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".
The Second American Revolution
America, which proclaimed the sacred principle of liberty, was stained by the evil of slavery. Men and women, torn from their homes and lands in black Africa by the monstrous trade in human beings, were bought and sold like chattel by Christian gentlemen who worshipped the Lord in church every Sunday, and tortured, raped and killed their slaves every day of the week.
Although the African slave trade was already illegal, the Southern planters continued to import slaves after 1808. It is estimated that as many as 150,000 slaves were sent to the New World every year, compared to 45,000 towards the end of the 18th century. And although many of them were not shipped directly to the USA, most of them must have ended up there. The slaves were regarded as chattel or animals, as the following description of a slave sale shows:
"About a dozen gentlemen crowded on the spot while the poor fellow was stripping himself, and as soon as he stood on the floor, bare from top to toe, a most rigorous scrutiny of his person was instituted. The clear black skin, back and front, was viewed all over for sores from disease; and there was no part of his body left unexamined. The man was told to open and shut his hands, asked if he could pick cotton, and every tooth in his head was scrupulously looked at."
In the Charleston Courier of April 12, 1828 we read:
"As valuable a family […] as ever was offered for sale, consisting of a cook about 35 years of age, and her daughter about 14 and son about 8. The whole will be sold together or a part of them, as may suit a purchaser."
The class outlook of the slave owners was well expressed in the comments of Senator Hammond of South Carolina:
"In all social systems there must be a class to do the mean duties, to perform the drudgeries of life […] we call them slaves. We are old-fashioned at the South yet; it is a word discarded now by ears polite; I will not characterize that class in the North by that term; but there you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal […] The difference between us is that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment, either. Yours are hired for the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most deplorable manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns. Why, sir, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York than you would ever meet in a lifetime in the whole South. Our slaves are black, of another inferior race […] your slaves are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood."
These lines are interesting because they let slip the smiling mask of the ruling class to reveal the brutal hypocrite that hides beneath it. In order to defend the indefensible - chattel slavery - the Southern slave owner points an accusing finger at the Northern capitalist. The attempt to prettify chattel slavery is, of course, absurd. Yet there is just a grain of truth in this attack against the hypocrisy of the Northern capitalists. The pro-slaver says to them: "Why do you condemn us, when in reality you are just as bad as us? Our slavery is open and self-evident. We do not hide it. But your slavery is just as bad, if not worse, except it is hidden and hypocritical." We need not accept the logic of the slaver to understand that the attitude of every exploiting class in history - slave owners, feudal lords and capitalists - to the exploited class is very similar. The Northern manufacturers were lukewarm about abolition because they feared - not without reason - that any attempt to challenge the "sacred rights of property" in the South would set an unwelcome precedent for the working class in the North.
There were a number of slave revolts that were put down with the utmost savagery. The whites were always concerned with intimidating the blacks, inculcating in them a sense of inferiority and fear of their masters. By all manner of cruelty, the blacks, both free and slaves (and many were free in some states) had to be put in their place. A few thousand wealthy slave owning families ruled the South, while 4 million black slaves did all the work, the gap being filled by a population of poor whites who could always be depended upon to support their masters against the slaves.
In order to end this abomination and finish the job begun in 1776, a new revolution was necessary, and even a bloody Civil War. This took great courage and determination. The name of Abraham Lincoln will forever have a place of honor in the annals of the long struggle for democracy. In the course of this struggle, he grew in stature as a man and a leader. The initiative for this epic struggle, however, came from below, from the militant abolitionists and the slaves themselves. A movement that began as a small minority, despised as "extremists" and "subversives", shunned by the "moderate mainstream" succeeded, by heroic efforts, in turning America upside down.
There was a militant anti-slavery tendency that used revolutionary methods to free the slaves. The struggle between slaveholders and abolitionists erupted into open civil war in 1856, when John Brown led his militant abolitionist forces into Kansas to do battle with the slavers. In October, 1859, John Brown led a band of 18 armed men, of which four were black, to capture the Federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry, Virginia. The raid failed and Colonel Robert E Lee, the future commander of the Confederate forces, led a detachment of US marines which captured John Brown. Amidst a lynch-mob atmosphere, Brown was sentenced to death by hanging, the sentence being carried out in December 1859.
The defeat of the South - that bastion of landowning reaction - and the emancipation of the slaves was undoubtedly a progressive task, and one that merged imperceptibly with a war of emancipation of the black slaves. But the bourgeoisie dragged its feet, looking for a compromise up to the very last moment when the first cannon balls were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. It was the pressure from the anti-slavery militants and the working class and lower middle class that forced the North into action. The workers of the Union were prepared to sacrifice their lives in this cause. And the workers of Europe instinctively understood this and took a truly internationalist position in relation to the Civil War - the Second American Revolution.
Like every other serious conflict, at bottom the American Civil War was a class struggle. The Northern manufacturers necessarily had to come into conflict with the Southern landowning classes. The conflict of interest between the two lasted for sixty years and finally ended in civil war. However, the mutual hatred between the northern capitalists and the slave owners of the South, grounded in economics, was only half the story. There was a genuine sense of moral outrage among sections of the northern working class and middle class against the evils of slavery. The execution of John Brown brought matters to a head. Mass anti-slavery rallies and demonstrations took place in the North. It was this mass agitation that led, the following year, to the election of Abraham Lincoln.
The industrial bourgeoisie of the North wished to consolidate its power by destroying the outmoded slave system in the South. It suited their interests. But they did not pursue the task with any enthusiasm. On the contrary, a significant section of the Northern capitalists would have been willing to reach a compromise with the Southern reactionaries. They feared a war that would disrupt trade and preferred to confine themselves to a series of parliamentary maneuvers, like the "Missouri Compromise". But the logic of the situation ruled out any compromise, and these parliamentary intrigues and political struggles culminated in the civil war that the bourgeoisie had hoped to avoid.
At the beginning, when South Carolina and ten other slave states declared themselves to be no longer part of the union, Lincoln's main priority was to prevent the breakup of the Union. In vain did he attempt to reassure the slave-owners that his government would "not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists". He was merely echoing the position of an important section of the Northern bourgeoisie that wanted to avoid a conflict with the South. By the end of this terrible conflict, however, Lincoln was not the same man as at the beginning. From a mere political tussle to preserve the Union, the Civil War evolved inexorably into a revolutionary war against slavery.
In order to wage war against the slave-holding South, Abraham Lincoln relied upon the support of the mass of American workers and small farmers. After some initial hesitation (he was afraid of losing the support of the four border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, where slavery still existed), he accepted the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union armies. He also openly espoused the cause of labor, making comments that nowadays would automatically make him suspect of subversion and communism. He said, among other things:
"All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two. If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool."
He also defended the right to strike as a democratic right of working people:
"I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails under which laborers can strike whenever they want to…I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to and wish it might prevail everywhere."
The workers of the North threw themselves enthusiastically into the struggle. Many trade union locals were dissolved for the duration of the conflict, as the entire workforce was often away at war. In the conflict between Northern industrial capitalism and Southern landlordism and slavery, it was clear which side the Marxists supported. American trade unionists also played a decisive role in the fight against slavery, as Northern workers signed up in droves for the Union Army.
After two years of bloody fighting, President Lincoln issued his Emancipation Proclamation, which freed the slaves in those states fighting against the Union. Later the slaves were also freed in the neutral border-states. At a stroke the rule of the slave owners was overthrown. No longer were four million human beings to be held in bondage. The reactionary class of Southern planters was deprived of two billion dollars worth of property, with not a single cent in compensation. Thus, there is nothing "un-American" about the expropriation of tyrants and oligarchs, which was carried out both in 1776 and in 1865. The United States was established at birth with an act of revolutionary expropriation. In the same way a socialist USA in the future will be established by the expropriation of the property of the big banks and corporations that exercise their dictatorship over the people and have turned democracy into an empty name.
In this war against the forces of reaction, the International Workingmen's Association (the First International) sided unequivocally with the North against the South. It is not generally known that Karl Marx wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the IWA, expressing his admiration and support for the latter in his fight against slavery. Thus, in this decisive moment in American history, Marxism stood shoulder to shoulder with the American people, and not just in words. Members of the IWA fought in the ranks of the Union army, and thus fulfilled their internationalist duty. Working class revolutionaries like Anneke and Weydemeer - the latter a close friend of Marx - served with distinction in the ranks of the Union army.
At the outbreak of the Civil War there was a considerable amount of British capital invested in American enterprises, including the railroads, banking, coal, timber and land. While the British ruling class openly sympathized with the slave owners of the Confederacy, the working people of Britain wholeheartedly backed the Union. This was quite remarkable if we bear in mind that the Civil War in America badly disrupted the trade in cotton and caused a depression in the cotton mills of Lancashire and terrible unemployment and suffering for the workers.
How capitalism failed the black people
The Second American Revolution was a tremendous step forward, but it never realized its promise to the black people. The real winners in the Civil War were the Northern capitalists who opened up new markets and obtained a huge new supply of dirt-cheap labor. Nearly a century and a half after the abolition of slavery in the USA, we are very far from achieving genuine equality for all, regardless of race, color or sex. Despite a number of advances achieved through the struggles of black people in the 1960s, the position of blacks remains one of clear disadvantage. Michael Moore points out that in the USA today:
- About 20 percent of young black men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are neither in school nor working - compared with only 9 percent of young white men. Despite the "economic boom" of the nineties, this percentage has not fallen substantially over the last ten years.
- In 1993, white households had invested nearly three times as much in stocks and mutual funds and/or IRA and Keogh accounts as black households. Since then, the stock market has more than doubled its value.
- Black heart attack patients are far less likely than whites to undergo cardiac catheterization, a common and potentially lifesaving procedure, regardless of the race of their doctors. Black and white doctors together referred white patients for catheterization about 40 percent more often than black patients.
- Whites are five times more likely than blacks to receive emergency clot-busting treatment for stroke.
- Black women are four times more likely than white women to die while giving birth.
- Black levels of unemployment have been roughly twice those of whites since 1954.
- In the first nine months of 2002, the US unemployment rate averaged 5.7 percent, compared with the first nine months of 2000, when it averaged 4 percent. About 2.5 million more workers are unemployed now than in 2000. But the unemployment rate for African-Americans has risen about 60 percent faster than for all workers. Some 400,000 more are now out of work than were out of work in 2000, a two-year rise of 30 percent.
Capitalism has failed all the people, with the exception of the tiny minority that own and control the means of production and treat the country and its government as their private property. But the biggest losers are the twenty percent at the bottom of the pile, and of these the biggest majority are black and Latino people. Despite the attempts to disguise this situation by the kind of tokenism that allows a handful of privileged blacks like Colin Powell to figure prominently on the stage, the position of the great majority of working class and poor black people has not been substantially improved.
The conclusion is clear. The only way to eliminate racism is by pulling it up by the roots. The black slaves were first brought into the USA as a form of cheap labor serving the wealthy Southern planters. As a result of the Second American Revolution, they are formally free. But they remain as before cheap labor at the disposal of Big Business.
The link between racism and capitalism was clearly understood by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers who attempted to organize on class lines and link the struggle of the black people for advancement to the general struggles of the American working class. This represented a deadly menace to the establishment that has thrived for so long on the policy of divide and rule. That is why the Black Panthers were targeted and ruthlessly hunted down and killed.
Marxists consider the basic principles of the American revolution to represent a great historic advance, but also consider that the only way to breathe life into these great principles is by overthrowing the rule of the big banks and monopolies that exercise a dictatorship over the people and have turned the idea of democracy into an empty shell. The overthrow of the dictatorship of Big Business demands the utmost unity in struggle of all working people - black and white, Native American and Irish, Hispanic and Jewish, white and blue collar, men and women, old and young. We make no distinction on grounds of color, sex or creed. It is necessary to unite all the oppressed, underprivileged and exploited people under the banner of the labor movement and socialism.
On the basis of a genuine socialist society - which has nothing to do with dictatorship or totalitarianism - the idea of the Rights of Man and Woman will cease to be an empty phrase and become a reality. Not only life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but a genuine freedom to develop the potential of human beings to the full - this is the meaning of socialism.
