A small history of the democratic republic in the US

January 15, 2014 in History by Thomas Chefsky

Marx and Engels referred to the United States as a democratic republic even though the United States of America almost never called itself a genuine democracy before the Second World War. Even now, the popular usage of the word democracy in the US is contested. Were Marx and Engels wrong? And what does “democratic republic” mean?

Engels on the United States republic

“Society had created its own organs to look after its common interests, originally through simple division of labour. But these organs, at whose head was the state power, had in the course of time, in pursuance of their own special interests, transformed themselves from the servants of society into the masters of society, as can be seen, for example, not only in the hereditary monarchy, but equally also in the democratic republic. Nowhere do “politicians” form a more separate, powerful section of the nation than in North America.”

“There, each of the two great parties which alternately succeed each other in power is itself in turn controlled by people who make a business of politics, who speculate on seats in the legislative assemblies of the Union as well as of the separate states, or who make a living by carrying on agitation for their party and on its victory are rewarded with positions.”[1]

There something peculiar about this citation from Engels’s 1891 preface to Marx’s Civil War in France (1871), a political statement he had addressed to the German social democrats. At the time, the German revolutionary workers’ party (SPD) discussed the contents of the so called Erfurt Programme, their new party programme which had to replace the (in)famous Gotha Programme of 1875.

At the time Germany was still ruled by an emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. The pre-war German empire can be seen as a conservative safe haven against revolutionary changes in countries such as France, Italy or Belgium. Before 1891 a series of democratic revolutions had transformed much of Europe and the Americas and had developed or brought about many new contradictions, something which the German empire sought to evade. Truly, Marx and Engels had lived in a time of revolution and counterrevolution.

One such contradiction was the one between republics and monarchies, between democracies and autocracies. To the German empire, Marx and Engels counterpoised the concept of a “democratic republic”, something he took from the most radical phase of the French Revolution (in 1791) and from the American Revolution (1776). However, even though Engels refers to the United States of America as a “democratic republic”, back then the US didn’t really consider itself a democracy.

Since the Second World War, the word “democracy” came to mean some form of government in which the government derives its power from the people and is accountable to them for the use of that power. However, before the great wars, such usage was not so common as it is today. In the 19th century, democracy and republic were sometimes even considered antithetical. Why, you ask?

Because the chief characteristic democracy is: rule by majority. In a Democracy, the individual, any group of individuals, or even one state composing a minority, has no protection against the power of the majority. That’s why the US Constitution does not call the US a democracy but a republic, a constitutionally limited government of the representative type, with powers divided between three separate Branches: executive, legislative and judicial. This institutional framework was to avoid anything like a rule, even a dictatorship, by the majority.

So the Constitution was not “democratic” in a sense. It urged for “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all” (pledge of allegiance, 1892). In order not to frighten the states of which it is made up, the US has a constitution which guarantees that there would be no genuine majority rule, no dictatorship of the majority over a minority.

So was Engels wrong? In a certain sense yes, of course. But let us view things from his point of view. It was based on a so called class analysis. Even though the US is a republic, there was – in the 18th and early 19th century – some form of majority rule (but not majority government). Class rule that is. Engels might have been wrong, but he thought the US in the 1890′s had still its revolutionary potential and was still ruled by some sort of petty bourgeoisie consensus, i.e. a class made up of artisans, peasants and other small property owners. This consensus was held in place with the passive support of both workers and capitalists, two newly emerging classes at the time of the revolution. In short: a majority.

This consensus, however, was defeated in the late 19th century, at the same time when Engels wrote his preface, by the ascendancy of the capitalist class. This class, although it already existed well before 1776, became very dominant right before the First World War. Big property owners and owners of large scale industrial means of production became separated from the small property owners. Big capital became the norm. On top of that, many small property owners disappeared into the ranks of the modern proletariat.

In fact, part of the reason for the engagement of the US with this war were the imperialist aspirations of this potent class. The American capitalist class grew so strong, it gutted out much of the revolutionary spirit of the early republic – however much some citizens of the US might believe that “their revolution” of 1776 was the only successful modern revolution ever.

The Marxist concept of a democratic republic

So now the US is ruled by a minority class. Since the beginning of the 20th century its politics are dominated by capitalist interests. Though many still deny this, the United States has been the scene of genuine class struggles in which the state’s repressive means were used to defend the minority interests against those of the working class majority. That’s one reason why American nationalism grew so strong over the years. Nationalism is supposed to united “the people” irrespective of social, economic or political interests in favour of the interests of big capital. It’s the same with many religious ideas. From the beginning of the 20th century the democratic republic, if it ever existed, was in retreat.

From what I can gather, the concept of the democratic republic is a real piece of Marxist dialectic. Although democracy and republic can be antithetical indeed, it shows how Marxists try to overcome this contradiction. When Marx and Engels criticised the German social democrats, they did so because their programmatic formulas, such as the peoples’ state, were unable to disclose this dialectic. Engels and Marx therefor wrote an extensive critique of the German social democratic programmes. I’ll republish a few sentences just to show how Marx and Engels remained faithful to the concept of the democratic republic.

