Bourgeois Revolution and the US Civil War

THERE IS a Jewish word and concept called “chutzpah,” the classic example of which is the boy who kills his parents, and then asks to be let off by the judge because he’s an orphan. It’s a kind of boldness and cheek. I suppose another good example would be somebody from the northeast of Scotland turning up in New York and telling an audience of Americans what to think about the two great founding moments in their national history. So please bear with me as I try to say something sensible on the subject. I’m sure most of you know the events of the Civil War, and far better than I do, so I’m not going to attempt to tell you what happened at Gettysburg, for example.

What I am going to try and tell you about is three things. First, I’m going to talk about what a bourgeois revolution is, how we define one, and the different kinds there have been. Secondly, I want to say something quite briefly about the American Revolution, that is, the events that generally get called the American Revolution: the War of Independence, the Revolutionary War—the various terms that we use to discuss the events of 1776-83—and then finally discuss the Civil War itself. The main thing I want to talk about in that connection is the nature of the South, because this seems to me to be the crucial question in thinking about the Civil War as a bourgeois revolution.

So, taking the issues in that order, the first thing I want to do is make a distinction between two kinds of revolution. In the Marxist tradition we tend to talk about political revolutions and social revolutions. I think this is an important distinction to make, and one that’s going to come up in the comparison between the American Revolution and the Civil War. Political revolutions are very common in history, from ancient Egypt onwards and probably before: essentially they are revolutions that change the regime. Now, that could be something as simple as a military coup, but it could involve thousands of people, and it could involve mass movements as well. The Iranian Revolution in a sense was a political revolution of that sort. Iran was a capitalist country beforehand and it was a capitalist country afterwards, but there is definitely a change in the personnel who run the state. And there are a number of examples like this—1848 in France would be another of them. So political revolutions are quite common, but they’re not something that fundamentally changes the nature of society or the nature of the state.

Social revolutions on the other hand are very rare; so rare that we only really know of one successful example. The transition from slavery to feudalism is essentially a socio-economic process, not a revolutionary one in any sense, except perhaps metaphorically. And the socialist revolution, as we are unfortunately all too aware, hasn’t happened yet. So we’re really left with one example, which is the bourgeois revolution: the bourgeois revolutions taken as a whole, from the Dutch Revolt through to the Chinese Revolution, or however one wants to define the boundaries.

Social revolutions are more than just changes of regime; they are fundamental restructurings of the state. They open up changes in society, or they consolidate changes in society. Clearly the relationship between political and social revolution is quite complex. Sometimes something that looks on the surface like a merely political revolution can be seen as part of a social transformation if you take it in the context of other things. For example, the Revolution of 1688 in England in and of itself is not a particularly important or earth-shattering event, but if you see it in the context of what had happened earlier in 1640–1660—the establishment of the Republic, the trial and execution of King Charles, the dismantling of the absolutist state, the abolition of feudal tenures and so on—then you can see it as the concluding episode of a longer term process. Reversing the order of chronological significance, it is possible to see the events of America in 1776 and then 1861 as having that same kind of connection.

You can also have something that potentially could be a social revolution but ends up merely being a political one because it fails. There are lots of attempted socialist revolutions—Germany in 1918 and Iran in 1978, for example—which could potentially have been socialist and social, but end up merely being political because the workers don’t win, and another section of the capitalist class takes over. So there is a complicated set of relationships between these types of revolution, but these are the basic boundaries.

Bourgeois revolutions, then, are social revolutions: what does that mean, how do we define it? The first question is, what kind of methodology do you use here? There’s one which Marx and Engels use when talking about capitalism, in which they take the most developed example of it to explain or talk about it. So Marx takes England as the most developed form of capitalism and uses that to explore the fundamental laws of capitalism. And in another way, Engels talks about France before 1789 as being the classic model of absolutism, as exemplifying its inner developmental tendencies.