'Give me your huddled masses'
The emigration of the Pilgrim Fathers was the first influx into America of people fleeing from a defeated revolution, but by no means the last. Over the last two centuries we observe the following phenomenon: after every defeat of a revolution in Europe, there was a big influx of refugees into America. That rich mosaic of peoples that fused together to form the modern American nation was formed in the first place out of Poles, Hungarians, Germans, Italians, Russians, Jews and Irish, with the admixture of the descendants of African slaves and more recently, people from Central and Latin America.
Where did these people come from? If we leave aside the native Americans and the millions of black slaves forcibly torn from their native lands and shipped to the plantations of the South and consider the European immigrants who formed the central core of the population of the USA in the 19th century, the great majority were, like the Pilgrim Fathers, political refugees fleeing from either victorious counterrevolution or national oppression. The defeat of the Polish uprisings of 1830 and 1863, the crushing of the German revolution of 1848, the persecution of Jews and revolutionaries by Russian tsarism, the defeat of numerous uprisings of the Irish people against their British tormentors - all these things provided America with a steady flood of human material that made it what it is today.
In order to conquer the vast open spaces of North America, to clear the dense forests, to brave the innumerable dangers of an untamed and hostile environment - all this required a special kind of people, motivated by a special kind of spirit. The opening up of the West (although it was a terrible tragedy for the native peoples who were regarded as an obstacle to be removed) was undoubtedly an historically progressive development. Americans refer proudly to the pioneer spirit that made this possible. But where did this spirit come from?
If we examine this question more closely, it will immediately become evident that those heroic pioneers who threw themselves with such energy into the opening up of America were to a very large extent revolutionaries who, having lost all faith in the possibility of changing the Old World, looked for and found a new life in the New World. The very same energy and courage with which they fought against the ruling regimes in Europe was now turned to other purposes. Thus, the celebrated American "pioneer spirit" was to a very large extent the product of a revolutionary psychology and spirit that simply found a different outlet.
This fact was already understood by the great philosopher Hegel, who pointed out that if France had possessed the prairies of North America, the French Revolution would never have taken place. Here we also find the historical explanation for the celebrated American dream, the idea that it is possible for anyone to succeed on the basis of individual initiative and work. In a period when America possessed vast expanses of uncultivated land, this vision was not altogether without foundation. The apparently unlimited possibilities meant that the idea of revolution was subsumed and absorbed. In place of the struggle between the classes, there was the struggle of individual men and women against nature, the unceasing fight to tame the wilderness and carve a living out of mother earth. This is the true origin of that element of rugged individualism that has for so long been regarded as the basic ingredient of the "American character".
In the 19th century, the famous French sociologist and historian Alexis de Tocqueville wrote a well-known book called Democracy in America, which ever since has enjoyed the status of a classic. His basic thesis is that democracy in the United States had such profound roots because the difference between rich and poor was relatively small, and certainly much less than in Europe. He also observed that rich Americans had started out poor and worked their way up the social scale. When de Tocqueville wrote his book, this was largely true. With the exception of the South, where slavery still ruled supreme and a wealthy white aristocracy existed, in most of the States of the Union, there existed a remarkable degree of equality between citizens. Of course, there were still rich and poor. But even the poorer citizens felt that it was still possible to "get on" with a little effort. Class divisions existed - there were the so-called range wars between the big ranchers and smallholders that sometimes assumed a violent character. But in general, until the last decades of the 19th century, the class struggle remained relatively undeveloped.
This had certain consequences. For example, for a long time the state was relatively weak, and America was not cursed with the heavy burden of bureaucracy and militarism that weighed so heavily on most nations in Europe. However, all that began to change with the rapid development of industrial capitalism towards the end of the 19th century. The growth of the big trusts, the search for markets and the commencement of America's involvement in foreign adventures, beginning with Spanish-Cuban-American War of 1892-1898, marked the inexorable transformation of the USA into a country dominated by giant monopolies and the most powerful imperialist state the world has ever seen.
The workers movement in the USA
American capitalism in the nineteenth century was an historically progressive force, and the victory of the North laid the basis for the economic expansion and domination of the US on a world scale. It freed up a massive labor pool for capitalist enterprise, and allowed for the domination of a handful of industrialists, paving the way for the giant trusts and monopolies of the 1890s. While the working class was fighting and dying in the war against slavery, the monopolists-to-be were busily enriching themselves in the lucrative war industry. The early fortunes of Carnegie, Mellon, Armour, Gould, Rockefeller, Fisk, Morgan, Cooke, Stanford, Hill, and Huntington were made during this period.
Up to 1860 the government of the United States was largely in the hands of the landowners of the South. From 1865 the Northern capitalist oligarchs pushed them aside and took over the power. The attitude of these men was shown by the words of Commodore Vanderbilt: "Law! What do I care about law? Hain't I got the power?" Yes, the Vanderbilts and their like had the power, and they still have it.
The triumph of capitalism in the USA signified an unprecedented development of the productive forces. This is nest shown by the explosive growth of the railroads:
In 1860 there were 30,000 miles of railroad track in the USA.
In 1880 there were three times as much - 90,000 miles.
By 1930 the figure was 260,000 miles.
Progress was tremendous, but the fruits of progress were not equally enjoyed by all. In 1892 the People's Party noted in its platform:
"The fruits of the toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal wealth for a few […]
"Wealth belongs to him who creates it, and every dollar taken from industry without an equivalent is robbery. If any will not work, neither shall he eat […]
"We believe that the time has come when the railroad corporations will either own the people or the people must own the railroads […] Transportation being a means of exchange and a public necessity, the government should own and operate the railroads in the interests of the people […]
"The telegraph and telephone, like the post office system, being a necessity for the transmission of news, should be owned and operated by the government in the interest of the people…"
The growth of the economic might of the USA signified a simultaneous growth in the power of Big Business. By 1904 the Standard Oil Company controlled over 86 per cent of the refined illuminating oil of the country. By 1890, gigantic corporations were in control of each great industry. The Aluminum Company produced 100 per cent of the output of virgin aluminium in the United States. The Ford Motor Company and the General Motors Corporation together produced three out of every four cars. The Bell Telephone Company owned four out of every five telephones in the United States. The Singer Sewing Machine Company made at least three out of every four sewing machines sold in the United States. And so on.
The huge polarization between Labor and Capital, between rich and poor, was the real basis on which the class struggle developed on the soil of the United States. In the old days the difference between rich and poor were so small that a man like de Tocqueville could regard them as insignificant. But for the last hundred years or more the gulf between rich and poor, between haves and haves not, has widened into an abyss.
The roots of the labor movement were already well established in the nineteenth century. William Sylvis, an early trade union activist, founded the Iron Molders' Union, and helped found the National Labor Union, which he wanted to affiliate to the International Workingmen's Association - the body in which Marx played the leading role. He was far ahead of his day on issues of black workers and women - he wanted them in the unions - against considerable opposition. This great advocate of working class unity, cutting across all artificial lines, died in great poverty at age 41.
The attempts of working people to defend themselves against rapacious employers were met with extreme brutality. As one contemporary labor leader wrote: "a great deal of bitterness was evinced against trade union organizations, and men were blacklisted to an extent hardly ever equaled." In response the workers formed a clandestine union - The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor - founded in 1869 in Philadelphia. The Knights of Labor had a very advanced program that called for the eight hour day, equal pay for equal work for women, the abolition of convict and child labor, the public ownership of utilities and the establishment of co-operatives. The terrible conditions and brutality of the bosses sometimes provoked a violent response. The Molly Maguires were a secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners who fought for better working conditions in the coalfields of northeastern Pennsylvania. Called murderers and framed, 14 of their leaders were imprisoned and ten of them were hanged in 1876.
In reply to the labor movement the bosses sent in their shock troops, the Pinkerton Detective Agency - those hated private cops of the monopolists, scabs, strike breakers, hired guns and murderers - to fight the workers. The bosses also had at their disposal the forces of the state. Workers were imprisoned, beaten up and killed for the "crime" of fighting for their rights. Pursued by private interests, in particular Lehigh Valley Railroad founder, Asa Packer, as well as Franklin Gowen of Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the coal company bosses who wanted to squelch the fledgling labor organizations.
In 1892 the Homestead strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers at the Carnegie steel mills in Homestead Pa., resulted in the death of several strikers and Pinkerton guards. The strike ended in defeat and the workers were sacked from most of the mills in the Pennsylvania area. Two years later a strike of the American railway Union led by Eugene V. Debs against the Pullman Co., was defeated by the use of injunctions and federal troops sent into the Chicago area. Debs and others were imprisoned for violating the injunctions, and the union was defeated.
The Chicago Martyrs and May Day
The list of the martyrs of American Labor is endless, the most celebrated being the Chicago martyrs of 1886 -as a result of which the American working class gave May Day to the rest of the world. It is ironic that in the USA, "Labor Day" is now held at the beginning of September, far from the more significant date of May 1. It is generally seen as a last 3-day weekend of summer with lots of grilling and beer drinking. The union marches in major cities have been emasculated in order to reduce the importance of May Day by moving it to September and making it a "fun" weekend. In this way the ruling class in the USA does everything possible to make the working class forget its own history and traditions.
On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons (Lucy his wife was a tireless activist who campaigned to have him pardoned), the head of the Chicago Knights of Labor, led a demonstration of 80,000 people through the city's streets in support of the eight-hour day. In the next few days they were joined nationwide by 350,000 workers who went on strike at 1,200 factories, including 70,000 in Chicago. On May 4, Spies, Parsons, and Samuel Fielden were speaking at a rally of 2,500 people held to protest the police massacre when 180 police officers arrived, led by the Chicago police chief. While he was calling for the meeting to disperse, a bomb exploded, killing one policeman. The police retaliated, killing seven of their own men in the crossfire, plus four others; almost two hundred were wounded. The identity of the bomb thrower remains unknown.
Of course another Red Scare was invoked ("Communism in Chicago!") when all the workers were fighting for was the eight-hour day. On June 21, 1886, eight labor leaders, including Spies, Fielden, and Parsons went on trial, charged with responsibility for the bombing. The trial was rife with lies and contradictions, and the state prosecutor appealed to the jury: "Convict these men, make an example of them, hang them, and you save our institutions."
Even though only two were present at the time of the bombing (Parsons had gone to a nearby tavern), seven were sentenced to die, one to fifteen years imprisonment. The Chicago bar condemned the trial, and several years later Governor John P. Altgeld pardoned all eight, releasing the three survivors (two of them had had their sentences reduced from hanging to life imprisonment). Unfortunately, the events surrounding the execution of the Haymarket martyrs fueled the stereotype of radical activists as alien and violent, thereby contributing to ongoing repression. On November 11, 1886, four anarchist leaders were hanged; Louis Lingg had committed suicide hours before. Two hundred thousand people took part in the funeral procession, either lining the streets or marching behind the hearses.
As the crisis develops, workers need to arm themselves with a program that can answer their needs and aspirations. In doing so they need to reclaim May Day's tradition of struggle. May Day itself was born out of struggle. The fight for the 8-hour working day in the United States in the 1880s was the issue that gave birth to May Day as International Labor Day. In 1884 the Convention of the Federation of Organized Trades raised a resolution that was to act as a beacon to the whole working class: "that eight hours shall constitute a legal days labor from and after 1st May 1886". This call was taken up by the Labor movement with the creation of Eight Hour Leagues, which rung significant concessions out of the bosses, and witnessed the doubling of trade union membership.
Shortly after the Chicago tragedy of May 1886, which became known thereafter as international workers day, workers representatives set up the Second (Socialist) International in 1889, under the banner of workers' internationalism. A key resolution of the Congress was that on every May Day workers in every country would strike and demonstrate for the 8-hour day. On May 1,1890 workers struck all over Europe, with 100,000 demonstrating in Barcelona, 120,000 in Stockholm, 8,000 in Warsaw, while thousands stayed at home in Austria and Hungary where demonstrations were banned. Strikes spread throughout Italy and France. Ten workers were shot dead in Northern France. In the words of the Austrian Social Democratic leader, Adler, "Entire layers of the working class with which we would otherwise have made no contact, have been shaken out of their lethargy."
In Britain and Germany, huge demonstrations were held on the Sunday following May Day. The importance of these developments was not lost on Frederick Engels, the lifelong comrade of Karl Marx, who had lived through the long period of quiescence in the British Labor movement after the great Chartists days of the 1840s. He wrote enthusiastically about May Day: "more than 100,000 in a column, on 4th May 1890, the English working class joined up in the great international army, its long winter sleep broken at last. The grandchildren of the old Chartists are entering the line of battle." Yet again, a great tradition of international labor was "made in the USA".
