XLIX. COMMUNISM AND AMERICA
CONCOMITANT with the breakdown of the Third International has been the disintegration of Europe as, historically, the foremost creative force. With the shift of the general center of gravity to the United States, the question arises whether America is destined to receive the revolutionary banner from the hands of Europe and carry it forward. The question of whether America can lead the proletarian revolution now becomes of more than theoretical importance.
Were the United States to take the mantle of revolutionary leadership from Europe, it would not be the first time that the revolutionary center has shifted from one country to another. In the early nineteenth century, the heart of the revolutionary proletariat was in England; in the middle of that century the center moved to France; later it shifted to Germany, where it remained till the World War, after which it fell to the Russians to lead the way. Incidentally, in each case of change, the revolutionary organizations in the abandoned center, bound in part by nationalist ideology, refused to face the facts and protested the shift. The French, with the glorious history of the Paris Commune behind them, could not reconcile themselves to the leadership of the Germans; the Germans never fully admitted the loss of their leadership to the Russians; the Russians will not easily embrace the idea that the hub of revolution can shift from Moscow to New York or Chicago. Yet the First International was led by the French, the Second by the Germans, the Third by the Russians; it may well be—should the European working class find itself unable to defeat fascism—that the Fourth International will be led by the Americans.
The German leadership at the head of the Second International stressed the point that the socialist revolution must be led ultimately by the proletarians in the most important industrial countries of the world. Culture depended upon technique and, since Germany before the War had the most advanced technique, the German workers had the highest culture, and therefore were bound to take leadership of the revolutionary movement. This was their reply to the French, who always had mocked the parliamentary opportunism of their Teutonic neighbors; with these Marxist arguments, the Kaiser’s agents were able to rally the socialist workers to the War.
The victory of the Bolsheviks in the Soviet Union disclosed the fact that the proletariat revolution must not inevitably strike first in the most advanced countries, but, following the law of uneven development, could break out in an agrarian and semi-colonial country as well. Under Lenin, the communists never envisioned the agrarian country as leading the way forever or, having achieved socialist rule for itself, as defeating the combined capitalist world. As Leninism gave way to Stalinism, however, the impression deepened that not the industrial countries were to lead the way for the world revolution—the workers of those countries were too well bribed by imperialism—but the agrarian countries like Hungary, Bavaria, China, and Russia. Just as the Germans had covered their nationalism with Marxist phrases to the effect that the industrial country must lead, so the Russians began to use the phrases of Leninism to prove that the leadership must fall to agrarian nations.
The true situation can best be gathered by a synthesis of the following sets of circumstances. First of all, the entire world as a whole is ripe for the end of capitalism and the victory of the proletarian revolution. Second, the struggles in the agrarian countries, while important and inevitable, are yet indecisive in the struggle for power the world over. The toilers in the backward countries may start the struggle and can carry on protracted guerrilla fighting, but they cannot by themselves overthrow world capitalism. This can be done only when the heavy battalions of the proletariat in the industrial countries are brought into action.
The third factor is that the proletarian movement in Europe is showing an incapacity further to lead the world. It may well be that the enormous weight of America is too heavy for the workers of Europe to remove from their necks. Europe today, broadly generalizing, stands to the United States as the small industry of the nineteenth century stands to the large trust of the twentieth. It is not the workers of scattered discrete industry of antiquated nature that can assume the leadership for any length of time, but only the masses mobilized in the most modern heavy industries. These last are no longer to be found primarily or mainly in Europe. The shift of the world’s economic center of gravity eventually must mean a shift of the revolutionary center of gravity. Fundamentally, the Germans were right in their insistence on the importance of the proletariat in the industrial countries, although they were fatally in error in believing that the workers of the agrarian countries could not initiate the world battle and win its first victories. The Germans proved too simple, too mechanical, too provincially European.
Marx himself had posed the problem eighty years before, when he wrote: “The difficult question for us is this: On the Continent the revolution is imminent and will also immediately assume a socialist character. Is it not bound to be crushed in this little corner, considering that in a far greater territory the movement of bourgeois society is still on the ascendant?” (*1)
It is of course too early as yet to state whether fascism will be victorious in Western Europe, and the world united for the downfall of the Soviet Union. Such an eventuality, however, is quite within the range of possibility. This would simply mean that European capitalism, supported and overwhelmed by the capitalist reserves of the Western Hemisphere, proved too powerful for the proletariat at this time. But just as it is impossible to eradicate the working class and exploitation under capitalism, so is it impossible to extirpate communism and the class struggle. In the event of the victory of fascism in Europe, the arena would then be shifted to the more decisive portions of the world, and first of all to the United States. In that case, from the capitalist point of view, it will become the destiny of American capitalism to organize the world, just as Germany tried to organize Europe. From the proletarian point of view, it will then be the mission of the American workers to organize the Fourth International on a true world and internationalist basis. If Europe, including its proletariat, is broken up by the power of America and rendered helpless, American capitalism itself will be made powerless in turn by the forces engendered within itself, namely, the proletariat.
After all is said and done, the working class of the United States is no mean one. In numbers it is gigantic, equaled by no country in the world. Nor in quality is it deficient. Ever since the Civil War, the workers of the United States have demonstrated repeatedly their genius for direct action and impetuous struggle. In the United States May Day was born; in New York City the First International had its headquarters for a time. A country that begins its independence with revolution, that ushers its proletariat into existence by a civil war, that compels violence to become part of the very breath of life of the class struggle—such a country is well prepared for revolutionary outbursts of its proletariat.
