Black Struggle

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

Part 2 – The International Context

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 Due to its length, we are publishing this article in three parts, the second of which follows. (The first can be found here. )


By George Novack

Just as American historians have ignored the organic affiliation between the first American revolution and the second, so they usually overlook the affinity between the revolutionary movements in the United States and Europe during the mid-nineteenth century. Yet the upheaval in the New World cannot be completely and correctly understood unless its connections with the revolutionary processes then going on in the Old World are made clear.

At every stage of its development, American history has been a product synthesized from interactions between international and intranational forces. Western Europe, which dominated the New World during its discovery and colonization, continued to determine the main lines of social and economic development in America decades after the United States achieved political independence.

The course of revolution in the Old World and the New

The second American revolution was not simply necessitated by unsolved problems rising from the first. It was no less the outgrowth of the whole course of historical evolution in the Western world since 1789, and more particularly, since the world-shaking political events of 1848 in Europe. These developments posed new problems before the American people. They also provided ways and means for solving the old problems along with the new.

Between the close of the first American revolution in 1789 and the beginning of the second in 1861 a far greater revolution took place in the Western world. This revolution occurred in the field of production. The introduction of power-driven machinery transformed the technological basis of production, gave birth to the factory system, and made possible large-scale industry. With the establishment of large-scale industry, the capitalist method of production for the first time stood upon its own feet and began to assert its mastery in the decisive spheres of economic life. The age of industrial capitalism succeeded the age of commercial capitalism.

Textile mill in Lowell, Massachusetts, which became the center of that industry in the 1820s. The rise of industrial capitalism was a turbulent epoch in world history. Capitalism‘s emissaries attacked and destroyed the remnants of feudalism and erected a new world on their ruins.

The rise of industrial capitalism, which began toward the end of the eighteenth century and lasted until the beginning of the twentieth century, was a turbulent epoch in world history. With furious zeal the emissaries of capitalism attacked and destroyed the remnants of feudal and barbarian civilizations[2] and erected a new world on their ruins. In the wake of the extension of the exchange of products, capital, labor and culture acquired an unprecedented mobility. Capital ranged throughout the globe, seeking openings for trade and investment; millions of people were redistributed in the greatest mass migrations in history from the Old World to the New; culture became more cosmopolitan. Science and invention urged onward the fast pace of capitalist industry.

The second American revolution occurred during the height of this development. From 1852 to 1872 industrial capitalism experienced its most impetuous growth. The unprecedented volume of world trade during this period indicates the extraordinary tempo of economic expansion. After rising from 1.75 billions of dollars in 1830 to 3.6 billions in 1850, the volume of world trade leaped forward to 9.4 billions in 1870—an increase of well over two and a half times. This rate of increase has never been surpassed by world capitalism. It was during these hundred years of industrial revolution and, above all, during the decades from 1850 to 1870, that the modern capitalist world took shape.

This epoch of the most rapid expansion of capitalism, from 1847 to 1871, was likewise a period of wars and revolutions. There were three consecutive phases of war and revolution during this period. The crisis of 1847 produced the first mighty wave of uprisings. These were cut short by a series of victories for the reaction and by the economic revival following the California gold strike of 1849.

After a prolonged period of prosperity, the world crisis of 1857 gave rise to a second sequence of wars and revolutions. This began with the first Italian War for Independence and was followed in rapid succession by the American Civil War of 1861, the Polish Insurrection of 1863, Napoleon the Second’s Mexican adventure and the campaign against Denmark in 1864 which opened the series of Prussian Wars led by Bismarck. This revolutionary impulse was felt as far away as Japan where, through the Meiji Restoration, the rulers of Japan partially adapted their economy and regime to the demands of the new industrial system.

The third and final period, initiated by the crisis of 1866, witnessed the continuation of Bismarck’s campaign of expansion with the attack upon Austria in 1866 which was triumphantly concluded with the victory over France in 1871; the Republican uprising in Spain which toppled Queen Isabella from the throne; and the last of Louis Napoleon’s adventures which culminated in the crashing of the Empire in 1871.

