Black Struggle

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

Part 3 – Response to Criticism from Harvard

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 third of which follows. This last portion consists of an exchange between Harvard University’s Douglas Van Sant and George Novack on the latter’s essay. Novack was using the alias William F. Warde at the time. (The first part of Novack’s essay can be found here, and the second here.)


By Douglas Van Sant

William F. Warde:

Your article, “The American Civil War: Its Place in History,” [contained in the last issue of the International Socialist Review], accomplished the fresh historical relation of the American Revolutionary War of 1775-1781. That such a relationship exists is of interest to this student of history.

However, the facts you use and the conclusions you draw make the article a most scandalous piece of historical writing.

First: whatever the motives of the Revolutionary War they definitely were not (although you claim these are the most important) “to rid American society of its pre-capitalist encumbrances (Indian tribalism, feudalism, slavery).” This conclusion is utterly preposterous when you consider that many of the leaders of the revolution were “feudalistic” and held slaves; to wit—Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. They weren’t fighting to abolish themselves, rather they, and the other colonists, were fighting for independence from England, with “pre-capitalist encumbrances” forming virtually no consideration.

The assertion that the Southern “slavocracy” controlled the country from 1800 to the Civil War indicates your biased desire to the theory by inserting or making up facts, rather than looking at the facts and then arriving at a theory. In fact, the South did have a great deal of power in Congress and occasionally in the Presidency, but never or rarely did it have outright control. The parties (predominately Whigs and Democrats) didn’t split along sectional lines except in issues deeply affecting the South (e.g. tariff bills and the several compromises).

And when the vote did split sectionally, the best the South could do was tie the North in the Senate because it was outnumbered in the House of Representatives.

Furthermore, the strongest Southern President, Andrew Jackson, actually opposed South Carolina when it tried to assert its sovereignty; and Andrew Jackson was nobody’s lackey!

Illustration of enslaved African Americans working in a cotton plantation in the U.S. South during the 19th century. Douglas Van Sant from Harvard University argued that the Civil War “had little to do with the freeing of any slaves.

To claim that the Civil War was a bourgeois (hence Northern) revolt is another distorted claim. The South plainly withdrew and revolted from the Union. The anti-slavery movement was vehemently supported by only a small minority of rabid abolitionists of whom Abraham Lincoln was not one. Industrialists and Northern financiers were not as happy as you say to see slavery go, they had a great deal of money tied up in the South and the slavery system.

When slavery was abolished, it was done on moral, military and propaganda grounds (to gain England’s sympathy); the bourgeois “revolution” had little to do with the freeing of any slaves.

Again, you claim that the capitalists (i.e. plutocrats) utterly controlled the government after the Civil War is a further distortion. That industry had power, often great power, is not denied. But they could be, and often were stopped. By 1872 the Radical Republicans were unpopular and more moderate minds began coming to power. The strength of the Democratic party increased so fast that from 1876 to the turn of the century it was competing on equal grounds with the Republicans.

In regard to your conclusion, there won’t be another revolution because the proletariat has no one to revolt against. True, the chief industrialists still have influence in the government, but it is matched or exceeded by that of the unions. One need only witness the anti-management bills of the nineteen thirties (e.g. the Wagner Act) to realize that “Rockefeller, Ford and Co.” do not run the country. Besides, more and more of industry is being held by millions of small stockholders—including the workers. A revolution now would mean the proletariat revolting against itself.

I don’t expect this criticism to be printed in your propaganda sheet, but at least I can let you know that some people who are aware of the rudiments of history and its compilation read your half-truths and distortions.

Whatever the merits of your movement you can’t expect to recruit any intellectually honest people with such outrageous corruption of history.

Douglas Van Sant, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.


By George Novack

Dear Mr. Van Sant:

1. Of course the Southern planters did not fight British rule to abolish slavery. That is why a second American revolution was needed to rid the nation of this pre-capitalist mode of production. However, Washington, Jefferson and their associates did attack such pre-capitalist encumbrances as the Indian, royal and Crown proprietors’ possession of the land and such feudal institutions as the state church, entail and primogeniture,[2] etc.

