Origins of the U.S. Two-Party System

A few months ago, I watched an Internet video that explored the attitudes of Americans toward present-day Germany. Germany has a history of at least a thousand years, going back to the medieval Holy Roman Empire. However, movies and TV shows Americans are exposed to focus only on Nazi Germany. Indeed, the popular U.S. entertainment media focus even more narrowly on the years 1944-1945, when heroic American soldiers defeated German Nazis alternatively shown as evil, comic or stupid.

This particular video showed a modern young German woman visiting the U.S. and meeting a young man. The American man, whose education in German history is of the type described above, asked the German woman whether her grandfather had been a Nazi. The German woman put the young man in his place by asking whether his ancestors had been slave owners. And herein lies a tale.

Today in Germany, with the exception of neo-Nazis, nobody honors the Nazis. There are no Adolf Hitler Platz’s and no cities or buildings named for Hitler or other Nazi leaders. Herman Goering’s prediction to his jailers at Nuremberg that in 50 years there would be statues of Hitler throughout Germany did not come true.

Perhaps textbooks in modern Germany don’t explore the deeper roots of what made the Nazis and their crimes possible. That would require an understanding of the imperialism that gave birth to the Nazis and the capitalism that inevitably developed into imperialism. And since Germany remains a capitalist as well as an imperialist country—all of Germany has been ruled by capitalists since 1989—it is unlikely that German textbooks would explain the contradictions of capitalism that made Nazism possible in the first place. But at least the Nazis are pictured as the band of criminals they were.

But what about the U.S. slaveholders and their “slaveholders’ rebellion” of 1861-1865, as it was called by Karl Marx? That rebellion—which formed the Confederate States of America—is pretty much viewed around the world as at least the moral equivalent of the Third Reich. Not identical to the Third Reich but no less evil.

It is not only left-of-center progressives who see it that way. Today’s fascists also see it that way. At fascist meetings throughout the world, the swastika, or symbols that look like the swastika, are displayed side by side with the stripes and bars of the Confederacy, the flag of slavery.

Are the leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion in U.S. textbooks described as the band of criminals they were, like the Nazis are pictured in German textbooks? Not at all. The leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion are generally pictured as honorable leaders of a “lost cause”—and as great American patriots—though the emphasis has shifted over the years reflecting the flows and ebbs of the struggle for African American liberation.

For example, in the years immediately after the war ended, it was called the “war of the rebellion.” But soon after, it was renamed the Civil War, a polite and neutral term that makes no distinction between those who fought and in many cases died in the war against the slaveholders’ rebellion and those who fought on the side of the slave owners. (1)

Patriots or traitors?

Incredibly, the leaders of the Confederacy are pictured in U.S. textbooks as great U.S. patriots. When traitors in U.S. history are discussed, the names mentioned are Benedict Arnold, the patriot general in the U.S. War of Independence who shifted to the British side, and then the Rosenbergs, the young Communist couple accused of giving “the secret of the atomic bomb” to the Soviet Union. For this “crime,” the Rosenburgs were executed in the electric chair in 1953 on charges of spying for the USSR.

It occurs to none of the official “historians” of the U.S. that by far the worst traitors in U.S. history were not Benedict Arnold, still less the Rosenbergs, but the leaders of the “southern Confederacy.” With the encouragement and support of Great Britain—then the most powerful country in the world and the most dangerous potential enemy of the U.S.—these men, they were all men, organized an insurrection that cost the lives of more than 700,000 people before it was finally put down.

This is an incredible figure for a war fought before the 20th century. The world of the 1860s was a world without air power, tanks, gas or atomic bombs. (2) The casualties, even when not adjusted for population, were considerably greater for the U.S. than World War II, the second bloodiest war in U.S. history.

According to official statistics, deaths in combat in WWII came to 291,557, plus 113,842 non-combat deaths, for a total of 405,399. Unlike the war of the slaveholders’ rebellion, World War II was not fought on U.S. soil and there were virtually no civilian death’s among Americans. More than 150 years after the guns fell silent in April 1865, the war of the slaveholders’ rebellion remains a war without parallel in U.S. history.

And what was the “great cause” that prompted the leaders of the rebellion to embark on their treasonous insurrection against the United States? It was the defense of African chattel slavery—their legal right to hold kidnapped Africans and their descendants as their private property.

What a contrast with the Rosenburgs! I am not interested in getting into the issue of whether the Rosenburgs actually gave the “secret of the atomic bomb” to the Soviet Union, though the basic secret, embodied in Einstein’s famous equation that equates energy with mass times the speed of light in a vacuum squared, was already known to every scientifically literate person.

What is true is that no evidence has ever come to light that the Soviet Union ever attempted to destroy the United States. The reverse cannot be said, since the U.S. did everything it could both during and before the “Cold War” to bring the Soviet Union down. Unfortunately, with the traitorous assistance of Gorbachev and Yeltsin (3)—who can in crucial ways be considered the late 20th-century Soviet equivalents of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee—they finally succeeded.

As Communists, the Rosenburgs were trying to liberate within their political understanding the wage slaves of the United States and the rest of the world, which is what made them criminals in the eyes of the U.S. government and the capitalist class it represents. What a contrast with the leaders of the Confederacy, who were certainly not interested in liberating any workers but instead fought to defend African chattel slavery, even if it tore the United States to pieces and allowed the main enemy of the U.S. at the time, Great Britain, to pick up the pieces!

Did the honoring of the arch-criminals behind the slaveholders’ rebellion finally end with the Civil Rights era? Not at all. Here are some examples of the honoring of leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion in the era after the Civil Rights and Black Power era of 1954-1970.

In 1975, Robert E. Lee, the leading general who violated his oath of loyalty to the United States by joining the rebellion to defend chattel slavery, had his citizenship restored by a resolution of the U.S. Senate. This purely symbolic restoration of citizenship—General Lee will not be able to take advantage of his restored citizenship by voting for Donald Trump in this year’s presidential election—was a slap in the face of every African American and every person in the world who deplores the slavery and the extreme racism that General Lee stood for.

Then, in 1978, the Senate did it again, and restored the citizenship of Jefferson Davis, the “president” of the Confederacy. President Carter hailed this as the last act of reconciliation of the Civil War. Imagine if the chancellor of Germany described a resolution by the German Bundestag posthumously honoring Adolf Hitler as the last act of reconciliation of World War II! Countless hundreds of millions of Russians, Ukrainians and Poles, not to speak of Jews—and this would be just the start of the list—would see things quite differently! Of course, this has not happened and hopefully never will.

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, the long-overdue demand that the flag of slavery—which until recently flew over the capitol of South Carolina—and statues honoring leaders of the Confederacy be removed has finally been raised. Following student demands, University of Texas President Gregory Fenves was forced to announce that he was removing a statue of Jefferson Davis from the university and relocating it to the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History museum.

This is, of course, not enough. The statue should either be melted down and used for scrap—or if is a work of artistic value, which I doubt—it should be displayed along with works of similar artistic value like busts of Adolf Hitler and other surviving artifacts of the Third Reich.

Equally, all textbooks that present the slaveholders’ rebellion as anything but what it was—a rebellion to preserve slavery that cost the lives of more than 700,000 Americans—be replaced by textbooks that tell the truth about the rebellion and the role of its leaders. In addition, there should be a campaign to replace the term “U.S. Civil War” with its correct title—”the war of the slaveholders’ rebellion,” or the “war of the rebellion” for short.

No doubt, this would be upsetting to many poor white people in the South, who have been told their entire lives that the fight of the “rebels” during the “war between the states”—as it is called by the reactionaries in the South—is something they should be proud of. In reality, none of today’s poor southern whites, or their parents or grandparents, for that matter, had anything to do with starting and supporting the rebellion. Nor did the leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion in any way represent the interests of the poor southern white people alive at the time.

That does not mean that there are no southerners who should be honored for their roles during the war of the slaveholders’ rebellion. On the contrary. First among these are leaders of slaves—they were also southerners—who rebelled against their kidnappers both before the war of the rebellion and then during it. The slaves who rebelled against their “owners” during the war not only played a crucial role in ending chattel slavery. They also gave direct aid to the Union forces fighting to put the rebellion down. In addition, the names of poor whites who did not own slaves and resisted the rebel slaveholders should be made known and honored in place of the Confederate leaders who disgracefully are still honored throughout the South.

This would not be a rewriting of history. It would be presenting the historical truth for the first time in place of the falsified version that generations of Americans have been taught, both in the South and North. Poor whites—especially the new generation—should learn that the Robert E. Lee’s and Jefferson Davis’s were not the leaders of the poor southern white people rebelling against the “tyranny of the North.” What they really were, without exception, were rich white men who owned slaves and put their desire to maintain their private property in human beings above their “love of country.”

Unfortunately, in doing this the leaders of the rebellion deceived through racism—just like the leaders of the Third Reich did—many poor whites—though not all—into fighting to defend the slaveholders’ right to private property in human beings. They also appealed to “love of country,” just as the imperialists do today.

However, in order to appeal to “love of country,” the slave-owning rebels had to invent the country to love for the occasion. And we should ask ourselves whether the current crop of U.S. leaders, who also push “love of country”—not only Donald Trump but Hillary Clinton, John Kasick, Senator Ted Cruz, and even Bernie Sanders (4)—will they not also put the defense of private property and the right of the capitalists to exploit wage workers above all else?

The origins of the United States

What was to become the United States began as a group of white colonies founded by members of English nationality. From the very beginning in the 17th century, the white settlers carried out a policy of genocide against the Native American people. This was part of a broader genocide associated with European settlement of the Americas by Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and English settlers, who wiped out the great majority of the native population that lived in what is today called the Americas. This genocide was associated with what Karl Marx called, ironically, the “rosy dawn” of capitalism.

In both absolute numbers and the percentage of the population wiped out, the genocide of the native peoples of the Americas dwarfs Hitler’s 20th-century genocide of the European Jews. However, the genocide that occurred in the Americas unfolded over a much longer period, extending from the end of the 15th century, when Columbus “discovered” the Americas, through the 19th century, and has not entirely ceased even today.

A recent Australian study found that none of the 84 mitochondrial lineages found in pre-Columbian human remains in Latin America have been found in any known living person. This implies that the great majority of the population of the Americas at the time of Columbus, estimated at between 50 and 100 million, were wiped out. And we know that in many parts of what was to become Latin America, the native population survived at a far higher rate than it did in the regions of North America that were to become the United States.

Because the white English settlers considered the natives peoples poor material for slavery, they either killed them—the Spanish and Portuguese settlers farther south were more likely to enslave them—or drove them ever westward. Today, there are very few if any “pure-blooded” native people left in the eastern U.S., though some do survive in the western U.S.

In order to deal with the chronic labor shortage, the English settlers turned to forced slave labor of kidnapped African people. In the northern United States, a class of mostly white wage laborers gradually developed, and African slavery declined. Still, in the North, African slavery remained legal into the early 19th century well after the war of independence against the British was won. However, in contrast with the North, where slaves were largely used as household servants, in the South the development of large-scale plantation agriculture caused slavery to sink deep roots in the process of production.

