Hamilton—or, The Real American Hustle

March 14, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Hamilton, an American Musical is the biggest thing to hit Broadway in many years. It premiered to rave reviews in February 2015, and has played to a packed house ever since. Hamilton was written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on a biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It tells Hamilton’s story from his arrival in the U.S. as an impoverished teenager to his death in a duel at the hands of then Vice-President Aaron Burr. It portrays Hamilton—one of the U.S.’s “Founding Fathers”—as a feisty, hot tempered, intelligent guy; ready to stand up for his honor and his principles, working relentlessly and determined to make it big, to make a name for himself.

The musical is presented at a high artistic level. Its music and choreography are creative and energetic. Its themes and ideas come wrapped in pulsing rhythms, staccato raps, and soaring melodies. A big part of its appeal is that it draws on hip-hop, jazz, and other musical genres not usually associated with Broadway. Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson face off in angry rap battles during cabinet meetings. King George of England enters sounding like he could be singing from a lost Beatles album. Hamilton projects a modern, urban sensibility, language, and mood onto colonial and early U.S. history.

Hamilton’s essential message is that “in America you can be anything you want if you really try.” The youthful Alexander Hamilton and his friends sing, “Yo, I’m just like my country, young scrappy and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.” Hamilton is all about not throwing away that shot—the one shot to make it, to strike it rich. The musical merges this “shot” with the shot to “...claim our promised land.” In this imagining, the country itself can be reshaped so that it includes people like the Black and Latino actors who portray Hamilton and other—all white—colonial figures. Personal success in the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism and the country’s success conflate and reinforce each other in Hamilton, and the whole package is wrapped in red, white, and blue bunting.

A review on the Huffington Post site enthusiastically summed up this outlook: “The core of this wonderful entertainment is an affirmation of America as a land of opportunity... What the three-hour musical does is transform this story into a motivational tour de force by casting black actors in the roles of Hamilton, Jefferson, Washington, and the other founding fathers. The message: anyone who feels left out, overlooked, underprivileged and/or passed over can find a hero in Alexander Hamilton.”

This statement concentrates a big part of the appeal of Hamilton to younger, Black, and Latino audiences. Fantasizing back to an America that never was, believing that in the America of today—the land of mass incarceration; a border bristling with razor wire and prisons; routine brutality and murder by police against youth of color; drone bombings and government run torture chambers; millions of youth locked out of a society that has no future for them—in this America even youth of color, even a penniless, outcast immigrant who’s smart and energetic and makes the system “work” for him or her can make it big against all odds.

Flowing from the musical’s success, all kinds of people are now interested in Alexander Hamilton. So, who was this Hamilton, what did he do, what were his outlook and goals, what does he actually represent?

A Land of Genocide and Slavery

Alexander Hamilton first arrived in what became the U.S. in 1772. At that time, the 13 colonies along the Atlantic Coast from New Hampshire in the North to Georgia in the South were part of the British empire. Genocide and slavery were integral to the land Hamilton was determined to make his mark in.

The Europeans who had settled in North America waged a series of murderous wars to seize the lands of the Indians who lived there, including spreading deadly “gifts” of contaminated smallpox blankets to eradicate entire villages and peoples. Shiploads of brutalized, whip lashed Africans were regularly brought to ports and put on auction blocks from New York to Savannah. Slavery of Africans and people descended from Africans was most prevalent in the Southern colonies, but legal in all 13. Slavery was the foundation of enormous wealth amassed not only by Southern plantation owners, but also by the emerging class of merchant capitalists in Massachusetts, New York, and other Northern states. Among the Northern states, New York in particular had a high number of slaves.

The colonies were seething with discontent at British control and domination. A foundational premise of colonial rule at that time was that colonies enrich the “mother country.” Each of the 13 colonies was ruled directly by an English governor in the interests of the English ruling class. The emerging class of merchant capitalists increasingly resented that they were denied any representation in English decision making and policy formation, especially when it came to issues of taxation. These Northern capitalists decided to strike out on their own, and sought to bring the slave owners of the Southern colonies with them.

