The U.S. state and the U.S. revolution

Jul 10, 2022
George Washington, who owned 317 slaves when he died, gives directives before the Battle of Yorktown in the U.S. Revolutionary War.

George Washington, who owned 317 slaves when he died, gives directives before the Battle of Yorktown in the U.S. Revolutionary War. Photo: Public Domain

It is no exaggeration to say that the principal disputes between activists, organizations and political trends in U.S. social movements have hinged on different understandings of, and attitudes toward, the state.

What distinguishes a revolutionary communist perspective from a reformist perspective is not one of momentary tactics, which may range from the most tempered and patient to the most militant and bold depending on the circumstances. Nor are communists the only people who envision a world without exploitation, oppression and war.

Communists are distinguished fundamentally by how they answer the following question: To build such a new society, can the working class simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, or must the working class dismantle the old state and build another one anew?

This is not an abstract theoretical question. It informs all political activity. While reformists of various stripes conduct their organizing to rebuild popular confidence in the existing state, revolutionary communists seek to de-legitimize and expose it. Instead of struggling in the present with an eye towards a new stage of peace with the system, communists struggle now with an eye towards the next, higher stage of struggle against it.

There is clear evidence that the state machinery of the United States cannot be turned into a tool for liberation. Even a limited study of its historical development shows that it must be completely scrapped and replaced.

Origins of the U.S. state

The state arose as a political form in tandem with class antagonism. At its core are the “special bodies of armed men,” institutions that have the special right to use and threaten force to protect the interests of a given society’s ruling class.

State institutions are presented as merely “upholding the law.”   However, the essential function of the state, including the legal system and its laws, is to defend, expand and stabilize that society’s property relations. Apart from socialism, under which the working class uses state power to abolish class distinctions altogether, the state has served numerically small property-owning ruling classes that have controlled a disproportionate share of their society’s surplus wealth.

States across space and time have many similarities corresponding with their stage of social development. This was a key part of Marx and Engels’ concept of historical materialism, as they identified the stages through which very different societies pass (communal, ancient slavery, tributary/feudal, capitalist, socialist and communist).

But to truly understand a state requires going beyond these general labels. A society’s particular variation of class exploitation and its history of struggle between and among social classes must be examined.

Those who constructed the U.S. state largely viewed the American continent as a “blank slate.” Native nations had built diverse governance and state structures throughout. But those societies were built around entirely different social systems devoid of private property that were of a non-class character, and thus of little utility for the capitalist and slave-owning ruling classes that settled here.

The United States stands as one of the earliest capitalist states, the third place to undergo a bourgeois revolution (bringing the bourgeoisie to political power).1 However, unlike the two bourgeois revolutions that preceded it or its European followers, this country’s capitalist foundations did not directly emerge from a feudal cocoon.

The “Founding Fathers” were free to set up their state without the need for vestiges of formal aristocratic privilege. They were free to establish a governmental structure centered fundamentally on capital accumulation. This meant two things at the time of the American Revolution: “preparing the ground,” so to speak, by expelling and eroding the power of Native nations; and solidifying the rights in property of the leading classes, in particular the planters whose slaves powered the economy.

These two factors loomed large in the creation of the nation-state and speak to why this country’s bourgeois revolution essentially had two acts: the American Revolution and the Civil War, in which the unresolved contradictions of 1787 were resolved in 1865.

The Constitution itself is a marker of the unmistakable class character of the state. The Constitution is held up as a semi-sacred document in U.S. schoolrooms and in the ideology of U.S. patriotism as the world’s “longest surviving constitution” (ratified in 1789) and therefore proof of the country’s “exceptionalism.” But its long survival actually proves the Marxist position: that the state institutions, forms of government and social rights of the country descend, without fundamental alteration, from a document that was written by 100 bourgeois and slave-owning white men over two centuries ago. This is not proof of the Constitution’s superiority, but rather of the durability of bourgeois rule in the United States, and the Constitution’s ongoing utility to the ruling class in defending that rule.

