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America’s Shift from Revolution to Counterrevolution

by John C. Bennett

John C. Bennett was co-chairman of the Christianity and Crisis Editorial Board and president of Union Theological Seminary. He has contributed significantly to Protestant thinking on international affairs, communism, Catholicism and church relations. This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 9-16, 1976, pp. 561-564. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


One little-noted fact in this bicentennial year is that our country, which was born in revolution, has been opposed to all recent revolutions and in most cases has tried to undermine them. We need to reflect on this point and to ask if there was anything about the nature of the American revolution that helps to explain it.

It was not until 15 years after the Russian revolution that our government recognized the new Russian regime. In the Soviet Union a part of people’s memory is that the United States sent an expeditionary force to Siberia in 1918 and that many Americans, together with governments of our allies, gave moral and material support to the White Russian rebels against the Soviets. George F. Kennan claims that the U.S. never intended military confrontation with the revolutionary government -- and, indeed, the size of the expeditionary force supports that contention. He says that our government was concerned about the presence of German prisoners of war in Siberia and other matters connected with the ending of World War I. Even if that is the case, the Russian memory of that American counterrevolutionary presence has always been a negative factor in U.S.-Soviet relations. There was no doubt about the hostility of our government and of most American people to the Russian revolution.

Our opposition to the Chinese revolution has been a vital factor in U.S. foreign policy until the recent rapprochement with the Peking government. As allies of the Nationalists on Taiwan we were participants in the Chinese civil war. American hostility to the communist regime was clearly visible in the bitter opposition for more than two decades to its recognition by our government and to its inclusion in the UN. What troubles me most as I look back on that period is our willingness then to do anything short of war to destroy the Chinese revolution, even though the result would have been to throw China back into the massive poverty, corruption and partial anarchy that preceded the revolution.

We have been trying to strangle the Cuban revolution for 15 years, forcing Cuba to become completely dependent on the Soviet Union and putting the entire blame on Castro for the consequences of that dependence -- which may include the Cuban intervention in Africa. The depth of our government’s hostility to the Cuban revolution is revealed by the scandalous attempts by the CIA to assassinate Castro.

The war in Indochina has many meanings, but it was, among other things, a counterrevolutionary war. We tried for so many years and at appalling cost to us and to the people of Indochina to prop up a rightist regime in Saigon against the forces of a nationalist revolution that was in part inspired and given structure by communism.

We can add to these overt cases the many examples of the CIA’s covert counterrevolutionary activity, especially in Latin America.

I

These were for the most part communist revolutions -- a fact which may, on the surface, seem to justify our opposition to them. However, it seems to me that we should have had more humility as we faced the vast social upheavals within which communism was the agent of revolution. It was not our country’s place to judge that, when other nations were caught in such upheavals and were moving away from both political and economic oppression, communism was worse than any available alternative. Perhaps we were prevented from raising the question of alternatives because of an implicit assumption that there existed an American model which all these nations were wrongheaded enough to reject. But there really was no American alternative for most of these situations, and there is no such alternative today.

Nonetheless, we found ourselves supporting tyrannical rightist regimes that care nothing about the freedom we prize, and that do little or nothing economically for the lower 80 per cent of their populations. Our only tests for giving our support have been whether or not the governments were anticommunist and were open to the penetration of their countries by American business -- tests that have had nothing to do with either freedom or justice.

American policy-makers have justified their counterrevolutionary stance on the basis of the threat of international Stalinism, and these rightist regimes -- even though they may have been distasteful -- were preferable to leftist forces which tilted the balance of power against our side. This international Stalinist monolith has long since ceased to exist; however, despite detente with the Soviet Union and China, U.S. official hostility toward revolutions in the Third World has not changed. Moreover, is it well to remember that our belligerent spirit in relation to all communist regimes did a great deal to harden the world’s polarization between "East" and "West."

II

Now consider our own revolution. It was unusual in that it called for no radical social changes. Out of it came a new and independent political system but not a new society. American society both before and after the revolution was far more egalitarian than either British or European society in general. Our revolution, although anticolonial, was different from modern anticolonial revolutions in that it was a civil war between differing British peoples who claimed identical political rights. Samuel Eliot Morison says of the American colonists just before the revolution that, except for the minority among them who were in bondage, they were the "freest people in the world, and in many respects more free than anyone today" (The Oxford History of the American People, Oxford University Press, 1965). They had nothing in common with the peasants in Russia or China before the revolutions in those countries or with the large majority of people in Latin America today. For good reasons the colonists were irked, but they were not really oppressed.

The issues involved in the American Revolution were not so profound or fateful as those at stake in recent or contemporary revolutions. The significant differences between the spokesmen of the colonies and the majority in the British Parliament, and the debates about them, prepared the way intellectually for the formation of the American union. Bernard Bailyn in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution (Harvard University Press, 1967) discusses three of these issues: different views of the relationship between the legislature and electors, different views of the legislature’s sovereignty in relation to a higher law embodied in a constitution, and different views of the relation between, the central sovereign and subordinate political units. The importance of the second and third issues is obvious for decisions about a written constitution, which later was interpreted as involving judicial review of acts of Congress, and for a federal union of states having partial autonomy under a national government.

However, with respect to the first of those issues, I find fascinating the British idea of "virtual representation," which meant that so long as Parliament was a mixed deliberative body of persons that represented a variety of interests and opinions, then representation was real and valid even though citizens could not vote for members of Parliament. The slogan "No taxation without representation" came up against this doctrine. Edmund Burke, who believed in the principle of "virtual representation" in other contexts, denied that it applied to the American colonies; he cited their distance, the size of their populations, and his trust in their own legislatures to take action on taxation necessary for the well-being of the empire. (In this bicentennial year would it not be appropriate to take note of our debt to the British statesmen who were on our side, among them Burke; Charles James Fox and Lord Chatham?) It is interesting that the British poor did not overcome the discriminatory effects of the idea of "virtual representation" until the third reform act in 1884.

