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The Birthday of a New World

Ralph Leonard

Platypus Review 130 | October 2020

The cause of America is, in a great measure, the cause of all mankind.

Thomas Paine, from Common Sense (1775)

The Americans have taught us how to conquer liberty; it is from them that we must learn the secret of how to conserve it

Marquis de Condorcet

CLIME of the unforgotten brave!
Whose land, from plain to mountain-cave,
Was Freedom’s home or Glory’s grave!
Shrine of the mighty! can it be
That this is all remains of thee?
Approach, thou craven, crouching slave;
Say, is not this Thermopylæ?
These waters blue that round you lave,
O servile offspring of the free, —
Pronounce what sea, what shore is this?
The gulf, the rock of Salamis!
These scenes, their story not unknown,
Arise, and make again your own;
Snatch from the ashes of your sires
The embers of their former fires;
And he who in the strife expires
Will add to theirs a name of fear
That Tyranny shall quake to hear,
And leave his sons a hope, a fame,
They too will rather die than shame;
For Freedom’s battle once begun,
Bequeathed by bleeding sire to son,
Though baffled oft is ever won.

Lord Byron, from “The Giaour”

O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be — the land where 
every man is free.
The land that’s mine — the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME —
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Langston Hughes, from “Let America Be America Again”

WITH THE 4TH OF JULY HOLIDAY upon us, predictably, a deluge of jejune articles, interviews, and Twitter threads admonishing the revolutionary credentials of the American Revolution (or the American War of Independence to be more concise) will inevitably come out in full force, brimming with vim, vigour, and pomp.

It seems like this year’s Independence Day and the argument over the legacy of the American Revolution bear more significance now, because of our current “moment,” with the everlasting grappling with the “race problem,” which has been one of the defining features of the American national story, as well as the orgy of petty iconoclasm that has dominated the Anglo-American discourse with the “statue wars.” Except, statues of Confederate leaders and colonialists — the removal of which has a decent argument — haven’t solely been targeted, but those of abolitionists, the founding fathers, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses Grant, the Shaw memorial, and even a few that have nothing to do with this debate at all. Some were simply collateral damage from the protests, a few became canvases for apolitical vandals, others were victims of the zealous and historically ignorant.

If you criticise the actions of the petty iconoclasts; if you make distinctions as elementary as Lincoln and Jefferson Davis not being in the same moral grouping, then you will be looked at as if you had just kink-shamed them. You just attacked their favourite fetish, a long-repressed desire they had stored inside them, in which they could finally indulge without fear or shame. They could be remembered in the history books as the people who took down Lincoln’s statue; who “exposed” his “Great Emancipator” image for the “white saviour” fraud that it is, deviously concocted to preserve the innocence of white supremacy in America. Who wouldn’t want that? Though I guess, when you believe in your own hype, anything is possible.

For a long time, the Left never quite made up its mind on the American Revolution, partially because it felt the French Revolution superseded the American, which it thought of as a mere warm-up act. But for much of the Left the American Revolution simply isn’t sexy or exciting. It is “boring.” There are no dramatic scenes on the level of the hoi polloi storming the Bastille or The Winter Palace, dishing out revolutionary justice against the former oppressors. They just toppled a statue of King George III, didn’t they? There is just something a bit crusty about the whole affair. Funnily, this section of the Left indirectly agrees with conservatives who say that the American Revolution wasn’t a “revolution at all” At best, it was a mere continuation of the 1689 Glorious Revolution in England with some modifications. A lot of this is really based on personal taste and emotional bias., but it reveals a kitsch and purely aesthetic notion of what a “real” revolution is among much of the Left.

Now, though, it is en vogue on the Left to denigrate the American Revolution in toto; to portray it either as an uninteresting quarrel among elites over commercial interests, or as nothing more than a power-hungry putsch by a greedy class of white male slave owners desperate to preserve their white male slaveocracy. Much of this, I notice, is a posture to signal how much of a “radical” you are, how anti-“Amerikkka” and anti-patriotic you are; how much you supposedly love and care for the wretched of the earth and the victims of history.

