The key to understanding Amerika is to see that it was a chain of European settler colonies that expanded into a settler empire. To go back and understand the lives and consciousness of the early English settlers is to see the embryo of today's Amerikan Empire. This is the larger picture that allows us to finally relate the class conflicts of settler Euro-Amerikans to the world struggle.
The mythology of the white masses holds that those early settlers were the poor of England, convicts and workers, who came to North Amerika in search of "freedom" or "a better way of life". Factually, that's all nonsense. The celebrated Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock, for example, didn't even come from England (although they were English). They had years before emigrated as a religious colony to Holland, where they had lived in peace for over a decade. But in Holland these predominately middleclass people had to work as hired labor for others. This was too hard for them, so they came to North Amerika in search of less work and more money. At first, according to the rules of their faith, they farmed the land in common and shared equally. Soon their greed led them into fighting with each other, slacking off at assigned tasks, etc., until the Colony's leaders had to give in to the settlers' desires and divide up the stolen land (giving "to every family a parcel of land").(1)
This is typical of the English invasion forces. A study of roughly 10,000 settlers who left Bristol from 1654-85 shows that less than 15% were proletarian. Most were youth from the lower-middle classes; Gentlemen & Professionals 1%; Yeomen & Husbandmen 48%; Artisans & Tradesmen 29%.(2) The typical age was 22-24 years. In other words, the sons and daughters of the middle class, with experience at agriculture and craft skills, were the ones who thought they had a practical chance in Amerika.
What made North Amerika so desirable to these people? Land. Euro-Amerikan liberals and radicals have rarely dealt with the Land question; we could say that they don't have to deal with it, since their people already have all the land. What lured Europeans to leave their homes and cross the Atlantic was the chance to share in conquering Indian land. At that time there was a crisis in England over land ownership and tenancy due to the rise of capitalism. One scholar of the early invasion comments on this:
Land hunger was rife among all classes. Wealthy clothiers, drapers, and merchants who had done well and wished to set themselves up in land were avidly watching the market, ready to pay almost any price for what was offered. Even prosperous yeomen often could not get the land they desired for their younger sons...It is commonplace to say that land was the greatest inducement the New World had to offer; but it is difficult to overestimate its psychological importance to people in whose minds land had always been identified with security, success and the good things of life.(3)
It was these "younger sons", despairing of owning land in their own country, who were willing to gamble on the colonies. The brutal Enclosure Acts and the ending of many hereditary tenancies acted as a further push in the same direction. These were the principal reasons given on the Emigration Lists of 1773-76 for settling in Amerika.(4) So that participating in the settler invasion of North Amerika was a relatively easy way out of the desperate class struggle in England for those seeking a privileged life.*
[*It is hard for us to imagine how chaotic and difficult English life was in that transitional period. The coming of capitalism had smashed all the traditional securities and values of feudal England, and financed its beginnings with the most savage reduction of the general living standard. During the course of the Sixteenth Century wages in the building trades went down by over half, while the price of firewood, wheat and other necessities soared by five times. By encouraging this outflow the British ruling class both furthered their empire and eased opposition at home to their increasing concentration of wealth and power. And the new settlers, lusting for individual land and property, were willing to endure hardships and uncertainties for this prized goal. They were even more willing to kill for it.]
