Certain historians (notably W.J. Cash in his 1941 classic The Mind of the South) have defined America as a Herrenvolk (master race) democracy, a term which I think was quite apt for the 350 years of American history up to the 1960’s/1970’s: a (bourgeois) democracy for whites. Other writers have drawn parallels with similar phenomena in settler states such as Northern Ireland, Israel and South Africa (prior to the end of apartheid). It is not without interest that all three of these examples, like the U.S. , have their ideological origins in Old Testament myths of the “chosen people”. Even today, when white supremacy in the U.S. has been seriously challenged and weakened (but hardly eradicated), race remains a fault line of American politics. The race question has been a major dimension of every serious advance of bourgeois democracy in U.S. history (the Civil War of the 1860’s, the movements of the 1960’s). Social confrontation in the U.S. involving only whites (including militant mass strikes) are often ultimately a family quarrel; when whites unite with blacks on a true basis of equality (as in the early Populist movement in the late 1880’s, the IWW organizing in the South before World War I, or some incidents of the 1960’s) the most violent repression is brought to bear against them.
A fundamental dynamic in American history involves the triad of race, imperial expansion, and class. In 1820 Madison already said “Our country is menaced by the red man on our borders and the black slave within”. Class enters the picture with the Democratic Party, the historical party of the white worker, The Democrats have twice dominated American politics by channeling populist revolt: in the Jacksonian period (1828 to the 1850’s) and with the Roosevelt coalition (1933-1968). Jacksonian democracy was ruined by the controversy over the Mexican-American War (1846), which led directly to a confrontation over slavery; the Roosevelt coalition was ruined by the war in Vietnam (1961-1975) and the radicalization of the black liberation movement of the 1960’s. Insofar as this party of white supremacy and expansion has been the party of the American worker, class politics have never successfully separated from the questions of race and imperial expansion.
This role of race in shaping American democracy is intimately linked to a second central aspect: that of de-centralization. From independence (1783) to the constitution (1787) to the Civil War (1860-1865), America struggled to constitute a central (Federal) state; the individual states were politically more important than the central government; Sombart later said that “in continental Europe, the state created civil society; in America civil society created a state”. The tension between centralism and decentralist local power was fought out in the constitutional period between Federalists (Hamilton) and Anti-Federalists (Madison, Jefferson) and has characterized American history ever since. (“Federalism” in the U.S. context means centralism, it is the Anti-Federalists who are for local power.) The main support for the Anti-Federalist position came from the slave-holding states of the South; notoriously, a very significant number of early American presidents, Cabinet members and military figures came from Virginia and other southern states. The aim of the de-centralists, as stated by Madison, was to create a system whereby a dissident majority would have great difficulty seizing control of the state, an aim which has been successfully realized to this day.
(Interestingly, this American dynamic was recognized long ago by Rosa Luxemburg: “the Northern states acted, representing the modern, big-capital development, machine industry, personal freedom and equality before the law, the true corollaries of the system of hired labor, bourgeois democracy and bourgeois progress. On the other hand, the banner of separatism, federation, and particularism, the banner of each hamlet’s ‘independence’ and ‘right of self-determination’ was raised by the plantation owners of the South” (from “The National Question and Autonomy”, in The National Question, New York 1976)
At the same time America from the Revolution to the Civil War (and in fact well beyond) was the most democratic society in the world, and not merely in the narrow political sense. America achieved universal male suffrage (for whites) in 1828 and had levels of real local political involvement greater than anything that existed in Europe until the emergence of the modern workers’ movements in England, France, Germany, etc. It should not be forgotten that the U.S. had some of the first trade unions in the world (1820’s) and the first workingman’s political party (1828), the latter being quickly absorbed by the Democrats.
1828 thus marked the beginning of mass party politics in its modern form, with thecoming to power of Jacksonian democracy, a populist revolt against previous elite control by New England capitalists and Virginia slaveholders. Jacksonian democracy was an important anticipation of the Rooseveltian New Deal in creating a coalition of Northern workers, Western farmers and Southern poor whites, Jackson himself was responsible for Indian removal (the famous “Trail of Tears” of the Cherokees) and was pro-slavery; he thus crystallized the ongoing link between the mainstream Northern workers’ movement, westward expansionism and political rapprochement with white supremacy in the South that has crippled the American workers’ movement ever since, first of all by its political containment in the Democratic Party. On the other hand, because of the de-centralization of power in the states, mass party politics did involve a high degree of popular (albeit distorted) participation, as in the ethnic (e.g. Irish) political machines that arose in Northern cities beginning in the 1830’s.
