I’ve noticed more than once that fools and internet trolls can occasionally provide a useful service in that they can make us take a fresh look at our own arguments. Right now, someone on Facebook is pulling out the old, tired chestnut that the U.S. Civil War “wasn’t actually about slavery,” and in reading the replies from those naive enough to believe he can be reasoned with, I’ve noticed some things that are worth clarifying.
First of all, putting the question as it is usually put, “What was the Civil War about?” or, “Why was the Civil War fought?” introduces ambiguity right away. The question can mean any of four closely interrelated things: 1) what were the social, economic, and political pressures that led to secession? 2) What were the social, economic, and political pressures that led the North to resist secession? 3) Why did those on either side volunteer for military service? 4) Once there, what drove them to actually charge into those horrific killing fields, willing to die or to take life?
For 3) and 4) in particular, I strongly recommend For Cause and Comrades by James McPherson. For the moment, I’ll just say that, in general, in 1861, Northerners did not enlist to fight slavery, nor Southerners to defend it. This is far from absolute–certain Southern officers certainly thought of slavery as a noble cause and enlisted to defend it, and some thousands of Northern enlisted men, particularly from the New England states, did join to fight for Abolition. But these were a small minority on both sides.
However, I think 1) and 2) are the more significant questions. And the point I want to make is that the North (in particular, Northeastern capitalism) did not need an end to slavery, it needed to break the power of the slaveocracy. This is an important distinction. Since the founding of the country, it was the slaveholders who controlled the Federal government, and the building conflict was over control of that government, which the slaveholders simply could not give up without economically destroying themselves. So far in history, no ruling class has ever voluntarily destroyed itself, or failed to fight to defend its privileges when it could.
And this fact–that the North and South went to war over conflicting economic interests–does not make the Northern cause one whit less progressive, nor the Southern cause one whit less reactionary.
Those who look back into history and want to find purity of motive (whatever that even means) in the actions of social classes, and then wag a finger and say tsk tsk when they fail to find it, are utterly unscientific and contribute nothing to our understanding of history. The North was on the side of increased equality and advancing human freedom–not because Northern capitalists were good people who thought those were good things to do, but because in order to continue to develop the productive forces, capitalism required free labor, and free labor, though still oppressive, is a significant improvement over chattel slavery! When we call an economic system “progressive” at a given time and place, such as U.S. capitalism in the 19th Century, that’s what it means: not that a bunch of saints are in charge of it, but that it moves society in the direction of more equality, greater freedom, toward plenty. If we call an economic system “reactionary” in a given time and place, such as U.S. capitalism in the 21st Century, it means that it is holding back advances in equality, freedom, and plenty.
All of which leads us back to points 3) and 4) above: as Professor MacPherson makes clear, it was the progressive character of the war against secession, and the Northern enlisted man’s understanding of this character, that provide much of the answer to these questions. To a Marxist, one of the things that defines a revolution is the conscious participation of the masses in making history–the key word being conscious. The most cursory study of Civil War letters and diaries will convince an impartial observer that the Northern soldier knew very well what he was fighting for. Those who have a vested interest in seeing the masses as ignorant tools to be led by the nose will have to have their ideological blinders on especially tight if they study this question.
Today, those who want to deny the progressive character of the North in the U.S. Civil War, fall generally into two camps: Those on the Right who overtly oppose human freedom, who feel shame before the courage and determination of their capitalist forebears and, now that capitalism is reactionary, fear mass movements as a fundamentalist Christian fears hell. And those who call themselves Leftists, who are so desperate to protect their middle class privileges that they will do anything to deny the progressive force of the masses, and must find a way to interpret history in light of their narrow, petty, individualistic concerns.
What these two groups have in common is fear and hatred of the oppressed fighting in their own name. It is no longer 1861. It is not even 1980. It is 2015, and we are beginning to see the stirring of the masses: the Greek working class is not done; we’ve seen mass movements in Egypt; London and Glasgow just saw tens of thousands demonstrate against austerity; and there are signs of renewed labor struggles in the United States, for example among refinery workers. The study of history in general, and the U.S. Civil War in particular, will help arm the working class with the understanding necessary to carry matters through to a successful end of the next Civil War.
ETA 2021: I’ve learned a great deal since making this post. For the most part, I stand behind it, but I need to add, first, that anti-slavery sentiment among Northern soldiers was considerably greater than I’d thought, and, second, thanks to work by such historians as Victoria Bynum, I’ve learned that there was a great deal of anti-slavery sentiment—to the point of picking up arms—in the South, as well.