Class struggle and rights in U.S.
“Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.” So begins the first chapter of the Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. It lays out his view of class conflict, with workers constantly in opposition to capitalists or business owners, but he is not the first one to recognize class conflict. It had been written about by various prominent individuals long before, but on different terms.
Benjamin Franklin, influenced by earlier French philosophers, spoke about it at the Constitutional Convention: “Hence, as all history informs us, there has been in every state and kingdom a constant kind of warfare between the governing and the governed; the one striving to obtain more for its support, and the other to pay less. And this has alone occasioned great convulsions, actual civil wars, ending either in dethroning of the princes or enslaving of the people.”
Franklin’s and other founder’s views of the struggle informed the American vision of rights of the people and limitation of the power of government to violate them. It was a key component of the Declaration of Independence and is embodied in the Bill of Rights. It is, quite convincingly, the foundation that caused the rapid surge in progress and prosperity in America. If arbitrary rule of government is not restrained, there is no need for a piece of paper telling rulers that they can do whatever they please. They will do so anyway.
Though there were and are still problems with politics, and rights were and are still violated to varying degrees over the years, there was and is at least a recognition of inherent rights that people have to their lives, their liberty, and their property. One of the most confounding issues, especially in modern America, is the effect of cronyism. The political class influences and is influenced by powerful business and labor interests that diminish the freedom and voluntary nature of markets, which was what Marx observed and mistakenly equated with markets and capitalism itself. They are not the same, and the difference is important.
Revolutions inspired by the Marxian version of class conflict have effects quite different from the American experience, effects which flow from the premise that all business people and property owners are necessarily the oppressors and everyone else was the oppressed. Rather than give encouragement and impetus to personal progress, it magnifies envy and justifies the repudiation of rights and confiscation of property by the state, which is considered the embodiment of the will of the people. Marx subsequently talked about the necessary withering away of the state as the nature of man was changed, but, as has been amply demonstrated in all such cases, it instead quickly and radically concentrated power, with the resulting oppression of the people of which Franklin spoke.
Whatever your view of how successful America has been in preserving rights of the people and limiting government, the evidence is overwhelming that progress has been profound and widespread over the last couple of centuries, even for those not well off. The poor in America in general are better off than the average citizen of planet Earth, and much better off than the poor in most unfree countries. The assertion and protection of the rights of people over arbitrary government power aligned the political environment with economic incentives for individual progress and innovation that spurred the rapid ascent of America in the world economy.
Dan McLaughlin, a Randolph resident, is the author of “Compassion and Truth-Why Good Intentions Don’t Equal Good Results.” Follow him at daniel-mclaughlin.com