2. The Main Course of American History and Its Next Stage

Название2. The Main Course of American History and Its Next Stage
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means before the end could be attained. Mental concepts of specific use preceded both the design and construction of these special-purpose tools.

Each of the subsequent steps in the improvement of tool using and tool making likewise resulted in the economising of labour time, an increased productivity of labour, better living conditions, and the growth of man’s intellectual abilities. The motive force of human history comes from the greater productivity of labour made possible by decisive advances in the techniques and tools of production.

This can be seen in the development of hunting. At first, mankind could as a rule capture only small and slow animals. Regular consumption of big game was made possible by the invention of such hunting weapons as the thrusting spear, the throwing spear, the spear-thrower, and the bow and arrow. The latter was the first device capable of storing energy for release when desired. These implements increased the range and striking force of primitive hunters and enabled them to slaughter the largest and fleetest animals.

All the basic hand tools in use today — the axe, adze, knife, drill, scraper, chisel, saw — were invented during the Stone Age. The first metal, bronze, did not replace stone as the preferred material for tool making until about 3500 years ago. Metal not only imparted a far more efficient and durable cutting edge to tools but enabled them to be resharpened instead of thrown away after becoming dulled.

During the period when bronze tools were the chief implements of production, means and standards of measurements were devised; mathematics and surveying were developed; a calendar was calculated; and great advances were made in sculpturing. Such basic inventions as the potter’s wheel, the balance scale, the keystone arch, sailing vessels, and glass bottles were created.

About 2500 years ago, iron, the most durable, plentiful and cheap metal, began to displace bronze in tool making. The introduction of iron tools tremendously advanced productivity and skills in agriculture and craftsmanship. They enabled more food to be grown and better clothing and shelter to be made with less expenditure of time and energy; they gave rise to many comforts and conveniences. Iron tools made possible many of the achievements of Greece and Rome, from the Acropolis of Athens to the tunnels, bridges, sewers, and buildings of Rome.

The energy for all these earlier means and modes of production was supplied exclusively by human muscles, which, after the domestication of herds, was supplemented to some extent by animal muscle power. The Industrial Revolution of the 18th century was based upon the utilisation of energy from other sources, from fossil fuels such as coal. The combination of mechanical power generated by steam engines, machine tools, improved implements, and production machinery, plus the increased use of iron and steel, have multiplied society’s powers of production to their present point. Nowadays, machines and tools operated by mechanical and electrical power are the principal material organs of our industry and agriculture alike.

The most up-to-date machine tools have been developed out of simple hand tools. While using hand tools, men began to understand and employ the advantages of the lever, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wheel and axle, and the screw to multiply their strength. These physical principles were later combined and applied in the making of machine tools.

This entire development of technology is organically associated with and primarily responsible for the development of mankind’s intellectual abilities. This is pointed out in the following explanatory paragraph from the Do-All Corporation exhibit:

Machine tools perform in complicated ways the same basic functions and operations as hand tools. These basic functions were established by hand-held stone tools shaped by primitive man. It was through devising and using hand-wrought stone tools that mankind developed powers of mental and bodily coordination … and this in turn accelerated the increase in men’s mental capabilities.

Such ideas about the influence of technology upon thought, taken from the publication of a respectable capitalist corporation, resemble those to be found in the writings of Marx and Engels. The thought-controllers may try to drive historical materialism out of the socialist door, but here it sneaks back in through a capitalist window.


The Do-All exhibit demonstrates that the evolution of tools can be arranged in a chronological series and ascending order, from wood and stone hand tools through metal hand tools to power-driven machine tools. Is it likewise possible to mark off corresponding successive stages in social organisation?

Historical materialism answers this question affirmatively. On the broadest basis — and every big division of history can be broken down for special purposes into lesser ones — three main stages can be distinguished in man’s rise from animality to the atomic age: savagery, barbarism, and civilisation.a

Napoleon said that an army marches on its stomach. This has been true of the forward march of the army of humanity. The acquisition of food has been the overriding aim of social production at all times, for men cannot survive, let alone progress, without regularly satisfying their hunger.

The principal epochs in the advancement of humanity can therefore be divided according to the decisive improvements effected in securing food supplies. Savagery, the infancy of humanity, constitutes that period when people depend for food upon what nature provides ready-made. Their food may come from plants, such as fruit or roots, from insects, birds or animals, or from seashore or sea life. At this stage, men forage for their food much like beasts of prey or grub for it like other animals — with these all-important differences: they cooperate with one another, and they employ crude tools along with other means and powers of production to assist them in “appropriating” the means of subsistence for their collective use.

The chief economic activities at this stage are foraging for food, hunting, and fishing; and they were developed in that sequence. The club and spear enable the savage to capture the raw materials for his meals, clothing, and shelter — all of which are embodied in animals on the hoof. The net catches fish and the fire prepares it for consumption. The Indians of southern California were at this stage when the first white settlers arrived two centuries ago.

Barbarism is the second stage of social organisation. It was based upon the domestication of animals and the cultivation of plants. Food is now not merely collected but produced. The domestication of cattle, sheep, pigs, and other animals provided reserves of meat as well as food in the form of milk from goats and cows. The planting and growing of crops made regular and plentiful food supplies available.

