The fight for a modern
‘land and labor league’
The following is the 20th in a series of excerpts the Militant is running from Pathfinder Press’s latest book, Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power, by Jack Barnes, national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party. We encourage our readers to study, discuss, and help sell the book. This selection comes from the chapter “Black Liberation and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Copyright © 2009 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission. Subhead is by the Militant.
BY JACK BARNES
At the big public meeting here in New York two days ago, we encouraged participants to visit the exhibition on “Slavery in New York” at the New York Historical Society. Among many other things, the exhibit describes the New York Manumission Society founded in 1785. I noted that John Jay—president of the Continental Congress for several years during the American Revolution, and later governor of New York and Chief Justice of the United States—was a founder of the society and had included in its constitution the following words: “The benevolent Creator and Father of men [has] given to them all an equal right to Life, Liberty and Property.”
I contrasted this favorably to Thomas Jefferson’s decision, in drafting the Declaration of Independence a decade earlier, to alter those words—much used by bourgeois opponents of monarchical tyranny and feudal reaction at the time—and replace them with the more intangible phrase: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” With the exception of the four children of Sally Hemings, none of the other slaves owned by Thomas Jefferson were freed by him, even in his will; 130 were sold at auction when he died. Possibly that puts into some perspective Jefferson’s practical understanding of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The banner “Life, Liberty and Property” was much more in the interests of all working people. It was the dispossession of independent toiling producers by capital that left us with no other choice but to sell our labor power to an employer in order to survive and thus gave rise to our class, the hereditary proletariat. They took away our free use of tools. They drove us off the land, and out of independent crafts and trades. They deprived us of our own means of production. They took over the commons. And it was the brutal denial of both liberty and property—even the right to hold property, much less the opportunity to do so—that marked chattel slavery and many other forms of bonded labor. In the chapters of Capital on “So-Called Primitive Accumulation,” Marx describes in some detail how, as a result of these combined processes, the capitalist mode of production came into the world “dripping from head to toe, from every pore, with blood and filth.”
‘Pursuit of happiness’
Once we’ve established a workers and farmers government and expropriated the capitalist class, working people will be plenty competent to take care of our own “pursuit of happiness”—and we’ll pursue a lot of it on the way. Contrary to the bourgeois misrepresentation of communists as utopian social engineers, proletarian revolutionists—like most other workers—firmly believe that many things in life are best left to the individual. The right to privacy is real. We think the state, including a workers state, should keep its nose out of our “pursuit of happiness.”
Neither the proletarian dictatorship, nor the communist society it is a bridge toward, has anything to do with some great collective barracks of humanity. That’s not what communism is about. To the contrary, as the Communist Manifesto explains, “In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.” We have little idea what it will be like, but it will be a lot better for working people.
Today, more than 130 years after Marx identified the class forces capable of making the third American revolution—a socialist revolution—that same alliance remains central to the task: free labor, free farmers exploited by capital, and the men and women who freed themselves from the defeated slavocracy. Those forces remain at the heart of building a modern land and labor league,* the revolutionary proletarian party that can do the job.
Amid the powerful nationwide strikes sparked by rail workers in 1877, Marx wrote to Engels:
This first eruption against the oligarchy of associated capital which has arisen since the Civil War will of course be put down, but it could quite well form the starting point for the establishment of a serious labour party in the United States… .
The policy of the new President [of withdrawing Union troops backing Radical Reconstruction governments across the South] will turn the Negroes into allies of the workers, and the large expropriations of land (especially fertile land) in favour of railway, mining, etc., companies will convert the peasants of the West, who are already very disenchanted, into allies of the workers.
As I explained in the 1984 SWP convention report, “The Fight for a Workers and Farmers Government in the United States”:
But this was not to be. The economic and political reserves of the rising U.S. industrial bourgeoisie were far from exhausted, and thus the class-collaborationist illusions among working people still had deep taproots. The class-struggle leadership of the working class and its revolutionary core were still too small in numbers and inexperienced in class combat. Over the next half century the United States would become the world’s mightiest imperialist power, and the U.S. labor officialdom would become Uncle Sam’s handmaiden.
Moreover, the defeat of Radical Reconstruction dealt a devastating blow to Blacks and other U.S. working people. The U.S. working class became more deeply divided by the national oppression of Blacks that was institutionalized in the South on new foundations in the bloody aftermath of 1877. U.S. labor’s first giant step toward the formation of major industrial unions did not come for another six decades, and the formation of a labor party, anticipated by Marx 108 years ago, remains an unfulfilled task of our class to this day.
Nonetheless, Marx could not have been more correct about the alliance of social forces that would have to be at the center of a successful revolution in the United States—the working class, toilers who are Black, and exploited farmers.
That remains the prognosis for the American revolution, for the conquest of power and establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat in the United States, to this day.
* The Land and Labour League was launched by a conference of workers in London, England, in October 1869. It was organized at the initiative of the leadership of the International Working Men’s Association (IWMA, the “First International”), of which Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were central leaders. Writing to Engels about the founding of the new organization—which aimed to unite industrial workers in the cities with farm laborers and other rural working people in England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales—Marx said that “here, the workers’ party makes a clean break with the bourgeoisie” politically. Marx joined the Land and Labour League, and a number of its leaders were members of the IWMA General Council. By late 1870, however, bourgeois forces gained dominance in the league’s leadership, putting the organization on a course away from the IWMA and from its own founding declaration “that nothing short of a transformation of the existing social and political arrangements [can] avail, and that such a transformation [can] only be effected by the toiling millions themselves.”