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Vol. 75/No. 4      January 31, 2011

Civil War and forging
of U.S. working class

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the U.S. Civil War. It resulted in the Second American Revolution, changing the relationship of class forces in the United States and propelling growth of both the industrial bourgeoisie and the working class. The piece below from America’s Revolutionary Heritage by George Novack examines the roots of the social conflict resulting in the Civil War. Copyright © 1976 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

The Civil War had deep historical roots. It was the inevitable product of two interlacing processes. One was the degeneration of the First American Revolution, which unfolded by slow stages until it culminated in open counterrevolution. The other was the rise of capitalist industrialism with its contradictory effects upon American social development… .

The social structure of the United States at the end of the eighteenth century was a composite of slave and free labor, of precapitalist and capitalist forms of production. To complete the reconstruction of society along bourgeois lines, it would have been necessary to break up the soil in which slavery was rooted. This proved impossible under the prevailing conditions. The slave interests were sufficiently powerful at the time of the Revolution to prevent any tampering with the institution in its southern strongholds and even to obtain constitutional warrant for its perpetuation. The opponents of slavery could do no more than restrict its scope by providing for the abolition of the foreign slave trade at the end of twenty years, for emancipation in certain northern states where slavery was of slight economic importance, and for its prohibition within the unsettled northwestern territories… .

The struggle for supremacy between the proslavery forces centered in the South and the free labor forces headed by the northern bourgeoisie was the decisive factor in the political life of the United States in the period bounded by the two revolutions. From 1800 on, the big bourgeoisie kept ceding political ground to the planters. Supreme political power inevitably gravitated into the hands of the economically predominant cotton nobility. The capitalists could not regain their lost leadership until the economic development of the country had produced a new combination of social forces strong enough to outweigh the slavocracy and its allies and then to overthrow it.

Thanks to the achievements of the Revolution and to exceptionally favorable international economic circumstances, the United States took tremendous steps forward during the first half of the nineteenth century. The productive forces of the nation, agricultural and industrial, slave and free, grew by leaps and bounds. The gains accumulated as a result of the Revolution and the ensuing economic progress were distributed, under pressure from the people, in the shape of numerous small, gradual, democratic reforms. This part of the planter-bourgeois regime was a comparatively pacific period in domestic politics. The chief disputes which arose among the governing classes (including those issues directly pertaining to slavery) were settled by compromise.

Around 1850 a radical reversal of these processes set in. The rise of large-scale industry in the North and the expansion of small farming in the Northwest upset the economic equilibrium upon which the planters’ power had rested and led to a new correlation of social forces. Goaded by the prospect of losing supreme power and by the economic decline and social disintegration of the slave system, the planting interests absolutely opposed themselves to progressive tendencies in all fields of national life. Their despotism became increasingly intolerable. Not only the Negro chattels but the entire American people were being made the victims of the arrogant, unrestrainable slaveowners. To check this growing reaction and to assure continued progress in the nation, it was imperative to break the grip of the slave power.

The victory of the Republican Party in the presidential elections of 1860 and the ensuing departure of the slave states brought to a head the struggle between the southern planters and northern bourgeoisie, the proslavery and antislavery camps, the counterrevolution and the revolution. The secessionist coup d’etat revived all the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, including those which had presumably been forever settled.

At this critical point three main perspectives opened before the American people. A victory for the Confederacy could have effaced the remnants of the Revolution and fastened the hated dictatorial rule of the slaveholders over all America. Another ineffectual compromise between the contending camps would have permitted the struggle to drag along and exhaust the people. A victory for the revolutionary forces would clear the way for a full and final disposal of the unfinished business of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. The developments of the Civil War soon excluded any middle course or ground for compromise, leaving open only the two extreme variants.

The favorable alternative triumphed. The bourgeois Republicans, who had taken power on a program of restricting the slave power, found that they could hold it against the assaults of the Confederacy only by resorting to increasingly revolutionary measures leading to the overthrow and abolition of the slave power. In order to conserve the conquests of the First American Revolution, it was found necessary to extend them through another. A supplementary upheaval of social-economic relations was required to support the political overturn in 1860.

In the course of this Second Revolution, the most radical representatives of industrial capital and their plebeian allies completed the tasks initiated by their predecessors in the first. Placing themselves at the head of the antislavery forces, the Radicals took complete control of the federal government and concentrated its apparatus in their hands. They defeated the armies of the Confederacy on the battlefields of the Civil War; shattered the political and economic power of the slave oligarchy; consolidated the bourgeois dictatorship set up during the war; and remodeled the Republic into conformity with their own class aims and interests.

This Second American Revolution not only installed a new governing class in office but, by abolishing chattel slavery, scrapped the principal form of property and labor in the South. The great political and social problem which had agitated the United States ever since the birth of the republic—how to dispose of the slave power and its “peculiar institution”—was definitively settled.

The Second Revolution also concluded the progressive political role of the American bourgeoisie. After it helped annihilate the slave power and slavery, its political usefulness was utterly exhausted. Like the plantation aristocracy before it, the new ruling capitalist oligarchy rapidly transformed itself into a thoroughly reactionary force, until it came to constitute the main obstacle to social progress not only within the United States but throughout the world.
Related articles:
Marx’s 1864 letter to Lincoln on his reelection  
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