The origins of modern slavery

The widespread chattel slavery that had dominated the ancient European civilizations of Greece and Rome had largely disappeared by the time of the downfall of the western Roman Empire in the fifth century. Why then did slavery reappear in the modern era—defined by historians as the period between the 16th century to the present day? Isn’t history supposed to pass progressively through primary communism, slavery, serfdom and finally the wage labor of capitalism on the way to socialism and eventual full communism? To understand what happened, we have to probe the origins of the capitalist system itself.

Capitalist production is highly developed commodity production where labor power itself becomes a commodity. Capitalist exploitation of wage labor to produce commodities remained very much the exception until what historians call the “commercial revolution” of the 16th century. The commercial revolution—the birth of the world market—was marked by a rapid expansion of the quantity of money material—gold and silver bullion—due to the discovery and exploitation of rich gold and silver deposits in the Americas.

The development of the world market from the 16th century onward meant that small-scale commodity production based on individual or guild production, such as existed in Europe during the Middle Ages, was no longer adequate to meet the ever-increasing demand for commodities. Scattered small-scale commodity production had to give way to large-scale production. Two large-scale modes of commodity production emerged.

One these, based on a “modern” form of chattel slavery, was large-scale plantation agriculture. This mode of agricultural production was possible, however, only in areas with tropical and subtropical climates, which extend into the southern U.S. The other large-scale mode of production was based on wage-labor capitalist production. Between the victory of the American War of Independence over Britain in 1783 and the start of the slaveholders’ rebellion in 1861, U.S. politics revolved around the question of African slavery, deeply rooted in the plantation mode of large-scale agricultural production that dominated the southern U.S.

Origins of the two-party system

The two-party system, as opposed to a one-party or multi-party system, first arose in Great Britain. (5) After the English revolution of the 17th century, the large landowners—the only people who had a vote in Britain before the 19th century—divided into two political parties. One was the Whigs—later the Liberal Party—which was enthusiastic about the transition to capitalist production. The Whigs favored policies to accelerate the developing capitalist system.

The Tories—later the Conservatives—wanted to conserve as many elements of the old feudal system as possible within the framework of the new (capitalist) society. The differences between these two political parties were merely a matter of emphasis. The Tories didn’t really want to return to feudalism, nor did the Whigs ever challenge the system of titled nobles, the House of Lords, or the monarchy—all so dear to the Tories. Therefore, the secondary differences that did arise between the two political parties could easily be contained within the parliamentary system and constitutional monarchy without new civil wars and revolutions.

The U.S. also developed a two-party system shortly after the United States won its independence from Great Britain. (6) But the two-party system in the United States had roots in the two exploitative modes of production that dominated the young country. These modes of production were not only exploitative but expansionary. And their spread meant genocide for the native peoples who stood in the way.

One of these modes of production was based on the labor of enslaved Africans, while the second was based on the labor of a mostly white wage workers—though there were some free African wage laborers as well.

There was also a third mode of production, based on family farms, which was less exploitative insomuch as the family farmers worked with means of production including land—stolen from the Native Americans—that they individually owned. This mode of production was also expansionary as the poorer white settlers took advantage of the stolen cheap land to set up their own family farms and escape from wage labor.

The family farmers insomuch as they did not exploit the labor of other people or did so to a limited extent were not as rich as the capitalists who based themselves on wage labor, or the plantation owners who exploited slave labor. As a result, the farmers had little political power of their own. In politics, they were forced to follow either the exploiters of wage labor mostly performed by white workers or the exploiters of slave labor performed by kidnapped Africans or their descendants.

The big difference between the British two-party system and the U.S. two-party system was that unlike in Britain the conflict between the two U.S. parties could not be contained within the political system that emerged out of the constitutional convention held in Philadelphia 1787 that wrote the U.S. Constitution.

The men who attended the constitutional convention, known in the U.S. as the “founding fathers,” included the representatives of capitalists who exploited wage labor and the planters who exploited African slave labor. The family farmers, who formed the bulk of the U.S. population, were not represented.

The system of checks and balances that is the dominant principle of the U.S. Constitution makes even ordinary social reforms extremely difficult to win. This system was not primarily designed by the “founding fathers” to prevent the rise of a personal tyranny, contrary to what is generally taught in U.S. schools. At most, that was a secondary concern.

Rather, the system was designed to reassure the slave owners that their right to own enslaved Africans as private property would be guaranteed by any future government that might be dominated by industrial capitalists who exploited wage labor rather than chattel slaves. This “great compromise” between the two exploiting U.S. ruling classes worked for awhile but ultimately failed. The compromise of 1787 was to end in the the bloodbath of the slaveholders’ rebellion of 1861-1865 out of which the modern U.S. was to emerge.

Evolution of the two-party system before the slaveholders’ rebellion

In the U.S., the Federalist Party, whose most far-sighted leader was Alexander Hamilton (1755 or 1757-1804) (7), represented the industrial capitalists who were gradually developing out of the merchant bourgeoisie. The other party—originally called the “anti-Federalists”—then the Democratic-Republican Party but generally called the Republican Party, whose most noted leader was Thomas Jefferson, represented at its core the interest of the slaveholders.

Each party tried to expand what we today would call its “mass base” by appealing to the white family farmers. Jefferson’s Republicans were more successful at this than were Hamilton’s Federalists. Why was this?

Hamilton foresaw and strongly supported policies to accelerate the development of an industrial United States. The role of the United States in the world capitalist economy that Hamilton wanted was very different than the one Jefferson desired. Hamilton advocated a strong central government headed by a powerful president. Indeed, Hamilton wanted the U.S. president to serve for life much like the British king. He really wanted to see a unitary state without the individual U.S. “states.” In this, Hamilton was far ahead of his time.

