Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Writings on the North American Civil War


The American civil war was referred to as “the very first striking war of contemporary history” by Engels while Karl Marx later termed it as “the utmost happening of the era”. In today’s era, when the past 19th century has moved away into the power of the bourgeois and the distance that dispensed out of the war overlaps the globe, we are able to realize the conflict’s massive magnitude far better than they seem to be. The decisive moment of the history of the 19th century can be seen as the second revolution of the US. The aim of this paper is to critically analyze the views of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels writings on the North American Civil War as primary sources and the usefulness of such primary sources in better understanding this significant period in the American History.

The views of Engels and Marx are regarded as the most valuable as they were great working class influential on the American Civil war while it was happening. They both saw the civil war as historic. In 1861, after Abraham Lincoln was elected, Marx write to Engels saying that in his opinion he believed that the great things happening in the world at the time were slaves movement in America that was started by John Brown’s death on one hand and Serf’s movement in Russia on the other. It is for this first hand and first experience of the war by these two great leaders that this essay aims at analyzing their views and what they make of the Civil war and how holding their views were or are till today.

During the period of the war, Engels and Marx made massive contributions by writing articles in New York Tribune and Viennese Die Presse regarding military and political issues (Hayek 12). Engels decided to specialize in Lincoln’s administration’s military strategy as well as that of the rebel government of Confederate Jefferson Davis. On the other hand, Karl Marx did his specialization on the conflict, from an economic point of view as well as the military and political leaders’ actions (Callinicos 8). This means that Marx had a greater grasp on the entire war. They both perceived the war as a 1776’s American Revolution extension. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels argued that the Emancipation Proclamation of Lincoln and the deployment of Black soldiers by the North transformed the war from a constitutional war for preserving the nation with slavery in one piece into a war of revolution (Nimtz 175). They could not characterize the war as a purely revolutionary war for the socialists, they had the belief that the war advanced all the workers’ cause; both whites and Blacks through putting an end to chattel slavery (Foner 199). The revolution was able to arm former slaves, destroy the slavery institution without compensating the slave owners as well as open the way for the capitalist and working class struggles (Davidson 98). As a result of this, the next revolution according to them was to be a working class.

The rise and fall of slavery is seen as a perfect example of contention in the American history. The holders of slaves had to be elevated to heights before being put down to the ground and forever conquered by the war (Hayek 22). This is a precedent in the American history that needs to be considered when the growing reactions of the world tend to be carrying away the entirety before it.

The advocates of pro-slavery contended, in the first occasion that the war raging between the South and the North was just a tariff war. In the second occasion, they argued that the war was being waged against the Southerners by the Northerners in order to forcefully sustain the union. In the last occasion they asserted that the slave aspect was totally unrelated to the war and was completely out of question (Callinicos 15).

On the contrary, Marx was never afraid to confront all these arguments and he did this by analyzing the arguments through five facts (Nimtz 179). He answered the second argument that the war originated from the South and not the North. The war came about as a rebellious expression of slavery being supported by the Republican government. The election of Lincoln gave a succession signal to slavery just the same way as the Fort Sumter’s bombardment begun the war (Foner 201). The victory of Lincoln was ensured through the Democratic Party’s Southern and Northern wings breach. The only way to succeed could only be through the Northwest up surging. When the Northwestern sides split the Democratic lines and supported the Republican contender, the power balance was upset and this enhanced the ruling of the Republic by the slave power for sixty years and thus making it inevitable and necessary for secession to happen (Davidson 101).

The Republican bourgeoisie got a noose in their hands as a result of their assumption of power which they could tighten as they would please around the slave power’s neck until they were able to strangle it completely (Hayek 28). The fact that they had totally lost control of the government and were being faced with slow growth prospects, the holders of the slaves were committed to battle for their freedom of enslaving others (Callinicos 29).

The political battle that gave rise to the civil war was an expression of intense economic antagonisms that existed between the free states and the slaves (Nimtz 185). Marx believed that the most significant of these was the fight over territories’ possession needed for expanding their respective production systems. Marx asserts that the contest of territories which started the war was for deciding whether the immense tracts’ virgin soil was supposed to be wedded to the prostitute or immigrant’s labor to the slave driver’s tramp (Foner 202). The lands in the west acted as the rock upon which the North and South union was stranded.

