Chapter V — Labor and Capital

Return to Table of Contents

“Give Me Your Huddled Masses”

The emigration of the Pilgrims 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, Scandinavians, Jews, Irish, and Asians, with the admixture of the descendants of African slaves and more recently, people from 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 U.S.A. in the 19th century, the great majority were, like the Pilgrims, 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.

The opening up of the West was undoubtedly an historically progressive development (although it was a terrible tragedy for the native peoples who were regarded as an obstacle to be removed). Americans refer proudly to the “pioneer spirit” that made this development possible. But where did this spirit come from? 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. 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 German 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”.

W.E. Woodward writes:

“Like those who were better off, the average laboring man or farmer was an individualist too. He detested authority and was inclined to be rowdy and pugnacious. His class consciousness was dissipated by his individual self-assertiveness. The working class had no leaders, and it is doubtful if any set of leaders, however gifted, could have organized the laboring men of that time into a permanent association or a working class political party. Laborers’ revolts took the form of spontaneous and senseless riots which usually began and ended in a few hours.

“The spirit of our early civilization was the spirit of the pioneer. It pervaded all classes of society. Four out of five men were pioneers in something or other, or the sons of pioneers. A feeling for adventure, a pride in single-handed accomplishment, was a necessity of social life.

“Through the generations the pioneering spirit has persisted in its various sublimated forms, long after the need for it has passed away. It has become so thoroughly infused in the American character that it has acquired the dignity of an honored tradition, and in that role it adds enormously to our present-day vexations and befuddlements. You may observe it in the ardent worship of individualism; in the widespread opposition to collective efforts for human betterment; in the stubborn attempts to preserve, in individualistic patterns, activities which are inherently social. There is a time and a place for the pioneer, the individualist, but in a modern, compact, highly organized society, he is not helpful but destructive.” (W.E. Woodward, op. cit., p. 252.)

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 many rich Americans had started out poor and worked their way up the social ladder. 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, although clearly present, 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 U.S.A. into a country dominated by giant monopolies and the most powerful imperialist state the world has ever seen.

The Golden Calf

“‘To think’, he said to Gallatin, ‘what has happened to our country since your father’s day! Since the time of Jefferson!’

“Gallatin was astonished. ‘But surely everything is so much better now, Mr. Tilden. The country is so big, so very rich…’ This was some weeks before the panic. ‘Railroads everywhere. Great manufactories. Floods of cheap labor from poor old Europe. America is El Dorado now, whilst in my father’s time it was just a nation of farmers –and not very good farmers at that.’

“‘You misunderstood me, Mr. Gallatin.’ Tilden’s sallow cheeks now each contained a smudge of brick-colored red. ‘I speak of corruption. Of judges for sale. Of public men dividing amongst themselves the people’s money. Of newspapers bought, bought by political bosses. Even the Post.’ Tilden nodded gravely to me, knowing that I often wrote for that paper. ‘The Post took a retainer from Tweed. That’s what I mean by change in our country, this worship of the Golden Calf, of the almighty dollar, this terrible corruption.’” (Gore Vidal, 1876, p. 15.)

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 U.S. 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.

The triumph of capitalism in the U.S.A. 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 U.S.A. In 1880 there were three times as much – 90,000 miles. By 1930 the figure was 260,000 miles.

The supporters of the market economy cite this as a shining example of the achievements of free enterprise. In reality the railway bosses received huge state subsidies. Twelve million acres of government land along the railway’s right of way were given outright to the Union Pacific Railway, which, in addition, received a government loan of $27 million in U.S. bonds. Union Pacific, which set out with no funds at all, then entered into an agreement with a small financial entity in Pennsylvania called Crédit Mobilier, to build the railway. One of the directors of Crédit Mobilier was a member of Congress, Oake Ames, who sold stock in the company to his fellow congressmen. The Congressional investigation later discovered that the bank, its stockholders and friends had obtained a profit of $23 million on an initial investment of less than a million.

It is also worth noting that the U.S.A., which today (theoretically at least) stands for “free trade” was originally firmly committed to protectionism and tariffs. Indeed, this was an important element in the conflict between the capitalists of the North and the slaveholding South. The Tariff Act of 1870, which pretended to be a step in the direction of tariff reduction, in fact raised tariffs steeply on things like steel rails that were of fundamental importance to the northern industrialists. The manufacturers of the North and East, sheltering behind high tariff barriers, were making vast fortunes in easy, unearned profits at the expense of the South and West.

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. Cornelius “Commodore” Vanderbilt, whose rapacious greed was equalled only by his crudeness and ignorance, was the richest man in America. The attitude of these men was shown by his words: “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. W.E. Woodward provides us with a good account of this capitalist adventurer:

“He was considered a great constructive genius and a pattern for poor boys. But there was in him no constructiveness of any kind. He waited for the other fellow to do all the preliminary work, and when the industry – steamships, railroads, or whatever it was – had turned the corner and was about to be a big thing, then Cornelius Vanderbilt proceeded to crowd out the originators and inventors and get control of the property by methods which would fill an ordinary cardsharp with envy. He was a financial gangster with many lesser gangsters working for him. When he died the reverend gentleman who officiated at his funeral said that ‘riches and honors had been heaped on Vanderbilt, that he might devote all his ability to the cause of humanity and seek to lay up treasures in heaven.’

“The net worth of the treasures he laid up in heaven is unknown, but the value of his worldly assets was large. He left about one hundred million dollars.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, pp. 607-8.)

The American ruling class has always surrounded itself in the “rags to riches” myth, made popular in Horatio Alger’s penny novels. In fact, it has its origins in crime, swindling and downright robbery. The present rulers of America are descended from a real rogue’s gallery of speculators and crooks, such as the pious Daniel Drew, who was a deacon of the church on Sundays and a common stock market swindler the rest of the week. He began his career as a cattle drover who sold cows to the butcher by weight and just before they got to market fed them salt and gave them large quantities of water to drink to increase their weight.

Drew saw no contradiction between this kind of activity and religion. Religion has its place in the church and the home, he said, but not in business. He took this principle to its logical conclusion when he unloaded a pile of worthless stock on the unsuspecting members of his congregation. But that was done on a weekday, so it was presumably OK. When he died he left a fortune to Drew Theological Seminary, an institution that trains preachers – presumably in the same moral principles.

Under the Grant Presidency, gangsters like these were allowed to rule unchecked by any controls. The administration was in their pocket, and Grant himself was corrupted by big business, although not as much as other members of his entourage:

“Since the War Grant had played the part of little Jack Horner with much gusto. In his particular corner the plums were numerous. He accepted valuable presents from anybody and everybody. The gifts ran from horses to houses. A group of ‘fifty solid men’ of Boston gave him a library which had cost seventy-five thousand-dollars. Alexander Stewart, a wealthy department store proprietor of New York, sent Mrs. Grant a thousand-dollar shawl, which was gratefully accepted. Whisky distillers contributed cases of their product, and there were donations of furniture, paintings, choice hams, boxes of sausages, and a vast collection of elaborate toys for the general’s youngest son.” (ibid., p. 605.)

The Grant administration was the first to reveal the real content of bourgeois democracy in the U.S.A. The government was firmly wedded to big business and served it faithfully, while the new class of capitalist robber barons showed their gratitude by generously filling the pockets of the politicians. And all of them regarded the state and its treasury as a gigantic pork barrel from which it was legitimate to help oneself.

The salary of the President was raised from $25,000 to $50,000 a year – a fortune in those days. Senators and representatives also did quite well, their stipends being boosted from $5,000 to $7,500 a year. But unfortunately Congress got too greedy. It proposed to make the measure retroactive for two years. This outstanding piece of legislation became known as the Back Pay Grab. It caused a public uproar almost as furious as the Union Pacific bribery case. In the end the Grant Presidency sank under a heap of financial scandals. The President’s private secretary adviser and friend, Babcock, had received valuable presents and money from the leaders of the Whisky ring, which he had used to finance Grant’s election campaign. There were many other such cases. Grant wrote: “Let no guilty men escape.” But they nearly all did and have been escaping ever since. The clique of super wealthy oil barons who control the Bush administration today behave no differently to the crooks and swindlers of the Grant administration. Only the quantities involved are infinitely larger.


“It matters not one iota what political party is in power or what President holds the reins of office. We are not politicians or public thinkers; we are the rich; we own America; we got it, God knows how, but we intend to keep it if we can by throwing all the tremendous weight of our support, our influence, our money, our political connections, our purchased senators, our hungry Congressmen, our public-speaking demagogues into the scale against any legislature, any political platform, any presidential campaign that threatens the integrity of our estate.” (Frederick Townsend Martin, The Passing of the Idle Rich.)

Progress in the last decades of the 19th century was tremendous, but the fruits of progress were not equally enjoyed by all. The growth of the economic might of the U.S.A. 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 Aluminium 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 bosses were utterly indifferent to the conditions of their workers. These so-called Christians were all ardent believers in laissez-faire and “Social Darwinism”. John D. Rockefeller is reported to have said: “the growth of a large business is merely a survival of the fittest.” For millions of Americans living and working conditions were very bad, and the hope of escaping from a lifetime of poverty virtually non-existent. As late as the year 1900, the United States had the highest job-related fatality rate of any industrialized nation in the world. Most industrial workers worked a 10-hour day (12 hours in the steel industry), yet earned from 20 to 40 percent less than the minimum deemed necessary for a decent life. The situation was only worse for children, whose numbers in the work force doubled between 1870 and 1900.

Under these conditions socialist ideas were beginning to get an echo in the U.S.A. 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…”

Karl Marx pointed out that without organization the working class is only raw material for exploitation. The American workers began to organize quite early on. The roots of the labor movement were already well established in the nineteenth century. William Sylvis, an early trade union activist, founded the Iron Moulders’ 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 equalled.” In response the workers formed a clandestine union – The Noble Order of the Knights of Labor – founded in 1869. Originally a secret society organized by Philadelphia garment workers, it was open to all workers, including African Americans, women and farmers. The Knights grew slowly until they succeeded in defeating the great railroad baron, Jay Gould in the strike of 1885. Within a year they added 500,000 workers to their membership.

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. This state repression was carried out on behalf of 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 crush the fledgling labor organizations.

The Workers’ Uprising of 1877

“The power of money has become supreme over everything. It has secured for the class who control it all the special privileges and special legislation which it needs to secure its complete and absolute domination. … This Power must be kept in check. It must be broken or it will utterly crush the people.” (The New York Sun, quoted in Philip S. Foner, The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, p. 7.)

In 1876, as the nation prepared to celebrate a hundred years of American Independence, an economic depression (or panic, as it was then known) gripped the country. Millions had been thrown out of work. In New York one quarter of the workforce was unemployed. The already meagre wages of the workers were cut. The police attacked meetings of the unemployed, mercilessly beating up men, women and children.

This was the period of the most violent labor conflicts in the history of the United States. The first of these occurred with the Great Rail Strike of 1877, when rail workers across the nation went out on strike in response to a 10-percent pay cut. A contemporary labor paper called the Great Strike the beginning of a Second American Revolution. The Journal of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers asked in April 1873:

“Are not railway employees in this year of grace, 1873, enduring a tyranny compared with which British taxation in colonial days was as nothing, and of which the crack of the slave whip is only a fair type?”

Attempts to break the strike led to a full scale working class uprising in several cities: Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Buffalo, New York; and San Francisco, California. At several locations the military was called in to crush the uprising workers. Many workers were killed and wounded. The first victim of this repression was shot on July 17 by the militia in Martinsburg, West Virginia, and died a few days later of his wounds. But the workers were not intimidated and the strike continued to like wildfire along the main railroad lines. On July 20, a clash between strikers and militia at the Camden depot in Baltimore left eleven unarmed people dead and many more wounded. President Hayes called in three companies of regular soldiers to deal with the subsequent protests.

In Pittsburgh the militia fraternized with the workers, obliging the authorities to call in the First Division of the National Guard from Philadelphia. These “heroes” shot into an unarmed crowd of men, women and children, killing ten people and wounding another eleven. A report in the Pittsburgh Post described the scene of carnage:

“Women and children rushed frantically about, some seeking safety, others calling for friends and relatives. Strong men halted with fear, and trembling with excitement, rushed madly to and fro, tramping upon the killed and wounded as well as upon those who had dropped to mother earth to escape injury and death.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 63.)

The workers responded by burning the property of the railroad. Everywhere there was the same insurrectionary spirit. The situation in Baltimore was so serious that the marines were called in to guard the railroad company’s buildings and equipment with artillery. Six companies of the Fourth National Guard arrived in Reading, Pennsylvania, where they shot into a crowd, killing eleven more. Everywhere the authorities responded to the strike with great brutality, beating up strikers and demonstrators. But still the strike spread.

On July 25th there was a monster demonstration in St. Louis, including many black workers, closing down businesses and carrying out a general strike. The women of the working class played a prominent role, fighting shoulder to shoulder with their men, as the following account from the Chicago Inter-Ocean shows:

“Women with babes in arms joined the enraged female rioters. The streets were fluttering with calico of all shades and shapes. Hundreds were bareheaded, their dishevelled locks streaming in the wind. Many were shoeless. Some were young, scarcely women in age, and not at all in appearances. Dresses were tucked up around the waist, revealing large underthings. Open busts were common as a barber’s chair. Brawny, sunburnt arms brandished clubs. Knotty hands held rocks and sticks and wooden blocks. Female yells, shrill as a curfew’s cry, filled the air. The swarthy features of the Bohemian women were more horrible to look at in that scene than their men in the Halsted Street riots. The unsexed mob of female incendiaries rushed to the fence and yards of Goss Phillips’ Manufacturing company. The consternation which this attack created extended to Twenty-second Street, at that hour very quiet. A crowd of men gathered on Fisk Street to witness this curious repetition of the scenes of the Paris commune. The fence surrounding the yard gave way, and was carried off by the petticoated plunderers in their unbridled rage. There was fear for a while that the Amazonian army would continue their depredations. Word was dispatched to the Himmon Street Station, and a force of officers under Lieutenant Vesey pushed down to the corner of the contest. The women hissed as they saw the blue coats march along. Some of the less valorous took to their heels… Others stood their ground.

“A shower of missiles greeted the boys as they came smiling along left front into line. One woman pitched a couple of blocks at the heads of the officers, and then moved on to attend to her family duties. The men were weak in the strength and forcefulness of their language compared to these female wretches. Profanity the most foul rolled easily off their tongues with horrid glibness. Expressions were made use of that brought the blood mantling to the cheek of the worst-hardened men in the crowds of spectators. It was awful.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., pp. 154-5.)

The police showed no sign of sex discrimination. They beat up the women with the same enthusiasm as they beat up the men.

One significant element in this great strike that was close to an insurrection was the active participation of the Workers’ Party of the United States, an anticipation of the great Party of American Labor, which one day must emerge and lead the working class to victory. The Workers’ Party played a most active role in the strike, issuing leaflets and proclamations and providing practical guidance to the strikers. At a rally organized by the WPUS., one of the speakers, an Englishman named John E. Cope, a former member of the International Workingmen’s Association, spoke in favour of the nationalization of the railroads:

“In his speech, Cope insisted that the workingmen were not going to destroy the railroads. Rather, the railroads were going to become national property for the benefit of the people, and the working class would not destroy its own property. If the railroad corporations starved their workers, he went on, it was as if they murdered them, and whoever murdered a man should be hung. Yet under the existing system, these ‘murderers’ were honoured: ‘A man who stole a single rail is called a thief, while he who stole a railway is a gentleman.’ Cope concluded by warning the workers to be prepared to meet the military once the authorities called them in to crush their strike.” (Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 167.)