“First. If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown. It would be inconceivable for our best people to become ministers under an emperor, as Miquel.”

“It would seem that from a legal point of view it is inadvisable to include the demand for a republic directly in the programme, although this was possible even under Louis Phillippe in France, and is now in Italy. But the fact that in Germany it is not permitted to advance even a republican party programme openly, proves how totally mistaken is the belief that a republic, and not only a republic, but also communist society, can be established in a cosy, peaceful way.[2]

We see the same in the critique of Marx of the Gotha Programme of 1875:

“Its political demands contain nothing beyond the old democratic litany familiar to all: universal suffrage, direct legislation, popular rights, a people’s militia, etc. They are a mere echo of the bourgeois People’s party, of the League of Peace and Freedom. They are all demands which, insofar as they are not exaggerated in fantastic presentation, have already been realized. Only the state to which they belong does not lie within the borders of the German Empire, but in Switzerland, the United States, etc. This sort of “state of the future” is a present-day state, although existing outside the “framework” of the German Empire.”

“But one thing has been forgotten. Since the German Workers’ party expressly declares that it acts within “the present-day national state”, hence within its own state, the Prusso-German Empire — its demands would indeed be otherwise largely meaningless, since one only demands what one has not got — it should not have forgotten the chief thing, namely, that all those pretty little gewgaws rest on the recognition of the so-called sovereignty of the people and hence are appropriate only in a democratic republic.[3]

The pledge of allegiance: a short history of republicanism

The pledge of allegiance, despised by many young radicals, was once the creation of an early Christian socialist. It referred to the republic as an almost unique concept, a revolutionary form of government. But the ascendency of the capitalist class quelled this revolutionary history, turning the pledge into an element of American nationalism. The pledge is a small reminder of the history of American republican ideas.

In 1892 the American Francis Bellamy wrote the so called pledge of allegiance. The pledge was meant to commemorate the 400th to commemorate the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. Francis Bellamy was a Baptist minister and a cousin of the utopian socialist and novelist Edward Bellamy. This is what his pledge looked like back in 1892: “I pledge allegiance to my flag and the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.”

Only after the Second World War did this pledge conquer the whole of the United States. The Pledge has been modified four times since its composition. Apparently, Bellamy favoured the inclusion of the words fraternity and equality, yet he reconsidered this because of institutionalised forms of racial discrimination in the United States. Not that Bellamy wanted to discriminate against African Americans; he knew the state superintendents of education wouldn’t agree with these words.

In 1892 the pledge was changed for the first time. “I pledge allegiance to my flag and to the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” As far as I know this has no big significance. But in 1923 something significant did change: “”pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands: one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” The reason for this change is clear: immigrants should be loyal to the United States, not their own flag or country.

A year later, in 1924, the words “of America” were added: “”I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands; one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” The people in the USA, once pledging allegiance to the concept of a republic (as symbolised by the flag of the USA), i.e. “one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all”, now had to show loyalty to their own country and its republic.

Not surprisingly the US Congress officially recognized the Pledge during the Second World War on June 22, 1942. But that wasn’t enough. In the fifties, another change was proposed by president Eisenhower. As a newly baptised Presbyterian, the president favoured the inclusion of the words “under God” and since then the pledge looks like this: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

What’s telling is that the words “under God” were not proposed by the author – that is the early Christian socialist Francis Bellam. He proposed a pledge in support of the concept of the republic and its flag. Back then, the United States taken together formed – probably – the only genuine republic, a revolutionary form of government. The French so called third republic was originally intended to be a transitional government, yet political disputes made the ruling elite settle with the newly installed republic – even though it was partially the product of the Paris Commune of 1870-1.

The inclusion of words like “under God” and “of the United States of America” gutted out the original intend of Francis Bellamy, making his pledge an element of American nationalism rather than one of (early) republicanism. Remember how Bellamy favoured the words fraternity and equality, linked to the first and revolutionary French republic. So what happened? Most likely this is the price paid for the growth of capitalism since the 19th century and the failure of the working class to change society.

The United States, once an isolated, revolutionary safe haven for radicals, is now the head of the imperialist picking order that dominates the globe. The fact that the most significant changes were made after both World Wars shows how the capitalist class intends to quell this revolutionary heritage. Although even the smallest sign of capitalist reaction can be regarded as the product of genuine fear, both wars meant a defeat of the working class, and another chance for the ruling class to rewrite history according to its own image.

[1] Friedrich Engels in: https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/subject/hist-mat/civ-war-intro.htm

[2] Friedrich Engels in: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1891/06/29.htm

[3] Karl Marx in: http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1875/gotha/ch04.htm