C.L.R. James

The Gathering Forces

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II. Contemporary International Class Struggles

The United States of America

White America was born free. It was created by groups of people who were voluntarily and consciously constructing a new society. There was no extensive feudal aristocracy in early America although there was class privilege. Men contracted one with the other to form a society with particular dimensions, rules, and modes of behaviour. But American Indians and Negro slaves were excluded from the contract.

Social contract in America is not mere political theory. It is popular experience. Men fight, debate, vote, write down the decisions of their deliberations and then live by these decisions – until that moment shortly thereafter when they want to make new decisions. The older contract is revoked and a new one initiated. People do this as often and as drastically as their view of the circumstances demands.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Americans resorted to the contract to found government. In the Mayflower Compact of 1620 the Pilgrims from England and Holland contracted one with another before their God to build the New Jerusalem, Zion in the Wilderness, according to a particular plan and scheme.

In 1639, Thomas Hooker and a band of followers moved from Massachusetts to the unsettled area of Connecticut and there they bound themselves to one another to live in a particular way according to the Fundamental Order of Connecticut. The next year Roger Williams and a group of religious dissenters settled in the wilderness that was to become Providence, Rhode Island, on the basis of the Plantation Agreement.

In the next stage, the drawing together of separate colonies, the contract again appeared. The Articles of Confederation of the New England colonies of 1643 and the Albany Union Plan of 1754, prefigured the great documents which were to become the foundation stones of the republic: the Association document of 1774, in which the colonies joined together to form a Continental Congress, and the Declaration of Independence. In this last and most famous statement of first principles a new-born people achieved its philosophic understanding – that of revolution so that all men could have life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

With the achievement of independence the social contract took another, now even more revolutionary turn. It became the device for the expression of the direct democracy of the people creating their own movements to attain their own ends without regard to the will of Congress, President or the courts.

This method of voluntary association gave birth to wave after wave of settlers moving westwards, founding along the way new municipalities and states.

Bringing only what they could carry in their wagons and in their heads they created a series of New Jerusalems in the wilderness and when they grew tired or dissatisfied with what they had done they picked themselves up and moved on to repeat the process elsewhere. (The negativity of the same movement was its extermination of American Indians, vigilantes, and the lynch mob.)

Prototypical of the new stage in the development of the social contract was the creation of the hundreds of utopian socialist colonies in the thirty years before the American Civil War of 1861–1865. Best known of these is the Brook Farm Association of the American Transcendentalists of 1841 with which were associated the outstanding intellectuals and literary figures of that day.

This covenant method was utilized whenever the American people moved forward. It was the device utilized by the movement to abolish slavery, following the lead, as the Abolitionists were to do all along, of the Negroes who had created fraternal and religious associations before the 1830s and the Negro Freedman’s Convention movement afterwards, The women of America, stimulated by both the Free Negro Convention movement and abolitionism, created their own movement for emancipation in the Women’s Rights Convention at Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848.

When Abraham Lincoln, perhaps the greatest American with a claim on the world’s attention, said time and time again that his sole purpose was to maintain the Union of the States, it was not some political rhetoric nor was it a method to evade the slavery issue as has often been charged.

Lincoln was defending what he, along with the common people of America, believed to be the heart of the whole American experience: the social contract. When Lincoln referred to the Union as “man’s last, best hope” he was invoking the social experiences of generations and bringing them to bear upon the claim of the South that a nation formed by the will of the people could be abruptly broken up.

Whenever American direct democracy has appeared it has acted swiftly, decisively, through the voluntary social contract. In 1892 the workers and farmers of the Populist Party met and wrote a platform which was not the typical political program. It declared that the spirit of the Constitution of the United States, the covenant of a more perfect union, permeates the Populist activities: “We declare ...that the union of the labor forces of the United States this day consummated shall be permanent and perpetual ...” Then follows a series of proposals, some of which were to promise certain acts of legislation if the Populists were elected. But some of the proposals were not for legislation but were promises of the members of the Populist Party to each other and to society at large to act in a certain way.

