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Not one man in a thousand contemplated or wished for the independence of our country in 1774, and but few of those who assented to it, foresaw the immense influence it would soon have upon the national and individual characters of the Americans.
So, too, the majority of Northerners, who enjoyed the economic boom in America from 1851 to 1857 — the biggest boom in the 19th century preceding the Civil War — little reckoned that as the result of domestic processes accelerated by that very prosperity, the country was going to be split on the slave question four years after the depression of 1857. Instead, they reasoned: Hadn’t there been a compromise with the slaveholders in 1850 and couldn’t others be arrived at? Indeed, there were attempts at compromise up to the very outbreak of the Civil War, and even afterwards.
Of course, the Abolitionists at one extreme and the Southern “Fire-Eaters” at the other prophesied a different course of development and, in their own ways, prepared for the coming revolution. But these radical voices on the left and the right were few and far between.
These crucial episodes in American history demonstrate that, under conditions of class society, periods of gradual social evolution prepare forces for the revolutionary solution of the accumulated and unfinished problems of peoples and nations. This revolutionary cleanup in turn creates the premises for a new and higher stage of evolutionary progress. This alternation is demonstrated with exceptional clarity by American history in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is important to note, as a third point in dealing with the consequences of capitalist development in the United States, that our national revolutions stemmed directly from native conditions. Neither was imported by “outside agitators”, although some, like Tom Paine, played important roles. They came from the ripening of conflicts between internal social forces. But this is only one side of the matter. The domestic struggles in turn were connected with, conditioned, and determined by world economic and social development.
We pointed out earlier that the impetus for the overseas migration that changed the face of America came from the antifeudal bourgeois revolutions, which were transforming Europe; the conquest of our continent was an offshoot of those revolutions. The first American revolution occurred during the era of commercial capitalism, which was the first stage in world capitalist development. Historically, it forms part of the series of bourgeois-democratic revolutions by which the capitalist class came to power on an international scale. The first American revolution must be considered a child of the English bourgeois revolution of the mid-17th century and a parent of sorts to the French bourgeois-democratic revolution of the late 18th century.
Trade in this era, not simply American but world trade, produced a powerful merchant class in the North, which was backed up by maritime workers and artisans in the coastal cities and by free farmers in the countryside. These became the shock troops of the Sons of Liberty. It is no accident that the bustling seaport of Boston, populated by rich merchants who wanted to get out from under the thumb of Great Britain and by robust waterfront workers, longshoremen, and sailors, stood in the forefront of the fight against Great Britain and that the revolutionary war itself was detonated by the British efforts to gag and strangle Boston.
The second American revolution took place at the time of the greatest expansion of industrial capitalism on both sides of the Atlantic. The years from 1848 to 1871 were punctuated by wars and revolutions. These conflicts did not mark the disintegration of world capital, as they do in the present century, but finally gave the capitalist class unmitigated supremacy in America and a series of countries in Europe.
The second stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the United States, the Civil War, placed the Northern industrialists in the saddle. It was the outstanding revolutionary event of the entire period from 1848 to 1871, which began with the abortive French and German revolutions of 1848 and ended with the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1871. The decisive event of that period in world history was the US capitalists’ victory in this country, which heralded their ascent to world power.
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With these lessons in mind, let us now look at the march of American society from the close of the Civil War period until today. Having reaped the fruits of two successful revolutions, the capitalists began to enjoy them. For them, revolution in America was a thing of the past; the United States would advance by small slow steps. Indeed, there has been a significant evolution of capitalist society on the foundation of the achievements of its previous revolutions. But in the dialectic of our national development, it is the very extraordinary expansion of the capitalist forces of production that has been preparing the elements for another, and this time a final, showdown between class forces that belong to different stages of economic and social evolution.
Since 1878, there have been two major trends in operation in this country. The predominant one to date has been the growing concentration of economic, political, and cultural power in the hands of the monopolists. They have occasionally been challenged but never dislodged. Today they are open and insolent in the exercise of power. As Mr. Wilson of the biggest monopoly and the Defence Department has said: “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”
This echoes the assertion by an earlier absolute monarch, Louis XIV: “I am the state.” The old regime of France had its funeral in 1789. Everything in this world — and this is especially true of political regimes and social systems under class society — includes within itself its own opposition, its own fatal opposition. This is certainly true of the power of capitalism which breeds its own nemesis in the productive — and political — capacities of wage labour.
