Return to Table of Contents

“I believe that to have interfered as I have done, as I have always freely admitted I have done, in behalf of his [God’s] despised poor, I did not wrong but right. Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments, I say let it be done.” (John Brown)

The growth of capitalism was expressed in the rapid development of the textile factories in England and the northeastern United States, beginning in the last decades of the 18th century. This in turn led to an insatiable demand for raw cotton. The perfection of the cotton gin in 1793 guaranteed rich profits for the Southern planters. Thus, slave labor entered as an important component part of the accumulation of capital. It made fabulous fortunes, not only for the Southern slave owners but for the most Christian industrialists of the North and Britain. America, which proclaimed the sacred principle of liberty, was stained by the evil of slavery. Men and women, torn from their homes and lands in black Africa by the monstrous trade in human beings, were bought and sold like chattel by Christian gentlemen who worshipped the Lord in church every Sunday, and tortured, beat, raped and killed their slaves every other day of the week.

Although the African slave trade was already illegal, the Southern planters continued to import slaves after 1808. It is estimated that as many as 150,000 slaves were sent to the New World every year, compared to 45,000 towards the end of the 18th century. And although many of them were not shipped directly to the U.S.A., most of them must have ended up there. In the Charleston Courier of April 12, 1828 we read:
“As valuable a family […] as ever was offered for sale, consisting of a cook about 35 years of age, and her daughter about 14 and son about 8. The whole will be sold together or a part of them, as may suit a purchaser.”

The slaves were regarded as chattel or animals, as the following description of a slave sale shows:

“About a dozen gentlemen crowded on the spot while the poor fellow was stripping himself, and as soon as he stood on the floor, bare from top to toe, a most rigorous scrutiny of his person was instituted. The clear black skin, back and front, was viewed all over for sores from disease; and there was no part of his body left unexamined. The man was told to open and shut his hands, asked if he could pick cotton, and every tooth in his head was scrupulously looked at.”

The class outlook of the slave owners was well expressed in the comments of Senator Hammond of South Carolina:

“In all social systems there must be a class to do the mean duties, to perform the drudgeries of life […] we call them slaves. We are old-fashioned at the South yet; it is a word discarded now by ears polite; I will not characterize that class in the North by that term; but there you have it; it is there; it is everywhere; it is eternal […] The difference between us is that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people, and not too much employment, either. Yours are hired for the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most deplorable manner, at any hour in any street of your large towns. Why, sir, you meet more beggars in one day, in any single street of the city of New York than you would ever meet in a lifetime in the whole South. Our slaves are black, of another inferior race […] your slaves are white, of your own race; you are brothers of one blood.”

These lines are interesting because they let slip the smiling mask of the ruling class to reveal the brutal hypocrite that hides beneath it. In order to defend the indefensible – chattel slavery – the Southern slave owner points an accusing finger at the Northern capitalist. The attempt to prettify chattel slavery is, of course, absurd. Yet there is just a grain of truth in this attack against the hypocrisy of the Northern capitalists. The pro-slaver says to them:

“Why do you condemn us, when in reality you are just as bad as us? Our slavery is open and self-evident. We do not hide it. But your slavery is just as bad, if not worse, except it is hidden and hypocritical.”

We need not accept the logic of the slaver to understand that the attitude of every exploiting class in history –slave owners, feudal lords and capitalists – to the exploited class is very similar. The Northern manufacturers were lukewarm about abolition because they feared – not without reason – that any attempt to challenge the “sacred rights of property” in the South would set an unwelcome precedent for the working class in the North.

There were a number of slave revolts that were put down with the utmost savagery. The whites were always concerned with intimidating the blacks, inculcating in them a sense of inferiority and fear of their masters. By all manner of cruelty, the blacks, both free and slaves (and many were free in some states) had to be put in their place. A few thousand wealthy slave owning families ruled the South, while four million black slaves did all the work, the gap being filled by a population of poor whites who could always be depended upon to support their masters against the slaves.

In order to end this abomination and finish the job begun in 1776, a new revolution was necessary: a long and bloody Civil War. This took great courage and determination. The name of Abraham Lincoln will forever have a place of honour in the annals of the long struggle for democracy. In the course of this struggle, he grew in stature as a man and a leader. The initiative for this epic struggle, however, came from below, from the militant abolitionists and the slaves themselves. A movement that began as a small minority, despised as “extremists” and “subversives”, shunned by the “moderate mainstream” succeeded, by heroic efforts, in turning America upside down.

The expansion of the United States created conditions for a struggle between the North and South as they advanced westward in parallel lines. In 1818 the state of Missouri applied for admission to the Union. Slavery existed in Missouri and New England and the North were opposed to the extension of the slave system. They therefore opposed the acceptance of Mississippi or any other state that accepted the institution of slavery. The reason for this opposition was not wholly humanitarian. On the one hand, slavery had no place in the capitalist industrial economy of the North. On the other hand, the Northerners and New Englanders feared that they would come under the political domination of the southern slave states.

When Missouri applied for admission there were eleven free states and eleven slave states, so that its admission could tilt the delicate balance one way or the other. On the other hand, Maine, which was free, had also applied to join the Union, and this was blocked by the South for the same reason. The deadlock was broken by the so-called Missouri compromise. The southern border of Missouri is the 36 degree 30 minutes parallel of latitude. According to the compromise, the northern limit of slavery (from the Mississippi westwards) was to be that parallel, with the sole exception of Missouri, which, although north of the line, was admitted as a slave state. In return, Maine was also admitted.

