[Audio] The American Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution

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Socialist Revolution editor John Peterson kicks off our three-part miniseries on the American Civil War. He lays out the basic theoretical foundations for understanding the events of the Civil War, which Marxists see as the second American Revolution.

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[Civil War song “Battle Cry of Freedom” and battle sounds]

When it comes to the sheer drama of American history nothing quite compares to the Civil War. It’s what forged the nation we live in today, and it set the stage for the next American Revolution: the Socialist Revolution.

As Lincoln famously said in 1858: “A house divided against itself cannot stand; this government divided into slave states and free states cannot endure, they must all be free or all be slave; they must be one thing or the other.”

[Theme music]


Hi everyone, welcome to this episode of the Socialist Revolution Podcast. My name is John Peterson, I’m the editor of Socialist Revolution magazine, you can visit our website at www.socialistrevolution.org. Each episode we feature contributions and discussions on current events, history, and theory from a Marxist, class-struggle perspective, featuring revolutionary socialists from around the country and around the world.

I’m really excited to kick off this three part series on a subject that is near and dear to my heart: The American Civil War and Reconstruction. The Civil War was the second American Revolution. It was four years of the most brutal warfare the country has ever seen, followed by the smoldering revolution and counterrevolution of Reconstruction. It was the foundry that transformed our conception of this country from “The United States are” to “The United States is.”

So having a firm grasp on the significance of this period is essential if we’re going to understand the country as it exists today. As the great novelist of the American South, William Faulkner, put it: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And as Marx explained: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”

The events of 160 years ago have a direct bearing on the struggle against exploitation, racism and all forms of oppression, and the struggle for socialism today. Last summer we witnessed a historic movement that embroiled over 2,000 US cities, drawing in fully 10% of the US adult population. Hundreds, if not thousands of other demonstrations were organized in solidarity around the world. The protests even drove Donald Trump into a White House bunker—and let’s not forget that a majority of Americans supported the burning of a Minneapolis police precinct!

These events were a forceful reminder that institutional racism is alive and well, that the fight against inequality and oppression cannot be separated from the fight against class exploitation, and that the only way to bring about serious, systemic change is through mass struggle.

And yet, as inspiring and impressive as it was, even 26 million people on American streets wasn’t enough to bring about the kind of far-reaching change the participants wanted. So it’s also a reminder that serious change will require even larger and even more sustained mobilizations.

Above all, it’s a reminder that we need mass, class-independent organization, and a class-struggle leadership willing to fight to the end, to go beyond the limits of capitalism, exerting every fiber in its being to focus the elemental energy of the masses into fundamental revolutionary change.

Revolution & Counterrevolution

But if we are to prepare properly for the revolutions of the not-too-distant future, we must soberly analyze the revolutions and counterrevolutions of the past—not only the inspiring victories, but also the defeats and betrayals, the periods of demoralization and reaction.

The study of the revolution cannot be separated from the study of counterrevolution, as these processes are dialectically interrelated. We must study the inter- and intra-class dynamics, contradictions, and tensions, and follow the changing class and property relations as they develop within a given social formation.

And of course, as Marxists, we are especially interested in understanding the role of the masses in these processes. Time and again throughout history, we’ve seen how, when deep divisions emerge at the summit of society, the masses sense an opportunity and rise up from below to seize their destinies in their hands, to put their stamp on history, even if they don’t have a clearly worked out plan, or a leadership up to the tasks posed by history.

The First American Revolution is also an amazing period, full of heroic examples of mass struggle and sacrifice. But for my money, when it comes to the sheer drama of American history, nothing quite compares to the Civil War—the second American Revolution. It’s what forged the nation we live in today and set the stage for the next American revolution—the socialist revolution.

It’s not for nothing that Marx called it “the greatest event of the age.” Engels referred to it as “the first grand war of contemporaneous history.” And Lenin, in his inimitable polemical style, once wrote that only a “pedant” and an “idiot” could deny “the immense, world-historic, progressive, and revolutionary significance of the American Civil War of 1863–65”!

During the war itself, Marx and Engels took an enthusiastic interest in events as they unfolded. They followed the economic, political, military, and diplomatic twists and turns carefully, and wrote dozens of extremely insightful articles and letters about it, which I’ll be quoting from, and which I highly recommend in full.

Marx even wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln on behalf of the First International, congratulating him on his reelection in 1864, saying: “If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.” I think that nicely sums up Marx’s fundamental appraisal of these events.

A dialectical historical-materialist approach

Now, most people have heard about Abraham Lincoln, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address, Robert E. Lee, and Ulysses S. Grant. But I’m not going to give a mere chronology of the war, a recap of the main participants and battles. My aim is to present a dialectical and historical materialist analysis of these events, to provide a framework for understanding these and other related social processes on a deeper level.