However, of all the “founding fathers” Hamilton was most opposed to giving any voice in government to “the people.” Government, Hamilton held, should be the exclusive preserve of “the rich and well born.” That meant that the only people having a role in politics should the wealthy capitalists and planters. The “people”—mostly family farmers at that time—should, in the Hamiltonian vision, have no voice at all.

Why did Hamilton support such undemocratic policies? Here, too, Hamilton was looking ahead. In the future, if his hopes for an industrial United States were realized, “the people” would be converted into industrial proletarians who, unlike the farmers, owned no productive private property except their ability to work—labor power. Hamilton was well aware that such a class would have no stake in private property at all and was a deadly threat to the wealthy, no matter what mode of exploitation they based themselves on.

Jefferson, who like Hamilton was extremely intelligent, was also well aware of the danger that an industrial proletariat held for wealthy men like himself and his friends. Jefferson’s “solution” for the problem that the industrial proletariat represented for the rich, however, was very different than Hamilton’s. It was very much in line with the interests of the class that Jefferson represented, the slave-owning planters.

For their part, the Jeffersonian Republicans were able to present themselves as the leaders of the agrarian interests—as opposed to the wealthy financial and industrial interests represented by the Federalists—winning the support of the free white farmers of the South, and to a considerable extent of the North as well. The Republicans were also successful in winning various factions of the merchant and banking capitalists of the North who dealt in commodities produced by slave labor, or extended credit to the slave owners or the merchants who dealt with commodities produced by slave labor. The slave owners had many friends on Wall Street and during the war of the slave owners’ rebellion, New York City, though it is geographically located in the northern United States, actually leaned toward the slave-owning rebels. (8)

The Jeffersonian Republicans favored an international division of labor in the U.S. in which its agricultural commodities produced both by slave labor and the labor of independent farmers would be exchanged for industrial commodities produced in Britain by wage labor. The Republicans were for “free trade” and opposed protective tariffs to encourage the development of native U.S. industry. As they saw it, this merely increased the prices of the non-agricultural commodities that the slave owners and the white family farmers who generally followed their lead consumed.

The Republicans also opposed “internal improvements”—such as subsidization of the development of canals, and later railways—designed to accelerate the development of U.S. industrial capitalism. The Republicans feared that this would concentrate political power in Washington that they sensed would sooner or later fall under the domination of the industrial capitalists. Instead, they wanted to keep the lion’s share of state power in the state capitals, which in the South were solidly under the thumb of the slave owners. This is the origin of the “state’s rights” that the right-wing politicians—especially in the U.S. South—still champion today.

The slave owners and white farmers who followed them didn’t want to pay for internal improvements that they didn’t see benefiting their own economic interests. Why, the Republicans asked, do we need to develop industrial capitalism in the United States at all when we can exchange our agricultural commodities like cotton produced with the labor of our African slaves for perfectly good cheap British industrial commodities. And why would we want to encourage the development of a dangerous class of industrial proletarians who own no property and have no stake in private property here in America? Let the British worry about that dangerous class and keep those dangerous industrial workers far away from our shores.

Finally, the Jeffersonian Republicans were opposed to the creation of a modern centralized banknote currency issued by a strong central bank modeled on the Bank of England. This would strengthen, they realized, centralizing tendencies of the federal government, which as slave-owning champions of “state’s rights” they opposed. Instead, the Republicans were satisfied with a system of gold and silver coins, combined with token coins made of base metals for small-scale transactions. Banknotes should be issued only by commercial banks backed by their own credit—or at most the credit of the individual states—not the credit of the entire nation as in modern monetary systems.

From the Jeffersonian Republicans to the Jacksonian Democrats

As the suffrage was expanded in the 1830s to white men who owned little or no property, the Jeffersonian Republicans morphed into the Democratic Party. The most prominent leader of the Democrats was Andrew Jackson (1767-1824), the seventh president of the United States, whose portrait appears on the U.S. $20 bill. Jackson was not only personally a slaveholder and defender of the interests of the slaveholders but notorious for his vicious wars against the Native American people. Among the great “achievements” of his presidency was the “Indian Removal Act” of 1830.

The core of the Democrats’ program was the same reactionary program as the Jeffersonian Republicans, but with these differences. The Jacksonian Democrats were far more aggressive in their defense of chattel slavery than Jefferson’s Republicans had been. The invention of the cotton gin made African slavery extremely profitable for the slaveholders. As a result, the slave owners became far more aggressive in their defense of slavery.

In Jefferson’s day, the slaveholders sometimes admitted that slavery was an evil that should eventually, if very gradually, disappear. The Jacksonian Democrats increasingly argued that slavery was a positive good and superior to capitalist wage slavery. Chattel slavery should, the Jacksonian Democrats argued, therefore last forever.

By the time of Jackson, an industrial working class, contrary to Jefferson’s hopes, was taking shape in the northern industrial states. White working-class males were winning the right to vote for the first time. While the Jeffersonian Republicans had hardly hid their fear and hatred of the class of wage laborers, the Jacksonian Democrats claimed to champion the white wage laborers. This championing of the rights of the white working class by the slave owners was to have long-term disastrous effects on the political development—or rather lack of it —of the U.S. working class.

In appealing to the working class, the Jacksonian Democrats argued that as long as African Americans remained chattel slaves, they would not compete with the white sellers of labor power on the—mostly northern—labor markets. Unlike the wage workers—or proletarians—who have one commodity to sell, their ability to work, or labor power—the slaves themselves were in their own persons commodities. Throwing a slave onto the slave market, often breaking up the slave’s family, was up to the slave owner, not the slave.

Therefore, when Democrats appealed to the white wage workers of the North they argued that as long as African slaves remained slaves they would be in no position to compete with free white labor. But if the slaves were freed, they would be transformed into sellers of labor (power) who would then be free to enter the labor market and compete with white labor.

The result would be, the Democrats argued, a fall in the wages and living condition of the white workers toward those to which Black slaves were accustomed. Therefore, the Jacksonian Democrats argued, the white workers of the North had a vital interest in maintaining African slavery. The Jacksonians pictured the abolitionists who demanded the end of legal chattel slavery in the U.S. as mere tools of the northern industrial capitalist exploiters of white wage labor and therefore the most dangerous enemies of the white working class.

Jacksonian Democrats—the real reactionaries of their time

The U.S. Democratic Party in the 1830s appeared if you were white to be a party of the extreme left, to use the “left-right” terminology that has its origins in the Great French Revolution of the 18th century. But on the issue that counted, the Jacksonian Democrats were a party of the extreme right. Even the Russian Empire, by far the most reactionary empire in Europe at that time, based itself on serfdom, not chattel slavery. While the Russian serfs—the great bulk of the people who lived in the czar’s empire—had few rights, they still had more rights than enslaved kidnapped Africans and their descendants in the U.S.

The evolution of the U.S. two-party system before the slaveholders’ rebellion

The Federalist Party disappeared after the War of 1812. It was replaced by the Whig Party, a party that attempted to reach a compromise between the exploiters of free wage labor and slave labor. In the 1850s, this party of compromise collapsed. The end of the Whig Party reflected the collision that occurred between the expanding plantation mode of production and the expanding mode of production represented by the white farmers. The collision occurred in what was to become the state of Kansas, where in the 1850s it it took the form of an all-out war. (9)

The Whig Party was replaced by the Republican Party, which is the direct ancestor of today’s Republican Party. Though the new party called itself the Republican Party, its program was far closer to Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists Party than it was to Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party. The central plank of the new Republican Party was opposition to any further expansion of the slave system where it did not already exist. Its most prominent leader was Abraham Lincoln, by profession a lawyer for railroad corporations. Lincoln, a former Whig, was like Alexander Hamilton a champion of the development of industrial capitalism.

Lincoln was elected to the U.S. presidency in the constitutionally mandated election of 1860. Unlike Hamilton, who believed that the common people should have no voice in the government, the new Republican Party was obliged to advocate for democracy—which meant at that time that any white male of legal age who was a U.S. citizen and who had not been convicted as a felony had the right to vote.

Lincoln was, however, strongly opposed to the abolitionist movement, which he saw as a violation of the right to private property and the rule of law, which protected all forms of private property. (10) Though Lincoln disliked slavery, he was willing to accept it where it existed. But Lincoln, who represented the political center of the new Republican Party, stubbornly refused to compromise on the Republicans’ opposition to the expansion of slavery where it did not already exist.

In the sphere of economics, the new Republicans upheld Hamilton’s basic program. Unlike the old Jeffersonian Republicans, Lincoln’s “neo-Hamiltonian” Republicans advocated protective tariffs to accelerate the development of U.S. industrial capitalism, “internal improvements,” and a modern banknote currency system where the banknotes would be backed by the credit of the entire nation. Like Hamilton, the new Republicans advocated a strong centralized government. In Lincoln’s view, the power of the state should be centralized in Washington and not the state capitals. Lincoln pointed out that there was nothing in the U.S. Constitution that gave states the right to secede from the union.

The difference between slave labor and wage labor

What is the main difference between chattel slavery and wage slavery? The conventional answer—based on vulgar bourgeois political economy—is that
the labor of the wage worker is fully paid, while the slave performs only unpaid labor for the master. This is false on both counts.

Karl Marx explained that though it appears that wage workers are paid for their entire labor, this is an illusion. In reality, wage workers work part of the day reproducing the value of their labor power and the rest of the day free of charge for the capitalists and their hangers on. Under the capitalist system of free wage labor, the unpaid portion of the workers’ labor produces what Marx called surplus value, which takes the form of profit when the commodities produced by the wage workers are sold for money on the market.

Under the slave system that prevailed in the U.S. South, the slaves did not sell their labor power. The slaves themselves were commodities that could be bought and sold on the slave market. Did this mean that all the slaves’ labor was unpaid labor that produced surplus value? Not at all! If the boss—the slave owner—paid the slave nothing, providing no food, shelter or clothing whatsoever, the slave would soon die. The slave owner would lose a very important part of his capital! Therefore, a part of the slaves’ labor was paid just like a part of the labor of the free wage worker is paid. Since the U.S. slave system was a form of commodity production that was intertwined with the world capitalist system—the unpaid labor of the slave also took the form of surplus value embodied in commodities that when sold took the form of profit.

How were the slaves paid if they were in the eyes of the law the private property of the master? The payment of slaves for a part of their labor took various forms under the system of plantation commodity slavery. Sometimes slaves were actually paid a small money wage. The slave owner had to provide a cabin and some basic food, clothing—no matter how wretched—and water to keep their precious fixed human capital alive.

Another way a portion of the slaves’ labor was paid was that slaves would be allotted a small amount of land to grow crops in order to keep themselves alive and raise children, somewhat in the manner the serfs were allotted land in medieval Europe. The labor the slave expended on these allotments was “paid” labor, because the slave owned and consumed the produce that resulted.