This food-producing revolution, which started in Asia from six to ten thousand years ago, relieved mankind from subjection to external nature for the first time. Up to that point humanity had to rely upon what the natural environment contained to take care of its needs and had been dependent for survival upon completely external and uncontrollable natural conditions. Entire stocks and cultures of people arose, flourished, and then succumbed, like plant or animal species, in response to the beneficence or hostility of nature around them.

For example, about twenty to thirty thousand years ago, there arose a society centred around southern France called the Reindeer Culture. These people thrived by hunting huge reindeer and other herds that browsed upon the lush vegetation there. The drawings they made, which have been discovered in caves over the past 75 years, testify to the keenness of their eyes and minds and the trained sensitivity of their hands and place them among the most superb artists that have ever appeared on earth. However, when changed climatic and botanic conditions caused the reindeer herds to vanish, their entire culture, and very likely the people as well, died out.

The early hunters had no assured control over their mobile sources of food. The insecurity of savage life was largely overcome, or at least considerably reduced, with the advent of stock breeding, and especially with the development of agricultural techniques. For the first time, methods were instituted for obtaining extensive and expanding supplies of food products and fibres by systematic and sustained activities of working groups. These branches of economic activity made much larger and more compact populations possible.

These activities and their increased output provided the elements for the higher culture of barbarism. Farming and stock raising led to the development of such handicrafts as smelting and pottery, as accumulated food supplies generated the need to store and transport articles for the first time. Men became more stationary; denser populations aggregated; permanent dwellings were built; and village life sprang into existence.

In their further and final development, the economic activities under barbarism created the prerequisites for the coming of civilisation. The material foundation for civilisation was the capacity acquired by the most advanced peoples for the regular production of far more food and goods than were required for the physical maintenance of their members. These surpluses had two results. They permitted specific sections of the communities to engage in diversified activities other than the direct acquisition and production of the basic means of life. Such specialists as priests, nobles, kings, officials, smiths, potters, traders, builders, and other craftsmen made their appearance.

With the growth of specialisation and the extension of trade, the top layers of these groups moved into strategic positions that enabled the more fortunate and powerful to appropriate large personal shares of the surplus of wealth. The drive to increase personal wealth flowing from the growing social division of labour and exchange of goods, led in time to the development of private property, the family, slavery, class divisions, commodity production on a large scale, trade, money, the city, and the territorial state with its army, police, courts, and other relations and institutions characteristic of civilisation.


In its evolution to our own century, civilised society can be divided into three main epochs: slavery, feudalism, and capitalism. Each of these is marked off by the special way in which the ruling propertied class at the head of the social setup manages to extract the surplus wealth upon which it lives from the labouring mass who directly create it. This entire period covers little more than the past five to six thousand years.

Civilisation was ushered in and raised upon direct slavery. The very economic factors that broke up barbarism and made civilised life possible likewise provided the material preconditions for the use of slave labour. The division of labour based upon tending herds, raising crops, mining metals, and fashioning goods for sale enabled the most advanced societies to produce more than the actual labourers required for their maintenance. This made slavery both possible and profitable for the first time. It gave the most powerful stimulus to the predatory appetites of individual possessors of the means of production who strove to acquire and increase their surpluses of wealth. Slave production and ownership became the economic foundation of a new type of social organisation, the source of supreme power, prestige, and privileges. And it eventually reshaped the whole structure of civilised life.

Chattel slavery was an extremely significant human contrivance — and it is distinctively human. Animals may feed upon carcasses of other animals, but they do not live upon the surpluses they create. Although we rightly recoil against any manifestations of servitude today and burn to abolish its last vestiges, it should be recognised that in its heyday slavery had imperative reasons for existence and persistence.

Science demands that every phenomenon be approached, analysed, and appraised with objectivity, setting aside personal reactions of admiration or abhorrence. Historical materialism has to explain why slavery came to be adopted by the most advanced contingents of mankind. The principal reason was that, along with the private ownership of the means of production and the widening exchange of its products, slave labour increased the forces of production, multiplied wealth, comforts and culture — although only for the lucky few — and, on the whole, spurred mankind forward for an entire historical period. Without the extension of slave labour, there would not have been incentives unremitting enough to pile up wealth on a sizable scale that could then be applied to further the productive processes.

The historical necessity for slavery can be illustrated along two lines. The peoples who failed to adopt slave labour likewise did not proceed to civilisation, however excellent their other qualities and deeds. They remained below that level because their economy lacked the inner drive of the force of greed and the dynamic propulsion arising from the slaveholder’s need to exploit the slave to augment his wealth. That is a negative demonstration.

But there is more positive proof. Those states based on some form of servitude, such as the most brilliant cultures of antiquity from Babylon and Egypt to Greece and Rome, also contributed the most to the civilising processes, from wheeled carts and the plough to writing and philosophy. These societies stood in the main line of social progress.

