Pendulum Politics Under Capitalism

The election of Justin Trudeau in Canada is another in a long series of elections around the world signaling a leftward lurch in reaction to the age of austerity. Unfortunately, the likelihood that these movements through the electoral system are going to accomplish much of anything is small. Trudeau, the son of a former Prime Minister, and a millionaire who became wealthy the old fashioned way, through inheritance, is more reminiscent of Barack Obama than Eugene Debbs. While many of the stated goals of political parties and politicians like Syriza, Podemos, Justin Trudeau and Bernie Sanders are admirable they are merely one side of a coin.

None of the political events of the last seven years that have provided indications of a genuine change in the status quo have produced said change. The election of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in 2008 produced a health care bill that will likely save and improve numerous lives while further enriching insurance and pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors. Two years after that election a reactionary resurgence returned control of Congress to the Republicans. Liberal disillusionment and apathy can always be counted upon to provide ample opportunity for Conservatives to lie, cheat, and steal their way into power.

At this late stage in the development of global capitalism there is nowhere for working people to apply pressure to the system in an attempt to force reform. The nationalist period of capitalist development is gone. No longer do capitalists see their interests aligned with a particular country. Their interests extend across the globe, enveloping the planet in a class hegemony heretofore unknown in world history. No mere political party or politician, regardless of which country they represent, is going to be able to roll back the developments of the last several decades. Attempts at piecemeal reform through “legitimate” mechanisms of power will accomplish nothing.

This dynamic has played out repeatedly since the emergence of Neoliberalism in the 1970’s. The Conservatives gain power and then lose it to the Liberals, the Liberals gain power and then lose it to the Conservatives, the pendulum swinging back and forth with hardly anyone noticing that what seems like genuine, uncontrolled, unmanaged, representative democracy is in actuality a predetermined course, a weight tied to a string and swinging from a pivot. Therefore, what seems most likely is a short period of political upheaval followed by stagnation and the inevitable swing back in favor of the conservatives.

The only variable potent enough to instigate real revolutionary change is the forthcoming economic crisis. The capitalist class and it’s allies within the state have jerry-rigged this economy with gum and twine, hoping to drain as much wealth and resource as they can while they can. At least the smart ones are doing this, the rest are likely too delusional about the nature of the system to understand just how precarious is the situation. As Marxist economist Michael Roberts has detailed the capitalist system is in a sharp decline. Profitability, the driving force of the capitalist system, is at its lowest point since it reached its peak in the 1960’s.

Profits drive investment and investment drives employment. Without sufficient profitability the capitalists will begin to pull back further and further on investment. Investment is already incredibly low, but the free flow of credit from governments has bridged the gap. However, this measure cannot last forever as the burden of both public, and private, debt weighs on the system, further inhibiting capitalists from investment and slowing economic growth. How the working class responds to this crisis will determine if we are able to save ourselves and our planet from capitalism.


Syria and Imperialism

It seems that every time we turn around there is another international crisis revealing just how incoherent, inconsistent, and inchoate is Leftist thought. The recent foray into Syria by the Russian military has brought this reality into focus as the Left is yet again divided on whose imperialism is more progressive: America and their allies or Russia and theirs? For the simple fact that American imperialism has a strategic interest in the future of Syria we have Leftists all over the western world celebrating Russian interventionism as a supposed solution to the crisis. And for the simple fact that Russian imperialism has a strategic interest in the future of Syria we have Leftists all over the western world advocating American interventionism as a supposed solution to the crisis. By the very nature of the argument those who are advocating these positions are claiming that the ruling class that garners their respective favor is an agent of “progressive” change. How about that! An imperialist ruling class as a revolutionary force!

