Muste Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

The ‘American Approach’

A.J. Muste

The ‘American Approach’

Twin Evils of Labor – Nationalism & Reformism

(25 May 1935)

From The New Militant, Vol. I No. 23, 25 May 1935, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Ed. Note: This is the third of four articles by comrade Muste. The fourth article will appear next week.


It is a short and easy step from an undervaluation of internationalism to a nationalistic attitude – or at least to attitudes and expressions which play into the hands of those reactionary forces which use “patriotism,” “Americanism,” nationalism, chauvinism, in order eventually to smash the workers’ movement and to impose Fascism upon the masses. I am thinking of such slogans as “Advance America.”

The hold of patriotic sentiment on the masses and the havoc wrought by capitalists and militarists by playing upon it, have been abundantly demonstrated. Those comrades who insist that we have here a crucial problem and that we must know how to deal with it are entirely correct. Yet for the very reason that we are dealing here with explosive material we have to be careful that the bomb we plan to use against the enemy does not blow up in our own hands!

Borrowing Symbols

The idea that seems to underlie a good deal of the discussion on this point is that if the revolutionists would take over the patriotic symbols and slogans, they would get the following instead of the Longs and Coughlins; and attaching new ideas and aims to these symbols they would make the masses fighters for a workers’ world. It is a tempting idea to many who foresee the danger of a Fascist triumph and who behold the contrast between the immense following of the demagogues and the handful of supporters of the revolutionary movement. If only we could use their tricks and get the masses to jump on our band-wagon! But, alas, the easy way is not necessarily the right way.

The same eagerness quickly to win a mass following for the idea of a non-profit economy, by the way, leads some to propose that the middle class which seem more rebellious than the workers should be “sold” on the right brand of revolution, instead of looking to the working class as the spear-head of the revolutionary movement. This quick cure Comrade Budenz correctly rejects. Let the middle class organize as a middle class, and the result will be reactionary, to maintain, not to overthrow, the profit system. But “merely threaten a general strike and chills and fever run through the present body politic.”

A Deadly Parallel

Equally dangerous and deceptive is the despairing resort to “patriotism.” How and why that is the case can be made clear, as one of the comrades has written in about this question suggested, by an illustration from another sphere. Religion, the argument would run, has a great hold on men. It is true that religion, its institutions and symbols, have been used as supports of the existing order. But it is also true that the great prophets of religion have denounced the rich and powerful, have pictured a world of peace and brotherhood, etc. Let us harness the institutions, emotions, symbols and slogans of religion to the revolutionary movement, therefore, and to carry the latter to victory! The realist, the Marxist, knows that this is a fantasy. Religious institutions are a bulwark of the existing order. Keep the minds and emotions of men bound to religious ideas and symbols, and you keep them bound to the existing economic and political order. The hold of those ideas and symbols must be broken. As one great prophet pointed out, you cannot put “new wine into old wine-skins.”

The state, the governmental system under which we live, is likewise an agency and bulwark of capitalism. We have to overthrow the capitalist state. But that means that we must break the bold of the symbols and the emotions that attach to the present state.

A Practical Example

When in the great unemployed convention in Columbus in 1933 hundreds of honest but politically undeveloped workers were roused to fury against us by labor spies and Fascists, and Arnold Johnson was about to be dragged from the platform and lynched on the ground that he was radical and un-American and did not properly respect the flag, we id not “wrap the stars and stripes around us” or make any effort to claim that we were “patriotic.” Arnold Johnson stood his ground, pleaded for reason and calm consideration. When quiet was restored, we claimed that those who raised the issue did so in order to serve the capitalists and their political henchmen by breaking up the Leagues and that the waving of the flag, patriotic appeals, etc. were constantly used for precisely this purpose, as when men were led to slaughter in “the war to end war. the war for democracy,” etc.

Statements about “serving” the nation, the country, the community, have also to be carefully guarded. The notion that the country is “our” country – i.e. everybody’s alike, that there is such a thing as nation or community, a mystic something to which we belong and which protects us, is cultivated by the ruling class for the purpose of hiding the fact of class cleavage, of exploitation for the purpose of making the worker think that when he goes to war he is fighting for “his” country, instead of against himself and for the capitalists.

