How Marx Viewed America’s Civil War

by Jonathan Hobratsch

The following blog is greatly adapted from “Karl Marx and the American Civil War” by Donny Schraffenberger. I found this article extremely interesting, but rather long for anyone not completely interested in Karl Marx. Therefore, I’m condensing the key points into a short blog.

According to Schraffenberger, by 1860 Marx thought that events in America and Russia were the two most important current events. Marx is quoted as saying, “In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown, and on the other the movement of the serfs in Russia.”  Both slaves and serfs of these respective countries achieved emancipation within the decade.

It should be noted that Karl Marx contributed several articles in American papers about current events during the Civil War.

Below is a laundry list of Marx’s views on the Civil War, according to Schraffenberger:

  • The emancipation of slaves and the arming of former slaves to fight the South evolved a constitutional war into a revolutionary war.
  • The war was not a socialist revolution, but a workers’s revolution, destroying slavery without compensating slaveholders.
  • The destruction slavery advanced the cause of workers, both white and black, and laying the ground work for American battles between the working class and capitalism.
  • The war was not a war of “Northern Aggression,” but a war of “Southern Aggression” caused by slaveholders trying to maintain their political dominance, which was inflated by the Three-Fifths Compromise. This compromise was created at the Constitutional Convention since the South refused to sign on without it. With it, nearly every president up to 1860 was pro-slavery, and with it, the South’s congressional power was enhanced at the expense of the enslaved people they fail to represent. Without it, the populated North, becoming more populated through immigration, are certain to dominate congressional affairs.
  • The original idea was that slavery would be contained and slowly abolished through state and territorial laws; however, the British Industrial Revolution increased the demand for cotton. Profit trumped even gradual abolition. Southerners, therefore, wanted to acquire territories in the West and South (including Cuba) to make into more slave states both for profit and political power. These motives created the Bleeding Kansas situation prior to the Civil War.
  • Marx defied Southern apologists’s arguments that issues other than slavery were behind the Civil War by citing Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens, who pointed out that the major difference between the Confederate Constitution and the Declaration and Constitution of the United States is that, “for the first time slavery was recognized as institution for good in itself,” whereas the founding fathers were “men steeped in prejudices of the eighteenth century, had treated slavery as an evil imported from England and to be eliminated in the course of time.”
  • Poor Southern whites supported the policies of the slaveholders even though they voted against their interests, because they believed that one day they might become slaveholders themselves.
  • Southern slaveholders numbered only about 300,000; whereas, poor Southern whites numbered in the millions. The economics and society of Southern slavery hindered the economic development of poor whites. The more economically balanced slave states at the boarder were easily able to accept abolition, since better educated and better represented poor whites in these states saw that the abolition of slavery was in their best interest.
  • Marx was one of many socialists, abolitionists and radicals that supported Republican Abraham Lincoln. Schraffenberger adds that this is hard to fathom today.
  • The country could not move forward with modernization and continue to compromise by allowing the Southerners to maintain their inflated power at the same time. Lincoln attempt to be moderate about this necessity, but by mid-1862, he was fairly set on abolition and the destruction of the Three-Fifths Compromise.
  • Marx notes some of the crucial legislation leading up to the the war, including the abolition of slavery in DC, elimination of slavery in the territories, West Virginia breaking off of Virginia to form an Free State, a treaty with Britain to destroy the remnants of the slave trade, slaves earning freedom by joining the Union Army, slaves freed by occupying Union armies in the South, and the recognition of new governments run by former slaves in Haiti and Liberia.
  • Marx penned a congratulatory letter to Abraham Lincoln upon hearing of the president’s reelection, calling Lincoln’s success as the first step to “a new era of ascendancy” for the working class. In response, Charles Francis Adams, son and grandson of the two Adams presidents, thanked Marx and the International Workingmen’s Association on behalf of the Lincoln administration.

All in all, Schraffenberger’s essay on Marx and the Civil War is an insightful view that counters essays by Southern apologists. Most of Karl Marx’s opinions and analysis of our Civil War can be readily accepted by both fans and foes of Marx’s political ideology today.






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