The main proponents of this revisionism tend to be neo-Stalinists or anarchist/libcom types. Part of this seems to be a desperate move by a section of the radical Left, who, realising it couldn’t defeat the juggernaut of American imperialism politically, decided instead to attempt to delegitimize systematically the ideological foundations of the American democratic republic. Fan boy of Slobodan Milošević, Domenico Lusurdo, in his scathing critique of liberalism, in Liberalism: A Counter-History (2005), claimed that the Independence War of 1776 was not a revolution: it was in fact a “counter-revolution.” Gerald Horne argues that the American War of Independence had nothing to do with advancing the cause of liberty, but everything to do with preserving white, male, settler-colonial, slave-owner power, because they perceived the British crown to be accelerating abolition in the colonies due to the Somerset case of 1772.[1] In the past year or so, a similar updated version of this thesis has been espoused by the 1619 Project. In a roundabout way, the British empire is almost presented as a progressive force on the slavery question by this argument.

The problem is, the British Empire did not end up abolishing slavery in the colonies. Neither did it come close. Britain was the kingpin of the slave trade for two centuries, maintaining it well into the 19th century. Thanks to the asiento system, Britain even transported slaves to the French and Spanish colonies in the Caribbean. Nonetheless, of course, slavery was the great contradiction of 1776. How could a revolution fought in the name of liberty and the equality of man be so nonchalant on the reality of racial slavery?

Everyone knows that Thomas Jefferson owned slaves and was a total racist and reactionary on the Haitian Revolution. Yet, his pro-Jacobin views are often heavily downplayed. And few are aware of Jefferson’s earlier commitment to ending slavery, eloquently expressed in this deleted passage from the Declaration of Independence:

[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus, paying off former crimes committed against the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.[2]

With great difficulty and much debate, this passage was regrettably deleted from the final draft thanks to delegates from Carolina and Georgia. Still, the after effects of 1776 did have some effect on abolition. Vermont, which was the first state to join the Union, abolished slavery from the very beginning in 1776. In 1787, Jefferson authored an ordinance banning slavery in the Northwest territories, now the American Midwest. By the early 1800s all of the northern states had de jure abolished slavery. Until the Haitian Revolution, the United States was arguably the most anti-slavery country in the world. But the invention of the cotton gin shattered the naïve predictions of some of the founding fathers, that the peculiar institution of slavery would naturally wither away within a couple of generations.

Not only was slavery maintained, it was extended. Demand rapidly increased for slaves to work the cotton fields under the lash. Jefferson was president when the Union was expanded thanks to the masterstroke that was the Louisiana Purchase, but he failed to outlaw the importation of slaves into the new states against the advice of abolitionists like Thomas Paine. This fatal decision made the American Civil War inevitable, because, as Lincoln famously put it, America was now half-slave and half-free. Part of the reason why America now has a seemingly intractable “race problem” is because of the effects of Jefferson’s tergiversation on slavery.

If it is any consolation, slightly echoing Christopher Hitchens, Jefferson did end at least one slave trade: the kidnapping and enslavement of Americans and Europeans by the piratical Barbary states of North Africa. Even so, this “consolation” hardly diminishes his immense failures on the kidnapping, trafficking and enslavement of Africans.

Still, because of its roots in the Enlightenment, and the mantra that “all men are created equal,” the American Revolution did raise a permanent question mark over the institution of slavery in toto. After 1776, despite the conservative reaction’s victory, slavery could no longer be discussed like it was hitherto which is why even Jefferson could write in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1782 that he witnessed:

a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way, I hope, preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation; and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.[3]

Now, contra Jefferson, the abolition of slavery in America would not occur with the “consent of their masters”, but by their extirpation via a protracted revolutionary armed struggle almost a century later in the Civil War.

In any case, whether or not the (mis)perception of the imminent abolition of slavery was the ignition for the American patriot’s revolt against the British crown is beside the point. The historical progress of the American Revolution is imperishable. It landed a crucial blow to the idea of the “divine right of kings” and established a republic based on a secular constitution, thus evicting clerics out of government. The radical republicanism of the revolution not only did away with monarchical rule and “artificial aristocracy,” in Jefferson’s phrase, based on rank and birth, over the thirteen colonies, but helped to usher in the more “exciting” and “sexier” French Revolution across the Atlantic: both materially and ideologically, by bankrupting the Bourbon potentate during the War of Independence, and providing inspiration to Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791). Furthermore, Marquis de Lafayette and Abbé Sieyès drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789) in consultation with Jefferson. Without 1776 there would be no 1789 or 1793.