One of the best renowned leftist writers on geopolitical conflicts is Patrick Cockburn, and he has become quite the supporter of Russian military imperialism, “One of the many problems in ending, or even de-escalating these crises, is that these self-interested players are strong enough to fight their own corners, but too weak to ever checkmate their opponents. This is why the involvement of Moscow could have a positive impact: Russia is at least a heavy hitter, capable of shaping events by its own actions and strongly influencing the behavior of its allies and proxies”. In the same article from which the above quotation is lifted Cockburn makes the argument that the Cold War was highly beneficial to the world. Nothing like millions dead in Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iran, Nicaragua, Honduras, Argentina, Guatemala, Angola, Congo, Greece, India, Pakistan, and so on, to provide the world with Cockburn’s much touted benefits.

Also, what else could civilization have done with the tens of trillions of dollars spent by the Soviet Union and the United States on military competition? Surely all that wealth was equitably distributed within each society, not to mention that investment in products that can only be used once are excellent stimulators of economic growth and not at all inherently wasteful. Plus, what would the developing world’s worst regimes have done were the Soviet Union not to have produced all that weaponry that was stolen and profitably redistributed to conflicts zones around the world after the collapse of the socialist republics? Not to mention that the world’s most prolific arms producers are the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.

The truth of the matter is that one of the primary contradictions of global capitalism is between the masses constituting the international working class and the various imperial ruling classes, whether those ruling classes are American, British, Russian, Syrian, Chinese, Iranian, Israeli, or Saudi. These competing imperialisms have numerous aligned interests, just as all capitalists share the same aligned interests in advancing the aims of global capitalist hegemony, but the inherently competitive logic of capitalist imperialism generates sufficient advantage seeking behavior as to divide these imperialisms when it comes to such a conflict as exists in Syria. Western interventionism into Afghanistan and Iraq, in the wake of the September 11th attacks, destabilized all of Western Asia, undermining the traditional allies of their imperial competitors, both in the region and outside it, like Iran and Russia. It was one thing when western imperialism was overthrowing neutral states such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but now that the regional instability has produced rebellion and revolution the imperial ruling classes of Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. have recognized the threat to their own internal stability, regional and/or geopolitical interests, and they are undertaking direct action to protect those interests.

Unfortunately, the entire dialogue surrounding these issues has devolved into a bitter binary wherein one is relegated to choosing to support one imperialist ruling class over another. Reacting to the support for western interventionism by some on the Left others have taken to advocating Russian and Iranian interventionism as a kind of anti-imperialist bulwark. We can support the Syrian people in their struggle to liberate themselves from the clutches of a murderous dictatorship, while at the same time condemning any potential imperialist intervention. Any Syrian organization accepting aid from the imperialist camp, regardless of what faction within the imperialist camp from which they have received said support -whether American, Russian, Iranian; etc.- is not a genuine revolutionary organization. We do not have to support the Taliban in order to oppose continued American military involvement in that country. Nor to recognize that in terms of total wanton violence, the amount of bloodshed committed by the Islamic State is greatly outweighed by that committed by the Assad regime. We can say no to imperialism, no to the Islamic State, and no to Assad. We can, and we must, if the Left is ever to build a genuine internationalist solidarity movement.


The Left Fails to Understand Capitalism

The liberal blog Hullabaloo, founded by Heather “Digby” Parton, is an excellent place to find adroit analysis on a variety of relevant political, economic, or social topics. With several regular contributors there is no dearth of heterogeneous perspectives on any number of issues of concern to the political left. Tom Sullivan is one of those contributors. His command of a wide ranging number of political issues is impressive, but a recent article he wrote, entitled “Capitalism is Overdue for an Upgrade” is indicative of a prevalent sentiment on the Left today, particularly in America. Sullivan quotes from, and responds to, an article by Mike Lux entitled “A Bold New Agenda Bubbling Up From the Grassroots,

Contrary to the current trickle-down economic orthodoxy, our economy will only grow and strengthen over the long run if we focus on helping more poor people climb the ladder into an expanding and more prosperous middle class. That is not happening today. It has not been happening much since the Reagan era introduced us to trickle-down. Capitalism is overdue for an upgrade. “Rules are not the enemy of markets,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren observes. ‘Rules are the necessary ingredient for healthy markets”.

