The Powell Memo and its Significance to The Left Today

What the ruling class fears is democracy, to see blatant evidence of this look no further than the so called “Powell Memo”, a memorandum by associate of the US supreme court Lewis F. Powell titled “Attack on the American Free Enterprise System”. The purpose of this memo was to act as “an anti-communist, anti-new deal blueprint for conservative business interests to retake America for the chamber.”[1]. Essentially the memo was a response in 1971 to the rising activism and democratic movements of the left during the 1960’s. Just by reading the memo it is clear that democracy was the biggest perceived threat of the ruling class at the time.

But what significance is this today? It is absolutely vital that activists in the Trump era take this warning to heart. Indeed when far-right presidents take power there is often a surge in left-wing opposition, especially among student activism. Combine this with the growing left wing in America and the loss of faith in the system brought about by the recession it is absolutely crucial that activists are prepared for a ferocious pushback from the system to suppress democratic rights and left wing activism by any means necessary. The Powell Memo is a prime example of the right-wing establishment’s response to demands for full democracy among the lower classes and any criticism of the capitalist system. It is a document of right wing reaction specifically targeting college campuses and high school education, student activism, television, advertising, government, media, press and virtually all other aspects of American information. It seeks to undermine any left opposition or criticism by injecting pro-big business propaganda and right wing reaction into all aspects of American life. It was of course leaked and not released to the US public- thanks to journalist Jack Anderson.

Here is an ordered list of significant excerpts from the Powell Memo. I apologize for its somewhat lengthy quotations but every passage selected is- what I feel to be of great significance and I hope you take the time to read it. It serves as the document outlining the overtaking of It is as significant today in the Trump era as it was back then. Take heed of this warning! From beginning to end, in order with occasional commentary:

“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack.

“We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.

“One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction. The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.”

This setting of the ‘rich’ against the ‘poor,’ of business against the people, is the cheapest and most dangerous kind of politics. Most of the media, including the national TV systems, are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive” Here Powell recognizes that even though the media and universities are in the pocket of big business and the ruling class they are not in this time acting entirely on their behalf and giving the left a platform. He also recognizes the clear and concise danger class consciousness poses to the current system.

“If our system is to survive, top management must be equally concerned with protecting and preserving the system itself. This involves far more than an increased emphasis on ‘public relations’ or ‘governmental affairs’ — two areas in which corporations long have invested substantial sums.” This is a common theme of the Powell Memo. It serves as an ideological basis for big business to take over all aspects of American life, namely by exerting as much influence over public relations and governmental affairs as possible.

Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations. Moreover, there is the quite understandable reluctance on the part of any one corporation to get too far out in front and to make itself too visible a target. The role of the National Chamber of Commerce is therefore vital. Other national organizations (especially those of various industrial and commercial groups) should join in the effort, but no other organizations appear to be as well situated as the Chamber.”

“The ultimate responsibility for intellectual integrity on the campus must remain on the administrations and faculties of our colleges and universities. But organizations such as the Chamber can assist and activate constructive change in many ways, including the following: The Chamber should consider establishing a staff of highly qualified scholars in the social sciences who do believe in the system. It should include several of national reputation whose authorship would be widely respected — even when disagreed with… In addition to full-time staff personnel, the Chamber should have a Speaker’s Bureau which should include the ablest and most effective advocates from the top echelons of American business… The staff of scholars (or preferably a panel of independent scholars) should evaluate social science textbooks, especially in economics, political science and sociology. This should be a continuing program.” This here is the very clear plan to skew the education system in favor of big business. Essentially it is inserting this specific social dogma in universities in order for students to come to a conclusion which is in support of the prevailing socioeconomic system. In fact I recently published an article of this very clear bastardization of any criticism of the economic and political system in an economics Textbook. Unfortunately it gets worse.

“The Chamber should insist upon equal time on the college speaking circuit. The FBI publishes each year a list of speeches made on college campuses by avowed Communists. The number in 1970 exceeded 100. There were, of course, many hundreds of appearances by leftists and ultra liberals who urge the types of viewpoints indicated earlier in this memorandum. There was no corresponding representation of American business, or indeed by individuals or organizations who appeared in support of the American system of government and business. Every campus has its formal and informal groups which invite speakers. Each law school does the same thing. Many universities and colleges officially sponsor lecture and speaking programs. We all know the inadequacy of the representation of business in the programs. It will be said that few invitations would be extended to Chamber speakers. This undoubtedly would be true unless the Chamber aggressively insisted upon the right to be heard — in effect, insisted upon ‘equal time.’” Do we not see this on college campuses today? Do we not see Turning Point USA and other pro-big business organizations seeking to undermine any criticism among the left?

