“The Red Sea of Civil War”: Marx, Slavery, and America’s Seminal Conflict

The United States is experiencing a crisis of historical memory. The rise of Donald Trump has been paralleled by a greater collective awareness of ideological, class, and racial divisions, and prompted a national search for the source of this awareness and of the division itself. But thus far the search, though ostensibly focused on the history leading up to our Trumpian moment, has been remarkably ahistorical. American liberals are lost—pinning blame on repulsiveness of Trump himself, they fail to recognize that the divisions of which they are only now aware are inherent to the United States. Meanwhile, reactionaries (that is, broadly, political Rightists in their various forms) promote a constructed narrative of white victimization that has long held sway over much of the American psyche. After a brief retreat to covert influence over the past few decades, this narrative reasserted itself with Trump ascendant.

We can break down the reactionary narrative by tracing white victimization back to white supremacy, and white supremacy back to a social system of racial slavery. The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War and the resulting abolition of slavery shook the edifice of white supremacy to its core (but by no means dismantled it), and laid the ground for white Americans to see themselves as victims despite—and in order to perpetuate— their position of supremacy. Reactionaries make this clear when they defend flying the Confederate flag (like the one at the South Carolina State House before it was taken down in 2015), when they protect monuments glorifying Confederate leaders (like the statues in Charlottesville, finally covered in 2017), and when they portray the Civil War as unnecessary and the Confederacy as an unwilling participant (which White House Chief of Staff John Kelly did when he stated in October 2017 that “the lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War”).

In opposition to this misremembering of the Civil War and the oppressive narrative it engenders, the Left must offer a more accurate memory of the conflict and a critical narrative of liberation conscious of its own limits. Karl Marx’s writings on the War provide helpful source material for this project. As a German living in London who never visited the United States, Marx was but a distant, contemporary observer of the War and the events that led up to it. But this apparent detachment gives his commentary a quality of profound universalism. Using his works as a guide, I first outline and refute dominant reactionary Civil War narratives; second, I examine how those narratives fit in a global historical context; third, I discuss the relationship between slavery, capitalism, and the limits of the narrative of liberation; fourth, I offer concluding thoughts informed by the current political climate.

Confederate battle flag ripped in two
Illustration by Téa Wimer
I. Slavery, “States’ Rights”, and the Narrative of Liberation

Our narrative should begin, naturally, with the beginning of the Civil War, and answer the fundamental question of its cause. The reactionary answer is that conflict between the federal government and Southern states’ rights caused the war. This is incorrect and misleading. Conflict over states’ rights was merely the immediate manifestation of the true root cause. The Civil War was not a conflict over “states’ rights.” It was a conflict over slavery. The centrality of slavery is clearly revealed by the history leading up to the wave of Southern secession in 1860 and 1861.

Republican Abraham Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election, built on an anti-slavery platform, provided the main impetus for secession. He was not at that time pro-abolition, and indeed personally was a racially prejudiced man. But he opposed the expansion of slavery to new territories, and the slaveholding Southern elite saw this as enough of a threat to slavery. Marx summarizes why in a piece for the New York Tribune from October 25, 1861: “A strict confinement of slavery within its old terrain, therefore, was bound according to economic law to lead to its gradual extinction, in the political sphere to annihilate the political hegemony that the slave states exercised through the Senate […] the Republicans therefore attacked the rule of the slaveholders at its root.” Slaveholders increasingly depended on the Senate for dictating national policy, because they could not keep up with Northern population growth in the House of Representatives. They needed more states, not more population, to remain in control. Moreover, more territory was necessary for ready access to fertile soil. In his October 25 piece, Marx points out the possibility of Southern cotton production remaining stationary due to soil exhaustion. Territorial expansion was absolutely essential to slave power.

Indeed, preserving slavery was an imperial project, with precedent in the Mexican-American War, during which the United States took much of its southern and western territories from Mexico with slaveholding interests in mind. In the 1854 Ostend Manifesto, members of President Franklin Pierce’s administration called for the purchase of Cuba from Spain under threat of force, with the goal of making it a slave territory. Some slaveholders greedily eyed other Latin American territories. Effectively, international expansion was something of a back-up plan. Marx observes in a November 7, 1861 piece for Austrian newspaper Die Presse that the South saw border states (Missouri, Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky), along with all territory south of the line from northern Missouri to the Pacific Ocean, as its deserved land: “Thus what the slaveholders call ‘the South’ covers more than three quarters of the present area of the Union.” “The South” was not a binding concept of culture or heritage, as many modern Confederate flag-wavers claim. No, “the South” was not even bound to a distinct geographic area. “The South” was a figurehead, a rallying cry, a pretext for slavery’s expansion, wherever it may go.