The struggles of the workers of the United States up to the present have been mainly of an economic character. But economics is becoming politics. The old individualism is giving way to collectivism; there is becoming apparent in the United States a tenseness of relationships, a restiveness of the masses that proves that the workers have great potentialities for radicalization, and that sudden and violent political fluctuations are quite possible in this, the strongest capitalist country in the world, the bulwark of world reaction. It is true, the superior technique of American imperialism imparts to the worker a superior culture, but this culture, too, has an uneven development. The American workman is unsurpassed in his general knowledge of physical and natural science, but he remains far more backward in social science. The question is, how long can social science lag behind physical science?
Of one thing we may be sure. Once the American workers are put on the road of social science, it will not be long before they pursue that science to the end, wringing from it all the revolutionary conclusions possible. Up to now, American workers have taken to the study of gasoline engines, machinery, and similar mechanical objects, because this was the way to advance. Now, however, that they are being dispossessed from the process of production, now that the army of unemployed hungering for relief can at times become larger than those actually at work, now that definite class formations are emerging, the study of mechanics and of natural objects will give way to a study of the modes of operation and of the role of the State. Then it will be not unnatural to expect that, just as the American proletariat caught up with and surpassed the Europeans in natural science, so will it in the social sciences. Furthermore, in no country in the world is there such a close reaction time between theory and practice as in America. Now that class formations openly are appearing in American life, it cannot be long before class struggle theories will be the property of the American masses; when this happens, the whole Western Hemisphere will glow in the crucible of the social revolution.
The problem of communizing America is in part the problem of americanizing communism. To the average American, communism always has been considered a foreign product. The theoretical and practical leaders of the movement, such as Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Nikolai Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and such, all were Europeans who knew America only from afar. In this country, the Marxist parties were composed mostly of foreign-born elements, dominated in the beginning by Germans, later by Jews and Russian nationals. The ideas of these parties and their expressions seemed utterly alien to this country.
Of course, the real barrier to the assimilation of the communist movement with the social life of this country which prevented its indigenous development lay in the fact that the economic and social evolution of the United States had not as yet warranted the open formation of classes engaged in active civil war. A number of keen European observers, such as Graf von Keyserling, have ventured the opinion that America would never adopt Marxian socialism because the country itself was a substitute for it. (*2)
Certainly America is unique, although not in the Herbert Hoover sense that America is outside the pale of capitalist development and that the laws of the class struggle prevailing in Europe would not be generated here, not in the sense that its exceptional development has removed it from the general decline of capitalism throughout the world; America is unique simply in the sense that all concrete truth is unique. America is an illustration of the law of combined development which compels history never exactly to repeat itself, but to enunciate eternally the basic law of individuality in nature.
We already have stressed the peculiar character of American development. It would be well, however, to summarize some of the factors at this point, so as to provide a background for the solution of the problem of americanizing communism. In the first place, America was a new world. To many it was an escape from the old social order, from the old economic machine, from the old State. Here one could turn over a new leaf. One could build utopias. There was no limit to the possibilities of expansion. Here one could stress the individual as against class, State, nation, race. Secondly, America seemed to turn the economic laws of Europe backward. Here every man could aim to be a king in his own little domain, and there was plenty for all. Thirdly, there were no important feudal classes with special privileges to hamper the development of capitalism. If the propertyless could obtain a little property, and the petty bourgeoisie could become bourgeois, the bourgeoisie could become absolute masters of the situation. Fourthly, wealth was to be attained without devastating wars. Class struggles apparently were not needed in order to win ease and security. In America, all classes seemed to dissolve into one—the small property owners and the direct producers. As fast as upper and lower classes were precipitated in one part of the country, the vast and rapid expansion of the land created new fluid conditions and broke up anew all rigid formations. The domination of big capital was delayed by the speed of expansion. Of course, classes existed from the very beginning, but it was the private owner of the means of production who tended to become the universal element forming the mother class, from whose ranks there was later to be differentiated both capitalist and laborer.
Throughout the entire nineteenth-century history of our country, generally speaking, it was the petty bourgeoisie who dominated the ideology of the country and, under the impact of big capital, carried forward the nation’s development. Not as in England, where every “middle body” aped his superior, in America, every capitalist tried to appear as a man of the people, the people of course being the petty owners of the means of production. Whatever democracy existed in the United States was the democracy of private property, extended to the little property owner in an environment where many could easily become property owners and enter the charmed circle. In all this period, the propertyless proletariat never took the initiative in making history in the United States. As a matter of fact, it has yet to take this initiative as a class.
The problem of americanizing communism always has been a difficult one for communist leaders; up to now, this question has not been solved, nor even adequately posed. The traditional approach has been the one in which the communist praises the Fathers of the country and declares that communism will carry on the work of the American Revolution, the American Constitution, and the deeds of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and others. The trouble with this approach is that it leads to a complete falsification of American history and to an idealization of the bourgeois leaders of the country.
An interesting exhibit of this type of approach to America is to be found in Lenin’s Letter to the American Workers. In this letter, Lenin affirmed that the American Revolution was one of the few great and really revolutionary wars of the people against feudal subjection. Lenin, the European, did not know that the American Revolution was not a people’s revolution at all (from the point of view of how much of a “people’s” character it had, we would place the American Revolution somewhere between the Turkish Revolution of Kemal Pasha and the English Civil Wars), that there was no substantial extension of democracy to embrace the masses of people after the Revolution, that the American Constitution was more the product of counter-revolution than revolution, that those who led the Revolutionary forces were the enemies of the common people, that America was not fighting feudalism, since England least of all represented the feudal system at the time, that the American Revolution was not in the main a glorious revolution for ideals, but a sordid fight for control over the resources and wealth of the New World.