But if slavery had sufficient reasons for becoming the beginning and basis of ancient civilisation, in turn and in time it generated the conditions and forces which would undermine and overthrow it. Once slavery became the predominant form of production either in industry, as in Greece, or in agriculture, as in Rome, it no longer furthered the development of agricultural techniques, craftsmanship, trade, or navigation. The slave empires of antiquity stagnated and disintegrated until after a lapse of centuries they were replaced by two main types of feudal organisation: Asiatic and West European.

Both of these new forms of production and social organisation were superior to slavery, but the West European turned out to be far more productive and dynamic. Under feudalism the labourers got more of their produce than did the slaves; they even had access to the land and other means of production. Serfs and peasants had greater freedom of activity and could acquire more culture.

As the result of a long list of technological and other social advances, merging with a sequence of exceptional historical circumstances, feudalised Europe became the nursery for the next great stage of class society, capitalism. How and why did capitalism originate?

Once money had arisen from the extension of trading several thousand years ago, its use as capital became possible. Merchants could add to their wealth by buying goods cheap and selling them dear; moneylenders and mortgage holders could gain interest on sums advanced on the security of land or other collateral. These practices were common in both slave and feudal societies.

But if money could be used in precapitalist times to return more than the original investment, other conditions had to be fulfilled before capitalism could become established as a separate and definite world economic system. The central condition was a special kind of transaction regularly repeated on a growing scale. Large numbers of propertyless workers had to hire themselves to the possessors of money and the other means of production in order to earn a livelihood.

Hiring and firing seem to us a normal way of carrying on production. But such peoples as the Indians never knew it. Before the Europeans came, no Indian ever worked for a boss (the word itself was imported by the Dutch), because they possessed their own means of livelihood. The slave may have been purchased, but he belonged to and worked for the master his whole life long. The feudal serf or tenant was likewise bound for life to the lord and his land.

The epoch-making innovation upon which capitalism rested was the institution of working for wages as the dominant relation of production. Most of you have gone into the labour market, to an employment agency or personnel office, to get a buyer for your labour power. The employer buys this power at prevailing wage rates by the hour, day, or week and then applies it under his supervision to produce commodities that his company subsequently sells at a profit. That profit is derived from the fact that wage workers produce more value than the capitalist pays for their labour.

Up to the 20th century, this mechanism for pumping surplus labour out of the working masses and transferring the surpluses of wealth they create to the personal credit of the capitalist was the mightiest accelerator of the productive forces and the expansion of civilisation. As a distinct economic system, capitalism is only about 450 years old; it has conquered the world and journeyed from dawn to twilight in that time. This is a short life span compared to savagery, which stretched over a million years or more, or to barbarism, which prevailed for four thousand to five thousand years. Obviously, the processes of social transformation have been considerably speeded up in modern times.

This speeding up in social progress is due in large measure to the very nature of capitalism, which continually revolutionises its techniques of production and the entire range of social relations issuing from them. Since its birth, world capitalism has passed through three such phases of internal transformation. In its formative period, the merchants were the dominant class of capitalists because trade was the main source of wealth accumulation. Under commercial capitalism, industry and agriculture, the pillars of production, were not usually carried on by wage labour but by means of small handicrafts, peasant farming, slave or serf labour.

The industrial age was launched around the beginning of the 19th century with the application of steam power to the first mechanised processes, concentrating large numbers of wage workers into factories. The capitalist captains of this large-scale industry became masters of the field of production and later of entire countries and continents as their riches, their legions of wage labourers, social and political power, swelled to majestic proportions.

This vigorous, expanding, progressive, confident, competitive stage of industrial capitalism dominated the 19th century. It passed over into the monopoly-ridden capitalism of the 20th century, which has carried all the basic tendencies of capitalism, and especially its most reactionary features, to extremes in economic, political, cultural, and international relations. While the processes of production have become more centralised, more rationalised, more socialised, the means of production and the wealth of the world have become concentrated in giant financial and industrial combines. So far as the capitalist sectors of society are involved, this process has been brought to the point where the capitalist monopolies of a single country, the US, dictate to all the rest.


The most important question to be asked at this point is: What is the destiny of the development of civilisation in its capitalist form? Disregarding in-between views, which at bottom evade the answer, two irreconcilable viewpoints assert themselves, corresponding to the world outlooks of two opposing classes. The spokesmen for capitalism say that nothing more remains to be done except to perfect their system as it stands, and it can roll on and on and on. The Do-All Corporation, for example, which published so instructive a chart on the evolution of tools, declares that more and better machine tools, which they hope will be bought at substantial profit from their company, will guarantee continued progress and prosperity for capitalist America — without the least change in existing class relations.

Socialists give a completely different answer based upon an incomparably more penetrating, correct, and comprehensive analysis of the movement of history, the structure of capitalism, and the struggles presently agitating the world around us. The historical function of capitalism is not to perpetuate itself indefinitely but to create the conditions and prepare the forces that will bring about its own replacement by a more efficient form of material production and a higher type of social organisation. Just as capitalism supplanted feudalism and slavery, and civilisation swept aside savagery and barbarism, so the time has come for capitalism itself to be superseded. How and by whom is this revolutionary transformation to be effected?