Such a geographical compromise obviously had an extremely tenuous and fragile nature and could be upset by the slightest disturbance. Like all such agreements, it merely expressed the balance of forces at a given moment. As soon as the balance of forces changed, it would be torn to shreds. The whole logic of the situation was tending to war. The main result of the Missouri Compromise was to create a powerful Southern self-consciousness, born out of suspicion and hatred of the North. On the other hand, the acceptance of Missouri as a slave state outraged public opinion in the North and gave rise to increasingly militant anti-slavery groups, opposed to compromise and inclined to direct action. In the words of W.E. Woodward:

“The Civil War was built up as a house is built, brick upon brick. One of its cornerstones was the Missouri Compromise.” (W.E. Woodward, A New American History, p. 354.)

There was a militant anti-slavery tendency that used revolutionary methods to free the slaves. The struggle between slaveholders and abolitionists erupted into open civil war in 1856, when John Brown led his militant abolitionist forces into Kansas to do battle with the slavers. In October, 1859, John Brown led a band of 18 armed men, of which four were black, to capture the Federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The raid failed and Colonel Robert E. Lee, the future commander of the Confederate forces, led a detachment of U.S. Marines which captured John Brown. Amidst a lynch-mob atmosphere, Brown was sentenced to death by hanging, the sentence being carried out in December 1859.   His execution had far-reaching consequence and only exacerbated the accumulated social contradictions. During the war, the song “John Brown’s Body”, which includes the line “John Brown died that the slaves might be free,” would become a rallying cry for the Union troops.

The defeat of the South – that bastion of landowning reaction – and the emancipation of the slaves was undoubtedly a progressive task, and one that merged imperceptibly with a war of emancipation of the black slaves. But the bourgeoisie dragged its feet, looking for a compromise up to the very last moment when the first cannon balls were fired at Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861. It was the pressure from the anti-slavery militants and the working class and lower middle class that forced the North into action. The workers of the Union were prepared to sacrifice their lives in this cause. And the workers of Europe instinctively understood this and took a truly internationalist position in relation to the Civil War – the Second American Revolution.

The Civil War

Historical legend presents the picture of the “anti-slave” North conducting a campaign for freedom against the slave-holding South. Like all historical legends, however, this is a gross oversimplification. The fact of the matter was that a significant section of the capitalist class in the North and also of the political Establishment – including in Lincoln’s own party – did not want to fight against slavery and were in favour of reaching a compromise with the Southern slave owners. Lincoln himself was originally a compromise candidate between the openly abolitionist wing and the compromisers on the right wing.

Like every other serious conflict, at bottom the American Civil War was a class struggle. The Northern manufacturers necessarily had to come into conflict with the Southern landowning classes. The conflict of interest between the two lasted for sixty years and finally ended in civil war. However, the mutual hatred between the northern capitalists and the slave owners of the South, grounded in economics, was only half the story. There was a genuine sense of moral outrage among sections of the northern working class and middle class against the evils of slavery. The abolitionists waged an energetic campaign of agitation and propaganda aimed at arousing public opinion in the North.

Pamphlets and books like Harriet Beecher-Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused widespread indignation against the institution of slavery and prepared the ground for more active revolutionary measures. A section of the abolitionist movement was inclined to direct action. The execution of John Brown brought matters to a head. Historian Lloyd Lewis explains that the incident at Harper’s Ferry “was to the South a gathering thunderhead on the Northern sky, promise of the hurricane to come.” Fearful of slave uprisings and interference from Northern abolitionists, the South began to organize militias that would form the basis of the Confederate Army. Mass anti-slavery rallies and demonstrations took place in the North.

It was this mass agitation that led, the following year, to the election of Abraham Lincoln. This was taken as a signal for the secession of the slave states. Lincoln was immediately faced with a serious crisis provoked by the secession of South Carolina on December 20, 1860. This was followed in early 1861 by the secession of Texas, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Florida. Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee and North Carolina followed, making a total of eleven states. The immediate cause was the old argument over tariffs. The South produced nothing that needed tariff protection, whereas the northern capitalists needed a tariff barrier to protect their infant industries against competition from Europe.

The ruling class in the South had no interest in developing industry. The southern slave owning aristocracy based itself on backwardness. The big landowners were quite happy to remain as England’s cotton field and in return they would import English manufactured goods without the imposition of a tariff that would only benefit the manufacturers of the North. The secession was a direct challenge to American nationhood. If accepted it would undermine everything the American people had fought for since Independence. But from the standpoint of the South it was a defensive war “for Southern rights”.

When South Carolina and ten other slave states declared themselves to be no longer part of the union, Lincoln’s main priority was to prevent the break-up of the Union. As a minority President, Lincoln was compelled to do deals with other parties and groups. He could not even rely on the support of all members of his own party. On the contrary, the upper circles of the party were constantly conspiring to remove him and replace him with some political baron. Therefore he was obliged to tack and compromise. But compromise was in vain.

