Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels. The Civil War in the United States. Edited by Andrew Zimmerman. New York: International Publishers, 2016. 254 pp. $14.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7178-0753-6.
Reviewed by Niels Eichhorn (Middle Georgia State University)
Published on H-Slavery (January, 2018)
Commissioned by David M. Prior (The University of South Carolina)
If Abraham Lincoln is among the most respected US statesmen globally, then Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels are even more (in)famous and their Communist Manifesto (1848) had a profound impact on history. Andrew Zimmerman brings these three influential individuals together by reintroducing Marx and Engels’s writings regarding the Civil War. While the work is a reprint of Richard Enmale’s 1937 edition, Zimmerman has regrouped the letters and articles into chronological categories and provides introductions to each of his sections. Overall, the book highlights Marx and Engels’s particular worldview. They perceived of the war in the United States as an unfolding revolutionary struggle, one that evolved from saving the Union to one about slavery and labor relations. The prism of class warfare heavily influences Marx and Engels’s reading of the Civil War era.
Zimmerman maintains a chronological organization of the letters, but provides categories for them. He starts with the origins of the war; Marx and Engels perceived the conflict to be about slavery. Using the language of class conflict, the two writers compared the emancipation of slaves and workers from planters and aristocrats. Much to their anger, Lincoln did not emphasize slavery until much later in the war. In their opposition to slavery, Marx and Engels hoped to build on a general antipathy toward slavery. Zimmerman emphasizes that Marx had more faith in Lincoln eventually embracing emancipation than the more military-focused Engels. In contrast to some historical works on the British working class by authors like Mary Ellison, Marx and Engels claimed that the workers favored the Union. They could point to the recognition of Haiti and the Seward-Lyons Anti-Slave Trade Treaty as the beginning of the evolving revolutionary Civil War. The Battle of Antietam and the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation altered the nature of the war, much to Marx and Engels’s delight. Zimmerman summarizes: “Marx’s Lincoln was not the eloquent orator who inspired a nation but a working-class lawyer and ‘average person of good will’ who became president through the almost accidental ‘interplay of the forces of universal suffrage’ in the United States” (p. 130). However, Marx and Engels’s views in Great Britain were not in line with many ideologically similar thinkers in the United States, who preferred John C. Frémont’s radical democracy. As the conflict wound down and questions about Reconstruction emerged, Marx and Engels believed the revolution had to continue since the question of African American freedom remained unsettled, both politically and economically.
The last year of the war coincided with the creation of the First International. For eight years, the new organization tried to organize workers and alter the relationship between labor and industry. Marx used his reflections on the Civil War and slavery as he wrote Capital (1867, 1885; 1894). After all, Marx assumed that wage workers suffered a form of enslavement and required emancipation. In that vein, the lessons of the Civil War also explained Irish independence desires and the Paris Commune, where ethnicity and class, respectively, functioned as the dividing lines.
Zimmerman provides in this small volume, which is exceptionally well suited for teaching purposes, an introduction to one specific set of foreign views on the Civil War. Students of the Civil War can learn about its interpretation by communists, changing perceptions of the war, and its global importance. Zimmerman provides an extensive contextual introduction to the volume. He explores how Marx and Engels were part of a large, Atlantic network of revolutionaries. Besides the relationship between Marx and Engels, Zimmerman also highlights their publisher, the New York Tribune, and fellow communist thinkers Adolf Cluss and Joseph Weydemeyer in the United States, whom they took inspiration from. Zimmerman furthermore creates a linkage between the two original authors and their successors in African American rights advocate W. E. B. Du Bois, historians Herbert Morais and James S. Allen, and Zimmerman himself, who could publish this work without fearing prosecution during a Red Scare. While the introduction is helpful, Zimmerman uses an extensive amount of jargon and readers would have greatly benefited had he explained what, specifically, he means by “radical” and “revolutionary.” Finally, it seems odd that Zimmerman attributes the demonization of “damned Dutchmen” specifically to secessionists, given that fellow Union soldiers and civilians used the term frequently against units of the Eleventh Corps after the disaster at the Battle of Chancellorsville.
Overall, Zimmerman has revitalized important aspects of the Civil War. Civil War historians and especially those of slavery have engaged in the contentious debate about plantations as economic units and capitalist entities. Even Marx and Engels, as their writing in this work shows, debated issues such as capitalism, aristocracy, and labor relations when it came to slavery and the Civil War. The book provides teachers seeking a different set of primary sources and a global perspective on the Civil War an excellent tool to broaden the Civil War narrative. Finally, considering this is only the first step in a larger project for Zimmerman, one can only hope to hear more about the communist interpretation of the Civil War in the near future.
. Mary Ellison, Support for Secession: Lancashire and the American Civil War (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972). Ellison’s work is largely outdated. One of the first works to show the greater complexity was Philip S. Foner, British Labor and the American Civil War (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1981). Among the most recent work is Duncan A. Campbell, English Public Opinion and the American Civil War (Woodbridge, UK: Royal Historical Society, 2003), in which the author suggests that an anti-Union attitude did not automatically imply a pro-Confederate one.
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Niels Eichhorn. Review of Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich, The Civil War in the United States.
H-Slavery, H-Net Reviews.
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