"Why We Don't Celebrate July 4-Marxism and the "Spirit Of '76"- Workers Vanguard, Number 116, July 2, 1976
The burned-out tenements of America's decaying slums are plastered with red, white and blue posters celebrating a 200-year-old revolution. From factory bulletin boards and the walls of unemployment offices, patriotic displays urge American working people to join with Gerald Ford and the butchers of Vietnam in commemorating the "Spirit of '76." Class-conscious workers and militant blacks, like the colonial masses ground down under the economic and military heel of arrogant American imperialism, must recoil in revulsion from the U.S. bourgeoisie's hypocritical pieties about "liberty."
The Fourth of July is not our holiday. But the chauvinist ballyhoo of the "People's Bicentennial" does not negate the need for a serious Marxist appreciation of colonial America's war of independence against monarchical/ mercantilist England. Marxists have always stressed the powerful impact of the classic bourgeois-democratic revolutions in breaking feudal-aristocratic barriers to historical progress.
In appealing for support for the Bolshevik Revolution, Lenin in his Letter to American Workers (1918) wrote:
"The history of modern, civilized America opened with one of those really
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 land 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. "
It is also legitimate for revolutionaries to appeal to the most radical-democratic traditions of the great bourgeois revolutions. Yet the fact remains that the Fourth of July is a fundamentally chauvinist holiday, a celebration of national greatness. In no sense does it commemorate a popular uprising against an oppressive system, or even pay tribute to democratic principles and individual freedom. Attempts to lend the Fourth of July a populist coloration (or the Communist Party's popular-front period slogan that "Communism is 20th century Americanism") only express the capitulation of various fake-socialists to the democratic pretensions of American imperialism.
But neither can the traditions of 1776 justly be claimed by the imperialist bourgeoisie. Compared to the leadership of the colonial independence struggle, the present American capitalist class is absolutely degenerate. One has only to think of Franklin or Jefferson, among the intellectual giants of their time, and then consider Gerald Ford or Jimmy Carter. The twentieth-century United States is the gendarme of world reaction, the backer of every torture-chamber regime from Santiago to Tehran.
The "founding fathers" would have been revolted by the men who today represent their class. The degeneration of the American bourgeoisie is appropriate to the passing of its progressive mission. The attitude toward religion is a good indicator. Virtually none of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were orthodox Christians; they held a rationalist attitude toward the concept of god. Jefferson would have walked out in protest at today's prayer-intoning presidential inaugurations.
The America of 1976 is the contemporary analogue of the tsarist Russia which the "founding fathers" held in contempt as the bastion of world reaction—the tsarist Russia against whose tyranny Lenin and the Bolsheviks organized the proletariat. It is to the world working class that the liberating mission now falls.
Was the War of Independence a Social Revolution?
Like the Fourth of July, Bastille Day in France is an official, patriotic holiday, replete with military marches and chauvinist speeches. Yet the events Bastille Day commemorates retain a certain revolutionary significance to this day. The French people's understanding of 1789 is as a violent overthrow by the masses of an oppressive ruling class. The French imperialist bourgeoisie's efforts to purge the French revolution of present-day revolutionary significance have not succeeded. A Charles De Gaulle or a Valery Giscard d'Estaing cannot embrace Robespierre or Marat, for the latter stand too close to the primitive communist Gracchus Babeuf, who considered himself a true Jacobin.
The American war of independence was also a classic bourgeois-democratic revolution, but it was not really a social revolution which overthrew the existing ruling class. The British loyalists were largely concentrated in the propertied classes and governing elite. However pro-independence forces among the planters and merchants were strong enough to prevent any significant class polarization during the war.
The English and French bourgeois-democratic revolutions had to destroy an entrenched aristocratic order. That destruction required a radical, plebeian terrorist phase associated with the figures of Cromwell and Robespierre. For the American colonies, winning independence from England did not require a regime based on plebeian terror. The war of independence did not produce a Cromwell or a Robespierre because it did not need one. Nor did it give rise to radical egalitarian groups like the Levellers and Diggers, or the Enrages and Babouvists. It never remotely threatened the wealthiest, most conservative planters and merchants who supported secession from Britain.
The consolidation of bourgeois rule in the Puritan and French revolutions required a political counterrevolution in which the Cromwellians and Jacobins were overthrown, persecuted and vilified. The radical opposition which sprung up in resistance to this counterrevolution became part—through the Babouvists in France—of the revolutionary tradition which Marx embraced.
Because the American war of independence did not experience a plebeian terrorist phase, neither did it experience a conservative bourgeois counterrevolution. The leaders of the independence struggle went on to found and govern the republic; greatly venerated, they died of old age.
The men who met in Philadelphia's Convention Hall 200 years ago realized their aims more satisfactorily than any other similarly placed, insurrectionary group in history. This achievement does not bespeak their greatness, but the limited, essentially conservative nature of their goals. The legitimization of black chattel slavery in the Constitution, without significant opposition, demonstrates the bourgeois conservatism of the leaders of the American Revolution. The "founding fathers" had no children who could claim that the principles of 1776 had been betrayed in the interests of the rich and powerful. The era of the war of independence did not give rise to a living revolutionary tradition.
John Brown's Body
There is a social revolution in American history which troubles the imperialist bourgeoisie to this day. It did not begin in 1776, but in the anti-slavery confrontations. The issue rose by the civil war and particularly the period of Radical Reconstruction—the intimate relationship between capitalism in America and racial oppression—awaits its fundamental resolution in future revolutionary struggle. The wasn't-it-tragic attitude of the bourgeoisie to the civil war era contrasts sharply with their celebratory attitude toward the war of independence. The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, unlike the Declaration of Independence, will never be a holiday in racist, imperialist America.
It is in the civil war era that there are parallels with the plebeian component of the French Revolution. The contemporary bourgeois treatment of John Brown resembles the French ruling class attitude toward Robespierre. They cannot disown the anti-slavery cause outright, but they condemn John Brown for his fanatical commitment and violent methods. The Reconstruction era of 1867-1877 is the only period in U.S. history which the present ruling class rejects an un-American extremism. Two important films, D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and the later Gone With the Wind, are outright apologies for white supremacist terror against the only radical-democratic governments this country has ever experienced. The Compromise of 1877, when the black freedmen were abandoned to the merciless regimes of the ex-slaveholders, was the American bourgeois-democratic revolution betrayed. And the reversal of that historic betrayal awaits the victory of American communism.
Because of the American revolution's limited social mobilization, those whose principles ultimately clashed with bourgeois rule—the likes of Tom Paine and Sam Adams—were easily disposed of. The radical abolitionists—John Brown, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass— are the only figures in American history before the emergence of the workers movement whose commitment to democratic principles actually threatened bourgeois rule. For the same reason that the present-day bourgeoisie denounces John Brown as a dangerous extremist, we communists can claim the radical abolitionists as ours. Only a victorious American socialist revolution can give to the heroes and martyrs of Harper's Ferry and the "underground railway" the honor that is their historic right.