The US Civil War: the Second American Revolution


The American Revolution of the late 18th century was followed by an even greater, and bloodier, revolution in the 1860s. Usually presented as the American Civil War, it was in reality a revolutionary conflict between the historically progressive industrial capitalism of the North, and the plantation and slave-owning counterrevolution of the South. This clash resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and was followed by the smouldering revolution and counterrevolution of Reconstruction.

The legacy of the Civil War is still felt to this day, particularly in the former slave states. But throughout the entire country, the impact of slavery can be seen in the institutional racism that continues to plague American society. What is needed today is a third revolution that will break with the root source of oppression and exploitation – the capitalist system – and lead to the establishment of socialism in the USA.

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John: American capitalism is in a deep and terminal crisis. In poll after poll and event after event, it’s clear that the country is more fractured and polarised than at any time since the American Civil War and reconstruction. A grinding economic crisis, rocketing inflation, a botched response to the pandemic, rampant gun violence, attacks on our basic rights and dignity, and non-stop political chaos and ineptitude have all deeply affected consciousness. The Financial Times recently had an article titled, “Is America headed for civil war?” and they write that “the warning lights are flashing redder than at any point since 1861.”

Not only is there a profound discontent in the economy and institutions of capitalism, but a crisis of confidence in the regime of bourgeois rule itself. ​​A majority of Americans say the U.S. government is corrupt, and almost a third say it may soon be necessary to take up arms against it. According to the analysts at Geoquant, the data shows that political risk in the U.S. is at record levels, as they explain: “None of this data implies that the U.S. will descend into civil war, suffer a military coup, or become an authoritarian regime in the next two years. That said, the change and volatility in these risks indicate the U.S. polity will continue to move closer to these outcomes.” 58 percent of American voters believe that their government does not work and that it needs major reforms or a complete overhaul. All classes in society are affected by this malaise, starting with the ruling class, which is deeply divided and rapidly losing confidence in its ability to hold things together. As Joe Biden himself put it, “I certainly hope my presidency works out. If it doesn't, I'm not sure we're going to have a country.”

Confidence in the legal basis for the bourgeois rule, the U.S. constitution, is being stretched to the absolute limit. Institutions like the Supreme Court, which for decades gave the appearance of standing impartially above society, have been deeply undermined, especially in the aftermath of this recent ruling on the right to abortion. The constitution was born of the first revolution, the war for colonial independence from the British empire, and it was significantly changed in the aftermath of the second revolution, or the civil war, as it is commonly known. But in terms of its fundamental class content, it remains essentially the same as when it was first ratified in 1788.

As we know, the U.S. is the most powerful economic and imperialist power humanity has ever seen; but history is littered with the carcasses of mighty empires, all of which had their periods of dramatic rise, protracted decline, and inevitable ignominious fall. After all, nothing comes from nothing and nothing lasts forever. So where did the fearsome beast of U.S. imperialism come from in the first place? If we want to understand the meteoric rise of American capitalism and imperialism on the world stage, as well as its ongoing relative decline; if we want to understand the current polarisation, which ultimately represents an extremely distorted form of class polarisation, and the cynical use of identity politics to divide and confuse the working class; and if we want to understand the poison of racism, as well as how to fight it along with all forms of oppression through mass class struggle – in short, if we want to prepare properly for the American socialist revolution of the future – we need to understand the revolutions and counter-revolutions of the past, and in particular, the U.S. civil war, analysed from the perspective of historical materialism.

We'd really need several days of discussion just to cover the decades leading up to the civil war, never mind the course of the war itself and its equally important and dramatic aftermath reconstruction. There have been more than 15 thousand books written about Abraham Lincoln alone. That's more than anyone else in history, with the exception of the late Jesus Christ, and there are 30 thousand books just on the battle of Gettysburg. So I'll have to be extremely telegraphic on many topics, but I hope to lay a basic framework for understanding this extraordinary period. You can read a fuller analysis in the latest issue of the In Defence of Marxism theoretical journal, and of course, other comrades will come into the discussion.

Let's start with a simple question: what is a civil war? All war is the continuation of politics by other means, and as Lenin explained, politics is concentrated economics. But a civil war is not merely a military or economic confrontation. It is, above all, a political and social struggle between and within different classes. It represents a notable tipping point where the quantitative accumulation of contradictions transforms into quality, and all hell breaks loose. Now, like all civil wars, the American civil war was a swirl of both revolution and counter-revolution. These processes are dialectically interrelated and cannot be artificially separated from one another. So when we seek to entangle the messy chaos of a civil war, we have to look beyond the propaganda, beyond the constantly shifting allegiances, battle lines, and the rise and fall of politicians and generals. We have to start with an analysis of the economic framework for the clash, the inter and intra-class dynamics and contradictions, and the changing class and property relations as they develop within a given society. Without a dialectical approach, it's easy to drown in the raw facts and figures.

As Marxists, we are especially interested in understanding the role of the masses in these processes. Time and again throughout history, we've seen that when deep divisions emerge at the summit of society, the aggrieved masses sense a weakening in the defences of the status quo and they rise up from below to seize their destinies in their hands. They forcefully put their stamp on the course of history, even if they don't have a clearly worked-out plan, or a leadership up to the tasks posed by events. What truly made the U.S. civil war a revolution is that it was not driven merely from above. There was massive participation by ordinary Northern workers and small farmers, who fought to defend the Union, and ultimately to smash slavery. They did so under the banner of the Union and bourgeois liberty, inspired by religious righteousness or the revolutionary spirit of the first revolution. Many were European revolutionaries who had emigrated following the failed revolutions of 1848. 200 thousand German immigrants joined the Union army, including some personal friends of Karl Marx, and many of them had already cut their teeth on revolutionary armed struggle. Tens of thousands of revolutionaries from Ireland and other European countries also joined the fight, and of course the Northern ranks were eventually swelled with hundreds of thousands of escaped slaves who played a decisive role in their own emancipation, nearly 200 thousand of them with arms in hand.

This is why Marx and Engels took an enthusiastic interest in the American civil war as it unfolded. It's not for nothing that Marx called it the greatest event of the age. They produced dozens of extremely insightful articles and letters, which I highly recommend. Marx even wrote to Lincoln on behalf of the First International, congratulating him on his re-election in 1864 and declaring that “If resistance to the slave power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is ‘death to slavery.’” The origins of the civil war can ultimately be traced to the very founding of the country and the incomplete nature of the first American revolution. Independence from Britain had been won, but many of the historical tasks typically associated with what Lenin referred to as the “national democratic revolution” remained incomplete. Another convergence of crises, another revolution, another tremendous social upheaval and restructuring of the economy and society as a whole was needed to facilitate the untrammelled development of American capitalism. In its essence, the U.S. civil war was a titanic struggle between the historically progressive industrial capitalism of the North, and the historically regressive plantation and slave-owning counter-revolution of the South. However, contrary to the official narrative, it wasn't a monolithic struggle with slavery-hating capitalists, anti-racist workers, and small farmers on one side, fighting against a united horde of slavery-owning plantation owners and racist poor farmers on the other side. There were deep class and social contradictions on both sides of the divide, including of course 4 million slaves and escaped slaves. There were also significant economic and cultural differences within the broader north-south sections of the country, and there was deep-seated racism in every part of the country, including among many abolitionists. We shouldn't oversimplify our understanding of these events.