Then, too, many English farmers and artisans couldn't face the prospect of being forced down into the position of wage-labor. Traditionally, hired laborers were considered so low in English society that they ranked far below mere failures, and were considered degraded outcasts. Many English (including the "Levellers", the anticapitalist revolutionary outbreak of the 17th Century) thought wage laborers should lose their civil rights and English citizenship. Public opinion was so strong on this that the early English textile factories were filled with Irish and Welsh immigrants, children from the poorhouses and single women. So jumping the ocean in search of land was not some mundane career decision of comparing dollars and cents to these Englishmen — it was a desperate venture for continued status and self-respect.(5)
The various colonies competed with each other in offering inducements to new settlers. In the South the "headright" system gave each new settler 50 acres for transporting themselves from England. Eventually Pennsylvania and the Carolinas offered even more land per settler as a lure. And land was "dirt cheap" for Europeans. In Virginia ten shillings bought a tract of one hundred acres; in Pennsylvania the best land sold per acre at what a carpenter would earn in a day. When new communities of invaders were started on the edges of conquered areas, the settlers simply divided up the land. For example, when Wallington, Conn. was founded in 1670 each settler family got between 238-476 acres. This amount was not unusual, since colonial Amerika was an orgy of land-grabbing. In fact, much of the land at first wasn't even purchased or rented — it was simply taken over and settled. As much as two-thirds of the tilled land in Pennsylvania during the 1700s was occupied by white squatters, protected by settler solidarity.(6)
So central was the possession of land in the personal plans of the English settlers that throughout the colonial period there was a shortage of skilled labor. Richard Morris' study of labor in colonial Amerika concluded: "In the main, the ultimate economic objective of colonial workmen was security through agriculture rather than industry...As soon as a workman had accumulated a small amount of money he could, and in many cases did, take up a tract of land and settle on it as a farmer."(7)
Where land was not available, settlers refused to come. Period. This is why the British West Indies, with their favorable climate, were less attractive to these settlers than wintry New England. As early as 1665 a member of the Barbados Assembly complained, noting that the limited space of that island had already been divided up: "Now we can get few English servants, having no lands to give them at the end of their time, which formerly was their main allurement." And British servants, their terms up, would leave the Indies by the thousands for Amerika.(8)
It was this alone that drew so many Europeans to colonial North Amerika: the dream in the settler mind of each man becoming a petty lord of his own land. Thus, the tradition of individualism and egalitarianism in Amerika was rooted in the poisoned concept of equal privileges for a new nation of European conquerors.
The life of European settlers — and the class structure of their society — was abnormal because it was dependent upon a foundation of conquest, genocide, and enslavement. The myth of the self-sufficient, white settler family "clearing the wilderness" and supporting themselves through their own initiative and hard labor, is a propaganda fabrication. It is the absolute characteristic of settler society to be parasitic, dependent upon the superexploitation of oppressed peoples for its style of life. Never has Euro-Amerikan society completely supported itself. This is the decisive factor in the consciousness of all classes and strata of white society from 1600 to now.
Settler society was raised up, above the level of backward Old Europe, by a foundation of conquest. This conquest was a miracle drug for a Europe convulsed with the reaction of decaying feudalism and deadly capitalism. Shot into the veins of the Spanish feudal nation, for instance, the miracle drug of "New World" conquest gave Spain the momentary power to overrun North Africa, Holland, and Italy before her historical instant waned. For the English settlers, this conquest made real the bourgeois vision of building a whole new European society. Like many such "fixes", for Euro-Amerikans this conquest was addicting; it was habit-forming and rapidly indispensable, not only culturally, but in the mechanism of an oppressor society whose lifeblood was new conquest. We will examine this later, in the relationship of settlerism to imperialism. For now, it is enough to see that this conquest is a material fact of great magnitude, an economic and social event as important as the emergence of the factory system or the exploitation of petroleum in the Middle East.
We stress the obvious here, because the Euro-Amerikan settlers have always made light of their invasion and occupation (although the conquered territory is the precondition for their whole society). Traditionally, European settler societies throw off the propaganda smokescreen that they didn't really conquer and dispossess other nations — they claim with false modesty that they merely moved into vacant territory! So the early English settlers depicted Amerika as empty — "a howling wilderness", "unsettled", "sparsely populated" — just waiting with a "VACANT" sign on the door for the first lucky civilization to walk in and claim it. Theodore Roosevelt wrote defensively in 1900: "... the settler and pioneer have at bottom had justice on their side; this great continent could not have been kept as nothing but a game preserve for squalid savages."(9)
Tribal and Culture Areas of North America (source)
It is telling that this lie is precisely the same lie put forward by the white "Afrikaner" settlers, who claim that South Africa was literally totally uninhabited by any Afrikans when they arrived from Europe. To universal derision, these European settlers claim to be the only rightful, historic inhabitants of South Afrika. Or we can hear similar defenses out forward by the European settlers of Israel, who claim that much of the Palestinian land and buildings they occupy are rightfully theirs, since the Arabs allegedly decided to voluntarily abandon it all during the 1948-49 war. Are these kind of tales any less preposterous when put forward by Euro-Amerikan settlers?