The irony is that the greater the wealth of the capitalists, the stronger becomes the social position of the exploited workers from whom this wealth is derived. The United States has witnessed, side-by-side with the rise of monopoly capitalism, the emergence of an ever more strongly organised, centralised, and unified labour movement. Ever since the capitalists and wage workers came into existence together, there have been differences, friction, outbursts of conflict, strikes, lockouts, between sections of these two classes. They arise from the very nature of their relations, which are antagonistic.
By and large, up to now, these conflicts have never gone beyond the bounds of the basic political and economic structure laid down by the Civil War. They have been subdued, reconciled, or smoothed over. Despite all disturbances, the monopolist rulers have entrenched themselves more firmly in their paramount positions. However, a closer scrutiny of the development discloses that the working class occupies an increasingly influential, though still subordinate, place in our national life.
The question presents itself with renewed force: Will this situation of class stalemate — with the workers in a secondary position — continue indefinitely? The capitalists naturally answer that it can and must be so. Furthermore, they do everything from teaching in school the perpetual existence of the established class structure to passing antilabour laws to insure the continuance of the status quo. The union officialdom, for their part, go along with this general proposition.
Neither the capitalist spokesmen nor the AFL-CIO officialdom will find any precedent in American history to reinforce their expectations of an indefinite maintenance of the status quo. That is one lesson from our national past that the “long view” of socialism emphasises. For many years, despite occasional tiffs, the American colonists got along with their mother country and even cherished the tie. Then came a very rapid and radical reversal in relations, a duel to the end. The same held true of the long coexistence of the Northern free states and Southern slavery. For 60 years, the Northerners had to play second fiddle to the Southern slave autocracy until the majority of people in the country came to believe that this situation would endure indefinitely. The slaveowners, like the capitalists of today, taught that their “American way of life” was the crown of civilisation. But once the new combination of progressive forces was obliged to assert itself, the maturing differences broke out in a civil war which disposed of the old order. The political collaborators of yesterday turned into irreconcilable foes on the morrow.
The upholders of the status quo in this country can find still less support from the main trends of world history in our own time. In 1848, at a time when the capitalist classes on both sides of the Atlantic were toppling monarchies and feudal aristocracies, the pioneer communists first publicly proclaimed their ideas and started the movement of scientific socialism, which has become the guide of the world working class in its struggle for emancipation. In 1917, 69 years later, the first working-class state was set up in the Soviet Union. There was no other established for almost three decades.
Then came the Second World War, which extended the domain of collectivised property throughout Eastern Europe, and afterwards the victory of the Chinese revolution, which overturned capitalism in that major power in the East.
All this is tantamount to a colossal advance of world history. The essence of the new stage is that the movement for the advancement of capitalism, which had dominated world history from the 16th to the 19th centuries, has been succeeded on a world scale in the 20th century by the anticapitalist movement of the socialist working class and its colonial allies.
Of course it is not only the hope but the policy of the present capitalist holders of power that the achievements, ideas, and purposes of this revolutionary movement of the workers and colonial peoples can be contained in other parts of the world and crushed there. At any rate, the witch-hunters make every effort to keep its influences from these shores. Just as the British tyrants and the Southern slaveholders, each in their day, mustered all their resources to hold back the oncoming revolutionary forces in this land, so do the agents of the American plutocracy today. Will the monopolists succeed where their forerunners failed? Let us consider this question.
The high point of a revolutionary process consists in the transfer of supreme power from one class to another. What are the prevailing relationships of power in the United States? All basic decisions on foreign and domestic policy are made by the top capitalist circles to forward their aims and interests. Labour may be able to modify this or that decision or policy, but its influence does no more than curb the political power exercised by the monopolists.
However, there is a remarkable anomaly in such a relationship of forces. The now united union movement has about 17 million members. With their families, followers, and friends, this movement can muster enough votes to give the political representatives of organised labour majority power in the cities, in the states, and in Washington. This means that the capitalists continue to exercise their sway by virtue of default, that is, a continued default of independent political action and organisation by labour, or more precisely by its present leaders. They are failing to use one-thousandth of the power their movement presently and potentially possesses on behalf of the working people.
