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United States: The Fourth of July -- theirs and ours

By Dimitris Fasfalis

July 2, 2012 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Asked by US President Richard Nixon in 1971 to comment on the impact of the French Revolution, Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai is reported to have answered that it was too soon to tell. Zhou Enlai was talking about 1968 but, mistranslation notwithstanding, his statement underlined the impact of modern revolutions. 1776, 1789, 1848, 1917 have had -- and still do -- a continuing impact on the world through the spreading of their new principles that have lived well beyond Thermidorian and conservative attempts to transform them into instruments of state or class interests. Revolutionary landmarks such as the 4th of July thus raise the question of their legacy in our times.

Class forces and ideology of the American Revolution

The Declaration of Independence adopted and proclaimed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776, stands as the “great manifesto of freedom of the American Revolution” (Howard Zinn). Its opening remains one of the most powerful democratic statements that profoundly changed the course of history:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Written by Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence was the climax of the struggle against the repeated attempts of King George III to establish, in the declaration's own terms, “an absolute Tyranny” in Britain’s 13 colonies. From 1763 to 1776 the struggle between the patriots and the British, through a series of events, of twists and turns, pushed the American colonies towards independence. While the British crown tried from the end of the Seven Years War (1763) against the French to increase the contribution of their colonial possessions in restoring the empire's treasury, increasing sections of the possessing and middle classes in America saw the British as a hindrance to their free development.

This coalition of classes included the great land- and slave-owners of the southern plantation system, the urban bourgeoisie (trade and colonial administrations), but also the lower middle classes, made up of independent farmers, artisans, shopkeepers, mechanics and the pre-industrial working poor of the cities. As the tensions grew, British repression intensified and by November 1774 George III declared that the New England colonies were “in a state of rebellion” and “blows must decide whether they are to be subject to this country or independent”. The Declaration of Independence and the ensuing War of Independence [also known as the First American Revolution] settled this question.

Yet, beneath the unanimous and universal call for freedom by Congress, conflicting interests and social grievances remained. Between the poor and lower middle classes, and the wealthy and powerful, i.e. merchants and the southern slavocracy. Moreover, the phrase “all men are created equal” implicitly excluded Indians, black slaves and women. Hence the class nature of the American Revolution and the new regime:

Around 1776, certain important people in the English colonies made a discovery that would prove enormously useful for the next two hundred years. They found that by creating a nation, a symbol, a legal unity called United States, they could take over land, profits, and political power from favourites of the British Empire. In the process, they could hold back a number of potential rebellion and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.[1]

The revolutionary legacy in the imperial rhetoric

The democratic principles of the Declaration of Independence have also been used as an ideological backbone to provide legitimacy to US imperialist policies. This is well illustrated by the Truman doctrine (1947) against communist expansion in the world. In face of Soviet totalitarianism, the US stood as the leader of the “free world”. Its containment policy against communism was promoted as the only way to defend “the American way of life”, based on democracy, a free-market economy and individual liberties. But the growing gap between the imperial rhetoric and the state interests-oriented foreign policy was increasingly highlighted by US support and alliances with pro-Western anti-communist dictatorships, such as Pinochet in Chile and Suharto in Indonesia.

The same kind of imperialist rhetoric can be seen in the US imperial project after 9/11. The “war on terror” launched by the George W. Bush administration was once again placed under the banner of freedom. And while the United States was portrayed as the beacon of freedom in the world, its enemies were accused of being on tyranny's side.

Such a worldview, as the imperialist discourse puts it, had historical roots, namely the Declaration of Independence. Here is, for instance, the State of the Union speech delivered by G.W. Bush in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11:

Americans will lead by defending liberty and justice because they are right and true and unchanging for all people everywhere… Our enemies send other people's children on missions of suicide and murder. They embrace tyranny and death as a cause and a creed. We stand for a different choice, made long ago, on the day of our founding. We affirm it again today. We choose freedom and the dignity of every life.

