Every revolution finds itself confronting the question of identity. How is a people to define themselves after having changed the old and started to build something new? Who are we, and what is it we are building?
This is a question revolutionary socialists grapple with over how the society that is today known as the United States of America might be reconstituted. Can it still be the United States, or must it be something totally distinct? We cannot build anything out of thin air. In history, all things are a process.
There are evolutions and revolutions in that process, but everything is grounded in the conditions of a particular society. That is, all changes have roots in the ground, and must use these roots as leverage. Forgetting this is a recipe for failure, for an inability to accurately assess a situation and successfully alter it in accordance with a feasible plan is to doom oneself.
A Brief Explanation of Socialism
First, however, we should review how the foundations for socialism are already set by our existing capitalist system.
Capitalism has established a society where the production of things has for the first time taken a truly social nature. By this, I mean that the extension of market links to all of society has made everyone dependent on everyone, and made laborers in one place cooperate indirectly with laborers in another. What people consume in their daily lives comes from this all-encompassing market, and what they do for a living is linked to it as well. This social nature of the system comes into tension with the fact that this system of all-round dependency is privately owned and managed. The surpluses produced beyond people’s consumption are controlled by a private interest: capitalists, or the bourgeoisie, who own the means of production.
Because the market is privately controlled, yet all-encompassing, the inability of these private interests to cohesively and cooperatively manage the economy leads to a chaotic economic system characterized by crises. Capitalists need to endlessly expand their capital, re-investing their profits back into production and expanding its scale, no matter what. Otherwise, they destroy their capital and lose in the system of competition. As a result, they produce far beyond consumption needs, leading to economic instability.
And finally, capitalists necessarily depend on a class of laborers who they can hire for a wage, that is, proletarians. Proletarians sell their commodified labor, or labor-power, because they have no other means of feeding themselves except by working for the money they use to buy necessities. This is not how things have been throughout history. In fact, for most of history, people have either shared the fruit of their labor communally, as in many tribes, or they have produced their necessities directly, with the surplus beyond their needs being taken as tribute by the ruling classes.
The key thing capitalism depends on is that the people who produce things with their labor cannot produce their necessities on their own. Therefore, they must disconnect people from open access to the land. If they have access to fertile land and can feed themselves, they have no need to sell their labor. Thus, capitalists must throw people off the land and destroy whatever means they create to avoid being dependent on capitalists hiring them. That is, they establish a monopoly over the means of production, the things used to produce what society uses.
What capitalists do at the same time that they create proletarians is create their own demise. Proletarians are mobile, work and live side by side with other proletarians, are linked up to the market, and are not tied down by property. The interests of proletarians and bourgeoisie are directly at odds: If proletarians wish to improve their livelihood, they do so at the expense of the bourgeoisie, and vice versa for capitalists who wish to increase their profits.
Further, the proletariat being linked to the system of all-round interdependence and their nature as a class means they can only revolutionize their condition of being dependent on capitalists by revolutionizing all of society. That is, they can only overthrow their exploiters by changing all of society, since the bourgeoisie has made all of society part of its market. Where the capitalists once threw the people off their land in the name of capitalist property, the workers throw the capitalists off of their property, the means of production, in the name of society. Where capitalism makes production truly social, socialism makes the management and use of the surplus from that production something that society controls.
These conditions exist in the United States, but how would we define the socialist society to be established? Would we have the same identity we have now, considering ourselves Americans, or would it be different? We have to consider the history of the United States, and American identity, to answer this.
A Short History of Americanism
Unlike other capitalist countries, such as England, Germany, and France, the United States as the United States did not build on a history native to the soil it established itself on. Rather, it was an extension of English historical legacy. Where the English had a history of communal societies and social forms in England itself which capitalism had overthrown, such as in the Enclosures, the communal societies of North America were alien to the capitalist society established on its soil.
The communal societies that capitalism attacked in North America were those of Indigenous peoples. They were by and large not forced into labor by those who threw them off the land like the English peasants were. Rather, their fate was more like that of the Irish. The Anglo settlers pursued genocide against them, hoping to take their homelands for themselves, largely to be distributed into large and small commercial properties.
