Howard Chandler Christy, ‘Signing of the constitution’, September 17 1787

One, two, three revolutions

Jack Conrad argues that democracy in the United States is corrupted and far from complete. The working class must finish what 1775 began

Writing in his well remunerated Daily Telegraph column, Boris Johnson protests that when the US president arrives in this country on April 22, he will “like some deus ex machina … pronounce” upon the forthcoming European Union referendum. Barack Obama, says the over-ambitious London major, will tell the British people “to do the right thing”.

Having expressed his love for America and belief in the American dream, Johnson bitterly complains that “our most important ally” will inform us “that it is in our interests to stay in the EU, no matter how flawed we may feel that organisation to be.” Without that, Britain will lose its “influence” in the “council of nations”. Johnson bangs on:

Never mind the loss of sovereignty; never mind the expense and the bureaucracy and the uncontrolled immigration. The American view is very clear. Whether in code or en clair [in plain language - JC], the president will tell us all that UK membership of the EU is right for Britain, right for Europe and right for America.

Predictably, not least given his leadership of the EU ‘out’ campaign, Johnson dismisses Obama’s “wholly fallacious” argument out of hand; moreover, he brands it “a piece of outrageous and exorbitant hypocrisy”, coming from an American. “There is,” after all, “no country in the world,” he declares, “that defends its own sovereignty with such hysterical vigilance as the United States of America. This is a nation born from its glorious refusal to accept overseas control.”1

However, as might be expected, two centuries ago, the birth pangs of the USA elicited a rather different response from the British establishment.

In 1775 George III denounced “the authors and promoters of this desperate conspiracy”, who had “laboured to inflame my people in America ... and to infuse into their minds a system of opinions repugnant to the true constitution of the colonies, and to their subordinate relation to Great Britain.”2 The king’s position was loyally endorsed by both houses of parliament. In the same grovelling spirit, Edward Gibbon - celebrated for his multi-volum history of the Roman empire - branded America as a nation founded in the “criminal enterprise” of rebellion.3 Samuel Johnston, the essayist and dictionary writer, was hired by the Tory government of Frederick North as an anti-American propagandist. His pamphlet, Taxation no tyranny (1775), was a response to the Declaration of rights agreed by the first Continental Congress, which famously damned “taxation without representation”.

Johnson stated that, by migrating to America, the colonists had “voluntarily resigned the power of voting”. Yet somehow they still had “virtual representation” in the British parliament. Mocking the Declaration of rights, Johnson said Americans had no more right to govern themselves than the Cornish. If the Americans wanted to participate in parliament, Johnson suggested that they move to England and purchase an estate. Inevitably, Johnson castigated English supporters of America as “traitors to this country”.4

Supposedly, our Johnson, the London mayor and would-be prime minister, unlike his 18th century namesake supports what was an epoch-making revolution. As shown by countless historical studies, tax boycotts led to riots, sacking the houses of rich people, the tarring and feathering of Tory loyalists, and finally an armed insurrection, which let fly the hopes and creative energies of the “lowest dregs of the people”.5

Of course, what Boris Johnson really admires is not the revolutionary origins of the United States, but its present-day position as the global hegemon. If he were ever to become prime minister, then like Harold Macmillan, Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron, he too would be a wholly dependable US satrap.


Needless to say, Marxists do genuinely admire the American revolution. Karl Marx declared that “the American war of independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class”.6 Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov presented the American revolution as a model for all colonised peoples:

The history of modern, civilised America opened with one of those great, really liberating, really revolutionary wars, of which there have been so few, compared to the vast number of wars of conquest, which, like the present imperialist war, were caused by squabbles among kings, landowners or capitalists over the division of usurped lands or ill-gotten gains. That was the war the American people waged against the British robbers, who oppressed America and held her in colonial slavery, in the same way as these ‘civilised’ bloodsuckers are still oppressing and holding in colonial slavery hundreds of millions of people in India, Egypt and all parts of the world.7

Nothing could be more mistaken than characterising the American revolution as “anti-feudal”.8 It was far more advanced that that. All 13 colonies were dominated by money relations, commodity production and the drive to realise a fat commercial profit.

