The fusion of anabaptist, Indian and African as the American radical tradition - Loren Goldner

The following article attempts, in a nutshell, to apply Ernst Bloch's idea of "non-contemporary contradiction" to American history. It was written for a symposium on "Religion and Politics" in the U.S.-based journal Against the Current.

Submitted by Steven. on April 15, 2012

The topic, obviously, was suggested by the aggressive rise of the Christian right in American politics over the previous decade. Some of the immediate references to the economic situation are clearly out of date, although the crisis they point to is still with us, in altered form, after nearly a decade of the "New Economy".1

"Tho' obscured, this is the form of the Angelic land."

- William Blake: America

Ten years ago, even five years ago, I was highly skeptical about the native American radical tradition, with its clearly religious origins and overtones, to the extent that I even acknowledged its existence. Then, Europe and its apparently solid working-class traditions seemed the rule, and America, where those "immigrant" currents had ultimately had so little lasting impact, the oddity. What compelled me, in the past decade, to invert that viewpoint and to judge the European left from the perspective of the American radical tradition, was hardly a mass upsurge in America. It was the collapse of that European tradition in Europe, as part of a profound crisis of the international left generally, which showed the European movement's true social content--its actual dynamic and accomplishments, not its self-understanding and rhetoric--to have been about issues that were settled in America long ago. Once it seemed clear that the role of the European revolutionary tradition from France to Germany to Russia had in fact been to make Europe more, not less, capitalist, it seemed obvious why this tradition had made little impact in such a totally capitalist society as America. It also seemed clear that the native American radical tradition, originating ultimately in the radical religious currents who "lost" at the very dawn of capitalism, and their meeting with the non-Western peoples--Indian and African--who shaped early American culture as much as white people, might have something very unique to contribute to the current and still completely unresolved crisis of the international revolutionary left, something actually more radical than anything modern Europe has known.

That international left has been, since the mid-1970s, in what is arguably the deepest crisis in its history since the appearance of the classical workers' movement, as far-reaching in its long-term impact as the collapse of that movement into nationalism and social patriotism in 1914. All the familiar landmarks are gone. The surge of worker insurgency throughout the West in the 1968-1973 period, which everywhere revitalized the belief that the working class could and would supercede this society, has been replaced by the grim realities of the U.S. "rust bowl", the gutted British midlands, and similar shutdowns of whole industrial regions on the European continent. The Western working class which frightened capitalism with the "revolt against work" in the last years of the postwar boom has had to fight--and mainly lose--even more militant struggles in the 1980's just to retain what in 1973 seemed to be the givens set down by the struggles of the 1930's and 1940's. Technology intensive innovation on one side and the rise of important industrial mass production in the Third World on the other side have as their most important aim a full-scale assault on the wage bill of American and European workers. Little or nothing in the experience of the classical Western workers' movement to date can serve as a guide to action in finding an adequate response to this situation, which is going to get worse, perhaps far worse, before it gets any better.

Precisely the fact that all the familiar landmarks are gone makes it both possible and, more important, absolutely necessary to look at history with fresh eyes. For the past century, Marxism as an ideology has been associated with two basic models, the German and the Russian. Up to the time of World War I, the German socialist movement and German-American immigrant workers set the tone for American socialism; after 1917, the Russian Revolution and Eastern European, predominantly Jewish immigrant workers assumed that role. We know these movements in their modern forms as Social Democracy and Stalinism, and for most politically-conscious people, the crisis of the past decade was not necessary to reveal their bankruptcy. What the last decade has revealed, however, was that even most of the post-World War II anti-Social Democratic and anti-Stalinist left shared certain unspoken assumptions with those currents which disarmed them in the face of recent developments. Because of those shared illusions, the crisis of Social Democracy and Stalinism (and Third World Bonapartism) has turned out to be their crisis as well. Those illusions revolve ultimately around a failure to see that even the most revolutionary wings of Second and Third International Marxism were more caught up--in practice, if not in theory--in the completion of the bourgeois revolution and the elimination of pre-capitalism, than in the elimination of capitalism as such.

