Reviving old populist myths

Dear ISR,

I want to start by thanking the editors of the ISR for their decision to publish a number of articles on the origins, course and consequences of the US Civil War, including Ashley Smith’s eminently fair but critical review of my The American Road to Capitalism. James Illingworth’s excellent essay in ISR 78 (July–August 2011) and the in-depth interview with Robin Blackburn in ISR 79 (September–October 2011) on slavery are excellent examples of the type of discussions Marxists should be having on the 150th anniversary of the beginnings of the war.

However, the excerpt from John Nichols’s The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition… Socialism as “Reading Marx with Abraham Lincoln” in ISR 79 revives some hoary old populist myths about Lincoln and the Republicans. The 1930s saw a sharp shift in the US left’s assessment of the “American” national tradition. The Communist Party’s (CP) turn to the politics of the popular front—strategic alliances with trade union bureaucrats, middle-class leaders of racial minorities and women’s organizations and liberal Democrats—led them to declare “Communism is Twentieth-Century Americanism.” Rather than educating and organizing the militant minority of US workers in a politics of class independence, militancy and internationalism, the CP became the advocates of a “progressive” US national tradition that included not only Lincoln, but slave-holders like Thomas Jefferson. The fruits of the CP’s popular front politics still haunt the US left and labor movement in the absence of an independent labor party, bureaucratic-business unionism and a left that has helped the Democrats derail promising social struggles again and again since the late 1930s.

The attempt to find a progressive, no less “socialist” element in the US “national heritage” rests on a fundamentally anachronistic reading of Lincoln and other US political leaders. When Lincoln in the 1850s, and the pro-slavery Jackson Democrats in the 1830s, spoke about “capital” and “capitalists,” they were referring to merchants, bankers, and stockbrokers—to non-productive capitalists. “Labor” did not refer to wage-workers, but to all producers—self-employed farmers and artisans, skilled workers who controlled the labor process, and capitalist manufacturers. Just as Jeffersonian Democrats’ notion of “agriculturalists” ignored the distinction between family farmers and slave-owning planters, Lincoln and the Republicans’ vision of “labor” disregarded the distinction between industrial capitalists and wage workers. Fourierist socialism, which fascinated such Republicans as Horace Greeley, also portrayed the main struggle in modern society as between unproductive capital and productive labor, which included both workers and capitalists in industry.

Such a “mental road map of lived experience” was quite logical for the US manufacturing capitalists. For the most part, the industrial capitalist class in the US emerged from the ranks of the artisan producers. As the agrarian home market for consumer and capital goods in the North expanded over the nineteenth century as a consequence of the subordination of family farming to market coercion, a minority of artisans were able to specialize their output, innovate technologically, and accumulate capital and labor. The resulting social differentiation of these urban petty-producers produced new classes of manufacturing capitalists and skilled wage workers. Relying on their own-self exploitation or on short-term loans from small merchants, it was not surprising that the capitalist manufacturers saw themselves as part of the “producer” classes struggling against the domination of “parasitic” capitalist merchants and bankers.

Rather than reviving the populist historical mythology that has been used to buttress reformist politics on the left, the Marxist left today needs to deepen the historical analysis of US capitalism that can arm a new, revolutionary politics.

In solidarity,

Charlie Post