 Some people take the same approach to bourgeois revolutions and highlight the French Revolution as the model, the classic, most developed form. The trouble with this is that the French Revolution was an exceptional event. In fact, only the English Revolution, and possibly the Dutch Revolt (1566-1609), resemble it in terms of popular involvement, and in terms of the actual forms of the struggle. The French Revolution is very important, but it’s much more important as a comparison with other kinds of revolutions that involve mass mobilizations—the Russian Revolution, the Iranian Revolution, the current Egyptian Revolution—than with bourgeois revolutions in general. So that’s not a good way of approaching the problem.

We have to decide what is essential and what is inessential in the nature of bourgeois revolutions. Here I want to say, first of all, that there is a difficulty with the way in which people sometimes talk about bourgeois revolutions, because they hyphenate it to the word “democracy”—the bourgeois-democratic revolution. That term was initially used by Lenin and the Bolsheviks before the 1905 Revolution in Russia, and it was quite a sensible approach at the time because you were going to have a bourgeois revolution—and everyone except Trotsky thought that the Russian Revolution would be bourgeois—you would also try and establish democracy, because the workers need democracy to develop their organizations, to mature politically. Thus the Russian revolution would be bourgeois and it would also be democratic.

What subsequently happened under Stalinism was these two things got hyphenated together and read back into time, so you get the bourgeois-democratic revolution in England, the bourgeois-democratic revolution in France—though none of these revolutions, let alone those that happened later in Germany or Italy, were very democratic. There were democratic moments within them, but they certainly didn’t—with the partial exception of France—end up with democracy as an end goal. It took decades, even centuries in some cases, for democracy to be achieved.

The problem is, if you take democracy as a defining characteristic of bourgeois revolution then there are some countries, perhaps most countries, where it still hasn’t been completed even yet. When would the American Revolution be completed on that basis? Presumably in the 1960s when Black voting rights were established in the South. It’s an insane kind of category in that sense; there has to be something else.

Neither is it the absolute elimination of every single bit of feudalism, or every single aspect of feudal relations, that characterizes bourgeois revolution. In certain countries—Scotland after 1746, Prussia after 1806—you have feudal social relations being used to begin accumulating capital and to begin establishing capitalist relations. That can’t be decisive either; there must be something certainly more fundamental here.

What we have to approach this is sometimes called “turning point” analysis in social sciences: it’s a kind of fancy way of talking about Hegel’s Owl of Minerva, which as we know flies only after dusk; you only know something’s happened after it’s over. When something has been established, you can see what the end point is. So what is the end point? And here I want to refer to an important essay Alex Callinicos wrote back in 1982, in a review of Michael Lowy’s book, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development. The context of the discussion doesn’t particularly matter, but in it Alex said that surely a sensible definition of bourgeois revolution is neither of the things I’ve just talked about, but the establishment of an independent center of capital accumulation, or ICCA, if you want to use that as an acronym.

I think that’s a useful definition. It’s a minimal one, but I think it’s quite helpful because it focuses on what is actually the decisive outcome—establishing a center of capital accumulation, and consequently transforming the state so it is geared toward this end. That I think is the most useful way of approaching the question. It’s not a very heroic definition, it doesn’t necessarily involve running up the tricolor or executing kings, but nevertheless it seems to me to be the more fundamental one, and helps guide us towards what we’re thinking of here.

There are two other thinkers that I want to invoke at this point, concerning the question of not having to totally eliminate all feudal relations. One is Geoffrey de Ste Croix. In his great book, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, he makes the important point that how you define the class nature of a society isn’t necessarily based on how many people are doing a particular type of labor; it is the number of people who are producing surplus value for the ruling class. So, ancient Rome was a slave society, not because most of the oppressed or exploited were slaves, but because slaves were the people who produced the wealth for the slave owners, the ruling class in that society. The significance for our discussion is that the surplus appropriated by the ruling class could be extracted from workers—in other words through capitalist exploitation—even though there were still peasants involved in quasi-feudal social relations or engaged in small commodity production, or whatever.

