With more than 800,000 dead from COVID in the US alone, the questions are urgent: Who will represent us, who will provide for us, who will make sure our political representatives don’t destroy our ability to live on earth? Do we need to rely on the bumbling dunderheads who run the Democrats and the open fascists who control the Republicans?
Political parties are not inherent in the DNA of the United States. In fact, the leading writers of the Constitution wanted a government in which the “most capable” (meaning the wealthiest, white men as individuals) ran the country. Madison and Hamilton, writing in The Federalist Papers, abhorred “factions.” The faction they abhorred the most, and feared would organize under a political party, was the poor. This was one reason why neither the President nor the Senate was elected directly. Within the first few years, however, life asserted itself and ousted the ideological purity intended by the founders.
In the very first administration debates arose around the major themes that would plague the country throughout its existence. What is the relation between the Federal government and the states (“states rights”); the power of the cities versus the rural areas; land-owning agriculture and industry and the power of the banks. Soon political representatives emerged to fight for these interests. Under the Washington administration, Alexander Hamilton articulated a plan to support the fledgling industry of the North, open a national bank, raise a standing army. Thomas Jefferson led the opposition faction, with position that the dependence of wage-labor on the employer was inherently inferior to the yeoman farmer. The Hamilton faction won this round, conceding to the Jefferson faction that the capital would be moved from New York to the District of Columbia. Thus the Jeffersonian (Democratic) Republican Party consolidated around the Southern slavery-based agricultural ruling class, and the Federalist Party formed around the emerging manufacturing sector of the North.
From 1788 to 1836, the Southern states had a firm grip on the Presidency. In those 48 years, four of the six presidents were Southerners – called “Republicans” — who controlled the White House for 40 of the 48 years. Congressional battles were fought over whether the Federal government should fund such projects as the Erie Canal, called “internal improvements.” Southerners opposed paying for the economic improvement of Northern states, arguing that if the states needed such investment, they should raise the money themselves. There is no reason, they argued, that South Carolina taxes should be used for the exclusive benefit of New York. Implicit in this argument was the recognition that the expansion of Northern manufacturing and the route westward would amplify the political power of the North. Increasing Northern population would improve its proportion of delegates to the House of Representatives. These dull battles over dollars and cents veiled the contradiction, dubbed the irrepressible conflict, between free and slave labor.
This conflict broke into the open in 1819 with the Congressional debates on admission of Missouri to the Union. Political leaders understood that should more states be admitted as free states, the balance of political power in the Senate would shift away from the South. This debate, which was settled by the “Missouri Compromise,” allowed Maine in as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. It also established a line of latitude, Missouri’s Southern boundary, that separated slave and free states, extending west into the Louisiana Purchase territory. The most significant thing about this Compromise, for this discussion, is that it established a system of two parties that depended on each other to maintain the status quo. Nominally, the Federalist Party disintegrated after 1819 and the Republicans split into Northern and Southern factions. The Federalists of the Northeast as well as Republicans of the North united into the Whig Party; while Republicans North and South came together under the banner of the Democratic Party. Henry Clay, an architect of the Missouri Compromise, joined John Quincy Adams as founders of the Whigs. New Yorker Martin Van Buren engineered the foundation of the Democratic Party along with Andrew Jackson. In this gentleman’s agreement, both parties agreed to kick the can down the road. Both parties recognized that this compromise would accept the slave power ruling in the South. This paradigm, where two sections of capital made a political agreement to preserve some form of the status quo relation between owners of private property, ruled the country for the next 40 years.
Other battles took place between 1819 and 1850 to test and adjust the bonds of the agreements between the slave power and the growing manufacturing/industrial North. Following the 1837 “Texas Revolt” and the declaration of the “Republic of Texas,” Southern expansionists argued for the annexation of Texas and conquest of Mexico, turning the territory conquered into slave states. In the war with Mexico, the US stole one third of the Mexican territory, including California. Southern politicians brought to Congress demands to annex Texas and turn it into five slave states. As Texas was beyond the territory of the Louisiana Purchase, once again the slavery question came before Congress. In 1846, Pennsylvania Congressman Daniel Wilmot proposed that slavery be prohibited in all territory acquired from Mexico. The Wilmot Proviso passed the House, where the more populous northerners (Democrats and Whigs) supported it. It failed in the Senate where there was equal representation, North and South.