In the last century, Marx made a scientific analysis of the workings of the capitalist system which explained how its inner contradictions would bring about its downfall. The revolutions of our own century since 1917 are demonstrating in real life that capitalism is due to be relegated to the museum of antiquities. It is worthwhile to understand the inexorable underlying causes of these developments, which appear so inexplicable and abhorrent to the upholders of the capitalist system.

Capitalism has produced many things, good and bad, in the course of its evolution. But the most vital and valuable of all the social forces it has created is the industrial working class. The capitalist class has brought into existence a vast army of wage labourers, centralised and disciplined, and set it into motion for its own purposes, to make and operate the machines, factories, and all the other production and transportation facilities from which its profits emanate.

The exploitation and abuses, inherent and inescapable in the capitalist organisation of economic life, provoke the workers time and again to organise themselves and undertake militant action to defend their elementary interests. The struggle between these conflicting social classes is today the dominant and driving force of world and American history, just as the conflict between the bourgeois-led forces against the precapitalist elements was the motivating force of history in the immediately preceding centuries.

The current struggle, which has been gathering momentum and expanding its scope for a hundred years, has entered its decisive phase on a world scale. Except for Cuba, the preliminary battles between the procapitalist and the anticapitalist forces have so far been waged to a conclusion in countries outside the Western Hemisphere. Sooner or later, however, they are bound to break out and be fought to a finish within this country, which is not only the stronghold of capitalist power but also the home of the best-organised and technically most proficient working class on this globe.

The main line of development in America, no less than the course of world history, points to such a conclusion. Why is this so?

We have reviewed the course by which humanity climbed out of the animal state, and we have marked the successive steps in that climb. Mankind had to crawl through savagery for a million years or more, walk through barbarism, and then, with shoulders hunched and head bowed, enter the iron gates of class society. There, for thousands of years, mankind endured a harsh schooling under the rod and rule of private property, which began with slavery and reached its highest form in capitalist civilisation. Now our own age stands, or rather struggles, at the entrance to socialism.

Let us now pass from the historical progress of mankind, viewed as a whole, to inspect one of its parts, the United States of North America. Because US imperialism is the mainstay of the international capitalist system, the role of the American people is crucial in deciding how quickly and how well humanity crosses the great divide between the class society of the past and the reorganisation and reinvigoration of the world along socialist lines.

I shall try to give brief answers to the following four questions: What has been the course of American history in its essentials? What are its connections with the march of the rest of humankind? What has been the outcome to date? Finally, where do we fit into the picture?


American history breaks sharply into two fundamentally different epochs. One belongs to the aboriginal inhabitants, the Indians; the other starts with the coming of white Europeans to America at the end of the 15th century. The beginnings of human activity in the Western Hemisphere are still obscure. But it is surmised that from 20 to 30 thousand years ago, early Stone Age Asiatics, thanks to favourable climatic conditions which united that part of Alaska with Siberia, crossed over the Bering Strait and slowly made their way throughout North, Central, and South America. Later streams of migration may have brought the practices of gardening with them. It is upon these bequests that the Indians fashioned their type of existence.

Whoever regards the Indians as insignificant or incompetent has defective historical judgment. Humanity has been raised to its present estate by four branches of productive activity. The first is food gathering, which includes grubbing for roots and berries as well as hunting and fishing. The second is stock raising. The third is agriculture. The fourth is craftsmanship, graduating into large-scale industry.

The Indians were extremely adept at hunting, fishing, and other ways of food gathering. They were ingenious craftsmen whose work in some fields has never been excelled. The Incas, for example, made textiles which were extremely fine in texture, colouring, and design. They invented and used more different techniques of weaving on their hand looms than any other people in history.

However, the Indians showed the greatest talent in their development of agriculture. They may even have independently invented soil cultivation. In any case they brought it to diversified perfection. We are indebted to the Indians for most of the vegetables that today come from the fields and through the kitchens onto our tables. Most important are corn, potatoes, and beans, but there is in addition a considerable list including tomatoes, chilli, pineapples, peanuts, avocados, and for after dinner purposes, tobacco. They knew and used the properties of 400 separate species of plants. No plant cultivated by the American Indians was known to Asia, Europe, or Africa prior to the white invasion of America.

Much is heard about all that white men brought over to the Indians, but little about what the Indians gave the European whites. The introduction of the food plants taken from the Indians more than doubled the available food supply of the older continent after the 15th century and became an important factor in the expansion of capitalist civilisation. Over half of the agricultural produce raised in the world today comes from plants domesticated by the Indians!

From the first to the 15th centuries, the Indians themselves created magnificent, even astounding cultures on the basis of their achievements in agriculture. Agriculture enabled some of the scattered and roving hunting tribes of Indians to aggregate in small but permanent settlements where they supported themselves by growing corn, beans, and other vegetables. They also raised and wove cotton, made pottery, and developed other handicrafts.

The Incas of the Andes, the Mayans of Guatemala and Yucatan, and the Aztecs of central Mexico, unaffected by European civilisation and having developed independently, constituted the most advanced of the Indian societies. Their cultures embodied the utmost the Indians were able to accomplish within the 25,000 years or so allotted them by history. In fact, the Mayans had made mathematical and astronomical calculations more complex and advanced than those of the European invaders. They had independently invented the zero for use in their number system — something even the Greeks and Romans had lacked.

