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The U.S. Civil War: Its Place in History (I)

Part 1 – A Second American Revolution


The following essay by Marxist scholar George Novack was written in 1961, in the thick of the mass struggle to end Jim Crow segregation in the United States. Novack (1905 – 1992) was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for decades.

World-Outlook is publishing it to mark the 160th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War, and in celebration of Juneteenth (short for June 19th), an annual holiday commemorating the end of slavery at the conclusion of the Civil War.

The war ended in April 1865 when Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to Ulysses Grant. However, news of the surrender and its consequences depended in large part on the arrival of the Union army throughout the territory of the former Confederacy. Texas was one state that remained relatively unaffected by the defeat of the South until the arrival of Union troops in June. U.S. General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, and read General Orders No. 3: “The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

African Americans have celebrated this occasion since the late 1800s. A century and a half later, many people in cities and towns across the country continue to mark this milestone in U.S. history.

The explosion of mass protest against cop brutality and racism in the summer of 2020, sparked by the killing of George Floyd and other Black Americans by the police, has led to renewed interest in this day that celebrates freedom from chattel slavery.

Novack’s essay—a magnificent analysis of how slavery and the struggle to end it sparked the second American revolution—remains of interest 60 years after it was first published. This is true although aspects of the writing may seem dated or unclear today. Therefore a few explanatory footnotes have been added.

For example, the term “Negro” used in the article to refer to African Americans may sound anachronistic, or even offensive, if taken out of context. At the time this article was written, the term was still commonly used among many Black people. Some of the staunchest opponents of white supremacy like Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglas, and W.E.B. Dubois did not consider it derogatory after the abolition of slavery and used it extensively in their speeches and writings. The term was integrated into the name of a number of organizations based in the African American community. Among them were the Universal Negro Improvement Association led by Garvey in the 1920s, the National Negro Congress founded in the 1930s, and the Negro American Labor Council launched in 1960 and in existence till the early ’70s.

In the six decades since Novack wrote this essay, much has been published on the fight to end slavery in the United States. The gains of the mass civil rights movement by the end of the 1960s, and of subsequent struggles against racism and to end discrimination based on sex, undoubtedly influenced and improved the scholarship on the subject, especially on the pivotal role enslaved African Americans played in the Civil War and in slavery’s abolition.

Despite the passage of time, the lessons the author draws in this article on the causes, the class forces, the dynamics, and the outcome of the U.S. Civil War retain value and will resonate in new ways today.

This essay was first published in the International Socialist Review in the summer of 1961 under the title “The American Civil War: Its Place in History.” The text is taken from the online library “George Novack Internet Archive 2005.”[1]

Subheadings and footnotes are by World-Outlook.com. Due to its length, we are publishing this article in three parts, the first of which follows.


By George Novack

The historical significance of the American Civil War, which began a hundred years ago, has to be appraised from two standpoints: one national, the other international. What place does this immense conflict occupy in the development of American society? And what is its place in the world history of the nineteenth century?

The most penetrating liberal historians, headed by Charles Beard, have correctly designated this event as the second American revolution. But they have failed to explain clearly and fully its essential connection with the first American revolution.

The First American Revolution and the Second

The second American revolution 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.

Painting of George Washington and armed forces under his command crossing the Delaware River during revolt that resulted in U.S. independence from British colonial rule. The degeneration of this first American revolution was one of the factors that led to the U.S. Civil War.

The interaction of these two fundamental factors, the first rooted in national soil and the second stemming from world conditions, constituted the principal driving force in American history between the close of the first revolution and the outbreak of the second.

It is impossible to understand the necessity for a second American revolution without grasping the dynamics of these two interpenetrating processes out of which it emerged. The first American revolution took place in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. The second unfolded in the middle of the nineteenth century. Separated as they were by an interval of almost seventy-five years, these two revolutions are customarily regarded as totally different and completely disconnected events. This view is superficial and false. In reality the first American revolution and the second form two parts of an indivisible whole. They comprised distinct yet interlinked stages in the development of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the United States.

The bourgeois national revolutionary movement in North America had five main tasks to fulfill. These were: (1) to free the American people from foreign domination, (2) to consolidate the separate colonies or states into one nation, (3) to set up a democratic republic, (4) to place state power in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and (5) most important of all, to rid American society of its pre-capitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery),[2] in order to permit the full and free expansion of capitalist forces of production and exchange. These five tasks were all bound together, the solution of one preparing the conditions for the solution of the rest.

These deficiencies of the first bourgeois revolution were not immediately evident and took time to manifest themselves in full force. At first the revolution seemed entirely successful and its outcome satisfactory to the Northern capitalists. They had attained the paramount position in the new Republic which they governed together with the Southern planters with whom they had waged the war, written the Constitution, and formed the Union.

Southern planters dethrone northern bourgeoisie

But the merchants, financiers and manufacturers proved incapable of maintaining their hegemony. After a brief though important period in supreme authority during Washington and Adams’ administrations, their direct political representatives were compelled to turn over national leadership to the plantation aristocracy. The bourgeois conquest of political power had turned out to be premature. This was confirmed by the fact that the mercantile capitalists were subsequently unable to recover the supremacy they relinquished in 1800 to the slavocracy and had to rest content with second rank.