That is why my business law textbook is 2-1/2 inches thick. It is chapter after chapter of real-world examples of who did what to whom, who gets paid, and who gets left holding the bag, demonstrating precisely why rules exist in business. It only works if everyone understands and plays by them. Rules need to be enforced again.

All this government focus — or is it myopia? — on protecting the incentives of the investor class, on their rewards. Yet unless the carrots are sticks, no similar care for the incentives of the working class, and on designing an economy that rewards the people who actually do the work that adds the value that creates the wealth. What’s wrong with this picture?

“Anything we can create we can reinvent,” says Gabriella Lemus, president of Progressive Caucus.e The economy is not a product of nature. People designed it. People built it. People crafted the rules that govern it. If it no longer serves We the People as it should, we can and should improve the design. That is the American way, isn’t it?

American Family Voices holds a conference in Washington, D.C. on Friday on building a new economy. Lux concludes, “We need to make our economy grow from the bottom up and middle out, rather than from the top down.”

Building a factory from the top down? Now that would be a neat trick.

Essentially, this critique of capitalism is arguing that the basic logic and underlying assumptions of the capitalist system are right and good. The only problem is that the wealth generated by the system is being distributed to the wrong people. So, this “critic” of capitalism is essentially arguing that the lion is a perfect animal, except that when the lion eats the antelope the calories distributed in the process should go to the antelope instead of the lion. If only we could institute a perfect set of rules to redistribute the expropriated value created by the wage laborer for the sake of the capitalist’s profits then we would really solve this inequality thing.

This only makes sense when if we ignore the very exploitative nature of capitalism, and really all class societies, itself. The very logic of the system itself necessitates the existence of poverty alongside wealth. For it is poverty that creates wealth in class societies. So, tell me, how exactly does the capitalist, or the system overall, benefit by helping poor people in the western world, with our high living standards and thus high cost of living, climb out of poverty? It is not a coincidence that as millions in the western world are falling from the middle class down into the working class and into poverty while at the same time hundreds of millions of Chinese poor and working class people are rising into the middle class.

A return to the golden age of western welfare state capitalism is a utopian fantasy. Capitalism does not need the millions of Americans living in poverty to escape poverty, which is precisely why they live in poverty. There is no means by which to expropriate sufficient surplus value from their labor while at the same time providing them with high wages and excellent public services. Should their plight really concern you let us not forget about the hundreds of millions, or even billions, of people on this planet who live on a mere two or three dollars a day. Ultimately this economic system is dependent on the existence of sweatshop slavery, wage slavery, migrant slavery, etc. Therefore, to argue that we can somehow convince, through statutory regulation, the capitalist system to work against the tendency and logic of it’s own nature is equivalent to trying to convince a lion to not eat antelope.

Opposing Austerity Is Not Enough

The election of Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, the re-election of Syriza in Greece, the emergence of Podemos in Spain, and the candidacy of Bernie Sanders in America, among other political movements, newly elected politicians, and activism, are evidence of the popular rejection of austerity politics in the western world. However, opposing austerity is not enough. While it is clear to all that the policy proposals on offer by the likes of social democratic politicians and political parties would be beneficial to labor, and to the detriment of capital, the fact remains that these policies are too extreme for the ruling class and not extreme enough for the working class.

Not to mention that should the state be used to shift public spending away from the subsidization of profits for capital toward programs and other social services intended to raise the living standards of working people capital will undoubtedly flow into those areas of the economy unaffected by anti-austerity reformism creating speculative bubbles that will inevitably burst and drop us all back into the position in which we currently find ourselves. Excluded from this analysis is also the impact that such a period of stimulated economic growth would have on the environment and the eventual impact of climate change. For surely the laws of thermodynamics still apply in that any short term decreases in social entropy are merely being transposed onto longer term increases in environmental entropy.

In the past capitalism has been able to reorganize the long term negative consequences of the system’s own internal contradictions through the expansion of markets, imperial super-exploitation in the periphery for the sake of capital accumulation at the center, and so on. But now there is nowhere else for capitalism to go, nor is there anywhere else on the planet for the system to dispose of the environmental degradation caused by the rapid movement of investment capital and resource exploitation. Capitalism has gone global in the last few decades and now faces a truly systemic crisis not seen, perhaps, in the history of its existence. The choice we have before us truly is socialism or barbarism.