In vain did Lincoln attempt to reassure the slave-owners that his government would “not interfere with the institution of slavery in the states where it exists”. He was merely echoing the position of an important section of the Northern bourgeoisie that wanted to avoid a conflict with the South. This fact explains why Lincoln was so cautious at the beginning. His own views were quite clear from the beginning when he said: “A house divided against itself cannot stand; this government divided into free states and slave states cannot endure, they must all be free or all be slave; they must be one thing or the other.” But he did not have a firm base of support. This only came in the course of the War itself, which galvanized and hardened public opinion. By the end of this terrible conflict, however, Lincoln was not the same man as at the beginning. From a political tussle to preserve the Union, the Civil War evolved inexorably into a revolutionary war against slavery.

The industrial bourgeoisie of the North wished to consolidate its power by destroying the outmoded slave system in the South. It suited their interests. But they did not pursue the task with any enthusiasm. On the contrary, a significant section of the Northern capitalists would have been willing to reach a compromise with the Southern reactionaries. They feared a war that would disrupt trade and preferred to confine themselves to a series of parliamentary maneuvers, like the “Missouri Compromise”. But the logic of the situation ruled out any compromise, and these parliamentary intrigues and political struggles culminated in the civil war that the bourgeoisie had hoped to avoid.

While the South was eager for war and immediately began its preparations, the North dragged its feet and was unprepared for the conflict when it finally erupted in the attack on Fort Sumter. But as soon as it became clear that war was unavoidable, Lincoln acted with tremendous determination. He ordered the removal of two million dollars of Southern funds from the Treasury and the confiscation of Western Union’s files. He also suspended the right of habeus corpus, by executive order, although according to the Constitution only Congress has the right to do this. Thousands of men were arrested and held indefinitely without even charging them with any offence. These measures were strictly unconstitutional. They were dictatorial measures. But they were absolutely necessary in the given situation.

Under the Constitution the power to raise armies and to declare war is invested in Congress. Lincoln paid no attention to this. He immediately assumed the authority to create armies and to wage war on the secessionist states. A drastic measure, certainly. But what else could he have done? Nor did the freedom of speech fare any better. Lincoln’s subordinates raided the offices of newspapers and stopped their publication, in spite of the First Amendment of the Constitution. This states that the federal authority shall not abridge the freedom of speech or of the press.

The Maryland Legislature was due to convene on September 17, 1861. The military commander of the district was instructed by the secretary of war to arrest all the members who were suspected of disloyalty. Many were arrested and thrown into prison, although none of them was actually charged with having committed acts of treason or disloyalty. There were many such actions. In his inspired historical novel Lincoln, Gore Vidal writes:

“Currently, by Seward’s order, the mayor of Baltimore and the mayor of Washington were both in prison, where they would remain without trial until such time as he or the President was inspired to let them go. As a Lawyer and as an office-holder, sworn to uphold the Constitution and its Bill of Rights, not to mention those inviolable protections of both persons and property so firmly spelled out in Magna Carta and in the whole subsequent accretion of the common law, Seward found that he quite enjoyed tearing up, one by one, those ancient liberties in the Union’s name. Never before had anyone ever exercised such power in the United States as he did now, with Lincoln’s tacit blessing. Although, officially, the secret service was under the military, regular reports were made to Seward, in whose name letters were opened, copies of telegrams seized, arrests made.” (Gore Vidal Lincoln, p. 273.)

Nowadays it is assumed that everyone was behind Lincoln (in the North at least). But this is very far from the truth. Most of the rich hated him. There were constant conspiracies to get rid of him, and a constant avalanche of calumnies and insults in the press. Harpers Weekly described the President as a “Filthy story-teller, Despot, Liar, Thief, Braggart, Buffoon, Usurper, Monster, Ignoramus, Abe, Old scoundrel, Perjurer, Robber, Swindler, tyrant, Field-Butcher, Land Pirate.” This was typical. It was also in the Civil War that the (then) revolutionary measure was introduced to tax the incomes of the rich to finance the war.

No wonder the rich denounced Lincoln as a dictator and called for his removal! Nowadays he would have been called a communist as well.

However, unless Lincoln had been prepared to override the private interests of the capitalists, the Union would never have won the War. In every war situation, certain liberties are suspended or curtailed. The same is true in a revolution, although the degree to which such “exceptional” measures is necessary depends on many things. If the Southern slave-owners had been prepared to accept the will of the majority and obey the democratically elected government, Lincoln would never have had to take the measures he did to curtail democratic rights. But the slave-owners’ rebellion forced him to do so.

To those who argue that a socialist revolution necessarily means the abolition of democracy, we answer: not so! Marxists stand for democracy and are its most fervent defenders. We will make use of all the democratic openings to present our ideas and fight to win the majority. We stand for a democratically elected socialist government. We do not advocate violence. But we are also realists and know that the ruling class will never surrender its power, wealth and privileges without a fight with no-holds-barred. What happened in the American Civil War proves this.

If a democratically elected socialist government is faced by another slave-owners’ rebellion, we reserve the right to act in the same way that Abe Lincoln acted. To do anything else would be to accept the right of Capital to continue its dictatorship forever and deny the right of the People to determine its own destiny. Of course, it goes without saying that any suspension or curtailment of democratic rights must be only temporary, for the duration of the emergency, not a moment longer. That was the case in Britain and the U.S.A. during the Second World War, which most people thought was a war for democracy (in fact, it was not, but that is another matter). The workers in the U.S.A. and Britain had democratic traditions but were prepared voluntarily to accept certain limitations for the duration of the war and for that only.