The second point is one made by Jairus Banaji, the Indian Marxist. He argues that if you’re defining what a society is, you have to identify what Marx called its laws of motion. Are they capitalist laws of motion, or feudal laws of motion? If it’s capitalist, you can have people who are slaves, you can have people who are peasants working in small commodity production, but if it’s dominated by capitalist laws of motion, that’s the decisive thing. This may appear to be quite abstract, but in fact it cuts right to the core of the problem of the American Revolution and of slavery, and of how we define the North and the South.

A few more fundamental points here: history—and this is one of the rare occasions where I do agree with Robert Brenner, Ellen Wood, and their followers—is not a succession of rising and falling classes. Clearly, slaves did not inherit and triumph and become the next ruling class after slavery was abolished. In terms of feudalism, peasants, by and large, did not become the class that succeeded the feudal lords—or at least only a small minority did so. It was the bourgeoisie that did, and although they were oppressed, they were also an exploiting class themselves. In other words, you have to make a distinction between conflicts within a society, such as those between peasants and lords, and conflicts between two different kinds of society, which can lead to one of them winning out in the end, such as the bourgeois revolution.

Bourgeois revolutions in general fall into roughly two waves. Those in the Netherlands, England, and France were very much driven from below by the petty bourgeoisie, in mass movements against absolutism. France is slightly different because it was less developed in capitalist terms than England or Holland, but nevertheless falls into the same kind of category. The problem is—and this is where the French Revolution is decisive, because of what happened after 1789, and particularly after 1792—the huge upheavals, the slaughter of various members of the ruling classes, including capitalists themselves, instilled terror and fear into the bourgeoisies of Europe to the extent that they were not prepared to wage that kind of struggle ever again, or to unleash it in the same kind of way.

This can sometimes be exaggerated; some bourgeoisies were still capable of starting revolutions, and indeed did so at various points in the 1820s right up to, and famously, 1848-49, but never to the same extent. The second wave of bourgeois revolution was generally carried out from above. In Germany, the people who carried it out were led by Otto von Bismarck and a section of the Prussian feudal Junker class. Similarly, in Italy Count Cavour used the conventional military power of the Kingdom of Piedmont to push through unification. In Japan, leadership was provided by a section of the samurai under the slogan “revere the emperor, expel the barbarian.”

These are not forces advancing progressive democratic slogans. But they are a group of people who see that they have to develop capitalism—they have to construct a state that will allow capitalism to develop from the top down, often for reasons of geopolitical competition, in order to not be overtaken by Britain and France. But if you want armaments, you’ve got to develop arms factories, and then you have wage labor relationships, and so on. So you begin to develop capitalism, even though this may not have been your principal motivation.

There are two exceptions, which don’t fall exactly into either of these camps. One of them is Scotland and the other is America. In particular, I’m going to argue for the exceptionalism of the bourgeois revolution in the US, in terms of when it happens and the actual forms that it took. There are some respects in which the American Civil War is similar to events in Germany and Italy—it’s about unification or, more precisely, about reunification. In other respects it’s quite different in terms of who wages it, and who conducts the struggle.

I’ll make occasional references to Scotland, but focus on America. If you read the literature, then you find, even before the Civil War had actually begun, that people refer to the coming conflict as a Second American Revolution—the first one being the revolution of 1776.

So let’s start with the Revolutionary War of 1776-83. How do we assess these events? If it were a bourgeois revolution, you would expect that once the British were expelled and you colonials established your own nation-state, the road to capitalist development would have been opened up. To some extent, that happens in the North; but it also opens up the development of slavery to a greater extent than had happened before. Now there is nothing necessarily incompatible between capitalism and slavery, but I’ll argue that, in the particular conditions of the South, there is ultimately an incompatibility, at least by the time you get to the middle of the nineteenth century.

In the early bourgeois revolutions there are two things going on. There’s a struggle to establish a capitalist state and free up capitalist relations, but there’s also a struggle about “liberty” or—to use a less ambiguous term—democracy and, although this struggle overlaps with the first, it involves different issues and different social forces. Above all, these struggles for liberty or democracy are often directed as much against capitalists as against the old feudal regimes. There were, in other words, quite complicated things going on in the Netherlands, England, and France. In the American Revolution of 1776, you’ve clearly got the same kind of struggle from below for liberty and democracy, and socialist historians have quite rightly emphasized the role of workers, peasants, farmers, and minority groups.

