For millions of people around the world, the United States represents the ultimate citadel of reaction: imperialism, sanctions, war, drones, anti-communism, discrimination, and exploitation. Many people — even on the left — imagine that the US is immune from class conflict. However, the United States is in fact a society riven with deep class contradictions. It has an enormous and powerful working class and an inspiring revolutionary past — and future.
For millions of people around the world, the United States represents the ultimate citadel of reaction: Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, the CIA, imperialism, sanctions, war, drones, anti-communism, discrimination, and exploitation. The American people are alleged to be a homogeneous bloc of ignorant, indifferent racists who blindly and enthusiastically back the reactionary economic and military policies of their government. Many people—even on the left— imagine that the US is immune from class conflict, and that life for the majority in the “belly of the beast” is prosperous and peaceful. However, while there may be an element of truth in some of this, the reality is far more complex. The United States is in fact a society riven with deep class contradictions. It has an enormous and powerful working class and an inspiring revolutionary past—and future.
Unfortunately, many people regard history as dry and dusty—an endless and disconnected recitation of dates and individuals. But history need not be boring or incoherent. In fact, armed with the Marxist method, the study of history sheds a bright light on the present and is indispensable in orienting our perspectives for the future. Far from being monotonous and linear, history is a rich and contradictory process, driven by the struggle over the surplus wealth created by the laboring masses. As Karl Marx explained in his introduction to The Critique of Political Economy:
“In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness. At a certain stage of development, the material productive forces of society come into conflict with the existing relations of production or—this merely expresses the same thing in legal terms—with the property relations within the framework of which they have operated hitherto. From forms of development of the productive forces these relations turn into their fetters. Then begins an era of social revolution. The changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure.”
This concisely sums up of the Marxist approach to history, also known as “historical materialism.” Once we begin to understand history—not as a random series of unrelated episodes, but as an infinitely complex and tightly interconnected chain of events involving mass social forces, in which cause becomes effect and effect becomes cause—a whole new world opens up. No longer does it appear to be a more or less irrelevant collection of useless trivia. Instead, the experiences of past struggles of the working class come alive, brimming with lessons for our own struggle to change the world today.
As a young country, the history of the United States and its meteoric rise to world prominence is compressed into a few intense centuries. The richest country on earth certainly has its vast natural resources to thank, in part, for its position. But above all, it was built on the backs of millions of indigenous peoples, African slaves, European indentured servants, and the endless stream of political and economic refugees from around the world who have searched for the “American Dream” on its shores.
The history of the USA is a history of class struggle: the communistic traditions of the Native Americans; the revolutionary-democratic beliefs of the Pilgrims; the Declaration of Independence, the American Revolution, and the revolutionary defeat the mighty British Empire by an army of rural farmers and urban artisans; Abraham’s Lincoln’s revolutionary war against slavery and the expropriation of billions of dollars of human property; the bitter struggles of the early American labor movement, including the class battles of the 1930s and beyond.
So just what is the class struggle? Simply defined, the class struggle is the struggle over the surplus wealth created by the producing classes. Will that surplus go towards further enriching the minority that controls society? Or will it go towards improving the quality of life of the working majority who actually produce the wealth? Or perhaps we can live in a world without exploiters, where society democratically determines what is to be done with the wealth we collectively produce?
The ruling class is that class which controls the state and owns the means of production of society—the land and natural resources, the workshops and factories, the banks. The actual producers of wealth are those who own nothing but their ability to work, and are therefore either owned outright as slaves, tied to the land as feudal serfs, perhaps own a tiny plot of land on which they scrape out an existence while still having to work and pay debts to others, or sell their labor power for a wage to a capitalist. That is the simplified essence of the class struggle. In the modern era, that struggle is above all between the working class and the capitalist class.