At the end of the day, this all boils down to the now narrow, increasingly nauseous and tediously annoying Howard Zinn alltagsgeschichte point about the need to write “history from below” instead of “history from above” — a needless false distinction. Don’t obsess with the “great men” of history. Focus on the much disregarded “masses;” raise their voices! — another needless false distinction. What underlines this view is an idea that has become commonplace on the Left: because the bourgeoisie has been reactionary for so long, it has never been revolutionary; because capitalism is now reactionary and decadent, it has never been progressive; because liberalism is now servile, it has never been emancipatory.

This “revisionist” dismissal of the American Revolution and the historically progressive nature of the bourgeois revolutions of the 17th and 18thcenturies is a far cry from classical Marxism, which always understood the epochal significance and historically progressive nature of the great bourgeois revolutions. One need only read Lenin’s “Letter to the American Workers,” where he praised the “ardous struggle for freedom” of the American patriots, and asserted that “[t]he American people…set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery”:

The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars of which there have been so few compared to the vast number of wars of conquest which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners, or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these “civilized” bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt, and all parts of the world.[4]

This perspective was not limited to Lenin. Marx himself held a high opinion of the bourgeois revolutions such as the Dutch Revolt, the English Civil War and, of course, the French Revolution. In the letter he wrote for the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War, Marx commended the American Revolution and understood its historic significance: “the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century.”[5] Marx continued: The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes.”[6]

Nowadays, such statements will blithely be dismissed as “stagist” and “teleological”, perhaps even “idealist”; the residue of “whigghisness,” “bourgeois optimism” and the “myth of progress,” which Marxism inherited from classical liberalism. Although it was Marxism’s adversary, they nonetheless share a common heritage in the Humanist tradition, the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Lusordo effectively makes this critique of Marx in his screed against liberalism. Against this petty iconoclasm, a re-affirmation of the significance of 1776 in the longue durée of history is overdue.

So why does 1776 matter?

The American Revolution of 1776 was part of an ongoing process of the long bourgeois revolution stretching all the way back to the Dutch Revolt in the late 16th century, then forward to the English revolutionary period in the 17th century, later deepened by The Great French Revolution of 1789, and a special mention for the Haitian revolution of 1791 is deserved. These revolutions were all part of a seismic, world-historical process that usurped feudalism, liberated private property from its fetters, and established a new social form based on cosmopolitan commercialism, increased urbanization, manufacturing, and universal consciousness, with unprecedented forms of civil freedom, confessional pluralism, economic dynamism, individualism, social mobility, and scientific development, thus laying the foundations for industrial, capitalist development and modern politics, culture and society.

Marx, in an article on the 1848 revolutions, further enumerated the victories of the bourgeoisie in their historic struggle against feudalism:

In these revolutions the bourgeoisie gained the victory; but the victory of the bourgeoisie was at that time the victory of a new social order, the victory of bourgeois property over feudal property, of nationality over provincialism, of competition over the guild, or the partition of estates over primogeniture, of the owner’s mastery of the land over the land’s mastery of its owner, of enlightenment over superstition, of the family over the family name, of industry over heroic laziness, of civil law over privileges of medieval origin.[7]

The 1776 revolution was particularly significant in this grand process. Being the first bourgeois (liberal)-democratic revolution, it inaugurated the Age of Revolution that would last all the way until 1848. It was the moment the modern nation was conceived: a nation formed according to republicanism, popular sovereignty and civic liberty. This nation would be ruled by “the people,” who had entered the stage of history, with a level of self-consciousness and agency, expressed in mass published pamphlets, public debates and discussion, as well as in street demonstrations and other forms of mass mobilizations, on a scale never-before seen. Before the Age of Revolution, people perceived themselves as merely subjected to history. After the Age of Revolution, people became subjects of history. In other words, humanity through its own reason and volition was capable of self-consciously making its own history and shaping its own destiny.

Institutions such as monarchy, seignuerialism, capital punishment and slavery were no longer regarded as ordained by God or nature, therefore irrefragable and unimpeachable, but made by humans, subject to critique, therefore subject to social transformation by collective human action, whether by revolution or other means.

The advent of modernity not only transformed the relationships between men and women, humanity and nature, humanity and culture, humanity and society, humanity and the supernatural, humanity and itself, humanity and history. It also transformed how humanity understood social and historical change. Through critically reflecting on how humanity became what it is now and what it could become, through examining the possibilities for further expansion of self-consciousness, development and self-transformation, the potential unencumbered for individual and social freedom lay in its hands. The revolutionary epoch inaugurated by 1776 was the first demonstration of this realization of humanity consciously transforming society on an unparalleled scale. This is why 1776 matters!