But whether this makes the War of Independence the first act in the bourgeois revolution is another matter. After all, against whom was the war being waged? Britain, which, at this point, was the most capitalist nation on earth. Britain blocked certain things from happening in America, but did not do what it did in India, which was initially to absolutely smash any possible capitalist development and make the economy totally subordinate to that of the British. In other words, they’re fighting against the capitalist state, a constitutional monarchy; it’s not the same as fighting against an absolutist state, which is essentially trying to maintain feudal relations.

There were some attempts to claim that Britain was imposing feudal relations in the colonies. John Adams in particular wrote endless articles in Boston about how feudalism must be overthrown; but when you pin down what he meant by feudalism, it really involved a few hangovers that still existed to some extent in England and Scotland, and were transplanted to North America by colonists, and not some serious form of feudal surplus extraction.

So we come to the real turning point: the Civil War. I’m sure comrades have read some of Marx’s writings on this, which were first collected and published in the 1930s by the US Communist Party. What’s interesting about them is that if you also read what other people were saying, both in the South and in the North, it’s quite similar to what Marx says. Unusually for bourgeois revolutions, the actual nature of the conflict was well known to a lot of people on both sides from quite early on. In the writings of a southern writer like William Drayton in the 1830s, for example, he says that if the abolitionists get their way it will be like the French Revolution, like the Haitian revolution, the negroes will be unleashed on our southern gentle folk, and then it’ll be like England under Cromwell, they’ll all be running around slaughtering us. And once they give votes to Black people, the next thing they’ll want is to give votes to women, which Drayton clearly regards as insane. So from this deeply conservative perspective, it was quite clear what the historical parallels were.

Similarly, if you read the debates in Congress and the Senate, at least some of the pro-Union politicians make statements to the effect that they were fighting against a class of people defined by owning a particular kind of property seeking to transform economic power into political power—one Senator Morrill from Maine actually used these terms—and we have to destroy them before they destroy us. Now that’s quite similar to what Marx was writing. It was one of the very few times in his career that his writings were fairly well in tune with what bourgeois politicians were saying.

There is a very interesting book called The Slave Power (1862) by John Cairnes, an Irish follower of Ricardo. It is one of the most famous books written outside the US about slavery in the South. Early in the first chapter he wrote: All political events are determined by economic causes. This war is determined by the fact that there are two different economic systems. It’s not about tariffs, it’s not about state’s rights; it’s about slavery. And that was a commonly accepted position.

But if there was a systemic struggle going on between two different kinds of societies, what were they? Clearly the North was a capitalist region. It was industrializing, and capitalist relations were dominant. But what was the South? It was clearly not a feudal state or a feudal economy in the European sense, but it did have some affinities with them.

There have been five real slave societies: the Greek city states, the Roman Republic Empire down to about the second, maybe third century A.D., and then the slave South, Cuba, and Brazil. Slavery has existed in all sorts of other places, but these are the only societies that have been built around slavery as an absolutely fundamental element of the economy. Cuba and Brazil had bigger slave populations than the South, at around 40 percent; slaves were maybe 34-35 percent of the population in the South. But nevertheless, the South is far more focused on slavery than Brazil or Cuba were.

Why does slavery exist? In the modern period it’s essentially about the problem of labor for ruling classes—of ensuring a labor supply in situations where it would otherwise be scarce. It’s the problem that, for example, confronted the Prussian Junkers and other Eastern European landowners during the sixteenth century when they re-enserfed peasants in order to keep people tied to the land. So slavery is only one solution to this problem: there are other forms of unfree labor, but all solutions attempt to solve the problem of scarce labor in very difficult conditions where people would not work without being forced, without some sort of compulsion to make them do it.