Nobody nowadays condemns Abraham Lincoln for his actions during the Second American Revolution, when he took measures against big business, confiscated wealth and arrested counter-revolutionaries without trial. Few people even remember such things. Yet they throw their hands up in horror at the actions of Lenin and Trotsky in 1917 in Russia. Why such a hypocritical difference should be made between the two is not clear.

The Problem of Leadership

At the start of the war, in fact, things went very badly for the Union. The South had better generals, who were not afraid to go on the offensive, making up with courage and energy for their numerical disadvantage compared to the more populous and wealthy industrial North. The white population of the South believed they were fighting a defensive war –a war for self-determination and independence, in fact– and they fought with conviction. As a result the Confederate forces won victory after victory.

By contrast, at the beginning of the war the Union forces did not display the necessary determination and energy. They were continually forced onto the defensive by the Confederates who fought better and had far more capable generals. Even the celebrated defence of Fort Sumter, which Union propaganda made a great deal of at the time, was little more than a charade. Major Anderson, the Fort’s defender, declined to haul down the flag after the first volleys but stated complacently that even if he were not attacked he would have to hand over the Fort in a few days, as there would be nothing to eat. The resistance was merely formal. The surrender of Fort Sumter seems to have been quite an amicable affair. Major Anderson had dinner with General Beauregard, the Confederate commander, and then the Union Flag was hauled down to the accompaniment of a salute and full military honors.

This was typical of the attitude of most Union commanders at the beginning of the Civil War. It is strikingly similar to the position at the start of the English Civil War in the 17 century, when Royalist and Parliamentarian commanders often exchanged letters on the eve of battle professing their friendship for each other and their abhorrence of the conflict that pitted one against the other. In a civil war above all, political questions predominate over military ones. At bottom, the problem was not military but political. The Northern general staff simply reflected the opinions of most of the ruling class, which did not believe in the war and was looking for a compromise.

The Confederates, quite naturally, had a poor opinion of the North’s military potential. When Lincoln announced his appeal for 75,000 volunteers, the Confederate cabinet met the news with roars of laughter. Actually, the Union army increased rapidly to the point where it was already the strongest army in the world, with close to 200,000 well-trained troops in the area of Washington alone. But this advantage was initially thrown away by a succession of incompetent Union generals. General McClellan was one of the most notorious cases. His supine inactivity exasperated Lincoln, who wrote him a stream of letters like the following:

“Major-General McClellan,

I have just read your despatch about sore-tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigues anything?”

This angry correspondence culminated in a laconic outburst of despair:

“My dear McClellan; if you don’t want to use the army I should like to borrow it or a while.

Yours respectfully, A. Lincoln.”

At one point McClellan came within six miles of the rebel capital Richmond, but failed to take the city although his army outnumbered the Confederate forces by at least five to one and their commander had been seriously wounded. The real reason for this situation was not just that McClellan was a bad general (which he was). The real reason was that he was intriguing against Lincoln. McClellan, who secretly aspired to become a dictator, an American Bonaparte, was, like a significant section of the Northern ruling class, in favour of doing a deal with the South to end the War. Most of the other generals in the Union army were not much better. General Hooker, ironically nicknamed “Fighting Joe” is another example of a useless Northern general. He was a champion at the art of whisky drinking, though not at the art of war. At the battle of Chancellorsville he led 130,000 Union troops against Lee’s Confederate army of only 60,000. Yet Lee managed to inflict the greatest defeat on the Northern army in the history of the war. General Hooker is today remembered for something not directly connected with the military profession but with a rather older one. His camp, according to a contemporary witness, resembled something in between a brothel and a casino. So addicted were the general and his staff to the sins of the flesh that the female visitors to his camp were known as “Hooker’s girls”, or simply hookers.

General Sherman was a more effective, if extremely brutal, commander. He had been removed from command early in the war because his superiors thought he had gone mad. His “crime” was to predict that hundreds of thousands would die in the coming conflict – a prediction that tragically came true. Politically he was a reactionary who believed in slavery. In December 1859, when the abolition uproar was at its height, he wrote:

“‘I would not if I could abolish or modify slavery.’ And in July, 1860, he wrote: ‘All the Congresses on earth can’t make the negro anything else than what he is; he must be subject to the white man, or he must amalgamate or be destroyed. Two such races cannot live in harmony save as master and slave’.”

He is quoted as saying (correctly) that the war did not begin professionally until after Vicksburg and Gettysburg (that is, not until July 1863). Paradoxically, General Robert E. Lee the Southern Commander, was opposed to slavery. Before the War he wrote that it was a “moral and political evil” and hoped it would be abolished. But his loyalty lay with his state of Virginia, and he fought with great valor and ability to establish a nation that would have been based on that same “moral and political evil”, while Sherman’s army emancipated the slaves as it marched through Georgia. The personal and moral values of the individuals were subordinate to the class content of the struggle. This was basically a war between two incompatible socio-economic systems – capitalism and slavery. Capitalism won and that changed everything.

