Marx’s Interpretation of the American Civil War

In his October 20, 1861 article, The North American Civil War, Karl Marx lays his assessments and views on American society of that period, dealing mainly with the constitutional legalities of slavery, the political powerhouses of the era, and the factors that shaped American Presidential history during those years, contradictory to what is commonly known today.  Marx makes his analyses from a communist’s viewpoint, and, as the communist way of ideology, he distinguishes the proletariats, or the masses, as being the main driving forces in coursing the nation’s history.Main BodyDuring the 1860’s, the turmoil that the American nation was experiencing was a favorite topic in the London press.  Issues on slavery, and their assumption that the American civil war founded on a war on tariffs, found their way even to the very elites of English newspapers, such as The Economist, The Times, The Examiner, and the Saturday Review.

  The focus on these articles, however, according to Marx, may be summed up in two categories: First, their attacks on the North; Second, their excuses for attacking the North (Marx, 1964).  The Saturday Review stated it very appropriately: “Among all the reasons behind America’s civil war, the abolition of slavery has absolutely nothing to do with it” (Marx, 1964).According to Marx’s assessment, Lincoln’s assumption into presidency was only the result of a division among the Democratic camp.

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  This division resulted in the Democrats in the North voting for Douglas; and the Democrats in the South for Breckinridge, thus splitting the Party into two, and making way for the Republicans to assume the Presidency.The 300,000-Strong Ruling ClassAmerica’s social geography during the second half of the 19th century was primarily divided into two classes, and divided as well into two geographical sections: the North and the South America.  The North was considered to be the Free State, where slavery is looked down as an evil practice imported from England that needs to be stopped.  The Last Continental Congress of 1787 and the First Constitutional Congress of 1789-90 had legally outlawed slavery in all Territories of the Republic lying northwest of Ohio.  The Missouri Compromise in 1820, wherein Missouri became officially accepted as one of the States with the description as a slave state, wherein the legality of slavery was adjusted further beyond its territory (Marx, 1964); a formation of boundary-line for slavery, was one of the first steps of the beginning of a supposedly slave-free nation.

The South however, was a staunch and open advocate of slavery.  Buchanan’s administration, as an example, exhausted every means at having Kansas included in the Union as a slave state with its own slave constitution.  Marx expressed his belief that Buchanan had somehow bought off the Presidency through the Ostend Manifesto, which was the proclamation of the annexing of Cuba, in whatever force necessary, as a priority in national policies (Marx, 1964).  Cuba was to be of the same purpose as that of the conquest of Mexico; the extension and expansion the national territory for the promulgation of slavery.  In addition, Marx stresses in his article, The North American Civil War, that The Union Government was secretly supportive of slave trade, as manifested in a speech at the American Senate in August 20, 1859 by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas himself:“During the last year, more Negroes were imported form Africa than ever before in a single year when the slave trade was still legal, the number of Negroes imported last year totaled to 15,000” (1964).It was Marx’s conviction that the Union Government was being manipulated by its masters, the 300,000 slaveholders who had total control of the South.

  Marx cites his thesis behind this assumption:  He stresses that the Republicans, which held the Presidency, was formed as a relief organization for the crisis in Kansas.  The Kansas-Nebraska bill, that was supposed to erase the geographical boundaries of slavery, was still being amended when the slave holders sent armed emissaries to Kansas form Missouri and Arkansas, and inflicted upon the majority of its people inhumane forms of atrocities.  They did this with hopes that the settlers will eventually abandon Kansas, a territory recently colonized with the slave holders’ influence.  This seeming armed invasion had the support of the Central Government in Washington.

  This resulted in the formation of an organization aimed at giving aids and support to Kansas, with members primarily from the North, but more so from the North West. This organization later evolved as the Republican Party (Marx, 1964).  Therefore, Marx asserts, the crisis in Kansas instigated by the South, had achieved two victories: It caused the formation of the Republican Party; and it caused the first ever division within the Democratic Party itself.  Hence, what the armed struggle had failed to achieve, politicking had accomplished.

  All of these were made possible by the influence of the 300,000 elite minorities.The Southern ManipulationSouth was well aware that Power lies in having dominion over the American Senate.  There was a need for the founding of new territories to be later converted to States, when the population reaches the required number set forth by the constitution.

  And in whatever State it might be, however big or small its population may consist, it is constitutionally bound to be represented by two Senators.  Hence, the South was in a continuous need for new slave States (Marx, 1964).  Marx points out in his article, The North American Civil War, that this point was faultlessly expressed by the statesman considered by the slave holders as being their statesman par excellence, John Calhoun, in his Senate Speech in February 19, 1847:“That the Senate alone placed the balance of Power in the hands of the South, that extension of the slave territory was necessary to preserve this equilibrium between the South and the North in the Senate, and that the attempts of the South at the creation of new slave States by force were accordingly justified” (1964).ConclusionKarl Marx’s The North American Civil War had substantiated, through the words and actions of the South, the powers of the North, the Democrats, as well as the Republicans that the American Civil War was not in its entirety based on the principles of Emancipation of the Slaves.

  The War was the means by which the South continued to display its powers, despite or in spite of not having the Presidency with their Party.  As was evidenced, the importation of Negro slaves from Africa became even more prolific with the illegalization of slave trade, and the inclusion of areas into Slave States was a mere tactics of the elite few-Slave Holders in further widening of their trade.It was clearly exhibited by Marx in his article that a society whose power and wealth is too much concentrated among the elite few will result in the possibility of manipulation on the hierarchy of power, influencing even the leadership of the nation itself.  This manipulation may have resulted in countless wars, big or small in scope, that the American Society was forced to tolerate in its long history of warfare, that, up until now, these dilemmas had been continuing haunt us.

ReferenceMarx, Karl. (1964). The North American Civil War. Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 19. Progress Publishers, Moscow.

Author: Ellen Clark


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