From 1914 until the mid-1970s, the world looked pretty much like the world anticipated in Lenin's 1916 pamphlet Imperialism. Even resolutely anti-Stalinist revolutionaries in the advanced capitalist countries, influenced by Trotsky's theories of permanent revolution and combined and uneven development, assumed that serious capitalist development outside of Western Europe, the U.S. and Japan was an impossibility. Even as they opposed the Stalinist and Third World Bonapartist regimes that attempted to substitute for Western capitalist investment, they shared the assumptions of the bureaucratic movements and ideologies that the capitalist world market would never industrialize these areas. More often than not, they also accepted Lenin's explanation of the reformism of Western workers by the "super-profits" generated by imperialist investment.

Today, the appearance of the Asian "Four Tigers" (South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore) as well as industrial zones in countries such as Mexico and Brazil, has ended the myth of Third Worldism. Simultaneously, serious de-industrialization of such areas as the U.S. "rust bowl" or of the British midlands, combined with large-scale immigration into the U.S. and Europe from the Caribbean, Latin America and former colonies in Africa and Asia has seriously blurred the distinction between "advanced capitalist" and "Third World" zones. The result of these developments, combined with China's decade of "market socialism", the debacle of Stalinist rule in Indochina, and the patent failures of various postwar Third World state bureaucracies (Indonesia, Egypt, Ghana, Algeria) or more recent Soviet-influenced regimes in Africa (Ethiopia, Angola, Mozambique) to solve the most elementary problems of development has deflated the heady atmosphere of Third World statism that lasted into the mid-1970's. Whether in Reagan's America or Thatcher's England or Mitterand's France or Teng's China or Gorbachev's Russia, the virtues of the market against the dead weight of state bureaucracy were discovered with a vengeance in the late 1970's and early 1980's, and the international left associated (rightly or wrongly, and too often rightly) with the state went into severe crisis and decline.

What, the reader might ask, does this have to do with the anti-Social Democratic, anti-Stalinist, anti-Third World Bonapartist tendencies derived from the international left opposition of the 1920's, who never had these illusions? And what does all this have to do with the Radical Reformation?

I submit that the old ideas have worn thin and that it is time for revolutionaries to cast a disabused look on the received ideas of socialist history. I submit that even the most resolute attempt to make sense of the contemporary conjuncture armed with only the best of the continental European socialist tradition--the "healthy moments" of German Social Democracy and Russian Bolshevism--is not enough. It is not enough because those movements as well are hopelessly entwined with the discredited statist tradition.

Where, the same reader might ask, is the state in a tradition which rests on the call for "All Power to the Soviets" in Russia in 1917 and in the Spartakusbund's battle for a "council republic" in Germany in 1918-1919? In those heady days of direct working class power in the factories of Petrograd, Moscow, Berlin and some other Central and Eastern European industrial centers, perhaps nowhere. It lay, rather, in the relationship of those islands of industrial capitalism to the vast mass of petty producers--above all peasants--that surrounded them. And it existed in the intelligentsia, which had broken away from its assigned role as civil servants in the Central and Eastern European monarchies to become revolutionary, and which proposed to mediate an alliance --above all in Russia--between the working class and those peasants. Capitalism, hard experience has taught the revolutionary left in the past 70 years, is not just a relationship between factory workers on one side and the capitalists and their state on the other. It is also a relationship of that "immediate production process", as Marx called it, to the other social strata with which it interracts, who have more than once been decisive in determining the political fate of the workers taken by themselves. The irony of the continental European left for over a century is that a certain "Marxism" has been most successful among workers precisely in the countries where the peasantry has been most oppressed and most militant in its fight against pre- capitalist agriculture. To unravel this truth is to uncover the hidden threads linking the movements that produced a Lenin, a Luxemburg or a Trotsky to the state.

When examined closely, the continental European revolutionary tradition set in motion by the French Revolution, extending through 1848, German Social Democracy and the German and Russian Revolutions of 1917-1918, was always a fusion of workers and professional revolutionaries drawn from the intelligentsia. They always existed, furthermore, in close relationship to the peasantry; indeed, for all the focus on the question of the relationship of "party and class" in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, the triumph and successful defense of that revolution was unthinkable without the simultaneous peasant revolution--a bourgeois revolution for land to the peasants--in the countryside.

The continental European socialist tradition was born in the radical moments of the French Revolution; it was given its decisive theoretical formulation by Marx and Engels in the 1840's and produced the seemingly unstoppable German Social Democracy from the 1860s to 1914; it first seized state power with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But we should note that it was influential primarily in those countries such as France, Germany and Russia where it confronted the statist legacy of Enlightened absolutism and the unsolved agrarian question --the creation of a capitalist agriculture--which those states were created to resolve. The revolutionary intelligentsias who played decisive roles in the European continental tradition were themselves products of an educational system established to train state civil servants for the Enlightened despotic states. Their fusion with radical workers' and peasants' movements well into the 20th century has been the history of the modern socialism which entered crisis in the 1970s.

America, by contrast, like the European countries which had achieved a civil society by the end of the Reformation era in the mid-17th century, never developed an intelligentsia capable of fusing with its very militant working class. (Indeed, more direct violence was probably used against American workers from 1877 to the 1920's than against any other Western working class.) Where did the intelligenstia in continental Europe come from? It came, as we indicated earlier, from an educational system designed to carry out, from above, social and economic tasks which had already been realized in the areas influenced by Calvinism and radical Reformation currents.

My hypothesis is that the agrarian question is the key to the understanding of the rise and fall of the continental European socialist tradition, and that the failure of that tradition to make a serious impact in America is a reflection of the fact that American agriculture--with the important exception of the South prior to 1865--was always capitalist. In contrast to continental Europe, it was never necessary to build a mercantile development state in the U.S., with the attendant civil service, educational system, and therefore intelligentsia disposed to ally itself with workers' and peasants' movements. Despite their rhetoric, the socialist movements of Europe were actually far more involved in making their societies purely capitalist than in ending capitalism,(which in some cases had barely implanted itself) and in winning basic democratic gains won long ago in this country. Their crisis began precisely when, in the course of the post-war boom of 1945-1973, the societies containing them finally emptied their countrysides and became fully capitalist in the way America had been for a long time. It was this development, in the context of the larger crisis of the international left associated with the state and the completion of the capitalist revolution, that reveals their real historical significance.

This is in no way a critique of Marx's critique of capitalism. It is a critique of the classical workers' movement which took its "poetry" from the tradition dominated by the German and Russian models, and the completion of the bourgeois revolution they entailed.

It is thus time to look carefully at other societies--including and above all the U.S.--in which the continental European socialist tradition did not have much impact for the simple reason that the conditions of its serious presence--the legacy of the absolutist state, the disgruntled intelligentsia produced by a statist civil service and its educational system, and an unresolved agrarian question--were quite lacking. When we look at societies like Great Britain, Holland, Scotland, Switzerland or the U.S. (not accidentally all countries where Calvinism was highly influential in the 17th century) we see that what set them on a different course from most of continental Europe was that they had achieved some kind of civil society in the era of the Reformation and the religious wars it engendered.

Viewed from the era of Ronald Reagan, and the decades in which the U.S. has become the center of world counter-revolution, it is sometimes difficult to recall that the United States was once the most democratic country in the world, for all the incompleteness of that democracy. It had the first general suffrage for white males (1828), the first mass political parties, and even the first self-styled working-class political party (1836-1837) in the Jacksonian period.

It is even more difficult to recall that this early democratic character of America went back to a legacy of the era of Reformation wars and some of their defeated factions.

In the essentially "Anglo-American" North Atlantic political economy of the 17th and 18th centuries, religion had a very different fate from its continental counterpart. In these countries, a capitalist society was brought into being by radicals who could still speak the language of religion. On the continent, where Catholicism and Protestantism both became established state religions, the creation of a capitalist, civil society always required the most ruthless confrontation with religion. In England and in the U.S., on the contrary, religious radicals were at the forefront of social struggles, such as anti-slavery agitation and the first modern labor agitation of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The American colonies and the young United States were initially settled largely by groups with origins in the left wing of the English and German Reformations. These groups created the "native" American radical tradition, and it is this tradition which was eclipsed by the world hegemony of the European continental radicalism and its explicit or implicit statist vocation of the past century. As the latter goes into eclipse, the former comes more sharply into view. For those--such as myself, not so long ago--who "went to school" with the best theorists of the Second and Third Internationals, Lenin, Luxemburg or Trotsky, the American native radical tradition was virtually invisible. I think it would have been less invisible to Marx and Engels, who knew the historical significance of a Jacob Boehme for their tradition. Indeed, Engels, who came out of a deeply Pietist background himself, hoped that the American Shakers would come around to a working-class perspective.