“While the first priority should be at the college level, the trends mentioned above are increasingly evidenced in the high schools. Action programs, tailored to the high schools and similar to those mentioned, should be considered.”

Reaching the campus and the secondary schools is vital for the long-term.

“The national television networks should be monitored in the same way that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. This applies not merely to so-called educational programs (such as “Selling of the Pentagon”), but to the daily ‘news analysis’ which so often includes the most insidious type of criticism of the enterprise system. Whether this criticism results from hostility or economic ignorance, the result is the gradual erosion of confidence in ‘business’ and free enterprise. This monitoring, to be effective, would require constant examination of the texts of adequate samples of programs. Complaints — to the media and to the Federal Communications Commission — should be made promptly and strongly when programs are unfair or inaccurate. Equal time should be demanded when appropriate. Effort should be made to see that the forum-type programs (the Today Show, Meet the Press, etc.) afford at least as much opportunity for supporters of the American system to participate as these programs do for those who attack it. Radio and the press are also important, and every available means should be employed to challenge and refute unfair attacks, as well as to present the affirmative case through these media.” Note that it mentions that textbooks should be kept under constant surveillance. But it goes much further than this, it targets all sources of public knowledge.

“It is especially important for the Chamber’s “faculty of scholars” to publish. One of the keys to the success of the liberal and leftist faculty members has been their passion for “publication” and “lecturing.” A similar passion must exist among the Chamber’s scholars. Incentives might be devised to induce more “publishing” by independent scholars who do believe in the system. There should be a fairly steady flow of scholarly articles presented to a broad spectrum of magazines and periodicals — ranging from the popular magazines (Life, Look, Reader’s Digest, etc.) to the more intellectual ones (Atlantic, Harper’s, Saturday Review, New York, etc.) and to the various professional journals. The news stands — at airports, drugstores, and elsewhere — are filled with paperbacks and pamphlets advocating everything from revolution to erotic free love. One finds almost no attractive, well-written paperbacks or pamphlets on “our side.” It will be difficult to compete with an Eldridge Cleaver or even a Charles Reich for reader attention, but unless the effort is made — on a large enough scale and with appropriate imagination to assure some success — this opportunity for educating the public will be irretrievably lost.”

“Business pays hundreds of millions of dollars to the media for advertisements. Most of this supports specific products; much of it supports institutional image making; and some fraction of it does support the system. But the latter has been more or less tangential, and rarely part of a sustained, major effort to inform and enlighten the American people. If American business devoted only 10% of its total annual advertising budget to this overall purpose, it would be a statesman-like expenditure.

“In the final analysis, the payoff — short-of revolution — is what government does. Business has been the favorite whipping-boy of many politicians for many years. But the measure of how far this has gone is perhaps best found in the anti-business views now being expressed by several leading candidates for President of the United States. It is still Marxist doctrine that the “capitalist” countries are controlled by big business. This doctrine, consistently a part of leftist propaganda all over the world, has a wide public following among Americans. Yet, as every business executive knows, few elements of American society today have as little influence in government as the American businessman, the corporation, or even the millions of corporate stockholders. If one doubts this, let him undertake the role of “lobbyist” for the business point of view before Congressional committees. The same situation obtains in the legislative halls of most states and major cities. One does not exaggerate to say that, in terms of political influence with respect to the course of legislation and government action, the American business executive is truly the ‘forgotten man.'” Of course the state always reinforces the prevailing economic system, however it wasn’t always necessary as it is today for business to take such a decisive role in controlling all aspects of the state and public affairs. This was a turning point for US politics, big business was seeping its tentacles into the last stretches of uninfluenced American life. It will continue to erode democracy further as this threat to the system is increased.

“Current examples of the impotency of business, and of the near-contempt with which businessmen’s views are held, are the stampedes by politicians to support almost any legislation related to ‘consumerism’ or to the ‘environment.’ Politicians reflect what they believe to be majority views of their constituents. It is thus evident that most politicians are making the judgment that the public has little sympathy for the businessman or his viewpoint. The educational programs suggested above would be designed to enlighten public thinking — not so much about the businessman and his individual role as about the system which he administers, and which provides the goods, services and jobs on which our country depends. But one should not postpone more direct political action, while awaiting the gradual change in public opinion to be effected through education and information. Business must learn the lesson, long ago learned by labor and other self-interest groups. This is the lesson that political power is necessary; that such power must be assidously (sic) cultivated; and that when necessary, it must be used aggressively and with determination — without embarrassment and without the reluctance which has been so characteristic of American business.

“American business and the enterprise system have been affected as much by the courts as by the executive and legislative branches of government. Under our constitutional system, especially with an activist-minded Supreme Court, the judiciary may be the most important instrument for social, economic and political change. Other organizations and groups, recognizing this, have been far more astute in exploiting judicial action than American business. Perhaps the most active exploiters of the judicial system have been groups ranging in political orientation from “liberal” to the far left. The American Civil Liberties Union is one example.

“The average member of the public thinks of “business” as an impersonal corporate entity, owned by the very rich and managed by over-paid executives…”

“Business interests — especially big business and their national trade organizations — have (hitherto- my insertion) tried to maintain low profiles, especially with respect to political action. As suggested in the Wall Street Journal article, it has been fairly characteristic of the average business executive to be tolerant — at least in public — of those who attack his corporation and the system. Very few businessmen or business organizations respond in kind. There has been a disposition to appease; to regard the opposition as willing to compromise, or as likely to fade away in due time. Business has shunted confrontation politics. Business, quite understandably, has been repelled by the multiplicity of non-negotiable “demands” made constantly by self-interest groups of all kinds. While neither responsible business interests, nor the United States Chamber of Commerce, would engage in the irresponsible tactics of some pressure groups, it is essential that spokesmen for the enterprise system — at all levels and at every opportunity — be far more aggressive than in the past. There should be no hesitation to attack the Naders, the Marcuses and others who openly seek destruction of the system. There should not be the slightest hesitation to press vigorously in all political arenas for support of the enterprise system. Nor should there be reluctance to penalize politically those who oppose it. Lessons can be learned from organized labor in this respect. The head of the AFL-CIO may not appeal to businessmen as the most endearing or public-minded of citizens. Yet, over many years the heads of national labor organizations have done what they were paid to do very effectively. They may not have been beloved, but they have been respected — where it counts the most — by politicians, on the campus, and among the media. It is time for American business — which has demonstrated the greatest capacity in all history to produce and to influence consumer decisions — to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself.” This indicates a shift in the role of big business in government. What was said then cannot be said today. It is clear that the Powell Memo, its movement and propositions have forever and irrevocably changed US politics forever.

“The type of program described above (which includes a broadly based combination of education and political action), if undertaken long term and adequately staffed, would require far more generous financial support from American corporations than the Chamber has ever received in the past. High level management participation in Chamber affairs also would be required.”

And finally the conclusion:

“It hardly need be said that the views expressed above are tentative and suggestive. The first step should be a thorough study. But this would be an exercise in futility unless the Board of Directors of the Chamber accepts the fundamental premise of this paper, namely, that business and the enterprise system are in deep trouble, and the hour is late.

Source for the whole Powell Memo and selected excerpts above: [2]

As a note from the source to the significance of this document:

“Patient nurturing of movement-building work remains the exception to the rule among foundations that purport to strengthen democracy and citizen engagement. The growing movement to revoke corporate personhood is supported almost entirely from contributions by individual (real) people like you. Please consider supporting the work of groups like Move to Amend, Free Speech for People and Reclaim Democracy! that devote themselves to this essential movement-building work, rather than short-term projects and results demanded by most foundations.” – Reclaim Democracy

Is it not absolutely clear that this document sought to radically shift US politics to the right when presented with a clear ideological threat from a growing left wing in the United States? The Powell document should serve as a warning to all activists. The left wing opposition will no doubt grow in the face of the new Trump establishment. But we should expect a reactionary response as, if not more ideologically potent than the Powell document in response to this. The left should focus as much on opposing Trump as it should on defending itself from growing reactionary attacks. In the struggle for political power the people have no other weapon but organization. The Powell Memo is nothing but a criticism and attack of “too much democracy” among the lower classes. This is- in many ways our strongest weapon. We want the working class to be represented in proportion to its size, which would be the overwhelming majority and thus in a truly democratic system would wield virtually all political power.


[1] Mayer, Jane (2016-01-19). Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Kindle Locations 1381-1382). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.


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