The rise of American capitalism as a world power in the last decades of the 19th century was marked by a sharp upturn of the productive forces, booming industries and high profits that permitted certain concessions to the upper layer of the working class in the skilled trades. This "labor aristocracy" formed the basis of the kind of craft unionism typified by the AFL.
In 1881, six prominent unions, the printers, iron and steel workers, molders, cigar-makers, carpenters and glassworkers met together with other groups to launch the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (FOTLU), led by Samuel Gompers and Adolph Strasser. With only 45,000 members, it was initially weak and overshadowed by the Knights of Labor. But on the basis of the booming economy, the tendency towards class collaborationism gathered ground. In the 1880s the tendency of "practical trade unionism" or "pure and simple unionism" gained ground at the expense of the Knights of Labor who, by 1890, had only 100,000 members. The strength of the AFL - as it later became - was primarily in the crafts already named. It began with a membership of around 138,000 in 1886 and slowly doubled that number in the next twelve years. Samuel Gompers, a real bosses' man, was elected first president and held onto the position until his death in 1924.
The rise of this so-called trade unionism "pure and simple" was no accident, but flowed from the material conditions at that time. In the exceptionally privileged position of US capitalism, which was already beginning to challenge Britain's position as the main industrial power by the beginning of the 20th century, concessions could be given to buy off the labor aristocracy. A similar situation led to the national-reformist degeneration of the labor and Social Democratic organizations in Britain, France and Germany in the years before 1914. From 1900 to 1904, the membership of the AFL went from half a million to a million and a half, and then to two million on the eve of the First World War. During and immediately following the War, membership again increased rapidly to more than four million in 1920. During this period, an estimated 70 to 80 percent of all unionized workers in the USA were in the AFL.
However, the great strength of the unions was accompanied by a process of bureaucratic degeneration at the top. In this period the basis was laid for the policies of class collaboration and non-political, that is for yellow, trade unionism that has characterized the leadership of the AFL ever since. Leaders like Gompers and Meany accommodated themselves to capitalism, preaching the unity of interest between Capital and Labor - which is like preaching the unity of interest between horse and rider. Meanwhile, the vast majority of American workers remained unorganized, unrepresented and oppressed.
Moreover, the class collaboration views of the AFL leaders were not at all shared by the bosses, who viewed the growth of trade unionism with alarm. Caroll Dougherty writes in his book Labor Problems in American Industry:
"Most of the powerful ones [employers], believing that unionism was growing too strong and fearing further encroachments on their control of industry, decided to break off relations, and in the years from 1912 to World War 1, were characterized by a definitely increasing anti-unionism. […]
"Scientific management and 'efficiency' systems were introduced in many plants, much to the discomfiture of many skilled craft unions. A variety of union-smashing tactics were adopted by employers. Vigilante groups and citizens' committees were fostered to resist unionization activities. Court decisions upheld as a rule most of the employers' anti-union practices. In the face of these new difficulties, the membership of the AFL at first fell off a little and then resumed growth at a much slower rate than before 1902."
This is the eternal contradiction of reformist politics in general - that it produces results that are the exact opposite to those intended. The compromising attitude of the labor leaders always leads to a hardening of attitudes on the part of the employers: weakness invites aggression.
If you ever visit Moscow and take a stroll around the Kremlin walls, you will find among the tombs of famous Russian revolutionaries the graves of two outstanding Americans - "Big" Bill Haywood and John Reed, the celebrated American writer and journalist who was the central character of the movie Reds. John Reed, who was active in the American labor and socialist movement before the First World War is best remembered for his marvelous book about the Russian Revolution Ten Days that Shook the World, which Lenin himself described as a most truthful account of the October revolution. After Trotsky's monumental History of the Russian Revolution it is the best book one could read about this subject.
But John Reed was by no means an exception. In the stormy years before and after the First World War, the labor movement in the USA was alive and vibrant. This was a period of giants - like Eugene Debs, the "grand old man" of U.S. labor. Born in Terre Haute, Ind., Debs left home at 14 to work in the railroad shops. As a locomotive fireman, he became an early advocate of industrial unionism, and was elected president of the American Railway Union in 1893. His involvement in the Pullman Strike led to a six-month prison term in 1895. In 1898 he helped found the U.S. Socialist Party; he would run as its presidential candidate five times (1900-20). In 1905 he helped found the Industrial Workers of the World. Debs was charged with sedition in 1918 after denouncing the 1917 Espionage Act; he conducted his last presidential campaign from prison, winning 915,000 votes, before being released by presidential order in 1921.
The most significant development of this period, however, was the formation of the IWW. In 1905 a handful of the nation's most radical political and labor figures met in Chicago. Featuring Big Bill Haywood of the Western Federation of Miners and Eugene V. Debs of the Socialist Party, the group aimed to ignite a grassroots fire that would sweep the nation and pull down an evil and unjust system, brick by brick.
During the early 1900s, mass production industries had expanded rapidly. Most of the workers in these industries lacked union representation. The AFL opposed unionizing these largely unskilled or semi-skilled workers, arguing that such attempts would fail. This view was challenged - successfully - by one of the most extraordinary militant union movements ever seen in any country. The Industrial Workers of the World (the I.W.W.), also known by their nickname of Wobblies- would prove to be the most radical and militant movement in the nation's labor history.
The IWW, engaged in militant action in the years before the war. Led by larger-than-life figures like Joe Hill and Big Bill Haywood, the "Wobblies" succeeded in organizing layers of the working class that had never been organized. They were free from all routinism, reformist prejudices and craft narrowness, and approached the class struggle with enthusiasm and verve. Fresh from his acquittal on murder charges in Idaho, Bill Haywood soon became a driving force for the IWW. Convinced that the Western Federation of Miners was not the answer, Haywood wanted the IWW to represent all workers in one big union - and to bring that union into a head-on clash with the centers of power in America.
The ideas of the IWW were a peculiar and colorful mixture of anarco-syndicalism and Marxism. At its founding convention in 1905, it adopted a preamble that was a stirring statement of the class struggle: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things.
"Between these two classes a struggle must go on until all the toilers come together on the political, as well as the industrial, field, and take and hold that which they produce by their labor, through an economic organization of the working class without affiliation with any political party."
The IWW declared war on the kind of narrow craft unionism represented by the AFL:
"The rapid gathering of wealth and the centering of the management of industries into fewer and fewer hands make the trade unions unable to cope with the ever-growing power of the employing class, because the trade unions foster a state of things which allows one set of workers to be pitted against another set of workers in the same industry, thereby helping defeat one another in the wage wars."
The answer of the IWW was to fight for the principle of industrial unionism under their famous slogan One Big Union. In combating craft narrowness and fighting to organize all workers in one union, they were undoubtedly on the right lines, and although their policies were distorted by some anarco-syndicalist prejudices, they led the way with militant class politics. In 1908 they approved another preamble, which ended with a call for the abolition of capitalism:
"Instead of the conservative motto 'A fair day's pay for a fair day's work', we must inscribe on our banner the revolutionary watchword, 'Abolition of the wage system'.
"It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for the everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the old."
In reality, the organizations of the labor movement in the USA and every other country are just that: the embryo of the new society that has taken shape and is slowly maturing in the womb of the old. That is why the capitalists have historically shown such bitter hostility to the unions and try to destroy, by one means or another, any attempt of the workers to organize in defense of their class interests. The IWW, uniting in its ranks the most advanced, resolute and revolutionary elements of the American working class, led a series of militant strikes before the First World War, in the teeth of the most ferocious repression by the employers and their state. Among other mass actions, they organized a brilliantly successful strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. The Wobblies used many varied weapons in their fight against Capital, including art, poetry and music. One of the participants in the Lawrence strike recalled:
"It is the first strike I ever saw which sang. I shall never forget the curious lift, the strange sudden fire of the mingled nationalities at the strike meetings when they broke into the universal language of song. And not only at the meetings did they sing, but in the soup houses and in the streets. I saw one group of women strikers who were peeling potatoes at a relief station suddenly break into the swing of the Internationale. They have a whole book of sings fitted to familiar tunes - The Eight Hour Song, The Banners of Labor, Workers, Shall the Masters Rule Us? But the favorite was the Internationale." (Ray Stannard Baker, The Revolutionary Strike, in The American Magazine, May, 1912.)
The IWW also used that most devastating proletarian weapon, particularly important in the United States: humor. This is a good example:
"On one occasion a non-union man entered a butcher's shop to purchase a calf's head. As the butcher was about to wrap it up for him the customer noticed the union shop card.
"'Say, is that a union calf's head?' he asked.
"'Yes, sir,' answered the butcher.
"'Well, I'm not a union man and I don't want union meat,' said the customer.
"'I can make it non-union,' said the meat man, picking it up and retiring to the back room. He returned in a few minutes and laid the head on the counter with the remark, 'It's all right now.'
"'What did you do to make it non-union?' asked the prospective buyer.
"'I just took the brains out of it.'"
"Tomorrow I expect to take a trip to the planet Mars and, if so, will immediately commence to organize the Mars canal workers into the IWW and we will learn to sing the good old songs so loud that the learned star-gazers on earth will once and for all get positive proof that the planet Mars is really inhabited […] I have nothing to say for myself only that I have always tried to make this earth a little better for the great producing class, and I can pass off into the great unknown with the pleasure of knowing that I have never in my life double-crossed a man, woman or child." (Joe Hill to editor Ben Williams, Solidarity, October 9, 1915.)
On November 19, 1915, a 33 year-old Wobbly writer was executed by a firing squad in the prison yard of the Utah State Penitentiary, framed on a murder charge. Thus ended the life of one of the most extraordinary figures of the history of American labor - Joe Hill.
Joe Hill was born in Gavle, Sweden, on 7 October 1879, Joe Hill, also known as Joseph Hillstrom and Joel Hagglund, was an American labor songwriter and martyr who immigrated to the lower east side Bowery section of New York City via Ellis Island in 1902. His naive idealism about American society was soon shattered by the harsh conditions and exploitation of immigrant workers that he witnessed. He became an itinerant laborer, working in mines, the lumber industry, and as a longshoreman. He also developed skills as a hobo, traveling on freight trains and living off the land.
He joined the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies) around the year 1910 and became the Wobbly bard, showing tremendous ability as a poet and songwriter. He was the author of dozens of Wobbly songs, which were printed on song cards and published in the Industrial Worker, Solidarity and in the IWW's little red songbook. These songs were based on his personal experience of the lives of the ordinary working people of his day. His most famous songs, including Rebel Girl, The Preacher and the Slave, and Casey Jones, became world-famous and were used in labor organizing drives and in rallies supporting strikes. They were not written only for amusement. They were weapons of struggle.
Joe Hill arrived in Utah in 1913 and found employment in the Park City mines while becoming acquainted with the Swedish community in Murray, Utah. In 1914 he was accused of the murder of a Salt Lake City storeowner, John A. Morrison, and convicted on circumstantial evidence. There ensued an international battle to prevent his execution by the State of Utah. Hill's supporters claimed that the business interests of the West, especially the Copper Bosses of Utah, had conspired to eliminate him. What exactly happened can never be ascertained. The bosses used all manner of dirty methods against the labor movement but were always careful to cover their tracks. What is undeniable is that the climate of opinion in the West and in Utah was decidedly hostile to the IWW and to Joe Hill and he never got a fair trial. Under today's laws, Joe Hill would not have been executed on the evidence presented at his trial. President Woodrow Wilson intervened twice in an attempt to prevent the execution, but Hill was executed at the Utah State Prison in Sugar House, Utah, on November 19, 1915.
Since Hill's execution, he has become a folk hero and labor martyr, a symbol of the American revolutionary tradition and the quest for economic and social justice for society's disadvantaged. One of his final statements, "Don't mourn, organize!" has become a labor-rallying cry. There can be few more moving human documents in world literature than Joe Hill's Last Will, written while he was awaiting execution in the condemned cell:
"My will is easy to decide,
For there is nothing to decide.
My kin don't need to fuss and moan -
'Moss does not cling to a rolling stone.
