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1776 — revolution or counterrevolution?

Recent challenges to
the classical narrative

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Anti-revisionist revisionism

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Predictably, with July 4th fast approaching, a flurry of interviews and articles attacking the revolutionary credentials of the American War of Independence have come out over the last couple days. First and foremost, there’s the interview Amy Goodman and Juan González conducted with the Stalinist historian Gerald Horne on his new book The Counter-Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America. (Horne’s politics are more or less identical to those held by the CP-USA, that grand old bastion of anti-revisionist orthodoxy. While he voiced a few tepid criticisms of Stalin’s “excesses” in his biography of W.E.B. Dubois, Horne still saw fit to draw a moral equivalence between the Soviet premier and the American revolutionaries in a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “Stalin was no worse than the Founding Fathers.” I’m no vulgar Stalinophobe. Still, I find the comparison ridiculous.)

One of the more choice quotes from this interview, though obviated by the title of his latest release, runs as follows:

July 4th, 1776, in many ways, represents a counterrevolution. That is to say that what helped to prompt July 4th, 1776, was the perception amongst European settlers on the North American mainland that London was moving rapidly towards abolition. This perception was prompted by Somerset’s case, a case decided in London in June 1772 which seemed to suggest that abolition, which not only was going to be ratified in London itself, was going to cross the Atlantic and basically sweep through the mainland, thereby jeopardizing numerous fortunes, not only based upon slavery, but the slave trade.

Nothing really too new about this, to be honest. Arguments of this sort have been presented before, even half-jokingly caricatured, by intellectuals like Richard Seymour, who once referred to the American Revolution as “a preemptive strike against liberty.” If so many seem to hold this view, though, and certain facts seem to support it, what’s wrong with their argument?

Well, for starters, the British didn’t end up abolishing slavery outside of the colonial metropole, permitting its continuation in the colonies well into the nineteenth century. Whether or not the main impetus behind the revolt of American patriotts against the crown was based on a (mis)perception that emancipation was just around the corner is immaterial. Jefferson, Hamilton, and Jay advanced a program of radical republicanism that not only did away with monarchical rule over the thirteen colonies, but helped to usher in the French Revolution across the Atlantic. Both materially and ideologically, it so happens: materially by bankrupting the Ancien Régime  over in France, and ideologically by providing Thomas Paine’s blueprint on The Rights of Man. France also vacillated on the question of hereditary rule, incidentally, much as the United States offered Washington the throne in the 1780s. Later, the Jacobins would draw upon another revolutionary tradition, that of the England of 1648, to find precedent for their own regicide.

Ever since the New Left began its “long march through the institutions” decades ago, such counter-narratives have become commonplace within contemporary historiography. Domenico Losurdo’s long and scathing Marxist critique of liberal thought in Liberalism: A Counter-History (2011), typifies this approach. In an interview I conducted with him a couple years ago, Losurdo stated that “the American Revolution was, in reality, a ‘counter-revolution’…” “[I]f we consider the case of the natives or the blacks,” he continued, “their conditions became worse after the American Revolution. Of course conditions in the white community became much better. But…numerous U.S. historians…consider the American Revolution a counter-revolution.” Gerald Horne is certainly prominent among them.

Classical Marxism and the bourgeois revolutions

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Such a dismissive attitude toward the bourgeois revolutions of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries will no doubt come as a surprise to those who have any acquaintance with Marx’s high opinion of the Dutch Revolt of 1572, the English Civil War of 1648, the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, the American War of Independence of 1776, and the Great French Revolution of 1789. As Marx himself wrote to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the First International in 1864, “[t]he workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. “

Veen01 1647 Civil War painting  Basing House

This perspective was hardly limited to Marx, either. Classical Marxism in general smiled with admiration at the history of bourgeois revolutionary struggles. Lenin, for example, asserted in his “Letter to the American Workers” that “[t]he American people…set the world an example in waging a revolutionary war against feudal slavery.”

He continued:

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

Today, however, accounts like this are regularly written off as teleological, tainted by Marxism’s uncritical adoption of “Whiggish optimism” from bourgeois liberalism (which it otherwise ruthlessly critiqued) Late Stalinists like Losurdo and Horne make entire careers out of these claims.  Against such petty iconoclasm, James Vaughn explains:

While classical Marxism readily assumed and asserted the epochal significance of 1776, it has become necessary in the postmodern wasteland of the present to painstakingly reconstruct the historical and social imagination from which such statements sprung.

Vaughn’s outstanding essay on “1776 in World History: The American War of Independence as a Bourgeois Revolution,” provides a much-needed antidote to the debilitating disease of “history from below.” I urge everyone reading this to take a look at it.

Petty iconoclasm

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Anyway, Thomas Jefferson is one of the more significant casualties of this tabloid-style exposé. Pointing out liberal hypocrisies, especially those that are several centuries old, has become such a hackneyed routine that I’m not sure why anyone even bothers with it anymore. Everyone knows that Jefferson was a slaveholder, and that he would do business Napoleon and try to suppress the Haitian Revolution during his presidency is common knowledge also. But few are aware of Jefferson’s earlier commitment to ending slavery, eloquently expressed in this deleted passage from the Declaration of Independence:

[King George] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

Delegates from Carolina and Georgia struck such language from the final draft only with great difficulty, and after much debate. Though the contradiction between liberty and slavery tormented Jefferson in his youth, and despite his naïve belief (shared with many other Founding Fathers) that the peculiar institution would wither away within the space of a couple generations, he clearly changed his tune later on and became an apologist for the status quo. What gives, then? Surely there’s no point defending such an obvious hypocrite.

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In anticipation of Independence Day, however, and looking further down the road to Bastille Day, it behooves us to consider more carefully Jefferson’s place within the revolutionary pantheon of his time. For Jefferson not only instigated the American Revolution, after all; he was a participant in the French Revolution as well, though in the role of a diplomat and observer. And his sympathies lay with the Jacobins, which is something he makes clear in several of his letters. Continue reading