The New Deal and Its Legacy: Critique and Reappraisal

By Robert Eden | Go to book overview

Ellis W. Hawley


4
The New Deal State and the Anti-Bureaucratic Tradition

As we reconsider the New Deal from the perspective of more than fifty years, we need to look anew at the New Deal state as it took shape in the years between 1933 and 1939. Indeed, the time seems particularly ripe for this. For not only have we come to realize that we know too little about it. We are also learning again about the value of state-centered studies; or, as the current movement in history and the social sciences puts it, about the necessity of "bringing the state back in." 1

For a time, studies of the state--that is, of governmental structure, apparatus, and workings--had fallen into disrepute. The state, it was said, was only a tool, or a register of the forces in society. For the Marxists, it was a tool of the ruling class; for pluralists, a register of the contending interests in society; for others, a register of the impact of social movements. The explanation for what the state did lay elsewhere, and therefore it did not really deserve much study. Recently, however, this view of the matter has been changing. The structure of the state does demonstrably make a difference; government officials are not simply tools or registers. They can, and do, act independently to alter governmental outputs. Hence it behooves us to understand a nation's polity as well as its society if we are to understand its historical behavior; and in what follows, I seek to make some contribution toward a better understanding of the changes in our polity that took place during the New Deal period.

In American popular thought the state that came out of the New Deal has usually been seen as a result of bureaucratization reaching the national level and establishing itself there as a central feature of modern American life. The assumption underlying this view--an assumption that seems to underlie these seminars on the New Deal legacy--is that the growth of government in the 1930s moved us toward the kind of bureaucratization characteristic of the "welfare

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