What follows is a brief sketch of these formative elements of the U.S. state and Constitution, with the intent of further elucidating their class functions, and the need for their replacement.

Capitalism, colonialism and slavery

The colonial settlers who arrived in British North America sought gold in particular and profit in general. Gold was not in the cards in either Virginia or the Massachusetts Bay, Britain’s first North American colonies, but once Virginia settler John Rolfe introduced a new strain of stimulant, tobacco (a drug), a solution was found. In addition to timber and others of less importance, the new “cash crop” provided the kindling for an explosion of plantation agriculture.

The opening up of the “new world” offered significant opportunities to exploit the area’s resources, to sell goods in the rising market economy in Europe, and to take advantage of the new opportunities for expanded markets in the colonial world itself.

In the five years leading up to the revolution, 63 percent of all exports from mainland British America came from the Southern colonies, and the vast majority of these exports were from the “cash crops” of tobacco, rice and indigo (cotton came a bit later, after 1776).2 Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois highlighted the “immense economic advantages” of this “triangular trade,” which pivoted on slave labor, to the New England merchant colonies as well.3

The colonials viewed themselves mostly as Englishmen and as subjects of the British crown, not as members of a separate nation—at first. A range of issues outside the scope of this article drove the colonies together and into rebellion. The long-term foundation for independence was the shared territory and increased economic interconnectedness of the colonies as a viable political unit with homegrown ruling classes. But the immediate ruptures included: 1) the Crown’s desire to keep the expansion of the colonies within clear limits, given that expansion made them less governable and provoked costly wars against Native nations; 2) the English monopoly on colonial trade was clearly restricting the economic potential of the colonies; and 3) the general high-handedness of the King and Parliament as regards colonial affairs, which fueled a cycle of distrust and escalation.4

Once independent, the colonial ruling classes did not seek a social revolution that would overturn social and property relations. After all, they already held power. Rather, they constructed a state to entrench the existing social order and remove potential barriers to its expansion.

‘Life, liberty and property’

In the immediate aftermath of the American Revolution, those leading the process of government formation represented a decisive section of the colonial elite seeking security in property, freedom of commerce and an elite-dominated republic.

For instance, George Washington was the richest man in America. Benjamin Franklin was quite wealthy. Robert Morris, delegate to the Constitutional Convention, was the most significant financier in the soon-to-be United States. William Blount, signer of the Declaration of Independence and North Carolina delegate to the Constitutional Convention, owned a million acres of land. George Mason of Virginia owned tens of thousands of acres of land and 300 slaves.5

It is no wonder that for such men the phrase “life, liberty and property” defined the core values of the new state. The “pursuit of happiness” was only substituted for “property” at the last moment because of its better rhetorical flair, but in truth these Founders saw the two phrases as synonymous.

James Madison fretted that the “increase of population will of necessity increase the proportion of those who will labour under all the hardships of life [and] secretly sigh for a more equal distribution of its blessings.” If they obtained equal democratic rights, the propertyless might obtain enough numerical clout to take hold of power and institute policies to strip the rich of their property.

His proposal was to greatly restrict the democratic aspects of the new government structure. This included restricting the rights of the propertyless to only vote for one branch of the legislature (the House), to impose high property qualifications for holding office, and to disperse power widely among the states so as to more easily contain future dissension from below.

In the famous Federalist Paper 10, Madison explained that the republican structure of the government is best suited to control factions, “the most common and durable source of [which] has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold, and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.”

Madison goes on to state that there is no cure for this, as the division between the rich and the poor is eternal. But the role of the government and its state institutions would be to protect those with the bulk of the property. This was the explicit bias in developing a republican form of government.

The popular vote was kept to a bare minimum, first with a range of property requirements instituted. Even as the property terms were gradually eliminated, Black people and women were totally excluded. Popular elections were only made available for the House of Representatives; U.S. Senators were selected by the leading politicians of each state, while the president was selected by the Electoral College.

