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:

The war between the North and the South is a tariff war. The war is further, not for any principle, does not touch on the question of slavery, and in fact turns on the Northern lust for power. —Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (Mitcham  2020, p. 103, alterations in boldface)

As soon as I read this sentence, I knew something had to be off. It simply didn’t sound like Marx, so I immediately consulted the source text. We should note that Mitcham does not elaborate on the fractured quotation. It just lies there on the page to make of what we will. Like many rightwing writers, for him Marx is just a boogeyman, and calling something Marxist or even neo-Marxist has about as much weight as a toddler using four-letter words without knowing what they mean.

Only with the evolution of modern historical thought, heavily influenced by the ideas and tactics of Marx and Stalin, did the Civil War become “all about slavery.” Mitcham 2020, p. xvii

John Stuart Mill, Not a Communist

Despite appearances to the contrary, Mitcham is no amateur. He has a PhD in geography and calls himself a historian. And yet he seems wholly unacquainted with the works of contemporary thinkers who needed no prompting from Marx, Stalin, Mao, or Ho Chi Minh. For example, in 1862 John Stuart Mill reminded everyone that the South proudly told everyone why they had seceded.

[W]hat are the Southern chiefs fighting about? Their apologists in England say that it is about tariffs, and similar trumpery. They say nothing of the kind. They tell the world, and they told their own citizens when they wanted their votes, that the object of the fight was slavery. . . . The world knows what the question between the North and South has been for many years, and still is. Slavery alone was thought of, alone talked of. Slavery was battled for and against, on the floor of Congress and in the plains of Kansas; on the slavery question exclusively was the party constituted which now rules the United States: on slavery Fremont was rejected, on slavery Lincoln was elected; the South separated on slavery, and proclaimed slavery as the one cause of separation. (Mill 1862, pp. 12-13)

He might have added that slavery was the reason the South ripped the Democratic party in two, which all but assured Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election. They were willing to wreck the nation’s dominant party simply because Stephen A. Douglas was insufficiently pure on the question of slavery in the territories.

Does Mitcham know better? He should. But in any case, he knows his audience will never research the quotation. I’m not his intended audience. I’m just a guy who will (for good or ill) read almost anything about the Civil War.

Quote-Fishing for the Lost Cause

So this dangling, decontextualized quote attributed to Marx and Engels sits there as if to say, “Look! Even the bad man knew it wasn’t about slavery!” However, that doesn’t explain the change of wording from “sovereignty” to “power.” Surely nowadays authors just copy and paste from the source. Why introduce the possibility of human error? But now it gets a little more interesting. Mitcham isn’t the original quote-fisherman. In his footnote, we learn that he’s cribbing from someone else — namely, a guy named Leonard M. (Mike) Scruggs.

Scruggs misquotes Marx like this:

Karl Marx, like most European socialists of the time, favored the North. In an 1861 article published in England, he articulated very well what the major British newspapers, The Times, The Economist, and Saturday Review, had been saying:

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 the Northern lust for power. (Scruggs 2011, p. 42., alteration in boldface)

The article in question was actually published not in England, but in Vienna; however, I will give Scruggs credit for not implying that Marx thought the war started because of tariffs. In any case, he does seem to be the source for using the word “power” instead of “sovereignty.”

But wait. Scruggs wrote about the Morrill Tariff again in an online newspaper article. In the footnote he seems to admit that he got the quote from Greg Loren Durand in America’s Caesar. The plot thickens. This sad bit of work comes in two volumes. You probably won’t find it in a library near you, but you can find it on line, here: https://americascaesar.com/Volume_One.pdf (warning: link to PDF file). Durand completely misrepresents Marx and Engles, writing:

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who were watching the events in America from Europe with keen interest, observed, “The war between the North and the 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 the Northern lust for sovereignty.” (Durand 2014, pp. 345-346)

I agree that in most cases one should never ascribe malice when incompetence would suffice, but in this case I can’t imagine anyone reading the original text and misunderstanding it. A tariff war is not what Marx and Engels observed; the author is deliberately misleading his gullible readers.

In the next post, we’ll visit some of the modern libertarian thinkers who misquote Marx as they search for the threads of liberty in a civilization ruled by slave-holding oligarchs.

Durand, Greg L. 2014. America’s Caesar: The Decline and Fall of Republican Government in the United States of America, Volume 1. Toccoa, GA: Institute for Southern Historical Review.

Marx, Karl, and Engels, Friedrich. 1937. The Civil War in the United States. Edited by Richard Enmale. New York: International Publishers. (Published in Die Presse on 25 October 1861)

Mill, John Stuart. 1862. The Contest in America. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.

Mitcham, Samuel W. 2020. It Wasn’t About Slavery: Exposing the Great Lie of the Civil War. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.

Scruggs, Leonard M. 2011. The Un-Civil War: Shattering the Historical Myths. Asheville, NC: Universal Media, Inc. (Chapter 4 — “The Morrill Tariff: Understanding the Real Causes of the War”)

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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One thought on “What Did Marx Say Was the Cause of the American Civil War? (Part 1)”

  1. Thank you for this important research. In my life I have encountered a “Libertarian” fondness for defending the Confederacy along with the dream of a “free society” owned and operated by land-and-patent-monopolizing capitalists. The irony of Anti-Marxists citing Karl Marx in support of their perspective is precious indeed! At its best, democracy is an effective defense against the unchecked influence, power and tyranny of “big property”. As such, “Libertarianism” does not support democracy. Dare one suggest there is a direct line or link from the “freedom” of an oligarchy to own slaves to the agenda of the falsely so-called “Freedom Caucus” (the White Christian Nationalist “MAGA” Trump-cult theocratic terrorists, and their agents and allies even in the Supreme Court)? Seems to me they have an openly-declared “God-given” mission to take away the hard-won freedoms and civil liberties of People of Color, Women, and LGBTQ+ folks here in the USA while in a two-way alliance with the richest most powerful person on the planet with a similar theocratic imperial agenda, which is to deceive and subjugate all Russians, Ukrainians and Eastern Europeans, as well as Americans. “Who is John Galt?” Sure looks like the actual incarnation of the fictional “anti-Marx” turns out to be war-monger Vladimir Putin himself! The irony and the agony!

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