Marx the Militant Abolitionist: Study Questions for “Marx on the Margins”

Karl Marx’s wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln, on behalf of his organization, the First International. What he wrote sheds some serious light on race and class in America:

“While the working men, the true political power of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic; while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master; they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation, but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war. The working men of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Anti-Slavery War will do for the working classes.”

This, and other interventions he made, show that Marx was a militant abolitionist, similar to John Brown… he was calling for white workers around the world to support slave uprisings by organizing their own resistance to slavery. He was involved in mass protests of British factory workers against the British factory owners’ support for the Confederacy. He didn’t hesitate to call out and confront white American workers who allowed themselves to be bought off by their privileges instead of standing in solidarity with the enslaved Black proletariat. This is some crucial history, but unfortunately the majority-white Marxist left has been sleeping on it for far too long. It is their silence that has condemned Marx to the dustbin of history as just another “dead white man”. It is their lack of resolve in the struggle against white supremacy today that has discouraged working class movements from seriously considering the militant anti-racist legacy within Marxism, a legacy that could be useful in struggles against white supremacy today.

To engage with this legacy, last month we read “Marx on the Margins” by Kevin Anderson. It’s a crucial breakthrough in developing a Marxist analysis of race.  Anderson summarizes and analyzes Marx’s works on race, colonialism, and anti-colonial struggles.  He also examines how Marx’s views on what is now called the Third World changed quite a bit over the course of his life – in his later writings he rejected much  of the famous eurocentrism of his earlier writings and supported anti-colonial and anti-racist movements as absolutely central parts of the global struggle for communism.  In many ways the book vindicates Marx against charges of racism raised by post-colonial theorists like Edward Said.  But vindicating Marx’s race politics is only desirable or useful if his works actually contain insights that can help us overthrow white supremacy today.  I would argue that Anderson’s book is full of such insights, pulled from the pages of some of Marx’s most neglected, but most important works, and from his revolutionary practice building the First International.

Other B.O.C. comrades will post later on the sections of the book they presented on in our study group.  In the menatime, here are the disucssion questions I wrote up about Marx’s abolitionist stance during the Civil War.  I highly reccommend that folks use this book in Marxist study groups, and if you do I hope these questions might be useful as a starting point.  Also, if folks want to discuss any of these points in the comments please do, perhaps it’ll generate some thinking that can help us take further steps toward developing a robust, nuanced, and liberating Marxist analysis of race today.

Study Guide: 

start by defining vocab:

– confederacy

– union

– secession

–  abolitionism

1) How have Marx’s civil war writings been interpreted in the past by the following writers?

– Bertram Wolfe (former Communist Party USA thinker)

– WEB Dubois (famous Black Communist scholar)

– Communist Party USA’s official line ( Richard Morais’s edited volume )

– CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya (the Johnson Forrest Tendency)

– Raya D.  in her later book Marxism and Freedom

– Eugene Genovese (Communist Party USA scholar)

2) In 1846, Marx wrote:

“ Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present-day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition
for large-scale machine industry. . . . Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.”

What is the significance of this quote in terms of developing a Marxist analysis of race in America?   Were slaves part of the proletariat?  Were their revolts part of the class struggle?

3)  When Marx  was a journalist, he reported in the Tribune what happened in Oberlin, OH when the federal government tried to return an escaped slave to the South.   What happened?   Does this remind us of any struggles today?  What does it show about multi-racial struggle?

4) What did Marx think  it would take to end slavery?  (Note, he and John Brown both shared an appreciation for the self-activity of Black folks, and then need for armed revolution. )

5) According to Marx, what classes in the North formed the basis for militant abolitionism that could go further than Lincoln and the middle class liberals?

6) According to Marx, were poor Southerners for secession or not?  What did his friend Engels think?

7) –  According to Marx, why was the U.S.’s colonial expansion Westward across North America crucial for keeping poor Southern whites subordinated to the slaveholding elites?  How does this link the fates of poor whites, Black folks, Latinos, and Natives?  Do we see echoes of this mentality in American politics today?

note on p. 90 Anderson hints that the North was about to play the same game in order to try to tame it’s rebellious immigrant workforce; they wanted to prevent the expansion of slavery into the Western colonies becuase they wanted this land to be colonized by their own “surplus population” as a release valve for class struggle and social tension on the East Coast.  Marx suggests this is what finally triggered Southern secession!

8 )   According to Marx, what would have happened if the South had won the civil war?   Does he think the South was a block to capitalist development or does he think they could have developed their own type of industrial capitalism?