While one cannot map out in advance a world historical revolution the likes of which would be necessary to overthrown capitalism one can hope that the emergence of people and movements witnessed in the last few years are the first battle cries of a new rebellion against class society. In the west under the auspices of the war on terrorism we have been given a choice between the fundamentalism of the middle eastern anti-imperialists and liberal parliamentary democracy. We must see through this false choice and instead build our own future through the use of all available tools. Again, merely opposing austerity and the status quo is not enough. We must develop our own alternative.

Cult of Conservatism Part II

I must admit that it has been a contradictory experience watching, in frustration and amusement, the Washington, D.C. punditocracy scramble from one week to the next making doomsday predictions about the “inevitable” collapse of Donald Trump and the return to “normal” American politics. The very fact that the D.C. press believes the last several decades of American politics can pass for “normal” should be indication enough of just how delusional so many people in this country are when it comes to comprehending the reality of American political life. The press is in such a state of denial that one wonders just what could possibly wake them from it. They have spent the entirety of the last several decades ignoring, dispelling, equivocating, eschewing, and covering up one atrocity after another committed by the Cult of Conservatism. From the Southern Strategy, to undermining peace talks in Vietnam, to undermining hostage negotiations with Iran, and then selling arms to said country’s hostage-taking government, to stealing elections, to illegally suppressing and purging voters, to fabricating evidence to start a war, to sabotaging the economy for political gain; there is no crime this horde of cultists, kooks, paranoiacs, bigots, and religious fundamentalists will not support as long as it is done in maintaining the traditional American white male supremacist power structure, and their control over it.

Since the time of Richard Nixon these people have been slowly bred, through the use of right wing talk radio, Fox News, and now online conservative media, into a swarm of unthinking zombies. Any time the kingpins of right wing media point their fingers at a target, the horde immediately, and with a zeal akin only to the zombie impulse to cannibalize human brains, engulfs and consumes them. The Conservative Cult has been deliberately molded over decades into an unrestrained Id. And now there is no way to stop it, for the moment any so called “conservative” figure, no matter how genuine their practice within the cult, will be immediately labeled a traitor to the cause and exiled like a “suppressive person” in Scientology, cut off from any future influence in the cult. The result of this dynamic is for the cult to become increasingly inward thinking whereby the only way to get noticed inside the cult is to espouse ever more radically reactionary and extremist viewpoints. Such a cycle of inward thinking inevitably produces a logical self-reinforcement of the cult’s ideas, for when their ideas seep out into the mainstream, unfiltered by public relations and marketing gimmicks, the confused and disturbed reaction by people unfamiliar with the  cult’s tautology only acts to further reinforce the validity of the belief.

The Washington press is so utterly unaware of this entire process that each time conservatives explode with rage in response to the confusion, disbelief, or questioning of the media, the pundit, rather than investigate the truth of the cult’s claims, and then discredit and disassociate the cult members from access to public platforms wherein they would be further able to indoctrinate, obfuscate and misinform an unsuspecting audience, either offers no opinion on the matter or explains it away by fabricating, or wildly exaggerating, a corresponding example on the liberal side of the political spectrum. So ingrained is this mechanism of denial that every time a pundit on television, radio, or in print is forced by circumstances to chastise some conservative for whatever atrocity they recently committed they immediately, and reflexively, point to some imaginary liberal crime to provide balance. They are like a family member of an abuser who, while admitting to themselves that one of the abuser’s victims should certainly not have been beaten with a tire iron, believes the victim of the physical abuse shares in the culpability because dinner was late or their homework unfinished. They spend all their energy trying to mollify the abuser and convince the victim of the need for them to further compromise to the abuser demands, all the while ignoring the myriad ways in which they are also subject to abuse.

