Marx, Lenin and various Trotskyists on the American South


posted to on September 29, 2003


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 United States" (selected articles from 1861 to 1866)


2. V.I. Lenin: "The Development of Capitalism in Russia" (1899) and "New Data on the Laws Governing the Development of Capitalism in Agriculture" (1915)


3. George Novack and Harry Frankel (Braverman), articles in "America's Revolutionary Heritage"


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 Lincoln's attitude toward emancipation as driven by exigency rather than principle, there is very little evidence of this in articles for the Vienna Presse or the Tribune. Anxious to show that the war is not simply over tariffs, as the London press alleged, Marx virtually depicts the war as national liberation struggle of the "great republic" in the North against "adventurous idlers" in the South: "[T]he Union had in fact become the slave of the three hundred thousand slave-holders over the South." Despite his recognition that the Republicans were far more interested in keeping slavery out of the Northwest than in uprooting it from the South, he still regarded the struggle as one "between two social systems, between the system of slavery and the system of free labor."


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 USA. The Pathfinder collection also includes excellent articles on the American Revolution of 1776, the class character of the Andrew Jackson administration, populism, the suffrage movement, etc. Side by side with Howard Zinn's "People's History of the United States" and similar books by Herbert Aptheker and WEB Dubois, they help to provide an alternative to the standard self-glorifying texts most of us read in high school or college.


As might be expected, Novack and Frankel make the case for a "bourgeois-democratic revolution" led by an alliance of temporizing politicians like Lincoln who were more interested in preserving the Union than in eradicating slavery and Radicals like Thaddeus Stevens who expressed the class interests of a rising industrial bourgeoisie. At times the identification with a revolutionary bourgeoisie leads to some rather unsettling formulations, such as George Novack's explanation of the "interlinked stages of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the United States".


"The bourgeois-national revolutionary movement in North America had five main tasks to fulfill. These were: (1) to free the American people from foreign domination; (2) to consolidate the separate colonies or states into one nation; (3) to set up a democratic republic; (4) to place state power in the hands of the bourgeoisie; and (5) most important of all, to rid American society of its precapitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery) in order to permit the full and free expansion of capitalist forces of production and exchange. These five tasks were all bound together, the solution of one preparing the conditions for the solution of the rest."


Although Novack's essay "The Civil War--It's Place in History" was written in 1961, long before Wounded Knee, it is still astonishing to see such a facile grouping of slavery, feudalism and "Indian tribalism". Hadn't Novack ever read about the debt of Benjamin Franklin and others to the institutions of the Iroquois confederacy, which were adopted by the victorious rebels of 1776 as a model of grass-roots democracy? This kind of mechanical stagism owes more to Herbert Spencer than it does to Karl Marx, I'm afraid. I have been told that Novack was trying to woo a group of ex-CP intellectuals around John Gates into the SWP during this period. Perhaps Novack was trying to invoke Popular Front conventional wisdom about the progressive American bourgeoisie.


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 U.S. history. Millionaires had been a comparative rarity in pre-Civil War America, now they were sprouting up like mushrooms after a rainy spell. Manufacturers of war materials, shoddy uniforms, shoes that fell apart after a few marches, piled up profits; railroad manipulators were grabbing off huge tracts of land which were supposed to have gone to actual settlers under the Homestead Act. The orgy of lavish and conspicuous spending by profiteers made more bitter the sufferings of the workers."


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 through Latin America. In reality, as I shall point out in my final post, the French bourgeoisie itself never really pressed for land reform. What is consistent in all of these misnamed "bourgeois revolutions" is the tendency for social transformation to come from the bottom despite the intentions of the powerful. When slaves voted with their feet to join the Union, it led Lincoln to issue an Emancipation Proclamation. A similar process took place in France 75 years earlier.


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 that the Deep South constituted a black nation in terms of the definition laid down by Stalin, especially around the criterion of occupying a common territory.


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 Mississippi house during Reconstruction, are critical:


"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:


"America provides the most graphic confirmation of the truth emphasized by Marx in Capital, Volume III, that capitalism in agriculture does not depend on the form of land ownership or land tenure. Capital finds the most diverse types of medieval and patriarchal landed property—feudal, 'peasant allotments' (i.e., the holdings of bonded peasants); clan, communal, state, and other forms of land ownership. Capital takes hold of all these, employing a variety of ways and methods."


In other words, just as was the case in Junkers Germany and Meiji Restoration Japan, agrarian capitalism in the USA does not necessarily entail pure market relations. Sharecropping is a form of "extra-economic" coercion that like slavery dates back to the Roman Empire. The bourgeoisie does not mind digging back into the remote past in order to dust off some form of labor exploitation to adapt to current needs. If there is a surplus of labor, it will rely on market relations to drive down wages. If, on the other hand, there is a shortage, it will find all sorts of ways to chain workers to a plantation or mine through legal, political or even military institutions that take priority over market relations.


Indeed, Lenin identified the plantation system of the Deep South as having many of the same characteristics as agrarian capitalism during Czarism, which was a mixture of market and non-market class relations. In his 1899 "The Development of Capitalism in Russia", Lenin did not posit market relations as a kind of sine qua non for capitalism. Instead he was eager to point out that extra-economic forms of coercion were integral to labor exploitation in the Russian countryside. (The corvée referred to below was a system that originated under feudalism that obligated a serf to perform labor services on his master's lands, like mending fences or sowing crops):


"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."


Lenin adds:


"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".