The American Civil War

By Mercedes Petit

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War that abolished slavery in the United States and changed the course of history. We publish here an article by Mercedes Petit that looks at the origins of the war and its impact on U.S. social, economic and political life.-SC


The secession of the slave states began on April 12, 1861

Exactly a century and a half ago on April 12, 1861 the American civil war broke out. It lasted four years; and as a result, the slave-owners from the South were defeated by the North. The tremendous economic growth that came later was concentrated in large industrial and financial monopolies headed by Rockefeller and Morgan who imposed wage slavery, a modern slavery that exploited millions.

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States consolidated itself as a modern capitalist nation. At the time, the new nation had recent conflicts with England and France, and continued to carry out military actions (and kill) the original inhabitants (Native Americans).

Two types of very different societies inhabited the East [part of what is today the U.S]. In the north, there was a growing immigration along with small plots of agricultural settlements while manufacturing was developing. In the South, meanwhile, tobacco and rice plantations –and eventually cotton–were predominant. Plantation owners enslaved blacks brought from Africa (like in most of the Spanish and Portuguese colonies). The first human cargo arrived in 1619; the event marked the destiny of the south. In the nineteenth century cotton was more than half of what was being exported. In fact, in 1860 there were nearly four million blacks (out of 30 million). The abolition of slavery would require a second bourgeois democratic revolution.

Capitalist aberrations

In 1776, the thirteen states [colonies] that had been formed declared their independence from England. Both the Federal Constitution and the Bill of Rights of Man, the two founding documents of the United States, are paradigms of the modern democratic bourgeois society in the country. However, this new society, supposedly egalitarian, included an aberration: the institution of slavery.

This contradiction is explained by the different forms of colonization that took place between the northern and southern territory –see appendix below–over the centuries this slave owning class consolidated itself as a bourgeois class in the plantations. Marx characterized the slave owner class as having elements of capitalism and feudalism. Thus, “the capitalist and the landowner are one person in one.” (Quoted by Nahuel Moreno).

This southern autochthonous capitalist class had aspirations and tastes of aristocratic life and combined its capitalist goals of selling on the world market with pre-capitalist slave modes of production. One of the largest and most obvious examples of the southern bourgeoisie was George Washington who was a slave owner and a federal land speculator; he was the richest man of his time while on the same token, Washington was the founding father of  “one great Democratic Republic [that] had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century, “as Marx defined it in 1864 (Letter to Lincoln).

What did the North and the South share in common? The answer: individual capitalist private property which in its most extreme form could include human beings. That was the first fundamental right “natural, innate and inalienable” of which the new nation was being founded on. Thus, the issue of slavery and its horrendous racism was circumscribed to the sovereign decision of each state.*

Secession versus abolition

In the Southern states, monoculture plantations flourished. The slaveholding elite was expanding westward due to the lack of soil. Meanwhile, poor whites shared hardships with black slaves. Throughout the nineteenth century, North and South coexisted agreeing on the common interests of their respective ruling classes while slavery remained a contentious issue. In 1808 slaves were forbidden from entering the country. Once the law was enacted, slave owners found a loophole; that followed the illegal entry of slaves which developed into the “breeding of slaves” practice. In 1833 slavery was abolished in the British Empire encouraging American abolitionists to continue their fight. Both the federal government and the slave states tended to negotiate and seek consensus among the two.

However, a growing clash was unavoidable. In the North, small farming, maritime trade and a booming manufacturing industry that exploited free white labor (including women and children) dominated the region. Around that time, the monoculture plantations which exploited slave labor were becoming disadvantageous. A constant theme of conflict at the time was protective tariffs in industry. The South had to purchase everything from the North; plus, it was not interested in subsidizing the profits of the manufacturers, bankers and traders. The Southern slave owners did not benefit from road construction and expansion of the railroads to the west, paid by the federal government in an attempt to extend colonization to the Pacific region. By then, the South was inexorably losing ground.

The South biggest strength was political power which allowed slave owners to have a primary role in both the Executive branch and Congress since independence. But in 1860 there was a turning point when Abraham Lincoln from the Republican Party, won the presidency. The Republican Party was the direct representative of the economic and political interests of the North.

In December of 1860, South Carolina, and soon after, ten other slave states (see map), declared their independence from the United States. They formed the Confederate States, with its capital in Richmond (Virginia). President Lincoln made several efforts to assure that the Federal government would not interfere with slavery. Southerners, who had the most prominent generals and officers of the Army, did not back down. On April 12, 1861 the war began.

Gone with the Wind

At first, Lincoln concentrated all political and military effort to regain the breakaway states, and offer to respect the institution of slavery. But after a couple of years of carnage, the focus of the war was its abolition. It was imposed on the powerful north, at a cost to both sides of more than 600,000 dead and more than half a million injured, this in a population of 30 million. General Lee surrendered at the end of February 1865 in Appomattox (Virginia).

Marx hailed the reelection of Lincoln in 1864 (see below) and Lenin stressed “the great historical significance universal, progressive and revolutionary civil war of 1863-1965 in North America”(August 1918).

But capitalism continued its unstoppable march. In January 1917, in the midst of inter-imperialist war, Lenin wrote: “In the United States, blacks (as well as mulattoes and Indians) make up only 11.1% of the population and should be considered as an oppressed nation, because equality won the Civil War of 1861-65 and supported by the Constitution of the Republic was increasingly restricted in many respects, at the sites of highest density of black population (in south). This is linked to the gradual transition from capitalism, pre-monopoly of the years 1860-1870 reactionary capitalism, monopoly (imperialism) of the contemporary […]. ”

Today, racism remains a fact of life in the main imperialist country of the world. And there, all the workers and the poor are white, black, Latino or people from other nationalities who suffer under a monopolistic modern wage-slavery system first headed by the Rockefellers and Morgans and other imperialist bandits after the civil war.

 * These and other data taken from: The United States of America, Edited by Willi Paul Adams, Universal History, Volume 30, Siglo XXI, A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn, and We, the people, by Leo Huberman.


The slaving capitalists

Nahuel Moreno in his historical research insisted on the essentially capitalist nature of European settlement in America with its particular contradictions. In the formation of the United States Moreno stated that two types of society were created. In the northeast, “there were Europeans who wanted land, climate and production as in Europe but they did not think about trading with their countries of origins since they themselves were supplied with agricultural products. […] This migration resulted in a small farming sector that supplied to their members and put on the market a slight surplus that was leftover. Seen from a historical angle, this immigration continued the fine tradition of medieval Europe to colonize new lands with independent farmers. But in America there would be a fundamental difference: the excess of land prevented the growth of a feudal landlord class, although there were some attempts to do so.

“[…] There can be no Marxist definition pertaining the Spanish-Portuguese colonies and those of the American South other than of the capitalist production specially organized for the world market with pre-capitalist production relations [such as slavery]. In contrast to this, North America must be defined as a region settled by waves of small farmers who did not support pre-capitalist production relations [feudal] and, consequently, they constituted themselves for centuries in a continuously growing internal market. At the same time, the northeastern United States inherited the advantages of European feudalism: small farm production without their tremendous disadvantages; that is, a class of feudal landowners, inevitable parasites in the future bourgeois production.”*

 * Four thesis on the Spanish and Portuguese colonization in Latin America


Marx and Lincoln

In September 1864 Marx founded the First International in London. Two months later, Abraham Lincoln won his second U.S. president. Karl Marx sent a letter congratulating the American people for re-election. And he said: “If the moderate theme of his first choice was the resistance to the slave power, the triumphant battle cry of his second choice is: death to slavery!” *

* “The United States President Abraham Lincoln,” published in The Beehive Newspaper 7/1/1865.


 Source: El Socialista

 Translated by Emmanuel Santos