Book review: The Civil War in the United States: Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (edited and with an introduction by Andrew Zimmerman) International Publishers, New York, 2nd edition, 2016

civil war book cover

“Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”. – Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, 1867

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(The following review by Barry York is from the latest edition of ‘Recorder’, the newsletter of the Melbourne Labour History Society. It is published here in its unedited form).

This collection of writings by Marx and Engels about the American Civil War was originally published in 1937 by Dr. H. M. Morais. Dr Morais lost his college teaching job as a result. It’s good that in 2016 it can be published as a second edition without any job losses. Zimmerman, a professor of history in Washington DC, provides very useful introductory contextualisation to each section. There are nine parts in all, from Marx and Engels on slavery and abolition before the civil war through to ‘Slavery and the Civil War in Capital’.

Zimmerman’s introductions are helpful for those of us who need reminding of the significance of the various places, battles, politicians and military figures.

Marx and Engels certainly knew their stuff. Considering they wrote from England, Marx’s knowledge of American geography and topography is astonishing. It’s remarkable to read the extent of their detailed knowledge of the unfolding struggle against the “oligarchy of 300,000 slave holders”. They drew on wide sources of information, including correspondence with German communists who had fled to the United States following the defeat of the 1848 European revolutions and who took up arms for the Union. But they also read the American newspapers, including the New York Tribune. And Engels even communicated with a Confederate major.

This is how it should be, of course. ‘No investigation, no right to speak’. They did not see it through the lens of dogma, or force the events into some formula or ideological schema. Their letters and other writings reveal a materialist dialectical approach, an understanding that things unfolded as they did, influenced by human thought and motored by action, but not as one might wish they should. Revolutions are innovative and experimental, devising their own strategies and defining their own nature.

We must keep in mind that the American Civil War was Marx and Engels’ equivalent of ‘Vietnam’ (for those of us politicized in the 1960s). It was the big issue – “the most momentous thing happening in the world today” – especially for internationalists who see no distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’. The US struggle against slavery was also a source of inspiration following the dispiriting rise of Bonapartism in Europe.

It was also inspiring for Marx and Engels to witness the great support by the English working classes for the Union forces, at a time when the British ruling class was sympathetic to the Confederacy.

I was surprised by the extent of Engels’ military knowledge. He sure loved guns. Marx, by contrast, comes across as more adept at political and economic analysis. Engels emerges as less optimistic than Marx. But for Marx there was no doubt of Union victory. In a letter to his uncle (yes, he had one), Marx knew that the North had “a last card up its sleeve in the shape of a slave revolution”.

Marx and Engels were great pro-war ‘hawks’. Not for them the ineffective non-violent tactics of naval blockades. They supported and welcomed military invasion of the South.

The edited selection of writings reveal how Marx and Engels saw through the false argument that the emerging war was not about slavery but rather tariffs.

And they contended with the ‘ultra-leftists’ who were highly critical of Lincoln. It took 18 months before Lincoln issued the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862, but Marx and Engels recognised him as a strategic thinker who was creating conditions to take his class, the working class, with him against the pre-industrial slave owners.

Lincoln was their ‘Ho Chi Minh’. Marx’s letter to Lincoln on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association in 1864 can be read here:

Revolutions do not always succeed, they can fail, but they can push things forward. When one fails, you have another. Marx and Engels were very disappointed by Andrew Johnson’s presidency, following Lincoln’s assassination. He restored plantations to ex-slave owners and reversed the planned land reform program. Slavery was abolished but racial and class hierarchies kept in place. It took another century, marked by Jim Crow segregation and lynchings, before the next leap forward in 1965 with the Civil Rights Act.

The faint-hearted should be warned that Marx and Engels sometimes used the term ‘Nigger’. They used it infrequently and ironically, usually.

Of all the great quotes by Marx in this book, one stands out for me: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded”. (Captial, vol. 1, 1867)

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