The war dragged on and the cost in lives was without precedent. In a single campaign, the Union army under Ulysses S. Grant lost 50,000 dead and wounded. And these figures do not include the Confederate casualties. This further strengthened the capitulationist trend of the Northern bourgeoisie. The mood of the capitalists was to sell out and get peace at all costs. The so-called Peace Democrats were on the rise, reflecting the bourgeois’ lack of enthusiasm for the War. War was bad for business (although not in all cases).

But the Northern employers should not have worried. In the long run the South could not prevail. The industrial might of the North, its far greater wealth and bigger population proved decisive. Industrial output in the state of New York alone was four times that of the entire Confederacy. The population of the United States at the beginning of the War was about 31.5 million. Of these about 8.7 million were in the Confederacy, from which we must deduct 3.6 million slaves. The Confederate army had to be drawn from the white population of just over five million, plus some reinforcements from three Southern states that did not secede: Maryland, Kentucky and Missouri. By contrast, the Union had a population of about 23 million.

That means the North could put four times as many men on the field and take many more losses without affecting their fighting capacity. In addition the North had command of the sea and was able to blockade the southern ports more or less effectively from the beginning. The blockade caused shortages that led to food riots even in Richmond, the Confederate capital. This shows the falsity of the propaganda of the pro-Confederate historians, according to whom the entire population of the South were united in their enthusiasm for the Confederate cause. The initial enthusiasm wore off and by 1864 the Confederacy was held together by arbitrary and despotic measures backed up by state repression.

As the war dragged on there were also problems in the North. After years of hardship there was discontent among a layer of the masses. The Conscription Act, which allowed the sons of the rich to buy their way out of military service, provoked riots in New York, where the measure was seen as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” In what turned out to be a prolonged war of attrition, the North was able to tolerate the terrible casualty rate far better than the South. However, to win the war it was necessary to adopt a revolutionary policy that would rouse the masses in the North to fight with the spirit of conviction.

Role of the Working Class

War is undoubtedly terrible, and civil wars are more terrible than any other. Yet war is also a source of profit to some, and great fortunes can be coined by the few from the blood, sweat and tears of the many. The American Civil War was no exception. In the spring of 1864 it was possible for a speculator to take $600 in gold, exchange it for $1,000 in dollars, buy a $1,000 bond with the dollars and get $60 a year interest on the bond or a 15 percent profit on his initial investment. All measures to limit this profiteering proved futile. Despite its fundamentally revolutionary character, the Civil War led inexorably to increased centralization of power and wealth in a few hands. This explains the resentment of the masses, as expressed in outbursts like the New York riots.

Bondholders plundered the treasury, crooked manufacturers plundered the army, speculators plundered the whole population and made their fortunes out of blood, death and misery. In his Life of Thaddeus Stevens, James A. Woodburn writes:

“One may well doubt whether there was ever a more outrageous fleecing and robbery of a patriotic people than that perpetrated through the influence of capitalists and money lenders by the manipulation of government finance during and immediately following the American Civil War.”

Lincoln realized that the masses would not be prepared to give their lives willingly just to prevent the South from seceding. He therefore proposed a most revolutionary measure. On September 22 1862, President Lincoln summoned the cabinet and took them by surprise. He told them he had an important paper to read. But when they came into the room it appeared the President was reading a humorous story – which he often did. Then he closed his book and informed them that he had been thinking a lot about the relation between the war and slavery. “I think the time for action has now come and I have got you together to hear what I have written down.” This was the Emancipation Proclamation. It read as follows:

“I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, do proclaim that on the first day of January, 1863, all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall then be, thenceforward and forever, free; and the executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act, or acts, to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.”

It must be realized that this proclamation, like so many of Lincoln’s acts during the war, was an executive order, issued under the war powers conferred on the president by Congress. In effect, he went over the heads of Congress and the cabinet to speak directly to the American people. He understood that in order to win the war it was necessary to inspire and motivate the masses by adopting a revolutionary program. The Civil War would not be won by guns and bayonets alone, but by the moral force behind the guns and bayonets. As long as people in the North suspected that this was a rich man’s war in which the poor were called on to fight and die for the interests of the wealthy merchants and industrialists of the North, the war could not be won. He therefore decided to appeal directly to the masses.

In order to wage war against the slave-holding South, Abraham Lincoln relied upon the support of the mass of American workers and small farmers. After some initial hesitation (he was afraid of losing the support of the four border states of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri, where slavery still existed), he accepted the recruitment of black soldiers into the Union armies. He also openly espoused the cause of labor, making comments that nowadays would automatically make him suspect of subversion and communism. He said, among other things:

“All that harms labor is treason to America. No line can be drawn between these two. If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar. If a man tells you he trusts America, yet fears labor, he is a fool.” He also defended the right to strike as a democratic right of working people: “I am glad to see that a system of labor prevails under which laborers can strike whenever they want to…I like the system which lets a man quit when he wants to and wish it might prevail everywhere.”

After two years of bloody fighting, the Emancipation Proclamation freed the slaves in those states fighting against the Union. Later the slaves were also freed in the neutral border-states. No longer were four million human beings to be held in bondage. Inspired by the message of freedom, the workers of the North threw themselves enthusiastically into the struggle. Many trade union locals were dissolved for the duration of the conflict, as the entire workforce was often away at war. In the conflict between Northern industrial capitalism and Southern landlordism and slavery, it was clear which side the workers supported. American trade unionists also played a decisive role in the fight against slavery, as Northern workers signed up in droves for the Union Army.