9)  There is a wave of right wing secessionist movements today modeled after the Confederacy. There are also Left-Rigth secessionist alliances, and groups like the National Anarchists that combine left and right wing secessionist ideologies.  What if one of them were to say Marx was hypocritical for supporting national independence movements in Ireland and India but not in supporting Southern secession and the Confederacy? (p. 89) What is Marx’s basis for supporting some independence movements but not others?  What should ours be?

10)  According to Marx, which groups in Britain supported the Confederacy and which suported the Union?

11)  How does the argument that the Civil War was not about slavery play into the hands of pro-Confederacy white supremacists?  How does the argument that the war WAS about slavery play into the hands of  racist Northern elites like Lincoln?  If someone asks us what the war was about, what should we say?

12) What do we make of this passage?

“English modern industry, in general, relied upon two pivots equally monstrous. The one was the potato as the only means of feeding Ireland and a great part of the English working class. This pivot was swept away by the potato disease and the subsequent Irish catastrophe. A larger basis for the reproduction and maintenance of the toiling millions had then to be adopted. The second pivot of English industry was the slave-grown cotton of the United States. The present American crisis forces them to enlarge their field of supply and emancipate cotton from slave-breeding and slave-consuming oligarchies. As long as the English cotton manufactures depended on slave-grown cotton, it could be truthfully asserted
that they rested on a twofold slavery, the indirect slavery of the white man in England and the direct slavery of the black man on the other side of the Atlantic. (19–20)”

– Note how Marx starts his major work Capital Volume 1 with an analysis of the commodity.  The role of key commodities structuring social relations is at play in this paragraph as well.  What do we think of this method of starting his analysis by analyzing commodities?  If we applied it today, what commodities lay behind the oppressive social relations in the global economy of our time?

13) Marx describes why the European working classes opposed slavery.   What are the positive aspects of this and what are the negative?  Is this principled anti-racism or is it a form of racism or is it both?

“The true people of England, of France, of Germany, of Europe, consider the cause of the United States as their own cause, as the cause of liberty, and . . . despite all paid sophistry, they consider the soil of the United States as the free soil of the landless millions of Europe, as their land of promise, now to be defended sword in hand, from the sordid grasp of the slaveholder. . . . In this contest the highest form of popular self-government till now realized is giving battle to the meanest and most shameless form of man’s enslaving recorded in the annals of history. . . . Such a war . . . [is] so distinguished, by the vastness of its dimensions and the grandeur of its ends, from the groundless, wanton and diminutive wars Europe has passed through since 1849. (29–30)”

14) How did the English working class help influence foreign policy toward the U.S. civil war even though they couldn’t vote?

15) Why do Marx and Engels consider the Civil War a “people’s war”?   What role do they say that exiled European revolutionaries played in the Union army?  What prevented it from fully being a people’s war?  How did Marx and Engels want to overcome this?  What does Marx mean when he says the war needs to be fought along “revolutionary” lines What is his critique of Lincoln?  What do we think about this idea of “people’s war”? What are some potential dangers in framing the question this way?

16)  How did Marx and Engels differ in their views of the Civil War?

17) What does Marx say about Lincoln after the Emancipation Proclamation?  Do you agree or disagree?

18)  What does Marx say about Irish American workers’ role in the civil war?   (note: in discussion, make sure to summarize the contrast with his stance on the Irish working class and it’s role in the British and European class sturggle, which is covered in another chapter)

19) What role did the struggle against European ruling classes’ support for the Confederacy play in the formation of the first international?   What stance did the International take on racism?

20)  Why did Marx and the First International write a letter to Lincoln?  To write this letter, Marx had to argue against positions in the International that were both to the Left and to the Right of his own.  What do we think about Marx’s stance in response to these counter-positions?  What would it look like today for the working class to develop its own foreign policy?

21) What do we think about the content of the letter to Lincoln itself?   What does it say about a possible Marxist analysis of American race relations?

22) what did Marx and Engels hope Andrew Johnson would do after the war? Why?  Why were they wrong?   What did the First International’s Letter to the American People say about Reconstruction?  What warning did it give about the future of America?

– interesting note:  Marx’s daughter Laura married Paul Lafargue, an Afro-Franco-Cuban man who was a major leader in the First International.  We can also note that the post-civil war Chicago workers movement ends up being lead by Lucy Parsons, who was Black, and possible Native and Latino as well.  She was also active in the First International.

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12 Responses to Marx the Militant Abolitionist: Study Questions for “Marx on the Margins”

  1. This is the first post I’ve seen that mentions the relationship between Lincoln and Marx. As for both of them, there was nothing altruistic and compassionate in their motives. They both used class conflict to further their carnal, materialistic ambitions. As Lincold found out, when you swim wit5h sharks, you get bitten. The corporate structure is cannibalistic.

