Recently I read that the government of the People’s Republic of China called the United States a “failed experiment”. Is it true that the United States of America really is a failed experiment? To a large extent I must confess with great sadness that this is true. Indeed many numerous writings on my blog have gone into detail in regards to how and why this is true, there is no time to painstakingly list out the reasons here. What is needed however is a general defense of the American project from a leftist perspective. The left often mistakes ruthless criticism of a thing, especially a social structure, project, or institution, for the justification of its annihilation or rejection outright. This is a mistake. While the left is often rightfully and ruthlessly critical of the United States as a geopolitical entity, against many of its existing alternatives it is worthy of both admiration and defense. I say this as a leftist.
In addition to the above criticism of the US made by the Chinese government, the Trump administration had been quite vocal in its criticisms of the human rights record in the PRC as well. In either case powerful men with logs in their eyes are pointing to the logs in the eyes of others, unwilling to look at themselves in the mirror. Oftentimes we must conclude that the government of the United States has no moral legitimacy in criticizing another state even though the state in question may be rightfully worthy of criticism. The same is true of the leaders of a blatantly authoritarian state such as the Russian Federation or the People’s Republic of China.
While the United States is wholly worthy of criticism, and while it may be a failed experiment in many ways, it comes infinitely closer to the ideal than Russia or China today precisely because it is an open society, and because its government was made explicitly for that purpose.
From conception to execution the United States, first of the great bourgeois revolutions, has proven that an open society is both possible and preferable to its alternatives; as we find in Russia or China, both today or during the Cold War. As laudable as the egalitarian aspirations were of the former Soviet Union, we cannot take seriously demands for equality that undermine liberty. Equality if it is to be just must have liberty as its prerequisite. Marx was right in pointing out that freedom has material prerequisites, this we do not deny. But the historic Soviet Union and its modern counterpart, the People’s Republic of China, sank in regards to this question to the level of the Nazi gestapo. This only the blind can deny.
The predicament of the early United States and the early Soviet Union was similar in that the overwhelming majority was, and not without good cause, believed to be incapable of effectively governing itself. Slave labor was also deemed an economic necessity by those in power at the time. The simple truth was that “the people” here were largely uneducated, the task of the revolution was to create a new people capable of governing themselves. Thomas Jefferson understood this fact well, and even promoted the idea of ward republics as a means to more rapidly realize such a society, even if his ideas were never attempted in practice. Actually the ward republics of Jefferson’s speculations strongly resembled the actual political organization of the Paris Commune, lauded by both Marx and Bakunin as examples of self-governance of the masses.
But while self-governance was the aim, the reality of the time and the nature of the currently existing people made administration a temporary necessity. This is why the political dictatorship in Russia was to a large degree seen as necessary. The intelligentsia de facto took the task of governing into its own hands on behalf of the proletariat and peasantry. It could be called a dictatorship of the proletariat only because its interests were theoretically proletarian in nature, but in actuality it far more resembled a “bureaucratic dictatorship over the proletariat” as Lenin called it in later years. In the United States too, also a republic proclaimed “of, by, and for the people”, political rights applied at first only to the propertied class, which consequently was the intelligentsia of its own time.
Even with these restrictions, with the abolition of slavery, formal civil (though not political) liberties were guaranteed to all. Of course there still existed the oppression of black people, women, and the non-propertied class, but such classes were legally guaranteed the freedoms of speech, protest, religion, the press, association, etc. Even though they could not vote and were often subjected to different tyrannies, a key difference is that these elements were not systematically subdued by totalitarian mechanisms of state repression. When there was repression and violations of formal rights by those in power, such abuses were challenged on the basis of the American legal system and civil rights were gradually won over time.
The benefit the founding fathers had over their Soviet counterparts was the rightfully cautious attitudes towards excessive state power expressed in contemporary enlightenment philosophy and classical liberalism. Such a cautious attitude saturates the entire U.S. constitution, and seems to have been wholly absent from the early Soviet political thought. Both Marx and Lenin alike were naive in thinking that a “workers state” did not need such restrictions on its authority merely because it represented the interests of the overwhelming majority in practice. The fusion of the executive and legislative branches of government into a single body proved disastrous in practice. Actually the old enlightenment thinkers got it right. Absolute power really does corrupt absolutely. Contemporary Marxism, even today, dismisses too much of enlightenment philosophy and liberalism far too easily. It was Lenin’s (and to a lesser degree Marx’s) carelessness that proved disastrous on this question.