Constructing a legal system that protected private property was equally important. John Adams wrote, “The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the laws of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence.”

Indeed, Adams’ values proved to be long-standing. Despite the protests of modern-day libertarians, the “sacredness” of private property remains the cornerstone of the country’s legal code. Making any revisions to the Constitution is difficult and any which would encroach on the rights of the rich—for instance, by creating new social rights to housing, education, health care, or a living income—are practically impossible.

Armed forces and ‘Indian removal’

From the very earliest days, pushing back the Native nations was key to the strategy of the settlers. The colonial settlers desired land and resources, but someone else was living there. Individual truces and treaties notwithstanding—these were moments of peace as prelude to war—the policy of the colonists and later state-builders was extermination and expulsion of the “savages.”

The availability of cheap, plentiful and resource-rich land was no small matter. It provided a huge stimulant for the large landowners looking to grow crops and timber, and became a primary avenue for social mobility for the lower classes who came to the continent to escape the ironclad class stratification and misery of the Old World. In this founding period, Native people represented a shared obstacle for the settler classes, and thus the basis for cross-class unity among whites. The ideological counterpart for this cross-class alliance was white supremacy. A key part of Benjamin Franklin’s “Albany Plan” was to strengthen the colonies as a unitary political formation that could provide for its own defense—against Native Americans.

The American “army” for most of its existence—up to about the Spanish-American War—was a relatively small land force, growing out of and continually augmented by ad-hoc state-controlled militias, whose principal task was “Indian removal” and “defense” against Native people resisting land encroachments.

The First American Regiment, the first standing armed force of the U.S. government, was established to control the frontier. The larger and more significant Legion of the United States was formed after a crushing defeat of U.S. forces at the hands of the Western Confederacy of Native tribes in the Battle of Wabash. A series of “Militia Acts” followed, which established the ability of the president to call out state militias to coordinate actions against Native nations, and ostensibly “foreign invasion.”6

Essentially, the birth and development of the U.S. Army is deeply connected to the expansion of the national territory. When these colonial-imperial state forces were later directed to overseas expansion, this was often seen as a projection of the same mission. For the U.S. generals who directed wars throughout the 20th century, their reference points and heroes were in the wars against Native peoples a century earlier.

An echo of this history still resonates loudly in the naming of U.S. military weaponry. As the U.S. empire spreads its deadly forces across the globes, it carries the names, in its helicopters, drones and missiles of the Native peoples it long ago suppressed. Its helicopters are called Apache, Comanche, Chinook, Lakota, Cheyenne and Kiowa—as well as “Black Hawk” (Native warrior). Its destructive missiles are “Tomahawks” and its drones are “Gray Eagles,” while Osama Bin Laden was codenamed “Geronimo” for the U.S. special forces pursuing him.

A legal code for slavery, a vocabulary for racism

In his investigation of the development of white supremacy, communist historian Theodore Allen related:

“During my own study of page after page of Virginia county records, reel after reel of microfilm prepared by the Virginia Colonial Records Project, and other seventeenth-century sources, I have found no instance of the official use of the word “white” as a token of social status before its appearance in a Virginia law passed in 1691, referring to ‘English or other white women.’”7

Allen’s point, of course, is that the ideology of white supremacy emerged not because of timeless antagonisms based on phenotype differences, but in a precise historical context related to the development of racial slavery.

Slavery, in general, has a long and ancient history, operating in a variety of contexts. In general, this history was not ethnocentric. Even in the “Western world,” the attitude of the slave societies of classic antiquity towards the “Black world” was, in its inclusiveness, the “extreme reverse” of the 20th century’s racist realities (to quote the late Howard University historian Chancellor Williams).8

In the early North American colonial period, the labor pool of the developing new economy was based on various forms of servitude but short of outright slavery, such as indenture. At this time, an indentured servant, typically from Europe, was often less costly than a slave.

