Slavery, War, and Revolution

Marx’s Civil War writings wrestle with many of the issues that plague today’s left.

African-American Union soldiers during the US Civil War. Library of Congress

Marx’s writings on the American Civil War have long languished in obscurity. Despite the fact that they address race, class, and revolution — and that major figures including W. E. B. Du Bois, C. L. R. James, and Raya Dunayevskaya have viewed them as central to Marxist theory — most of them had been out of print for decades until Andrew Zimmerman’s new edition appeared last year.

They contain some real treasures. To wit: “In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” These sentences come, of course, from the first volume of Capital, completed in 1867 after the Civil War had ended and Radical Reconstruction had begun.

In his 1860 tribute to John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry, Marx presents the event as a harbinger of a wider slave insurrection and as consonant with the struggle for the emancipation of the serfs in Russia:

In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is the slave movement — on the one hand, in America, started by the death of Brown, and in Russia, on the other . . . I have just seen in the Tribune that there’s been another slave revolt in Missouri, which was put down, needless to say. But the signal has now been given.

The writings in this collection range from newspaper articles and letters to resolutions from the First International and excerpts from Marx’s major theoretical works. Throughout, he presents the Civil War as a second American revolution, which emancipated some four million human beings from bondage and overthrew a decidedly capitalist property regime whose economic weight had long dominated the entire country.

This new revolution also established political rights — at least momentarily — for the former slaves, and its radical fringe called for, but was unable to enact, major land redistribution in the form of the “forty acres and a mule” proposal put forth by Radical Reconstructionists. Further, the fight required the massive participation of black people, whether as soldiers, as a parallel army of fugitive slaves, or as citizens in postwar political and social movements throughout the South.

Indeed, throughout, Marx highlights black self-activity and agency. In 1861–62 he called for both full and immediate abolition and the use of black combat troops, writing that this “would have a remarkable effect upon Southern nerves.” He also levels some blistering attacks at Lincoln for his caution during the early years of the war, especially his decision to avoid calling for emancipation in order to appease whites in border states like Kentucky and Tennessee.

His belief in the war’s revolutionary character sometimes separated him from Engels, who had less confidence in the North’s military and sociopolitical abilities. This aligns Engels more closely with German socialists like Ferdinand Lassalle, who dismissed the Northern cause as irrelevant to the struggles of the European working classes.

As these writings demonstrate, Marx closely examined the class divisions inside the Southern states. For example, when writing about the secession resolutions, he portrays the slave-owning class as a small but powerful minority, ruling over both the largely enslaved black population and poor whites. In an 1861 article for Die Presse, Marx noted a widespread reluctance to support secession in areas like eastern Kentucky and northern Alabama, pointing to class divisions between these areas’ poor white workers and the three hundred thousand slave-owners who dominated the South.

Marx also applies this class analysis to Andrew Johnson’s succession following Lincoln’s assassination, which he called “the most stupid act they could have committed. Johnson is stern, inflexible, revengeful, and as a former poor white has a deadly hatred of the [slaveholding] oligarchy.” Johnson’s sympathy for the former slave-owners soon disabused Marx of his optimistic view of the new president, whose impeachment he would come to support, but he never gave up on the possibility that poor Southern whites would ally with former slaves in a cross-racial movement of the Southern working class. Further, he argued that this alliance could not be entered at the expense of immediate abolition and full political and economic emancipation for African Americans; in fact, he held that emancipation would help build this movement by undermining the dominant slave-owning class.

This view is contradicted in another essay that appears in The Civil War in the United States, this one written by Joseph Weydemeyer, Marx and Engels’s closest supporter in the United States, who in 1852 had published the first edition of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in his newspaper Die Revolution. In fact, one of the great merits of Zimmerman’s collection is that he includes, unlike earlier Moscow-based editions, some of Marx’s interlocutors, putting his writings in the context of the era’s intellectual climate.

Weydemeyer’s 1865 article on Reconstruction aligns with Marx insofar as both call for the North to actively support and arm the former slave population as its most reliable ally. But Weydemeyer refers to the poor rural whites as “white trash,” arguing that “they have always been the most willing tools in the hands of the Southern oligarchy.” He warns that Radical Reconstruction cannot rely on these “indolent” people, but only upon “the much-despised Negroes . . . along with the white craftsmen of the cities.”

