatist in the philosophical sense. The idea of Roosevelt as a pragmatist then, was more along the lines of, as Conkin puts it, his practicality. There is certainly an argument for suggesting that pragmatism was used by the New Deal apologists as a euphemistic term for Roosevelt’s lack of direction and inconsistent policies, but Conkin’s criticisms of the issue strike the reader as somewhat moving the goalposts.
In line with his leftist credentials, throughout his analysis of the New Deal’s measures Conkin approaches the issue from the perception of the ordinary American at whom they were targeted. He devotes less time to describing the plight of the impoverished, unemployed workers, but instead, in his third chapter, the rather ambitiously titled ‘Origin of a Welfare State’, systematically takes apart the New Deal measures, and argues that the recovery measures of 1934 - 1936, though well intentioned, ultimately failed. The plight of the ordinary American is, in the 1992 edition of the book, elaborated on in pictorial format with an essay in photographs starkly revealing the dichotomy between the bread lines in New York and the shanty towns of Charleston, and the smiling Roosevelt in Shenandoah National Park. It is in this chapter that Conkin expresses his most profound criticism. He criticises Roosevelt severely for having (abetted by historians), what he sees as a black and white view of the politics of social reform and economic recovery. In one particularly notable sentence, Conkin says of Roosevelt ‘he stimulated righteous indignation and the atmosphere of a moral crusade. But the crusade could do little except take punitive action: divide a holding company, threaten but never collect progressive taxes or use welfare measures to uplift the downtrodden victims of evil.’ In this chapter, Conkin expertly sums up the paradox of both sides of the New Deal, those criticising it for taking the American government down a dangerous socially interventionist route and those New Deal apologists that he reserves so much distrust for. The paradox lies in the efficacy of the reforms that Roosevelt introduced, and the way that, despite being painted by many opponents of the New Deal as the slippery slope to socialism, were actually, in terms of alleviating the human cost of the depression, rather ineffectual.
Conkin’s conception of just what constitutes a Welfare State is interesting. He does view the period as the formative one of the American Welfare State, of course cross-Atlantic conceptions of exactly what constitutes a Welfare State are somewhat disparate but Conkin is right in suggesting that, especially given what had preceded it, the 1930’s did see the formation of the American Welfare State, in the limited capacity that it exists in the wider definition. Unlike old leftist historians, Conkin does not really see the New Deal in terms of a class conflict; his analysis is more sophisticated than that. In fact the whole area of labour relations, previously of utmost importance to old leftists, plays consistent second fiddle throughout the book to Conkin’s primary concern, the implications on social welfare in general. The American people most affected by the depression did not comprise a homogenous proletariat; they transcended the urban middle and working classes, and especially farmers. Conkin addresses the argument out forward by right wing New Dealers that the labour leaders and farmers shared the businessman’s economic selfishness, but dismissing the charge as meaningless. The concept of economic selfishness, especially in the extreme circumstances of the depression, is, it is true a rather meaningless one and Conkin is right in exposing Roosevelt’s rather shallow rhetoric of ‘good and evil’.
The book analyses well the division of criticism of New Deal methodology from both sides of the political spectrum, and is not overly partisan in favour of left wing critics of the New Deal like Huey Long of whom perhaps not enough is mentioned. It would be good to see an analysis of, for example, Long’s relationship with Roosevelt himself and his reform from New Deal optimist, to one of its staunchest critics, many of Long’s criticisms tie in with Conkin’s analysis of, for example, welfare legislation, that it promised much and delivered little. Perhaps it is to avoid allegations of partisan treatment of Long’s ideas that Conkin makes only sparing reference to him. This illustrates one of the main problems with this book, that of its brevity. As one reviewer termed it; to be tasked with condensing an issue as deeply complex and theoretical as the New Deal into a book as short as this is perhaps ‘a task no historian should be given.’ Here I disagree. It is perfectly possible to condense with success an issue such as the New Deal into a short book, but it is impossible to be comprehensive. Conkin makes no claims of comprehensiveness and, even if he wrongly had, the book would still contain much that is of interest and use to both the researcher and the student.
One area that the book does cover well is a background to the economic theory behind the New Deal and in particular the influence of Keynes on Rooseveltian policy. Conkin goes to lengths to explain the links between the balance of economic interventionism, its impact upon private enterprise and in turn the implications and limitations of economic theories impact on social policy. Conkin’s most important contribution in this area is in linking private sector growth and better social welfare. Conkin argues that the government, precluded from direct intervention in the economy, was thanks to New Deal policy, dependent on the profits of business to kick start the economy’s productivity, and in turn growth which would lead to high levels of employment, and low welfare needs. In this section then he emerges as a somewhat surprising critic of the welfare system, for, whilst criticising the Hooverian assumption that economic growth would lead to greater welfare than state provision, tying it to the rather intangible concepts of ugliness and spiritual poverty, he also feels that state provision would mask the real areas of need. This again ties in with Conkin’s criticism of the system of welfare introduced by the New Deal.
