Saturday, April 17, 2010


Eugene Robinson writing in The Washington Post recently states that the American Civil War was "..fought over was the ability to own human beings, compel their labor, buy and sell them as if they were livestock, exploit them sexually and torture or kill them if they tried to escape." He is wrong. But so too was one contemporary observer, Karl Marx.

The four months between the election of Abraham Lincoln and his inauguration may well be considered one of the most fateful and critical periods in the history of the United States of America. Six weeks after the election the State of South Carolina answered the question in everybody's mind by withdrawing from the Union.

On December 20, 1860, a convention at Charleston unanimously adopted an Ordinance of Secession declaring that "the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the 'United States of America,' is hereby dissolved."

By February 1, 1861, six others The Gulf States of Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, together with Georgia - had followed South Carolina into secession.

Three days later delegates from six of the seven states met at Montgomery, Alabama, to consider united action. Within a week a temporary constitution was ready for the "Confederate States of America." The convention became a Congress; Jefferson Davis of Mississippi was made President and Alexander R. Stephens of Georgia, Vice President.

There followed upon these events the United states Civil War. The war, variously termed the War of Secession, The Brothers' War, the War Between the States, the War for Southern Independence or, as favoured in official United States government records, the War of Rebellion, commenced at daybreak on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces under the direct leadership of General Beauregard, per order of President Davis of the Southern Confederacy, began bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour, South Carolina, under Federal control and under the command of Maj or Robert Anderson. Major Anderson lost the fort.

As the bombardment of Fort Sumter historically signified the commencement of the Civil War, a meeting in a small farm house on April 9, 1865, between two soldiers, General Ulysses S. Grant of the Union Army and General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army signified the collapse of the Confederacy and the imminent end of the war, after almost four years to the day.


Karl Marx was greatly interested in the Civil War in America. In seeking to counteract the influential English press's categorical and repeated denial that slavery was an issue in the war, as well as overcoming other related purse-oriented propaganda, Marx over-emphasized slavery's active role.

He correctly perceived that the subsidiary issue (and an active issue it was, though not the issue, as Marx well knew) of slave labour versus free labour would be the most decisive factor in arousing positive working class feelings and action in Britain and on the European continent, and that consequently the various governments, for this and other reasons, would be less apt to tender material assistance to the South in the face of unified working-class opposition. Hence, he blazoned this issue of slave labour versus free labour in the spoken and written words to the exclusion of the obvious economic factors.


So if, as Marx wrote in the preface to the first edition of Capital,

"in the 18th century the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the 19th century the U. S. Civil War sounded it for the European working class,"

then Marx contributed greatly to the alarm by his unstinting efforts to the cause of making known, loud and clear, to the working class of Europe the issue of slave labour versus free labour and the latter's significant historical progressiveness. Marx would have the working class unmistakeably know that in his view slave labour as it existed in the southland of America impeded the mission of capitalism and interfered with its historic role of economic development, and in so doing braked the advent of Socialism and the emancipation of wage slaves.

Marx concisely summed up the American struggle in these words:

"The present struggle between South and North...nothing else than a struggle between two systems: the system of slavery and the system: of free labour. Because both systems cannot any longer exist on the American continent without friction, the present war broke out. It can only end with the victory of one system or the other."
(The Civil War in America.)

Marx was never in doubt as to which system would be victorious. Even in the North's darkest travail, when others despaired, we find Marx writing (September 10, 1862) to Engels:

"As for the Yankees, I am as certain as ever in my opinion that the North will win in the end."

In a letter written many years ago by Charles Austin Beard to a member of the World Socialist Party, the noted historian wrote in part:

"They (Marx's letters on the American civil war) are particularly interesting in connection with his aid to the Northern cause in London as showing his willingness to co-operate with a capitalist party as against slave holders - the so-called party of wage slavery as against chattel slavery."

Intended or otherwise, one distinctly senses here the invited inference that Marx was a class collaborator. Whatever the endeavor undertaken by Marx, his "aid" or "co-operation" was always contingent upon historical materialism. Marx's antipathy, if such it may be called, for the party of wage slavery was no less than that for the party of chattel slavery. Marx did not "co-operate" with the capitalist class of the North.


Nevertheless, although Marx had no illusions about what he was doing in supporting the North and although we understand that he genuinely thought that this was the best way to further the interests of the working class, we have always declared that Marx was wrong to take sides in this, and other, bloody conflicts between rival sections of the propertied class. Looking back now, we can see clearly that Marx's energies would have been much better employed putting over basic socialist ideas. explaining the capitalist character of the war, and urging workers not to get themselves killed for the upstart capitalists of the North.

Influenced by geographic factors beyond man's control the North and South had developed fundamentally different types of capitalism in the half-century closing in 1850. The North became industrial; the South devoted itself to a plantation system of capitalism, basing it on chattel slave labour.

Now in saying that the South's economy was agrarian capitalist in character and that of the North industrial capitalist, the implication is not made that the Industrial system of the North was fully installed at the time the Civil War opened. Indeed not. As a matter of fact, the very nascent state of industry in the North was one of the prime reasons why certain elements in the North welcomed the war. For they saw in the war an opportunity to convert their economy into a bustling and personally profitable industrial one with the assistance of the State. It is of more than passing interest to note at this point the astute observation made by William Appleman Williams in The Contours of American History:

"The Civil War was not the first modern or industrial war. It was the last merchant-agrarian war. It produced an industrial system rather than being fought with one."

Without pausing for detail, the North's politico-economic programme was directly opposed to the South's. The North was
1 For protective tariffs,
2 For a third Bank,
3 For internal improvements to link the East and West.
4 For loose construction of the Constitution, and
5 Opposed to slavery extension into the territories.

Turning to the South, we find an economic system of plantation chattel slavery with cotton flowing through its veins rather than blood. Cotton was king in the South, and it made slavery profitable as long as new lands were available for expansion. The demand for cotton from overseas and from the North became so great that the South made every effort to produce it on an ever-larger scale, By 1850 the cotton output had increased thirtyfold and by 1860 - just a year before the outbreak of the Civil War - more than fiftyfold compared with 1800, and represented seven-eighths of the world's supply.

Needless to say, such extraordinary growth tended to fasten slavery more firmly upon the South since it was held that this type of forced labour was absolutely necessary for growing cotton. As demands for cotton steadily mounted, the planters demanded more slaves and more lands - the more land the more slaves.


The rationale of the South's slavocracy - emotions played up, economics played down -has been described in these words by the South:

"Slavery is as old as civilisation itself. As for the morality of slavery, is it not sufficient that the Bible sanctions it? And does not the Constitution legalise it? The inferiority of the African naturally makes him a subject of a more advanced race. These are the lessons of history. There's no getting away from them, and sentimental fanatics can't change them. Now, please be reasonable and fair in your judgments upon us and our institutions, and by all means examine the record. Proudly we can say that we have raised the slave from savagery to Christian civilisation and have enabled him to earn a living free from the anxieties of unemployment. In his sickness we nurse him and in old age care for him.

Can you say that much for your 'free' labourers, slaves to pitiful wages, machines, and foul factories? Don't believe the wild stories about cruelty to slaves. If you had a thoroughbred horse for which you paid $1000, would you brutally beat him to death?

There's another side to the question you had better ponder well. Contrary to half-baked opinions, abolition would be positively bad for the entire country. What about the safety of the whites, if you free the slaves? How many Bostonians (Boston, Mass., was the seat of the abolitionist movement) would risk their necks in Haiti now that the blacks have the upper hand there, or how safe would Old Virginia be if the slaves suddenly became masters?

Don't you know that your industrial dividends and indeed the prosperity of the country are dependent indirectly on slavery? Cheap slave labour means cheap cotton and cheap cotton means lower production costs for you (Northern) capitalists.

Before it is too late, let's arrive at a gentleman's agreement. We have not attempted to inflame public opinion against your wage slaves. All we ask - and it's a reasonable request - is that you leave our slave system alone. We hasten to make no threats, but we do intend to keep our system of slavery." (Source unknown.)

The Cotton Kingdom was relentlessly directed by a politico-economic programme that was in direct opposition to that of the North as outlined above. So wedded were the planters to the one crop, cotton, that they could not, even if they wanted to, establish manufacturing in the Southland. The Westem Socialist (No. 2-1961) commented:

"The commodity he (planter) invested in - his slaves - was adapted for one thing only - commercial agriculture - and it was impossible to switch from such a setup into anything else. He was virtually tied down to the performance of one function."