The poor, landless people produced by the destruction of communal properties by capitalists in England were pushed toward the outlet of settler-colonialism in North America. That is, they became auxiliaries in the war against communal societies, with their reward being the opportunity to share in the spoils and become small commercial proprietors, petit-bourgeoisie, themselves. Although many came to North America as indentured debt servants, they had dangled before them the real or illusory promise of social mobility into the petit-bourgeoisie.
After the interracial Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, the 1705 Virginia slave codes were passed, in the same motion defining a common legal status for Euro-Americans as white and a common legal status of Africans as destined for chattel slavery and chattel slavery alone.¹ The hard racialization of the class system, where white people were ideologically considered to be petit-bourgeois upward and had opportunities to become so, while Africans were excluded from the mainstream of Anglo-America entirely, would have consequences which bleed deeply even today.
In the long and short of it, the United States was a country established on a bourgeois basis. It had no continuity with the Indigenous communal societies of North America, it hoped to destroy them as threatening to the regime of capitalist private property and the individualism of the modern market. Indigenous peoples were either to be exterminated or they were to be assimilated, their assimilation taking the form of shedding their communal habits and identities and becoming imitations of Anglo-Americans. To be an American was to take on an individualist bourgeois, or capitalist, identity.
The new identity of Anglo-American settlers as rugged individualists, independent pioneers who had carved out the so-called “wilderness” of North America contributed to a growing tension with England. The racialized political identity, which both excluded Africans and Natives and depended on their oppression for its foundations, would grow into one with a radical wing demanding separatism from England. The class of settler merchants, land speculators, and prospective small proprietors were in tension with the Crown, which had tried to limit settler expansion beyond the Appalachians with the Proclamation of 1763.²
The Crown favored a more stable form of colonialism, mediating between settlers and Indigenous peoples, with some factions considering gradual abolition of chattel slavery. The settlers, and especially the capitalists among them, were starving for land. The masses wished to see the promises of small property fulfilled, and the capitalists hoped to make a profit off of this. At the same time, they had developed an identity as a people more befit of liberal, capitalist style freedom than the English. The fuse was lit.
The 1775–1783 War of Independence was the result of this. Many African slaves sided with the British, hoping to cash in on Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation which offered freedom for any slave who fought on his side.³ Indigenous peoples were split along lines corresponding to their relations with settlers.⁴ Peoples directly in the line of fire of the settlers, such as the Mohawks, sided with the Loyalists. Those who did not yet find them an existential threat, like the Oneida, sided with the Patriots. The War was, however, ultimately fought for interests which would pursue the total destruction of Indigenous communal life and property in the name of capitalist property, and the liberty of slave masters to exploit their slaves as they pleased.
With the Patriot victory, the new American Republic began to carve out a white supremacist petit-bourgeois and bourgeois democracy. Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson established a long-standing tradition of a mass democracy among Anglo small proprietors. Jefferson advocated for an agrarian republic of petit-bourgeoisie called yeomen, recognizing that the industrialization which England was undergoing bred the class struggles of workers and industrial capitalists.
From Notes on the State of Virginia:
“While we have land to labour then, let us never wish to see our citizens occupied at a work-bench, or twirling a distaff. Carpenters, masons, smiths, are wanting in husbandry: but, for the general operations of manufacture, let our workshops remain in Europe. It is better to carry provisions and materials to work-men there, than bring them to the provisions and materials, and with them their manners and principles. The loss by the transportation of commodities across the Atlantic will be made up in happiness and permanence of government. The mobs of great cities add just so much to the support of pure government, as sores do to the strength of the human body. It is the manners and spirit of a people which preserve a republic in vigour. A degeneracy in these is a canker which soon eats to the heart of its laws and constitution.”⁵
Jefferson believed that African slaves represented a similar internal danger to such industrial proletarians. He was terrified by the 1791–1804 Haitian Revolution, where African slaves violently overthrew their French masters and established a revolutionary republic. Jefferson himself owned slaves, and likely felt great terror that he would meet a similar fate to the slave-masters of what was once San Domingo. With this fear burned into his mind, he advocated that Africans eventually be removed from North America entirely and settled elsewhere.⁶ He led a short-lived effort to export slaves to the West African colony of Liberia.⁷
Both Jefferson and Jackson had a specific understanding of American identity. In theory and practice, Africans and Indigenous peoples were excluded from the American project. America was essentially a master-race democracy of small to large capitalists. In their eyes, the development of a proletariat bred a class of dependent people, something which threatened democracy. They believed that only independent people could thrive in a democratic culture, and they saw only white people as racially capable, and specifically white proprietors.
