Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln: A Curious Convergence

in Historical Materialism
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Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln held very different views on the ‘social question’. This essay explores the way in which they converged in their estimation of slavery during the course of the Civil War; Marx was an ardent abolitionist, and Lincoln came to see this position as necessary. It is argued that the rôle of runaway slaves – called ‘contraband’ – and German-revolutionary ’48ers played a significant rôle in the radicalisation of Lincoln and the direction of the War.

Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln: A Curious Convergence

in Historical Materialism



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Marx 1961.


Marx 1985p. 114.


Marx 1961pp. 57–70.


Marx 1961p. 68. Here I only briefly explain and evaluate Marx’s analysis of the origins of the Civil War though the texts I have cited clearly enough reject economic reductionism. Marx’s stress on the centrality of political issues can be compared with that found in Moore 1966. For a recent account using many of Marx’s concepts see Ashworth 2007.


Marx 1961p. 68.


Marx 1961p. 71.


Marx and Engels 1984p. 50.


Foner 2010.


Marx and Engels 1961p. 72.


Engels 1961p. 326.


Anderson 1996.


Crofts 2005p. 197.


Wilentz 2005p. 783. Wilentz proceeds from these remarks to the conclusion: ‘the only just and legitimate way to settle the matter [i.e. the difference over slavery-extension] Lincoln insisted . . . was through a deliberate democratic decision made by the citizenry.’ (Wilentz 2005 p. 763.) A riposte to this is suggested by Louis Menand’s observation: ‘the Civil War was a vindication as Lincoln had hoped it would be of the American experiment. Except for one thing which is that people who live in democratic societies are not supposed to settle their disagreements by killing one another.’ (Menand 2001 p. x.)


Quoted in Bensel 1990p. 18. For an account of Seward’s expansionist plans and their frustration by the larger processes set in motion by the Civil War see LaFeber 1963 pp. 24–32.


Levine 1992.


Levine 1992p. 125. In later decades some German-Americans did indeed soft-pedal women’s rights when seeking to recruit Irish-American trade-unionists but while this should be duly noted it is far from characterising all German-Americans whether followers of Marx or not. For an interesting study which sometimes veers towards caricature see Messer-Kruse 1998. This author has a justifiable pride in the native American radical tradition and some valid criticisms of some of the positions adopted by German-American ‘Marxists’ but is so obsessed with pitting the two ethnic political cultures against one another that he fails to notice how effectively they often combined especially in the years 1850–70. See Buhle 1991 for a more balanced assessment.


Barkin 2008p. 71.


Gallagher 1998.


Marx and Engels 1984pp. 233–4.


Marx and Engels 1961pp. 202–6.


Marx and Engels 1961p. 258.


McPherson 2008p. 33.


Ross 2009p. 346.


Menand 2001p. 45.


Menand 2001pp. 52–3.


Holzer (ed.) 1993p. 189. This was not an off-hand remark but forms part of a careful introduction to his speech.


Marx and Engels 1961p. 273.


Marx and Engels 1961pp. 260–1.


Marx and Engels 1961p. 281. The meanings of the address are rarely considered which makes it the more regrettable when it is interpreted in a tendentious way as is the case with Messer-Kruse 1998 pp. 54–6 in which he has Marx complaining at the ‘bother’ of having to write something of such little importance as the address and that he only consented to do so because: ‘In Marx’s view slavery had to be destroyed in order to allow for the historical development of the white working class.’ (Messer-Kruse 1998 p. 54.)


Marx and Engels 1961pp. 262–3.


Vincent 1976p. 22.


Oakes 2007.


Quoted in Fredrickson 2008p. 126.


Marx and Engels 1961pp. 276–7.


Marx and Engels 1961p. 277.


Montgomery 1967.


Fernbach 1974p. 14.


Draper 1986p. 273.


Dunayevskaya 1971pp. 81–91.


See Blackburn 2010pp. 153–76.


Quoted in Messer-Kruse 1998p. 191.


Draper 1986p. 15.


See Foner 1988 and Hahn 2003pp. 103–5.


See Blackburn 2010 and also Burbank 1978. For the rôle of African-Americans in the strike and later see Jack 2007 especially pp. 142–50. See also Bruce 1959; Foner 1977; Green 2006.

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