American Tradition

The same caution holds for an uncritical use of “the American revolutionary tradition.” There are. to be sure, revolutionary traditions in American history, to which we shall have occasion to refer again. But the dominant American tradition has been that of capitalist expansion, exploitation, imperialist adventuring. Years of experience in workers’ education have demonstrated to my complete satisfaction, and I know that all who attended the classes at Brookwood or similar ones elsewhere, will back me up in this, that outside of the actual experience the American worker gets of injustice the most effective way to make him class-conscious is to teach him the real facts of American hstory, American history, i.e., from a Marxist viewpoint. And this is by no means to teach him in an uncritical fashion that anyone who oppresses labor is a “black betrayer of the ideals of the Founding Fathers” or that “Hancock and Adams slept with a price on their heads.”

Quite the contrary, it involves pointing out that Washington with his 30,000 acres of western lands; that Hancock and Adams with their mercantile business threatened with destruction by laws passed by a British parliament in the interest of British merchants, acted in line with their class interests when they engaged in the Revolutionary War and brought the American farmers and artisans into it; that as soon as possible after the war was over they conveniently forgot the “principles” of the Declaration of Independence and in the most high-handed fashion imaginable put over a constitution which protected their property interests against the farmers who had manned the revolutionary armies; and that this constitution has been used ever since as an instrument of class-domination; those provisions in it intended for the protection of the masses either being perverted like the “due-process” clause or simply not enforced like the amendment granting civil and political rights to Negroes.

By this means faith in America, i.e. in capitalist America, is broken down, and that is a prime essential for the building of a working-class revolutionary movement.

We have nothing to gain and much to lose from a romanticizing of American history. The unvarnished Marxian interpretation of it is a priceless instrument in our hands. Certainly in an age when patriotism is the dominant emotion upon which capitalism in its decline calls in order to fasten the chains of reaction and terrorism upon the masses, we must not fall into the trap of arousing sentiments upon which the demagogues can in any case play much more effectively than revolutionists can, and which in the end can only be used to destroy the revolutionary movement.

The Constitutional Amendment

At this point may properly come an analysis of Comrade Budenz’s suggestion of “a proposed amendment to the constitution” as a, or the, means to “strike a death blow at the profit system.” On the face of the article in question this amendment to abolish private ownership, wage slavery etc. is presented as the fundamental basis for an American revolutionary movement. It, the amendment, would “safeguard its integrity” (not, e.g., firm adherence to Marxist and Leninist principle) ; the movement will “give a focal point to the struggle by basing itself” on this amendment. “The proposal of this amendment, as a basic starting point, is essential for any real revolutionary movement in the U.S.”

If this was not intended, if the amendment is proposed as a slogan, the basis for a tactical maneuver at a certain point, then certainly it was a grave error not to make that clear in a serious and formal political document as this article proclaims itself to be.

A “Parliamentary” Revolution

If the expressions describing the proposal are taken at their face value, then it must be said that it is clearly and utterly out of accord with the position of the Workers Party. No indication to the contrary being given, one must assume that the amendment is to be put into effect in the manner prescribed in the Constitution, viz., by action of Congress, ratification by state legislatures, etc. This is certainly suggesting in a most extreme form the possibility of revolution by parliamentary method which Comrade Budenz has often violently denounced. In a country where it is impossible to get an amendment to abolish child labor passed, the profit system is to be abolished by constitutional amendment!

If the idea is to use the proposal of such an amendment as a slogan, a tactical maneuver at a certain stage of political development, then it is a matter of tactics and not of principle which would have to be discussed on its merits and from all angles when it came up as a definite political proposal in a given historical setting. Even so the question whether it fostered a fetishism of parliamentarism would have to be very seriously considered.

As for tactical considerations, in view of the difficulties and delays in getting any kind of constitutional amendment passed in this country, the proposal does not appeal to me at least. Nor can I conceive of it as making any appeal to workers or farmers generally. There are quicker ways of getting results, and ways more calculated to build labor militancy, as when in 1916 the threat of a general railroad strike forced the Adamson eight-hour law through Congress and got a verdict of “constitutional” from the Supreme Court – which, incidentally, can always have a few judges added to it if the will and the power are available.

If we ever had a situation where passage of a constitutional amendment abolishing capitalism was actually in sight, well, we could then dispense with formalities and write a brand-new constitution for the Workers Republic!

Logic of a False Position

There is one other possibility, viz.: that the idea is that the workers will gain power by revolutionary means an then enact a constitutional amendment. This idea has no merit either. In the first place, when the workers are once in power as a result of revolutionary action, they will not need to stop with an amendment. In the second place, it encourages the notion that in the main the machinery of capitalist government will remain and will serve the needs of a workers’ order. That notion is of course a flat contradiction of the position set forth in our Declaration of Principles.

(The final article in Comrade Muste’s series will appear next week.)

Muste Archive   |   Trotskyist Writers Index  |   ETOL Main Page

Last updated: 28 July 2015