The American Civil War and the struggle for working class unity

Printer-friendly version

An article written by a close sympathiser which uses the marxist method to try to get to the roots of the American Civil War, a momentous event which still has an impact on contemporary capitalism, and the class struggle, in the USA.

“In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin.” (Marx)[1]


The American Civil War (1861-65) was one of the most significant events for the working class, both in the US and internationally, in the period of capitalism’s progressive growth.

This was in many ways the first industrialised war and the carnage was certainly on an industrial scale: over one million casualties or 3 percent of the US population. Not until the Vietnam War did the total number of American deaths in foreign wars finally eclipse the number who died in the Civil War.

It is well known that Marx and Engels strongly backed a military victory for the Northern bourgeoisie in this bloody conflict, with Marx even penning an address from the First International personally congratulating Lincoln, “the single-minded son of the working class”, on his re-election.[2]

Given that the Communist Left has always stood for the most intransigent defence of internationalism, do we still believe this support for one side in a war between two capitalist factions was correct and if so for what reasons?

The aim of this article is not to try to deal with the whole subject of the Civil War but to contribute to a discussion on this question by setting out some key points for a Marxist understanding.

  1. Why was the Civil War fought?

Slavery was integral to the genesis of capitalism but became an obstacle to its further progress

In a previous article[3] we saw how the English colonies on the eastern seaboard of North America were founded by the merchants of the City of London on a commercial basis, primarily for the production of crops (tobacco and later, on a much larger scale, cotton) to be sold as commodities on the world market, and how the huge regimented labour force required for this early capitalist enterprise was ensured by using tens of thousands of men, women and children as slave labour.[4] Until the end of the 18th century the majority of these slaves were white Europeans.

Far from being a vestige of feudalism or a historical anomaly, forms of slavery were integral to the genesis of capitalism, especially in areas of the world like South America and the Caribbean as well as North America. What was specific to slavery in North America was, first, the change that took place in the main form, from a dependence on convict, forced and indentured labour by black and white slaves to racially-based chattel slavery. This change was motivated by the growing shortage of these forms of labour and the availability of cheap black slave labour from the Atlantic slave trade, but above all by the need of the colonial ruling class to find a more effective means of controlling black and white labour and preventing a dangerous class struggle against private property.

Second, and in global historical terms more significant, was the pivotal role that plantation slavery in the US came to play in the development of industrial capitalism, which for Marx depended as much on the existence of plantation slavery in the United States as it did on the development of machinery; in fact slavery was just as much the ‘pivot’ of bourgeois industry as machinery and credit because, very succinctly, “Without slavery you have no cotton; without cotton you have no modern industry. It is slavery that gave the colonies their value; it is the colonies that created world trade, and it is world trade that is the pre-condition of large-scale industry.”[5]

But if slavery was integral to the genesis of capitalism, over time it became an obstacle to its further progress.

The American Revolution had cemented the political rule of the slaveholders, whose plantation economy was essential to the survival of the new bourgeois republic. But the rise of an industrial capitalist class in the North and its drive to colonise the west and introduce capitalist methods of production into agriculture met with the resistance of the slaveholding class, whose political and economic power depended on the continual extension of slavery to new territories. Unable to expand, the slave economy was doomed, but every step in its expansion threatened the new industrial economy and brought it closer to a political confrontation with the North. Eventually this led to the so-called ‘secession crisis’ and the outbreak of the Civil War.

This conflict was firmly rooted in the objective laws of capitalism; in the need of capital to rid itself of all obstacles to its own self-expansion; from being a ‘pivot’ of the growth of industrial capitalism, plantation slavery became a barrier to its further advance. For Marx, the Civil War was “nothing but a struggle between two social systems, the system of slavery and the system of free labour”, which could “only be ended by the victory of one system or the other”.[6] But this struggle was not simply the clash of blind economic forces, it was the product of, and was shaped by, the struggle between the classes; by “the violent clash of the antagonistic forces, the friction of which was the moving power of its history for half a century”.[7]

The need to maintain white racial solidarity exacerbated class conflicts in the South

The class struggle in the South was shaped by the need of the slaveholding class to preserve the façade of white racial solidarity. As Marx pointed out, this class was a ‘narrow oligarchy’ of only some 300,000 which, due to its greed for the best land, created a dangerous and ever-expanding mass of millions of poor whites, “whose condition is only to be compared with that of the Roman plebeians in the period of Rome's extreme decline”. [8] The rule of this narrow oligarchy depended on diverting the struggle of these poor white landless farmers and labourers, who were essential as a bulwark against the threat of slave revolt, by offering them the prospect of becoming slaveholders themselves, or at least preserving the illusion that they had a stake in slaveholding society.