Civil War in France and Paris Commune

The Civil War in France following the downfall of the Second Napoleon, where for the first time in history the proletariat seized power, was the historical high-water mark of this epoch. With the crushing of the Paris Communards and the restoration of bourgeois order in the Third Republic, the revolutionary tide receded for the rest of the century.

Illustration of Paris Commune, 1871, the first time in history the proletariat seized power. The epoch from 1847 to 1871 was a period of war and revolutions. The U.S. Civil War was one of the most important links in the chain of conflicts that constituted the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary movement at the time.

Thus, for almost twenty-five years, the entire Western world was a fiery furnace of war and revolution. These were the most turbulent years mankind experienced since the Napoleonic wars or was to know until the first World War. Within this furnace were forged not only the imperialist powers of modern Europe which were to rule the earth until 1914, but the nation destined to outstrip them as the mightiest of world powers: the capitalist United States of North America.

The second American revolution must be viewed within this world-historical setting. Our Civil War was neither an isolated nor a purely national phenomenon. It was one of the most important links in the chain of conflicts that issued directly out of the world economic crisis of 1857 and constituted the great bourgeois-democratic revolutionary movement of the mid-nineteenth century. While the revolutions of 1848 and 1871 in France were the chief events in the first and final stages of that movement, the revolution starting in 1861 in the United States was the central event in its second chapter. This was the most important revolutionary struggle of the nineteenth century as well as the most successful.

The development of the bourgeois-democratic revolutionary movements of the mid-nineteenth century proceeded at different tempos, assumed different forms, and had different results in the various countries. From Ireland to Austria the uprisings of 1848 in Europe uniformly ended in disaster and the restoration of the old order—with superficial changes at the top. At the same time these frustrated assaults made possible numerous reforms in the ensuing decades and prepared the way for further advances by the progressive forces.

Exceptional character of American social development

The revolutionary movements of the second and third wave were more successful in attaining their objectives. The triumph of the Union in the United States was of far greater historical importance than the failure of the Polish insurrection in 1863. The conquest of national unification and independence by the German and Italian peoples was more significant than the fact that it was achieved under monarchical auspices. Even where the revolutionary struggles failed to reach fruition, they engendered valuable reforms (extension of the franchise in England, national autonomy for the Swiss cantons, limited constitutional liberties in Hungary, etc.). By 1871 the bourgeoisie had secured liberal constitutional governments in most of the leading countries of Western Europe with the exception of Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. These retarded nations had to pay their long overdue debts to history in double and triple measure when the next all-European revolutionary tide rose during 1917-1918.

African American men voting in the South during Reconstruction, in an 1867 illustration from Harper’s Weekly. A truly revolutionary transformation of social relations took place in the United States during the Civil War and in the decade that followed known as Radical Reconstruction. However, the capitalist magnates defended only changes to the benefit of their class. By 1877, the Northern bourgeoisie, in alliance with the defeated Southern planters, brutally overthrew Radical Reconstruction.

Except for the United States, social reforms were largely restricted to the removal of the vestiges of feudalism which hampered capitalist development. Thus, the revolution of 1848 led to the abolition of serfdom in Hungary; in 1863 Alexander II decreed the emancipation of the serfs within Russia’s dominions. In the United States alone did a really revolutionary transformation of social relations take place.

Here the problems of the bourgeois revolution were solved with maximum success. Here the magnates of industrial capital became the sole rulers of the Republic by destroying the slavocracy and slavery. Elsewhere, as in Germany and Italy, the bourgeoisie faltered for lack of revolutionary energy, fell short of its goals, and remained footmen of the upper classes who retained the reins of government in their hands.

The American bourgeoisie was able to fulfill its historical mission so brilliantly because of the exceptional character of American social development. Their drive for power was based upon the great achievements of the first revolution. The American people had already attained national independence, got rid of the altar and the throne, and enjoyed the blessings of republican democracy. These advantages gave the American bourgeoisie a head start that made it easier to outdistance the Europeans.