To recapitulate and make clearer the role of King Cotton in the South, as well as in the whole of the United States for that matter, we quote the following:

"The export of cotton surpluses constituted the largest single item in the American foreign trade, and thus made possible the payment of interest on borrowings abroad and the purchase of foreign manufactured goods. Cotton's needs guided American public policy. We were a low tariff nation; we had no national banking system; the quick settlement of the West - through the building of a transcontinental railway system and the opening of the public domain to free homesteaders - was retarded: All because southern legislators, executives and federal judges for a long time dominated the public life of the country.

Why was cotton cultivation conducted on an extensive scale? In other words, why did planters constantly need fresh supplies of new land to which to shift operations? It was because their capital fund was largely invested in their slaves; because slaves' costs were high; and therefore because it was important that they derive as large a current money income as possible from their investment. It was cheaper to move than to restore the fertility of soils wasted by one-crop plantings."

(L. M. Hacker, R. Medley, G. R. Taylor, The United States: A Graphic History.)

Incidentally, had it not been for one of those ironies in history the Civil War may never had been fought for in the republic's infancy slavery was pretty much a dying institution. It was not economically feasible. But with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, there was unleashed a torrent of naked avarice in which all notions of social justice were swept away as the demand for slave labour flooded the South.


As the North scanned the nation in the late 1850s, it observed that the East-West canals and railroads had broken down the Mississippi River as a commercial tie uniting the South and West. This economic divorce of the West and South, and the resulting marriage of the East and the West, were events of the first importance. Nothing but a spark was needed now to set off a gigantic explosion. The spark came and it had a name: Abraham Lincoln, Republican, State of Illinois. To quote again from The United States: A Graphic History:

"The hostilities between the economies of southern planter capitalism and northern merchant and industrial capitalism, by 1860, were irreconcilable. The South, its life dependent upon its one great crop, whose value was fixed in a free world market, was confronted by the necessity for reducing its costs of production and handling. It needed more land; even more, it required cheaper slaves, which could be obtained only by the reopening of the Afriean slave trade. It wanted direct trade with Europe. It wanted cheap money and lower costs for moving and financing cotton. It wanted free trade.

The North felt that its opportunities for economic expansion were being seriously checked. Accumulation could take place, really, without let or hindrance, only through industrial production. But for this the state's support was imperative: to erect a high tariff wall and thus create a protective domestic market; to build great railroads across the whole continent with the assistance of public credit; to establish a sound national banking system so that contracts could not be placed in jeopardy; to create a steady flow of immigrants into the factories on a contract-labour basis; and to settle the West quickly by opening up the public domain to free homesteaders. The Abolition crusade had definitely turned the northern and western churches against the resumption of the African traffic. When the Republican party, in 1860, adopted a programne that was specifically in the interests of northern. industrial capitalism, the gauge of combat was thrown down. The South, suffering defeat in the election of 1860...was faced with disaster. Secession took place."

For those who are prone to be hero-worshippers, let it be known that Abraham Lincoln was not interested in slavery per se. It is probable that he found it objectionable, but he most certainly would not have gone to war over the issue. We find him writing to Alexander H. Stephens in 1860:

"I fully appreciate the present peril the country is in, and the weight 'of responsibility on me. Do the people of the South really entertain fears that a Republican administration would, directly or indirectly, interfere with the slaves, or with them about slaves? It they do, I wish to assure you...that there is no cause for such fears..."

Again Lincoln writes:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. It I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it.... "

To reiterate, the issue was not the abolition of slavery, but the expansion of slavery into the territories. The South had to have expansion to live; the North would not have it and live. Wrote Marx:

"The secession took place only because it proved to be impossible to change the territories and the border states into slave states within the Union."
(The Civil War in America.)

We have now returned to our starting point: the secession of the South from the Union, the Civil War which followed, and the defeat of the Confederate States of America. The war, fanned by the idealistic flame of free labour versus slave labour, came about for material reasons. It was a war for control of the State between two competing economic systems between merchant-industrial capitalism and agrarian capitalism. The one heralded the future, the other sought to hold on to the past. It has been truly written that life is dynamic, not static. The social organism, like all other organisms that cannot adjust, cannot adapt, cannot keep pace with needed changes, is doomed to die. So died slavocracy in the South.

REN (The Western Socialist, No.5 - 1969)

No comments: