A Marxist Interpretation of the American Revolution

Written by Freddie Mitchell. Edited by Nathaniel Robinson.

It is perhaps ironic to read the American Revolution of 1765-1783 as a Marxist one. The vehemence American governments of the 20th century and beyond would hold for the teachings and theories of Karl Marx and Friederich Engels stands in complete contrast to the fact that the American Revolution, perhaps the most venerated event in American history, was, in essence, a Marxist tale of the nascent bourgeoisie overthrowing the tyrannical British monarchy. While there is much consternation over whether the revolution was truly a Marxist one, it is my opinion that, although very much couched in the ways of the old world when compared to the Enlightenment-influenced French Revolution of 1789, the actions of the American money-making middle class in achieving their rights of self-government and ‘liberty’ constitute the fundamental foundations of a classical Marxist revolution.

First, we must consider what a Marxist revolution actually is. A Marxist revolution is a revolution where, in Marx’s terms, “[t]he changes in the economic foundation lead sooner or later to the transformation of the whole immense superstructure”. Essentially, what this boils down to is a replacement of one system of rule to another. We can see this class struggle in the American Revolution: as most of us know, the revolution came about as a result of the New World colonist’s frustration of being taxed without adequate representation in the Parliament of Great Britain. The ‘Patriots’ (American colonists) saw themselves as deprived of their ‘rights as Englishmen’—including equality and liberty—which lead to war and then independence in 1783. Herein is our first evidence that this was a Marxist revolution: in resolving to overthrow what they saw as reactionary rule, the Patriots were, in effect, committed to the concept of changing ‘the whole immense superstructure’ of the colonist’s society. The Founding Fathers’ beliefs that America should be the land of liberty and democratically-elected government are a testament to their subconscious belief that the order of the Old World was one that had to be challenged and then overthrown. The superstructure of monarchy and subjugation was dismantled, and a new, progressive order for the New World was set up. By forcibly wresting power from the British monarchy and giving it to ‘the people’, the new American republic symbolised a significant break from how society was run in the past—an important aspect of the Marxist revolution.

We can also see the American Revolution as Marxist if we interpret it through the Whig interpretation of history. Richard B. Morris cites the language of American Whigs as representative of the class struggle that the American Revolution constituted. For example, he quotes George Washington as speaking ‘with contempt of “our lordly masters in Great Britain”‘ and of Adam Stephen, another Whig, as referring to submitting his ‘life, liberty, and property to the arbitrary disposal of a corrupt, venal aristocracy’. Indeed, if we consider the central concept of the Whig interpretation of history—that history is the unceasing progress of humanity—it seems to coincide, to a degree, with the Marxist interpretation of history—that human society progresses through many stages. The change from feudalist tyranny to capitalism can be seen as emblematic of both: the change from monarchy to democracy at once represents an important step in the ‘progress’ of man and also in the ‘evolution’ of society.

As we have seen, considering the American Revolution from a Marxist viewpoint can somewhat prove to be an anti-climax. Although there was a war, it was not fought by the ‘people’ as one might expect of a Marxist revolution, but instead by a trained and disciplined army. Although there was a New World republic established at the end of it, again it was not one that was particularly equal or ‘by the people’—only property-holding men over 21 were guaranteed a vote and the ruling class of the new republic consisted of property-holding ex-colonists. In effect, apart from the establishment of self-government, there was little ideological change about the new United States of America. Indeed, it is important to not overstate the revolutionary ethos of the American Revolution: according to Morris, many of the prominent Whigs of the revolution were just as ‘suspicious of the lower classes’ causing ‘social upheaval’ as they were with their pursuit of liberty and equality. But the fact remains that by overthrowing an Old World monarchy and establishing a republic ruled by the property-holding money-making bourgeoisie class, the American Revolution constitutes a step  forward in the Marxist evolution of history: from a society of (essentially) feudalism to one of (nascent) capitalism. We can see evidence of the latter in the discourse around American political society today: commentators still venerate concepts such as liberty, the individual’s pursuit of happiness, and the constitution, as being fundamental to the American character.