George Novack

Marx and Engels on the Civil War

(February 1938)

Written: 1938
First Published: New International,, New York City, Volume IV No.2, February 1938, pp.45-47.
Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido
HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters
Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

Edited with an introduction by Richard Enmale
xxv, 325 pp. New York. International Publishers. $2.50.

Engels called the American Civil War “the first grand war of contemporaneous history”. Marx later hailed it as “the greatest event of the age”. Today when the nineteenth century has receded into the distance and the bourgeois power that issued out of the Civil War bestrides the world, we can realize the colossal magnitude of the conflict far better than they. The Second American Revolution stands out as the decisive turning point of Nineteenth century history.

All the more valuable therefore are the views of these two great working class leaders on the Civil War in the United States while it was still in progress, now made available as a whole for the first time in English. These writings consist of seven articles contributed to the New York Tribune and thirty-five to the Vienna Presse in 1861-1862 together with sixty-one excerpts from the correspondence between Marx and Engels during 1861-1866. The editor has also appended two addresses written by Marx for the First International, one to President Lincoln and the other to President Johnson.

In turning to these writings for the first time this reader received three immediate impressions. First, the evergreen quality of these articles written so many years ago. How little faded they are by the passage of time! Then the astonishingly intimate knowledge of American history possessed by Marx and Engels, which would go far to dispel the ignorant prejudice that these Europeans were unfamiliar with the peculiar conditions of the United States. Finally, the incisiveness of their most casual comments on personalities and events coupled with the remarkable insight of their observations. Again we see what inexhaustible vitality and prophetic power is lodged in the materialist interpretation of history discovered by these master minds, which enabled them to plumb deep below the billowing surface of events and fathom the underlying formations and motive forces of history in the making.

These genial powers shine forth in the following quotation from the first article, which summarizes the sixty years of American politics before the Civil War in five succinct sentences.

The progressive abuse of the Union by the slave power, working through its alliance with the Northern Democratic Party, is, so to say, the general formula of United States history since the beginning of this century. The successive compromise measures mark the successive degrees of the encroachment by which the Union became more and more transformed into the slave of the slave-owner. Each of these compromises denotes a new encroachment of the South, a new concession of the North. At the same time none of the successive victories of the South was carried but after a hot contest with an antagonistic force in the North, appearing under different party names with different watchwords and under different colors. If the positive and final result of each single contest told in favor of the South, the attentive observer of history could not but see that every new advance of the slave power was a step forward to its ultimate defeat. (Marx, The American Question in England, New-York Daily Tribune, October 11, 1861.)

The rise and fall of the slave power is the grandest example of the dialectic in American history. The slaveholders had to be lifted to the heights before they were dashed to the ground and annihilated forever in the Civil War, an historical precedent it is good to keep in mind when the advancing world reaction seems to be carrying everything before it.

The first two articles of the series contributed to the Vienna Presse written in refutation of the arguments disseminated by the Southern sympathizers in England, are the meatiest portions of this collection. The pro-slavery advocates contended, first that the war between the North and South was nothing but a tariff war; second, that it was waged by the North against the South to maintain the Union by force; and, third, that the slave question had nothing to do with it.

Marx easily explodes the first argument with five well-placed facts to the contrary. In answer to the second, he points out that the war emanated, not from the North, but from the South. The Civil War originated as a rebellion of the slaveholding oligarchy against the Republican government. Just as the bombardment of Fort Sumter started the war, so Lincoln’s election, gave the signal for secession. Lincoln’s victory was made possible by the breach between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party, and the rise of the Republican Party in the new Northwest. The key to secession was therefore to be found in the upsurge of the Northwest. By splitting the Democratic ranks and supporting the Republican candidate, the Northwestern states upset the balance of power which had enabled the slave power to rule the Republic for six decades and thereby made secession necessary and inevitable.

With the principle that any further extension of slave territory was to be prohibited by law, the Republicans attacked the rule of the slaveholders at its root. A strict confinement of slavery within its old terrain was bound according to economic law to lead to its gradual effacement, in the political sphere to annihilate the hegemony that the slave states exercised through the Senate, and finally to expose the slaveholding oligarchy within its own states to threatening perils from the side of the “poor whites”. The Republican election victory was accordingly bound to lead to the open struggle between North and South.

