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Roosevelt / Anton Pannekoek, 1913
Roosevelt / Anton Pannekoek (Bremen). – In: The New Review, Vol I (1913), No 17 (June), p. 561-568; transcription by Micah Muer for Marxists’ Internet Archive , 2017; original source: Roosevelt / A[nton]. P[annekoek]. – In: Zeitungskorrespondenz, Nr. 224, 18. Mai 1912; also published in Bremer Burgerzeitung and Leipziger Volkszeitung.
Many attempts have been made to explain the causes of Roosevelt’s reappearance upon the political stage and the formation of the Progressive party. In these attempts emphasis has mostly been laid upon the increasing resistance of the lower strata of the bourgeoisie to the rule of the Trusts, as well as upon the necessity of catching the workers with social reforms; but it must be plain to everyone that the characterization of the new party as “petty-capitalistic” is inadequate. In the formation of this new party we have to do not only with a split of the old historic parties – for similar tendencies are found in the Democratic party as well – but also with a new orientation of thought, at first hesitant and vague, which, rising from the instinctive feeling of the bourgeoisie itself, is now beginning to appear in politics. It indicates that social conditions in America have undergone a radical transformation, and at the same time it ushers in a new political era. The nature of this transformation cannot be understood by means of ideas derived from earlier party struggles; a comparison with European politics may be helpful.
The man of the new era is Roosevelt. To the mind still fettered by the old ideas, he incarnates the contradictions of the new political movement. Seldom has a man been subjected to such contradictory judgments as has Roosevelt. At one time he is hailed as a great statesman who earnestly seeks to master the problems of the future, not only for Americans but also for all humanity. At another time he is the man of brute force, the cowboy in politics, a beast of prey with great gnashing teeth. Again he is the man of the people, the reformer, fighting valiantly for the general interests of the commonwealth against trustified capital; and with his reform program he appears to many of our comrades, who see little more in Socialism than a bundle of immediate reforms, to be a dangerous competitor, a counterfeit, a “near-Socialist.” But the great majority of our party members regard him simply as an impostor, a demagogue; and indeed it is a fact that he is closely connected with trustified capital, that he defends the “Big Interests” energetically, and that he attacks the working class movement with immoderate hatred and contemptible means. However contradictory all this may appear, it is correct nevertheless, and the sum total gives an insight into the nature, not so much of the man – his personal traits are rather unimportant – as into the nature of American society, which pushes to the front a man of such characteristics.
America is not merely the land of capitalism at its height; here also the spirit of capitalism, the reckless piling up of profits, has reached its greatest development and become the all-ruling power. The pursuit of the dollar occupies the entire life of men; business reigns supreme in their thoughts and acts; all their ideas and efforts are directed toward business success. All the energy, all the powers of man he bends to personal success and advancement. The American regards the whole world as existing merely to enrich him and make him a respectable citizen; to him the Star Spangled Banner is the symbol of unrestricted liberty to pile up profits. The idea never enters his mind that there are other important interests, common to all, to which he must, in some degree, subordinate his personal interests.
Now this is not the result of any special character of the American people, but a manifestation of the character of the capitalist, the bourgeois, the business man throughout the world. Everywhere the capitalists have directed all their thoughts and deeds toward personal gain. But elsewhere there is also present, to a greater or less extent, the consciousness of a general interest, of membership in a larger community to which the private interest must be subordinated. The general interests and the larger community of which we speak here are not the really general, popular interests, nor humanity as a whole, but the classes and their interests. A class embraces all those who stand in the same position in the process of production and hence have common interests; the general interests to which private interests must be subordinated temporarily, are common class interests. The field of these interests is politics; the task of the politicians is to champion the interests of their class against the other classes, or the interests of the various groups of the bourgeoisie against one another, the interests generally being hidden behind abstract catch-words and theoretical party formulas. By means of their political struggles the politicians now and then compel even the business men to reflect over their class interests.
That is lacking in America. As expressed by the English writer, H. G. Wells, in his book, “The Future of America,” the American has no sense of the State, he is “State-blind.” To him politicians are useless parasites on the bodies of worthy people who earn their bread by the manufacture of gloves or the sale of rice and raisins. And rightly so. For in America politics is a business, a private business of the politician. Politics is “graft,” the making of a profit through official position. That every official from the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court to the policeman or alderman uses his political power for his personal enrichment is a matter of course in America. That the two great bourgeois parties, the Republican as well as the Democratic, are nothing else than well organized bands of politicians, reaching through their followers down into the criminal dives, for whom the control of political office is merely a means to private advantage, is known to every child, and only in Europe do people wonder at it. This political corruption does not signify that Americans are more dishonest than other people; it is merely the transference to politics of the morals of business in which, as is well-known, fraud plays a principal part.
And therein lies a radical difference between politics in America and in Europe. Even in Europe it is an ordinary occurrence for politicians to use their position for personal advantage; but there it is done incidentally, in a shamefaced way, and is publicly censured as an impropriety. Their chief duty is to defend the interests of their class. Let us glance at Germany. The Catholic (Centre party) members of the Reichstag may occasionally seek to obtain good posts for their friends, but the main object of their politics is to fight for their peasants, for the Catholic landowners and capitalists, and for the interests of the Church. The Conservative landowners in the Reichstag do not dare to neglect for personal advantage the common interests of the noble landowners, and these interests also include the strengthening of the power of the monarchy against the Parliament and the furthering of all reactionary tendencies in the State; nor can the Liberal politicians lose sight for a moment of the general interests of the great capitalists. In addition they all have to represent the common interests of the entire possessing class against the claims of the workers and the demands of the Socialists. Therein lies the essential difference between politics in Europe and in America; in Europe politics is the field upon which the general class interests are asserted; in America politics is merely a special field for private interests.
If we seek the cause of this difference we are led at once to the different historic development. In Europe the bourgeoisie was able to advance only by continual struggle against other classes: the nobility, the clergy, and the princely houses, which originated in the mediaeval method of production. Bourgeois society was able to come into existence only by overthrowing feudalism and absolutism, and that was possible only through a struggle, a class struggle against the powers which had ruled under the earlier social order. In this struggle came into being a clearly defined bourgeois class consciousness; the capitalists, petty bourgeoisie and peasants learned in a practical manner that they must sacrifice treasure and blood for their ideals, for “liberty” and “Fatherland” – which terms formed the idealized expression of their class interests. In the struggle against the ancient powers they learned that there was something higher than their personal private interests, a broader duty that must be fulfilled as prerequisite, if they were to pursue undisturbed their private interests. And even after the decisive battles in the bourgeois revolutions had been fought, the struggle continued; nobility and royalty maintained the fight for their privileges in and against the parliament. But when this struggle gradually came to an end, the proletariat appeared as a new and distinct class that carried on the struggle against the bourgeoisie. And once more this class struggle prevented the capitalists from thinking only of their private enrichment and from regarding the entire world merely from the viewpoint of business; since the entire profit-making system and all business was threatened they must be defended, and this defense of the bourgeois order was to the common interest of the entire bourgeoisie.
On the other hand, the American bourgeoisie has never had to carry on great class struggles.
Amerika, du hast es besser