The United States Civil War

Patrick Heron, Five Discs, 1963


Preface to the newly edited book by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

“Just as the American Revolutionary War of the XNUMXth century sounded the alarm for the European middle class, the American Civil War of the XNUMXth century sounded the alarm for the European working class” (Karl Marx, The capital).

Karl Marx's statement in the "Preface" to the first edition of The capital, was far from being a simple rhetorical argument. Throughout the book, at various points Marx makes references to the centrality of slavery for the “primitive accumulation” of capital and the importance of its abolition for the struggle of the working class, on a transnational scale. In the chapter “The so-called primitive accumulation”, specifically dedicated to the subject, he recalled that “Liverpool had a considerable growth thanks to the slave trade. That was his method of primitive accumulation […]. In 1730, Liverpool employed 15 ships in the slave trade; in 1751, 53; in 1760, 74; in 1770, 96; and, in 1792, 132”.

Karl Marx noticed, however, that the connection between English capitalist production and slavery in the South of the United States extended beyond the period of primitive accumulation, gaining new dimensions after the Industrial Revolution. Highlighting the cruelest aspects of child labor exploitation, on one side of the Atlantic, and African slavery, on the other, he explains: “While introducing child slavery in England, the cotton industry gave, at the same time, the impetus for the transformation of the slave-owning economy of the United States, formerly more or less patriarchal, into a commercial system of exploitation. In general, the disguised slavery of wage-earners in Europe needed slavery as its pedestal. sans phrase of the New World”.

Highlighting how much the permanence of slavery paralyzed the working class movement in the United States, Marx states that abolition, achieved by the Civil War, unlocked the struggle to reduce the working day to eight hours and, in one of the most famous passages of Book I of his most important work, he was adamant: “white-skinned work cannot be emancipated where black-skinned work is branded with an iron”.

However, Marx's (and Engels') systematic reflection on the American Civil War, as the writings gathered in this collection demonstrate, predates the publication of The capital and contemporary to the outbreak and development of the conflict. The most regular and systematic space for the manifestation of Marx and Engels' positions on the Civil War and the question of slavery was their “scientific journalism”, as can be seen in the first part of this book.

Acting since the previous decade as a correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune, Marx followed events from the beginning and was one of the first to take an incisive position in favor of the North and emphasize that the conflict was fundamentally a result of the question of slavery. Already in the first article presented in this collection, published by the New York newspaper on October 11, 1861, Marx dismantled the arguments reiterated by the British press, which persisted in stating that the war had nothing to do with slavery, and recalled that, although Although the Union government had been extremely patient in trying to avoid conflict and had continued to deviate from the subject of slavery, the Confederate South “[c]owned to fight for freedom from enslaving others, a freedom which, despite the protests of the Norte, claimed to have been threatened by the victory of the Republican Party and the election of Mr. Lincoln to the Presidential Chair”.

In several other articles for that American newspaper and for the periodical Die Presse, published in Vienna, Marx returned to the theme of slavery as central not only to understanding the American Civil War, but also to the class politics of the proletariat on an international scale.

In the first articles written on the subject, his main concern was to undo the arguments that sought to justify the uprising of the confederate states of the

South, in the name of presumed liberal resistance to restrictive tariffs imposed by the government of the Union, under pressure from the states of the North. The central issue that had led to the war, Marx had no doubt about it, was the vital need for the great slaveholders of the South to reproduce the system on which they based their class power in the new territories. The author would return to this in the article “The American Civil War”, the first one he published in Die Presse, on October 25, 1861, to conclude categorically that "the whole movement resided and resides in the question of slavery".

As Kevin Anderson demonstrated, Marx's perspective was, from the beginning, that the Civil War tended to be won by the North, precisely because it represented, even if Lincoln in his first term could resist this idea, a fight that would only be resolved with the federal government's decision to end slavery. Therefore, he defended the need for the Union not only to clearly proclaim its objective of fighting for the freedom of the enslaved, but also to arm battalions of free and freed blacks, continuing the war along a revolutionary path.

That was the meaning of one of his articles for Die Presse, published on August 9, 1862, in which he demanded a more incisive position from the Union: “New England and the Northwest, which supplied the main material of the Army, are determined to impose a revolutionary war on the government and to inscribe “Abolition of Slavery" as a battle motto on the starry banner. Lincoln hesitates before the pressure from without [pressure from outside], but he knows well that he is unable to resist for long”.

And he concluded: “So far we have seen only the first act of the Civil War – the constitutional war. The second act, the revolutionary war, is imminent.”

