Posted October 21, 2004

Socialism is American:

Consitution of the United States Founding of the Bourgeois Republic

Material interests determine man's viewpoint. But material interests are, in their turn, determined by no one circumstance. The material interests that fretted against feudal restraints gave general direction to the revolt of the French bourgeois, and thereby caused its direction fall within that quarter of the compass into which the American Revolution fell. But the exact point of the compass touched by each depended upon secondary material conditions. With the French Revolution, a sufficiently defined proletarian class simultaneously mounted the historic stage; none such made or could make its appearance in the instance of the American Revolution.--Daniel De Leon


These essays present a brief sketch of the origin of the Constitution of the United States, the circumstances attending its formation, and the changes which have taken place in the United States since the Constitutional Convention of 1789, rendering inadequate and unsuitable what was once a logical compact for this republic.

The society of the founding fathers was predominantly an agricultural society with land tenure either the prevailing condition, or with land, and independent individual possession of land, readily within the grasp of the average citizen. The society of today is predominantly industrial, with production essentially social in character, though ownership has remained individual and restricted to a small minority, individual ownership of the means of wealth-production being now utterly beyond the reach of the actual operators of the industries, that is, of the individual wealth-producers, the wage-working class of America

The tools of production have undergone vast and profound changes during the more than a century and a half since the founding of the United States of America. Whereas in 1789 each individual producer owned and operated his own tools, today the "tool" has become the mammoth industry, capable of being operated only through the cooperation of thousands of workers whose only stake in industry is at best a wage barely sufficient to supply the individual with the minimum in food, shelter and clothing, with frequent, and often long, periods of unemployment. In other words, while at the inception of this republic individual ownership corresponded with individual production, today ownership is in fact denied to the mass of the citizens, who must toil at a slave's pittance for the benefit of the relatively few owners of the socially operated industries, reducing the vast majority to a condition of virtual slavery.

Herbert Spencer defined slavery in these terms:

"What is essential to the idea of a slave? We primarily think of him as one owned by another. To be more than nominal, however, the ownership must be shown by control, of the slave's action--a control which is habitually to the benefit of the controller. That which fundamentally distinguishes the slave is that he labors under coercion to satisfy another's desire. The relation admits of sundry gradations. Remembering that originally the slave is a prisoner whose life is at the mercy of his captor, it suffices here to note that there is a harsh form of slavery in which, treated as an animal he has to expend his entire effort for his owner's advantage. Under a system less harsh, though occupied chiefly in working for his owner, he is allowed a short time in which to work for himself, and some ground on which to grow extra food. A further amelioration give him power to sell the produce of his plot and keep the proceeds. Then we come to the still more moderated form which commonly arises where, having been a free man working on his own land, conquest turns him into what we distinguish as a serf, and he has to give to his owner each year a fixed amount of labor or produce, or both: retaining the rest himself. Finally, in some cases, as in Russia until recently, he is allowed to leave his owner's estate and work or trade for himself elsewhere, under the condition that he shall pay an annual sum.....The essential question is--How much is he compelled to labor for other benefit than his own, and how much can he labor for his own benefit? The degree of his slavery varies according to the ratio between that which he is forced to yield up and that which he is allowed to retain: and it matters not whether his master is a single person or a society." ("The Coming Slavery.")

No one can deny that Spencer's definition of slavery fits the conditions of the majority of the people of the United States today. Economic dependency is the essence of slavery, whatever the forms of slavery. The second President of the United States, John Adams, even more succinctly defined slavery, and in terms that fully identify the modern wage worker's condition as essentially that of slavery. John Adams said:

"When the workers are paid in return for their labor only as much money as will buy the necessaries of life, their condition is identical with that of the slave."

President Franklin D. Roosevelt has repeatedly announced as his ideal for the workers that they must receive a "living wage," that is, the thing described by John Adams as being a slave's pittance. The changes that have taken place between John Adams and Franklin D. Roosevelt could not be more forcefully or graphically demonstrated than in the contrasting statement of these two American Presidents.