    • mamos206 says:

      What were Marx’s “carnal, materialistic ambitions”? What were Lincoln’s? Also, just to clarify what do you mean that Lincoln swam with the sharks and got bitten? I definitely agree with you that the corporate structure is cannibalistic. Capitalism is in crisis. We need a lot of altruism, compassion, and political strategy for class conflict today in order to overcome this decadent system.

  2. Nate says:

    Really great post. I’m gonna get back to you in more depth when I can.
    take care,

  3. mamos206 says:

    Thanks Nate 🙂 I’m looking forward to your thoughts. I know the post dovetails with your own research on whether slavery was capitalist. If you can recommend any further readings on this subject please let us know.

  4. Scott Myers says:

    To call Marx a ‘militant abolitionist’ simply because he wrote a letter to Honest Abe is a bit of a stretch. Moreover, it is disrespectful to those real abolitionists who actually devoted and sacrificed their lives to the cause of overthrowing slavery. Does Marx have to be the savior of every worthy cause in the history of the human race? Is this kind of revisionistic thinking not just as dogmatic as attributing to him every horror that has been committed in the name of ‘Communism’?

    Since Marx at the Margins seems to be a popular book, Katie or I will at some point write critical review on it on our blog. For now a few notes will have to suffice.

    Only by a very superficial reading of Marx and Engels is it possible to attribute to them the crude ‘unilateralism’ and ‘ethnocentrism’ that Anderson sees in their early works. A thoughtful reading of the Feuerbach chapter of the German Ideology, written 3 years before the Communist Manifesto, will show that they had already transcended the chauvinism of virtually all of their European contemporaries.*

    For people who have been indoctrinated into the cultural relativism and hypocritical ‘multiculturalism’ of academia, it is indeed puzzling and frustrating that a man who said so many agreeable things could have the audacity to also say things so offensive to liberal ears. Liberal guilt decrees that we are supposed to pretend that ‘all cultures have equal value’, even as capitalist relations break down these cultures and transform them into mere commodities, advertising demographics, and sovereign ‘identities’. This liberal hypocrisy has replaced the conservative hypocrisy of colonialist ideology that was prevalent in Marx’s time. Marx exploded the colonialist hypocrisy in his own time, but he is not alive to defend himself against the rank liberal hypocrisy of our time.

    Instead of using Marx’s challenge as an opportunity to dig a little deeper and transcend the prejudices of bourgeois academicism, Anderson seeks to render Marx acceptable to our modern liberal sensibilities by an act of surgery. Let’s just chop Marx up and remove the ‘problematic’ parts we don’t like! And so he periodizes Marx’s work into the early ‘unilateralism’ which he claims Marx rejected in favor of ‘multilateralism’.

    But one can find blunt criticism of ‘backward Asia’ throughout Marx’s and Engels’ works, not just in their ‘immature’ period. Their criticism comes not from a viewpoint of national or cultural chauvinism, nor from any kind of moral judgment on the inherent ‘value’ of the various cultures of Asia. Rather it comes from a point of view of humanistic universalism, the same point of view which allowed Marx and Engels to critique their own Germany more ruthlessly than any other nation. This universalism was not of the earlier abstract religious or philosophical type. It was based on a scientific examination of the actual tendency of the human race toward world-historical unification, which they saw happening in their own time. It was from this scientific position that they acknowledged in different countries varying levels of development of productive forces, and of corresponding social and ideological development.

    Marx and Engels fully understood, as indicated in some of their earliest writings, that all historical development, or lack thereof, was explicable by the natural conditions in which different groups of human beings found themselves (geological, climatic, ecological, mineralogical, etc.), and not by any kind of cultural or racial determinism, as posited by colonialist ideology. They also recognized that modern capitalism had the upper hand over less advanced modes of production and that, unless its process of capitalistic expansion was checked by proletarian revolution, the backward (or, if you prefer a politer word, underdeveloped) countries would eventually be forced to adopt the capitalist mode of production, i.e. to “become bourgeois themselves, on pain of extinction”. And this, as we can see all too clearly in this age of globalization, is exactly what happened.