The South was far more integrated into the world economy than, say, the Eastern European countries of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were. For one thing, the South bought machinery from Europe. Moreover, as I said before, there’s not an essential contradiction between slavery and capitalism; slavery can coexist within capitalism.

What else would make the South a different kind of society then? One argument, made by Banaji and, in a slightly different way, by Eugene Genovese, is that the South was basically stuck in the merchant capitalist phase of capitalist development, involving simple reproduction and the production of absolute surplus value through forcing the slaves to work longer and harder. I think that’s true, but I don’t think it’s absolutely decisive. It seems to me that there’s a more important point. If slavery had been dispersed across the whole of America, then its existence necessarily would have posed a problem for capitalist development; it could have been done away with gradually in the same way that other forms of unfree labor were done away with in Europe and other parts of the world. But it couldn’t, because the entire society in the South was based on slavery. And after 1861 a state was established based on slavery—the Confederate States of America. Now that’s quite different, and the reason is because slavery was absolutely racialized.

In Cuba, former slaves who had been given manumission could themselves own slaves. In Brazil, Black people were members of the militia – a situation unthinkable in the southern states of America. So elsewhere in the Americas slavery is not completely racialized. Furthermore, in these other countries, even before the final abolition of slavery in the 1880s, you begin to get shifts to other forms of unfree labor, transitions from slavery to unfree labor, often involving Chinese indentured laborers, as well as the Black population who had formerly been slaves.

None of this happens in the South. This has to do, to some extent, with class relations among the white population. The big slave owners were a very small minority; below them were a larger class of yeoman farmers who also owned slaves, but in quite small numbers. Nevertheless these two groups were bonded together by the fact that they were slave owners. Below them were the mass of poor whites, the mass of the farmers who were not slave owners and didn’t really think they were going to become slave owners.

Potentially, these poor whites could have united with a Black population that was no longer enslaved. There was therefore a threat hanging over the southern ruling classes of this kind of unity emerging between the poorest members of society. The way to avoid that was through an absolutely racialized slavery, to make sure that the whites have something in common with each other that’s different than the way in which the Blacks are treated, and they can never begin to change that.

The Prussian Junkers could begin to do away with the kinds of unfree labor that existed east of the Elbe because they knew there wasn’t an absolute distinction between the peasants and everybody else. That wasn’t true in the South. And having in a sense taken that decision, there was a problem, because the South was committed to a kind of economy which was not a capitalist economy based on intensive expansion and development of capital. They were pushed for a number of reasons into the territorial expansion that I mentioned earlier.

The first was that’s the only way that they were going to increase profits. But there’s another reason, and that was cotton, the absolutely dominant crop in the South. Individually slave owners wanted to increase cotton production to increase their income; but collectively they had an interest in restricting production, otherwise the price would fall and their profits will decrease. So they had to diversify, to produce crops other than cotton and the only way they devised of doing that was by taking territory outside of the South itself, first in Mexico and Nicaragua, but above all in Latin America and in the Caribbean, attempting to incorporate them into territory controlled by the southern states. And of course, when these plans were first formulated, the slave owners assumed they were going to dominate the US as a whole—a plausible assumption at least until the formation of the Republican Party in the 1850s.

The slave owners were pushed into an expansionist strategy by the class structure of southern society, in which their position could only be maintained by pushing out both into the North American West, and into other national territories in Latin America. And again if you read the statements by the slave owners, and supporters of slavery, like the southern Congressman Albert Gallatin Brown, they defended the idea of taking other people’s land, because, after all, they had already taken the land of the Choctaws and the Sioux, so what moral difference was there in taking it from the Mexicans or the Nicaraguans? And you’ve got to admit there’s a kind of logic to that; the southern ruling class saw themselves as continuing the conquering if not actually exterminatory drive that conquered North America in the first place. So, it’s the South that’s the expansionist power, that’s pushing, that’s challenging. The politicians and industrialists in the North were prepared to compromise—indeed they were prepared to compromise right into the middle of the Civil War itself. But the South was not prepared to compromise. This is the foundation of the Civil War.