The relation between ownership and production having been thrown completely out of balance, the task before our generation must be to restore that balance by vesting ownership of the socially operated land and machinery in society, viz., social production, social ownership. The POLITICAL UNION of our fathers having outgrown its usefulness, must be replaced with the INDUSTRIAL UNION of the useful productive workers of today. This requires a new constitution, entirely different in character and form from the present constitution though it will contain the enduring principles of democracy which characterized the Constitution of 1789. The political democracy of the 18th and early 19th centuries will be superseded by the industrial democracy of the 20th century. Industrial democracy will, as stated, retain all that was vital and enduring in the political democracy of our father, and will place economic power, and the direction of society in the hands of the masses where alone it is safe and democratic for power to reside.

While the capitalist class, and the capitalist spokesmen and politicians, fender lip-service to the Constitution, professing reverence and admiration for this great document, in reality they hold it in contempt, except those parts which directly secure their property rights. In their secret hearts they fear and distrust the Constitution. This was perhaps never more forcefully demonstrated than when the proposal for so-called national service was introduced some time ago, "National Service" is, of course, nothing but a euphemism for labor conscription, compulsory labor, or involuntary servitude, to use the constitutional phrase.

The thirteenth amendment to the Constitution expressly and unqualifiedly forbids compulsory labor. Supreme Court decisions have repeatedly confirmed the provisions of the thirteenth amendment, whenever attempts were made to circumvent them through ambiguously phrased legalistic proposals. Capitalist editorial writers and columnists (notably the shallow and pontifical Walter Lippmann) have argued for involuntary servitude through analogies, as, for instance, that if military conscription is not unconstitutional (which in any case remains a moot constitutional question), neither can industrial conscription be. The simple and incontestable fact remains that military conscription (a comparatively modern invention) is not forbidden by the Constitution in express terms, whereas involuntary servitude, of industrial conscription, is unqualifiedly forbidden, and in unmistakably clear and express terms. Not one of the proponents of labor conscription has dared to come to grips with this issue--they have artfully dodged it whenever they were challenged. And while columns upon columns in the press have been granted to the proponents of involuntary servitude to argue the alleged (and constitutionally irrelevant) necessity of compulsory labor, space has been denied to those who have sought to demonstrate in reasoning details that labor conscription is in fact in direct violation of the thirteenth amendment and a menace to all constitution rights and guarantees.

While the attempt to declare the thirteenth amendment a dead letter law is by no means the only effort made by capitalist politicians to set aside the basic law of the land, or important provisions of it, it is by far the most important and sinister, being also the most recent. The attempt illustrates the oft-confirmed sociological law that once a class is in power, and that power or vital material interests of the ruling class are threatened or obstructed, nothing will stop that class from trampling underfoot even its own basic and most "sacred" laws and provisions. It recalls to mind James Russell Lowell's scathing indictment of those who argued the constitutionality of human slavery, and the evil practices attending it:

"Here we stan on the Constitution, by thunder!
It's a fact o'wich ther's bushils o'proffs;
Fer how could we trample on't so, I wonder,
Ef't worn't that it's ollers under our hoofs?"

Since the new industrial constitution must reflect the new industrial democratic republic yet to be launched, it cannot be presented in detail here. However, unlike the present Constitution, which in the main concerns itself with property relations, and rights and duties flowing from these relations, the new constitution will deal with the collectively owned and democratically managed land and industries, with proper work performed in conformity with the principle: The full social product of labor to all who labor socially and usefully.

In addition, that new constitution will guarantee to the social producers an equal voice and vote in the management and operation of industry, with renewed guarantees of freedom of conscience, freedom of speech, and all other freedoms now reserved to each individual, freedoms that are not incompatible with the interest of the collectivity as a whole and the safeguarding of the paramount interests of a civilized society of enlightened free men and women, bound together in fraternal relationship, enduring peace and uninterrupted affluence.