Lenin’s limited understanding of American history can be seen in his expressed view that compares “the colonial slavery of America by the English robbers” with the colonial slavery of British imperialism in India and Asia. In such a comparison, a whole series of historical errors is committed. In India, the British imperialists can keep their control only by supporting the Nabobs, Rajahs, and all the trappings of old India at the expense of the conquered masses whom they drove deeper than ever into misery. Just the opposite occurred in the New World. North America had to be colonized by capitalist elements and English subjects themselves. The American colonists robbed the indigenes. They established the most widespread system of slavery and indentured servitude, and most ruthlessly exploited men, materials, and soil. Not a feudal system was preserved, but a great development of capitalist private property was inaugurated. It was because the American exploiters would not share the wealth with the British imperialists in what the latter considered the proper proportions that the two groups fought it out. Taking Lenin’s view that the American Revolution was the revolt of colonial slaves, it would be hard to explain the fact that after these so-called slaves won their revolt, the real slaves, the Negroes, redemptioners, and indentured servants, increased in number. Lenin in fact here entirely ignored the Negro’s point of view. Certainly the American Negro had no interest in the American Revolution.
This piece of writing by Lenin is an illustration that the very best of European revolutionists were and are provincially limited by their ignorance of America. Lenin was the foremost leader of the world proletariat simply because he was the leader of the European section, and Europe was then leading the world. Today such a limited horizon is fatal.
There is a sophisticated example of this type of vulgar approach to the question of americanizing communism in the pamphlet by B. D. Wolfe: Our Heritage from 1776. Wolfe writes: “One of the earliest articles of Lenin, written in 1897, concerns itself with this very question. It is entitled: ‘What Inheritance Do We Reject?’ It disputes step by step with the populists the inheritance from past bourgeois revolutionaries. ‘We are definitely more consistent and truer guardians of the inheritance than the Narodniki (populists),’ he declares, and then adds … ‘To keep the inheritance by no means signifies that one must limit himself to what he has inherited.’ This article by the youthful Lenin was a definite declaration that the Russian working class was coming of age and claiming the inheritance that the Decembrists, the ‘Enlighteners’ and the earlier generation of Populists had left to it.
“Judged by this test, the American working class is still immature—still infantile leftist. It does not claim its heritage. It does not dispute with the bourgeoisie and particularly the petty bourgeoisie (the ‘Back to 1776’ers’) for its share of the inheritance of the first American Revolution… .” (*3)
Now what were the ingredients of the Russian situation? 1. The Decabrist revolt had been directed by a group of the lower nobility and army officers against the tyranny of the Czar. The revolt failed, but it marked the beginning of the demand for the Europeanization of Russia, following upon the Napoleonic wars. 2. The revolt was continued in the middle of the nineteenth century by Russian students and intellectuals who wanted to bring European enlightenment into Russia. These students of advanced ideas were harassed and persecuted by Czarism in a thousand ways, and showed a high level of courage and devotion. The movement failed, and Czarist reaction prevailed. 3. Following the Crimean War, Russian absolutism was forced to free the serfs in 1861 and to develop capitalism. There then arose a populist movement composed of students and elements of the petty bourgeoisie who went to the people, tried to educate the peasant, and, through their terrorist arm, conducted a truly heroic war against Czarism. The movement failed, thousands were persecuted, exiled, imprisoned, killed by Czarism. These three early movements already had entered into the traditions of all liberation movements at the time when the proletariat began to arise and to speak in its own name.
In all of this, the following is to be carefully noted: First, there was in each case a struggle against the same power, Czarism, which up to the victory of the Russian proletariat was still the persecuter and murderer of the people. That is to say, the enemy of the previous movements was the enemy of the proletariat at the time that Lenin was writing. This, of course, is not the case in the United States. The American workers’ enemy is not identical with the enemy of the leaders of the American Revolution.
Second, the leaders of the movements prior to those of 1905 and 1917 had failed. In many cases they had paid for their failure with their lives and had demonstrated that the classes they represented could not overthrow the oppressors of the Russian people, only the proletariat could accomplish this task. They had turned over the banner of revolution to the newly rising working class; this class continued the work they had begun, but could not complete it. The exact opposite was the case in the American Revolution.
Lenin could praise the “Enlighteners” and the nihilists because, in a backward agrarian country, the revolution against Czarism had to start as a democratic agrarian revolution, to be pushed on and completed by the proletariat only as the revolution itself unfolded. The revolution in the United States need not undergo the tortuous phases that occurred in Russia. There the leaders of the early revolts against Czarism never exposed themselves to the masses, never had the power or the opportunity to oppress and to grind down the revolutionary forces of the people. In America, the contrary was the case. From the very beginning, the leaders of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers, became the bitter enemies of the people. The leaders of the American Revolution actually won the power, brazenly and arrogantly seizing the fruits of the Revolution for themselves, and refusing to grant the lower orders, who had made up the bulk of the fighting force, the slightest amelioration of their conditions. In other words, the enemies of the American proletariat are the very bourgeois who led the American Revolution.
Third, in Russia, the leaders of the previous movements, especially the terrorist Narodniki, were social revolutionists; they tried to organize the masses of peasants under their own banner with their own demands, and to launch them in violent struggle against the old absolutist order. On the contrary, the leaders of the American Revolution never went to the people; they did their utmost to prevent the Revolution from being a people’s revolution; they entered the Revolution for their own selfish ends and emerged from it enormously richer and more powerful. What they were interested in was not a social revolution, but a political change in government.