Revolutionaries in America have to come to terms with the fact that for the two centuries prior to 1840, the North American territory (with the exception of the Spanish-speaking Southwest) that became the U.S. was peopled more or less solely by left-Reformation (largely English and German) settlers, Indians and blacks (the latter being probably 20% of the population on the eve of the Civil War in 1860). The interraction of these three groups created certain constants of American culture which were not fundamentally altered either by industrialization or by further immigration, the two main forces which favored the importation of continental European radicalism. The real American radical tradition was born in this meeting of the Anabaptists, Indians and Africans in the 17th and 18th centuries.

America today is far and away the most religious country of the so-called "advanced capitalist" world. In the 1976 world Gallup survey on the importance of religious beliefs, over 50% of the American population expressed a belief in God and a significant number described themselves as "born-again" believers. The Gallup survey attempted to establish a correlation between importance of religious beliefs and indices of social development. Most countries in the world aligned themselves neatly on a spectrum that went from Sweden and Japan (high level of development, very low incidence of religious belief) to India (low level of development, very high incidence of religious belief). Significantly, the U.S. was totally off the chart, followed closely by Canada, with a coexistence of high indices of development and great importance attached to religious belief.

But the question of explicit religious belief and practice is secondary to the pervasiveness of religious influence in American culture, more often in a secularized form. It is here, I think, that we get to the core of the issues at hand, and to the significance for the present of the pre-1840, pre-industrial American culture created by "left Reformation"American (English and German) Protestant settlers, Indians and blacks, and thus of the radical wing of that culture.

The ongoing "American Gothic" legacy of the New England Puritans to the U.S. to this day cannot be underestimated. The lasting core of that legacy was the idea of America as an historically privileged "redeemer nation", a "city on the hill", whose history was the revelation of God in the world, a self-conception very similar to that of the Jews of ancient Israel with whom the Puritans deeply identified. This legacy was further tied up with a theological idea of "radical evil" materialized in the forces who opposed the self-righteous unfolding of providence. In the 17th century, in the 1636 Pequot War and the more total 1676 King Phillip's War, this will to annihilation of radical evil was first exercised against the Indians of New England. The Puritans were the founders of the tradition that leads, in secular form, straight to "Rambo" (even if they were also much more interesting than Rambo). In 1692, in the Salem witch trials, the women charged with witchcraft were accused of having learned the "black arts" from a Caribbean slave and possibly from some local Indian shamans. Thus both the self-righteousness of American expansionism and the association of non-white peoples (and of white women associated with them) with "radical evil" comes right out of 17th century Puritanism. Through the influence of New England schoolteachers who were the cutting edge of grammar school education, and through Christian fundamentalism, this original nexus of attitudes set the tone of American culture far beyond New England, into the 19th century, when the Puritans themselves had lost their early hegemony. But the secular remnants of their theological justifications for Indian extermination and expansionism remain potent three centuries later.

But the Puritans were not the only Protestants in early America. Indeed, they were opposed, in New England itself and more substantially in the mid-Atlantic states, by descendants of the other, more radical wing of the left Reformation, the Anabaptists (and related currents), some of whom established explictly Christian communist communities upon arrival in North America. German Mennonites in the mid-Atlantic region attacked slavery publicly in 1688, decades before the better-known Pennsylvania Quakers began to do so. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony itself, the English libertine Thomas Morton was transported to England in chains in 1630 for having sold alchohol and arms to local Indians, but above all on suspicion of "wenching" with Indian women. In 1740, in the course of the first "Great Awakening" or revival movement in American Protestantism, which had both anti-Puritan and definite class overtones, blacks were accepted into mid-Atlantic congregations for the first time. Again and again, the revolt against Puritanism within white Protestant culture was linked to sympathy for the conditions of Indians and blacks. It was this multi-racial character which definitively made this native American radical tradition something more than a transplanted English or German dissident Protestantism.

