“What a revoltin’ development this is” was the catchphrase of indignation uttered by Chester A. Riley, the fictional wing riveter in the radio and TV situation comedy The Life of Riley, starring William Bendix (and for a while Jackie Gleason). Ignore for now how this portrayal of a working class male contrasts with the insurance agent Jim Anderson, the fictional hero of Father Knows Best. Both were popular in an America that saw itself as essentially classless. Also ignore the ambiguous judgement in the etymology of the “life of Riley” allusion.
The revoltin’ developments keep coming for the Chester Rileys today and even the Jim Andersons are feeling not quite as smart as 60 years ago. So much so that there is lots of discussion of revolution, or absent that, complete collapse of the US empire, the US, the Western cultural dominance, the global economic system, or the ecology of Earth itself. The sense that things can’t go on like they’ve been going on is palpable.
So what does a revolution in the context of American politics look like? Are the models of historical revolutions still relevant to the United State and its political culture?
Garry Wills writes in Henry Adams and the Making of America:
Ours is not only the world’s oldest democracy (it can even be argued that we are the world’s first real democracy) but one of the the few governments that have not been overthrown by revolution or conquest. We are standing refutation that democracies are by nature unstable.
After so many “Where are the people in the streets?” blog posts, this assertion by Wills caught my attention. First of all, I find it an oversimplification. Wills’s book itself examines Henry Adams’s history of the War of 1812 in which the government of James Madison was not saved so much by democracy as by two large oceans and the complexity of imperial competition in Europe. But the persistence of any kind of regime for 224 years is quite a long run, Egypt, China, and Rome notwithstanding. Second, the argument of the US being a real democracy is still an unfulfilled promise. But Wills seems to be arguing that the US is democratic enough to avoid instability and regime change for a long period of time, whereas dictatorial republics of the post-Enlightenment period quickly were destroyed.
What is it to have this new-old thing, a “revolutionary tradition”? If it is a tradition, its should preclude or evade the need for revolution. If it is still revolutionary, it should be fundamentally be remaking itself on a continuing basis.
Wills here introduces Joseph Schumpeter’s argument that in economics capitalism is also a revolutionary tradition. Wills here is referring to Schumpeter’s Captialism, Socialism, and Democracy, which was part of a movement to distance economics and other social sciences from Marxism while still attempting to incorporate the analysis of capitalism by Marx. And follows with:
Nonetheless some of those defending the capitalist system insist that it is not only in the Constitution but in the “original intent” of the Founders. That is the seal of approval endlessly sought. We feel that we not only honor but need the Founding Fathers. Without that we become illegitimate children.
Wills goes on later:
Even if the Founders were flawed, it was assummed or asserted we should not say so in front of the children. This encourages disrespect and therefore undermines the law. Take the cherry tree away from Washington and the Republic is at risk. There is a kind of infantilism in American attitudes toward the Founders. This is not confined to trivial things in grade school. It is seen whenever the founding ideologies are invoked as if they can be traced in a straight line from then to now. As if Hamiltonianism or Jeffersonianism were things readily identifiable today. This is where [Henry] Adams becomes useful. He tells us that those ideologies were not in effect when Madison left office. …Jefferson’s “agrarian virtue” was inextricably entangled with slavery. Hamilton’s commercial elitism was at odds with the populist direction of the country.
That same infantilism in looking at founders of ideology, which often masquerades as an assertion of purity of principles also is seen in proponents of socialism, Marxism, and anarchism and often becomes the surface arguments about theory that divide effective action.
That debate is raging about the necessity, possibility, and probability of revolution in the United States that could fundamentally change the economic relationships between the 1% and the 99%. “Come the revolution” has become a popular blog topic even on sites like Daily Kos and especially since the government shutdown in October.
What sets our expectations about what revolution would mean, how it would occur, and how it would unfold? For Americans of a certain generation, there is a strong echo of the Americanism written into every grade school textbook in the post-World War II era, the witnessing or experiencing the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam war movement, and the rediscovery of Marxism that was permitted during that period and has re-emerged since the financial collapse of 2007. Those younger can add their own observations relating to their contemporaries in the comments.