Marx would likely have disagreed with these formulations, but Weydemeyer’s position helps us understand the gulf between Marx and the German socialists. Many of them held that, except for the working class, all classes formed “one reactionary mass.” Marx argued against this in his Critique of the Gotha Program, pointing to “artisans, small manufacturers, etc., and peasants” as potential allies of the working class.

Further, Marx highlights international class solidarity throughout these writings. From the beginning of the war, the North blockaded Southern ports, cutting off cotton shipments to manufacturing centers like Manchester and plunging the British working class into mass unemployment. The numerous pro-Southern politicians and newspapers in Britain attempted to use this to move public sentiment in favor of giving the Confederacy diplomatic recognition or even joining the war on the Southern side. British workers and their organizations firmly repudiated this, blocking attempts to hold pro-war meetings in their communities and organizing numerous large public meetings that passed pro-Union resolutions.

Marx frequently wrote about this, as in the New York Tribune:

When a great portion of the British working classes directly and severely suffers under the consequences of the Southern blockade . . . simple justice requires to pay a tribute to the sound attitude of the British working classes, the more so when contrasted with the hypocritical, bullying, cowardly, and stupid conduct of the official and well-to-do John Bull.

The above meetings played no small role in forming the First International in September 1864, as the labor networks that supported the North formed a major part of its nucleus, not only in Britain but also in other countries of Western Europe. The International’s first public statement congratulated Lincoln upon winning a second term. Drafted by Marx, it presented the Civil War as a major revolutionary event that would benefit the European labor movement: “The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Anti-Slavery War will do for the working classes.”

After Lincoln’s assassination and Johnson’s alliance with the former slave-owners, however, the International issued a harsher 1865 statement. It predicted a second civil war if the former slaves were not granted full political rights:

Let your citizens of to-day be declared free and equal, without reserve. If you fail to give them citizens’ rights, while you demand citizens’ duties, there will yet remain a struggle for the future which may again stain your country with your people’s blood.

This “Address to the People of the United States” did not appear in the 1937 edition of Marx and Engels On the Civil War in the United States or even in the later Collected Works of Marx and Engels, which includes many key texts of the International. Fortunately, the Zimmerman edition restores this statement to its place within Marx’s and the socialist movement’s political milieu.

Because of these new aspects, the present volume does not merely reprint the 1937 edition. Beyond including new documents and more authors, it also uses the better translations that were published in the Collected Works. This opens Marx up to criticism for racial insensitivity: he uses the n-word on occasion — in English within a German sentence. In some instances, it seems like he meant it as hyperbole, as, when mentioned above, he called for black troops to be enrolled in the Union army: “One single n— regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves.” No matter its purpose, such language rings discordantly in the middle of some his best formulations on race. Zimmerman and International Publishers have not sanitized this language, but the 1937 edition did.

Zimmerman also contributes effective, short introductions that give historical background for the nine sections into which he has divided these texts. His general introduction acknowledges that Marx’s Civil War writings hardly amount to a unified analysis of the conflict, let alone the problems of race and class under capitalism. He also makes the more general point that, at the beginning of the Civil War, Marx’s critique of political economy was not fully developed: “The writings in this volume thus contain something much more interesting than a Marxist interpretation of the American Civil War: they reveal the co-evolution of Marxism and the American Civil War.” This reinforces his argument — which Dunayevskaya also made in her 1958 Marxism and Freedom — that “the influence of the Civil War on Capital is unmistakable.”

The publication of this volume is especially timely, as the American left now faces many of the same issues Marx grappled with in the 1860s. The 2016 election seems like another round in a fight that stretches back to the Civil War and Reconstruction. Then as now, the relationship between race and class has come to the fore, as has the need for progressive and revolutionary movements that speak to working-class concerns without conceding to racism. As many have noted recently, we ignore this at our peril. Among other things, Marx’s writings on the Civil War give us some valuable tools with which to take up these issues.