We do not deny that the American Revolution was a progressive act, objectively unleashing the forces of production and of capitalist development. The American Revolution began an act in the drama which the proletarian revolution shall complete and finish. To speak of the progressive character of the American Revolution is a good approach in reaching the middle class. But this approach is not suitable for the American workers.
The communists cannot enter into rivalry with the bourgeoisie on the question: Whose is the Fourth of July? Whose is the American Flag? Whose country is it? Whose Constitution is it? etc., etc. In this sort of rivalry, the bourgeoisie must emerge on the top; the workers will be fighting within the framework of capitalist ideology and tradition; the petty bourgeoisie will be confused and lost. Nationalism will be rampant. All sorts of illusions about reforming the Constitution by making amendments will be thickly spread throughout the workers’ ranks, demoralizing them, preventing them from taking the historic initiative in their own manner and breaking from the capitalist parties that have traditionally used this lure. The whole line of Wolfe plays into the hands of the American varieties of budding fascism.
Can it be that the American workers have, therefore, no tradition of revolution, no insurrectionary heritage from the past? Far from it. The proletariat carries forward the insurrectionary traditions of Bacon’s rebellion, Leisler’s rebellion, Dorr’s rebellion, the fierce struggles in the Southern States between the planters and the poor whites, and, most important of the time, Shay’s rebellion. All of them, especially the last, were rebellions of the poor plebeian toiling masses against the wealthy monopolists arising in the country. Here is a rich heritage of political struggle that the American proletariat never can forget.
The American proletariat has the heritage of the underground railway of the days prior to the Civil War, of the left abolitionist movement, culminating in John Brown’s raid. The American proletariat has the memorable tradition of the insurrection against conscription under Lincoln. Then there are, too, the traditions of May Day, of the First International, whose seat was in New York City, of the many violent strike struggles which in ferocity resembled small insurrections by themselves. The workers of this country can well carry forward the traditions of street action which always have characterized the toilers of this country. Lynching is not for the bourgeoisie alone. It is a tradition of the American people for dealing with crooks and bandits and outlaws and murderers as well.
Most important of all the insurrectionary traditions which the American proletariat must cherish as its most precious heritage are the wonderful insurrectionary attempts on the part of the Negro slaves in this country. The war of the Seminoles (really an insurrection by Negroes as well), the insurrectionary movements of Turner, Cato, Vesey, and a thousand others whose names have been buried by the bourgeoisie—these mark high lights in the struggles of the terribly oppressed toilers of this country. Throwing aside the illusions of the opportunists, we see the Negro as the great insurrectionist, the foremost fighter for the liberation of the toiling masses of this country. The history of the proletariat in this country has its origin in the history of Negro slavery. The insurrections of the Negro slaves are the finest traditions of the American working class.
There is another and better approach to the question of americanizing communists than has been elaborated up to now by the working class organizations. This is to study the elements of americanism and to see where socialism and americanism intertwine and work into each other. However, even this method, far superior to the traditional, and one which has not been comprehended by working class leaders, only raises the problems without adequately solving them. The attempt to achieve socialism through americanism may bring some valuable results but is insufficient and, at bottom, is defective in mobilizing the workers for international revolution. The fact of the matter is that a Marxist understanding of the soul and spirit of American life, of its character and peculiar interests has not been attempted by communist theoreticians.
Socialism and americanism are not so far apart as one might think at first sight. For communism begins where capitalism ends, and America has been the highest developed capitalist country. It is true that we cannot evolve peacefully into communism from capitalism, that a sharp break from the past is necessary, a break that takes the form of civil war and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. However, it is also true that within the womb of capitalism there matures the basis for communism; communism does not destroy everything that has gone before it, but takes over the best achievements that capitalism has been able to develop, and uses them for its own purposes.
The fact that americanism and socialism may have certain aspects in common does not at all mean that americanism cannot be the root ideology for American fascism. We can be sure that a native American fascist movement would be bound to use "americanism" for its own purposes, and that the class conscious American workers would be nationalist fools were they to go into competition with the fascists or bourgeois nationalists of any stripe as to which class the ideology of “100 per cent Americanism” belongs. On the other hand, however, this does not mean that the communists stand for the extirpation of any given nationality, nor that they cannot use national traditions for their own purposes; it does not mean that communists cannot point out exactly in what places americanism and socialism converge and how some of the best ideals of americanism can be realized only under socialism. While this is not the best approach to the American proletariat, it is a fruitful approach to the American nationalist petty bourgeoisie, because, in the guise of showing him americanism through socialism, such a policy really proceeds to make socialists out of Americans.
Americanism means direct action. Traditionally, the American proceeded directly and with his own physical forces to obtain control of the means of production for himself. He did not rely upon representatives, delegates, politicians, or legal action, but upon his own strength and will. This initiative also led the American to lynching and to taking justice into his own hands. This partly accounts for the high crime rate in the United States and for the instinctive rebelliousness to authority that is part of every American’s make-up.
This penchant for direct action can be utilized mightily by the revolutionary proletarian forces, as the I.W.W. already have shown. With these traditions at his disposal, the communist easily can appeal over the heads of the legalists and the parliamentarians for direct action of the masses for the seizure of food by the hungry, for the taking over of the land by the farmers and of the factories by the workers. With such a background, the communist need have no fear of such a slogan as “Lynch the lynchers of the Negroes and poor toilers.”
