America’s Fourth Revolution

As a child, I listened endlessly to Paul Robeson’s deep and sonorous tones as he sang the Ballad for Americans, celebrating the American dream of equality, justice, and opportunity.  The American promise came as close as anything to a spiritual ideal for me.  By the time I was in high school, I was enchanted with history classes.  In college, I majored in American history and literature, and I followed that with five years of graduate study.  I’d like to share some of what I learned.

We have had not one but three revolutions in American history in the march towards greater social, economic, and political justice. Each time, the purpose has been to redress a particular injustice and to move us further on the path of an inclusive democracy.   Each revolution has completed the unfulfilled promises of the one before.  These revolutions have been hard fought; they have required sacrifice.  But believing what we do as a people—government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—there has been no alternative, no possibility of little changes—band aids—here and there.  I believe that there is a need for a fourth revolution.

Our national history begins with the Revolution of 1776.  As Robeson sings:

In seventy-six the sky was red

Thunder rumbling over head

Bad King George couldn’t sleep in his bed

And on that stormy morn, Old Uncle Sam was born.

We were born in rebellion from monarchy and arbitrary power.  We created a democratic form of government in order to immensely broaden the base of power, and we instituted the rule of law.  By replacing powerful men with the rule of law, we guaranteed that no one could decide our fate without our consent.  The first American revolution represents one of the great achievements in world history, setting the standard for others and setting a standard that we would have to live up to, ourselves.

There were limitations, though.  Historians have long noted that the Revolution allowed the property-owning classes to establish their dominion.  The Constitution that they wrote did not include Black slaves, poor non-land owning whites, women, and a host of others.  To gain the allegiance of the Southern states, it created an Electoral College and assigned equal Senate votes to agrarian states with far smaller populations than states with urban centers..  These and many other Constitutional “deals” were set as a great wall against the rule of the “unwashed” majority.  The Revolution was a monumental  l event but there was work to be done to achieve a more robust democracy.

1860 brought the second revolution.  At its heart, it was fought to free the slaves.  Robeson intones:

Old Abe Lincoln was thin and long,

His heart was high and his faith was strong.

But he hated oppression, he hated wrong,

And he went down to his grave to free the slave.

Many historians, believe that the Revolution of 1776 could only have  been completed with the Emancipation Proclamation.  Other historians noted that the party of Lincoln also broke the monopoly on power held by the original property-owning class and quickened the economic freedom represented by free-market capitalism that has defined our economy ever since.  In doing so, the Northern Republicans wanted also to put an end to the medieval dominance of the Southern aristocracy.

Again, these were great achievements that left much to be done.  The South quickly undermined the Fourteenth Amendment and, as if by slight of hand, transformed slavery into Jim Crow.  The laws of emancipation were on the books, but not the practice.  The agrarian states still held inordinate power at a time when European immigrants began to overflow the Eastern cities, and nativist politics did its best to keep them in their place.  What’s more, the increased vigor of “free” markets led to a form of monopoly capitalism, in which the few again found a way to rule the majority.  Robber barons  like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, and Carnegie and bankers like Jim Fisk and Jay Gould were the new monarchs of American society.

The third revolution, catalyzed first by the Progressive moment, led by Woodrow Wilson and Teddy Roosevelt, and then by the Great Depression of 1928, culminated in FDR’s New Deal.  The masses had begun to rise against the free market “profiteers,” and to demand that government serve their end, to serve the needs of workers and small farmers, and of immigrants, of Catholics and Jews, not just White, Anglo Saxon, Protestants.  If America was to be of and by the people, it could also be for the people.  That meant more and better jobs, Social Security to protect aging citizens, rules that guaranteed working men and women an equal say at the bargaining table, among many other agencies and laws to even the playing field.

Like the first two revolutions, the third left much undone: Advancing he civil rights of Black people and women, not to mention those of gay and lesbian people, whose time would come sixty years later, and the right to health care for the old and the poor.  In many ways, the third revolution only realized its promise during the age of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson.  The period of the 1960’s and 1970’s could easily be considered a fourth revolution, with the sustained reform efforts of the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the Great Society and the War on Poverty ushering in a hybrid form of government that combined social welfare with free market incentives.  For most of a century, the United States became the most prosperous nation the world had ever known.

Still, much needed and needs to be done.  There are many millions of Americans still in need of civil rights and economic access: people of color in particular but also poor and disenfranchised White people; everyone who is down and out or, like many home owners and college students, one step from foreclosure or dropping out.

What’s more, the freedoms wrought by the three revolutions are in jeopardy.  Once again, a plutocracy, consisting of enormously wealthy people and corporations, and the “public servants” who do their bidding, threatens the American dream.  Nativist ideologies threaten our efforts to be one people.  The US President-elect  insists on his own security guard (army?), more reminiscent of dictatorships than democratically elected government.  New cabinet members threaten to roll back civil rights to the days of Jim Crow, to dismantle economic regulations that give working people a fair share of power and health care systems that protect the vulnerable.

Let me be more direct:  The incoming regime threatens the most basic rights and hopes that have taken three revolutions to build:  liberty, democratic governance, inclusion of all, and a safety net for the vulnerable.  It should seem clear to anyone who has followed and loved the American dream that we need a fourth (but nonviolent) revolution.

