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.)
“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.