Therefore, contrary to what bourgeois historians claim, the difference between wage labor and slave labor was not that the slave performed “unpaid labor” while the labor performed by wage workers was “paid labor.” Does this mean that there was essentially no difference between the chattel slavery that prevailed on the southern plantations and the wage slavery of the “free workers”? While some present-day “super-radicals” might make such arguments, this was certainly not the view of the U.S. slaves who lived through the end of southern slavery! And they were right!

The real difference between chattel and wage slavery is that the wage workers own and sell a commodity—their ability to work, or labor power—and can even withdraw their labor power from the labor market—for example, during a strike—in collaboration with their fellow workers.

Slaves, who have the legal status of their bosses’ private property, can never legally organize in any way. They face the prospect of execution at the hands of the slaveholders directly or their state authority if they do attempt to organize. Therefore, any attempts by slaves to organize had to be strictly underground and was extremely dangerous. Despite these dangers, there were many slave insurrections in the old South and a successful revolution against slavery in Haiti—the only successful anti-slavery revolution carried out by the slaves themselves in history. So slaves did sometimes organize themselves.

In the old South, enslaved Africans lived in a police state far worse than German workers faced under the Nazi regime. The U.S. Bill of Rights, as interpreted by Thomas Jefferson and other U.S. slave owners, would have never allowed a political party of African slaves to organize, form trade unions, conduct strikes, publish newspapers and otherwise legally agitate—enjoy freedom of speech, which is often associated Jefferson’s name by bourgeois historians—and run and vote in elections on a program of abolishing slavery!

While the abolition of legal chattel slavery that was finally won after the defeat of the slaveholders’ rebellion did not end, and could not end, the exploitation of the direct producers by a class of exploiters—that can only be ended by a socialist revolution—it did create an absolutely necessary precondition for such a struggle.

The coming of the slaveholders’ rebellion

As a result of the war/crisis in Kansas, the Democratic Party split and Lincoln was able to win with only a minority of the white male vote—the only people at the time allowed to vote in U.S. elections. The leaders of the slave owners—including Jefferson Davis, Judah Benjamin, Alexander Stephens and Robert E. Lee—responded to Lincoln’s election by launching the slaveholders’ rebellion.

While this war is usually represented as a war between the U.S. North and South, it was actually a class war between those who supported chattel African slavery and those who supported the free wage labor system, also known as wage slavery or industrial capitalism. Many in the North supported the southern slave owners, not least of all those on Wall Street who dealt in commodities produced by slave labor or lent money to the sellers of those commodities. In addition, to the merchant and banking capitalists whose economic interests were interlocked with the slave owners, there were many misled white workers who were afraid of competition from liberated slaves for “low end” jobs.

On the other hand, virtually all southern—as well as northern—African Americans supported the union forces. In addition, many poor white southern farmers who did not own slaves supported the struggle against the slave owners. It was therefore not so much a war between the North and South as a war between two class camps.

At the core of the class camps were the industrial capitalists who exploited wage labor, on one side, and the slave owners, who exploited African slave labor, on the other. Marx and Engels, the German revolutionaries who were then living in exile in England, and all class-conscious workers strongly supported the class camp that was struggling against the slave owners. This camp was headed by the Republican administration of Abraham Lincoln.

This is not because Marx and Engels and the class-conscious workers of the time believed that Lincoln was conducting a struggle for socialism. It was because the class-conscious workers knew that without the complete destruction of African slavery a serious struggle against wage slavery in the U.S. would be impossible. As part of their struggle against slavery, Marx and Engels helped organize pro-U.S. demonstrations that played an important role in preventing British intervention in the war on the side of the slaveholders.

Lincoln and the struggle against slavery

Lincoln, representing the political center of the new Republican Party, disliked slavery and wanted it to die out. But he also shared the racist views towards African Americans that were dominant within the U.S. white nation. Lincoln did not believe that African Americans could or should be integrated into the U.S. white nation. If they were, the U.S. would no longer be a white nation, something that was unthinkable to Lincoln.

Instead, the new president favored the removal of African Americans from the United States and their colonization somewhere in Latin America or Africa. In this respect, Lincoln’s views actually conflicted with the needs of the labor-hungry U.S. capitalist class that Lincoln championed. Since Lincoln’s racist colonization program represented the interests of no class, though it did represent the racist ideas of many white people of the time, it came to nothing.

Lincoln, as we saw, was opposed to the abolitionists. His attitude toward them can be compared to the attitude of the “democratic socialists” of the 20th century toward communism. The democratic socialists wanted a socialist society without exploitation. But they insisted that socialism had to come about “democratically” without revolutionary violence and dictatorship; rather, it must be achieved within the existing political and legal system. Lincoln, a corporate lawyer by profession, was trained to see the right to private property as the most basic of all human rights.

In Lincoln’s view, private property in African slaves, however abhorrent, was sanctified by the founding fathers, the Constitution, and the law of the land. Lincoln venerated the founding fathers, the law, and the Constitution above all else. As the slaveholders’ rebellion unfolded, Lincoln explained that the war was not about slavery but rather the preservation of the union. In Lincoln’s interpretation, the Constitution gave the states many rights, including the right to maintain existing slave systems if they wished. But the Constitution did not include a clause allowing a state to secede from the Union. That was what the war was all about, Lincoln insisted, and not about the abolition of chattel slavery.

This made it possible for British supporters of the slave owners’ rebellion to argue that of course we are against slavery but slavery is not the issue. Doesn’t Lincoln himself explain that it is all about opposing the rights of the southern states to self-determination and not about slavery? Though we deplore slavery like all decent people do in our enlightened 19th century, Lincoln is just as much a supporter of slavery as Jefferson Davis is. What is really at issue here is the right of the southern states to exercise their democratic right for self determination. And on this issue, Davis is far superior to Lincoln.