We need to abandon the timid rhetoric of reform and the inadequate solutions of the liberals.  They may now be our Tories.  We need to build an agenda and a rhetoric that speaks to and unites all who are threatened by the “conservative” and the Trump regressions and repressions.  We need to abandon the rhetoric of small tribes: Whites, Blacks, and Latinos, gay, lesbian, and “trans,” southern and northern, city and country.  We need an agenda that brings together the great, great majority of Americans to rebuild the American democracy.  We must fight the new property classes.  We must resist a Trump monarchy.  We must fight “bad King George” all over again.

I know that my rhetoric will sound naïve and idealistic to many, but so does any deeply held creed.  And I hope that I am more worked up than I need to be.  But I think not, and I do know that there is no revolution that succeeds without fighting hard and dreaming big.  Let me end by returning to The Ballad for Americans.  The chorus, America’s working people, asks: Who is this stranger and where is he going?  Robeson then responds for me and, I hope for many of you:

Our country’s strong, our country’s young,

And her greatest songs are still unsung.

From her plains and mountains we have sprung,

To keep the faith with those who went before. 

We nobodies who are anybody believe it.

We anybodies who are everybody have no doubts.

Our song of hope is here again. 

Strong as the people who made it.

For I have always believed it, and I believe it now,

And now you know who I am.

Who are you?

America! America!

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10 thoughts on “America’s Fourth Revolution”

  1. Those of you interested in FDR’s New Deal really should read an excellent book, “Nothing to Fear” by Adam Cohen about FDR’s first 100 days in office. Most of the New Deal was the brain child of the first woman cabinet member, Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor who served from his election in 1932 until his death. An excellent biography of her is titled, “The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins” by Kirstin Downey. She was a very private person and as the only female cabinet member, made sure that FDR got the credit for the New Deal – but, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, the Minimum Wage, and the Child Labor Laws were all her inventions. Cohen’s book has her featured in one or two chapters, but the biography is the real source of information. Almost all academic history books about the Roosevelt Administration makes no mention of her.

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  2. Barry, I love this post for its message and because your talking of Paul Robeson reminds me of a wonderful story from my mother that I think you’d like.

    For 12 years or so beginning in the late 1920’s, my mother attended a progressive school in upstate New York where most of the students – although not she and her sister – were European refugees. One night the students were told to gather on the school grounds after dark. They were led by teachers through the woods to an old abandoned house. Paul Robeson was there and he sang for them. I’m not sure how it came about although Pete Seeger’s brother was the music teacher and Pete was often at the school, so it may have been they who arranged it.

    You and my mother had a great deal in common and would have enjoyed each other. I wish I could have gotten you together.

    Best, Pat

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

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    1. Hey Pat, I had no idea you were also from an old lefty home. It’s a good story. My equivalent is, at age 5 or so, sitting on Paul Robeson’s knee at a party. From that moment on, he was my hero. Later, as I learned that he was an all-American football player, a great Shakespearean actor, an orator and messenger of good tidings… my admiration only grew………………. Barry

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  3. Hi Barry,
    It’s strange how much of a person’s political views can be revealed by citing a song, an album or a performer. Not surprisingly, I too grew up listening to Paul Robeson and the Ballad for Americans. Reading the first few verses, I could still hear the voice and all that it stood for. While at college, one of my fraternity brothers was whistling the tune of the Union Maid, and I knew directly where that put him politically. An underground form of communication of the time. And I did not escape from the grip of the Third Revolution when listening to my dad speak of living through the Great Depression, fighting with the police and the Pinkertons during union protests and helping women and children escape from an American Legion attack during a Paul Robeson appearance in Peekskill (as described in the preface to one of Howard Fast’s books). And then we lived through the McCarthy era, and felt like outsiders in our own country. Starting with a security clearance necessary for working in the army laboratory, and then having a security clearance for 12 years while consulting with the Department of Commerce, the feeling of alienation dissipated. All that, however, has returned as born agains and right wingers have taken over the narrative of the country and electing a loony President. We can always hope that the people who elected Trump will come to realize that none of their dreams will be granted, but, at best, it will be a long road traveled before idealism and compassion return to the country.
    Mitch

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    1. Mitch, I treasure your responses. They are so resonant, so full of feelings and facts. We both felt the impact of McCarthyism, who, it turns out, had more supp0rt from J.Edger Hoover than we even knew then. We both felt like strangers in our own land, yet retained a passionate patriotism. How did that happen.

      We can only hope that the people who voted for Trump realize the errors of their ways. They will soon see how little he can or will look after their interests. We can only hope that working people see the light and organize together.

      Barry

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  4. This was such a wonderful essay. I remember every year taking in the boot legged copy of Ballad for Americans to school. We had gotten it from George Spota.

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  5. I think the next revolution has begun. It is a relatively small wave now, but will rise like a sunami (sp) during the next two years. Like you, I pray that it will be non violent, but it must come. It will be led by common citizens who understand and defend the vision of the United States of America. When this revolution is successful, people oppressed by tyranny will once again see hope shining from our shores!

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