Marx and Engels on the US Civil War: The ‘Materialist Conception of History’ in Action

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Abstract

Marx’s analysis, supplemented by that of Engels, of the US Civil War is as instructive, if not more, as any of their writings to illustrate their ‘materialist conception of history’. Because the American experience figured significantly in the young Marx’s path to communist conclusions, the outbreak of the War in 1861 obligated him to devote his full attention to its course. His application of their method allowed him to see more accurately the course of the War than his partner. Also, he was able to see what President Abraham Lincoln had to do, that is, to convert the War from one to end secession to one to overthrow slavery, before the President himself. Despite its contradictory outcome, Marx’s expectation that the War would put the US working class on terra firma for the first time was justified.

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References

John W. Blassingame and John R. McKivigan (eds), The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates and Interviews, (Yale University Press, New Haven 1991).

DraperHal, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Volume 4: Critique of Other Socialisms, (Monthly Review Press, New York 1989).

FonerEric, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877, (Harper and Row, New York 1988).

FonerPhilip S., American Socialism and Black Americans: From the Age of Jackson to World War II, (Greenwood Press, Westport 1977a).

FonerPhilip S., The Great Labor Uprising of 1877, (Monad Press, New York 1977b).

FonerPhilip S., The Workingmen’s Party of the United States: A History of the First Marxist Party in the Americas, (MEP Publications, Minneapolis 1984).

HolzerHarold, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860–1861, (Simon and Schuster, New York 2008).

KlingamanWilliam K., Abraham Lincoln and the Road to Emancipation, 1861–1865, (Viking Penguin, New York 2001).

LevineBruce, The Spirit of 1848: German Immigrants, Labor Conflict, and the Coming of the Civil War, (University of Illinois Press, Urbana 1992).

McPhersonJames M., Drawn with the Sword: Reflections on the American Civil War, (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1996).

McPhersonJames M., Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution, (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1991).

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NimtzAugust H., Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America: The ‘Absolute Democracy’ or ‘Defiled Republic’, (Lexington Books, Lanham 2003).

RichardsonHeather Cox, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865–1901, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA. 2001).

RiosAna Maria, '‘ “My Mother was a Slave, Not Me!”: Black Peasantry and Regional Politics in Southeast Brazil, c. 1870–c. 1940’' (2001) Ph.D. dissertation, University of Minnesota.

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VogelJeffrey, '‘The Tragedy of History’' (1996) I(220) New Left Review: 36-61.

3.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004g, pp. 19–20. One advantage of Marx’s letter for English speakers is that English is its original rendering. Thus, there is no need to be concerned about the usual translation-issues when it comes to Marx’s method – at least for that audience.

6.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004a, p. 167.

7.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004h, p. 101.

8.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004a, p. 100.

9.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004c, p. 211.

11.

Levine 1992, p. 249.

12.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 210. In the Complete Works, small capitalisation is used to indicate the use of English in the original.

13.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 242.

14.

Foner 1977a, p. 29. Holzer 2008 shows how the vigilance of such staunch antislavery forces helped to steel the president-elect.

16.

Foner 1984, p. 10.

17.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 277.

18.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, pp. 37–8.

19.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, p. 50.

20.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, pp. 49–50.

21.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, pp. 40, 36, 42.

22.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004a, p. 527.

23.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004b, p. 365.

24.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004d, p. 132.

25.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004i, p. 249. Thus, I take issue with Jeffrey Vogel’s otherwise-thoughtful article, ‘The Tragedy of History’ (Vogel 1996), in which he speaks to Marx and Engels’s views on Mexico – India as well. Had he looked closer, he would have seen how their views evolved as I argue here.

26.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, p. 103.

27.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004e, p. 527.

28.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, p. 71.

29.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 431.

30.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, p. 87.

31.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, pp. 227–8.

32.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 400. As for ‘nigger’, (again, small capitals here indicate usage of English words in the original text) which Marx employed in more than one context, and of obvious concern not only for those of us with visible roots in Africa, the editors of the Complete Works note that, in the nineteenth century, it did not have the ‘more profane and unacceptable status’ of later history (Marx and Engels 1975–2004k, p. xl). Whether this is an apologia is neither here nor there. Apparently, even Harriet Tubman employed the term for self-description (Klingaman 2001, p. 88). Marx began to use it during the Civil War as he was familiarising himself with the US reality. In published writings, he always employed quotation-marks; in letters, often without. Only once in the available record did, it seems, he use it in a derogatory sense, in a diatribe against Ferdinand Lassalle (Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, pp. 389–90) in 1862, that is, in the year when he first used the word (for the context, see ‘Lassalle and Marx: History of a Myth’, in Draper 1989, pp. 241–69). Marx and Engels, like all mortals, were products, clearly, of the world in which they lived. Their comments in personal correspondence that were unambiguously racist, sexist or antisemitic must be seen in context, and in relation to their entire corpus of writings and actions. For what it is worth, Marx was fondly known by close friends and family as ‘Moor’, owing to his dark features, and he had a son-in-law, Paul Lafargue, a mulatto, who was also fondly called in family circles, ‘African’ and ‘Negrillo’. What the personal details suggest is that one should be cautious and not rush to judgement.

33.

Foner 1988, p. 5.

34.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004f, pp. 228–9.

35.

McPherson 1996, p. 77.

36.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 250.

38.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 416.

40.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 421.

41.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004j, p. 562.

42.

Blassingame and McKivigan (eds.) 1991, p. 33.

43.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004k, p. 39.

44.

McPherson 1996, pp. 224, 227. For details on how the course of the Civil War impacted upon developments in Brazil, see Rios 2001, Chapter 3.

45.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004g, p. 20.

47.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004g, p. 187. David Roediger (Roediger 1999, p. 174) argues persuasively that ‘what made the eight-hour movement itself possible, was the spectacular emancipation of slaves between 1863 and 1865.’

48.

Foner 1977b, p. 9.

49.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004l, p. 251.

50.

Marx and Engels 1975–2004l, p. 255.

51.

See Nimtz 2003, pp. 164–8, for details.

52.

Richardson 2001.

53.

Nimtz 2003, pp. 118–30, provides details. Foner 1977a, pp. 39–42, charges that Marx and Engels did not do enough to defend Radical Reconstruction. See Nimtz 2003, pp. 171–8, for a response.

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