In response to the crisis presented by Texas admission, opponents of the expansion of slavery organized a new Party, the Free Soil Party, and ran former President Martin Van Buren in the 1848 election. Senator William Seward of New York recognized this achievement: With free soil on a national, presidential platform, “Antislavery is at length a respectable element in politics.” The appeal of the Free Soil movement was not a pure support of the cause of abolition; it was supported by people who saw their economic betterment only coming by homesteading what had been Native American land and what was now likely to become slaveholder plantations. Some saw this as insulating themselves from having to compete with an inferior race. It demonstrates the way in which the objective needs of social motion proceeds along a sometimes indirect path, a path that was nevertheless anathema to the South.
The Whigs won the 1848 election and the long delayed efforts to expand slavery to the lands stolen from Mexico came to the fore. California applied for admission as a free state, the South opposed it, and once again, in 1850, Henry Clay negotiated a compromise. Whig and Democrat again stabilized the slavery question. The main elements of the compromise allowed California to enter as a free state, but all other territories were allowed to determine their status by the popular vote of white men. The Democrat and Whig political factions, had one main goal: keeping the union together, under the status quo of the increasingly tenuous control of the slave power. As if they had discovered democracy, the Congress called this new formula “popular sovereignty.”
In 1854 Stephen A Douglas, Senator from Illinois, proposed that Kansas and Nebraska be admitted to the union. Because these were part of the Louisiana Purchase, their status was governed by the Missouri Compromise, north of the Compromise line and hence necessarily part of free territory. When the South opposed this, Douglas introduced legislation that would allow people in those states to choose their status – extending popular sovereignty to the Missouri Compromise area. The Kansas Nebraska Act passed, but the debates on this subject shattered the party alignment that had been containing the slavery debate.
The Whig Party, unable to respond, collapsed, joining with Northern Democrats, who opposed the nullification of the Missouri Compromise, and Free Soilers to form the Republican Party. Republicans were not abolitionists; they wanted to contain slavery in the territory it already occupied. The South became solidly Democratic. Another party emerged to play a role, the Know Nothings, whose basic outlook was anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic, but also anti-Kansas-Nebraska Act. The 1856 election, resultd in a Democrat James Buchanan winning the presidency, capturing all but one of the Southern states and five Northern ones. Nevertheless the Republican Party’s John Freemont won 11 Northern states and captured one-third of the popular vote. The Know Nothings ran Millard Fillmore, who won in Maryland alone.
In the short period from 1854 to 1856 the Republican party was born, solidified their position in the North, and grew into a legitimate contender in national elections. The Supreme Court threw a gauntlet at the political system in 1857, deciding, in the Dred Scott case, that slavery was legal in all states. The Know Nothings fell apart, the anti slavery members joining the Republicans. John Brown’s attempt to seize the armory and Harper’s Ferry and begin an insurrection against the slave power failed, but his execution in 1859 and the cause he represented galvanized the nation. The battle was on. Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, won the Presidency in 1860 with a platform stopping the expansion of slavery. Republicans won 18 Northern and Western states. Southern Democrat John Breckinridge won the Southern 11 states. Two other parties won the other four states. The South was convinced that they had lost the political battle. The only way left, the Southerners understood, was the military subjugation of the North.
While there is a line of abolitionism that runs through this entire period, it should be understood that never, in the period leading up to the Civil War, was abolitionism the majority opinion. At the time of the Missouri Compromise, only a small number of people carried on that propaganda war. At the opening of the Civil War, many abolitionists refused to take part in the Republican Party debates, seeing the ‘free soil” party program as too bound by compromise. Nevertheless, it was the Republican Party, in all its contradictory messiness, that shepherded the government through the Civil War and the abolition of slavery. Unconscious of the necessity of abolition as late as 1861, practical reality forced them to that conclusion and to the conclusion that the Southern planter oligarchy would have to be subjugated. Militarily, the Northern armies and freed slaves broke the back of the slave-owners political control of South as well as North at Appomattox in 1865. Politically, the Civil War continued in the period we call Reconstruction, until the election of 1876 and the Hayes Tilden Agreement of 1877. Once ready to swear allegiance to their Wall Street masters, the slaveocracy was restored to political power and the freedmen driven back into peonage.
