Karl Marx on the American Civil War (1861-65)

Marx the journalist

Karl Marx fled the revolutions which rocked Europe in 1848, to the relative calm and safety of London. Although he never intended to, Marx then ended up spending the rest of his life – three quarters of his adult life – in England.

Ironically, he lived here during pretty much the quietest period of 19th century English history. The uproar surrounding the Great Reform Act of 1832 was long over, and the Chartist Movement failed and fizzled out after 1848. There followed 25 years or so of growing wealth, accompanied by, admittedly piecemeal, legislation to try and improve the lot of the working classes toiling in the new industrial cities in their grim seven-days-a-week factories. It was the era of the triumphant bourgeoisie and the unstoppable rise of British Imperialism, in India, China and around the world.

Although Karl wanted to write great masterworks of historical and economic theory, these wouldn’t pay the rent for himself, his wife and growing family. Although he wanted to be at the head of great revolutionary organisations, the Communist League with which he’d been associated during the 1848 revolutions, splintered and fizzled into insignificance.

So Karl turned to journalism, which he had actively pursued in Germany since his student days (it was his editorship of the seditious the Neue Rheinische Zeitung in Cologne which was the reason he was kicked out of Germany in 1849).

Incongruously, Mark got a job with the New York Daily Tribune, as its European correspondent, from 1852 to 1862. The Tribune had wide working-class appeal and, at two cents, was inexpensive. It had a circulation of 50,000 copies per issue and its editorial line was progressive and anti-slavery.

The New York paper paid the rent. But when civil war broke out in America, in the spring of 1861, it was for the Liberal Vienna paper Die Presse that Karl wrote 37 articles about it, starting six months into the conflict, on 20 October 1861.

Karl Marx

Karl Marx

Marx’s articles about the American Civil War

The American Civil War began with the secession of the southern slave states, starting with South Carolina, which declared independence in January 1861.

The eight seceded states went on to declare themselves a new nation, the Confederacy, with its capital at Montgomery, Alabama. On 12 April 1861 Confederate forces shelled Fort Sumter, a fort off the coast of South Carolina which was still held by units of the U.S. or Union army. It was this action which signalled the start of the American Civil War.

Of Karl’s 37 articles just two are translated and published in the Penguin selection of Karl’s Writings From Exile 1848-1863. Shame. I wonder if you can read the lot in a pamphlet somewhere.

Karl begins by lining up the London papers of the day, The Times, The Economist, The Saturday Review and summarising their positions.

Apparently, most of the British press sympathised with the southern states. They thought the war was mostly about the issue of trade tariffs. The North imposed various tariffs on imports and exports, whereas the South didn’t. Moreover, an enormous amount of southern cotton was bought by British factory owners, turned into clothes, and traded back to the South (or sold on to India).

This explains why Britain, being a free trade nation, and economically linked to the region, had strong sympathies with the South.

It was because of this economic self-interest – Karl argued – that Britain’s papers and politicians argued, ‘Why shouldn’t the South declare itself a separate nation?’ And ‘Why should the North bother, or dare, to try and invade and suppress this nation?’

Buried, pushed aside, undiscussed in all the mainstream media articles which Marx quotes, is the issue of slavery. In the two articles published in the Penguin selection, Marx sets out to contradict and refute the British bourgeois position.

Karl’s knowledge

Marx is incredibly knowledgeable. I found reading the nineteen pages which these articles make up in the Penguin edition nearly as illuminating as reading James McPherson’s 860-page history of the war. Karl demonstrates a surprisingly detailed grasp of the geography, the economic facts, the population, and of the political manoeuvring that led up to the war.

Karl gives his unstinting support to the North and says it must conquer the South and overthrow its iniquitous slavery system. Otherwise the South will triumph in its pre-war attempts to impose and spread slavery to all parts of America and with it, to enslave the working classes, too.

Karl says the war is about slavery pure and simple. The Founding Fathers may have been slave-owners (most famously Washington and Jefferson), but they thought slavery was an evil imported from England which would eventually die out. By contrast, apologists for the South treat slavery as a good in itself which deserves to be spread as widely as possible. According to them, slaves love their slavery. The South is fighting, as one apologist put it, for ‘the foundation of a great slave republic.’ (p.336)

Karl details the political build-up to the war, including:

  • the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (which established 36º 30′ as the northernmost extent of slavery)
  • the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 (which retracted that ruling)
  • the attempt to spread slavery into New Mexico
  • the 1857 Dred Scott case which established that slave owners had a right to take their slaves anywhere in the country
  • the controversial 1850 Fugitive Slave Act which forced northern officials to acquiesce in the hunting, kidnapping and return south of runaway slaves from their territories

He describes the revival of the slave trade in recent years which, he claims, has resulted in 15,000 new Africans being kidnapped and brought to America (making a bigger deal of it than McPherson does in his history).