This dethronement of the big bourgeoisie of the North by the Southern planters provided positive proof of the shortcomings of the eighteenth-century revolution. But this political reversal was rendered possible by the underlying social relations and their channels of development. Why was the Northern bourgeoisie unable to hold the predominant position it had won? Precisely because the fifth and most fundamental task of the revolution—the liquidation of all pre-capitalist social forces—had not been completely carried out. Thus mercantile capitalist rule fell victim to the economic backwardness of American society. The first revolution unfolded in a colonial country with a relatively low level of economic development based on agriculture. The contradiction between the extremely advanced political regime in the United States after the revolution and its still immature and unindustrialized economy was the primary cause of the political weakness and downfall of the big bourgeoisie.

The social structure of the United States at the end of the eighteenth century was a composite of slave and free labor, of pre-capitalist and capitalist forms and forces 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.

Chattel slavery was becoming so unprofitable and burdensome a form of production to many planters toward the close of the eighteenth century that opponents of slavery consoled themselves by looking forward to its withering away in the South as in the North. The problems it presented would thereby have been automatically resolved by a gradual transition from slave to free labor.

King Cotton breathes new life into chattel slavery

These expectations were nullified by the rise of King Cotton. This economic revolution in Southern agriculture imparted such virility to the moribund slave system that its economic masters and political servants not only wrested command of the national government from the Federalist bourgeoisie with the accession of Jefferson to the presidency in 1800 but managed to maintain their sovereignty unimpaired for the next sixty years.

Enslaved African Americans walk out of fields in the U.S. South with baskets of cotton. The rise of King Cotton around 1800 enabled Southern slave holders to wrest command of the national government from the Northern bourgeoisie for some 60 years, prolonging the racist institution of chattel slavery. (Image: Bettman Archives)

The struggle for supremacy between the pro-slavery 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 slave owners. 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 most eligible candidate for leadership in the fight against the Southern planters was the second-born of the bourgeoisie, the manufacturing class. This section of the capitalists had long been striving to regain the position of political supremacy in the U.S. which its elder brother, the merchant aristocracy, had lost in 1800. The smoldering struggle between the planters and industrialists, which flared up periodically, had been smothered by compromise in 1820, 1832 and 1850. With the organization of the Republican party in the fifties, the industrialists launched their final struggle for the conquest of supreme power.

Two methods for delivering the people from their bondage to the slave power were proposed by representatives of different social strata in the North. The spokesmen for the ascending industrial capitalists hoped to depose the planters by class compromise and by peaceful constitutional means after the precedent set by the English industrialists in the West Indies. The political agents of the British manufacturers had come to terms with the landed aristocracy at home, as well as with the West Indian planters, and in 1833 instituted compensated emancipation of the slaves in the English colonies by parliamentary enactment.

Revolutionary trail of abolitionists

The American way of abolishing slavery, however, was to differ from the English. Nor did it follow the course of political and social reform envisaged by the conservative Republicans. It took the revolutionary trail pointed out by the radical abolitionists. These pioneers of the second revolution reflecting the views of the plebian democracy (small farmers and wage workers in the North and the chattel slaves in the South) advocated root-and-branch extermination of the slave power.

Left: Abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman. Right: Depiction of Tubman leading slaves to freedom during what became known as the Underground Railroad. The American way of abolishing slavery took the revolutionary trail blazed by radical abolitionists like Tubman. (Image on right: Painting by Paul Collins)

Very few Americans considered so radical a program desirable or so drastic a prospect feasible during the fifties.[3] But the alarming aggressions of the slaveholding reaction and the sharpening of the social crisis swiftly transformed the general outlook. In its early stages the slaveholding reaction developed upon the political foundations laid down by the eighteenth-century revolution. But the democratic institutions had become unbearable fetters upon its activities which the slavocracy yearned to cast aside.

Southern secessionism, the frankest expression of these reactionary tendencies, aimed at nothing less than a total reversal of the aims and achievements of the first American revolution. Its program explicitly called for an unconditional denial of its democratic and equalitarian principles, the destruction of the Union, and the shackling of the nation’s productive forces to the anachronistic slave system. Secession implicitly entailed the abandonment of representative republican government and even threatened the loss of national independence to the imperialist vultures of Europe, France and England, hostile to the Union. Thus, all the gains of the earlier revolution, embodied in the most prized traditions and institutions of the United States, were threatened by this retrograde movement.

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 pro-slavery and anti-slavery 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 out before the American people. A victory for the Confederacy would 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 cull and final disposal of the unfinished business of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.

Radical Republicans and plebeian allies

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 a second. A supplementary upheaval of social-economic relations was required to support the political overturn of 1860.