Europeans looking at America are often puzzled by the historical absence of mass working-class political parties (i.e. Socialists, Communists). It must be thus underscored that from the 1840’s to the 1870’s America was torn apart by the question of slavery, that is by the race question, and that in America the race and class question are inseparably intertwined. The Civil War was as much a political baptism for American workers as the Paris Commune was for French workers or Bismarck’s anti-Socialist laws for German workers. (This included the notorious New York anti-draft riots of 1863 in which Irish workers rioted and burned down a black orphanage.) Further, over the whole arc of the development of mass production (1870’s-1930’s) , more violence was used against American workers historically than against any European working class. The key to American Herrenvolk democracy is that white workers tend to think of themselves as whites first and workers second. A number of contradictory phenomena illustrate this. In 1848, during the European revolutions, the White House was lit up at night to celebrate the advance of democracy against decadent monarchy. (Unlike today, the U.S. was then still an “outsider” in world politics with interests that went against the grain of the existing international balance of power, dominated by Britain). At the same time, it was exactly in 1848 that the Democratic Party was torn apart by the question of slavery. A true “class against class” confrontation emerged in the U.S. only with the 1877 railway strikes (which were denounced as an “American Paris Commune” by the bourgeois press), while mass workers’ movements (unions, political parties) were growing in England, France and Germany. Contrary to much received opinion, this difference does not point to the political immaturity of the U.S., but rather to the fact that American Herrenvolk democracy underwent crises that looked very different from the struggle for bourgeois democracy in Europe, a struggle in which “socialist” and later “communist” parties played no small role.
It was thus the U.S. Civil War which completed the building of the American nation state, by eliminating the struggle for control of the Federal government between the Southern slaveholders and the Northern capitalists. Slavery had to be abolished to “save the Union”, the main slogan of the war. It should not be forgotten that in 1861 Abraham Lincoln effectively suspended the constitution and ruled by presidential decree in a state of emergency. From the Civil War onward the balance of power began to shift from the states to the Federal government. It was also during and after the Civil War that the large modern corporation began to emerge from the smaller-scale capitalism prevalent earlier. The “great barbecue” of the “robber barons” that brought forth the familiar capitalist families such as the Rockefellers, Vanderbilts, and Morgans transformed the U.S. in the 1870’s and 1880’s into a recognizably modern capitalist society. At the same time, in 1877, the withdrawal of Northern troops from the occupied South (simultaneous with the first nationwide strike wave) set the stage for the restoration of the old slaveholder elite in more appropriate capitalist form, at the top of a new agrarian economy where slavery was replaced by sharecropping, Jim Crow segregation and Ku Klux Klan terror. This new South re-entered the American political equation as, once again, one part of the Democratic Party triad of poor Southern whites, Northern political machines and Western farmers. The Democrats for 60 years were basically exiled from national power, a coalition of parochial interests.
The Republican Party, which had led the eradication of slavery, dominated American politics from 1860 to 1932, that is into the great period of capital concentration, the rise of the modern corporation, the first attempts at capitalist regulation, the creation of a central bank (1907), and the first attempts at a corporatist integration of part of the working class through unions (which only came to fruition in the 1930’s). The period 1877-1934 was the high tide of American working-class radicalism, and of violence against the working class by the capitalists. But once again, it is interesting and important to point out that most of this violence was local (state, municipal) and even private (Pinkertons), so that—as Madison had hoped—the Federal government rarely provided a direct political target for a national movement from below.
It is also important that awareness of the relationship between race and class receded after 1877. Most of the famous incidents of American labor history took place in the years 1877-1934. In 1900 90% of American blacks were still in the five deep South states. They entered the Northern proletariat through World War I, World War II and the postwar migration up to the 1960’s, prompted by the rapid mechanization of Southern agriculture.
The social crisis of the 1890’s has been largely forgotten because of the crises of the 1930’s and 1960’s, but it actually seemed to both workers and capitalists to pose more of a threat to the social order than either of the later ones. Economic depression, agrarian crisis, the rise of the Populist movement, corporate and banking scandal, and labor radicalism (such as in the 1892-1894 railroad and steel strikes) brought to the fore the statist “Progressive” reformers who laid the foundation for the New Deal state which still, in spite of post-1970’s neo-liberalism, still shapes the existing American state. The role of the Progressive reformers (and there was nothing “progressive” about them) is the key to understanding what happened to bourgeois democracy in America. In the 1890’s when they began, American participation in elections was still above 90% (having fallen to below 50% today), and the grassroots level of politics still retained much vitality. The Progressives were technocrats and top-down reformers par excellence, and their more or less conscious objective was to transform politics into management by experts. It is often little remarked to what extent Bismarck’s Germany was a model for the reform of U.S. politics and society in this period, in areas ranging from welfare state measures to corporate regulation to state sponsorship of research and development to reorganization of universities to central banking to labor legislation. The Progressives used their journalistic exposes of scandal and corruption to attack grassroots power in the interests of top-down technocratic power.
