In November 1864, Karl Marx wrote a letter congratulating President Abraham Lincoln on his re-election to the White House. “From the beginning of the titanic American struggle, the workers of England instinctively felt that the stars and stripes bore the destiny of their class,” Marx said. He was therefore delighted to learn that Lincoln would continue “to lead his country through the unequaled struggle to rescue a bound race and rebuild a social world”.
This reconstructed social world did not only imply a victory for the Union in the civil war. What Marx had in mind was the triumph of the Northern free labor system and the concomitant spread of Northern capitalism into the future Confederate States of America.
If the idea that Marx welcomes the spread of capitalism is surprising, it is that you do not know Marx. Free market economist Joseph Schumpeter has compared capitalism to a “gale of creative destruction”. But Marx actually said something similar in The communist manifestoco-written with Friedrich Engels in 1848.
In barely a century, they write, capitalism “has created more massive and colossal productive forces than all previous generations put together.” She “saved a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life” and “wherever she got the upper hand, ended all feudal, patriarchal arrangements”. “All fixed and frozen relationships, with their train of old and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away”, and “all newly formed relationships become obsolete before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into the ‘air.”
According to Marx, history unfolded in a great series of stages, each defined by its dominant mode of economic production and each arising specifically to replace the one that preceded it. “In broad strokes,” he writes in the preface to A contribution to the critique of political economy, “the ancient, feudal and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society”. Capitalism, in other words, was a historically necessary step in human progress.
The great revolutionary forces unleashed by capitalism, Marx believed, would in turn form and shape a self-conscious proletarian class that would ultimately lead humanity into a glorious communist future. But that would only happen after capitalism had worked its magic. “No social order ever perishes”, asserted Marx, “until all the productive forces for which there is room have developed”.
This is why Marx applauded Lincoln and the Union. He viewed the slave-owning South as a pre-capitalist feudal society with a serious need for creative destruction. Ironically, this Marxist interpretation of the Civil War proved too much for one of the most influential Marxist historians of the 20th century to swallow.
Eugene Genovese was practically born into the American left. His father, a Brooklyn dock worker, “hated bosses,” as the son said, and cheered the New Deal. At age 15, Genovese joined the Communist Party of America. In 1965, during a Vietnam War class at Rutgers University, Genovese, then a professor in the history department, shocked friends and foes alike by announcing that he was “welcoming” a Viet Cong victory.
In 1972 Genovese published the book that made his name. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World of Slaves Made won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and received rave reviews in scholarly and popular media. It remains widely read on college campuses and continues to influence the field of American history. In the summer of 2020, The New York Times listing Rolls, Jordan, Roll as one of the few books everyone should read to better understand “the recent wave of nationwide protests” against racism and police brutality. “With its roots in Marxist theory”, the Time Noted, Roll, Jordan, roll “was among the first to see slaves as agents – not as mere ‘slaves’, but as human beings with their own ideas, culture and, above all, their strategies of resistance.” The newspaper added, “Even now, few books can provide a comparable level of insight and moral clarity about the centuries of American slavery.”
What is the Time The writer did not tell his readers that Genovese finally rejected Marx in the 1980s and became something of a right-wing anti-capitalist. Genovese devoted the last decades of his academic career to writing sympathetically, even admiringly, about slave owners and their “pre-bourgeois” ideology. “The victory of the North in 1865”, writes Genovese in The Southern Tradition: Achievements and Limits of American Conservatism (1994), “sanctified Nordic institutions and intentions, which included the unfettered expansion of a bourgeois worldview and the suppression of alternative visions of social order”. In other words, Genovese came to lament the loss of the Old South intolerant social order, a loss that was both brought about and accelerated (as Marx intended) by the spread of capitalism.
It was here that Genovese broke with Marx. “In the Old South,” wrote Genovese, approvingly, in The Southern Tradition“Eminent political and intellectual figures have denounced capitalism (“the system of free labor”) as brutal, immoral and irresponsible wage slavery in which the masters of capital exploited and impoverished their workers without taking responsibility for them”.
The slavers, writes Genovese in The world created by slavers (1969), believed “that exploitation and class stratification were inevitable and that slavery, with its principle of one man’s responsibility for another, led to less misery and desperation than capitalism, with its principle of every man for himself, at least for the [enslaved] had a community to appeal to other than a cash link based community.”
Many slave owners made such arguments. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1850, for example, Jefferson Davis (D–Miss.) praised the “domestic character and strictly patriarchal relations” of slavery, mocking “that cruelty which is the great charge brought against him by those who know nothing of all this, and which, I will say in passing, probably exists to a lesser extent [in slavery] than in any other relation of labor to capital. »
“All your class of manual laborers,” Senator James Hammond (D–SC) told his Northern colleagues in 1858, “are slaves. The difference between us is that our slaves are hired for life and well paid; he there is no starvation, no begging, no lack of employment among our people.” By contrast, Hammond asserted, “your people are day-hired, unkempt, and low-paid, which can be most deplorably proved, at any hour, on any street in any of your big cities”.
Similarly, Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin, in his 1857 book The political economy of slaverydeclared that “extreme misery and misery, competition for subsistence, class slavery from labor to capital, and finally the slavery of the poor, are all necessary incidents and results of free society and “free labor”. Ruffin added, “So in their facts and their reasonings, and in their main doctrines, the socialists are right.”
Genovese, an ex-socialist who always remained deeply hostile to capitalism, apparently found himself drawn to such arguments. The “happy dream” of the “free traders”, as Genovese would say, “constitutes my own private nightmare”. Indeed, Genovese concluded that Marx was too lenient with the capitalists; far more to Genovese’s liking was the cold-eyed anti-capitalism of the “master class.”
On November 9, 1882, a distinguished group of scholars, politicians, business leaders and journalists gathered at New York’s famous Delmonico restaurant to honor English political philosopher and evolutionary theorist Herbert Spencer, who was finishing its first major tour in the United States. States. Attendees included Spencer himself, future New York mayor Abram Hewitt, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, the discoverer of many fossilized dinosaurs. Among the guest speakers was former Missouri senator and U.S. Secretary of the Interior Carl Schurz, who began by recalling “some pleasant memories” of his service as a Union general during the Civil War.
“Nineteen years ago, after the Battle of Missionary Ridge,” Schurz told the audience, he was encamped with his command near Chattanooga, Tennessee, with only a handful of supplies to protect him from the winter cold. “But I had Herbert Spencer’s ‘Social Statics’ with me,” Schurz said, which “I read by the light of a tallow candle.”
Published in 1851, Social statistics was Spencer’s second book and first major success. In it he set out what he called his law of equal liberty, a radically libertarian creed: “Every man has the liberty to do whatever he pleases, provided he does not infringe on the equal liberty of ‘no other man.’ As Schurz told the worthy assembled at Delmonico that night, “If the people of the South had studied and digested this book well, there would never have been a war for the preservation of slavery.”
If Marx had been present at Delmonico, he might have nodded along with this praise for the work of his otherwise intellectual opponent. Like Spencer, Marx not only hailed capitalism’s creative destruction of feudalism and slavery; he recognized and even defended the essential role of capitalism in human progress. With free labor on the march, Marx argued in his 1861 essay “The North American Civil War”, that the particular institution was threatened with ultimate extinction “according to economic law”.
It is a Marxist teaching that anti-capitalists left and right would do well to take to heart.
This article originally appeared under the title “When Karl Marx defended capitalism”.