It is thoroughly American to preach the inevitability of violent struggle; the communist, in this respect, is only “going native” with a vengeance. In no country in the world are so many foremen’s jaws punched by irate workers who have been fired or who, disgruntled, have quit. Nor is the concept of revolution un-American. President Roosevelt is using the word to ingratiate his New Deal with the American people. A country that began its independent life with a successful revolution, one that has embodied its Right of Revolution into its very Constitution, one that saw its bloody Civil War, such a country certainly has plenty of American traditions for the pursuit of the proletarian revolution.
Americanism never has been a quiet, soothing program. For the American, everything is in motion and flux. Change and the necessity for change have become a permanent part of this man’s thinking. Always bigger and better, always something new, always facing new worlds to conquer, this is a typical American attitude that has been often remarked upon by the bourgeois European content with the status quo and the comfort that it brings. The restless energy that is the American’s forces him also into an empirical attitude that has been emphasized in the American philosophy of pragmatism. It will not require much persuasion, however, to change pragmatism to materialism, once the class struggle sharpens.
Another important aspect of Americanism is the concept of classlessness. In this connection, even the individualist traditions of America can be harnessed to the proletarian revolution. All this regimentation, disciplining, and forced labor that is taking place under the dominance of trust and monopoly capital with the help of the State is something of that Europeanism from which the American has tried hard to escape. It is now the communist who can show that the social ownership of the means of production means the greatest development of individuality and individual liberty possible; thus communism is in this respect, too, a continuation of the old liberty of the individual for which America has become known.
With the American, individualism had been intimately linked up with individual private ownership of the means of production by the direct producer. Now it is the force of capitalism, of Wall Street imperialism, that is depriving the direct producer of his means of production; it is communism that will allow each individual to regain control over the gigantic means of production now at his disposal. Similarly, it is communism that again spells plenty and wealth for each individual. All to be owners and each owner to have plenty can come about only when capitalism has been abolished.
The concept of individual property was never divorced in this country from the concept of labor. For a long time in the history of this country the term “labor” meant the farmer and the petty owner. No one attained property except through labor; it was the one and only high road to success. In Europe, riches could be gained by conquest, by wars, by pillage. Here it was to be gained by husbandry, by pioneering, by hard work. No true American shrank from hard work, and to the worker in those days belonged the fruits of his toil. Now this is exactly the goal of the proletarian revolution. The idealization of labor, the union of labor with the products of labor, these truly American ideas are also the aims of the communists and can be realized only through communism.
The American was not afraid to pioneer in new directions, to risk his life for the discovery of the natural elements that surrounded him. With the same spirit he was willing to pioneer in social life. The history of the Mormons is an excellent example of this spirit. With the same pioneering appeal, with the same call for social experimentation, the revolutionary elements can approach the discontented and rebellious native American nationalist-minded person for the creation of communism.
This is all the more true since the American always has conceived his role as bringing order out of chaos, as an organizing role. Indeed, America has become the great international organizer. Here has been the land of rationalization and of audacious continental planning. This stress on science, on statistics and planning generally, is another aspect of americanism that communism may well claim as its own. Communism brings purposeful planning and scientific control of social forces to the highest level ever attained by man.
The true American never has lived merely to eat, never has produced merely to consume. On the contrary, precisely in this respect young and virile American society has differed from effete Europe. Here we have consumed to produce. Work was a holy cause to which every man was attached; to be separated from his work, his farm, his factory, his occupation meant to the American, at least during the nineteenth century, to be divorced from life. The process of production, the process of making gain, rather than the consumption of the gain actually obtained, lured the American and held him fast. Now it is the communist who develops this idea of living for a cause, for production, but the communist’s production is not of profit, but of a new social order wherein the forces of nature become increasingly controlled. Again there is the emphasis on science and on control of productive forces; again there is the contempt for those who do not labor and who parasitically merely consume; again there is the call for the struggle against nature that energized the American pioneer and made his hard and bitter life seem sweet and rich. The communist today carries forward the idea that the struggle of one human against another should be ended, that the struggle for the development of the productive forces should be pushed to its highest point.
The American scientist and engineer needs space for his planning and development of science. He has been accustomed to working with continents. He could not be confined within the narrow limits of the average small country of Europe. He will become enthusiastic over the idea of planning for the whole world, of harnessing all the continents together into a mighty purposeful plan of all humanity.
Here we touch upon another important aspect of americanism, one which also touches on communist doctrine, its internationalism, or rather, its super-nationalism. The American is nationalistic, but note, first, that his country is as big as a continent, a large slice of the world; such a nationalist embraces much territory, as much as the European internationalist would were he to embrace all Europe. Second, America always has been the great melting pot wherein all nationalities could come together and fuse. Thus, America has symbolized the amalgamation of all races into one family; it has stood for a policy of inclusion rather than exclusion. Here we can well bear in mind Benjamin Franklin’s statement that he hoped the day would soon dawn when every nation would be represented with a star in the field of blue that marked the flag of the United States. The United States was conceived as the first brotherhood of nations, a sort of bourgeois Soviet Union, with unlimited possibilities for expansion.
Following such an approach, the communists can remove the obstacles in the way of defeating the capitalist propaganda that communism is a foreign product. With a mature and clever technique, a genuine revolutionary party would be able to demonstrate that communism is a true child of American life.