Before the civil war, capitalism had been dominant throughout the country for quite some time, on both sides of the north-south divide. The U.S. had long been an integral part of the world market, and in the decades after the first revolution, its merchant capitalists had been transformed into capitalist manufacturers and industrialists. Over the same period, the largely self-sufficient independent household production of what we sometimes call Yeoman farmers had also been transformed. Due to a range of economic and social factors, above all the growing pressures of the capitalist market, they had been compelled to become agrarian petty commodity producers, or they had lost their land and become wage labourers – or in some instances, risen to the position of petty capitalists themselves. The South also had its share of small farmers, some with land of their own, others who worked as tenants on the land of others, and others who were completely landless and worked as itinerant agricultural labourers, or merely scraped out a bare existence on the fringes of society.

Yet, the predominant mode of exploitation – the top contributor to the Southern economy – was chattel slavery, which pumped out agricultural commodities to be sold for a profit on the domestic and world markets. While the capitalist mode of production was dominant in the country as a whole, the ruling class of each section based itself on very different modes of exploitation, and as a result had increasingly divergent interests. For centuries slavery had played an oversized role in the accumulation and expansion of capital in the country as a whole. Slaves first arrived in the 13 colonies in 1619, and by 1790, just after independence, there were almost 700 thousand slaves in the country. That’s roughly one of every six inhabitants.

Given the importance of slavery, the South had largely dominated the federal government since the republic was founded, despite having a lower population. The industrial revolution in Britain, and the rise of the cotton mills, created an insatiable demand for cotton. After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the slave population more than quadrupled to almost 4 million by 1860. This state of affairs was not passively accepted by the enslaved. The millions of slaves and free black people living in the United States had developed their own cultural forms, communication networks, and methods of resistance, including some 250 slave uprisings. The South's dependence on slaves may have led to immense profits for the planters and their financiers, but it also stifled economic development. The North, on the other hand, had evolved much more dramatically, as we've seen with household production being transformed into small-scale manufacturing, and manufacturing transformed into full-on industry. By 1860, only about 40 per cent of the Northern population was engaged in agriculture, compared to around 84 percent in the South.

90 per cent of the nation's manufacturing output came from the Northern states. The North produced 17 times more cotton and woollen textiles than the South, 30 times more leather goods, 20 times more pig iron, and 32 times more firearms. As Northern capital grew larger and larger, the ascendant big bourgeoisie wanted political power that matched its rising economic power. So for many decades, the two sections had a symbiotic, if at times strained, relationship, and they were able to negotiate the joint sharing of power within the same polity, but eventually this arrangement reached its limits and was transformed into its opposite. Once capitalism really started to take off on the continent, slavery was a less efficient use of land and labour. The North was compelled by the dynamics of capitalist production to impose its own economic forms on the nation-state as a whole, including in its territorial expansion. The expansion of slavery into the western territories was a threat, not only to the domination of industrial and financial capital and the exploitation of wage labour, but to the further expansion of agricultural petty commodity production. The big bourgeois needed small independent farmers of some means to buy the goods that they manufactured. All of this represented a mortal threat to the way of life of the South, which was based on the so-called peculiar institution of chattel slavery.

Broadly speaking, by the 1850s, there were two very different socioeconomic entities. Two distinct national identities, even, forced to coexist within the same nation-state, and this was untenable in the long term. A massive political crisis was inevitable. The framework of the original U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights had reached its limits, and was about to burst in violent and dramatic fashion. In the decades after the first revolution, a series of compromises had been made, starting with the Constitution itself, but there can be no permanent compromise on fundamental class questions. In the final analysis, one class or another must hold and exercise power. One class or another must dominate political, economic, and cultural life. As Abraham Lincoln said in 1858, “A house divided against itself cannot stand, this government divided into slave states and free states cannot endure. They must all be free or all be slave, they must be one thing or the other.” All great questions are ultimately decided through class struggle, in the factories, in the workplaces, in the streets, and when push comes to shove, on the battlefield. Not at the ballot box, in Congress, or in the judiciary. And as Abraham Lincoln understood, in the choice of evils war may not always be the worst.

To this very day, apologists for the Confederacy assert that slavery was merely a peripheral aspect of the civil war. They insist it was all about states’ rights, vis-a-vis the federal government. But both before and during the war, they repeatedly and explicitly highlighted the threat posed to slavery by the rising power of the North. The truth is that for decades, the slave states wanted the federal government to protect slavery on their behalf. When this was no longer 100 percent guaranteed for all eternity, they wanted out of the Union. The stakes were extremely high, because slavery was big business. 80 percent of the world's cotton was produced by slaves in the American South, and on the eve of the war, slaves were the number one asset in the U.S. They accounted for 16 percent of all household wealth. These humans were worth around 3.5 billion dollars, which was more than all the railroads, factories, and banks in the entire country put together. That’s the equivalent of about 10 trillion dollars in today's money, which is nearly half of the current U.S. GDP. We should never forget therefore that these four million humans were not slaves for the sake of it, or due to racism in the abstract. They were slaves to make profits for capital, which will happily rake in value from any and all forms of exploitation, and the racist poison that accompanied this was intended to justify that economic exploitation.

Over the decades, one crisis had been layered upon another. This was compounded by the so-called economic panic of 1857, which was a classical crisis of capitalist overproduction. But what probably tipped the balance once and for all was John Brown, the meteor of the war. He was a revolutionary abolitionist and a religious fanatic, and he believed that when it came to freeing the slaves, what was needed was action. Brown fervently believed in the equality of blacks and whites, and he understood that the slave-owning aristocracy was not going to give up its property without a fight. So he devised the plan to carry out a series of raids into the Appalachian mountains to free and arm thousands of slaves. He would then create a republic of liberated bondsmen that would terrorise the South and make the continuation of slavery economically unviable. These plans culminated in his ill-fated raid on the U.S. federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859; and despite the failure of the raid, John Brown understood that he could be more powerful in death than in life. In the words of Frederick Douglass, “I could speak for the slave, John Brown could fight for the slave. I could live for the slave, John Brown could die for the slaves,” and when Malcolm X was asked if white people could join his organisation of African Unity, he replied “If John Brown were still alive, we might accept him”.