    *By the way, it is the opinion of the Workers’ Self-Education Project that these two short works are far more important to radical workers today than Capital. Our own experience has taught us that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to fully appreciate and understand Capital until one has mastered them – or at least wrestled with them for awhile

  5. Scott Nappalos says:

    I disagree with this reading of Marx mostly because I think we’re coming at it the wrong way. The real question is why write Lincoln at all? In other words why have a dog in the fight when the analysis is that it is an intercapitalist war? Consider the difference between WEB DuBois’ analysis of the situation which is firmly rooted in class, and Marx who seems to want to support a section of capital as progressive. My take on this is that Marx believed that slavery was backwards and that northern industrialism was part of the progressive march of history. I think he was a humanist and believe in the rights of slaves, but I definitely do not think he was an anti-colonialist and his orientation was less about the slaves than the march of history. If not, why does he not condemn the reality of blacks in the industrial north, or workers in general in the north which was a brutal form of capitalism even compared to Europe (Marx thought the US in a lot of ways was the future and held the greatest potential for revolution).

    Marx and Lincoln can be considered against Marx’s writings on India, some highlights are below

    In short Marx believed that English rule was actually progressive in that it was destroying the existing feudalistic (his conception not mine) and tribal infrastructure and building capitalism in it’s place. “England has to fulfill a double mission in India: one destructive, the other regenerating – the annihilation of old Asiatic society, and the laying the material foundations of Western society in Asia.”

    We need to remember Marx and Engels were essentially the founders of social democracy in a proper sense, and we can situate their desire to intervene within the ruling class as part of those practices and ideologies.

  6. Marx codified class warfare and Lincoln implemented it. There was nothing about the War of Federal Conquest involving freeing anyone. It was a war over what was to become the 14th Amendment. By that action, everyone is claimed to be Federal property. The Supreme Court ruled as such in 1873. In the Preamble to the In thev Congressional Record, Congress change the purpose for the war from “preservation of the Union” to “Conquest”. U. S. citizens are imported statutory persons and aliens in the state they reside in. The tangible result of the war was that the Sovereign States were abolished, to later be readmitted to the Union as subsidiary corporations of the Federal corporation. It is a corporation, created by the States, to manage the mutual commercial affairs of the States. It was not intended to be a government, ruling over individuals. This war and the resulting Federal actions set in motion the oligarchical ideology of Corporatism.
    Over time, the central banks have gotten what they wanted. People are now monetized and harvested for the maximum benefit of the corporation.

    • dave says:

      I couldn’t disagree with George’s interpretation more. With all due respect, I believe he has it precisely backwards in that, in keeping with the current rightist revisionism, he believes Lincoln acted at the behest of industrialists. In fact, they were his enemies. This new interpretation which now finds such favor with the Lincoln-hater camp, is founded on the mistaken belief that Lincoln’s post-greenback banking act was a giveaway to the banksters. First, Lincoln only agreed to suspend printing greenbacks when he lost control of Congress. And second a careful look at the banking system he and Chase concocted SEVERELY limited leverage lending, and made bank loans contingent on banks buying non-transferable bonds. Now the banks rule, under Lincoln they were wholly dependent on the government.

      Some points of contention:

      1, Marx didn’t codify class war, he described it.

      2, It wasn’t a War of Federal Conquest, it was a War of Southern Aggression. The South, a wholly owned subsidiary of international capital whose finances were entirely controlled by their agent, Judah Benjamin, who was the Confederacy’s Treasurer, was the aggressor in this war, not the North. If all the South had done was secede, one could make this argument. But the South issued an ultimatum, and then fired upon the North before the allotted time for the North to react. This first shots were fired by the South, and the soldiers who fired them were ordered to do so by their government to make certain that a war ensued. And when it did Lee’s army was accompanied by representatives of the British banking houses who were its sponsors.
      They were there at Gettysburg etc.

      Moreover, the war was planned in Europe for years in advance. The previous administration’s treasurer (Cobb, I believe) was a Southerner who deliberately bankrupted the nation in advance of the war in order to increase the secessionists chances. This is confirmed by subsequent correspondence between the Treasurer and Confederate Vice President Stephens.

      Capital, which wanted to create an enormous slave state here in the New World, had been frustrated by the Compromise of 1850, the Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska etc.; and wanting to establish a central bank here again (which it did in the Confederacy), decided to wage war against the US.

      These were Lincoln’s (and Marx’) foes.

      3, War not about freeing the slaves, the hell it wasn’t! There are always many actors and interested parties in all conflicts, and poseurs abound, but to say that none of people involved were fighting to liberate the slaves is as inaccurate as it is unjust. Cluseret leaps immediately to mind, St Patrick’s brigade etc.

      Some saw themselves as part of an army of liberation which would freee the slaves, then, after recruiting some of them, go to Europe and liberate it. For many it was the first opportunity to fight for social justice since ’48, and that is what was motivating these particular people.

