The American Revolution and the Left
Platypus Review 124 | March 2020
Presented at a Platypus Affiliated Society public forum panel discussion with Norman Markowitz (CPUSA) and Bertell Ollman at Columbia University on February 22, 2020.
“We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.”
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“I am delighted to come and visit. Behind the fact of [Fidel] Castro coming to this hotel, [Nikita] Khrushchev coming to Castro, there is another great traveler in the world, and that is the travel of a world revolution, a world in turmoil. I am delighted to come to Harlem and I think the whole world should come here and the whole world should recognize that we all live right next to each other, whether here in Harlem or on the other side of the globe. We should be glad they came to the United States. We should not fear the 20th century, for this worldwide revolution which we see all around us is part of the original American Revolution.”— Senator John F. Kennedy, speaking at the Hotel Theresa in New York during his 1960 presidential election campaign, October 12, 1960
ANY REVOLUTION IN THE UNITED STATES will express the desire to preserve, sustain and promote the further development of the original American Revolution. The future of socialism, not merely in North America but in the whole world, depends on the fate of the American Revolution. But the “Left” today denies this basic truth.
Marx called the United States Civil War the alarm bell tolling the time of world socialist revolution in the 19th century. That did not happen as he wanted, but the subsequent rise of the massive world-transforming force of American capitalism signaled — and still signals today — the task of socialism.
My old comrades in the Spartacist League had a slogan, “Finish the Civil War!” It was vintage 1960s New Leftism in that it was about the Civil Rights Movement and overcoming de jure Jim Crow segregation as a legacy of failed Reconstruction. More than 50 years later, we can say that the task is more simply to complete the American Revolution. Former President John Quincy Adams (the son not the father), speaking before the United States Supreme Court in the Amistad case advocating the freedom of slaves who rebelled, foresaw the future U.S. Civil War over the abolition of slavery and called it “the last battle of the American Revolution.” He did not foresee capitalism and its new tasks and future battles.
The American Socialist Eugene Debs famously said that the 4th of July was a socialist holiday and that American Revolutionary figures such as Jefferson and Lincoln belonged to the struggle for socialism — and not to the capitalist political parties of Democrats and Republicans. Today, more than 100 years later, this remains no less true.
Up to the 1960s New Left, the American and global Left and socialists and Communists all used to know this basic truth. — Indeed mainstream capitalist politics acknowledged this fact of the ongoing task of the American Revolution: Kennedy claimed the revolutionary heritage for the U.S. against the Soviet Union; even Nixon in 1968 at the Republican National Convention before his election called for a “new American Revolution.”
Today, Bernie Sanders and Trump call themselves not politicians but leaders of a movement; Sanders calls for a “political revolution” in the name of “democratic socialism.” What they mean of course is an electoral shift to support new policies. In 1992, when conceding to Bill Clinton’s electoral victory after 12 years of Republican rule, George Herbert Walker Bush (the father, not the son) said that the U.S. accomplishes through elections what in other countries requires civil wars.
We are discussing the meaning of the American Revolution for the Left today because we face a general election later this year.
Such elections for the President and Congress, which have stakes at a global and not merely national level, raise issues of the U.S. political system and its foundation in the American Revolution. The future of the American Revolution is at stake.
In the recent Trump impeachment farce, there was at least the pantomime of conflict over the future of the American Republic: Was Trump a threat to the Republic? — Were the Democrats and their allies in the Deep State permanent bureaucracy? There has been an evident crisis of legitimacy of the political order.
Do the rather mild and moderate policy reforms Trump has been implementing and seeks to accomplish amount to a Constitutional crisis — threaten a civil war? Despite the overheated language of the Democrats, Trump’s confident and rather blasé attitude, and the matter-of-fact Constitutional arguments by his lawyers and Republican Senators and Congressmen seem appropriate — indeed unimpeachably correct.
What about “fascism”? This favored word on the Left and even among Democrats speaks to the threat of civil war — extra-legal action and perhaps violence. There has been the so-called “resistance” — a term that Attorney General Barr said implied the danger of civil war and even revolution: he also said, in the same speech before the Federalist Society last year, that the U.S. Presidency embodied the “perfected Whig ideal of executive authority” as envisioned by Locke and the English Glorious Revolution — that is, a revolutionary ideal of political authority.
Mao said to Nixon in China that one finds among the left-wing followers of Marx actual fascists. He was contrite about the results of the Cultural Revolution and admitted its pathology. — Today’s Maoists and DSA Democratic “socialists” ought to listen and take heed.
It is not a matter of wanting the revolution but rather of its actuality.
The struggle for socialism will not be according to the fevered fantasies of today’s supposed “revolutionaries.” A socialist revolution will take place — if at all — on the basis of a mass desire to save society, not destroy it. Capitalism will appear as the threat to America, not socialism.