"My body? - Oh! - If I could choose,
I would to ashes it reduce,
And let the merry breezes blow
My dust to where some flowers grow.
"Perhaps some fading flower then
Would come to life and bloom again.
This is my last and final will.
Good luck to all of you.
There have been many attempts to portray Hill's life in different media over the years; biographies, novels, songs, plays, and movies have been written about him. I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night by Alfred Hayes and Earl Robinson has become an American folk song of enduring quality. Today the songs of Joe Hill, the wobbly bard, class fighter and martyr of the American labor movement, are known, loved, and sung around the world.
Literature and revolution
Joe Hill showed how music and poetry could be powerful weapons in the class struggle. His example was followed by others, including the great Woody Guthrie. The beloved "dust bowl" and "hobo" folksinger, established a new genre of radical folk song that marries the best traditions of the songs of the American West with revolutionary class politics. Spokesperson of the working class, one of greatest American songwriters of any genre, and a continued influence on musicians today, especially singers and songwriters like Bob Dylan. Although most Americans know the song "This Land is Your Land", few know that it is a socialist song - as the song says - "this land was made for you and me"!
It is a shame that many young Americans today are unaware that there was a great American tradition of left wing writers, starting with Jack London who was a committed and active socialist. Jack London, at his peak, was the highest paid and the most popular of all living writers. He is best known as author of wildlife novels Call of the Wild and White Fang, which remain popular with young readers. But how many have ever read his inspiring essays such as War of the Classes, Revolution, and How I became a Socialist One of the most interesting is the autographical sketch called What Life Means to Me:
"So I went back to the working-class, in which I had been born and where I belonged. I care no longer to climb. The imposing edifice of society above my head holds no delights for me. It is the foundation of the edifice that interests me. There I am content to labor, crowbar in hand, shoulder to shoulder with intellectuals, idealists, and class-conscious workingmen, getting a solid pry now and again and setting the whole edifice rocking. Some day, when we get a few more hands and crowbars to work, we'll topple it over, along with all its rotten life and unburied dead. Its monstrous selfishness and sodden materialism. Then we'll cleanse the cellar and build a new habitation for mankind, in which there will be no parlor floor, in which all the rooms will be bright and airy, and where the air that is breathed will be clean, noble, and alive.
"Such is my outlook. I look forward to a time when man shall progress upon something worthier and higher than his stomach, when there will be a incentive to impel men to action than the incentive of to-day, which is the incentive of stomach. I retain my belief in the nobility and excellence of the human. I believe that spiritual sweetness and unselfishness will conquer the gross gluttony of today. And last of all, my faith is in the working-class. As some Frenchman as said, 'The stairway of time is ever echoing with the wooden shoe going up, the polished boot descending'."
One of Jack London's most remarkable works is his novel the Iron Heel, which both Lenin and Trotsky admired. In it he predicts the rise of fascism and depicts the heroic struggle of the American workers for socialism - long before the Russian Revolution and the rise of Hitler proved how eerily accurate he was.
"In reading it," states Trotsky in his introduction, "one does not believe his own eyes: it is precisely the picture of fascism, of its economy, of its government technique, its political psychology! The fact is incontestable: in 1907 Jack London already foresaw and described the fascist regime as the inevitable result of the defeat of the proletarian revolution. Whatever may be the single 'errors' of the novel - and they exist - we cannot help inclining before the powerful intuition of the revolutionary artist."
John Steinbeck, author of novels depicting the lives and struggles of ordinary working Americans during the Great Depression - The Grapes of Wrath, Cannery Row, of Mice and Men. The Grapes of Wrath was published in 1939, when America had still not emerged from the Great Depression and millions were living in dire poverty. John Steinbeck's poignant description of the conditions of the hungry and downtrodden, and their struggle to maintain human dignity, won him the Pulitzer in 1940. In this novel Steinbeck vividly describes the ruthlessness of the big corporations that sent in the bulldozers to demolish the smallholdings and cabins that represented so much hope and so many years of labor. Men, women and children were evicted overnight and transformed from small farmers into propertyless vagrants.
The most remarkable thing about this novel is that it does not seem to be a description of the masses written from without. The author has succeeded in getting under the skin of the "Oakies", and expressing, in their own words and language the innermost thoughts, feelings and aspirations of the people. Here, for example, is how they see the police:
"'What'd the deputy say?' Huston asked.
"'Well, the deputy got mad. An' he says: "You goddamn reds is all the time stirrin' up trouble," he says. "You better come along with me." So he takes this little guy in, an' they give him sixty days in jail for vagrancy.'
"'How'd they do that if he had a job?' asked Timothy Wallace.
The tubby man laughed. 'You know better'n that,' he said. 'You know a vagrant is anybody a cop don't like. An' that's why they hate this here camp. No cops can get in. This here's United States, not California'."
Tom Joad expressed the voice of the underdog: "They're a-workin' away at our spirits. They're a tryin' to make us cringe an' crawl like a whipped bitch. They tryin' to break us. Why, Jesus Christ, Ma, they comes a time when the on'y way a fella can keep his decency is by takin' a sock at a cop. They're workin' on our decency."
There were many other great American socialist novels. Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle is a vivid exposure of conditions in the stockyards and slaughterhouses of America, ending with an uncompromisingly socialist message, its root-and-branch condemnation of capitalism that still reads well today, and its depiction of the appalling conditions of the workers in the slaughterhouses:
"There was no heat upon the killing beds; the men might exactly as well have worked out of doors all winter. For that matter, there was very little heat anywhere in the building, except in the cooking rooms and such places - and it was the men who worked in these who ran the most risk of all because whenever they had to pass to another room they had to go through ice-cold corridors, and sometimes with nothing on above the waist except a sleeveless undershirt. On the killing beds you were apt to be covered with blood, and it would freeze solid; if you leaned against a pillar, you would freeze to that, and if you put your hand upon the blade of your knife, you would run a chance of leaving your skin on it. The men would tie up their feet in newspapers and old sacks, and these would be soaked in blood and frozen, and the soaked again, and so on, until by night-time a man would be walking on great lumps the size of the feet of an elephant. Now and then, when the bosses were not looking, you would see them plunging their feet and ankles into the steaming hot carcass of the steer, or darting across the room to the hot-water jets. The cruelest thing of all was that nearly all of them - all of those who used knives - were unable to wear gloves, and their arms would be white with frost and the hands would grow numb, and then, of course, there would be accidents. Also the air would be full of steam, from the hot water and the hot blood, so that you could not see five feet before you; and then, with men rushing about at the speed they kept up on the killing beds and with butcher's knives, like razors, in their hands - well, it was to be counted as a wonder that there were not more men slaughtered than cattle."
Last, but by no means least, we have John dos Passos' USA. This American literary masterpiece comprises three novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money. The second of these novels expresses with extraordinary vividness the nature and atmosphere of the period that followed the Russian Revolution. It is an extraordinary work, written in a highly original form, combining newspaper headlines and telegraphic episodes with real-life and fictional stories that really gives a flavor of the times. Let us take a couple of examples. The notorious Versailles Treaty that set the seal on Germany's defeat in 1919 was put together by the USA, Britain and France. As an example of cynical power politics and imperialist robbery it is perhaps without parallel. With the sureness of touch of a master artist, dos Passos conveys the essence of the wheeling and dealing of the great power and the sheer hypocrisy of the leaders of the "civilized Christian world":
Three old men shuffling the pack,
dealing out the cards:
Rhineland, Danzig, the Polish Corridor, the Ruhr, self-determination of small nations, the Saar, League of Nations, mandates, the Mespot, Freedom of the Seas, Transjordania, Shantung, Fiume, and the Island of Yap:
machinegun fire and arson
starvation, lice, cholera, typhus;
oil was trumps. […]"
"On June 28 the Treaty of Versailles was ready and Wilson had to go back home to explain to the politicians, who'd been ganging up on him meanwhile in the Senate and House, and to sober public opinion and to his father's God how he'd let himself be trimmed and how far he'd made the world safe for democracy and the New Freedom."
Whether it is Germany in 1919 or Iraq in 2002, the diplomatic representatives of great powers never admit that their activities are dictated by crude economic interests (oil was - and is - trumps), but their motivations are always pure and noble ("making the world safe for democracy"). And just as the monstrous Treaty of Versailles, which was supposed to make the world safe for peace, made the world a lot more unsafe and guaranteed the Second World War, so the present wars waged by the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq to "make the world a safer place" only render it far more unstable, unsafe and dangerous than before. George W. Bush also believes fervently in the God of his fathers, to whom he prays while ordering the bombing of Iraqi cities and inflicting machine-gun fire, arson, starvation and disease on millions of people. Meanwhile, behind all the rhetoric, oil is still trumps.
The description of the class struggle in the USA in the stormy years after the First World War is outstanding in its raw and uncompromising realism. These were the years when the bosses and the government, fearing the effect of the Russian revolution on the American working class resorted to the methods of lynch law and mob rule to crush the labor movement. The true story of the brutal lynching of War veteran and Wobbly Wesley Everett is one of the most moving episodes of the book.
"Armistice Day was raw and cold; the mist rolled in from Puget Sound and dripped from the dark boughs of the spruces and the shiny storefronts of the town. Warren O. Grimm commanded the Centralia section of the parade. The ex-soldiers were in their uniforms. When the parade passed by the union hall without halting, the loggers inside breathed easier, but on the way back the parade halted in front of the hall. Somebody whistled through his fingers. Somebody yelled, 'Let's go … at 'em boys'. They ran towards the wobbly hall. Three men crashed through the door. A rifle spoke. Rifles cracked on the hills back of the town, roared in the back of the hall.
"Grimm and an ex-soldier were hit.
"The parade broke in disorder, but the men with rifles formed again and rushed the hall. They found a few unarmed men hiding in an old icebox, a boy in the stairs with his arms over his head. Wesley
"Everest shot the magazine of his rifle out, dropped it and ran for the woods. As he ran he broke through the crowd in the back of the hall, held them off with a blue automatic, scaled a fence, doubled down an alley and through the back street. The mob followed. They dropped the coils of rope they with them to lynch Britt Smith the IWW secretary. It was Wesley Everest's drawing them off that Kept them from lynching Britt Smith right there.
"Stopping once or twice to hold the mob off with some scattered 'shots, Wesley Everest ran for the river, started to wade across, up to his waist in water he stopped and turned.
"Wesley Everest turned to face the mob with a funny quiet smile on his face. He'd lost his hat and his hair dripped with water and sweat. They started to rush him.
"'Stand back,' he shouted, 'if there's bulls* [* police] in the crowd I'll submit to arrest.'
"The mob was at him. He shot from the hip four times, then his gun jammed. He tugged at the trigger, and taking cool aim shot the foremost of them dead. It was Dale Hubbard, another ex-soldier, nephew of one of the big lumbermen of Centralia.
"Then he threw his empty gun away and fought with his hands. The mob had him. A man bashed his teeth in with the butt of a shotgun. Somebody brought a rope and they started to hang him. A woman elbowed through the crowd and pulled the rope off his neck.
"'You haven't the guts to hang a man in the daytime' was what Wesley Everest said.
"They took him to the jail and threw him on the floor. Meanwhile they were putting the other loggers through the third degree.
"That night the city lights were turned off. A mob smashed in the outer door of the jail. 'Don't shoot, boys, here's your man,' said the guard. Wesley Everest met them on his feet, 'Tell the boys I did my best,' he whispered to the men in the other cells.
"They took him off in a limousine to the Chehalis River Bridge. As Wesley Everest lay stunned in the bottom of the car, a Centralia businessman cut his penis and testicles off with a razor. Wesley Everest gave a great scream of pain. Somebody has remembered that after a while he whispered, 'For God's sake, men, shoot me … don't let me suffer like this. Then they hanged him from the bridge in the glare headlights."
Having described this bloody lynching in merciless detail, dos Passos reverts to a cold and crushing irony:
"The coroner at his inquest thought it was a great joke. He reported that Wesley Everest had broken out of jail and run to the Chehalis River Bridge and tied a rope around his neck and jumped off, finding the rope too short he'd climbed and fastened on a longer one, had jumped off again, broke his neck and shot himself full of holes.
"They jammed the mangled wreckage into a packing box and buried it.
"Nobody knows where they buried the body of Wesley Everest, but the six loggers they caught they buried in Walla Walla Penitentiary."