The strikers were accused in the press of being communists (the Paris Commune just six years earlier had terrified the ruling class of America). Someone signing himself “a red-hot striker” replied:

“You challenge me to compare ‘the Communist and the Railway.’ The way to do it is, first to see what is the idea of both, what each of them demands. Now, I say, – and I challenge you, or any other fellow like you, to show I’m not right, – I say the ‘Commune’ represents the cause of the poor in this: that its object is to give every human born into this world a chance to live; live long, and die well. And I say of the ‘Railway,’ it represents the few rich who don’t want everybody to have a chance for a decent living, but intend to grind out of the rest of the world all the wealth possible for their own special benefit. I say this, and don’t fear you can show the contrary. The difference is, the one is struggling to make it possible for all the world to get on; the other is doing its damnedest to make it impossible for anybody to get on, save the few rich it represents. Let the public judge which side is most worthy, – as it will judge in good time, and don’t you forget it.” (Quoted in Philip S. Foner, op. cit., p. 211.)

Marx followed the unfolding of the Great Strike with tremendous interest. Writing to his friend and comrade Frederick Engels, he called it “the first uprising against the oligarchy of capital which had developed since the Civil War.” He predicted that, although it would inevitably be suppressed, it “could very well be the point of origin for the creation of a serious workers’ party in the United States.” (Letter to Engels, July 24, 1877.)

Marx’s prediction proved to be premature. The spectacular upswing of the productive forces in the United States was sufficient to give capitalism a new lease of life and blunt the political consciousness of the masses for far longer than Marx or anyone else could have anticipated. But the need to create a class-independent mass party of labor in the U.S.A. remains as correct and necessary today as then. Sooner or later the American working class, through the experience of struggle, will come to the same conclusion.

The Chicago Martyrs and May Day

The bosses met the workers’ movement with extreme violence. 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 U.S.A., “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 U.S.A. does everything possible to make the working class forget its own history and traditions.

On May 1, 1886, Albert Parsons (his wife Lucy 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 of capitalism deepens, 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 day’s labor from and after 1st May 1886”. This call was taken up by the Labor movement with the creation of Eight Hour Leagues, which wrung significant concessions out of the bosses, and led to 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 U.S.A.”.

Craft Unionism

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 industry 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, moulders, cigar-makers, carpenters and glass workers 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. Gompers and his ilk represented what one might call the aristocracy of labor. By appealing to craft prejudices with their narrower outlook, they succeeded in turning the labor movement away from the socialist views of earlier labor leaders. In this sense it represented a big step back as compared to the Knights of Labor.

Lenin explained that apolitical trade unionism is bourgeois trade unionism. The idea that the unions must be non-political inevitably leads to them falling under the domination of one or other of the bosses’ parties. This assertion has been proved by the history of the American trade union movement from this time onwards. 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 U.S. 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 U.S.A. were in the AFL.

However, the organizational and numerical strengthening 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 collaborationist 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 the years from 1912 to World War I, 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. This is shown by the record of that period – and the same applies today.

In spite of the class collaboration of Gompers and Co., the class struggle reached a fever pitch. In 1892 the bitter 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. A group of 300 Pinkerton detectives the company had hired to break the strike by the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel and Tin Workers were fired upon and 10 were killed. Unions were not let back into the plant until 1937. 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. The National Guard was called in as a result to crush the striking workers; non-union workers were hired and the strike broken. Debs and others were imprisoned for violating the injunctions, and the union was defeated.

Then, as now, workers could not rely on the law to come to their aid. The bosses could buy expensive lawyers and bend the law to their will. The following example is quite typical. Wage cuts at the Pullman Palace Car Company just outside Chicago led to a strike, which, with the support of the American Railway Union, soon brought the nation’s railway industry to a halt. As usual, as soon as labor began to fight for its rights, the federal government stepped in on the side of capital. U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney, himself a former lawyer for the railroad industry, deputized over 3,000 men in an attempt to keep the rails open. This was followed by a federal court injunction against “union interference” with the trains.


In the stormy years before and after the First World War, the labor movement in the U.S.A. was alive and vibrant. This was a period of giants – people like Eugene Debs, the “grand old man” of U.S. labor. Born in Terre Haute, Indiana, 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 in the period from 1900 to 1920. 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.

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 IWW.), also known by their nickname of Wobblies - would prove to be the most radical and militant movement in the nation’s labor history.

Formed from an amalgam of unions fighting for better conditions in the West’s mining industry, the IWW, or “Wobblies” as they were commonly known, gained particular prominence from the Colorado mine clashes of 1903 and the singularly brutal fashion in which they were put down. 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.

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 anarcho-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 anarcho-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 U.S.A. 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 defence 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.

By openly calling for class warfare, the Wobblies gained many adherents. Among other mass actions, they organized a brilliantly successful strike by textile workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912. Their militant actions in the midst of World War I, however, provided the excuse for a government crackdown in 1917, which virtually destroyed the IWW. Some of the leaders later joined the young American Communist Party. The IWW degenerated into a small sect.
The reason for this was only partly state repression. It had a sectarian attitude to the AFL, which represented the big majority of the American workers. This conduct tended to separate the most militant and revolutionary workers from the mass, dooming them to impotence. In the end, the Left Wing of the union movement emerged through a big split in the AFL with the founding of the CIO.

Joe Hill

“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 songwriter 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 was born in Gavle, Sweden, on 7 October 1879, and, like so many of his compatriots, immigrated to the lower east side Bowery section of New York City via Ellis Island in 1902. Joe Hill, also known as Joseph Hillstrom and Joel Hagglund, was an American labor songwriter and martyr of the working class. 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.

Joe joined the IWW 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.

The Wobblies used many varied weapons in their fight against Capital, including art, poetry and music. These songs, with their air of cheerful proletarian defiance, were not written only for amusement. They were weapons of struggle. 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: humour. 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.’“

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. What exactly happened can never be ascertained. But it is certain that the business interests of the West, especially the Copper Bosses of Utah, had conspired to eliminate him.

The bosses used all manner of dirty methods against the labor movement but were always careful to cover their tracks. The climate of opinion in the West and in Utah was decidedly hostile to the IWW and to Joe Hill and he could never get 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.

Joe Hill has become a folk hero and labor martyr, a symbol of the American revolutionary tradition and the fight to defend the working class and the poor and downtrodden sections of society. 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.”

Joe Hill.

There have been many attempts to portray Joe 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 and Pete Seeger. 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 autobiographical 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 parlour 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 an incentive to impel men to action than the incentive of today, 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.”

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.

Sinclair’s novel appeared as early as 1906, when it caused a major scandal in America. Ever since the Cuban War, when thousands of American soldiers died as a result of the rotten meat supplied to the army by the Chicago meat packers, the industry had been the target of public suspicion. Sinclair himself had got a job in a large Chicago meat packing firm and obtained first-hand information about the appalling conditions of the workers. As a result his novel comes close to the best work of Emile Zola. The characters in it are mostly workers in packing plants like the one Sinclair worked in:

“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.”

The Jungle became a best seller in a week. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. The sales of canned meat plummeted. A board of investigation was set up that substantiated all of Sinclair’s assertions. Legislation was put before Congress to control the industry. The owners tried to kill it but it was passed. Even the stupidest congressman must have realized that failure to act would have led to a collapse of the sales of American canned meat abroad. Almost a hundred years later, however, they are up to the same tricks, putting profits before people.

The powerful U.S. food and agriculture lobby, which, despite its hostility to socialism and state control, gets huge subsidies from the U.S. government. It is currently trying to force reluctant European consumers to eat genetically modified food. This is just the tip of a very large and ugly iceberg that potentially menaces the health of the entire planet. We look forward to the appearance of a new Upton Sinclair who will be capable of exposing the scandals of adulteration perpetrated by the modern food monopolies that will undoubtedly make the activities of the Chicago meat packers in 1906 look like child’s play.

Return to Table of Contents

Go to Chapter VI — Imperialism

Chapter IV — The Second American Revolution

Return to Table of Contents

“I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his [God’s] despised poor, I did not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.” (John Brown)

The growth of capitalism was expressed in the rapid development of the textile factories in England and the northeastern United States, beginning in the last decades of the 18th century. This in turn led to an insatiable demand for raw cotton. The perfection of the cotton gin in 1793 guaranteed rich profits for the Southern planters. Thus, slave labor entered as an important component part of the accumulation of capital. It made fabulous fortunes, not only for the Southern slave owners but for the most Christian industrialists of the North and Britain. 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, beat, raped and killed their slaves every other 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 U.S.A., most of them must have ended up there. 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 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.”

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 four 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: a long and bloody Civil War. This took great courage and determination. The name of Abraham Lincoln will forever have a place of honour 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.

The expansion of the United States created conditions for a struggle between the North and South as they advanced westward in parallel lines. In 1818 the state of Missouri applied for admission to the Union. Slavery existed in Missouri and New England and the North were opposed to the extension of the slave system. They therefore opposed the acceptance of Mississippi or any other state that accepted the institution of slavery. The reason for this opposition was not wholly humanitarian. On the one hand, slavery had no place in the capitalist industrial economy of the North. On the other hand, the Northerners and New Englanders feared that they would come under the political domination of the southern slave states.

When Missouri applied for admission there were eleven free states and eleven slave states, so that its admission could tilt the delicate balance one way or the other. On the other hand, Maine, which was free, had also applied to join the Union, and this was blocked by the South for the same reason. The deadlock was broken by the so-called Missouri compromise. The southern border of Missouri is the 36 degree 30 minutes parallel of latitude. According to the compromise, the northern limit of slavery (from the Mississippi westwards) was to be that parallel, with the sole exception of Missouri, which, although north of the line, was admitted as a slave state. In return, Maine was also admitted.

Such a geographical compromise obviously had an extremely tenuous and fragile nature and could be upset by the slightest disturbance. Like all such agreements, it merely expressed the balance of forces at a given moment. As soon as the balance of forces changed, it would be torn to shreds. The whole logic of the situation was tending to war. The main result of the Missouri Compromise was to create a powerful Southern self-consciousness, born out of suspicion and hatred of the North. On the other hand, the acceptance of Missouri as a slave state outraged public opinion in the North and gave rise to increasingly militant anti-slavery groups, opposed to compromise and inclined to direct action. In the words of W.E. Woodward:

“The Civil War was built up as a house is built, brick upon brick. One of its cornerstones was the Missouri Compromise.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 354.)

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 U.S. 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.   His execution had far-reaching consequence and only exacerbated the accumulated social contradictions. During the war, the song “John Brown’s Body”, which includes the line “John Brown died that the slaves might be free,” would become a rallying cry for the Union troops.

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.

The Civil War

Historical legend presents the picture of the “anti-slave” North conducting a campaign for freedom against the slave-holding South. Like all historical legends, however, this is a gross oversimplification. The fact of the matter was that a significant section of the capitalist class in the North and also of the political Establishment – including in Lincoln’s own party – did not want to fight against slavery and were in favour of reaching a compromise with the Southern slave owners. Lincoln himself was originally a compromise candidate between the openly abolitionist wing and the compromisers on the right wing.

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 abolitionists waged an energetic campaign of agitation and propaganda aimed at arousing public opinion in the North.

Pamphlets and books like Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused widespread indignation against the institution of slavery and prepared the ground for more active revolutionary measures. A section of the abolitionist movement was inclined to direct action. The execution of John Brown brought matters to a head. Historian Lloyd Lewis explains that the incident at Harper’s Ferry “was to the South a gathering thunderhead on the Northern sky, promise of the hurricane to come.” Fearful of slave uprisings and interference from Northern abolitionists, the South began to organize militias that would form the basis of the Confederate Army. 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. This was taken as a signal for the secession of the slave states. Lincoln was immediately faced with a serious crisis provoked by the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860. This was followed in early 1861 by the secession of Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina followed, making a total of eleven states. The immediate cause was the old argument over tariffs. The South produced nothing that needed tariff protection, whereas the northern capitalists needed a tariff barrier to protect their infant industries against competition from Europe.

The ruling class in the South had no interest in developing industry. The southern slave owning aristocracy based itself on backwardness. The big landowners were quite happy to remain as England’s cotton field and in return they would import English manufactured goods without the imposition of a tariff that would only benefit the manufacturers of the North. The secession was a direct challenge to American nationhood. If accepted it would undermine everything the American people had fought for since Independence. But from the standpoint of the South it was a defensive war “for Southern rights”.

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 break-up of the Union. As a minority President, Lincoln was compelled to do deals with other parties and groups. He could not even rely on the support of all members of his own party. On the contrary, the upper circles of the party were constantly conspiring to remove him and replace him with some political baron. Therefore he was obliged to tack and compromise. But compromise was in vain.

In vain did Lincoln 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. This fact explains why Lincoln was so cautious at the beginning. His own views were quite clear from the beginning when he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand; this government divided into free states and slave states cannot endure, they must all be free or all be slave; they must be one thing or the other.” But he did not have a firm base of support. This only came in the course of the War itself, which galvanized and hardened public opinion. By the end of this terrible conflict, however, Lincoln was not the same man as at the beginning. From a political tussle to preserve the Union, the Civil War evolved inexorably into a revolutionary war against slavery.

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.

While the South was eager for war and immediately began its preparations, the North dragged its feet and was unprepared for the conflict when it finally erupted in the attack on Fort Sumter. But as soon as it became clear that war was unavoidable, Lincoln acted with tremendous determination. He ordered the removal of two million dollars of Southern funds from the Treasury and the confiscation of Western Union’s files. He also suspended the right of habeus corpus, by executive order, although according to the Constitution only Congress has the right to do this. Thousands of men were arrested and held indefinitely without even charging them with any offence. These measures were strictly unconstitutional. They were dictatorial measures. But they were absolutely necessary in the given situation.

Under the Constitution the power to raise armies and to declare war is invested in Congress. Lincoln paid no attention to this. He immediately assumed the authority to create armies and to wage war on the secessionist states. A drastic measure, certainly. But what else could he have done? Nor did the freedom of speech fare any better. Lincoln’s subordinates raided the offices of newspapers and stopped their publication, in spite of the First Amendment of the Constitution. This states that the federal authority shall not abridge the freedom of speech or of the press.

The Maryland Legislature was due to convene on September 17, 1861. The military commander of the district was instructed by the secretary of war to arrest all the members who were suspected of disloyalty. Many were arrested and thrown into prison, although none of them was actually charged with having committed acts of treason or disloyalty. There were many such actions. In his inspired historical novel Lincoln, Gore Vidal writes:

“Currently, by Seward’s order, the mayor of Baltimore and the mayor of Washington were both in prison, where they would remain without trial until such time as he or the President was inspired to let them go. As a Lawyer and as an office-holder, sworn to uphold the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, not to mention those inviolable protections of both persons and property so firmly spelled out in Magna Carta and in the whole subsequent accretion of the common law, Seward found that he quite enjoyed tearing up, one by one, those ancient liberties in the Union’s name. Never before had anyone ever exercised such power in the United States as he did now, with Lincoln’s tacit blessing. Although, officially, the secret service was under the military, regular reports were made to Seward, in whose name letters were opened, copies of telegrams seized, arrests made.” (Gore Vidal Lincoln, p. 273.)