The French and Russian revolutions both established revolutionary governments that degenerated into quasi-totalitarianism within 5 or 10 years. The American revolution did not. There is more at play here than the class or social character of the revolution, something inherent to the American style republic prevented such a degeneration. In France Thermidor meant the end of that dictatorship and consequently of the revolution. In Russia, Thermidor meant the consolidation of totalitarian rule. In either case the revolutions went on to be betrayed either by their founders or by those who inherited the ruins on which they sought to found a better world.
The United States in the time of Kennedy far more matched the ideals of Washington, Adams and Jefferson than did the USSR in the time of Khrushchev resemble the ideals of Lenin, Trotsky, and Rosa Luxemburg. These revolutions led to a society that betrayed the very ideals on which they were founded. Not so in America, where later America became more free, democratic, than even its founders conceptualized. Indeed the United States far more matches its constitution and founding principles today than it ever did in the 18th or 19th centuries. Merely for its abuses and flaws, far too many leftists today reject the whole American project entirely outright, some even favoring the authoritarianism of Russia or China. This is a tragic mistake. If anything such leftists should see the United States and American revolution, relatively speaking, as a success story. That, and not the Russian or French revolutions, should be studied as truly noteworthy.
So true America aspires to be to its founding aspirations, that the founding fathers are rightfully condemned as hypocrites to their own cause. Even today in the streets we see that America has not lived up to its promise, and the people let those in power know it. This is America’s social contradictions solving themselves in real time, they are not completely shut down in a pool of blood or repressed as they would be (and in 1989 were quite openly) in China or Russia. They air out their grievances openly and freely, sometimes violently, and American society becomes all the more better for it, improving upon itself, becoming more in-line with its proclaimed ideals over time. This is precisely because of the nature of American government, the inherent limitations the constitution places on its own power, its checks and balances, its decentralization, its legal system, etc.
There is another, less popularized aspect of the so-called “American Dream” that needs to be defended, and that is in the belief, be it real or in popular mythology, that this country was founded as something against centralized state power, as something ultimately libertarian in nature. Indeed the second American republic that exists to this day came as a result of the failures of the first, the Articles of Confederation, which certainly was founded on a libertarian, though capitalist basis and failed for that reason.
Many progressives want to see positive liberties instituted merely on the basis of a strengthened federal government, in the social democratic tradition. But I think beyond the initial transitional realization of such liberties, this is a mistake. In the long-term this is simply unsustainable and dangerous. Its final (and ideally initial) form cannot be in the centralized state but in the locality. The community is and ultimately ought to be where power rests, beyond what oversight is necessary, and where such positive liberties are guaranteed- from the bottom upwards.
When this nation was being founded, there was a lack of historical experience in the libertarian, political forms of self-governance we know of today. It is for this reason that I advocate new political forms of organization, for a Communalist approach based on past and present experience in different societies, and most prominently in Rojava today. Just as we trace our democracy to that of the Greeks, in spite of their many flaws, I believe future generations will trace their political forms of organization to the communes of Rojava. History is happening today.
In spite of the inherent historical limitations I have pointed out, the United States as it was founded was structured in such a way that its very self-negation of its own power and authority makes it capable of being a “free country”, if not a “free state”. It ought to be seen for this reason as a workable form of government for any social movement that wants to change society while using the state during a transitional stage to realize such changes. I am talking of course about Marxism. As far as states go, is not one-party totalitarian dictatorships under the iron-fist rule of a “great leader” that produce a people capable of governing themselves but rather American style republics, instituted on the basis of the rule of law, civil liberties, and separation of powers, and continual reform and the ever greater realization of their founding principles. This history has told us.
The first casualties of the American revolutionary war are said to have been the victims of the Boston massacre. The british soldiers who fired onto the crowd were seen in the same light then as ISIS militants today; as terrorists. The American founding father John Adams actually volunteered to defend the British soldiers before a court of law, believing strongly that every person (not mere citizens but persons) accused of a crime is entitled to the best possible defense and to a fair trial by a jury of their peers. He said, “Counsel is the last thing an accused person should lack in a free country”. All this is explained more eloquently than I ever could in the prologue of Sam L. Amirante’s book ‘John Wayne Gacy: Defending A Monster’. I consider it to be one of the best defenses of the sixth amendment and the American legal tradition that I have ever read.