In industry the oligarchy relied heavily on the use of slave labour, in skilled as well as unskilled roles. This not only had the effect of driving down wages and conditions to subsistence levels but inevitably led to unemployment among ‘free’ white workers, provoking struggles against the use of black slave labour as the only way to protect jobs and prevent further wage cuts.[9] Even these struggles posed a threat to the slaveholders’ rule, as shown by the 1847 strike of skilled white workers at the Tredegar Iron Works to demand the removal of skilled black slave labour, which for the employers struck not only at their profits but “the roots of all the rights and privileges of the masters[10].

The influx of militant white immigrant labour to the South created an explosive situation for the slaveholding class, which increasingly faced a dilemma: either to make more use of slave labour and risk provoking the protests of white workers; or to exclude slaves from industry and threaten the façade of racial unity on which its rule depended. Its response was to try to resist the growth of industry, which temporarily preserved the basis of its power but only at the cost of exacerbating economic backwardness and conflicts with other factions of capital.

Slave resistance in the South threatened the stability of the capitalist system

Due to the pivotal role of plantation slavery in the US in the development of industrial capitalism, a major slave insurrection in the South threatened to precipitate a crisis of the entire system. This is why, on the eve of the Civil War, Marx considered the struggles of the plantation slaves as in the US one of the two most important world developments.[11]

The threat of slave rebellion was certainly real (Gabriel’s rebellion, 1800, Denmark Vesey’s revolt in South Carolina, 1822, Nat Turner’s insurrection in Southampton County Virginia, 1831, the crews of the Amistad and Creole in 1839 and 1841).[12] In fact slave resistance was continuous, involving not only individual acts such as stealing property, sabotage and slowness, burning down plantation buildings and escaping, but also forms of collective action including work stoppages in protest against brutality, and running away leaving one slave to negotiate with the master until grievances were addressed. Marx talked about the value of labour power having a “historical and moral” element,[13] and it is surely true that, deprived of any right to organise or formally negotiate the price of their labour, slaves nevertheless showed by their courage, determination to resist and capacity for collective action, the ability to push back the worst excesses of the slave regime and win some amelioration in their conditions.

And of course behind every act of slave resistance there lurked the spectre of an alliance of poor whites and slaves against the rich that had haunted the ruling class from the origins of capitalism in North America. Stern police measures were taken against whites who fraternised with blacks, suggesting that such instances were frequent enough to cause concern.

In response to this threat, the South was in effect turned into a combination of armed camp and police state and the machinery of repression was further reinforced by the refinement of white racist ideology. There were also attempts to minimise the danger of revolt by conceding some reforms, with laws enacted in some slave states to limit the exploitation of slave labour. Nevertheless, the slaveholding regime constituted a weak link in the chain of capitalist domination, not only in the US but globally.

The threat of class struggle was a constant concern of the bourgeoisie

The period leading up to the Civil War saw a massive growth of the industrial proletariat in the North and several important waves of struggles culminating in the largest strike in the USA so far (New England shoemakers’ strike, 1860).

The strategy of the bourgeoisie to manage this growing threat at first involved developing the Democratic Party while reinforcing ethnic, religious and racial divisions between workers (‘Jacksonian Democracy’). But the Democrats also expressed the interests of the slaveholding bourgeoisie in the US state and as the struggle between North and South grew more acute the party split into two opposing factions, leading to a shift in the bourgeoisie’s political apparatus.

The rise of the Republican Party reflected the political advance of the industrial capitalist class and the need to more effectively manage the class struggle. Recognising the inevitability of the conflict with the slaveholding regime, the Republicans fought the 1860 election on a platform to stop any further extension of slavery. But the ruling faction around Lincoln continued to pursue a policy of compromise with the South, at least in part due to awareness that war could open the floodgates to a more dangerous class struggle against private property.

      2. What was the response of the workers’ movement to the Civil War?

The majority of the white working class in the US did not support the abolition of slavery

In the North, in response to the rapid growth of a racially and ethnically heterogeneous industrial proletariat, the American ruling class had deployed the racist concept of white supremacy as part of a deliberate strategy to block the tendency of workers’ struggles to build solidarity. White wage slaves were encouraged to see themselves as superior to chattel slaves and the abolition of slavery was presented, with some success, as the threat of a ‘flood’ of black labour in direct competition with white workers.[14]

In the South, the concept of white supremacy was explicit in the system of black chattel slavery, which co-opted the white working class to police the slave system on the basis of white racial solidarity.