In 1776 the colonies declared their independence, and a war began between the colonists and the British Army. When Hamilton was still in his 20s he became chief aide to Commander in Chief George Washington (himself a prosperous slave owner) during the U.S. War of Independence from England. The 13 colonies emerged from eight years of war as an independent country. But it was a country exhausted from war, and weakened by an ineffective central government and endlessly squabbling states.

Bob Avakian has written of the “particular—and peculiar, if you will—historical evolution of the United States. Today, we say this as one entity (almost as one word), but actually it has real historical significance: the ‘United States’ of America. This is a reflection of the whole historical development of this country and of the bourgeois state (or the bourgeois/slaveowners’ state for a certain period in this country, up until the Civil War in the 1860s) out of 13 colonies, which were to a significant degree separate and distinct entities and had to go through a process, a halting and difficult process, marked by a lot of conflict among them, before they were able to form themselves into one unified nation-state, if you will.”

Hamilton and others among the rising class of Northern capitalists were convinced that the Articles of Confederation that loosely bound the former colonies together did not adequately represent their interests. They wanted a cohered, firmly unified nation. They needed a political framework that brought together the emerging capitalists of the North and Southern slave owners, and enabled them to expand westward into regions still populated by Native Americans—regions they would “clear” with more genocidal military campaigns.

That framework was provided by the U.S. Constitution.

A “Founding Father”... of Emerging Capitalism

Hamilton did not write the U.S. Constitution. But his foremost achievement, and the main reason he is regarded as a “Founding Father,” is that during the rough and tumble political battles of the early days of U.S. independence, he fought more than anyone to forge a country with a strong central government unified around that Constitution.

In the tumultuous and unsettled environment of the early U.S., Hamilton consciously fought for the development of capitalism, and represented the emerging Northern bourgeoisie. He knew that if the former colonies splintered into several distinct nations, the interests and aims of nascent capitalists could be overwhelmed, and possibly crushed. Hamilton repeatedly and energetically argued that in the absence of a strong central government in the U.S., European powers would be able to pit the interests of some states against others, and weaken all of them in the process.

Hamilton was the principal author and overall director of a project that came to be called The Federalist Papers. This was a series of 85 articles arguing for the adoption of the new U.S. Constitution against people who bitterly opposed it. Conventions were held in every state to determine whether or not that state would accept the Constitution. Hamilton fought relentlessly for over a month against entrenched opposition to win the crucial state of New York to accept it.

In The Federalist Papers and elsewhere, Hamilton articulated three basic goals for the newly formed country to get on its feet and for capitalism to grow. He thought there needed to be a muscular central (federal) power if the young U.S. was to become what he called “the embryo of a great empire,” capable of developing the economic and military strength needed to compete with well-established European powers (who still had a direct presence, including military presence, in North America); he wanted to protect private property in whatever form it existed (and enslaved human beings of African descent were, along with land, the most valuable form of property in the U.S. at that point); he wanted to maintain the order and stability capitalism needed to flourish.

The accomplishments of the U.S. Constitution and The Federalist Papers were not to “establish justice” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,” as the Constitution proclaims and as generations have been taught. They were in enabling two different modes of production based on exploitation—capitalism and slavery—to coexist and expand within the same political structure.

The U.S. was founded as a “slaveholders’ union.” It “embedded slavery in American law,” as historian George William Van Cleve wrote. Some of the U.S. Constitution’s most infamous passages express this explicitly—Black people were to be counted as “three-fifths” human; escaped “fugitive” slaves were to be returned to their owners, even if they had escaped to non-slave territory. But the entire document legitimized and provided a basis for the expansion of slavery.

With the acceptance of the U.S. Constitution by the 13 former colonies, Northern capitalists and Southern slave owners were coalescing into a single ruling class over the entire country. There were many sharp conflicts within this arrangement from its onset, and these erupted into all-out civil war 74 years later. But Hamilton and other Northern capitalists wanted the union with slave owners to provide a political framework for working out disputes between them, and to provide a basis for capitalism’s growth, as well as for the defense, survival, and expansion of the entire country.

The Narrow Horizons of Bourgeois Right

Hamilton’s political actions, the positions he fought for, and his world outlook flowed from his desire to promote and establish the capitalist mode of production in the new country. Hamilton served in George Washington’s cabinet as the U.S.’s first Secretary of the Treasury, and in his five years in the cabinet, that and other institutions he initiated to develop capitalism became significant and lasting components of the structure of the U.S. government.