The freedom of these citizens was to be freedom at the expense of unfreedom for others, with Jefferson advocating that America become a so-called Empire of Liberty. The freedom-unfreedom dialectic would be spread beyond the shores of North America as the United States became a modern capitalist empire in the late 1800s. Americanist white supremacist property ideology beats as the heart of American identity, although it faced a major challenge in the question of race and citizenship in the form of the Civil War. The Civil War represents a key step in the question of identity.
What is the Relationship of Liberation to Americanism?
Among the earliest emancipatory movements within the United States was the abolitionist movement against slavery. Abolitionists varied in terms of what they believed ought to be the speed of abolition or the fate of the freemen ought to be, whether citizens, second-class citizens, or expelled from North America. The radical abolitionists, however, were the most principled, demanding immediate abolition of slavery and the equality of Black people.
While it used the rhetoric of Americanist values like freedom, the right to determine one’s own life, and anti-elitism, abolitionism was fundamentally a critique of Americanism. The United States had founded itself on a fundamentally unequal basis, and Americanist freedom was freedom bought for citizens at the expense of non-citizens. The abolitionists pointed this out, and shamed the hypocrisy, the contradiction, of Americanism. In a July 5, 1852 speech, the freedman and abolitionist Frederick Douglass famously declared:
“What to the American slave is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham, your boasted Liberty, an unholy license, your national greatness, swelling vanity. Your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless, your shouts of Liberty and equality, hallow mocked, your prayers and hymns your sermons and Thanksgivings with all your religious parade in solemnity are to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, a thin veil to cover up crimes, which would disgrace a nation of savages.”⁸
William Lloyd Garrison, another famous abolitionist and collaborator with Douglass, echoed his scathing indictment. In fact, Garrison burned the United States Constitution, condemning it as a compact made with slave holders in the name of a freedom limited to only a part of the population of the US.⁹ Garrison and other radical abolitionists demanded that America hold up to its ideals in a universal manner rather than that of the master-race democracy. They wielded its ideals against it.
Abolitionism, although it was fundamentally a critique of Americanism in practice, would be institutionalized briefly in the course of the 1861–1865 American Civil War. Initially, the war was not fought for abolition, but, as W.E.B. Du Bois argues in Black Reconstruction in America, the revolutionary initiative of the slaves and abolitionists forced the war from a war against secession into a war of abolition. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass threw their full weight behind strongly patriotic rhetoric, believing that the war was an opportunity to fulfill a universal democratic project. After the war was concluded, chattel slavery was officially abolished, birthright citizenship was established for all, and voting rights were extended to all male citizens.
The post-War period of 1865 to 1877 came to be known as Reconstruction, and characterized itself as a flourishing of democracy in for United States citizens, albeit colored with life and death struggles. Freemen were almost entirely working class, and their internment into the voting population led to a significant tilt toward progressive, social politics in many states.¹⁰ The extension of voting rights did not only benefit former slaves, it also benefitted white workers as well. Both used their votes to demand social rights along with legal rights, putting pressure on capitalists.
As W.E.B. Du Bois recounts in the aforementioned book, Reconstruction was a brief experiment in radical democracy. It was, however, defeated by the counter-revolution of the bourgeoisie, who were panicked by radical working class politics finding a political channel. Jim Crow, Grandfather Laws, poll taxes, and the criminalization of poverty served to destroy the gains of Reconstruction and kill the project of what Du Bois described as a radical abolition-democracy.¹¹ Douglass found himself dejected, turning his eyes toward Europe for the promise of emancipatory democracy, believing that Americanism had failed to build one.
Reconstruction, although it was a highly emancipatory project, itself had its own contradictions with freedom and unfreedom. The Republic of the Reconstruction period depended significantly on genocidal war in the Great Plains against the Lakotas and other Indigenous peoples to keep the citizenry bound together in a common identity.¹² That is, the freedom-unfreedom dialectic simply shifted its weight more heavily toward settler-colonial struggle on borderlands. This contradiction found its way into the radical democratic strains of the United States, with the project of assimilating Indigenous peoples being one initially taken up by progressives.