We know that the revolutions in 1830 in France and in 1848 France, Prussia, and Austro-Hungary were motivated by the successes and failures of the French Revolution, which in turn owed some inspiration to both the American Revolution and to Thomas Paine. And we know that what started Marx investigating capitalism was how liberal revolutions had by 1848 dramatically impoverished the industrialized working classes, a phenomenon that in the US goes by the label “Dickensian England”. How was it that liberty, equality, and fraternity became industrial slavery, dramatic social inequality, and continuing warfare? Marx’s short explanation in 1848 was that capitalism built that. Over the next decade he teased out the details of that argument.
One can argue that the American Revolution was not as much a revolution in fact as a war of national liberation from the biggest empire of the era. One can argue that all of the revolutions to date that succeeded were liberal revolutions that created a form of state capitalism in the end and had its own division between the ownership class and the working class. If that is the case, there is in fact no precedent for a revolution of the sort that has great currency in the imagination of American progressives. Might that particular imagination, modeled on the revolutions that broke the back of feudalism in country after country only to replace it with capitalism, itself be a part of strategic and tactical difficulty of dealing with the current political and economic crises? Might even the word “revolution” carrry so many associations as to block a more detailed practical vision of the path to a more free, just, and peaceful global society?
Henry Adams’s History of the United States takes nine volumes to chronicle the Jefferson and Madison administrations. Garry Wills sees it as describing the institutional consequences of the American Revolution that set the pattern for the way American governance and economics work. Adams writes it when the US is recovered from the Civil War and pivoting toward the blatant imperialism at the turn of the 20th century. It was the period in which Francis Parkman lamented the end of the “frontier” and the culture that produced. If there was a point in which appealing to the words of Paine and Jefferson himself 40 years earlier could be seen to be “lip service”, it was at the end of the Madison administration. It is very easy after reading the history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations over against their statements of of the principles and ideas in the American catechism–Declaration of Independence, US Constitution, Federalist Papers–ask oneself “What happened?” How did the Jefferson administration become such a botched up mess that started with “no entangling alliances” and “small inexpensive government” and immediately sent a flotilla to beat up on Libyan governments, disrupted trade with an embargo, and created a huge economic depression? How did the Madison administration that botched its economy from the beginning, sought unsuccessfully to invade Canada and lost a war to Great Britain wind up with peace and prosperity at the end of its term? How did that institutionalize what Garry Wills calls the American “revolutionary tradition” and the cult of the Founders to which political parties appeal? What is clearly true is that the American Revolution allowed planters and merchants to seize power from the British crown administration, which operated the colonies like the crown’s own business venture–which it was. By the end of the Madison administration power was being contested by the planters and the merchants. How is it that the beginnings of the labor movement, the stirrings of abolitionism, the earliest anti-war sentiments, and an epidemic of utopian communities appeared out of this new society of planters and merchants that seemingly had gotten everything locked up?
In 1910, the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the American Bureau of Industrial Research gathered together in ten volumes A Documentary History of American Industrial Society (available on Internet Archives), edited by John R. Commons, Ulrich B. Phillips, Eugene A. Gilmore, Helen L. Sumner, and John B. Andrews. These are transcriptions of documents relating to management, labor conspiracy prosecutions, and the labor movement up to 1880. The movements out this tradition reached a peak during the strikes of the 1930s and negotiations during World War II that made the labor movement part of the American liberal establishment. The decline and corruption of that movement over the past 70 years.
In 1926, Lewis Mumford’s The Golden Day documented the efforts of prosperous New Englanders, Emerson and Thoreau among them, to create an American ideology and cultural style over against that of Europe. The Universalist ideas out of which those efforts came underlay the thinking of the abolition movement and informed the civil disobedience to the Mexican War, and planted the seeds of pacifism that still inform the thinking about alternatives. In Lewis Mumford’s day they exalted American ideas and culture, which contributed to the post-World War II hubris about American culture. The decline and corruption of liberal education and liberal religious institutions over the past 40 years betray that earlier tradition, as Chris Hedges describes in Death of the Liberal Class.
John Locke characterized the Enlightenment as a “republic of letters” in which one’s ability to participate in the cultural conversation depended less on one’s birth than on one’s merits as a thinker and a writer of potentially public personal letters and pamphlets. Failed staymaker Thomas Paine used this attitude among some participants in political discussion as an entry and found himself carrying letters of introduction that helped him establish himself in Philadelphia on the eve of the declaration of independence by some of England’s North American colonies. This network of equal relationships and trust that communicated through named associations, coffeehouse conversations, and personally carried corrrespondence contributed to the activities both in America and in support in other European countries. To the extent that it did not screen participants and confer privilege, it embodied the principles that it was espousing. It also set the model for subsequent movements for political change.
The meritocracy that arose out of that environment transformed itself into a privileged set of professional guilds. Chris Hayes has written about the stultification of those elites in The Twilight of the Elites: America after Meritocracy.
And so out of that failure, the social networks and not the coffeehouse, the blogosphere and not the universities become the source of new ideas and thinking that might or might not have transformative or universal resonance or permanence or any value beyond a personal expression by someone of the moment. And instead of the unearthing of the monuments of Greece or Rome being the undiscovered past, today it is the out-of-copyright books that have resurfaced from the world’s libraries on the Internet Archive and the increasing number of government and private documents that have been placed online by whistleblowers and investigative journalists.
As ever, we face the problem of sorting out the true from false from half-true, the valuable from the rubbish. We face once again the problem of who to trust–with few of the previous gatekeepers that we used to guide us untarnished from suspicion. The powers-that-be have the problem of trust magnified after the economic meltdown. Who exactly is a reliable financial counterparty? (Deals still must be made or forgo the promise of fabulous wealth; they go on even into the next bubble.)
In the naughts, the opposition to the Bush regime adopted the label of “progressive”. This was an appeal to the revolutionary tradition of the post-Civil War period that bore its reformist fruits through the co-option of trust-busting by Theodore Roosevelt, the passage of Women’s Suffrage by Woodrow Wilson, the institutionalization of labor unions, limited forms of socialist infrastructure, and restraints on banking by FDR, the dismantling of de jure segregation and the expansion of the socialist infrastructure by LBJ. Note that in every case tradition was co-opting serious revolutionary challenges into limited reforms sufficient to quiet dissent. What a revoltin’ development this is!
That phrase “sufficient to quiet dissent” hides the other side of this co-option, the growth of the surveillance state beginning with efforts to stop “white slavery”. (See Karen Abbott, Sin and the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul to see how this played out at the local level. And this reform was nationalized in what became the FBI.) The reformist progressive A. Mitchell Palmer and his protege John Edgar Hoover would transform that into an organization that did surveillance on political groups. (See Richard Hack, Puppetmaster: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover for an assessment of the man behind this transformation and his motives.) These activities were extended through the development of a permanent clandestine and surveillance apparatus that was very early on turned on US citizens. (Trevor Paglen unpeels this onion in Blank Spots on the Map: The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World.) And now with the help of whistleblowers this world has become visible. The legal underpinnings of this part of the surveillance state go back to the Truman administration and the National Security Act of 1947. And was extended by the Central Intelligence Act of 1949. More history has come out since the release of the Snowden documents.
And more has been done in the Bush and Obama administrations. The organization of the Department of Homeland Security created local-state-federal-international partnerships, seen most graphically in action around the suppression of the Occupy movement and the NATO protests in Chicago. But also active in the arrest in the naughts of a high school student for wearing an anti-Bush tee shirt. Or the arrest of two geezers in northeast Georgia talking at a cafe about an armed insurrection. There are many recent books from libertarian to lefty in perspective that document this evolution of the revolutionary tradition’s big stick. And by the way, the revolutionary traditions of France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Russia, China, and Thailand have or are joining in coordination with the US use of the big stick. Interesting that at the moment of the global consolidation of capitalism through sovereignty-stripping international agreements there is such coordination of the instruments of suppression. What a revoltin’ development this is!
There are different sorts of “There is no alternative” arguments going on. The first is Machiavellian; the people with the power are not going to let that power be taken away; they have always been on top and they will continue to be on top; for ever and ever. The second depends on a catastrophe, something on the order of the Great Plague combined with starvation and famine or the progressive collapse of the ecosphere to wake people up–but alas, it’s too late. The third argues that the tyranny of money will successfully frustrate every single attempt to avoid transformation. The fourth is that until someone thinks up an alternative to capitalism there is no alternative worth risking change on and that socialism and communism were proven failures in the 20th century.
Was failure built in from the beginning? Mike Rapport in 1848: Year of Revolution has this to say about the Communist League of 1847-1848:
The Communist Manifesto, written by Marx and Engels, appeared early in 1848. It envisaged a class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as the driving force that would lead modern society through the crucible of social revolution. This struggle would establish the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, which would forge an egailitarian society. The theory rested on the presumed existence of a class-conscious, forward-looking and cohesive proletariat that would take on and destroy bourgeois capitalism in the next revolution. Therein lay the long-term strength of The Communist Manifesto and its short-term weakness in 1848. The potency of the argument lay in the fact that it offered a vision of the future that saw the ailments and inequalities of industrializing society as part of a historical process towards socialism. This process would be painful but necessary, because out of it the proletariat would emerge triumphant in the final reckoning of the inevitable revolution. History of was therefore on the side of the working class. The Communist Manifesto offered not so much an analysis of society in 1848 as of developments to come. Yet the industrialization that would create a proletariat was still far from its peak in 1848, and this was one of the reasons why the Communist League has so little immediate influence in Germany, or even in France; there was no cohesive, politically knowledgeable and class-conscious proletariat to carry out the new revolution.
Others, Richard Wolff among them, have observed how the “communist” revolutions in Russia and China had in fact transformed a society from feudalism to state capitalism. In the case of Russia state capitalism transformed through Jeffrey Sachs’s “shock treatment” into crony capitalism not all that different from what emerged in the post-Civil War US and never really left. Is the traditional form of revolution applicable only to the transformations from feudalism to capitalism? What a revoltin’ development this is!
So where we are. We have almost 300 years of revolutionary philosophy and revolutionary traditions of various sorts. We have some of these principles embodied into the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the result of a philophical tussle between Eleanor Roosevelt and the Soviet delegation to its drafting. We have an immense and diverse number of martyrs at the barricades to appeal to as models. We have a global crisis in which the establishment and various dis-establishments are trying not to let go to waste. We have a global climate crisis breathing down our necks and governments universally in denial. And we have well over a hundred years of propaganda and suppression aimed specifically at keeping the current establishment in power by separating the working class from any revolutionary tendencies; indeed encouraging working class support of various forms of fascism and bigotry.
Cohesive. Politically knowledgeable. Forward-looking. Class-conscious. We know that forced cohesion doesn’t work and cohesion through consensus is very time-consuming and subject to sabotage. We know that the knowledge required is no about conventional political processes alone (although that is often neglected); we know that grassroots political action is mostly persuasion of personal networks with similar interests. For the rest, there is a lot of work to do. Forward-looking is the battle between particular hopes and particular fears; cynicism tends to accentuate the fears; naivete and romanticism underestimate the difficulties.
Here’s a test for class-consciousness. Imagine a politically knowledgeable, forward-looking, class-conscious member of the working class sitting on a city council, county council, state legislature, or Congress. (1) How do they get other working-class people to vote them into office having an asymmetry of resources available for campaigning? (2) What do they do differently from the current incumbents? (3) Why do working-class people not vote for other working-class people? (4) Did you think of someone who is an incumbent? Who?
So what exactly is the revolution that you are hoping for? Or is it just another way of saying, “What a revoltin’ development this is!”
Photo via NBC