The Civil War Reconsidered

Jacobin’s symposium on “American Jacobins” is a provocative reminder that the US Civil War and Reconstruction was a radical revolution. Indeed, in emancipating the slaves, it entailed the largest expropriation of private property the world would see before the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The contributors to the symposium, however, make a number of historical claims that compel a response. James Oakes is absolutely correct to argue that the war cannot be understood without reference to the existence and expansion of plantation slavery. However, his claim that the Republicans — including Abraham Lincoln — came to power in 1861 with the intention of ending slavery is questionable. In fact, the Republican slogan of “free soil” meant the containment of slavery where it existed in the South. While the Radicals sought to hasten the end of slavery (by excluding it from the western territories, repealing the fugitive slave laws, and abolishing slavery in the District of Columbia, etc.), moderates saw the process as much more gradual and prolonged. As Lincoln (an exemplary moderate) hoped, the Republicans might at best put slavery on the “road to eventual extinction.”

When the war began in April 1861, the Republicans were divided along just these lines. The Radicals hoped to use the war to expedite the abolition of Southern slavery. Conversely, Lincoln and the dominant wing of the Republican Party refused to turn the force of the Federal government against slavery in the South. (This position was manifest in official instructions ordering Union military commanders to return escaped slaves to their masters.) These moderates aimed only to restore the Union and force the Southern planters to accept the legitimacy of the Federal government. In the end, it was military exigency and the mass flight of the slaves from the plantations — what W. E. B. DuBois called the “general strike against slavery” — that compelled Lincoln and the Republicans to embrace the Radical program between late 1862 and early 1863.

Seth Ackerman’s claim that the “free soil” radicals in the Liberty, Free Soil and Republican parties formed “progressively broader coalitions…around an emerging ideology of free labor that merged antislavery principles with the economic interests of ordinary northern whites” is also questionable. Clearly, the demand for the exclusion of plantation slavery from the western territories did correspond to the economic interests of the majority of northern whites — in particular the commercial family farmers, self-employed artisans and the skilled, native-born Protestant working class. However, the dominant group in the emerging Republican coalition was capitalist manufacturers, not “ordinary whites.” Historians like Sven Beckert and Andrew Dawson have recently shown that Northern manufacturers were overwhelmingly Republicans because the expansion of plantation slavery threatened their economic interests.

Robin Blackburn’s assertion that both Lincoln and Marx “loathed exploitation and regarded labor as the ultimate source of value” belies an anachronistic reading of what Lincoln and other Republicans meant by “capital” and “labor.” Like John Nichols’s The “S” Word (a recent attempt to portray socialism as an “American tradition,” Blackburn’s account owes more to hoary populist myth than rigorous class analysis.  When Lincoln spoke about “capital” and “capitalists” in the 1850s, he was referring to merchants, bankers and stock-brokers — to “non-productive”, “parasitic” capitalists. Likewise, “labor” did not refer to wage-workers, but to all “producers” — self-employed farmers and artisans, skilled workers who controlled the labor-process, and even capitalist manufacturers. Just as the Thomas Jefferson’s vision of an agrarian republic ignored the distinction between family farmers and slave-owning planters, Lincoln and the Republicans made no distinction between industrial capitalists and wage workers.

This conception was a “mental road map of lived experience” — that is, an ideology — that emerged organically from the lived experience of American manufacturers. After all, most industrial capitalists in the US had emerged from the ranks of the artisan producers. As market relations gained hegemony over the nineteenth century, a minority of craftsmen were able to specialize their output, innovate technologically, and begin to accumulate capital themselves. Relying on their own self-exploitation, or on short-term loans from small merchants, it was not surprising that early capitalist manufacturers saw themselves as “producers” struggling against “parasitic” merchant and finance capital. But however logical this seemed to antebellum Americans, there is no reason to conflate these categories with Marx’s quite distinct concepts of wage-labor and capital.

Finally, the US left needs to be careful when it habitually refers to the Civil War and Reconstruction as an “unfinished revolution.” Usually, the “unfinished” or “incomplete” project is described as a “bourgeois-democratic” revolution. This term, invented by Russian Marxists before 1917, designates a revolution that simultaneously secures the conditions for capitalist accumulation (“bourgeois”) and promotes progressive reforms like universal suffrage and land reform (“democratic”). The problem is that capitalism and democracy do not go together as easily as the term suggests. Capitalism is only compatible with one form of democracy — sometimes called “liberal”–where the substantive notion of democracy as popular power is replaced by an exclusive focus on individual “rights.” These rights, of course, include the right to private property. Thus, historical record shows that insofar as events labeled “bourgeois-democratic” (the English Civil Wars, the French Revolution, the revolutions of 1848) were actually substantively democratic, they were also anti-capitalist. Insofar as they actually empowered producers, they threw up obstacles to capitalist development. To the extent that they were capitalist revolutions, they were profoundly anti-democratic and hostile to substantive expressions of popular power.

The US Civil War and Reconstruction certainly was incomplete as a democratic revolution. There was no radical land reform in the South, the Federal government abandoned the freedpeople to the white supremacists, and the struggles of northern laborers over the working day and union representation were all scuttled in the 1870s. The defeat of these substantial democratic gains was no accident. Rather, it demonstrates that this “Second American Revolution” was bourgeois at the expense of being democratic. Each substantive democratic achievement would been a roadblock to capitalist development in the US Redistributing land into small plots, in accordance with the demands of freed slaves, would have consolidated a non-capitalist African-American peasantry subsisting outside of market relations. The end of Radical Reconstruction, the disenfranchisement of African Americans and poor whites, and the imposition of segregation were the necessary preconditions for capitalist development in the South. The defeat of the ten hours movement and the violent suppression of the 1877 railroad strikes — defeats for democracy — likewise promoted capitalist growth in the north.

Thus, as a bourgeois-capitalist revolution, the War and Reconstruction were far from “unfinished.” The major obstacle to the development of capitalism in the US — the geographic expansion of slavery — was eliminated. Industrial capital, through the Republican Party, established nationwide hegemony and implemented policies that promoted capitalist accumulation: protective tariffs for manufacturing, federally financed railroad construction, and the sale of public lands to commercial farmers. The War and Reconstruction initiated a period of rapid, continent-wide expansion of capitalist agriculture and industry in the US — laying the foundation for US capital’s global domination in the twentieth century. It is important for the left to remember this ambiguous legacy of the Civil War, rather than engage in uncritical celebration of historical events which often promoted bourgeois social relations over substantive democratic processes.