The CIO and the sit-in strikes
"The American Plan; automotive prosperity seeping down
From above; it turned out there were strings to it.
But that five dollars a day
paid to good, clean American workmen
who didn't drink or smoke cigarettes or read or think,
and who didn't commit adultery
and whose wives didn't take in boarders,
made America once more the Yukon of the sweated
workers of the world;
made all the tin lizzies and the automotive age, and
made Henry Ford the automobilieer, the admirer of Edison,
the great American of his time." (John dos Passos, The Big Money.)
The so-called "golden twenties" witnessed a boom that was very similar to the boom of the 1990s through which we have just passed. Production soared to dizzy heights, the stock exchange still higher. On September 1, 1929, noting with satisfaction that the number of strikes in the USA had gone down from 3,789 in 1916 to 629 in 1928, AFL President William Green asserted that "collective bargaining is coming to be accepted more and more as a preventative of labor disputes."
As a matter of fact, the boom of the 1920s, like any other boom under capitalism, was based on the super-exploitation of the working class. Workers in the mass production industries - steel, auto, rubber, textiles, oil, chemicals, etc., - were unorganized, atomized and at the mercy of the employers. They were deprived of all rights and open to the most vicious kind of exploitation.
These were years of violent class struggle in the USA. As Art Preis recalled in his book Labor's Giant Step: "Almost all picket lines were crushed with bloody violence by police, deputies, troops and armed professional strikebreakers." The mass demonstrations of unemployed workers organized by the Communist Party were broken up violently by the police, with many jailed, wounded or killed. On March 7, 1932 a demonstration of unemployed demanding work at the Ford Rouge Plant was dispersed with machine-guns, leaving four dead and many wounded. On the direct orders of President Hoover, General Douglas MacArthur, riding a white horse at the head of his troops, attacked a demonstration of 25,000 unemployed war veterans and their families with tear gas, gunfire and bayonets. Such "incidents" were common throughout the 1930s - including under Roosevelt's "New Deal". In 1937, for example, ten people were killed and 80 wounded in a Memorial Day clash between police and members of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee at a plant of the Republican Steel Co. in South Chicago.
Following the Great Crash of 1929, the bosses launched on a program of savage wage cuts. The AFL responded by announcing no-strike deals. This was supposed to be the result of a "gentleman's agreement" between the unions and the bosses. But in practice the unions conceded everything, the bosses nothing. In June-July 1930, 60 corporations and industries announced wage cuts, and the AFL did nothing about it. The result was a rapid decline in union membership. By 1931 the AFL was losing 7,000 members a week, and from a high of 4,029,000 in 1920 to 2,127,000 in 1933. This is a fitting epitaph on the supposedly "realistic" policies of "unionism pure and simple".
Several AFL unions, however, established the Committee for Industrial Organization (CIO) to organize the unorganized industries. This organization effort had great success in the rubber, steel, and automobile industries. The internal dispute over organizing these industries continued and, in 1938, the AFL expelled the unions, which formed the CIO. The expelled unions established their own federation changing its name to the Congress of Industrial Organizations. John L. Lewis, of the United Mine Workers, became the organization's first president.
The formation of the CIO was labor's giant step. Overnight the unorganized were organized. It is not generally realized that the Trotskyists - especially in Minneapolis - helped lead the big Teamsters strikes, which led to the formation of the CIO. People like Farrell Dobbs played a key role, all the more extraordinary given that he had previously voted Republican. As a result of the experience of the class struggle he went straight from Republicanism to revolution. This little detail shows how fast moods can change.
Most people believe that it was the French workers who invented the method of factory occupations during the 1930's. Not so! The American workers in the early 1930s developed a powerful movement known in the USA as the sit-down strikes. It involved employees going to their workplaces and then refusing to work. That is a factory occupation in all but name. The first successful sit-down strike happened in Flint, Michigan in 1937 when the United Auto Workers at a GM factory stopped production. This controversial method proved effective, yet controversial among management and some labor leaders. In the first large sit-down strike the United Rubber Workers (CIO) won recognition from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. But not every strike ended in victory. The five week long "Little Steel" strike was broken when Inland Steel workers returned to work without even having won union recognition.
The unions after 1945
The traditions of the CIO in its early years are something that the new generation of young Americans should take time out to study. They were reflected very poorly in the big Hollywood movie Hoffa, and much better in the earlier and lesser-known film called FIST - the only decent film Sylvester Stallone ever made. The main thing to see is that this is not ancient history. The class struggle did not cease in the 1930s but has continued, with ebbs and flows, ever since. The American workers have always had a good union tradition, and as a matter of fact, the number of strikes actually increased in the years after the Second World War. From 1936 through 1955, there was a staggering total of 78,798 strikes in the United States, involving 42,366,000 strikers. The breakdown was as follows:
Number of Strikes and Strikers (By decades)
|Years||Number of Strikes||Number of Strikers|
| 1923-32 ||9 658||3 952 000|
|1936-45||35 519||15 856 000|
|1946-55||43 279||26 510 000|
In 1949 there were major strikes in the coal and steel industries; 1952, was a year of coal and steel strikes; and 1959, the year of the 116-day steel strike, the largest strike of all time in the United States as measured by total man-days on strike. In order to curb union militancy, the bosses and the government introduced the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act in 1947.
Big business and its state were, and remain, bitterly hostile to trade unionism. Although unions are no longer illegal, the state does not hesitate to invoke anti-union legislation whenever it suits the bosses to do so. The national emergency machinery provided under the Taft-Hartley Act for the investigation of disputes threatening to "imperil national health or safety" was invoked by the President in 23 situations from the time of its enactment in 1947 through 1963.
This is not ancient history. Taft-Hartley is alive and well and still used for busting unions in the USA. President Ronald Reagan fired most of the nation's air traffic controllers for striking illegally and ordered their union, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association, decertified. 13,000 air traffic controllers defied the return-to-work order. Subsequently 400,000 unionists participated in the largest labor rally in American history which was held in Washington in protest against the policies of the Reagan administration. More recently still, George W. Bush used Taft-Hartley against the Longshoremen.
In addition, there are other laws that are regularly invoked by the legal establishment to prevent the workers from using their legitimate right to strike. In the war between Labor and Capital, the state is not impartial now any more than it was in the past! The fight for union rights, against unjust anti-union laws is a burning need for the American working class. This fact also shows the utter futility of trying to separate trade unionism from politics.
If anyone believes the class struggle is dead in the USA I advise him or her to look at experience of such strikes as the miners' strike of 1989. In April of that year the United Mine Workers (UMW) called a strike against the Pittston Coal Group for unfair labor practices. These miners had worked 14 months without a contract before the UMW called the strike. Among the practices cited by UMW were the discontinuing of medical benefits for pensioners, widows, and the disabled; refusal to contribute to a benefit trust established in 1950 for miners who retired before 1974; and refusing to bargain in good faith. Miners in Virginia, Kentucky and West Virginia struck against Pittston.
The miners and their families engaged in an inspiring civil disobedience campaign against the company. In the time-honored tradition of the American bosses, the strike was met with calculated violence, as state troopers were called out to arrest striking miners. The miners fought back courageously with dynamite. Despite the enormous importance of this strike, the "free press" of the USA made practically no mention of it, preferring to give a great deal of coverage to another miners' strike - in Russia!
The movement of the American working class to fight for its own interests continues - as the recent disputes of the UPS and the Longshoremen shows very clearly. If there have not been more strikes and if the living standards and conditions of the workers have not kept pace with the huger increase in profits, it was due to a failure of the leadership of the unions, not the workers. In recent years the trade unions have hit difficulties as a result of this. As in other countries, the unions in the United States have become heavily bureaucratized and the leaders were out of touch with the problems of ordinary workers.
The rundown of heavy industries in the North and East - the traditional base of unionism - has led to a fall in membership. Yet the leadership proved incapable of responding to the challenge posed by Big Business to the union movement. With the development of new industries in the South and West, millions of workers in the United States are now unorganized. The task of organizing them into unions is perhaps the most pressing need at the present time. In order to solve this problem, the unions must go back to their roots, to the militant traditions of the CIO when they organized the unorganized in the stormy years of the 1930s. When that happens, we shall discover that those formerly inert and "backward" layers will be among the most militant and revolutionary in the whole union movement.
The unions have always been the basic organizations of the class. They are like the front line in the defense of the most basic rights of the working class. Without the day-to-day struggle for advance under capitalism, the socialist transformation of society would be utopia. Therefore the struggle to transform the unions, to democratize them at all levels and make them genuinely responsive to the wishes and aspirations of working people, to turn them into genuine organs of struggle, is a prior condition for the fight for a socialist America, in which the unions will play the role that was envisaged for them by the pioneers of Labor - as the basic organizations for running the economy in an industrial democracy.
The dictatorship of Big Business
"All governments are more or less combinations against the people. . .and as rulers have no more virtue than the ruled. . . the power of government can only be kept within its constituted bounds by the display of a power equal to itself, the collected sentiment of the people." (Benjamin Franklin Bache, in a Philadelphia Aurora editorial 1794.)
Nowadays, nothing is left of the old America of which de Tocqueville wrote. Yet human consciousness always lags behind the march of history. The development of the productive forces in the USA over the past century has reached vertiginous heights. Industry, agriculture, science and technique have all been developed to the point where it would easily be possible to make a gigantic leap forward. The productive potential of the USA alone - if it were harnessed to a rational, democratic plan of production - would be sufficient to eradicate poverty, illiteracy and disease on a world scale.
However, here too we stumble on a dialectical contradiction. In the first decade of the 21st century, in the United States itself, we see a huge and growing gap between rich and poor. The class divide, which according to the official theories should have disappeared long ago, or at least been reduced to insignificance, has reached unheard of proportions. It does not diminish, but rather increases in times of economic boom. Today, the richest 20 percent of Americans own half the country's wealth, while the poorest 20 percent own barely 4 percent.
In that epoch-making document The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels predicted that free competition would inevitably end in monopoly. For a long time the official economists tried to deny that the concentration of capital predicted by Marx had taken place. Particularly in the last two decades they insisted that the tendency would be in the opposite direction, that is, towards small enterprises, in which the small man would come into his own. They even coined a phrase: "small is beautiful".
How absurdly inappropriate these words sound now! The process of the concentration of capital has everywhere reached unheard-of levels. The whole of world trade is now dominated by no more than 200 giant companies - most of them based in the USA, where this process has gone furthest of all. Today, the lives and destinies of millions of Americans are in the hands of a tiny handful of corporations, which in turn are in practice run by tiny handfuls of super-rich executives. The sole purpose of this new caste of robber barons is to enrich themselves, and to increase the power of their respective companies. The interests of the vast majority of US citizens are of little interest to them, those of the inhabitants of the rest of the globe, of no interest at all.
In his recent best seller Stupid White Men, Michael Moore gives some very telling facts about the world we now live in:
- "From 1979 until now, the richest 1 percent in the country have seen their wages increase by 157 percent; those of you in the bottom 20 percent are actually making $100 less a year (adjusted for inflation) than you were at the dawn of the Reagan era.
- The world's richest two hundred companies have seen their profits grow by 362.4 percent since 1983; their combined sales are now higher than the combined gross domestic product of all but ten nations on earth.
- In the most recent year for which there are figures, forty-four of the top eighty-two companies in the United States did not pay the standard rate of 35 percent in taxes that corporations are expected to pay. In fact, 17 percent of them paid NO taxes at all - and seven of those, including General Motors, played the tax code like a harp, juggling business expenses and tax credits until the government actually owed them millions of dollars!
- Another 1,279 corporations with assets of $250 million or more also paid NO taxes and reported 'no income' for 1995 (the most recent year for which statistics were available)." (Stupid White Men, pp. 52-3.)
These ladies and gentlemen (for there are quite a few females among them now) are the real rulers of America. The famous democracy of which de Tocqueville wrote has become just a cover for the dictatorship of the big corporations. It matters little who the people of America vote into the White House or Capitol Hill, since all the important decisions will be taken behind closed doors by these tiny, unrepresentative cliques that are in practice responsible only to themselves.
