With Donald Trump’s gracious acceptance of the GOP nomination, his speech was centred around the concept of Americanism. This ‘ism’ is nothing new but there is an ideology within the term that is no less concerning than many others of the same nature: a belief that there is one way of life, centred on an extreme form of an American ideal.
“Americanism: A World Menace” was the title of a book written in 1922 by a English writer and socialist (at the time, he was a Communist), William Thomas Colyer. He, together with his wife, Amy, had emigrated to the United States in 1915, a month after they were married, sick of the destruction of the First World War fought by elite monarchies and, perhaps naively, optimistic for the future in the new world. This hope was borne on the back of their reading of the American Constitution and the fight for freedom that those like Tom Paine had foreseen. William and Amy believed that the USA was ripe for Communism.
Until 1920, they worked for the cause of socialism, witnessing the Russian Revolution, with some equanimity, as a fight for the rights of common people against elite oppression. They saw the same in the capitalism of the USA, punctured by the need to value everything by its price, elitism and the corruption of business and politics. It was not too long before their naivety was shaken as the Palmer (or Red) Raids of 1920 shattered any remaining illusions.
In 1920, Charles Palmer, the left-leaning Attorney General, was almost killed by a bomb planted by some Italian anarchists. He secured the services of a young man to lead the fight against these terrorists and to round up all ‘alien communists’ living in the country. The young man, just twenty-four years of age, who we know as J Edgar Hoover, did as required and hundreds of such men and women were deposited in Deer Island Prison within Boston Harbour.
After enduring punishing conditions of extreme over-crowding, lack of food and drink, detailed cross-examinations and witnessing the suicides of several prisoners, William and Amy (two of a handful of English-speakers within a predominantly eastern European prisoner intake) were tried and sentenced to deportation. A group of human rights lawyers succeeded in having Judge Anderson reverse their sentence but Hoover was not one for giving up and a retrial succeeded in having them deported back to England in 1922.
William was an economist and, by now, a confirmed Communist. His book, Americanism, was published in that year and was a rasping attack on the American way of life as he had experienced it and which he compared to Prussianism, so soon after the First World War. He saw that the world had a decision to make: Americanism or Communism.
He saw Americanism as having a range of characteristics but these were simplified as:
- An overwhelming pride of race, based on the material development of the country achieved largely through the ability and industry of “foreigners”. Known locally as patriotism.
- The establishment of dollar-producing or dollar-collecting capacity as the absolute standard of value, covering every form intellectual and spiritual achievement. Known locally as “practical idealism” based on “equality of opportunity”.
- Glorification of “democracy” as an abstract idea, divorced from practical control by the rank and file. Known locally as “the union of efficiency and democracy under sane leadership”.
- General lawlessness and contempt for orderly procedure. Known locally under a great variety of flowery and meaningless names, of which “upsurging of the great heart of America” may be taken as an example.
When “Americanism” was published, Colyer was a Communist and had just suffered deportation. His vituperation should be seen in that light and he was, thankfully, mistaken in that the USA, for the next 94 years, pursued a direction of capitalism that (after the battles for human rights of the 1960’s) skated outside of rank Americanism, with due respect for a type of democracy, for basic human rights. While business and a dollar-focused valuation of everything remains, it is wrapped in a cushion of values that are often qualitatively robust even if the lack of scientific understanding amongst politicians (including a mistrust of climate change theory and evolution) rankles with other western nations.
Now, there is an attempt to revoke the balancing act that has been the USA and recoil into Trump’s Americanism. Based on patriotism, it is a businessman’s total and complete devotion to success measured by the dollar, a promise to provide a way out of the insanity of “political correctness”, an underlying refusal to condemn the gun lobby and the variety of vigilante attacks throughout the USA, that is seen as the natural outpouring of pent-up emotion.
Colyer’s four axioms, although written by a Communist, just deported, in 1922, are not too far from Trump’s Americanism of 2016.
Colyer wrote how, in “1920, the ‘Knights of the Klu Klux Klan’ began to make themselves felt as a power in modern American life. In that year, in pursuance of the purposes of their order “to maintain for ever white supremacy in all things” and “to keep eternally ablaze the sacred fire of a fervent devotion to a pure Americanism”, masked men wearing the dreaded white robe began to hold parades in southern cities, and to kidnap, flog, tar and feather men and women at will.”
That was 1920. Almost a century later, amongst the torment of the southern states as black men are arbitrarily killed by police and police are killed in retaliation, as terrorist atrocities are felt from France to America and, by their thousands upon thousands in the Middle East and Africa, as millions feel under-served by remote democratic institutions as shown by Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump, the spectre of Americanism rises again.
In 1848, Karl Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto that the “spectre of communism” was “haunting Europe”. Donald Trump’s speech-writers could just as easily write, that in 2016:
“The spectre of Americanism is haunting the world. All the powers of the free world have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre.”
Americanism appears to be a far greater and more immediate danger today than Communism was in 1848 (although Communism’s perseverance and evolution into Stalinism and Maoism led to horrific disasters in the next century). The United States could be entering into a period of Americanism as much of the world reacts to the massive turmoil of banking failures in 2008, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nice, Crimea, Boko Harum, Daesh, and toys with the spirit of Brexit, Le Penn, Haider, and the cry of “everyone for themselves”. Trump’s new doctrines, based on Americanism, calls into question all of society’s safeguards.
Colyer’s answer to Americanism was to urge the workers of Great Britain to line up with the workers of the Soviet Union. In 1926, Colyer resigned from Communist Party as Stalin gripped the Soviets ever tighter. The challenge now is to establish a 21st Century response to Americanism (or similar calls to so-called ‘patriotism’) that does not reverse the serious gains made by most in the world since the end of the Second World War, which included the ending of Naziism, Fascism, Stalinism and Maoism (and most other forms of Communism).
An inclusive Democracy needs to be refreshed, not stymied, by a popularism that Americanism extols. It is for all those who have worked for the establishment of human rights and basic qualities of life to double those efforts now before the spectre of Americanism is upon us.