Indeed, this multi-racial character was what was uniquely American about almost everything in early American culture that did not simply imitate Europe. A search for "culture" in 17th and 18th century America that looks only for counterparts of European high culture sees little that is original. This is in part because such a perspective--already marked by the legacy of the secular continental intelligentsia-- is generally disinclined to take the religious culture seriously. Such a view does not see the Mennonite psalms and hymns that evolved when blacks joined the mid-Atlantic congregations and chorales during the Great Awakening of the 1740's, producing possibly the first of a long and very rich Afro-American musical tradition (a tradition which is undoubtedly America's most unique contribution to world culture). It does not see the actually African religious dimension that was brought into American Protestantism by the "converted" slaves (who actually converted Christianity as much to their own purposes and traditions as vice versa). It does not see the Afro-American dances such as the ring-shout absorbed into the tent revivalism of the Second Great Awakening after 1800. It does not see the rich traditions of the black spiritual--traditions that Europeans such as the composers Dvorak and Delius had to call to the attention of Eurocentric American musicians as the U.S.'s real musical culture--that are ultimately the source of the secular Afro-American musics of the last third of the 19th century. In a more contemporary context, such a perspective does not take sufficiently seriously the religious background from which the two most important black leaders of recent American history, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, emerged to lead social movements that shook this society to its foundations.

The role of the Indians in the shaping of American culture is even more obscure to the modern "Eurocentric" eye, and in some ways even more complex, than the role of black Americans. But it was no less important, and to a large extent shaped the terrain on which white-black relations evolved. (It was, after all, the impossibility of enslaving the Indians that led to the use of Africans.) Both the Renaissance and Reformation involved ideologies of a "return" to some idealized past: the Renaissance looked to Greco-Roman classicism, and the Reformation looked to the early Christian communities before the appearance of the Catholic Church. This turn to "origin" occurred, perhaps not coincidentally, just as European exploration revealed the existence of lands (particularly North America and Brazil) and "peoples without the state" who seemed to embody, for some, Biblical imagery from "before the fall". This is a complicated question (better unraveled in my 2-part article "Race and the Enlightenment" available on the Break Their Haughty Power web site at but it was central to three centuries of utopias tied up with the New World.

Let us pick up the thread of the agrarian question. The U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 was the denouement of a crisis that dominated American politics from its advent in the 1840's until its eclipse in the 1870s, that is in the very period that the modern European and American working-class movements came into existence. The slave emancipation it produced was in fact part of a larger international political conjuncture which saw the Russian serf emancipation, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and the unification of Germany and Italy, each of them a reorganization of the internal market for a new phase of capital accumulation. In 1873, a world depression began which deflated agrarian prices until the 1890's. As a result, the U.S., Russia, Canada, Argentina and Australia emerged as major grain exporters. The drastic cheapening of the cost of food made it possible for workers' real material consumption to rise even as their real wages, in the same deflation, fell.

The same process began to occur for manufactured goods consumed by workers a couple of decades later. Beginning in the 1880's, stimulated in part by the ability to feed more urban industrial workers with lower money wages, mass production moved to the fore, particularly in the United States and Germany. By the 1920's, capitalism was on the verge of making mass-produced consumer durables available to working-class consumption in the same fashion as had occurred earlier with food. As their cost of production fell, workers could buy them even as their incomes remained stable or even declined, relatively or absolutely. This reality, and not the "super-profits" from imperialist investment, was the material basis of the reformism of the classical Western workers' movement.

