An Unfinished Revolution

Derrick Morrison

An Unfinished Revolution
Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln
By Robin Blackburn
Verso Press, 272 pages, published in 2011 in paperback, $19.95.

“Marx did not support the North because he believed that its victory would directly lead to socialism. Rather, he saw in South and North two species of capitalism — one allowing slavery, the other not. The then existing regime of American society and economy embraced the enslavement of four million people whose enforced toil produced the republic’s most valuable export, cotton, as well as much tobacco, sugar, rice, and turpentine. Defeating the slave power was going to be difficult. The wealth and pride of the 300,000 slaveholders (there were actually 395,000 slave owners, according to the 1860 Census, but at the time Marx was writing this had not yet been published) was at stake. These slaveholders were able to corrupt or intimidate many of the poor Southern whites, and they had rich and influential supporters among the merchants, bankers and textile manufacturers of New York, London, and Paris. Defeating the slave power and freeing the slaves would not destroy capitalism, but it would create conditions far more favorable to organizing and elevating labor, whether white or black. Marx portrayed the wealthy slave owners as akin to Europe’s aristocrats, and their removal as a task for the sort of democratic revolution he had advocated in the Communist Manifesto as the immediate aim for German revolutionaries.” (12, 13)

SO WRITES ROBIN Blackburn in his excellent overview of the Civil War and its aftermath.  The book is 260 pages, but Blackburn’s 100-page introduction provides the key to approaching the book’s other sections: the inaugural addresses of President Abraham Lincoln; the writings of Karl Marx; and a speech by labor activist Lucy Parsons to the founding convention in 1905 of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Lincoln was not unaware of Marx.  He was an avid reader of the weekly national edition of Horace Greeley’s New York Daily Tribune, and Marx was the London correspondent for the paper from 1852 to 1861 on European affairs.  After Marx left the Tribune in late 1861, he continued his commentary on the then-expanding Civil War in Die Presse, a daily published in Vienna, Austria.

Lincoln and Greeley got to know each other from their brief stint in 1848 in the U.S. Congress. Lincoln was anti-slavery, as was Greeley and his newspaper.  And when Marx drafted the address of the International Workingmen’s Association to president Lincoln, applauding his reelection in 1864, Lincoln responded through the U.S. ambassador in Britain. The Times of London, a daily, printed the response. (211-214)

In a letter from Marx to Frederick Engels on August 7, 1862, Marx ends it by capturing the essence of the war, “The long and short of the business seems to me to be that a war of this kind must be conducted on revolutionary lines, while the Yankees have so far been trying to conduct it constitutionally.”  (197)

Blackburn lays open the process by which a war to “preserve the Union,” a war to defend the Constitution, became a war for revolutionary democracy, a war to overturn the system of chattel slavery.

In Lincoln’s inaugural address in March of 1861, he bent over backwards to appease the slaveholders, promising to support an amendment to the Constitution “to the effect that the Federal Government shall never interfere with the domestic institutions of the States, including that of persons held to service.” (113)

Despite this posturing, when a Federal facility, Fort Sumter, was fired upon and taken by South Carolina rebels the following month, Lincoln called up volunteers — the time for compromise and negotiation were over. The constitutional war had begun.

Confiscating “Contraband”

Many Democrats, as well as Republicans, flocked to the call of the Union. One such individual was Benjamin F. Butler, a Massachusetts Democrat. He was appointed a brigadier general and was in charge of Union troops at Fort Monroe, in the tidewater area of Virginia in the spring of 1861.

Subsequently three slaves working on Confederate fortifications rebelled and escaped to the Fort. Next, a Confederate colonel showed up, flying a flag of truce, and demanded that General Butler return his “property.” Butler replied that the Fugitive Slave Law didn’t apply since the colonel was outside the Union, making the escaped slaves “contraband of war,” enemy property.  (Battle Cry of Freedom, The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson, 1988, Oxford University Press, 355)

 Butler consulted afterwards and got the agreement of the Lincoln administration.  Northern newspapers picked up on the phrase, “contraband of war.” By the summer of 1861, Fort Monroe sheltered over a thousand escaped slaves as “contraband,” putting them to work as civilian auxiliaries of the Union Army. (McPherson, 355)

The escaped slaves forced a breach in Lincoln’s constitutional war stance. The property question was rearing its head. Other commanders started to welcome African-American slaves who went on strike against the slaveholder.

That same summer, Congress passed a Confiscation Act, which declared persons in bondage working for the Confederate Army could be seized as “contraband.” (Marx and Lincoln, 36)

As the Union Army and Navy took more coastal areas in the South, including the sea islands off the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, thousands of slaves escaped to the lines of the Blue. When New Orleans, the biggest city in the Confederacy, was taken in the spring of 1862, waves of “contraband” entered the city.

