Re: [OPE] Marx on the U.S. Civil War

From: Paul Cockshott <>
Date: Thu Feb 03 2011 - 10:30:31 EST

The historian Turtledove presents an examination of how this night have happened and how this could have affected the class struggle in the subsequent 80 years in his 10 volume series beginig with How Few Remain. In my view these are written from a Marxist perspective.

--- original message ---
From: "GERALD LEVY" <>
Subject: Re: [OPE] Marx on the U.S. Civil War
Date: 3rd February 2011
Time: 2:30:09 pm

Hi Paul Z:

We might be talking past each other: you are repeating Marx's perspective whereas
I am adopting a critical stance towards that perspective. More specifically,
I am critical of what appears to me to be a materialist *fatalist* perspective
on the Civil War.

> 1. The progressive impact of capitalism is the production of relative
> surplus value but it has the concomitant requirement of having workers
> denuded of means of production.
> 2. The slave form of production pays only incidental, sporatic attention
> to changing productive forces.
> 3. The slave form of production corresponded to low development of
> productive forces in the agricultural crops produced in the Southern U.S.
> 4. When a technological development came out of the North to promote
> mechanical separation seeds out of cotton fiber (Eli Whitney in 1793)
> there was no concomitant attention to agrarian technological problems in
> the South,
> 5. leading to depletion of the soil in the South under the expanding yet
> renewed slave relations of intensive cultivation.
> 6. Slave masters could reproduce their class interests if they moved
> production to new fertile land, the basis for Marx's argument that slave
> masters had to expand to the West and Northwest ... or else die out. It
> was not a 'choice' (much like 'imperialism' is not a 'choice' for
> capitalism).

It was a perspective which denied any other historical outcomes.
In this I think he erred sometimes in believing that his "general
conclusion" ('Preface' to _A Contribution to a Critique of Political
Economy_) could be applied to each specific historical circumstance.
You can see this in the reasoning above: the slave mode was incapable
of developing the forces of production so the Confederacy must
expand or die. For Marx this meant that the 'only' outcome possible
in the Civil War was a victory for the Union.

Let's start with where this debate began: could the South have 'won'
the war in the sense that it could have concluded a treaty with the
Union which recognized the CSA as a sovereign nation?

The answer to this, I believe, is that it was indeed for a short
period of time a historical *possibility* - a possibility which
Marx dismissed. In this I think it was Engels who was correct:
whatever the political economic causes for the war, once it began
its military outcome was uncertain.

When Marx referred to the 'balance of forces' there was no mention
of how the War in the North was becoming increasingly unpopular as
the war dragged on without major victories, with massive loss of life
on both sides, and with an end not in sight. This, in part, led to
the Draft Riots in New York the next year (September, 1863).

What would have been the outcome of the War had Lincoln not been
re-elected in 1864? This was, after all, a very real possibility
and it was only some military successes (finally!) which won
him re-election.

> You seem to be claiming** that slave masters could have converted
> themselves to a bourgeoisie? Or did I miss something?

Yes, you are missing something.
I was starting - as opposed to Marx - from the premise that the
outcome of the war was uncertain and that it could have ended
on the basis of a recognition by the Union of the CSA in the
states which were already part of the Confederacy.

So, the question then becomes: could the CSA have survived for an
extended period as a sovereign nation?

For Marx, the answer seems to have been 'no' - unless they were
successful in eventually expanding geographically. I suggested
another possibility - even if it became apparent to the slaveocracy
that their long-term survival as a class depended on expansion
(i.e. even if we grant Marx's argument) other outcomes were possible.
For instance, if slavery was becoming increasingly inefficient,
slave owners could gradually move their money into non-slave
production. It's also possible that - even if we accept the claim that
there would be a hindering of the productive forces - the CSA could
exist and be reproduced with a relatively stagnant economy (i.e. with
just enough surplus for the slave owners to maintain their customary
standard of living).

Let us recall that in other parts of the Americas there had been
merchants who previously were slave owners who came to believe that
there were merits in the bourgeois system (this is nicely fictionally
portrayed in the film 'Burn'). So, it seems to me that regardless of
the historical connection between the birth of the Confederacy and
slavery, it was at least conceivable that had the CSA existed as
a sovereign nation, the importance of slavery could have over time
diminished but the CSA could have persisted. Would this have meant
important class conflicts in the CSA between the slave owners and
merchant class? Almost surely, but - again - it was a possibility.

If there is a 'general conclusion' that we can come to based on
historical analysis it is that the outcome of historical struggles
is generally uncertain. This was something which Lincoln and the
Union forces themselves understood and it was the awful possibility of
defeat which helped motivate them.

> Frankly, I don't see how one can be a careful marxist while being
> dismissive of Marx's writings on the U.S. Civil War. Or, did I miss
> something?

I am not being dismissive; I am being critical. That, after all,
was Marx's own stance towards all.

In solidarity, Jerry
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Received on Thu Feb 3 10:33:42 2011

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