If you think about somewhere like Jamaica, there were slaves, but it was not a slave society—slavery was peripheral. The British Empire could do away with slavery in Jamaica partly because of uncertainties about how profitable it was, and partly because the slaves kept rebelling, especially in 1831. Consequently it wasn’t worth the effort maintaining slavery in that colony. But it didn’t matter, because the world wasn’t going to end for the British capitalist class if they abandoned slavery in Jamaica. But abandoning slavery in the South would have been the end for the southern ruling class, because the South was the metropolitan power. Slavery wasn’t in a peripheral area; it was the center of the system that was being challenged.

So how do we define the South? To start with we need to return to the position I mentioned earlier, which sees the South as preserving a very early stage of transition to capitalism internally, in which forms of merchant capital and slavery predominated—things that you characteristically associate with the very early stages of capitalist development. The South was frozen, if you will, in a stage of arrested development, because of the kind of class relations I’ve described, but then–-and this is the crucial thing–-these relations are then embodied in a separate territorially defined state.

This is not something that happens anywhere else, and the South is therefore not entirely comparable to other societies. Certainly, in the ideology of the South they looked to feudal relations in a highly romanticized sort of way, particularly in the works of Sir Walter Scott. And if you read the letters of Confederate soldiers, these young farmers, you find them writing of how they’ve read Sir Walter Scott and feel enthused about defending their society in the same way as the Highlanders defended theirs. The trouble is, although Sir Walter Scott was a ferocious conservative, he also was an intellectual who embodied the traditions of social theory developed by the Scottish Enlightenment, of which he is in some senses the last significant figure. If you read his novels, it quickly becomes clear that he was not romanticizing the Highlands—on the contrary, he’s showing that, no matter how admirable, how heroic Highland society might have been, it was inevitably going to be destroyed by the advance of capitalism. He even wrote quite specifically about the destruction of feudalism in Redgauntlet, a novel, not coincidentally, much admired by Marx.

When you read these letters by Confederate soldiers you recognize a kind of tragic misunderstanding of Scott, which helped lead them to their destruction. Mark Twain argued in Life on the Mississippi that Scott was responsible for the American Civil War—a slight exaggeration on his part, I think; but it is true that southerners definitely saw affinities between the Confederacy and the pre-capitalist society whose death-agony he described.

Once the Civil War began we see an interesting example of dual power, the kind of conflict that Lenin and Trotsky began to theorize in 1917, in response to the emergence of the Soviets as an alternative form of government to the Russian state apparatus. Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution discovered earlier examples in the history of the English and French revolutions, where he wrote about dual power being geographically situated in different areas in both of those struggles and wars. And in a sense that’s obviously what you’ve got in America too; a situation of dual power enshrined in two different state powers facing each other across the social and territorial divide between North and South.

The remaining question I want to briefly address is why the northern ruling class was ultimately prepared to wage a revolutionary war against the South, particularly at the point when they enlisted former slaves into regiments to fight. The answer is twofold.

One is because they did not fear the working class in the same way as, say, the German revolutionaries of 1848. Mike Davis and, in a slightly different way Charlie Post, both argue that this was because of the deep racial divisions within the northern working class. That’s certainly true and an important point, but I don’t think it’s the only factor. It is certainly the case that the American working class in the mid-nineteenth century was not in a position to challenge for power. It was not in a situation of permanent revolution; it was neither developed nor unified enough, partly because of the racial divisions within it, as demonstrated for example by the New York draft riots in 1863. So the northern ruling class could act with a certain amount of impunity, and they were the only bourgeois revolutionary force at the time able to do so. The only other class that had been in a similar situation was the alliance that established capitalism in Scotland after 1746—the alliance of former feudal lords turned capitalist landlords, Enlightenment intellectuals, and improving tenants. They too did not have to worry about the working class, but for a different reason: the working class didn’t exist in Scotland at that point, and so they were free to recreate the world in the way they wanted to. And for different reasons, that was true for the ruling class in the North: the working class was absent as a serious existential threat. There were strikes, of course, but that’s not the same thing.