--Arnold Petersen

December 3, 1944


"He [a Berlin journalist] says the evil consequences of modern capitalism in Russia will be as easily overcome as they are in the United States. There he quite forgets, that the United States are modern, bourgeois from the very origin; that they were founded by petits bourgeois and peasants who ran away from European feudalism to establish a purely bourgeois society.....Up to 1848 one could only speak of the permanent native [Unite States] working class as an exception; the small beginnings of it in the cities in the East always had still the hope of becoming farmers or bourgeoisie."


The Constitution of the United States has been praised and condemned in extravagant terms. On the one hand, it has been hailed as the greatest document ever conceived and penned by the brain and hand of man; on the other, it has been denounced as a compact of evil, as a conspiracy by the rich against the poor--the latter particularly by anarchists of various stripes, including the Anarcho-Communist variety (the members and supporters of the "Communist party"), though latterly these bewildered creatures (who pass through life in a state of permanent mental infantilism) have become passionate Constitution-worshipers, and in such contrast to their erstwhile contempt for, and vilification of, the Constitution as to furnish additional proof of the two main indictments against anarchists: that they are the reverse of that medal of which the bourgeoisie constitutes the obverse; and that their cloak of "no-government" hides a body dedicated to autocracy and tyranny.

Of course, the Constitution of the United States was neither the inspired word of the deity, nor the foul plot of the devil which its admirers and traducers have successively proclaimed it to be. Putting the matter in the simplest terms, the Constitution may be said to be merely the rules and by-laws of the association which came into being full-fledged with the ousting of the British Crown; and obviously these by-laws--like the by-laws of any group or association--reflected the essential needs of the body it was intended to rule and hold together. It was a youthful capitalist society which emerged in America at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War--a crude and primitive capitalism, to be sure, but full-fledged, and capable of developing to full stature and maturity, as it did so develop. Nevertheless, despite the particular purpose the Constitution was to serve, it fully deserves the recognition bestowed upon it as being the greatest and most enlightened document of its kind at the time of its adoption--and this notwithstanding even the many defects which its own authors were quick to point out. And it was possible for it to become such a unique document, not primarily because its creators were wise and good men (though most of them were wise and good--"good," as men go), but because it originated under conditions which rendered well-nigh ideal the beginning of the new social system.

In Europe, capitalism had to hack its way, so to speak, through the heavy crust of feudalism, with all the travail and confusion attending the gradual merging of two opposite sets of social principles, with the eventual elimination of most of the old order. For in Europe, when capitalism emerged finally, it was not only tainted with the feudalic spirit but it carried with it large chunks of feudal vestiges, some of which to this very day still survive, and which in some countries (notably Italy and Germany) have even served as "springboards" for the new feudalism which has (temporarily, at least) arisen there. A still more striking example of what results from the fusing of a thoroughly encrusted feudalism with a fairly well developed capitalism may be seen in the case of Japan, where a social system emerged and developed into what may be described as an almost perfect example of industrial feudalism.

But here in America we started virtually in a capitalist Eden-an Eden, however, which was not without its serpent, viz., private property, and particularly slave property. But private property was the logical institution for the time and situation, and slave property was eventually abolished as the anomaly it was in a growing capitalist society, where wage labor, or wage slavery, forms its logical and inseparable counterpart. In such an ideal setting, and with such enormous natural resources, capitalism developed ideally, bringing to full fruition all that was inherent in, and normal to, the system. No wonder, then, that the American Constitution, devoid of the trammels that accompanied constitutions and governments elsewhere, became the object of admiration and envy on the part of the bourgeoisie everywhere. And deservedly so, for here was, indeed, the almost perfect expression of capitalism in its almost pure state; and this statement is not made in any derogatory sense, for it must not be forgotten that capitalism represented a great step forward in social and human progress. Hence capitalism in America at the time of the revolution, and for many years thereafter, represented revolution and progress at its noblest and best (and, as contrasted with feudalism, capitalism was deserving of the description), and men's hearts and minds are ever stirred by new and noble concepts.