Many in the South had been openly contemplating secession for years, but John Brown's raid was proof that white Northerners wanted to incite servile revolt, expropriate the south's wealth, and destroy their entire society. So across the slave states, plans were made, arms were purchased, and militias were drilled in preparation for a decisive showdown with the North. Prior to the rise of the Republican Party, the Democrats and the Whigs were the two dominant political parties in the country. The Democrats were traditionally for territorial expansion to encompass the whole of North America, and the Whigs were largely for internal improvements within the existing boundaries, with federal investment in infrastructure, education, industry, and so on. However, by the 1850s, both the Whigs and the Democrats had started to divide along north-south lines. It was in this context that the Republican Party was founded in 1854, and it mainly represented northern industrialists, small shopkeepers, farmers, and abolitionists. Just six years later, Abraham Lincoln was elected in a four-way race with just under 40 percent of the vote, and he wasn't even on the ballot in ten southern states.

So, if John Brown's actions overflowed the cup of secession and war, Lincoln's election shattered it into a million pieces. When Lincoln was elected, a Massachusetts abolitionist proclaimed, “the great revolution has actually taken place, the country has once and for all thrown off the domination of the slaveholders”. Although he personally despised slavery, Lincoln was a moderate. He sought only to limit the expansion of slavery into the territories, not to end the institution where it already existed and was protected by the Constitution. Everybody, including Karl Marx, understood that the end of expansion spelled the eventual death of slavery altogether. It would be months before Lincoln actually took office, and many in the South wanted to present his administration with a fait accompli. South Carolina decided it was seceding from the Union in December 1860. It was followed by the main cotton belt states of Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas, and eventually four others joined for a total of 11 states that declared they were forming a new nation – out of a total of 33 states in the Union at that time. Lincoln took a pragmatic and diplomatic approach. He was trying to avoid provoking the slave-holding border states that hadn't yet seceded. His hope was that pro-union sentiment in the south would eventually assert itself and force a quick reunion, so in his first inaugural speech, he did his best to be all things to all people. He offered an olive branch to the South while refusing to accept that any states had left the union, no matter what they had declared. As he explained, secession represented the veto and tyranny of the minority over the majority. The Union had been entered into by collective agreement, and the individual states could not unilaterally dissolve it, and he was firm in declaring that he would “hold, occupy, and possess the property and places belonging to the government”. This is a clear reference to Fort Sumter, a federal fort sitting in the harbour of Charleston, South Carolina. It wasn't of decisive strategic importance, but Sumter had come to symbolise all federal laws, property, and the Union itself.

After months of tension, Fort Sumter was bombarded by Confederate forces on April 12, 1861. The Rubicon had been crossed, and the die had been cast. Shortly thereafter, Lincoln called for troops to suppress the rebellion. It’s ABC for Marxists that revolutions give expression to profound social and economic contradictions, but the precise outcome of these events flows from a struggle of living forces, including countless accidental elements. The precise outcome is not absolutely determined in advance. Although the role of the individual in history is indubitable and can be decisive at certain moments, the main course of events is not decided by the subjective will of individual participants. Lincoln instinctively understood this. As he put it, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” His ideas and actions evolved dramatically over the course of the war, and they offer a highly interesting example of reformism passing over into revolution. As we saw, he had initially adopted a mainly legalistic approach. His aim was to put down a regional rebellion while maintaining the status quo, including slavery; but he was eventually compelled by events to pursue a revolutionary war of destruction and expropriation against slavery, since this was the root cause and economic support for the South's revolt. Had he limited the struggle to re-establishing the world order, he would have almost certainly failed; but once he recognised the changing conditions and allowed himself to be swept along by the tide, he gave an impetus to the process in his own way, and helped transform it into a fully revolutionary struggle which took on a life of its own.

The North's basic strategy was a so-called anaconda plan, and that was to strangulate the south through the combined pressure of land and naval forces. A maritime blockade of the confederate coastline and a concerted push down the Mississippi river to take control of that waterway would effectively split the Confederacy in half, and in broad strokes this is what eventually led to military victory, along with its eventual transformation into a war of revolutionary liberation. Many people in the Confederacy thought that people in the North were soft and weak-willed, not like the fiery and marshalled people of the South; but as William Sherman told a Southern friend after South Carolina's secession, “you are rushing into war with one of the most powerful, ingeniously mechanical, and determined people on Earth. Right at your doors, you are bound to fail. Only in your spirit and determination are you prepared for war, in all else you are totally unprepared with a bad cause to start with.”

It ended up being a colossal mobilisation on both sides. By the end of the war more than 2.1 million people had served in the Union army, which was the largest, best-trained, and best-equipped military force on the planet. Roughly 180 thousand of these were black troops, most of them former slaves, and another 750 thousand served in the Confederate army. Things escalated quickly; there were huge numbers of troops involved in rapidly developing military technologies, leading to incredibly bloody engagements. I don't have time to go into all the battles and generals, but due to political vacillation and other leadership issues, the fighting went fairly badly for the Union in the Eastern theatre for the first two years. Many Union generals sympathised openly with slavery, and they actively undermined Lincoln's policies. They thought that with an overwhelming show of force, they could ensure a return to the status quo. With all these defeats, there were extreme swings in Northern morale in confidence, but the mass of the population, including the soldiers, was resolutely behind the war and wanted it seen to the end. In the Western theatre, gains were steadily made due to the military genius of an almost totally unknown general: Ulysses S. Grant, who eventually became president of the United States.

Early in the war, fugitive slaves were actually returned to their Confederate owners if they crossed over to Union lines. After all, they were considered “animate property,” and the rights of property had to be respected. But in May of 1861, something happened. Three slaves being used to build Confederate defences crossed over to Union lines, and instead of being returned to slavery, the commanding general decided to hold them as contraband of war. This apparently simple and limited war measure expressed a deeper historical necessity, and opened a Pandora's box. It set a new precedent, and word spread quickly throughout the Confederacy, both among the slave owners and the slaves. Slaves had resisted for centuries against their masters in innumerable ways: from work slowdowns, to sabotage, running away, murdering their masters, or even mutilating themselves so they could no longer work; and as the Union armies closed in on all sides of the Confederacy, hundreds of thousands of slaves crossed the lines, where they helped the Union in many, many ways – including eventually, as we've seen, as soldiers. So, whether the Union forces intended it or not, the entire social structure of the South was being turned upside-down organically long before emancipation became official policy.

In many areas, a majority of the white people ran away leaving their slaves behind; and they organised and they occupied the lands, and they started to work their former masters’ lands themselves. This was the molecular process of revolution, as advancing Union troops converged with self-organised slaves. Lincoln eventually understood that the Union was not merely fighting the Confederate armies, but the majority of the Southern population, which saw it as a defensive war. Slave labour was the foundation of the Southern economy, and it allowed for a larger proportion of the overall Southern population to fight in its armies.To accelerate the end of the war, its social and economic roots had to be destroyed. Using the momentum of the partial Union victory at the battle of Antietam in September 1862, Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation, which promised to free all slaves in any area still in rebellion on January 1st, 1863, while leaving the institution in place in the border states that had not seceded. Marx commented at the time: “Lincoln is a sweet generous figure in the annals of history, he gives his most important actions always the most commonplace form. His latest proclamation is drafted in the same style, the manifesto abolishing slavery is the most important document in American history since the establishment of the Union, tantamount to the tearing up of the old American Constitution, and not only did the proclamation free the slaves in areas of rebellion, it finally allowed for them to be armed and brought into the Union army.”

