Is there anything new to be said about the New Deal? As Ira Katznelson observes at the beginning of Fear Itself, ‘we possess hundreds of thematic histories, countless studies of public affairs and abundant biographies of key persons during this time of great historical density’; so ‘why present another portrait?’, he asks.footnote1 Part of the answer lies in a resurgence of interest in the 1930s in the us—especially among left-liberal scholars who, in search of Depression-era lessons for the present, are constantly drawn to comparisons between Obama and Roosevelt (usually unflattering to the former). Katznelson himself finds justification in a more refined source, citing Henry James’s 1882 essay on Venice: although the city has been ‘painted and described many thousands of times’, wrote James, ‘it is not forbidden to speak of familiar things’ when a writer ‘is himself in love with his theme’.
Katznelson’s admiration for the New Deal is plain: in an opening section larded with references to Tocqueville, he puts its achievements ‘on a par with the French Revolution’, and describes it as ‘not merely an important event in the history of the United States, but the most important twentieth-century testing ground for representative democracy in an age of mass politics’. In his view, the Roosevelt administration ‘reconsidered and rebuilt the country’s long-established political order’, ‘successfully defining and securing liberal democracy’ in the process. He also insists, however, that ‘esteem for the New Deal paradoxically should draw attention to its most profound imperfections’. Fear Itself seeks to shed new light on the period by dwelling on the anxiety and uncertainty that pervaded it, and especially on the close relationship between Roosevelt’s reforms and the racialized social order of the Southern states.
A professor of political science at Columbia and head of the Social Science Research Council, Katznelson is well positioned to provide what is likely to become the new standard account of the period. Educated in the 1960s at the same institution where he now teaches, Katznelson was exposed both to the most intellectually powerful statements of Cold War liberalism—Richard Hofstadter and David Truman were among his teachers, and he recalls being profoundly influenced by Hannah Arendt’s lectures at the New School—and to the American New Left: C. Wright Mills had a particularly strong impact. At the confluence of these very different intellectual currents, he has produced a large body of work devoted to two main areas: studies of the American labour movement and political theory. Katznelson’s scholarship in these fields has developed across three phases: an early cycle of texts on class formation, in close conversation with Marxism, followed by work broadly devoted to liberal political theory, and a more recent batch of writing on the New Deal, which in important respects integrates the concerns of the first two phases. Katznelson first gained renown with his 1981 book City Trenches, which provided an original answer to the perennial question of ‘why no socialism in the United States?’ Eschewing explanations rooted either in generalized affluence, such as that of Sombart, or in claims of cultural uniqueness, he instead focused on the spatial separation of work from residence in the us. On this account, the key to the distinctive formation of the American working class was the restriction of class-consciousness to the workplace. He followed up this analysis in 1992 with Marxism and the City, an appreciative but critical examination of Marxist urban studies, from Engels to Lefebvre to Harvey.
By the mid-1990s, under the influence of Communism’s collapse in Eastern Europe, the scope of Katznelson’s work had widened, and he seems to have shifted quite sharply to the right. Liberalism’s Crooked Circle: Letters to Adam Michnik (1996) fully shared in the common illusion of the time that the fall of the Soviet bloc would open up the possibility of a more robust American liberalism. Desolation and Enlightenment: Political Knowledge after Total War, Totalitarianism and the Holocaust (2003) was an admiring group portrait of Hannah Arendt, Robert Dahl, Richard Hofstadter, Harold Laswell, Karl Polanyi and David Truman, all grouped under the rubric of ‘the political studies enlightenment’. In the most recent phase of his work, which began with When Affirmative Action Was White (2005) and could be seen as culminating in Fear Itself, Katznelson gives particular attention to the decisive influence of the South on the nascent American welfare state. However, this last book breaks almost entirely with the intellectual openness and original argumentation that characterized Katznelson’s best earlier work. Indeed, what Fear Itself actually offers is a highly politicized celebration of the New Deal and the early Cold War, based on problematic historical claims.