Thus the final resolution: “That this convention sympathizes with the Knights of Labor and their righteous contest with the tyrannical combine, the clothing manufacturers of Rochester, and declares it to be a duty of all who hate tyranny and oppression to refuse to purchase the goods made by the said manufacturers, or to patronize merchants who sell such goods.” Such a statement is not part of any parliamentary platform. It is the agreement of a group of individuals to perform a revolutionary act, an act which was illegal according to the American law of the period.

In the formation of the mass industrial unions of the nineteen thirties, a process in which new methods of struggle were forged such as the sit-down strikes, the process of the revolutionary social contract was at work. In the automobile industry, for example, at no time in the period of the formation of the workers’ organization was the union built from the top down.

For example, at Budd Manufacturing Company in Detroit in 1933 the workers met without any official of the union being present, formed themselves into an organization and then applied for a charter from the union. Frank Marquart, a man of great experience in this connection, described what happened:

What about the A.F. of L. in connection with the Budd strike? After the strike began, a whole month elapsed before the A.F. of L. President William Green gave it official recognition. He let the strikers know they could expect no financial help because they had not been affiliated to the Federation for a year. The strikers got no help from the A.F. of L. craft workers in the plant, pattern makers and machinists. This did not endear the A.F. of L. to Budd production workers. By the time the strikes ended, the federal labor union in the plant was dead as a dodo. The workers realized they needed a better form of organization. (Speak Out, No. 11, May 1967)

Those who look for political philosophy only in official state papers and in the formal works of political philosophers will overlook what happens when the political tradition of the social contract and the popular tradition of direct democracy are wedded to insurgency at the work place. Nevertheless, it was on this basis that a democratic and militant American union of hundreds of thousands was formed. It maintained its revolutionary potential longer than any other and left a legacy of behaviour which still applies on the floor of the automobile factory,despite the most extreme efforts of management and union officials to prevent it.

This very continuity of the social contract as expressed by the workers of America had to be met by the American government led by Franklin D. Roosevelt. That president transformed, in the interests of capital, the union leadership into one more arm of administrative and governmental procedure and institutions. The union leadership became responsible for making the union contract i to a narrow legal document rather than a benchmark of mass revolutionary achievement.

Particular sectors of the working class had seen to it that the union contract, originally a brief statement granting union recognition, was a decisive expression of their victory over management in the work process and over American capital in general. Trade union bureaucracy reduced it to a complicatedly administered legal device in behalf of and at the behest of the state to prevent the onward march of the mass organizations to these new victories by which workers would master the whole process of industrial production.

To help bring the union leadership into the state bureaucracy Roosevelt had to bring certain welfare schemes into the make-up of American society – the first time that any such serious public responsibility for its poor was acknowledged in America. By doing so Roosevelt brought the United States into the Twentieth Century, although just barely. The American welfare state provides far fewer benefits than any other modern capitalist society. For example, there is nothing like a comprehensive health plan.

What is important about all this is that there was no popular opposition to the President’s actions; he was putting into effect, after all, what the people wanted. That was all that mattered.

Congress was made subordinate to the Executive Branch of government. As a body of legislators the Congress had to suffer the control of a combination of Republican Party conservatives and Southern Democratic Party reactionaries and toward the end of the 1930s Roosevelt was prepared to take the decisive political actions against the obstruotionist Southerners within his own political party. The entrance of America into World War II helped delay this party transformation because of the necessities of national unity. With his death, Roosevelt’s plan to form a newly unified party of Northern Democrats and those elements in the Republican Party who would split away from that mossbank monolith was not taken up by anyone who possessed the political talent required. Party politics in the United States, almost always weak and corrupt, now had entered upon an even more precipitous decline.

The Congress of the United States as an institution has never had the stature of a great parliamentary body in the British sense. It has acted with success only when putting into effect the will of the people exprssed outside the Congress. The People feel no fundamental loyalty to it equal to that which they have to the voluntary associations of the private citizens. Thus, when Congress made it illegal to make and sell alcoholic beverages during the 1920s everyone violated this Prohibition Law, even when it became part of the Constitution itself, with impunity. Leading the violators were the President and the Congressmen themselves.

There is a great advantage for American society in this weakness of parliamentary democracy in the United. States. When the American people move, they do so rapidly and comprehensively, because only liberal political science professors and their cronies are befuddled by the mythology of parties and parliaments. At no time has this been more true than with the Negro Revolution of contemporary America.

Last updated on 18 October 2020