Moreover, the economic power, political independence, and social weight of the capitalists in the United States considerably surpassed that of their German and Italian compeers. The American masters of capital were no political tyros. They had taken almost a century to prepare themselves for this final showdown; they had once held supreme power and felt it was theirs by right. They had already created their own parliamentary institutions and taken legal possession of the state apparatus before the battle was joined. They entered the arena with their own party and program. The role of the bourgeois Republicans as defenders of the Union and its democratic institutions enabled them to rally around their banner the progressive forces within the nation and throughout the civilized world. The North could count on support from the Negroes in the South whose sympathy weakened the Confederacy even where the Union leaders feared to encourage their self-action. They succeeded in winning over the mass of small farmers to their side, while the slaveholders failed to draw their sympathizers among the governments of Western Europe into the conflict. The importance of these alliances can be estimated when it is remembered that the rebel colonists were enabled to defeat their British overlords through the military intervention and financial aid of France, Spain and Holland.

Antagonism between planters and industrialists

The economic strength and manpower of the Northern bourgeoisie were no less superior to that of their adversary. The boom preceding the crisis of 1857 poured streams of wealth into the coffers of the Northern industrialists and financiers and placed large resources of capital and credit at their disposal. The Unionists had an extensive and solid industrial and agricultural base beneath their feet. The Confederacy, on the contrary, had neither an adequate industrial foundation (they exhausted their energies trying to improvise one under stress of the civil war), quantities of liquid capital at their command, nor easy access to the resources of the world market. The war, which depleted the assets of the Confederacy, crippled its slave economy, and cut off its great saleable crop from the market, only lent an impetus to the expansion of industry and agriculture and the accumulation of capital within the loyal states.

From left: Radical Republican leader Thaddeus Stevens; African American soldier in Union army during U.S. Civil War; former slave and Abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Radical Republicans and their plebeian allies, especially enslaved Blacks who fled their masters in the South and free African Americans in the North, led the second American revolution to victory.

Finally, the clear-cut and irreconcilable antagonism between the slavocracy and industrialists on the one hand, and the immaturity of the proletariat on the other, enabled the radical bourgeoisie to carry through the struggle against their class enemy to the end. The German bourgeoisie had to reckon at every stage of its conflict with the princes and Junkers to its right and with a distrustful working class on its left. Except for a brief explosion in the middle of 1863, the industrial workers in the United States did not assert themselves as a powerful independent factor in the revolutionary struggles. The revolution was led by the Radical Republicans, the most resolute representatives of the bourgeoisie. The Radicals were the last of the great line of bourgeois revolutionists. Thrusting aside the conciliators of every stripe and crushing all opposition from the left, they annihilated their class enemy, stripped the slaveholders of all economic and political power, and proceeded to transform the United States into a model bourgeois-democratic nation, purged of the last vestiges of pre-capitalist conditions.

After the Civil War and Reconstruction, the capitalist magnates who enjoyed economic and political mastery saw no need for further fundamental changes in American society. And it was true that the time for revolutionary transformations within the framework of capitalism had ended. That did not mean, however, as the upholders of that system taught, that all possibility of revolution had forever been banished from the United States. This most successful of bourgeois revolutions had still left important things undone. For instance, it carried out agrarian reform in a highly inequitable manner. The Homestead Act of 1862 gave the small white farmer free access to the untenanted territories in the West belonging to the Federal Government and awarded huge tracts of the best land to the railroad corporations.

But the Negro cultivators of the soil, who had contributed so much to victory over the planters, were shabbily treated. Although the Republicans emancipated the slaves, they refused to give the freedmen the material means for economic independence (“40 acres and a mule”) or to guarantee their social equality or democratic rights. In the disputed presidential election of 1876, to ensure continued sovereignty in Washington, the Republican leaders sealed an agreement with the Southern white supremacists which erased the last of the equality and democracy the Negroes had won for themselves during Reconstruction.

African American sharecropper in Eutaw, Alabama, 1936. Black cultivators of the soil who contributed so much to defeating the slavocracy were utterly betrayed by the victorious bourgeoisie. Although the Republicans proclaimed and enacted emancipation of the slaves, they refused to give the freed men and women the material means for economic independence (“40 acres and a mule”), to decisively smash the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist remnants of the slavocracy, or to act in other ways to guarantee African Americans social equality or democratic rights. (Photo: Dorothea Lange)

Bourgeoisie did not solve problem of racism

The failure of the bourgeois regime to solve the Negro problem[3] has plagued our country to this day. It appears that this job, left unfinished by the nineteenth-century revolution, will require a struggle of comparable magnitude before it is performed.

