Marx in support of capitalist war

James Farmelant farmelantj at
Sat Apr 24 13:31:27 PDT 1999

On Sat, 24 Apr 1999 07:01:25 +0100 Chris Burford <cburford at> writes:
>"The North came to the theatre of war reluctantly, sleepily, as was to
>expected considering its higher industrial and commercial development.
>social machinery there was far more complicted than in the South, and
>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
>to train them through operations on a small scale and without risk of
>decisive battles, and, as soon as the organisation had become
>strong and the traitorous element had simultaneously been more or less
>removed from the army, to go on to an energetic, unflagging offensive
>above all, to reconquer Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and North
>The transformation of civilians into soldiers was bound to take more
>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 and
>in a situation of rising capitalism, in which the bourgeoisie was

Isn't that the point at issue here? The 1860s was still a time of rising capitalism. The North's victory during that war ensured the destruction of slavery in the South and the political triumph of industrial capital in US politics. As a consequence the US was able to undergo a very rapid industrialization, quickly becoming a major competitor with Great Britain. This in turn resulted in the rapid growth of an industrial proletariat, that was fed especially by the large-scale immigration to the US. Marx no doubt hade hopes that the rise of an American proletariat would ultimately strengthen the working class througout the world.

It seems to me that what is going on in Europe is to say the least quite different. We live in the period of late capitalism. The formation of a European superstate which Chris loudly applauds is being done at the expence of the working classes in Europe and elsewhere. Whereas, the American Cilvil War can be seen as having resulted in a situation in which the proletariat was able to grow both in numbers and in strength. The emergence of the European superstate seems likely to further the crushing of the working classes in Europe. The consolidation of the EC has already called into question the continued viability of the post-WW II welfare states that had been achieved as the result of decades of struggle. The increased mobility of capital has already undercut attempts by particular nation-states at regulating economic activity. And the consolidation of the EC institutionalizes this phenomena.

>His articles in Die Presse seem to say little that is
>anti-capitalist and that may be because he needed the commissions. Yet
>would have known that without the active support of Northern capital
>war could not have been fought and won.
>His seemed to see the defeat of slavery as a progressive cause, even
>he would have known that in terms of state power this was a war
>between one
>exploiting class and another for the control of the entire nation
>its resources and its markets. The head of the executive committee of
>bourgeoisie, Lincoln, he described positively as a man of average good
>and praised his historic contribution.

But Marx also saw the defeat of slavery as having emancipatary consequences for the working class as a whole. First of all for Marx the destruction of slavery was in itself emancipatory for the slaves themselves. It was also emacipatory for so-called 'free' labor because the destruction of the political power of the slaveholders would result in the removal of the last remaining impediments to the rapid industrialization of the US. Prior to 1860 the Southern planter class constituted at the national level the ruling class of the US. They used their political power to back policies like low tariffs that while beneficial to themselves discouraged industrial development. The presidential election of 1860 was a devastating political defeat for the Southern planters which is they quickly opted for secession in response. The military defeat of the planters that followed thereafter thus destroyed a major political barrier to industrialization (and the war itself spurred industrialization). For Marx the consequences of this development were most welcome since it meant that there would be a rapid growth of the American industrial proletariat. And the emergence of the US as a major industrial power would no doubt in Marx's view also intensify the contradictions of capitalism.

>The war was the first with really massive loss of life. It could well
>presented as a war of two exploiting classes. Capitalism was
>on a unitary basis in the land later to become the superpower of the
>The working class were enlightened fodder for this enterprise. Surely
>only revolutionary course would have been for the working class of
>state to have united with the slaves and small farmers and had a
>against their exploiting classes.

While Chris here thinks he is ridiculing his Marxist opponents in the name of Marxism, he in fact is being ridiculous. The reason why appeals to American workers to rise up against their capitalist exploiters would have been ridiculous prior to the 1860s is because in fact few American were proletarians then. Most people in the US were then small farmers, self-employed mechanics and tradesmen or operators of small businesses. Few were proletarians in Marx's sense. Interestingly enough the Civil War itself went a long way in directly spurring a rapid industrialization (indeed military historians often describe the Civil War as the first modern war, it was the first major war in which industrialization played a crucial role).

>A few proclamations from a centre of
>marxist leadership would have been sufficient for the revolution to
>providing that centre of marxist leadership was not occupied by a
>traitor who propagated conciliation with the ruling class....
>But for Marx the bungles and mistakes at the beginning of the war are
>associated with the difficulty of a more sophisticated democracy
>to war. Just as some of the most imperialist features of the present
>the massive bombing of Serbia, is also a feature of the difficulty of
>getting consensus among 19 democratic states for what would be more
>focussed and less destructive, a ground war limited as much as
>possible to

Again I have never seen Chris quite explain how NATO's war against Yugoslavia is supposed to benefit the working class. Presumably, Chris sees the war as likely to further the development of the European superstate (although I haven't as of yet seen Chris explain why such a state would be good for workers). In fact the war if it continues the way it has been it may very well have the opposite effects. If NATO decides to launch an invasion of Yugoslavia, it could if history is any guide easily turn into a quagmire. Under such circumstances the most likely consequences would be a splitting of NATO as public opposition to the war intensifies. Already in Greece, there is strong opposition to the war. Italian public opinion is split down the middle, while support for the war is tepid at best in France. There while both Chirac and Jospin back the war, there is considerable opposition to it within their respective political parties among the rank-and-file.

>Now there must be a number of subscribers on this list who know Marx's
>writings on the American Civil War quite closely.
>But as for Marx's would be followers, who are followers without
>Marx closely, they must be turning today in their graves -
>graves that is. Corporeally alive, but dialectically dead.

I cannot help but suspect that Marx had Chris Burford in mind when is reported (by Engels) to have shouted "Je ne suis pas un Marxist!"

Jim Farmelant
>Chris Burford

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