James Boggs was a Detroit auto worker, activist, and author. Nearly 60 years ago he analyzed revolutionary movements in the Americas and described their role in hastening the U.S. empire's decline.
It is always a good time to revisit the writing of Detroit auto worker, activist, and author James Boggs. But as the diplomatic debacle of the Summit of the Americas unfolds in Los Angeles, his work seems especially relevant. Look, for instance, at Boggs’ The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook, originally published in 1963 as a double issue of the journal Monthly Review. The sixth chapter of The American Revolution is titled “The Decline of the United States Empire.” In it, Boggs provides a clear assessment of the nature of US political and economic dominance in the American hemisphere – and its coming demise. He outlines how since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, the United States has turned the Americas into a satellite (or, we could say, neocolony), with US military power serving US banking and corporate interests. Yet Boggs argues that the Cuban Revolution disrupted the seemingly inevitable march of US power and precipitated a crisis of US imperialism. Many in the region viewed Cuba as both an example of how to break from the shackles of the US, and as a model for a different, more egalitarian society liberated from the chains of capitalism. Boggs made no prediction as to where the revolutionary movements of the Americas would end up, but he understood the critical necessity of lending these movement support and solidarity in their quests for autonomy and self-determination.
Today, capitalism is in crisis, as is US power. The Summit of the Americas represents the latest hamfisted attempt by the United States to demonstrate its political and economic influence over the region, even as that influence is in serious decline. The US decision to exclude Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela from the Summit – an act, it should be said, of diplomatic pettiness and immaturity – has led to the boycotting of the summit by Mexico, Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala and statements of protest from the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States. In an pathetic attempt to save face, Joe Biden has arranged a meeting with Brazilian fascist and Steve Bannon acolyte, Jair Bolsonaro. Yet no matter how the Summit plays out, already it represents “a painful period of decline in prestige and in confidence,” to borrow Boggs’ language, of the United States in the hemisphere. That decline, Boggs would suggest, could lead to a new order in the Americas. We certainly hope so.
The Decline of the United States Empire
History has known many empires—the Sumerian Empire, the Assyrian Empire, the Chaldean Empire, the Egyptian Empire, the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the British Empire, to name only a few. All these empires came to an end, usually as a result of a combination of military defeat and internal revolt. Now it is the turn of the United States Empire.
For over a century, under the cover of the Monroe Doctrine, the United States has ruled its Latin American domain as Chicago gangsters rule a certain territory, warning all others to keep out.1 Long before the word "satellite" was used to describe the relationship of the Eastern European countries to Russia, it was obvious that the economic and political life of Latin America revolved around the Yankee sun. What the Asian and African colonies were to the European powers and what Eastern Europe has been to Russia, the Latin American republics have been to the United States. Although independent in name, their economies have been completely at the mercy of Big Brother to the North, and therefore also their politics. They have been kept in the status of countries with one-crop economies, supplying sugar, bananas, coffee, tin, copper, etc., chiefly to the United States, which could therefore control them by manipulating commodity prices and quotas. At the same time the United States has been the largest supplier of Latin American imports of manufactured goods and of investment capital. In fact, 80 percent of foreign capital invested in Latin America, public and private, comes from the United States. When manipulation and control by economic means have fallen short, the United States has hesitated only a moment before using money and arms directly to prevent and foment, divert and steer revolutions and counter-revolutions, to make and unmake governments. The chief function of the United States government has been to protect the right of firms like United Fruit to exploit the cheap labor and rich resources of Latin America; to maintain in power anti-Communist and pro-United States dictators like Batista in Cuba and Trujillo in the Dominican Republic; and to protect the landowners of gigantic estates from revolt by peasant laborers.
All this time few people in the United States knew anything about this vast continent just below the Gulf of Mexico and the Rio Grande. Those who thought about it at all did so in terms that the movies have made familiar, as the land of bananas and tropical splendor where North Americans can go live it up in the midst of poverty and misery, where Yankee adventurers decide to sell or not to sell guns to rebel generals according to their love or hate for beautiful damsels. Then in 1958 Vice President Nixon was sent on a good-will tour to reassure the South Americans that, despite the billions of dollars of aid sent only to Europe, their Good Neighbor to the North had not forgotten them. When the Vice President was spat on and stoned by mobs in Peru and Venezuela, the government and the people of the United States began to realize how overdue was an agonizing reappraisal of their relations with Latin America. It was clear that the Good Neighbors to the South were getting out of hand, and that the winds of change were blowing in Latin America, stirring up revolutions of the masses which were quite different from those of rival factions which the United States had found so easy to control.
The winds of change became a hurricane in the Cuban Revolution. What started out in Cuba as opposition to Batista inevitably became a head-on conflict with Yankee imperialism. All upheavals which had fallen short of social revolution had fallen back into dependence on Yankee imperialism; Venezuela is a good example. Large-scale private property in Cuba, which was in fact primarily United States private property, had to be confiscated before Cuba could be truly politically independent. Going deeper into social revolution meant deepening the conflict with Yankee imperialism and vice versa. This was the path which Castro had to follow whether he wanted to or not.
