Marx & Engels writings on Civil War still provocative 155 years later

With a presidential candidate on the Republican side who is the darling of neo-Confederates, old style KKK-types, and alt-right white nationalists, there’s no time like the present to review the United States’ troubled history with racism. International Publishers’ new and completely updated edition of The Civil War in the United States by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels is an opportunity to do just that.

What makes this collection of writings by these two giants particularly interesting, however, is not just the commentary they offer on the Civil War. As Professor Andrew Zimmerman, who edited this edition, says in his introduction, “Readers will not find a Marxist interpretation” of the war in this book. Instead, what it showcases is Marx and Engels in the process of applying their methodology of historical materialism to an event of world-historic importance as it unfolded.

The book thus carries a relevance beyond the interest it might arouse among Civil War buffs or historians; it represents a milestone in the development of Marxism as a method of social and political analysis.

International first offered this title nearly 80 years ago, edited and introduced at the time by Herbert Morais (under the pseudonym Richard Enmale). In this edition, Zimmerman has expanded the selection of texts to include new writings by the primary authors, but also added relevant material from figures such as Union Army officer Joseph Weydemeyer, a comrade of Marx and Engels, as well as African-American scholar W.E.B. DuBois.

Zimmerman’s introduction to the book and his commentary for each individual chapter provide a background that is rich in detail and tailored to a contemporary audience. Marx and Engels’ newspaper articles and private correspondence are situated within the historical and political debates of their day, but their place in the ongoing development of Marxist political economy is also chronicled. As Zimmerman points out, Capital Volume 1 would appear just a couple of years after the Civil War, so the selections in this book are examples of Marxism in its own process of development.

A fundamental conclusion that Marx and Engels return to throughout is the undeniable reality that the Civil War was, fundamentally, a social revolution against the institution of slavery. Efforts by some at the time (and subsequently by revisionist historians) to paint the conflict as being fought solely over tariffs or “states’ rights” trade disputes are exposed as one-sided and usually self-serving interpretations. The economic nature of the conflict was certainly key, but it was economics in the form of slavery which informed every aspect of not only the Civil War, but of U.S. and global industrial development.

As Marx observes in one excerpt, “Direct slavery is just as much the pivot of bourgeois industry as machinery… Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the precondition of large-scale industry.” Slavery, then, was “an economic category of the greatest importance.”

The American Civil War, for Marx and Engels, was a class conflict – not just a military one. Following on the insights of DuBois and others, Zimmerman rescues Marx and Engels’ arguments from the mechanistic “Marxist” interpretations of the war which have characterized it as simply the victory of a bourgeois revolution and the freeing of capitalism from its slave fetters. In Zimmerman’s words, the war was, according to Marx and Engels, “a workers’ revolution carried out within a bourgeois republic that was finally undermined by that bourgeois republic.” That undermining of course, was the counterrevolution against Reconstruction.

Zimmerman does not shy away from the shortcomings of Marx and Engels in his introductions or his selection of texts, however. He is blunt in his critique of their propensity to underestimate and not properly recognize the central role played by slaves and former slaves in fighting for their own emancipation. Though Marx and Engels are consistently anti-slavery and unreservedly on side with the fight for freedom, black workers and slaves play only secondary roles in most of their discussions of labor’s struggle against slavery. The addition of DuBois’s 1933 essay, “Karl Marx and the Negro,” as an appendix serves as an important remedy.

Marx and Engels’ analysis of Abraham Lincoln’s halting but steady evolution from reluctant anti-slavery warrior to a new kind of democratic leader destined to “lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world,” makes up another important component of the book. It holds lessons for how activists today must strategically evaluate political figures and leaders.

Finally, the lessons Marx and Engels drew from the Civil War are reflected in their writings on the role of racism in England’s colonial domination of Ireland and on the class struggle nature of revolution which was displayed in the Paris Commune. The latter “Civil War in France” was described by Marx with the same language that had colored his earlier descriptions of the fight against the Confederacy. The Commune, he said, was yet another example of “the war of the enslaved against their enslavers.”

This book stands as an example of how the two masters of critical political economy grappled with the rapid development of capitalism and the upheaval of social revolution in the mid-19th century. The insights of the selected writings on offer are matched by the succinct but illuminating introductory texts by Zimmerman. The volume holds importance for not just students of Marxism or the Civil War, but for political activists and academics broadly.

The Civil War in the United States

 by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Introduction by Andrew Zimmerman.

219 pp. $14.00, ISBN: 978-07178-0753-6.

Available in paperback from International Publishers.

Editor’s Note: International Publishers is hosting a book talk with Andrew Zimmerman to discuss this new edition on Thursday September 22 at 7pm at Brooklyn Commons, 388 Atlantic Ave. in Brooklyn, NY.


C.J. Atkins
C.J. Atkins

C.J. Atkins is the managing editor at People's World. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from York University in Toronto and has a research and teaching background in political economy and the politics and ideas of the American left. In addition to his work at People's World, C.J. currently serves as the Deputy Executive Director of ProudPolitics.