Bush, Camp Casey, and “The Two Americas

by George Saunders

The contrast was almost too wrenching. A ragtag group of protesters in a ditch by the side of the road. And the presidential SUV’s rolling by, refusing to stop and talk with a mother whose son’s life was taken by Bush’s war for oil.

Bush was on his way to a Republican Party fund raiser at a nearby ranch. His neighbors may not all own 60,000-acre chunks of property, like the real estate where Bush’s “Western White House” sits. But no doubt their land holdings and bankrolls are of similar size. Because together they raised nearly $3 million for Bush’s party at that one little Texas barbecue.

Famously Bush refers to well-heeled folks like these as “my base—the haves and the have-mores.”

To people around the world Bush’s ranch, and his “cowboy” strutting, and the wealth and arrogance of his supporters—like Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson calling for the assassination of the democratically elected president of Venezuela—these represent the Ugly America, the USA of unprecedented military power and unprecedented capitalist corporate greed.

But there is another America. And it is ably represented by those who have been camping in the ditches outside Bush’s mega-ranch—Gold Star Families for Peace, Military Families Speak Out, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and many other groups and individuals. Significantly, civil rights activists of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference have been at Camp Casey, bringing messages of support from Rosa Parks, who started the Montgomery bus boycott 50 years ago, and from Coretta Scott King, widow of the assassinated Rev. Martin Luther King.

They are the other America. And Cindy Sheehan is right to say she is speaking for the majority. Polls indicate that over 60 percent of Americans are now opposed to the war or critical of Bush’s handling of it. Thanks to the work of trade union activists in U.S. Labor Against the War, union organizations representing more than 10 million Americans have passed resolutions against the Iraq war. This includes the AFL-CIO, the newly-independent Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and the National Education Association (a non-AFL-CIO union that has more than 2 million members).

This glaring contrast brings to mind a speech given by that oldtime Kansas socialist, James P. Cannon, in 1948. Its title is “The Two Americas,” and we reproduce it below. Especially striking is the continuing relevance of Cannon’s point, made nearly 60 years ago: “The colonial slaves don’t want to be slaves any more.”

The people of Iraq have been showing this in the teeth of the most highly developed killing machine in world history, the U.S. armed forces. But over the years, so have the people of Vietnam, Algeria, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and elsewhere in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. People will not accept colonial slavery any longer. And inside the USA there are powerful forces that will speak out and help put an end to the effort by Bush and his allies, both Republican and Democrat, to reimpose colonial slavery.

“The Two Americas” is one of the most outstanding of the many speeches given by James P. Cannon during the course of his life (1890-1974). His remarkable life as a revolutionary leader spanned the era of Debsian socialism and the IWW (the centenary of whose founding we celebrate this year), the healthy beginnings of the American Communist movement in the wake of  the 1917 Russian Revolution, then the establishment and consolidation of the American Trotskyist movement, against all odds, beginning in 1928.

As Cannon reminds us, and as we see in Camp Casey today, there is “the other America.” The majority of the U.S. population, although it is largely under the sway of the corporate media and “white America” ideology, in reality falls into the category that Cannon describes as the workers, the farmers, and “the little people.” Their economic reality is not in keeping with the media-promoted ideology and “white” cultural values. The vast majority depend on a paycheck, or the equivalent, for survival. They may watch TV, but only a tiny minority, linked with the military-industrial complex, own the major TV networks and decree their programming. Among the majority of “the other America” are people of color—Black, brown, yellow, and red, to use the racialized terminology. Together with the oppressed sex (women) and others discriminated against by the system (such as gays, Lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons), these parts of the “other America” add up to form the overwhelming majority—a giant that has yet to realize its true strength. And racist ideas among white workers and “little people” are promoted by the rulers to help keep the majority from discovering and acting on its power.

Cannon’s speech, “The Two Americas,” is also a reminder that there is more than one way to think about the U.S. “national character.” It is not only the cruel and ugly gun-slinger all too familiar from the many U.S. wars of conquest.

Cannon gave this speech nearly six decades ago, on July 1, 1948, at a convention of the Socialist Workers Party, of which he was the historical leader. The speech was broadcast over the nationwide network of the American Broadcasting System, as the SWP was for the first time running a candidate for president of the USA. Some topical references in the speech have been omitted, indicated by ellipsis dots (…), with the aim of highlighting the lasting relevance of Cannon’s remarks.

What Cannon said in 1948 about America under Truman—when the U.S. ruling class was talking of “the American century”—is just as true of today’s America under Bush, with his Project for a New American Century: “…drunk with power,” they are “threatening and terrifying [or terrorizing] the people of the world—seeking to dominate and enslave them.”

Of course the main focus of this imperial “Project,” for right now, is Iraq. However, the basic aims of the U.S. ruling class, which Cannon here describes with tremendous accuracy, is exactly what led the American empire to wage its wars over the past half century—most blatantly in Korea, 1950–54; in Vietnam, 1965–75, and in Iraq, in 1991, and again since 2003.

Cannon’s “The Two Americas” follows:

We meet…at a time of the gravest world crisis—a crisis which contains the direct threat of a third and more terrible world war. The basic causes of this world crisis are no mystery.