Fear Itself hammers home one very important point: it shows extremely clearly that Southern politicians, far from being a fly in the social-democratic ointment of the New Deal, were instead a central part of the coalition that supported it, and actively shaped its agenda. In that sense, Katznelson offers a bracing corrective to the widespread nostalgia for the Roosevelt years among self-styled American ‘progressives’ (a term that the book also does much to demystify). But while it undermines some myths, Fear Itself also contributes to others. Across 700 pages, Katznelson insists again and again on the historical connection between the preservation of the Jim Crow South during the 1930s and the relative stability of American political institutions through the Great Depression, Second World War and beyond. His main thesis is that the Roosevelt administration’s political alliance with the Dixiecrats was a condition for the survival of American democracy as such through the 1930s, 40s and early 50s. ‘If there is a lesson’, he writes, ‘it is not one of retrospective judgement, as if the possibility then existed to rescue liberal democracy and pursue racial justice simultaneously’. Instead, ‘liberal democracy prospered as a result [my emphasis] of an accommodation with racial humiliation and its system of lawful exclusion and principled terror. Each constituted the other like “the united double nature of soul and body” in Goethe’s Faust.’ In short, the alliance with the Jim Crow South was, as the title of the book’s final section puts it, ‘Democracy’s Price’.
Katznelson’s account differs from previous histories of the New Deal—standard works such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr’s three-volume Age of Roosevelt (1957–60), for example, or William Leuchtenburg’s Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal (1963)—in several notable respects. One is in its periodization, which stretches beyond the usual end-marker of 1945, through the Truman presidency and right up to the start of Eisenhower’s. Another is Katznelson’s insistence on placing us developments in a global context, finding earlier scholarship to have been ‘too insular and too limited’. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Fear Itself, however—as its title would suggest—is its relentless emphasis on a climate of heightened anxiety which he claims pervaded the us in the 1930s and beyond. Katznelson argues that the New Deal was in fact a product of fear, a psychological state resulting from the ‘un-measurable uncertainty’ caused by ‘economic collapse, total war, genocide, atomic weapons and postwar struggles with Communism’. With no reliable guides for how to respond to such challenges, political leaders of the time sought to turn boundless ‘uncertainty’ into ‘measurable risk’, and to that end were willing to consider ‘a very wide repertoire of policies’. The institutional and legislative creativity of the New Deal was the outcome of this basically conservative impulse: an attempt to maintain rather than transform the existing social order. Katznelson identifies three main fears, which underpin his narrative: firstly, the fear that, in the conjuncture of the 1930s, ‘the globe’s leading liberal democracies could not compete successfully with the dictatorships’; second, the fear produced by ‘exponential growth in existing weaponry’, culminating after 1945 in the atomic threat; and third, the racial structure of the South, ‘a source of worry for both its defenders and its adversaries’.
The book is organized into four parts. The first, ‘Fight Against Fear’, sets the scene by arguing that the 1930s should be understood as a period of ‘competition’ between ‘the constitutional democracies in Europe and North America’ and ‘a wide variety of authoritarian alternatives’. Katznelson shows that at this time, states frequently borrowed policies from each other. One of the most striking passages in this section describes how the Roosevelt administration sent a commission to fascist Italy in 1937, ‘to study how Benito Mussolini’s government had organized Fascism’s administration’; the Brownlow Committee ‘then used what they found to make extensive recommendations for the reorganization of America’s national government’. Katznelson further evokes the illiberal temper of the times through pen portraits of three figures—the Italian pilot and notorious squadrista Italo Balbo, the Soviet Nuremberg Tribunal judge Iona Nikitchenko, and Mississipi Democratic senator and ‘proud member of the Ku Klux Klan’ Theodore Bilbo—all categorized as ‘servants of an authoritarian regime’; a surprising juxtaposition that, as we will see, serves a decidedly ideological purpose.