Workers Vanguard No. 946

6 November 2009


On Karl Marx, Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War


30 August 2009

I had a few thoughts on your article “Honor Abraham Lincoln” (Workers Vanguard, No. 938). I just finished Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 and reread some articles by Marx on the US Civil War. One of the things that’s striking is that Marx gave what is basically (critical) political support to a capitalist party, by congratulating Lincoln on re-election (see Karl Marx on Lincoln Re-Election, supra). Fake socialists have a long history of looking to some supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie, so it’s striking when Marx himself seems to support that view, and it needs to be put in perspective.

It was essential to give military support to the North, but political support presumes that a class is performing a historically progressive role that could not be performed by a more progressive class, the proletariat. This is actually a time when the concept of a “two stage revolution” makes sense, even though the term was not used at that time. The US working class was small, unorganized and without the social weight it would possess a generation or more later. Chattel slavery was heinous in itself, but beyond that, as Marx said, “Labor cannot emancipate itself in its white skin, wherein its black it is branded.” It was inconceivable that there would be an advance in the class struggle, in terms of unions, never mind socialist revolution, while slavery existed. The aftermath of the Civil War, in particular Radical Reconstruction, gave birth to labor struggles and a modest rise in socialist consciousness in the US. Reconstruction’s defeat, symbolized by the withdrawal of federal troops to crush the rail strike of 1877, ended capitalism’s progressive role.

Marx was also writing about the US before the experience of the Paris Commune. (I cannot find any writings by Marx or Engels dealing with Reconstruction.) Marx’s writings on the US Civil War, along with radical abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and the whole thrust of Radical Reconstruction, presumed that one could use the capitalist state for progressive ends. The Paris Commune proved that false, or at least put that historical era clearly at an end. That task today can be fulfilled only by the proletariat.


WV replies:

The Civil War—the Second American Revolution—was the greatest event in U.S. history. By defeating the South, the industrialized system in the North uprooted the nearly 250-year-old institution of chattel slavery and paved the way for the expansion of capitalist property relations from one end of North America to the other.

Joel rightly emphasizes that the Northern ruling class in the Civil War era played a historically progressive role at a time when the small and unorganized working class lacked the social weight to supplant bourgeois rule. He concludes correctly that the class struggle, unionization and the prospect of socialist revolution could not advance as long as slavery existed.

However, Joel intimates that there is a common thread between Karl Marx’s congratulations to Abraham Lincoln for his re-election to the presidency in 1864 and the reformists’ political support for “liberal” bourgeois forces today: “Fake socialists have a long history of looking to some supposedly progressive wing of the bourgeoisie, so it’s striking when Marx himself seems to support that view, and it needs to be put in perspective.”

Marx supported Lincoln because he was a bourgeois revolutionary in a period when, as Joel himself notes, the U.S. bourgeoisie was playing “a historically progressive role that could not be performed by a more progressive class, the proletariat.” Thus, this support has nothing whatsoever in common with the politics of today’s fake socialists, whose pro-Democratic Party program helps chain workers and the oppressed to their capitalist class enemies.

Joel correctly notes that the defeat of Reconstruction “ended capitalism’s progressive role.” Following the Civil War, the U.S. began to play an increasingly bellicose role abroad, waging war against Korea and clashing with its European competitors over Asia, the South Pacific and the Western Hemisphere. While the Republican Party had championed the emancipation of the slaves during the Civil War and supported the great expansion of black rights during Reconstruction, it was quickly becoming the party of the big capitalists, who had little interest in the rights and advancement of black people. The years of the Grant administration saw the creation of new corporations that were, as described by Henry Adams at the time, “more powerful than a sovereign State” (quoted in “On Henry Adams and Democracy,” New York Review of Books, 27 March 2003). Moreover, as we noted in Part One of “The Grant Administration (1869-1877) and the Rise of U.S. Imperialism” (WV No. 938, 5 June), we see in this period “shades of the imperial presidency to come.” By the late 19th century, the U.S. had become an imperialist power, bringing death and destruction to subject countries such as the Philippines.

Joel suggests that the Paris Commune of 1871, the first instance of the dictatorship of the proletariat in history, showed that one could no longer use the capitalist state for progressive ends. Actually, what the Paris Commune confirmed was that the proletariat, victorious in its social revolution, “cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes,” as Marx underlined in The Civil War in France (1871). What the Paris Commune showed was that the working class must smash the existing capitalist state apparatus and replace it with its own state, the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The real issue at hand, in the case of the U.S. Civil War, is the question of when the bourgeoisie as a class ceases to play a historically progressive role. For various historical reasons, that question played out differently in Europe and the U.S. In fact, as early as 1848, amid the European revolutions of that year, Marx skewered the conservatism of the German bourgeoisie, writing, “The German bourgeoisie developed so sluggishly, timidly and slowly that at the moment when it menacingly confronted feudalism and absolutism, it saw menacingly confronting it the proletariat and all sections of the middle class whose interests and ideas were related to those of the proletariat” (“The Bourgeoisie and the Counter-Revolution” [1848]).

The 1848 revolutions marked the period when the European bourgeoisies ceased to play a historically progressive role. Indeed, they feared the prospect of revolutionary upheaval more than the dominance of the landed nobility, and allied themselves with the aristocracy against the working and artisan masses in revolt. At the same time, the proletariat was still too weak to immediately vie for power. It was the experience of the betrayals by the bourgeoisies in the 1848 revolutions that led Marx to emphasize the necessity of organizing the proletariat in a party independent of all other classes.

In the case of the U.S., as Joel himself notes, the working class could not play an independent role so long as the institution of slavery continued to exist. The North’s momentous suppression of the slaveholders’ rebellion gave great impetus to the industrialization of the country and fostered the development of the proletariat—capitalism’s gravedigger. The Civil War and Reconstruction represented the last progressive acts of the U.S. bourgeoisie.

Joel asserts that the period of the Civil War—including Marx’s support to Lincoln—“is actually a time when the concept of a ‘two stage revolution’ makes sense, even though the term was not used at that time.” However, this poses the question in an ahistorical manner. Marx was not working within the framework of “two stage revolution.” To the contrary, for Marx, the Civil War was not the first stage of a revolution whose sequel would bring the working class to power but the culmination of the bourgeois revolution. The dogma of “two stage revolution,” as originally developed for tsarist Russia, held that because Russia was a backward country that had not yet undergone a bourgeois-democratic revolution, a bourgeois republic was necessary to achieve modernization and prepare the proletariat for taking power. But by the time the two-stage conception appeared on the scene, capitalism was no longer capable of playing a historically progressive role.

Discussing this stagist strategy, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky remarked: “The Menshevik idea of the alliance of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie actually signified the subjection to the liberals of both the workers and the peasants” (“Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution” [1939]). All manner of Stalinists and fake socialists have sought to justify their “two stage” betrayals of the proletariat by pointing to Marx’s support to Lincoln and other similar instances. From the Mensheviks’ support to bourgeois liberalism during the 1917 Russian Revolution to the defeats of the Second Chinese Revolution in the late 1920s and the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, the two-stage framework has always been a straitjacket for the working class and a program for bloody counterrevolution.

Everything depends on time, place and circumstance, as Engels was fond of saying. In contrast to the Republican Party of the early 1860s, which fought to uproot black chattel slavery, the capitalist Republican and Democratic Parties today are the gendarmes of world reaction. Imperialism can be put out of business only by a series of working-class revolutions that overthrow capitalism, expropriate the bourgeoisie and prepare the way for a communist future for all of humanity. We struggle to build internationalist revolutionary parties dedicated to that goal.