They exposed housing conditions in big cities to ruin small slumlords so that large real estate interests could take over urban housing. They exposed the local corruption of Democratic party political machines dominated by ethnic groups to make power more faceless and remote. They exposed the corporate excesses of the “robber barons” and big trusts to put in place regulation of industry and banking by Federal experts. A figure such as Mark Hanna, Ohio capitalist and later Senator, argued from the 1880’s onward for tolerance for industrial unions as the alternative to social revolution. After the 1913 Ludlow massacre, the Rockefellers were also convinced that violent repression of American labor had to be tempered with more intelligent management. The most successful Progressive politician was Woodrow Wilson, an unabashed white supremacist.
It was World War I which gave the new ideas their best opportunity; it was the effective beginning of the “American century”Everyone is familiar with the massive repression against the IWW and other opponents of the war in 1917-1918; less noticed is the great experiment (repeated as well in Britain, France and Germany) in state management of the economy and participation of unions in government labor boards. World War I forced capitalists everywhere to recognize that they could use “planning” in their own interests.
Along with this, in the U.S. case, was the emergence as an imperialist world power, with New York as a world financial center and huge British, French and German debts to the U.S.
World War I ended with the “Red Year” of strikes in 1919, but it should not be forgotten that 1919 was also the year of some of the biggest race riots in U.S. history.
A similar convergence occurred during World War II in Detroit where auto workers wildcatted against the no-strike pledge but were also involved in major race riots taking place at the same time. (Once again, the triad of race, class and imperial expansion.)
Nevertheless it was the historical moment of the American internationalist faction of capital, which for decades had been preparing to replace the British empire as the pre-eminent world power. (This is the group which is still concentrated in the Council on Foreign Relations and which in the 1970’s spawned the infamous Trilateral Commission which came to power with Carter in 1976.) These people came from both finance and high-tech export industries, and it is remarkable to see how far-sighted they were both globally and domestically. From finance came Owen Young, who was deeply involved in framing the Versailles Treaty and who organized the financing of German recovery after World War I, up to the 1929 Young Plan; from industry came Young’s close associate General Electric executive Gerard Swope, who worked closely with Young and who was himself deeply involved in German politics through G.E.”s German counter-part AEG Telefunken. (Swope was also dazzled by his contacts with the German corporatist visionary and businessman Walter Rathenau, another theoretician of labor-capital harmony.) These figures are especially worthy of mention because they were, during the reactionary 1920’s, outspokenly in favor of industrial unions, a position resulting in abuse and red-baiting from most other major capitalists. They are also worthy of mention because Swope went on to draft the Swope Plan for recovery from the 1929 depression, much of which was incorporated into Roosevelt’s National Recovery Act (1935) and the Wagner Act, which legally opened the way for industrial unionism. During World War II, the CIO repaid these sponsors amply with the enforcement of the no-strike pledge.
It is here possible to bring together the strands of the above analysis. Roosevelt’s coalition, like Jackson’s before him, united Northern labor, Western farmers and Southern whites (the South was 100% Democratic from the end of the Civil War to the civil rights movement of the 1960’s; the Republicans were the “nigger party” of slave emancipation). The New Deal completed the shift of power from the states to the Federal government that had begun in earnest with the Civil War, and accelerated with the Progressives, but its reforms were designed to in no way interfere with the Jim Crow Southern Democratic planter oligarchy.
Most New Deal legislation was carefully written to exclude Southern states from its impact, so that the “welfare state” elements, along with the toleration of industrial unionism, were in fact a regional reformism. This set the stage for the crisis of the 1960’s, where the black movement, radicalized by the Vietnam War, destroyed the Democratic national coalition, just as the anti-slavery movement, taking off in the 1840’s and radicalized by the Mexican-American war, had destroyed the Jacksonian coalition. The creation of the statist apparatus of American world empire, including the full apparatus of normalized labor relations, prepared the U.S. to pick up the pieces of the coming Second World War. At the same time, the trends away from grassroots political participation continued uninterruptedly, through the full bureaucratization of the political parties (particularly the Democrats) and of the unions. The forces which had made possible the IWW were by 1937 supplanted by the CIO, much more successful in organizing industrial workers in the North but also junior partners in the state and in the nascent American world empire.
One might characterize the U.S. at the height of its world power in 1945 as a “liberal democratic welfare state” (while recalling that one pillar of the ruling coalition was the Dixiecrat Jim Crow South, to which none of those adjectives applied). This was, at any rate, the official ideology. It must also be recalled that from 1947 to 1955 this liberal democracy used McCarthyism to cripple the CIO and push the remaining element of labor radicalism that had helped build the CIO to the margins. It also became the bulwalk of the international status quo, supporting anti-communist dictatorships through the Third World.