The vested interests of this ruling stratum are backed up by the most powerful military machine in history. It claims the right to intervene everywhere, to topple legally elected governments, to launch wars and civil wars, to bomb and destroy supposedly sovereign states, without let or hindrance. Is it any wonder why this America has earned the hatred of millions of people throughout the world? This is really not hard to understand. Yet this is not the real America, or the real people of America who fought British imperialism to win their freedom and then fought a Civil War to extend that freedom (at least on paper) to the black slaves.
Illusions die hard. To many Americans, the USA despite everything remains the land of the brave and the home of the free. They cannot understand why it is that the USA is so unloved by the rest of the world. Yet slowly but surely a realization is dawning that all is not well with America. A recent survey by Business Week revealed that seventy four percent of Americans thought that big business had too much power over their lives. The rest of this interesting survey also showed that beneath the surface of calm and contentment, there is a growing feeling of dissatisfaction with the present state of affairs. The massive demonstrations that began three years ago in Seattle served notice on the ruling class of the USA that something is beginning to stir. This is just the beginning.
"The spirit of resistance to government is so valuable on certain occasions, that I wish it always to be kept alive. It will often be exercised when wrong, but better so than not to be exercised at all. I like a little rebellion now and then". (Thomas Jefferson, letter to Abigail Adams, 1787.)
The long years of economic upswing that followed the Second World War cut across the revolutionary movement that was developing in the 1930s in the United States and to some extent blunted the class consciousness of the proletariat. But now the world crisis of capitalism is affecting the USA in a serious way. Millions are threatened with closures and sackings. This represents a fundamental change. The USA has not experienced sustained unemployment at the 2000 level since the 1960's. The rate of unemployment now stands at around 6 percent with no improvement in sight. Moreover, workers who have lost their jobs have had more trouble finding new ones. A recent article in The New York Times (November 28, 2002) pointed out that the proportion of those who have been out of work for more than 27 weeks is very high:
"Now, about 800,000 more workers have been out of work for six months or longer, compared with the number in 2000. That is why extending unemployment benefits is so important.
"In addition, the number of part-time workers who would like full-time work has risen by one million. And the increase in the labor force has slowed markedly because many more people have stopped looking for jobs. They do not show up in the unemployment data. In the recessions of the early 1980's and 1990's, the labor force grew far more rapidly, pushing up the unemployment
The boom of the 1990s meant a certain amelioration for many workers and middle class people and fabulous fortunes for a small minority. Even at this time the rich gained much more than the poor, whose position improved far more slowly. But now with the recession that began two years ago, family incomes are once again falling across the board. But they are falling most rapidly for those in the bottom 20 or 30 percent. Inequality is increasing, and the contrast between the fat cats at the top and the "have-nots" at the bottom is more glaring than ever.
The wealthy find ways of avoiding the payment of tax, and the burden of taxation falls heavily on the shoulders of the middle class and the working class. A good example of this is the estate tax, which is overwhelmingly, a tax on the wealthy. In 1999, only the top two percent of estates paid any tax at all, and half the estate tax was paid by only 3,300 estates, 0,16 percent of the total, with a minimum value of $5 million and an average value of $17 million. A quarter of the tax was paid by just 467 estates worth more than $20 million.
Paul Krugman in a recent article in The New York Times (October 20, 2002.) with the significant title "The Class Wars: The End of Middle Class America", writes:
"Income inequality in America has now returned to the levels of the 1920's. Inherited wealth doesn't yet play a big part in our society, but given time - and the repeal of the estate tax - we will grow ourselves a hereditary elite just as set apart from the concerns of ordinary Americans as old Horace Havemeyer. And the new elite, like the old, will have enormous political power."
Even those who still retain their jobs are unhappy. They have little confidence in the future. Nobody feels secure any more. There is a new volatility and a mood of criticism and discontent at all levels. There is a huge and growing alienation between the people of America and those who rule their lives. And a growing number of Americans are becoming aware of this state of affairs and are dissatisfied with it. Maybe they do not know exactly what they want, but they certainly know what they do not want. The sense of alienation is reflected in the large number of people who do not vote in elections. The "defeat" of Al Gore in the last Presidential elections, despite the fact that the US economy had been booming ("It's the economy, stupid!") was a warning to the political establishment that all is not well in US society.
There is a groundswell of discontent that comes from the very heart of America. Millions of ordinary men and women are unhappy with the kind of lives they are leading: the long hours, the remorseless pressure, the dictatorial attitudes of management, the chronic insecurity. These moods are beginning to affect even the formerly affluent layers of the middle class. And even at a higher level, there are those who are beginning to question the values of a society where the laws of the jungle are held up as a model: dog-eat-dog! Each man for himself and let the devil take the hindermost! Is this what life in the 21st century is really all about?
J. K. Galbraith a few years ago wrote a book called The Policy of Contentment, in which he issued a warning to America: "Recession and depression made worse by long-run economic desuetude, the danger implicit in an autonomous military power and growing unrest in the urban slums caused by worsening deprivation and hopelessness have been cited as separate prospects. All could in fact, come together. A deep recession could cause stronger discontent in the areas of urban disaster in the aftermath of some military misadventure in which, in the nature of the modern armed forces, the unfortunate were disproportionately engaged." (The Policy of Contentment, pp. 172-3.)
So far, America has avoided the kind of deep recession predicted by Galbraith. But postponement does not signify avoidance. The present rally of the US economy, based as it is on consumption and debt rather than productive investment, may not be long-lasting and may well be just the prelude to an even steeper fall. In any case, the future of the capitalist economy, both in the USA and on a world scale has a somber aspect. New shocks are inevitable, with unforeseen consequences.
The point is that nobody can control the forces that have been unleashed on a global scale over the past ten or twenty years. The fundamental contradictions of capitalism have not been abolished, as some American economists have claimed, but only reproduced on a far vaster scale than ever before. There is no law that says that these market forces will achieve some kind of automatic equilibrium. On the contrary, the anarchic, unplanned character of capitalism must manifest itself in the most tremendous convulsions. Globalization will manifest itself as a global crisis of capitalism - in fact, it is already doing so.
George Soros, who is certainly no Marxist but is an expert on the workings of world market, has pointed out that the market does not operate like a pendulum but rather like a wrecking ball - demolishing anything that gets in its way. We have recently seen the results of this wrecking ball in Argentina. It will not be the last case.
The rotten heart of Corporate America
The Enron scandal, and the tidal wave of corporate scandals that followed it, completely exposed the lie that the market economy is the most efficient system, the best way to avoid bureaucracy and corruption, and that it is somehow "more democratic" and allows more people a say on how things are run. The fact of the matter is that inside the big corporations in the USA corruption is rife, tyranny reigns, and the jobs, lives and pensions of millions are in the hands of powerful and despotic minorities of super-rich executives.
It is entirely untrue that the present system works well because it rewards efficiency. There is precious little reward for the vast majority of American workers who are obliged to work long hours under remorseless pressure to earn enough to keep their families, and all too often have to take two or three jobs to make ends meet. In the last twenty years, productivity in the USA has been hugely increased and vast profits have been made out of squeezing the US workforce. The working week has been lengthened inexorably from 40 to over 50 hours on average. People are feeling the strain. It is undermining their physical and mental health and ruining their family life. This is increasingly the case, not only with blue-collar workers but also with professional people and lower management. What keeps them going is not free choice or incentive to "get on", but relentless pressure to get results (i.e. profits for the bosses), and fear of losing their jobs.
On the other hand, it is equally untrue that the top executives of the big corporations are guided by the principle of greater rewards for greater results. On the contrary, over the past decades, the CEOs have consistently rewarded themselves with the most staggering sums of money, bearing no relation to performance or productivity. Vast fortunes have been made, and are still being made, by people who do next to nothing (and sometimes nothing at all). Even in the present recession, when company profits are falling and workers are sacked or told to make sacrifices, the fat cats continue to plunder the wealth of America in the most shameless manner.
Quite apart from their huge salaries - which are quite unrelated to performance - the CEOs receive a wide range of perks, amounting to corruption on a grand scale. The best example is the notorious system of stock options. Thus, although AOL Time Warner executives were "punished" by the non-payment of bonuses, they nevertheless received stock options valued at around $40 million a head. Many American workers would be very pleased to receive such "punishment" during a recession!
There is also a wide range of perks that do not appear in the normal surveys of bosses' earnings. Coca Cola demands that both its boss and his wife always travel in the company's jet - a privilege that cost the company $103, 898 last year alone. At AOL Time Warner, Gerald Levin and Richard Parkins, his appointed (I almost wrote anointed) successor, each got $97,500 in "financial services" (for "tax return preparation and financial planning", the company explained - whatever that might mean).
True, some of them have now taken "pay cuts". What do these "cuts" consist of? Stanford Weill, the chief executive of Citigroup, took an 83 percent pay cut recently, which left the poor fellow with a miserable $36.1 million. The Economist (6/4/02) commented:
"One worry is that executive pay has risen to such heights that the bad times look rather like the good times used to: the median total compensation in the Mercer survey [a recent survey of 100 big companies by William M. Mercer and the Wall Street Journal] was still $2.16 m. Nor has pay fallen by nearly as much as profits have done. The total compensation of chief executives is down by 2.9% on a year ago, but after-tax profits fell by nearly 50% last year among the companies included in the S&P 500. Some components of bosses' pay such as basic salaries actually rose healthily on the back of this dreadful performance."
The Economist continues:
"Some of the financial services that American companies offer to their top chaps would put regular banks out of business. Comaq, a computer maker, has agreed to forgive a $5m (!) loan it extended to its boss, Michael Capellas, and is providing him with a new loan to help with the tax bill. Bernie Ebbers, the chief executive of WorldCom, a troubled telecoms firm, borrowed a princely $341m. From his employer, on which he is paying a little over 2% on interest."
When they are employed these executives, responsible in reality to nobody, enrich themselves shamelessly out of the profits that are the unpaid wages of the working class. When a worker is sacked (which these people rarely are) or retires, they receive a very meager compensation - if they get anything at all. But these ladies and gentlemen continue to act like leeches even when they are formally retired.
"On top of his pension, worth around $9m a year, Jack Welch, the retired boss of General Electric, is 'required' under the terms of his contract to consult with the company for the rest of his life, for which he will charge a daily [yes, that's right, daily] rate of $17,000." (Ibid.)
What precisely this "consultation" consists of is not mentioned. But the general picture is pretty clear. What we have here is not the picture of the go-getting, self-made American entrepreneur, so assiduously cultivated by the advocates of capitalism, but the exact opposite. This is a picture of unqualified and unrestrained plunder of the American economy by tiny, unrepresentative and above all, unproductive corporate drones. Comfortably installed in their shiny glass towers, utterly remote from the workforce and the American people, at the head of vast and servile corporate bureaucracies, they quietly determine the fate of millions, both in the USA and on a global scale. This is the real face of corporate America and the reality of the so-called free market economy. Enron was just the tip of a very large, ugly and dangerous iceberg.
In case anyone thinks that this is just Marxist exaggeration and alarmism, let us leave the last word to that champion of the free market economy, The Economist, which we have already quoted. It predicts that on present trends, "by 2021 there will emerge a big American company where the boss is paid more than the firm's entire sales. If that is market forces at work, then market forces had better be ignored."
Socialism and democracy
The idea that socialism and democracy are somehow incompatible is yet another falsehood. On this question, the defenders of capitalism behave like a squid that defends itself by squirting a large quantity of ink to confuse its enemy. The fact of the matter is this: that the democracy in the USA is a cover for the dictatorship of a handful of powerful corporations run by tiny cliques of non-elected and irresponsible people. The latter do not only own and control the wealth of America. They also control its press, television and all other means of molding and conditioning public opinion. While in theory there are two parties, everyone knows that the difference between the Democrans and Republicrats is minimal.
Stalinist Russia was a one-party dictatorship (something that neither Marx nor Lenin ever advocated). America boasts a pluralistic democracy. In this democracy everyone can say what they want (well, almost), as long as the banks and big corporations decide what happen. Elections take place regularly, but in fact the electorate have no real choice. Both Democrats and Republicans stand for the interests of big business. There is no real difference between them: what small differences used to exist in the past have all but disappeared. In order to get elected at all, one has to be either a billionaire, or else have access to vast sums of money. And as the proverb goes: "He who pays the piper calls the tune". The Enron scandal merely confirmed what everyone already knew: that the great majority of senators and congressmen (and let's not forget the women!) are in the pockets of big business. No wonder millions of US citizens feel disenfranchised and do not bother to vote.