      4, The tangible result of the war was the abolition of slavery and the maintenance of the republic, not the destruction of States’ rights. Which takes me to number five.

      5, It is one of American history’s great myths that the States are or ever were sovereign. Between the war and the writing of the Constitution there were several populist uprisings (Shay’s, Fries’, etc.) which scared the Plantar Class and Merchant Class and they created a federal government to protect themselves from the democratic aspirations of the laboring classes. It was intended to be sovereign, and its charter, the Constitution, makes that explicit. Nowhere in that document does it say that the States are sovereign. And they are not, and never were (not that I approve of this).

      6, “This war and the resulting Federal actions set in motion the oligarchical ideology of Corporatism. Over time, the central banks have gotten what they wanted. ” Indeed it did, but that doesn’t mean this was Lincoln’s intention (indeed he warned against it), Lincoln acted pragmatically to win the war, the result was the rise of the American industrial class (as opposed to the European bourgeoisie who dominated the South). It is often argued, as George does, that Lincoln’s policies were a calamity in that they conditioned the rise of the American bourgoisie. this is only true if you are deluded to think that the South’s great benefactors the Rothschilds make better masters than the Rockefellers . In either case they are now partnered (with the rest of their class internationally), and this would have occurred, I insist, no matter what Lincoln had done. Blaming Lincoln for the ascendancy of industrial capital is an egregious mistake, and one that obviously was not made by Karl Marx.

      British mill workers downed tools (as they would put it) on behalf of Free Labor. They and their leader, Marx, understood that those mills were owned by the same people who backed the South and its slave labor system. Lincoln and Marx are natural allies in this affair, as their correspondence bears out.

  7. Matt A says:

    Yes, I don’t see what’s so great about Marx taking sides in a fight between bourgeois factions. This progressivist element of their ideology was mistaken.

  8. Mamos says:

    Here’s my response to Scott M, Scott N, and Matt A:

    @ Matt A. Are you saying the war itself was between bourgeois factions and therefore Marx shouldn’t have intervened? Or are you saying he incorrectly identified Lincoln and the bourgeois northerners as progressive in the conflict between the two ruling class factions? I agree Lincoln was not progressive or anti-racist at all and it was silly to write to him… but Marx himself also had major criticisms of Lincoln and he was ulimately siding with the slaves who were revolting, striking, or taking up arms to fight for the North, and with workers in the North and South – he said that the war could only be won through their self-activity, especially the self-activity of Black workers/ slaves/ soldiers…. he didn’t trust the northern bourgeosie to right it the way it had to be fought – what he called a “revolutionary people’s war.”

    – @ Scott Myers: We’re not saying Marx is a miltiant abolitionist just becuase he wrote a letter to Abe Lincoln. That would be ridiculous. We are saying he was a miltiant abolitionist becuase he was part of the workers movement that opposed European ruling class support for the Confederacy, and as part of that movement he openly expressed solidarity with slave revolts in the South. I agree he was too soft on Lincoln, but he also had major criticisms of Lincoln. He didn’t say Lincoln himself was progressive, he said he was part of a historicla crisis that could bring out more combative working class forces… he said that slave revolts, and revolts of Northern workers and small famers, would be the only way to win the war and actually destroy white supremacy… he recognized that the Northern elites didnt’ go far enough during reconstruction, and warned that the unresovled conflict over white supremacy would continue to hold back the class struggle in the US. He also called out northern white workers for putting their racism before their class solidarity. That’s a lot more than most middle class Northern white abolitionists did (John Brown being the notable exception – and Brown did, I think, go much farther than Marx- so did Nat Turner, David Walker, Harriet Tubman, and other militants who actually put their lives on the line to bring down slavery).

    The fact that there was no defined political pole in the Northern white working class that is comprable to the anti-slavery tendencies that formed the First International in Europe is one of the many unfortunate examples of how white supremacy has played a disastrous role in sabotaging revolutionary potentials in American society. We need to be honest about this. It’s not a matter of liberal guilt to say that. Wwe’re tying to say the white sections of American working class ARE capable of revolutionary action, but to make this possible we gotta keep it real and can’t gloss over the ugly relaities of white surpemacy that hold everyone back, epecially proletarians of color.

    I agree we don’t need to somehow prove that Marx was the savior of every worthy cause. Many other miltiants out there did imporant work totally inependent of Marixsm and we should learn from them. Marx also made some mistakes that are not worth even trying to redeem. Our whole interest in Anderson’s book is NOT an attempt to absolve Marx of his mistakes or to clear his name. Our interest stems from the fact that what Marx wrote on the civil war is actually useful in developing a class anlaysis of American racial dynamics and white supremacy.

