The present work began life as a draft introduction to the American edition of Reason in Revolt that is to be published this autumn. Starting out from the idea that most Americans have been prejudiced against Marxism as an alien ("foreign") ideology, I started to explain that the history of the United States contains a great revolutionary tradition, beginning with the War of Independence that set up the USA in the first place.
However, on delving more deeply into the subject, it became clear that it was much too extensive to be satisfactorily contained in the Introduction to a book. I therefore cast it aside and wrote another one, the content of which was mainly of a scientific character.
Later on I showed a copy of the original draft to an American friend, who suggested that, suitably expanded, it could be published as a pamphlet, and he very kindly furnished me with some interesting additional information. As a result, I felt obliged to introduce some more material on matters such as the American Revolution, the Civil War and the history of trade unionism in the USA.
The subject is fascinating, and unfortunately very poorly known in Europe, where it has become a fashionable (and quite erroneous) idea that the USA, as the bastion of world imperialism (which Gore Vidal, the greatest living American writer, describes as "the Empire"), never produced anything of interest to socialists and revolutionaries. Actually, the reverse is true, as I hope I have shown in this long essay.
Part of my intention was to combat the kind of senseless anti-Americanism that one encounters all too frequently in left circles. Marxists are internationalists and do not take up a negative stance in relation to the people of any country. We stand for the unity of all working people against oppression and exploitation. What we oppose is not Americans, but American capitalism and American imperialism.
The American people and above all the American working class have a great revolutionary tradition. On the basis of great historical events they are destined to rediscover these traditions and to stand once more in the front line of the revolution, as they did in 1776 and 1860. The future of the entire world depends ultimately on this perspective. And although today it may seem very far off, it is not so incredible as one might think. Let us recall that before 1917 tsarist Russia was the bastion of world reaction, as the USA is today. Many people were convinced that the idea of socialist revolution in Russia was a crazy delusion on the part of Lenin and Trotsky. Yes, they were completely convinced, and completely wrong.
The rapacious greed of the big corporations and the ambitions of the ruling elite of "the Empire" are dragging the USA into one adventure after another. New nightmares can flow from such adventures. Fifty thousand young Americans were killed in the quagmire of Vietnam. The aggressive policies of the Bush White House threaten many more casualties, American and others. Sooner or later this will impact back on the USA, producing a general reaction against a system that could produce such monstrosities. The mass demonstration in Seattle served notice on the establishment that the youth of America will not be prepared to remain silent forever.
Because it was already becoming very long, I was obliged reluctantly to break off before the subject matter had been dealt with in the necessary depth. We must certainly return to it in the future. In the meanwhile, I hope that it will serve to correct some of the prejudices of non-American leftists about America, and at least some of the prejudices of Americans concerning Marxism. Even if I have not succeeded in this intention, I hope that at least people will begin to think more seriously about these matters - on both sides.
The USA and the world
The terrible events of September 11, 2001 marked a turning point in the history of the United States and the whole world. Overnight, it became impossible for ordinary US citizens to imagine that what was happening in the outside world was no concern of theirs. A general sense of insecurity and apprehension seized the national psychology. Suddenly, the world became a hostile and dangerous place. Ever since September 11, Americans have been trying to make sense of the kind of world that could produce such horrors.
Many people have been asking themselves: what have we done that there should be such hatred against us? Of course, ordinary Americans have done nothing to deserve this kind of thing. And we regard it as a criminal act to kill innocent civilians - of whatever nation - to make a political point. What is not in doubt, however, is that the actions of the United States in the world - its government, its big corporations and its armed forces - have aroused feelings of deep antipathy and resentment, and it would be as well for Americans to try to understand why this is so.
For much of its history, isolationism has played a central role in the politics of the USA. But the fact is that in the modern world no country, no matter how big and powerful, can cut adrift from the rest of the world. Nowadays, the most decisive phenomenon of our times is precisely this: the crushing domination of the world market. It is often known by the latest buzzword, globalization. But in fact it is not new. Already over 150 years ago in that most contemporary of all works, The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels predicted that the capitalist system, beginning as a series of national states, would create a world market.
The participation of the USA in world economy and world politics has grown almost continuously for the last century. All attempts to pull America into a state of self-imposed isolation have failed, and will inevitably fail, as George W. Bush has found out very quickly. The United States has inherited the role that was previously held by Great Britain - that of the world's policeman. But whereas Britain's dominant role in the world took place at a time when the capitalist system was still in its ascending phase, America now finds itself ruling over a world that is mortally sick. The sickness is the product of the fact that capitalism on a world scale is in a state of irreversible decline. This expresses itself in a series of convulsions that are increasingly of a violent character. The terrible cataclysm of September 11 was only one manifestation of this.
