By Chris Sheehy
It’s time to face facts. You live in a dictatorship of the rich. You didn’t ask for this. It’s not your fault. This didn’t exactly happen overnight, after all. Your parents, grandparents, even your great great grandparents – all of them inherited a system in which the only ones capable of changing anything worth changing are the ultra rich.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but at some point capitalism will likely force it down your throat. Some of us may reach this conclusion faster than others, especially those who have experience living paycheck to paycheck, those whose rent sucks up most of their income each month, those who must scramble to check their bank balance before they plan their only day off. But there are many who still have great difficulty accepting the reality of our situation. Upon even the slightest criticism of the status quo they shout, “We live in a democracy! We have a constitution! We can vote! We have free speech! You can go into any store and buy whatever you’d like! America is the land of the free!” You tend to overlook or outright ignore the underlying economic principles that shape our day to day, especially if you’ve spent most of your life in relative comfort. And that makes perfect sense. With a suburban roof over your head and organic food on the table it’s hard to see your society as unjust, let alone a dictatorship of any sort.
But here’s the catch. But not everyone occupies a suburb or a townhouse. Not everyone has eaten a nourishing meal by the end of each day. The homeless population in America is half a million, and this figure is a staggering underestimate given the difficulty of censusing such a mobile demographic — not to mention the economic repercussions of COVID-19. Almost 30 million Americans are without reliable healthcare. 34 million live in poverty. 40 million are facing eviction this year alone. 2 million are part of the world’s largest prison system. Thanks to a certain loophole in the Thirteenth Amendment, they are often enslaved, coerced into everything from making furniture to fighting wildfires. Moreover, those made to suffer under these conditions are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, Latino or otherwise nonwhite. For any of these people, it’s impossible to enjoy the so-called freedoms America offers. What good are thirty different brands of cereal when you can only afford one? What liberties do the bill of rights endow you with when you’re sleeping under an overpass?
The liberal fantasy that we live in a democracy falls flat on its face when you look at who does and doesn’t participate. 56% of non voters live on less than $30,000 a year. According to Pew Research Center, “Nonvoters were more likely to be younger, less educated, less affluent and nonwhite.” Not only that, but on average there are about 100 million Americans who regularly do not vote. Non voters aren’t just poor or disenfranchised, they’re a third of the entire population. The illusion of democracy doesn’t even extend to the American middle class, let alone the poor. And the above doesn’t take into account the long and sordid history of voter suppression in this country. The legacy of Jim Crow and property qualifications is carried on by voter ID laws, gerrymandering, felony convictions, strict immigration policy, and the rampant corruption of the DNC. And in the event that your vote is actually counted? Well it likely won’t benefit you in any meaningful way. What have the Obama or Trump presidencies actually accomplished for the working and oppressed people of our country after all? Democrat or Republican, the will of the people is entirely overshadowed by the will of the corporate lobbyist.
Even the most adamant American Dreamers will refrain from arguing with these facts. So instead they cling onto the tired rhetoric of the American Dream itself. The notion of a rugged individual with a puritan work ethic, who labors tirelessly, saving every last penny until they summit the poverty line has been drilled into each and every one of us since birth. It is politically incorrect to challenge the myth that the noble poor can patiently wait for their basic human rights, and in the meantime work themselves nearly to death without complaint. And this begs the question: was the American Dream ever more than just a dream? Was there ever a point in the history of this country where the working class had any political power? I think many of us are already aware that the answer is a resounding no. But we need to investigate why.
To unmask the dictatorial nature of the United States we turn to the work of Vladimir Lenin, undoubtedly the most important political scientist of the 20th century. Lenin, in the tradition of Marx and Engels, is looking at history and asking the big questions: how did it come to be this way? How did we arrive at the system we live in now? In his important book, The State and Revolution, Lenin writes that as society develops and government starts to emerge, we are “split into antagonistic, and, moreover, irreconcilably antagonistic classes, whose ‘self-acting’ arming would lead to an armed struggle between them. A state arises, a special power is created, special bodies of armed men, and every revolution, by destroying the state apparatus, shows us the naked class struggle, clearly shows us how the ruling class strives to restore the special bodies of armed men which serve it, and how the oppressed class strives to create a new organization of this kind, capable of serving the exploited instead of the exploiters.”