Finally, there is the pacifism of America. The American, in his rapid expansion over the continent of North America and elsewhere in the world, never has met with real resistance necessitating the sort of wars to the death that has characterized the older civilizations of Europe and Asia. The wars against the Indians and the Mexicans, the American Revolution and Spanish-American War, did not consume much of the energies of the growing nation; America entered the World War too late for the devastating consequences of that war to be deeply felt by all. The fact that America never has been defeated has given a sort of super-confidence and boastfulness to the American that enables him to believe that he will be able to accomplish that which other nations have failed to do. At the same time, it has bred in the American a lack of training for war, no desire for war. This would be a most natural result in the most bourgeoisified country, but this result has been intensified by the fact that the country up to recently had not engaged in major national wars. When America did enter the World War it was to make it a “last war.”
The natural pacifism of the American may well be utilized by the communist who can point out that only communism can end perpetual warfare on this earth, that the only “war to end war” possible is the class war against the war-mongering capitalists.
Here then are some of the intersecting points at which Americans can be said to cross communism and which the communist may utilize to his advantage in his process of americanizing communism, so as to communize America. By no means do we want to give the impression that this enumeration is exhaustive. But what must be pointed out again, what must be emphatically underlined is that this whole technique of socialism through americanism has its very serious limitations and defects. The true communist must guard against falling into the errors of the Browders and others who try to ingratiate themselves among Americans by idealizing American nationalism, by pampering the petty bourgeoisie, by bringing nationalist ideology into the ranks of the proletariat. Such a nationalist policy in France led the French Communist Party to adopt the French Revolution of 1789 as its own and to march, on July fourteenth last, with the tri-color at the head of its processions. On the contrary, the communists must do all in their power to show the limitations and defects of Americanism, to point out wherein it must fall down before the superior weapons of criticism that internationalist communism has to offer. The technique of communism through americanism has some value in reaching petty bourgeois elements, but it is a technique very inferior to other methods of reaching the native American proletariat.
There are certain problems unique to American life which no other proletariat has to solve in the same manner or in the same degree. These the communists sooner or later must begin to consider.
First and foremost is the Negro question. No other capitalist country of any importance faces this complicated and difficult question in exactly the manner of America. Yet there is no more genuine American than the Negro, and the failure to give this matter its proper due, the failure to work out a Marxist line for the thirteen million Negroes in the United States, is the best sort of proof that the communist movement is yet immature and unrooted in American life.
Negro life, Negro history, Negro problems practically have been ignored or deliberately buried by the American bourgeoisie. The communist movement must bring to life the true history of the American Negro, must live in the closest communion with Negro society, must become part of the very heart of the struggles of the Negroes for their emancipation. Here is an acid test of whether the communist party is becoming americanized.
A genuine communist organization must demand that its members live with the Negro people and intermingle their activities with those of the oppressed Negro masses in every possible way. An American Communist Party that numbered more Negroes than whites would be far better than a party with more foreign-born than natives in its midst. We shall be able to judge the communism of an organization, indeed, precisely by the yardstick of how many Negroes are in its ranks, how many have been developed as militant fighters.
The status of the Negro people in the United States most accurately may be described as a national minority. While they never have been in possession of any section of this country, yet they all have a common home land, Africa, a common tradition, slavery and persecution, and, to a certain extent, a culture of their own which binds them together as a homogeneous group. There is, furthermore, one section of the United States, and a large section, indeed, as great as any European country outside Russia, namely the Black Belt in the South, in which the Negroes are a majority.
The Negro people have the right to govern themselves independently and to set themselves up as a separate nation, taking over part of the country for that purpose, if they want to. This is the right of self-determination, and it must be one of the principal slogans for Negro liberation.
From the working class point of view, it is not because the Negroes are entitled to any given part of the United States that the workers are willing to fight for the right of the Negroes to have a separate territory and republic of their own, if they so desire, but because this is the best way to prove to the national minority composed of Negroes that the working class fights for their liberation and against the oppressive policy of the white ruling class. Every national minority is entitled to territory where it can build up a republic of its own and determine its own destiny, regardless of whether it possesses any given piece of land as its own or not.
Self-determination for the Negroes is not an end in itself. If a Negro State were to be established with a colored capitalist class grinding down the masses of Negroes, this would not provide a solution. Or, if the Negroes managed to set up a Workers’ State in some part of the country, how long could such a State endure in a capitalist country? It could live peacefully only if the rest of the country embraced sovietism. The fight for self-determination is therefore only one of the steps to the goal. Such a fight would rally the colored people together, would instill in them confidence in themselves, and would win respect for their struggle among other sections of the population. It would greatly encourage the struggle of the Negroes in Africa, the West Indies, and elsewhere, where they actually comprise a majority.
In the Black Belt, where the slogan of self-determination would be carried out, the class struggle would be sharpened in such a manner as to weaken capitalism. If the Negro masses decide that there should be a separate Negro Republic in the Black Belt, the Negro workers and poor farmers accordingly must fight that this Republic become a Soviet Republic in order to confiscate the land of the big planters in favor of the poor tillers of the soil and to insure workers’ control over the government and industries. Without such additional slogans, the cry for a separate republic for the Negroes would have no real meaning; there would be no means by which to put it into effect without the struggles of the workers, both white and black. The power of the bourgeois landlords must be broken before there can be self-determination. The slogan “self-determination” would cut straight through the classes in the South, lining up the white planters on the one hand and the oppressed Negroes on the other.
Self-determination for the Negroes does not mean communism; it is only part of the struggle of the Negroes for equality, and completes this struggle. But, as the capitalists cannot grant real democracy, so capitalism never can grant the right of the Negroes to determine for themselves whether they want to remain a national minority within the United States or whether they want to set up a republic of their own, in the Black Belt or anywhere else, wherein they can control their own destiny. Whether the Negro people want to form a separate Negro Republic for themselves in the South is not for the white people, either workers or capitalists, to decide, but for the Negroes themselves. While the choice is up to the Negro masses, nevertheless, the working class of this country, and especially the communist section, must fight with every bit of its power to support the choice of the Negro people.