Indigenous peoples remained distinct from the United States, but they now occupied positions as essentially internal colonies. In legal terms, they were considered domestic dependent nations. The project of termination and assimilation in the late 19th and early 20th century worked to destroy the communal relations and customs which marked them as distinct nations and served as means of resistance to capitalist thirst for expansion, but it ultimately failed.
With the American acculturation the assimilation project gave them, Indigenous activists developed a voice as critics of Americanism. Early organizations like the Society of American Indians, formed in 1911 and dissolved in 1923, appealed to rights of Native peoples as American citizens and treated Indigenous identity as essentially cultural and religious.¹³ The National Congress of American Indians, founded in 1944, advocated for a status of Indigenous peoples as citizens of their own nations and citizens of the United States.¹⁴ It took a more sharply critical stance toward the US, but still positioned itself as a stream critical of Americanism within Americanism. Finally, the National Indian Youth Council, founded in 1961 by radicals who broke from the NCAI, demanded the rights of Natives as distinct, sovereign, and separate nations from the US, arguing the US owed restitution for the crime of genocide.¹⁵ The NIYC’s radical rhetoric set the tone for a new era of Indigenous activism which continues to today.
The final counter-current of United States history we will outline is the radical labor movement. The Knights of Labor, founded in 1869 and the Industrial Workers of the World, founded in 1905, were two early radical organizations which organized workers regardless of their race or gender.¹⁷ They advocated a form of democratic politics which pushed forward the social question of the working classes, with most members having as their project the establishment of a socialist democracy run by the workers.
Each, however, were flawed in their fundamental inability to synthesize distinct political interests. They approached issues of racism by advocating colorblindness, and approached gender similarly. This did not square with the reality that there were distinctions within the working class along race and gender lines which needed to be addressed as such. Further, their scopes were limited to the industrial working classes, with domestic workers, paupers, and rural people (such as Indigenous peoples) being difficult to incorporate into their organizational structure. Their refusal to participate in political processes in particular limited their avenues. With the victory of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the establishment of the first socialist state in history, the IWW declined as members gravitated toward a new political approach.
The Communist Party of the United States of America and the Congress of Industrial Organizations continued along their legacy, while also innovating their approach. They toiled to incorporate all social questions into their organization, in particular that of the Black working class.¹⁸ Unlike their predecessors, they addressed race in an active rather than passive way, believing that acknowledging and addressing distinctions in the working class was the first step to establishing a stronger unity. The California CPUSA even began to establish links with Indigenous activists like Archie Phinney and D’arcy McNickle in the 1930s, who used the Popular Front as a vehicle for advocating for Indigenous sovereignty.¹⁹
The CPUSA in its golden age famously used the rhetoric of Americanism. This was in particular pushed for by Earl Browder, who was responsible for their slogan of “Communism is the Americanism of the 20th Century.”²⁰ Although they used patriotic rhetoric, they still fundamentally positioned themselves as a counter-current element, strongly criticizing the racial oppression and color line, the exploitation of the working class, and the growing elitism of American politics as big capitalists and bankers consolidated their hold over society through the dissolution of the petit-bourgeoisie during the Great Depression. They demanded a universal democracy along the radical lines of revolutionary socialism.
Although their patriotic stand was in part an integral strategy to their understanding of socialist organizing, it was also not as core as is often presented. Importantly, it was a means of combatting the reputation of communist politics as essentially foreign in nature. Presenting themselves as the inheritors of President Abraham Lincoln and the abolitionist movement, the CPUSA linked themselves to the history of emancipatory movements in the US. Though they draped themselves in the banner of the American flag, they remained part of a history of emancipatory movements being critical counter-currents to Americanism rather than in the main current of it.
Although the era of McCarthyism in the 1950s devastated emancipatory movements as a whole, it did not kill them. The CPUSA continued its work in the Civil Rights movement, and other radical movements began to grow as a political force in the 1960s. Drawing on the firebrand rhetoric and analyses of the Black liberation activist Malcolm X, Indigenous activist Clyde Warrior, and Chicano activist Reies Lopez Tijerina, the new generation of radicals pushed harder on the critique of Americanism than the CPUSA.
