George Novack’s Understanding History

The Long View Of History

II. The Main Course Of American History
And Its Next Stage

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?

I  I  I

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.

I  I  I

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  I  I

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 Autobiography that:

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.

I  I  I

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.