Marx, Lincoln and the last Capitalist Revolution.

14 07 2013

Barry Biddulph reviews,  An unfinished Revolution,  Robin Blackburn, Verso, London 2011. 


The Address of International Working Mens Association to Abraham Lincoln in January 1865,  flatters Lincoln and American nationalism. Karl Marx wrote these words :

“it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enslaved race and the reconstruction of a social world”

Lincoln was not  the son of the working class and did not single mindedly rescue an enslaved race. Robin Blackburn’s lengthy  introduction to the historical documents, which  provides the historical and political context,  reveals that the comments from the address were not entirely an accurate  reflection of Marx’s opinions and views on the course of the American Civil War. Marx did argue, that in the long run, Lincoln and the Union would be compelled to free the slaves, but meanwhile, in the words of Raya Dunayevskya.” The cost in lives was so frightful and the duration so long because Lincoln sought to confine the conflict as a white mans war”. (1)

Lincoln did not believe in racial equality. He even supported colonisation or the aim of sending ex slaves to Africa, giving advice that they would never be accepted as equals in America. In 1853 Lincoln publicly opposed intermarriage between the “races”.  He was first and foremost a nationalist: the priority was the integrity of the Union. The territorial expansion of the slave states, and the unconstitutional antagonisms provoked, threatened the future of the Union. At the outset of the Civil War, Lincoln and the majority of Republicans expressly condoned the survival of Slavery in the Union and only opposed its extension to the federal territories”. (2) Lincoln did not oppose slavery in principle, although as a bourgeois politician, he regarded  free labour as more rational and more economically efficient than unfree labour.

Lincoln’s election in 1860 on the conservative basis of non-interference with slavery where it existed, or containing slavery, and the conciliatory tone in his first inaugural address, did not prevent the aggressive secession of the Southern States . As Marx explained, the South by its very nature was expansionist and depended on spreading slavery to preserve its influence in the Senate and the nation. For Marx, the root of the civil war was the fundamentally different social systems : “The present struggle between South and North is nothing less than a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour”. (3)  Although the slave owners of the south were a kind of Aristocracy, the slave plantations were a form of agrarian  capitalism.  No cotton : no industrialism.  No slavery:  no primitive capitalist accumulation.  Nevertheless, the two systems in America could not live together, as the outbreak of the civil war showed.

Marx did not see the civil war as a conflict between rival nationalism’s, nor did he assess the war on that basis. In England, the Manchester Guardian, and other liberal newspapers championed the right of the South to self-determination.  Marx did not think the South was a nation ; it was only a battle cry. But, Robin Blackburn is surely correct in his view that the Southern Confederacy was a nation and had all the trappings and criteria of a nation. The poor whites had racial privileges and enjoyed the freedom of the range (common Land ) to feed their cattle and the right to hunt for food. They shared the values of the South’s rural civilisation. But Marx thought the war party in the South,the elite of Slave holders, 300,000 of them, but in reality nearer 400,000, were politically Bonapartist. It was a slave holders rebellion against the American nation.

Marx understood the civil War as having an anti slavery logic or dynamic. Events would push Lincoln towards emancipation. In Marx’s own words : “if the north cannot triumph without emancipation, it will triumph with emancipation”. (4)   Marx did not get too worked up over the delay in revolutionary measures or the appalling level of deaths due to Lincolns cautious policy. He simply shrugged his shoulders and told the frustrated Engels, that in the long run, the North could always play the last card or free the slaves in the slave states. This does seem to understand emancipation of the slaves as  external to their own self emancipation. In Robin Blackburn’s understatement, Marx had not really studies the example of  slave rebellions.

Robin Blackburn presents selected correspondence from Marx and Engels which show the frustration of Engels about what he regarded as the stupid, incompetent military tactics of the Union side. Following mainstream Republicanism, and Lincoln’s caution, General McClellan pursued a policy of containment-the Anaconda strategy. This was the failed attempt to slowly strangle the South, with a defensive cordon around the Confederacy. Engels feared the worse.  But Marx was more phlegmatic,” the manner in which the north wages war is only to be expected from a bourgeois republic”. (5)  Because the war aim of the Union was defence of the republic and not freeing the slaves,the slaves were left in place to work for the South, allowing the slave owners to put all their people into the war effort.

For Marx defeats and events generally would drive the Union to revolutionary measures. The  key was Georgia : crush the slave plantation owners there, free the slaves, and the South would be cut in two. And” the final defeat of the Confederacy came only after Sherman’s troops made the famous march through Georgia , looting, burning plantations, and freeing slaves” (6)  But, the slaves did not wait for the last few months of the war to be liberated. When the circumstances provided an opportunity, they joined the Union army. As the war progressed, hundreds of thousands of slaves  fled the plantations to become  black troops in the Union army, either as fighters or auxiliaries.  Lincoln was slow and reluctant to allow more revolutionary measures. He had acted to sack generals such a John Friemont, who very early in the war followed the logic of the conflict  to free slaves and accept slaves as members of the Union army.

Lincoln did not drive the revolution forward, but was dragged along with it, but ” what the revolution did not face was a revolutionary working class attempting to drive the revolution forward”. (7) There was no schema of Permanent Revolution. The Radical Abolitionists drove the process forward. For a short period, the principle of abolishing slavery coincided with the interests of Republican industrialists,” to ignite a brief revolutionary flush that spluttered and then went out in a mire of corruption”. (8)  In his second inaugural address in 1865,  Lincoln vaguely acknowledged that slavery was somehow at the root of the civil war, but when the Thirteenth Amendment was enacted abolishing slavery later that year, the institution had already crumbled, with mass slave desertions from the plantations.

The victory of the Union did not clear the road to an open conflict between Labour and Capital.   Labour in a black skin was subject to new forms of economic and political oppression in the South. Johnson, the new president did not fulfill the hopes Marx and Engels placed in him. The sycophantic address to Johnson from the International Working Mens Association, in 1865,  declared that ” you will never forget that to initiate the new era of emancipation of labour, the American people devolved the responsibility of leadership upon…. the one Abraham Lincoln, the other Andrew Johnson “. Johnson’s great sense of mission was supposed to save him from compromise. (9)  But, he pardoned thousands of rebel slaveholders preventing the freed slaves from obtaining the land of the former slave plantations. The freed slaves had to be put back in their place, which was in new relationships of economic exploitation by a white elite.   The revolution remained unfinished.


1 Raya Dunayevskaya, Marxism and Freedom, Columbia University Press,   ( Guildford,  1982 ), p.182

2 Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution, Verso,  (London 2011 ) p.29

3 ibid, p.158.

4 ibid , p.160.

5 ibid, p.197.

6 Chris  Harman,  A people’s History of the World, Verso, ( London 1999) p.351.

7 Robin Blackburn, ibid, p.168.

8 Barrington Moore Junior , Social Origins of dictatorship and Democracy, Penguin Books,  ( London 1973 ) p.142.

9 Robin Blackburn, ibid p.215.

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