    – This is not identity politics, it’s simply class struggle in an American context. It’s sectarian to dismiss all concerns about Marx’s early eurocentrism as simply liberal multi-culturalism. Neither Anderson or BOC are coming from a perspective of identity politics, liberalism, or cultural relativism. We are coming from a Marxist and and anti-colonial perspective. We live in the heat of one of the most destructive empires in history, and colonial/ racist thinking infects so many social movmeents here, and even infects a lot of so-called “revolutionary” tendencies. We need to break from that. We need to oppose any ways in which Marxism has been used to justify statist colonialism in the name of progress and civilization.

    That doesn’t make us Third Worldists though. We also need to oppose statist anti-colonial “development” projects that invovle subordinating the interests of workers of color to the nationalist aspirations of national bourgeoisies. What single national liberation struggle has actually lead to true autonomy for Thrid World working classes? Which one has lead to consistent indpednence from colonialism? Every single one has become absorbed back into, and subordinated to international capitalist domination, run by the American empire. This is what we’re up agaisnt, and it won’t stop until there’s a world revolution with significant leadership by workers of color in the Third World, not third world national borugeoises. We share a lot of Scott Nappalos’ and Matt A’s concerns about Marx’s claims that some wings of the bourgeoise can be progressive – wether these wings of the bourgeoise are imperialists imposing primitive accumluation on peasants in the 3rd world to increase their corporate profits, or whether these wings of the bourgeoise are “anti-imperialists” local nationalist dicators who worked with the Soviet Union’s own imperialist planners to impose primitive accumulation on their own peasantries in order to “catch up with the West” in the name of independence. Both I think are dead ends.

    However, I disagree with Scott Nappalos’ and Matt Adam’s dismissal of Marx as simply advocating for bourgeois revoltuion or social democracy. I mean, I agree writign to Lincoln didn’t make much sense considering Marx’s own heavy class critiques of Lincoln, but that letter does not indicate that Marx was autonomatically siding with the northern bourgeoisie as progressive. He didnt’ see it as northern industrialism vs. southern feudalism. Contarary to many, many Marxists, Marx himself saw slavery as capitalists and the Confderacy as capitalist, and he expecteed that a Confederate victory would mean a highly racialized form of industrail capitalism under a Confderate occupation of the North. The irony, whcih he failed to see, is that such a racialized form of industial terror over immigrant workforces in the North emerged ANYWAY with a union victory. We should criticize Marx for his inability to predict this based on the horrible working conditions already developing in Northern facotrires before the war….. but it’s a leap to say that he shared the same dogmatism of later Stalinists who saw the northern bourgeoise as fighting a progressive war against a feudal south.

    Have any of you actually read Anderson’s book? I think a lot of folks are throwing out generalizations and stereotypes about Marx’s writings based on other stuff you have read, but Anderson brings to light a lot of Marx’s writings that hadn’t been widely circulated until recently which it’s important to consider. Scott N, you’re right that Marx’s early letters on India did see colonilaism as (at least partially) progressive, and I storngly disagree with Marx on that. But it’s a huge leap, and overly polemical, to conclue from that one letter that Marx is somehow responsible for all the crimes of later imperialist social democrats.

    In fact, Anderson is trying to show how Marx started to question this idea that the bourgeoise as progressive and started to develop a more nuanced anlaysis where there could be multiple paths to communism, and largely peasant soieties don’t need to pass through a period of bourgeois dictatorship first if they team up with proletarian revolutions hapepning in the so-called ‘advanced capitalist’ sectors to overthrow internatioanl capital and imperialism. This is a dynamic of permanent revolution that is still important today since imperialism is still very much wtih us (less in its unipolar American natioanlist form and more in the form of a global ruling class project of looting the Third World, with its headquarters in Washingon, and with revamped, but no less racist visions of global cultural heirarchies).