This affirmation of the revolutionary potential of the Civil War would also appear in the second type of material collected in this book: the correspondence between Marx and his main political and intellectual interlocutor, Engels. As had happened at other times, Marx respected Engels' superior knowledge of strictly military matters. Indeed, the latter's articles gathered here focus on this aspect of war. However, Marx disagreed with his friend when he valued the military superiority of the South as a decisive factor in the conflict. In a letter written two days before the publication of the article quoted above, in which he uses much of the reasoning expressed in it, he explains to Engels that he did not share “entirely his view of the American Civil War”. His analysis emphasized that the southern military superiority, manifested until then, was due to the fact that the owners of the South concentrated on the battle, leaving the productive work to the enslaved workers. Now, however, the pressure for the war to assume a revolutionary perspective would lead to a reversal in the correlation of forces: “The North will finally take the war seriously and resort to revolutionary means, and will even overthrow the supremacy of the slave-owning statesmen. of border states. A single regiment of Negroes will get on the nerves of Southerners.”

As Anderson points out, the reference to “southern nerves” is Marx's irony of the fact that the proud officers of the Confederate states would tremble in the face of free and armed blacks. If there was a revolutionary way to conduct war, it included those who had been enslaved in the role of historical subjects.

However, the racial question, underlying the ironic reasoning present in that letter to Engels, took on more dramatic contours when it came to understanding how racism crossed the class frontier and was also expressed in the way in which the parts of European origin of the American working class perceived in workers of African origin who are potential competitors in the labor market. So that the Civil War could actually sound the alarm of a new revolutionary wave in Europe as well, Marx was aware that it would be necessary to overcome racial prejudices rooted in that part of the American working class and also decisively involve the European movement in the campaign against the South and slavery.

At a time when he was already beginning to address the issue of Irish independence and the struggles of Irish workers and peasants as decisive for a possible revolutionary path in England, Marx did not hesitate to point out the limits that racist ideology imposed on workers' consciousness, writing for Die Presse, in an article published on November 23, 1862, that: “The Irish see the black as a dangerous competitor. The hatred which the able peasants of Indiana and Ohio feel for Negroes is surpassed only by the hatred which they feel for slaveholders. For them, they are the symbol of slavery and the humiliation of the working class, and the Democratic press threatens them daily with an invasion of “niggers"on their lands".

For this very reason, Marx registers with great enthusiasm the support of the English proletariat for the cause of abolition. In early 1862, highlighting the first rallies for the North and for the abolition of slavery held in London, Marx would praise the maturity of the class consciousness of the British proletariat. Industry workers were experiencing the greatest difficulties, resulting from the interruption of cotton supplies by the southern states. Marx highlighted, in an article for Die Presse, published on February 2, 1862, that “the misery caused by the stoppage of factories and the reduction of the working day in the manufacturing districts of the North, both motivated by the blockade of the slave states, grows alarmingly day by day”. He recognized, however, that the working class had remained firm, through its associations and demonstrations, in the public defense of the government's neutrality in the face of conflict and in support of the Union and, particularly, the end of slavery, when all that the government British and the factory owners of the textile sector wanted social support to intervene in favor of the South.

Finding support for the positions he defended in the first years of the war in the English working class itself, Marx would have more space to act directly on these positions from the foundation of the International Workers Association (AIT), in September 1864. The third The set of texts gathered in this book originates from this performance via AIT.

The explicit defense of abolition by the British working class, added to the set of its previous positions on the subject, explain why Marx, when in charge of writing the inaugural message of the AIT, in October 1864, in the face of the American Civil War and the disjunctive South of slavery x abolitionist North, had no hesitation in defending its position and registering the responsibility of the working class in pressuring the governments of Western Europe to renounce any support to the slaveholding South: “It was not the wisdom of the ruling classes, but the heroic resistance of the working classes from England to his folly which saved Western Europe from plunging into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery across the Atlantic.

Abolitionism and anti-racism walked together in the initial positions of the AIT, systematized by Marx's pen. The “General Regulation”, adopted at that same initial moment, was defined by equality among men: “That all societies and the individuals who adhere to it shall recognize truth, justice and morality as the basis of their conduct towards each other and towards all men, without distinction of colour, creed or nationality”.

*Marcelo Badaro Mattos is a professor of history at the Fluminense Federal University (UFF). Author, among other books, of Marx's working class in our time (boitempo).



Karl Marx & Friedrich Engels. The United States Civil War. Translation: Luiz Felipe Osório and Murillo van der Laan. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2022, 388 pages.


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