The Democratic Party, many journalists, political scientists, authors, thinkers, etc., clearly all of whom are victims, along with the press and the populace, has failed to make the case to the public, and to the wider media establishment, the nature of this dysfunctional dynamic. In fact, any time a long established member of the Washington elite comes around to the views expressed in this post, and then communicates it to the rest of the Washington elite, they suddenly find themselves ostracized, unable to find outlets for their previously heralded and widely published work. Honestly, I do not know how to break this cycle. When it occurs within the context of a family the cycle can be broken, for example, by escaping the situation. But how does one do that when such a cycle plays out on a national level? Some argue that we must destroy the Republican Party, an idea I do support, while others argue for targeting the enablers within the media establishment who provide platforms to serial liars, another strategy  I support. Unfortunately, it does not seem like these views ever make it to there intended audience. Donald Trump has repeatedly outlasted the apocalyptic professions of the mainstream pundit class. And yet, each time he does so, the pundits never re-examine their basic assumptions about the underlying conditions within conservatism.

To anyone with a clear understanding of just what modern conservatism is it will be obvious that Donald Trump is going to have a great deal of support from the conservative base for the foreseeable future. His sway is so strong now that the other candidates considered by the mainstream press to be the “fringe” candidates in this election are beginning to perform better than the more establishment candidates that the mainstream press considers to be “moderate”; despite the fact of course that there is no real distinction between any of these candidates in terms of the policy implications of their ideas. Not that any of these candidates really have any concrete policy prescriptions. They just leap from one issue to another as they come up, or rather as Donald Trump happens to introduce them into the conversation by opening his mouth and emitting sounds. Then the other candidates, asked by reporters to comment on whatever problem Trump has addressed, are forced to chase the constantly changing news cycle. This is how conservatives have controlled the national dialogue in this country for years. They use their tremendous resources to force a legitimate issue weighed down with lies, or an imaginary problem they have concocted, or some other non-issue they have suddenly, and usually hypocritically, turned into a national news story.

They spent the entirety of the Clinton and Obama presidencies using their control over the legislative branch of government to investigate, sabotage, take hostage, destroy, obstruct, or otherwise subject the people of this country to their paranoid fantasies in order to obliterate their opponents and increase their control over government. They are happy to burn the country and its government to the ground in order to acquire political power.  Until these people are forbidden from engagement in civic life by a series of firewalls, enforced by every aspect of political society, then the aforementioned problems will go unsolved, and will likely get worse, as the conservative cult takes ever more drastic, and destructive, measures to ensure their hold on political power in a country where demographics are against them in the long term. God help us all.

James Harrison, Participation Trophies, and the Logic of Capitalism

Here’s Harrison’s reasoning for why he will make his children return the trophies:

I came home to find out that my boys received two trophies for nothing, participation trophies! While I am very proud of my boys for everything they do and will encourage them till the day I die, these trophies will be given back until they EARN a real trophy. I’m sorry I’m not sorry for believing that everything in life should be earned and I’m not about to raise two boys to be men by making them believe that they are entitled to something just because they tried their best…cause sometimes your best is not enough, and that should drive you to want to do better…not cry and whine until somebody gives you something to shut u up and keep you happy.

James Harrison is a football player for the Pittsburgh Steelers who recently made news on social media for declaring to the world his intention to force his two sons to return the participation trophies they received after completion of something athletic event. Frankly, listening to sports media pundits discuss anything more complicated than throwing touchdown passes can be a grueling experience. Expecting them to offer trenchant social and cultural analysis is sort of like expecting a fish to grow legs and walk on land. Nevertheless, while listening to various ESPN radio hosts discuss the James Harrison story, and the idea of participation trophies, a very familiar set of themes emerged that I always encounter in reactionary right wing discussions of political and social issues. Particularly the tendency to use status acquired through exploitative means as a method for demonizing egalitarianism.

