Chris Harman


Clash of two systems

(May 1990)

From Socialist Worker Review, No.131, May 1990, pp.25-26.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Battle Cry of Freedom
James M. McPherson
Penguin £8.99

THE AMERICAN Civil War was one of most momentous events of a momentous century. It was a key episode in industrial capitalism’s rise to dominate whole world. Yet in this country little is known about it. Even on left there is tremendous ignorance. McPherson’s book is a very good antidote to this.

He begins by tracing the origins of war. He shows how, in the 80 years between the American Revolution and the civil war, two distinct social systems existed within the United States.

In the South the exploitation of slaves on plantations to produce raw materials – first tobacco and sugar, then increasingly cotton – enabled the ruling, planter class to build up enormous wealth. The planters were always a small minority of the white population in the South, but their wealth enabled them to dominate the Southern states materially and ideologically.

In the North there was a very different social system, based on the ‘free’ labour of independent farmers and of wage labourers working for capitalist merchants and manufacturers. Here the ruling class also dominated ideologically. But they did so by stressing values that the exploiters and the exploited allegedly had in common, and by encouraging divisions among the mass of the workforce between the ‘native born’ and immigrants.

The two systems could coexist peacefully for many decades within the same, weak, national state. The slave owners exercised a disproportionate influence, dominating the business of the Senate and the Supreme Court, and controlling the presidency for 49 out of 71 years.

The rulers of the South depended on the North for many manufactured goods, which could more efficiently be produced by exploiting wage labour than slaves. The rulers of the North in turn bought some of the South’s slave-produced cotton for use in their own mills and shared in the profits to be made from shipping the rest to Britain. The partnership between the two ruling classes enabled the North to begin to challenge Britain’s world-wide industrial dominance. At the same time it allowed the South’s slave based economy to grow faster than any other in the world except for those of Britain and the North.

The only proviso each ruling class made about this arrangement was that it should not allow the other’s system of exploitation to encroach upon its own. The South insisted on a philosophy of ‘states rights’ which prevented any interference with the right to own slaves. The North demanded its right to prevent any Northern spread of slavery encroaching on its supply of ‘free’ wage labour.

But in the 1840s and 1850s the very success of a capitalist development that depended, in part, on the profits of slavery, led the two systems of exploitation increasingly to clash with each other.

The existing states, North and South, only occupied the easternmost third of the landmass. To the west lay vast and often fertile territories. The question arose as to which of the systems of exploitation was going to prevail on these territories.

The attempts of the slave owners to extend their system geographically were met with increasing opposition within all classes in the North. The abolitionist movement began to influence very large numbers of people. By the mid-1850s the whole ideological climate in the North was being rapidly transformed.

But the conflicts were not just ideological. The Southern planters insisted that the national state returned runaway slaves – and soon there were armed conflicts in cities like Boston as people resisted federal forces. The slave-owning settlers in Kansas sought to establish their own control by force – and free labour settlers took up arms to defend themselves. In 1859 a group of white and black abolitionists, led by John Brown, seized the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia in an attempt to ignite a slave uprising. The state of Virginia executed Brown and six of his companions, turning them into martyrs for much of the wider abolitionist movement.

The Northern ruling class as a whole was by no means anxious for a confrontation with the slave owners. It resented their pressures, but thought it could still prosper alongside them. The two established parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, both bridged the North-South divide.

Even after the Whig Party split in the mid-1850s to be replaced by a Republican Party based solely in the North and committed to the free labour ideology, the Abolitionists were still a minority, a radical vanguard from whom the leaders of the new party distanced themselves.

The Republican presidential candidate in the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln, repeatedly stressed that he was neither for immediate freeing of the slaves in the South nor for equality between free black people and whites.

But great revolutionary upheavals do not occur because people want them. They occur because the ways of life to which different classes are committed come into sharp conflict with each other. Conservation of what exists for one class cannot happen without a revolutionary confrontation with the other class. So it was in 1860-61. The majority of the population of the North voted for what it saw as a free labour candidate; the majority in the South voted for the unconditional defence of slavery. The Republicans took control of both the presidency and congress with a minority of the national vote.

The slave owners saw the election result as evidence that they would no longer be able to bend the national government to their will as in the past. The deep South states began openly to declare their intention to secede from the union.