Now what does all this jargon about states and class antagonisms mean? We all know that society is divided into different classes; the working class, the middle class, and the wealthy capitalist class are the three we are most familiar with today. It follows that these classes have different interests. A custodian generally has different needs than an engineer, whose needs might differ from a real estate mogul’s. We like to think of our government as a neutral intermediary, solving the naturally arising conflicts between these classes. In actuality, the military, police force, and prisons, which Lenin refers to as “The State,” are tools of one class to forward its interests at the expense of all others. In ancient times this ruling class were the priests and slaveholders. In “feudal” societies, they were the king and his aristocrats. Nowadays, the ruling class are the wealthy business owners, property holders, and capitalists, whom Marxists like Lenin refer to as the Bourgeoisie.
This Bourgeoisie, this ruling capitalist class, has had a stranglehold over America since before it was even an independent nation. In fact, if we go back and read our history we can clearly see for ourselves that America has in fact never represented anyone but the capitalists who founded it, and that the ideals expressed in our constitution are a mirage.
Let’s wind the clocks back to 1787, when the Constitutional Convention finally came to a close and ratified the document our country was founded on. Recently, Americans are learning more and more about its glaring hypocrisy, although plenty of Americans already knew of these hypocrisies through their lived experience. The Three Fifths Compromise, which made it so enslaved Black people were considered merely three fifths of a person by law, is one particularly heinous example. The lack of human rights granted to women is another. But what happens when you dig deeper, when you really scrutinize parts of the Constitution that we hold dear to this day? What about the Bill of Rights? As an American, it seems like blasphemy to even question the idea that the Bill of Rights might not be all it’s cracked up to be, but hear me out. These first ten amendments to the Constitution guarantee all American citizens rights that we can all get behind. Freedom of assembly, freedom from self incrimination, freedom from cruel or unusual punishment, even freedom from the government forcing you to house soldiers on your private property. Now there’s not much wrong with most of these amendments as they are, but think about all the rights the so called Bill of Rights is leaving out. For instance, why is it that we are guaranteed a trial by a jury of our peers and an attorney, but not healthcare, education or a roof over our head? The whole point of the Constitution is to guarantee life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness right? The answer is simple. The Constitution was not designed with basic needs in mind. Our founding fathers were not common people; they didn’t even work for a living. George Washington owned 50,000 acres and hundreds of slaves. Jefferson, Madison and Hancock would be considered multi-millionaires by today’s standards. Even men like Samuel and John Adams, while not as ludicrously wealthy, still lived comfortable lives and owned plenty of capital. Their revolution was one of merchants and capitalists overthrowing a monarchy. It was not by the people, of the people, or for the people, unless “the people” were business interests.
When the common people of early America did make themselves heard, they were often brutally suppressed. Before the Constitution was even written, Daniel Shays, a Massachusetts veteran of the revolutionary war led 4000 of his disgruntled neighbors in a revolt against their local government. Alarmed by the heavy taxes that the working class were saddled with after the war, the people of Massachusetts tried petitions and protests to no avail. The state after all, had no interest in their concerns. Their only option was armed struggle, but they lost to a force led by a former general of the continental army. Several of Shays’ men were killed in battle, and others were executed by the state for treason. Believe it or not, this was not the only time the American people would revolt against their own government and its capitalist interests. During the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791, hundreds of Pennsylvanians banded together to fight an egregious tax on whiskey that predatorily targeted poor people. Due to lack of currency in some areas and its solid market value, many among the working class were paid a wage of whiskey instead of cash. The tax promised to rip away more of their income than they could survive without, so they had no choice but to rise up in insurrection. This revolt was crushed by the federal government over the course of three years. As president, George Washington himself, the paragon of American democracy, led an army against his own desperate people – although he distanced himself by letting another army officer do the dirty work. Decades later, around 300 self emancipated slaves rose up in revolt and marched on New Orlean. One man, Nat Turner, inspired and led a similar rebellion on a plantation in Virginia. John Brown would go on to lead a revolt at Harpers Ferry, attempting to incite a mass uprising in which enslaved people could free themselves and overthrow the white capitalists that kept them in chains . Unfortunately, these brave people were struck down by the white supremacist and capitalist establishment. We would do them a dishonor if we didn’t carry on their legacy. If we want to look even further forward in our history, we arrive at the Battle of Blair Mountain in 1921, where exploited Appalachian coal miners seized control of their workplace, only to be assaulted by US Army forces. Thousands of strikes across the country, less violent but no less passionate, further drive the point home. The history of the United States is a history of class struggle with American institutions representing the rich at every turn.