As Union commander, General Butler knew that among the thousands were not only hands used by the Confederate Army, but also hands that worked the sugar plantations. This prompted the Republican-controlled Congress to pass a second Confiscation Act in the summer of 1862 — allowing field officers to seize plantation laborers as well as military laborers.

The “contraband” were the property of the state, not citizens, and the question of arming them was not even to be considered — this was the view of Lincoln and his administration. (37) Any Union general who crossed that line lost his command. Such was the fate of John C. Fremont in Missouri in the summer of 1861; David Hunter in South Carolina and John W. Phelps in Louisiana during the summer of 1862. (36)

Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips (35), and Frederick Douglass let loose scathing attacks on Lincoln, and called for immediate emancipation of the slaves.

However, let’s take a closer look at two other Union generals: Ulysses S. Grant in the West and George B. McClellan in the East:

“Grant informed his family that his only desire was ‘to put down the rebellion. I have no hobby of my own with regard to the Negro, either to effect his freedom or to continue his bondage…. I am using them as teamsters, hospital attendants, company cooks and so forth, thus saving soldiers to carry the musket. I don’t know what is to become of these poor people in the end, but it weakens the enemy to take them from them.’” (McPherson, 502)

Lincoln went down to the Virginia tidewater area to visit McClellan in July of 1862.

“…the general handed him a memorandum on the proper conduct of the war. ‘It should not be a war looking to the subjugation of the [southern] people,’ McClellan instructed the president. ‘Neither confiscation of property…[n]or forcible abolition of slavery should be contemplated for a moment…. Military power should not be allowed to interfere with the relations of servitude….  A declaration of radical views, especially upon slavery, will rapidly disintegrate our present armies.’” (Ibid.)

Grant provides a crystal clear example of the implementation of the Confiscation Acts, McClellan the exact opposite.

In the spring of 1861, Lincoln might have agreed with McClellan. But by the summer of 1862, Lincoln’s views were shifting radically — the constitutional war was about to become a revolutionary democratic war. Before the year was out, McClellan would be relieved of his command.

Lincoln believed in the gradual emancipation of the slaves, coupled with ample compensation for the slave owners. (Marx and Lincoln, 35) He rested his case on the withering away of slavery in the North after the Revolution of 1776 and the more recent example of British abolition of slavery in its Caribbean colonies in the 1830s. He repeatedly sought to convince Congressional representatives from the border states — Kentucky, Missouri, Maryland, and Delaware — of this perspective.  Most would have none of it.

As Lincoln, the supreme pragmatist, began to grapple privately with the possibility of slave emancipation, he publicly floated the idea of shipping the “contraband” to Liberia and other parts of Africa. The abolitionists rejected the plan and Lincoln finally gave it up after discussions with a few of the “contraband” in the White House. (50, 51)

On July 13, 1862, Lincoln privately told Secretary of State William H. Seward and Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles

“…of his intention to issue an emancipation proclamation. As Welles recorded the conversation, Lincoln said that this question had ‘occupied his mind and thoughts day and night’ for several weeks. He had decided emancipation was ‘a military necessity, absolutely essential to the preservation of the Union. We must free the slaves or be ourselves subdued. The slaves were undeniably an element of strength to those who had their service, and we must decide whether that element should be with us or against us.’”

Lincoln brushed aside the argument of unconstitutionality. This was a war, and as commander in chief he could order seizure of enemy slaves just as surely as he could order destruction of enemy railroads.

“The rebels…could not at the same time throw off the Constitution and invoke its aid…. Decisive and extensive measures must be adopted…. We wanted the army to strike more vigorous blows. The Administration must set an example and strike at the heart of the rebellion.” (McPherson, 504)

The die was cast.  The Confiscation Acts formed the legislative bridge to emancipation. On July 22, Lincoln announced his intentions at a cabinet meeting. Following the expulsion of a Confederate Army invasion of Maryland — the battle of Sharpsburg, or Antietam — a preliminary proclamation was issued September 22, enjoining the States in secession to rejoin the Union or suffer the full force of emancipation by January 1, 1863.

The constitutional war thus became a revolutionary democratic war, confirming the prognosis of Marx and Engels. Marx and Engels had fought in the democratic upheavals of the German states in 1848 against autocratic and monarchical governments. Combined with a historical analysis of the 1789 French Revolution and a study of the political economy of the ascending class of industrial and financial titans, Marx and Engels discerned the anti-slavery logic at the outbreak of the war.