Anti-Americanism is, unfortunately, widespread. I say unfortunately because the present writer holds no ill feelings towards the people of the USA or any other country. As a Marxist, I am opposed to nationalism and chauvinist attitudes that sow hatred and conflicts between different peoples. But that does not mean that one can condone the actions of particular governments, companies and armed forces that are pursuing actions that are harmful to the rest of the world. It just means that it is wrong to confuse the ruling class of any country with the workers and poor people of that country.
The phenomenon of anti-Americanism is strongest in poor countries in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. The reasons for this are related to the exploitation of the resources of these countries by voracious US multinational corporations, backed by the US military and the CIA, leading to the impoverishment of their people, the destruction of the environment, the destabilization of their currencies, their economies, and even their governments. Such actions are not designed to promote love and respect for the USA in the world at large.
A couple of years ago The Economist concluded that the prices of raw materials were at their lowest level for 150 years - that is, since records began. The super-exploitation of what is known as the Third World by rapacious corporations is what causes a backlash in Africa, Asia and Latin America which may sometimes take the form of a rejection of all things American, but which is at bottom an expression of anti-imperialism. The best way to put an end to the poverty and starvation in the Third World is to fight for the expropriation of the big corporations that are the enemies of working people everywhere - beginning with the workers of the USA, as we shall show.
Europe and America
Anti-Americanism is not confined to poor countries. Some Europeans have somewhat negative attitudes to America. They resent the subordinate role they have been compelled to accept on the world stage, and they fear the consequences of the colossal economic and military domination of the transatlantic giant. Behind the polite façade of diplomacy between the "allies" lies an uneasy and contradictory relationship, which manifests itself in periodic trade conflicts and diplomatic rows.
On a different level, many Europeans resent what they see as the intrusion of an alien culture, brash and commercialized, which threatens to devalue and undermine their cultural identity. Behind the cultural resentments of the European intellectuals lies a deep-seated feeling of inferiority that seeks to hide behind a kind of cultural snobbishness. This feeling has a material basis, and in fact reflects the real state of affairs.
It is a simple fact that the history of the last hundred years is the history of the decline of Europe and the rise of the USA. As the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky predicted, the Mediterranean (which in the Latin tongue signifies "the center of the world") has become an unimportant lake. The center of world history has passed first to the Atlantic and finally to the Pacific - two mighty oceans, straddled by a colossus - the United States. The real relationship between Europe and America is summed up by the relationship between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. It is the relationship of the master and his lackey. And like a good English lackey, Mr. Blair does his level best to imitate the style and manners of his master, notwithstanding which, no one in his right mind can mistake the real relation between the two.
The airs of superiority that until recently were adopted by members of the British Establishment with regard to the values and culture of America are particularly comical. They resemble the airs and graces of the penniless English aristocrats in the 19th century in the presence of the wealthy bourgeois upstarts, a phenomenon well documented in the novels of Jane Austen and others. These airs and graces, of course, did not stop them from marrying off their daughters to the sons of the upstart money-grubbers at the earliest opportunity.
The negative attitude of Europeans towards American culture is the product of a misunderstanding. They are thinking of the made in the USA "cultural exports" that flood the markets of the world with bad music that makes you deaf, overpriced "designer clothes" produced by slave labor in the Third World that makes you indignant and cholesterol-clogged fast food produced by slave labor in the high street that makes you obese. It is the kind of cheap and nasty commercialism that is the hallmark of capitalism in the period of its senile decay. That such monstrosities produce a feeling of revulsion in all thinking and feeling human beings is perfectly natural.
However, the concept of culture, above all in the modern world, is far broader than pop music, Coca-Cola and McDonald's. It also includes such things as computers, the Internet, and many other aspects of science and technology. On this level, it is impossible to deny the impressive achievements of the USA. Moreover, it is precisely these scientific advances that are laying the foundations for an unprecedented cultural revolution, once they are correctly harnessed by a planned socialist economy on a world scale.
The present writer has no time for crude anti-Americanism. I am profoundly convinced that the colossal potential of the United States is destined to play a decisive role in the future socialist world order. But it must also be admitted that at the present moment in world history, the role of the USA on a world scale does not reflect its real potential for good, but only the rapacious greed of the big multinational companies that own America and control its actions in their own selfish interests. This author is a fervent admirer of the real America, and an implacable opponent of the other America, the America of the big banks and monopolies, the enemy of freedom and progress everywhere.
