The FAR Podcast Episode # 21 Marx and Americanism: From One Revolutionary to Another

The following is the text I worked from in my podcast published on July 4, 2020. I said a whole lot more so give the podcast a listen! Subscribe and comment.

In his 1865 letter to President Abraham Lincoln, on the occasion of Lincoln’s reelection in midst of civil war, the great communist revolutionary Karl Marx, on behalf of the International Working Men’s Association, praises the United States as “the idea of one great Democratic Republic.”

Marx writes that America is the place where “the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued.” Marx is talking about our great Bill of Rights. The right to free speech and a free press, the right to assembly, to petition the government for a redress of grievances. The right of persons to be free from arbitrary search and seizure, to be secure in their papers and effects, to remain silent, and so forth.

In the pages of The Washington Post, in an op-ed titled “It is time to reconsider the global legacy of July 4, 1776,” Elizabeth Kolsky writes, “The nation’s democracy was founded as a slave society.” “The knee to [George] Floyd’s neck has provided black and indigenous peoples with a metaphor to express their own centuries-long experiences of and struggles against systemic racism. These protests are not only expressions of solidarity with black Americans—they represent a collective reckoning with a past that is not past.”

Putting aside superstitious notions of living persons owning centuries-long experiences of anything, does Marx see the United States as a hopeless project on account of chattel slavery? Marx understands that slavery was widespread in the world of his time. Slavery was not an invention of the West nor was it unique to America. America was not founded as a slave society; it was founded as a nation in the context of the slave mode of exploitation, which was one among other modes of exploitation.

Marx sees the Civil War as the work of a great nation overcoming an historical injustice mankind had long endured (still endures outside of the West). With abolition, a “barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war,” he writes. Marx continues, “From the commencement of the titanic American strife since the beginning of the conflict, the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.”

I hear this a lot, “But Marx said working people have no country.” What did he mean by that? Marx tells the worker movement and the world in the Communist Manifesto that “the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle.” He writes, “The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie,” he writes.

Marx was a theorist of globalization. He was a nationalist. He understood the importance of democratic-republican machinery and national economy to effect change for communities. It was in the context of the capitalist nation-state that the working class were move from a class-in-itself to a class-for-itself.

“The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers,” Marx writes. “This union is helped on by the improved means of communication that are created by modern industry, and that places the workers of different localities in contact with one another.”

At the same time, Marx recognized the dynamic of the system and the machinations of the capitalist class in thwarting the worker movement. “This organization of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party,” he writes, “is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves.”

One of the strategies the bourgeoisie uses is bourgeois nationalism. Bourgeois nationalism is the practice of fracturing the proletariat (the working class) by dividing the people by ethnicity, race, and religion. Thus, after liberating business, culture, and religion, fractions of the bourgeoisie attempt retribalize it.

Such a move is always obviously to disrupt the class consciousness that threatens to strengthen proletarian politics. Anyone can see that. Or at least should see it. We see it in the practice of bourgeoise nationalism today in the doctrine of multiculturalism, the importation of culture-bears with different religious sensibilities, and the selection of collaborators among them (tokenism).

The promotion of identity politics in the United States is the child of the cultural pluralism of Horace Kallen, representative of the progressive cosmopolitan crowd, who, writing in the pages of the progressive magazine The Nation in 1915, and ultimately for the interests of the industrialist, deceitfully claimed that cultural relativism would provide a greater national unity. This is the argument in defense of open borders.

In his in a letter, from London, to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt in New York, in 1870, Marx observed that the English bourgeoisie sent Irish labor made redundantly through the rationalization of land use “to the English labor market,” a practice that “forces down wages and lowers the material and moral position of the English working class.” The effect of this was to divide the working class into “hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians.”

In a confidential communication on Bakunin, Marx writes that the English working class “feels national and religious antipathies for him [the Irish].” And insofar as the English worker identifies with the ruling class and regards himself a member, and falls into supporting English colonization in Ireland, he strengthens its power.

Marx writes, “This antagonism is artificially kept alive and intensified by the press, the pulpit, the comic papers, in short, by all the means at the disposal of the ruling classes. This antagonism is the secret of the impotence of the English working class, despite its organization. It is the secret by which the capitalist class maintains its power. And the latter is quite aware of this.”

The ruling class consciously purses a strategy of divide and rule. As I have shown on my blog in numerous essays, it was not until the American working class won restrictions on mass immigration and sharply reduced the proportion of foreign born workers in the population that we see a unified working class movement that won, in many aspects before the European countries, rights for workers. Yet another blow struck for progress.

But if people are taught to believe that the United States is no different today than it was when Jim Crow prevailed, or the brutality of the Gilded Age, or worse, no better than the days when blacks were chattel, then the interpretation of selectively presented facts shaped by that framing comes out wrong and potentially destructive. Privation may lend this feeling energy, but it is the interpretation of American history that is malignant. Ideas matter.

So, while the New Left, the progressives and the identitarians, have abandoned the cause of democracy and liberty and fly other flags, I will fly the flag of carries the destiny of my class—the working class. Our destiny lies through populist-nationalism organized around working class interests.

* * *

Our common future lies through republicanism and the rule of law and our common social class location, in our solidarity as working people.

As Karl Marx wrote in his first article for the Rheinische Zeitung in 1842, echoing John Locke, “laws are in no way repressive measures against freedom, any more than the law of gravity is a repressive measure against motion, because while, as the law of gravitation, it governs the eternal motions of the celestial bodies, as the law of falling it kills me if I violate it and want to dance in the air. Laws are rather the positive, clear, universal norms in which freedom has acquired an impersonal, theoretical existence independent of the arbitrariness of the individual.”

Marx reveals in his work a profound republicanism steeped in communalism. “A statute book is a people’s bible of freedom,” he writes. He’s right about that. There is no freedom without security.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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