The assumption of state power placed a noose in the hands of the Republican bourgeoisie which they could draw as tight as they pleased around the neck of the slave power until they had succeeding in strangling it. Having lost control of the government to their adversary and faced with the prospect of slow death, the slaveholders determined to fight for their freedom—to enslave others!

The political contest which resulted in civil war was but the expression of profound economic antagonisms between the slave and free states. According to Marx, the most important of these was the struggle over the possession of the territories necessary for the expansion of their respective systems of production. In a striking phrase Marx states that “the territorial contest which opened this dire epopee was to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the immigrant or prostituted to the tramp of the slavedriver”. The Western lands were the rock on which the Union was shipwrecked.

To those who represent the slaveholder’s rebellion as a defensive, and, therefore, a just war, Marx replied that it was the precise opposite. The dissolution of the Union and the formation of the Confederacy were only the first steps in the slaveholders’ program. After consolidating their power, the slavocracy must inevitably strive to conquer the North and to extend its dominion over the tropics where cotton could be cultivated. “The South was not a country... but a battle cry”; the war of the Southern Confederacy “a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery”. The slave-owners aimed to reorganize the Union on the basis of slavery. This would entail the subjugation of North America, the nullification of the free institutions of the Northern states, the perpetuation of an obsolete and barbaric method of production at the expense of a higher economic order. The triumph of the backward South over the progressive North would deal an irreparable blow to human progress.

To those who argued that slavery had nothing to do with the Civil War because the Republicans feared to unfurl the banner of emancipation at the beginning of the conflict, Marx pointed out that the Confederacy itself proclaimed the foundation of a republic for the first time in modem history with slavery as its unquestionable principle. Not only the secession movement but the war itself was, in the last analysis, based upon the slave question.

Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states would be emancipated or not (although this matter, too, must sooner or later be settled), but whether twenty million men of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast territories of the republic should be planting-places for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed propaganda of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device.

Thus Marx proceeds from the political to the economic and finally to the social core of the Civil War. With surgical skill he probes deeper and deeper until he penetrates to the heart of the conflict. “The present struggle between the North and South,” he concludes, “is nothing but a struggle between two social systems; between the system of slavery and the system of free labor.” The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peacefully side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.” If this conclusion appears elementary to us today, it is only because history has absolutely confirmed it. But one has only to compare Marx’s words at the opening of the Civil War with the writings of the other politicians of the period to appreciate their foresight.

In connection with this admirable account of the causes of the war, Marx underscores the crucial political, economic, and military importance of the border states. These states, which were neither slave nor free, were a thorn in the side of the South on the one hand, and the weakest part of the North on the other. The Republican government was inclined toward a weak, cowardly, and conciliatory policy of waging the war out of regard for the support of these ambiguous allies and did not throw off their constraining influence until the war was half over.

Marx and Engels followed the military aspects of the conflict with the closest attention. “The General” in particular was absorbed by the tactics and strategy of the contending forces. He was justly impatient with the Fabian policies of McClellan and his “anaconda plan” for surrounding, constricting, and crushing the South, advocating instead a bold and sharp stroke launched at the middle of the South. He thus anticipated in 1862 Sherman’s decisive march through Georgia two years later. Exasperated by the manifold blunders and half-heartedness of the Union generals as well as the reluctance of the Republican bourgeoisie to use revolutionary methods in waging the war, he at one time despaired of a Northern victory. But Marx, with his eye upon the immensely superior latent powers of the North and the inherent weaknesses of the South, chided him for being “swayed a little too much by the military aspect of things”.

The majority of these articles deal with various international aspects of the Civil War, among them the diplomatic jockeying of the great European powers, so reminiscent of the present Spanish Civil War, as well as the intrigues of Napoleon the Little in the chancelleries of Europe and his adventures in Mexico. Marx and Engels were concerned with the international events as foreign correspondents, as residents of England, but above all as revolutionary proletarian internationalists. Marx kept close surveillance over the efforts to embroil England in a war against the Union and exposed the factors that kept the Palmerston government in check: the increasing dependence of England on American foodstuffs, the superior preparedness of the United States for war, the rivalry between the Whigs and Tories in the coalition cabinet and, last but not least, the fear of the people. Marx played a leading role in frustrating the plans of the war-hawks by mobilizing the English workers in huge public meetings of protest against the Southern sympathizers among the English upper crust.

