U.S. Constitution: An Exploiter's Vision of Freedom
Revolutionary Worker #939, January 11, 1998
The following passages from U.S. Constitution: An Exploiter's Vision of Freedom by Bob Avakian, provide important historical background for analyzing and critiquing the political viewpoint of the powerful film Amistad. In particular these passages shed light on the scene at the Supreme Court where the character of John Quincy Adams invokes "his ancestors," the "Founding Fathers" of the U.S., to support his demand that the African rebels of the ship Amistad must be released.
James Madison, who was the main author of the Constitution of the United States, was also an upholder of slavery and the interests of the slaveowners in the United States. Madison, the fourth president of the United States, not only wrote strongly in defense of the Constitution, he also strongly defended the part of the Constitution that declared the slaves to be only three-fifths of human beings (that provided for the slaves to be counted this way for the purposes of deciding on representation and taxation of the states--Article I, Section 2, 3 of the Constitution).
In writing this defense, Madison praised "the uncompromising expedient of the Constitution" which treats the slaves as "inhabitants, but as debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants; which regards the slave as divested of two-fifths of the man." Madison explained: "The true state of the case is that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property.... This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live; and it will not be denied that these are the proper criterion." Madison got to the heart of the matter, the essence of what the U.S. Constitution is all about, when in the course of upholding the decision to treat slaves as three-fifths human beings he agrees with the following principle: "Government is instituted no less for protection of the property than of the persons of individuals." Property rights--that is the basis on which outright slavery as well as other forms of exploitation, discrimination, and oppression have been consistently upheld. And over the 200 years that this Constitution has been in force down to today, despite the formal rights of persons it proclaims, and even though the Constitution has been amended to outlaw slavery where one person actually owns another as property, the U.S. Constitution has always remained a document that upholds and gives legal authority to a system in which the masses of people, or their ability to work, have been used as wealth-creating property for the profit of the few.
The abolition of slavery through the Civil War meant the elimination of one form of exploitation and the further development and extension of other forms of exploitation. As I wrote in Democracy: Can't We Do Better Than That?, "despite the efforts of abolitionists and the resistance and revolts of the slaves themselves--and their heroic fighting in the Civil War itself--it was not fought by the Union government in the North, and its president, Lincoln, for the purpose of abolishing the atrocity of slavery in some moral sense.... The Civil War arose out of the conflict between two modes of production, the slave system in the South and the capitalist system centered in the North; this erupted into open antagonism, warfare, when it was no longer possible for these two modes of production to co-exist within the same country."
The victory of the North over the South in the U.S. Civil War represented the victory of the capitalist system over the slave system. It represented the triumph of the capitalist form of using people as a means of creating wealth. Under the system of outright slavery, the slave is literally the property of the slaveowner. Under capitalism, slavery becomes wage-slavery: The exploited class of workers is not owned by the exploiting class of capitalists (the owners of factories, land, etc.), but the workers are in a position where they must sell their ability to work to a capitalist in order to earn a wage. Capitalism needs a mass of workers that is "free," in a two-fold sense: They must be "free" of all means to live (all means of production), except their ability to work; and they must not be bound to a particular owner, a particular site, a particular guild, etc. --- they must be "free" to do whatever work is demanded of them, they must be "free" to move from place to place, and "free" to be hired and fired according to the needs of capital! If they cannot enrich a capitalist through working, then the workers cannot work, they cannot earn a wage. But even if they cannot find a capitalist to exploit their labor, even if they are unemployed, they still remain under the domination of the capitalist class and of the process of capitalist accumulation of wealth--the proletarians (the workers) are dependent on the capitalist class and the capitalist system for their very lives, so long as the capitalist rules. It is this rule, this system of exploitation, that the U.S. Constitution has upheld and enforced, all the more so after outright slavery was abolished through the Civil War.
But here is another very important fact: In the concrete conditions of the U.S. coming out of the Civil War, and for some time afterward, wage-slavery was not the only major form of exploitation in force in the U.S. Up until very recently (until the 1950s), millions of Black people were exploited like serfs on Southern plantations, working as sharecroppers and tenant farmers to enrich big landowners (and bankers and other capitalists). A whole system of laws--commonly known as Jim Crow laws--were enforced to maintain this relationship of exploitation and oppression: Black people throughout the South--and really throughout the whole country--were subjected to the open discrimination, brutality and terror that such laws allowed and encouraged. All this, too, was upheld and enforced by the Constitution and its interpretation and application by the highest political and legal authorities in the U.S. And, over the past several decades, when the great majority of Black people have been uprooted from the land in the South and have moved into the cities of the North (and South), they have still been discriminated against, forcibly segregated, and continually subjected to brutality and terror even while some formal civil rights have been extended to them.
Once again, this is in accordance with the interests of the ruling capitalist class, and capitalist system. It is consistent with the principle enunciated by James Madison: Governments must protect the property no less than the persons of individuals. In fact, what Madison obviously meant--and what the reality of the U.S. has clearly been--is that the government must protect the property of white people, especially the wealthy white people, more than the rights of Black people. It must never be forgotten that for most of their history in what is now the United States of America Black people were the property of white people, particularly wealthy plantation owners. Even after this outright slavery was abolished, Black people have never been allowed to achieve equality with whites: they have been held down, maintained as an oppressed nation, and denied the right of self-determination. Capitalism cannot exist without the oppression of nations, and this is all the more so when capitalism develops into its highest stage: monopoly capitalism-imperialism. If the history of the United States has demonstrated anything, it has demonstrated this.
Bourgeois ruling classes generally speak in the name of the people, all the people. From their standpoint, it may make a certain amount of sense: They do, after all, rule over the masses of people. But from a more basic and more objective standpoint, their claim to represent all the people is a deception. If it was a deception at the time of the founding of the United States and the adoption of its Constitution, it is all the more so now. For now the rule of the capitalists is in fundamental antagonism with the interests of the great majority of people, not just in a particular country, but all over the world. Now the decisive question is not overcoming economic and political obstacles to the development of capitalism and its corresponding political system. The time when that was on the historical agenda is long since passed. What is now on the historical agenda is the overthrow of capitalism and final elimination of all systems of exploitation, all oppressive social relations, all class distinctions, through the revolution of the exploited class under capitalism, the proletariat....
In conclusion, The Constitution of the United States is an exploiters' vision of freedom. It is a charter for a society based on exploitation, on slavery in one form or another. The rights and freedoms it proclaims are subordinate to and in the service of the system of exploitation it upholds. This Constitution has been and continues to be applied in accordance with this vision and with the interests of the ruling class of this system: In its application it has become more and more fully the instrument of bourgeois domination, dictatorship, oppression, conquest, and plunder.
Our answer is clear to those who argue: Even if The Constitution of the United States is not perfect, it is the best that has been devised--it sets a standard to be striven for. Our answer is: Why should we aim so low, when we have The Communist Manifesto to set a far higher standard of what humanity can strive for--and is capable of achieving--a far greater vision of freedom.
NOTE: quotes from James Madison are from the Federalist Paper No. 54 in The Federalist Papers, (New York: New American Library, 1961), pp. 336-341.
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