A Campaign Without CIass
by Howard Zinn
The Progressive magazine, November 2000
There came a rare amusing moment in this Presidential race
when George W. Bush (who has raised $177 _ million) accused Al
Gore (who has raised only $126 million) of appealing to "class
warfare." It recalled the 1988 election when Bush's father
(is this a genetic disorder?) accused candidate Michael Dukakis
of instigating class antagonism.
I noticed that neither of the accused responded with a defiant
"Yes, we have classes in this country." Only Ralph Nader
has dared to suggest that this country is divided among the rich,
the poor, and the nervous in between. This kind of talk is unpardonably
rude and was enough to bar him from the televised debates.
We have learned that we mustn't talk of class divisions in
this country. It upsets our political leaders. We must believe
we are one family-me and Exxon, you and Microsoft, the children
of the CEOs and the children of the janitors. We must believe
our interests are the same.
That's why we speak of going to war "for the national
interest" as if it were in all our interest.
That's why we maintain an enormous military budget for "national
security" as if our nuclear weapons strengthen the security
of all and not the securities of some.
That's why our culture is soaked in the idea of patriotism,
which is piped into our consciousness from the first grade, where
we begin every day by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance: "one
nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
I remember stumbling over that big word "indivisible"-with
good reason, although I didn't know the reason, being quite politically
backward at the age of six. Only later did I begin to understand
that our nation, from the start, has been divided by class, race,
national origin, has been beset by fierce conflicts, yes, class
conflicts, all throughout our history.
The culture labors strenuously to keep that out of the history
books, to maintain the idea of a monolithic, noble "us"
against a shadowy but unmistakably evil "them." It starts
with the story of the American Revolution, and, as the recent
movie The Patriot (kindergarten history, put on screen for millions
of viewers) tells us once more, we were united in glorious struggle
against British rule. The mythology surrounding the Founding Fathers
is based on the idea that we Americans were indeed one family,
and that our founding document, the Constitution, represented
all our interests, as declared proudly by the opening words of
its preamble: "We, the people of the United States."
It may therefore seem surly for us to report that the American
Revolution was not a war waged by a united population. The 150
years leading up to the Revolution were filled with conflict,
yes, class conflict-servants and slaves against their masters,
tenants against landlords, poor people in the cities rioting for
food and flour against profiteering merchants, mutinies of sailors
against their captains. Thus, when the Revolutionary War began,
some colonists saw the war as one of liberation, but many others
saw it as the substitution of one set of rulers for another. As
for black slaves and Indians, there was little to choose between
the British and the Americans.
This class conflict inside the Revolution came dramatically
alive with mutinies in George Washington's army. In 1781, after
enduring five years of war (casualties in the Revolution exceeded,
in proportion to population, American casualties in World War
II), more than 1,000 soldiers from Pennsylvania-mostly foreign-born,
from Ireland, Scotland, Germany-mutinied at Morristown, New Jersey.
They had seen their officers paid handsomely, fed and clothed
well, while the privates and sergeants were fed slop, marched
in rags without shoes, paid in virtually worthless Continental
currency, or not paid at all for months. They were abused, beaten,
whipped by their officers for the smallest breach of discipline.
Their deepest grievance was that they wanted out of the war, claiming
their terms of enlistment had expired, and they were kept in the
army by force. They were aware that in the spring of 1780 eleven
Morristown deserters were sentenced to death but at the last minute
received a reprieve, except for one of them, who had forged discharges
for 100 men. He was hanged.
General Washington, facing by this time 1,700 mutineers (a
substantial part of his army), assembled them at Princeton, New
Jersey, and decided to make concessions. Many of the rebels were
allowed to leave the army, and Washington asked the governors
of the various states for money to deal with the grievances of
the soldiers. The Pennsylvania line quieted down.
But when another mutiny broke out in the New Jersey line,
involving only a few hundred, Washington ordered harsh measures.
He saw the possibility of "this dangerous spirit" spreading.
Two of "the most atrocious offenders" were court-martialed
on the spot and sentenced to be shot. Their fellow mutineers,
some of them weeping as they did so, carried out the executions.
Howard Fast tells the story of the mutinies in his novel The
Proud and the Free (Little Brown, 1950). Drawing from the classic
historical account by Carl Van Doren, Mutiny in January, Fast
dramatizes the class conflict inside the Revolutionary Army. One
of his characters, the mutinous soldier Jack Maloney, recalls
the words of Thomas Paine and the promise of freedom and says,
yes, he is willing to die for that freedom, but "not for
that craven Congress in Philadelphia, not for the fine Pennsylvania
ladies in their silks and satins, not for the property of every
dirty lord and fat patroon in New Jersey.
When the War for Independence was won, class conflict continued
in the new nation. The Founding Fathers fashioned a Constitution
that would enable a strong federal government to suppress any
rebellion by its unruly children. The new government would serve
the interests of slaveholders, merchants, manufacturers, land
speculators, while offering white males with some property a degree
of influence, but not dominance, in the political process.
The history of the next 200 years is a history of control
of the nation by one class, as the government, solidly in the
hands of the rich, gave huge gifts of the nation's resources to
the railroad magnates, the industrialists, and the shipowners.
Historian Charles Beard, in the first years of the Great Depression,
wrote caustically about "The Myth of Rugged Individualism,"
noting that industrial and financial leaders were not rugged enough
to make their own way in the world, and had to be subsidized,
and silver-spoon-fed, by the government.
When the ruling class (I've tried to avoid that old-fashioned
radical expression, but it expresses a simple, strong truth) faced
resistance, as it did all through the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries, by slaves, working people, farmers, and especially
by the indigenous people of the continent, it called upon the
government to use its armies and its courts to put down the ingrates.
Political leaders have traditionally become annoyed when someone
dared to suggest that we live in a class society, dominated by
the moneyed interests. Thus, when Eugene V. Debs, opposing World
War I, told an assembly in Ohio that "the master class has
always brought a war, and the subject class has always fought
the battle," this could not be tolerated. He was sentenced
to ten years in prison, and Oliver Wendell Holmes, in the spirit
of patriotic liberalism, affirmed the sentence for a unanimous
Today, even the slightest suggestion that we are a nation
divided by class brings angry reactions. When Gore talked ominously
about "big money" (while pocketing huge amounts of it
for his campaign) it was enough for Bush to become indignant.
Surely he need not worry. Gore and Lieberman represent no threat
to the rule of the super-rich.
A New York Times reporter, in a rare excursion into "the
other America," spoke to people in Cross City, Florida, about
the election and concluded: "People here look at Al Gore
and George W. Bush and see two men born to the country club, men
whose family histories jingle with silver spoons. They appear,
to people here, just the same."
Cindy Lamb, a cashier at a Chevron filling station, and wife
of a construction worker, told the reporter: "I don't think
they think about people like us, and if they do care, they're
not going to do anything for us. Maybe if they had ever lived
in a two bedroom trailer, it would be different."
An African American woman, a manager at McDonald's, who makes
slightly more than the minimum wage of $5.15 an hour, said, about
Bush and Gore: "I don't even pay attention to those two,
and all my friends say the same. My life won't change.
The election soon will be over, and whether Gore or Bush is
in the White House, the same class that has always dominated our
political and economic systems in the United States will still
be in power. Whoever is President, we will face the same challenge
the day after the voting: how to bring together the class of have-nots-a
great majority of the country-into the kind of social movement
that in the past has gained some measure of justice and has made
the people in charge tremble at the prospect of class warfare.
Such a movement, responding to the great challenges of the
new century, could bring democracy alive.
Howard Zinn is a columnist for The Progressive.