Organizations like the Black Panther Party, American Indian Movement, Young Lords, Brown Berets, and later the New Communist Movement would heighten attacks on the colonial and imperial nature of the United States, in particular in the face of the brutal Vietnam War. All communists and radicals alike, however, found themselves as part of a broad counter-current which demanded a truly universal political order and damned the elitism, exploitation, and hypocrisy of Americanism in practice. Though their proximities to Americanism as an identity varied, and some used the tool of American values to critique America, their essential nature was as a mass-based critical revolutionary culture.
This brings us to the root of the relation between liberation and Americanism. Though emancipatory movements at various times have used Americanist rhetoric, it is not central to their essences. Instead, their fundamental nature has been criticism of Americanism. They position themselves not as part of the main current, but as counter-currents. Their main aim is for a truly universal political order where all are free, where no one is free at the expense of the other. Whether they consider Americanism to be a vehicle for this has varied movement to movement, and varied by the climate each movement has found itself in. Americanism is ultimately not a core, indispensable condition for a unified, revolutionary identity. Rather, values associated with Americanism like freedom, populism, and universalism have been the spine of radical politics in the US Empire.
Revolutionary Socialism and a Universal Identity
A revolutionary socialist movement must consider how it can unify people into a universal identity. To crush many diverse peoples into one, homogenous identity is a fool’s errand. The proletariat, because it is international and draws from many peoples and decayed classes, is as cosmopolitan, as diverse as any group gets. The question is rather how to establish an overarching identity to unite many identities.
Some socialists argue that Americanism is already fit for the task. For them, patriotism is the quickest means of uniting working class Americans across the color line and linking socialism up with their existing values. As others have argued, however, this purely American patriotic approach itself depends on reproducing American liberalism’s history of real and rhetorical attacks on Indigenous sovereignty and Black liberation. It is true that Black liberationists have a long history of demanding their goals on the basis of a universalization of American values, but this fails to reconcile with the question of Indigenous rights to sovereignty and freedom from settler-colonial destruction. We do not want to reproduce the contradiction of Reconstruction wherein unity across the Black-White color line is hewed out through colonialism, soiling the prospect of a socialist internationalism.
I have demonstrated that United States emancipatory politics have historically been more counter-currents to Americanism than anything. It is true that absolute negativity and pessimism toward US history leaves our movement without roots to grab onto, as merely a subculture unable to connect with masses who find such politics alien and unfamiliar. Just because we need not be excessively destructive and pessimistic does not, however, mean we must tail Americanist tendencies in the working class. Why do our roots in the history, society, and consciousness of the US need to be based in Americanism? Demanding the promises of Americanism be realized in practice is not the only model for mass emancipatory politics in this country’s history. Why not take as our root model the abolitionist movement, which positioned itself first and foremost as a critique of the freedom-unfreedom dialectic at the center of the American project?
It is true that it is deeply important to root ourselves in the discourses of the society we are in. Revolutionary socialism is on the one hand an international project, and on the other, one which must be rooted in local conditions and history. This does not mean, however, only one model is viable for this. In the wake of the summer 2020 uprisings against the police oppression of Black people, the dialectic of freedom-unfreedom and the blood-soaked history of Americanism are once again important facets of national discourse. Rather than marry ourselves to Americanism, we should be pragmatic, committed first and foremost to a project which is universal, emancipatory, and consistently revolutionary.
How the identity of the socialist society to be established in the future would be defined is not set in stone. It is something we must discover in the course of mass revolutionary development. Today, America is a multinational empire. It encompasses many peoples, but on an oppressive basis. The society of the future must turn this multinational character and place it on an emancipatory basis, where nations and nationalities have sovereign rights as such and plurinationalism is key to the universal identity.
Socialism is true universalism, unlike the exclusionary character of liberalism. It must be something which establishes the liberation of all by abolishing the oppression of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Socialism in what is today the United States must root itself in the history of Indigenous defense of communalism, interracial resistance to slavery and racial oppression, and the radical movements of the working classes in order to build a new unity.