The victory of the North was due only to a small extent to the military capabilities of General Ulysses S. Grant. Although undoubtedly a better general than his predecessors (he could hardly be worse!) Grant was no military genius. As W.E. Woodward expresses it: “Grant just happened to be swimming with the tide and he was a man who swam extremely well in that particular kind of tide.” (W.E. Woodward, op. cit., p. 563.) Later he proved to be a spectacularly incompetent President at the head of a voraciously corrupt administration. As a general, he combined a mule-headed stubbornness with an indifference to the horrific scale of casualties on his own side. These qualities, however, were sufficient to wear down the South and bring it to its knees.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the decisive turning point. The battle was fought over three days of bloody slaughter from July 1st to the 3rd, 1863. The Confederates lost 20,000 men, killed, wounded or captured. The Union army had 23,000 casualties. But these losses were far more serious to the South than to the North. In the end, the wealth, population and industrial muscle of the Union was decisive and the Confederates’ early victories proved unsustainable. But it was above all the courageous decision of Abraham Lincoln to fight a revolutionary war against the slave-owning South that tipped the balance. Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is one of the great revolutionary democratic documents of all time. With its clarion call of government of the people, by the people, for the people stands alongside the Declaration of Independence as a landmark in the struggle for democracy.

By the spring of 1864 the Confederacy was on its knees. One hard blow would be enough to topple it. Congress created the grade of lieutenant general and Lincoln immediately conferred this rank on Grant. The victory of the Union was not in doubt. But the losses in the Union army were horrendous, in large measure because of the way Grant conducted himself. We see the character of the man in the short but bloody battle of Cold Harbour, where the Union forces lost 7,000 men in an hour, compared to 600 of Lee’s men. The army was on the brink of mutiny. Some regiments refused to participate in what was obviously a suicidal assault on the rebel capital.

More successful was Sherman’s advance through Georgia and the Carolinas, which was accompanied by a merciless scorched earth policy. Sherman’s army burnt everything in its path. The actions of a section of the soldiery were a disgrace to the Northern cause. But this burning and plundering was enthusiastically greeted by sections of Northern public opinion. Especially bloodthirsty (as it often the case in times of war) were the preachers. Phillip Brooks, a devout Massachusetts pastor and author of The Influence of Jesus, when he heard about the torching of Columbia, exclaimed: “Hurrah for Columbia! Isn’t Sherman a gem?” Despite its savagery, Sherman’s campaign severely weakened the already enfeebled South. Grant’s forces overwhelmed Lee’s defences. Finally, Lee faced Grant at Appomattox, about 80 miles from Richmond, with a force of only 28,000 starving and exhausted men against Grant’s army of 72,000. Lee was compelled to surrender.

Lee presented himself to Grant dressed in a splendid uniform of Confederate grey made from English cloth and handed grant a handsome sword with a jewel-studded hilt. Grant was dressed in the travel-stained uniform of a private to which the shoulder straps of a lieutenant general had been attached. The contrast had a deep symbolic value. The aristocratic slave-owning gentry of the South was overthrown by the capitalist North. The past was defeated by the future.

The victory of the North was a revolutionary victory. It transformed the face of the United States. At a stroke the rule of the slave owners was overthrown. The reactionary class of Southern planters was deprived of two billion dollars worth of property, with not a single cent in compensation. Thus, there is nothing “un-American” about the expropriation of tyrants and oligarchs, which was carried out both in 1776 and in 1865. The United States was established at birth with an act of revolutionary expropriation. In the same way a socialist U.S.A. in the future will be established by the expropriation of the property of the big banks and corporations that exercise their dictatorship over the people and have turned democracy into an empty word.

By the end of the War, Abraham Lincoln was a changed man. He was drawing ever more radical conclusions. Lincoln’s revolutionary measures earned him the love and admiration of the working class in the U.S.A. and internationally. But it aroused the bitter hatred of the ruling class – and not only in the South. Even at the height of the war, Lincoln did not have a firm base of support in his own party. A section put forward the cowardly and reactionary scoundrel McClellan as the Presidential candidate. Lincoln’s popular majority was tiny – only half a million votes. In spite of everything, Lincoln was re-elected and the Thirteenth Amendment for the unconditional abolition of slavery was passed. It was a new dawn for the American people. But Lincoln also took measures in the interests of the poor farmers in the North. The Homestead Act was the first in American history to give public land free of charge to citizens who agreed to settle on it. What new measures he would have passed had he lived we shall never know. The slave-owners took their revenge for their defeat. On April 14 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot down in cold blood by a Confederate assassin.

International Repercussions of the Civil War

At the outbreak of the Civil War there was a considerable amount of British capital invested in American enterprises, including the railroads, banking, coal, timber and land. The sympathies of the British ruling class were with the South. A reactionary coalition of textile manufacturers, landowners and imperialists put heavy pressure on the British government to recognize the Confederate States. The Times of London could hardly conceal its glee when commenting on how short-lived the Union of American states had been.