So far we’ve discussed this “dictatorship of the rich” as a purely domestic issue, but as we should all know, American policy doesn’t only affect Americans. In fact, much of this dictatorship is dependent on the exploitation of what is crudely called the “third world.” American Imperialism came into full swing around the early 1900s, when we waged war against Spain to conquer their neglected Carribean and Pacific colonies. The ruling class of the United States had always shown a particular interest in their southern neighbors. As early as 1823 president James Monroe had warned the European powers not to set foot in Central or South America. But after the “glorious” victory of the Spanish American War in 1898, places like Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines were put under outright US occupation. The treatment of the Philippines by US troops was especially monstrous. In many ways it was similar to American conduct in Vietnam sixty years later. Villages were burned, civilians, including children were shot, and mass graves were a common presence. To add insult to injury, many of the soldiers responsible for the destruction of the Philippines went on to receive medals of honor for their war crimes. Evidently the highest honor for a working class American is to be pitted against the working class of other nations.
As the 20th century wore on, America dominated many other countries within its reach. US Marines occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934, ensuring that its government fell in line with US interests. On the other side of the island of Hispaniola, the US invaded the Dominican Republic after they failed to pay off enormous loans that American corporations had coerced them into. Across the sea to the west, the board members of United Fruit Company, a produce monopoly that owned most of the railroads, factories, and general infrastructure in Honduras and Guatemala, ruled Central America like kings, establishing an empire built on the sale of bananas to American consumers. Their competitors from the creatively named Standard Fruit Company, known to us today as Dole, had already helped to overthrow the queen of Hawaii years before in 1898. Since then, Dole has made a killing off of supplying pineapple to grocery stores across all fifty states, all at the expense of Hawaiian sovereignty of course. After the Cold War broke out between the United States and the Soviet Union, this habit of American Imperialism grew into a twisted compulsion. In the 1950s, our government propped up the regime of Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, who forced the mostly Indigenous or Afro-Indigenous peasants into horrendous working conditions on plantations with strong ties to American companies. In the 1970s, we went even further in Chile, usurping the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende and replacing him with Augusto Pinochet, who, surprise-surprise, was very friendly with corporations in the US.
All of this, however, was many years ago. Haven’t we changed for the better by now? Today, the United States outwardly projects values of liberty and freedom. We tell ourselves that our overseas presence is spreading democracy, that we are protecting our allies. But how much of what the US says lines up with what it actually does? Occasionally, Americans recognize this disconnect, most recently with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and before that with Vietnam. Still, we fail to interrogate the reasoning behind our hundreds of foreign military bases as often as we really should.
Though they have certainly gotten better at disguising their motives and behavior, the capitalist ruling class of the United States remains in power through rampant imperialism even as I write this. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO has had unrivaled control over new areas of the world, adding to its growing list of purposely underdeveloped dependants. Countries that do not fall in line with US interests such as Russia, Iran, North Korea, China, and Cuba are bullied, sanctioned, or even bombed to rubble by this capitalist world order. To keep the nations already within their grasp in line, institutions such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank give huge loans with high interest rates to these “poor” countries. Inside the contracts for these loans, sometimes known as SAPs (Structural Adjustment Programs), are demands that put the country’s resources and infrastructure in control of the United States or force them to make certain policy decisions. But it doesn’t stop there. Free trade agreements like NAFTA have wreaked havoc on not only the American working class, whose jobs evaporated as soon as cheaper labor south of the border became available, but also the Mexican working class, who were forced into Maquiladora factories which sprung up with barely any regulation and horrifying working conditions. India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Bangladesh, are preyed upon by western capitalists in a similar way.
As we have clearly along our trip through the centuries, American capitalism has reached its most bloated yet formidable stage: imperialism. Corporations have fought and merged with each other to the point where a mere six of them own everything we consume, from food to entertainment. The American working class has been paid off with iPhones, Netflix, McDonalds, and a host of other luxurious distractions. Meanwhile, the truly nightmarish labor needed to produce all of it is outsourced to the most impoverished and colonized nations. This development is something Lenin predicted as early as 1917 in another of his most important works, aptly titled Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. Imperialist nations squabble over resources in proxy countries to keep their fragile economies from collapsing. Meanwhile, the working class remains divided by nationality, race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and whatever other identities the capitalists can find to exploit.