The second act of the war, the truly revolutionary phase, would be even more bitter and bloody than the first. Many more battles followed, and eventually Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate army of Northern Virginia, decided to attempt the second invasion of the North – this time into Pennsylvania. His aim was to strike a blow at Union morale and turn the Northern population against the war. His expedition culminated in the most famous battle of the war, when over 170 thousand soldiers converged on the small town of Gettysburg. This was the largest and bloodiest battle of the war, and after three days of horrific and heroic fighting, the Union army had won the field. News of the North's victory arrived in Washington on Independence Day, the 4th of July. That same day, the fortress town of Vicksburg was taken by Ulysses S. Grant in the West, which gave the Union effective control of the all-important Mississippi river. Many consider the concurrent victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg to be the decisive turning point in the war, the high water mark of the rebellion, although the carnage continued for two more years. In March 1864, Grant was transferred to the East to take overall command of the Union forces throughout the country. He shared Lincoln's broad strategic vision for a coordinated effort on multiple fronts to end the war. Perhaps most importantly, knowing full well that the South did not have infinite resources, he had the will to grind out a victory, no matter what it cost in time, money, and men. He and other top generals believed that the South must be made to feel the hard hand of war. So the war was taken deep into the heart of the Confederacy with slaves freed in mass, railroads and other property destroyed, and plantations and foodstuffs expropriated.

While the economy in the North was booming, the Southern economy was in free-fall, and its armies and its civilians suffered terrible privations. Grant chased Lee doggedly in a series of bloody battles across Virginia, leading to the siege of the Confederate capital at Richmond. Philip Sheridan shattered the economy of the Shenandoah valley in Virginia, which had long been the breadbasket of the confederacy, and Sherman besieged and eventually took the key city of Atlanta, Georgia. He then marched across the state to the coast, and up through the Carolinas, cutting a wide swath of destruction as his tens of thousands of soldiers freed slaves, destroyed property, and lived off the land. The Confederates were in big trouble, and they pinned their hopes on the 1864 elections, when Lincoln's former top general George McClellan ran against them as a pro-status quo peace candidate on the Democratic Party ticket. The election was clearly a referendum on the war and on emancipation, and even Lincoln didn't think he stood much of a chance. But in the end, he was re-elected in a landslide with overwhelming support from the soldiers; and at his second inaugural address, he doubled down on seeing the war through to the end, with the end of slavery as its unambiguous objective. Just a few weeks later, the Confederates succumbed to Grant's irresistible pressure, and had to abandon the Confederate capital at Richmond, and the final end for Lee and his army of Northern Virginia came a week later on April 9th. Less than a week after that, on April 15th, Lincoln was assassinated by a renowned actor and pro Southern zealot while attending a play. Lincoln's murder was a significant historical accident, and without a doubt, it changed the course of reconstruction, because his Vice President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee became President, and he oversaw the first phases of postwar reconstruction. Although he hated the Southern planter aristocracy with a passion, Johnson was no friend to black people, as Frederick Douglass had accurately surmised when their eyes met at Lincoln's second inauguration.

In total, the fighting between the Union and Confederacy raged for four years , across more than ten thousand battlefields. The human costs were horrific. At the battle of Antietam, more soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing than in all previous U.S. wars combined. That's 23 thousand in a single day. An estimated 625 thousand died due to battlefield injuries, accidents, or disease during the war. That's around 2.4 per cent of the 1860 population, and would be equivalent to roughly 8 million Americans killed today, which is like the entirety of metropolitan Chicago. Hundreds of thousands more were wounded and maimed, not to mention the untold numbers of civilians who were killed, wounded, and dislocated. After the war, Confederate apologists fabricated the myth of the lost cause. They argued that theirs was a noble cause that was unfortunately doomed to defeat from the beginning, due to the North's overwhelming economic and demographic superiority. It should go without saying that the cause of perpetuating slavery was not noble; but there is an element of truth in their argument, insofar as the raw demographics and economics overwhelmingly favoured the North, as long as it maintained the will to continue the war, which it did.

Although the vast majority of Southerners did not own any slaves, most of them identified with and defended the institution anyway. After centuries of racist scare-mongering, the prospect of 4 million freed slaves terrified them. At root they saw them as competition for scarce land and jobs. Slavery gave many poor whites with little or no land someone they could feel superior to. They may have been poor, but at least they weren't slaves, and they weren't black; and of course both sides had claimed to have God on their side, and they both claimed to be fighting for freedom – but what kind of freedom? Their definitions ultimately reflected the class relations that prevailed in each half of the country. Did they mean personal freedom and free labour? The freedom to own property? What kind of property? Property in land and human slaves? Or in commercial farms, or in industrial capital? It’s crystal clear which form of freedom won in the end: the freedom of capital to exploit wage labour. But it's indisputable that the freeing of the slaves ranks as one of the greatest revolutionary expropriations without compensation in all of human history.

It was the mass action of the slaves themselves that forced Lincoln and his general's hands. It was their heroism in battle that further radicalised northern public opinion in favour of abolition. As we've seen, hundreds of thousands ran away, and resisted and sabotaged and joined the Union army, in what W.E.B. Du Bois described as a slave general strike. However, as one former plantation owner put it, emancipated slaves own nothing, because nothing but freedom has been given to them. We'd need several hours just to skim the surface of what happened after the war, this incredible period known as reconstruction; but I’ll just say that it passed through several phases, as former slaves organised and in some places united with significant layers of poor whites, in a brilliant explosion of energy, political engagement, determination, creativity, and struggle. It was a new phase of revolution and counter-revolution. It was a life and death battle against reactionary forces like the Ku Klux Klan. At times, the freed men and women were backed by the federal government and its troops. But they were eventually sold out and abandoned to the cruel and tender mercies of their former masters, so perhaps we can take this period up at a future world school.

The U.S civil war and radical reconstruction represent the last great push of the bourgeoisie as a historically progressive class. In this sense, it was perhaps the most classical bourgeois revolution of all, in so far as the capitalist class played a quite conscious and direct role in imposing its preferred class and property relations on the nation as a whole. Not only did the North use the war and its aftermath to break up or accelerate the breakup of non-capitalist forms of exploitation and production throughout the country; it used this upheaval to consolidate the state institutions that established the political and legal framework for the unrestricted accumulation of capital and its expansion in the century that followed. The war also led to unprecedented centralisation, in order to finance and mobilise the human and material resources required for victory, with tariffs, taxes, a military draft, and even partial nationalisation of the railroads and telegraphs. It was in this modern form that the American capitalists pursued their genocidal wars against the native peoples of the continent. They unleashed lynch mobs against black workers, farmers, and sharecroppers, and they built up the most ferocious imperialist power in the history of humankind. After the war, the productive forces developed by leaps and bounds, and alongside them, the working class emerged as a revolutionary force and a contender for power. Just a few years later, in 1871, the world witnessed the Paris Commune, the first seizure of power by the working class, and all major worldwide revolutionary movements since then have had at least one foot clearly on the proletarian revolution side of history.