Amerika was "spacious" and "sparsely populated" only because the European invaders destroyed whole civilizations and killed off millions of Native Amerikans to get the land and profits they wanted. We all know that when the English arrived in Virginia, for example, they encountered an urban, village-dwelling society far more skilled than they in the arts of medicine, agriculture, fishing-and government.*(10) [*The first government of the new U.S.A., that of the Articles of Confederation, was totally unlike any in autocratic Europe, and had been influenced by the Government of the Six-Nation Iroquois Confederation.] This civilization was reflected in a chain of three hundred Indian nations and peoples stretched from the Arctic Circle to the tip of South America, many of whom had highly developed societies. There was, in fact, a greater population in these Indian nations in 1492 than in all of Western Europe. Recent scholarly estimates indicate that at the time of Columbus there were 100 million Indians in the Hemisphere: ten million in North America, twenty-five million in Central Mexico, with an additional sixty-five million elsewhere in Central and Southern America.(11)
These numbers have long been concealed, since they give rise to the logical question of what happened to this great mass of people. The European invaders — Spanish, Dutch, English, Portuguese, and French — simply killed off millions and millions to safeguard their conquest of the land and provide the disposable slave labor they needed to launch their "New World". Conservative Western historical estimates show that the Spanish "reduced" the Indian population of their colonies from some 50 million to only 4 million by the end of the 17th Century.(12)
And from the 10 million Indians that once inhabited North America, after four centuries of settler invasion and rule there were in 1900 perhaps 200,000-300,000 surviving descendants in the U.S.A.(13) That was the very substantial down-payment towards the continuing blood price that Third-World nations have to pay to sustain the Euro-Amerikan way of life.
So when we hear that the settlers "pushed out the Indians" or "forced the Indians to leave their traditional hunting grounds", we know that these are just codephrases to refer politely to the most barbaric genocide imaginable. It could well be the greatest crime in all of human history. Only here the Adolph Eichmanns and Heinrich Himmlers had names like Benjamin Franklin and Andrew Jackson.
The point is that genocide was not an accident, not an "excess", not the unintended side-effect of virile European growth. Genocide was the necessary and deliberate act of the capitalists and their settler shocktroops. The "Final Solution" to the "Indian Problem" was so widely expected by whites that it was openly spoken of as a commonplace thing. At the turn of the century a newspaper as "respectable" as the New York Times could editorially threaten that those peoples who opposed the new world capitalist order would "be extinguished like the North American Indian."(14) Only a relative handful of Indians survived the time of the great extermination campaigns. You see, the land wasn't "empty" after all — and for Amerika to exist the settlers had to deliberately make the land "empty".
The second aspect of Colonial Amerika's foundation was, of course, slavery. It is hardly necessary to repeat here the well-known history of that exploitation. What is necessary is to underline how universally European capitalist life was dependent upon slavery, and how this exploitation dictated the very structure of Euro-Amerikan society.
Dutch and English settlers unite to slaughter the Pequots — 1637 (source)
The mythology of the white masses pretends that while the evil planter and the London merchant grew fat on the profits of the slave labor, the "poor white" of the South, the Northern small farmer and white worker were all uninvolved in slavery and benefited not at all from it. The mythology suggests that slavery even lowered the living standard of the white masses by supposedly holding down wages and monopolizing vast tracts of farmland. Thus, it is alleged, slavery was not in the interests of the white masses.*
[*Similar arguments relative to today are advanced by the "Don't-Divide-The-Working-Class" revisionists, who want to convince us that the Euro-Amerikan masses are "victims of imperialism" just like us.]
Yet Karl Marx observed: "Cause slavery to disappear and you will have wiped America off the map of nations."(15) Marx was writing during the zenith of the cotton economy of the mid-1800s, but this most basic fact is true from the bare beginnings of European settlement in Amerika. Without slave labor there would have been no Amerika. It is as simple as that. Long before the cotton economy of the South flourished, for example, Afrikan slaves literally built the City of New York. Their work alone enabled the original Dutch settlers to be fed and sheltered while pursuing their drinking, gambling, furtrading and other non-laboring activities. Afrikans were not only much of early New York's farmers, carpenters, and blacksmiths, but also comprised much of the City's guards.