The problem is the exaggerated rhetoric of mainstream politics today. It expresses a partial if distorted truth, that capitalism recurrently produces crises in society, over which political conflicts take place. We are in the midst of such a crisis now — expressed by the crisis of the major capitalist political parties symbolized by Trump and Sanders.
It has happened before. The Great Depression brought a sea-change in American and indeed world politics: in the U.S., a change of the political party system through FDR’s New Deal Coalition overturned the more than 50-year post-Civil War and Reconstruction dominance of the Republican Party. The 1960s experienced a new crisis and change of politics with an upheaval among the Democrats and bringing forth not only the New Left but the New Right that triumphed 50 years after the New Deal. 50 years after the 1960s, today we are experiencing another change out of the crisis of the New Right — the crisis of the Reagan Coalition of neoliberalism and neoconservatism and of the culture wars that came out of the New Left and the crisis of American society that followed.
The Democrats have desperately sought to stem the tide of Trumpian post-neoliberalism — and indeed against the swell of support for Bernie Sanders’s Democratic “socialism.” They have done so on the basis of their prior existing post-60s neoliberal electoral coalition of wealthy progressives, ethno-cultural and/or “racial” minorities, liberally educated women and others, queers and what remains of organized labor. Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and immigrants’ rights activists have protested not only against Trump, but have hounded Bernie and his Sandernistas, the much-maligned “Bernie Bros” and Millennial hipster straight white male Brocialists more generally — the “Squad” of Congressional Representatives AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley notwithstanding.
Last year’s New York Times 1619 Project led by journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones — aimed at delegitimating Trump after the failure of the Russia collusion hoax, in what Editor Dean Baquet called the “shift from Russia to race” — took the occasion of marking the quart-centenary of the arrival of African slaves in the English colonies and explicitly sought to negate the American Revolutionary founding in 1776.
Trump’s Presidency seems to prove the invalidity of the American Revolution, and indeed has implied that its meaning was confined to privileged white males who must at all cost be cowed in the public sphere. It seems obvious that women, blacks and other minorities have no stake in and must disavow the American Revolution. The idea of a kind word being said about the American Revolutionaries — the Founding Fathers — nowadays seems importune if not simply a provocative offense and outrage — the Tory Alexander Hamilton’s musical fame under Obama notwithstanding.
This is a sad commentary on our historical moment today. It speaks to the utter and complete destruction of the original historical Left, socialism and Marxism — the complete triumph of counterrevolutionary ideology over everything from Classical Liberalism onwards. Such ideology ensures the continuation of capitalism.
However, this is a historical phenomenon only 50 years or so old. And it speaks not to the future but the past. The Millennials blew their chance to relate to history in new ways that challenged and tasked them beyond post-60s doxa.
The problem is that the recent and ongoing crisis of the post-60s neoliberal political order has been expressed either by Trump and his new direction for the Republican Party or by a nostalgic desire to reconstitute the old Democratic Party New Deal Coalition that fell apart a half-century ago, symbolized by the old New Leftist Sanders and the reanimation of the post-60s collapse into the Democratic Socialists of America, both of which date to the Reagan Revolution era of the 1980s and its “resistance” to that time’s neoliberal changes in capitalism. This does not augur new possibilities but holds to old memories from a time when many if not most were not yet even alive. Its spectral — unreal — quality is evident.
“The past is not dead; it is not even past.” And: “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it” — are condemned to be trapped by it. These banal catch-phrases can hide but also reveal a meaningful truth: that we are tasked by history, whether or not we recognize it. American history continues, regardless. The U.S. President is indeed, as is said, “the leader of the free world.” As Trump says, America is the greatest country in world history; as his impeachment prosecution declared, his Senate jury is the “highest deliberative body in the history of the world.” This is simply — and undeniably — true. Why and how it was constituted so, historically, is an unavoidable fact of life, for people here and around the world, now and for the foreseeable future. — Can we live up to its task?
My own rejoinder to Trump’s Make America Great Again is to Make America Revolutionary Again. — But no one else on the Left seems to be seeing the sign of the times. Instead, everyone seems eager to rescue the neoliberal Democrats from the dustbin of history. Even Bernie must genuflect to their PC orthodoxy. — But not Trump!
This is indeed a time of reconsideration of history and its haunting memories. The question is whether they must, as Marx said, remain “traditions of dead generations weighing like a nightmare on the brains of the living,” or can they be redeemed by the struggle for freedom in the present. It seems that the Millennial Left of the last two decades has joined the dead generations that came before it. Any rebirth of a true socialist Left and of a Marxist recognition of its actual tasks and possibilities must reckon with the history that has been abandoned by recent generations, starting at least since the 1960s, and pursue its unfulfilled potential.
For the American Revolution still lives.| P
- See my “The Millennial Left is dead,” Platypus Review 100 (October 2017), available online at: https://platypus1917.org/2017/10/01/millennial-left-dead/.