Marxism and the United States

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.


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