Honestly, outside the context of a purely cultural critique, I am still not clear on what exactly is so wrong with providing participation trophies. Throughout my life one of the regular refrains I have heard is that just showing up is half the battle, or sometimes just showing up is the most important thing, etc. The argument being that there is something very important about coming in every day prepared to work with others toward a common goal. That is all that I have ever believed participation trophies were. A simple token of recognition for having worked hard and tried one’s best, ultimately regardless of the outcome. The argument against participation trophies strikes me as reflective of the incessant need on the part of capitalist culture to maintain a continuous measure of status. Like those in the 1% who flaunt their status through display of their “trophies”, whether cars, clothes, houses, art, or technology, the opposition to participation trophies for children is a reflection of a desire on the part of parents to instill in young children the idea that only those truly exceptional people deserve to be rewarded for their labor.

These beliefs do not come from nowhere. They are the product of a broader behavioral conditioning model that teaches us to not only expect that some people will be rewarded more for their labor, but that this is a good thing. We should therefore not expect a living wage, proper health care, old age benefits, unemployment insurance, or any other benefit of participating in a collective effort such as the maintenance of society unless we REALLY earn it. Through discussions like this all context is lost, and the social, cultural, political, and economic practices that actually determine who the winners are, who REALLY earn their reward, disappears. Instead of understanding how certain systems promote the achievement of a few at the expense of the many we are left with an understanding of social relations that argues the vast majority of people are not as valuable as those special, “chosen” few who really earn their reward.

This is clearly the logic of capitalism at work. I bring this up only because we on the Left need to learn to recognize the many forms these destructive ideas take and the ways they are quietly implanted in our mind. Sports in America is one of the most politically conservative industries and so it should come as no surprise that these reactionary ideas pervade the culture. Remember this is one of the few industries that is actually open to those deemed unnecessary by capitalism: the poor and minority communities. And like the industries of the past available to the great unwashed they are making billions of dollars off the blood and sweat of these people. Therefore it is especially important to reinforce this ideological commitment among its population for athletes who become wealthy could very well prove a liability should they come to anti-capitalist conclusions. This may seem to some a petty issue to use in order to discuss class hegemony, but we must never forget how pervasive these ideas are, and we must constantly be prepared to fight them regardless of where they are found.

History, Useless Historians, and Revolutions

Studying how historians study history can be a revealing exercise. The way they view certain events can be indicative of their political commitments, whether those commitments are conscious or unconscious. Last month was the 226 anniversary of Bastille Day, the day on which the French Revolution officially began as hundreds of demonstrators attacked the Bastille, the medieval prison that represented the thousand year hegemony of the Ancien Regime. When historians speak of the French Revolution they speak of the anarchy, mass executions, explosions of violence on the streets, and the Reign of Terror. Clearly, for these historians, this social convulsion was not a world historical revolution, but the first example of modern totalitarianism. However, when they speak of the American Revolution they speak of liberty, equality, independence, and self-governance. For them this event was a world historical revolution that expanded the march of world historical progress.

If one examines both revolutions one discovers that they share many of the same characteristics. However, there are also a number of substantive differences. Differences that reveal much about the events and the historians who study them, for it is in how the revolutions are compared to one another that an academic’s political allegiance is revealed. The American Revolution began with mass, popular resistance to British economic policies that would weaken the colonial economy and extract significant portions of its wealth. But it did not remain a popular mass movement. Instead, the American Revolution was more of an aborted revolution, or perhaps, a counterrevolution. The only substantive change, from the pre-Revolutionary period to the post-Revolutionary period which has any bearing on the consideration of whether or not it was a revolution, is the fact that the legitimate political authority moved from London to the colonies.

After the Seven Years War the British Empire was deeply indebted. Not wanting to tax the British ruling class to pay down the war debt the British Empire initiated a series of taxes on the colonies. These actions precipitated a mass movement dedicated to acquiring political representation in the British system in order to properly represent their interests to the empire. The mass action taken against the British military and civil forces stationed in the colonies made enforcement of the taxes impossible. The formation of political organizations and the organization of meetings, parades, the burning of effigies, the erection of liberty poles, confrontations between crowds of protesters and British soldiers, as well as the destruction of property, and boycotts were the tactics used to frustrate the process.