An 'un-American idea'?
In order to understand the ideas of Marxism, it is first necessary to approach them without prejudice. This is difficult, because until now, the great majority of Americans have only heard of Marxism in connection with that monstrous caricature that was Stalinist Russia. Marxism ("communism") is therefore associated in the minds of many people with an alien regime, a totalitarian state where the lives of men and women are dominated by an all-powerful bureaucracy, and where individual initiative and freedom are stifled and negated. The collapse of the USSR apparently proves the inadequacy of socialism, and the superiority of the free market economy. What more needs to be said?
Well, there is a great deal more to be said. The monstrous bureaucratic regime of the USSR had nothing to do with the ideas of Marx and Lenin, who advocated a democratic socialist society, where men and women would be free to determine their own lives, in a way that they do not do in the USA or any other country today. This subject was very well explained in a marvelous book written by my friend and life-long comrade Ted Grant (Russia, from Revolution to Counter-Revolution).
The fall of Stalinism in Russia did not signify the failure of socialism, but only a bureaucratic caricature thereof. It certainly did not signify the end of Marxism, which today is more relevant than ever before. It is my contention that only Marxism, with its scientific methodology, can furnish us with the necessary analytical tools whereby we can understand the processes that are unfolding on a world scale - and in the USA.
Whatever one thinks about Marxism, it has clearly had an enormous impact on the whole course of human history Today it is impossible for any man or woman to claim to be properly educated, unless they have taken the trouble to understand at least the basic ideas of Marxism. This goes as much for those who are opposed to socialism as those who are for it.
A serious barrier that confronts the American reader who approaches Marxism is the thought that this is a foreign import that has no place in the history, culture and traditions of the United States. Although the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and the late Senator Joseph McCarthy are now bad memories of the past, yet the psychological legacy remains, that "communism and revolution are not for us".
Actually, this is a serious misunderstanding of American history, which is not difficult to dispel. In fact, communism has far more ancient roots in America than capitalism. The latter has only existed for less than two centuries. But long before the first Europeans set foot on the soil of the New World (as they called it), Native Americans had been living in a communist society for thousands of years.
The Native Americans did not understand private property (at least, not in our modern sense of the word). The state and money did not exist. There were neither police nor prisons. The idea of wage labor and capital was so alien to them that they could never be properly integrated in the new capitalist society that destroyed their old way of life, expropriated their ancestral common lands and reduced them to an appalling state of misery and degradation - all in the name of Christian civilization.
This new way of life called capitalism, with its greed, absence of solidarity, and morality of the jungle - was really an alien system, imported from foreign lands. It can be argued - quite correctly - that this is precisely what made possible the opening up of America, the colossal development of industry, agriculture, science and technology that have made the USA into the greatest economic power the world has ever seen. And since Marxism maintains that the key to all human progress lies in the development of the productive sources, this represented progress on a gigantic scale.
Indeed, that is true. But there has been a price to pay for the progress that results from the anarchy of capitalism and the blind play of market forces. With the passing of time, an increasing number of people - not necessarily socialists - are becoming aware of the threat posed to the human species by the systematic destruction of the environment - the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. This apprehension is not lessened, but rather increased, by the remarkable progress of science and technology, which have advanced far more rapidly in the USA than in any other country in the world.
Before the white man came, America was a land of unspoiled prairies, pristine forests and crystalline cascades and lakes. It was a land in which men and women could breathe freely. To the original inhabitants of America, the land was sacred and nature was respected. But the big companies that now dominate America have no concern for the environment - our common heritage. All is reduced to a question of profit for a few (a concept the Native Americans would have found incomprehensible). The advent of genetically modified crops undoubtedly contains the potential for important advances, but under the present system poses a deadly threat to the future of humanity.
There was a time when films about the "Wild West" inevitably presented Native Americans as bloodthirsty savages, and the white men as the bearers of civilization, destined to take over their lands and consign them to reservations where they would learn the benefits of Christian charity. Nowadays, this is no longer considered acceptable. Native Americans are presented in a more positive light. Yet in practice, the average American knows little about their culture and way of life.
Actually, the man who did more than anyone else to write about the society and civilization of these peoples was the great American anthropologist, Lewis Henry Morgan. His famous book Ancient Society represented a revolutionary new departure in the study of anthropology and ancient history. He gave the first scientific explanation of the gens or clan as the basic unit of human society in prehistory:
"The simplest and lowest form of the council was that of the gens. It was a democratic assembly because every adult male and female member had a voice upon all questions brought before it. It elected and deposed its sachem and chiefs, it elected Keepers of the Faith, it condoned or avenged the murder of a gentilis, and it adopted persons into the gens. […]
"All the members of an Iroquois gens were personally free, and they were bound to defend each other's freedom; they were equal in privileges and in personal rights, the sachem and chiefs claiming no superiority, and they were a brotherhood bound together by ties of kin. Liberty, equality and fraternity, though never formulated, were cardinal principles of the gens." (Ancient Society, p. 85.)
