AskProfWolff: Can we have a marxist analysis of the American Civil War?


This question came to us from Nicholas
Anderson who submitted it to the AskProfWolff page of the website rdwolff
with two Fs dot com. The question asks: can we have, is there a Marxist analysis of the
American Civil War? Well the simple answer is, yes there is, but an even more
intriguing answer is, the reason I know we have a Marxist analysis of the
American Civil War, is that Karl Marx wrote one, and here’s why.
After Karl Marx left Germany as an exile, and took up residence in London, where he
lived most of his adult life, he needed to make money, like most refugees who
leave their home country, they’re in troubled economic circumstances, wherever
they end up, so when he got to London, Karl Marx was looking for a way to make
money, and for a number of years he got a job as the London correspondent for a
New York City newspaper, The World, it was called, and it was just at the time of
the American Civil War, and he began to write a series of articles analyzing the
American Civil War for that newspaper in New York. So we know what Marx thought
about the Civil War, because he told us. So let me try to summarize it very
briefly. Marx’s argument has to do with thinking that societies are importantly
different, in terms of how they organize production. The United States was an odd
place in the middle of the nineteenth century, because the northern part of it
was organized around principles of capitalism: employers, employees. Employers
got the employee to work, by paying the employee wage, and the worker came to
work, got the wage and did the labor. The southern half of the United States was a
completely different economic system, called slavery. In that
system, the people who do the work are the property of the people they do the
work for, master and slave, which is a completely different system from employer-employee. Now the two parts
worked together, for example, in the north there were a lot of factories that
produced cotton textiles. Where did they get the cotton? From the American South,
were slaves planted it, tended it, and picked the cotton, which was then shipped
to the north. So, the United States was a society that put together a capitalist
system, which lived off of a slave system, and that worked out for the early years
of the United States, both as an independent country, and before that as a
colony of Great Britain. But then a problem arose. As the population grew, as
the economy grew, they kept pushing the Native Americans further and further
west, when they didn’t just kill them, and now the question was, who’s gonna control
the new land taken from the Native Americans, places like Kansas and
Missouri, and those parts of the country moving West. Then a fight developed: the
North didn’t want those to be slave areas, they wanted room for capitalism to
grow. The South had the opposite view: we want room for our system, slavery to grow,
and that put the two, who had been cooperating, against each other, and
eventually they went to war, and it was a war in which the North said: we are going
to get rid of this problem once and for all
by getting rid of the slave system. And here’s the interesting thing, it really
was about systems, because the key thing done by Abraham Lincoln, as part of the
civil war, was the Emancipation Proclamation, in which he declared that
there is no longer any slavery, that the government of the United
States will not enforce slavery, that slavery becomes illegal, an amendment to
the Constitution was in fact passed to make it illegal, and in that way the
North destroyed the slave economy of the south,
by removing the slavery that was at its foundation. And for those that are
interested, Marx found it doubly interesting, that no compensation was
basically paid to the slave owners. They lost their property, they had bought
those slaves, they lost them, because in freeing the slave, you destroyed the
wealth of the slave system, and there was a system then, a kind of revolution in
which capitalism overthrew the very slavery it had cooperated with. So Marx’s
analysis focuses on the class transformation, how the South was
militarily forced into the capitalism that it has been ever since.

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