Ever since humans first developed as a distinct species and branched off from the rest of the animal world, we have organized ourselves in various ways in order to produce the necessities of life. We have come together in an array of socio-economic structures, including primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, and a wide variety of transitional and hybrid forms. For the majority of our existence, we lived as communists in a classless society, albeit on a low technological level. But ever since the rise of classes, as Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”
With the rise of class society came a division into differing layers of people—castes and classes–each with a definite relationship to each other and to the means of production; that is, to the means by which we produce the food we eat, the clothes we wear, the homes we live in, and everything else we humans have extracted from nature through our labor and creativity.
Broadly speaking, there are laboring classes, and those that live off the labor of others. The exploiters and the exploited. The two main contending classes in the class struggle are those who own the key economic levers of society—the means of production—and those who must work the means of production of another in order to survive.
Sometimes the class struggle takes place between different layers of one and the same class, and sometimes the lines between the classes are blurred, for example in 1930s Spain, where the landlords were also capitalists, the capitalists were landlords, and the Catholic Church was the biggest landlord and capitalist of them all. Or even in New York City today, where Trinity Church is one of the biggest landlords and property owners, and therefore a powerful player in the city par excellence of finance capital. Talk about uneven and combined development—something workers in the Indian Subcontinent are all-too familiar with.
All of this applies to the US just as much as any other country dominated by capitalism—you cannot have an exploiting capitalist class without a working class that is being exploited. Long before US capitalism entered its predatory, imperialist phase, the ruling class enriched itself on the vast natural resources and labor of millions of people right here on the American continent.
In fact, America’s more than 155 million workers are among the most exploited on the planet. Based on an extremely high level of labor productivity, American workers create vast amounts of wealth for the capitalists, but receive only a small ratio of that back in the form of wages. The effects of a strike of even a small portion of the American workers would be devastating to the profits of the capitalists. For example, just 36,000 unionized dock workers load and unload every ship on the West coast of the United States. This means that every single container imported to the US Pacific coast from Asia and beyond must first pass through the hands of a relative handful of union workers. Even a one-day strike of these dockers would result in billions of dollars in losses to the capitalists. This is a clear indication of the colossal power of the US working class.
The working class is the overwhelming majority of the USA; the wonders of its cities, railroads, highways, mines, industry, and vast tracts of farmland are the result of the workers’ sweat, tears, blood, and brains. And yet, Americans themselves are rarely taught the truth about their own history. There is a very simple reason for this. If American workers were to understand their true power and their class’s repeated attempts to change society, they might be tempted to engage in open class struggle again and again—and this represents a mortal threat to the continuation of the capitalist system.
A brief overview of early American history
When Europeans first arrived in what would become the United States, most of the Native American societies they encountered were primitive communists—living communally on a very basic technological level. It was the Europeans who introduced classes into the US. They brought with them elements of feudalism, merchant capitalism, and of course, indentured servitude and chattel slavery. The wiping out and enslavement of millions of Native Americans was a one-sided class war between primitive communists and feudalists/nascent capitalists.
And yet, many readers may be surprised to learn that many of those who first settled in the US were bourgeois revolutionary democrats—people who had fought and failed to overthrow repressive governments in places like Holland, England, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. They were fleeing religious and political persecution. They brought with them ideas that were revolutionary for their time: popular assemblies and militias; and democracy for at least some members of society—white, male property owners (as opposed to the absolutely despotic rule of the nobility and aristocracy in Europe)—this was limited, but a step forward. Many of them also supported religious freedom, freedom of expression, and the freedom to organize.
These ideas took root, and above all, the economic base in Britain’s American colonies got stronger. Eventually, the embryo of a native ruling class grew up within the old colonial society. This up-and-coming bourgeoisie did not want to share the riches created by the labor of the American toilers with the King of England across the Atlantic, and eventually fomented a rebellion. It was a class struggle between the nascent US bourgeoisie and the Southern slavocracy on one side, versus the British bourgeois and feudalists on the other. As always in the epoch of bourgeois revolution, although the political and economic benefits went to the bankers, mercantilists, lawyers, and large landowners, the actual fighting was done by the small farmers, proto-proletariat (artisans and mechanics), slaves, and indentured servants.
