Our Constitutional Convention

My entry point centers around an exchange of letters between critic, Edmund Wilson, and novelist, John Dos Passos, during the first half of the 1930s. Their interchange focused on the need for radical structural change in the US government and Constitution.

One of Edmund Wilson’s biographers calls the Wilson/Dos Passos correspondence “in its scope and dramatic interest second in American letters only to that of Jefferson and John Adams”. The picture I seek to recast with this interchange from the Republic of Letters is the entrenched institution of this US republic and its fifty states.

A start

The correspondence was provoked by Edmund Wilson’s 1931 Appeal to Progressives in the New Republic [NR], parts of which read:

Not only are the people in a capitalist society very often completely ignorant as to what their incomes come from; it is actually sometimes impossible or very difficult for them to find this out. And as long as a fair proportion of the bankers, the manufacturers, the middle men, the merchants and the workers whom their capital and machines keep busy are able to make a little more money than before, no matter how unscrupulously or short-sightedly, we are able, as a nation, to maintain our belief in our prosperity and even in our happiness….

Our society has finally produced in its specialized professional politicians one of the most useless and obnoxious groups which has perhaps ever disgraced human history—a group that seems unique among governing classes in having managed to be corrupt, uncultivated and incompetent all at once….

1931 and outdated? Hardly, when the bankers have metastasized into global finance, when our public utilities have been sold off to corporate risk-takers, and when the best news we have is that the rich like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, wearying of empire, try to make good in the happy-talk of philanthropy what we once demanded and expected of government.

The interchange

“Just read your battlecry,” Dos Passos writes a few weeks after Wilson’s 1931 piece appears,

Of course all the [New Republic] can do is stir things up and try to smoke out a few honest men who do know something about industrial life as she is lived…If you can keep up a series like this you really will have started something—though I’m beginning to think that every publication ought to be required by law to print at the bottom of each page:

NB. THIS IS BULLSHIT

. . . .[T]he trouble with all our political economic writing and the reason maybe why it doesnt interest the ordinary guy who hasn’t joined the fraternity of word-addicts is that it is made up right in the office and springs from neither experience nor observation…

True enough, and Wilson eventually circulates a more urgent manifesto. “The present crisis of the world—and specifically the United States—is something more than a mere crisis of politics or economics; and it will not pass with the depression. It is crisis of human culture. What faces us today is the imperative need for new social forms, new values, a new human order.”

What is needed, Wilson feels, has moved beyond experiment to revolution. “Sure I’ll subscribe to it,” Dos Passos writes Wilson in reply to the new battle cry,

—but I don’t think it’ll cause any bankers to jump out of fiftieth story windows—what are you going to do with it?—post it up on billboards? it might go well on toilet paper like [a laxative] advertizing—or is it going to be laid on [President] Hoover’s breakfast table?….Where is it going to be used—?

Wilson ends up forwarding material to Dos Passos from another periodical, New Masses, and Dos Passos writes back in March 1934,

I think it’s very important not to add to this mass of inept rubbish on this subject—what is happening is that the whole Marxian radical movement is in a moment of intense disintegration—all people like us, who have no taste for political leadership or chewing the rag, can do, is to sit on the sidelines and try to put a word in now and then for the underdog or for the cooperative commonwealth or whatever….

The only alternative is passionate unmarxian revival of AngloSaxon democracy or an industrial crisis helped by a collapse in the director’s offices—That would be different from nazi socialism only in this way: that it would be a reaction towards old time Fourth of July democracy….How you can coordinate Fourth of July democracy with the present industrial-financial setup I dont see.

Late 1934, Dos Passos writes to Wilson about recent events in the Soviet Union, including the murder of Stalin’s intelligence chief,

This business about Kirov looks very very bad to me. In fact it has completely destroyed my benefit-of-the-doubt attitude towards the Stalinists—It seems to be another convolution of the self-destructive tendency that began with the Trotski-Stalin row. From now on events in Russian have no more interest—except as a terrible example—for world socialism—if you take socialism to mean the educative or constructive tendency rather than politics. The thing has gone into its Napoleonic stage and the progressive tendencies in the Soviet Government have definitely gone under before the self-protective tendencies….Meanwhile I think we should be very careful not to damage any latent spores of democracy that there still may be in the local American soil.

These remarks provoke Wilson to respond in early January 1935:

…I don’t think you ought to say, as you do, that a country which is still trying to put socialism into practice has ceased to be politically interesting…One doesn’t want to give aid and comfort to people who have hopped on the shootings in Russia as a means of discrediting socialism. Aside from this, you are right, of course, in saying that Americans who are in favor of socialism oughtn’t to try to import the methods of the Russians….

Dos Passos fires back,

[N]o government is in good shape that has to keep on massacring its people. Suppose, when that curious little [Italian] Zangara took a potshot a Franklin D. [Roosevelt], the U.S. Secret Service had massacred a hundred miscellaneous people, some because they were [Italians], others because they were anarchists and others because they had stomach trouble, what would all us reds be saying…What’s the use of losing your “chains” if you get a firing squad instead…Some entirely new attack on the problem of human freedom under monopolized industry has to be worked out—if the coming period of wars and dictatorships give anybody a chance to work anything out….