Nowadays it is assumed that everyone was behind Lincoln (in the North at least). But this is very far from the truth. Most of the rich hated him. There were constant conspiracies to get rid of him, and a constant avalanche of calumnies and insults in the press. Harpers Weekly described the President as a “Filthy story-teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus, Abe, Old scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land Pirate.” This was typical. It was also in the Civil War that the (then) revolutionary measure was introduced to tax the incomes of the rich to finance the war.

No wonder the rich denounced Lincoln as a dictator and called for his removal! Nowadays he would have been called a communist as well.

However, unless Lincoln had been prepared to override the private interests of the capitalists, the Union would never have won the War. In every war situation, certain liberties are suspended or curtailed. The same is true in a revolution, although the degree to which such “exceptional” measures is necessary depends on many things. If the Southern slave-owners had been prepared to accept the will of the majority and obey the democratically elected government, Lincoln would never have had to take the measures he did to curtail democratic rights. But the slave-owners’ rebellion forced him to do so.

To those who argue that a socialist revolution necessarily means the abolition of democracy, we answer: not so! Marxists stand for democracy and are its most fervent defenders. We will make use of all the democratic openings to present our ideas and fight to win the majority. We stand for a democratically elected socialist government. We do not advocate violence. But we are also realists and know that the ruling class will never surrender its power, wealth and privileges without a fight with no-holds-barred. What happened in the American Civil War proves this.

If a democratically elected socialist government is faced by another slave-owners’ rebellion, we reserve the right to act in the same way that Abe Lincoln acted. To do anything else would be to accept the right of Capital to continue its dictatorship forever and deny the right of the People to determine its own destiny. Of course, it goes without saying that any suspension or curtailment of democratic rights must be only temporary, for the duration of the emergency, not a moment longer. That was the case in Britain and the U.S.A. during the Second World War, which most people thought was a war for democracy (in fact, it was not, but that is another matter). The workers in the U.S.A. and Britain had democratic traditions but were prepared voluntarily to accept certain limitations for the duration of the war and for that only.

Nobody nowadays condemns Abraham Lincoln for his actions during the Second American Revolution, when he took measures against big business, confiscated wealth and arrested counter-revolutionaries without trial. Few people even remember such things. Yet they throw their hands up in horror at the actions of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 in Russia. Why such a hypocritical difference should be made between the two is not clear.

The Problem of Leadership

At the start of the war, in fact, things went very badly for the Union. The South had better generals, who were not afraid to go on the offensive, making up with courage and energy for their numerical disadvantage compared to the more populous and wealthy industrial North. The white population of the South believed they were fighting a defensive war –a war for self-determination and independence, in fact– and they fought with conviction. As a result the Confederate forces won victory after victory.

By contrast, at the beginning of the war the Union forces did not display the necessary determination and energy. They were continually forced onto the defensive by the Confederates who fought better and had far more capable generals. Even the celebrated defence of Fort Sumter, which Union propaganda made a great deal of at the time, was little more than a charade. Major Anderson, the Fort’s defender, declined to haul down the flag after the first volleys but stated complacently that even if he were not attacked he would have to hand over the Fort in a few days, as there would be nothing to eat. The resistance was merely formal. The surrender of Fort Sumter seems to have been quite an amicable affair. Major Anderson had dinner with General Beauregard, the Confederate commander, and then the Union Flag was hauled down to the accompaniment of a salute and full military honors.

This was typical of the attitude of most Union commanders at the beginning of the Civil War. It is strikingly similar to the position at the start of the English Civil War in the 17 century, when Royalist and Parliamentarian commanders often exchanged letters on the eve of battle professing their friendship for each other and their abhorrence of the conflict that pitted one against the other. In a civil war above all, political questions predominate over military ones. At bottom, the problem was not military but political. The Northern general staff simply reflected the opinions of most of the ruling class, which did not believe in the war and was looking for a compromise.

The Confederates, quite naturally, had a poor opinion of the North’s military potential. When Lincoln announced his appeal for 75,000 volunteers, the Confederate cabinet met the news with roars of laughter. Actually, the Union army increased rapidly to the point where it was already the strongest army in the world, with close to 200,000 well-trained troops in the area of Washington alone. But this advantage was initially thrown away by a succession of incompetent Union generals. General McClellan was one of the most notorious cases. His supine inactivity exasperated Lincoln, who wrote him a stream of letters like the following:

“Major-General McClellan,

I have just read your despatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”

This angry correspondence culminated in a laconic outburst of despair:

“My dear McClellan; if you don’t want to use the army I should like to borrow it or a while.

Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.”

At one point McClellan came within six miles of the rebel capital Richmond, but failed to take the city although his army outnumbered the Confederate forces by at least five to one and their commander had been seriously wounded. The real reason for this situation was not just that McClellan was a bad general (which he was). The real reason was that he was intriguing against Lincoln. McClellan, who secretly aspired to become a dictator, an American Bonaparte, was, like a significant section of the Northern ruling class, in favour of doing a deal with the South to end the War. Most of the other generals in the Union army were not much better. General Hooker, ironically nicknamed “Fighting Joe” is another example of a useless Northern general. He was a champion at the art of whisky drinking, though not at the art of war. At the battle of Chancellorsville he led 130,000 Union troops against Lee’s Confederate army of only 60,000. Yet Lee managed to inflict the greatest defeat on the Northern army in the history of the war. General Hooker is today remembered for something not directly connected with the military profession but with a rather older one. His camp, according to a contemporary witness, resembled something in between a brothel and a casino. So addicted were the general and his staff to the sins of the flesh that the female visitors to his camp were known as “Hooker’s girls”, or simply hookers.

General Sherman was a more effective, if extremely brutal, commander. He had been removed from command early in the war because his superiors thought he had gone mad. His “crime” was to predict that hundreds of thousands would die in the coming conflict – a prediction that tragically came true. Politically he was a reactionary who believed in slavery. In December 1859, when the abolition uproar was at its height, he wrote:

“‘I would not if I could abolish or modify slavery.’ And in July, 1860, he wrote: ‘All the Congresses on earth can’t make the negro anything else than what he is; he must be subject to the white man, or he must amalgamate or be destroyed. Two such races cannot live in harmony save as master and slave’.”

He is quoted as saying (correctly) that the war did not begin professionally until after Vicksburg and Gettysburg (that is, not until July 1863). Paradoxically, General Robert E. Lee the Southern Commander, was opposed to slavery. Before the War he wrote that it was a “moral and political evil” and hoped it would be abolished. But his loyalty lay with his state of Virginia, and he fought with great valor and ability to establish a nation that would have been based on that same “moral and political evil”, while Sherman’s army emancipated the slaves as it marched through Georgia. The personal and moral values of the individuals were subordinate to the class content of the struggle. This was basically a war between two incompatible socio-economic systems – capitalism and slavery. Capitalism won and that changed everything.

The war dragged on and the cost in lives was without precedent. In a single campaign, the Union army under Ulysses S. Grant lost 50,000 dead and wounded. And these figures do not include the Confederate casualties. This further strengthened the capitulationist trend of the Northern bourgeoisie. The mood of the capitalists was to sell out and get peace at all costs. The so-called Peace Democrats were on the rise, reflecting the bourgeois’ lack of enthusiasm for the War. War was bad for business (although not in all cases).

But the Northern employers should not have worried. In the long run the South could not prevail. The industrial might of the North, its far greater wealth and bigger population proved decisive. Industrial output in the state of New York alone was four times that of the entire Confederacy. The population of the United States at the beginning of the War was about 31.5 million. Of these about 8.7 million were in the Confederacy, from which we must deduct 3.6 million slaves. The Confederate army had to be drawn from the white population of just over five million, plus some reinforcements from three Southern states that did not secede: Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. By contrast, the Union had a population of about 23 million.

That means the North could put four times as many men on the field and take many more losses without affecting their fighting capacity. In addition the North had command of the sea and was able to blockade the southern ports more or less effectively from the beginning. The blockade caused shortages that led to food riots even in Richmond, the Confederate capital. This shows the falsity of the propaganda of the pro-Confederate historians, according to whom the entire population of the South were united in their enthusiasm for the Confederate cause. The initial enthusiasm wore off and by 1864 the Confederacy was held together by arbitrary and despotic measures backed up by state repression.

As the war dragged on there were also problems in the North. After years of hardship there was discontent among a layer of the masses. The Conscription Act, which allowed the sons of the rich to buy their way out of military service, provoked riots in New York, where the measure was seen as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” In what turned out to be a prolonged war of attrition, the North was able to tolerate the terrible casualty rate far better than the South. However, to win the war it was necessary to adopt a revolutionary policy that would rouse the masses in the North to fight with the spirit of conviction.

Role of the Working Class

War is undoubtedly terrible, and civil wars are more terrible than any other. Yet war is also a source of profit to some, and great fortunes can be coined by the few from the blood, sweat and tears of the many. The American Civil War was no exception. In the spring of 1864 it was possible for a speculator to take $600 in gold, exchange it for $1,000 in dollars, buy a $1,000 bond with the dollars and get $60 a year interest on the bond or a 15 percent profit on his initial investment. All measures to limit this profiteering proved futile. Despite its fundamentally revolutionary character, the Civil War led inexorably to increased centralization of power and wealth in a few hands. This explains the resentment of the masses, as expressed in outbursts like the New York riots.

Bondholders plundered the treasury, crooked manufacturers plundered the army, speculators plundered the whole population and made their fortunes out of blood, death and misery. In his Life of Thaddeus Stevens, James A. Woodburn writes:

“One may well doubt whether there was ever a more outrageous fleecing and robbery of a patriotic people than that perpetrated through the influence of capitalists and money lenders by the manipulation of government finance during and immediately following the American Civil War.”

Lincoln realized that the masses would not be prepared to give their lives willingly just to prevent the South from seceding. He therefore proposed a most revolutionary measure. On September 22 1862, President Lincoln summoned the cabinet and took them by surprise. He told them he had an important paper to read. But when they came into the room it appeared the President was reading a humorous story – which he often did. Then he closed his book and informed them that he had been thinking a lot about the relation between the war and slavery. “I think the time for action has now come and I have got you together to hear what I have written down.” This was the Emancipation Proclamation. It read as follows:

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, do proclaim that on the first day of January, 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall then be, thenceforward and forever, free; and the executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act, or acts, to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

It must be realized that this proclamation, like so many of Lincoln’s acts during the war, was an executive order, issued under the war powers conferred on the president by Congress. In effect, he went over the heads of Congress and the cabinet to speak directly to the American people. He understood that in order to win the war it was necessary to inspire and motivate the masses by adopting a revolutionary program. The Civil War would not be won by guns and bayonets alone, but by the moral force behind the guns and bayonets. As long as people in the North suspected that this was a rich man’s war in which the poor were called on to fight and die for the interests of the wealthy merchants and industrialists of the North, the war could not be won. He therefore decided to appeal directly to the masses.

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.”

After two years of bloody fighting, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in those states fighting against the Union. Later the slaves were also freed in the neutral border-states. No longer were four million human beings to be held in bondage. Inspired by the message of freedom, 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 workers 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.

The victory of the North was due only to a small extent to the military capabilities of General Ulysses S. Grant. Although undoubtedly a better general than his predecessors (he could hardly be worse!) Grant was no military genius. As W.E. Woodward expresses it: “Grant just happened to be swimming with the tide and he was a man who swam extremely well in that particular kind of tide.” (W.E. Woodward, op. cit., p. 563.) Later he proved to be a spectacularly incompetent President at the head of a voraciously corrupt administration. As a general, he combined a mule-headed stubbornness with an indifference to the horrific scale of casualties on his own side. These qualities, however, were sufficient to wear down the South and bring it to its knees.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the decisive turning point. The battle was fought over three days of bloody slaughter from July 1st to the 3rd, 1863. The Confederates lost 20,000 men, killed, wounded or captured. The Union army had 23,000 casualties. But these losses were far more serious to the South than to the North. In the end, the wealth, population and industrial muscle of the Union was decisive and the Confederates’ early victories proved unsustainable. But it was above all the courageous decision of Abraham Lincoln to fight a revolutionary war against the slave-owning South that tipped the balance. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is one of the great revolutionary democratic documents of all time. With its clarion call of government of the people, by the people, for the people stands alongside the Declaration of Independence as a landmark in the struggle for democracy.

By the spring of 1864 the Confederacy was on its knees. One hard blow would be enough to topple it. Congress created the grade of lieutenant general and Lincoln immediately conferred this rank on Grant. The victory of the Union was not in doubt. But the losses in the Union army were horrendous, in large measure because of the way Grant conducted himself. We see the character of the man in the short but bloody battle of Cold Harbour, where the Union forces lost 7,000 men in an hour, compared to 600 of Lee’s men. The army was on the brink of mutiny. Some regiments refused to participate in what was obviously a suicidal assault on the rebel capital.

More successful was Sherman’s advance through Georgia and the Carolinas, which was accompanied by a merciless scorched earth policy. Sherman’s army burnt everything in its path. The actions of a section of the soldiery were a disgrace to the Northern cause. But this burning and plundering was enthusiastically greeted by sections of Northern public opinion. Especially bloodthirsty (as it often the case in times of war) were the preachers. Phillip Brooks, a devout Massachusetts pastor and author of The Influence of Jesus, when he heard about the torching of Columbia, exclaimed: “Hurrah for Columbia! Isn’t Sherman a gem?” Despite its savagery, Sherman’s campaign severely weakened the already enfeebled South. Grant’s forces overwhelmed Lee’s defences. Finally, Lee faced Grant at Appomattox, about 80 miles from Richmond, with a force of only 28,000 starving and exhausted men against Grant’s army of 72,000. Lee was compelled to surrender.

Lee presented himself to Grant dressed in a splendid uniform of Confederate grey made from English cloth and handed grant a handsome sword with a jewel-studded hilt. Grant was dressed in the travel-stained uniform of a private to which the shoulder straps of a lieutenant general had been attached. The contrast had a deep symbolic value. The aristocratic slave-owning gentry of the South was overthrown by the capitalist North. The past was defeated by the future.

The victory of the North was a revolutionary victory. It transformed the face of the United States. At a stroke the rule of the slave owners was overthrown. 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 U.S.A. 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 word.

By the end of the War, Abraham Lincoln was a changed man. He was drawing ever more radical conclusions. Lincoln’s revolutionary measures earned him the love and admiration of the working class in the U.S.A. and internationally. But it aroused the bitter hatred of the ruling class – and not only in the South. Even at the height of the war, Lincoln did not have a firm base of support in his own party. A section put forward the cowardly and reactionary scoundrel McClellan as the Presidential candidate. Lincoln’s popular majority was tiny – only half a million votes. In spite of everything, Lincoln was re-elected and the Thirteenth Amendment for the unconditional abolition of slavery was passed. It was a new dawn for the American people. But Lincoln also took measures in the interests of the poor farmers in the North. The Homestead Act was the first in American history to give public land free of charge to citizens who agreed to settle on it. What new measures he would have passed had he lived we shall never know. The slave-owners took their revenge for their defeat. On April 14 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot down in cold blood by a Confederate assassin.

International Repercussions of the Civil War

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. The sympathies of the British ruling class were with the South. A reactionary coalition of textile manufacturers, landowners and imperialists put heavy pressure on the British government to recognize the Confederate States. The Times of London could hardly conceal its glee when commenting on how short-lived the Union of American states had been.