Finding themselves thus confronted with problems for which there were no precedents, in a country whose history pages hitherto had been all but blank (recalling Carlyle's saying, "Happy the people whose annals are blank"), it was natural that the Fathers should turn to the republics of the past for such guidance, if not example, as they might afford. The writings of Madison abound in citations and references relating to the Greek republics, and other government of antiquity. To a lesser extent this is also true of the writing of Hamilton, who, with Jay and Madison, was the author of "The Federalist," wherein the new Constitution was examined and defended, with incidental criticisms of certain parts of it. Writing (jointly with Hamilton) about "the Grecian republics, associated under the Amphictyonic Council," Madison observes: "From the best account transmitted of this celebrated institution, it bore a very instructive analogy to the present confederation of the American States." And at great length both Hamilton and Madison present analogies to give point to their defense of the Constitution, the adoption of which they so strenuously urged upon the people, frequently quoting also from Plutarch, Aristotle, Plato and other ancient writers. (Hamilton also quoted extensively from Montesquieu, the great 18th century French philosopher of the bourgeoisie, of whom Hamilton apparently was a great admirer.) Apropos of the Senate, the creation of which was urged as a safeguard of property rights, the following passage from Plutarch must have been powerfully suggestive, particularly to Hamilton. Writing of Lycurgus, the Spartan lawgiver, Plutarch said:

"Among the many changes and alterations which Lycurgus made, the first and of greatest importance was the establishment of the senate, which.....gave steadiness and safety to the Commonwealth. For the state, which before had no firm basis to stand upon, but leaned one while towards an absolute monarchy, when the kings had the upper hand, and another while towards a pure democracy, when the people had the better, found in this establishment of the senate a central weight, like ballast in a ship, which always kept things in a just equilibrium....."

And upon Madison, who not only possessed hindsight but prophetic insight as well, and who realized that the time would come when America would be like Europe with its inequalities and teeming hordes of propertiless persons, this further reference to Sparta and Lycurgus must have made a profound impression:

"After the creation of thirty senators, his [Lycurgus's] next task, and, indeed, the most hazardous he ever undertook, was the making a new division of their lands. For there was an extreme inequality amongst them, and their state was overloaded with a multitude of indigent and necessitous persons, while its whole wealth had centered upon a very few."

(Incidentally, this sounds very much like a description of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's America, and possible Mr. Roosevelt has taken his due from Lycurgus the lawgiver, who is further reported as having requested the "plutocrats" of Sparta to "renounce their properties, and consent to a new division of the land....."!)

What the Fathers meant to create, what they hoped to form, was a constitution and a government which forever (or for a time so far into the future as to seem practically "forever") would guarranty equality and well-being to all. They could not have known that private property (which is the cornerstone of the Constitution) would become an institution for the enslavement of the overwhelming mass of the population, since private property to them obviously meant the only and natural means of freedom for all. Yet, this is what has actuall happened. The Fathers sincerely thought they organized a free commonwealth. What they, in fact, did was to lay the foundation of the caitalist State, resting, as it does now, on the exploitation of countless wage slaves. They honestly thought they organized a government of freemen, to endure for ages. They did no realize that they fashioned (as Carlyle put it) what was to become "emphatically a machine: to the discontented a 'taxing machine, "Taxing," that is, in the sense that the political State is the executive committee of the caitalist class, aiding that class in extracting from the working class from 80 per cent to 90 per cent of its total product. With taxation in its current sense the workers are not concerned, seeing that taxes are derived from property of which the workers, as a class, own nothing. The "direct" taxation, or the humbug "indirect" taxation, which all politicians and bourgeois-minded persons cackle so much about. Nor, the latest, the so-called "withholding tax," which actually is no tax on the workers since they figure their wages in terms of "take-home pay." to the contented a 'machine for securing of property," They did not visualize, and could not have visualized, that they were building a political structure which later was to fit Emerson's terse verdict: "Every state is corrupt." They did know that unless safeguards were provided, governmental agencies would fall into the hand of corrupt individuals, but they did not expect that the then people's government, which they established as an institution, would become what Emerson also described as "the cheat and bully and malefactor we meet everywhere....." For with all their knowledge and wisdom, they shared the view of the bourgeoisie everywhere that the downfall of feudalism signalized the arrival of permanent human freedom and well-being. They did not understand, and could not have understood, that private property was something comparatively recent in human affairs--having only existed during what Lewis H. Morgan call "the comparateively short period of civilization....." They did not, and could not know that private property contained within itself the germ of its own destruction, and of the social system resting upon it. They did not grasp the tremendously significant fact that private property as an institution was the child of scarcity and an increasing population, and that it constituted the painful, but necessary means of solving the problem resulting from ancient communism's equality on the basis of universal poverty and want, viz., universal stagnation, materially and culturally. They probably had read Aristole's observation--