2. Which class held supreme political power in the U.S. between 1800 and 1860? It is rarely disputed that from 1789 to 1800 the Federalists pushed through the program of the Northern monied men. The so-called “revolution of 1800,” which is often described as the victory of the agrarian interests over the capitalists, of progress over reaction and democracy over plutocracy, really signified the passing of ultimate decision in Washington from the Northern bourgeoisie to the planters headed by the Virginia Dynasty (Jefferson, Madison, Monroe).

From then on, the U.S. was governed by a coalition of big property owners—but the planters were the senior partner. Their predominance was most conspicuous in the field of foreign policy since they determined the main lines of expansion (the Louisiana Purchase, the taking of Florida) and the kind of wars that were undertaken against England, Spain, the Indians, and later Mexico. During this early period the rule of the Southern planters was so galling that the rich representatives of New England twice contemplated leaving the Union (the Essex Junto, the Hartford Convention). Andrew Jackson, himself a slaveowner and slave trader, was likewise primarily a representative of the planting interests, not of the decaying seaboard section, but of the aggressive, up-and-coming pioneer planters of the Southwest. His collision with the impatient slaveholders of South Carolina over nullification does not negate that role. It should not be overlooked that in the end Jackson yielded on the substance of the dispute and agreed to lower the tariff. The blackmail pressure of South Carolina paid off.

3. The Northern industrialists would have preferred to maintain the Union and their political sovereignty without upsetting the slave system and made every effort to do so from Lincoln’s election to 1863. However, they were driven to abolish slavery in order to win the civil war and prevent the planters from regaining their lost power. Even if emancipation was proclaimed and legalized less from sympathy with the Negroes than in their own narrow class interests, this does not detract from the progressive historical importance of their deed.

Illustration of raid on federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (West Virginia today), on Oct. 17, 1859. John Brown and other abolitionists led the attack aimed at capturing the arsenal and igniting a revolt to free enslaved African Americans in the region. Although unsuccessful, the raid drew national attention to the cause of the abolitionists and was an important prelude to the Civil War.

4. Once they had shattered the slavocracy and cinched their hold on the country, most of the Radical Republican leaders became conservatized. Since they did have to contend with the claims of other social forces, the agents of the plutocrats in charge of the Republican administrations from 1865 to 1902 did not have everything their own way. But the representatives of “the robber barons” did decide the major policies and actions of the national government. This was the time Parrington pungently describes as “The Great Barbecue” when the capitalists feasted at the public expense and the rest of the people got the leavings from the banquet table.

This was not halted even when the Democrats under Cleveland displaced the Republicans in Washington. The period was rounded out by the victory of McKinley and Mark Hanna who took the country into war with Spain. This first imperialist venture demonstrated that the objectives of the ruling rich were the foremost consideration of the government in foreign affairs as well as at home.

William F. Warde [George Novack]


[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] Primogeniture ensured that the eldest son in a family inherited the largest portion of his father’s property upon the father’s death. The practice of entail, guaranteeing that a landed estate remain in the hands of only one male heir, was frequently practiced in conjunction with primogeniture.

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:

9 replies »

  1. The author of the impudent letter, Mr. Van Sant, was a college undergraduate at the time. He went on to have a long career as a corporate lawyer in Northern California.

  2. It’s heartening to see George Novack read and remembered nearly 30 years after his death. He was a unique figure in the history of the US left, a highly skilled intellectual (even if he had no college degrees) committed to building a revolutionary socialist movement, who is not only much-missed by some of us but seems practically irreplaceable. It is also good to cite more recent Marxist scholarship, such as “The Fall of the House of Dixie,” inasmuch as Novack made a point of following the latest developments in history and philosophy, responding where appropriate. The tone of Novack’s reply to Van Sant is noteworthy; no name-calling or sneering, no effort to discredit by bringing up other matters, but simply a point-by-point refutation.

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