But Yankee imperialism could not afford to let Cuba set an example in social revolution for the rest of Latin America. Before the Second World War Mexico could get away with the expropriation of foreign oil properties because there was no real danger then that the example would spread. But in 1960, the survival of the Cuban Revolution meant its certain imitation by the rest of Latin America. On the other hand, to have a social revolution in Cuba is practically like trying to have one in one of our 50 states. The Cuban one-crop sugar economy was almost as closely tied to the United States economy as the one-crop auto economy of Detroit is. To reorganize and diversify this one-crop economy required not only confiscation of large-scale United States property. It also required an enormous amount of technical and economic aid. Under the circumstances of United States hostility, this aid could come only from those countries which not only recognized the validity of Cuba's struggles for independence but had reason to welcome them.
In Africa, thousands of miles away from the Cold War powers, it is not too difficult to be neutral. But Cuba, only 90 miles away from Florida, began by being as much an economic, military, and political satellite of the United States as Hungary and the other Eastern European countries are of Russia. Therefore, to break away, it had to have the political and economic aid which Yugoslavia, for example, got from the United States after it broke with Russia in 1948. But Cuba's problem was even more critical. Yugoslavia did not have to confiscate Russian property, and it continued to claim membership in the "socialist camp." Cuba not only had to confiscate United States property. It had to denounce capitalism altogether.
Revolutionaries in the United States hailed the Cuban Revolution as the first socialist revolution in the Americas. The Communist world also hailed it as such. The revolutionaries living under United States capitalism had particular reason to rejoice. United States capitalism, against which they had been fighting all these years and which is the greatest capitalist power of this century, had been challenged. But revolutionaries have many different and conflicting ideas as to what does and what does not constitute a socialist revolution. To some it is a matter of material gains; to others it is the nationalization of property; to others it is the political freedom and organization that the masses achieve and/or the arming of the masses; to others it is the formation of workers' councils to control production; to others it is joining the "socialist camp"; and to still others it is remaining entirely neutral of any bloc. The standards and the procedure used in determining the degree of support and rejoicing are much the same as those which the various revolutionary groupings have been employing for over forty years with regard to the Russian Revolution.
What these groupings rarely take into consideration is the fact that the world has moved in these forty years far beyond where it was at the time of the Russian Revolution, and that it is today divided into three blocs: the Western bloc, the Eastern bloc, and the neutralist bloc, with the last bloc lacking economic power but wielding great moral power. But moral power is a long-range thing. When a country within either the Western or the Eastern bloc breaks away from that bloc, it must immediately face the question of getting aid from the other bloc in order to survive. This reality has to be faced, not from the point of view of North American revolutionaries and their desires, hopes, standards, and morale, but from the standpoint of the country that is making the revolution. In Hungary the revolution was crushed before anyone but the Hungarians had to face the fact that the other Eastern European countries and the Russian people had not come to the support of the Hungarian Revolution, and that therefore the Hungarian Revolution could survive only if it received aid from the Western bloc.
Revolutionaries in the United States are going to be faced with a similar reality time and again in the period ahead as the Latin American revolution spreads. They have no right to use these revolutions to bolster their own morale or to test their own theories about what is socialism. First and foremost, they must take the position that they are for these revolutions and that it is the right of all these countries to break away from the power that has dominated them for so long and to govern themselves. They must be for all the Latin American countries freeing themselves from United States domination. And they must be for the people in these countries whenever the latter, feeling that their government is not running the country in the best interests of the people, throw that government out by whatever means they choose to take. The only time when they can legitimately take a position contrary to this is if the revolution takes the form of discrimination against a race or nationality, as for example against the Negroes in the United States or the Jews in Germany. They cannot start with the question, "Where is the revolution going to end?" Any genuine revolution today is going to have to go in a leftward-forward direction because the expectations of the masses everywhere can be satisfied only by permanent revolution in a leftward-forward direction. Except episodically, the direction is not going to be backward because the moment that the revolution goes backward, there is going to be another revolution. Having clarified their minds on this fundamental position, radicals in the United States will no longer have to spend endless hours trying to justify these revolutions as socialist, trying to decide whether they should hold elections or not, whether the people are ready for parliamentary democracy or not.
It is quite obvious that the breakaway of the Latin American satellites will deprive North American capitalists of their main source of super-profit, and there is no reason to doubt that they will try to make their own people pay for these losses. The people of the United States will have to begin facing the fact that their luxurious standard of living has been won, in part, at the expense of the peasants and workers of Latin America. It is unlikely that United States capitalism will be able to arouse the people sufficiently to support an open, large scale invasion of Cuba for counter-revolutionary purposes. Its strategy is rather to seek to isolate the Cuban Revolution through such measures as the Alliance for Progress. But the Cuban Revolution is not an artificial imported revolution, and the ingredients which set it off exist in all the Latin American countries. This means that, in addition to the Alliance for Progress, which has already become a joke, the United States will be carrying out all kinds of maneuvers and gangster tactics —diplomatic, military, and economic—from the use of warships to the blackmail use of economic aid, as it has been doing in the Dominican Republic and at the conferences of the Organization of American States.
It would be unrealistic to expect the people of the United States to come directly to the aid of the Latin American revolutions on any large scale. The grievances and issues which underlie these revolutions and which propel them to success are in Latin America itself. But there are going to be many, many shameful episodes similar to that of the attempted invasion of Cuba in 1961 which will shake up the people of the United States, make them squirm, and force them to question themselves and their government. The spread of the Latin American revolutions means that before the people of the United States there lies a painful period of decline in prestige and in confidence, both in themselves and in their governments, similar to that which the British have been experiencing with the decline of their empire. All this will help to deepen the general revolutionary crisis in this country.
James Boggs, “The Decline of the United States Empire,” from The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook (Monthly Review Press, 1963).