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The Revolution Continues
June 1976 | Volume 27, Issue 4
When a society living so declares itself wholly independent and free from all of the old restraints, it declares for economic as well as political freedom, whether it intends it that way or not. In the famous declaration that was adopted two hundred years ago there was talk about man’s right to the pursuit of happiness, and the happiness therein mentioned involved food, housing, clothing, and other everyday concerns as well as the right to choose one’s own rulers, replace them when necessary, and in general have the final word about the policies and instruments by which government is to be carried on. American liberty has always been a very down-to-earth affair.
It worked out that way because the American political revolution coincided with the industrial revolution and influenced it profoundly.
It was sheer accident that it happened so, no doubt, but the results were far-reaching. The industrial revolution—the technological revolution, actually—meant something in America that it meant nowhere else. It took place in a loose, adaptable, uncontrolled society, which was not the case overseas, and the fruits that it bore were distributed in a different manner.
Say the worst that can be said about the evils of the machine age, early and late, in America; admit the social irresponsibility of the early captains of industry, the brutality with which the factory system ground men down and used them up, the way workers and consumers alike were ruthlessly exploited, the fact that technicians were forced to serve the greed of the entrepreneur rather than the greatest good of the greatest number—when all is said that can be said, the fact remains that what was done here meant, on the average and over the long pull, a more abundant life for all the people.
A few years ago when we were at war with Hitler, the American government tried to explain what was at stake and it dwelt largely on the Four Freedoms, mentioning one of them as freedom from want. Most Americans had had that freedom so long that they took it for granted, but many hundreds of millions of people on earth had never had it at all and had not supposed that they ever would have it, and the thought that they might get it after all had an explosive effect.
For in the years after the war ended the underprivileged people of the world found that it was at last possible for them to throw off the political bonds that had restrained them for so long, and they established themselves as free and independent nations—at which point this notion that political freedom ought to mean a more abundant life for the average man took hold of them and had earthshaking power. That notion was bound to take hold because it had become very clear that the country which had come closest to giving its people the more abundant life was also the country whose people had the most freedom. Precisely how these things were tied together—whether by someone’s wise intent, by the goodness of Providence, or by sheer accident—made no difference. Apparently they were two sides of one priceless coin, and necessitous people who have once glimpsed it are going to be eternally dissatisfied until they get it.
So what is happening in the world today may be frightening but it is extremely simple, and of all the people on earth we should most easily understand it. The American revolution is still going on—not because we ourselves are wise and good and helpful but because it embodies an idea that reaches everybody and will never lose its force.
Not the French revolution, which destroyed feudalism and remade the map of Europe and then became a starry remembrance of things past. Not the Marxist revolution, which offers to folk clambering out of the wreckage of colonialism a creed made for the last spasms of nineteenthcentury industrialism. The American revolution, which simply says that you do not have to have any foreigners on your back and that man’s vast new productivity can and must mean a vast increase in his ability to enjoy life. What really has the world by the ears is the growing realization that man does not have to be a loser. If the world seems to be a little intoxicated these days, that comes naturally from the awareness that the human race at last can do just about anything it really wants to do … land a man on the moon, abolish hunger and raggedness, or whatever. From the infinite store of humanity’s wants, name it and you can have it.
This is by all odds the most unsettling idea the race ever got. It has taken hold everywhere and there can be no getting rid of it. The world truly enough has turned upside down, the great revolution continues … and the fife and drum corps is piping a new march to the fields beyond Yorktown.