2024-05-12

What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)

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by Tim Widowfield

I toyed with the idea of presenting the dishonest, decontextualized quotation of Marx that one finds in both Lost Cause as well as libertarian “scholarship,” and then work back until I revealed the original intent. But then I remembered from psychology classes that the primacy effect is extremely potent and realized that I risked sabotaging my own efforts. So instead I’ll begin with what Karl Marx actually thought, to avoid all ambiguity.

What Marx Thought

In an essay written for the The Vienna Presse, he wrote:

The whole movement was and is based, as one sees, on the slave question: Not in the sense of whether the slaves within the existing slave states should be emancipated or not, but whether the twenty million free men of the North should subordinate themselves any longer to an oligarchy of three hundred thousand slaveholders; whether the vast Territories of the republic should be planting-places for free states or for slavery; finally, whether the national policy of the Union should take armed propaganda of slavery in Mexico, Central and South America as its device. (Marx 1861, p. 71, attributed to Marx and Engels, bold emphasis mine)

What the Many in the British Press Thought 

For the moment, let’s lay aside whether or not we agree with Marx. The question is not what we think, but what he thought. In this essay, Marx and Engels were taking a position against many in the British press. Many of the loud and sanctimonious voices in newspapers of the day were saying that the war had nothing to do with slavery. Early on, in this same essay, Marx wrote, concerning contemporary London media:

In essence the extenuating arguments read: The war between the North and South is a tariff war. The war is, further, not for any principle, does not touch the question of slavery and in fact turns on Northern lust for sovereignty. (Marx 1861, p. 58)

The Quote, Out of Context

The modern mischief begins with stripping away all context, and then presenting the implicit (and false) notion that Marx thought the Civil War was simply a war of aggression and dominance, perpetrated by the North. I first came upon this quotation in a truly dreadful book by Samuel W. Mitcham, Jr. called It Wasn’t about Slavery.

He begins the chapter called “The Election of 1860” with this: Continue reading “What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)”