Franklin Delano Roosevelt wasn't a socialist. But like Abraham Lincoln before him, the 32nd president enjoyed the company of radical thinkers and often borrowed ideas from them.
The New Deal was never the utopian socialist experiment that its right-wing detractors decried with the suggestion that Roosevelt's aides "disguise themselves as Karl Marx or Lenin." But it did deliver Social Security, rural electrification, federal jobs guarantees and the opportunity to form unions that were strong enough to challenge the power of corporate elites and the money lenders on Wall Street. Eventually, FDR's administration developed the sweeping industrial policies that allowed the United States to create the "arsenal of democracy" that was essential to crushing fascism.
FDR borrowed so many left-wing ideas that the venerable leader of the Socialist Party, Norman Thomas, who opposed Roosevelt in four presidential campaigns, would suggest: "Roosevelt's New Deal was not the best alternative, but it certainly was a better alternative than had been offered to the problems of our times, and it was offered with an elan, a spirit that made things go and which tended to lift up people's hearts. In retrospect, I wouldn't change many of the criticisms I then made. Yet the net result was certainly the salvation of America, and it produced peacefully, after some fashion not calculated by Roosevelt, the Welfare State and almost a revolution."
Roosevelt, said Thomas, displayed "an enlightened concern to correct some of the most notorious abuses of the old capitalism."
FDR, who met with Thomas and other socialists to discuss their platform proposals, initiated programs to temper the excesses of capitalism. To advance his New Deal agenda, he offered a critique of capitalism as it had come to be understood in the years leading to the Great Depression. From the beginning of his administration, literally in his first inaugural address, Roosevelt declared that "the rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated.
"Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men. The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit."
This critique of capitalism was a constant theme of Roosevelt's early years in office. He claimed as his mission "the liberation of the exploited" and said: "Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing."
FDR, a master communicator, recognized that the critique could not be truly understood, and accepted, if it were merely delivered in addresses to Congress and political debates. It needed to permeate American life. So it was that the president used his Thanksgiving Proclamations to speak not just of bountiful harvests and prayers of gratitude but moral certainties that were at odds with unrestricted capitalism.
“May we ask guidance in more surely learning the ancient truth that greed and selfishness and striving for undue riches can never bring lasting happiness or good to the individual or to his neighbors,” read Roosevelt’s first proclamation in 1933. A year later, he wrote: "Our sense of social justice has deepened. We have been given vision to make new provisions for human welfare and happiness, and in a spirit of mutual helpfulness we have cooperated to translate vision into reality. More greatly have we turned our hearts and minds to things spiritual. We can truly say, ‘What profiteth it a nation if it gain the whole world and lose its own soul.’”
By 1935, with the New Deal project fully engaging, the president wrote: “We can well be grateful that more and more of our people understand and seek the greater good of the greater number. We can be grateful that selfish purpose of personal gain, at our neighbor’s loss, less strongly asserts itself.”
After his his landslide reelection in 1936 — following a campaign in which he said, "We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob ..." — FDR would encourage Americans “to fulfill our obligation to use our national heritage by common effort for the common good.” That same year, he found cause for thanksgiving in the fact that labor organizing guaranteed “the toiler in shop and mill receives a more just return for his labor.”
Thomas and the socialists would have had Roosevelt go further. But unlike so many contemporary political figures, FDR was not afraid to echo their condemnations of greedy oligarchs and self-serving autocrats. Nor did he hesitate to speak of economic democracy. Toward the end of his presidency he would use his 1944 State of the Union address to outline an Economic Bill of Rights that demanded health care, housing, education and living wages for Americans.
But years earlier, in his 1939 Thanksgiving Proclamation, Roosevelt celebrated the fact that, “Our nation has gone steadily forward in the application of democratic processes to economic and social problems."