The Confederates were confident in their belief in the power of King Cotton. And since Britain took five-sixth of all the exports of American cotton and there were about 400,000 workers in English cotton mills who depended on cotton for their livelihood (making a total of about two millions with their families and dependents), they were convinced that within three months Britain would recognize the South, smash the blockade and if necessary fight the Union to guarantee supplies of cotton to British mills. During the Civil War several Confederate warships were built in English shipyards or purchased from British subjects. Their crews were mostly made up of English sailors. Three of these vessels – the Alabama, Florida and Shenandoah – did a lot of damage to Northern commerce. Yet none of these vessels ever entered a Confederate port. This open connivance of the British government with the rebels constituted a flagrant provocation and a blatant breach of neutrality.

In fact, Britain came close to declaring war on the Union in November 1861 when an American ship, the San Jacinto, stopped the Trent, a British mail packet boat, off the coast of Cuba and seized two Confederate Commissioners on their way to London. A military intervention by Britain would have drastically changed the balance of forces to the disadvantage of the Union. If the British government finally backed down it was mainly for fear of the reaction of British public opinion and especially the working class.

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. The English radical John Bright toured Lancashire explaining the plight of the American slaves:

“The jobless mill hands resolved to stick by their black brothers in the Southern states of America, although their allegiance compelled them to feed at soup kitchens and live on charitable relief.” (W.E. Woodward, op. cit., pp. 527-8.)

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 two letters 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.

An Interesting Comparison

Recently the author of these lines was invited to participate in a television documentary about the French Revolution. The filmmakers were charming and intelligent young Americans, who apparently wanted to know what the Marxist perspective on the French Revolution was. During our preliminary conversations, they asked me whether I considered the French Revolution to be justified, in view of all the violence and bloodshed it involved. I think they were a bit surprised at my answer. I drew their attention to the fact that America won its independence through a revolution, and that in that revolution they did not treat the British very gently. Moreover, the second American Revolution was a very violent and bloody affair. Yet nobody has ever asked me whether the American War of Independence was justified, or whether Abraham Lincoln was right to use violence against the Southern slave-owners.

In the French Revolution of 1789-93, almost two millions died out of a population of only 26 millions – that is, about 7.7 per cent. Yet few French people (excepting a handful of eccentric people nostalgic for the good old days of Louis XVI) would argue that they would have been better off under the ancien régime. Even fewer Americans would argue that, in order to avoid bloodshed, they should have remained under the blessed rule of George III!

The critics of Bolshevism also frequently raise the question of revolutionary violence. Actually, the October revolution was a relatively peaceful affair, particularly in Petrograd, since the Bolsheviks had the support of the overwhelming majority, and practically nobody was prepared to fight for the old regime. The real bloodbath began in the Civil War, which was the exact equivalent of the slaveholders’ rising in the U.S.A. Soviet Russia was invaded by 21 foreign armies of intervention: British, French, German, Poles, Czechs, Japanese – and Americans. Many people were killed unnecessarily because of this, and the Russian people suffered terrible hardship. Incidentally, this was when the parties that opposed the Bolsheviks were banned - since every one of them took arms against the Soviet government.

Lenin and Trotsky originally had no plans to prohibit other parties. After the October Revolution the only party that was outlawed was the fascist and anti-Semitic Black Hundreds. But in the same way that Abraham Lincoln was obliged to take drastic measures against the rebels during the Civil War, so Lenin and Trotsky were compelled to act against parties that not only agitated against the Revolution but took up arms against it. It is not generally realized that, relative to population size, many more people were killed in the American civil war than in the civil war in Soviet Russia. Yet very little is said on this subject, and certainly nobody ever accuses Abe Lincoln of being a bloodthirsty monster as they accuse Lenin and Trotsky with tedious regularity. Let us make a brief comparison of the two.

Because of the chaotic character of the period, there are no exact figures for casualties in the Russian Civil War. But the total deaths incurred in both the First World War and the subsequent Civil War adds up to about three million. If we assume that one third of these died during the Civil War (which is certainly an exaggeration), the result would be one million. Since the population of Russia was 150 million at that time, that is 0.7 per cent. In the American Civil War, according to the most accurate figures I could find, the total killed (not including wounded) on both sides was 558,052 out of total population of 34,300,000. That would mean 1.63 percent of the population was killed. That is already more than in the Russian Revolution. However, if we include the wounded – many of whom were horribly crippled and deformed - then the percentage of the total killed and wounded would actually be 2.83 percent of the population. In other words, a lot more blood was shed in the American Civil War.

                           Population        Enrolled              Ratio
                                (millions)       (thousands)
 Union                      26.2               2,803.3              10.7%
 Confederate         8.1                1,064.2              13.1%
 Combined            34.3               3,867.5              11.1%

                              Enrolled     Combat      Other       Wounded        Total       
Union                 2,803.3     110,070     249,458     275,175        634,703  
Confederate    1,064.2      74,524      124,000     137,000 +     335,524 
Combined        3,867.5      184,594    373,458     412,175 +     970,227 

The Civil War in the U.S.A. was a revolution, just as much as the French Revolution of 1789-93 or the October Revolution in Russia. Many people lost their lives in it, yet nobody considers it a “crime”. In fact, while naturally regretting the loss of life, the historians are unanimous in agreeing that it was worth it, that is to say, the end justified the means. Yet this is supposed to be the original sin of Bolshevism!

We might add that there is no reason to suppose that the Socialist Revolution in America will be a bloody affair. The U.S.A. is not tsarist Russia! The American working class is an overwhelming majority of the population. It could easily take power, brushing aside the resistance of the big corporations, on one condition: that it is organized, disciplined and determined to overcome all obstacles. There is one other condition that would guarantee a peaceful transformation: a courageous and far-sighted leadership that would not be afraid to adopt the most audacious measures to disarm the ruling class and render it impotent. The American workers need a revolutionary party and a leadership like that of Abraham Lincoln and Sam Adams: men and women who are not hypnotized by the power of the oppressors, their rules and regulations, but prepared to rely only on the revolutionary initiative and power of the masses.

How Capitalism Failed African Americans

The Second American Revolution was a tremendous step forward, but it never realized its promise to Black Americans. 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 U.S.A., 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 U.S.A. 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 U.S. 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 Americans, 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 blacks and Latinos. Despite the attempts to disguise this situation by the kind of tokenism that allows a handful of privileged blacks like Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice 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 U.S.A. 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 eventually clearly understood by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who attempted to organize on class lines and link the struggle of blacks 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 and Malcolm X 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 Asian, Arab 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.

Return to Table of Contents

Go to Chapter V — Labor and Capital

Chapter III — Rich and Poor

Return to Table of Contents

“I think our governments will remain virtuous for many centuries, as long as they are chiefly agricultural; and this will be as long as there shall be vacant lands in any part of America. When they get piled upon one another in large cities, as in Europe, they will become corrupt as Europe.” (Thomas Jefferson)
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 ideal of many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, was that of a democratic republic of small farmers. “Those who labor in the earth”, he wrote, “are the chosen people of God.” To further this aim, in 1804 Jefferson purchased the vast territory of Louisiana from France for the immense sum (for those days) of 15 million dollars (double the total Federal budget) – the biggest land deal in history. By the stroke of a pen, Jefferson removed Britain, France, Russia and Spain from a massive swath of North America, and provided a huge area of land for the expansion of the population.

As usual, the losers were the Native Americans who were deprived of their ancestral lands and pushed to the West. Although he was an advanced democrat in many ways, Thomas Jefferson was incapable of thinking of them as human beings with the same rights as the European settlers. There was no place in his agrarian scheme for the First Americans whose lands were expropriated.

“The backward [tribes] will yield,” he wrote in 1812, “and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forests, into the Stony [Rocky] Mountains.” (Quoted in P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., p. 137.)

However, Jefferson’s dream of a free agrarian republic was already obsolete before he died. The development of capitalism in America, made possible by the Revolution, signified the rapid growth of industry in the North and East that brought in its wake a growing gap between rich and poor, workers and capitalists. The dream of an agrarian paradise became the nightmare of industrial capitalism. As far as democracy was concerned, it was fine in theory but in practice was little more than a fig-leaf to disguise the rule of a wealthy elite:

“The government in Washington had grown, through successive administrations, into a pleasant little oligarchy. A handful of men ran everything, and when they departed from the scene they chose their successors in the manner of one who writes a last will and testament. Jefferson chose Madison and Madison chose Monroe.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 361.)

The rich and powerful vied with each other to get their hands on the pork barrel of political power, just as they do today. The only important business in Washington was office-holding and related matters, just as it is today. No wonder Jefferson remarked shortly before his death: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

In a Few Hands

A Whig journalist in the early years of the 19th century wrote:

“Ours is a country, where men start from an humble origin, and from small beginnings rise gradually in the world, as the reward of merit and industry, and where they can attain to the most elevated positions, or acquire a large amount of wealth, according to the pursuits they elect for themselves.” (Quoted in P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., p. 155.)

So much for the self-satisfied rhetoric of the American dream. The reality, however, was very different. Not only were the Native Americans, black slaves and women excluded from this dream, but also the growing number of property-less industrial workers laboring in the sweat-shops of the cities of the northeast.

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 Labour 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”.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson was a self-made frontiersman from Tennessee. The son of a poor family from the West, one of his biographers says of him:
“He became imbued with the doctrine that […] the banker is vastly overpaid for his services in expediting commerce, and that for bankers in Philadelphia and New York to have the power of life and death over business enterprises in Tennessee is criminal injustice.”

There was growing discontent among the property-less masses, small farmers, frontier settlers and religious minorities. Although Jackson was an outsider to politics, he got a surprisingly large popular vote when he ran for President in 1824. The W.A.S.P. elite was alarmed. The ruling class in the U.S.A. has, contrary to the well-known mythology, never been fond of democracy. One of them, James Kent of New York voiced the real feelings of the rich and powerful concerning democracy:

“It is not to be disguised that our governments are becoming downright democracies. The principle of universal suffrage, which is now running a triumphant career from Maine to Louisiana, is an awful power, which, like gunpowder, or the steam engine, or the press itself, may be rendered mighty in mischief as well as in blessings.”

In the election of 1828 Jackson swept the board. Overnight the flood tide of democratic protest had swept away the old Massachusetts and Virginia dynasties. Jackson (“Old Hickory”) became the first west-of-the-mountains President. On his inauguration day he allowed the people of Washington – “from the highest and most polished,” reported a disgusted Justice Story, “to the most vulgar and gross in the nation” – to enter the White House and consume ice cream and cake, lemon and punch. This turned into a riot and was dubbed “the reign of King Mob” by Judge Story. For the conservatives the American people have always been “King Mob” – people to be feared, not trusted.

Andrew Jackson claimed to represent the interests of the small man, the farmer and the unsettled West.  In reality, the Jacksonian Democrats inaugurated an alliance between the southern slavocracy and northern, urban political machines.  In this era, the Democrats were characterized by the lack of a clear program, aims and perspectives. The only common denominator of Jackson’s party was Jackson himself. And he was always better at saying what he was against than what he was in favor of. Nevertheless, the masses looked upon Jackson as their man in the White House – the People’s Champion.

That is, of course, unless you were Native American. An energetic advocate of westward expansion (later termed “manifest destiny”), Jackson, like his predecessors, looked down on the peoples who originally lived in those lands. He was an active proponent of their removal – more often than not by brute force. His signing into law of the “Indian Removal Act” legalized the wholesale killing, enslavement, and land theft that had begun with the arrival of the first Europeans. The infamous episode of the “Trail of Tears”, during which the Cherokee were herded from Georgia to Oklahoma was a direct result.

Jackson had no clearly defined political program, but he spoke for millions when he denounced the most obvious symptoms of capitalist robbery and exploitation: paper money, chartered corporations and banks. The Jacksonian Democrats condemned the moneyed aristocracy that had robbed the people of their birthright. This was the period of intense struggles over issues like tariffs and the United States Bank. The masses hated the Bank, which had received a charter for twenty years in 1816. Jackson himself shared the common view of all bankers as a bunch of parasites and slick swindlers. During the panic and ensuing depression of 1819 and 1820, the Bank had deflated the currency, denied credit to merchants and local banks and rapaciously levied on assets in cases where loans were in default. In other words, it acted as banks always act. As W.E. Woodward put it:

“It was an inveterate foe of everybody who owed it money unless the debtor was a member of Congress or the editor of a newspaper. […] Its funds were intelligently mobilized; its drafts were readily honoured in all commercial centres, and in Europe; its notes never fell below their par value; it provided a stable currency. But it was in the hands of men who carried it on as a private enterprise, a magnified pawnbroker’s shop endowed with extraordinary privileges. In spirit it was antisocial and greedy.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 398.)

The fact that an outsider from the West could overthrow the old political dynasties, the cliques of landowners who had been in power ever since the Revolution was in itself of tremendous symptomatic importance. The Jacksonian period was a period of tremendous ferment and unrest that came from the unresolved contradictions that lay within the foundations of American society:

“It was like a chemical mixture which has never composed itself, but wherein its biting acids continually fume and struggle. The social chemistry of America was in a state of extreme tension.” (Ibid., p. 393.)

Jackson’s confrontation with the United States Bank led to what is known as the Bank War.  It expressed the conflict between rich and poor, the oligarchy and democracy, but also the contradiction between the northern free states and the slave-holding states of the South, as opposition to the Bank ultimately reflected a reactionary rejection by the southern slave-owners of the progressive development of capitalism in the young United States. Following his re-election in 1832, Jackson abolished the Bank. This was a utopian attempt to fight against tendencies that were irresistible. Capitalism, market forces and banks were firmly entrenched. But the Bank War showed that The Revolution had left many unpaid bills. These now demanded to be paid.

The contradiction between North and South expressed itself again as a struggle over tariffs. This in turn led to an attempt at secession by the state of South Carolina after the adoption of the Tariff Act of 1828. A pragmatic populist, Jackson had to back down on the tariff question, which he supported, but denounced the secessionist leaders and appealed to the people of South Carolina to repudiate their leadership. “Their object is disunion,” he thundered. “Disunion by armed force is treason.” Here already were the first rumblings of the Civil War.

Return to Table of Contents

Go to Chapter IV — The Second American Revolution

Chapter II — The American Revolution

Return to Table of Contents

“[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.)

Nowadays, the public in the U.S.A. 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, from its very beginnings America has always been nourished by foreign revolutions, with waves of immigrants fleeing political repression in search of a better life. However, the above quotations show clearly that revolution is an idea that is far from foreign to the native soil of the U.S.A., 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.

The young American bourgeoisie was rankling under the onerous rule of a foreign power based some thousands of miles away, which could introduce painful taxes, limits on trading and other burdens that hampered the free development of the American bourgeoisie. These fetters had to be broken and they were broken by revolutionary means. The imposition of the Stamp Act in 1765 was the event that set the whole process in motion. But it was only the accident through which necessity revealed itself, as Hegel would have said. In fact there were many other Acts that stoked the fires of resentment: the Navigation Acts, which regulated and restricted American commerce, the prohibition of settlement beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and the Tea Act, designed to prevent the East India Company from going bankrupt.

