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.
start by defining vocab:
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.