"A powerful popular element pervaded the whole organization and influenced its action. It is seen in the right of the gentes to elect and depose their sachems and chiefs, in the right of the people to be heard in council through orators of their own selection, and in the voluntary system in the military service. In this and the next succeeding ethnical period democratic principles were the vital element of gentile society." (Ancient Society, p. 144.)
Morgan's work was read with great interest by Marx and Engels and played an important role in developing their ideas about ancient societies. Morgan's writings about the Iroquois and other tribes were absolutely central to Engels' book The Origins of the Family, State and Private Property - one of the seminal works of Marxism. This, in turn, was the basis of Lenin's celebrated book The State and Revolution, which was written in 1917 and presents the genuine Leninist model of a socialist democracy, in which the old oppressive bureaucratic state would be dissolved and replaced by a direct democracy, based on:
- Free elections with right of recall of all officials.
- No official to receive a wage higher than that of a skilled worker.
- No standing army, but the armed people.
- Gradually, all the tasks of running the state to be done by everybody in turn (when everybody is a bureaucrat, nobody is a bureaucrat).
It is quite ironic that the source of some of the most basic writings of Marxism turns out to be - the United States. It is even more ironic that the democratic constitution that Lenin and Trotsky introduced into the young Soviet Republic after November 1917 had its roots in the writings of Lewis Morgan and is, in essence, a return to the old communist order of the Native Americans, though obviously on the higher foundations made possible by modern industry, science and technology. So, in a way, one could argue that it was Russia that imported an old American idea, and not vice-versa!
Forgotten aspects of American history
The Pilgrim Fathers in the 17th century began the task of taming the great American wilderness, displaying indomitable courage in the most difficult conditions. Who were they? They were political refugees fleeing from an oppressive regime in Britain. This regime was the result of the counter-revolution that took place after the death of Oliver Cromwell, when the English bourgeoisie compromised with reaction and invited Charles the Second back from France.
We must remember that at that time politics and religion were inextricably linked. Each different Church or sect represented not only differing interpretations of the Gospels, but a definite strand of political opinion, and, in the last analysis, the standpoint of a definite class or sub-class in society. Thus, the Catholics represented open feudal reaction, and the Episcopalians were a disguised version of the same. The Presbyterians represented the wealthy merchants of the City of London, inclined to compromise with the monarchy. The Independents, typified by Cromwell, represented the more radical wing of the petty bourgeoisie, and so on.
On the extreme left wing there was a mass of sects, ranging from revolutionary democrats to communists: Fifth Monarchy men, Anabaptists, Quakers, and other were based in the lower levels of the petty bourgeoisie, the artisans and semi-proletarians, the fish-wives and apprentices - in short, the masses. The Levellers and particularly the Diggers openly questioned the right to hold private property even at this time. In all these groups we see a fierce attachment to democracy, a hatred for the rich and powerful (whom they regarded as the agents of Satan and the "sons of Belial") and an equally fierce attachment to equality. This was the spirit that inspired the English revolution of the 17th century.
The revolutionary masses believed that they would establish the kingdom of God on this earth. We now know that this was an illusion. The level of historical development at that time was not ripe for the establishment of a classless society. The real function of the English (and later the American) Civil War was to clear the decks for the development of capitalism. But this would never have been possible without the active involvement of the masses, who were inspired by a very different vision.
Having come to power by basing himself on the revolutionary semi-proletarian masses, Cromwell brutally suppressed the left wing, and thus prepared the way for the return of the hated monarchy and its attendant bishops. The remnants of the Puritan left wing found themselves subjected to civil and religious persecution. That is why the Pilgrim Fathers went to America to found communities based not only on religious freedom but also on principles of strict equality and democracy. As de Tocqueville points out: "Puritanism was not merely a religious doctrine, but it corresponded in many points with the most absolute democratic and republican theories." (de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 35.)
The Pilgrim Fathers organized their communities on extremely democratic and equalitarian lines: "In Connecticut the electoral body consisted, from its origin, of the whole number of citizens; and this is readily to be understood, when we recollect that this people enjoyed an almost perfect equality of fortune, and a still greater uniformity of opinions. In Connecticut, at this period, all the executive functionaries were elected, including the Governor of the State. The citizens above the age of sixteen were obliged to bear arms; they formed a national militia, which appointed its own officers, and was to hold itself at all times in readiness to march for the defense of the country." (Ibid., pp. 37-8.)