As a result, by the turn of the 20th century, American capitalism was in the vanguard of the creation of a mass consumer urban culture with hedonist overtones that began to seriously undermine the legacy of Puritanism in American culture, represented in 1900 by "Victorian" morality, anti-alchohol leagues, fundamentalist revivalism in the Bible Belt, and small-town boosterism. This urban mass consumption and the hedonist culture it rapidly began to produce, made possible first by the revolution in agricultural and then industrial productivity, remained a distant dream for the countries of Europe in which militant socialist movements came to the fore, movements which often had more than a whiff of Puritanical morality themselves. And at the center of the world-wide appeal of this culture was black-based American music and dancing, beginning with the cakewalk in the 1880's, followed by ragtime and finally, the "other revolution of 1917", the world breakthrough of jazz. The 17th century fusion of Radical Reformation anti-Puritanism of German and English Radical Reformation millenarians with Indians and later Africans produced in the long run the subterranean backbone of a kind of genuine freedom, however tied up with reification, atomism, and passivity, that continental Europe only achieved on a serious scale after World War II. This "Afro-Anabaptism" was and is the genuinely American revolutionary tradition on which all Jacobinism, Social Democracy and Bolshevism ultimately founders.

What I am suggesting is that the international left, just now emerging from over a century of "German" and then "Russian" hegemony, was in fact colonized by a world view rooted in the problematic of the continental European despotic states and their oppositions, a world view that uncritically accepted the whole legacy of "Aufklaerung" (I use the German word for "Enlightenment" because it was the Prussian civil service of the early 19th century that brought this social stratum into the revolutionary tradition, culminating in the philosophy of Hegel) developed by the state civil service and the intelligentsia, and which obscured the Radical Reformation roots of Marxism, particularly for countries, such as the U.S., where the left-wing Reformation was the direct source of the radical tradition. One could easily imagine a spokesman for this "Aufklaerung" view admitting that the Radical Reformation was indeed the source of the native American radical tradition, but then going on to say, quite naturally, that such a tradition--in contrast to the ostensibly "Marxist" outlook he was defending--was "petty bourgeois".

Perhaps this is a useful term to get at the pre-industrial or anti-industrial character of the Mennonites, Schwenkfelders and Hutterites of the eastern Pennsylvania communist communities, of the radicals of the Great Awakening of 1740 who spawned the ferment leading to the American Revolution, the Shakers, the "anti-Masonic" movement of the 1820's in upstate New York, the Abolitionists or some currents of post-Civil War agrarian radicalism. Taken by themselves, perhaps these followers of Jacob Boehme, Immanuel Swedenborg and William Blake--the real theoreticians of the "native" American tradition--might ultimately be dismissed with that most dismissive of Marxist epithets. But what is unique about America, the ultimate source of what I call "Afro-Anabaptism", is precisely the "crossover" between these refugees from the defeat of the European Radical Reformation with the Indians and later the Africans they encountered here, as rapidly sketched above. And with that crossover--the hidden historical project of a multi-racial "New Jerusalem" which already by the end of the 17th century pointed to something beyond the West--I submit that the subterranean American utopian tradition left the terrain of "petty bourgeois" radicalism. If the continental European radical tradition rests on the fusion of the intelligentsia with the working class and peasantry, then the American radical tradition, whose sources are prior to "Aufklaerung", rests on the fusion of Radical Reformation, Indian and African. If our hypothetical defender of the "Aufklaerung" current of contemporary Marxism wishes to call the native radical tradition "petty bourgeois", at least he should realize that he is talking from the vantage point of the Enlightened state civil service, industrializing backward countries, and not emancipated humanity, superceding work and leisure in a new kind of species-activity.

Readers grappling with the practical problems of the current crisis, and the seeming dead end to which the tradition derived primarily from Lenin, Trotsky or Luxemburg leads in a world where robotics and de-industrialization are decimating the Western working class on which the old traditions rest, might wonder what use is to be found in the resurrection of old "native" currents of radicalism. In today's "supra-national" world economy, isn't this just a "backward looking" utopia even more dead than the legacy of the Second and Third Internationals? I would say: quite the contrary.

