Review of Civil War in the United States

The American Civil War as a “People’s War”

Clemens Dutt

Source: The Labour Monthly, Volume 20, Number 10, October 1938, pp.449-452 (1,696 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Mark Harris

Public Domain: Marxists Internet Archive (2010). You may freely copy, distribute, display and perform this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit “Marxists Internet Archive” as your source.

The Civil War in the United States by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. (Lawrence and Wishart. 12s. 6d.)

This volume is an addition to Marxist literature of first rate importance. It is especially valuable for three reasons, any of which alone should be sufficient inducement for reading the book: (1) because it collects writings of Marx and Engels previously unavailable and dealing with a subject not covered by existing literature (2) because it affords a classic example of the analysis of contemporary events by the founders of scientific socialism, and (3) because it contains parallels and lessons of the greatest interest for the present day.

The American Civil War lasted from 1861 to 1865. It was referred to by Marx and Engels as the “first grand war of contemporaneous history,” and they devoted close attention to its social and political origin, course and significance. Their writings fall under three heads, forming three separate sections of the present work, viz., articles by Marx in the New York DailyTribune, a long series of articles for the Vienna Presse, written by Marx with the close collaboration of Engels, and, finally, the letters exchanged between Marx and Engels during the years 1861-66.

At first sight the reader is liable to be put off by the absence of continuity between the sections and separate articles, as well as by the many references to persons, military events and other incidents on which he is not likely to be adequately informed. This difficulty is largely overcome by the American editor’s excellent introduction and scholarly notes, although it is a pity that a brief chronological history of the war was not included for easy reference. Moreover, a steady reading through of the articles will amply reward the reader for it cannot fail to bring out the main outlines of Marx’s analysis and will delight him with many brilliant passages of descriptive writing and trenchant comment.

It is impossible to note here the many aspects where Marx’s estimate of the struggle has only recently been confirmed by bourgeois historians or, after the greater part of a century, are only now beginning to receive proper appreciation. From the very beginning Marx and Engels grasped the essence of what was happening and drew attention to its world historical significance. As early as January, 1860, Marx wrote to Engels: “in my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world to-day are the movement of the slaves in America, started by the death of John Brown, and the movement of the serfs in Russia ....”

The reverberations set up by John Brown’s body were soon far-reaching enough. A year later the war between the South and North had begun, which, as Marx said, was “nothing but a struggle between two social systems, between the system of slavery and the system of free labour .... It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”

Additional interest of the present book is that it is prominently concerned with the relations of the American crisis in England, and it is interesting to note that the staple argument of the reactionary pro-South circles in England was precisely the denial that the war was a progressive war for the abolition of slavery. Marx smashes through these pretensions and proves that “the war of the Southern Confederacy is not a war of defence but a war of conquest, a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery.”

Marx saw that this was essentially a war “to restore the Union to its true principles of development,” that is to say, a war to remove the obstacles in the way of the development of capitalist democracy. To such a struggle the international working class could not be indifferent and, as Marx says in the address of the First International to Lincoln, written by him: “From the commencement of the titanic American strife the working men of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class.” He saw that this was a civil war in which one side was fighting, albeit with much hesitation at first, for a progressive democratic cause, and this was a matter in which the working class could not be neutral, a struggle in which the fate of democracy everywhere was involved.

The analogy with the struggle in Spain to-day will at once suggest itself to every English reader, and in fact reading it with Spain in our minds makes the book a hundred times more vivid and drives home many of the lessons Marx indicates. Naturally it is important to bear in mind also the differences, not only differences in scale and concrete features, but particularly also the different stage of capitalism and the differences in regard to international intervention in the struggle to-day. Nevertheless, there are many parallels which stand out strikingly.

One of the most important of these parallels is that of the general character of the war, a progressive war of democracy against reaction, and Marx’s insistence that in such an issue the working class cannot stand aloof. What a contrast to the ridiculous bourgeois caricature of Marx as a narrow sectarian, indifferent to everything but the artificially isolated, revolutionary struggle of the proletariat!