Hamilton and other early advocates of capitalism wanted to sweep away feudal privileges given to lords and kings. He thought this would eliminate social divisions “as far as such divisions should be eliminated”, as Bob Avakian wrote in Birds Cannot Give Rise to Crocodiles, but Humanity Can Soar Beyond the Horizon. (Birds/Crocodiles)

The U.S. Constitution Hamilton advocated so strenuously provided a legal and political foundation for cohering a society that contained chasms of inequalities—economic, social, and legal. The political freedoms given to propertied white men were founded upon the mass murder and theft committed against Native Americans, and the enslavement of Black people. Both Native and Black people (and all women) were excluded from the political order established by the U.S. Constitution.

These glaring inequalities were not troublesome to Alexander Hamilton or any other of the U.S.’s leaders. Hamilton’s understanding of concepts such as “rights” and “freedoms” were shaped by the narrow limits of the capitalist mode of production. His world outlook and political goals were an expression in the realm of ideas of a basic underlying reality of capitalism—the appearance of equality that masks a reality of great inequality.

“Bourgeois right” is a concept of rights that corresponds to and reflects the capitalist mode of production. It is founded on the “right” of individuals to privately own the means used to produce social wealth, and to exploit other people to amass more of that wealth. But bourgeois right does not recognize the right of people collectively to determine society’s priorities and how production should be carried out to meet those priorities in such a way as to overcome exploitation, inequality, and all forms of oppression.

The state in such a system—and this is a state Alexander Hamilton fought to develop—is a vehicle that above all serves to protect the rights of individuals to accumulate capital. Down on the ground, this means the right to exploit others and to plunder the environment. All other rights in capitalist society are subordinate to that—and all this appears as and is presented as “equality.” French author Anatole France sarcastically captured a basic reality of bourgeois law over 100 years ago: “In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.”

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As BA continued in Birds/Crocodiles, Hamilton and other “founders” “believed that they had established equality, as far as it should be established, and ‘equality before the law’ stood as a decisive expression of this. They would not, or could not, recognize that social divisions, and antagonisms, were reproduced, and perpetuated, even if to a significant degree in some new forms, through the dynamics of the very system of which they were advocates: what is in reality bourgeois democracy—not classless or ‘pure’ democracy—and the economic system in which this form of political governance is ultimately grounded and which it serves—capitalism. They would not, or could not, understand that this system is, in its own way, as much an embodiment of oppression—and yes, of despotism and tyranny, that is, of dictatorship—as the systems of hereditary hierarchy which they opposed, and worked to overthrow.”

The political system cohered by the U.S. Constitution provided a legal and political framework for centuries of exploitation and brutal oppression. Almost immediately upon its signing, renewed extermination and relocation campaigns against Native Americans were begun to further the U.S.’s westward growth. The U.S. Constitution also provided the legal justification for the country as a whole to wage an unjust war of aggression against Mexico that opened up the further expansion of slavery into what became the U.S. Southwest.

For several decades Northern (non-slave) states and Southern slave states were admitted to the Union together in a way that sustained slavery and provided for its massive growth, and maintained a “balance of power” between the states that lasted until the Civil War tore it apart in 1861. After the Civil War, the U.S. Constitution provided supposed “legitimacy” for genocidal campaigns by the U.S. Army against the Native peoples that “won the West” for the U.S., and for the institutionalized repression and lynching of Black people during decades of the open racism of Jim Crow. In the epoch of imperialism—invasions, occupations, nuclear bombings, napalm (jellied gasoline) dropped on villages, carpet bombing of agricultural areas, and countless other crimes against humanity—this Constitution continued to supply a framework that allowed for any atrocity committed by American forces. Such was the “genius” of the U.S. Constitution Hamilton fought for.

Changing the World, Transforming Humanity

Lin-Manuel Miranda has said the story of Hamilton is a very “hip-hop” story. An immigrant, a penniless orphan, a quick witted guy comes to the big city and makes it big “his way.” Stepping on people, using his wits to get ahead, living large, marrying into money, and making a lot more.