The Confederates were confident in their belief in the power of King Cotton. And since Britain took five-sixth of all the exports of American cotton and there were about 400,000 workers in English cotton mills who depended on cotton for their livelihood (making a total of about two millions with their families and dependents), they were convinced that within three months Britain would recognize the South, smash the blockade and if necessary fight the Union to guarantee supplies of cotton to British mills. During the Civil War several Confederate warships were built in English shipyards or purchased from British subjects. Their crews were mostly made up of English sailors. Three of these vessels – the Alabama, Florida and Shenandoah – did a lot of damage to Northern commerce. Yet none of these vessels ever entered a Confederate port. This open connivance of the British government with the rebels constituted a flagrant provocation and a blatant breach of neutrality.

In fact, Britain came close to declaring war on the Union in November 1861 when an American ship, the San Jacinto, stopped the Trent, a British mail packet boat, off the coast of Cuba and seized two Confederate Commissioners on their way to London. A military intervention by Britain would have drastically changed the balance of forces to the disadvantage of the Union. If the British government finally backed down it was mainly for fear of the reaction of British public opinion and especially the working class.

While the British ruling class openly sympathized with the slave owners of the Confederacy, the working people of Britain wholeheartedly backed the Union. This was quite remarkable if we bear in mind that the Civil War in America badly disrupted the trade in cotton and caused a depression in the cotton mills of Lancashire and terrible unemployment and suffering for the workers. The English radical John Bright toured Lancashire explaining the plight of the American slaves:

“The jobless mill hands resolved to stick by their black brothers in the Southern states of America, although their allegiance compelled them to feed at soup kitchens and live on charitable relief.” (W.E. Woodward, op. cit., pp. 527-8.)

In this war against the forces of reaction, the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) sided unequivocally with the North against the South. It is not generally known that Karl Marx wrote two letters to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the IWA, expressing his admiration and support for the latter in his fight against slavery. Thus, in this decisive moment in American history, Marxism stood shoulder to shoulder with the American people, and not just in words. Members of the IWA fought in the ranks of the Union army, and thus fulfilled their internationalist duty. Working class revolutionaries like Anneke and Weydemeer – the latter a close friend of Marx – served with distinction in the ranks of the Union army.

An Interesting Comparison

Recently the author of these lines was invited to participate in a television documentary about the French Revolution. The filmmakers were charming and intelligent young Americans, who apparently wanted to know what the Marxist perspective on the French Revolution was. During our preliminary conversations, they asked me whether I considered the French Revolution to be justified, in view of all the violence and bloodshed it involved. I think they were a bit surprised at my answer. I drew their attention to the fact that America won its independence through a revolution, and that in that revolution they did not treat the British very gently. Moreover, the second American Revolution was a very violent and bloody affair. Yet nobody has ever asked me whether the American War of Independence was justified, or whether Abraham Lincoln was right to use violence against the Southern slave-owners.

In the French Revolution of 1789-93, almost two millions died out of a population of only 26 millions – that is, about 7.7 per cent. Yet few French people (excepting a handful of eccentric people nostalgic for the good old days of Louis XVI) would argue that they would have been better off under the ancien régime. Even fewer Americans would argue that, in order to avoid bloodshed, they should have remained under the blessed rule of George III!

The critics of Bolshevism also frequently raise the question of revolutionary violence. Actually, the October revolution was a relatively peaceful affair, particularly in Petrograd, since the Bolsheviks had the support of the overwhelming majority, and practically nobody was prepared to fight for the old regime. The real bloodbath began in the Civil War, which was the exact equivalent of the slaveholders’ rising in the U.S.A. Soviet Russia was invaded by 21 foreign armies of intervention: British, French, German, Poles, Czechs, Japanese – and Americans. Many people were killed unnecessarily because of this, and the Russian people suffered terrible hardship. Incidentally, this was when the parties that opposed the Bolsheviks were banned - since every one of them took arms against the Soviet government.

Lenin and Trotsky originally had no plans to prohibit other parties. After the October Revolution the only party that was outlawed was the fascist and anti-Semitic Black Hundreds. But in the same way that Abraham Lincoln was obliged to take drastic measures against the rebels during the Civil War, so Lenin and Trotsky were compelled to act against parties that not only agitated against the Revolution but took up arms against it. It is not generally realized that, relative to population size, many more people were killed in the American civil war than in the civil war in Soviet Russia. Yet very little is said on this subject, and certainly nobody ever accuses Abe Lincoln of being a bloodthirsty monster as they accuse Lenin and Trotsky with tedious regularity. Let us make a brief comparison of the two.

Because of the chaotic character of the period, there are no exact figures for casualties in the Russian Civil War. But the total deaths incurred in both the First World War and the subsequent Civil War adds up to about three million. If we assume that one third of these died during the Civil War (which is certainly an exaggeration), the result would be one million. Since the population of Russia was 150 million at that time, that is 0.7 per cent. In the American Civil War, according to the most accurate figures I could find, the total killed (not including wounded) on both sides was 558,052 out of total population of 34,300,000. That would mean 1.63 percent of the population was killed. That is already more than in the Russian Revolution. However, if we include the wounded – many of whom were horribly crippled and deformed - then the percentage of the total killed and wounded would actually be 2.83 percent of the population. In other words, a lot more blood was shed in the American Civil War.

