essay will appear in the
October Issues of The Progressive)
came a rare amusing moment in this election campaign when George Bush (who has
$220 million dollars for his campaign) accused Al Gore (who has only $170
million dollars) of appealing to ‘class warfare’. It recalled the 1988 election campaign
when Bush’s father (is this a genetic disorder?) accused candidate Michael
Dukakis of instigating class antagonism.
noticed that neither of the accused responded with a defiant "Yes, we have
classes in this country." Only Ralph Nader has dared to suggest that this
country is divided among the rich, the poor, and the nervous in between. This
kind of talk is unpardonably rude, and would be enough to bar him from the
have learned that we mustn’t talk of class divisions in this country. It upsets
our political leaders. We must believe that we are one family – me and Exxon,
you and Microsoft, the children of the CEOs and the children of the janitors.
Our interests are the same – that’s why we speak of going to war "for the
national interest" as if it was in all our interest; why we maintain an
enormous military budget for "national security," as if our nuclear
weapons strengthen the security of all and not the securities of some.
why our culture is soaked in the idea of patriotism, which is piped into our
consciousness from the first grade, where we begin every day by reciting the
Pledge of Allegiance "…one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice
for all". I remember stumbling over that big word "indivisible"
— with good reason, although I didn’t know the reason, being quite politically
backward at the age of six. Only later did I begin to understand that our
nation, from the start, has been divided by class, race, national origin, has
been beset by fierce conflicts, yes, class conflicts, all through our history.
culture labors strenuously to keep that out of the history books, to maintain
the idea of a monolithic, noble "us" against a shadowy but
unmistakably evil "them." It starts with the story of the American
Revolution, and, as the recent movie THE PATRIOT tells us once more,
(kindergarten history, put on screen for millions of viewers), we were united in
glorious struggle against British rule. The mythology surrounding the Founding
Fathers is based on the idea that we Americans were indeed one family, and that
our founding document, the Constitution, represented all our interests, as
declared proudly by the opening words of its preamble – "We, the people of
the United States…."
may therefore seem surly for us to report that the American Revolution was not a
war waged by a united population. The hundred and fifty years leading up to the
Revolution were filled with conflict, yes, class conflict — servants and slaves
against their masters, tenants against landlords, poor people in the cities
rioting for food and flour against profiteering merchants, mutinies of sailors
against their captains. Thus, when the Revolutionary War began, some colonists
saw the war as one of liberation, but many others saw it as the substitution of
one set of rulers for another. As for black slaves and Indians, there was little
to choose between the British and the Americans.
class conflict inside the Revolution came dramatically alive with mutinies in
George Washington’s army. In 1781, after enduring five years of war (casualties
in the Revolution exceeded, in proportion to population, American casualties in
World War II), over a thousand soldiers in the Pennsylvania line at Morristown,
New Jersey, mostly foreign-born, from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, mutinied. They
had seen their officers paid handsomely, fed and clothed well, while the
privates and sergeants were fed slop, marched in rags without shoes, paid in
virtually worthless Continental currency or not paid at all for months. They
were abused, beaten, whipped by their officers for the smallest breach of
deepest grievance was that they wanted out of the war, claiming their terms of
enlistment had expired, and they were kept in the army by force. They were aware
that in the spring of 1780 eleven deserters of the Connecticut line in
Morristown were sentenced to death but at the last minute the received a
reprieve, except for one of them, who had forged discharges for a hundred men.
He was hanged.