    All of this is not a question of cultural relativism vs. humanistic universalism. I agree that Marx maintianed a definitive idea of universal human progress through to the end of his life. This is a good thing, not a bad thing. I think the process of building communism IS progress, it would be progress for any society, and if we look at the values and practices of communism as the standard of progress, than our own society, like Marx’s Germany, is one of the MOST backwards (though it contains tremendous potential right beneath the surface). Anderson would probably agree with me on that. So yeah, the question is not universalisim vs. relativsim, the question is whether the bourgeoisie, and it’s colonial projects, play a role in furthering this universal project of human emancipation or not. We think they generally don’t, especially in recent centuries where they have become highly decadent. Marx probably died thinking they play more of a role than I think is justified, probably becuase he didn’t have the benefit of seeing where many of their “progressive” actions were headed – toward envionrmental destruction, among other disasters… BUT, Anderson is right that Marx challenged his earlier dogmatic thinking that every society has to pass through bourgeois domination in order to reach communism. That’s what’s at stake here, not the question of whether or not it’s possible to make universal judgements about human progress based on nuanced and dialectical scientific research. Noone is debating that point – Anderson isn’t, and wer’e not, so you’re kind of making a straw man argument to bring up your own set of (valid) concerns. I don’t think tha’ts a helpful way to enter the debate – I’d suggest instead reading the book carefully and writing a review of it, and then writing a separte essay about the conflict between academic postmodern relativism vs. universal humanism…. I think it’s forced and artifiical to try to combine the two concerns together.

    – I agree completley with your analysis here, minus your saracastic dismissal of folks’ very real concerns about the racially loaded term “backwards”: ” Marx and Engels fully understood, as indicated in some of their earliest writings, that all historical development, or lack thereof, was explicable by the natural conditions in which different groups of human beings found themselves (geological, climatic, ecological, mineralogical, etc.), and not by any kind of cultural or racial determinism, as posited by colonialist ideology. They also recognized that modern capitalism had the upper hand over less advanced modes of production and that, unless its process of capitalistic expansion was checked by proletarian revolution, the backward (or, if you prefer a politer word, underdeveloped) countries would eventually be forced to adopt the capitalist mode of production, i.e. to “become bourgeois themselves, on pain of extinction”. And this, as we can see all too clearly in this age of globalization, is exactly what happened.”

    – Again, this is why Third Worldist devleopment schemes are not possible.. you can’t have indepdnence from colonialism in one country just like you can’t have communism in one country – at least not for very long… the imperialists will dominate unless the global proletariat and peasantry systematically destroy capitalism

    – Finally, a note about method of discussion/debate. I’m not saying everyone needs to read whatever text we’re discussing fully in order to jump into the debate, but I’m frustrated that both Scotts seemed to jump into this with your own axes to grind and simply used the discussion as a way to assert these points without engaging with each other or with the actual text. Just calling people social democrats, guilty liberals, relativists, or bourgeois progressivists without backing up your argument with serious evidence is not helpful. Anderson’s text provides mountains of well documented evidence that challenges both of your positions, so I think the burden is on you to systemically prove his points wrong if you’re going to take such a hardline stance… I haven’t seen either of you do this, you’ve simply taken aim at very real opponents (liberal multiculturalism or bourgeois progressivism) and then claimed that Anderson’s text and our engagement with it fit into your targets when in fact they don’t at all. There is definatley major room to criticize Anderson’s text, and I think your point Scott M about how Marx’s earlier idea of advanced and backwards societies was not based on race or culture is promising, but it needs to be developed. If you haven’t had time to develop it yet, that’s fine, folks don’t need to have fully fleshed out arguments to explore ideas on here…. but why enter the debate with such heavy polemics if you don’t have the argument ready to back them up? Why not take a more open, exploratory tone? That approach falls into a kind of dogmatism that I know all of you and all of us want to avoid .

    • Katie says:

      “The question is not universalism vs. relativism, the question is whether the bourgeoisie, and its colonial projects, play a role in furthering this universal project of human emancipation or not.”

      Mamos, I’d like to share a few thoughts about this that might help to clarify the discussion thus far. (Full disclosure: I have read some, but not all, of Anderson’s book.) I’ll begin with your question of “whether the bourgeoisie, and its colonial projects, play a role in furthering this universal project of human emancipation or not.”

      To the extent that Marx did change his mind, first thinking that “every society has to pass through bourgeois domination in order to reach communism” but then deciding that “there could be multiple paths to communism” if workers and peasants teamed up, we could even say that on this point the early and supposedly “dogmatic” Marx turned out to be right. (Similarly with Lenin: in 1917 he hoped that the communal institutions of the Russian peasants could form the basis for a direct transition to mature communism, but events proved otherwise.) We certainly have not yet reached communism – and the direct domination of capital has extended over all but tiny pockets of the world.

      Did it have to be this way? In my judgment, the answer is basically yes. In the 19th century the non-capitalist world still held vast opportunities for plunder and expansion by capital. Ultimately this was the reason why the European working classes could not prevail, and could not team up with the peasants, either in their own countries or elsewhere. In this sense, colonialism was “progressive”: however brutally, it broke open the pre-capitalist societies; enabled capital to subsume the labor-power of their peoples first ‘formally’ and then ‘really’; paved the way for anti-colonial and nationalist movements and the rise of indigenous bourgeoisie; and, finally, resulted in the global rule of the transnational capitalist class that we see in our own time. Today there are (almost) no more non-capitalist social formations remaining for capital to subsume, and it is precisely this pushing up against natural and social limits that is now creating the conditions for the triumph of a global workers’ movement and the establishment of communism on a global scale.