American capitalism rapidly outgrew its territorial limits, and after ruthlessly stamping out the resistance of the indigenous peoples in the West, it directly or indirectly colonised huge chunks of the rest of the of the continent, and in 1898 it flexed its muscles on the world stage and moved directly against the weakened Spanish empire. A few decades later, it replaced Britain as the world's dominant power and policeman. But as Trotsky noted, the U.S. has dynamite built into its foundations, and I think it's fair to say that a big proportion of that dynamite is the legacy of slavery and racism. Capitalism ceased to be a progressive force a long time ago – a new class must take political and economic power. A new society must be built, and classes must be abolished altogether. Just as capitalism was built on the backs of millions of slaves worldwide, the basis for socialism has been laid by the labour of billions of workers. And just as the divergent class interests of the pre-civil war years could no longer be contained within the old social and political framework, the interests of the capitalists and the workers cannot indefinitely coexist in the doubly antiquated parameters we're forced to live in today.

In the history of the civil war, we find a proud heritage of revolutionary organisation, determination, and sacrifice. So, comrades, for this reason, every class conscious worker should study the events and lessons of this epoch-making period, because we need to prepare for the even more titanic struggles yet to come. Just look around you. We live in a similar period today. Let's not forget that after the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in the summer of 2020, we saw the biggest mass movement in the history of the country, a colossal struggle against racism and police brutality. Twenty-six million people were on the streets, and a police precinct in Minneapolis was burned to the ground. This was an insurrectionary act that was supported by a majority of Americans, and that was just a preview of what's yet to come. So watch this space – not just in the U.S., but around the world.


Hamid: Thank you John for that fantastic and breathtaking leadoff. I hope that the translators have had a chance to catch their breaths.

Comrades, the American civil war, or the second revolution as John called it, was a monumental event in world history. Marx and Engels followed it very closely and called it the most important event of their time; and while this wasn't a socialist revolution, they believed that the end of chattel slavery would be a huge victory for the world working class, and that it would pave the way for the socialist revolution in the future. And the writings on the civil war are really amazing writings, full of lessons on the science of revolution as well as the science of war.

Marx and Engels actually had a small difference of opinion on the perspectives for the war. Engels, who was a military expert, was sceptical of whether the North could win. But Marx, who had a broader view of things, realised very quickly that sooner or later, the war would have to take on a revolutionary character, and that the North would eventually win essentially on the basis of its far superior industrial base and its larger population. Engels had a point, however, because he could see the huge mistakes that the Northern generals and politicians were making. In reality, after the first blitz of the south, after the south was defeated in the first year, Marx believed that the war had been decided on a military plane; but nevertheless, it continued for another four years, mainly due to the mistakes of the leaders. To start with, the North’s Union army devised the plan that John explained – the anaconda plan – which was essentially the plan that was followed through until the victory of the Union forces. It’s sometimes difficult to criticise the strategy of a winning army, but I think this was probably quite an inefficient strategy. Engels, in fact, at the time, said that rather than doing this “childish plan,” the Union army should have launched an energetic attack on Georgia. This would have immediately cut the confederation in two parts, which could then, relatively easily and quickly, have been defeated one at a time.

Instead, the Union army was betting essentially on besieging the whole of the South into submission, by forming a land and sea blockade around the bulk of the South. This did have some effect, but it failed to bring a swift end to the war, despite the overwhelming superiority of the Northern economy and population size. I think in the end it was in fact the fall of Atlanta in Georgia that gave the final blow to the south – as Engels had said from the beginning – but a lot of time had been wasted by then. On the battlefield, as well, you saw time and time again many of the northern generals wasting time and hesitating. Marx and Engels particularly criticise General McClellan, who was a commanding general for a brief period between 1861 and 1862. McClellan was a good organiser. He was a bit like a bureaucrat: good at getting everything in motion, but on the battlefield he became known for his tendency to avoid conflict and for allowing the enemy time and time again to retreat even after it had been defeated. As John explained, this essentially reflected the sympathy of large parts of the Northern ruling class towards the Southern ruling class. The aim of these layers was not to end slavery or to defeat the South completely, but to force them to the negotiating table, so as to return things to the way they were before the war. Essentially, the slavery would remain intact, but within limited areas of the South. The Southern ruling class could never accept such an outcome and therefore it was far more decisive in its actions, including on the battlefield, in the early period.

However, as the war dragged on, the Unionists were increasingly forced to take a more firm position. Part of it was for economic causes and causes related to world relations, world politics, and the domestic economy. Also, within the Northern population, and within the Republican Party in particular, abolitionist moods started gaining ground and abolitionist agitation started gaining ground, especially coming from the army where white and black soldiers were beginning to fight alongside each other. People became increasingly wary of the hesitancy of the generals, which was dragging out the war and costing lots of lives.

It was under the pressure of these forces that Abraham Lincoln turned to the left. As John said, he admitted that he was the prisoner of events; and as he became more radical, he purged the top ranks of the army, including people like McClellan, who were replaced with others like Grant. He also issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which immediately and almost completely changed the balance of forces, mobilising millions of slaves, with hundreds of thousands of them joining the Union army. This new line galvanised the revolutionary elements within the North and raised the morale of the troops, and it brought the best and most decisive generals to the top, and from there it was only one way for the North to go, which was upwards.

Marx compared this process with the English Revolution and civil war, which was also dragged out in the whole of the first period during due to the hesitancy and the cowardice of the leaders of Parliament (who in reality wanted to find a compromise with the British monarchy) – until the leadership of the revolution was taken over by Oliver Cromwell, who turned the tide by basing himself on a revolutionary program, and taking down the monarchy altogether. I think this goes to show in the most vivid manner the role of leadership in revolutions, as well as revolutionary civil wars, and that in a revolution there cannot be a compromise. Those who think they're being careful and preserving their forces will only lead to defeat, whereas those who fight a determined and uncompromising struggle will see victory.

Ben: The second American Revolution brought about really dramatic changes to the state and the state machinery in the United States. Marx explained that all revolutions prior to the proletarian revolution perfected the state machine as an instrument of the rule of the minority over the majority. So, this second American Revolution unleashed U.S. capitalism and shaped a state machinery to facilitate that. Most crucial to this was the centralisation that took place, which John mentioned. During the war itself, Lincoln centralised huge power in his hands. He ignored the constitution and he took the right as President to create an army and to wage a war. He suspended freedom of speech and the freedom of the press, and he suspended habeas corpus (the right to be lawfully detained.)