Marxists stand for democracy. But we advocate a genuine democracy, not a fraudulent caricature. And the first condition for the introduction of democracy in the USA is the overthrow of the dictatorship of big business. The power of the big banks and corporations must be broken, and the commanding heights of the economy nationalized, under the democratic control and administration of the workers themselves. There would be plenty of scope for personal initiative!
The talents of the engineers, managers, scientists and technicians would play a crucial role in a socialist planned economy. Once private profit was no longer the overriding principle, the way would be open for an unprecedented boom in inventions, innovations of all kinds. Above all, the men and women on the shop floor would be encouraged to participate in discussions and debates on how to improve working practices. In this way, everyone would have a stake in the running of society. Decision-making would no longer be the privilege of a few wealthy executives, but the common property of all Americans.
In what way does this idea contradict the traditional and dearly held American ideals of democracy and individual rights? It does not contradict them at all, but reaffirms them and takes them to a qualitatively higher level. In fact, at the moment there is really very little scope for the free development of the individual in the USA of the giant corporations. None of the important decisions affecting the lives of the people are taken by the people. They are not even taken on Capitol Hill, but by unseen individuals behind locked doors in Wall Street, in the Pentagon and in the State Department, and above all in the boardrooms of the giant corporations that really rule the USA.
Is bureaucracy inevitable?
It is frequently asserted that private ownership is superior to nationalized enterprises because it permits private initiative. But in practice, the big corporations that dominate the US economy are extremely bureaucratic, inefficient and frequently corrupt. They do not allow much room for initiative - at least as far as the big majority of the workforce is concerned. They are fundamentally undemocratic, being run by a handful of super-rich executives whose main aim in life is to make themselves even more wealthy.
The general public good is of no concern to such individuals, except inasmuch as bad publicity may harm sales, and therefore profits. The solution to this problem, however, is not to act in the public interest, but to pay for the services of a slick public relations department which is used to present the company's image in the most favorable light - that is to say, to mislead and deceive the public. The case of Enron is an excellent example of the reality of US corporate practice. It should be noted that this company was so closely connected with the US government at the highest levels that it proved almost impossible to investigate its activities and even now the whole truth has not come out. And there are many more Enrons which have not yet been exposed.
No less an authority than Adam Smith already warned of the dangers of monopoly, when he wrote:
"The directors of such [joint-stock] companies [...] being the managers rather of other people's money than of their own, it cannot be well expected that they should watch over it with the same anxious vigilance with which the partners in a private company frequently watch over their own [...] Negligence and profusion, therefore, must always prevail, more or less, in the management of the affairs of such a company." (Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations, part 3, p. 112.)
The solution to this problem cannot be a return to the era of small businesses, as some people advocate. That period has been relegated to history and will not return. The modern capitalist economy is entirely dominated by big monopolies, and nothing can reverse that tendency. Anyone who doubts this has only to examine the history of anti-trust legislation in the USA. There have been laws against monopolies for a very long time, yet their practical effect has been negligible. Witness the present tussle between Bill Gates and the Federal authorities. No-one doubts that Mr. Gates has created the world's biggest monopoly, and that this is harming the progress of technology in a most vital area. Yet in practice, it is proving impossible to reverse the position.
Since it is not possible to halt the inevitable tendency towards monopolization, there remains only one alternative: to bring these giant corporations - which are at present responsible to nobody but themselves - under democratic control. But here we come up against an insurmountable difficulty. It is not possible to control what you do not own. The answer is very clear: in order to control the monopolies, it is necessary to take them out of private hands altogether - that is, to nationalize them. Only then would it be possible to ensure that the key points of the economy are the servants of society, not its master.
But would this not create the danger of a bureaucracy, as existed in Stalinist Russia? This seems to be a very serious objection, but actually it is not. The bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian revolution was not the result of nationalization, but of the isolation of the revolution under conditions of frightful backwardness. It should not be forgotten that in 1917 Russia was an extremely backward semi-feudal country. Out of a total population of 150 millions, there were only four million industrial workers. In a remarkably short space of time, the nationalized planned economy transformed Russia from a backward country like Pakistan is today into the second most powerful nation on earth. For several decades the USSR achieved economic results that have never been equaled by any other country. Nor should we forget the fact that its economy suffered the most terrible devastation in the Second World War when 27 million Soviet citizens perished.
It is not possible to understand what happened in the Soviet Union without considering these facts. Nor is it reasonable to draw an analogy between the fate of the nationalized planned economy in backward Russia and the prospects for a socialist planned economy in the United States. Bureaucracy is a product of economic and cultural backwardness. It is not difficult to prove this. If one considers the state of affairs in those countries which are sometimes referred to as the "Third World" - the states of Africa, Asia and Latin America, then it immediately becomes obvious that bureaucracy is a feature common to every single one of them - whether the means of production are nationalized or not.
It is possible to draw a graph showing that the degree of bureaucratization of a given society is in inverse proportion to the level of its economic and cultural development. The same is true of phenomena like corruption, inefficiency and red tape that are usually connected with bureaucracy. Society tends to free itself of these things to the degree that it lifts itself out of a low level of economic and technological development, and raises the cultural level of the population.
Of course, where a bureaucracy becomes an entrenched ruling caste as happened in Russia after the death of Lenin, it can hang onto its power and privileges even when the level of economic and cultural development renders it entirely superfluous. But in that case, the bureaucracy will suffocate and destroy the nationalized planned economy - which is precisely what occurred in the Soviet Union. But that is exactly the point. The existence of the bureaucracy in Russia was not only not the product of the nationalized planned economy, but was in complete antagonism to it. Trotsky explained that a nationalized planned economy requires democracy as the human body requires oxygen.
Without democracy and the control and administration of society by the working class, the planned economy eventually seized up, clogged and obstructed by the suffocating control of the bureaucracy.
The soul of America
In the first part of Reason in Revolt, a reference is made to the contradiction between the marvelous advances of science and the extraordinary lag in human consciousness. This contradiction is particularly striking in the United States. In the country that has done more than any other to advance the cause of science in the past period, the overwhelming majority of people in the USA believe in god, or are religious in some way. Thirty six percent of Americans think the Bible is the literal world of god, and half believe that America enjoys divine protection. After September 11, 78 percent thought that the influence of religion on public life was growing. Books on the apocalypse became best sellers. This situation is quite different to that of most European countries, where organized religion is dying on its feet (although there is still plenty of superstition and mysticism around).
Strangely enough, the Founding Fathers were not at all religious. These true sons of the 18th century expressed themselves in the most scathing terms about religion in general and Christianity in particular. Founding Fathers George Washington & John Adams, in a diplomatic message to Malta, wrote: "The United States is in no way founded upon the Christian religion."
John Adams, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, went even further when he wrote: "This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it."
Thomas Jefferson, in 1814, commented: "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."
And the same Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." He added: "I do not find in orthodox Christianity one redeeming feature."
Things were no better with Abraham Lincoln, who was also openly irreligious: "The Bible is not my book, and Christianity is not my religion," he said. "I could never give assent to the long, complicated statements of Christian dogma."
These views were the natural outcome of the rationalist philosophy that represented the most advanced philosophical ideas of the 18th century Enlightenment. The rejection of religion was always the first step towards a rational view of nature and society. It was the beginning of all modern progress, the basis of both the American and the French revolutions. And it was equally the starting point for the development of modern science and technology, the true foundation for America's greatness. Nowadays the degree of scientific and technological advance in the USA is unequalled by any other country. Here we have a tantalizing glimpse of the future - the staggering potential of human development. But we also see a contradiction. Side by side with the most advanced ideas we see the persistence of ideas that have been handed down, unchanged, from a remote and barbarous past.
The reason for the persistence of religious belief is that men and women feel that their lives are under the control of strange unseen forces. They do not feel in control of their own destinies, as really free human beings should. And in fact, our lives really are determined by forces not under our control. The wild swings of "market forces" on a world scale determine whether millions of people will have a job or not. The equally wild gyrations of the stock markets can ruin millions of families in a matter of days or even hours. There is a general instability and volatility throughout the world that expresses itself in unending wars, terrorist outrages and other barbarities. This creates a general climate of fear and uncertainty. It is what is called the new world order.
In its period of ascent, capitalism based itself on rationalism. That is just what is expressed in the ideas of the Founding fathers reproduced above. In general, when a particular socio-economic system is in a state of collapse, its decline is expressed in a general crisis of morality, the family, belief and so on. The ideology of the ruling elite becomes increasingly decrepit, its values rotten. People no longer believe in the old ways and the old "ideals" are met with skepticism and irony. Eventually a new set of ideals emerge and a new ideology that reflects the standpoint of the rising revolutionary class. In the 18th century that was the bourgeoisie, which generally adopted a rationalist standpoint. In the 21st century, it is the working class, which must stand on the basis of scientific socialism - Marxism.
In general, when society enters - as capitalism has undoubtedly entered - into a phase of terminal decline, one can react in one of two ways. One response is to turn inwards, try to escape from a horrific reality by closing all the doors and windows and shutting one's eyes to what is happening in the world outside. The problem with this is that the world outside has an uncomfortable way of intruding into the life of even the most private persons. Sooner or later it will come knocking at your door, and usually at a most uncivilized hour. There is really no escape.
The second way is to look reality squarely in the face, to try to understand it and thus prepare to change it. Hegel said long ago that true freedom is the recognition of necessity, that is to say, if we want to change the circumstances in which we live, we must first understand them. Marxism provides us with a wonderful tool to help us to grasp the nature of the world we live in and to make us understand where we have come from and where we are going to. Unlike religion, which offers the consolation of a vision of future happiness and fulfillment beyond the grave, Marxism directs our eyes, not to heaven, but to the present life and helps us to understand the apparently mysterious forces that determine our fate.
Since the book first appeared, there have been a number of other spectacular advances in science - notably the mapping of the human genome. These results have completely demolished the positions of genetic determinism that we criticized in Reason in Revolt. It has also cut the ground from under the feet of the racist "theories" put forward by certain writers in the USA who attempted to enlist the service of genetics to peddle their reactionary pseudo-scientific "theories", that black people are genetically predisposed to ignorance and poverty. They have also dealt a mortal blow to the nonsense of the Creationists who want to reject Darwinism in favor of the first chapters of Genesis, and impose this on American schools.
For many Americans, Marxism is a closed book because it is seen as anti-religious. After all, did Marx not describe religion as the "opium of the people"? As a matter of fact, just before these famous words, Marx wrote: "Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress and the protest against real distress." In essence, religion is an expression of a desire for a better world and a belief that there must be something more to life than the vale of tears through which we pass in the all too brief interval from cradle to grave.
Many people are discontented with their lives. It is not just a question of material poverty - although that exists in the USA as in all other countries. It is also a question of spiritual poverty: the emptiness of people's lives, the mind-deadening routine of work that is just so many hours out of one's life; the alienation that divides men and women from each other; the absence of human relations and solidarity that is deliberately fostered in a society that proudly proclaims the laws of the jungle and the so-called survival of the fittest (read: wealthiest); the mind-numbing banality of a commercialized "culture". In this kind of world the question we should be asking ourselves is not: "is there a life after death" but rather "is there a life before death?"
The capitalist system is a monstrously oppressive and inhuman system, which means untold misery, disease, oppression and death for millions of people in the world. It is surely the duty of any humane person to support the fight against such a system. However, in order to fight effectively, it is necessary to work out a serious program, policy and perspective that can guarantee success. We believe that only Marxism (scientific socialism) provides such a perspective.
The problem a Marxist has with religion is basically this: We believe that men and women should fight to transform their lives and to create a genuinely human society which would permit the human race to lift itself up to its true stature. We believe that human beings have only one life, and should dedicate themselves to making this life beautiful and self-fulfilling. If you like, we are fighting for a paradise on this earth, because we do not think there is any other.
Although from a philosophical point of view, Marxism is incompatible with religion, it goes without saying that we are opposed to any idea of prohibiting or repressing religion. We stand for the complete freedom of the individual to hold any religious belief, or none at all. What we do say is that there should be a radical separation between church and state. The churches must not be supported directly or indirectly out of taxation, nor should religion be taught in state schools. If people want religion, they should maintain their churches exclusively through the contributions of the congregation and preach their doctrines in their own time.