While there was, at first, widespread use of indentured labour, this proved unsustainable. There followed a switch to importing black slaves on a mass scale. This unfree labour force was employed on the sugar, tobacco and cotton plantations. Whites, north and south, had to be paid high wages, and often they used their not inconsiderable savings to go west and establish themselves as small farmers. Needless to say though, the plantations were unmistakably capitalist operations and thoroughly integrated into the booming British import-export trade. Robin Blackburn describes Britain’s relationship with the plantation zone as one of “extended primitive accumulation”. The trans-Atlantic regime allowed “metropolitan accumulation” to “break out of its agrarian and national limits and discover an industrial and global destiny”.9

Though the 1775-83 war of independence was fundamentally a bourgeois anti-colonial revolution, there can be no denying the role of the masses. After all, the ground for the revolution was laid not just by elite resentment over British tax demands and an interest in mercantile free trade. Town meetings, regular gatherings of the Committees of Correspondence, Sons of Liberty and Sons of Neptune in taverns and coffee houses, etc moulded mass consciousness, as did the publication of radical papers and pamphlets, such as Tom Paine’s Common sense (it went through 25 print runs in 1776 alone). Hence popular opinion sought political democracy, religious toleration and a general levelling that would see an end to the distinction between the rich and poor.

So what became the United States of America emerged not only as a result of a hard-fought war of independence, conducted by a subject people against an imperial overlord. The USA came into history through a complex stand-off between mass forces seeking a radical democracy, on the one side, and, on the other, exploitative, upper class interests - not least as expressed in rival, state interests. As Herbert M Morais argues,

The first American revolution was the product of two general movements: the struggle for self-government and national independence, and the struggle amongst the American people themselves for a more democratic order. The revolution therefore had an external aspect, the colonial war of liberation against Britain; and an internal aspect, the mass upsurge against anti-democratic elements.10

Together the 13 American colonies fought as one against the Hanoverian crown. But despite securing a military victory, they could not agree even a customs union of the type that put together the loose, 1834 Zollverein unification of Germany. There was no single American foreign or domestic policy. The revolution severed the link with Great Britain and Ireland, but could not replace it with another unifying authority.

After the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October 1781 - continental and French armies forced a humiliating surrender of the British-Hessian regiments under the command of general Charles Cornwallis - unity began to fray. Smaller states jealously promoted their sovereign status. Congress was widely resented and each state began to go its own way. Customs barriers were erected and tensions mounted. Inter-state “bickering” was in danger of getting out of hand and “tearing the confederation apart”.11

The existing articles of confederation had to be rewritten. The promise to nationalise state debts accumulated during the revolutionary war, the mutual advantages offered by protection of nascent industries, and the prospect of lucrative trade deals with key European powers were all factors that encouraged the states to surrender vital elements of their sovereignty and accept the not inconsiderable burden to running a central governmental apparatus. Admittedly, the danger of war with France and restive native tribes were important factors in bringing about unity too.


But it was the threat from the ‘mobocracy’, more than anything else, that brought together the northern merchants and industrialists and the southern slavocracy in a keen realisation of the inadequacies of continuing with a loose confederation. Having fronted a popular revolution, the elite constitution-makers of 1787 were confronted with the problem of how to rein in the masses, and how to harness them behind one or the other exploitative system - free labour or unfree labour.

Mass agitation had already forced the outright abolition of slavery, first in Vermont and then Massachusetts. Other northern states gradually followed suit. In Virginia provisions were agreed which allowed for the private manumission of slaves. As a result the free blacks living along the Chesapeake estuary shot up from 6,000 in 1780 to 60,000 in 1810 (in all, one-third of all the free blacks in the United States). Then there was the 1786-87 Shays rebellion in Massachusetts. Leonard L Richards argues that it was responsible for “fundamentally altering the course of US history”.12

David Shays, a veteran of the revolutionary war, led a force of 4,000 armed men in the bid to overthrow the elite-dominated state government. The Shaysites were organised into regiments and were run by democratically elected committees. Though it was eventually trounced by the privately financed Massachusetts state militia under general Benjamin Lincoln, the Shays rebellion “served notice on the ruling classes of the precariousness of their position in face of the rising popular clamour”.13 Revealingly most of the rebels ended up being pardoned. Shays himself survived into old age, albeit an impoverished one.