Indians progressed as far as the middle stage of barbarism and were stopped there. Whether or not, given unlimited time and no interference from more powerful and productive peoples, they would have mounted all the way to civilisation must remain unanswered. This much can be stated: they had formidable obstacles to overcome along such a path. The Indians did not have such important domesticated animals as the horse, cow, pig, sheep, or water buffalo that had pulled the Asians and Europeans along toward civilisation. They had only the dog, turkey, guinea pig, and, in the Andean highlands, llamas, alpacas, and, in some places, bees. Moreover, they did not use the wheel, except for toys, did not know the use of iron or firearms, and did not have other prerequisites for civilising themselves.

However, history in the other part of the globe settled this question without further appeal. For, while the most advanced Indians had been moving up from wandering hunters’ lives to those of settlers in barbaric communities, the Europeans, themselves an offspring of Asiatic culture, had not only entered class society but had become highly civilised. Their most progressive segments along the Atlantic seaboard were passing over from feudalism to capitalism.

This uneven development of society in the Old World and the New provided the historical setting for the second great turning point in American history. What was the essential meaning of the upheaval initiated by the west European crossing of the Atlantic? It represented the transition from the Stone Age to the Iron Age in America, from barbaric to civilised modes of life, from tribal organisation based upon collectivist practices to a society rooted in private property, production for exchange, the family, the state, and so forth.

Few spectacles in history are more dramatic and instructive than the confrontation and conflict between the Indian representatives of communal Stone Age life and the armed agents of class civilisation. Science fiction tells about visitations to this planet by Martians in flying saucers. To the Indians, the first visitations of the white men were no less startling and incomprehensible.

To the Indians, these white men had completely alien customs, standards, and ways of life. They were strange in appearance and behaviour. In fact, the differences between the two were so profound as to be irreconcilable. What was the root cause of the enduring and deadly clash between them? They represented two utterly incompatible levels of social organisation that had grown out of and were based upon dissimilar conditions and were heading toward entirely different goals.

Even at its height, Indian life was based upon tribal collectivism and its crude technology. Indian psychology was fashioned by such social institutions. The Indians not only did not have the wheel, iron, or the alphabet — they also lacked the institutions, ideas, feelings, and aims of civilised peoples who had been moulded by the technology and culture of an acquisitive society. These conditions had stamped out a very special kind of human being as the peculiar product of civilisation based upon private ownership.

The most highly developed Indians subsisted on agriculture. But their agriculture was not of the same economic mode as that of the newcomers. The major means of producing food by soil cultivation belonged to the entire tribe and nothing in its production or distribution could be exclusively claimed by individual owners. This was true of the principal means of production, the land itself. When the Europeans arrived at these shores, all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific there was not a single foot of ground that a person could stand on and assert: “This belongs to my solitary private self, or to my little family — all others keep off and stay out.” The land belonged to the whole people.

It was quite otherwise with the white men, the bearers of the new and higher type of society. To them it appeared natural and necessary, as it still does to most citizens of this country, that almost everything on earth should pass into someone’s private ownership. Clothes, houses, weapons of war, tools, ships, even human beings themselves, could be bought and sold.

It was in the shiny embodiment of precious metals that private property became not only the cornerstone of worldly existence but even opened up the gates of heaven, Columbus wrote to Queen Isabella as follows: “Gold constitutes treasure and he who possesses it has all he needs in this world as also the means of rescuing souls from purgatory and restoring them to the enjoyment of paradise.” This was literally true at that time because rich Catholics could buy indulgences for their sins from the Pope. Cortez is said to have told some natives of Mexico: “We Spaniards are troubled with a disease of the heart for which we find gold, and gold only, a specific remedy.”

The doctrine of the European whites was that everything must have its price, whether it pertains to present happiness or future salvation. This idea remains the guideline for the plutocratic rulers of our own day, who in their campaigns to dominate the world not only buy up individuals but even whole governments. In their quest for gold and lust for gain, Columbus and the conquistadores enslaved and killed thousands of West Indians in the islands they discovered. And that was only the beginning.

Viewed from the heights of world history, this turning point in America was characterised by the conjuncture of two revolutionary processes. The first was the shift of maritime Europe from a feudal to a bourgeois basis. Part of this revolutionising of Western Europe was a push outward as the capitalist traders extended their operations throughout the globe. Their exploring, marketing, pirating expeditions brought the emissaries of the budding bourgeois society in Europe across the ocean and into collision with the Indians. The rape of the ancient cultures of the Aztecs and Incas, the enslavement and extermination of the natives by the Spanish conquerors and others, was a collateral offensive of this European revolution on our own continent.

Through the extension of the revolutionary process, the peoples of the Stone Age here were overcome and supplanted by the most advanced representatives of class civilisation. This was not the only continent on which such a process took place. What happened from the 15th to the 19th centuries in the New World had taken place much earlier in western Europe itself; and it was to reach into the most remote sectors of the world, as capitalism has spread over the earth from that time to our own.

The contest between the Stone Age peoples and the representatives of the bourgeois epoch was fiercely fought. Their wars stretched over four centuries and ended in the disintegration, dispossession, or destruction of the prehistoric cultures and the unchallenged supremacy of class society.

With the advent of the white Europeans (as well as the enslaved coloured Africans who were transported here by them), American history was switched onto an entirely different set of rails, a new course marked out by the needs of a young, expanding world capitalism.

We come now to a most crucial question: What has been the main line of American growth since 1492? Various answers are given — the growth of national independence, the spread of democracy, the coming into his own of the common man, or the expansion of industry. Each of these familiar formulas taught in the schools does record some aspect of the process, but none goes to the heart of the matter.

The correct answer to the question is that despite detours en route, the main line of American history has consisted in the construction and consolidation of capitalist civilisation, which has been carried to its ultimate in our own day. Any attempt to explain the development of American society since the 16th century will be brought up against this fact. The discovery, exploration, settlement, cultivation, exploitation, democratisation, and industrialisation of this continent must all be seen as successive steps in promoting the building of bourgeois society. This is the only interpretation of the decisive events in the past 450 years in North America that makes sense, gives continuity and coherence to our complex history, distinguishes the mainstream from tributaries, and is validated by the development of American society. Everything in our national history has to be referred to, and linked up with, the process of establishing the capitalist way of life in its most pronounced and, today, its most pernicious form.

This is commonly called “The American Way of Life”. A more realistic and honest characterisation would be the capitalist way of life because, as I shall indicate, this is destined to be only a historically limited and passing expression of civilised life in America.

The central importance of the formation and transformation of bourgeois society can be demonstrated in another way. What is the most outstanding peculiarity of American history since the coming of the Europeans? There have been many peculiarities in the history of this country; in some ways this is a very peculiar country. But what marks off American life from the development of the other great nations of the world is that the growth and construction of American society falls entirely within the epoch of the expansion of capitalism on a global scale. That is the key to understanding American history, whether you deal with colonial history, 19th-century history, or 20th-century history.

It is not true of other leading countries such as England, Germany, Russia, India, Japan, or China. These countries passed through prolonged periods of slave or feudal civilisation that left their stamp upon them to this very day. Look at MacArthur’s preservation of that feudal relic, the emperor of Japan, or that Sunday supplement delight, the monarchy of England.

America, on the other hand, leaped from savagery and barbarism to capitalism, tipping its hat along the way to slavery and feudalism, which held no more than subordinate places in building the bourgeois system. In a couple of centuries, the American people hurried through stages of social development that took the rest of mankind many thousands of years. But there was close interconnection between these two processes. If the rest of mankind had not already made these acquisitions, we Americans would not have been able to rush ahead so far and so fast. The tasks of pioneers are invariably harder and take far longer to accomplish.

The fusion of the antifeudal revolution in Europe with the wars of extermination against the Indians ushered in the bourgeois epoch of American history. This period has stretched over 450 years. It falls into three distinct phases, each marked off by revolutionary changes in American life.


The first period is that of colonial America, which extended from 1500 to the passage of the US Constitution in 1788-89. If we analyse the social forms and economic forces of American life during these three centuries, colonial America, the formative period of our civilisation, stands out as an exceptional blending of precapitalist agencies with the oncoming capitalist forms and forces of production. The tribal collectivism of the Indians was being transformed, pushed back, annihilated; remnants of feudalism were imported from Europe and transplanted here. The ranchos of southern California in the early 19th century had been preceded by colonial baronies; entire colonies such as Maryland and Pennsylvania were owned by landed proprietors who had been given title to them by the English monarchy. Big planters exploited white indentured servants and coloured chattel slaves who in many places provided the main labour forces.

Alongside them were hundreds of thousands of small farmers, hunters, trappers, artisans, traders, merchants, and others associated with the new forms of ownership and economic activity and animated by customs, feelings, and ideas stemming from the capitalism which was advancing in Europe and now beginning to flourish on this side of the Atlantic.

The fundamental question posed by this development was — which would prevail, the precapitalist or the capitalist forces? This was the axis of the social struggles within the colonies and even of the incessant wars for possession of the New World among the European nations, which characterised the colonial period. The showdown on this front came in the years between 1763 and 1789, the period of the preparation, outbreak, waging, and conclusion of the first American revolution. This was the first stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution on this continent.

It assumed the form of a war between the rulers and supporters of Great Britain and the colonial masses led by representatives of the Northern merchants, bankers, manufacturers, and planters of the Southern slave system, which was an appendage of growing native capitalism. The outcome of the contest determined the next stage in the destiny of American capitalism. If Great Britain’s domination had persisted, that may have stunted and perverted the further development of bourgeois society here as it did in India and Africa.

The first American revolution and its war for independence was a genuine people’s movement. Such movements destroy much that has become rotten and is ready for burial. But, above all, they are socially creative, bringing to birth institutions that provide the ways and means for the next surge forward. That was certainly true of our first national revolution, which is permanently embedded in the American and international consciousness. So powerful and persistent are its traditions that they are today a source of embarrassment to the capitalist rulers of this country in their dealings with the colonial movements for emancipation.