American democracy was defended and extended by the coalition of class forces that fought and won the Civil War. But at its best this democracy has remained restricted. At no time since have the mass of American people exercised decisive control over the national government. Whether Republicans or Democrats held the White House and Congress, the plutocrats have ruled the country and determined its major policies in war or peace.

This formal political democracy is still further abridged by the industrial autocracy of the big capitalists who own and operate the national economy for their private profit. The workers who produce the wealth of the United States have no control over its distribution.

By 1960 the monopolists held the same position in American life that the slaveholders occupied in 1860. They are an obsolete social force, the major brake upon national progress, the fiercest enemies of democracy. Instead of leading progressive movements in the interest of the people, they have become the organizers of counterrevolution and the allies of reaction throughout the world.

Their course is slowly but surely creating the preconditions for a mass resistance to their rule which will culminate in a third American revolution. This new movement of emancipation, based upon the workers, will have a socialist program and aims and be directed against capitalist reaction. But its organizers and leaders can learn much from the Radicals of Civil War years who met the challenge of the slaveholders’ counterrevolution head on, crushed their resistance on the field of battle, confiscated four billions worth of their property, and totally uprooted their outlived social system. They showed by example how to deal with a tyrannical ruling class which refuses to retire peacefully when the time has come for it to go.

(To be continued)


[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:

[2] The term “barbarian” has a pejorative meaning to some. Novack is using it in the scientific sense explained by socialist leader Friedrich Engels in his essential work Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State. There Engels offers these definitions: 
Savagery – the period in which man’s [humanity’s] appropriation of products in their natural state predominates; the products of human art are chiefly instruments which assist this appropriation. 
Barbarism – the period during which man [humanity] learns to breed domestic animals and to practice agriculture, and acquires methods of increasing the supply of natural products by human activity. 
Civilization – the period in which man [humanity] learns a more advanced application of work to the products of nature, the period of industry proper and of art.

[3] “The Negro problem” is another term that seems dated and could be considered offensive today. In this case, the author is referring not only to the struggle to overthrow Jim Crow segregation in the South but to uproot institutionalized racism throughout the United States. The term had been used by many opponents of segregation and racist discrimination at the time. One example is the book The Negro Problem, a collection of essays by prominent African Americans, which was published in 1903 and remained popular among anti-racist fighters for decades. The authors whose works comprise this collection are Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, Charles W. Chesnutt, Wilford Horace Smith, Hightower Theodore Kealing, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and T. Thomas Fortune.

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:

  • 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:

5 replies »

  1. A recent book by Walter Johnson, “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” assesses to what extent the differences between the Northern industrialists and slavery were irreconcilable. The author, buttressing his argument with citations to economic records, asserts that slavery was as much on the leading edge of industrial capitalism as it was irreconcilably in contradiction with it, with the textile mills in New England and Britain relying on the American South as their main source of cotton with New York and London banks financing them and the planters.

    After the defeat of the British at New Orleans in 1815 and the introduction of the steamboat to the Mississippi around that time, slavery metasticized into a mass institution with almost 4 million African Americans working on plantations producing mostly cotton, resulting in a huge economic boom. Based on that there was a whole wing of the Northern bourgoisie oriented around allying with and accommodating the planter class, with James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas being the main leaders of this milieu which sought to essentially achieve the goals the slaveocracy failed to later achieve through civil war through peaceful means except where violence was resorted to as in Kansas.

    It was only the aggressive overreaching of the slave owners in instigating the civil war that caused their undoing as the Northern bourgoisie or a main section of it was willing to give away the farm in order to maintain the status quo. Consistent with that, British Liberal Party leader William Gladstone gave a speech in Liverpool in 1861 which was quite complacent in accepting the Confederacy as a new nation and trading partner. So Johnson’s thesis is that slavery was an essential part of modern capitalism, not an outmoded marginalized feudal like remnant, an institution that created much of the surplus value and capital that financed industrial expansion. Very similar methods of enslavement and “primitive accumulation” were used by the Belgian and German colonialists in Africa in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in building up the rubber industry.

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