A Statement from the Revolutionary Communist Party ON THE STRATEGY FOR REVOLUTION

But why would anyone want to celebrate, applaud, and promote Hamilton’s cutthroat capitalist ethic, especially at a time when the interests and the possibilities for humanity are so much greater? Alexander Hamilton is no role model to uphold, no one for today’s youth to emulate. People don’t always have to be at each other, trying to get ahead by slitting someone else’s throat. The behavior and outlook of humans are shaped by the economic, social, and cultural conditions of the society in which they live. Changes in society—especially changes brought about by an actual revolution—bring about changes in how people think, act, and relate to each other. And working and struggling right now for the values that could be possible in a new revolutionary society on the road to communism (as we’ll get to later) is a critical part of bringing about those changes; as is cutting to the essence of, and struggling against, the values promoted of a show like Hamilton.

Democracy—Another Form of Dictatorship

In Hamilton, Miranda celebrates and extols bourgeois democracy—democracy that serves the capitalist mode of production. All democracies and all forms of government in which society remains divided into classes—are, at bottom, dictatorships.

As Bob Avakian explains in BAsics 1:23:

When a monopoly of political power—and, in a concentrated way, the monopoly of “legitimate” armed force—is in the hands of one group in society, and that group excludes others from that monopoly of power and force, then that is a dictatorship of the ruling group—or class—regardless of whether or not that ruling group allows those it excludes from power, and over whom it rules in fact, to take part in elections to vote for different representatives of the ruling class, as happens in the U.S. and a number of other countries. Political rule in the U.S., regardless of whether or not there is an open and undisguised tyranny, is and has always been a bourgeois dictatorship, a dictatorship of the ruling capitalist class (or, in the early history of the U.S., before the defeat and abolition of the slave system, through the Civil War, what existed was the dictatorship of the ruling classes—the slaveowning as well as the capitalist class, or bourgeoisie).

If there were a different state power—a dictatorship of the proletariat that was brought into being through the overthrow of the capitalist system and the dismantling of all its institutions, their replacement by revolutionary power and the reorganization of all of the economy—the situation would be dramatically, radically different.

A socialist state would be rooted in a radically different mode of production—one based on social production that would first and foremost advance “the world revolution to uproot all exploitation and oppression and to emancipate all of humanity,” as the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) says. It would not be based on exploitation of millions across the world by a relative handful of capitalists. It would work with and lead the masses of people in transforming all of society. Its ultimate aim—and its guiding principle at all times—would be enabling humanity to transcend the division into antagonistic classes, and overcome the very need for states, for armies, for prisons, and other institutions of repression. It would consciously aim to lead people in overcoming all their class distinctions, all the production relations that foster those distinctions, and all the social relations, such as the oppression of women, and backward ways of thinking that reinforce them.

Instead of “look out for number one” and step on anyone who gets in your way, it would work at uniting people of different nationalities, people who speak different languages and live in different neighborhoods, to cooperate with each other in building a new world aimed at overcoming all oppressive relations. It would open up great possibilities for people to overcome divisions between people who work with their minds and those who do manual labor, and draw masses of people into great questions and debates of science, politics, and morality as part of transforming the whole world. This socialist state under the dictatorship of the proletariat would pulse with exploration, debate, experiment, and dissent—thinking itself will be increasingly emancipated from the “narrow horizons” of self-interest that correspond to and reinforce the capitalist mode of production. There would be contention with real stakes for the direction of society and the well being of the planet itself, involving and developing active participation of masses of people from different strata of society.

And a beautiful new culture would thrive and grow in dazzling ways in that society.

This isn’t just a dream or a nice idea. The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America, written by Bob Avakian, gives a living sense of how a new society would work at uprooting and overcoming all exploitation, oppression, and antagonistic divisions between people. The Revolutionary Communist Party, under the leadership of Bob Avakian, has developed a strategy that can, in conjunction with changes in society, mobilize millions of people to carry out this revolution consciously. There is a leadership taking responsibility for carrying through with all this—the Revolutionary Communist Party, led by Bob Avakian.

There is a way to conceive and live your life that is not about getting over or “making it.” It is about contributing all you can to the emancipation of humanity. It is about making revolution—and the fact is there is a shot at making that real today.

Let’s not throw it away.


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