As the volume of trade grew, changing dynamics in Europe made Africans the more economical and readily available source of labor starting as early as 1640. Moreover, the increased life expectancy of white laborers (beyond the terms of their indenture) threatened to upset the colonies’ class balance of forces and the land expansion patterns desired by the ruling classes. Not coincidentally, around the same period a juridical and social effort was made to separate the whites from the Blacks, and to strip the latter of their rights as citizens in general.9

In the 17th century, the status of Blacks in the upper south was far from settled, as evidenced by the scope of Black landownership and Black standing in the courts.10 Toward the end of the century, however, these rights were stripped away. Interracial marriages were banned and, in the words of historian Gary Nash, “In rapid succession slaves lost their right to testify before court, to engage in any kind of commercial activity … to hold property … to travel without permission.”11

Similar processes played out across the Southern colonies, where many planters brought the racist ideology of the West Indies to the mainland as they fled the restive islands in search of “safer” territory for their slaving project.12

These and other restrictions were organized to contain the restiveness of the colonies, which included significant cross-racial class solidarity. As is reflected by historian Edmund Morgan’s famous quote in his “American Slavery, American Freedom”: “it was common, for example, for servants and slaves to run away together, steal hogs together, get drunk together. It was not uncommon for them to make love together.”13

The potential disruptive nature of this collaboration was amplified for the colonial elite after Bacon’s Rebellion, in which multi-racial lower-class discontent resulted in Jamestown being burned down and the governor forced to flee.

The subordination of Black people as a people—or if you prefer a “race”—coincided with the rise of plantation slavery. An elaborate legal and political system, in tandem with new social codes of conduct, “normalized” racial stratification in all aspects of society. This system, protected by state and extra-state violence provided stability to a system that at its bottom was powered by the labor of several million enslaved people.

This carried over into the new nation-state even as the “Founding Fathers” proclaimed their democratic and republican principles, supposedly based on equal rights and citizenship. The enslavement of and denial of rights for Black people was not merely an expression of hypocrisy. Rather, white supremacy provided the foundation for the “democratic republic.”

Only having “solved” the question of how to subordinate society’s lowest social class—through enslavement—could the ruling class entertain ideas of “political equality” for the rest of society. Likewise, as the new state based its legitimacy on democratic principles, it in turn required a more complete theoretical system to explain the glaring inconsistency.

In most historical slave societies, where ingrained and hereditary class systems already existed, and ruling-class legitimacy rested on explicit and brute force, there had been no need to develop racial theories to justify enslavement. But because the U.S. bourgeoisie had developed a new “democratic shell” to legitimate its power and state, proclaiming a formal end to permanent class divisions, it in fact accelerated the proliferation of racist ideas.

The emergence of U.S. prisons and police forces

The police and the prisons in the United States are linked directly to the unique development of U.S. capitalism and the needs of the ruling class in different periods. Capitalism is distinguished from feudal and slave systems in that it rests on a “free labor” market, where the poor and working classes are in competition with one another to “freely” sell their labor power to the highest bidder. But its dynamic and uncontrolled development also produces constant fluctuation, depression and dislocation of the lower classes. In that context, it became necessary for the rulers to create special and sophisticated institutions to deal with the consequences and preserve “order.” As explained in “Shackled and Chained,” another publication by this author:

“The importation of African slaves expanded through the 1700s and rapidly became the dominant class of unfree labor in the colonial labor market. But indentured servitude and convict labor did not fully disappear until the period following the American Revolution, when the newly independent states in the north gradually abolished slavery and made “free labor”—that is, wage labor—the norm. It is during this period of early capitalist consolidation that the modern prison formed.