For the entire working class, therefore, as long as slavery continued to exist, it was not only a moral outrage but also a practical obstacle to its unification as a class. As Marx powerfully put it:

While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned labourer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labour, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation…”[15]

But the majority of the white working class in the US before the Civil War did not support the abolition of slavery. Encouraged by bourgeois propaganda, many white workers, especially unskilled recent immigrants, continued to fear that freeing black slaves would increase competition for jobs and drive down wages and conditions. Some also feared that support for abolition would split the Democratic Party and strengthen the enemies of ‘Jacksonian Democracy’.

What eventually won more workers to the view that slavery must be abolished was the extension of slavery to new territories of the US, which threatened to extend slave labour to the factories of the North, lower wages to subsistence levels and overturn hard-won democratic reforms. But fear that abolition would result in throwing millions of black workers onto the labour market and driving down wages remained a powerful influence on sections of the white working class.

The most politically advanced minorities of the US workers’ movement recognised that slavery must be destroyed if the working class was to emancipate itself

The most politically advanced minorities of the US working class did recognise that no significant progress for the labour movement was possible until slavery was destroyed.

Among the mechanic’s associations and workingmen’s parties of the early workers’ movement there was a tradition of support for abolition as an integral demand  in  the struggle for democratic rights, and the New England factory workers  – the vanguard of the early industrial proletariat – consistently voiced support for the struggles of the plantation slaves.

The most advanced political minorities in the US – the communist nuclei that emerged from within German-speaking workers’ movement– explicitly argued that as long as chattel slavery continued to exist the working class could not emancipate itself, and that it was necessary for the working class to take a lead role in the struggle against the slaveholders.

But the failure of early attempts to form an independent class party weakened the movement. In its absence supporters of the ‘Marx party’ in the US (see box) worked with the Republican Party and actively campaigned for its electoral victory, on the basis that this was the best guarantee of the capitalist development necessary to ensure social progress. However, some radical workers refused to support a party that defended the interests of the industrial capitalists and many remained within the Democratic Party, despite its defence of the slaveholders’ interests.

On the outbreak of war the working class in the North was mobilised in defence of the Union but the class character of the conflict quickly asserted itself

The effect of the outbreak of war was to immediately cut short the rising wave of workers’ struggles and to rally the northern working class in defence of the Union. In the patriotic fervour unleashed after the surrender of Fort Sumter (April 1861) so many workers enlisted in the Union army, including entire local trade unions, that some branches of industry faced labour shortages. Whole units were raised of German, Italian, Irish and Polish workers. The tiny marxist movement in the US suspended its activity and, viewing the war as a continuation of the 1848 revolutions, put its position into practice and fought arms in hand for the abolition of slavery in the ranks of the US army.[16]

Throughout the war, it was the working class that bore the brunt of the slaughter, constituting almost half the military strength of the North. The vast majority of the Union army, even after the draft was introduced, were volunteers.

But the class character of the conflict also quickly asserted itself. Workers’ struggles revived in response to soaring prices and hardship due to the needs of the war economy, provoking a concerted counter-offensive by the northern bourgeoisie backed by the federal government and the use of troops for strike-breaking.

As the death toll mounted and conscription was introduced by both sides, there was also growing opposition to the discriminatory class basis of the draft, with the slogan “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight” becoming popular among workers in both North and South. Many evaded the draft. In the South it became almost unenforceable. About one in ten in the Union army deserted and it was a far greater problem for the Confederacy.

The Draft Riots in New York (1863), in which white workers, many of them Irish recent immigrants, indiscriminately attacked blacks, resulting in 400 casualties before being put down by troops, highlight both the class character of the war and the effects of racial divisions in the proletariat due to the fear of competition. The draft exempted blacks, who were not considered citizens, and allowed those who could afford to pay to avoid it, hitting poor white workers hardest. Irish unskilled workers in particular feared competition if the slaves were freed. Although only a small fraction of the working class joined the rioters and organisations of the workers’ movement denounced it, similar riots occurred in Cincinnati, Chicago, Pennsylvania and other northern cities. There were also draft riots in the South and widespread disaffection by the end of the war.