      Now, you might disagree with this analysis, and of course we can argue about the historical judgments involved. But the important point here is that this view – according to which colonialism was a more or less inevitable phase in “this universal project of human emancipation” – is not necessarily ethnocentric or racist.

      It is possible to hold that colonialism was “progressive” in this sense, while still being horrified by it; while affirming the fundamental human equality of all the races and ethnicities involved; and while believing that (at least some of) the social formations and cultures broken up by capital were (in many respects) more conducive to human flourishing than the capitalist relations that replaced them. (We can take the same stance toward primitive accumulation and the break-up of peasant societies in Europe.)

      We can also take this view of the past without having to conclude that the remnants of imperialism and neo-colonialism today are progressive in the same way. Those corners of the world that are still not totally integrated into the capitalist system do not offer sufficient room for expansion to launch an economic recovery, so the thorough penetration of capital into these regions is not a precondition for the working class to prevail in our time. However, we can’t do much to help those who suffer under 21st century imperialism and neo-colonialism until we organize ourselves, because their liberation is dependent on our own.

      The idea that we cannot hold that “the bourgeoisie, and its colonial projects, play a role in furthering this universal project of human emancipation” without being ethnocentric or racist is, I think, basically liberal ideology. It’s sort of like saying that even though the workers in Europe and the peasants in the non-Western societies didn’t in fact manage to team up and go straight to communism a century ago, they could have and should have been allowed to, because they had a right to determine their own destiny – and if we claim that the material conditions just didn’t exist for that to be possible, then we are siding with the oppressors. To the extent that Anderson is trying to rescue Marx from charges of ethnocentrism by proving that he didn’t really believe colonialism to be “progressive” in the sense described above, it seems to me that he is looking at history through the lens of identity politics and cultural relativism rather than scientific and materialist analysis.

  9. Mamos says:

    I don’t see what’s so liberal about making a moral critique of colonialism and bourgeois “progress”. Can’t we still do that, and maintain a dialectical analysis of capitalism, recognizing the bourgeoisie creates the conditions of it’s own destruction, recognizing that the spread of capitalism worldwide today has created material/ social conditions ripe for world revolution, etc.?

    Also, making a moral critique of colonialism does not necessarily require framing things in terms of liberal rights language – I’m not arguing that various colonized cultures had a “right” to leap straight to communism, I’m agreeing with Marx’s later writings where he made the historical judgement that they could… which is a materialist argument about historical potentiality, not a liberal argument about abstract rights. And I’m adding the moral dimension of simply recognizing the value and dignity of non-European peoples, criticizing colonialism as something that is dehumanizing, racist and anti-democratic. Doesn’t anti-racism have independent validity even if it does not lead immediately to communism? (it is, of course, an indispensable part of the communist revolution and there won’t be communism without it, but doesn’t it also stand on its own as a moral value?)

    Also, I’m not claiming outright that the bourgeoisie played NO role in bringing about historical progress…. I think in Europe they rode the wave of peasant revolts and early struggles of displaced/ lumpenized workers and artisans against feudalism, and at times extended these revolts into anti-feudal revolutions. In many ways they played a counter-revolutionary role, but all counter-revolutions are still a step forward; they are not a return to the way things were before the revolution, they are simply forces that smash the further development of the revolution’s own potential by steering it off course. Many anti-feudal revolts were reaching toward more communistic attempts to reorganize society but the bourgeoisie simply used these revolts to tear down feudalism and then crushed their communistic potentials through force and co-optation, to build capitalism in the place of feudalism. Sylvia Federici documents this in the first chapter of Caliban and the Witch .

    Maybe you’re right, maybe it couldn’t have been any other way. Maybe the communistic currents in these early anti-feudal revolutions were utopian, unable to be realized in the face of the overwhelming combined power of the monarch and the rising bourgeois class that staffed their civil service bureaucracies. Maybe later on, early anti-colonial revolts with communistic content were doomed to failure because of the overwhelming force of the colonists. Maybe today it’s a different story because the global working class, from the favelas to the maquiladoras is a force that could smash colonialism for good. But even if we make that judgement, does that mean that colonialism was in fact progressive? Or is the true progressive force the international proletarian resistance to it? Maybe this is what you’re saying, I’m not sure…. If I’m misunderstanding your argument please correct me.

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