These miscellaneous writings do not constitute either a comprehensive or definitive treatment of the Civil War and the revolution interlaced with it. Marx and Engels would undoubtedly have revised and elaborated not a few of the judgments they expressed at the moment in the light of subsequent developments. The last extracts from their correspondence show them in the act of changing their previous opinion of Johnson. Here are a few points that call for correction or amplification. In concentrating upon the more immediate causes of the Civil War, Marx and Engels do not delve into the general economic background of the conflict. Their survey needs to be supplemented by an account of the maturing crisis within the slave system and the impetuous rise of Northern capitalism which provided the economic premises of the Civil War.

Marx was mistaken in attributing the removal of Frémont solely to political intrigue. This Republican General was caught in flagrante delicto. His wife accepted expensive gifts from army contractors while the Department of the West under his command was a grafter’s paradise. In one deal Frémont purchased 25,000 worthless Austrian muskets for $166,000; in another, financed by J.P. Morgan, he bought for $22 each condemned guns which the War Department itself had illegally sold a few months before for $3.50 each! And the House Committee of Investigation uncovered even worse cases of corruption. Possibly Marx became acquainted with these facts when he studied the official reports. That would account for his failure to return to the subject, as he promised.

The principal lack in these writings from our present standpoint is the absence of distinction between the separate and potentially antagonistic class forces allied on the side of the Union. In particular, insufficient stress is laid upon the special political position, program, aims, and interests of the Republican big bourgeoisie who headed the state and led the army. This was not accidental. Marx and Engels emphasized the broad outlines and major issues uppermost at the moment and more or less set to one side for future consideration the forces and problems which lurked in the background and came to the fore at a later stage of the struggle.

A few words must be said about the editor’s introduction. It is liberally smeared with Stalinism. This substitute for Marxism is, like certain substitutes for mayonnaise, concocted by omitting or adulterating the principal ingredients. Mr. Enmale would have us believe that out of the Civil War a truly democratic government emerged in the United States.

“In its Civil War phase, the revolution abolished chattel slavery, and destroyed the old plantocracy,” he remarks. “At the same time it insured the continuance of democracy, freedom, and progress by putting an end to the rule of an oligarchy, by preventing further suppression of civil liberties in the interests of chattel slavery, and by paving the way for the forward movement of American labor.”

How Marx in his wrath would have hurled his Jovian thunderbolts at the head of the vulgar democrat who uttered such deceitful phrases—and in his name! The Civil War put an end to one oligarchy and marked the beginning of another, which Marx himself characterized, in a later letter to Engels, as “the associated oligarchy of capital”, which in its turn became the bulwark of reaction, suppressed civil liberties, and exerted every effort to check the advance of American labor. It is not impossible that Mr. Enmale is unacquainted with this letter, written on the occasion of the bloody suppression of the great railroad strikes of 1877 by the Federal troops, since it was omitted from the English edition of the Correspondence issued by the same house. But Enmale’s ignorance of Marx’s views does not excuse his crude falsification of American history since the Civil War. In fairness to the editor, it must be said that his notes and biographical index are accurate and very helpful.

The Civil War opened the road for the final triumph of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the United States. During the fight to the death with the slavocracy, Marx and Engels in their capacity as revolutionary labor leaders correctly stressed the positive, democratic, progressive and revolutionary significance of the struggle waged by the bourgeois republic. They based their practical political policy on the fact that the struggle of the working class for its own emancipation would be promoted by the victory of the North and thrown back by the triumph of the Confederacy. At the same time they never proclaimed their political confidence in the Republican bourgeoisie, freely criticized their conduct of the war, and maintained their independence vis-à-vis their temporary allies.

In the years that have elapsed since its conquest of power, the capitalist regime has become the mainstay of reaction in the United States and throughout the world. While giving full credit to the achievements of the Second American Revolution, contemporary Marxists are first of all obliged to expose the negative bourgeois, reactionary sides of its character which historical development have thrust to the forefront. In this way they will remain true, not to the dead letter, but to the living spirit of Marxism embodied in these precious pages.


Last updated on: 4.2.2006