Organised labour has within its own grasp enough political strength, not to speak of its economic and social capacities, to be the sovereign force in this country. That is why any movement toward the formation of an independent party of labour based on the trade unions would have such highly revolutionising implications upon the existing setup, regardless of the intentions or announced program of its organisers. Any such move on a massive scale would portend a shift in the power of supreme decision in the United States from capitalist to labour circles, just as the coming to Washington of the Republican Party in 1860 signified the shift of power away from the slaveholders to the Northern industrialists.
The Republican leaders of 1861 did not have revolutionary intentions. They headed a reformist party. They wanted to restrict the power of the slaveholders. But to do this involved upsetting the established balance of class forces. The slaveholders recognised the threat to their supremacy far more clearly and felt it more keenly than did the Northern Republican leaders themselves. That is why they initiated a counterrevolutionary assault in order to retrieve the power they had previously possessed.
The parallel with any national assumption of political power by the labour movement, even in a reformist way, is plain to see. Is such a shift possible? A succession of crucial shifts of power has marked the onward movement of the American people: from Britain to the colonial merchants and planters in the 18th century; and from the Southern slavocracy to the industrial capitalists in the 19th century. The thrust in the present period of our national history is toward another such colossal shift, this time from the ruling plutocracy to the rising working class and its allies among the oppressed minorities.
The whole course of economic, social, and political development in this country and in this century points to such a shift in power. Of course, the working class is far from predominant yet, and even less conscious of its historical mission. But, from the standpoint of the long view, it is most important to note the different rates of growth in the economic, social, and political potentialities of the respective contenders for supreme power. Reviewing this country’s history from 1876 to 1957, together with the rate of growth of the working-class movement on a world scale, the balance of forces has been steadily shifting, despite all oscillations, toward the side of working-class power. Nothing whatsoever, including imperialist war, the Taft-Hartley Act, and McCarthyism, has been able to stop the momentum of the US labour movement.
The supreme merit of scientific socialism is that it enables us to participate in this process by understanding it, by striving to influence it through all its stages, by giving it proper direction and speeding it up so that its great aims can be achieved most economically and efficiently. This job can be done in an organised fashion only through a revolutionary leadership and a Marxist party that understands its indispensable educational and organisational functions in the process.
I I I
Let us now return to Vincent Sheean, who popularised the phrase “the long view of history” and was the point of departure for these remarks.
Sad to say, this writer held the long view for a very short time. Uplifted by the revolutionary events of the 1920s, and transformed by the widespread radicalism of the 1930s, he had become a well-wisher of the socialist transformation of society, in his own way a partisan of the anti-imperialist cause, and even a sympathiser of Leninism. But, as the backward sweep in the tide of events and of political thought gained strength in this country with the approach of the Second World War, Sheean joined the intellectuals in retreat. He slid from the socialist science of Marx and Lenin to the mysticism of Mahatma Gandhi. Let us leave him dozing and dreaming at the spinning wheel about the virtues of passive resistance to evil so long as he doesn’t catch hold of any of us and try to pull us back with him.
It was a decisive step in the process of evolution, we pointed out, when the first creature acquired a backbone. There have been many relapses in the movement of history, especially in the world-shaking struggles of our own generation. Many people became frightened by the immensity of the tasks or crushed by adversity to the point of losing their moral and intellectual backbones and of losing sight of the direction of social evolution. This has happened in recent years to many more than Vincent Sheean in both labour and intellectual circles.
This “lost generation” has forgotten, if they ever learned, the supreme lesson of both world history and American history. This is that the forces making for the advancement of mankind have overcome the most formidable obstacles and have won out in the end. Otherwise, we should not be here to tell the tale or to help in making its next chapter.
Our animal ancestors progressed from the fish to the ape; our human ancestors have climbed upward from the ape to Republican President Eisenhower of the United States and conservative President Meany of the AFL-CIO. Along the way, they disposed of recalcitrant master classes, who, like the monopolists, refused to believe their sovereignty would ever end. Is it rational to think that men of their stripe are the ultimate representatives of the American nation and its labour movement or enduring shapers of the world’s destiny, or that their reactionary policies and shortsighted outlook will prevail for decades?
The American people will bring forward in the future, as they have at critical times in the past, more audacious men and women with a vision of a new world in the making. These fighting leaders and leading fighters, guided by “the long view” of Marxism, will prove in practice that the socialist prospects of humanity, and of the American nation, are not so distant as they now appear.
In the third chapter of
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