And from this really dramatic and revolutionary centralisation of dictatorial powers to fight the war, other things flowed. A national federal banking system was established for the first time, the government sold bonds, and a national paper currency was created. The nation's financial institutions were centralised in order to fund the war. Things like health care became centralised because ambulances and hospitals were required to care for the wounded. The central bureau of pensions was established to compensate the wounded and the bereaved. The federal government commissioned the Pacific Railroad, and that was partly to bind California to the Union during the war, and the federal government sold public lands to establish new colleges and educational institutions. The state became active in promoting projects designed to defend the interests of the U.S. capitalists. Eleven of the first twelve amendments to the U.S. constitution limited the powers of the central government; but after 1865, six of the next seven amendments to the U.S. constitution increased the power of the government at the expense of the individual states. More power was centralised. The number of federal employees tripled nationwide in that period.

The civil war changed the role of the central state in a really dramatic way, and this was a massive and revolutionary step forward for the big U.S. capitalists, because a centralised state machine, of course, is a far easier tool through which to secure their interests than lots of little states. The forces of state repression were also sharpened and perfected by the civil war. The secret service was created as one example of the state institution. Its first job, actually, was to combat the counterfeiting of all the new paper currency that existed. Its other roles, like protecting the president, came later. Its first job was to deal with currency. The army, which previously had been a fairly small force dedicated to westward expansion of the U.S., obviously massively swelled in numbers, and immediately after the war it was engaged in the military occupation of the Southern states, policing its own people instead of waging war on the native Americans.

Above all, and maybe one of the most important ways that this revolution perfected the U.S. state machine, was that it obviously resulted in the abolition of slavery and equal rights under the law – including the right to vote, and so on. Individual rights, which include property rights of course, are the legal expression of commodity production, which is dominant under capitalism. Equality before the law is essential to the smooth running of commodity exchange and the capitalist system as a whole; and this, by the way, is one of the reasons why, as Lenin explained, the bourgeois democratic republic is the best possible shell for capitalism. Because in the U.S., for example, granting individual rights to the former slaves unleashed this wave of cheap human labor into the commodity-producing capitalist machine.

Obviously, if previous revolutions have perfected the state machine, the task of the proletarian revolution is to smash the bourgeois state machine and to replace it with a worker’s state. Is this task for us made harder by the fact that the second American revolution perfected this machine? This machine has become sharpened and polished and perfected. Does this make it a harder enemy to fight? Well, it's true that it is a formidable weapon – but it's a weapon in the hands of a ruling class, and if that class and the system upon which it is based is in deep crisis, as it is today, then the weapon becomes less effective. Sure enough, we have seen the crisis of the U.S. state, as John explained, express itself repeatedly in the recent period. We should understand how the bourgeois state has developed, for the purpose of unmasking it as a weapon in the hands of the ruling class; because that is what will give us the conviction that we require, not to reform it but to smash it, and to replace it with a worker’s state.

Bryce: Today it is taken for granted that slavery in the United States was abolished through military means – when really, as John explained, it was not merely a military affair, but a revolution. But this eventual outcome was not at all apparent to the vast majority of participants prior to the war. In the decade leading up to the abolition of slavery, the political and economic weight of the slave states led to several new legislations and legal rulings in the slave states’ favour. The fugitive slave act in 1850 ruled that the federal government was responsible for capturing all escaped slaves and returning them to their masters…even if the escaped slaves were found in free northern states. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 violated the Missouri Compromise by allowing for the further expansion of slavery, and the Dred Scott supreme court ruling in 1857 ruled that no black person could be a citizen of the U.S., whether enslaved or free.

So, needless to say, on the surface, the situation was extremely bleak. The idea of a wholesale expropriation of all the country's slave property would have seemed truly impossible, but we know as Marxists that experience, and above all, events inevitably drive changes in consciousness. Every action had its equal and opposite reaction. The fugitive slave act, for instance, meant that northerners were now witnessing federal marshals seize escaped slaves to return them to their masters, and for northerners who hadn't previously considered themselves abolitionists, this had a significant radicalising effect. So, on the eve of the civil war, after John Brown's raid, northern opinion was more opposed to slavery than ever. However, I think it is fair to say still that no one could have expected the speed and scope of the revolution that was about to unfold.

I also want to talk a bit about the end of the war and the period known as reconstruction. Slave society was finished and the freed people immediately got to work constructing a new social order. There’s many amazing stories and anecdotes from this period in which millions of slaves were freed. But what exactly was going to replace the old slave learning aristocracy? There is no clear or unanimous agreement on that. Former slaves, Northern industrialists, and the ex-slave owners all had dramatically different answers to this question, and due to Lincoln’s assassination, the project of southern reconstruction fell to Andrew Johnson. Johnson was about as conservative as a member of the Republican Party could have been. Under his administration, new state governments in the South were quickly formed, often composed of ex-confederate officials, and eight months later he declared that reconstruction was essentially over. One might have assumed at the time that his conservatism might cut across the development of reconstruction, but it was a struggle of living forces.

At first, most of the war-weary Northern population supported Johnson's plan; but under that plan, a wave of counter-revolutionary terror was inflicted on the newly freed black population. Johnson's own policies quickly exposed him politically, and the radical wing of the Republican Party, which would previously have been dismissed as unrealistic, gained control of the party. The New York Herald commented about Johnson: “He forgets that we have passed through the fiery ordeal of a mighty revolution and that the pre-existing order of things is gone and can return no more.” His entire party turned against him, as well as the overwhelming majority of the Northern population, and the party then extended the right to vote and to hold office to black people in the South through key legislations and constitutional amendments. Thus began the era of radical reconstruction. New state governments were elected with ex-confederate officials disenfranchised, and federal troops were sent to enforce the newly won bourgeois democratic rights of free people. This period saw profound social, cultural, and political changes. Thousands of black people served as officials and politicians of various levels of government, including in the U.S. congress. Speaking about the time before the civil war, the Republican congressman James G. Blaine commented “but only the wildest fancy of a distempered brain could have envisioned congress giving to blacks all the civil rights pertaining to a white man.” And yet that is exactly what happened, at least for a time.

But there were important limits to how far the bourgeoisie was willing to go, and for how long they were willing to enforce this state of affairs. Former slaves conceived of freedom in terms of economic autonomy. They wanted their own land above all. There were calls to seize the land of the former plantation owners and divide it up, but the bourgeoisie was absolutely not going to move in that direction. Over the 1870s, public support for radical reconstruction ebbed in the North and racism regained much of its strength as well. In 1876, the presidential election was contested, and a behind-the-scenes deal was arranged in which the new Republican president promised to end reconstruction. Over the next few decades, the newfound rights that had been won were viciously clawed away, and the violent Jim Crow regime was established. The uniquely oppressed state of black workers in the U.S. today is rooted entirely in this historic defeat, but the recent Black Lives Matter movement shows that this process is not over. Armed with an understanding of these events, a new generation will finish the tasks begun by the civil war and fight to achieve genuine emancipation.