Since the early United States emerged with two distinct but interlinked social systems, capitalism in the north and chattel slavery in the south, it should come as no surprise that the early development of incarceration came with sharp regional distinctions. The most common image that comes to mind of prisons—of specially guarded facilities and prisoners confined to individual cells—originated primarily in the capitalist North. …

The U.S. South took a different course from the North. While early on there were some moves to establish northern-style prisons in the South, the pre-Civil War prison system was relatively underdeveloped. With the vast majority of African Americans enslaved, the ability to punish and discipline was left largely to their slaveholders, not the government. Incarcerating a slave, after all, would deprive his master of his labor, and was thus reserved for extraordinary circumstances. …

The closer the South moved towards a “free” labor market after the abolition of slavery, the more the form of Southern prisons conformed to what was common in the North. These emerged as part of an attempt to re-subjugate Black labor. There is, therefore, a significant link between the two regions’ penal systems: the development of modern prisons took place, in a rough sense, as classes of official bound labor were replaced by “free” wage labor. Capitalist development is deeply entangled with the roots of the mass incarceration system.”14

The same conclusion can be drawn for the modern police, which were also institutionally developed in England and the northern United States in the period of rapid capitalist expansion from the early to mid-1800s. Centrally organized police forces emerged largely out of the failed attempts of the very rich to pacify demonstrations and labor strikes through their private security personnel and brute force alone.

The wealthy worried that without such an additional layer of armed forces to protect their property and “the law,” the crowds would quickly overwhelm them.

In the South, police forces emerged largely out of the slave patrols that traveled the countryside to intimidate and brutalize slaves who threatened to challenge the existing order or run away. In Southern cities, where slaves occupied many core jobs but also could have greater opportunities to organize together, police forces were similarly developed and expanded to keep them in line.

Over time, the police took on additional functions and activity, including patrolling, which became a projection of consistent state power and intimidation in communities that were considered sites of unrest.

In neither the case of the prisons nor the police was their emergence due to “rising crime.” It was about social control. It took several generations and a lot of propaganda to inoculate the population with the belief that the police were a neutral force protecting “law and order” in the abstract. In nationally oppressed communities, of course, where generations of passed-down experiences show otherwise, that lie is often met with instinctive opposition.

The best possible shell for capitalist exploitation

Given that the U.S. state developed along the lines of defending the rich, destroying Native peoples and justifying racist enslavement, how has it lasted? If it is so clearly built on injustice and inequality, why has it not been tossed aside by the tens and hundreds of millions of people and “swept into the dustbins of history?”

Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin remarked in “State and Revolution”:

“A democratic republic is the best possible political shell for capitalism, and, therefore, once capital has gained possession of this very best shell … it establishes its power so securely, so firmly, that no change of persons, institutions or parties in the bourgeois-democratic republic can shake it.”15

In short, for all its enduring features, the U.S. capitalist state has displayed a remarkable malleability. The ruling class has been able to bend and amend it, generation after generation, not only to physically defend its exploitative system but also to absorb many forms of resistance to it.16

This has in fact become a hallmark of patriotic lore. Alluding to the rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri, Barack Obama recently cited the ability of the country’s political system to handle various insurgencies of nationally oppressed Black people. For Obama, this is proof of America’s ability to “solve” its problems, its alleged self-reforming nature.

But the continued erosion of living standards of working people, not to mention all the violence, discrimination and exploitation pervading daily life, shows the limits of this “self-reforming character.” That is, after all, why the Black Lives Matter and low-wage worker movements have erupted.

For all the reforms that the system has offered, the basic state institutions and structures defending private property have remained and grown stronger. For the ruling class, every concession to the people’s movements has been an effort to re-legitimize its own rule. This flexibility in the form of its rule has fortified the resilience of the U.S. imperialist ruling class.

Determined and heroic struggle has struck down many methods of social control and subjugation: slavery and other forms of unfree labor, Jim Crow segregation, openly discriminatory laws and so on. But the capitalist class has been able to continuously adjust because it is loyal only to its own expansion—not any single form of rule or any single ruling faction.

