2/7/12 - democracy gets a competitor

In today's excerpt - with its Declaration of Independence, America became the darling of intellectuals around the world. The only ideological alternative to democracy was a return to monarchy. But those were the bucolic days of Thomas Jefferson's idyllic small farmer—just before the world felt the full force of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1800s, thousands and then hundreds of thousands of twelve-hour-a-day workers became virtual serfs in expanding factories and mines, and European powers started carving Africa and Asia up into colonies and work camps, all in the name of democracy and its presumed offspring—capitalism. And so an ideological alternative began to emerge from the writings of Karl Marx and others—communism. When America had overthrown the British monarchy, it was a triumph over oppression; when France overthrew its monarchy it was a victory for the rights of mankind. However, when one hundred years later, Bolsheviks overthrew an oppressive monarchy that had taken virtually all property rights from its people, there was no celebration in the West of another overthrown monarchy. Instead, insecure about the resiliency of its democracies, the West was threatened and immediately labeled communism as an evil.

In spite of the paranoia regarding communism that continued from 1917 through the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, democratic America radically outpaced Russia. An economy built on collective property ownership proved unworkable from the start. From the time of the Russian Revolution to the present, Russia's GDP has had a rocky path from about $350 billion (in current dollars) to its current level of $1.8 trillion. U.S. GDP, already three times larger than Russia's at the time of the Revolution, is now seven times larger at $15 trillion. Equally telling, at 138 million, Russia's current population is roughly flat to its level in 1917 and is shrinking. The U.S. population, which was one-third smaller than Russia's at the time of the Revolution, is now 313 million and growing:

"The Soviet Union put the United States on the ideological defensive for the first time in its history. ... In November of 1917, V. I. Lenin led the Bolsheviks to control of Russia in 'ten days that shook the world.' Now in putative control of a huge nation, the Bolsheviks saw themselves as leaders of a global movement to liberate people everywhere from bonds forged in the American and French Revolutions of the late eighteenth cen­tury and fastened on the limbs of workers in particular during the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth. Lenin defined imperialism as 'the monop­oly stage of capitalism' and 'a colonial policy of monopolistic possessions of the territory of the world which has been completely divided up'.

"Whether as supporters or critics, Americans paid close attention to Rus­sia because it seemed to exemplify a new revolutionary spirit detached from their own largely liberal, middle-class tradition; indeed, it seemed rooted in an attack on middle-class capitalism and democracy as enslaving rather than liberating forces. Tensions ran high in the United States because the revo­lution in Russia implied that a communist revolution might be possible anywhere; and that, depending on one's perspective, might herald either the millennium or Armageddon. Overwhelmed by returning servicemen com­peting for jobs, buffeted by inflation, and shocked by the growing number of black faces appearing in the cities of the Northeast and Midwest, Ameri­cans took to the streets. Over 4 million workers participated in some 3,600 strikes in 1919, including major ones in the steel and coal industries and in the cities of Seattle and Boston. Though the strikers were concerned with immediate economic issues, the public debates over their behavior raised familiar questions about coercion and choice, liberty and power.

"In Cleveland, Socialists celebrated May Day 1919 with a large parade; they carried red flags, demanded freedom for Eugene Debs and assistance for people without jobs, and rallied their red-ribboned supporters along the way. Mockery and denunciations followed them and eventually turned into full-scale assaults. Veterans were prominent among the members of the crowds that attacked the Socialists and their headquarters. Only the deploy­ment of army tanks restored order to Cleveland. In the aftermath of the melee, Socialists were forbidden to hold public meetings or carry red flags, and the city ordered more tanks.

"Worried about the consequences of revolutionary radicalism at home and abroad, white middle-class Protestants and businessmen winked at mobs that attacked radicals and African Americans. They supported govern­ment intervention to stamp out the 'red menace,' fulfilling Jane Addams's fear that war would strengthen nationalism and repression rather than en­hance internationalism and freedom. The Red Scare preoccupied Ameri­cans in 1919 and 1920. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer justified his department's arrests of thousands of suspected radicals as a defense of a way of life against 'seditious societies' and 'the blaze of revolution.' Commu­nists were not a political party, Palmer maintained, but an international criminal ring whose goals were 'to overthrow the decencies of private life, to usurp property that they have not earned, to disrupt the present order of life regardless of health, sex or religious rights.' "


Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000


Penguin Books


Copyright 2005 by Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton


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