Marx and Engels realized that Lincoln’s refusal to make slavery the central issue greatly weakened the the Union cause and allowed British supporters of the slaveholders’ rebellion to spread confusion. However, Marx and Engels also had no problem realizing that, though Lincoln’s legalistic approach on the question of the continued existence of chattel slavery was undermining the Union cause, it could not change the logic of the class forces in conflict. These pointed inexorably to the abolition of chattel slavery if the Union was victorious.

And indeed that is exactly how things turned out. The logic of the conflict obliged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, which declared the Africans slaves forever free in regions in a state of rebellion against the United States. This document did not actually free any slaves, since it did not affect the legal right of the slave owners to own property in Africans in areas that were not in rebellion against the United States. In areas that were in rebellion, the liberation of the slaves could not by definition be enforced by Lincoln’s government. This “legal detail” did not, however, prevent African slaves from taking things into their own hands in the regions that were in rebellion against the United States. The slaves could now explain they were simply recognizing the law of the United States!

In reality, after the Emancipation Proclamation there was no turning back. Legal slavery in the United States was morally and politically dead, and soon it would be legally dead as well. Marx and Engels understood this, and the slaves understood it, even if some modern “super-radicals” do not. Lincoln and the Republican Party, just as Marx and Engels had foreseen, was obliged by the logic of the struggle to carry out the abolitionists’ program against their original intentions.

However, the full completion of the (bourgeois) democratic revolution required much more than the abolition of legal chattel slavery. It required either that the former Africans slaves be completely integrated into the U.S. nation—which would then no longer be the white U.S. nation—with full democratic rights, including but not limited to the right to vote, the right form trade unions, the right to hold any office up to including the U.S. presidency, as well as a democratic redistribution of land in the southern U.S. Or failing that, the right of the former slaves to form an independent nation state of their own, including the formation of their own government, armed forces, currency, and tariffs within the contiguous area where they they formed the majority of the population.

When the guns fell silent in April 1865, the question of whether the abolition of slavery would be confined to merely ending legal slavery or whether the African Americans would be emancipated in the (bourgeois) democratic sense of the word. As we know, the African Americans were not fully emancipated nor are they even today, even if an African American man and his family now for the first time occupy the White House.

The failure to fully carry out the (bourgeois) democratic liberation of the former slaves was to have devastating effects not only for the descendants of the African slaves but also as we will see for the white working people as well and indeed on the entire world.

Next month, I will examine how the U.S. two-party system and particularly the Democratic Party survived the slaveholders’ rebellion.


1 This is not to deny that many of the rank-and-file rebel soldiers believed they were fighting to defend their homes and families from invading “yankees,” much like the case with many solders who fought on the side of the imperialists—the modern slaveholders—in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries. (back)

2 The total population of the United States at the time of the slaveholders’ rebellion was just over 35 million people, only a little more than a tenth of the current U.S. population. Adjusted for population, this would be equivalent to around 7 million dying today. (back)

3 By Gorbachev traitors, I mean not only Gorbachev personally but the class and social forces Gorbachev and his supporters represented. Indeed, there is a certain parallel—again not identity—between Gorbachev and Yeltsin and their ilk within the Soviet leadership in the 1980s Soviet Union and Davis and Lee within the leadership of the U.S. in 1860. In the first case, a part of the Soviet leadership subordinated the defense of the country they were sworn to defend to the drive, whether unconscious or conscious, to restore capitalist wage slavery.

In the latter case, a part of the U.S. leadership also subordinated the defense of the country, also a “Union” they were sworn to defend, to their interests in defending the system of African chattel slavery. They did this even though if they had been successful the U.S.A. would have been torn asunder, therefore greatly strengthening the USA’s most dangerous rival, Great Britain. In the event of the victory of the slaveholders’ rebellion, many of the gains won by the U.S. War of Independence would have been undermined if not entirely reversed.

If, on the other hand, the Soviet Union had won the Cold War and the U.S. Communist Party, as a working-class party, had won state power in the United States, the result would have a socialist transformation of U.S. society but not destruction of the United States. Indeed, if that had actually happened, the United States would have immediately replaced the Soviet Union as the most powerful country building socialism. (I leave aside the question of to what extent the policy of the Soviet Communist Party leadership of the time or that of the U.S. Communist Party pursued such a revolutionary outcome—as opposed to following a policy of “peaceful coexistence” between socialist construction and capitalist wage slavery.) (back)

4 Isn’t it unfair to group Bernie Sanders with the likes of the racist Donald Trump with its fascist supporters, or even with such obvious “mainstream” reactionary figures as Ted Cruz, John Kasick and Hillary Clinton? There are important differences between Trump, Cruz, Kasick, and Sanders. To deny it would be to replace Marxist analysis with superficial pseudo-radicalism. However, there is a long history of democratic socialists who, unlike Sanders, operated within historically working-class political parties going back to August 1914 and supported and later led imperialist wars either against other imperialist robbers or against oppressed nations struggling to win their independence. Much more on this crucial question in the coming series on the unfolding U.S. presidential election. (back)

5 During the War of Independence, a kind of two-party system also arose in what was to become the United States. One party was the Patriot Party, which fought for the independence of the white colonies from Great Britain, and the other was the loyalist Tory Party, which remained loyal to the king and parliament. The Patriot Party was very broad, stretching from radical free African Americans in the North all the way to the owners of southern plantations that exploited the labor of enslaved Africans.

It was inevitable after the victory of the Patriot Party in the War of Independence that the victorious Patriots would be increasingly divided by their position either for or against African chattel slavery. (back)

6 The two-party system has many advantages for the capitalists over a one-party system, on one side, and a multi-party system, on the other. When a single political party system exists, whether in a capitalist society or even in a society building socialism such as the former Soviet Union, it tends to get blamed for everything that goes wrong and thus becomes a target for revolution or counterrevolution.

