Introduction to Marxism and the USA

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The present work began life as a draft introduction to the American edition of Reason in Revolt. Starting out from the idea that most Americans have been prejudiced against Marxism as an alien (“foreign”) ideology, I started to explain that the history of the United States contains a great revolutionary tradition, beginning with the War of Independence that set up the U.S.A. in the first place. However, on delving more deeply into the subject, it became clear that it was much too extensive to be satisfactorily contained in the Introduction to a book. I therefore put it to one side and wrote another one, the content of which was mainly of a scientific character.

Later on I showed a copy of the original draft to an American friend, who suggested that, suitably expanded, it could be published separately, and he very kindly furnished me with some interesting additional information. As a result, I felt obliged to introduce some more material on matters such as the American Revolution, the Civil War and the history of trade unionism in the U.S.A.

The subject is fascinating, and unfortunately very poorly known in Europe, where it has become a fashionable (and quite erroneous) idea that the U.S.A., as the bastion of world imperialism (which Gore Vidal, the greatest living American writer, describes as “the Empire”), never produced anything of interest to socialists and revolutionaries. Actually, the reverse is true, as I hope I have shown in this long essay. Part of my intention was to combat the kind of senseless anti-Americanism that one encounters all too frequently in left circles. Marxists are internationalists and do not take up a negative stance in relation to the people of any country. We stand for the unity of all working people against oppression and exploitation. What we oppose is not Americans, but American capitalism and American imperialism.

The American people and above all the American working class have a great revolutionary tradition. On the basis of great historical events they are destined to rediscover these traditions and to stand once more in the front line of the world revolution, as they did in 1776 and 1860. The future of the entire world depends ultimately on this perspective. And although today it may seem very far off, it is not so incredible as one might think. Let us recall that before 1917 tsarist Russia was the bastion of world reaction, as the U.S.A. is today. Many people were convinced that the idea of socialist revolution in Russia was a crazy delusion on the part of Lenin and Trotsky. Yes, they were completely convinced, and completely wrong.

The rapacious greed of the big corporations and the ambitions of the ruling elite of “the Empire” are dragging the U.S.A. into one adventure after another. New nightmares can flow from such adventures. Fifty-eight thousand young Americans were killed in the quagmire of Vietnam. The aggressive policies of the Bush White House threaten many more casualties, American and others. Sooner or later this will impact back on the U.S.A., producing a general reaction against a system that could produce such monstrosities. The mass demonstration in Seattle and other U.S. cities have served notice on the establishment that the youth of America will not be prepared to remain silent forever.

The U.S.A. and the World

The terrible events of September 11, 2001 marked a turning point in the history of the United States and the whole world. Overnight, it became impossible for ordinary U.S. citizens to imagine that what was happening in the outside world was no concern of theirs. A general sense of insecurity and apprehension seized the national psychology. Suddenly, the world became a hostile and dangerous place. Ever since September 11, Americans have been trying to make sense of the kind of world that could produce such horrors.

Many people have been asking themselves: what have we done that there should be such hatred against us? Of course, ordinary Americans have done nothing to deserve this kind of thing. And we regard it as a criminal act to kill innocent civilians, of whatever nation, to make a political point. What is not in doubt, however, is that the actions of the United States in the world - its government, its big corporations and its armed forces - have aroused feelings of deep antipathy and resentment, and it would be as well for Americans to try to understand why this is so.

For much of its history, isolationism has played a central role in the politics of the U.S.A. But the fact is that in the modern world no country can cut adrift from the rest of the world, no matter how big and powerful. Nowadays, the most decisive phenomenon of our times is precisely this: the crushing domination of the world market. It is often known by the latest buzzword, globalization. But in fact it is not new. Already over 150 years ago in that most contemporary of all works, The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels predicted that the capitalist system, beginning as a series of national states, would create a world market.

The participation of the U.S.A. in world economy and world politics has grown almost continuously for the last century. All attempts to pull America into a state of self-imposed isolation have failed, and will inevitably fail, as George W. Bush has found out very quickly. The United States has inherited the role that was previously held by Great Britain –that of the world’s policeman. But whereas Britain’s dominant role in the world took place at a time when the capitalist system was still in its ascending phase, America now finds itself ruling over a world that is mortally sick. The sickness is the product of the fact that capitalism on a world scale is in a state of irreversible decline. This expresses itself in a series of convulsions that are increasingly of a violent character. The terrible cataclysm of September 11 was only one manifestation of this.

