The last third party to win — the Republican Party — used a revolutionary reform they called the “non-extention of slavery” to fundamentally alter the existing two-party system.
The history of the anti-slavery movement and the early Republican Party raises a question we are dying to answer: under what conditions and with what strategies can government be fundamentally transformed? Those conditions exist when there are major problems that the existing political order created but cannot solve. Back then it was slavery and the domination of the government by slave-owners. Now, it’s the interlocking crisis of climate change, empire, the militarized penal system, inequality and the domination of government by corporations.
Starting in the 1840s a series of third parties raised a fundamental challenge to the existing social order and they did so with a special kind of reform — a reform that required revolutionary measures to achieve.
Non-extension of Slavery was a Revolutionary Reform
The demand for the non-extention of slavery literally drew a line in the sand beyond which the system of slavery could not pass. Its appeal would mobilize millions of people from all walks of life. Non-extention was a first step leading to abolition and the creation of a revolutionary party. Non-extention was a wedge issue that busted up the existing order and convinced northern white people to oppose slavery.
A new array of social movements and political parties, including the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party and eventually the Republican Party organized resistance against the slave owners that controlled the federal government. By wielding the power of government the slave-owning oligarchs ruthlessly exploited slaves and threatened the interests and values of northern white labor.
As the demand for non-extension made slavery a mass issue, the existing two-party system began to splinter.
Non-extention was a reform because it did not demand the immediate abolition of slavery as the black abolitionists or the morally-driven white abolitionists did. But, it was revolutionary because both the anti-slavery movement and the slave owners themselves understood that slavery was a “grow or die” system, just like the modern corporate empire. To block its plans for expansion was to put it on the path to what the anti-slavery movement called “ultimate extinction.”
As early as 1846 non-extension became a popular issue in the struggle around Wilmont’s Proviso — a proposal to bar slavery from the new territories conquered from Mexico. Although Wilmont’s Proviso never passed Congress it became a lightning rod for anti-slavery organizing.
According to the greatest of all abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, the campaign for Wilmont’s Proviso was an effective way “to keep the subject before the people — to deepen their hatred of the system–and to break up the harmony between the Northern white people and the southern slaveholders.”
As non-extention shattered “the harmony between northern white people and southern slaveholders,” it challenged the white racism on which the two-party system rested.
Where Did the Republicans Come From?
One important source was the splintered elements of Whigs and Democrats that were pushed to the left by the growing anti-slavery movement. By 1848 the Free-Soil Party — the forerunner to Republicans — was created out of northern Democrats that split from their southern controlled party, Whigs pushed to the left by the antislavery movement and members of the Liberty Party, an explicitly abolitionist third party.
Non-extension was a political campaign and an organizing tool. It was different from the radical abolitionists who spoke in the uncompromising language of moral outrage about the sinfulness and corruption of slavery.
The radical abolitionists demanded a clean break with slavery but were only able to attract about 5% of white northerners to its view. But by seeing slavery as a system hostile to everyone’s freedom, including whites, and damaging to the future of the country, the Republicans were able to reach a majority of northern whites estimated at 66%.
What Revolutionary Reform Can Break Up The Harmony Between Everyday People and Corporate Power Today?
We need to “break up the harmony” between everyday people and corporate power — including the politicians, police and military that enforce their rule. We can push the wedge by focusing on issues that cannot be accommodated or compromised: climate change, war, empire, the militarized penal system, and corporate control over the government.
What reforms can help us to disrupt the social order in a way that corporate power cannot agree to without compromising their political might? Here are a few examples:
- The abolition or defunding of the vast militarized penal system including the police. Mass incarceration is the foremost example of systematic racism and social control.
- The Green Party’s Green New Deal is one of the best examples of a revolutionary reform because it centers the role of war and empire in climate change.
- Extensive election reform would reveal the rot at the heart of the system. No wonder election reform is ignored by corporate parties and media.
- Returning the power to declare war back to Congress — as the Old Constitution clearly states — we would undermine the power of the “imperial presidency” and the empire along with it.
- The repeal of “Citizens United” would strike at the heart of the legal fiction that gives corporations special powers: corporations claim the protections and rights of the people even as they merged with the state.
- Reparations to American Descendants of Slaves would jump start the economy and strengthen leadership from this key community of resistance.
- Land Back to Natives and recognition of Treaty Rights would erode one cornerstone of the settler state and safeguard the environment.
- Projects and laws encouraging and subsidizing worker-owned enterprise and local cooperatives would help us build “a new world in the shell of the old.”
- Restoration of the Old Bill of Rights. The tyranny of the corporate empire demands that our rights be restricted.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
There are striking parallels between then and now.
White supremacy remains the most damaging form of class collaboration weakening all efforts to rebuild democracy. Breaking those bonds will be decisive in mounting any major challenge on the existing order.
One way to start is by reclaiming the arguments on white privilege as an educational and political tool. But, the most important paths are social movements like the on-going Black-led but multiracial uprising against police violence. Some 20 million people took part including millions of white people. The “harmony” between white people and the system is breaking down. No wonder the powerful have moved so strongly to coopt or crush the movement.
Beware the Wounded Ruling Class. Arm Ourselves With History
As the position of the slave owners began to weaken they doubled down. The pro-slavery forces actually claimed that slavery was a good thing in keeping with the natural order of things. And, a system to which there was no alternative. We can hear echoes of this in the bosses’ propaganda about the virtues of free markets or the doubling down by the ruling class to control the crisis they know full well is coming.
But, when the great day came and the Slave Power could no longer rule with an iron fist, — when all the special advantages of the three-fifths clause, gag rules, compromises, and evasions no longer worked — it plunged the nation into its deadliest war. They chose disaster over defeat. Beware the wounded ruling class. Beware.
History is terribly unpredictable as it unfolds and only seems inevitable or orderly in hindsight. In times of deep social change political movements once considered marginal become mainstream; ideas once thought impossible or unrealistic become both urgent and practical. Third parties become major parties. And so it is in our time.
Climate destruction forces us to both recognize the interlocking nature of our problems — the deep structural connections between corporate power, racism, patriarchy, war and climate change — and to seek solutions that aim at nothing less than what Martin Luther King called the “radical reconstruction of society.”
Yet, we have no choice but to start with the world we have inherited. To find our way forward we must study the past not as something dead and gone but as something very much alive in our minds and embedded in the very structure of the existing social order. Our anti-slavery ancestors crafted a winning political struggle with a revolutionary reform. Can this past live again? Only if we make it so.
 Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p 314
 Leonard L. Richard, The Slave Power, 154