Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 11, 2018

Andrew Zimmerman on Marx, Engels and Slavery

Filed under: Civil War,slavery — louisproyect @ 8:44 pm

Today I received the new collection of Marx and Engels’s writings on the Civil War from International Publishers. Although this book belongs in any collection of their books, I would say that the introduction by Andrew Zimmerman justifies the purchase all on its own. I have not heard of Zimmerman before but on the basis of the excerpt below, I plan to put him on my must-reading bucket list.

The excerpt resonates with a topic that I will be addressing in the next few days that has been prompted by various leftists on FB and Marxmail arguing that Marx and Lenin would vote for Democrats if they were alive today, just like the people writing for Jacobin and in the leadership of DSA. When I get around to a rebuttal of the three most common arguments along these lines, I will certainly consult Zimmerman’s introduction as well as the articles by Marx and Engels that illustrate his point that while they were very far-sighted on the Civil War, they still had a flawed interpretation.

Back in 2007, we had a CP’er or CP sympathizer on Marxmail who when challenged to identify an leading Marxist supporting a bourgeois politician, he referred to Karl Marx’s articles in praise of Abraham Lincoln. When I get around to writing my answer to this, I will bring up Marx’s support for Friedrich Sorge against Victoria Woodhull who in my view understood the flaws in official Marxism that Zimmerman alludes to below. She ran for president with Frederick Douglass as her running-mate. That Marx could have referred to Woodhull as a faker and instead endorsed the dreadful Sorge shows that he was just as capable of making mistakes as any other human being, including those today who view the Democratic Party as if it were some sort of social democratic party with distinctly American features. Baloney.

Andrew Zimmerman:

Marx and Engels recognized white supremacy as part of the slave system that lay at the root of the American Civil War, and noted also, especially in their discussions of Andrew Johnson, how racism limited the extent of emancipation after the war. Still, especially in their private correspondence, their own views of blacks sometimes limited their ability to analyze the Civil War. Perhaps the most jarring manifestation of this is their repeated use of the English racial epithet “nigger” in their private correspondence—nine times in the texts reproduced in this volume. They used this term ironically, however, to highlight a racism that they criticized rather than endorsed. Marx and Engels opposed racism at every turn, and the communist movements they inspired have remained some of the most powerful and consistent anti-racist and anti-imperialist forces in the world, including in the United States.

Still, Marx and Engels sometimes wrote as if the fight against slavery was primarily a white working-class struggle, with black workers and soldiers playing a vital, but only supporting, role. When Marx wrote in Capital that “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded,” he connected the struggles of white and black workers, but also suggested that they were separate (document 108). When he called “slave revolution” the “last card up its [the Union’s] sleeve,” he attributes agency to the white Northern leadership who might play this card rather than to enslaved black workers themselves (document 10). When Marx remarked, in 1853, that US blacks who were born into slavery were not “freshly imported barbarians” from Africa but rather “a native product, more or less Yankeefied, English speaking, etc., and hence capable of being eman-cipated” (document 104), he did not only denigrate African cultures; he also blinded himself to the many African and African American political traditions that contributed to the defeat of slavery in the Americas.

Marx and Engels did grasp the American Civil War as a victorious workers’ struggle, but, unlike most Marxist analyses today, they overemphasized the importance of free white workers at the expense of enslaved black workers in this struggle. Marx and Engels rightly pointed to the many white American workers who fought on the side of Union, the white British workers who made British intervention on behalf of the Confederacy polit-ically impossible, and even to the working-class backgrounds of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson. What they missed was the largest worker rebellion of all at the heart of the Union victory and the Civil War: the determination of great numbers of the four million enslaved black workers to withdraw their labor from their erstwhile masters, to transform fop war for the Union into a war against slavery, and to throw their collective intelligence, capacity for labor, and armed might behind the Union.

Marx and Engels were thus correct that the Civil War was a struggle of workers against slavery, although perhaps not precisely for the reasons they thought it was. Their comrades who served in the Union Army, however, worked with, and fought alongside, formerly enslaved African Americans and thus gained a better understanding of the importance of black workers in the conflict (see document 94). All this suggests that the fight against racism is not a matter of white people perfecting their own ‘1m-racist’ ideas hot rather develops through interracial political solidarity.

Regardless of these shortcomings, Marx and Engels did help lay the groundwork for one of the most, if not the most, important interpretations of the Civil War to date: W.E.B. Du Bois’s 1935 Black Reconstruction. In that work, Du Bois analyzed the southern slave as “the black worker” and portrayed the central drama in the Civil War as the “general strike” by which these black workers transformed the war between Union and Confederacy into a revolution against slavery. The capitalist outcome of Reconstruction Du Bois attributed to what he called a “counterrevolution of property.” Historians have only begun to give Du Bois’s interpretation of the Civil War and Reconstruction the credit it deserves. The essay by Du Bois that is the final text of this volume makes clear his critical appreciation of the writings of Marx and Engels on the Civil War.

 

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