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Peter Hansen: The Class Character of the American Constitution

Peter Hansen wrote this essay in 1930 for The Militant, the newspaper of the Socialist Workers Party. The U.S. constitution is venerated like a holy book, even by self-proclaimed progressives. But it is a historical document that protects the capitalists’ private property. This is part of our collection on Marxism and Black Struggle.

Left Voice

August 13, 2020
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Leon Trotsky and C.L.R. James (Illustration: Sou Mi)

Since the close of the World War a group of new sects has appeared in America, made up of self-styled defenders of the American Constitution. The most fervent of these are the American Security League, the Key Men of American, the Army and Navy League, the Constitutional Defense League, and the Ku Klux Klan. Even the old corpse of the Sons of the American Revolution — not to mention the Daughters — has been revived and shouts loudly with the rest.

These organizations have to a degree succeeded in foisting on America a new religion in which the fathers of the revolution are made the saints and the Constitution a holy book. Like all religious fanatics, the makers of the new religion are ready to inflict punishments on anyone who dares to question the truth of their doctrines. To suggest that the revolutionary forefathers were after all only human beings, with no more power to look into the future than we have today — and perhaps with less — Is to bring down their wrath upon you. They are equally ready to condemn any one who declares that the Constitution is now obsolete; for they are not realistic enough to recognize that the framers of the Constitution were not inspired by heaven but only by the social and economic conditions of the time in which they lived.

Not content with practicing their jingo religion by themselves, these holy crusaders have done and are doing their best to instill into the American workers a worship of the past and a fear of questioning the American institutions. Like the early Christians the American workers are ready to suffer rather than reason out whether or not these institutions having their foundation in the Constitution serve their interests or not.

As It matter of fact, the evidence is on the negative side. Take, for example, private property and the protection of the individual, comparing conditions today with those of 150 years ago. At that time, most property in America was the result of individual labor. America was primarily an agricultural country, with an abundance of virgin land. Very little capital was necessary to establish a man’s Independence, Almost anyone was able to get land and clear it for cultivation. After a few years of labor, he would be the owner of property that was the result of his own toil. A man with a few simple tools was able to carry on a trade without the. assistance of a capitalist. The Constitution in those days served to some extent also the interests of the bulk of the population (with the exception of the slaves) who consisted. of small farmers and independent craftsmen, or, in other words, of small property owners.

The Exploitation of Labor and the Law

Now let us see if that holds good to-day. For example, Henry Ford, the outstanding individual capitalist in America today, is the reputed owner of an industry worth at least $1,000,000,000. Is this billion dollars the result of Ford’s own labor? Of course not. It is the result of the labor of hundreds of thousands of wage laborers who work “for” Ford. It is the product of social toil. It is possible under a private-property system for Ford to exploit these hundreds of thousands of men, or to speak more simply, possible for him to legally rob them of by far the greater part of what they produce.

Ford has, during the last four months, laid off 50,000 workers, denying them the right to work in the industry which they, not he, were the builders of. Yet the government would back up Mr. Ford when he deprives workers of the means whereby they live. According to the Constitution, it is his factory, not theirs. Suppose that the Ford workers should demand that he turn over the plant to them. Ford would stand on the right given him by the Constitution which says: “No person shall be … deprived of … life, liberty or property without due process of the law … Nor shall private property be taken for public use without just compensation.” And the armed forces of the state would protect him in that right.

But what about the right of the 50,000 workers to life, liberty and the right to work — which is the only “property” of wage slaves? Well, the Constitution and the state laws have nothing to do with that. Property rights come first, and that holds good throughout the nation. Why? Because, though an industrial revolution took place in America, and we have changed from an agricultural country to an industrial, from individual production to social, yet we are still bound hand and foot by a document written in a pre-industrial era. Today a small minority own nearly all the land, the raw material, and the industries, while the greater part of the population are propertyless (proletarians). But we have failed to change our institutions to meet the changed economic conditions.

Abolish Capitalism

To speak of “we”, however, is to be inexact. The nation is made up of those who own and those who work. Of these two great classes, one, the minority, namely, the propertied class, still derive benefit from the existing order. It would be futile to expect them to bring about a change in the social system of America. That can only be done by the other class, the property-less ones, when they waken to a realization that a national constitution drawn up 150 years ago is now obsolete and must take its place in a museum as a thing of the past. New institutions must instead be created. We, the proletariat of today know far better than did our forefathers, what the social and political requirements of today are. We cannot let the past stand in our way, nor can we allow a handful of professional patriots and ancestor-worshippers to hold back the wheel of progress. The proletariat must and will brush all such aside and write its own constitution and make its own history,

Source: The Militant, Vol. III No. 10, March 8, 1930 / Scan: Marxists Internet Archive / Transcription: Left Voice

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Militant journalism, revolutionary politics.

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