As Trotsky explained, we must “apply the methods of Marxism to the most complex combination of factors and forces during … historical epoch[s] of sharp breaks.” Revolutions are always preceded by periods of converging economic, political, social, and often, military crises. Like earthquakes and volcanoes, these are nonlinear processes, the result of accumulations of contradictions and pressures that eventually reach a tipping point and unleash all the energy built up in the previous period. The pressure of the masses is like a force of nature, like flood waters behind a dam. As the pressure builds up, even small cracks can lead to the rupture the entire structure.

So as important as they are, facts and figures alone are not sufficient, and even a generally materialist approach is not enough if we are to really understand the most complex social phenomena, which includes, wars, revolutions, and counterrevolutions. We need dialectics as well as materialism to cut through the smoke and noise, to grasp the real essence of these phenomena.

A contradictory process

In its essence, the Civil War was a titanic struggle between the historically progressive industrial capitalism of the North, and the plantation and slave-owning counterrevolution of the South. Ultimately, it was a fight to determine which mode of exploitation—wage labor or slave labor—would predominate economically and politically within the bounds of the American nation-state.

But even that is a bit too simplistic, and we shouldn’t approach this or any other clash between revolution and counterrevolution in a one-sided way. It wasn’t a monolithic and united struggle of slavery-hating capitalists, anti-racist workers, and small farmers on the one side, fighting against a gang of united slavery-loving plantation owners and racist poor farmers on the other.

There were deep class contradictions on both sides of the sectional divide, including, of course, millions of slaves and hundreds of thousands of escaped slaves. There was also deep racism in every part of the country, including among many abolitionists. And despite ultimately, objectively fighting against slavery, many northern workers were suspicious of slaves and especially of freed slaves, who they saw as competitors for jobs and land.

There were also big economic and cultural differences within the broader sections themselves. The economies and interests of Delaware and Maryland were not the same as in Texas or Mississippi. The same applies to Massachusetts in New England versus states on the western frontier of that time, such as Wisconsin or Minnesota.

And believe it or not, the mayor of New York City, Fernando Wood, seriously suggested to the City Council that it should declare itself a “free city” and act as a neutral commercial liaison between the North and the South. Mayor Wood, who was at the heart of the infamous Tammany Hall, was keen to keep the revenues from the slave and cotton trade flowing, which greased the wheels of political patronage of the city’s Democratic Party machine.

Even though slave holding had been abolished in New York decades earlier, the city’s financiers profited more than anywhere else from the slave trade. This underlines the deep connection between the exploitation of slave labor and capitalism.

Ultimately, I think the origins of the Civil War can be traced to the very founding of the country and the incomplete nature of the first American Revolution. Independence from Britain had been won, but many of the historical tasks typically associated with what is often referred to as the national-democratic revolution, remained incomplete. Above all, the predominance of capitalist exploitation of wage labor. Another revolution, another tremendous social upheaval and restructuring of the economy and society as a whole was needed.

The ultimate bourgeois revolution

In my view, the Civil War and Reconstruction must be counted among the greatest events in the whole world history. This was the last great push of the bourgeoisie as a historically progressive class.

Remember, just a few years later, in 1871, came the Paris Commune, the first entry of the working class onto the stage of history as a contender for power. All major worldwide revolutionary movements since then have had at least one foot clearly on the proletarian revolution side of history.

More than that, I think it can be convincingly argued that the Civil War was, in fact, the most classical bourgeois revolution, insofar as in previous revolutions, the capitalist class did not play such a conscious role as a class in imposing its preferred class and property relations on the nation as a whole.

Not only did the North use the war and its aftermath to break up or accelerate the break up of non-capitalist forms of exploitation and production throughout the country, it used the upheaval to consolidate the state institutions that established the political and legal framework for untrammeled capitalist accumulation and expansion in the years that followed.

After decades of compromise with the centrifugal forces of Jeffersonian and Jacksonian states’ rights particularism, the inheritors of Alexander Hamilton’s federalists finally won the day under Lincoln.

The war allowed for unprecedented centralization in order to finance and mobilize the human and material resources required for victory: with tariffs, taxes, a military draft, the first national paper currency, and even partial nationalization of the railroads and telegraphs.

Revolution and the masses

Of course, what truly makes it a revolution for Marxists, is that it was not at all driven merely from above. There was massive participation by ordinary northern workers and small farmers, who fought to defend the union, and ultimately, to smash slavery. They did so under the banner of Union and bourgeois liberty, inspired by religious moral or righteousness and the revolutionary spirit of 1776.

Also in the South, there was a total social mobilization for what the masses perceived as a revolutionary uprising against the tyranny of the North. Never mind that objectively, their rebellion was counterrevolutionary in nature. And as we’ll see, hundreds of thousands of slaves played a decisive role in their own emancipation, tens of thousands of them with arms in hand.

Accident, necessity, and the role of the individual in history

It is ABC for Marxists that revolutions give expression to profound social and economic contradictions. But the precise outcome of such processes flows from a struggle of living forces, including countless accidental and incidental elements, and is by no means predetermined in advance. And although the role of the individual in history is indubitable and can be decisive at certain nodal points of development, the main course of events is not decided by the subjective will of individual participants.

Abraham Lincoln himself instinctively understood this. As he put it: “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” His ideas and actions evolved dramatically over the course of the conflict, and offer an highly interesting example of reformism passing over into revolution.

Initially, he adopted a largely legalistic approach, as he aimed to put down a regional rebellion while maintaining the status quo, including slavery. He was only a hardliner on the question of the extension of slavery into the territories. But Lincoln was eventually compelled by events to pursue a revolutionary war of destruction and expropriation against slavery, which was the root cause and support for the South’s revolt.

Had he limited the struggle to reestablishing the old order, he would have almost certainly failed. But once he recognized the changed conditions and let himself be swept up by the tide, he gave an impetus to the process in his own way, and helped transform it into fully a revolutionary struggle, which in turn took on a life of its own.

Class and property relations

So to understand everything that unfolded, we first need to analyze the class and property relations that prevailed in the US before the outbreak of the war. We should be clear that capitalism had been dominant throughout the country for a very long time time, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. The US had long been an integral part of the world market, and in the decades after the first revolution, its merchant capitalists had been transformed into capitalist manufacturers and industrialists.

Over the same period, the largely self-sufficient, independent household production of the “yeoman farmers” in the North had also been transformed. Due to a range of economic and social factors, above all, the growing pressures of the market, they had been compelled to become agrarian petty-commodity producers, or they had lost their land and become wage laborers, or in some instances, had risen to the position of petty capitalists themselves.

The South also had its share of small farmers, some with land of their own, others who worked as tenants on the land of others, and still others who were landless and worked as itinerant agricultural laborers on other people’s farms, or who merely scraped out a bare existence on the fringes of society. There was some manufacturing in the South. In fact, there had been efforts to expand this in the Antebellum years for fear of being totally dependent on and dominated by Northern manufactured goods.

But the predominant mode of exploitation, and the top contributor to the Southern economy was chattel slavery, which pumped out agricultural commodities to be sold for a profit on the domestic and world markets. The presence of large-scale slavery in the South, and especially in the “cotton belt” cut across the development of both industrial and petty-commodity production in that section of the country.

So while the capitalist mode of production was dominant in the country as a whole, the ruling class of each section based itself on very different modes of exploitation, and as a result, had increasingly divergent priorities and interests.

Everything turns into its opposite

Although there were some innovations and changes introduced over the years in the South, broadly speaking, this section of the country remained more or less the same in the 1850s as it had been in the 1820s. In the North, on the other hand, the economy had evolved much more dramatically, with household production being transformed into small-scale manufacturing, and manufacturing transformed into full-on industry.

Now, the South had largely dominated the federal government since the republic was founded. But as small northern capital grew into medium and then big capital, the ascendant big bourgeoisie wanted political power commensurate with its growing economic might and population.

To be sure, Southern slavery had been a crucial component in the initial accumulation and expansion of capital in the country as a whole. For well over half a century, two sections had had a symbiotic, if at times, strained relationship. Their interests had coincided in the struggle against the British, against the Shaysites and other internal rebellions in the years after the Revolution, and they were able to negotiate the joint sharing of power within the same state for several decades.

But eventually, this mutually beneficial relationship hit its limits and turned into its opposite. The North no longer needed the services of a largely rural, atomized “aristocratic” petty-bourgeois planter class basing itself on slave labor. Slavery was an inefficient use of land and labor, and its territorial expansion was a fetter on the further expansion of industrial and finance capital—and of the exploitation of wage labor.

The North was compelled by the dynamics of capitalist production to impose its own economic forms, even if these aims were presented in moral or religious terms, or in the name of “freedom” in the abstract. All of this, of course, represented a mortal threat to the “way of life” of the South, which was based on the so-called “peculiar institution” of chattel slavery.

It’s not within the scope of this particular podcast series to go into the horrors of slavery, the Middle Passage from Africa to the Americas, or the history of the estimated 250 slave uprisings, both large and small that took place in the US alone. But we should be clear that slavery wasn’t passively accepted by the enslaved. And that the millions of slaves and free black people who called the United States home had developed their own cultural forms, communication networks, and methods of resistance.

Broadly speaking, however, by the 1850s, there were two very different socioeconomic entities, two distinct national cultures even, with very different values and worldviews, forced to co-exist within the same nation-state—and this wasn’t tenable long-term.

As Lincoln famously said in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand; this government divided into slave states and free states cannot endure, they must all be free or all be slave; they must be one thing or the other.”

The framework of the original US Constitution and Bill of Rights had reached its limits and was about to burst in violent and dramatic fashion.


[Theme music plays]

That’s it for this episode of the socialist revolution podcast, thank you so much for listening!

Next week we’ll continue our series on the US Civil War, with a look at the Constitutional foundations of the crisis, the economics of slavery, the abolitionists, the political scene at the time, and go over a brief timeline of events leading up to secession and the war itself.

Big thanks, as always, to Laura Brown, our audio-visual producer, whose hard work behind the scenes makes these episodes possible.

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