An example of a single ruling party becoming a target for revolution is provided by Mussolini’s Italy. From 1926, when all parties other than the Fascist Party, were banned, until 1943, when Mussolini was overthrown, the Fascist Party was a target for revolution. As a result, though strictly illegal under Mussolini’s fascist regime, the Communist Party emerged from the fascist dictatorship with the support of the majority of the Italian people. The downfall of the Fascist Party meant that not only the rule of a particular political party was destroyed. The downfall of the Fascist single-party system ushered in a crisis of class rule that brought Italy to the very brink of a socialist revolution.

An example of a single ruling party becoming the target for counterrevolution is
provided by the Soviet Union. The Communist Party of the Soviet Union ruled for more than 70 years—most of the time as the sole legal party. Over the years, the Soviet Communist Party was blamed for all the problems of Soviet society, whether these problems were the fault of the party and its leaders or not.

Right-wing opponents of the Soviet Communists, who became more open as the Communist Party lost popularity, claimed that the Communists and their dictatorship were the cause of everything wrong in society. All the problems, these right wingers insisted, could be solved if only the Communists and their dictatorship were gotten rid of. Just let the people vote for any party, and then the problems would go away. Such arguments no doubt appealed to many people, who were to live to regret the consequences.

Over time, a multi-party system began to develop within the ruling Communist Party. An increasing number of Soviet “communists” had more sympathy with the increasingly assertive bourgeois critics than with those Communists—and they existed—who really were trying to build a socialist society. In time, these “communists” became the basis for Gorbachev and the even more “democratic” Yeltsin “reformers,” and the Soviet Communist Party surrendered power and broke up. Without a ruling Communist Party, there was then nothing to stop a resurgent capitalist class gaining power, privatizing (or more often simply destroying) the means of production.

From the viewpoint of the capitalists, a multi-party system often leads to weak coalition governments and frequent elections, and is often too weak to take decisive action. In addition, since there are many political parties it encourages the working class—especially its most exploited layers—to form its own political party.

A two-party system, from the capitalists’ viewpoint, is generally viewed as the ideal system, avoiding both the pitfalls of the “excessive democracy” of the multi-party system and the dangers of one-party rule. There are two ruling parties but at any given time only one them controls the central government. As the governing party accumulates unpopularity, as it inevitably does under the capitalist system, the people are told that they after all voted for that party and they must patiently wait until the next election to vote it out.

When the next election is held, the other twin ruling party becomes for a time the governing party. Again, it accumulates unpopularity and the cycle repeats. Politics moves in a vicious circle through what is called the “rotation of power” between the two ruling parties that are equally committed to continued capitalist rule and differ at most on secondary issues. As long as this rotation of power lasts, the political power of the capitalist class goes unchallenged. (back)

7 Alexander Hamilton, who was secretary of the treasury under George Washington and whose portrait is on the U.S. 10-dollar bill, lost a duel with Republican Vice President Aaron Burr in July 1804 and died of his wounds the following day. (back)

8 In 1863, highly exploited but misled Irish workers who feared the competition of freed slaves for their jobs that involved hard manual labor for little pay staged a massive rebellion in New York City. These rebels complained of the draft law that allowed wealthy capitalists to buy “substitutes” and thus avoid military service in the war that was being fought above all in their class interests.

However, the participants in this rebellion were not really primarily interested in ending the system that enabled the wealthy capitalist exploiters to buy substitutes. This in and of itself would have been a progressive democratic demand that would have greatly strengthened the war against the slave owners. Instead of wanting to the pursue the war in a more democratic and effective way, the white workers staged vicious racist attacks against any African Americans in the city they could get their hands on. Their real aim was to help the slave owners achieve victory and thus keep the enslaved Africans out of the labor market. In the end, their uprising was a blow to all U.S. workers, whether enslaved African workers or free wage workers. (back)

9 The U.S. territory, later state, of Kansas lies just outside the subtropical region of the U.S. where large-scale plantation slavery was profitable. Instead, its natural conditions and climate suited it for family farming. However, though the supporters of slavery thought they could not really establish plantation slavery in Kansas, they very much wanted Kansas to be admitted to the Union as a slave state. Then its votes in the electoral college, which elects the U.S. president, and its representatives in the U.S. Congress would be expected to support the pro-slavery Democratic Party and the drive of the slave owners to expand the U.S. towards regions to the south and southwest of Kansas that had the tropical or subtropical climates necessary for large-scale plantation agriculture using slave labor.

With the support of the pro-slavery administration of the Democratic President Franklin Pierce, the pro-slavery forces seized the Kansas territorial government setting off a full-scale civil war with would-be white family farmers. As a result of this bloody war, many white farmers and would-be farmers began to see through the phony “democracy” advocated by the Democratic Party, preparing the way for the rise of the new Republican Party. Interesting enough, Jefferson Davis, the future “president” of the slaveholders’ rebellion served as secretary of war in the Pierce administration. (back)

10 The abolitionists were organized on the issue of the abolition of legal chattel throughout the U.S. In their time, this was considered a radical program, and they were widely persecuted, much like Communists were later. Not all white abolitionists were, however, for the granting of full democratic rights to the slaves. Only the most radical white abolitionists—the extreme left of the movement—held such an enlightened position. The African American slaves were far to the left on this issue even compared to the most extreme white abolitionists! The history of the abolitionist movement in the U.S. is an example of how what appears to be extremist politics in one epoch becomes the conventional wisdom of the next. (back)

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