"For if every instrument could accomplish its own work, obeying or anticipating the will of others, like the statues of Daedalus, or the tripods of Hephaestus, which says the poet Homer, II. XVIII, 376

'of their own accord entered
the assembly of the Gods,'

if, in like manner, the shuttle would weave and the plectrum touch the lyre without a hand to guide them, chief workmen would not want servants, nor masters slaves--"

But no more than Aristotle could they conceive of a time when production might be carried on with semi-automatic machinery as is now being done, which fact is responsible for private property having become a monstrosity, and a curse to society at large, though primarily to the propertiless working class. For whatever the Fathers might think of Europe and its miseries, where it might have seemed to be necessary for ages to maintain a situation where--

"those who think must govern those that toil,"

they felt sure that, as said before, the government they were forming would insure equality, justice and plenty for all.

Thus, one hundred and fifty years after the adoption of the Constitution, the social system which it was intended to serve--and did serve effectively and beneficially for so many years--presents to our generation the identical problem (though magnified a thousand-fold, and many time more complex) which the Farthers were called upon to solve, and which they did so magnificently solve for their generation. The problem of abolishing private property in our day involves the problem of abolishing slavery (wage slavery), exactly as the advent of property brought slavery into existence. "With property," says Lewis H. Morgan, "also came in gradually the principle of aristocracy, striving for the creation of privileged classes. The element of property [continues Morgan] which has controlled society to a great extent during the comparatively short period of civilization, has given mankind despotism, imperialism, monarchy, privileged classes, and finally representative democracy [attaining full efflorescence in the democracy founded in 1787--A.P.]. It has also made the career of the civilized nations essentially a property-making career. But when the intelligence of mankind [i.e., of the present-day working class.--A.P.] rises to the height of the great question of the abstract rights of property, including the relations of property to the state, as well as the rights of persons to property, a modification of the present order of things may be expected."

Thus, sixty years ago, spoke the great American scholar, Lewis Henry Morgan, writing in the spirit of the "founding Fathers" of 1787. It remains for the workers to organize for industrial self-government, discard the territorial basis of governmental representation which came into being with the advent of private property and slavery, and thereby not merely to achieve their own emancipation (making full use of the great document executed in 1787 by our revolutionary forefathers), but also to save civilization and society from a social cataclysm which threatens to engulf all mankind. Even as America 150 years ago provided a setting which made of the newly established social system a veritable Eden of Capitalism, so America today provides the setting which makes it possible for the workers to establish humanity's "first heaven on earth," without much travail and disorder. When the workers organize in revolutionary Industrial Unions, these to constitute the component integral parts of the new "federal" industrial government, we shall have put an end to the horrors engendered of private property systems and slavery. The free Industrial Republic of Labor, with peace and abundance for all, will constitute this "heaven on earth," the "Good Society," and not the reversal to bourgeois liberalism of twenty-five or fifty years ago which certain plutogogues are prating about, and urging upon us in the name of the "Good Society." Our revolutionary forefathers, as an absolute condition for establishing their "Good Society," were compelled first to destroy the rule and power of the British Crown. The absolute condition for instituting the industrially democratic "Good Society," of the future is that Capitalism Must Be Destroyed! In other words, autocracy in industry, or despotic collectivism, must yield to democratic ownership and management of industry, or democratic collectivism--in short, SOCIALISM.