Two currents, not unrelated to each other, ran counter to this status quo. The first was the black civil rights movement, which was growing throughout the war years and thereafter with the de-segregation of the U.S. armed forces (1948), the Supreme Court ruling on school segregation (1954), the intervention of the U.S. Army to support school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas; the sit-in movement after 1960 and the civil rights laws of 1964 and 1965 which effectively ended legal Jim Crow. It should not be forgotten that this movement was always supported by part of the establishment, first for foreign policy ends (the ideological competition with the Soviet Union in the Cold War), and secondly by a faction of Southern capital itself which realized that the automation of Southern agriculture and the decline of the black rural Southern economy needed to sweep away Jim Crow to create a more up-to-date urban consumer society. These forces basically ended the segregated South which had existed since 1877. Lyndon Johnson himself recognized that Democratic Party support for black civil rights would give the South to the Republicans for a generation, and the white population of the South has been Republican ever since. This by itself was an earthquake in American politics, because it meant the end of the Roosevelt coalition.
The second current was the wildcat movement in industry which evolved from 1955 to 1973. (CLR James has best captured its importance in his 1958 book Facing Reality.) It was the most important symptom of the underlying vulnerability of the “Fordist deal” in U.S. industry. By the 1960’s the wildcat current increasingly converged with the black movement in that hundreds of thousands of black workers were employed on Northern assembly lines. Its finest hour was in 1969 with the League of Black Revolutionary Workers in Detroit, challenging the racist practices of the UAW in the auto plants.
The arrangement which had taken shape from the 1890’s until 1945, and which ruled into the 1970’s, unraveled. To date, nothing has replaced it, because neither America’s international position or its domestic economy have room for any new “inclusive” settlement. Instead, there has been 30 years of stasis, drift, and “hollowing out”, but the Rooseveltian state, however weakened and however covered by a new ideology, is still in place.
With the onset of the world economic crisis in 1973, an epoch ended. It had already politically ended in 1968 when the white South voted for the Republican Nixon, but socially and economically the “Keynesian” “Fordist” model lasted into the 1970’s, not least in Nixon’s own policy. The true neo-liberal counter-offensive against the state built by the Progressives and the New Deal really took shape only in the late 1970’s, symbolized ultimately by the resumption of the Cold War after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and by the triumph of Ronald Reagan. In 1945, the force of the new arrangement was U.S. world hegemony and the beginning of a new prosperity at home; in 1980, the hard right made the connection between the failure of “New Deal” foreign policy and domestic economic stagnation.
In the neo-liberal counter-offensive, it was the “Madisonian” de-centralist ideology which returned in force after 50 years in the wilderness. Once again, it often reappeared in connection with the race question in a series of local initiatives against school busing to promote integration, against affirmative action, around prison construction (the U.S. now has 1% of its population in prison and 2% either on parole or awaiting trial), The very mediocre American welfare state (mediocre in international comparison) is dismantled and transformed into a workfare state with a barely concealed racist undercurrent, even though a majority of welfare recipients are in fact white. The whole thrust of contemporary ideology—one also largely accepted by the Democratic Party—(Clinton was the most right-wing Democratic president since the 1920’s)—is to blame the chaos of the 1960’s stemming from the Vietnam War and the black movement on the “permissive” ideology of New Deal liberalism. The crisis of the education system is blamed on “Washington bureaucrats” and the solution is more and more de-centralized power to schools, making it possible for wealthy communities to have high-quality public schools and for poor communities to have only social parking lots. De-centralization and localism in education made it possible for the state of Kansas to declare the teaching of Darwin illegal. On the level of comedy, the ideology of de-regulation resulted in the series of huge corporate bankruptcies and scandals of the past three years, massive accounting fraud, and the defrauding of investors in the stock market. The more sophisticated conservatives know that capitalism without regulation tends to destroy itself.
Meanwhile, the hollowing out of the political system continues. The Democratic Party today is a party of corporate lawyers. Forty years ago, it was still rooted in local urban political machines and in the unions. A similar gap has arisen between the business elite that controls the Republican Party and the small-town lower-middle class constituency that supports the Republican “cultural agenda” of a backlash against “permissiveness”, as on the abortion issue, or the separation of church and state. The entire official political system is mobilized with a “hard” Hobbesian edge against the “social”: the program is to close factories, close schools, close hospitals, build prisons.
Since September 11, all of the hollowing out processes have only accelerated. The Bush administration has been able to push through a huge arms build-up, a massive budget deficit (the Democrats now attack him in the name of a balanced budget!), serious rollback of the constitution in the Homeland Security Act, and a massive tax cut for the rich because there is no official opposition.