To the degree that men and women are able to take control of their lives and develop themselves as free human beings, I believe that interest in religion - that is, the search for consolation in an afterlife - will decline naturally of itself. Of course, you may disagree with this prediction. Time will tell which of us is right. In the meantime, disagreements on such matters should not prevent all honest Christians from joining hands with the Marxists in the struggle for a new and better world.
Religion and revolution
Christianity itself began as a revolutionary movement about 2000 years ago when the early Christians organized a mass movement of the poorest and most downtrodden sections of society. It is not an accident that the Romans accused the Christians of being a movement of slaves and women. The early Christians were also communists, as you will know from the Acts of the Apostles. Christ himself worked among the poor and dispossessed and frequently attacked the rich. He said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God. There are many such expressions in the Bible.
The communism of the early Christians is also shown by the fact that in their communities all wealth was held in common. Anyone who wished to join had first to give up all his or her worldly goods. Of course, this communism had a somewhat naive and primitive character. This is no reflection on the men and women of that time, who were very courageous people who were not afraid to sacrifice their lives in the struggle against the monstrous Roman slave state. But the real achievement of communism (that is, a classless society) was impossible at that time because the material conditions for it were absent.
Marx and Engels for the first time gave communism a scientific character. They explained that the real emancipation of the masses depends on the level of development of the productive forces (industry, agriculture, science and technology) which will create the necessary conditions for a general reduction of the working day and access to culture for all, as the only way of transforming the way people think and behave towards each other.
The material conditions at the time of early Christianity were not sufficiently advanced to permit such a development, and therefore the communism of the early Christians remained on a primitive level - the level of consumption (the sharing out of food, clothes, etc.) and not real communism which is based on the collective ownership of the means of production.
However, the revolutionary traditions of early Christianity bear absolutely no relation to the present situation. Ever since the 4th Century AD, when the Christian movement was hijacked by the state and turned into an instrument of the oppressors, the Christian Church has been on the side of the rich and powerful and against the poor. Today the main churches are extremely wealthy institutions, closely linked to big business. The Vatican owns a big bank and possesses enormous wealth and power, the Church of England is the biggest landowner in Britain, and so on.
Politically, the churches have systematically backed reaction. Catholic priests blessed the armies of Franco in their campaign to crush the Spanish workers and peasants. The Pope in effect backed Hitler and Mussolini. Finally, in the USA today, the religious right, backed by millions of dollars, is conducting a campaign in favor of all manner of reactionary causes. It has at its disposal television and radio stations, where religious charlatans make a fortune by playing on people's fear and superstition.
The Kingdom of God may be reserved for the poor, but these ladies and gentlemen have ensured for themselves a very comfortable life on this earth. Jesus' first act on entering Jerusalem was to drive the moneychangers out of the Temple. But those who presume to speak in his name always take the side of the rich and powerful against the poor and oppressed of this earth. They are the most fervent advocates of welfare cuts and other policies directed against the most defenseless sections of society, such as single parents. Christ defended the woman taken in adultery, but the latter-day Pharisees line up to stone the poor and defenseless.
For such "religious" people, we have nothing but contempt. But for those honest Christians who wish to join us in the fight to change society, we extend a warm and fraternal welcome. We may disagree about philosophy, but we can agree that the present society is unworthy of humanity and ought to be changed. And we know that many devoted and self-sacrificing class fighters in the USA are practicing Christians. This has always been the case, as we see from the following extract from The Jungle, that great socialist novel by Upton Sinclair:
"'I am not defending the Vatican,' exclaimed Lucas vehemently. 'I am defending the word of God - which is one long cry of the human spirit for deliverance from the sway of oppression. Take the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Job, which I am accustomed to quote in my addresses as 'the Bible upon the Beef trust'; or take the words of Isaiah - or of the Master Himself. Not the elegant prince of our debauched and vicious art, not the jeweled idol of our society churches - but the Jesus of the awful reality, the man of sorrow and pain, the outcast, despised of the world, who had nowhere to lay His head -'
"'I will grant you Jesus,' interrupted the other.
"Well then,' cried Lucas, 'and why should Jesus have nothing to do with His Church - why should His words His life be of no authority among those who profess to adore Him? Here is a man who was the world's first revolutionist, the true founder of the socialist movement; a man whose whole being was one flame of hatred for wealth, and all that wealth stands for - for the pride of and the luxury of wealth, and the tyranny of wealth; who was Himself a beggar and a tramp, a man of the people, an associate of saloon-keepers and women of the town; who again and again, in the most explicit language, denounced wealth and the holding of wealth: 'Lay not up for yourselves treasures on earth!" "Sell that ye have and give alms!" - "Blessed are ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven!" - "Woe unto you that are rich, for ye have received your consolation 1" - "Verily, I say unto you, that a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven!" Who denounced in unmeasured terms the exploiters of His own time: "Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!" - "Woe unto you also, you lawyers!" - "Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" Who drove out the businessmen and brokers from the temple with a whip!' Who was crucified - think of it - for an incendiary and a disturber of the social order! And this man they have made into the high priest of property and smug respectability, a divine sanction of all the horrors and abominations of modern commercial civilization! Jewelled images are made of Him, sensual priests burn incense to Him, and modern pirates of industry bring their dollars, wrung from the toil of helpless women and children, and build temples to Him, and sit in cushioned seats and listen to His teachings expounded by doctors of dusty divinity."
The voice of revolt of the oppressed against injustice and oppression has spoken in this kind of language for at least 2,000 years. What is important is not the language but the meaning. What is important is not the form but the content. The original message of the Christian movement 2,000 years ago was both revolutionary and communist. Nobody could be a Christian unless they first gave up all their worldly wealth, renounced private property and embraced the doctrine of the universal brotherhood (and sisterhood) and equality of all. That revolutionary message was restated by the left wing of the Puritans in the 16th and 17th centuries. It has resurfaced many times since, as an expression of the instinctive revolutionism of the masses. Marxism takes as its starting point this instinctive revolutionism but gives it a scientific and rounded-out expression.
Our first task is to unite to put an end to the dictatorship of Capital that keeps the human race in a state of slavery. Socialism will permit the free development of human beings, without the constraint of material needs. As far as the future of religion is concerned, one can say the following: socialism, being based upon full human freedom, will never try to prohibit people from thinking and believing in any way they choose. People should be allowed to hold any religious beliefs they wish - or none at all.
As we have already pointed out above, religion must, of course, be completely separated from the state. Those who wish to practice religion must pay for it out of their own pockets. And there is no place at all for religion in the schools. Once we have established a genuinely free society in which men and women take control of their own lives and destinies, in which they are able to develop to the full all their physical and mental abilities and relate to each other in a really human manner, there will be no room left for the superstitions of the past, and these will gradually disappear.
You do not agree? Well, that is your right. History will decide which of us is correct. But first of all, let us agree to combine all our forces in a mighty movement dedicated to driving the moneychangers out of the temple, or rather, out of our homes, streets and workplaces. Let us cleanse this society of all oppression, exploitation and injustice. Then we can let the future take care of itself.
Marxism and the future
Marxism is a philosophy, but it is quite unlike other philosophies. Dialectical materialism is both a powerful methodological tool to understand the workings of nature, thought and human society and a guide to action. As the young Marx put it: "philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways - the point is, however, to change it."
Now, it may be that you are quite happy with the world in which we live, and do not wish to change it. In that case, you may find this essay educational, or at least entertaining. But you will not have understood it, basically because we will be talking mutually unintelligible languages. However, if ever there was a time when Americans should be seriously re-examining their view of the world and their place in it, that time is now. And in order to obtain a rational insight into this world a knowledge of dialectical materialism is of great importance.
The most essential feature of dialectical materialism is its dynamic character. It sees the world as an ever-changing process, driven by internal contradictions, in which sooner or later things change into their opposite. Moreover, the line of development is not a smooth, linear process, but a line that is periodically interrupted by sudden leaps, explosions that transform quantity into quality. This is an accurate picture of both processes we see in nature and in the process of social development we call history.
Most people imagine that the kind of world into which they are born is something fixed and immutable. They rarely question its values, its morality, its religion, its political and state institutions. This mental inertia, reinforced by the dead weight of tradition, customs, habit and routine, is a powerful cement that permits a given socio-economic order to continue to exist long after it has lost its rational basis. In the USA, perhaps more than any other country in the world, this inertia exercises a major role and prevents people from realizing what is happening to them.
In actual fact, societies are not immutable. The whole of history teaches us that. Socio-economic systems, like individual men and women, are born, mature, reach a high point in their development, and then at a certain point enter into a phase of decline and decay. When a society ceases to play a progressive role (which, in the last analysis, is that point where it is unable to develop the productive forces as it did in the past), people can feel it. It manifests itself in all manner of ways - not only in the economic field. The old morality begins to break down. There is a crisis of the family and personal relations, a growing lack of solidarity and social cohesion, a rise of crime and violence. People no longer believe in the old religions and turn in the direction of mysticism, superstition and exotic sects. We have seen these things many times in history, and we are seeing the same things now - even in the USA.
We are living at a time when many people have begun to ask questions about the world in which they live, and to ask questions is never a bad thing. The terrible events of September 11, 2001 have caused many Americans to think seriously about matters in which they previously showed little interest. They have suddenly realized that all is not well with the world, and that America is deeply involved in a worldwide crisis from which no-one can escape, and in which no-one is safe. The destruction of the twin towers cast a dark shadow over America. For a time, Bush and the most reactionary wing of the ruling class have had things all their own way. But this situation will not last forever. Sooner or later the thick fog of propaganda and lies will dissipate and people will become aware of the real state of affairs both in the USA and on a world scale.
Although many people feel in their innermost being that something is going badly wrong, they find no logical explanation for it. That is not surprising. The entire way in which they have been taught to think from their earliest years conditions them to reject any suggestion that there is something fundamentally wrong with the society in which they live. They will close their eyes, try to avoid drawing uncomfortable conclusions for as long as they can.
This is quite natural. It is very hard for people to question the beliefs they have been brought up with. But sooner or later, events catch up with them - cataclysmic events that compel them to re-think many things that they previously took for granted. And when such a moment arrives, the same people who stubbornly refused to consider new ideas, will eagerly examine what only yesterday they regarded as heresies, and find in them the explanations and alternatives for which they were striving.
Today, Marxism is seen as such a heresy. Every hand is raised against it. It is said to have no basis, to have failed, to be out of date. But if this is really the case, then why do the apologists of capitalism still persist in attacking it? Surely, if it is so dead and irrelevant, they should just ignore it. The power of Marxist ideas is precisely that they - and they alone - can provide a coherent, rigorous, and, yes, scientific explanation of the most important phenomena of the world in which we live.
It is a matter of great regret that so many people, especially in the USA, have the same attitude towards Marxism as the representatives of the Roman Catholic Church had towards Galileo's telescope. When Galileo begged them to look with their own eyes and examine the evidence, they stubbornly refused to do so. They just knew that Galileo was wrong, and that was that. In the same way, many people "just know" that Marxism is wrong, and do not see any reason to investigate the matter any further. But if Marxism is wrong, by studying it, you will be more firmly convinced of its erroneousness. You have nothing to lose, and will have added to your store of knowledge. But the author of these lines is firmly convinced that if more people just took the trouble to read the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, they would soon convince themselves that Marxism really does have a lot of important things to say - and that these things are of great relevance to the modern world.
In recommending the ideas of Marxism to the American public, it is my fervent hope to convince the reader of the correctness and relevance of the ideas of Marx and Engels in the world of the 21st century. If I succeed even partly in convincing you, I will be very pleased. If not, I hope to have dispelled many misconceptions about Marxism and show that it at least has some interesting things to say about the world in which we live. In any event, I hope it will make people think more critically about our society, its present and its future.
London, November 24, 2002.
Those who wish to continue their studies of Marxism, and more importantly join in the historic struggle for socialism, can visit the In Defence of Marxism website at www.marxist.com and the Socialist Appeal magazine of the Workers International League in the US at www.socialistappeal.org. These sites provide regular Marxist analysis of current events as well as historical and economic analysis, theory, and more. The Youth for International Socialism website at www.newyouth.com is also the source of a wealth of information and educational material for those wishing to learn more about Marxism and the struggle for socialism.