This model of popular democracy is not very different to the one implemented by the revolutionary people of Paris in the Commune of 1870, which in turn gave Marx the idea of what a workers' democracy (the "dictatorship of the proletariat") would look like. It was the model that Lenin cited in his book The State and Revolution, which formed the basis of the original soviet democracy of 1917 in Russia, before it was overthrown by the Stalinist political counterrevolution. But this historical parallel, for some reason, has never occurred to the official historians of the USA!
To these ladies and gentlemen the Pilgrim Fathers were only religious people, seeking the freedom to worship their god in their own way. Of course, this is partly true, but it does not convey the whole truth. These people were courageous revolutionaries fleeing from religious and political persecution in the Old World. They were very advanced in many ways. For example, they introduced compulsory public education, which they naturally justified in religious terms:
"It being one chief project of the old deluder Satan to keep men from the knowledge of the Scriptures […] by persuading from the use of tongues, that learning may not be buried in the grave of our fathers, in the church and commonwealth, the Lord assisting our endeavors […]" and so on.
But if we look at the substance and not the religious form, this was an extremely advanced and enlightened reform. Schools were established in every village and town and the inhabitants were obliged to support them under pain of heavy fines. The municipal authorities were bound to enforce attendance at school and to impose fines on parents who failed to do so. It was at least two centuries before similar laws were passed in Europe.
These people practiced their own version of republican democracy at a time - let us not forget - when America was still under British rule and therefore formally a monarchy. They established a kind of regime of double power in which a republic and a citizen's democracy, complete with a people's militia, the election of all officials, and a general assembly of all the people, existed in every town and village. And this was at a time when Absolute Monarchies ruled the roost in all Europe and trampled the people's rights in the dust.
Revolution and the USA
"[W]hat country can preserve its liberties, if its rulers are not warned from time to time that [the] people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms...The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants". (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Col. William S. Smith, 1787.)
"This country, with its institutions, belongs to the people who inhabit it. Whenever they shall grow weary of the existing government, they can exercise their constitutional right of amending it, or their revolutionary right to dismember or overthrow it." (Abraham Lincoln - 4 April 1861.)
Nowadays, the public in the USA is taught to fear and hate revolutions. Like communism, they are regarded as un-American, something alien and a threat from without. In actual fact, America has always been nourished by foreign revolutions - even from its very beginnings. However, the above quotations show clearly that revolution is an idea that is far from foreign to the native soil of the USA, which owes its very existence to a revolution. When the American colonists raised the flag of revolt against the English crown, this was a very revolutionary act. It was this that served as the source of inspiration for the French Revolution that broke out just over a decade later. Thus, the flame of revolution in Europe was first kindled in America.
A revolution necessarily means the eruption of the masses onto the arena of politics and can only succeed in its objectives to the degree that it involves the mass of "ordinary people" in activity. The American Revolution was no exception to this rule. Although the official histories emphasize (and over-emphasize) the role of men like George Washington, what really guaranteed the success of the revolution was the active involvement of the masses - the artisans, carpenters, apprentices, the small farmers and trappers and the elements lower middle class, lawyers and journalists inspired with revolutionary ideas, who spurred them on to action.
The class basis of the American Revolution was well understood by the British colonialists. General Thomas Gage who was head of the British troops in America wrote in worried tones to the King's Secretary of State on December 21, 1765:
"The Plan of the People of Property has been to raise the lower Classes to prevent the execution of the Law […] with the view to terrify and frighten the people of England into a Repeal of the Act. And the Merchants, having Countermanded the Goods they had written for unless it was repealed, they make no Doubt that many Trading Towns and principal Merchants in London will assist them to accomplish their Ends.
"The Lawyers are the Source from whence the Clamors have flowed in every Province. In this Province, nothing Publick is transacted without them, and it is to be wished that even the Bench was free from blame. The whole body of Merchants in general, Assembly Men, Magistrates, etc., have been united in this Plan of Riots, and without the influence and Instigation of these the inferior People would have been very quiet. Very great Pains were taken to rouse them before they stirred. The Sailors are the only People who may be properly Stiled Mob, are entirely at the Command of the Merchants who employ them."
