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Marx, the Civil War and the U.S. today

By Frank Chapman |
January 13, 2021
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Frank Chapman

Chicago, IL - Karl Marx observed over a 150 years ago that “the biggest thing happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown and on the other the movement of the serfs in Russia.”

According to Marx, the defining event leading up to the Civil War was not the Slaveholders’ Rebellion announced by the cannon fire on Fort Sumter but the raid on Harpers Ferry led by John Brown and Shields Green - a Black and white band of abolitionists. In other words, the movement of the slaves inspired by Harpers Ferry, and the election of a president - Lincoln - who was opposed to the unbridled expansion of chattel slavery, were the indispensable preconditions for Civil War.

In a certain sense the movement of the slaves was already fermenting revolution. The secession of the slave states was really a counter-revolution before the revolution. This is precisely why Marx characterized the secession as the “Slaveholders’ Rebellion.” He understood that what the South was fighting for was the liberty to enslave Black people and to turn the United States into a slave republic.

Marx writes that “the North, after a long hesitation and an exhibition of forbearance unknown in the annals of European history, drew at last the sword not for crushing slavery, but for saving the union, the South, on its part, inaugurated the war by loudly proclaiming ‘the peculiar institution’ as the only and main end of the rebellion. It confessed to fighting for the liberty of enslaving other people...”

Harriet Beecher Stowe also clearly stated the aims of the slaveholders, said she: “The slave party, finding they could no longer use the Union for their purposes, resolved to destroy it.”

The slave party, in alliance with the northern Democratic Party and its precursors, had a diplomatic history of one compromise after another, from inscribing in the Constitution that Black people were three-fifths human, to the Fugitive Slave Acts, to the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, and right on up until the Union was made the “slave of the slaveholder.”

War was inevitable because the slave party was hell bent on removing every legal barrier to the expansion of slavery into the territories. The movement of slaves and their allies were uniting with the “Free Soilers” to stop the expansion of slavery. Now it became a question for the South not only to taint the democratic institutions of the North and Northwest with the stench of slavery but to overturn the democratic institutions all together. The war waged by the South was not a war of defense but a war of conquest.

Hence a new era of revolutionary struggle is born in the raid on Harpers Ferry and the blast of cannon fire on Fort Sumpter.

Marx understood, way before Lincoln or before anyone except for Frederick Douglas and the revolutionary abolitionists, that not only was this a war fought for slavery; he recognized the revolutionary role of the slaves in winning the war and ending slavery. Being that he gave detailed attention to the movement of the slaves and the program of liberation of Black people, he supported their demands for emancipation, the right to bear arms, the demands for land and social equality.

Once the Emancipation Proclamation was issued and freed slaves were inducted into the armed services, Marx and the revolutionary abolitionists knew that the death knell of slavery had been sounded - that the Civil War had went from being a constitutional war aimed at keeping slavery in the Union to a revolutionary war aimed at smashing the Slaveholders’ Rebellion, thus liberating the slaves.

I have taken the liberty of sharing Marx’s analysis of how the Slaveholders’ Rebellion had to be defeated by revolutionary means, bringing about Black liberation, because I believe this can help us in understanding what needs to be done today.

There has been a lot of popcorn analyses comparing the events of January 6, when white supremacists stormed the Capitol, with the launching of the Civil War in 1861. This is because the Civil War was also clearly a fight for the ‘liberty’ to enslave our people. And like the white supremacists then, Trump and his crew were hell bent on ignoring every barrier prohibiting them from wielding power.

Since the overthrow of Reconstruction, i.e., the ending by violence and terror the revolutionary gains of the Civil War, there is a whole other history of alliances and compromises between the old former slaveholding South and the high finance northern capitalist to continue the oppression and super-exploitation of Black people. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution - abolishing slavery, granting citizenship as a birth right, equal protection of rights and the right to vote - were kept on paper but not fully enforced ‘til this day.

The white supremacist attempted coup on January 6 had the explicit aim of overturning the presidential election of November 3, 2020 by disenfranchising millions of Black and brown voters. It is not enough that the ultra-right has already reversed affirmative action and gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, they want the total use of government to enforce their extremist white racist agenda. They want undisputed power to continue police tyranny in our communities, to perpetrate mass incarceration as the New Jim Crow, to plunder the national treasury, give tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for the poor and so on. When the masses rise up and fight back not only with protests in the streets but in the electoral arena at the ballot box, the MAGA white supremacist thugs are unleashed by their commander in chief against the very government that up to now has been loyal to them and has given their leader, Trump, unprecedented executive power.

This is not 1861. This 2021, but we live in the shadow of the unfinished revolution started by the last Civil War. To go forward we must muster the masses the get Trump and his racist regime out, we must do so while at the same time firmly and unequivocally putting forth an agenda for Black, and Chicano/Latino liberation, along with a class struggle agenda for hundreds of thousands of workers who are dying and suffering from this COVID-19 health crisis and economic devastation

It is incumbent on us to demand that Congress must end this white-supremacist revolt, by fully restoring the Voting Rights Act, expanding the Civil Rights Act to mandate that Black and brown people have the right to determine who polices their communities and how their communities are policed and to defund the police. They must end mass incarceration and grant reparations for the slavery and genocide perpetrated against our people. We don't just want Trump and his cohorts held accountable, we want to end this racist tyranny with Black liberation.

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