Robin Blackburn offers an exciting new perspective on Marx’s interpretation of the American Civil War that puts the question of slavery back at its heart, argues Katherine Connelly.

Robin Blackburn, An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (Verso 2011), 272pp.

When Karl Marx was asked in a family game to name his hero, he did not pick one of the ‘giants’ of philosophy, politics or economics whose works he drew so much inspiration from; he did not mention Hegel, or Robespierre, or Goethe, or Adam Smith. Instead he answered ‘Spartacus’, the slave who led a war of slaves against the might of the Roman Empire. For Marx, Spartacus was ‘the finest fellow produced by the whole of classical history… a real representative of the ancient proletariat’.[1]

When, in the ferment of the 1848 revolutions, a working-class revolt began in Paris, Marx’s collaborator, Friedrich Engels, rejected comparisons with the famous Parisian revolutions of 1789 and 1830. Instead he compared it to ‘the Roman slave war’.[2]

Slave revolts captured the imagination of Marx and Engels. In contrast to the recent ‘bourgeois’ revolutions from which new oppressions had followed old, slave revolts represented something uncompromising, a revolt that could not be co-opted or assimilated into the old system. It had to win decisively or perish. Slave revolts therefore provided a pertinent parallel to working-class revolution.

An Unfinished Revolution, Robin Blackburn’s republication of and introduction to Marx’s articles on America, demonstrate that the question of slavery was central to his analysis of the American Civil War. Marx’s vibrant, searing analysis of the war was as iconoclastic in its own time as it remains today.  

During the war, leading London newspapers argued that this was not a war for the abolition of slavery, it was in fact a ‘tariff war’, a clash of economics, and so the Union government had no moral superiority and was not to be supported. Marx however resisted reducing the questions of the war to one of economics. He cut through the hypocrisy of the British commentators, who claimed that they would not support the North because it was not genuinely pro-abolition, by showing that they also utterly condemned the idea of a slave revolt, which would be the most genuine abolitionist movement (Blackburn, p.146).

Blackburn’s introduction shows that Marx’s position also differed from many other European liberals and radicals who, initially at least, supported the secession of the South from the Union ‘partly because many of them distrusted strong states and championed the right of small nations to self-determination’ (p.5). Blackburn shows that Marx’s support for the North from the outset was due to an analysis of the roots of the conflict, which saw through the rhetoric of the rights or wrongs of self-determination: ‘he refused to define the struggle in the terms first adopted by the belligerents themselves’ (p.8).

The issue of ‘self-determination’ had arisen because of the problems posed by a system based on slave labour. The economy based on slavery was unable to sustain itself as it existed in the Union. The slaveholders were anxious to expand the number of slave states because the soil was becoming exhausted, and therefore producing less profit, and they needed new markets in which to sell slaves. Marx saw that the rhetoric of fighting for Southern liberty was in reality ‘fighting for the liberty of enslaving other people’ (p.140).

Blackburn’s reading of Marx also provides a challenge to an established view, expressed in some of the ‘standard’ collections of Marx’s work, that Marx was naïve in his ardent support for the North in the Civil War. It is argued that he failed to see the interests of rampant capitalism behind the anti-slavery rhetoric of the North, while also failing to acknowledge the popular nature of resistance in the South.[3]

In fact, Marx’s exposure of the slaveholders’ expansionist desires also explained their wider support in the South:

‘Only with the acquisition of new territories, the prospect of such acquisition, and filibustering expeditions is it possible to harmonize the interests of these “poor whites” successfully with those of the slaveholders, to channel their restless thirst for action in a harmless direction, and to tempt them with the prospect of becoming slaveholders themselves one day’ (p.136).

Expansionist rhetoric was therefore also a cynical tool to encourage the Southern poor to identify their interests with those of the Southern ruling class. As expansionism rested upon the slave system, the slave population would have to be liberated for the poor white population to be liberated.

Marx applied this dialectical approach to the question of tensions in the North. Far from wholeheartedly supporting a homogenous ‘North’, Marx’s letters on America convey his mistrust in the bourgeois Northern rulers: ‘Of course, like other people, I see the repulsive side of the form the movement takes among the Yankees, but I find the explanation of it in the nature of “bourgeois” democracy’ (p.199).

The Northern rulers’ interest in maintaining the ‘order’ of the hierarchical status quo was hampering their interest in successfully prosecuting the War, as they refused to adopt the tactics of revolutionary warfare, for example by liberating and arming all the slaves. This contradiction between the interests at the top of Northern society, and its needs in the war would, Marx hoped, create revolutionary conditions in the North.  In 1862 he wrote ‘it is possible that it will come to a sort of revolution in the North itself first’ (p.197).

Therefore, for Marx, it was not a question of turning a blind eye to the problems of the North in order to oppose slavery, but rather he saw the fight against slavery as an essential element in creating conditions for the fight for general working-class emancipation. This dialectical formulation appears in the International Workingmen’s Association’s Address to Abraham Lincoln, in which Marx wrote:

‘The workingmen of Europe feel sure that as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American antislavery war will do for the working classes’ (p.212).

The cause of the slaves, the working class and the poor – North and South – were, for Marx, the same cause.

While the working class revolution that Marx had hoped for did not materialise, there was a huge wave of working class revolt in the aftermath of the War. This period saw the growth of labour organisations and the campaign for the eight hour day. The new militancy even inspired freed slaves working on the land, as ‘their new employers complained that the freed people thought that they could withdraw their labour whenever convenient or demand higher pay just when the harvest had to be brought in’ (p.66).

Blackburn charts the involvement of the International Workingmen’s Association (‘The International’ of which Marx was one of the leaders) in the post-war industrial struggles. He also challenges the common assumption that Marx’s decision to move the International’s Headquarters to the United States in the 1870s was purely motivated by an attempt to make the involvement of European anarchists impossible.  Blackburn suggests that Marx saw that International’s relative success in America meant it could ‘sink real roots’ there: by the early 1870s the International had 50 sections in 12 urban areas, and in 1871 it was strong enough to call a demonstration of 70,000 upwards in New York in protest at the massacre of the Communards in Paris (pp.72-7).

This fascinating relationship between Marx and America is the heart of the book and perhaps should have been the subject of the book.  However, the book purports to examine the ideas of Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, and explore a dialogue between them. This does not work for a number of reasons. Firstly, the dialogue never happened. In the section titled ‘Letters between Marx and Lincoln’ there are three documents, the first is the International’s address to Lincoln, the second is the reply by the American Ambassador to Britain (not Lincoln), and the third is the International’s Address to President Andrew Johnson. They were clearly not ardent pen-pals.

Secondly, I would argue that there is some wishful thinking in Blackburn’s introduction which is not borne out by the documents provided as evidence. Lincoln in the 1850s had argued against rights for black people, and suggested that freed slaves should leave America and go to Africa. His Emancipation Proclamation, which came into force during the War in 1863, only emancipated slaves in states which declared themselves outside the Union. While Blackburn shows that Lincoln’s ideas changed on the questions of black Americans, he then goes on to suggest that his later contact with the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass seems ‘to signal the stirring of an awareness of the need for African American agency if freedom were really to be won’ (p.53). Douglass’ own comment on Lincoln, cited as evidence of this, to me suggests the opposite conclusion, that Lincoln remained opportunistic on the question of race:

‘Viewed from genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent, but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined’ (pp.52-3).

The basis for the comparison with Marx appears to be what Lincoln’s views might have become rather than what they really were. Likewise, while it is true that Marx described Lincoln as ‘the single-minded son of the working class’, he did so in the context of the International’s formal 1865 Address to Lincoln, encouraging the most radical vision of post-war America (p.212).

However, Marx’s private letters and articles cited in the book show he was much more sceptical about Lincoln’s motives. The agent of change was not really this son of the working class, but the radicalism happening in wider American society; he wrote of the coming American election late in 1864:

‘If Lincoln gets through this time – as is very probable – it will be on a much more radical platform and under wholly changed circumstances. In conformity with his legal manner, the old man will then find more radical methods compatible with his conscience’ (p.206).

In one article, he quoted at length the abolitionist Wendell Phillips’ attack on Lincoln’s half-measures in the War, stating that Phillips’ analysis was ‘of greater importance than a battle bulletin’ (p.178). Marx’s articles convey his deep criticism of Lincoln’s strategy. In fact, the Marx family were so openly critical of Lincoln that even Marx’s daughter Eleanor, who was not 10 years old, composed long letters to Lincoln offering her advice on how to win the war.[4]

If the meeting of two minds cannot be proved, the two minds hardly provide much of a match for each other. Marx’s detailed observations on the political, economic and military aspects of the war far outweigh, both intellectually and in the amount of space awarded, the three formal Addresses by Lincoln and the text of the compromised Emancipation Proclamation.  

It is perhaps in seeking to redress this imbalance that Blackburn has included texts from other American authors. Undoubtedly these texts are interesting in their own right and it is a pleasure to see texts which have been unjustly overlooked being brought to light. Victoria Woodhull, writing on women and children’s rights, and Lucy Parsons, speaking at the foundation of the Industrial Workers of the World, were both figures who had some involvement in the International. Lucy Parsons’ husband had been sentenced to death after the Haymarket Massacre in 1886, when a bomb exploded at a workers’ protest and police fired on the crowd. However, their inclusion does seem artificial, especially as Lucy Parsons’ politics were, by the time of her speech in 1905, quite different from those Marx had insisted on in the International. Indeed, a far more natural inclusion would have been Eleanor Marx’s speech in the immediate aftermath of the Haymarket Massacre which she made in America. However, the seemingly arbitrary inclusion of these texts adds to the impression that Blackburn is trying to force parallels that do not really hold up to scrutiny.

Nevertheless, Blackburn provides, through close reading of Marx and detailed contextual knowledge, citing the most up-to-date scholarship, a fresh perspective on Marx’s relationship to events in America. The pieces by Marx are a delight to read, demonstrating not only a brilliant critical analysis, but also the positive engagement of a passionate revolutionary who, though seeing compromise and rhetoric all around, argued against standing aside. Moreover, they point to the message in the title of the book… the revolution is still unfinished.


[1] D. McLellan, Karl Marx: A Biography (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p.302.

[2] Marx and Engels Collected Works, Vol. 7 (Lawrence and Wishart), p.130.

[3] See, for example, D. Fernbach’s Introduction to Karl Marx: Surveys from Exile Political Writings, Vol. 2 (Penguin Books, 1973), p.32.

[4] Y. Kapp, Eleanor Marx: Family Life 1855-1883 (Virago, 1979), p.34.

Katherine Connelly

Kate Connelly is a writer and historian. She led school student strikes in the British anti-war movement in 2003, co-ordinated the Emily Wilding Davison Memorial Campaign in 2013 and is a leading member of Counterfire. She wrote the acclaimed biography, 'Sylvia Pankhurst: Suffragette, Socialist and Scourge of Empire' and recently edited and introduced 'A Suffragette in America: Reflections on Prisoners, Pickets and Political Change'.

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