If Second and Third International Marxism, including its best representatives, is indeed the ideology of a "completion of the bourgeois revolution" in which the agrarian question and the role of the peasantry were the less-noticed but indispensible ingredients in ostensibly "working class" movements, if these movements were in fact more about abolishing pre-capitalism than capitalism (a project in which they have been quite successful from Germany to China), if, finally, they incorporated the "discourse" of the Enlightened state civil service and turned Marxism from a theory of the "material human community" (1844 Manuscripts) into a strategy for industrializing backward countries, then it seems fair to say that they arose from the world of the hegemony of work which imposed itself, first in England and then elsewhere, from the 17th century onward. But Marxism, in its deepest sources and aspirations, is not just about the "humanization" of the world of work, nor even just about the working-class control of production (and reproduction) which have been at the center of the healthiest Marxist currents of the 20th century. Marxism is about the supercession of the capitalist antagonism of work and leisure in a new kind of activity which takes up within itself activities currently dispersed in those separate spheres. The American tradition of Radical Reformation/Indian/African comes from a past prior to the establishment of the hegemony of work, and points to a future beyond the hegemony of work, characterized by a higher form of the "total activity" which, at its best, occasionally manifested itself in pre-capitalist societies (e.g the great Renaissance festivals) and which is in reality closer to communism than Second and Third International recipes for industrializing backward countries.

Not too long ago critics of Marxism used to point to the living standards of Western workers as the obvious refutation of the old Marxian prediction of the "increased immiseration" of the proletariat. The emergence of the Midwest "rust bowl" and legions of street people sifting through garbage cans in every American city have buried that saw, and most people sense that this is only the beginning. But such irrefutable confirmations of Marx's theory of crisis cannot obscure the malaise felt by revolutionary socialists who sense that their best traditions are poor guides to the present and the future, and that neither the "German nor the "Russian" revolutionary legacies, or the more accessible memories of American labor history, such as Flint '37, are of much use in the world of the new international division of labor and technology-intensive strategies to expel living labor from the production process. The factories occupied in Flint were among the newest and most productive in the world; today, they are not, nor or many other production sites in the U.S. Marx, in the Grundrisse (1857), was also visionary in foreseeing a phase of capitalism in which science would be directly appropriated to the production process and would become a major source of value in its own right. Such a phase of capitalism would not only co-exist with the large-scale expulsion of living labor from mass production--it would be the "other side" of such an expulsion. We live, essentially, in that world. The only choice for the American working class and its allies is a resolutely internationalist perspective for a working-class led and based reconstruction of the world economy, or continuing to suffer the capitalist restructuring now underway, with all the de-industrialization and gutting of living standards that implies, of which the past 10-15 years are just a foretaste. But on the other side of this "Grundrisse" phase of capitalism, now being realized on a global scale, is the emancipation of society from the hegemony of work that has dominated it since capitalism first became the dominant mode of production. This emancipation, as we indicated earlier, will not be the cybernetic Lotusland imagined by some "visionaries" of the 1960s (who merely extrapolated a degraded vision of capitalist leisure, and its passivity, as the trend of the future), but a new kind of activity in which the purposive, creative side of contemporary work and the dispersed (e.g aesthetic) sides of contemporary "leisure" fuse into something else. In some Australian aboriginal societies, for example, the word for "work" and "play" is the same, and there is no word for "art", because everything is infused with the aesthetic dimension which we have isolated in the ghetto of "art". If the preceding analysis of the fusion of Radical Reformation, Indian and African is right, then American radicals have a legacy of unusual richness for renewing their own movement for the looming period of confrontation ahead, a legacy valid not merely for the U.S. but also finally worthy of the "form of the Angelic land", in Blake's phrase, which the world has tried, and to some extent even today still tries to see in the unfinished historical project of this country.

July 1987

Brief Bibliography:

(Titles appear in the order suggested by the sequence of ideas in the article.)

On the tradition of the Radical Reformation, see Frederick Engels , The Peasant War in Germany.

On some inadequacies of the Marxism popularized by the Second International, see Karl Korsch, Marxism and Philosophy.

On the impact of the NICs on the world economy and Third Worldist ideology, see Nigel Harris, The End of the Third World: Newly-Industrializing Countries and the Decline of an Ideology.

On the international impact of Calvinism, see Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints.

On the Shakers and other currents of early American communism, see Henri Desroches, The Shakers.