The political movement against the war was primarily an expression of bourgeois interests rather than proletarian internationalism

Despite its mobilisation in defence of the Union, throughout the war a large section of the working class in the North, possibly a majority, supported a policy of compromise with the South, but despite workers’ struggles in response to the effects of the war and opposition to the class basis of the draft, there was no significant political movement to oppose the war as a fight between two capitalist factions.

The anti-war movement in the North primarily expressed the interests of those factions of the bourgeoisie dependent on trade with the South. The pro-southern faction of the Democratic Party – the ‘Peace Democrats’ or ‘Copperheads’ – argued that the working class should be neutral or indifferent to the war. They opposed conscription, with some encouraging desertion, and when the Confederacy was losing the war they called for a negotiated peace.

Copperhead propaganda naturally fed on working class discontent with a war in which the bourgeoisie cynically sent the proletariat to be massacred, and this was undoubtedly a factor that led to the Draft Riots. Opposition to the draft and the large numbers deserting on both sides at least in part reflected an elementary proletarian class consciousness, but this did not find expression in an explicit working class anti-war movement.

      3. What were the results of the Civil War for the working class?

The abolition of slavery removed an obstacle to working class unity and accelerated the development of the workers’ movement

The policy of compromise with the South pursued by the ruling faction around Lincoln changed in the course of the war, firstly because the continuing ability of the South to use the institution of slavery to wage war was a source of military weakness for the North, and secondly because of concern at the reaction of the white working class to the class character of the war which was leading to draft riots and unwillingness to fight for the Union. This change resulted in the gradual enlistment and arming of former slaves by the North and the declaration that the abolition of slavery was now an aim of the war.

The effect of the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slavery abolished in those areas no longer in Confederate control, was to encourage around half a million slaves to leave the plantations. In effect this was a mass refusal to continue to work for the slaveholding regime and the ending of slavery was thus due in part to the collective action of the black slaves themselves. Nearly two hundred thousand black soldiers served in the Union army – 10 per cent of its strength. Many more supported the war effort of the North in noncombat roles.

The abolition of slavery was completed by the Confederate surrender and constitutional amendments. For Marx, the “moral impetus” the freeing of the slaves gave to the working class movement was the most important result of the Civil War, immediately reflected in an acceleration of the struggle for the eight hour day, “which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California, with the seven-league boots of a locomotive”.[17]

This development of the workers’ movement was also reflected in the building of the first national union federation (National Labor Union, 1866) and renewed calls for the formation of an independent workers’ party. Of equal importance was the rise of a workers’ movement in the South and perhaps the single most significant result of the abolition of slavery was the organisation of black workers, who began to form their own associations (“Colored” National Labor Union, 1869) and to engage in militant strike action.

Many of these gains were swept away by the economic crisis of 1873 but the foundations had been laid for a national workers’ movement and, finally, the formation of a socialist party (Workingmen’s Party, 1876).

In the North, unity between white and black workers continued to be impeded by fear of competition

However, despite these historic gains, the struggle of the US working class for unity remained confronted by extremely difficult obstacles.

With the end of the Civil War, an increasing number of black workers, skilled as well as unskilled, moved to the North, where they were met with hostility from white workers and trade unions influenced by bourgeois propaganda that this would lead to higher unemployment and lower wages.

At first the organised workers’ movement evaded the need to take clear position on the exclusion of black workers, although there was a recognition that in the absence of class solidarity the capitalists would be able to exploit any division between black and white workers, and black workers’ leaders powerfully called for class unity (Isaac Myers). In the end it was the self-organisation of black workers and their engagement in strike action that practically posed the need for joint organisation and forced the workers’ movement to take a position. The National Labor Union eventually ended the exclusion of black workers and began to organise black workers, albeit in separate unions, but there was continued hostility from other unions and black workers continued their own efforts to organise separately at a national level.

It is clear that fear of competition remained a potent force within the US workers’ movement, reinforced by the concept of white supremacy which remained deeply embedded in American capitalist society.

In the South the defeat of the slaveholding regime led to real democratic reforms but a regime based on white supremacy was re-imposed

To consolidate its victory over the slaveholding regime the northern bourgeoisie implemented a raft of measures to ‘reconstruct’ the South. Leading Confederates were disenfranchised and state governments re-constituted under the direct control of the US Army, with new state constitutions based on universal male suffrage and federal troops stationed to ensure the voting rights of former slaves. However there were no moves to redistribute land, and there were even measures to ensure unpaid labour to former slaveholders (the ‘Black Codes’), leading to protests by plantation workers.