The first cause is the breakdown of capitalism throughout Europe—and Asia—and the colonial lands. The working people want peace and bread, which capitalism cannot give. The colonial slaves don’t want to be slaves any more—and capitalism cannot live without colonial slaves. The working people, the poor peasants, and the colonial slaves are in revolt against the continued rule of bankers and landlords.

On the other hand, American capitalism—the last solvent stronghold of the outlived and doomed world system—is trying to prop up the hated regimes of capitalists and kings and landlords by economic pressure and military force.

These are the two main elements of the present world crisis.

The Wall Street money-sharks, and the brass hats of Prussian mentality, are riding high in Washington these days. The masters of America, drunk with power, are threatening and terrifying the people of the world—seeking to dominate and enslave them—striving to transform the other countries of the world into colonies of the American empire.

Their program is a program of madness, and it is doomed to failure. The great majority of the peoples of the world do not want to be slaves of America. That is to their credit and we applaud them for it. The attempt to enslave them would be profitable only for the small group of monopolists—and the military caste, who dream of careers as colonial administrators of conquered peoples.

But the criminal adventure would encounter such ferocious resistance that the American people at home would have to pay an enormous cost in living standards ruined by inflation, in the stamping out of democracy by military rule. And America’s young sons would have to pay in misery, blood, and death. The American people would be among the first victims of the insane campaign of American imperialism to conquer and enslave the world.

To avoid this calamity it is necessary now to show the people of the world the other America. For there are two Americas—and millions of the people already distinguish between them,

One is the America of the imperialists—of the little clique of capitalists, landlords, and militarists who are threatening and terrifying the world. This is the America the people of the world hate and fear.

There is the other America—the America of the workers and farmers and the “little people.” They constitute the great majority of the people. They do the work of the country. They revere its old democratic traditions—its old record of friendship for the people of other lands in their struggles against Kings and Despots—its generous asylum once freely granted to the oppressed.

This is the America which must and will solve the world crisis—by taking power out of the hands of the little clique of exploiters and parasites and establishing a government of workers and farmers. [Such a government would] immediately proceed to changes things fundamentally

·   Throw out the profit and rent hogs, and increase the living standards of the people who do the useful work.

·   Assure freedom and democratic rights to all, not forgetting those who are denied any semblance of them now.

·   Call back the truculent admirals from the seven seas—and ground the airplanes with their dangling bombs.

·   Hold out the hand of friendship and comradely help to the oppressed and hungry people in the world.

These people don’t want to fight anybody. They only want to live. There are two billion people in the world [six billion, in 2005]—and more than half of them don’t get enough to eat [still true]. These people should be helped—not threatened, not driven back into slavery, under the social system that has kept half of them hungry all their lives.

It is well to recall now that America was born of revolution in 1776, and secured its unity as a nation through another revolution—the Civil War—which smashed the abomination of chattel slavery in the process. Our great, rich, wonderful country was once the light and the hope of the world. But our America has fallen into the hands of a small, selfish group, who are trying to dominate the world—and set up a police state at home.

These Wall Street money-sharks are just as foreign to the real America as were the despots who ruled the land before the revolution of 1776. They are just as foreign as were the traffickers in human flesh and blood—the slave owners—whose power was broken by the Civil War—the blessed second American Revolution. These imperialist rulers of America are the worst enemies of the American people.

American democracy, under their rule, is slipping away. The fear that oppressed Mark Twain, the fear that America would lose its democracy, is steadily becoming a reality. The Taft-Hartley Law is but the most recent instance of this ominous trend. The divine right of kings has reappeared in America—disguised as the divine right of judges to issue injunctions and levy fines against labor organizations.

Only three years have passed since the imperialists finished the last slaughter [World War II]. And now they are drafting the youth for another. Militarism is becoming entrenched in America. Militarism—so long synonymous with goose-stepping Prussianism—is now to be made synonymous with Americanism, if Big Business has its way. A large section of the sturdy immigrants who helped to build this country came here to escape militarism. Now their grandsons face the same brutal regimentation here.

All this is part and parcel of the development of capitalism—the system which puts profits above all other considerations. The capitalist system has long outlived its usefulness. Capitalism offers no future to the people but depressions, imperialist wars, fascism, universal violence, and a final plunge into barbarism.

To avoid such a fate, the workers of the United States must go into politics on their own account, independent of all capitalist politics. They must take power, establish a workers and farmers’ government, and reorganize the economy of the country on a socialist basis. A socialist economy in the United States, eliminating capitalist wars, profits, and waste, will be so productive as to ensure a rich living for all who are willing and able to work, and provide security and ample means for the aged and infirm.

We should also help the hungry people of the world to improve their standard of life. Socialist America will rapidly make that possible by helping them to secure their own freedom and develop their own economy. Eventually, the economy of the entire world will be united and planned on a socialist basis. This will bring universal peace—and undreamed-of abundance for all people everywhere. The real upward march of humanity will begin.

The American working class can open the way to this new world. They are the majority. They have the power in America. All that is necessary is for the working class to understand [its power]—and to use it.

We firmly believe they will do so. We firmly believe the real America—the America of the workers, the people—will help save the world by saving herself.

We, the American Trotskyists…summon our America to her great destiny—not as conqueror but as liberator of the world.