The Massachusetts 54th regiment, the first all-Black battalion of the Union army, leads assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in Charleston, South Carolina, on July 18, 1863. “The Negro is the pivot … upon which the whole rebellion turns,” said former slave and abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, referring to the paramount importance of allowing African Americans to join the Union army in order to defeat the slavocracy. (Public Domain Image)

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 anti-slavery 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 first revolution—how to dispose of the slave power and “its peculiar institution”—was definitively settled by the second. 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.

(To be continued)


ENDNOTES

[1] Written: Summer, 1961. First Published: International Socialist Review, New York, No. 2, pp. 48-52, 61- and Summer 1961, Volume 22, No. 3, p. 66. Transcription/Editing: 2005 by Daniel Gaido. HTML Markup: 2005 by David Walters. Public Domain: George Novack Internet Archive 2005; This work is completely free: https://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/works/1961/x03.htm


[2] The abbreviated reference to the need to “rid American society of its pre-capitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism and slavery)” may convey the idea that the annihilation of Native American societies was as desirable as the destruction of feudalism and slavery. That is in no way Novack’s point.

We encourage readers to study the pamphlet Genocide Against the Indians, published by Pathfinder Press. The booklet collects three articles written by Novack in 1949. The individual articles are all available at https://www.marxists.org/archive/novack/index.htm. An excerpt from the first article offers a clearer view of Novack’s fundamental political point:

“Above all, the North American Indians knew no such thing as private property in land which is the basis of all other kinds of private ownership in the means of production. When the white man arrived, there was not one acre from the Atlantic to the Pacific that belonged to a private person, that could be alienated from the community or assigned to anyone outside the tribe. The very idea that ancestral lands from which they drew their sustenance could be taken from the people, become an article of commerce, and be bought and sold was inconceivable, fantastic and abhorrent to the Indian. Even when Indians were given money or goods for a title to their lands, they could not believe that this transaction involved the right to deprive them of their use forever.

“‘The earth is like fire and water, that cannot be sold,’ said the Omahas. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who sought to combine all the Indians from Canada to Florida against the encroachment of the whites upon their hunting grounds, exclaimed: ‘Sell land! As well sell air and water. The Great Spirit gave them in common to all.’

“But the ‘Great Spirit’ animating and dominating the whites, had an entirely different revelation. The intruders looked upon the new-found lands and their occupants through the eyes of a civilization founded on opposite premises. To them it was natural to convert everything into private property and thereby exclude the rest of humanity from its use and enjoyment. The conquerors maintained that whatever existed in the New World, or came out of it, was to be vested either in an individual or a power separate and distinct from the community or towering above it, like the monarchy, the state or the church.

“They did not exempt human beings from this process. The invaders seized not only the land but its inhabitants and sought, wherever they could, to convert the Indians into their private possessions as chattel-slaves.

“Those who were driven across the Atlantic by religious and political persecution were a minority. For the majority, the lust for aggrandizement and the greed for personal gain were among the prime passions actuating the Europeans. It was these material motives, more powerful than wind or wave, that propelled the first Europeans overseas and then inevitably brought them into collision with the aboriginal inhabitants.

“The conquerors came as robbers and enslavers; they stayed as colonizers and traders. America had belonged to the Indian tribes both by hereditary right and by life-and-death need to maintain themselves and perpetuate their kind upon the tribal territories. But the tribes wanted to hold the land for different purposes and on different terms than the whites. The Europeans aimed to acquire the land for themselves or for some sovereign or noble who held title for their country. The newcomers needed land, not simply for hunting, trapping and fishing, but for extensive agriculture, for lumbering, for settlements and trading centers, for commerce and manufacture—in a phrase, for private exploitation on an expanding scale.

“Thus, regardless of their wishes, the Indians and Europeans were sharply counterposed to each other by virtue of their contradictory economic needs and aims.”


[3] In this case, the author most likely is not taking into account the enslaved population in the sentence, “Very few Americans considered so radical a program desirable or so drastic a prospect feasible during the fifties.” The 1860 census counted almost 4 million enslaved people who most certainly did favor the most radical measures to end the source of their oppression.


Recommended Books

  • The Fall of the House of Dixie: The Civil War and the Social Revolution That Transformed the South by Bruce Levine
In this major new history of the Civil War, Bruce Levine tells the riveting story of how that conflict upended the economic, political, and social life of the old South, utterly destroying the Confederacy and the society it represented and defended. Told through the words of the people who lived it, The Fall of the House of Dixie illuminates the way a war undertaken to preserve the status quo became a second American Revolution whose impact on the country was as strong and lasting as that of our first.

Available at: https://www.amazon.com/Fall-House-Dixie-Revolution-Transformed/dp/0812978722/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=1623759353&sr=8-1


  • America’s Revolutionary Heritage by George Novack
A historical materialist analysis of key chapters in the history of the United States, from the genocide against Native Americans to the American Revolution, the Civil War, the rise of industrial capitalism, and the first wave of the fight for women’s rights.

Available at: https://www.pathfinderpress.com/products/americas-revolutionary-heritage-marxist-essays_by-george-novack

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