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. In order to succeed, the bourgeois leaders must arouse the masses and lean on them to strike blows against the enemy. 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 of the lower middle class, lawyers and journalists inspired with revolutionary ideas, who spurred them on to action.
The bad conditions and absence of rights produced a ferment of discontent in the lower orders of society. So when the merchants of the colonies rebelled against the impositions of the British administrations that hampered trade and made their life impossible, the lower classes joined in with gusto. Trotsky explains that poverty alone is not enough to make a revolution. If that were the case, the masses would always be in revolt. But it is not the case. The “mob” in America already existed before 1776, but was capable of doing nothing more than to cause occasional disturbances. Now things were different. The poor and dispossessed now had a focal point for their discontent, a banner and a rallying cry, even if it was not exactly their own.

A decisive role was played by revolutionary agitators like Samuel Adams of Boston, the most outstanding figure of the American Revolution. His energetic agitation for the revolutionary cause struck a responsive note among the masses. He was the most able of the class of agitators but there were many unsung heroes like him whose names have not come down to us. The immediate target of the agitation was the hated Stamp Act which required all legal documents, licenses, commercial contracts, newspapers, pamphlets, and playing cards to carry a tax stamp. Stamp distributors were hanged in effigy and their houses torn down. Packages of stamps were burned in bonfires to wild cheering and the beating of drums.

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. The latter would otherwise, according to this view, 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.

Role of the Masses

“If ye love wealth greater than liberty, the tranquillity of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that ye were our countrymen.” – Samuel Adams

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 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 fighting against 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 aims of the wealthy merchants and landowners, however, were narrow and egotistical. They aimed to destroy the rule of the British Crown in order to replace it with their own rule. This was not a very inspiring prospect, and hardly a program to set the masses on fire. More idealistic slogans were necessary. Cromwell promised the masses in England the installation of the reign of God on earth, no less, while Robespierre proclaimed the rule of Reason and Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. The American Revolution also required a banner to rally around and a program they believed in.

All this is not to say that the men who led the American Revolution did not believe what they preached. They sincerely believed that they were fighting for the sacred principles of Liberty set forth so movingly in the Declaration of Independence. A man like Thomas Jefferson, the most outstanding of the well-known leaders of the Revolution, was a product of the Age of Enlightenment, well schooled in the ideas of Locke, Hobbes, Newton and Bacon. For such a man, the fact that the American colonies were ruled by a despotic foreign power must have embittered the very depths of his being.

However, while the speeches were being made on the top, the mainspring of the revolt came from the bottom. Before the Revolution the workers – the “men of no property” – were generally deprived of political rights. Power was in the hands of wealthy merchants and magistrates who could do pretty much anything they liked. The rate of wages was decided usually by an association of owners or masters in the same trade. These were almost always on a subsistence level. The workers had no say in the matter. Associations of workers were forbidden by law. Those who owned no land had no right to vote in any of the colonies. James Truslow Adams wrote:

“It was only as the Revolution approached that these unfranchised elements […] wrested political control of the colonial government from the class of propertied freemen, and then largely by illegal, violent and terroristic methods.”

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. Many wealthy citizens deplored the actions of the “mob”. Such a man was Henry Laurens, a wealthy planter and merchant of South Carolina. For this “leader of public opinion”, things were getting out of hand. He asked “what would become of our estates without law, particularly ours who depend on commerce?”

While the respectable merchants fretted and dithered, the masses took decisive action from below. Hitherto the bourgeois had restricted themselves to a voluntary boycott of British goods. But the “Boston Tea Party”, when a group of colonists thinly disguised as Mohawks, resorted to direct action, dumping British tea chests into the sea, threw down a bold challenge to the British. British public opinion was outraged. London reacted by attempting to starve Boston into submission through the imposition of a naval blockade that closed the port. But this only radicalized the whole situation. Once a revolution has aroused the masses, they are not easily intimidated even by the greatest power on earth.

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:

“...These sheep, simple as they are, cannot be gulled as heretofore. In short, there is no ruling them … the heads of mobility [the mob] 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 – 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.

The town laborers detested the whole colonial system and looked forward eagerly for its destruction. They could hardly be worse off! One of the most famous of the revolutionary secret societies was The Sons of Liberty. To disguise their identity they blackened their faces and dressed up as Indians or used other disguises. They used passwords and secret signs. Their favorite weapon was tar and feathers. They also tore down houses. Unpopular customs officers and Tories (that is, supporters of British rule) would end up tarred and feathered or have their house demolished, or both.

The activities of The Sons of Liberty and other similar groups gradually became bolder, to the point where armed clashes with the redcoats became inevitable. On March 5, 1770, a clash between a mob and British soldiers led to the “Boston Massacre” when the redcoats panicked and fired into the crowd, killing four people. The murderers were let of with minor punishments. This was the spark that lit the fuse. Sam Adams worked incessantly day and night writing letters to far-flung settlements denouncing these deeds. Paul Revere – a Boston engraver and a member of The Sons of Liberty – produced an engraving of the massacre that was distributed far and wide.

The irony was that the masses who led the revolt were fighting for demands that would benefit merchants like Laurens, not themselves. These men of no property would never have to put a Stamp Act tax-stamp on a document in their lives. Not for the first or the last time, the masses were fighting and risking their lives to fight someone else’s battle. As W.E. Woodward correctly points out:

“The discontent of the workingman was very real, and very bitter, though it had long been inarticulate. This dissatisfaction had nothing to do with British rule, though the illiterate mob was made to believe that Britain was the cause. The protest of the working classes was, in reality, an unconscious revolt against their position in the colonial world.

“The chief defect of colonial civilization – in respect to the common man – was not overregulation; the free white men of the time had more personal liberty than the common people in England. Its deficiency lay rather in underregulation, in a general neglect of all social problems. The higher classes had no time to give to the consideration of such matters. Their entire attention was fixed on land and money. They never made any serious attempt to better working conditions, or to establish minimum wages or hours of labor, or to consider the poor as anything else than servile dependents on the rich.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 131.)

The Declaration of Independence

In 1774 the delegates for the Continental Congress assembled in Philadelphia. Hostilities had already broken out and the delegates, although all from the wealthier classes of society, were under pressure to adopt a more radical stand. Originally the majority of the upper class Americans did not want independence. But the mood of the masses made all thought of compromise impossible. The situation was explosive and this favored the most radical elements in Congress. As a result, on July 4, 1776, the Thirteen United States of America declared their independence from Great Britain.

The task of drafting the declaration was given to a committee composed of John Adams (cousin of Samuel Adams and future President), Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Robert R. Livingston, and Roger Sherman. Thomas Jefferson, a 33-year-old Virginian landowner and left-winger, was charged by the committee to write the declaration. He wrote one of the most inspiring revolutionary documents in history.

Here was an act of tremendous boldness and one that required great courage. The revolutionaries had thrown down the gauntlet to the most powerful imperial state in the world. Their lives were now forfeit and could only be saved by outright victory and they knew it. There could now be no turning back, as Benjamin Franklin pointed out when he uttered the famous words: “We must hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately”. Later, when Jefferson was the American ambassador in France, he wrote:

“‘If our country, when pressed with wrongs at the point of the bayonet, had been governed by its heads instead of its hearts,’ he asked, ‘where should we have been now? Hanging on a gallows as high as Haman’s. You began to calculate and to compare wealth and numbers: we threw up a few pulsations of our warmest blood: we supplied enthusiasm against wealth and numbers: we put our existence to the hazard, when the hazard seemed against us, and we saved our country.’“

The Declaration of Independence, with its ringing endorsement of the idea of liberty and equality for all, was a clarion call to the downtrodden and oppressed everywhere. It was as revolutionary in 1776 as The Communist Manifesto would be in 1848.

This document seems the more remarkable because of the state of the world in which it was written. In 1776 there were kings on the throne of England, France, Austria and most of the other great powers of Europe. Russia was ruled by a tsar (or tsarina), the Ottoman Empire by the Sultan and China by its imperial dynasty. Democracy was therefore a novel and highly revolutionary doctrine.

This epoch-making document still has the power to inspire today. In it the idea of liberty is magnificently expressed. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are proclaimed as inalienable rights. But no citizen of Russia, China or the Ottoman Empire could say the same thing. Nor could the citizens of France, Austria or Prussia, and even England was a monarchy ruled, in practice, by a corrupt and reactionary oligarchy of wealthy landowners. The Declaration shook the world. When it was announced, it caused a tremendous stir in every American city. It was read aloud to exited groups of citizens on the streets of Philadelphia. Here was something really worth fighting and dying for! “And for the support of this Declaration”, Jefferson concluded, “we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

The document would doubtless have been even more radical had it not been for the fact that it had to be subscribed by all thirteen colonies, including the slave-owning colonies from the South. In fact, the most obvious and glaring weakness of the document is that it does not deal with the issue of slavery at all. There was a considerable slave population – 539,000 or one fifth of the total population of the colonies. It seems that Jefferson wanted to include a reference to slavery and made several proposals for its abolition, but all were rejected. Finally, following the protests of the slave-owning states, all mention of the institution of slavery was omitted from the final draft. Jefferson began to temporize on the issue, postponing it to some unspecified future date. In this way, the seeds were laid for a bloody Civil War and a second American Revolution.

On the thorny question of religion, however, Jefferson was implacable. He insisted that, though the citizen had the right to hold any belief he or she chose, governments did not have the right to favour any faith. Therefore the state and religion must be radically separated. At the time when this democratic principle was proclaimed, the states had their own laws on religion, mostly of a retrograde character. Some states prohibited Roman Catholicism. In Jefferson’s own state, Virginia, heresy was a capital offence. The radical separation of the state and religion is a basic democratic principle, but it is now under attack from the so-called religious right. These people wish to introduce religion into the schools and interfere with the curriculum to teach the First Book of Genesis instead of the scientific theory of evolution. These elements wish to throw America back to the Dark Ages, to the age of superstition and the Salem witch trials, and to ditch an essential feature of the Declaration of Independence.

Today the principles of the Declaration of Independence are the heritage of every American citizen. All Americans believe in these principles – at least, they would like to believe in them. Yet, if we are to be honest, there are contradictions in the very text of the Declaration and the American Constitution itself. When it is said that all men are created equal, this is clearly not in accordance with the facts. Although we may come into this world in a more or less equal state as human beings, there is inequality from the very start. The world is divided into rich and poor, and the former rule over the latter, exploit and oppress them. This was already the case when Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it is a million times truer today.

In the 18th century, it was still possible to dream of a democratic republic comprised of small farmers (this was Jefferson’s ideal), in which the differences between rich and poor would be reduced to a minimum. Over 200 years since the American Revolution, the U.S.A. is entirely dominated by a handful of giant corporations that act effectively as a law unto themselves, much as the old aristocracies of 18th century Europe did. Although theoretically the U.S. is a democracy and a republic, in fact all the important decisions are taken by small groups of unelected persons. Moreover, the power of the President, and the clique that surrounds him, is colossal and tends to constantly encroach on the rights of the citizens, the law and the Constitution itself.

For the wealthy merchants in Congress, freedom meant first and foremost freedom of trade and free enterprise. But free enterprise, as Marx explains, always begets monopoly, and today, the U.S.A. is more monopolized than any other country on earth. In place of Jefferson’s democracy of small farmers we have the dictatorship of Big Business. The roots of this contradiction can already be found in the 18th century, as we shall show.

First Shots of the Revolution

The revolutionary agitation gathered strength continually, impelled by the movement from below. There were attempts at compromise but they all broke down. It is not a question of the incompetence of lord North or the madness of George III, as some historians have tried to imply. Once the contradictions in society have reached a critical point, nothing can prevent an explosion. It is not a question then of this or that action by this or that government minister but of profound forces that, having matured over a long period, must break out onto the surface. Actually, the intention of the leaders was not to win independence from London but to reach a compromise that would lead to the abolition of the Stamp Act and other restrictive measures. When the First Continental Congress met it was overwhelmingly composed of wealthy landowners and merchants. The men of no property – the workers, artisans and dirt farmers – were conspicuous by their absence. The outlook of the majority was conservative:

“The spirit of colonial independence had not yet sunk deep into their convictions. Independence was too great a leap to take at once; they were less radical in temperament than the people who had sent them there. Why? Because all of them – or nearly all – represented some kind of vested interest and they moved with the customary caution of men of property. They regarded the Congress as a meeting of protest rather than of rebellion.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 145.)

We find a similar situation at the beginning of the French Revolution and the English Revolution. These were objectively bourgeois revolutions, but in practice the bourgeois elements that stood at the head of the movement in the initial stages were striving for a compromise with the old order. In every case the Revolution only succeeded to the degree that the leadership was taken out of the hands of the bourgeoisie and passed to the masses of proletarians, semi-proletarians and plebeians. If the bourgeois elements had retained control, it would have led to defeat. But that was not to be the case.

Events on the ground soon destroyed all attempts at compromise at the top. On April 18, 1775, events were brought to a head by the attempt of the British army to arrest two revolutionary leaders – John Hancock and Sam Adams. Warned in time by Paul Revere who rode out of Boston ahead of the troops, the pair escaped. Revere also warned the local militia commander at Lexington that they were in danger of losing their powder. The British, under the command of Major Pitcairn, arrived at Lexington to be confronted by some fifty armed Minutemen of the Massachusetts militia on the village green. When ordered to disperse, they stood their ground. In the ensuing fire fight, eight militiamen were killed. The first shots of the American Revolution had been fired.

The British may have won the first round but it was a pyrrhic victory. On the way back, the redcoats found themselves under fire from an invisible enemy. Farmers came straight from the fields, their clothes still caked in mud, and hid behind trees as they shot down one British soldier after another. By the end of the day, the militia had lost 93 men and the redcoats 293. Once the Revolution began it attracted all the slumbering forces of revolt that had lain dormant in the entrails of society. There were the backwoodsmen, for instance. They were not concerned with things like the Stamp Act but rather with the issue of land. For such men as these, Revolution was not just to kick out the British but also to break the power of the land companies – most of which were owned by Americans. These were the men who formed the most combative sections of the revolutionary militia – the sharpshooters whose guerrilla tactics drove the redcoats to desperation, attacking without warning and then disappearing back into the impenetrable forest.

Despite everything, the leaders continued to resist the demand for independence. Although the colonies had been advised to form temporary governments, Congress insisted that these provisional governments were to “continue only during the present unhappy and unnatural conflict.” (See W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 150.)

There were many traitors who did not want the revolution to succeed. Benedict Arnold was not an isolated case. Even those in Congress who reluctantly accepted the need to fight (when the British left them with no alternative) were more afraid of the masses than of the British redcoats. In their heart of hearts many of them desired some kind of deal. In fact, most of the American aristocracy were pro-British Tories. The strength of a revolution lies in the energy, the conviction and the active participation of the masses. The period of revolutionary ascent always corresponds to the period of greatest activity of the masses. That is why a revolution is democratic by its very nature. The same is true of any strike. A strike will succeed to the degree that the rank and file workers take the running of the strike into their own hands. Bureaucratic control is the kiss of death.

The psychology of the American elite was brilliantly conveyed by Gore Vidal in his novel about the American Revolution, Burr:

“‘I hate the enemies of England.’ There was real passion in her voice. ‘I hate what your Virginia dolt is doing to our world.’

“I assured her that it would still be our world when the war ended; but without the inconvenience of paying taxes to England. She would not believe me.
“‘It will not be ours but theirs, those wild men from the woods, from the water frontage, from the worst stews of the towns. They’ll take everything.’” (Gore Vidal, Burr, p.135.)