Confronted by a white male population which had flintlocks in their hands and Common sense in their heads, the drafters of the US constitution had to tread a careful line. Hence the attempt to reconcile the interests of the northern capitalists and the southern planters, on the one hand, and on the other, gaining acceptance from the great mass of the people, whom they instinctively feared.

Indeed it is surely no exaggeration to say that the ruling principle that guided the 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention - all members of the elite - lay in keeping political power as far away as possible from the hands of the urban and rural masses. Their thinking can be gleaned from the federalist papers of 1787-88. Eg, Alexander Hamilton asserted that a “firm” union would be of the “utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the states, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection”.14 A classic ruling class formulation.

However, some kind of democracy was unavoidable - the people had been mobilised and were liable to act on their own behalf. Of course, the natural inclinations of those above were aristocratic and anti-democratic. So, the smaller the proportion of the people represented in congress the better. Black slaves, native Americans and women were therefore automatically excluded.

Ellen Meiksins Wood pointedly comments that the American model was Rome, not Athens; Cicero, not Pericles; not the rule of the demos, but SPQR, the “mixed constitution” of the senate and the Roman people; the populus with rights of citizenship, “but governed by an aristocracy”.15

The constitution that came into force in 1789 was a multi-layered compromise. A compromise between rival states; a compromise between the two systems of labour; and, no less fundamentally, a compromise between the aristocratic and democratic principles of government. Hence, the system of checks and balances against democracy. The state is headed by an indirectly elected monarch, who exercises enormous executive powers. True, the top office-holder is not addressed as “His Highness, the President of the United States, and Protector of their Liberties” (as proposed by John Adams, the second president).16 Nevertheless, the US president is the chief administrator and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Furthermore, the president appoints all secretaries of state (ministers) and members of the supreme court - who serve for life. The two houses of congress - the House of Representative and the Senate - exist to ratify presidential proposals. If, for one reason or another, presidents are met by stubborn refusal, they can veto congress and try again. Either way, popular initiatives and pressures from below can be constantly held back and frustrated - by either the presidency, the congress or the supreme court.

Democratic forces in America - including popular leaders, such as Mercy Otis Warren, James Warren and Eldridge Garry - experienced no trouble in recognising the constitution as a victory for the Tories (as the country’s right was then called). They, the radicals, opposed not the unity of states, but unity without liberty. In her Observations on the new constitution (1788), Mercy Otis Warren objected to the lack of democratic guarantees - no press freedom, no right of conscience, no right to trial by jury. In addition, she opposed any moves towards establishing a standing army - a “nursery of vice and the bane of liberty”. Moreover she objected to representatives setting their own salaries, and called for annual elections. The electoral college - which to this day actually elects the president - was branded an “aristocratic junta”.17

The radical left rallied around the demand for a Bill of Rights - which became for them a condition for the adoption of the constitution and was finally enshrined in the first 10 amendments. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison took the initiative here, so reconciling the radical left to the constitution. Not that these rights were realised in practice - the fight for them transferred to each separate state.

It is surely therefore one of those historical tragedies that the Committees of Correspondence, the Sons of Liberty, the Sons of Neptune, etc, which taken together constituted the American equivalent of the English Levellers and the French Enragés, failed to transform themselves into a programmatically coherent national party completely separate from the men of property.


Two great bourgeois parties emerged. Albeit through a disorderly course of splits and fusions, the pro-federalist and anti-federalist camps became the Federal Party and the Republican Party (officially the Democratic-Republican Party till 1828). Crudely put, the Federal Party - led by Alexander Hamilton - articulated the interests of the northern merchant class and the ever more powerful industrial capitalists. The Republican Party - under Thomas Jefferson - defended the south and the slave-based plantation system. After a bitter struggle within George Washington’s cabinet, the Federal Party triumphed. It took over the reins of government and embarked on a single-minded programme of primitive capitalist accumulation.