For nine years resistance would follow a cycle of flaring up and then settling down in the face of British resignation. The colonial ruling class, fearing the dangerous possibilities that open revolution could result in the creation of a system of radical democracy that would undermine men of property and power attempted to both tamp down the most radical demands of the masses and keep pace with the overall zeitgeist. It was only after the Tea Party in Boston harbor that the British military, in finally moving to crack down on the popular resistance, that the colonial ruling class was at last forced to create a parallel power structure in opposition to British rule. The hope being to channel and control popular resistance toward their own, more conservative, aims. Ultimately, the reign of property and an oligarchical republican democracy of the north combined with an oligarchical slaveocracy of the south defeated the attempts to form a radical democracy. The true American Revolution, or perhaps the completion of the American Revolution, as Marx considered it, is the Civil War. Though that too would be partially overthrown by counter-revolutionary forces.

If not a genuine revolution, or even an aborted revolution, then the American Revolution was a counter-revolution. Proponents of this case make note of the fact that at the time the British Empire was in the process of abolishing slavery, limiting the territorial expansion of the colonies according to a framework established in treaties with the indigenous peoples, and taxing the colonial ruling class to pay for the empire’s defense of the British colonies during the Seven Years War. In order to maintain their way of life the slaveocracy that dominated the colonial economy, and would go on to dominate the political system established un the American constitution, recognized the necessity of a war for independence. Ultimately, according to this view, the American Revolution was not a progressive step forward, but a conservative step backward fought in opposition to the emergence of a new economic class, the bourgeoisie, which had begun to dominate the British Empire and the northern colonies. Ironically, from today’s point of view, a constitutional monarchy that was controlled by the bourgeoisie was slightly more progressive than a republican democracy controlled by a set of slave owning oligarchs.

The French Revolution, on the other hand, was a conflict that directly threatened the ruling classes of Europe. Just as the British economy had suffered from the military conflicts of the preceding years the French economy suffered, only worse. Bankrupt from continuous military and economic conflict with a more capitalistically advance Britain the monarchy was forced to reform itself away from feudal traditions toward an emergent capitalism. France at this time had three general classes, or estates, the nobility, the clergy, and the commons, which included practically everyone else. The nobility and the clergy did not pay taxes so the financial burden for the maintenance of the state fell upon the masses.

The King create a committee to modernize the state and its tax system which included making the previously untaxed estates pay their share. In response the ruling class rejected the idea outright and attempted to organize popular resistance among the masses to oppose the reforms. An Estates General, constituted of the three previously mentioned classes, was called to resolve the dispute. When the Third Estate, or the commons, refused to subordinate their interests and declared themselves a National Assembly, even going so far as to offer an alliance between them, the nobility and the clergy, the King closed the hall and refused them entry. They then took an oath that promised they would not disband the National Assembly until the King agreed to the creation of a constitution. The King responded by firing his most important reformist adviser and ordered 20,000 soldiers to Paris.

The storming of the Bastille was conducted in response to this attempted coup aimed at the National Assembly. The Parisian masses, comprised predominantly of working class laborers, socialized with the soldiers and won their support. In one fell swoop feudalism had been abolished, human rights had been established, and a new revolutionary National Guard was formed to back the infant civil authority. A mere three months after the revolution a royalist conspiracy being directed from the palace at Versailles was discovered and 20,000 revolutionary soldiers, led entirely by working class women, marched from Paris to the palace and arrested the king, placing him under popular surveillance back in the city.

When the peasantry heard the news hundreds of thousands of them marched to the homes of their landlords to destroy the deeds establishing their control over countryside. In one fell swoop feudalism had been abolished, human rights had been established, and a new revolutionary National Guard was formed to back the infant civil authority. Over the subsequent two decades time and again the masses would rise in acts of popular resistance against the reactionary forces working to roll back the revolution. For just like the American Revolution the French Revolution began with mass action that originated at the bottom of society. The constitutional monarchy created by the National Assembly in the wake of this popular resistance would only be the first example of this tendency.