Just as the pro-fascist reactionaries try to make the “reds” responsible for the war in Spain, so too the reactionary press in England tried to pretend that the American Civil War arose out of Northern lust for sovereignty, ignoring not only that “it was not the North, but the South which undertook this war,” but also that it was a rebellion only made possible by treachery in high places. Marx spoke of it as “the secessionist conspiracy, organised, patronised and supported long before its outbreak by Buchanan’s administration” which indeed was the basis for its initial success.

The leaders of the slaveholders’ rebellion counted strongly on the help of reactionary circles in Europe. Very interesting is Marx’s account of the movement to draw Britain into the war on the side of the slave states. Cotton capitalism was frankly anxious for its supplies of slave-grown cotton, and the reaction strongly influenced government circles, while the cotton workers were exposed to great suffering from unemployment and short time as a result of the Northern blockade. Marx records that “no important innovation, no decisive measure has ever been carried in this country without pressure from without…. By pressure from without the Englishman understands great extra-parliamentary popular demonstrations, which naturally cannot be staged without the co-operation of the working class.” But the British workers were conscious that the Government was only waiting for this pressure from without to start intervention. In spite, therefore, of unemployment and suffering, it defeated the manoeuvres of the reaction, and it was very noteworthy that the working class raised its voice against intervention and for the United States, which was, in the words of Marx, “a new, brilliant proof of the indestructible excellence of the English popular masses.”

A particularly important lesson is furnished by the stress laid by Marx on the “revolutionary logic” of the struggle. During the early part of the war the leading participants, including Lincoln himself, were much confused and unable to see the essential issues. Hence the hesitating policy of the North and their narrow escape from defeat. As Engels wrote to Marx in a rather pessimistic letter in July, 1862, “they are afraid of conscription, of resolute financial steps, of attacks on slavery, of everything that is urgently necessary.” Marx and Engels saw the revolutionary implications of the struggle, the need to wage a revolutionary war, to arm the Negroes and to abolish slavery. Marx in August, 1862, in a classic letter gently rebuked Engels for his pessimism, pointing out the basic features which were in favour of the North, and which would drive them to “make war seriously and adopt revolutionary methods.” He concludes: “The long and short of the whole business seems to me to be that a war of this kind must be conducted on revolutionary lines, while the Yankees have so far been trying to conduct it constitutionally.”

The result was in accordance with Marx’s anticipations. Incidentally, it is worth calling attention to the brilliant commentary of Marx and Engels on the military strategy and tactics of the war. In March, 1862, in the second year of the War, when the issue was still so uncertain that the British Government was half-inclined to plump for the rebel South, Marx wrote a masterly analysis of the whole war situation for the Vienna Presse, in the course of which he pointed out in detail the correct military strategy for a Northern victory. It took more than a year before Lincoln and the Northern generals finally arrived at the same conclusion, renounced their fruitless “boa-constrictor” plan, and embarked on the victorious march to the sea through Georgia exactly as Marx had advocated. This is only one example of the illuminating observations made by Marx and Engels on the course of the war, observations which reveal an astounding detailed knowledge of all the factors involved.

The change from the conduct of the war on constitutional lines to revolutionary lines was forced on the North by the development of events themselves and is reflected in the gradual development of the policy of President Lincoln. The social roots of Lincoln’s early hesitating, compromising attitude and fear of a bold anti-slavery policy are laid bare by Marx, and the gradual transformation in Lincoln under the pressure of the changing situation makes a very interesting study. Marx pitilessly exposes Lincoln’s weaknesses, but fully recognises his steady step-by-step progress, and at the end, in the address of the First International after Lincoln’s assassination, he pays Lincoln a magnificent tribute, declaring him to be “a man neither to be browbeaten by adversity, nor intoxicated by success, inflexibly pressing on to his great goal, never compromising it by blind haste, slowly maturing his steps, never retracing them.”

Marx is capable of using language that does justice to his political insight. What he has to say is more than ever important for us to-day.