Marx, Lenin and various Trotskyists on the American South
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This is the next-to-last installment in my series of articles on slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is based on a reading of:
1. Karl Marx, "The Civil War in the
2. V.I. Lenin: "The Development of Capitalism in
3. George Novack and Harry Frankel
(Braverman), articles in "
4. Peter Camejo, "Racism, Revolution, Reaction", 1861-1877
5. Max Shachtman, "Communism and the Negro" (1933)
Although, as I shall point out in my final post, Marx was beginning to doubt the revolutionary capacity of the bourgeoisie as early as 1848, his various writings on the American Civil War exude confidence that the Northern industrialist would drag the South into a modern world based on market relations and democracy. In my estimation, it is this written record that partially makes the task of revising our understanding of the "second American revolution" so daunting.
While most contemporary civil war historiography regards
What is missing, however, from Marx's public articles is any kind of deep theoretical engagement with slavery as a mode of production, or with the question of how the struggle against slavery and for socialism was related. Since his articles were written for the bourgeois media, this is understandable. His letters to Engels in this period have a more measured quality. He refers to 'bourgeois' democracy and admits that some Northern businessmen are partisans of the Confederacy.
Whatever gaps exist in Marx's writings, they are certainly
filled in by George Novack and Harry Frankel who try
to theorize slavery and the struggle against it within the context of the
larger struggle for socialism in the
As might be expected, Novack and
Frankel make the case for a "bourgeois-democratic revolution" led by
an alliance of temporizing politicians like
"The bourgeois-national revolutionary movement in
Although Novack's essay "The
Civil War--It's Place in History" was written in 1961, long before
Camejo's book is probably the best all-round introduction to these questions. He wrote it during his 1976 SWP campaign for President. I remember how important the book was to him. He wanted to show SWP leaders that he was not just an agitational speaker and that he was capable of doing serious scholarship. That he did. Although numbering less than 300 pages, the book does penetrate to the heart of the matter with impressive erudition.
While not departing from the basic ideological framework established by earlier SWP leaders like Novack and Frankel, Camejo's book does have the additional virtue of readability. Despite the fact that he was trying to distance himself from his agitator past, the book retains the electricity of a campaign speech:
"While their living standards were deteriorating the
workers could see about them the orgy of profiteering and graft that was
enriching the employing classes as never before in
This quote also conveys Camejo's general refusal to put the industrial bourgeoisie on a pedestal. This is no heroic class leading other subordinate classes to victory over its reactionary slave-owning rivals. It is a mercenary, rapacious and freedom-hating elite that only takes a kind of revolutionary action when forced by circumstances beyond its control.
When Camejo addresses the failure of the Northern industrialists to carry out land confiscations against the defeated slavocracy, his explanation seems at first blush to make perfect sense in Marxist terms:
"Unlike its French forerunner a century earlier, the American industrial bourgeoisie during the second American revolution was already a fully developed class with political hegemony in a substantial sector of the country--and with its opponent class concentrated in a smaller and less developed region. It was this regional character of the second American revolution which permitted the industrial capitalists to mobilize a sufficiently powerful social force to achieve victory while limiting the concessions they offered to the lower strata of the population. The relationship of class forces never compelled the bourgeoisie to add land reform for the ex-slaves to its one truly revolutionary concession--the abolition of slavery."
In other words, the French bourgeoisie was too weak to make
a revolution on its own. It had to cut a deal with the peasants in order to
establish its own rule. In exchange for land confiscated from the gentry, they
got foot soldiers for the revolution. If there is any correlation between weak
bourgeoisies and mobilizing peasants, then there would have been 1789s all
Max Shachtman's "Communism and the Negro" was written in 1933. It is now available from Verso under the title "Race and Revolution" with an excellent introduction by Christopher Phelps. The last time I ran into Phelps he was working on a book on Trotskyism and the black struggle.
Shachtman was trying to persuade the Trotskyist movement
that black-white unity around class demands was superior to either Trotsky's
support for self-determination developed during his Prinkipo
exile or the CPUSA's own "black belt"
slogan, which arose during the "3rd period". The CP had theorized
Although these questions are obviously very important for Marxism, I concentrated on what Shachtman had to say about slavery, the Civil War and Reconstruction. Although his chief interest was in supporting his views on black liberation in 1933, I found his analysis of postbellum class relations more acute than Novack, Frankel or Camejo despite sharing their characterization of the Civil War as a bourgeois-democratic revolution. Unlike them, he addresses the exact class nature of the forms of labor of the postbellum period and finds that they fall short of what we understand by "pure capitalism". If the Civil War was an assault on "precapitalist" modes of production, then it must have been a rather unsuccessful one given the various kinds of "extra-economic coercion" that remained in place from Reconstruction onwards.
For Shachtman, the words of African-American John R. Lynch,
who was the speaker of the
"it was soon made plain that if that plan should be accepted by the country no material change would follow for the reason, chiefly, that the abolition of slavery would have been abolition only in name. While physical slavery would have been abolished, yet a sort of feudal or peonage system would have been established in its place, the effect of which would have been practically the same as the system which had been abolished. The former slaves would have been held in a state of servitude through the medium of labor-contracts which they would have been obliged to sign--or to have signed for them--from which they, and their children, and perhaps their children's children, could never have been released. This would have left the old order of things practically unchanged. The large landowners would still be the masters of the situation, the power being still possessed by them to perpetuate their own potential influence and to maintain their own political supremacy."
Shachtman chose these words carefully in order to support his thesis that despite the victory over the slavocracy, the South was not reorganized on a "purely capitalistic" basis. Although the plantation system was no longer operated on the basis of slavery, it continued to compel the black sharecropper or lease tenant to produce on a non-market basis. This kind of class relationship was first noted by Karl Marx in Vol. 3 of Capital and commented on by V.I. Lenin in the 1915 article "New Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in Agriculture". Lenin's article contained a detailed analysis of American agriculture in order to provide a benchmark for Russian agrarian developments. Here is Lenin's reference to Marx that was cited by Shachtman to support his analysis that the postbellum South was not "purely capitalistic" in terms of Robert Brenner's schema:
In other words, just as was the case in Junkers Germany and
Meiji Restoration Japan, agrarian capitalism in the
Indeed, Lenin identified the plantation system of the
"Thus, capitalist economy could not emerge at once, and corvée economy could not disappear at once. The only possible system of economy was, accordingly, a transitional one, a system combining the features of both the corvée and the capitalist systems. And indeed, the post-Reform system of farming practised by the landlords bears precisely these features. With all the endless variety of forms characteristic of a transitional epoch, the economic organisation of contemporary landlord farming amounts to two main systems, in the most varied combinations -- the labour-service system and the capitalist system."
"Lastly, it must be observed that sometimes the labour-service system passes into the capitalist system and merges with it to such an extent that it becomes almost impossible to distinguish one from the other. For example, a peasant rents a plot of land, undertaking in return to perform a definite number of days’ work (a practice which, as we know, is most widespread; see examples in the next section). How are we to draw a line of demarcation between such a 'peasant' and the West-European or Ostsee 'farm labourer' who receives a plot of land on undertaking to work a definite number of days? Life creates forms that unite in themselves with remarkable gradualness systems of economy whose basic features constitute opposites. It becomes impossible to say where 'labour-service' ends and where 'capitalism' begins."
Indeed, it is impossible to say where feudal-like forms of extra-economic coercion ends and where market relations begin in both semi-feudal Russia or a postbellum United States that was seen in some Marxist writings as "purely capitalistic". In my final post, I will try to resolve this seeming contradiction and to evaluate the Civil War as a "bourgeois-democratic revolution".