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revolutionary paramnesia

December 11, 2013

I was watching a video called “Myths of the Founding Fathers” the other day and it struck me as kind of ironic how many people, whether liberal, conservative, or otherwise, scoff at the mention of Marx or socialism while at the same time having nothing but praise and reverence for the Founding Fathers and the American Revolution. Don’t they realize that the Founding Fathers are themselves guilty of that dreaded Marxist ‘e’ word, expropriation?

For example, in chapter 32 of Capital, Marx, writing about the historical tendency of capitalist accumulation, describes the logic process whereby the “the expropriators are expropriated” due to the “monopoly of capital” becoming a “fetter upon the mode of production” and leading to a point where the “centralization of the means of production and socialization of labour” becomes incompatible with their capitalist integument, sounding “the knell of capitalist private property.” At the very mention of the expropriators being expropriated, however, such people tend to vociferously object and sing the praises of our fair republic, invoking the sanctity of private property rights and condemning expropriation as theft.

But if you think about it, the Founding Fathers and their selective respect for property rights did just that—they expropriated the private property of Britain despite the enormous amount of capital put into establishing, supporting, and managing colonial settlements by Britain and companies like the London and Bristol Company, Hudson’s Bay Company, etc. The only real difference between the two is that the American Revolution was a relatively conservative, bourgeois revolution of wealthy, ruling-class elites that itself feared a revolution of the propertyless, labouring class, whereas what Marx was talking about is a revolution of labour over capital.

While many colonists remained loyal to Britain or else remained neutral during the conflict, it can’t be denied that a large portion also supported declaring independence from Britain because they felt they had more interests in common with the American revolutionaries and the Enlightenment ideals that fueled, or at the very least justified, their fight for independence. “Sure, you’re property interests are our interests, plus we love liberty and hate taxation without representation too!” But this isn’t all that surprising considering that the ruling class, owning to their control over the means of material and mental production, utilize these in such a way as to promote their own ideas and interests, or as Marx puts it in The German Ideology, “the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

So our country was founded up various forms of expropriation, from the expropriation of Native American land to that of the private property of Britain. And in the process, we merely exchanged one capitalist ruling class for another. One could argue, then, that the revolution itself is in a sense incomplete, which reminds me of an interesting article I read a while back connecting the political emancipation realized via the American Revolution, and the ‘neo-Roman’ republicanism associated with the Enlightenment ideals of the Founding Fathers underlying it, to the logically consistent extension of those emancipatory ideals and actions into the economic sphere, suggesting that true independence won’t be won until we’re liberated from the structural and personal forms of dependence that characterize wage-labour under capitalism.

At the very least, I think this look at how segments of the American working class extended these emancipatory ideals and actions into the economic sphere offers present-day socialists, etc. in the US an interesting rhetorical basis from which to argue that both the philosophical and political foundation of US republicanism, championed by conservatives and liberals, are actually more potentially revolutionary than they’re willing to admit, limiting the concept of freedom to one small area of civil society. That “To demand that ‘there is to be a people in industry, as in government’ [is] simply to argue that the cooperative commonwealth [is] nothing more than the culmination and completion of the American Revolution’s republican aspirations.”

In other words, the revolution isn’t won yet!


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