These lines perfectly express the mentality of the wealthy Americans who were terrified by the forces unleashed by the Revolution. The men of property – even those who hated the English – were afraid that by rousing the mass of poor and dispossessed Americans to fight the English, they would put in danger the sacred rights of private property. The American ruling class in its heart has always feared democracy and done its best to curtail democratic rights because they fear that a real “government of the people, by the people and for the people” would lead to the overthrow of the dictatorship of Money. All their actions have been governed by this fear – from 1776 right up to the present day.

Expropriation of Property

The ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence were extremely revolutionary for their day: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.” This proclamation of equality was like a revolutionary manifesto. 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. In the process many of the big estates were broken up and something like an agrarian reform was carried out. This, along with independence, was one of the main gains of the Revolution. W.E. Woodward writes:

“The seizable property of the Tories, or loyalists, must have been about one-third of the total property value of the colonies. This is merely an estimate, and it is probably too low. Nearly all Tory property was confiscated, and the Tories were treated with the utmost rigor. Washington called them ‘abominable pests of society,’ and declared they should be treated as traitors. Their confiscated property was usually sold at auction, and it seldom brought more than a small fraction of its current value. The proceeds went into the state treasuries.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 166.)

The amounts of land confiscated by the revolutionaries were considerable. The Fairfax estate in Virginia covered six million acres. The Phillipse estate in New York extended for 300 square miles. Sir William Pepperell could ride for 30 miles along the coast of Maine without ever leaving his own land. Yet despite the demand from Britain that the loyalists should be given compensation, not a single cent was ever paid to them:

“Then came the question of compensation to the loyalists whose property was confiscated during the war. The American commissioners declared that the loyalists’ property had been confiscated by the various states, and that Congress had no power to compel the states to make restitution. As a compromise the Americans agreed to include in the treaty a clause which would ‘recommend’ the states to compensate the Tories. It was also agreed that private debts owed to British creditors were still valid. The compensation clause was futile; none of the states paid any attention to it.” (ibid., pp. 211-212.)

The same point is made by other authors:

“Loyalists were tarred and feathered, ridden on rails, flogged, even executed. The term ‘lynch law’ probably originated from the proceedings of one Charles Lynch, a justice of the peace in Virginia, who achieved a certain notoriety for his treatment of Tories.

“In addition to the brutal treatment they received, Tories had their property snatched from them by the newly formed revolutionary governments. Many Tories were forced to seek shelter behind British lines. These actions reflected not only a tradition of social antagonism but also a strong desire among revolutionaries to achieve a united front. By the war’s end, nearly one hundred thousand colonial inhabitants had gone into exile in Canada and England. Their banishment brought profound psychological alienation – ‘a dismal gloom’, reported one unhappy exile from London.” (P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., pp. 117.)

George Washington Restores ‘Order’

The main concern of Congress was to keep control of the movement and limit its scope. On June 15th, 1775, three days before the Battle of Bunker Hill, the Continental Congress assumed control of the militia that was besieging Boston as well as all the other men under arms in the colonies. Colonel George Washington, a rich landowner, was promoted to the rank of general and made commander-in-chief. This choice was no accident. The gentlemen in Congress needed an aristocrat as a guarantee against the “mob” in Boston. Discipline was to be restored. Order was to prevail. The wealthy property owners in Congress were more frightened by their own supporters than of the British army.

Washington must have been shocked at what he saw in camp. As befits a revolutionary army, there was an egalitarian spirit and a marked lack of rank. Ordinary soldiers spoke to their officers on familiar terms. They did not bother to shave and talked in the ranks. Men could come and go as they pleased. Washington soon sorted that out. He introduced courts martial. Lieutenant Whitney was convicted of “infamous conduct in degrading himself by voluntarily doing the work of an orderly sergeant.”

Did these methods give better results? Actually, they did not. The men that Washington criticized so bitterly were the same American militiamen who had inflicted a terrible defeat on the British army at Bunker Hill – a defeat so resounding that after it the redcoats stayed under cover for nine months. The American troops never achieved such a result anywhere else, despite all Washington’s discipline and courts martial.

George Washington was in fact a very mediocre figure. His role in the American Revolution has been greatly exaggerated, while the role of real revolutionaries like Sam Adams has been played down. “Discipline is the soul of an army” was one of Washington’s favorite maxims. True – but the discipline of a revolutionary army is not the same as the discipline of any other army. Broadly speaking, every army reproduces the structures and is motivated by the spirit of the society that produced it. The army of a democracy will not be the same as the army of a fascist regime. The army of a class society needs a ferocious discipline – a reign of terror in fact – because it is maintained by force.

The discipline of a revolutionary army, on the contrary, is a voluntary discipline because it is necessarily an army of volunteers. The armies of the French Revolution, although they were composed largely of untrained volunteers, dressed in rags and barefoot, swept the best trained and equipped mercenaries in Europe before them and scattered them like the wind. The difference is that they knew what they were fighting for. They believed in it and were willing to die for it. This made them virtually invulnerable.

A revolutionary army must be run on democratic lines. This does not at all contradict the requirements of discipline in the battlefield. The Russian Red Army under Trotsky was very democratic. The Bolsheviks abolished the saluting of officers and all the outward trappings of command: the medals and gaudy uniforms. The officers and men ate in the same canteens and the soldiers were no longer required to use the polite form (vy in Russian, like vous in French or usted in Spanish) when addressing an officer. But when in battle strict discipline was expected and all orders had to be obeyed. The Red Army became a formidable fighting force while maintaining the norms of proletarian democracy. By the way, a similar regime existed in Oliver Cromwell’s Model Army during the English Revolution in the 17th century.

The aristocratic Washington, who was very much in favour of pomp and circumstance, medals and smart uniforms, and who tried to impose strict (bourgeois) discipline in an army of revolutionary volunteers, did not make them a more effective fighting force but rather the opposite. In the same way the Stalinists in Spain in the Civil War of the 1930s, using the same arguments as Washington, actually destroyed the basis of the revolutionary army and undermined its fighting spirit, leading to its defeat at the hands of Franco’s fascist army.

Far from improving the military efficiency of the revolutionary forces, Washington committed a major blunder. The strength of the revolutionary army lay in its guerrilla tactics, combining flexibility with great mobility. They could inflict considerable casualties on the British and then vanish into thin air. The farmers’ boys and backwoodsmen were fine sharpshooters, but could not stand a bayonet charge by regular troops. Washington attempted to turn them into regular soldiers and made a mess of it. Charles Francis Adams, who was a soldier in the revolutionary army as well as a historian, wrote:

“Washington measured himself and his army up against his adversary at the point where they were strongest and he was least so. He offered infantry to infantry; oblivious of the fact that the British infantry were of the most perfectly organized kind, while his own was at best an extemporized force.”
The main problem was not military but political. Both Washington and the bourgeois and landlords in Congress lacked the will to pursue the fight against the British to the finish. They admitted there was a war but denied it was a war against the king! As a result the war dragged on inconclusively for years. Washington was a careerist, more suited for political intrigues and manoeuvres at the top than fighting the enemy. As Gore Vidal wittily (and correctly) says:

“[…] though Washington could not defeat the enemy in battle, he had a fine talent for defeating rival generals in the Congress.” (Gore Vidal, Burr, p. 73.)
There can be no doubt that the British were actually winning the war before the French came in on the American side. The French were motivated not by the love of liberty (they lived under an absolutist monarchy a hundred times more oppressive than the British equivalent), but by hatred of England, their old rival. This tipped the balance in favour of the American colonists. Britain was already worn down by the costs of a prolonged war that was draining them financially and disrupting trade, especially when Spain and Holland also joined in.

In 1781 the British general Cornwallis found himself trapped in Yorktown, with the American forces in front of him, and the French fleet in his rear. There was no escape. He was forced to surrender. At this time the ruling administration in London was led by men who were unenthusiastic about continuing the war. They added up their sums and concluded that it was costing them more to hold down the American colonies than what they could ever hope to get back. They decided to pull the British army out. The war was over.

Washington’s alleged military skills therefore had little or nothing to do with the victory. The war itself was really mainly a series of inconclusive skirmishes. As a military chief his record was very poor. In the first three years he lost every single engagement, except for a small victory at Trenton, and that was achieved more by luck than judgement. In a Christmas Eve skirmish in the middle of a snowstorm, he managed to defeat a whole brigade of Hessians. It helped a little that the Hessians, who had been celebrating the Festive season, were blind drunk at the time and did not know what they were doing.

Other revolutionary generals were more capable and more successful than Washington. And the most successful actions of the revolutionary forces were carried out by the guerrillas, whom he despised. The reason that Washington’s image has been boosted by the official historians of the Revolution is that he represented the most Conservative wing of the leadership – a “moderate”, a respectable man of property – a man in the image of the present-day rulers of the U.S.A., with whom the modern bankers, capitalists and Republican leaders can feel comfortable.

The attempts of Washington to control the revolutionary army from the top and impose a ferocious military discipline were not dictated by military necessity but rather by the wish of the bourgeois and landowners in Congress to police the revolutionary masses and prevent the revolutionary movement from getting “out of hand”. Even in the course of hostilities, the men of property were preparing for the moment of victory, when it would be necessary to reassert their “sacred right to rule” and crush the very people who had won the victory.

The New Oligarchy

“Democracy has never been and never can be so desirable as aristocracy or monarchy, but while it lasts, is more bloody than either. Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” (John Adams)

The fears of the “Moneyocracy” were fully confirmed by what happened after the British were driven out. With the removal of the common enemy, the class divisions emerged with renewed force. The wealthy upper class was itself divided between the Whigs, who supported the Revolution, and the Tories, the most conservative wing of the bourgeois and landowning aristocracy, who had supported the British Crown. But after the defeat of the English and the departure of the Redcoats, the Tories had no alternative but to throw in their lot with the winning side.

Although the right to vote was extended to include new layers of property owners, it was still highly restrictive. A new oligarchy was being created, in which the rich and powerful joined forces in a reactionary bloc against democracy and the demands of the lower orders. They attempted to give the most restrictive interpretation to the Constitution, stressing property rights above all else. Their model was the principles of the British government – that is, an aristocratic constitution that excluded the bulk of the people from government. The common people had shed their blood to drive the British out, while the American ruling class conspired in Congress to reintroduce the corrupt and undemocratic British system of government. For them, all the rights and privileges were the monopoly of the rich, while all the obligations and duties were for the poor. As long as the rich were all right, everybody was assumed to be all right. (The same idea is basically behind what is today called the “trickle-down” theory.)

A section of the bourgeoisie favoured a strong central state, while others wanted a weaker centre. From this arose the Federalist and anti-Federalists. Some of the Whigs became anti-Federalists, while others like Hamilton (who was really a monarchist in disguise) became strong Federalists. Tory Federalists became Republicans, while anti-Federalist Republicans became Jeffersonian Democrats. The Tories were in favour of strong central government in order to protect property, although previously they had been opposed to any government since they supported the British Crown.

The fact is that Alexander Hamilton and John Adams were conspiring to reintroduce an English-style monarchical system. The differences between Jefferson and Hamilton were between the right wing of the bourgeoisie, who wanted a deal with the counter-revolutionaries, and the more radical wing that was prepared to lean on the masses for support, but without surrendering an atom of real power. Of the 13,000 men who lived in New York City, only 1,300 owned enough property to qualify as voters. In the election of 1789 there were over 200,000 residents in New York State, of whom only 12,000 were eligible to vote for governor. In Massachusetts the property qualifications for voters were twice as high as under British rule. The Federalists were firm supporters of oligarchic rule and in essence opposed to democracy:

“Supporters of the new Constitution – people who styled themselves Federalists – argued that state governments were too susceptible to popular control, that the masses did not respect the interests of property, that liberty threatened the stability of the republics. The Federalists appealed to people with interstate interests – merchants, commercial farmers, public creditors, and urban workers whose livelihoods depended upon the prosperity of their employers. They also attracted politicians who lacked power within the existing state governments, men who hoped to supplant the entrenched political groups. As defenders of property, the Federalists saw a strong national government as a bulwark against the caprice of popular politics.”

“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men,” Madison declared, “the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.” These lines strikingly express the attitude of the oligarchy to the people. The first task of government is not to represent the people, but to control them. The real attitude of the ruling elite was shown by the words of John Adams, who together with Hamilton had founded the Federalist Party (though he later described Hamilton as “the bastard son of a Scotch peddler”).

Party lines constantly shifted and the arguments between the rival factions were acrimonious at times, but in the last analysis, the entire ruling class was united against the demands of the workers and the poor. 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 fact, for all the talk of “Liberty”, the victory of the Revolution had only transferred power from a corrupt and reactionary colonial government to an equally corrupt and reactionary American oligarchy.

The Revolution proclaimed the inalienable Rights of Man, but these did not include women, slaves, Native Americans or the great majority of the population who owned little or no property. When the revolutionary armies were disbanded, there was no money to pay the arrears of wages. Some of the men were paid off in land warrants, which were later sold to speculators for paltry amounts. Half the members of Congress had their pockets full of these warrants. George Washington was one of the big buyers. As President, Washington tried to give the impression of standing above classes and party strife. But in practice he represented the oligarchy, whose interests and psychology he shared:

“He was a practical man, not troubled much by unrealizable ideals. His intellectual outlook was that of an industrialist or a banker. It was what we call today the ‘banker-mind.’ The banker stands for stability, and Washington was for that. The banker is for law and order, for land and mortgages, for substantial assets – and Washington believed in them too. The banker wants the nation to be prosperous; by that he means that he wants the common people to have plenty of work and wealthy people to have plenty of profits. That was Washington’s ideal.” (W.E. Woodward, op.cit., pp. 255-6.)

Shays’ Rebellion

In every great revolution we see more or less clearly defined stages, which recur with a strange regularity and with uncanny similarity. The initial stage, which corresponds with the first awakening of the masses and the growth of their self-awareness, is characterized by a mood of euphoria and a spirit of unity. But gradually this illusory unity dissipates and there is a growing division between the more revolutionary elements and the more moderate party. The period of revolutionary ascent is marked by a movement to the left, in which the more revolutionary wing and the most audacious leaders gain the upper hand and sweep all before them.

However, as Trotsky explains, revolution is a powerful devourer of human energies. As the masses become exhausted by their exertions and sink into passivity, the conservative wing tends to regain control and elbow the revolutionaries to one side. This happened in every bourgeois revolution in history, and corresponds to the inevitable dialectic of such a revolution. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men were born free, and proclaimed the equality of all men as “self-evident.” These were ideals worth fighting and dying for. But once the British had been defeated, the American bourgeoisie soon made it clear that all men were not equal, and that they intended to rule and exploit the people, just as the British had done before them.

There is a stage in every great revolution when the masses – or at least the most militant section of the masses – begin to feel that they have been cheated of the fruits of victory, that power is slipping through their fingers and they have to act to prevent this from happening. A desperate minority moves to take power and is crushed. This marks a decisive turning point in the revolution, where the conservative wing crushes its former allies and proceeds to consolidate its power as a new ruling class. This stage in the American Revolution was Shays Rebellion.