Anti-Americanism is, unfortunately, widespread. I say unfortunately because the present writer holds no ill feelings towards the people of the U.S.A. or any other country. As a Marxist, I am opposed to nationalism and chauvinist attitudes that sow hatred and conflicts between different peoples. But that does not mean that one can condone the actions of particular governments, companies and armed forces that are pursuing actions that are harmful to the rest of the world. It just means that it is wrong to confuse the ruling class of any country with the workers and poor people of that country.

The phenomenon of anti-Americanism is strongest in poor countries in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. The reasons for this are related to the exploitation of the resources of these countries by voracious U.S. multinational corporations, backed by the U.S. military and the CIA, leading to the impoverishment of their people, the destruction of the environment, the destabilization of their currencies, their economies, and even their governments. Such actions are not designed to promote love and respect for the U.S.A. in the world at large.

A couple of years ago The Economist concluded that the prices of raw materials were at their lowest level for 150 years –that is, since records began. The situation has varied somewhat since, but it has not changed the position of millions of workers and peasants of the Third World who are being forced to work for slave wages by big U.S. corporations. One American golfer, Tiger Woods, for instance, earns more than the entire workforce of Nike in Indonesia.
The ruthless conduct of these big corporations is shown by the Bhopal tragedy in 1984, when 40,000 men, women and children were killed one night by the poisonous fumes from a Union Carbide plant situated too close to their homes. A recent report reveals that the area remains dangerously polluted to this day. This case is unusual only inasmuch as it hit the headlines.

The super-exploitation of what is known as the Third World by rapacious corporations is what causes a backlash in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America which may sometimes take the form of a rejection of all things American, but which is at bottom an expression of anti-imperialism. The best way to put an end to the poverty and starvation in the Third World is to fight for the expropriation of the big corporations that are the enemies of working people everywhere – beginning with the workers of the U.S.A., as we shall show.

Europe and America

Anti-Americanism is not confined to poor countries. Some Europeans have somewhat negative attitudes to America. They resent the subordinate role they have been compelled to accept on the world stage, and they fear the consequences of the colossal economic and military domination of the transatlantic giant. Behind the polite façade of diplomacy between the “allies” lies an uneasy and contradictory relationship, which manifests itself in periodic trade conflicts and diplomatic rows. On a different level, many Europeans resent what they see as the intrusion of an alien culture, brash and commercialized, which threatens to devalue and undermine their cultural identity. Behind the cultural resentments of the European intellectuals lies a deep-seated feeling of inferiority that seeks to hide behind a kind of cultural snobbishness. This feeling has a material basis, and in fact reflects the real state of affairs.

It is a simple fact that the history of the last hundred years is the history of the decline of Europe and the rise of the U.S.A. As the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky predicted, the Mediterranean (which in the Latin tongue signifies “the center of the world”) has become an unimportant lake. The center of world history has passed first to the Atlantic and finally to the Pacific – two mighty oceans, straddled by a colossus – the United States. The real relationship between Europe and America is summed up by the relationship between George W. Bush and Tony Blair. It is the relationship of the master and his lackey. And like a good English lackey, Mr. Blair does his level best to imitate the style and manners of his master, notwithstanding which, no one in his right mind can mistake the real relation between the two.

The airs of superiority that until recently were adopted by members of the British Establishment with regard to the values and culture of America are particularly comical. They resemble the airs and graces of the penniless English aristocrats in the 19th century in the presence of the wealthy bourgeois upstarts, a phenomenon well documented in the novels of Jane Austen and others. These airs and graces, of course, did not stop them from marrying off their daughters to the sons of the upstart money-grubbers at the earliest opportunity.

The negative attitude of Europeans towards American culture is the product of a misunderstanding. They are thinking of the made in the U.S.A. “cultural exports” that flood the markets of the world with bad music that makes you deaf, overpriced “designer clothes” produced by slave labor in the Third World that makes you indignant and cholesterol-clogged fast food produced by slave labor in the high street that makes you obese. It is the kind of cheap and nasty commercialism that is the hallmark of capitalism in the period of its senile decay. That such monstrosities produce a feeling of revulsion in all thinking and feeling human beings is perfectly natural.

However, the concept of culture, above all in the modern world, is far broader than pop music, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. It also includes such things as computers, the Internet, and many other aspects of science and technology. On this level, it is impossible to deny the impressive achievements of the U.S.A. Moreover, it is precisely these scientific advances that are laying the foundations for an unprecedented cultural revolution, once they are correctly harnessed by a planned socialist economy on a world scale.

