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The American Civil War And Marx

From 1861 to 1865 about 620,000 soldiers lost their lives in the American Civil War. One estimate of the death toll is that ten percent of all Northern males 20–45 years old, and 30 percent of all Southern white males aged 18–40 perished. It was perhaps one of the bloodiest wars in U. S history. Not all whites in the slave states of the Confederacy wanted to secede. Many wanted to stay in the Union. However, the vast majority of poor whites weren’t abolitionists even though they didn’t thrive economically because blacks were enslaved and their slavery actually hindered their economic development. Even though slavery was against their own class interests, poor whites continued to support the slave system on the hope that eventually, as Marx noted, they might become slave-holders themselves.

Marx and Engels and the First International backed the Republican Party and its candidate Lincoln. It was a new party that had emerged from the conflict in the Kansas territory prior to the Civil War. Karl Marx viewed the war, not as Southern apologists saw it (‘a war of Northern aggression’), but rather one of Southern aggression through which the plantation owning class hoped to preserve their political dominance. Marx recognised that the core reason for the war was chattel slavery, an economic system in which people are kept in bondage and not compensated for their labour. As today, apologists for the secession of the Southern states argued that other issues, such as state’s rights or tariffs, rather than slavery, explained the insurrection. Marx argued in his October 20, 1861, Die Presse article, ‘The North American Civil War’ he took Alexander Stephens, the vice president of the Confederacy, at his word when Stephens proclaimed what Southern secession was really all about. Wrote Marx:

‘The question of the principle of the American Civil War is answered by the battle slogan with which the South broke the peace. Stephens…declared in the secession Congress, that what essentially distinguished the Constitution hatched at Montgomery from the Constitution of the Washingtons and Jeffersons was that for now for the first time slavery was recognized as institution for good in itself, and as the foundation of the whole state edifice, whereas the revolutionary fathers, men steeped in the prejudices of the eighteenth century, had treated slavery as an evil imported from England and to be eliminated in the course of time.’

Marx continued:

‘The cultivation of the Southern export articles, cotton, tobacco, sugar, etc., carried on by slaves, is only renumerative as long as it is conducted with large gangs of slaves, on a mass scale and on wide expanses of a naturally fertile soil, which requires only simple labour. Intensive cultivation, which depends less on fertility of the soil than on investment of capital, intelligence and energy of labour, is contrary to the nature of slavery.’

If slavery were contained in the existing slave states, it would go into economic decline. Slave-owners would fall behind in political power to the emerging Northern capitalists, and this would cause a rift between the slave-holders and the poor whites who would no longer have the chance of becoming masters themselves. Containing slavery would jeopardise the compatible relationship of the ruling slave-holder class and the poor whites.

In a passage describing this process, Marx wrote:

‘The number of actual slaveholders in the South of the Union does not amount to more than 300,000, a narrow oligarchy that is confronted with many millions of so-called poor whites, whose numbers have been constantly growing through concentration of landed property and whose condition is only to be compared with that of the Roman plebeians in the period of Rome’s extreme decline. Only by acquisition and the prospect of acquisition of new Territories, as well as by filibustering expeditions, is it possible to square the interests of these ‘poor whites’ with those of the slaveholders, to give their restless thirst for action a harmless direction and to tame them with the prospect of one day becoming slaveholders themselves.’

Many of the American revolutionaries of the 18th century wanted to contain slavery to the original thirteen states, and eventually to legislate it out of existence. The original Northern states allowed slavery, but over time the institution was outlawed. Slavery was forbidden in the Northwest Territory, the area today known as the Midwest. Most of the Constitution’s framers hoped that the institution of slavery would wither away in the South. But the Industrial Revolution in England, and the ever-expanding British textile industry, drove up demand for cotton. The Southern planters received a new lease on life. They began growing cotton for the emerging European textile market, which required more land, and more slaves to work the land. With their slave system thriving, the slave-owners wanted to ensure that this profitable enterprise would expand and prosper. The more far-sighted plantation owners could foresee that an ever-expanding majority of Northern voters, irritated by slavery’s competition with ‘free labor,’ would eventually outvote the pro-slavery South in a presidential election.

To compensate for this loss of political power, the slave-owners had expanded into the new western territories, trying to establish them as slave states. These new slave states would guarantee the planters two senators each, which positioned the Senate to block any attack on their ‘peculiar institution.’ Nevertheless, Northerners would have more votes in the House of Representatives, and pro-slavery forces recognized this dilemma. Consequently, the South’s power was focused on the less-democratic US Senate, where each state, no matter how small its population, received the same representation. This battle between free state Northerners and pro-slavery Southerners would erupt into civil war in 1850s Kansas as people from both regions rushed into the territory.

A strict confinement of slavery within its old terrain, therefore, was bound according to economic law to lead to its gradual extinction, in the political sphere to annihilate the hegemony that the slave states exercised through the Senate, and finally to expose the slave-holding oligarchy within its own states to threatening perils from the ‘poor whites.’ In accordance with the principle that any further extension of slave Territories was to be prohibited by law, the Republicans therefore attacked the rule of the slave-holders at its root.

The Republican election victory was accordingly bound to lead to open struggle between North and South. And this election victory, as already mentioned, was itself conditioned by the split in the Democratic camp.

Marx had a clear view about how abolition would be the first step for enabling slaves in America to be effectively mobilised by the Union to overcome the old order, which he saw represented not only by the Confederate states themselves but also those pro-Union ‘border states’ in which slavery was still legal. Without abolition, he argued practically, the Confederacy would be able to mobilise all of its able-bodied men into military service.

He was impatient with Lincoln’s diplomacy for keeping the Northern ‘border states’ in the war on the Union side, advocating force be used to make abolitionism a declared Union war aim, while simultaneously transforming the struggle into ‘revolutionary waging of war’. Marx must have felt fully vindicated when the first black troops entered into the Union service shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation (January 1863). He also hailed the thaw in Britain’s relations with the US in the wake of the Trent Incident, to the extent that the two countries signed a treaty in 1862 for jointly suppressing the slave trade.

Workers from Manchester to London organized in opposition to active British support for the slave South—helping to block the clearly marked intentions of Lord Palmerston, the British Prime Minister, to intervene militarily in the U.S. Civil War. This action on the part of the workers went against their own immediate economic interests and was, as Marx wrote to Engels on April 9, 1863, “an act almost without precedent” in the history of the working class. Marx himself attended the mass meeting of the London Trades’ Union Council in March 1863, in which the skilled workers of London proclaimed their support for the war against slavery and opposition to British intervention on the side of the Confederacy.

Further Reading:

Marx and the American Civil War

The American Civil War (4-parts)

The War Between The States