A national bank, common finances and a system of industrial protection against British competition were put in place. Tough restrictions were also imposed on land sales in the west. Labour-power had to be retained and kept as cheap as possible. Funding for the nationalised debts came from taxation - primarily on landowners and the rural masses (90% of the population). This programme stimulated overseas trade and allowed capitalist accumulation to take off. However, it provoked stiff opposition from the slavocracy. Wasteful and ecologically unsustainable plantation agriculture - tobacco, sugar but especially cotton - quickly exhausted the soil. Virgin land was therefore vital for the survival of the system. Yet the great plantation-owners found their ‘natural’ route to the west blocked by the Federal Party administration.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe and similar figures from amongst the slavocracy sought to rally the majority of the population behind them through an overlapping series of political and class alignments. Their main slogans concerned defending state rights and encouraging western expansion. The industrial bourgeoisie found popular support draining away. Increasingly isolated and desperate, it enacted the draconian Alien and Sedition Act, in order to scapegoat the democratic clubs founded in the wake of the French Revolution. There was much hysterical talk of “French gold” and outside subversives. But the tide was moving inexorably against the Federal Party. The slavocracy aligned the whole countryside to its programme. Doubtless that is why in the mid-1930s Earl Browder, general secretary of the ‘official’ Communist Party of the USA, attempted to claim Jefferson as a representative of “agrarian democracy”.18 He was, of course, no such thing.

Jefferson and his party captured both the presidency and congress in 1801. However, the Federal Party, in a pre-emptive move, stacked the courts - especially the supreme court - with their chosen men. Jefferson’s two administrations were characterised by a constant to-and-fro struggle with the judiciary. Under John Marshall, a leading Federalist, the supreme court tried to impose a judicial dictatorship. Marshall deliberately issued a loaded court decision, which declared that a particular piece of obscure legislation passed by congress was unconstitutional and therefore void. This highly controversial precedent was kept in reserve - they had no stomach for a popular explosion - till the notorious Dred Scott case in 1857 ... and then a revolutionary civil war was necessary to expunge that decision and its consequences.

Federalist minds turned to out-and-out treason. They plotted with Britain to halt western expansion. Plans were also discovered to hive off the newly acquired Louisiana Territory. Justice Marshall, presiding over the trial of the conspirators, ruled administration evidence out of order. He thus saved their necks.

Though the Federalist Party quickly collapsed, never to rise again under that name, none of the administrations that followed touched the foundations of American capitalism laid down over the years 1789-1800. Indeed Jefferson knew that the slavocracy had no long-term future - and he actually prohibited the importation of slaves in his second term as president.

The slavocracy willingly cemented an historic compromise with the northern industrialists and the small family farmers - it held fast till the constitutional crisis that led to the civil war of 1861-65.

America rapidly spread westwards through a series of mammoth purchases, violent land grabs and peaceful absorptions of frontier states - all at the expense of the native Indian tribes. Each successive enlargement benefited either the slavocracy or the small farmers. However, industry found itself more than compensated for the loss of eastern proletarians to the never ending lure of the west by the huge surge in demand for its commodities and the promotion of mass migration from Europe.

Second revolution

The civil war was America’s second revolution. National rights and union authority triumphed over state rights; the north over the south; the system of wage labour over slave labour. After the war the banking and industrial bourgeoisie stood alone as the sole ruling class in the US. The slavocracy and the southern secession were crushed, using the revolutionary methods favoured by the most extreme wing of democracy. Civil war excluded any middling course. Having taken up the struggle against the slave states, the northern bourgeoisie and their working class and rural allies were forced to resort to increasingly daring and far-reaching measures.

This was both predicted and urged by Marx. He thought that the south would initially prove militarily superior. Poor white adventurers provided a ready supply of manpower. But the north would eventually prove victorious. Not just because of its greater population numbers and industrial capacity. It had the possibility of transforming what began as a “constitutional” matter into a “revolutionary” war. Instead of exclusively focusing on the issue of secession, Lincoln had the “great radical remedy” of demanding for abolition of slavery and turning the black slaves into active agents of their own liberation. In other words, a “slave revolution”.19 Abraham Lincoln hesitated time and time again before announcing the abolition of slavery in the confederate states. This finally became the 13th constitutional amendment in 1865.