Marx, in the same Presse piece, conjectures that if all land proposed to be “the South” were to fall into Southern hands, many of the remaining states would secede from the Union and join the new slave nation out of economic interest. At that point, almost all of the continental United States would be a slave nation, and Southerners would never have to worry about the national policy on slavery. Of course this never happened, nor was it necessarily explicit as a plan, but the Confederacy showed its expansionist intentions when it attempted to annex Missouri and Kentucky, both of which had pro-Union majorities and legitimate Union governments. Kentucky even proclaimed neutrality before Confederate forces invaded. Clearly the South cared more about territory than states’ rights. Again in his Presse piece, Marx points out the “hollowness” of the states’ rights pretext and provides a helpful summary: “The war waged by the Southern Confederacy is […] not a war of defense but a war of conquest, aimed at extending and perpetuating slavery.”

Therefore, slave power was not, as Confederate apologists seem to think, a force content to be left alone, threatened by Northern big-government militarism. The Civil War was by no means a “War of Northern Aggression.” The South was the aggressor because it was willing to do anything to preserve its system of racial slavery. But for a long time, this will to preserve slavery did not necessitate war. Up until the 1860 election, slave interests dominated the Federal Government. To the chagrin of Northern antislavery politicians, national policy repeatedly fulfilled Southern desires. In 1860, especially after Republicans’ rejection of the Crittenden Compromise (which would have allowed slavery to continue untouched south of the 36° 30’ latitude line, in current states and new territories), the South merely saw that the federal government had outlived its usefulness to slaveholders. It then made the calculated decision that, if it could not maintain slavery through the existing government, it would have to create its own.

But does Republican rejection of the Crittenden Compromise not prove John Kelly right, that the Civil War happened because of a lack of ability to compromise, especially on the part of Republican northerners? And were the compromises preceding the war—the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act—not proof that compromise could at least have been attempted? Well, no. It is not that, in 1860, there was suddenly a lack of ability to compromise; it is that all of the preceding compromises were not compromises in the first place, because compromise on the issue of slavery was, and is, impossible. Slavery exists, or it does not. And each of these supposed “compromises” either enshrined in law or posited the continued existence of slavery in the United States, regardless of which states were guaranteed to remain free. In an October 11, 1861 dispatch for the New York Tribune, Marx analyzes that this is a slavery dictatorship masquerading as a fair political back-and-forth: “The progressive abuse by the Union of the slave power […] is, to say, the general formula of the United States history since the beginning of this century. The successive compromise measures mark the successive degrees of the encroachment by which the Union became more and more transformed into the slave of the slave-owner. Each of these compromises denotes a new encroachment of the South, a new concession of the North.” Until 1860, the South was bullying the federal government into shape with the looming threat of secession hanging above. Slavery would trump any pretense of patriotic loyalty.

Furthermore, Southern dominance over the federal government was often exercised without the pretext of compromise. This was well demonstrated by the Southern imperial machinations discussed earlier, and also by pro-slavery interpretations of the Constitution in the courts. In the 1857 Supreme Court case Dred Scott v. Sandford, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s ruling (holding that the federal government could not regulate slavery in new territories) showed that slaveholders and their government representatives were even willing to reject the “compromises” that favored them in order to pursue bolder pro-slavery measures on the federal level—no “compromise” thus far had left all new territories in slave power’s hands. Such actions definitively disprove the reactionary “states’ rights” narrative of the Civil War; Southern leaders had no qualms curtailing other states’ rights in the interests of slave power.

In fact, many in the North used language of states’ rights in response to pro-slavery federal overreach. When challenged on the Fugitive Slave Act (part of the Compromise of 1850 holding that escaped slaves were to be returned to their masters if captured, and compelled citizens even in free states to cooperate), the Wisconsin Supreme Court ruled it to be unconstitutional, and state legal provisions in Vermont made it effectively unenforceable there. The Confederate government, in contrast, sought to avoid any questions of national authority on slavery, preserving slavery by law in Article I, Section IX of its constitution: “No […] law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves, shall be passed.” This wording reflected that of Southern states’ declarations of secession, which held as a central grievance what they perceived as Northern infringement on slaveholding. Mississippi’s declaration most brazenly proclaims: “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world.”