                           Population        Enrolled              Ratio
                                (millions)       (thousands)
 Union                      26.2               2,803.3              10.7%
 Confederate         8.1                1,064.2              13.1%
 Combined            34.3               3,867.5              11.1%

                      <———————Casualties——————>
                                           [—-Deaths—-]                     
                              Enrolled     Combat      Other       Wounded        Total       
Union                 2,803.3     110,070     249,458     275,175        634,703  
Confederate    1,064.2      74,524      124,000     137,000 +     335,524 
Combined        3,867.5      184,594    373,458     412,175 +     970,227 

The Civil War in the U.S.A. was a revolution, just as much as the French Revolution of 1789-93 or the October Revolution in Russia. Many people lost their lives in it, yet nobody considers it a “crime”. In fact, while naturally regretting the loss of life, the historians are unanimous in agreeing that it was worth it, that is to say, the end justified the means. Yet this is supposed to be the original sin of Bolshevism!

We might add that there is no reason to suppose that the Socialist Revolution in America will be a bloody affair. The U.S.A. is not tsarist Russia! The American working class is an overwhelming majority of the population. It could easily take power, brushing aside the resistance of the big corporations, on one condition: that it is organized, disciplined and determined to overcome all obstacles. There is one other condition that would guarantee a peaceful transformation: a courageous and far-sighted leadership that would not be afraid to adopt the most audacious measures to disarm the ruling class and render it impotent. The American workers need a revolutionary party and a leadership like that of Abraham Lincoln and Sam Adams: men and women who are not hypnotized by the power of the oppressors, their rules and regulations, but prepared to rely only on the revolutionary initiative and power of the masses.

How Capitalism Failed African Americans

The Second American Revolution was a tremendous step forward, but it never realized its promise to Black Americans. The real winners in the Civil War were the Northern capitalists who opened up new markets and obtained a huge new supply of dirt-cheap labor. Nearly a century and a half after the abolition of slavery in the U.S.A., we are very far from achieving genuine equality for all, regardless of race, color or sex. Despite a number of advances achieved through the struggles of black people in the 1960s, the position of blacks remains one of clear disadvantage. Michael Moore points out that in the U.S.A. today:

· About 20 percent of young black men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four are neither in school nor working – compared with only 9 percent of young white men. Despite the “economic boom” of the nineties, this percentage has not fallen substantially over the last ten years.

· In 1993, white households had invested nearly three times as much in stocks and mutual funds and/or IRA and Keogh accounts as black households. Since then, the stock market has more than doubled its value.

· Black heart attack patients are far less likely than whites to undergo cardiac catheterization, a common and potentially lifesaving procedure, regardless of the race of their doctors. Black and white doctors together referred white patients for catheterization about 40 percent more often than black patients.

· Whites are five times more likely than blacks to receive emergency clot-busting treatment for stroke.

· Black women are four times more likely than white women to die while giving birth.

· Black levels of unemployment have been roughly twice those of whites since 1954.

· In the first nine months of 2002, the U.S. unemployment rate averaged 5.7 percent, compared with the first nine months of 2000, when it averaged 4 percent. About 2.5 million more workers are unemployed now than in 2000. But the unemployment rate for African-Americans has risen about 60 percent faster than for all workers. Some 400,000 more are now out of work than were out of work in 2000, a two-year rise of 30 percent.

Capitalism has failed all Americans, with the exception of the tiny minority that own and control the means of production and treat the country and its government as their private property. But the biggest losers are the twenty percent at the bottom of the pile, and of these the biggest majority are blacks and Latinos. Despite the attempts to disguise this situation by the kind of tokenism that allows a handful of privileged blacks like Colin Powell or Condoleeza Rice to figure prominently on the stage, the position of the great majority of working class and poor black people has not been substantially improved.

The conclusion is clear. The only way to eliminate racism is by pulling it up by the roots. The black slaves were first brought into the U.S.A. as a form of cheap labor serving the wealthy Southern planters. As a result of the Second American Revolution, they are formally free. But they remain as before cheap labor at the disposal of Big Business. The link between racism and capitalism was eventually clearly understood by Malcolm X and the Black Panthers, who attempted to organize on class lines and link the struggle of blacks for advancement to the general struggles of the American working class. This represented a deadly menace to the establishment that has thrived for so long on the policy of divide and rule. That is why the Black Panthers and Malcolm X were targeted and ruthlessly hunted down and killed.

Marxists consider the basic principles of the American Revolution to represent a great historic advance, but also consider that the only way to breathe life into these great principles is by overthrowing the rule of the big banks and monopolies that exercise a dictatorship over the people and have turned the idea of democracy into an empty shell. The overthrow of the dictatorship of Big Business demands the utmost unity in struggle of all working people – black and white, Native American and Irish, Hispanic and Asian, Arab and Jewish, white and blue collar, men and women, old and young. We make no distinction on grounds of color, sex or creed. It is necessary to unite all the oppressed, underprivileged and exploited people under the banner of the labor movement and socialism.

On the basis of a genuine socialist society –which has nothing to do with dictatorship or totalitarianism – the idea of the Rights of Man and Woman will cease to be an empty phrase and become a reality. Not only life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but a genuine freedom to develop the potential of human beings to the full – this is the meaning of socialism.

Return to Table of Contents

Go to Chapter V — Labor and Capital