However, the northern bourgeoisie became increasingly frightened by the results of the second revolution. Most Republican leaders - the Republican Party was formed in 1854 out of the remnants of the Federal Party - were unenthusiastic about freeing the slaves. And after the Confederacy had been defeated, they feared that the poor - especially the doubly oppressed black population - would push democracy way beyond the limits imposed on it by the interests of property. Black soldiers in the union army kept their rifles and the freed slaves organised action committees and defence squads. There was a series of splits in the Republican Party.

What had been a military dictatorship over the south, with the support of the poor and black masses, gave way in 1876 to a squalid deal between the managers of the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. Rutherford B Hayes was allowed to become president in return for the restoration of white supremacy in the south. Most Democrat hierarchs in the north opposed the confederate secession and therefore did nothing to oppose Lincoln’s military conduct of the war; but they objected to the freeing of slaves let alone giving them any kind of equality. Military government in the south officially came to an end in 1877 - and so began the era of Jim Crow and de jure racial segregation that endured till 1965.

No choice

As Bernie Sanders has argued, it is abundantly clear that, whether the Republicans or the Democrats hold the presidency or have a majority in the congress, it is the plutocracy which wields real power in the United States. Typically elections are about money and buying politicians from either persuasion. Meanwhile the gulf separating rich from poor has never been greater. And blacks remain the poorest of the poor.

A choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be no choice at all. Of course, if Sanders ran as an independent socialist, that would be another matter entirely. Such a presidential campaign might have little or no chance of success, but it could provide the raw material for the formation of a mass socialist party in the US. A historic opportunity.

Sanders says he wants a “political revolution”.20 Brilliant. That opens up a mass audience for our ideas. We communists envisage a third, worker’s revolution in America. What the patriots of 1775-82 began only the working class can complete.

Towards that end the working class must arm itself with a programme for a root-and-branch overhaul of the 1787 constitution. As is their “inalienable right”, the American people should as a matter of elementary self-interest abolish the monarchical presidency. It is an oppressive system of government. The senate and life-long appointments to the supreme court must likewise be abolished and “new guards” put in place, which will secure the wellbeing and happiness of the people. All judges must be elected and subject to instant recall. A single chamber of congress, elected annually, which has full legislative and executive powers, should be established. Congress delegates, or representatives, should get their democratic mandate from an equal constituency basis. The democratic case against the standing armed forces - grown to the point of hypertrophy since World War II - is surely unanswerable. A system of popular militias must once again be initiated.

Technically none of these demands in and of themselves go beyond the limits of capital as a system. However, they do, taken together, provide the necessary salient from which the battle for democracy can be fought and won. Then the rule of the majority can be realised - not merely in form, but in substance. That is a truth we communists hold to be self-evident.


1. The Daily Telegraph March 16 2016.

2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Revolutionary_War.

3. http://foreignpolicy.com/2012/07/03/how-did-the-british-press-cover-the-american-revolution.

4. www.samueljohnson.com/tnt.html.

5. B Bailyn The ideological origins of the American revolution Cambridge (Mass) 1992, p284n.

6. K Marx Capital Vol 1, London 1970, p9.

7. VI Lenin CW Vol 28, Moscow 1977, p61.

8. The argument of the International Marxist Tendency’s John Peterson - see www.marxist.com/class-struggle-and-the-american-revolution.htm.

9. R Blackburn The making of new world slavery London 1997, p515.

10. HM Morais The struggle for American freedom New York 1944, pp248-49.

11. H Brogan The Penguin history of the USA London 1999, p193.

12. LL Richards Shays’s rebellion; quoted in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shays%27_Rebellion.

13. H Frankel, ‘How the constitution was written’, in G Novack America’s revolutionary heritage New York 1993, p128.

14. J Maddison, A Hamilton, J Jay The Federalist London 2000, p36.

15. E Meiksins Wood Democracy against capitalism Cambridge 1999, p225.

16. G Healy The cult of the presidency Washington DC, p16.

17. Quoted by D Feeley, ‘Mercy Otis Warren - mother of the American revolution’, in G Novack America’s revolutionary heritage New York 1993, p111.

18. E Browder The people’s front London 1938, p255.

19. K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 41, London 1985, p277.

20. https://berniesanders.com/?nosplash=true.