Since the Civil War the two party system has maintained the status quo very well. And what is that status quo? At the end of Reconstruction, the Northern financial-industrial capitalists had established their supremacy. This victory unleashed the “robber barons” of steel, the railroads, oil, and Wall Street itself. The wars of extermination against Native Americans accelerated, in some cases using the same troops that had been stationed in the South to guarantee the civil rights of the freed slaves. Troops from the South were redeployed to suppress labor insurgency across the country. By the beginning of the 20th century, the system organized itself around the maintenance of political control by the corporate masters of private property.
Opposing wings of private property have used the party system to fight each other, often with significant differences. Sometimes those differences were so severe as to call into question their common interests. But at no time were their conflicts so severe as to make the parties abandon the rule of private property. Now, 145 years after the end of reconstruction we are approaching a severe political crisis that makes us look carefully at what is at stake.
A new form of abolitionism is in the air. For as long as people have looked to the Communist Manifesto as a beacon of future emancipation, we have talked about the abolition of private property. Marx explained the strategy of the working class in this way: “Instead of the conservative motto, ‘A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work!’ they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, ‘Abolition of the wages system!’” [Value, Price and Profit]. In 1865 that was an ideological current in the movement. Changes in the movement have forced this abolition question to the forefront. Various stages in the development of mechanical automation have produced predictions about the end of work and the distribution of the abundance that automation can produce according to need. The introduction of the microchip, the development of robotics, and the expansion of AI have brought something qualitatively new to the equation. We are actually witnessing the beginning of the end of labor power as a commodity, and hence the end of value. We are beginning to see the capacity to organize society around production for use, not for exchange. And none too soon, as the rapacious advance of technological change under the dominance private property threatens to end nature’s basis of providing abundance for all.
Unlike previous periods, when political battles were waged around the dominance of one form of private property or another, today we are beginning to see battles over whether or not private property should dominate at all. This is the meaning of demands for housing and health care as rights independent of the market. The abolition of the rule of private property is now the practical answer to the fight for basic needs.
One important way that abolitionism has been introduced into the contemporary conversation is the abolition of the prison-industrial complex. Similar to the earlier abolitionists, today’s fighters started as a small group ideologically and morally convinced of their cause. In the wake of the George Floyd murder, this abolition has entered the mainstream debate. Some of the leading theorists of this abolition talk about it in terms of ending the domination of private property over the conditions of life that make prisons the answer to the practical problems people face in the community. For so many years we have talked about abolition as a good idea to win people over to. No longer. Today abolition is being proposed as the only practical way to achieve what are the basic needs of the people.
Similarly, when Jeremy Rifkin wrote his book, The End Of Work, not many people paid attention to his prediction. That’s not the case any more. Guy Standing’s advance of the term “precariat” has been followed by Andrew Yang running for president on the political position of the end of work. In a way, Yang is the Martin Van Buren of our time (of course Yang was never president, but he is the first to elevate the qualitative importance of robotics to a presidential campaign).
How will this abolition thing come about?
The historical framework we come from is that the contending forces battle it out through the political arena, at first in the electoral arena through representative political parties. It is a truism that capital has two political parties. It is becoming better and better understood, and our history leading up to the Civil War confirms, that the system of party politics is keeping us enthralled, that neither party represents us. At the advent of the Civil War, the agreement between two sections of capital no longer could hold, because one section of capital was holding back the revolutionary development of the other. The great “democrat,” Thomas Jefferson, became (along with Madison and Monroe and Jackson), the leader of the agricultural section of capital that depended on slavery. The great aristocrat, Alexander Hamilton, at the outset of the country became the political leader of the fight for industry and banking (and hence for wage-labor). The development of machinery and modern industry created the possibility for abolishing private property in human beings. It did not make that abolition inevitable, but it established the possibility, and a war was fought to bring that into reality. Because the contending political parties still represented two wings of capital, another form of private property emerged triumphant, championed by its political party, the Republicans.
So how do we get a party to represent us?
A similar but different dynamic is happening around us. What’s different is that no section of capital can be relied on to advance the revolution, as the Republican Party could by representing industrial capital and free labor. What is similar? Today’s Republicans represent the rural areas and Southern states. Defections from the Republicans show just how reactionary they have become. In advance of the November election, a number of former members of the current administration declared that they cannot vote for Trump. Some even pledged to vote for a Democrat. On the other hand, John Bolton said that he will write in a “conservative Republican,” whom he will name later. The Lincoln Project also aimed at a section of the conservative Republicans to win them away from Trump.
Today’s Democrats are splitting as well. The Democratic National Committee has a difficult time controlling who gets elected to Congress. In the 2018 Congressional elections, New York’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Boston’s Ayanna Pressley defeated powerful, long time Democratic “liberals.” Jamal Bowman challenged and defeated the DNC backed candidate Elliott Engel in New York in the 2020 election primary, and joined the “squad” in his general election victory. Charles Booker barely lost to Amy McGrath in the fight to challenge Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell. In the Chicago suburbs in 2018, Loren Underwood ousted a long term Republican while campaigning on a program of expanded health care; and in 2020 Marie Newman ousted conservative incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski in the primary, on a program including Medicare for All. Over the past 10 years, the composition of the Chicago City Council has changed to reflect some of these changes as well.
As with the Whigs and Democrats of 150 years ago, where one party could not contain pro- and anti-slavery positions, there is not room in one party for the advocates of expanding public property (like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal) and those wanting to maintain the status quo. This reflects the fact that there is no room any more for capital to grant the demands for basic needs that the 40 million newly unemployed are adding to those being made by the already dispossessed. The most recent example of this is the passage in House and Senate of an infrastructure bill and a defense bill that provide plenty of grist for the corporate profit mill. Meanwhile a bill, dubbed “Build Back Better” has been cut in quarters, and the quarter left languishes in the Senate and won’t be passed unless it is further gutted.
What seems clear is that the Republicans are turning into the equivalent of the Democrats of 1860, a party based in the South and dedicated to the utmost reaction. The Democrats are looking like the Whigs of 1848. While Biden won the presidency in November, 2020, Democrats arrived in Washington in January ready to do battle on how to control or respond to the demands of the people. Just as the Whigs of 1848 splintered over the question of slavery and its abolition, Democrats today are splitting. No one will say it out loud. It’s not even necessarily conscious. The issue today is abolition as well, and the subject is public or private property. Will we have a public health system or one subjected to private corporate greed? Will housing be a human right, or will we watch increasing numbers of people in tent cities while real estate speculation runs rampant? Will the public take control of “policing” in America, or will we be further murdered and subjugated by private militias and militarized police forces? Will what happens to the earth be decided by the people, or will corporate/technological profiteers be allowed to place bets on how quickly the arctic ice sheets will melt?
It’s impossible to say how long it will take for this to mature. The Working Family’s Party can provide sort of a thermometer of how far along this process has gone, as it tries to balance its “fusion” politics with its stated declaration of the need for a third party. In different parts of the country, grass roots leaders are vying for political office; in most cases they estimate that they cannot win without the label of a major party (even when that party does not back them). Paula Swearingen, who tried to unseat Joe Manchin in the West Virginia Democratic primary, has declared her independence.
Of course there are various other political parties running candidates with varying degrees of success at this time, the Green Party and the Justice Democrats being perhaps the most prominent. As did smaller political parties in the political motion in advance of the Civil War, these parties will play a role. It is likely that a bourgeois third party will emerge first, then a workers’ party. Ultimately a political expression that represents the new, dispossessed class, an abolitionist class, created by the new means of production will emerge. And because it will represent people who cannot survive except by distribution according to need, it will be a practical communist party representing a practical communist class. It’s not likely to be as clean as that; but the process is well underway, and is likely to proceed from the splintering of the major parties and the accumulation of independent forces not affiliated with parties today.