Washington, facing by this time, 1700 mutineers – a substantial part of his army
— assembled at Princeton, New Jersey, decided to make concessions. Many of the
rebels were allowed to leave the army, and Washington asked the governors of the
various states for money to deal with the grievances of the soldiers. The
Pennsylvania line quieted down.
when another mutiny broke out in the New Jersey line, involving only a few
hundred, Washington ordered harsh measures. He saw the possibility of "this
dangerous spirit" spreading. Two of "the most atrocious
offenders" were court-martialed on the spot, sentenced to be shot, and
their fellow mutineers, some of them weeping as they did so, carried out the
Howard Fast’s novel, THE PROUD AND THE FREE, he tells the story of the mutinies,
drawing from the classic historical account by Carl Van Doren, MUTINY IN
JANUARY. Fast dramatizes the class conflict inside the Revolutionary Army, as
one of his characters, the mutinous soldier Jack Maloney, recalls the words of
Thomas Paine and the promise of freedom and says yes, he is willing to die for
that freedom, but "not for that craven Congress in Philadelphia, not for
the fine Pennsylvania ladies in their silks and satins, not for the property of
every dirty lord and fat patroon in New Jersey."
the war for Independence was won, class conflict continued in the new nation, as
the Founding Fathers fashioned a Constitution that would enable a strong federal
government to suppress any rebellion by their unruly children. The new
government would serve the interests of slaveholders, merchants, manufacturers,
land speculators, while offering white males with some property a degree of
influence, but not dominance, in the political process.
history of the next two hundred years was a history of control of the nation by
one class, as the government, solidly in the hands of the rich, gave huge gifts
of the nation’s resources to the railroad magnates, the manufacturers, the
shipowners. Charles Beard, in the first years of the Great Depression, wrote
caustically about "The Myth of Rugged Individualism", noting that
industrial and financial leaders were not rugged enough to make their own way in
the world, and had to be subsidized, and silver-spoon fed, by the government.
the ruling class (I’ve tried to avoid that old-fashioned radical expression, but
it expresses a simple, strong truth) faced resistance, as they did all through
the 19th and 20th centuries, by slaves, working people, farmers, and especially
by the indigenous people of the continent, they called upon the government to
use its armies and its courts to put down the ingrates.
leaders, then and now, would become especially annoyed when someone dared to
suggest that we live in a class society, dominated by the moneyed interests.
Thus, when Eugene Debs, opposing World War I, told an assembly in Ohio that
"the master class has always brought a war, and the subject class has
always fought the battle", this could not be tolerated. He was sentenced to
ten years in prison, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the spirit of patriotic
liberalism, affirmed the sentence for a unanimous Supreme Court.
the slightest suggestion that we are a nation divided by class brings angry
reactions. All Gore had to do was to talk ominously about "big money"
(while pocketing huge amounts of it for his campaign) for Bush to become
indignant. Surely he need not worry. Gore and Lieberman represent no threat to
the rule of the super-rich. The New York Times hastened to reassure Bush. A
front-page story in August was headlined "As a Senator, Lieberman is
Proudly Pro-Business", and went on to give the comforting details: that the
Silicon Valley high tech industry loves Lieberman, that the military-industrial
complex of Connecticut was grateful to him for making sure they got $7.5
billions in contracts for the Sea Wolf submarine.
unity of both major parties around class issues (despite rhetoric and posturing
by the Democrats to win the support of organized labor) becomes most clear when
you see the total disaffection from politics of people at the bottom of the
economic ladder. A New York Times reporter, in a rare excursion into "the
other America", spoke to people in Cross City, Florida about the election,
and concluded: "People here look at Al Gore and George W. Bush and see two
men born to the country club, men whose family histories jingle with silver
spoons. They appear, to people here, just the same."
Lamb, cashier at a Chevron filling station, wife of a construction worker, told
him: "I don’t think they think about people like us,and if they do care,
they’re not going to do anything for us. Maybe if they had ever lived in a two
bedroom trailer, it would be different." An African-American woman, a
manager at McDonald’s, who made slightly more than the minimum wage of $5.15 an
hour, said, about Bush and Gore:I don’t even pay attention to those two, and all
my friends say the same. My life won’t change."
election will be over and whether Gore or Bush is in the White House, the same
class that has always dominated our political and economic systems will be in
power. Whoever is President, we will face the same challenge the day after the
voting: how to bring together the class of have-nots — a great majority of the
country — into the kind of social movement that in the past has made the people
in charge tremble at the prospect of "class warfare" and has gained
some measure of justice.
a movement, responding to the great challenges of the new century, could bring