The pre-Revolution period of American history was also not without important examples of the class struggle. In 1676, there was Bacon’s Rebellion in Virginia, in which slaves, frontiersmen, and indentured servants united across racial lines to fight against the state government. In 1739, there was the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, the largest slave uprising in the history of the 13 American colonies.
After the revolution, once the British had been expelled and their American supporters expropriated, the new ruling class worked vigorously to consolidate its rule. However, now that they were the oppressors, tax collectors, and profiteers, they faced the wrath of the ordinary people who had fought during the war for freedom and equality. Shays’ Rebellion in Massachusetts, in 1786-87, was the most famous example of the post-revolutionary wave of class struggle. In every one of the 13 former British colonies, economically ruined small farmers and revolutionary war veterans took matters into their own hands in an attempt to establish a more egalitarian society.
The Shaysites burned down court buildings, freed comrades jailed in debtor’s prisons, and even planned to march on Boston to burn it down in order to break the political power of the hated banks and big merchants. The rebellion eventually fizzled out, due in part to bad luck and a blinding snow storm. But this wave of struggle against the new economic aristocracy had a big effect on the kind of Constitution and government that was subsequently established in the United States. It led to a more centralized federal system than was previously envisioned by the “Founding Fathers,” and allowed for the creation of a standing army to deal with internal dissent.
When the subsequent Whiskey Rebellion broke out in western Pennsylvania from 1791-94, the federal government moved decisively to put it down, sending 13,000 troops—with President George Washington himself at the head of the army. He was determined to send the clear message that popular uprisings would not be tolerated.
In the decades before the Civil War of 1961-65, the tensions and differences between the slave-owning Southern ruling class and the rising Northern capitalist class continued to build. Slave rebellions were a relatively common occurrence, with Nat Turner’s slave uprising and John Brown’s failed attempt to spark a civil war eventually leading to the arming and secession of the South. War was now the only possible way to resolve the contradictions.
The American Civil War was one of the most dramatic examples of the class struggle in the whole of human history. As Alan Woods explains in the current volume, it was the Second American Revolution. In essence, it represented a revolutionary war between Northern capitalism, which at that time was an historically progressive system, and the slave-owning plantation system of the South—two fundamentally different socio-economic systems that could no longer coexist in the same state and on the same continent. Marx, Engels, and the First International were enthusiastic supporters of Abraham Lincoln and urged him to wage a ruthless war against slavery.
Once again, the fighting on both sides was done by ordinary workers, small farmers, sharecroppers, slaves, ex-slaves, and immigrants. Entire workplaces in the North, many with workers organized in embryonic unions, shut down for the duration of the war and joined the Union Army to fight slavery. Many revolutionaries from Europe, including many who had worked closely with Marx and Engels, also joined the Union Army.
Once the slave economy was smashed, the historical decks had been cleared for the relentless and merciless flourishing of capitalism throughout the entire country. The former slaves were now “free”—free to sell their labor power for a wage and free to work as sharecroppers (which was practically like serfdom). They were also free to be arrested for minor transgressions—such as the “crime” of being homeless and propertyless—and put to work in chain gangs. These were slave-like conditions, but they now labored in the service of capitalist profits. A massive migration began, as millions of former slaves moved out of the South in search of jobs in the rapidly expanding industries of the North and West.
The end of slavery meant that the lines of the class struggle in the US became clearer than ever. The class struggle was transformed into a titanic battle between the rapidly growing working class and the ever-richer capitalist class, with the middle layers and remnants of previous socio-economic forms increasingly squeezed out. The American capitalists were now unleashed upon the rest of the continent and eventually on the entire world. This brought with it greater polarization between rich and poor, and more brutal and sophisticated exploitation than ever in the pursuit of profits.