On the impact of secularized religion on American politics, see Robert Bellah, The Broken Covenant. On the "American Gothic" legacy of the Puritans, I must underscore the exceptional importance for my view of American history of two books by Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence: the Mythology of the Frontier 1800-1860 and The Fatal Environment: The Myth of the Frontier in the Age of Industrialization, 1800-1890. Also useful is Richard Drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building, which traces the development from the Puritan wars with the Indians to Vietnam. On the crisis of the "Rambo" tradition, see Tom Engelhardt, The End of Victory Culture: Cold War America and the Disillusioning of a Generation.

W.J. Cash's book The Mind of the South shows how the pre-1840, pre-industrial ideology of the South was recast for the era of industrialization, and suggested how a similar analysis might be developed for the U.S. as a whole.

On the impact of the Indian on American literary culture, see Elemire Zolla, The Writer and the Shaman.

On the development of a distinctly Afro-American music from the initial African heritage, Eileen Southern's The Music of Black Americans is a good introduction.

On the direct confrontation of black American music with the continental European revolutionary tradition see S. Frederick Starr, Red and Hot: the Fate of Jazz in the Soviet Union.

On the relationship of 20th century black music to the African and Afro-American religious traditions, see Bill Cole, John Coltrane, and the excellent section on secular music in Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness.

This was a slightly-edited version of an article originally published in Against the Current, 1987

  • 1 This and the preceding introductory paragraph were an additional note added in November 2000



12 years 2 months ago

In reply to by

Submitted by Steven. on April 15, 2012

I found it hard to write a punchy introduction to this text, because it's hard to explain succinctly what it's actually about.

However, I do think it's a very good article which contains lots of little gems over a wide variety of areas, including this one, which I hadn't really thought of before but helps explain quite a lot:

Let us pick up the thread of the agrarian question. The U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 was the denouement of a crisis that dominated American politics from its advent in the 1840's until its eclipse in the 1870s, that is in the very period that the modern European and American working-class movements came into existence. The slave emancipation it produced was in fact part of a larger international political conjuncture which saw the Russian serf emancipation, the Meiji Restoration in Japan, and the unification of Germany and Italy, each of them a reorganization of the internal market for a new phase of capital accumulation. In 1873, a world depression began which deflated agrarian prices until the 1890's. As a result, the U.S., Russia, Canada, Argentina and Australia emerged as major grain exporters. The drastic cheapening of the cost of food made it possible for workers' real material consumption to rise even as their real wages, in the same deflation, fell.

The same process began to occur for manufactured goods consumed by workers a couple of decades later. Beginning in the 1880's, stimulated in part by the ability to feed more urban industrial workers with lower money wages, mass production moved to the fore, particularly in the United States and Germany. By the 1920's, capitalism was on the verge of making mass-produced consumer durables available to working-class consumption in the same fashion as had occurred earlier with food. As their cost of production fell, workers could buy them even as their incomes remained stable or even declined, relatively or absolutely. This reality, and not the "super-profits" from imperialist investment, was the material basis of the reformism of the classical Western workers' movement.

This is a great point. And it answers the question which I find Leninists are never able to answer which is that if imperialism abroad is the reason workers in the UK and US have/had a good standard of living, then how come workers in Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, etc have comparable or even better standards of living?

mikail firtinaci

12 years 2 months ago

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Submitted by mikail firtinaci on April 15, 2012

Yes I agree that this is a very good point. But I still think that this does not exclude the imperialism phenomenon as it came to fore in 1880's with the partition of Africa... in which many small European nations also participated in -Belgium for instance. Perhaps, it gets us closer to an understanding of imperialism that is tied indirectly to the transformations in economics/capital accumulation but more directly to the political.

In fact, this question of how to relate the growing imperialism on the one hand (constant increase in militarization of Germany) and rise of the living standarts was very important in the development of the crisis in the German social democratic movement.

All the ensuing debate on imperialism between Lenin+Pannekoek+Luxemburg on the one hand and Bernstein, Kautsky and other on the other was related to this problematic... So this is perhaps a general problem -at least between 1890s and 1920s- in marxist movement. I agree also that it still haunts us today in the form of Leninism