These lines undoubtedly contain an error. It is always a characteristic of the police (or military) mentality that it attributes strikes, disturbances and revolutions to the work of "agitators" who are so inconsiderate as to stir up the masses, who would otherwise continue meekly to submit to the yoke. Agitators there were, of course, and very talented ones, such as Sam Adams. But to imagine that they could have such a dramatic effect on the masses, unless the latter were already prepared to hear their revolutionary message, is a self-evident stupidity. The relatively small number of revolutionary agitators organized in illegal societies like The Sons of Liberty, only succeeded because the people were already preparing to move, motivated by their own experience. It is always the way.
The official histories of the Revolution, as always, play down the role of the masses and concentrate on the upper strata - the wealthy Boston merchants and feudal landowners like Washington, who were pursuing their own interests, as general Gage understood quite well. But in order to succeed in their struggle with the colonial administration, they were compelled to rely on the masses, who did all the fighting. It was the workmen in the towns who organized in the Sons of Liberty, wrecked the houses of the hated stamp agents and threw their furniture onto the streets and burned them. It was they who tarred and feathered informers. It was they who translated the speeches of the leaders into action. Later on it was the small farmers and trappers who played the decisive role in the military defeat of the English army of occupation.
The fact is that the American Revolution would never have succeeded unless the masses had intervened in a decisive way. It is a matter of record that the wealthy American merchants who had set the ball rolling with their clash with the City of London on questions of trade and taxation soon recoiled from the Revolution when they saw that the poor people were getting active and taking matters into their own hands. The merchants were terrified that the masses would "go too far" and therefore attempted to reach a compromise with the enemy. In the moment of truth the rich American "patriots" had much more in common with their class brothers in England than with the working class and poor farmers of their own country.
The class struggle and the American Revolution
Even in the moment of its birth, America was faced with the crying contradiction between rich and poor - that is, with the class question. From the very beginning there has been a contradiction between the theory and practice of American democracy, an immense gulf between words and deeds. While the people were fighting for the Rights of Man, the merchants and landowners of America were really only concerned with the Rights of the Rich. Governor Morris expressed the feelings of the rich when he wrote: "The heads of mobility grow dangerous to the gentry and how to keep them down is the question." It has been the question for the American ruling class ever since.
As early as 1772 - before the outbreak of hostilities with England - that great American revolutionary Sam Adams wrote in The Boston Gazette:
"Is it not High Time for the People of this Country, explicitly to declare whether they will be Freemen or Slaves […] Let us [...] calmly look around us to consider what is best to be done […] Let it be the topic of conversation in every social Club. Let every Town assemble. Let Associations and Combinations be everywhere set up to consult and recover our just Rights."
What is this but a call for the setting up of what the Russians were later to call soviets (which in the Russian language signifies "committee" or "council")? The American revolutionaries set up something that approximates to soviets - that is, revolutionary committees - over one hundred years before the Russian workers thought of it. They established their Liberty clubs and Committees of Correspondence, which kept the revolutionary fighting groups in contact with one another.
Having aroused the masses to fight against Britain, it was not easy to get them to accept the rule of a privileged oligarchy after the redcoats had left. In New Hampshire a mob of several hundred men marched to the legislature with clubs, stones and guns to demand relief: "Print money and lower the taxes" was their slogan. There were serious uprisings in Massachusetts against the high taxes that fell disproportionately on the poor. They particularly targeted the courts where moneylenders would secure eviction orders against poor farmers who had fallen into debt. In the New York Picket of September 11, 1786 we read:
"On Tuesday the 29th [of August] … the day appointed by law for the sitting of the Court of Common Pleas […] there assembled in the town from different parts of the county four or five hundred people some of whom were armed with muskets, the others with bludgeons, with the professed intention to prevent the courts from proceeding to business […]."
This movement culminated in what was known as Shays' uprising - an armed insurrection led by Daniel Shays, a former officer in the revolutionary army. About 1,000 men armed with muskets, swords and clubs, succeeded in closing the courts for several months. Leo Huberman writes:
"The upper classes throughout the country were thoroughly frightened at this armed uprising of the poor people. There was no money in the treasury to pay the state troops, so a number of rich people contributed enough to do so. Shays and his followers headed for Springfield, where there was a public storehouse containing 7,000 muskets and 13,000 barrels of gunpowder, stoves, camp kettles and saddles. They were stopped by the state troops, a few shots were fired, and the mob dispersed." (Leo Huberman, We the People, p. 94.)
The true significance of Shays' rebellion can only be understood in class terms. Later general Knox wrote to George Washington to explain the dangerous character of the ideas of the insurgents. In particular, Knox said that the rebels believed that "the property of the United States has been protected from […] Britain by the joint efforts of all and therefore ought to be the common property of all." (My emphasis, AW.)