What were the notable achievements of this first stage of the North American bourgeois-democratic revolution? It overthrew the reactionary rule of the 10,000 merchants, bankers, landowners, and manufacturers of Great Britain, who, after helping to spur the American colonies forward, had become the biggest block to their further advance. It gave independence to the colonies, unified them, and cleared away such feudal vestiges as the crown lands which the monarchy held. It democratised the states and gave them a republican form of government. It cleared the ground for a swift expansion of civilisation in its native capitalist forms from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

The revolution had international repercussions. It inspired and protected similar movements during the next century in the Latin American colonies and even radiated back to the Old Continent. Read the diary of Gouverneur Morris, a financial leader of the Patriot Party, who became one of the early US ambassadors to France. He was in Paris selling American properties to aristocrats who were threatened with exile by the French revolution. These clients complained to the sympathetic Morris that if only his countrymen had refrained from revolution, the French people would never have had the notion or courage to follow suit.

But even the most thoroughgoing revolution cannot do more than historical possibilities permit. Two serious shortcomings in the work of this first upheaval manifested themselves in the next decades. One was the fact that the revolution did not and could not eliminate the soil in which the institution of slavery was rooted. Many leaders of the time, among them Thomas Jefferson, hoped that slavery would wither away because of unfavourable economic conditions.

The second shortcoming was that although the revolt gave Americans political independence, it could not give thoroughgoing independence to the US in a capitalist sense. This was true in two ways: at home the Northern capitalists had to share power with the Southern slaveowners, with whom they had waged the revolutionary war for independence and set up the new government; on the international market they remained in economic subordination to the more advanced industrial and financial structure of England.

The leaders of the revolution were aware of these deficiencies. The same Gouverneur Morris wrote to President George Washington from Paris on September 30, 1791:

We shall … make great and rapid progress in useful manufactures.

This alone is wanting to complete our independence. We shall then be as it were a world by ourselves, and far from the jars and wars of Europe, their various revolutions will serve merely to instruct and amuse. Like the roaring of a tempestuous sea, which at a certain distance becomes a pleasing sound.

However, a historical freak came along, which upset this pleasant prospect. This freak was the result of a double revolution in technology, one which took place in Europe, especially in English industry, and the other in American agriculture. The establishment of factories with steam-driven machinery in English industry, notably in textiles, its most important branch, created the demand for large supplies of cotton. The invention of the cotton gin enabled the Southern planters to supply that demand.

Consequently, slavery, which had been withering on the vine, acquired a new lease on life. This economic combination invested the nobles of the Southern cotton kingdom with tremendous wealth and power. A study of American history in the first half of the 19th century shows that its national and political life was dominated and directed by the struggle for supremacy waged by the forces centred around the Southern slaveholders on one side and those of the antislavery elements on the other. The crucial social issue before the nation was not always stated bluntly. But when every other conflict was traced to its roots, it was found to be connected with the question: What are we Americans going to do about slavery?

(A similar situation exists today in relation to capitalism. No matter what dispute agitates the political-economic life of this country, it sooner or later brings up the great social-economic question: What are we Americans going to do about capitalism?)

For the first 50 years of the 19th century, the cotton aristocrats of the South undeniably held centre stage. They became very cocky about their power and privileges, which they thought would last indefinitely. Then, around 1850, conditions began to change quite rapidly. A new combination of social forces appeared that was to prove strong enough not only to challenge the slave power but to meet it in civil war, conquer and eliminate it.

It is highly instructive to study the mentality and outlook of the American people in 1848. That was a year of revolutions in the principal countries of western Europe. The people in the United States, including its governing groups, viewed these outbursts in an isolationist spirit.

The European revolutions even pleased certain sections of the ruling classes in the United States because they were directed mainly against monarchies. There were no monarchies here to overthrow, although there was a slave aristocracy rooted in the South. Although most of the common people in the United States sympathised with the European revolutions, they looked upon them as no more than a catching up with what had already been achieved in this country. The Americans said to themselves: “We’ve already had our revolution and don’t need any more here. The quota of revolutions assigned to us by history is exhausted.”

They did not see even 15 years into their own future. The bourgeois-democratic revolution still had considerable unfinished business. During the 1850s, it became plainer that the Southern slaveholders were not only tightening their autocracy in the Southern states but were trying to make slaves of the entire population of the United States. This small set of rich men arrogated to themselves the right to tell the people what they could and could not do, where the country should expand, and how the affairs of America should and should not be managed.

So a second revolution proved necessary to complete those tasks left unsettled in the late 18th century and to dispose of the main problems that had confronted the American people in the meantime. There had to be 13 years of preparatory struggles, four and a half years of civil war, 12 years of Reconstruction — about 30 years in all, in this intense and inescapable revolutionary upheaval.

What is most important for us now are the net results of that travail. Every schoolchild knows that the slave power was abolished and the Negro population unshackled from chattel slavery. But the principal achievement of this revolution from the standpoint of American and world development was that the last of the internal impediments to the march of American capitalism were levelled, and the way cleared for the consolidation of capitalist rule.

That period saw the conclusion of the contest that had been going on since 1492 between the procapitalist and precapitalist forces on this continent. See what had happened to the peoples representing the diverse precapitalist ways of life. The Indians, who embodied savagery and barbarism, had either been exterminated, dispossessed, or herded into reservations. England, which had upheld feudalism and colonial subjugation, had been swept aside and American industrial capital had attained not only political supremacy but economic independence. The Southern plantation owners, who were the final formidable precapitalist force to be pushed out of the road, had been smashed and expropriated by the Civil War and Reconstruction.

The capitalist rulers of the industrial system were then like the Count of Monte Cristo when he burst from prison and exclaimed, with so much wealth and newly gained liberty at his command: “The world is mine!” And they have been acting on that premise ever since.


I would like now to make several observations on the economic and political development of American society from 1492 to the triumph of the capitalist class. As has already been pointed out, private property in the means of production was virtually nonexistent on this continent until the 15th century. Thereafter, as the white settlers spread, the dominant trend was for all the means of production to pass into private hands and be exploited along such lines. The land, for example, which had been tribally held, was cut up and appropriated by individuals or corporations from one end of the country to the other.

After the victory of the Northern bankers, merchants, and manufacturers in the middle of the 19th century, this process moved on to a still higher plane. The means of production under private ownership became more and more concentrated in corporate hands. Today an individual might be able to build a single auto or airplane, but without many, many millions of dollars he would not be able to compete in the market with General Motors or Ford or Lockheed or Douglas. Even so big a magnate as Henry J. Kaiser found that out in auto.

Today there is hardly an acre of land without its title deed. In fact, the Civil War promoted this process through the Homestead Act, which gave 160 acres to private individuals, and through other acts of Congress that handed over millions of acres to railroad corporations. Insofar as the land was distributed to small farmers, this was progressive because it was the only way to hasten the development of agriculture under the given conditions.

It is impossible to detail here the settlement and building of the Midwest and the West, but certain consequences of capitalist expansion deserve mention. First, as a result of this capitalist expansion, the minds of average Americans, unlike those of the Indians, have been so moulded by the institutions of private property that its standards can be thrown off only with difficulty. The Europeans penetrated the America of the Indians; and their descendants are venturing into outer space. One extreme, absurd, but for that very reason most instructive, illustration of the effects of capitalist expansion on American consciousness appeared in a press dispatch from Illinois with the headline: “Who Is the Owner of Outer-Space; Chicagoan Insists that He Is.” This news item followed:

With plans for launching man-made earth satellites now in motion, the question was inevitable [inevitable, that is, to Americans believing in the sacredness of private ownership]: Who owns outer space?

Most experts agreed that the question was over their heads. The rocket scientists said it was a problem for the international law experts. The lawyers said they had no precedents to go by. Only James T. Mangan, a fast-thinking Chicago press agent, has a firm answer to the question of space sovereignty. Mangan declares he owns outer space. To back up his claim, he has a deed filed with the Cook County (Chicago) Recorder. The deed, accepted after the state’s attorney’s office solemnly upheld the claim in a four-page legal opinion, seized “all space in all directions from the earth at midnight”, December 20, 1948.

Mangan declared that the statute of limitations for challenging the deed expires December 20, 1955, and added: ‘The government has no legal right to space without my permission.”

If this be madness, yet there is method in it. That method is the mainspring of the capitalist way of life. This gentleman, Mangan, is only logically extending to the exploration of outer space the same acquisitive creed which guided our founding fathers in taking over the American continent. This particular fanatic of private property thinks the same law is going to apply no matter how far into space we fly and no matter how far we go into the future. He differs from other exponents of capitalism only in the boldness and consistency of his private-property logic.

The second point I want to deal with is the interconnection between evolution and revolution. These two phases of social development are often opposed to each other as unconnected opposites, irreconcilable alternatives. What does American history teach us about them? The American people have already passed through two revolutionary periods in their national history, each the culmination of lengthy periods of social progress on the basis of previous achievements.

During the interval between revolutions, relatively small changes gradually occurred in people’s lives. They consequently took the given framework of their lives for granted, viewed it as fixed and final, and found it hard to imagine a different way. The idea of revolutionary change in their own lives and lifetimes seemed fantastic or at least irrelevant. Yet it was during those very periods of evolutionary progress that often unnoticed accumulations of changes prepared more drastic change.

The new class interests, which grew powerful but remained unsatisfied, the social and political conflicts, which recurred but remained unresolved, the shifts in the relations of antagonistic social forces kept asserting themselves in a series of disturbances until they reached an acute stage. The people of this country were not reckless. They made every attempt to find reasonable compromises between the contending forces, and often arrived at them. But after a while, these truces turned out to be ineffectual and short-lived. The irrepressible conflict of social forces broke out at higher stages until the breaking point was reached.

Look at the American colonists of 1763. They had just emerged — side-by-side with mother England — from a successful war against the French and the Indians. They did not anticipate that within 10 years they would be fighting for their own freedom against England and alongside the very French monarchy they had fought in 1763. That would have been considered fantastic. Yet it happened only a little more than a decade later. Dr. Benjamin Rush, one of Pennsylvania’s signers of the Declaration of Independence, observed in his
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