Hannah Arendt, in her illuminating book On Revolution (Viking, 1965), exalts the American Revolution as the most successful one and traces that success to the fact that "it occurred in a country that knew nothing of mass poverty and among a people who had a widespread experience of self-government;" She says that one of the blessings in the American situation was that the revolution grew out of a conflict with a limited monarchy, for "the more absolute the ruler, the more absolute the revolution will be which replaces him."

Our revolution’s marks of success are that it was not accompanied or followed by systematic official terror and that out of it came an extraordinary achievement in nation-building and in the establishment of a new constitutional government. Regarding the first of these, opponents were harassed and many fled the country, often to the advantage of Canada, but we have good reason to rejoice that there were no mass executions and no organized persecutions of revolutionary factions. As for the second, Alexander Hamilton put the matter very well in the first of The Federalist Papers: "It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved for the people of this country, by their conduct and example to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force." We have every reason to celebrate this achievement.

III

Part of the explanation of our present counterrevolutionary stance and of our tendency to deliver self-righteous official lectures to most of humanity is that our revolution did not prepare us to understand these recent revolutions. Suffering from desperate poverty and oppressive social inequalities, and lacking the advantage of going against "limited monarchies," they had to be social revolutions. Ours was really the fulfillment of two previous revolutions in British history: the Puritan revolt and that of 1688, which salvaged some of the former’s gains from the effects of the Stuart restoration. Furthermore, revolutions of our time generally have not had the advantage of the opposition’s being located 3,000 miles away and being without much counterrevolutionary zeal.

We were fortunate that, because of the historical circumstances and some of the spiritual and intellectual preparations for our revolution, our founding fathers avoided the absolutistic utopianism that so often distorts revolutions. There is a famous passage in The Federalist Papers (No. 51): "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. . . . In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself." The first sentence is much echoed today (California Governor Jerry Brown recently said that all government gives him a bad conscience!), but I think the statement is unbalanced. There is a necessary side of government as it maintains order to which the concept does apply. But it is not true when government functions as the instrument of cooperation in the community, often the national community. Although even this side of government -- as in its provisions for education and for many social services -- has to make use of coercion in the collection of taxes, it is highly creative, based on persuasion. and its coercion is secondary. This function of government is necessary even if there is much virtue in the population. The second sentence in the quotation above represents the best political wisdom, but unfortunately such wisdom does not often flourish in the midst of revolutions or of the struggles to defend the gains of revolution.

Our revolution prepared the way for two centuries of free economic enterprise with minimal checks on private centers of economic power. There was not even the slightest lead to give help in the struggles for economic justice as the nation became industrialized and as the frontier to which less fortunate members of society could escape became virtually closed. In this sense the American Revolution was one-sided, and today it is as important to take note of that one-sidedness as it is to celebrate the great things that were accomplished or for which the way was prepared. For example, only recently have white Americans come to realize with any adequacy the terrible racial blind spots of our founders. Even those founders who personally opposed slavery had no idea that races should be equal in a nondiscriminatory and nonsegregated society. As for native Americans, their story has been equally grim, and even less has been done to promote their equal citizenship.

Today, 200 years after the American Revolution, 25 to 30 million of our people live in poverty, most of them in decaying cities that blight their entire environment. Unemployment is regarded as a tradeoff for the values of economic freedom, but those. who by accident work in soft spots in the economy bear in their bodies and in their daily lives the chief burdens that come from that trade-off, and very little attention is given to this injustice. To me, the greatest scandal of all is the bland indifference to this fact on the part of those who have the most power in our country: in many cities, 40 per cent of the young people are without work and may well belong permanently to a subculture of unemployment even after the economy as a whole recovers from recession. Gains have been made since the depression of the 1930s, and the serious victims in our society are about one-sixth of the population rather than one-third; but one-sixth represents many millions, and its presence indicates the need for a continuing revolution.

We have been accustomed to assuming that our revolution and our way of life provide an example that other countries should follow. However, we have discovered in recent years that they are not following our lead, and our leaders’ reaction to this discovery has been to condemn rather than to understand. Daniel P. Moynihan gained great popularity from his self-righteous histrionics in the UN, but his stance in relation to the Third World is an example of what should be avoided by representatives of the United States.

This is a time to celebrate the many achievements of our revolution. We should be extremely grateful that our founders were able to establish a system of government that has made possible both stability and orderly change throughout most of our history. It proved to be remarkably resilient during the Watergate crisis. That the Bill of Rights and later the equal-protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment have been resources for both freedom and justice should be a source of pride. And yet, as we live with other nations whose histories have been so different from ours, we should recognize how one-sided our revolution was. Other nations have had to set different priorities, and their revolutionary experiments represent an opposite one-sided-ness. Their need has been to establish governments strong enough to preserve unity and order and to overcome the effects of centuries of economic stagnation and poverty. We had the advantages, usually denied today, of a small population, enormous resources, and a background of experience with representative government.

Humility before the immensity of the problems faced by many other nations should be the beginning of wisdom in American statesmanship, but this quality has been the one most lacking. President Ford, who is free from personal pretensions, nevertheless could say recently that "America is morally and spiritually number one and that will be the force to keep us moving so that America, and all its people, its government, will be number one forever.

If the United States is to commend what is true in its own relatively one-sided commitment to freedom -- and there is much in it that is true -- we shall need to demonstrate that, while maintaining the freedom of the Bill of Rights, American society will find it possible to overcome the poverty and the discriminations which, in the midst of our general affluence, still victimize many millions.


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