Southern leaders had such obvious motives—considering their imperial ambitions, their manipulation of national policy, their new constitution, their declarations of secession—that it requires a tremendous level of willful ignorance for modern reactionaries to claim that the Civil War was not over slavery. Doing so, perhaps, is but a formality of our times, when overt racism is taboo. Reactionaries do recognize the racial element of the Civil War, but, having sympathies which are less than savory to the modern palate, must obfuscate them with benign, historical disagreements about the balance between federal and state power. This is what makes these reactionaries and their narrative so insidious. Behind a superficially innocent face lurks the demon of America’s racial past. Denying this past makes it all the more easy to deny the system of racial oppression that permeates the present. And denial of racial oppression makes it all the more difficult to combat.

In contrast, the aforementioned narrative of liberation— holding that the main cause of the Civil War was conflict over slavery, with the South fighting for the preservation of slavery and the rule of an oppressive elite, and Southern defeat implying abolition of slavery and the defeat of the oppressors—is an acknowledgement of America’s racial past, and is thus to a certain extent a constructive acknowledgment of its racial present. Now, the narrative of liberation is not without its problems (in truth, from a more critical Left perspective, its many problems), especially with regard to the Civil War’s goals and impacts. I will address those in Section III. But, unqualified as is, this narrative provides a more honest picture of the War’s causes than the opposing narrative of white victimization.

II. Transatlantic Reactionaries, Past and Present

Considering modern reactionaries’ dishonesty about the centrality of slavery to the Civil War, it is somewhat ironic that they invoke the imagery of the Confederacy, which was explicit about its defense of slavery. Perhaps reactionaries should look more to the Civil War-era British liberal elite, who better reflect their game of obfuscation. In his writings for the New York Tribune, Marx attacks the British liberal elite for making a show of not supporting slavery (by this period Britain was the foremost abolitionist power), while implicitly supporting the Confederacy. Marx points out that British bourgeois periodicals like The Economist, The Examiner, and The Saturday Review maintained that the War was not over slavery. One Economist piece quoted by Marx proposes that the North did not deserve support because of its economic complicity in the slave system. That may seem a principled stance, until one considers the relationship between the British textile industry and Southern cotton.

Across the English Channel, the British bourgeoisie had a friend in its reactionary politics: Emperor Louis Napoleon Bonaparte of France. He was less coy about his support for the slave system. Marx, in a Tribune piece from 1858, describes how Bonaparte perpetuated and enabled the slave trade (to the point of being chastised by British leaders), despite the French Second Republic’s abolition of slavery. Take note that this was after the coup he initiated in 1851, in which the Republic was destroyed and Napoleon established himself as emperor.

Indeed, support for slavery, in the context of the Civil War era, could be used as something of a litmus test for support of true democratic government. The slave system was undemocratic on all counts—one could oppose both slavery and democracy, but support of the former necessitates opposition to the latter. As Marx wrote in the above 1858 Tribune piece, “The slave-trade has become a battle-cry between the Imperialist and the Republican camps.” Those in favor of the slave system, like Louis Bonaparte, were very much not in the republican camp. The British capitalist elite, too, were hardly committed democrats. Parliamentarians, maybe, but not exactly friends of the common folk. And, while the new Confederacy did have the trappings of a republican government, it was in effect an oligarchy. A nation founded on the basis of preserving slavery had to be; only around 300,000 people in the South owned slaves at the time of the Civil War, out of a total Southern population of around 9,000,000 (3,500,000 of which were slaves). Secessionists are better viewed as an elite protecting their class interests, using slavery to preserve a system of racial domination and keep the restive white poor at bay, than as rebellious underdogs trying to protect their heritage.