About Russia I should have said not politically useful rather than politically interesting….By Anglo Saxon Institutions I mean the almost obliterated traditions of trial by jury common law etc—they don’t count for much all the time but they do constitute a habit more or less implanted in Western Europeans outside of Russians….

Intellectual theories and hypotheses dont have to be a success, but political parties do—and I cant see any reason for giving the impression of trying to induce others to engage in forlorn hopes one wouldn’t go in for oneself.

“Don’t agitate me, comrade, I’m with you,” Wilson countered at the end of that January,

Surely it’s entirely unnecessary to worry about the possibility of a Stalin regime in America. I can’t imagine an American Stalin. You talk as if there were a real choice between Henry Ford on the one hand and [American Communists] on the other; but who outside the Communists themselves has ever seriously entertained the idea that these individuals would every lead a national movement?

“But” responds Dos Passos in February 1935,

it’s not the possibility of Stalinism in the U.S. that’s worrying me, it’s the fact that the Stalinist [Communist Party] seems doomed to fail and to bring down with it all the humanitarian tendencies I personally believe in—all the while acting as a mould on which its obverse the fascist mentality is made—and this recent massacre is certainly a sign of Stalinism’s weakness and not of its strength. None of that has anything to do with Marx’s work—but it certainly does influence one’s attitude towards a given political party. I’ve felt all along that the Communists were valuable as agitators as the abolitionist were before the Civil War—but now I ‘m not so happy about it.

Dos Passos then shifts his letter to a point Wilson had made to the effect that Marx belonged to a group of romantics that “came out of a world (before 1848) that was less sick, had much more spirit.” “By the way,” Dos Passos continues,

I don’t agree with you that a hundred years ago was a better time than now—they had a great advantage that everything was technically less cluttered and simpler—but dont you think perhaps in every time the landscape seems somewhat obstructed by human lice for those who view it? We have more information to go on, more technical ability to carry ideas out and ought to produce a whale of a lot of stuff—if I was a European I wouldn’t think so, but here we still have a margin to operate on—

Later that February Wilson writes Dos Passos another letter, the parting shot of which is its own “By the way,”

it is being rumored that you are “rubbing your belly” and saying that “the good old Republican party is good enough for you.” Maybe you ought to make a statement of your present position.

. . .which Dos Passos does. The month after, he writes Wilson,

I finally consented, against my better judgement, to put my name down on the [leftist] Writers Congress roster. I’m going to try to write them a little preachment about liberty of conscience or freedom of inwit or something of the sort that I hope will queer me with the world savers so thoroughly that they’ll leave me alone for a while. I frankly cant see anything in this middleclass communism of the literati but a racket….People haven’t any right to make a living out of politics—It’s selling stock in a corpse-factory.

“It’s selling stock in a corpse-factory.” “Some entirely new attack on the problem of human freedom under monopolized industry has to be worked out.” “Intellectual theories and hypotheses dont have to be a success, but political parties do.” “How you can coordinate Fourth of July democracy with the present industrial-financial setup I dont see.” That said, at least here in the US, according to Dos Passos, “we still have margin to operate on”.

What margin do we have today?

My proposal

Start with the margin that the framers of the US Constitution saw fit to endorse in Article 5—a new constitutional convention. Oh no, no that won’t work, you say. How would most of our state legislatures or Congressmembers ever agree to hold a Constitutional Convention?

Answer: We hold it for them. We don’t wait. We start our own constitutional convention.

The idea here is this: We have 465 congressional districts, and 465 delegates to a Peoples’ Constitutional Convention sounds about right. Anyone on the voter rolls or adult able to show district residency would be eligible to vote and any voter from the district could run as a convention delegate. Party affiliation or endorsement would, of course, not be required. The candidate with the greatest vote plurality would be the district’s delegate. The cost of this nationwide election and delegate process would be, say, US$1-2 per person, or some $600 million, with another $50 million to hold the actual convention.

The US government won’t finance this, and corporate funding would for obvious reasons be ruled out. One can imagine a consortium of individuals, foundations and overseas governments willing to defray what we can’t pay ourselves. (To put these numbers in some kind of perspective, Forbes estimated in 2017 that the net worth of author and large charity giver, J.K. Rowling, was roughly $650 million.)

The charge of the Peoples’ Constitutional Convention: To redraft the US Constitution, e.g., through a series of amendments.

What a waste of time and money, you interject, since the real government—the states and feds—would just ignore the work of any Peoples’ Constitutional Convention.

Let them. Let them say the peoples’ mandate is illegitimate. Let them ignore a convention that represents no government, no court, no army, and none of the techno-managerial elites, just those elected to come together to hold our government, our courts, our military, and our techno-managerial elites to account. Let them ignore the Peoples’ Constitutional Convention and if they do, we’ll hold a different-premised one, and if that also does not work, we’ll go global and elect a World Parliament and then let them ignore that too.

Principal sources

The letters are in: Edmund Wilson (1977), Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY and John Dos Passos (1973) The Fourteenth Chronicle: Letters and Diaries of John Dos Passos, Gambit, Inc., Boston, MA. I’ve followed their spelling and grammar throughout, while editing in one case still-offensive ethnic expletives.

Other key sources are: (1) L. Dabney (2005), Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, NY; and (2) G. Monbiot (2003), The Age of Consent, Flamingo, London: Chapter 4. (As some readers may have twigged, I am adapting and paraphrasing George Monbiot’s proposal in The Age of Consent.)

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