Conkin’s most serious flaw in his analysis is constantly refer to the New Deal as a missed opportunity. It is not, though some may disagree, the role of historical criticism to speculate or hypothesize on ‘what ifs’, but time and time again in this book you come across references to possibilities, alternative outcomes and other inexactitudes. This said, in a book aimed at rectifying the ‘moral tyranny’ over impressionable students that previous uncritical studies had exercised, speculative history does provide the reader unacquainted with the period with some interesting thinking points, but to the more familiar reader these speculative comments may prove frustrating. Particularly interesting is the questioning of whether levels of recovery by 1936 had meant that, given careful management of the economy, that the depression had been lifted. Of course, if questions are by definition retrospective, and the point still stands, that they should be avoided in analytical histories.
In the preface to the third edition of ‘The New Deal’, Conkin explains his motivations in writing the book in the first place, revealing his perceptions of the place of his writing in the historiography of the late 1960’s. Despite the shortcomings of the ‘sympathetic’ literature of earlier times, it was not, he writes, his intention to redress the balance by publishing a ‘single and unqualified series of deprecatory judgements.’ This book is certainly not that, it does give, despite some scathing criticism, a fair picture of the New Deal, it is, for example, particularly complementary of the Tennessee Valley Authority, who Conkin saw as innovative, productive and demonstrative of the ‘efficiency, flexibility, and social concern possible in government-owned non-profit corporations.’ In ‘The New Deal’, however, Conkin appears far more concerned with criticising not only the actions and methods of the New Dealers themselves, but also its treatment by historians. Though there is a definite focus on the social implications of New Deal policy, this is not at the expense of balanced analysis and it certainly does not read like a political tract. A trend of later historiography has been to disentangle the New Deal from the personality of Roosevelt. This trend has been partially as a response to Conkin’s book, central to which is the assertion that the New Deal was deeply personal to Roosevelt. Every issue in the book is related back to Roosevelt’s personality, despite, in analysing the pragmatic theory, attributing the influence of the pragmatism of the New Deal to the large numbers of pragmatists who envisioned the sweeping changes than Roosevelt was comfortable with.
As an example of New Left literature, ‘The New Deal’ must be seen in the context of the movement that it was a part of, whether unconsciously or not. The New Left movement in historiography mirrored the wider political movement, with a focus on protesting ‘racism, imperialism, liberalism, the power elite, bureaucratic centralization, and the very nature of corporate capitalism. The New Left marked a departure from the old focus on labour movements and relations and Conkin personified this new wider, social approach to left wing history.
‘The New Deal’ is, despite its flaws, a worthwhile book. It reveals almost as much about the period in which it was written and the attitudes that pervaded American historiography in the 1960’s, as it does about the 1930’s. The conclusion of the book, is however a little disappointing. In having gone to such great lengths to spell out the New Deal’s inherent failures of both methodology and results, Conkin’s inability to suggest any plausible alternatives to the New Deal leaves the reader with the impression that the New Deal really was just an attempt to try and rectify a truly catastrophic situation without regard to the historical criticism and revisionism of the future. As Roosevelt himself said of his intentions, ‘if one method fails, admit it frankly and try another.’ In Conkin’s eagerness to lambast Roosevelt’s actions and inactions, he sometimes falls into the revisionist trap of excessive retrospective analysis.
Web based primary source
- Roosevelt’s address to Oglethorpe University in 1932, hosted at the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt archive.
J. S. Auerbach, ‘New Deal, Old Deal, or Raw Deal: Some Thoughts on New Left Historiography’ in The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 35, No. 1. (Houston, 1969), pp. 18-30
A. J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940 (Chicago, 1992)
Paul K. Conkin, The New Deal (Wheeling, 1992)
J. Major, Review of The New Deal by Paul K. Conkin in The English Historical Review, Vol. 85, No. 334 (Oxford., 1970), p. 209
I. Unger, ‘The “New Left” and American History: Some Recent Trends in United States Historiography’ in The American Historical Review, Vol. 72, No. 4. (Washington, 1967), pp. 1237 - 1263
I. Unger, The “New Left” and American History: Some Recent Trends in United States Historiography in The American Historical Review, Vol. 72, No. 4. (July, 1967) pp. 1237 - 1263
Paul K. Conkin, The New Deal (Wheeling, 1992), p. xi
Ibid, p. 25
Ibid, p. 28
Ibid, p. 73
J. Major, Review of The New Deal by Paul K. Conkin in The English Historical Review, Vol. 85, No. 334 (Oxford., 1970), p. 209
Paul K. Conkin, The New Deal (Wheeling, 1992), pp. 78 - 82
Ibid, p. xi
Ibid, p. 51
A. J. Badger, The New Deal: The Depression Years, 1933-1940 (Chicago, 1992) et al
Paul K. Conkin, The New Deal (Wheeling, 1992), pp. 13-14
Roosevelt’s address to Oglethorpe University in 1932 -http://www.feri.org/common/news/details.cfm?QID=2065&clientid=11005 [visited on 13 December. 2007]