Another unique problem that must be resolved in this country is the relationship of the proletariat to the middle classes. In no country in the world have the middle classes played such an overwhelmingly predominant role in the history of the country. All the other classes have emerged from this basic class, the petty bourgeoisie. This class has had the initiative and the chief importance in the political life in this country. Up to now the proletariat, politically, has been inarticulate.
However, there is another side to this matter. It is true that nowhere has the proletariat become so bourgeoisified as in this country; and nowhere has the line between middle class and working class been so thin as it is here, in the sense that in this country the proletariat has received training that ordinarily only members of the middle class would receive elsewhere. Thus, the gap between the workers and the middle class intellectuals is far more reduced in the United States than, let us say, it was in Russia under the Czars.
In the technically backward agrarian countries of Europe, where illiteracy prevailed, there was a certain recognition of the importance of the intelligentsia by all groups in society. The intelligentsia was naturally accorded leadership, even in working class struggles. The problem in the United States is entirely different, however, since nowhere else is the cultural level of the workers so high and their independence from the intelligentsia so possible. Thus the paradox exists in this country, that, while the working class so far never has displayed great historical initiative, it is capable of accomplishing the greatest deeds when it has been pressed to do so and has gained the necessary confidence in itself.
All of this not only has its tactical and strategic implications, but its organizational significance as well. A communist group that would americanize itself must understand the American fusion of theory with practice, must place the strictest limits upon purposeless talking within the organization, must see that the intellectuals that come into the movement are given the same sort of training that American engineers and professional men traditionally have received, namely, the training of starting from the bottom and working up.
It is evidence of the prevailing foreignism that exists in the present revolutionary organizations that all of them treat their intellectuals as special, privileged characters, that a regular division has been created between the brain and the brawn. The intellectuals, of course, being the brain, train themselves for jobs as editors, writers, etc., while the workers, the brawn, carry on one struggle after another for the organization, but never are brought into the general leadership. Such special privileges can find their justification far more readily in the caste-ridden society of Europe than in the social life of the United States. To intellectualize the proletarian and to proletarianize the intellectual, this double process easily can find its way into the practice of the American working-class movements.
Linked up with this process is the fact that the bourgeoisie itself has arisen from the same petty-bourgeois class as the proletariat. Thus the wealthy do not enjoy the same standing and prestige in this country as in Europe, where wealth is definitely intermarried with the aristocracy and carries with it immense social standing.
Given the transformation from classlessness to open class formation now taking place in American society, the correct method of approach must be to use those traditional slogans and actions to which the American people have become accustomed and which, at the same time, can move them forward to take their place in the struggle against capital. Everything must be done to stimulate the tendency to direct action, the willingness of the American to take matters directly into his own hands and to solve problems in the open. Precisely at this time would it be incorrect to develop parliamentary illusions concerning the formation of a Farmer-Labor Party in order to tear the workers from the bourgeoisie and to place them on the road to the struggle for power. It is not via parliamentary action and electioneering that the struggle for power will take place in this country. Contrary to the propaganda spread by the liberals, the socialists, and the Stalinists, there is little tradition of parliamentarism among the mass of proletarians in America. In fact, the best way to place the workers under the control of the capitalists would be to place their activities on a parliamentary basis. This does not mean, of course, that communists, under certain circumstances, cannot engage in election campaigns, but the relative insignificance of these campaigns must be set forth clearly in the present transitional period.
Now what are the forms of direct action to which the masses of Americans are accustomed? They are the strike, the boycott, the lynching. In the past, none of these threatened the State nor showed the formation of class against class. The task of the communists is to take such a legal and traditional weapon as the strike and to make of it a weapon that can change the struggle of the workers from the defense to an offense against the entire system. This can be done in the present critical situation in which the country and the workers find themselves by the communists’ raising the slogan of the “General Strike.” Certainly the conditions of the workers call emphatically for such drastic action as the general strike. Certainly the masses of workers are ready to listen to such a call. They will not be hesitant, for the general strike appears as merely a variation of a traditional weapon which they have always used, although, when it is in the form of a general strike, the strike changes its character from a reformist to a revolutionary weapon.
It is unwise to attempt to base communist strategy in reaching the American unemployed on lengthy explanations that the capitalist system is at fault. Of course, the Marxist laws of the workings of capitalism should be explained thoroughly. But, in the present period, matters can be simplified by showing the workers that unemployment is similar to an employers’ lock-out of the workers from the factories, a situation with which they are familiar. Thus the problem of solving unemployment is a problem of smashing the lock-out of the employers against the workers from factories which the latter have produced. And the answer to the lock-out is the demand that the factories be opened to the unemployed and the warehouses opened to the hungry.
The present period, then, is pre-eminently one in which the slogan “General Strike for adequate unemployment insurance and to open the factories to the unemployed and the warehouses to the hungry” can be raised with maximum effect. Such a slogan will begin to raise the question of workers’ control over production and the end of capitalism, or production for profit. The “General Strike” is a slogan that more than anything else today can be used to line up the workers against the capitalists and the State, and to make them class conscious.
A rapid growth of the State is taking place at the present time, as part of the transition towards the open formation of classes. This growth of the State has placed squarely before the communists the question: What shall be our attitude towards this extension, especially in such matters as unemployment projects to provide work relief? The Stalinists and, with them, the socialists have developed the following line: 1. We want work on State jobs. 2. The projects by the State are, on the whole, good and constructive ones. We demand that the State continue these projects permanently so long as there are unemployed to take care of. 3. We are not particular if either the unskilled or the professionals do not get the prevailing rate of pay … so long as we are put back to work.