Jon: I’m proud to speak to you today from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, not far from the location of the first protest against slavery in North America. It was organised in 1688 by a group of quakers, who are a Christian sect which emerged during the great English Revolution. The first anti-slavery organisation in the United States, the Pennsylvania abolition society, was founded in 1775 and fully 80 per cent of its members were quakers. So how was the movement against slavery transformed from a cause championed by a small religious sect into a powerful mass movement capable of inspiring the greatest social revolution in U.S. history? So far, at least.

The answer lies in Lenin's statement: “politics is the most concentrated expression of economics.” The caricature of the U.S civil war is that the industrialised North triumphed over the agrarian South. There's a grain of truth in this, but industrial capitalism developed unevenly across the continent. The development of the bourgeoisie and proletariat in the North was combined with the growth of a petty bourgeois layer of small farmers in the west. In 1860, fully 40 percent of the Northern population still worked directly in agriculture. This sizeable layer of small holding farmers played a significant role in the movement against slavery and formed an important part of the political base of the Republican Party. This class formed as the result of the conscious policy of the American bourgeoisie. The capitalists offered cheap and sometimes even free farmland in the west to anyone willing to populate the vast territories conquered from Mexico and the indigenous peoples of the continent. This policy not only served to cement the conquests of the bourgeois state, but also acted as a pressure valve on the developing class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the rapidly growing proletariat. Workers who struggled to survive in eastern cities did not necessarily need to join together in collective struggle against the capitalists. They had the option to move west and take up farming. This petty bourgeois layer of farmers served initially as a stabilising factor in the class struggle, but by the 1850s they turned into the opposite and proved an explosive element in the second American Revolution.

Initially these farmers produced on a subsistence basis, but the development of American capitalism strengthened them tremendously. Mass-produced agricultural machinery led to ever more bountiful harvests, while the railroad and steamship allowed them to produce for the national and world market. A striking example of this is that by the late 1850s, the price of wheat in the United States was not determined by market conditions in New York, Philadelphia, or Boston, but by the price exported U.S. grain could command on the market in London. This transformed the western farmers, not only quantitatively but qualitatively, and they developed an optimism and elan which served them well on the battlefields of the 1860s.

In advance of the civil war, these farmers came into increasingly sharp conflicts with the slave holding planters of the South. This conflict was rooted in the land. At the beginning of the war, 88.7 million acres of land were cultivated in the free labor states, on the basis of the latest technical developments in agriculture; while at the same time, 74.3 million acres were cultivated in the slave states using backwards methods. In fact, by 1860, the free states employed 148 million dollars worth of agricultural machinery, as against 77 million dollars worth of machinery employed in confederate agriculture. But the land cultivated in both regions paled in comparison to the 242 million acres of arable land not yet being farmed in 1860. The question of whether this land would be farmed by free labour or slave labour was at the heart of the political and social struggles of the 1850s and 60s. Both the western farmers and the slaveholding planters understood that their future livelihood was dependent on the answer to this question.

The inability of the bourgeois democracy established in the first revolution to settle this question led to explosions of violence between these classes, most notably Bleeding Kansas during the second half of the 1850s, where pro-slavery border ruffians slaughtered anti-slavery free-staters, who in turn organised self-defense groups. It was as a direct result of the Kansas-Nebraska question that the Republicans were formed as a mass party with a program not of abolishing slavery, but of preventing the expansion of slavery to the west. But reformist half measures proved incapable of delivering decisive victory. What was true in the second American Revolution, will certainly be true in the third.

Niklas: Thank you, comrades. It's been an interesting discussion. I would like to deal mainly with two questions: why class relations and the economics of slavery created a conflict with the North, and how this related to the U.S.’ relations with the U.K. Slavery is one of the most abhorrent institutions in class society – yet as late as the 1850s it was a crucial part of the world economy. Capitalism is fundamentally based on wage labour, yet it was highly dependent on slave labour. Britain had banned the slave trade, but were still very dependent on slavery. It's one of those contradictions of history that’s very hard for formalists to swallow.

The cotton mills of England were very dependent on the cotton from the United States. 77 percent of Britain's cotton came from the U.S., and other cotton mills in other parts of Europe were also dependent on the U.S. for its cotton. Britain consumed an overwhelming amount of cotton in its mills. At this time, it was 800 million pounds of cotton per year as opposed to France's 192 million, which was the second largest consumer, and raw cotton constituted 61 percent of the value of U.S. exports before the war. It was a big business, and at the heart of it was slavery. But slavery, and the way that they did it, was unsustainable. The methods they were using to produce cotton were depleting the soil, and the constant need for more cotton to feed the increased production meant that they were constantly needing new land to plant more cotton.

But as comrades have mentioned, slavery was banned in half of the states in the United States. And when the U.S. acquired new territories from France, Spain, and Mexico – by force or by paying for it with monetary compensation – then the struggle immediately erupted: what was to be the status of these new territories that were acquired? In the balance lay not only the future of the cotton trade and U.S. agriculture, but the future of the United States itself and its independence from Britain. If the slave owners had successfully overturned restrictions on slavery, it would have turned the U.S. into an economy completely dependent on the British cotton mills. It would have retarded U.S economic development tremendously, and would have forced the U.S. to trade raw cotton for manufactured goods with Britain. This is obviously not the future that the Northern bourgeois had in mind; but the compromise, as comrades have explained, became untenable. The ever-increasing needs of the English cotton industry created increased demand for land and slaves.

The class struggle inside of the South was also playing a role. The increasing scale of cotton production was increasing the concentration of land holding. The small producers were being squeezed out and created a layer of poor whites. Marx compares this to the proletarians of Rome, who had no productive role in the economy; but nonetheless, because of the numbers, they had to be placated somehow. When you talk about Roman history, you talk about bread and circuses. In the case of the US there was the promise of new land – land for new plantations. The economic and social factors were pushing the slave-owning South to westward expansion, as the comrades have mentioned. Marx quoted a particularly reactionary senator called Tombs who spoke at the secessionist congress. He says: “In 15 years, without a great increase in slave territory, either the slaves must be permitted to flee from the whites, or the whites must flee from the slaves.” That’s obviously an element of exaggeration here, but the general thrust of the argument is clear.

As comrades have explained, this expansion came up against the interest of the North. A link to this conflict is also the question of trade. The South wanted free trade to sell cotton at favourable terms for Britain. The bourgeois of the North wanted protectionism to protect themselves against cheap imports of manufacturers from Britain. As John said, we have two completely different systems there, pulling in two different directions. One question that comrades might ask themselves: Given the importance of cotton to Britain, why did Britain not intervene in the war? One reason was their complete failure to rally the British workers to the cause of the South. Marx noted how the British bourgeois mobilised all their resources to agitate against the North – saying it would spell the end of British industries, unemployment, and so on – and he made the following comment: “The working class is accordingly fully conscious that the government is only waiting for the intervention cry from below, the pressure from without, to put an end to the American blockade, and English misery. Under these circumstances, the persistence with which the working class keeps silent or breaks its silence only to raise its voice against intervention and then for the United States is admirable”. What Marx is saying is the workers understood what was at stake, and they wanted no part in supporting the South, and it was a striking moment of international solidarity.