It hardly needs being said that today’s America in spite of much progress in other fields, would and does see such individuals, so accused of terrorism, as non-persons. Even if they were US citizens, under the Patriot Act and later Orwellian legislation and interpretations of law, such individuals would not see their day in court, would not be presumed innocent until proven guilty, would not be guaranteed their rights as citizens and persons. They would simply disappear. We have record of such abuses happening in recent years, but the security state has become so radical that to advocate for the constitutional rights of such accused persons would be seen as political suicide for many legislators and politicians today. But we know this to be an utter betrayal of the very correct principles on which this nation was founded in regards to this question, not an expression of them. Recent developments thus are in the spirit of betrayal of the constitution and not of its embodiment.
As for the question of institutional racism I am doubtful as to whether or not the present capitalist order is capable of solving this crisis. I believe the long-term solution to this problem best rests under a democratic socialism. But a Keynesian or social democratic approach may indeed solve this crisis if the ruling class understands the existential crisis which it faces because of it. Regardless, this crime, like many others, stems not from the American legal tradition itself, whose image it harms, but from modern capitalism itself and the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie under which we live. While there are numerous issues with the broad legal system today: drug prohibition, solitary confinement torture, a tendency to punish with brutality rather than to rehabilitate, mass incarceration, sex offender registries, ridiculously long sentences, the existence of the death penalty, bail, transgender rights, the culture that persists within the system, the punishment of felons after they are released, incompetent or non-existent defense of the poor, recidivism rates, the immediacy of trial before alternatives, the lack of privacy for the accused prior to conviction in the press, dehumanization, racial and gender bias, etc. we see that these are developments of capitalist modernity and not of the legal tradition itself.
In defense of the American legal tradition I in no way am attempting to defend what happens to the accused after they are found guilty of a crime. The abominable conditions in which Americans find themselves in once found guilty of a crime are simply inexcusable and a crime against humanity itself. I argue that with a level headed, reason and evidence based approach these problems would not necessarily continue if that which is good in the American legal tradition was ported elsewhere, especially in a democratic socialist society. My defense is against both the medieval barbarism that preceded it, that still exists in some nations, and against the neo-Stalinists who minimize the importance of civil liberties and individual freedom. It is also a defense against the otherwise sane citizens, who congregate into an angry mob that enthusiastically advocates the most medieval torture methods against those found guilty of particularly heinous crimes. The American legal system then, ought to be defended. It should be improved upon with the lessons of other countries as well, such as those in Europe where more progressive policies exist, and in Rojava where most disputes are solved at the local level such that they never see the inside of a courtroom.
The American model of government, though bourgeois in nature and though flawed in execution, nonetheless remains only the working model of post-revolutionary state government that seeks to simultaneously empower the common people and to remain loyal to that goal. We can criticize its authoritarianism, its over-centralization of power, its conservatism, its inefficiency, its stubbornness, and most especially its crimes, but it has proved itself to be a working model on which countless other free and open societies, sometimes even freer and more open, are based. Though outwardly “weak” in comparison with the brutality of its counterparts, it proves infinitely more resilient to the winds of social change, war, technological progress, and time generally, than all of its “strong” authoritarian and totalitarian counterparts combined.
That its failures will quite possibly lead to its demise, and soon, I not deny. But America is anything if not resilient. Still my general feeling is that I do not expect the winds of time to be so gracious to the existing government should it continue to so stubbornly resist science and social progress. Rapid technological progress, increasing authoritarianism, an increasingly absurd partisan divide, an impending climate catastrophe, and rampant demagoguery all seem to point to the eventual collapse of this great union, the present confrontation with police brutality notwithstanding.
To an extent we could say “and rightfully so”, but what of after? And what of the alternatives? It is possible, yes, we will simply fall apart or that we will be subjected to something akin to a modern quasi-fascism. But what of after? The general project is still very much worthy of defending, I believe this strongly. While the present government seems to be corrupt to its bones, the bones themselves have thus far prevented it from degenerating into something truly terrible. The third republic whenever, if ever, it comes will be doomed from the start if it does not attempt to continue the project in some form as its rightful heir, taking the best of the American project with it and improving upon its mistakes. I suspect something akin to ward republics may prevail after all on a democratic, socialist basis. Perhaps in time America will be the first to reach a truly self-governed, post-scarcity, ecologically harmonious society. I look forward to the day, though I may not live to see it!