And repeats the outrageous but widely publicised aims of the southern states to conquer Cuba for America, and extend their rule throughout Central America (specifically in Nicaragua where, for a year, a southern American mercenary did, indeed, manage to become president!).

All of these political events show, to Karl, the wish of the South not just to defend slavery, but to actively extend it throughout the states.

Why?

An economic explanation for the motives of the Confederate states

Karl gives a characteristically economic explanation for political events.

The old slave states are exhausting their soil. Maryland, Virginia, even South Carolina, have become net exporters of slaves. ‘Breed ’em and sell ’em,’ is the slavers’ policy. Therefore, the slave states need a steady supply of new markets, they need to make new territorial conquest, in order to maintain their economies.

Even in South Carolina, where slaves form four sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has remained almost stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil… South Carolina has become partly transformed into a slave-raising state by pressure of circumstances in so far as it already sells slaves to the states of the Deep South and South-West to the tune of four million dollars annually. As soon as this point is reached the acquisition of new territory becomes necessary, so that one section of the slave-holders can introduce slave labour into new fertile estates and thus create a new market for slave-raising and the sale of slaves. (p.341)

There is also politics. Each American state sends two senators to the Senate, regardless of population. Therefore, there is a naked power struggle whenever a new state is admitted to the Union as to whether its two senators will be pro or anti slavery, each new state’s nature threatening to upset the very finely tuned balance of power between slave and anti-slave states in Congress.

Who is doing all this? Karl estimates that there are only some 300,000 significant slave owners in the whole of the country. So an oligarchy of 300,000 has been trying to impose the political, legal and economic system which underpins its wealth onto the other 20 million Americans.

The ‘plantocracy’ was well aware what it was fighting for, that to restrict slavery to its current territories would:

  • reduce slaver representation in the senate i.e. undermine their political power
  • lead, over the long term, to the inevitable extinction of slavery
  • the consequent general impoverishment of the South would lead to class warfare with poor whites who would, finally, realise how they are being exploited by the wealthy 300,000

Thus the war is nothing to do with free trade and tariffs, as the respectable London papers were trying to claim. It was about whether:

  • the 20 million free Americans should submit to a political and economic system imposed by an oligarchy of 300,000
  • the vast new territories of the Republic should be slave or free
  • whether the foreign policy of America should be peaceful – or get dragged into further wars with Cuba and Central America

Punchy and pithy

Karl is at his journalistic, punchy and pithy best. In the second article he makes the rhetorical point that the South – which had declared itself a new nation – isn’t a proper nation at all.

It is not a country at all, it is a battle-cry. (p.344)

In the second article he gives a detailed description of the geography and slave populations of all the ‘border’ states between south and north and describes how the slave states had made political, legal and, finally, armed attempts to infiltrate and capture these states for slavery.

Conventional opinion had it that it was the northern armies who had invaded the south, and indeed most of the fighting was done on the soil of southern or the so-called ‘border’ states. But Karl’s list of, first, the political attempts to suborn the border states, and then his detailed accounts of border incursions and raids by southern forces, makes a powerful case that the war is in fact:

a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery. (p.350)

A glance at the map of America in 1854 shows what was being fought over. The southern slave states (dark green) already controlled significantly more land than the northern free states (pink). The issue was: should slavery be extended into the huge expanse of land to the west (light green), nearly half of the American land mass, which was still only roughly defined as territories such as Kansas, New Mexico, Oregon etc, but which would, in the near future, attain the status of ‘states’ and be admitted to the union. Should they be slave – or free?

American states in 1854

American states in 1854

Marx was wrong about lots of things, but the materialist worldview which predisposed him to see all major events in terms of their economic basis and in terms of the class conflicts which they inevitably give rise to – often gave him a thrillingly incisive vision which cut through the painful bombast and wordy rhetoric of the stuffy, obtuse Victorians he lived among.

Thus in Marx’s view the American Civil War was emphatically not about tariffs or free trade or the right to have a separate culture or any of the other mystifications and obfuscations which filled so many speeches and newspaper columns, no:

The present struggle between South and North is thus nothing less than a struggle between two social systems: the system of slavery and the system of free labour. The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer peacefully co-exist on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.

He thought the North would win and that the full emancipation of the slaves was inevitable.

Given that he was writing in November 1861, with the war only six months old and most Republicans (including President Lincoln) still reluctant to countenance slave emancipation under any circumstances, Karl in these articles was not only typically incisive and insightful, but remarkably prophetic.