And yet, in their denial of slavery’s role in the Civil War, modern reactionaries refuse to see secessionists as anything but underdogs. They follow the historical precedent of the British bourgeoisie. Granted, the reasons for obfuscation on the part of modern Confederate apologists and 19th century British capitalists are different, the former being a desire to avoid the label of “racist” in order to preserve racial privilege, and the latter being their immediate class interests. In either case, however, there is still pretext for pro-Southern sentiment. This indicates a concerted effort to circumvent the issue of racial oppression, and thus allow its perpetuation (either in the form of slavery itself, or its haunting remnants). Moreover, modern deniers of slavery as the root of the Civil War mingle with the likes of fascists, neo-Nazis, and full-on Confederate sympathizers who have no qualms embracing their racist heritage. Thinly veiled comments about “compromise” from the Trump administration and white supremacist support of this regime demonstrate this symbiotic relationship between deniers and defenders of slavery’s past.

This relationship has historical precedent; the deniers are to British capitalists as the defenders are to Louis Bonaparte. Indeed, Bonaparte’s rise to power1 bears an eerie resemblance to that of 20th century Fascist leaders, and to Trump’s today. Bonaparte, like current fascist supporters of Trump, like the Southern elite of his time, was reaction incarnate, a more forward corollary to British capitalists. It is no historical accident, then, that support for the slave system is a binding thread of the different strains of reaction found among French proto-fascists, British liberals, American slaveholders, and 21st century Confederate apologists (whether deniers or defenders of slavery).

III. Racial Capitalism and the Limits of the Narrative of Liberation

While the South was explicit in its reasons for secession, and while conflict over slavery and the resulting historical processes drove the war, the Northern government was reluctant to acknowledge this background. Initially for Lincoln, it was about preserving the Union; not until his 1863 Emancipation Proclamation (which, indicative of Lincoln’s reluctance, only applied to slaves in the South, not the entire nation) did the administration officially acknowledge the true reasons for the War. Still, behind Lincoln was a faction of Radical Republicans that continued to push for abolition, despite having a steadfast moderate as the party’s public face. Furthermore, it is necessary to separate the apparent causes of the War (i.e. slavery) from the way Lincoln and the Northern leadership engaged with them.

Unlike Lincoln, Marx saw the potentially liberatory nature of the War, and thoroughly criticized Lincoln for refusing to acknowledge it. In two successive pieces for Die Presse, Marx attacks Lincoln for catering to the needs of the slaveholding border states, and, summarizing a speech by radical abolitionist Wendell Phillips, states, “The [Northern] government […] fights for the maintenance of slavery, and therefore it fights in vain […] Even at the present time [Lincoln] is more afraid of Kentucky than of the entire North.” He also points out the apparent enthusiasm for a war of abolition in the North; there seems to have been a constant tension between Lincoln’s restrained statesmanship and the character of the war he faced.

Of course, Marx was much more interested in the historical processes at work than the individual leaders who slowed their progression. The Civil War, in his eyes, was one of liberation in two senses: the slaves would be freed, but so would wage workers. For Marx, in the context of the epochal stages of his historiography (slavery leads to feudalism leads to capitalism leads to socialism leads to communism), slavery in the United States was an outmoded form of production and social organization that hindered the growth and development of an industrial working class, on which socialist revolution and liberation were dependent. The fate of wage labor in the United States was inextricably intertwined with the fate of slaves; Marx notes that while elements of the British bourgeoisie favored the South, the British proletariat, in a show of solidarity, favored the North. The Civil War was to be a bourgeois revolution, overthrowing the last vestiges of an American landed aristocracy in order to pave the way for a proletarian revolution around the corner. Marx wrote in Die Presse, “The present struggle between South and North is thus nothing less than a struggle between two social systems: the system of slavery and the system of free labor […] It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other.”

Another passage from Marx’s writings on the Civil War, this one from an official address of the International Workingmen’s Association to Abraham Lincoln, is worth quoting at length to illustrate the apparent historical separation he created between the world of slavery and the world of capitalism, and the implications of both: “While the workingmen, 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.”

A strict Marxist analysis of antebellum American society does call for such a historical separation between the coexisting, conflicting modes of production in North and South, and the above passage especially serves to demonstrate the function of race under capitalism as a tool to divide the lower classes. But a prescient comment by Marx himself, in an 1846 letter, outlines a source of weakness in his later analysis: “Direct slavery is as much the pivot of our industrialisation today as machinery, credit, etc. Without slavery, no cotton; without cotton, no modern industry […] Slavery is therefore an economic category of the utmost importance. Without slavery, North America, the most progressive country, would be turned into a patriarchal land.” In a word, slavery was essential to, and was part of, capitalism.