The main purpose of such “newspeak” is to hide the US power interests that dictate its foreign policy under the universal and legitimate banner of freedom. This is all the more underlined in attempts to justify the use of military power by the US. Here, again, the phraseology is borrowed from the 1776 declaration.

Our nation's cause has always been larger than our nation's defense. We fight as we always fight, for a just peace. A peace that favors human liberty… You wear the uniform of a great and unique country. America has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves: safety from violence, the rewards of liberty and the hope of a better life. -- George W. Bush, speech delivered at the Military Academy of West Point, June 1, 2002).

In the words of the original Declaration: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.

The 4th of July and struggles for emancipation

Besides imperialist rhetoric, the 4th of July legacy has been part of many emancipation movements in the world, from the mass socialist and workers’ movement since the end of the 19th century to the Occupy movement today and the Third World anti-imperialist politics of yesterday. Just as Fidel Castro made use of the Declaration of Independence in his 1953 plea for democratic revolution against the military dictatorship of US-puppet Fulgencio Batista in Cuba (“History Will Absolve Me”), or as Ho Chi Minh quotes it on September 2, 1945, when he proclaims the Democratic Republic of Vietnam to denounce French and Japanese imperialism, the New York Occupy Wall Street general assembly drafted on September 29, 2011, a “Declaration of the Occupation”, whose framework is closely related to the 1776 declaration.

As one people, united, we acknowledge … that our system must protect our rights, and upon corruption of that system, it is up to the individuals to protect their own rights, and those of their neighbors; that a democratic government derives its just power from the people, but corporations do not seek consent to extract wealth from the people and the Earth; and that no true democracy is attainable when the process is determined by economic power. We come to you at a time when corporations, which place profit over people, self-interest over justice, and oppression over equality, run our governments.

Whereas the 1776 patriots proclaimed freedom against British tyranny and exploitation, the Occupy Wall Street manifesto opposes another source of “corruption” of democracy – namely capitalist corporations. The power of the latter extends to governments, to people's lives and to nature, thus denying the “self-evident” and “unalienable” rights of the people.

As it is by now clear, the contemporary meaning of the Declaration of Independence depends of the political project of those who mobilise it. It would thus be tempting to conclude that the legacy of the 4th of July belongs to everyone, right and left, conservatives, liberals and radicals alike, without any possibility to determine rationally who among them speaks the true language of the declaration. Such historical relativism is as wrong and mistaken as to consider, for instance, that both national liberation movements and the French colonial administration were true to the legacy of the 1789 French Revolution and the principles of the Declaration of the Rights of Man. If we are to follow reason instead of beliefs, it is necessary in both cases to distinguish beneath historical facts formal discourse from reality.

The Declaration of Independence in 1776 represents the birth of the American nation. But, to quote a US radical, it also “opened up a new era of promise for all mankind” (James P. Cannon). Whereas conservatives of all brands limit the declaration's scope to the making of the US and fail to understand its emancipatory dynamic, radicals and left-wing critics of the established order rightly emphasise the “new era of promise” it opened up, and still waiting to be fulfilled. That radically subversive all-out call for freedom is what radicals had in mind when they pay tribute to the 1776ers. In the midst of the Korean War in 1951, James P. Cannon was writing in the July 16 issue of The Militant:

The representatives in Congress assembled 175 years ago were the great initiators. When they said: “We hold these truths to be self-evident”, they started something that opened up a new era of promise for all mankind. That's what I am ready to celebrate anytime the bands begin to play – the start and the promise. But nobody can sell me the Fourth of July speeches which represent the start as the finish and the promise as the fulfillment. -- Notebook of an Agitator, New York, Pathfinder Press, 2003 (1958), p. 279.

Fine words. Their relevance remains intact up to now.

[1]Howard Zinn, A Peoples's History of the United States, NY, Harper Perrenial Modern Classics, 2005 (1999), p. 59.

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