The present writer has no time for crude anti-Americanism. I am profoundly convinced that the colossal potential of the United States is destined to play a decisive role in the future socialist world order. But it must also be admitted that at the present moment in world history, the role of the U.S.A. on a world scale does not reflect its real potential for good, but only the rapacious greed of the big multinational companies that own America and control its actions in their own selfish interests. This author is a fervent admirer of the real America, and an implacable opponent of the other America, the America of the big banks and monopolies, the enemy of freedom and progress everywhere.

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Chapter I — "Blood From Every Pore"

Introduction to the Second Edition of Marxism and the USA

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Marxism and the U.S.A. was the first title produced by Wellred USA, a modest milestone reflecting growing interest in the ideas of Marxist in the United States. The book was written at a time when George W. Bush was president, a time when many around the world – including many on the left – considered the U.S. to be one reactionary bloc, devoid of class struggle or revolutionary potential. Woods’ aim was to dispel these misconceptions, draw on the marvelous traditions of struggle throughout U.S. history, and inspire those new to the ideas of Marxism to learn more – and get involved. Providing one example after another, he showed how the ideas of socialism and communism are not recent, “foreign” importations, but have deep roots in the American tradition itself. He also debunks many of the common misconceptions Americans have about socialism, taking up the question of socialism and religion, freedom vs. dictatorship, an explanation of what happened in the Soviet Union and more.

Authors Howard Zinn, Leo Huberman, John Dos Passos, Eric and Philip Foner, Herbert Aptheker and others have explained U.S. history from the perspective of the working masses, delving into little known details and episodes and presenting them in an easy to understand style. Some, like Huberman, have focused on providing an economic history of the U.S. in popular form (We, the People). Others, like Aptheker and the Foners, have explained in great detail specific periods or labor struggles. Despite his later drift to the right, Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy is a literary masterpiece, blending primary sources with fictional realism to portray the stormy years of bitter class struggle in the early twentieth century. For many American activists, Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is their first introduction to the country’s rich history of class struggle. And Gore Vidal, although not writing from a working class perspective, has provided penetrating insight into the foundations and founders of the American republic, and its particular form of democracy.

But none of the above writers present the broad sweep of this vast topic from a consistently revolutionary Marxist perspective, and this is what sets Woods’ book apart. In this slim volume, he weaves together many of the most important, and often not-well-known episodes of American history. In a series of short and engaging articles, he provides example after example of the heroic revolutionary and labor traditions of this much-maligned country.

As a young country, the history of the United States and its meteoric rise to world prominence is compressed into a few intense centuries. The richest country on earth certainly has its vast natural resources to thank, in part, for its position. But above all, it was built on the backs of millions of African slaves, European indentured servants, Native Americans, and the endless stream of political and economic refugees who have searched for the “American Dream” on these shores.

Unfortunately, most American students regard history as dry and dusty, an endless and disconnected recitation of dates and individuals. But history need not be “one damn thing after another,” as the American Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it. It is a complex and contradictory process, driven forward by the struggle over control of the surplus wealth created by the labor of the masses. As Karl Marx explained in the Communist Manifesto: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” Or, as he further elaborated in his introduction to The Critique of Political Economy:

“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”

This concisely sums up of the Marxist approach to history, also known as “historical materialism.” Once we begin to understand history, not as a random series of unrelated episodes, but as an infinitely complex but nonetheless tightly interconnected chain of events involving mass social forces, in which cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause, a whole new world opens up. No longer does it appear to be more or less irrelevant collection of useless trivia. Instead, but the experiences of past struggles of the working class come alive, ripe with lessons for our own struggle to change the world today.
From the communistic traditions of the Native Americans, to the revolutionary democratic beliefs of the Pilgrims; the Declaration of Independence and the revolutionary defeat the mighty British Empire; from the slave revolt of Nat Turner and John Brown’s implacable struggle against slavery, to Lincoln’s revolutionary expropriation of billions of dollars of human property; from the early Labor Movement to the Flint sit-down strike, American history is full of tragedy and triumph, of individual sacrifice and collective struggle for “Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

When Marxism and the U.S.A. first appeared, the comrades of the Workers International League were an infinitesimal minority in the U.S., scattered far and wide across the country, and still in the initial infant stages of developing our ideas, program, methods, and traditions. In the years since, we have made modest advances, with a clear program, growing experience and connections with the Labor Movement, and several well-established branches in a handful of major cities. This book played an important role in drawing together those initial disparate forces into a unified organization, based on common political principles and aims. When we founded the WIL in 2002, we paid homage to the militant traditions of the U.S. working class:

