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 Robin Blackburn’s lengthy  introduction to the historical documents, which  provides the historical and political context,  reveals that the comments from the address were not entirely an accurate  reflection of Marx’s opinions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.

deeper into essex: how you are allowed to be in your cities

9 07 2012

Sharon Borthwick reviews Annan Minton ‘Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city’

“Town-scapes are changing. The open-plan city belongs in the past — no more ramblas, no more pedestrian precincts, no more left banks and Latin quarters. We’re moving into the age of security grilles and defensible space. As for living, our surveillance cameras can do that for us. People are locking their doors and switching off their nervous systems.”

A protest against Dow Chemical, a sponsor of the Olympics

This is a J G Ballard character in Cocaine Nights talking, yet it couldn’t be a more fitting quote to go accompany Anna Minton’s, ‘Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first century city’, first published in 2009 and reissued this year with a new chapter on the legacy of the Olympics. I kept expecting Minton to quote Ballard at some point in the book, but she is more concerned to give voice to actual people than to characters of dystopian novels. We travel with her on her research, getting off the tube at Canary Wharf, meeting young people and youth workers in Manchester, people in Salford, Edinburgh and London, Town Planners, experts in planning law… Lets take her encounters in, Manchester, our ASBO capital apparently, where the young people have been served an especially raw deal, not allowed into pubs before the age of 25 they are wandering the streets to meet, no clubs or anywhere they can afford to hang out. But here’s the rub, if they are seen congregating together on street corners they are told to go home. The police stop and search the boys for no reason. Dispersal orders are even preventing young children from playing out in the street, one mother saying her daughter was ordered home out of the kebab shop by a cop. AM asks a simple question, what if the money was spent on facilities for them instead of enforcement? Read the rest of this entry »

radicalism and socialism in the first international

22 02 2012

Deborah Lavin, Bradlaugh Contra Marx, Radicalism and Socialism in the First International, Socialist History Society, London 2011, 86 pages paperback, 9780955513848, £4. Reviewed by Terry Liddle.

Read the rest of this entry »

Nostalgia for old Labour

2 02 2012

Barry Biddulph reviews , Owen Jones, Chavs : The Demonization of the Working Class, (Verso 14.99) 

Owen Jones describes how hatred of the working class finds expression in  negative images and gross exaggerations and distortions of working class experience in the media. It’s the myth that we are all middle class except the chavs. Owen explains how the mockery of the working class demonstrates their social inferiority for their tormentors and superiors. It’s a culture which blames the victims rather than social injustice or structured social inequality in capitalism. It’s the way the “working class rump” lives that’s seen as the problem. But what is Owen’s alternative?
Read the rest of this entry »

the commune’s pamphlets: reprints now available

10 06 2009

More copies of our pamphlet series, many of which had sold out, are now available. The text of each of  the seven pamphlets is online (see the list of subjects below), but you can also order paper copies – £1 +50p postage per copy.


Write to to place your order. We take payment by cheque (addressed to ‘The Commune’, at The Commune, 2nd Floor, 145-157 St. John Street, London EC1V 4PY) or by transfer to Co-op account S/C 089299, A/C 65317440. Read the rest of this entry »

the commune issue 2 published

22 01 2009


february 2009 – £1 + postage and packing, email to order

click here for pdf or see individual articles below

barack obama is lipstick on a pig – by Ernie Haberkern

civil service pay dispute: defeat or victory? – by Steve Ryan, Wrexham PCS

class struggle on the london underground – interview with Vaughan Thomas, RMT London region chair (LUL)

occupations: the way to win? – guest editorial by Gregor Gall

the people’s charter: a charter for change? - by Chris Kane (online only)

militancy and mobilisation in the anti-war movement

the mindset of israelis in the gaza conflict – by Solomon Anker

anti-semitism and the war – by Aled Thomas

unemployment: a view from the front line – by Christine Hulme, PCS DWP

welfare ‘reform’, the brown premiership and the recession – by Chris Grover, Lancaster University

what does ‘socialism or barbarism’ mean today? – by François Chesnais

call centres: the workers’ enquiry – review by Jack Staunton

ukraine’s ‘new left’ and the russian ‘gas war’ – by Milan Lelich

the socialist movement in iran – by Sam Parsa

political platform of the commune

the “workers’ enquiry” and call centre communism

27 12 2008

Jack Staunton reviews Hotlines: Call centre – Inquiry – Communism

When we pick up a left wing paper or magazine and scan its contents we can be fairly sure that its editors will not have failed to offer a piece on shifts in the world’s stock markets, analysis of the businesses felled by the recession, and a take on the latest wheeling and dealing by the world’s statesmen. Whether dry, rational and down-to-earth commentary, or grandiose predictions of the final crisis of capitalism and vast forces of chaos sweeping across the globe, we can be sure enough that developments in the activities of the ruling class will be recounted in some detail.

But ours is not a movement which limits itself to attacking the dominant system: it is a movement for the self-emancipation of the working class. To put that in the language of the current crisis: no-one simply wants capitalism to ‘collapse’ chaotically in a heap of bankruptcies and mass redundancies. Quite obviously, the unravelling of the irrationalities of capitalism will not in itself create a better society. Rather, we have a better, alternative vision for humanity: we want the working class to organise to displace those who control the levers of political and economic power and re-organise society from below on an egalitarian, collectivist and democratic basis.

So surely it should follow that the left ought to privilege understanding the state of the working class – the people and the movement who are actually going to revolutionise society.  This is all the more the case since although no-one would deny the existence of capitalism, for the last two decades it has been a commonplace assertion of much of academia and the media that the working class no longer exists.  For such ‘commentators’, the term ‘working class’ is itself merely a label for a narrow cultural stereotype: for example, in March 2008 the BBC’s White  season featured a documentary ‘Last Orders’, detailing the lives of white working-class pensioners in northern working men’s clubs, proclaiming that a few of this “endangered species”, the working class, do in fact still exist. Read the rest of this entry »

power and powerless in the shocking epoch

26 12 2008

A review of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. By Oksana Dutchak.

             …the more powerful the vision of some increasingly total system or logic [...] the more powerless the reader comes to feel…

Fredric Jameson

Naomi Klein is a famous contemporary socio-historical journalist, master of scandal journalist investigations, one of the most outstanding popular critics of the important tendencies in modern society. Klein became popular after publishing her first bestseller No Logo which had attracted a lot of attention in academic, political and broader circles. I find The Shock Doctrine just a logical continuation of her critical interpretation of the modern neo-liberal capitalism, presented in the first bestseller. Read the rest of this entry »

review of ‘resistance to nazism’

19 10 2008

by David Broder

Recently I have engaged in a fair degree of research into working-class resistance during the Second World War, and so at yesterday’s Anarchist Bookfair I was interested to pick up a copy of the Anarchist Federation’s pamphlet ‘Resistance to Nazism’ (subtitle ‘Shattered Armies: How the Working Class Fought Nazism and Fascism 1933-45′), reprinted this May.

The stated aim of the pamphlet is to present an alternative ‘history from below’ discussing the struggles and experiences of working-class people rather than looking at the world through the prism of competing governments and military figures. This is a worthy aim indeed. Read the rest of this entry »

new pamphlet: ‘nationalisation or workers’ management?’

26 09 2008

We have produced a pamphlet on the subject of workers’ control and management, counterposing working-class power exercised from below to nationalisations by the bourgeois state.

The pamphlet, costing £1, includes the following articles:

Review of the LEAP pamphlet on social ownership for the 21st century

The struggle for self-management (by Solidarity)

An exchange between Solidarity and the Institute for Workers’ Control

The ambiguities of workers’ control (by Solidarity)

The Harrogate debates: the 1977 debate between the then secretary of state for energy Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield from the NUM on workers’ control. Includes summaries of contributions from the floor.

As indicated above, we have posted some of the contents on this website already, but we have not yet uploaded the Harrogate debates piece, which represents about half the pamphlet’s length.

If you would like a copy of the 26 page pamphlet, email or write to us at The Commune, 2nd Floor, 145-157 St John Street, London EC1V 4PY.

cover of pamphlet on nationalisation and workers' management

social ownership for the 21st century

26 09 2008

Building the new common sense: Social ownership for the 21st century, Ed. Andrew Fisher

Reviewed by Chris Kane

The publication of Social ownership for the 21st century by the Labour Representation Committee on behalf of the Left Economics Advisory Panel is a significant development.  For the first time in nearly three decades an important section of the labour movement is at last developing a discussion on the questions of forms of social ownership, workers’ control and workers’ self-management.  The Tragedy of the historical moment is that at a time when the inadequacy of capitalist society is so glaringly apparent, there is a lack of confidence in the viability of an alternative society fit for humanity.  Amidst all the declarations that ‘another world is possible’ the traditional left has failed to conceptualise what that other world means.  Without developing an idea of what we want to replace capitalism with, the struggle of the labour movement is trapped in a spiral of fighting to ameliorate the conditions of life within capitalism.   In that regard this series of seven articles is a breath of fresh air in the arid plains of English socialism. Read the rest of this entry »

review of a classic: giovanni arrighi’s ‘the long twentieth century’

18 09 2008

by Dan Jakopovich

In The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times (1994), Arrighi centres his attention on the examination of systemic capitalist cycles of accumulation: their immanent logic, the interplay between the emerging and old powers (elements of systemic continuity and discontinuity), and the factors of hegemonic consolidation. Read the rest of this entry »

revolutionary strategy: reply by mike macnair

3 09 2008

on friday 29th david broder posted a review of revolutionary strategy, a new book by the cpgb’s mike macnair. this provoked more than seventy comments, and mike himself has written a response, which we reproduce here. Read the rest of this entry »

revolutionary strategy

29 08 2008

david broder reviews revolutionary strategy, a new book by the cpgb’s mike macnair

There is much of value in any serious attempt to talk about the tasks of the left today, and what exactly the purpose of its existence is: Mike Macnair’s new book, which carries the subtitle “Marxism and the challenge of left unity” is certainly this. The left sects are crying out for some ideas and some definition for their project: what we have at the moment is a maelstrom of sectarian and internally undemocratic groups, with philistine hostility towards discussion and utter disdain for ideas other than those quoted from the holy texts of Lenin and Trotsky. Read the rest of this entry »


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