For the argument that slavery had nothing to do with the war, Marx asserted that it was the exact opposite. H believed that the Confederacy formation as well as the Union’s dissolution was just the first stage in the program of the slave holders. After their power consolidation, they must strive inevitably in conquering the North and extend their dominion where they could cultivate cotton (Davidson 112). Marx argues that the South was never a nation but a combat cry; the Southern Confederacy’s war- a conquest war for the slavery perpetuation and extension (Hayek 36). The owners of the slaves were aiming at reorganizing the Union based on slavery. This without a doubt would mean North America’s subjugation, free institutions nullification, perpetuation of barbaric and obsolete production methods without regard for an economic order that was higher (Callinicos 32). Human progress would be negatively affected through the progression of the North and backward triumph of the South (Nimtz 191).

Those of the opinion that the war had no association with slavery due to the fact that the Republicans were afraid of unfurling the emancipation banner at the start of the war, Marx answered them arguing that a republic’s foundation was proclaimed by Confederacy itself for the very first time in contemporary history and slavery is its principal that is totally unquestionable (Foner 203).

Marx argues from a political perspective to an economic view as well as touching on the social aspect of the Civil War. He is able to analyze deeper and conclude that the conflict between the South and the North is nothing less of a conflict between two opposing social systems; the free labor system and that of slavery (Davidson 118). He believes that the war broke out due to the fact that the two opposing systems could not coexist peacefully in the continent of North America. Only the victory of one of the systems could be able to end the war (Hayek 42).

In association with Marx’s account of the war causes, he gives emphasis to economic, military and political significance of border states. These various states, which were neither free nor slave, seemed like on one hand, thorns in the Southern side and the Northern weakest point on the other hand. The government formed by the Republicans was directed to a cowardly, conciliatory and weak policy of pursuing the war because of supporting ambiguous allies and did not bother throwing off their influence that was constraining until the time when the war was almost half over (Callinicos 48).

Engels and Marx did follow the military characteristic of the war attentively. Specifically, “The General”, was engrossed by the strategies and tactics of the contenders. The general was just being impatient with McClellan’s Fabian policies and the anaconda plan for constricting, crushing and surrounding the south, advocating rather a sharp and bold stroke that was launched in the South’s middle (Nimtz 194). Thus, he did anticipate the decisive march of Sherman in 1862 two years later through Georgia. As a result of his failure to use revolutionary measures to curb the way, he at some point gave up hope of victory by the North (Foner 204). However, Marx, looking at the massive superiority of the Northern latent powers and the Southern inherent weaknesses, chided himself for being “influenced by the war’s military aspect a little too much “(Davidson 132).

The civil war is seen to have opened the door for the bourgeois-democratic uprising triumph in the US. In the era of death fights with slavery, Engels and Marx were able to correctly stress out the positive, progressive, revolutionary and democratic significance of the conflict rewarded by the conventional republic in their revolutionary labor spearheads’ capacity (Hayek 47). They based their political ideology on the idea of the working class struggle for freedom would be enhanced by the Northern victory and thrown back by Confederacy’s triumph. These two never declared their Republican class confidence but they freely and openly criticized the way they conducted the war (Callinicos 52).

In summary, it is evident that Marxism will live on for the generations to come. The narration on the cause of war as put by Engels and Marx from a first-hand experience perspective is a rich source of knowledge that only few can question. This is seen in the way Engels and Marx were able to answer to the three contentious issues of the war being just a tariff war, had nothing to do with slavery and that the war was being waged against the Southerners by the Northerners in order to forcefully sustain the union. The essay has brought about their arguments based on these three pro-slavery contexts and one is able to understand the period comprehensively. They concluded that the war was related to slavery, from the South and not the North and that war came about as a rebellious expression of slavery being supported by the Republican government. The argument from political perspective to an economic view as well as touching on the social aspect of the Civil War brings about the whole context of the war and one is able to understand the period at length. This indeed is a very rich primary source of the war.

Work Cited

Callinicos, Alex. The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx.New York: Haymarket Books, 2012.

Davidson, Neil. “The American Civil War Considered as a Bourgeois Revolution.” Historical Materialism 19.4 (2011): 98-144.

Foner, Eric. “The Civil War and Slavery: A Response.” Historical Materialism 19.4 (2011): 199-205.

Hayek, Friedrich. Capitalism and the Historians.London: Routledge, 2013.

Nimtz, August H. “Marx and Engels on the US Civil War: The ‘Materialist Conception of History’in Action.” Historical Materialism 19.4 (2011): 175-198.

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