When the cannons had fallen silent and the smoke had finally cleared from the battlefields, the small farmers, workers and artisans who had done all the fighting looked around them and saw that they had gained nothing from the Revolution. They were crushed by debts and taxes. Interest rates were charged at up to forty percent. Poor settlers, crossing the mountains in search of land, found the best farming country in the hands of land companies. All the power was in the hands of the rich –the merchants, the landowners, the moneylenders. Runaway inflation made money worthless. To make matters worse, the war was followed by a deep trade depression that lasted from 1783 to 1788. Prices and taxes soared. As a result, thousands languished in debtors’ prisons. In Massachusetts alone, 90 percent of those in prison were debtors. The discontent of the masses reached boiling point.

There were serious uprisings in Massachusetts. In New Hampshire a mob of several hundred men marched to the legislature with clubs, stones and guns to demand relief. The rebels assumed (erroneously) that the problem was a shortage of currency. “Print money and lower the taxes” was their slogan. But there is no doubt that the high taxes 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 Captain Daniel Shays, a former officer in the revolutionary army, and now, like so many others, a ruined small farmer. 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.)

It was at this time that Thomas Jefferson made his famous remark that the Tree of Liberty must be watered from time to time by the blood of patriots. He also wrote that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.” However, this view was anathema to the majority of the American ruling class. Again, Gore Vidal accurately expresses the views of the oligarchy in the following imaginary dialogue between George Washington and Aaron Burr, a controversial figure in the American Revolution and the central figure in his novel of that name:

“Washington spoke through me, but not to cut me off: he was going deaf and did not hear half what was said to him. ‘When word came to me of the treasonous acts of a certain Captain Daniel Shays – a dirty fellow once known to me – it was apparent that we must have a strong government to protect our property. Mr. Hamilton concurred with me and we summoned a constitutional convention at which I, at great personal sacrifice, let me say, presided. I regard, Sir, that convention as the most important event of my own career. Because had we not invented this federal government, they would have taken away everything.’

“The face was dark with sudden color. The hands that were stretched to the fire trembled. ‘By now that Massachusetts rabble would have divided all property amongst the worthless classes. Not even your French have dared go so far. This is not natural, I said at the time. This must be stopped. We did not fight and win a war with a despot across the sea to be in turn tyrannized by a bloody mob whose contribution to our victory, if I may say so, was considerably less than that of those gentlemen who sacrificed all that they had in order that we be a separate nation. So what we won in that war we mean to keep, Colonel Burr. And I am sure that you agree with that sentiment.’” (Gore Vidal, Burr, p.192.)

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.” He added: “Our government must be braced, changed, or altered to secure our lives and property.” (Quoted in W.E. Woodward, op. cit., p. 228, my emphasis, AW.)

The rebellion was crushed and fourteen of its leaders, including Shays, were sentenced to death, though later pardoned. In Shays’ rebellion, the masses, feeling that the power that they have fought and died for is slipping from their hands, tried desperately to seize the initiative again. But the movement was doomed to defeat. 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 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.

The Constitution

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. So were a number of the most prominent revolutionary leaders. Patrick Henry was not there. They asked him to serve, but he would have nothing to do with it. Nor was Samuel Adams, the most outspoken of the revolutionaries. Nor was Christopher Gadsden, of South Carolina, organizer of mechanics and laboring men. Their day had passed; the moving spirits of the convention did not want any organizers of rebellion, or leaders of the populace. Thomas Jefferson, idealist and democrat, was in France serving as the American ambassador.

The men who drafted the American constitution were all moneylenders, merchants, manufacturers, bondholders or slaveholders. They met behind closed doors, and all the delegates were pledged to secrecy. When the Constitution was finally announced most people were surprised. They knew nothing about it. The secrecy with which the Constitution was drawn up is no accident. It is possible to draw 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. That is precisely why the proceedings had to take place behind the backs of the people.

Gradually, the voice of the radical elements was drowned out by the men of property. Hamilton was openly contemptuous about democracy. He was not the only one. Listen to what Madison had to say: “In future times a great majority of the people will not only be without landed, but any other sort of property. These will either combine under the influence of their common situation; in which case, the rights of property and the public liberty will not be secure in their hands, or, which is more probable, they will become the tools of opulence and ambition; in which case there will be equal danger on another side.”

These lines are perfectly clear. The fierce debates that raged over the Constitution were the parting shots of class conflict. The central contradiction may be simply stated: most of the authors of the Constitution did not believe in the equality of man, but the common people certainly did. It required a second revolution (the Civil War) to get the question of the suffrage included in the Constitution in the Fifteenth Amendment of 1870. But at that time the question was left up to the individual states. This meant that three quarters of the free white men in all states except two or three were excluded from voting because they did not posses enough property. However, at the proposal of Jefferson and other Left-wingers, a Bill of Rights was approved.

The discussions on the Constitution 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 passed by a narrow margin by those few who were eligible to vote, as these figures show:

                                            For            Against
    New York                          30                 27
    New Hampshire                 57                 47
    Massachusetts                 187               168
    Virginia                             89                 79

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.

America and the French Revolution

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 English-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.

The American Revolution provided a stimulus for the French Revolution of 1789-93. But in its turn the French Revolution had a considerable impact on America. The news from Paris exacerbated the split between Right and Left inside Washington’s cabinet, especially after the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette in April 1793. Jefferson, who stood on the Left, welcomed it, but the Conservative wing recoiled in horror, probably picturing themselves on the steps of the guillotine. Although the French Revolution appalled the American Conservatives, much as the Russian Revolution did later, it inspired the Left Wing and reaffirmed their revolutionary identity and aspirations. Even before 1789, Thomas Jefferson was strongly anti-monarchical in his views. He was sent as ambassador of America to Paris – probably to get him out of the way.

While in Paris he had occasion to note that France was divided between sheep and wolves, with an abyss separating rich and poor. Among all that aristocratic gang he felt like “a savage from the woods of America”. It was not therefore surprising that Jefferson greeted the Revolution enthusiastically. “Was ever a prize won with so little human blood?” he asked, answering the attacks of the enemies of the Revolution who (as they always do) tried to portray it as an orgy of bloodletting.

The French Revolution opened up a deep rift that expressed itself on party lines. The Jeffersonians were pro-French in foreign policy and advocated a loose confederation of states in America with less power for the centre. It based itself on the support of the small farmers and proletarian and semi-proletarian elements in the cities. The Federalists, on the other hand, were pro-British (their opponents called them “the English Party”), stood for a strong central government and represented the interests of the big merchants and manufacturers.

In October 1789 Jefferson returned to America. Revolutionary France was attacked by the reactionary powers of Europe: England, Austria, Sardinia and the Netherlands. The Democratic-Republicans wanted war against England, whereas the Federalists wanted war against France. The Democratic-Republican Party at that time stood on the left. They were pro-French, anti-British, and argued for greater egalitarianism. The leaders included Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Clinton and Aaron Burr.

The Federalists were the right wing and included many former Tories. This was the party of the oligarchy par excellence, and was backed by Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, John Jay, and (surreptitiously) by Washington himself. However, realizing that for America to unite with Britain against France was politically impossible, Washington insisted on strict neutrality.

The impact of the French Revolution in America was tremendous. It gave fresh heart to the revolutionaries and the Left Wing and threw the Conservatives into a panic. They feared that the example of the Jacobins would lead to a second Revolution in America that would lead to the overthrow of the oligarchy. This did not happen because the vast open spaces to the West provided a safety valve. The energies of the downtrodden that in France were the mainspring of the Revolution, in America could be channelled into the movement to the West. Nevertheless, the contradictions remained and would burst to the surface in the Civil War.

The French Revolution, with its slogan Liberty, Equality, Fraternity also inspired an uprising of black slaves in Santo Domingo. This terrified the big landowners of the Southern States even more. Gabriel Prosser led an uprising of slaves in America, which was put down with great ferocity. Thousands of black slaves were slaughtered in Virginia.

The war in Europe had serious repercussions in America. Both the British and French seized American vessels. This was used as an excuse to bring in the Alien and Sedition Act that gave the executive the power to arrest and deport any foreigners and arrest citizens for criticizing the government. Here we see the beginnings of an attempt to limit and even undermine the democratic rights established by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The Act was used to harass, arrest and imprison anti-Federalist elements. We see exactly the same thing now with the anti-democratic Patriot Act legislation introduced after September 11. Jefferson and others attempted to resist the attacks on democracy by insisting on states’ rights. Although the same demand was later filled by a reactionary content – to defend the right of the southern states to keep slaves – at this time it had a progressive character.

Federalists and Anti-Federalists

The struggle between Federalists and anti-Federalists was in essence the struggle between the American Thermidorean counter-revolutionaries and those who sought to uphold the original aims of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson even spoke openly of the need for a second Revolution. This was actually what took place in the Civil War. The third – and greatest – American Revolution is currently in the process of being prepared. The victory of the conservative faction led to a state of affairs which had very little to do with the revolutionary-democratic ideals of 1776. P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble point out:

“The importance of the legislatures made questions of political representation more pressing than ever before. In organizing republican governments, American politicians assumed that the legislatures represented specific constituencies and spoke for that amorphous group they called ‘the people’. They agreed, nevertheless, that the power of the people could easily degenerate into anarchy and destroy the governmental balance. To reduce the likelihood of mob rule, the state constitutions restricted political participation to male property owners and often established still higher property qualifications for officeholding. Despite occasional demands for wider democracy, the older habits of elitist politics prevailed. Consequently political representation remained with the more affluent citizens even though there is some evidence that members of state senates were slightly less wealthy than the councillors of the colonial period.

“The conservative nature of these changes tells much about the American Revolution. Despite the revolutionary implications of the Declaration of Independence – the demands for government by consent of the governed and the assumptions about political equality – power generally remained in the hands of moderate leaders who were concerned as much with the interests of property as with the cause of liberty.” (P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., pp. 120-21.)

Needless to say, the Federalists attacked Jefferson viciously, using exactly the same kind of language the U.S. reactionaries later used against socialists. When he stood against Adams in the election of 1800, it was said that a Jefferson victory would destroy religion and undo the bounds of society, and that a vote for Jefferson was a vote against God, etc. However, the people showed that they would not be bullied and voted for Jefferson, risking the wrath of the Almighty in the hopes of achieving justice in this life.

Even the geography of the new capital was a reflection of the class struggle. By moving the capital of the Republic to Washington, the Federalist faction clearly intended to remove the government and Presidency from the pressure of the masses of New York. The new capital, conveniently situated near to the conservative agrarian states of the South, was a place where hardly anybody lived. The scale and style of the White House and Capitol suggested grand imperial ambitions. Jefferson, who was allergic to monarchy, commented ironically that the White House was big enough to house “two Emperors, one Pope and the Chief Lama.”

To his credit, Jefferson immediately took measures to counteract the Federalists’ attempt to move in the direction of monarchy. He banned the use of his image on coins, forbade the celebration of his birthday and opened up the White House to anyone who wanted to visit him. He dressed so modestly that a visiting diplomat took him for one of the servants. This is quite in the spirit of the Bolshevik leaders who after the October Revolution would take no more wages than those of a skilled worker, walked the streets without armies of bodyguards and were easily accessible to anyone who wanted to meet them.
When the famous English writer Arthur Ransome visited Moscow in 1919 he met Bukharin, who at that time was a key figure in the revolutionary government. He gave Bukharin a packet of sugar, and the Bolshevik leader was delighted because he did not have any sugar. This was absolutely typical of all the Bolshevik leaders at that time. The situation only changed after the Stalinist political counterrevolution, itself the result of the isolation of the Revolution in conditions of frightful poverty and backwardness.

This democratic, egalitarian spirit of the founders of the American Republic stands in stark contrast to the conduct of America’s present-day political leaders. Thomas Jefferson was a true son of the Enlightenment with a classical education and a healthily sceptical attitude to religion. He dressed like a servant and when he died he did not have enough money to pay his debts. George W. Bush is an illiterate billionaire who cannot utter a single coherent sentence and has a brain that is chock-full of the crudest religious superstition. He also has pretensions to imperial grandeur to rival those of Nero or Caligula. We leave it to the reader to decide whether this represents progress or regression.

Return to Table of Contents

Go to Chapter III — Rich and Poor

Chapter I — "Blood From Every Pore"

Return to Table of Contents

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 U.S.S.R. 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 U.S.S.R. 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 U.S.A. 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 U.S.A.

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 U.S.A. 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 U.S.A. than in any other country in the world.

Before the Europeans arrived, 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:

“As the ecological patterns of this large geographic area varied enormously, each native group adjusted its lifestyle to benefit from the available resources. Such patterns reflected not so much economic prudence as a spiritual relationship with nature. Regardless of regional variations, the native peoples viewed the world as a balanced system in which all creation, animate and inanimate, existed harmoniously. Thus the biological world of edible plants or fish or game remained intimately attached to a spirit world. Humanity was but one part of that system. The acquisition of food, clothing, or shelter therefore depended upon maintaining spiritual relations with the rest of creation. From this perspective, the idea of owning parcels of land, bits of creation, was unthinkable.” (P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, The Free and the Unfree, a New History of the United States, pp. 27-8.)

How things have changed! 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.” (Lewis Henry Morgan, Ancient Society, p. 85.)

And again:

“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.” (Morgan, 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!

Genocide of the first Americans

It is impossible to read today the accounts of the first contacts between Europeans and Native Americans without a profound sense of sadness. In every case the newcomers were greeted with the hospitality that was a sacred obligation for the people the haughty strangers regarded as “savages”. Columbus wrote: “Of anything they have, if you ask them for it, they never say no.” His journal is full of examples of the generosity of the unsuspecting natives, who were about to be enslaved and exterminated as a reward. “They ought to be good servants and of good skill,” Columbus concluded.

The European colonization of the Americas had a devastating effect on the lives and cultures of the Native Americans. In the 15th to 19th centuries, their populations were decimated, by the privations of displacement, by disease, and in many cases by warfare with and enslavement by European settlers. The latter liked to portray their treatment of the Native Americans as the result of an admirable civilizing and humanitarian mission (just as the imperialists of our own period describe their missions in Iraq and elsewhere). They were bringing Christianity and Civilization to a bunch of ignorant savages and naked heathens. In practice, however, their motives were simple greed and insatiable lust for gold and land.

A contemporary account describes the response of the most Christian Spaniards when the Aztec emperor distributed presents of gold among them:

“The Spanish burst into smiles; their eyes shone with pleasure… They picked up the gold and fingered it like monkeys; they seemed to be transported by joy, as if their hearts were illumined and made new.” (Quoted in P.N. Carroll and D.W. Noble, op. cit., pp. 40.)

The first Native American group encountered by Columbus, the 250,000 Arawaks of Haiti, were enslaved and brutally treated. By the year 1550 only 500 were still alive and the entire people was totally extinct before 1650. This set the tone for the treatment of the First Americans for the next 400 years. When the Native Americans realized they were being expropriated and robbed, they reacted with predictable violence. A long and bloody conflict was born.