Constituted mostly of men from the middle class the political representatives of the National Assembly was a conservative body. It established a constitution that restricted the right to vote with a property qualification and gave the king the power the delay enacting laws for two years. Stunted by conservatism and counter-revolutionary tendencies from within and targeted by the armies of the European ruling classes from without the French Revolution were saved again by popular resistance as the masses led a victorious insurrection against the constitutional monarchy and the invading armies resulting in the creation of the French Republic based on universal male suffrage.

But once again the new government, led primarily by men of property, tried to put the brakes on the revolution. This gave the counter-revolutionary forces internal and external to revolutionary Paris the opportunity to rebound necessitating another popular revolt that elected a new government dominated by the Jacobins and purged of the problematic republicans. It was here that the Committee of Public Safety was created, establishing a military draft, the nationalization of industry, and progressive taxation. The wealthy were forced to borrow money from the government, the Catholic Church had its land confiscated and redistributed to the people, price controls were initiated, speculation in the economy was made an offense punishable by execution, and the Reign of Terror began in order to prevent any further counter-revolutionary action.

What most historians ignore about this period of the revolution is the context provided above. Enemies both foreign and domestic beset the revolutionaries on all sides by its enemies. Rarely do we hear academics weep for the untold masses killed in the thousand-year reign of the French monarchy. Nor do they mention the repeated massacres of thousands of supporters of the revolution in towns conquered by reactionary forces outside Paris, like Lyons, Marseilles, and Toulon. Instead they weep for the executions of criminals who are given the appearance of nobility, justice, and legitimate authority through their control over the exploitative relations of a class society. Or they focus with grim fascination and lurid delight over the internecine use of the terror by the revolutionaries on other revolutionaries, culminating in that now infamous phrase, “every revolution eats its children”. The implication being that we are living in the age of the end of history and this is as good as it gets.

Like the American Revolution the French Revolution was left unfinished, aborted, and overwhelmed by counter-revolutionary forces. However, regardless of the features they share there is a great deal of difference between them, and it is in this sense that one is more progressive than the other. As mentioned briefly earlier the French Revolution was immediately recognized by the ruling classes of Europe as a direct threat to their interests. In a small way the war became a proxy war between France and Britain, with the primary beneficiary ultimately being the colonial ruling class. For it was after this that the French empire collapsed and the British never again had control in the colonies.

Let us also recognize that the American Revolution was economically regressive while the French Revolution was economically progressive. The former wished to sustain a slave mode of production that would soon become obsolete in the face of industrial wage labor production, giving way to the true American Revolution in the Civil War, the conflict exemplified by the contradiction between these two competing economic models. The French Revolution, on the other hand, tore down the remaining feudal anachronisms that were acting as a drag on the French economy as it tried to keep up imperially and economically with the more capitalistic Britain.

The French Revolution was unlike the American in that the popular resistance of the masses was routinely called upon to rescue the revolution from conservative and counter-revolutionary forces. The American Revolution was merely initiated through popular resistance before it was eventually subsumed by the more retrograde of the ruling class interests. And hence the need for the Civil War not even a century later to finish the industrial development of the society. Also, one must not overlook the socially reactionary and racist character that persisted. The French Revolution, however, was heavily influenced by the first slave revolution, which took place in Haiti, and came to support them while the American revolutionaries, such as Thomas Jefferson who was president at the time, opposed them and used their military might in an attempt to aid in Napoleon’s re-conquest of the island.

Despite the failures of the French Revolution its historical impact affected Europe for the next two centuries, advancing the development of capitalism and socialism for the next two centuries. It should therefore be no surprise to anyone that a revolutionary period such as that existed during the French Revolution when it seemed possible that a new world could be created that benefitted the masses. Therefore it becomes necessary to stamp out any memory of those moments when popular resistance constructed and routinely rescued society from the grasp of wealthy plutocrats.

1. A People’s History of the World: From the Stone Age to the New Millennium:The French Revolution
2. A Marxist History of the World: From Neanderthals to Neoliberals: The Second Wave of Bourgeois Revolutions 1775-1815