In fact black workers did not wait for these reforms but took action themselves, agitating, educating, organising and arming, in some places occupying the land of their former owners. In two states with black majorities, South Carolina and Mississippi, there were brief experiments in more radical democratic reform, with former slaves and poor farmers active in drawing up new constitutions and new Reconstruction parliaments voting for social reforms and full civil rights.

Having achieved its own objectives, and alarmed at the spectre of an alliance of former slaves and poor whites pursuing a more radical struggle against private property, the northern bourgeoisie conspired to withdraw federal troops from the South, unleashing a wave of white racist terror which led to the crushing of the Reconstruction parliaments and the re-establishment of a regime based on forced segregation and violent repression.

In this way, despite some lasting democratic reforms, the victory of industrial capital was only ensured in the South by crushing the radical struggles of the black proletariat and reinforcing racial divisions with the poor whites.


The marxist movement’s critical support for the military victory of the North in the American Civil War was based on a global, historic vision which was premised on the materialist conception that the development of capitalism was a necessary step in order to create the conditions for the proletarian revolution; and that, given the system was still waging struggles against feudal remnants and expanding into new territories, these conditions did not yet exist. In the US, in order to ensure the further advance of capital, it was therefore necessary to destroy the economic and political power of the slaveholding regime, and thus hasten the growth and development of the industrial proletariat, the system’s gravedigger, and create the conditions for capital’s eventual overthrow.

As long as the power of the slaveholding regime remained, the threat of the expansion of slavery, both to the industrial capitalist economy of the North and to the wages and conditions of the working class, continued to exist. And even if the North, with its economic superiority and endless supply of manpower, must eventually prevail, every delay not only prolonged the existence of this threat to the development of the proletariat but also of the moral outrage of the slave system itself in all its inhumanity.[18]

The watchword of the workers’ movement was “proletarians of all lands, unite!” But for Marx, the continued existence of slavery paralysed the development of the workers’ movement, both in the US and internationally, preventing this unity because it allowed the ruling class to present wage slavery as superior to chattel slavery, encouraging white workers to believe that, however exploited and oppressed, they were still better off than black slaves, driving a wedge between these fractions of the proletariat.

As a revolutionary class that is also an exploited class in society, the proletariat can oppose capitalism only with its own organisation and its own consciousness. Above all the proletarian revolution depends on the development of class consciousness and this is why the emancipation of the proletariat and the liberation of society from all forms of exploitation is not an inevitability. And this is also why for Marx the “consequent moral impetus” the freeing of the slaves gave to the working class movement was the most important result of the Civil War. [19]

Despite the continuing difficulties of the struggle for class unity imposed by capitalism, it was due to the active, conscious intervention of the working class, both black and white, that a crucial obstacle to the development of proletarian consciousness was removed. Nor was this ‘moral impetus’ confined to the USA; Marx hailed the “heroic example” of the British workers who, despite the acute hardship and severe unemployment caused by the northern blockade, expressed their sympathy with the struggle against slavery, giving the world a practical example of proletarian internationalism. We can also see this impetus in the development of the First International itself which, with the help of its supporters in the US and the European movement, saw a definite growth of its influence as a result of its position on the Civil War[20] and consequently found itself better placed to play a role in the new phase of the class struggle signalled by the North’s victory.

With hindsight we can see the Civil War as signalling that the epoch of progressive bourgeois revolutions was drawing to a close – at least in Western Europe and the USA – and the class struggle between bourgeoisie and proletariat was moving to the centre stage of history. Two years after Marx’s prescient announcement that the Civil War had opened up “a new epoch in the annals of the working class”,[21] the Paris workers “stormed the heavens”, seizing and exercising power in the first historic example of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The difficult struggle of the international working class movement for unity continued in new conditions and at a higher level.


Joseph Weydemeyer: leader of the ‘Marx party’ in the US

The life of Joseph Weydemeyer (1818-1866) as a communist militant vividly illustrates the approach of the marxist movement at the time to the question of the American Civil War and the development of the working class movement.

A surveyor and engineer who served in the Prussian army, Weydemeyer was won to communism by the proletariat around 1845-46, becoming a member of the Communist League after visiting Marx and Engels in Brussels.

Active as a newspaper editor during the 1848 revolutions, he attempted to keep the Communist League intact, escaping the ensuing repression by emigrating to the USA where, in contact with Marx, he immediately became active in efforts to regroup revolutionaries.