The Constitutional Conventiion of 1787

["The American Revolution, the name that our bourgeois revolution goes by, was the most liberal until then experienced. Dry-as-dust dogmatists, whose Socialism goes by rote, deprive the gorgeous Morgan-Marxian theory regarding the materialist conception of history of much of its splendor, incisiveness and many-sided luminousness by denying the Revolutionary Fathers of America all sincerity in their fervid proclamations of freedom. Not only is the materialist conception of history nowise done violence to--on the contrary, it receives marked demonstration from the sincere, however fatuous belief of the Revolutionary Fathers that they had established freedom on permanent foundations.....

"Of course the belief was fatuous. The economic social laws that underlie the private ownership of the necessaries for production--land and tools--and which started into activity since that great primal revolution which overthrew the [ancient] communal system, could not choose but to be latent in the young bourgeois American Republic. Nor were these laws slow to assert themselves, and, in so asserting themselves, to shake and then shatter the card-house of the Revolution's illusions concerning freedom."--Daniel De Leon]


The first "constitution" of the United States was adopted at Philadelphia on the ninth of July, 1778, but it was not ratified until March, 1781. It was called by the grandiose title "Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States of [the thirteen original states]." And whereas the preamble of the present Constitution commences with the democratic, "We the People of the United States....do ordain and establish this constitution for the United States of America," thereby expressly recognizing the people as the source of power, the "Articles of Confederation" opens in the manner of a lawyer's brief--"TO ALL TO WHOM THESE PRESENTS SHALL COME," and drily certifies to the fact that certain delegates had agreed "to certain articles of confederation and perpetual union...." It is of passing interest to note that in the preamble to the "Articles" Massachusetts is referred to as "Massachusetts Bay," and Rhode Island as "Rhode Island, and Providence Plantations."

The Articles of Confederation" reflected the unsettled state of the country, and the uncertainty prevailing among the states generally with respect to investing a central authority with power to dictate to them in certain important respects. They were soon found inadequate for the purpose of a "perfect" union, not to speak of a "perpetual union"! As de Toqueville, in his study of the American Republic, that oft-quoted classic, "Democracy in America," said:

"As long as the war with the mother country lasted, the principle of union was kept alive by necessity; and although the laws which constituted it were defective, the common tie subsisted in spite of their imperfections. But no sooner was peace concluded, than the faults of this legislation [the "Articles"] became manifest, and the State seemed to be suddenly dissolved. Each Colony became an independent republic, and assumed an absolute sovereignty. The Federal government, condemned to impotence by its Constitution, and no longer sustained by the presence of a common danger, witnessed the outrages offered to it flag by the great nations of Europe, whilst it was scarcely able to maintain its ground against the Indian tribes, and to pay the interest of the debt which had been contracted during the war of independence. It was already on the verge of destruction, when it officially proclaimed its inability to conduct the government and appealed to the constituent authority. (Congress made this declaration on the 21st of February, 1787.)"

Writing in July, 1786, to Col. Wm. Grayson, one of his aides, George Washington said: "Is it not among the most unaccountable things in nature that the representation of a great country should generally be so thin as not to be able to execute the functions of government"

And somewhat later he wrote: "Without them [i.e., adequate powers] we stand in a ridiculous point of view in the eyes of the nations of the world....who must see and feel that the Union, or the States individually, are sovereigns, as best suits their purpose; in a word, that we are one nation today, and thirteen tomorrow."

It is a fact that the great powers of Europe held the United States in thorough contempt. The manner in which the capitalist powers have treated Soviet Russia constitutes the nearest parallel to the treatment accorded the United by the world powers following the close of the Revolutionary War.

One of the most ominous signs of the prevailing anarchy, and contempt for the federal authority, was the revolt headed by Daniel Shays, of Massachusetts, in the year 1786, which is now known as "Shays's Rebellion." And the weakness of even the state governments (Shays's rebellion was quelled by the State of Massachusetts, not the federal authority) is indicated by the fact that although fourteen of the "insurgent" were convicted of treason, and sentenced to death, while a large number were convicted of sedition followed by heavy penalties, the sentences were softened or entirely remitted. As an early historian observes:

"To such extent did they share sympathies of the people, as to render their executions unsafe. Moderate penalties only were imposed."