Such a policy is wholly at variance with the American tradition of looking away from the State (a tradition totally unlike that of the Germans). This State orientation of the reformists and centrists will help only to pave the way for fascism. The workers must advocate collectivism, but not capitalist collectivism. It is not their job to build up the State apparatus for the capitalist class and to demand to become permanent hangers on of the State, through project work-relief jobs or other ignominious occupations.
The communist is in fact negating his own principles when he demands any jobs under capitalism, since all work under the present system can tend only to weaken the proletariat and to strengthen the bourgeoisie and with it, the capitalist State. We can understand a communist’s demanding unemployment insurance, as a method for the workers to receive again a portion of what they have produced and to which they may feel themselves entitled. But to demand a job is for the wage-slave to demand a perpetuation of his slavery. To demand a permanent extension of the project system is to make the workers live as hangers-on of the State. Actually, the A. F. of L. stated the traditional American worker’s position more nearly than the socialists or Stalinists, when it declared the workers are not charity cases to be rehabilitated, when it demanded regular pay for work on the projects.
Another excellent slogan for the transition period between American classlessness and open class struggle is the cry: “Lynch the Lynchers of the Negroes and Poor Toilers!” The ordinary European, such as the German, would look with horror on such a slogan as one leading to anarchism, to disorder and to chaos. The German wants "Ordnung und Diziplin,” even when he is a communist. But it is time the communists broke from the Germanification of the movement and learned to speak American.
Lynching is something for every American communist to understand and not to scold. It has its roots in the democratic traditions of the country. It is the action of the mass itself which takes the law directly into its own hands. It shows a contempt for the regular legal process. It is something in which millions of Southerners and Westerners have taken part. It is precisely in this period, when the masses are discontented, that we must tell them to look, not to the State or to the regular police or the courts or the law, for remedies, but to look only to themselves, to take matters into their own hands. In such a period communists must point out, not that the process of vengeance or of direct action of the masses in the street has been incorrect, but that the lynching has generally been in the wrong direction, that the masses must stop the lynching of the poor toilers and of the Negroes and must take action upon their real enemies, the wealthy employers and financiers.
It may be objected that the victim of the lynching is an individual and not a system. But the lynching of a judge who forecloses mortgages or of a ruthless capitalist may well lead to such clashes with law and order as to bring home to the masses the necessity of smashing the entire capitalist State machinery and taking over the power directly themselves. At any rate, the communists must come to the American workers, not with patented stock European formulae, but with the methods and customs which are native to the country and which are indeed their own. Originally, in the West, lynching developed because of the absence of a State apparatus and as a means by which the settler defended his own against bandits. But what was originally a classless instrument now easily can take on a class character and become part of precisely that sort of technique which will train the American workers to take to the streets on the way to power.
In this period, too, when the workers are in a transitional state, having not completely lost their old individualism of the nineteenth century nor quite taken on the European ideology of the class struggle, the process of maturing the American workers must be accelerated by the organization of the unorganized. It must be realized that the old liberal methods are outmoded, that only revolutionary methods will enable the workers to build militant industrial unions of any sort. In this period fascist germs appear, so that the period from classlessness to classfulness seems to be a period also bridging liberalism and fascism. Yet for the workers it must become a transition period from liberalism to the struggle for power. In this period, the American worker does not need to repeat all the parliamentary and opportunist errors of the worker of Europe. He need not go through the “Comedy of Errors” of the socialists and Stalinists. He is ready to follow the communists if they can show that they understand his problems and can perform the task of organization.
The organization of the unorganized, the building up of independent militant industrial unions, this is the transitional task of the moment in preparation for the storming of the bastille and the seizing of power. And he who does not engage to do the one will never be able to accomplish the other. The present period must be one of dress rehearsals for the future.
Let us sum up then: the strategy of the genuine communists in America in the present period will be:
1. To develop the direct action of the masses through raising the slogans: “General Strike,” "Lynch the Lynchers of the Negroes and Poor Toilers," "Open the Factories to the Unemployed and the Warehouses to the Hungry," “Workers’ Control over Production.”
2. To build up the revolutionary mass organizations of the proletariat, particularly their independent militant industrial unions and mass defense groups.
3. To utilize every form possible by which to move the workers from the old liberal classless ideology to the communist ideology of class struggle.
4. To conduct a vigorous struggle against all the out-worn forms of European socialism or communism, the lack of initiative of the Germans, the lack of organization of the French, the idealization of the peasantry of the Russians, the parliamentarism of the English, and so forth.
Here, then, is a program which a truly American communist movement will not hesitate to adopt when the American proletariat has come of age and is ready to take its rightful place in the world struggle for power.
The victory of communism spells the end of all further conquest of power. Once the working class has established its firm control, the whole system of politics, of the rule of one individual over another, will disappear forever. The conquest of power, with all its laws, will be no more.
1. Marx-Engels: Correspondence, No. 42, p. 118.
2. This theme of Americanism as a substitute for socialism is also developed in Leon Samson’s book, Toward a United Front.
3. To Wolfe the average American worker is "Leftist" while the Russian working class was already reaching maturity by 1897. Such romantic opinions go well with his general point of view. This line of Wolfe is now followed by the Communist Party to which Communism has now become twentieth century Americanism, and which has issued pamphlets praising the Founding Fathers, Abraham Lincoln and other patriotic heroes.