I was lucky enough to get some excellent feedback and questions from comrades and friends regarding my article “Slavery and the Origins of the Civil War.” The discussion took place on my Facebook page, so I thought I’d try to summarize it here.
Q. To what extent do you think the Southern secession can be framed as the exploited South gaining independence from the exploitive north? While it’s true that the Southern states relied on the brutal enslavement of Africans, was not the north equally as brutal in its system of wage slavery?
I think its true that, to a certain extent, the slave states had a colonial relationship to the industrializing North.
However, I don’t think it’s right to say that wage labor in the North was just as bad as, or even worse than, chattel slavery. Slaves could not form trade unions, vote, or go out on strike. Slavery also made the spread of anti-racist ideas amongst white workers all but impossible. Without defending the wage labor system in the North, I think we can say that it was historically progressive when compared to slavery.
Q. I’ve heard the argument that since slaves were treated as capital, they were not haphazardly destroyed (unless to make an example), since they were the owner’s property, whereas in the north children working for a barely livable wage in a factory were forced to work until loss of life or limb, as the factory owner could easily find a replacement. While this doesn’t justify the institution of slavery, it no doubt raises questions as to the altruism of the north. Any thoughts?
The argument isn’t about whether or not the North was altruistic. Some white northerners did have a genuine moral and ethical hatred toward slavery. Others opposed the institution for more mercenary or pragmatic reasons. Of course Black northerners, both free-born and fugitive slaves, had very good reasons to oppose slavery that had little to do with altruism.
Abolitionism was a revolutionary movement. We should study it, learn from it, and take inspiration from the heroic actions of militants like Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Frederick Douglass.
I think we have to see the Civil War and Reconstruction as a revolution that completed the work begun in 1776. It cleared away some of the impediments to industrial development in the United States. In that context it’s certainly true that the Civil War strengthened the capitalist class. But it also made it clear that the real conflict in American society was now between bosses and workers. The presence of slavery had obscured that fact. So, as Marx realized at the time, the abolition of slavery was a prerequisite for the development of a mass socialist workers movement in this country.
Q. I have to disagree with your assertion that the Civil War and Reconstruction “completed” the work begun in 1776. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you mean by “work begun in 1776.” By work, do you mean establishment of a government in which everyone’s represented?
When I talk about “completion,” I’m referring to what I would call America’s bourgeois revolution. It’s a term from Marxist theory signifying the revolutions beginning with the Dutch Revolt in the 16th century, passing through the English Revolution of the 1640s, the American War of Independence and the French and Haitian Revolutions of the 1790s, and ending with the upheavals of the mid-19th century.
Basically speaking the bourgeois revolutions overthrew (or at least severely dented) pre-capitalist social forms–feudalism in particular, but also chattel slavery–and cleared the way for industrial and commercial development. In many cases they also promoted national independence and the development of a national market, and introduced some form of representative government–the political forms most suitable to the rule of the bourgeoisie.
America’s bourgeois revolution took place in two acts–the first in the 1760s and 1770s, and the second a century later. The Civil War and Reconstruction “completed” the process by which industrialists, bankers, and merchants became the ruling class in the United States. The southern planters had been the last obstacle to the unimpeded hegemony of this class.