At the end of the day, the capitalist ruling class retains a military that is devoted to the Empire. It retains an immense police force devoted to preserving “social peace” through intimidation and violence at home. It retains a legal and prison system that is used to target radicals and lock up whole layers of the population whose interests and needs the system cannot address. It retains a Constitution, which—far from being a neutral document—has its deepest roots in the needs and interests of an expanding capital, privileging property over people and expressly designed to limit the ability of the vast majority of people—mostly poor and working class—to influence government. It retains a legislature, which can only be effectively accessed by the wealthy and their friends, that allows the various and competing factions of the ruling class to put forward their respective proposals while measuring their respective strength. It retains an executive branch with immense power that serves to protect the common interests of the bourgeoisie abroad and at home, and to discipline any sector of society that could destabilize that power.

The old state machinery must be uprooted

All this speaks to the question from the beginning of this article, the key and fundamental truth that Marx expressed in 1871: “The working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”17

Marx was writing in the wake of the crushing of the Paris Commune, which the terrified elites drowned in blood. The Commune was the first ever rising of the modern working class, who seized power in Paris after the government sought to disarm the working-class National Guard. The broad democratic changes ushered in by the Commune represented a first attempt and core framework for a workers’ republic, and revealed deeper truths about what it meant to embark on a revolutionary road.

It showed that the state itself was not neutral but an instrument constructed for the rule of one class over another. The “lower” class could not hope to meet its needs against those serving as its antagonist simply by replacing them via elections. The structures pre-designed to favor property and privilege of the exploiting minority had to be uprooted.18

In modern times, as we trace various forms of oppression and exploitation to their capitalist roots and their relationship to the state, this bears remembering. Our struggle is not to change laws but to overturn an entrenched power structure, part of whose fortress is the law itself. The only way to remake society is to uproot the institutions of elite power and replace them with institutions of popular and working-class power.

That means a new Constitution and new laws; new forms of decision-making in all aspects of society; new forces of public safety and community security; a new approach to law and order; and new armed forces to interact with the world’s people on a completely different basis. None of that is possible without a new power—a revolution.


1      First was the Dutch Republic, followed by England.
2      Joseph Inikori, Africans and the Industrial Revolution in England: A Study in International Trade and Economic Development (2002 Cambridge) pp. 192-193
3      William Edgar Burghardt Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade To the United States of America 1638-1870 (Harvard Historical Studies 1896)
4      Hence the so-called “Intolerable Acts” being the impetus for the First Continental Congress
8      Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization: Great Issues of A Race From 4500 B.C. to 2000 A.D. (1987 Third World Press) p. 362
9      Theodore W. Allen, The Invention of the White Race Vol. I-II (Verso 1994-1997); Phillip Alexander Bruce, Social Life in Virginia in The Seventeenth Century. An Inquiry Into the Origin of the Higher Planter Class, Together with An Account of the Habits, Customs, and Diversions of the People (Richmond 1902); Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States 1492-Present (HarperCollins 1999) Ch. 2
10    Lerone Bennet Jr., The Shaping of Black America (Penguin 1993)
11    Gary Nash, “Black People in a White People’s Country” in Stephen B. Oates et al, Portrait of America, complete ed., 8th edition (Houghton Miffilin Co. 2003)
12    Gerald Horne, The Counter-Revolution of 1776 (NYU, 2014)
13    This same sentiment is reflected in chapter 3 of Lerone Bennet’s Shaping of Black America
14    Eugene Puryear, Shackled and Chained: Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America (San Francisco: PSL Publications, 2013), 36
16    One excellent study that reflects this general view is Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of the American Empire (Verso 2013); Another interesting study in this regard is Robert Allen, Black Awakening in Capitalist America (Africa World Press 1990)

This article originally appeared in the PSL’s Revolution Manifesto: Understanding Marx and Lenin’s theory of revolution.