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  • The Captive Mind by Czesław Miłosz (1953) A devastating indictment of the initial appeal and then appalling consequences of communism in Poland: ‘Mass purges in which so many good communists died, the lowering of the living standard of the citizens, the reduction of artists and scholars to the status of yes-men, the extermination of entire national groups…’

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  • The Battle for Spain by Antony Beevor (2006) Comprehensive account of the Spanish civil war with much detail on how the Stalin-backed communist party put more energy into eliminating its opponents on the left than fighting the fascists, with the result that Franco won.
  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938) Orwell’s eye-witness account of how the Stalin-backed communist party turned on its left-wing allies, specifically the Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification which was Orwell was fighting with and he only just managed to escape arrest, interrogation and probable execution.

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Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (2) by James M. McPherson (1987)

In mid-19th century America there was a caste of people who were professional slave hunters. Hold that thought… People whose job it was to reclaim the lost ‘property’ of a southern slave owner.

1854 advert for a runaway slave

1854 advert for a runaway slave

In 1850 the US Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act as part of the Compromise of 1850 between Southern slave-holding interests and Northern Free-Soilers (a short-lived political party which took part in the 1848 and 1852 presidential races with the sole aim of preventing slavery being expanded into the new western states).

The law required that all escaped slaves, upon recapture, be returned to their masters, and that the officials and citizens of free states had to cooperate with this. Many northern states opposed the law and passed personal liberty laws which used various strategies to try and to block the Fugitive Slave Act – by insisting that captured suspects get a fair trial, or by forbidding state authorities from collaborating with the federal agents tasked with recapturing runaway slaves.

Almost every case brought under the new act caused explosions of outrage on both sides of the argument. Many northern states took advantage of jury ‘nullifications’, where a jury refused to convict because they believed the entire basis of a federal law was unjust.

Northern cities set up Vigilance Committees which could mobilise lawyers to defend a captured runaway, and/or mobs to surround gaols where they were being held. On numerous occasions this resulted in fighting, often with guns, as northern mobs stormed gaols to free slaves held by Federal authorities.

Southerners believed northerners wanted to abolish the entire notion of property, which was a founding concept of American freedom (a circular definition in which freedom is defined as the ability to own property, and the ownership of property confers the independence from poverty which underlies the notion of personal freedom).

The clash between the pro-slavery Federal law and the anti-slavery strategies taken by various northern states made almost every case of a runaway slave being recaptured into a show trial.

Imagine being a freed black person, going about your business in Boston or New York, and suddenly being set upon by a gang of men and hustled along to a gaol. And then – if you’re lucky – standing in the dock while lawyers argue whether you are a human being or a piece of property!

The law had a noticeable cultural impact. For northerners, the country’s law for the first time made them accomplices in the institution of slavery – forced them at the risk of a hefty fine or possible imprisonment, to aid federal marshals in arresting, imprisoning and returning runaway slaves to the south, no matter how much they didn’t want to.

It was a flavour of slavery and the slave state, forced right into northerners’ faces. And it forced the more conscientious of them to choose between obeying an unjust law or their consciences. It created martyrs not only among the poor captured runaway blacks, but among their white supporters, especially in the church. McPherson quotes a number of clergy who wrote publicly announcing that they were prepared to go to gaol to defend the liberty of runaway slaves.

The intrusion of slave violence into the free north inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe, the ‘daughter, sister and wife of Congregational churchmen’, to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin, an anti-slavery story told with moral passion. The book was published in monthly serials in an antislavery magazine before being published in book form in 1852. It went on to become the most popular novel of the 19th century, second only to the Bible in book sales in the States and abroad. Extraordinarily, Stowe wrote it in the evenings after completing all the household chores and putting her six children to bed. I wish I had that much energy.

Implementation of the Fugitive Slave Act reinforced the importance of the so-called Underground Railway, escape routes of safe houses and sympathetic helpers who could ferry blacks north through the free states and on, ultimately, to Canada – much like the networks which shot-down Allied airmen used in Nazi-occupied Europe a century later.

An estimated three thousand blacks fled to Canada in the last three months of 1850 alone. During the 1850s the black population of Ontario doubled.

There are records of slaves committing suicide rather than be caught. McPherson quotes the story of a runaway slave mother who tried to cut the throats of her own children as the slave catchers broke in, rather than let them be taken back to a lifetime of servitude and abuse.

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

Leap of the Fugitive Slave

And yet, during the entire decade of the 1850s, some 332 slaves were returned and only 11 declared free. Odd that such a relatively small number had such a seismic cultural impact on both the north (disgusted) and the south (outraged that the north tried to steal their ‘property’), compared to the fact that there were some four million slaves in the south.

Meditating on the stories McPherson prints, it’s hard to see how anyone brought up in these communities, and in this country, could recover from the trauma. Easy to imagine the aftershock lasting down through generations and never, really, being healed…


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