The second reason has to do with territoriality. Because the northern ruling class was in charge of a state, they could use their military power to crush the southern insurgency without involving mass upheavals and insurgencies from below. This is why it was actual industrial capitalists who to a very large extent provided leadership—certainly in Philadelphia and New York—who mobilized, who got people recruited, who proselytized for Lincoln, and who ultimately insisted in the complete smashing of the southern state. This type of role is very rare in history. Edward Thompson used to joke about how bankers and industrialists are not famous for personally rushing to the barricades with bandoliers over their shoulders and neither were these people; but they were in favor of paying for other people to wage war on the South in a fairly decisive way, until the southern state was broken.

These two things: the lack of fear of the working class and the spatial element, the territorial element, where the power of an already existing state could be used against the enemy, allowed the northern bourgeoisie to play a quite exceptionally revolutionary role, to openly talk about different classes being opposed to each other on the basis of different forms of property and socioeconomic organization in a way that you don’t ever get again. The honesty of what went on here vanished in bourgeois discussions afterwards.

I think it’s important to say, therefore, that we probably should date the period of revolution all the way up to the end of Reconstruction. I don’t think it finishes in 1965. The bourgeois dating pantheon prevents us from seeing that the revolution, as opposed to the Civil War as such, extends until the failure of Reconstruction. Often people talk about the revolution as being unfinished, about it being a betrayal of the Black population by the Republicans. I don’t think these terms are appropriate. The northern ruling class got what it wanted out of the war, which was the destruction of southern expansionism, the destruction of an alternative type of economy, and the transformation of the West on a capitalist rather than slave basis. Why then would they care what happened to the Black population? Some of them did, some of the Radical Republicans were obviously concerned politically with establishing freedom for Blacks; but most of them weren’t. They’d got what they wanted, and a lot of them were racists anyway. It was a necessity for them to do certain things, but once they’d achieved it, why were they bothered? They weren’t. It is not unusual in bourgeois revolutions for the process to stop, if you like, at the point before complete liberation is achieved even in formal bourgeois terms. In that sense the Civil War and Reconstruction were completely in line with what previously happened in England and Scotland and France, and was then happening in Italy and Germany and Japan.

That leaves us with two conclusions. One of them reflects a change of mind on my part. In Discovering the Scottish Revolution I wrote that even if Gettysburg had gone the other way and the South had won, it probably wouldn’t have mattered in the long run, because the North would have risen again or the South would ultimately have adopted capitalist relations of production. And so unlike, for example, the Battle of Culloden in 1746, which resulted in the final and total defeat of the Scottish feudal classes, Gettysburg was less decisive. The late Chris Harman held a similar position to this.

Now I think that was probably a rather overly sanguine view of events. As James McPherson and John Ashworth have pointed out, most of the world in 1865 was still dominated by unfree labor of one sort or another; totally free labor capitalist relations were so rare outside of Western Europe and the North of America. In parts of Latin America and in Eastern Europe, for example, there were still various forms of debt peonage.

There are very good reasons for avoiding speculative history, mostly because most people who have perpetrated it are very right wing. Nevertheless, we have to consider that if the South had won and expanded into Latin America and into the West, you would have had a real shift in the balance of class forces on a global level, which might have made the necessity for capitalist transformation in Europe less compelling, because ruling classes there would have seen the domination in the American continent of this more backward form of economic development.

Even with the failure of Reconstruction, the outcome of the Civil War was more decisive than perhaps Marxists have been willing to concede: a Southern victory would not simply have delayed inevitable developments.

The second conclusion returns us to the issue of democracy and all other questions left unresolved in the period 1861–1877, considered as a bourgeois revolution. There is no reason why this bourgeois revolution should have resolved them: after all, neither did any other bourgeois revolution. The establishment of substantive democracy, the end of racism, and other forms of oppression—all these things are really the objectives of the real “second” American Revolution, which of course can only be the socialist revolution.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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