I hope I’ve made it plain just how dictatorial our situation really is. But let’s not be needlessly pessimistic. How do we change this state of affairs? We as communists find the most effective answer in Marxism Leninism. As Lenin put it, “the working class must break up, smash the “ready-made state machinery”, and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.” In other words, the very foundations of our government are designed for the wealthy. No amount of reform or progressive candidates will change that. The only solution is to build up enough of our own power, working class power, to overthrow the old order. Then we can create foundations that are truly designed for the people.
So what exactly will these foundations look like? With no significant labor movement in the United States, we can only speculate about the details of a revolutionary socialist project here. We also have to keep in mind socialism will emerge differently in every country because no two countries are exactly alike. The conditions in Tsarist Russia were different than the ones in Batista’s Cuba or Imperial China and the same will be true of any attempt at socialism in America. Using the work of successful Marxist Leninist revolutionaries as a guide though, we can say a few things for certain. First and foremost, democracy for the working class, known to communists as the Proletariat, must be established. Joseph Stalin put it best when he wrote that our new state must be one that is “democratic in a new way (for the proletarians and the non-propertied in general) and dictatorial in a new way (against the bourgeoisie).” Wealth and power must be radically redistributed. Heavy industry will be nationalized and put into the hands of the people who keep those industries functioning. Government spending will be used for infrastructure, health care, housing, and quality of life rather than being siphoned off into the military budget. There can be no playing nice with the capitalists who have left our world in ruin. Stalin continues: “Under capitalism the exploited masses do not, nor can they ever, really participate in governing the country, if for no other reason than that, even under the most democratic regime, under conditions of capitalism, governments are not set up by the people but by the Rothschilds and Stinneses, the Rockefellers and Morgans. Democracy under capitalism is capitalist democracy, the democracy of the exploiting minority, based on the restriction of the rights of the exploited majority and directed against this majority. Only under the proletarian dictatorship are real liberties for the exploited and real participation of the proletarians and peasants in governing the country possible. Under the dictatorship of the proletariat, democracy is proletarian democracy, the democracy of the exploited majority, based on the restriction of the rights of the exploiting minority and directed against this minority.”
This “proletarian democracy” – or people’s democracy – will be economic as well as political. In the capitalist system a worker can cast a meaningless vote to elect a president, but they cannot vote in a new boss. Under socialism, the workers will democratically run their workplace. We will have our basic necessities: housing, food, education, health care. We will create products to be consumed, not to be sold. We will have a say in our future. Socialism certainly won’t solve all our problems. Only the most naive could think that humans will ever live without dissatisfaction, boredom, suffering, or conflict. Socialism will, however, be one great leap forward for all of humanity. It will help to right the wrongs committed by our ancestors, to restore balance to the world order. To break free from the dictatorship of the rich promises to be a long struggle. It might not even happen within our lifetimes. But like those that came before us, we won’t let that stop us from fighting all the same.
I’ll leave you with some words that have inspired me to join a communist party and start organizing for a better world. They were said by a very controversial figure, at least in the west, but when I first read them they resonated with me so deeply that they made me immediately start to question the narrative I had heard about communism my whole life. And for those who are still skeptical, we don’t study revolutionaries because we want to worship them. We study them because they were proven right and we can learn from their example. Joseph Stalin once said “It is difficult for me to imagine what ‘personal liberty’ is enjoyed by an unemployed person, who goes about hungry, and cannot find employment. Real liberty can exist only where exploitation has been abolished, where there is no oppression of some by others, where there is no unemployment and poverty, where a man is not haunted by the fear of being tomorrow deprived of work, of home and of bread. Only in such a society is real, and not paper, personal and every other liberty possible.” Let us take that society on paper and through Marxist Leninist struggle, write it onto the pages of history!
Lenin’s The State and Revolution–
Lenin’s Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism –
Stalin on people’s democracy in The Foundations of Leninism –
An interview of Stalin conducted by western journalist Roy Howard-
The amended US Constitution in full –
Nat Turner –
German Coast Rebellion – https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/andry-s-rebellion-1811/
John Brown –
The Battle of Blair Mountain –
The Monroe Doctrine –
Standard Fruit Company-
United Fruit Company-
US intervention in Cuba –
US occupation of Haiti –
US occupation of the Philippines –
IMF and SAPS –
NAFTA and the Maquiladora program –