Here is a typical report of a Captain John Mason, who came across a Native American fort early one morning while the inhabitants were still asleep. Having blocked the exits, he then ordered his men to set fire to the wigwams:

“The captain also said: ‘We must burn them’, … (and immediately stepping into the Wigwam where he had been before,) brought out a Fire-Brand and putting it into the Matts with which they were covered, set the Wigwams on fire … and when it was thoroughly kindled, the Indians ran as Men most dreadfully Amazed. And indeed such a dreadful Terror did the Almighty let fall upon their Spirits, that they would fly from us and into the very Flames, where many of them perished. And when the Fort was thoroughly Fired, Command was given, that all should fall off and surround the Fort; which was readily attended by all; … The Fire was kindled on the North East Side to windward; which did swiftly over-run the Fort, to the extreme Amazement of the Enemy, and great Rejoycing of ourselves. Some of them climbing to the Top of the Palisade; others of them running into the very Flames; many of them gathering to windward, lay pelting at us with their Arrows; and we repayed them with our small Shot; Others of the Stoutest issued forth as we did guess, to the Number of Forty, who perished by the Sword. …

“And thus in little more than one Hour’s space was their impregnable Fort with themselves utterly destroyed, to the Number of Six or Seven Hundred, as some of themselves confessed. There were only Seven taken Captive and about Seven escaped. …

“Of the English, there were two Slain outright, and about twenty wounded.” (Quoted in Leo Huberman, We the People, pp. 26-7.)

This amounted to outright genocide. Although there were honourable exceptions, most Europeans felt free to rob and kill the “primitive” people they found in their path. Europeans also brought diseases against which the Native Americans had no immunity. Usually it was unintentional, but sometimes they intentionally spread disease among the native tribes. This is probably the earliest example of germ warfare in history.

Illnesses like chicken pox and measles, though rarely a cause of death among Europeans, often proved fatal to Native Americans. More deadly diseases such as smallpox caused the most terrible devastation in Native American populations. Nobody knows the exact percentage of the total Native American population killed in this way, but it is known that waves of disease often destroyed entire villages. Some historians believe that up to 80 per cent of some Indian populations may have died as a result of European-derived diseases:

“Sir Jeffrey Amherst – for whom Amherst College is named – had a plan for exterminating the Indians. He was commander in chief of the British forces in America in the 1760s, while the French and Indian War was going on. With all deference to historical perspective, the viewpoint of the age, and so on, his plan makes one more or less ashamed of the human race. His idea was to kill the Indians by spreading smallpox among them – and to spread it he proposed giving them blankets inoculated with the disease. The blankets were to be given as presents, accompanied by smiles and expressions of goodwill.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 106.)

In other words, the advent of “civilization” (read: capitalism) was disastrous for the Native Americans. Their tribal lands were plundered. They were killed like animals or herded into so-called reservations where they suffered a slow death from hunger, disease, alcohol abuse or simple despair. Proud and ancient cultures were annihilated as the alien culture of Christianity was foisted on a defeated people. Having robbed them of their lands, the conquerors now proceeded to rob them of their soul.

The treatment of the Native peoples, along with the enslavement of the black Africans, constitutes a blot on the history of the U.S.A. But the Europeans have no reason to feel in any way morally superior in comparison to Americans. This bloody barbarism constitutes a definite stage in capitalism, which Marx called the Primitive Accumulation of capital. In every country it bore the same hallmarks. In England we had the Enclosure Acts that robbed the peasants of their land and reduced them to beggary and starvation in their own country.

Marx pointed out that capitalism first came onto the stage of history dripping blood from every pore. The genesis of the capitalist system is the systematic expropriation of the property of the peasants, the Native Americans, the Scottish clans and the peoples of the enslaved colonies, and, in Marx’s words, this history “is written in the annals of mankind in letters of blood and fire”:

“The spoliation of the church’s property, the fraudulent alienation of the State domains, the robbery of the common lands, the usurpation of feudal and clan property, and its transformation into modern private property under circumstances of reckless terrorism, were just so many idyllic methods of primitive accumulation. They conquered the field for capitalistic agriculture, made the soil part and parcel of capital, and created for the town industries the necessary supply of a ‘free’ and outlawed proletariat.”

Capitalism always destroys every older social system with which it enters into contact. This destructive task has always been accomplished with the utmost barbarity and ruthlessness. In Scotland we had the so-called Highland Clearances, which deprived the free peasants of the Highlands of their ancestral lands and broke up the ancient clan system. Starving men, women and children were driven off their land like beasts and the estates turned into hunting preserves for the English aristocrats. To this day the North of Scotland is a wilderness. Many of the expropriated Scottish peasants were forced to emigrate to the United States and Canada.

The difference in the United States lies in the racial component. The First Americans were seen as inferior beings, not fully human, who could be conquered, enslaved, plundered or killed without any qualms of conscience. In the early days a bounty was paid for the scalp of every Native American man, woman or child handed in to the authorities. The first reported case of white men scalping Native Americans took place in New Hampshire colony on February 20, 1725. In spite of the movies, the Native Americans probably learned scalping from the Europeans and not vice-versa.

“Custer’s Last Stand”

In the 19th century, the westward expansion of the United States led to a colossal increase in the numbers of Native Americans expelled from vast areas of their territory. Whole peoples were forced into marginal lands in areas farther and farther west, or simply by massacring them. The mask of hypocrisy was always available to salve the consciousness of the Christian businessmen and politicians involved in this plunder. Numerous treaties were entered into during this period, but later violated or simply abrogated. When the natives resisted, it was reported at the time as the “Indian Wars”. In fact, these wars had an entirely one-sided character.

This portrayal of the Native Americans as “savages” was perpetrated by countless novels, stories and above all the cinema, where the white settlers were habitually portrayed as the victims, while the “Indians” were portrayed as bloodthirsty aggressors. The “Injun fighter” was always the hero. In turn these movie images fed racist prejudice that re-emerged time and time again in the bloody history of American imperialism. After all, racism is only the distilled essence of imperialism.

Among the military engagements of the “Indian Wars” one stands out as an example not only of the bravery of the Native Americans but also of their grasp of military tactics and strategy. I refer to the famous Native American victory at the Battle of the Little Bighorn in 1876. This episode has been subjected to an incredible campaign of falsification. It has entered the annals of Western history as “Custer’s last Stand” and has acquired virtually the status of a myth. At the time the press published prints of the gallant general surrounded by his faithful troopers, valiantly defending the flag until the last man was cut down by the “murdering redskins”. This myth was later popularized in various Hollywood films, depicting Custer and his men as great heroes.

The achievements of the U.S. cinema industry are well known and justly celebrated. But the American film directors have to this day shown themselves to be incapable of producing a single honest film about the Vietnam War. Some films have appeared that are quite good, cinematographically speaking. They at least attempt to show the Vietnam War as a barbaric war – although, generally speaking, the U.S. soldiers are presented as the main victims of this barbarity.
This is a one-sided view, to put it mildly. The people of Vietnam suffered invasion by a foreign army; were killed by the hundreds of thousands by bullets, napalm, shrapnel, and chemical weapons (“defoliants”). Yet even in supposedly anti-war films they rarely appear as real human beings – usually they appear only as “collateral damage”. The Vietnamese fighters who took on the might of the U.S. military are never presented as what they truly were - heroic resistance fighters - but rather, as a shadowy and depersonalized enemy. In place of the “murdering redskins” of the old John Wayne movies we have the Vietnamese “gooks” or the Iraqi “terrorists”. We really have not advanced very far!

The truth about the Battle of the Little Bighorn was very different from the fictional accounts. Recent research of the battlefield has finally nailed the lie. There was no “Custer’s Last Stand”. The U.S. Cavalry was outmaneuvered and outfought by the Native American warriors, and cut down as they fled in panic. But this could not be admitted! How could the American public be informed that supposedly inferior “savages” had a better grasp of military science than an American general? How could they fight better than the crack troops of the Seventh Cavalry? In this way the lying propaganda of Custer’s Last Stand was born. In one form or another it has been with us ever since.

The Native American victory at the Little Big Horn had to be avenged and was avenged with interest in the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890. On January 31, 1876 the United States government ordered all remaining Native Americans to move into reservations or reserves. This was the end of a civilization. By the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen, the astonishing Prairie Culture that developed around the use of the horse for hunting, travel and trading was crushed underfoot.

Nowadays many people in the U.S.A. realize that the image of the Native Americans as primitive savages is a travesty and a falsification of history. These peoples were not savages, but nations with a culture and a complex civilization from which we can learn many things. There is a natural desire to make amends. Naturally, all the rights of the Native Americans must be upheld. But the clock cannot be put back 150 years. When a way of life and a culture has passed into history it can no more be revived than a dead person can be brought back to life. We must march onwards to a higher stage of human civilization, while preserving and absorbing all that is valuable from the past.

It is very sad that the good name of America has been besmirched for so long by the taint of racism. After all, American history is the history of a gigantic melting pot that has absorbed people from many different nations, religions and cultures. It is this rich ethnic mix in part that makes the American character so vital, energetic and outward going. Under socialism, the highest form of human civilization and culture, this stain will be erased once and for all, and the people of every ethnic background will have the possibility of a free development in conditions of complete liberty, equality and fraternity.

Forgotten Aspects of American History

In the 17th century, the Pilgrims 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 II 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, Ranters, Seekers, Anabaptists, Quakers, and others 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” (as they came to be called) went to America to found communities based not only on religious freedom but also on principles of strict equality and democracy.

The one hundred and two souls who set sail on the Mayflower were not men and women of property but poor men and women from the lower classes of English society: small farmers, manual workers, artisans, weavers, carpenters, blacksmiths and the like. Only a few were schoolteachers. As members of a dissident religious sect (the Brownites or Separatists), they were oppressed by poverty and the extreme difficulty in making a living in Restoration England. Politically, they were what we would call nowadays left-wing revolutionaries. Many of them emigrated to Holland, the only country in Europe that upheld religious toleration. But some of the more daring decided to make the long and dangerous crossing of the Atlantic in search of social, political and religious freedom.

As Alexis 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.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, p. 35.)

But the Separatists were a more radical tendency than the run-of-the-mill Puritans. They advocated reform not only in religious but also in secular matters. This was enough for the authorities to regard them as dangerous subversives, much as the U.S. authorities regard Marxists today. Worse still, they believed in holding property in common and sharing the products of labor. In short, the Pilgrims were Communists.

The colony founded by these pioneers was based on a communal system. Whatever was produced was to go into a common fund and everyone was to be fed and clothed out of it. In other words, they based themselves on the communist principle: “from each according to his or her ability, to each according to his or her need.” For the first seven years there was to be no private property in land. In the end it broke down, of course. It is impossible to construct a communist system on the basis of poverty and a low level of development of the productive forces. By 1623 the social differentiation was already so pronounced, and the objections to the communal system so general, that Governor Bradford abolished it and gave every family a plot of land.

However, even after that the Pilgrims 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.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 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 1871, 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 U.S.A.! According to these ladies and gentlemen the Pilgrims 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.

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.

Class Struggle and Slavery

The class struggle existed from the beginning on American soil. The appearance of rich and poor had political consequences. The arrival of large numbers of poor people and indentured servants from England accentuated the differences. The existing landowners intended to become wealthy large landowners with estates worked by bonded labor. But the poor immigrants had other ideas and strove to get small plots of land to work for themselves. John Winthrop of Massachusetts expressed the attitude of the better-off colonists towards the newly arrived immigrants. He wrote of “the unwarrantableness […] of referring matters of council or juricature to the body of the people, quia the best part is always the least, and of that the best part is always the lesser.” Later he said that he favored a “mixt aristocracy”.

Winthrop tried to restrict the number of voters. He had a law passed that limited the suffrage to church members. Then church membership was made exclusive. Political radicals could be expelled from the church and thus stripped of their political rights. Narrowness and intolerance began to take a hold. Under the guise of religious purity and Puritan rigor, there was an uninterrupted struggle going on between rich and poor, privileged and unprivileged.
As a matter of fact, the wages of English laborers were usually no more than what a slave owner paid for the food, lodging and clothes of a slave. The generally held view of that time was that wages should be no more than what was necessary to keep the workers alive and able to reproduce. The subsistence-level theory of wages already existed in practice long before it acquired a theoretical expression in the writings of the classical economists at the start of the 19th century. This held that it was absolutely necessary to keep the working class in a state of abject poverty. The problem was that there was nothing to prevent a free worker from setting out for the vast western frontier, which was not far away, and establishing himself as a small farmer.

The British Virginia Colony was based on the cultivation of tobacco and the ownership of slaves. Plantation agriculture depended on slavery and a variant of it: the system of indentured labor. An indentured servant was bound to serve for a specified number of years. Some were convicts. They were sent to the Colonies as a kinder alternative to the punishments meted out by English law at a time when the theft of one shilling was punishable by death and a man could be hanged for pulling down a fence or poaching or stealing a sheep. However, as there were few other choices available for a poor laborer, so most indentured servants renewed their contracts for as long as they could.

This led to the creation of the plantation owners’ greatest fear: a permanent class of poor, discontented, and armed laborers. Their fears were realized with Bacon’s Rebellion, a class revolt led by Nathaniel Bacon that succeeded in burning Jamestown to the ground in 1676. After this experience plantation owners sought to replace white indentured laborers with what they hoped would be a less rebellious form of labor – African slaves.

The introduction of slaves from Africa was the answer of the plantation owners to the annoying tendency of the free workers’ efforts to improve their lot and fight against exploitation. Even before 1700 most of the slaves were in the Southern Colonies. But New England had its fair share. In Rhode Island in 1756 there were 35,939 whites and 5,697 black Africans. Most of the slaves in the colonies north of Virginia were house servants, but not all. One man in Philadelphia ran his iron foundry with thirty slaves. During the 18th century so active was the slave trade with the New England Colonies that the price of newly landed slaves fell to thirty pounds.

The number of black slaves increased enormously in South Carolina after the introduction of rice growing in 1696. From 1700 on the number of blacks always outnumbered the white population. On the eve of the American Revolution the proportion was two to one. The slave owners lived in terror of a slave uprising. The punishments for black slaves were barbaric in the extreme. They were often burned alive for offences for which whites were hanged. In 1739 there was a slave insurrection. It was brutally put down but not before 21 whites and 44 slaves were killed. As a result the assembly approved a draconic slave code. It became a penal offence to teach a slave to read and write. Slaves were not allowed to hold meetings, even church services, unless a white person was present. At the same time some concessions were made: the hours of work should not exceed fifteen, and Sunday should be a holiday.

The slave trade was an important and very profitable industry. The prosperity of towns like Liverpool was based upon it. In 1771 there were 107 slave ships from Liverpool on the African coast, and a further 60 or 70 from America. They were generously financed by wealthy corporations in the City of London and the British government actively supported and aided the slavers. Considerable fortunes were made from the slave trade, including that of the family of William Gladstone, the future leader of the British Liberal Party.

In the South the whole socio-economic system was based on slavery. The luxurious lifestyle of the landowners was entirely based on the labor of the slaves. George Washington, a big landowner, had numerous indentured servants. A letter to his agent in Baltimore dated 1774 states that four men convicts and a man and his wife had been purchased on his account for the sum of 110 pounds sterling. The four men had to serve for three years and the married couple four years. This works out at five and a half pounds per year for each one. Even Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who wrote that “all men are created equal”, owned more than 200 black slaves, whom he never freed, though others, including Washington, did.

The continued existence of slavery increasingly acted as a drag on the progress of America even after it had won its independence. Marx explained that no people can be free if it keeps another people in chains. Slavery was a heavy burden on the American people. It exercised a constant downward pressure on the wages of free labor and a permanent threat to democratic rights. Its existence tended to degrade the status of all manual labor. Any free worker was just one step above the bonded servant or slave. Even the American Revolution did not abolish this cancer. For that, a second American Revolution would be necessary.

Return to Table of Contents

Go to Chapter II — The American Revolution