In effect Weydemeyer was leader of the ‘Marx party’ in the US, playing a leading role in early attempts to create a class party in the US along marxist lines (Proletarierbund, 1852, American Workers’ League, 1853). Later, with the reflux in workers’ struggles, he moved to the Midwest and devoted himself to a deeper study of the economic roots of the conflict between the industrial North and the slave-based South, his writings undoubtedly influencing Marx and Engels’s view of this question.

Moving back to New York, his activity became more focused on the struggle against slavery and on pressuring the Republican Party to adopt more radical positions and he personally participated in Lincoln’s successful 1860 presidential campaign.

In the Civil War, due to his military experience he served as an artillery officer and technical aide to General Frémont, an abolitionist, and was made Lieutenant Colonel, commanding a volunteer artillery regiment; later he was given the task of defending St. Louis from Confederate guerrillas.

In contact with Marx and Engels, Weydemeyer continued his political work in the army, distributing copies of Marx’s Inaugural Address of the IWMA among the soldiers and workers in St. Louis and building branches of the First International in the US.

His last political struggle before his death in 1866 was alongside Marx and Engels and their supporters against the influence of Lassalle’s state socialist ideas in the First International.



[1] Capital Volume One, Chapter 10, Penguin, 1976, p.414.

[2] See the ‘Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln’, 1865, in The Civil War in the United States by Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels [CWUSME], Citadel, 1961, p.279 .

[3] “Notes on the early class struggle in America - Part I: The birth of the American proletariat”,

[4] See Marx, Theories of Surplus Value, Part 2, Chapter XII: “In the second type of colonies - plantations - where commercial speculations figure from the start and production is intended for the world market, the capitalist mode of production exists, although only in a formal sense, since the slavery of Negroes precludes free wage-labour, which is the basis of capitalist production. But the business in which slaves are used is conducted by capitalists. The method of production which they introduce has not arisen out of slavery but is grafted on to it. In this case the same person is capitalist and landowner". 

[5] Marx, The Poverty of Philosophy, Progress, 1975, p. 104.

[6] Marx, ‘The Civil War in the United States’, 1861, in CWUSME,  p.81

[7] Marx, ‘The American Question in England’, 1861, Op. Cit., p.8.

[8] ‘The North American Civil War’, 1861, Op. Cit., p.69.

[9] At the same time there were places in the South where white and black skilled workers worked side by side without serious racial tensions, eg. in the cotton mills of Athens Georgia and the workshops of St Louis (See Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, Vol. 1, 1979, p.261.

[10] Foner, Op. Cit., p.262.

[11] Marx to Engels, 11 January 1860. The other development was the movement of the serfs in Russia.

[12] For more on early slave insurrections see “Notes on the early class struggle in America - Part I: The birth of the American proletariat”,

[13] Capital Volume One, Chapter 6, Penguin, 1976, p.275.

[14] See ‘Notes on the early class struggle in America: Part 3 - The birth of the US workers’ movement and the difficult struggle for class unity’,

[15] ‘Address of the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln’, 28 January 1865, in CWUSME, p. 279.

[16] Due to their political experience the communists had an influence out of proportion to their numbers in the Civil War: for example, August Willich, Engels’ commander in the 1849 uprisings in Germany and former Communist League member, was active in recruiting German volunteers to the Ninth Ohio Infantry regiment and later commanded the all-German 32nd Indiana Infantry, being promoted to major general. See also box on Joseph Weydemeyer.

[17] Capital Volume One, Chapter 10, Penguin, 1976, p.414.  

[18] Could the South have won? We know that in private Engels, who followed the military campaign closely, thought this was possible. Marx disagreed; arguing that while the war could be a long drawn out affair the North must eventually prevail, due not only to its economic superiority but also the inner laws of the slaveholding economy, which meant that even if the North made peace with the Confederacy, the latter, because of the economic and political imperative to extend its territory, must still eventually collapse (See in particular Marx’s letter to Engels, 10 September 1862, in CWUSME, pp.254-255).

[19] ‘Address of the IWMA to the National Labor Union of the United States’, May 1869.

[20] The address penned by Marx, personally congratulating Lincoln, “the single-minded son of the working class”, on his re-election, was written on behalf of the IWMA which at this time included bourgeois democratic elements, and did not represent his personal views. These were expressed in private to Engels: “...I had to compose the stuff (…) in order that the phraseology to which this sort of scribbling is restricted should at least be distinguished from the democratic, vulgar phraseology…”(9 November 1864, in CWUSME, p. 273).

[21] ‘Address of the IWMA to the National Labor Union of the United States’, May 1869.


Readers' Contribution