Preeminent black historian W. E. B. Du Bois explains inhis book Black Reconstruction in America, “Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure, but of Northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a worldwide scale; new cities were built on the results of black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose both in Europe and America.” The focus of Marx’s analysis—the “new labor problem” to which Du Bois refers—was in the context of a capitalism that was preceded by and continued to be predicated upon a racially exploitative global market.

Plus, as historian Walter Johnson points out in the Boston Review, slavery challenges Marx’s assumption that capital and labor are necessarily and dichotomously opposed under capitalism. Indeed, slaves were more than just a source of labor. As an investment for their owners, treated as property, they were capital too. They were sold as both worker and financial asset. They faced sexual abuse and forced reproduction to ensure both a steady labor force and capital accumulation. Their dual identity hinged on an ultimate, unified exploitation. Thus, in a capitalism of racial slavery, the dichotomy of capital and labor was only applicable to free and mostly white laborers.

Slaveowners also straddled two worlds in Marxian categorization, but in the position of oppressor: superficially existing as the landed aristocracy of a pre-capitalist system while effectively operating as capitalists. Slavery and land ownership did create a rather distinct, provincial social structure in the antebellum South, but this slave system was not an isolated American phenomenon. It was dependent on a global market, and the cotton it produced was not so much a simple crop as it was a commodity.

In short, viewing the Civil War’s liberatory character as dependent on its launching of America into a new era of pure, deracialized capitalism is incredibly problematic. Capitalism existed before the war as a system involving racial slavery; after the war it continued to exist as such, but with racial slavery exported to colonies in a new age of brutal imperialism. And, though the war became one of abolition, true emancipation in a universal, complete sense was never achieved, nor was it an explicit goal. The residue of the slave system remains as a permanent stain, from sharecropping to Jim Crow to the structural racial inequalities that exist today. The Civil War was never meant to prevent any of this. Abolitionists could be morally opposed to slavery, but stop short of racial equality. Such a combination enables dangerous posturing of the liberatory Civil War narrative as one of white saviorism.


IV. Conclusions in the Era of Trumpism

So, then, where does this leave, as I worded earlier, the Left’s “critical narrative of liberation conscious of its own limits?” It seems that addressing the limits has dismantled the entire project of a liberatory narrative. And perhaps, in a broad sense, it is fruitless—impossible from the start, even—to pursue this narrative of a war so steeped in the white supremacy of the nation over which it was fought. Still, the concept of a liberatory narrative, with the unqualified definition I provided earlier, is still useful for the Left on a smaller scale, countering individual instances of racist historical manipulation (the flying of the Confederate flag for “heritage,” the glorification of Confederate leaders, etc.), and thus keeping at bay the constructed white victimization those instances perpetuate.

The liberatory narrative with its flaws, the critical, more complete narrative which may not be liberatory at all, has use value, too. If we acknowledge that the Civil War was fought over slavery, but did not change the fundamentally racial character of capitalism, we can better understand the Trump phenomenon, and thus better fight against it. A narrative of white victimization was so appealing to many of Trump’s supporters—that ever-menacing “white working class”—because of their fall from economic comfort over the past three decades of neoliberalism. The Left must view the devastating neoliberal policies which led to white working class poverty with as much criticism as it views racist reaction. While they may be low on the ladder of class, many Trump voters were able to find recourse in white supremacy because of their place in white privilege on the ladder of race; lower class people of color do not necessarily have a place of social power with which they may associate themselves in hard times. Moreover, the relative economic comfort formerly enjoyed by so many of the white working class was only obtainable because of the color of their skin. As Walter Johnson puts it, “The history of white working-class struggle […] cannot be understood separate from the privileges of whiteness, to which the white working classes of Britain and the United States laid claim in their demands for equal political rights.”

The complicated legacy of the Civil War thus presents the Left with the problem of how to engage with capitalism’s victims, divided by race, privilege, and history, in the Age of Trump, especially when many of these victims, due to their race, privilege, and history, support him. One answer takes the form of militant opposition to racism in all forms, and building an anti-capitalist economic message that appeals to all regardless of race, and which is, unlike other promises of economic equality in the past, accessible to and attainable by all regardless of race. This is by no means an easy project. But it begins with a Leftist solution to our American crisis of historical memory.

1 As outlined by Marx’s 1852 The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. This work presents a historical materialist class analysis of Bonaparte’s coup that serves as a helpful framework for the leftist study of fascism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *