Paul Mattick

CCC: Capitalism’s Conservation Corps


Published: in International Council Correspondence Vol. 1, no.6, March 1935, pp 5-9.
Source: Antonie Pannekoek Archives
Transcribed: by Graham Dyer

What stamps the C.C.C. as the most unique experiment inaugurated by Franklin D. Roosevelt is the almost total lack of criticism, both from capitalist political opponents, and even those self-professing “liberals” admitting a “socialistic” taint. For that very reason, the Civilian Conservation Corps demands close scrutiny. Obviously, any innovation that immediately meets with the unqualified approval of ALL the rival capitalist groups bodes no good for the Proletariat.

The C.C.C. was launched amidst the usual fanfare of idealistic catch-phrases. The boys were to be given an opportunity to do useful work in healthful surroundings; God's Own Country - no less! Of greater importance to the members - so they were gravely informed – was the chance to regain that most precious of all possessions, their “morale”.

Actually, of course, the Administration was moved by more practical motives. First, it was realized these youngsters, jobless and confronted with the ever-mounting misery prevailing in their homes, constituted a potential menace to Society (read: CAPITALIST Society). By draining off these, potentially, most militant elements into the C.C.C. that danger might be averted and the working class, as a whole, thereby weakened. Second, organization and training of the C.C.C. has been so conducted under Regular Army officers as to allow its conversion into a huge army at short notice. (Present 1935 plans call for an enrollment of over 1,000,000 men! Age limits are to be raised to 30 years, and married men are to be accepted.)

Against the second “alleged” motive the argument has been raised that because the members do not drill or engage in other warlike training the government cannot be accused of militarizing the C.C.C. By advancing this “argument”, capitalist apologists either reveal their lying hypocritical role, or else betray an utter ignorance of modern warfare and military organization.

Modern industry requires hardly any specialized skill from the laborer, who today merely acts as an adjunct to the machine. Likewise, with modern warfare, one of Capitalism’s greatest industries. Here, too, great development in the mechanization and efficacy of weapons has resulted in a lessened demand for specialized skill on the part of the modern soldier. The deadly accuracy of the machine gun has destroyed the old dependency on the closed formation. With the outmoding of this form of organization went the necessity for extensive drilling en masse. Today, soldiers fight in a loose, scattered formation in bodies of about 200 - 250 men under the command of a captain and several lieutenants. Significantly enough, this is the identical form of organization of the C.C.C. camps! Each camp holds from 200-250 men under the command of a commissioned army captain and two lieutenants. In addition, just as in the regular army, there are non-commissioned officers (corresponding to sergeants and corporals) chosen from the ranks of the C.C.C. seemingly, to judge by report, on the basis of physical brutalness and blind obedience in carrying out orders. These “straw bosses” known as leaders and assistant leaders receive more than the usual $30 per month - $45 and $36 per month respectively. It is evident then, that providing the men are thoroly disciplined and unquestioningly obedient, they can be quickly whipped into military shape. Arming them with machine guns, skill in using them can be learned in a few hours, would turn the C.C.C. into a first-class army capable of engaging in regular warfare; or, what is more likely in the minds of Roosevelt and his counsellors, capable of combatting a militant working-class!

Only on this basis can the peculiar ideological training the boys have been subjected to, be explained. This explanation, too, furnishes the rational key to the extreme brutality with which even minor infractions of the rules have been punished. Both mentally and physically the men are being prepared for the role they are to play .

A thorough “head-fixing” department has been set up in every camp under the guidance of an “educational advisor”. The real purpose was blurted out by a naive educational advisor, who, writing in the New York Times (6-3-34) said: “This lecturing stuff is out! A regular “bull” session will be started on government affairs, national news, and economics.” Evidently a form of the Catholic confessional is being introduced into the camps. Any luckless Corps member who unwittingly reveals a lack of faith in the “New Deal” Trinity, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the United States and Capitalism, will be quickly shown his error.

This touching solicitude for what C.C.C. members read and think was demonstrated still further in the banning of the pamphlet YOU and MACHINES, written expressly for the C.C.C. by Prof Wm. F. Ogburn of Chicago University. Robt. Fechner in banning the booklet explained that it was not suited for its audience, and that it was just a bit too gloomy, painting too pessimistic a picture of our technological future for the laborer. What Fechner actually objected to were certain stray remarks of Prof. Ogburn’s that were REVOLUTIONARY in their implication.

Quoting from the pamphlet: “Machines are forcing our institutions to change; but always they lag behind. …We can’t bring back the good old days … Passing laws will never do it … If they want to stop change, they will have to break up the machine, or, better still, poison all inventors … They (Youth) must learn to adjust themselves to the machine … ”

Again: “It is generally believed that not more than one person out of every seven persons unemployed in 1933, perhaps not even 1 in 10, had his job taken away by a machine.”

What is Prof. Ogburn sketching in the above statement, if not the Materialist Conception of History? True, in a distorted and almost unrecognizable form. BUT, does he not show the futility of patching Capitalism by means of the New Deal in stating: “Passing laws will never do it”. (i.e. “… bring back the good old days ... “). Furthermore, isn’t this an expression of the necessity of REVOLUTION for the further development of the machine (productive forces) and the progressive development of society? No wonder Robt. Fechner banned the pamphlet! No dangerous ideas were going to be put into the minds of C.C.C. if he could help it! Fechner, a vice-president of the A.F. of L. International Association of Machinists, has been preaching “harmony” between Labor and Capital all his life. To him, capitalist society is eternal and the best of all societies. It HAS been good to him. The job as head of the C.C.C. was his reward for the fine work he performed during the World War “conciliating” Labor to capitalist oppression.

Humorously enough, Dr. Percy Bidwell, editor of the booklet, in defending it, said the author was “a pillar of society” and a man of “tremendous reputation”. To no avail, however. Fechner, acting as censor for capitalist society, had to ban the pamphlet, even though written by “a pillar of that society.”

The administration cannot relax its regime of iron discipline and unquestioning obedience, for that would spell failure in their attempt to build up a large army. On the other hand, members of the C.C.C., not aware that they are actually being moulded into an army are rebelling against the seemingly unnecessary and excessive discipline. Discipline, that certainly is out of all proportion to the type of work they have been doing: building roads, planting trees, digging and then filling those same holes, etc. As a result of this contradiction, the spirit of discontent is steadily growing and is manifesting itself increasingly in spontaneous outbreaks.

Secretary Dern of the War Department in summing up the achievements of the first year of the C.C.C. (4-16-34) said: “No group of men understands Youth so well or holds it in greater affection than does the commissioned personnel of the army”.

How the commissioned personnel practically display their “great affection” was demonstrated three months later (7-10-34) by Lieutenant Gatlin at an Oklahoma C.C.C. camp. The Lieutenant, in an exuberance of affection, “attempted to quiet recruits who were reported to have been drinking” by firing once at a group, slightly wounding private McCullough. This individual, not having heard Secy. Dern’s report, evidently mistook the Lieutenant’s affectionate action and is alleged to have returned the fire, killing him.

As time went on, the reaction to the restrictions and discipline, which in the beginning manifested itself in sporadic and individualistic acts of protest, took on a MASS character, expressing itself in SPONTANEOUS action on the part of WHOLE camps!

Thus, on Nov. 7, 1934, 250 C.C.C. workers (an entire camp) being sent South from their Maine camp to Virginia and Maryland camps, rebelled against this arbitrary wholesale transfer. They rose in a mass, badly beat up their officers and then locked them in baggage cars! The government then promptly showed that action on the part of workers, however slight, in this period of the Permanent Crisis, the decline of capitalism, will not be tolerated and will meet with the same reception as the action of class-conscious workers in open revolt! In this particular case, 150 policemen were called to the yards and savagely beat up the boys. Had the police failed, the government stood ready to call upon regular troops.

This is even more strikingly shown two months later (1-8-35) when the entire camp at South Mountain Reservation, Orange, N.J. gathered before the camp commandant, Captain Tobin, and served notice through a committee that there would be no work unless the 11 o’clock bedtime regulation was abrogated. His reply was to order the men back to work under penalty of discharge; 75 complied, the other 125 men returned to their barracks, refusing to work. The good Captain called upon Park police to escort the “mutineers” from the reservation. Although the boys went peacefully, they were threatened with tear-gas and clubbings from the police. Near Orange, N.J. the 125 workers held a demonstration and appointed a grievance committee.  To newspaper men this committee revealed that besides dissatisfaction with the 11 o’clock rule, the commissioned officers practiced discrimination, and that there was a refusal on the part of the officers to arbitrate (!) mistreatment. Evidently, the boys still took seriously the camp school teachings on the glorious “rights” conferred on the workers by the New Deal. They were quickly disillusioned by their own teachers. Captain Tobin and several high ranking officers from the army appeared before the meeting near Orange, made stirring speeches about “duty to their government,” etc. etc., and finally ordered the boys back to camp, refusing to meet with the committee. Hemmed in by police, threatened with military law, the boys finally gave in and returned to camp. Capt. Tobin immediately issued a report to the papers stating: “three or four communist agitators had inspired the youths, the situation is now under control”. To give the lie to his own words, he immediately “dishonourably” discharged the 12 members of the grievance committee. A regular Catholic Inquisition was then instituted and 28 more “heretics” were uncovered and discharged that evening and the following day. To show his contempt for the boys, the Captain moved up the bedtime to 10 o’clock. To a complaint about food, he replied, “The food is the best to be had. I never had anything as good in the army”. Evidently he doesn’t read the newspapers. For only three months before, the New York Times (8-21-34) carried an item revealing that 30 C.C.C. members and a Captain’s wife and daughter had been stricken with ptomaine poison at Lewes, Del.

Major Morse, who investigated the affair for the government, in his report revealed the same “impartiality and thoroness” that characterizes ALL “New Deal” investigations involving workers. Quoting: “We are not vindictive, we regard the C.C.C. camps as school, not work camps. It is our desire to have you (the members of the camp) return to your homes better citizens”. What touching sincerity!

Of great importance to workers in general is the first appearance in this affair of the COMMITTEE of ACTION in embryo. True, it failed in this particular instance; but the fact remains that the C.C.C. workers have discovered that their problems are mass problems, and only as groups, as members of the working class, can their problems be solved. And the form of organization most natural and best suited for this purpose is that which takes the form of the Committee of Action the only form that cannot be smashed as long as there are workers alive! The only form that can  understand their local problem and solve it in conscious action!

Our conclusion (which is almost superfluous) is that as the crisis deepens and the capitalist class forces more and more of the burden of the depression onto the shoulders of the working class, the C.C.C. an integral part of that class, will likewise suffer. Just as the workers will organize in committees of action to gain food, clothing and shelter, so the C.C.C. will organize in similar groups to combat the ever-tightening bonds of discipline, the attempts on the part of an ever more desperate capitalist class to force them to shoot down their own relatives fighting to live. And in this struggle which MUST culminate in the destruction of capitalist society the C.C.C. will destroy the necessity for its own existence. With the inception and development of a CLASSLESS society, the members of the C.C.C. will take their rightful places in the ranks of FREE and EQUAL PRODUCERS.


Last updated on: 5.3.2016