Sadly, the legacy of 1776 is now treated with reproach and disdain. Even among stolid liberal wiseacres, the grandeur of 1776 is no longer appreciated as it perhaps once was. Those who admonish the idea of historical progress will inevitably be loud and clear in their opposition to 1776 and everything it represents. Any serious leftist will have long made their peace with the legacy of 1776. To understand that the founding fathers were creatures of their epoch; to understand the contradictions, the historical limitations and constrained consciousness they lived under, but may not have been fully conscious of; to subject their theories and writings to criticism and dialectic; to understand words like “nation” and “patriot” meant radically different things for their era than they do for our era; that 1776 is by no means history’s last word. Even Immanuel Kant ruminated on the ideal of universal cosmopolitan bourgeois society, realized in a “league of nations,” being only the “halfway mark in the development of mankind.”. Ultimately, any serious world-historical struggle to progress mankind into the kingdom of freedom will have to go beyond the legacy of 1776 (and 1789) altogether.

But the American revolution and the achievements of the patriots and the founding fathers should be defended against the anachronistic moralism, the crap calumny and the brain-dead vituperations of anaemic liberalism and decrepit pseudo-leftism. It has been clear for a long time that the pathetic, present-day scions of the bourgeoisie and liberalism have betrayed their revolutionary origins, defiled their own ideals, and are incapable of advancing human society any further. Those of us who think of ourselves as “Marxists,” or otherwise as being on the revolutionary Left, however much we have divorced ourselves from the revolutionary traditions of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless respect their achievements, defend their gains from forces even more reactionary than them, as well as preserve them as a treasured repository of inspiration, passion, heroism, and as a reminder, in Thomas Paine’s words, that it is possible to “begin the world again.”[8]

Was it not the traditions of 1776 and 1789 that once gave liberalism its charm? Was it not the sentiments expressed in the immortal words of the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights […] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”, of Patrick Henry’s fiery slogan, “Give me liberty or give me death!”, that have inspired freedom struggles all across the world, even still in our own time? Indeed, there would still be many societies enchained under auspices of despotism across the world, which could do worse than adopt the principles of 1776 as their own.

“History is a tragedy and not a morality tale,” Christopher Hitchens wrote in his impressive biography of Thomas Jefferson.[9] Arguably, the American Revolution was a tragedy, as it didn’t actualise its full potential within its immediate context. But this does not void the American Revolution, any more than the fact the French Revolution “exhausted” itself and degenerated into terror, and Bonapartism makes it void. Most revolutions are tragedies; that is the brutal truth.

Whatever the position of humanity is in a thousand years from now, the year 1776, and everything it represents and inaugurated, I am convinced, in the longue durée of history, will be regarded as a grand opening act in the épopée of modernity, as one of those really liberating and really revolutionary epochal turning points that altered the development of human history forever — and for the better. |P


[1] The Platypus Review recently published “An Interview with Gerald Horne” by Daniel Jacobs and Luc Bronder-Giroux which is available online at https://platypus1917.org/2020/09/01/an-interview-with-gerald-horne/

[2] Thomas Jefferson, “Declaration of Independence: Drafting the Documents” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Vol. 1, 1760-1776. Ed. Julian P Boyd. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), 243-247, available online at https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/declara/ruffdrft.html.

[3] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (London: J. Stockdale, 1787), 273, available online at https://books.google.com/books?id=UO0OAAAAQAAJ&printsec=frontcover&cd=1&source=gbs_ViewAPI&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false

[4] V.I. Lenin, “Letter to American Workers,” in Collected Works Vol. 28, ed. & trans. Jim Riordan, (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1965) 62-75, available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/aug/20.htm

[5] Karl Marx, “Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the Unites States of America,” The Bee-Hive Newspaper No. 169, (November 1865), available online at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/iwma/documents/1864/lincoln-letter.htm

[6] Ibid.

[7] Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings, Vol. 1, ed. David Fernbach (London, 2010), 192­–193.

[8] Thomas Paine, Common Sense: addressed to the inhabitants of America, on the following interesting subjects (Philadelphia: R. Bell, 1776), available online at https://www.loc.gov/item/2006681076/

[9] Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Jefferson: Author of America, (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 208.

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