The Abolitionist Legacy of the Civil War Belongs to the Left

The US Civil War was a revolutionary upheaval that crushed slavery and stoked hopes of a broader emancipation against the rule of property. We should draw on that memory today for struggles against racism and capitalism.

Workers working on ruins after the US Civil War, circa 1865. (Archive Photos / Getty Images)

How should we remember the Civil War? For many liberals today, the story is one of the North winning the war but losing the peace, acquiescing to a sectional reconciliation that left white supremacy intact. Racism won out, plain and simple.

But this is only part of the story. The precipitous decline in union membership, labor militancy in the workplace, and Marxist scholars in academia have conspired to obscure what historian Matthew Stanley brings to light in his recent book: that the Civil War, for black and white workers alike, was an enduring touchstone for popular struggles from Reconstruction to the New Deal, shaping class consciousness in the process.

Grand Army of Labor: Workers, Veterans, and the Meaning of the Civil War shows how industrial workers, farmers, and radicals deployed an “antislavery vernacular” in their struggles against Gilded Age and Progressive Era capitalism. They cast themselves as the natural torchbearers of the antebellum free labor ideal, which, they argued, targeted not only chattel slavery, but wage labor — heralding what Karl Marx envisioned as a “new era of the emancipation of labor.”

Stanley details the collective construction of a “red Civil War,” built by radical workers in countless trade union halls, workshop floors, and third-party soapboxes. In this crimson-hued vision, John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and Abraham Lincoln featured as paragons of abolitionism, the vanguard of W.E.B. Du Bois’s “abolition-democracy.” And although the Union Army had crushed the landed aristocracy of the Slave Power, capitalist expansion had bred new monied interests and created new forms of corporate dominance. That despotism called for a new generation of emancipators.

“War Gave One Kind of Master for Another”

The Knights of Labor — a trade union federation founded in 1869 that reached a peak of 800,000 members in the mid-1880s — was one prominent organization that brandished Civil War language to fight “wage slavery.” “War gave one kind of master for another,” one Knight explained at a Blue and Gray Association meeting in 1886, “and wealth once owned by the masters of the South has been transferred to the monopolists of the North and multiplied a hundred-fold in power, and is now enslaving more than the war liberated.” The Knights advocated a class-based, cross-racial alliance to wage this next stage of the war for emancipation. They proved remarkably adept at organizing black southerners — and convincing their white counterparts of the necessity of it.

In the 1880s and 1890s, agrarian reform parties such as the Greenbackers and Populists mobilized “producers” across sectional and racial lines. Veterans were central to these campaigns. But the “Blue-Gray” collaborations in the Populist Party evoked something far different than the white nationalist reunions of the day that often went by the same bichromatic name; devoted instead to “causes not yet won,” as Stanley argues, the “radical worker-veterans and their comrades used the words and wounds of war to envision a left alternative” of the producing class liberated from the yoke of economic bondage.

Socialist Party of America leader Eugene V. Debs. (Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons)

Fittingly, as the Populists spoke in neoabolitionist dialect, their opponents recycled old slurs once hurled at their antebellum forebears. Denounced as Jacobins, socialists, and communists, many Populists — at least for a time — reveled in bridging “wartime divides along class lines” as their antagonists waved the bloody shirt or wept over the Lost Cause. Populists harnessed Civil War memory for a very different sort of commemoration, a “reconciliation predicated on mutual opposition to elites, to the conditions of industrial capitalism, or to the economic system altogether.”

While the Populist movement died out by the mid-1890s, the antislavery vocabulary endured in other class-based projects. The American Socialist Party, founded in 1901, relied heavily on the antislavery vernacular. Socialists frequently spoke of class struggle as an “irrepressible conflict” and an “impending crisis.” The Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs cultivated a self-image as a second Great Emancipator, a Midwestern radical vowing to “organize the slaves of capital to vote their own emancipation.” He asked, “Who shall be the John Brown of Wage-Slavery?” and answered elsewhere: “The Socialist Party.”

Gompers’s Challenge

But as Stanley shows, the radical left’s appropriation of Civil War iconography didn’t go unchallenged. The federal government’s repression of labor radicalism and left-wing politics during and after World War I elevated a “reformist” current of Civil War memory over the revolutionary one. The reformist narrative prized social order, legalism, and loyalty to the state — wresting the image of Lincoln from the reds and draping him in patriotic cloth.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a leading role in repurposing Lincoln. Stanley writes that the AFL’s conservative president, Samuel Gompers, “envisaged the Civil War not as an inclusive stage of impending proletariat revolution but as a nostalgic event of national trial, rejuvenation, and harmony.” To Gompers, this meant not only a balance between labor and capital but, just as importantly, between white workers — emphasis on white — of all regions of the country. The craft unionism that he espoused excluded black workers en masse.

Gone was the Lincoln who challenged the rights of property on a mass scale with uncompensated wartime confiscation; the AFL’s Lincoln stood for conciliation, compromise, and healing. The antislavery vernacular suffered a similar deradicalization. “Emancipation” now signaled a break from partisanship and labor militancy, an incremental process of reform within capitalism guided by conservative labor leadership. Perhaps most perversely, Lincoln was cast as the great emancipator of white laborers, with antislavery rhetoric retooled to accommodate segregation in the workplace.

In short, the loyalty politics of the AFL — economic, patriotic, and racial — assimilated organized labor into the US body politic on conservative terms.

The Radical Civil War

A counter-memory of the radical Civil War lived on.

A photograph of abolitionist Frederick Douglass when he was around twenty-nine years old. (National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1930s, the red Civil War flourished in Communist Party organizing, particularly with black southerners, who were seen as naturally hostile to the white ruling class. “When Black Communists Hosea Hudson and Angelo Herndon likened their organizing efforts to a restored abolitionism that might ‘finish the job of freeing the Negroes,’ white comrades agreed,” Stanley writes. When James S. Allen, a Marxist historian of Reconstruction and editor of the Communist Party’s newspaper the Southern Worker, penned a defense of the Scottsboro Boys, it “represented to many Southern whites a reconstituted carpetbagger threat.” Allen himself “saw the Communist Party as a means by which to ‘complete the unfinished tasks of revolutionary Reconstruction.’”

The Cold War ultimately decimated the labor left and with it the anti-capitalist and anti-racist revolutionary exemplar of the Civil War. But Stanley’s exhaustively researched and illuminating study reveals just how durable the cultural counterinsurgency of Civil War memory has been. As thousands of labor activists and organizers had long insisted, and as too many Americans have long since forgotten, the struggle of the 1860s was never just a national one or a racial one but one about liberation from all manners of despotism. It was a blow to white supremacy that heralded a broader emancipation — a more devastating blow to the rule of property.

For today’s socialists, the history of the American Civil War can again be plumbed for inspiration in fashioning an anti-capitalist, anti-racist politics and a radical vernacular for solidarity and revolutionary transformation. The “red Civil War” is ours for the taking.