“The US working class has a proud and militant tradition. We look to the accumulated experiences of the American working class—the great railroad strikes, the mine wars, the formation of the Teamsters and the CIO, the Flint sit down strikes, and more for inspiration. We rest on the traditions of William Sylvis, Albert Parsons, Mother Jones, Joe Hill, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Big Bill Haywood, Eugene Debs, John Reed, Louise Bryant, and the millions of rank and file workers who led and participated in the great struggles of the past. And we are confident that the greatest days of the US labor movement are still to come.
“We also base ourselves on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and on the further development of these ideas by the supporters of the In Defence of Marxism [www.marxist.com] website. The ideas of scientific socialism have been tarnished in the minds of millions by the horrific experience of Stalinism and the continued lies and distortions of the ruling class. We believe that Stalinism was a historical aberration and a criminal totalitarian caricature of genuine socialism. We fight for international socialism, where the world working class has full democratic control over the means of production, distribution, and exchange, in harmony with the environment. Without democracy there can be no socialism! A workers’ government in the U.S. would take over the vast wealth now owned by just a handful of individuals and democratically use it in the interests of everyone.”

Much has changed since the first edition of Marxism and the U.S.A., and yet so much has remained fundamentally the same. The years of G.W. may be behind us, but his core policies live on under the Obama administration. The sincere hopes of millions for real “change” have been dashed. As the economic crisis drags on, and as millions of Americans pass through the “School of the Democrats,” they will learn through bitter experience that there is no fundamental difference between the Democrats and the Republicans. Already, a growing number of Americans support the idea that Labor must break with the Democrats and form a political party of, by, and for the working class majority. The need for a mass party of Labor based on the unions has never been more acute than now. It is therefore vital that we learn from the struggles of millions of ordinary Americans, past and present, and prepare for the mass struggles on the horizon.

It is impossible to analyze even a fraction of the vast scope of U.S. history in such a short work. This is why we are supplementing this edition with new material produced by members of the Workers International League, as we continue to deepen and develop our understanding, learn from our class’ experience, and above all build our organization in preparation for the next American revolution. The 1934 Teamsters strike in Minneapolis was a watershed for the Labor Movement and the young forces of American Trotskyism. David May’s article describes the struggle in its context and draws on the lessons to be applied today. Tom Trottier’s overview of the early years of the Socialist Party of America is yet another example that socialist ideas once had deep roots in the United States, roots we must once again establish. And my own piece on Shays’ Rebellion, explores one of the seminal events of the post-American Revolutionary War period, which had a profound effect on the future development of the country.

Time and experience have proven Alan Woods’ basic premise correct: the United States is a society torn apart by tremendous class contradictions, and sooner or later, the militant revolutionary traditions of the past will return on an even higher level. The millions-strong anti-Iraq war movement was more than a protest against the war; it reflected a deep-seated discontent with the status quo. The tragedy of Katrina exposed the profound inequality and racism upon which the American capitalists “divide and rule” and maintain their power. The magnificent movement of undocumented immigrant workers showed the enormous potential power of the mobilized working class. The factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, inspired by the occupied factory movement in Venezuela, showed that militant action does get results.

The re-emergence of the student movement, with occupations and mass protests against cuts in education are an indication of things to come, as literally millions of young people weighed down by student loans cannot afford school or find work when they graduate. The thousands protesting on Wall Street against the economic crisis and bank bail outs, and the movement against home foreclosures that even in the “belly of the beast,” the class struggle is never far from erupting to the surface in one form or another. To paraphrase W.E.B DuBois, these more or less isolated eddies of the class struggle are swirling more and more into a great current. The revolutionary implications for the future are clear. Or, as the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky put it, when commenting on his brief stay in New York City before returning to Russia in March of 1917: “[The United States is] the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged.”

John Peterson
February 10, 2010

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Introduction to Marxism and the USA

Marxism and the USA

This brief history of the class struggle in the United States illustrates that the ideas of Marxism, socialism and communism aren’t at all alien to “the land of opportunity.” From the primitive communism of many Native Americans to the American Revolution, the Civil War, and beyond, there is nothing "un-American" about socialism and revolution. In fact, there is no country more ripe for building socialism than the United States.

Introduction to "Four Marxist Classics"

MELT Book CoverAlan Woods' introduction to one of the first books produced by Wellred USA. As the title implies, the book includes four Marxist classics: the Communist Manifesto, Socialism: Scientific and Utopian, State and Revolution, and the Transitional Program.  It is intended to introduce readers in the USA to the most fundamental aspects of Marxist theory. Available from MarxistBooks.com.