The Dutch settlers were so dependent on Afrikan labor for the basics of life that their Governor finally had to grant some Afrikan slaves both freedom and land in return for their continued food production. The Afrikan-owned land on Manhattan included what is now known as Greenwich Village, Astor Place, and Herald Square. Later, the English settlers would pass laws against Afrikan land ownership, and take these tracts from the free Afrikans. Manhattan was thus twice stolen from oppressed peoples.(16)
Indian slavery was also important in supporting the settler invasion beachhead on the "New World". From New England (where the pious Pilgrims called them "servants") to South Carolina, the forced labor of Indian slaves was essential to the very survival of the young Colonies. In fact, the profits from the Indian slave trade were the economic mainstay of the settler invasion of the Carolinas. In 1708 the English settlements in the Carolinas had a population of 1,400 Indian slaves and 2,900 Afrikan slaves to 5,300 Europeans. Indian slaves were common throughout the Colonies — in 1730 the settlers of Kingston, Rhode Island had 223 Indian slaves (as well as 333 Afrikan slaves). As late in 1740 we know that some 14,000 Indian slaves labored in the plantations of South Carolina.(17)
The recorded number of Indian slaves within Colonial English settlements was only a small indication of the larger picture, since most Indian slaves were sold to Jamaica, Barbados and other West Indian colonies. One reason for the depopulation of the once numerous Indian peoples of the Southern Colonies was the unrestrained ravages of the slave trade. In the first five decades of the English settlement of the Carolinas, it appears that the main cash export item was Indian slaves. Armed expeditions, made up largely of Indian puppet soldiers already addicted to rum and other capitalist consumer goods, scoured the countryside for Indians to capture and sell. The total sold away is unknown, but large. We do know that in just six years after 1704, some 12,000 Indian slaves were sold out of Charleston to the West Indies.(18)
Additional uncounted thousands of Indian slaves were exported from the other settlements of the Middle and New England Colonies. Indian slaves in large numbers were very difficult to deal with, since the settlers were trying to hold them on terrain that was more theirs than the invaders. Usually, the minimum precaution would be to in effect swap Indian slaves around, with New England using slaves from Southern Colonies — and vice-versa. In most cases the slave catchers killed almost all the adult Indian men as too dangerous to keep around, only saving the women and children for sale.(19))
But by 1715 the "divers conspiracies, insurrections ..." of rebellious Indian slaves had reached the point where all the New England Colonies barred any further imports of Indian slaves.(20) The Pilgrims of New England had seen that the most profitable and safe use of their Indian slaves was to sell them abroad. Indeed, the wife and nine year-old son of "King Philip", the great leader of the 1675 Indian uprising, were sold into West Indian captivity (as was even then customary with many captured Indians).
Thus, the early settlers were not just the passive beneficiaries of a far-off Afrikan slave trade — they bankrolled their settlements in part with the profits of their own eager explorations into Native slave trading. The point is that White Amerika has never been self-sufficient, has never completely supported itself. Indian slavery died out, and was gradually lost in the great river of Afrikan slavery, only because the settlers finally decided to exterminate the heavily depopulated Indian nations altogether.
The essence is not the individual ownership of slaves, but rather the fact that world capitalism in general and Euro-Amerikan capitalism in specific had forged a slave-based economy in which all settlers gained and took part. Historian Samuel Eliot Morison, in his study of The European Discovery of America, notes that after repeated failures the Europeans learned that North Amerikan settler colonies were not self-sufficient; to survive they needed large capital infusions and the benefits of sustained trade with Father Europe.(21) But why should the British aristocracy and capitalists invest in small family farms — and how great a trade is possible when what the settlers themselves produced was largely the very raw materials and foodstuffs they themselves needed? Slavery throughout the "New World" answered these questions. It was the unpaid, expropriated labor of millions of Indian and Afrikan captive slaves that created the surpluses on which the settler economy floated and Atlantic trade flourished.
So all sections of white settler society — even the artisan, worker, and farmer — were totally dependent upon Afrikan slave labor: the fisherman whose low-grade,"refuse fish" was dried and sold as slave meal in the Indies; the New York farmer who found his market for surpluses in the Southern plantations; the forester whose timber was used by shipyard workers rapidly turning out slave ships; the clerk in the New York City export house checking bales of tobacco awaiting shipment to London; the master cooper in the Boston rum distillery; the young Virginia overseer building up his "stake" to try and start his own plantation; the immigrant German farmer renting a team of five slaves to get his farm started; and on and on. While the cream of the profits went to the planter and merchant capitalists, the entire settler economy was raised up on a foundation of slave labor, slave products, and the slave trade.
Nor was it just slavery within the thirteen Colonies alone that was essential. The commerce and industry of these Euro-Amerikan settlers was interdependent with their fellow slave-owning capitalists of the West Indies, Central and Southern America. Massachusetts alone, in 1774, distilled 2.7 million gallons of rum-distilled from the molasses of the West Indies slave plantations.(22) Two of the largest industries in Amerika were shipbuilding and shipping, both creatures of the slave trade. Commerce with the slave colonies of not only England, but also Holland, Spain and France, was vital to the young Amerikan economy. Eric Williams, Walter Rodney and others have shown how European capitalism as a whole literally capitalized itself for industrialization and world empire out of Afrikan slavery. It is important to see that all classes of Euro-Amerikan settlers were equally involved in building a new bourgeois nation on the back of the Afrikan colonial proletariat.
By the time of the settler War of Independence, the Afrikan nation made up over 20% of the non-Indian population — one Afrikan colonial subject for every four settlers. Afrikan slaves, although heavily concentrated in the plantation Colonies, were still represented throughout the settler territories. Their proportion in the non-Indian population ranged from 2-3% in upper New England to 8% in Rhode Island, to 14% in New York, and to 41% and 60% respectively in Virginia and South Carolina.(23) While they mainly labored as the agricultural proletariat, Afrikan labor played a crucial role in all the major trades and industries of the times. The colonized Afrikan nation, much more than the new Euro-Amerikan settler nation, was a complete nation — that is, possessing among its people a complete range of applied sciences, practical crafts and productive labor. Both that colonized nation and the Indian nations were self-sufficient and economically whole, while the Euro-Amerikan invasion society was parasitic. While the class structure of the new Afrikan nation was still in a formative stage, distinct classes were visible within it well before the U.S. War of Independence.
In Virginia, it appears that an overwhelming majority of the skilled workers — carpenters, ship pilots, coopers, blacksmiths, etc. — were Afrikans. Nor was it just nonmarket production for direct use on the plantation; Afrikan artisans produced for the commercial market, and were often hired out by their masters. For example, we know that George Washington was not only a planter but also what would today be called a contractor — building structures for other planters with his gang of Afrikan slave carpenters (the profits were split between "The Father of Our Country" and his slave overseer).(24) The Afrikan presence in commerce and industry was widespread and all-pervasive, as one labor historian has summarized:
Some of the Africans who were brought to America in chains were skilled in woodcarving, weaving, construction, and other crafts. In the South, Black slaves were not only field hands; many developed a variety of skills that were needed on a nearly self-sufficient plantation. Because skilled labor of whatever color was in great demand, slaves were often hired out to masters who owned shops by the day, month, or year for a stipulated amount. Some were hired out to shipmasters, serving as pilots and managers of ferries. Others were used in the maritime trades as shipcaulkers, longshoremen, and sailmakers. A large number of slaves were employed in Northern cities as house servants, sailors, sailmakers, and carpenters. New York had a higher proportion of skilled slaves than any other Colony-coopers, tailors, bakers, tanners, goldsmiths, cabinetmakers, shoemakers, and glaziers. Both in Charleston and in the Northern cities, many artisans utilized slave labor extensively."(25)
Afrikans were the landless, propertyless, permanent workers of the U.S. Empire. They were not just slaves — the Afrikan nation as a whole served as a proletariat for the Euro-Amerikan oppressor nation. This Afrikan colony supported on its shoulders the building of a Euro-Amerikan society more "prosperous," more "egalitarian," and yes, more "democratic" than any in semi-feudal Old Europe. The Jeffersonian vision of Amerika as a pastoral European democracy was rooted in the national life of small, independent white landowners. Such a society had no place of a proletariat within its ranks — yet, in the age of capitalism, could not do without the labor of such a class. Amerika imported a proletariat from Afrika, a proletariat permanently chained in an internal colony, laboring for the benefit of all settlers. Afrikan workers might be individually owned, like tools and draft animals, by some settlers and not others, but in their colonial subjugation they were as a whole owned by the entire Euro-Amerikan nation.
When we point out that Amerika was the most completely bourgeois nation in world history, we mean a four-fold reality: 1. Amerika had no feudal or communal past, but was constructed from the ground up according to the nightmare vision of the bourgeoisie. 2. Amerika began its national life as an oppressor nation, as a colonizer of oppressed peoples. 3. Amerika not only has a capitalist ruling class, but all classes and strata of Euro-Amerikans are bourgeoisified, with a preoccupation for petty privileges and property ownership the normal guiding star of the white masses. 4. Amerika is so decadent that it has no proletariat of its own, but must exist parasitically on the colonial proletariat of oppressed nations and national minorities. Truly, a Babylon "whose life was death".
The settler masses of Colonial Amerika had a situation totally unlike their cousins back in Old Europe. For the privileges of conquest produced a nonproletarian society of settlers. The large majority of settlers were of the property-owning middle classes (insofar as classes had yet become visible in the new society): tradesmen, self-employed artisans, and land-owning farmers. Every European who wanted to could own land. Every white settler could be a property owner. No wonder emigration to the "New World" (newly conquered, newly enslaved) was so popular in Old Europe. No wonder life in Amerika was spoken of almost as a fable by the masses of Old Europe. Young Amerika was capitalism's real-life Disneyland.
The Euro-Amerikan class structure at the time of the 1775 War of Independence was revealing:
Not only was the bourgeois class itself quite large, but some 70% of the total population of settlers were in the various, propertied middle classes. The overwhelming majority were landowners, including many of the artisans and tradesmen, and an even larger portion of the Euro-Amerikans were self-employed or preparing to be. The small "poor" element of lumpen and permanent laborers was only 5% of the settler population, and without influence or cohesion in such a propertied society. We can see why Virginia's Gov. Fauquier complained in 1759, while bemoaning his inability to attract settler recruits for the militia: "Every man in this colony has land, and none but Negroes are laborers." (U.S. imperialism still has this same problem of white military recruitment today.)(27)
The plantation areas, which were obviously the most dominated by a small elite owning a disproportionate share of the wealth, showed no lesser degree of general settler privilege and unification. South Carolina was the state with the highest degree of large plantation centralization; yet there, too, no settler working class development was evident. The South Carolina settler class structure shows only an intensification of the same bourgeois features evident at the national level:
When we speak of the small, land-owning farmer as the largest single element in settler society, it is important to see what this means. An example is Rebecca Royston of Calvert County, Maryland, who died in 1740 with an estate worth 81 £ (which places her well in the middle of the small-medium farmers). That sum represented the value of 200 acres of farmland, 31 head of cattle, 15 of sheep, 29 pigs, 1,463 lbs. of tobacco stored for market, 5 feather beds, 2 old guns, assorted furniture, tools and kitchen utensils, and the contract of an 8 year-old indentured child servant. No wealth, no luxury, but a life with some small property, food, shelter, and a cash crop for market.(28) Certainly a far reach upwards from the bitter, bare existence of the colonial Afrikan proletariat (or, for that matter, the British or French proletariat of the period).
Although there were Euro-Amerikan craftsmen and workers they never coalesced into a proletariat because they were too privileged and transitory in condition. It is important to grasp firmly that the mere presence of settler craftsmen and workers doesn't automatically mean that they were a conscious class. With their extra-proletarian living standard and their future in the propertied middle classes, most settler workmen had no reason to develop a proletarian consciousness. Further, the rapid turnover of settlers in these strata left no material basis for the formation of a class.
We can see this more clearly when we examine the details of work and wages. Rather than the mass-production factory, the Colonial-era workshop was a setting for the highly-skilled, piece-by-piece, hand production of a few craftsmen. Even a shipyard customarily only employed five to ten artisans and workers of all types, total. The workshop was a business owned and managed by the Master artisan, who might employ in his workshop one or two journeymen artisans and several apprentices, servants or slaves.(29) It is easy to grasp how, in small settler communities, social and class lines were blurred and still unformed. For example, most of the settler artisans were also small farmers who grew some or all of their own food.
While some artisans never advanced, others were already becoming small capitalists, since the historic extension of the craft workshop was capitalist manufacture. The most famous Colonial-era settler artisan, Paul Revere, was not only a silversmith and an artist-engraver, but also a dentist and the small capitalist operator of a copper foundry. In the Colonial era the majority of Euro-Amerikan artisans and wage-laborers eventually bought farmland and/or business property and rose into the middle strata.
The special and non-proletarian character of settler artisans and workers (which has been so conveniently forgotten about by today's Euro-Amerikan radicals) was well known a century ago by Europeans such as Marx and Engels. In 1859 Marx wrote of "...the United States of North America, where, though classes already exist, they have not yet become fixed, but continually change and interchange their elements in constant flux..."(30) What Marx saw in this class fluidity was the ultimate privilege of settler society — the privilege of having no proletariat at all. He later pointed out: "Hence the relatively high standard of wages in the United States. Capital may there try its utmost. It cannot prevent the labor market from being continuously emptied by the continuous conversion of wages laborers into independent, self-sustaining peasants. The position of wages laborer is for a very large part of the American people but a probational state, which they are sure to leave within a shorter or longer term."(31) And Marx was writing not about a momentary or temporary phase, but about basic conditions that were true for well over two centuries in Amerika.
Those settlers never had it so good! And those Europeans who chose or were forced to work for wages got the highest wages in the capitalist world. The very highest. Tom Paine, the revolutionary propagandist, boasted that in Amerika a "common laborer" made as much money as an English shopkeeper!(32) We know that George Washington had to pay his white journeyman carpenter £40 per year, plus 400 lbs. of meat, 20 bushels of corn, and the use of a house and vegetable garden. Journeymen tailors in Virginia earned £26-32 per year, plus meals, lodging, laundry service, and drink.(33)
In general, it's commonly agreed that Euro-Amerikan workers earned at least twice what their British kinfolk made — some reports say the earnings gap was five or six times what Swedish or Danish workers earned.(34) Even a whole century later, the difference was still so large that Marx commented:
"Now, all of you know that the average wages of the American agricultural laborer amount to more than double that of the English agricultural laborer, although the prices of agricultural produce are lower in the United States than in the United Kingdom... "(35)
It was only possible for settler society to afford this best-paid, most bourgeoisified white work force because they had also obtained the least-paid, most proletarian Afrikan colony to support it.
Many of those settler laborers were indentured servants, who had signed on to do some years of unpaid labor (usually four) for a master in return for passage across the Atlantic. It is thought that as many as half of all the pre-1776 Europeans in Amerika went through this temporarily unfree status. Some settler historians dwell on this phenomenon, comparing it to Afrikan slavery in an attempt to obscure the rock of national oppression at the base of Amerika. Harsh as the time of indenture might be, these settlers would be free — and Afrikan slaves would not. More to the national difference between oppressor and oppressed, white indentured servants could look hopefully toward the possibility of not only being free, but of themselves becoming landowners and slavemasters.
For this initiation, this "dues" to join the oppressor nation, was a rite of passage into settler citizenship. For example, as early as 1629 almost one member out of six of Virginia's House of Burgesses was a former indentured servant. Much of Pennsylvania's prosperous German farming community originally emigrated that way.(36) Christopher Hill, the British Marxist historian, directly relates the European willingness to enter servitude to the desire for land ownership, describing it as "a temporary phase through which one worked one's way to freedom and land-ownership."(37)
This is important because it was only this bottom layer of settler society that had the potential of proletarian class consciousness. In the early decades of Virginia's tobacco industry, gangs of white indentured servants worked the fields side-by-side with Afrikan and Indian slaves, whom in the 1600s they greatly outnumbered. This was an unstable situation, and one of the results was a number of joint servant-slave escapes, strikes and conspiracies. A danger to the planter elite was evident, particularly since white servants constituted a respectable proportion of the settler population in the two tobacco Colonies — accounting for 16% in Virginia in 1681 and 10% in Maryland in 1707.(38)
The political crisis waned as the period of bound white plantation labor ended. First, the greater and more profitable river of Afrikan labor was tapped to the fullest, and then the flow of British indentured servants slacked off. The number of new European servants entering Virginia fell from 1,500-2,000 annually in the 1670s to but 91 in 1715.(39) However, the important change was not in numbers but in social role.
Historian Richard Morris, in his study of Colonial-era labor, says of European indentured servants on the plantations: "...but with the advent of Negro slavery they were gradually supplanted as field workers and were principally retained as overseers, foremen or herdsmen."(40) In other words, even the very lowest layer of white society was lifted out of the proletariat by the privileges of belonging to the oppressor nation.
Once these poor whites were raised off the fields and given the chance to help boss and police captive Afrikans, their rebellious days were over. The importance of this experience is that it shows the material basis for the lack of class consciousness by early Euro-Amerikan workers, and how their political consciousness was directly related to how much they shared in the privileges of the larger settler society. Further, the capitalists proved to their satisfaction that dissent and rebelliousness within the settler ranks could be quelled by increasing the colonial exploitation of other nations and peoples.