At the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln — the political representative of this new class of bankers and railroad magnates, and Marx — the political representative of the gestating class of those who toiled for wages, converged politically.

The Proclamation rallied public opinion in Europe to the Union side, making it more difficult for the British and French governments to recognize the Confederacy.  (40) The revolutionary democratic war stimulated the incipient unions of the textile and industrial workers of Britain and France, aiding the eventual formation of the International Workingmen’s Association.

And it is this formation that chose Marx to write its address congratulating Lincoln on his reelection in 1864. Lincoln’s Democratic Party opponent in the contest was none other than George B. McClellan.

The former “contraband” became freedmen and freedwomen, and the freedmen enlisted in the Union Army. As that army penetrated deeper and deeper into the South, tens of thousands of escaped slaves flooded the lines. Grant takes Vicksburg in July, 1863, William T. Sherman Atlanta in September, 1864. Grant defeats General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and takes Richmond in April, 1865.

Blackburn chronicles the development of Reconstruction and the subsequent rise of the labor movement. His book, in paperback, is a good read and an extraordinary handbook on the Civil War.

This year is the 150th anniversary of all the events that occurred in 1862 — the year of the transition from constitutional to revolutionary democratic war. Let’s celebrate!

July/August 2012, ATC 159


  1. For black people/African Americans it was indeed a revolutionary war, but by no means was it so for Americans in general. Lincoln was a racist who told “N” word jokes in public, wanted to deport all former slaves to Africa, and thought that they should never be given civil rights equal to whites – he wanted to maintain an apartied type segregation. Both sides in the civil war were bad, there were only some good people on each side.

    Racism and indeed the objective conditions of workers in the South only grew worse after the civil war. Capitalism was also much empowered by the civil war, but if you take historical materialism seriously, I suppose that was a good thing because Marx believed that capitalism had to triumph over feudalism before communism could happen. To be an orthodox marxist then, one has to be post-capitalist, not anti-capitalist. Uncritical orthodox Marxism to me is almost as bad as biased Northern historical revisionism.

  2. “Anonymous” is partially correct. Lincoln was a racist (although he advocated “colonization”– the deportation of freed African-Americans back to Africa–not an apartheid style segregation). The Civil War promoted the development of capitalism through the destruction of slavery and the consolidation of the political power of the manufacturing capitalists on a national scale.

    However, “anonymous” also gets a couple of things wrong. First, Marx and Engels’ support for the Union in the Civil War was NOT motivated by an abstract belief that capitalism was “more economically progressive” (would develop the productivity of labor through mechanization) than slavery (no one believed feudalism existed in the US), or that the Northern leaders were morally superior to the leaders of the Confederacy. Instead, Marx and Engels believed that the development of a militant and class-conscious workers’ movement in the US was impossible as long as “labor with a black skin is branded.” Historically, a massive strike wave, agitation for the eight hour day and the emergence of the first national union federation (the bi-racial National Labor Union) confirmed their expectation that the abolition of slavery was the prerequisite for the emergence of a US workers movement.

    Anonymous also telescopes the history of African-Americans in the post-Civil War south. The war, abolition of slavery, Federal occupation of the south and Republican hegemony in Congress did not result in a radical-democratic redistribution, which would have created an independent black peasantry in the south. However, the changed relationship of forces, including the self-emancipation of the slaves through what WEB DuBois called “the general strike”, allowed the freedpeople to resist successfully attempts to impose wage-labor in southern agriculture and force the planters to lease 60-80 acre plots to the freedpeople, who controlled their own immediate work process. The Fourteenth (citizenship) and Fifteenth (vote) Amendments also created the conditions for a substantive “peasant democracy” in the south, where African-American sharecroppers and tenant farmers were able to control local offices (tax assessors, justices of the peace) to protect themselves from heavy taxation and the demands of their landlords. The period of “Black Reconstruction” in the south saw tremendous advances for African-Americans.

    The counter-revolution in the south begins in the mid-1870s, when the planters used racist terrorist organizations like the Klan to over-throw democratically elected Radical Republican governments. The Republicans, deradicalized by the rising tides of workers struggles in the north, acquiesced, withdrawing federal troops from the south in 1877 in exchange for keeping their party in the White House. However, through the mid-1890s, African-Americans continued to vote and helped build the multi-racial Farmers’ Alliance (southern populism). The “Jim Crow” system of disenfranchisement and legal segregation of transport, schools and public spaces came in the mid to late 1890s– defeating the Farmers’ Alliance.

  3. Was trying to read it in english, but was to hard, so i used google translate.
    But this is one of the most interesting article i’ve read. Thanks.

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