Such incidents as this have occurred in every revolution in history. When the masses feel that the power that they have fought and died for is slipping from their hands, they try desperately to seize the initiative again. But the class nature of the American Revolution of the 18th century was objectively bourgeois. It could not go beyond the limits prescribed by the capitalist mode of production. Consequently, the attempt of Shays to do so was condemned in advance to failure, as the similar attempt of the English Levellers and the Left Wing of the Puritans was condemned to defeat over a century earlier in England.
The challenge thrown down by Shays must have terrified the oligarchy that was quietly concentrating political and economic power into its own hands. They understood the need to create a strong state power immediately as a bulwark against the masses. At the same time they were under the pressure of the masses. When the 55 delegates met in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation, not one of them was from the working class or the class of small farmers. The class that had done all the fighting and dying in the Revolution was rigorously excluded from the decision-making process. The men who drafted the American constitution were all moneylenders, merchants, manufacturers, bondholders or slaveholders.
Some people have drawn a parallel between this phase of the American Revolution and the Thermidorean counterrevolution in France, that is to say, the beginnings of a conservative reaction against the egalitarian spirit of the Revolution in its flood-tide. In the sense that it marked the inevitable stage of stabilization when the men of money, the big landowners and wealthy merchants grabbed power out of the hands of the plebeian radical wing, this is a fair comparison. Gradually, the voice of the radical elements was drowned out by the men of property. The fierce debates that raged over the Constitution were the parting shots of this class conflict.
The discussions dragged on for months. The disputed questions were numerous: should large states have more say in the national government than small states? Should black slaves be counted as white people? And so on. But there was one question upon which they all agreed: that those with little or no property should not have too much power. In the end, the Constitution of the United States was only approved after bitter argument and even then was only approved by a narrow vote, as these figures show:
|New Hampshire ||57||47|
The ideals expressed in the Constitution were extremely revolutionary for their day, starting with the opening words: "We hold these truths to be self- evident: that all men are created equal." This proclamation of equality was like a revolutionary manifesto. In the text of the famous Declaration, however, there was a significant change. In earlier documents the "inalienable rights" of Man were usually stated to be "life, liberty and property." The last point was of particular interest to the wealthy merchants and landlords who now stood at the head of the Republic. However, Thomas Jefferson substituted for this the phrase: "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," leaving out any reference to property.
This was clearly a significant change the represented the pressure of the lower classes. In fact, the revolutionary government took measures that violated the sacred rights of property when it confiscated the estates of the pro-English landowners - the Tories. The estates were then broken up and sold to small farmers. The American Republic at its birth was a revolutionary power that owed its existence to the workers and small farmers and was, at least in the beginning, under their pressure. Later, as the lava of Revolution cooled, the big landowning and merchant interests prevailed. But in the beginning, the American Revolution was a beacon of hope to the entire world.
The international significance of the American Revolution was far greater than what most people realize today. The connection between the American and French Revolutions was very close. That great American revolutionary Thomas Paine lived in France and developed the most radical ideas. The proclamation of The Rights of Man was a most revolutionary idea for its time. People like Thomas Paine were the most advanced revolutionary democrats of their day. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity that they advocated shook the ruling classes of all Europe.
What is even less understood is the impact these revolutionary ideas from America had on the infant workers' movement in Britain. Tom Paine's writings were passed from hand to hand in underground workers' groups known as corresponding societies. Nowadays, the British establishment likes to parade its democratic credentials. But this is a blatant lie. The British ruling class fought tooth and nail against democracy. They opposed every attempt to establish the right to vote. This was conquered in struggle by the British working class, which paid a heavy price in martyrs, with imprisonment, deportation and even death as its reward.
In those dark days when the working class of Britain was struggling to win the most elementary rights, when the trade unions were illegalized by Pitt's notorious Combination Acts, the flame of freedom was kept alight, not only by the example of revolutionary France, but by the revolutionary democratic ideas of Thomas Paine, who for generations was the hero of British workers.
Rich and poor
The conquest of independence for the American colonies, although it was a great step forward, did not mark the final victory of democracy in America. Power was in the hands of a wealthy oligarchy: "The most serious problem inherited from the Revolution was its failure to carry out its declaration of the equality of all men. We have pointed out that half-consciously the leaders of the Revolutionary period confined the application of equality to those men whom they recognized as parties to the social contract and members of the political community. Even among them equality was never rigorously asserted. Property qualifications for voting and unequal representation of sections in the state legislature gave distinct advantages to the wealthier men and the wealthier areas. Literacy tests as the years passed were substituted for property tests as a more defensible means for disfranchising the poor, but with almost the same effect. Those inequalities have persisted to the present day, operating now primarily to give white men an advantage over Negroes, and rural areas an advantage over urban areas at the ballot." (Dan Lacy, The Meaning of the American Revolution, pp. 282-3.)
The conquest of formal democracy and the proclamation of the Rights of Man did not prevent the concentration of economic and political power into a few hands. The position of the working class did not improve but worsened, as shown by the following Appeal to the Working People of Manayuk to the Public, published in Pennsylvanian, August 28, 1833:
"We are obliged by our employers to labor at this season of the year, from 5 o'clock in the morning until sunset, being fourteen hours and a half, with an intermission of half an hour for breakfast, and an hour for dinner, leaving thirteen hours of hard labor, at an unhealthy employment, where we never feel a refreshing breeze to cool us, overheated and suffocated as we are, and where we never behold the sun but through a window, and an atmosphere thick with the dust and small particles of cotton, which we are constantly inhaling to the destruction of our health, our appetite and strength.
"Often we feel ourselves so weak as to be scarcely able to perform our work, on account of the over-strained time we are obliged to labor through the long and sultry days of summer, in the impure and unwholesome air of the factories, and the little rest we receive during the night not being sufficient to recruit our exhausted physical energies, we return to our labor in the morning, as weary as when we left it; but nevertheless work we must , worn down and debilitated as we are, or our families would soon be in a starving condition, for our wages are barely sufficient to supply us with the necessaries of life. We cannot provide against sickness or difficulties of any kind, by laying by a single dollar, for our present wants consume the little we receive and when we are confined to a bed of sickness any length of time, we are plunged into the deepest distress, which often terminates in total ruin, poverty, and pauperism.
"Our expenses are perhaps greater than most other working people, because it requires the wages of all the family who are able to work (save only one small girl to take care of the house and provide meals) to furnish absolute wants, consequently the females have no time either to make their own dresses or those of the children, but have of course to apply to trades for every article that is wanted." (J. Kuczynski, A Short History of Labor Conditions under Industrial Capitalism, vol.2, p. 25.)
The condition of women workers was underlined in a report by the National Trades' Union Convention in September, 1834:
"Mr. Douglass observed that in the single village of Lowell, there were about 4,000 females of various ages, now dragging out a life of slavery and wretchedness. It is enough to make one's heart ache, said he, to behold these degraded females, as they pass out of the factory - to mark their wan countenances - their woe-stricken appearance. These establishments are the present abode of wretchedness, disease and misery; and are inevitably calculated to perpetuate them - if not to destroy liberty itself."
Another report states:
"It has been shown that the number of females employed in opposition to male labor, throughout the United States, exceeds 140,000 who labor on an average from 14 to 15 hours per day, without that pure air and wholesome exercise which are necessary to health, and confinement with the consequent excess of toil, which checks the growth of the body, destroying in effect the natural powers of mind, and not infrequently distorting the limbs."
Even more ghastly was the position of children:
"If children must be doomed to those deadly prisons," said the New Haven delegates to the above mentioned convention, "let the law at least protect them against excessive toil and shed a few rays of light upon their darkened intellect. Workingmen! Bitter must be that bread which your little children earn in pain and tears, toiling by day, sleeping by night, sinking under oppression, consumption and decrepitude, into an early grave, knowing no life but this, and knowing of this only misery."
The class struggle has accompanied the American Republic ever since it was born. In 1778, when the ink was scarcely dry on the Declaration of Independence, journeymen printers of New York City combined to demand an increase in wages. The first strike of wage earners took place in Philadelphia as early as 1786 when the printers fought for a weekly minimum wage. The first general strike, that is, the first strike of a considerable number of workers in a large number of trades in one big strike movement, took place in 1827, again in Philadelphia. In this period, many trade unions were formed and there were numerous strikes.
The bosses ferociously resisted the right of workers to organize in unions and go out on strike. In 1806 members of the Philadelphia Journeymen Cordwainers were tried for criminal conspiracy after a strike for higher wages. The charges were (1) combination to raise wages and (2) combination to injure others. Bankrupted as a result, the union disbanded. This was not an isolated case. Wherever possible the employers brought in scab labor to break strikes and appealed to the courts to declare trade unions illegal. Far from trade union organization being recognized as a democratic right, the unions were dragged through the courts and prosecuted for "conspiracy in restraint of trade" - a phrase copied from English common law. For decades, strikes, boycotts and other forms of working class struggle were subject to legal action on the grounds of "conspiracy".