a reading lesson: Marx in support of capitalist war

christian a. gregory cgregory at nwe.ufl.edu
Sat Apr 24 10:12:59 PDT 1999

> "The North came to the theatre of war reluctantly, sleepily, as was to be
> expected considering its higher industrial and commercial development. The
> social machinery there was far more complicted than in the South, and it
> required far more time to get it moving in this unusual direction. The
> enlistment of volunteers for three months was a great, but perhaps
> unavoidable mistake. It was the policy of the North to remain on the
> defensive in the beginning at all decisive points, to organise its forces,
> to train them through operations on a small scale and without risk of
> decisive battles, and, as soon as the organisation had become sufficiently
> strong and the traitorous element had simultaneously been more or less
> removed from the army, to go on to an energetic, unflagging offensive and,
> above all, to reconquer Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North Carolina.
> The transformation of civilians into soldiers was bound to take more time
> in the North than in the South. Once effected, one could count on the
> individual superiority of the Northern men."
> Marx and Engels, March 1862 in the liberal Viennese paper Die Presse.
> Now it may be argued that Marx was supporting the bourgeoisie at a time
> in a situation of rising capitalism, in which the bourgeoisie was
> progressive.

where in this quote does marx say anything in support of the war or the bourgeoisie? he's describing how the north came to enter the war, and why the north's soldiers were superior. if you want to browbeat people about their lack of attention to marx's text, don't you think you're going to have pay some attention to this yourself? wouldn't the appropriately "nuanced" or "inflected" position begin with the "literal" sense of this text?

besides, and for the umpteenth time, who ever said that imperialist war couldn't have redemptive effects--even if by accident? does that make it less imperialist? the point of trying to say something about the war (the american civil war or the one in yugo) is to balance the decision to enter into this conflict, at this moment, on these terms, with such and such a rhetoric, against the choices that have to be foregone to do so. the effects rendered "accidentally" by the war in yugo--say, the destruction of infrastructure (such as it is), the acceleration of the refugee crisis, huge fiscal expenditure, the chilled relations with the soviet union, loss of life, etc.--have to be matched against the supposed "declared" intention of the intervention. and then you have to ask whether that declared intention seems likely to happen. and if so, on what terms. now, we're basically offering to return the kosovars to a country that's been bombed back to the stone age. that hardly seems like a humanitarian triumph. even if it does happen.

i agree with you that calling the war imperialist isn't enough. but to say that dialectical care resolves itself into some ethos of undecidability seems at least as a big a mistake as adopting a so-called "vulgar" position. you seem think that opposition to the war is itself vulgar no matter how one comes to that decision, and that the only "proper" dialectical position would be to notice the contradictions and support the war because it might have some salutary effects. that looks to me like a cop-out.


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