Hamilton and Marxism

Posted: 7 June 2016 in Uncategorized
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Oskar Eustis is the artistic director of The Public Theatre, where Hamilton had its Off-Broadway début in 2015.

According to Eustis, in an interview with David Remnick,

There’s a fundamental principle underneath Marxism that I believe in, which is: the critique of capitalism is that it is the individual appropriation of collective creation.

It’s well worth listening to the rest of the interview for Eustis’s discussion of other ways his Marxism affects how he thinks about culture, theater, and much else.

And while we’re on the topic, here’s a link to Christian Parenti’s essay on reading Hamilton—against Jefferson—from the Left.

In the American political imagination, Jefferson is rural, idealistic, and democratic, while Hamilton is urban, pessimistic, and authoritarian. So, too, on the US left, where Jefferson gets the better billing. Michael Hardt recently edited a sheaf of Jefferson’s writings for the left publisher Verso.

Reading “Jefferson beyond Jefferson,” Hardt casts him as a theorist of “revolutionary transition.” We like Jefferson’s stirring words about “the tree of liberty” occasionally needing “the blood of patriots and tyrants,” and his worldview fits comfortably with a “small is beautiful” style localism. We recall Jefferson as a great democrat. When Tea Partiers echo his rhetoric, we dismiss it as a lamentable misunderstanding.

But in reality, Jefferson represented the most backward and fundamentally reactionary sector of the economy: large, patrimonial, slave-owning, agrarian elites who exported primary commodities and imported finished manufactured goods from Europe. He was a fabulously wealthy planter who lived in luxury paid for by slave labor. Worse yet, he raised slaves specifically for sale. . .

Hamilton was alone among the “founding fathers” in understanding that the world was witnessing two revolutions simultaneously. One was the political transformation, embodied in the rise of republican government. The other was the economic rise of modern capitalism, with its globalizing networks of production, trade, and finance. Hamilton grasped the epochal importance of applied science and machinery as forces of production.

In the face of these changes, Hamilton created (and largely executed) a plan for government-led economic development along lines that would be followed in more recent times by many countries (particularly in East Asia) that have undergone rapid industrialization. His political mission was to create a state that could facilitate, encourage, and guide the process of economic change — a policy also known as dirigisme, although the expression never entered the American political lexicon the way its antonym, laissez-faire, did.

To be sure, Hamilton was living in the era of “bourgeois” revolutions and the state he was building was a capitalist state, complete with the oppressive apparatus that always involves. Hamilton did not oppose exploitation. Like most people of his age, he saw child labor as normal and defended the rights of creditors over debtors. But regarding slavery, he firmly and consistently opposed it and was a founder of the Society for Manumission of Slaves. It was Hamilton — not Jefferson — who had the more progressive vision.

Comments
  1. Blair says:

    “But regarding slavery, he firmly and consistently opposed it and was a founder of the Society for Manumission of Slaves. It was Hamilton — not Jefferson — who had the more progressive vision.”

    Hi David,

    True enough. But this reminds me of the role played by Marlon Brando in Pontecorvo’s great film, “Queimada,” and his speech therein to the plantation owners about the advantages of wage-slaves over chattel slaves, which he compares to those of a mistress over a wife, namely, that the latter require continued maintenance whereas the former can simply be dismissed when they fail to please or no longer serve. This may be historically more progressive, but it’s not clear that it’s morally superior.

    I’m sure you’ll have some great response that will make me rethink my position. I eagerly await.

    Blair

  2. David F. Ruccio says:

    Blair, morality, as you know, is just as historical as what is considered a progressive vision. Hamilton did, for his time, have a progressive vision about the formation of capitalism and of the capitalist state. His position against slavery was also, for his time, morally superior to that of Jefferson. Now, of course, in our own time, what is progressive and what is moral are very different.

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