The secessionists had every reason to believe their schemes would meet with success. The old federal government, which still held power between the elections in the late autumn of 1860 and the inauguration in the early spring of 1861, was still run by slave owners and took no action to put down the secessionists. Lincoln had received only 54 percent of the North’s votes and the main opposition party, the Democrats, was still committed to slavery.

Slave owners exercised considerable political clout in the ‘border’ states which had not yet voted for secession. Merchants who prospered from trade with the South were enormously influential in the North’s biggest city, New York. The military forces at the disposal of the federal government were small, and a majority of their experienced officers came from slave-owning families.

The first years of the war seemed to confirm the soundness of the Southern secessionists’ judgement. The North did have a much greater population than the South and much greater industrial capacity. These were soon translated into a bigger army and naval superiority. But the Northern politicians and generals were completely unable to use these forces to gain strategic advantage. Instead of moving in to the kill when the opportunity was there, they would hang back from battle, allowing the South to outflank and defeat them.

The problem was, centrally, a political one. Lincoln and the ‘moderate’ wing of the Republican Party believed, at this stage, that the only way to win the war was to gain as much support from the old political establishment as possible.

The argument, as so often since, was that any revolutionary change would have to wait until the war was won. But it was an argument that meant the war could not be won, since its conduct was left to officers who were as much afraid of an all out confrontation with the slave owners as they were of a secessionist victory.

The policy they followed for three years consisted of attempting, through pressure against the Confederacy’s northern front and blockading its ports, to push the Southern leaders into accepting a compromise that would leave slavery intact in a reunited country. It was a policy that led to horrendous casualties and, in 1862, to a series of electoral victories for pro-slavery Democrats in congressional and state elections. Even as late as the summer of 1864 it seemed that the casualty toll might lead to electoral defeat for Lincoln and the collapse of the Northern war effort.

It was military failure that caused the Northern leaders to move, pragmatically, to more radical policies. Military commanders began to discover that ‘contrabands’ – slaves who had fled – and free blacks from the North made some of the best troops, since they were absolutely committed to the fight. They also began to see that the South could only afford to step up recruitment of white soldiers because black slaves were doing most of the basic work in the Southern economy.

The radical abolitionist minority within the Republican Party began to attract a wider audience, until Lincoln felt he could signal a whole new approach to the war by proclaiming freedom for the slaves.

Meanwhile, a new breed of Northern generals gained prominence. Grant and Sherman were conservative in their political attitudes but were not prepared any longer to let concern over the property rights of their Southern opponents prevent the waging of total war. Sherman’s army marched through Georgia and the Carolinas in the summer of 1864, laying waste to the Southern economic heartland just in time to give Lincoln a massive electoral victory.

McPherson tells the story of the causes and course of the civil war very well. He also brings out the underlying social factors involved:

‘The South resembled a majority of societies in the world ... (which had) an unfree or quasi free labour force (and) ... remained predominantly, rural, agricultural and labour intensive ... bound by traditional values and by ties of family, kinship, hierarchy and patriarchy.

‘The North – along with a few countries of Northern Europe – hurtled eagerly toward a future of industrial capitalism that many Southerners found distasteful if not frightening.’

The victory of the North over the South produced

‘a sharp and permanent change in the direction of American development ... Union victory destroyed the southern vision of America and ensured the northern vision would become the American vision.’

To this extent, he would not seem to dissent from the view that the war as the final stage in America’s bourgeois revolution.

His one weakness is to ascribe the eventual Northern victory to accidental factors. He justifies this by pointing to four critical points in the conflict where the outcome might well have been different. On each case he might well be right. The skill of leaders and the morale of armies does play a role in determining victory. So do even more accidental factors.

But this leaves unanswered a more important question. Could the South have made permanent gains from a military victory – for instance, forcing the North to accept its hegemony over the disputed Western territories? Or would not a defeated North have taken advantage of the greater dynamism of its economy to return to the battle at a later stage, smashing all obstacles to its advance to become the world’s most powerful capitalist nation?

The outcome of individual battles may have been in part accidental. But the outcome of the war as a whole did reflect the development of objective historical trends, which would eventually have subdued the South even if the North had lost every battle.

Marx wrote that force is the midwife of a new society. Without the skilled application of that force, the new society will not break through. But there are occasions in which the forces of reaction cannot hold the line indefinitely, however skilled they are and however unskilled their opponents. The battle between the exploiters of free labour and of slavery in America was one such occasion.

Last updated on 29 May 2010