Given the ferocious offensive by the bosses, the workers were compelled to organize collectively to defend their interests. In the decades after the Civil War, the organized labor movement gained momentum, a mirror reflection of the rising power of the capitalists. For example, in 1877, a massive wave of strikes on the railroads spread throughout the country and even led to a workers’ commune in the city of St. Louis, Missouri—complete with elected workers’ councils and militias controlling that important city.
Hundreds of workers were martyred while working in barbarous conditions in the late 1800s and early 1900s. But American workers did not take these attacks on their rights and dignity without a fight. Mighty unions were formed in the heat of bitter class battles, and many more workers were martyred at the hands of the state and the capitalists’ hired thugs. And although none of the many efforts to establish a mass labor party to politically represent the interests of the workers took root, that chapter of the American class struggle is also far from over.
The class struggle continues
As the reader can see from this brief introduction, American history is very similar to the history of the rest of the world—it is a history of class struggle. The methods of organization and struggle of the working masses have changed and developed along with the development of the economy generally. But the trend over the centuries has been towards an increasing concentration of wealth on one side, and a concentration of the working class on the other. And although long periods may pass without open conflict, the class struggle is always taking place, sometimes just simmering beneath the ground, other times bursting to the surface and raging openly for whole historical epochs.
The United States is a society torn apart by tremendous class contradictions, and sooner or later, the militant and revolutionary traditions of the past will return on an even higher level. The experience of the last decade has shown this analysis to be 100% correct.
The millions-strong anti-Iraq war movement in 2003 was more than a protest against the war; it reflected a deep-seated discontent with the status quo. The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 exposed the profound inequality and racism upon which the American capitalists “divide and rule” and maintain their power. The magnificent movement of millions of undocumented immigrant workers in 2006 showed the enormous potential power of the mobilized working class. The 2008 factory occupation at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago, inspired by the occupied factory movement in Venezuela, showed that militant action does get results.
In 2011, a mass movement in the state of Wisconsin occupied the state capitol building to protest the governor’s attacks on public sector unions. Taking the heroic uprising that toppled Hosni Mubarak as their example, they carried signs such as “Fight Like an Egyptian!” This is a marvelous example of how in the epoch of global capitalist crisis, the struggle is also global.
The Occupy movement, also in 2011, showed that in the heart of world finance capital, tens of thousands of Americans are unhappy with the status quo. The movement spread rapidly around the country and around the world. Although its aims were limited and its methods confused, it was an important learning experience for American workers and youth, and was only a small example of the explosions of the class struggle we will see in the years to come.
In 2012 and 2013, workers in the fast food, retail, and service industries have organized walk-outs, work slow-downs, and strikes. It is still very early in this process, but it is clear that the pressure is rising. American workers are saying “enough is enough” to low wages and poor conditions and are drawing important conclusions about the reality of life under capitalism. Sooner or later, the “heavy battalions” of the working class will join the fray.
To paraphrase the great American historian W.E.B DuBois, the more or less isolated eddies of the class struggle are swirling more and more into a great current; the revolutionary implications for the future are clear.
American capitalism in crisis
We live in an epoch of austerity, war, crisis, revolution, and counterrevolution—and the USA is at the heart of this process. Capitalism is at an impasse on a world scale and can no longer develop the means of production or improve the quality of life of the majority. The decay is evident everywhere. The once dynamic and innovative capitalist system is now stagnant, based on parasitism and speculation, and threatens to drag the whole of humanity down with it.
The economic base of US imperialism is teetering, and as a result, it is not the monolithic force it once appeared to be. The ruling class is caught between a rock and a hard place and are deeply divided over how to proceed. As Lenin explained, the inability of the ruling class to continue ruling in the old way is one of the first indications that an era of social revolution is approaching.
It is often said that war is the handmaiden of revolution. The humiliating defeats of the US in Iraq and Afghanistan may not have led to an absolute collapse of military morale along the lines of the defeat in Vietnam, but these wars have bankrupted the treasury and the chickens are now coming home to roost.
The entirety of the $17 trillion federal debt—which amounts to nearly $55,000 for every American man, woman, and child—can be traced to spending on these wars and the bailout of the banking and insurance giants after the 2008 economic crash. The workers are now being made to pay for the capitalist crisis with mass unemployment, homelessness, stagnant wages, the slashing of pensions, and vicious cuts to the few remaining social programs that were won through mass struggles in the past.
Some 24 million Americans are unemployed or underemployed. 22% of American children live in poverty. Millions of Americans are going hungry as draconian cuts to the federal Food Stamps program are pushed through with the support of both Democrats and Republicans. Young people owe over $1 trillion in student debt and millions cannot find jobs in their field of study. An estimated 3 million Americans are homeless. Rents have risen by 12% since 2007, yet wages have hardly changed. At the same time, the wealthiest 10% of Americans are far richer than they were before 2008. The richest 5% of Americans control over 60% of the wealth while the poorest 40% control just 0.2%. This is the real situation in the “land of milk and honey.”
However, we must remember that it is not the absolute level of immiseration that will inevitably lead to a revival of revolutionary struggle in the US. It is above all the sharp, sudden changes—the constant instability—which is an inescapable consequence of life under capitalism. For millions of people, the “American Dream” has been transformed into an “American nightmare.” This is having a profound effect on consciousness, especially on the youth. To give just one example of how this is already being manifested, a majority of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 now say they prefer socialism to capitalism!
The need for revolutionary leadership
On a world scale, the balance of forces is more favorable for the working class than ever. In the US, despite the many attacks on the workers and the numerical decline in union membership over the last 30 years, the potential power of the working class to bring society to a grinding halt—and therefore to change society—is greater than ever. As Marx and Engels explained, capitalism, by enlarging the working class—which it is compelled to do since wage labor is the source of its profits—creates the gravediggers for its own system. So despite what we are told by the media, the current labor leadership, and the so-called left, the American labor movement’s most heroic days still lie ahead.
This is why we can confidently say that the material conditions for the socialist transformation of society are more than ripe in the US—perhaps riper than anywhere else on earth. Although a majority of Americans may not yet be aware of that fact, the bitter experience of life under capitalism is the greatest teacher, and the workers and youth are learning quickly.
What is lacking, however, is the necessary leadership. A Marxist revolutionary party represents the most advanced layer of the working class. It serves as the historical memory and concentrates the collective experience of our class internationally; it serves as a transmission belt, bringing the lessons of the past to the struggles of today. The tragic lesson of the 20th century is that without theoretical and historical clarity, without organization and discipline, we will not be able to defeat our class enemy. This is why we study Marxist theory and history.
Fight for socialism!
The USA is surely the most despised, oppressive, and repressive state in the history of humanity. But dialectical materialism teaches us that everything turns into its opposite. Far from being an eternal bastion of reaction, the US will at a certain stage turn into its direct opposite.
The First American Revolution was an inspiration to the French Revolution and many other revolutionary movements for national liberation and independence. The Second American Revolution—the US Civil War—inspired the solidarity of workers from Britain to Germany and beyond. The American Socialist Revolution will likewise transform the US into a source of inspiration for workers worldwide.
From Egypt to Greece, the workers are rising up against the oppression, austerity, discrimination, hunger, unemployment, homelessness, poverty, and misery of capitalism. The United States cannot escape this process. What we see in European, Latin American, and Middle Eastern streets today, we will see in the US in the not-too-distant future.
As Marxists we understand that one successful revolution anywhere in the world will transform the situation. Given its position on a world scale and the strength of its working class, the victory of the American socialist revolution will mean the liberation of the whole of humanity. As the Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky wrote when commenting on his brief stay in New York City before returning to Russia in March of 1917: “[The United States is] the foundry in which the fate of man is to be forged.”