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 John W. McKerley (University of Iowa Labor Center)
Published on H-TGS (June, 2017)
Commissioned by Alison C. Efford
Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988) entrenched the idea that the US Civil War, and especially its aftermath, was a “revolution.” Until recently, most historians understood that revolution as a fundamentally American one, representing a significant, if “unfinished,” shift from the social, political, and economic formations of the antebellum period. Over the last two decades, however, the transnational turn in US history has reawakened interest in viewing the Civil War and Reconstruction as part of the larger wave of revolutionary movements across central Europe and elsewhere around the globe during the long nineteenth century. Indeed, the first major synthesis of nineteenth-century US history to adopt such a turn, Steven Hahn’s A Nation without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars (2016), might have been subtitled “The United States in a Second Age of Revolutions.”
Thus, it is fitting that we should see the publication of a revised volume of writings on the US Civil War by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Editor Andrew Zimmerman, whose previous works focus on race and the transnational links among the United States, Germany, and Africa, reprints “those portions of every known writing by Marx and Engels that treats the American Civil War” (p. xxxiii), with the exception of writings regarding the French intervention in Mexico and the Trent Affair (a maritime incident in 1861 that threatened to pull Great Britain into the war on the side of the Confederacy). Zimmerman omitted the former because Marx’s writings failed to make the connection between the intervention and the US war and the latter because they were superfluous (especially given that the feared British-Confederate alliance never came to be). As Zimmerman notes, Marx’s and Engels’s writings were “transcribed following the style ... and the translations of the Collected Works (1937) of Marx and Engels by International Publishers” (p. xxxiii). In total, the volume comprises 112 individual entries, mostly taken from Marx’s and Engels’s public writings in the US and European press; their private correspondence (including correspondence with fellow veterans of the revolutions of the late 1840s, then living in the United States); and selections from various related publications before, during, and after the war.
After the introductory materials and textual notes, Zimmerman divides the volume into nine parts and an appendix. Part 1 covers Marx’s and Engels’s writings regarding slavery, abolition, and the armed struggles over the same that took place in the decade preceding 1861. In part 2, Zimmerman groups writings from 1860 and 1861 in which Marx and Engels addressed the causes of the growing conflict, particularly whether or not the war would be one to preserve the Union or to destroy slavery. Part 3 briefly addresses the Trent Affair, while part 4 encompasses how the approach of the US army to slavery evolved before the Emancipation Proclamation through the exploits of General George B. McClellan, General John C. Frémont, and other commanders. Part 5 takes up the proclamation and President Abraham Lincoln’s public shift toward emancipation as a war aim. The first year and a half of Presidential Reconstruction under Andrew Johnson is the subject of part 6, while part 7 takes a longer view of American radicalism, from the First International to Engels’s ruminations on American politics and society during the crisis of the 1890s. Parts 8 and 9 further expand on this last theme through selections from Capital (1867) regarding slavery and the Civil War and other writings regarding the war’s “lessons” for revolutionaries. In the appendix, Zimmerman reprints African American historian and activist W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Karl Marx and the Negro,” from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s Crisis magazine in 1933. Significantly, Du Bois’s article appeared just two years before he published Black Reconstruction in America, which challenged the white supremacist historiography of the time and reconceptualized the war and Reconstruction as a largely black proletarian revolutionary experience.
Such a summary of the volume’s structure is a necessary starting point for considering its contributions and limitations. For Zimmerman, the wartime writings of Marx and Engels and their correspondents demonstrate the significant impact of American slavery and wartime emancipation on transnational radicals’ evolving philosophical and practical approaches to revolutionary change and the emancipation of the working class. In US slavery, Zimmerman argues, Marx and Engels saw the workings of international capitalism. Likewise, in the war, they saw a struggle against capitalism that necessarily included both white and (enslaved) black workers, even if they believed that the latter essentially played a supporting role in a transnational story focused on European workers and workers of European descent in the Americas. They thought that Lincoln became a leader of the white working class who understood the radical potential of emancipation. Although counterrevolution undermined Reconstruction, it nonetheless inspired struggles for the eight-hour day on both sides of the Atlantic, and, Zimmerman argues, provided significant inspiration for volume 1 of Capital, first published in 1867.
Zimmerman compellingly demonstrates the connections between Marx’s and Engels’s wartime writings and many of the main lines of modern scholarship on the Civil War and Reconstruction. In particular, he allows us to better understand the deep roots of the historical arguments that overthrew the Dunning school, an interpretive approach steeped in white supremacy, and that held sway between the late nineteenth century and the 1960s. Moreover, such connections reinforce the importance of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction as a vital intellectual and political link between the two periods.
At the same time, however, Zimmerman slights two important strands of recent scholarship that are important to understanding both Marx’s and Engels’s wartime writings and their larger significance. First, while Zimmerman (through the writings) reveals many of the internal conflicts and shifting perspectives of the war, especially in regard to race, he paints an overly unitary picture of German immigrant politics in the United States in the Civil War era. For example, his interpretation of the war could have been improved by a consideration of the work of Kristen Layne Anderson on the roots of racial conservativism among Germans in wartime St. Louis, Missouri (Abolitionizing Missouri: German Immigrants and Racial Ideology in Nineteenth-Century America ). Likewise, I wonder how Zimmerman’s interpretation of Reconstruction might have been changed by considering Alison Clark Efford’s arguments regarding the ways in which wartime German “radicals” influenced liberal nationalism during this period (German Immigrants, Race, and Citizenship in the Civil War Era ).
Perhaps most surprisingly, however, Zimmerman provides no clear engagement with the historiography of American radicalism, especially the work of historian Timothy Messer-Kruse. In Yankee International: Marxism and the American Reform Tradition, 1848-1876 (1998), Messer-Kruse presents a picture of Marx and the First International very much at odds with that portrayed by Zimmerman and his selection of writings. For Messer-Kruse, Marx was not a prescient and sympathetic observer of the US war and its aftermath but a doctrinaire European radical with ideas that were very much out of step with American political realities (and needs). While Zimmerman is careful to qualify Marx’s approach to race, he portrays Marx as having been genuinely concerned about the plight of black workers beyond seeing the end of slavery as a necessary step toward overall (but mostly white) working-class emancipation from capital. Indeed, far from the racist radical (or at least the radical who was willing to turn a blind eye to the racism of white and immigrant European workers), the Marx of Zimmerman’s account appears as an outside observer deeply disappointed by the racial as well as broadly revolutionary failures of Radical Reconstruction. Even if Zimmerman knows and rejects Messer-Kruse’s positions, he would have improved the volume by acknowledging such rejection.
On the whole, Zimmerman’s volume is a useful corrective to one-dimensional depictions of Marx like that presented by Messer-Kruse, but it could have gone further in placing Marx and other European (and especially German) radicals into their social and historical contexts. While the volume’s historiographical blind spots are troubling, I remain hopeful that the volume will prompt new scholarship seeking to reconcile Zimmerman’s new, more optimistic view with the work of Messer-Kruse (whose book on the First International is now almost twenty years old). Without doubt, selections from the volume would make a wonderful addition to undergraduate courses on the nineteenth century. More broadly, however, Zimmerman’s work, especially through its potential reach into contemporary radical circles through International Publishers, might provide a useful narrative in the current struggles on the left to knit together a political coalition that seeks to replace systems of racial, class, and gender oppression with genuinely more emancipatory alternatives.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-tgs.
John W. McKerley. Review of Marx, Karl; Engels, Friedrich, The Civil War in the United States.
H-TGS, H-Net Reviews.