Sum Up

John: Thank you, comrades, that was a great discussion. Thanks to everyone who spoke, and thanks for fleshing out many areas I wasn't able to cover in any detail. Some really important points were made, and it goes to show just what a huge and inspiring topic this is. I’d like to note that although he didn't write a lot about it, Lenin was fully aware of the significance of this period. As he put it, in his classic polemical style: “Only a pedant and an idiot could deny the immense world historic progressive and revolutionary significance of the American civil war of 1863-65.”

Thanks, John, for the points on the abolitionists and the western farmers. Long live the iron brigade from Wisconsin. I would just like to make a few more points on the economic differences between the two sections which helped set the stage for this decisive clash. As has been explained, we should remember that there was enormous variety within the broader sections themselves. The cotton belt, for example, was quite different from the border slave states – and the northwest, which we now call the midwest, was significantly different from the northeast.

Some in the South had consciously tried to industrialise in the 1840s. They wanted to counter the North's rising industrial strength and reduce their dependence on imports from the North as well as from Britain; but slave labor and mono exports of cotton were just too lucrative and entrenched for this to really take off. By the time the war started, the industrial output of New York State alone was four times larger than that of the entire South, and during the war the South not only lost access to the Northern market, but also to the world market, because they were cut off by the blockade. In fact, they actually burned cotton because they thought this would put pressure on foreign powers like Britain and France to intervene on the side of the South and to defend their economic interests.

But in the end, as was explained, due to the pressure of the British working class in particular, despite the privations, the British government could not come in on the side of a slave power. In that epoch, railroads were the backbone of the economy and a solid indicator of relative economic development and industrialisation. We’ve seen this, for example, in Lenin's writings on the emergence of capitalism in Russia. At the start of the civil war there were 24 thousand miles of railroad in the North and another 4 thousand miles were built during the war. The South only had 9 thousand miles at the start of the war, and they built just another 400 miles. They simply didn't have the resources to do anything more than that, and this obviously is a reflection of the overall situation between these two parts of the country. When it comes to resources generally, the Confederate war spending was about 23 billion, whereas during the course of the war the Union spent the equivalent of over 68 billion dollars, which is nearly three times as much.

I’d also like to talk a little bit more about the abolitionists. There are definite parallels with the situation today, where another small group of individuals is organising to end another kind of slavery: wage slavery. They were generally a minority political movement before the war. The first were religious groups like the Mennonites and the Quakers, and abolitionist sentiment was particularly strong in New England and in places like New York; but it was also gaining traction in parts of the west and there were even some abolitionists in the South. They were an extremely dedicated and passionate group of people. They included religious leaders like Henry Ward Beecher, newspaper editors like William Lloyd Garrison, and some who were both, like Elijah P. Lovejoy, who was an early martyr of the abolitionist cause. Most abolitionists simply wanted to reform slavery out of existence, not actually abolish it overnight, and despite opposing slavery many of them didn't believe there could be genuine equality between blacks and whites. Many supported the resettling of freed slaves back to Africa.

But despite the relative weakness of the movement, it struck fear into the hearts of the Southern slave owners. Almost as much as they feared slave uprisings, they feared losing control of the federal government to those with even mild abolitionist sentiments, as they knew this would spell the beginning of the end. Some abolitionists were activists on the underground railroad, like Harriet Tubman, who escorted an estimated 300 slaves to freedom; and like her, many of the most fiery abolitionists were former slaves, and there's a real treasure trove of quotes from that period. For example, these words from Frederick Douglass: “if there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favour freedom and deprecate agitation want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning.” Or the former slave, James Fortin who pointed out the core contradiction of the entire country when he said, “It seems incredible that the advocates of liberty should conceive of the idea of selling a fellow creature to slavery.” Then, of course, there was John Brown who I already mentioned. He had played a prominent role in the aforementioned Bleeding Kansas, which was a kind of a “pre”-civil war before the civil war hit the entire country. He was also involved in the Potawatomi Creek Massacre, where five pro-slavery activists were hacked to death with swords. After the failure of the raid on Harpers Ferry, he slipped a note to his jailer on his way to the gallows to be hanged. He said “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood, I had as I now think vainly flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.” He gladly went to the gallows to become a martyr for this cause, so he really is a personal hero of mine. He was a revolutionary to the bone.

I’d like to speak a little bit about another incredible figure from this period: Thaddeus Stevens, the radical Republican. He was another implacable enemy of slavery and its racist poison. To give just one example, he had a 23-year long intimate relationship with a black woman, Lydia Hamilton Smith, who had to pretend to be his housekeeper so they could be together. He pushed hard for emancipation and for a hard war policy, and as he put it, “the war will not end until the government shall more fully recognize the magnitude of the crisis, until they have discovered that this is an internecine war in which one party or the other must be reduced to hopeless feebleness, and the power of further effort shall be utterly annihilated. It is a sad but true alternative, the South can never be reduced to that condition so long as the war is prosecuted on its present principles. The North with all its millions of people in its countless wealth can never conquer the South until a new mode of warfare is adopted.” He said “slavery gives the South a great advantage in time of war, they need not and do not withdraw a single hand from the cultivation of the soil, every able-bodied white man can be spared for the army. The black man without lifting a weapon is the mainstay of the war, but,” he argued, “give the general the sword in one hand, and the book of freedom in the other and he will soon sweep despotism and rebellion from every corner of this continent, that's the kind of revolutionary intransigence we need.”

Thaddeus Stevens understood that the laws of war, and in our case, of the class war, supersede the laws of the constitution. Trotsky explained that the end justifies the means only if the end itself is justified; but I think in the case of the civil war it's clear that a revolutionary war to uproot slavery was indeed a justified end. So those people who get all caught up in a legalistic understanding of things – of the world, or of war, or of the class struggle – they're missing the forest for the trees. We have to cut to the essence of the matter, while understanding that the class struggle is always messy. As Lenin put it in one of his writings on the national question, “Whoever expects a pure social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip service to revolution without understanding what revolution is”.

Comrades, there is so much to learn from this period of American history, starting with the idea that Americans are somehow immune to revolution. Quite the opposite! We've had two of the greatest, most inspiring revolutions in world history, I would argue, with wonderful examples of expropriation without compensation. As Trotsky put it, in his excellent article, If America Should Go Communist: “Communism can come in America only through revolution, just as independence and democracy came in America. The American temperament is energetic and violent, and it will insist on breaking a good many dishes and upsetting a good many apple carts before communism is firmly established. Americans are enthusiasts and sportsmen before they are specialists and statesmen, and it would be contrary to the American tradition to make a major change without choosing sides and cracking heads.” That was Trotsky's assessment of the American temperament. And although it's been expressed in an extremely distorted and confused way these days, on both sides of the political spectrum, the class interests will eventually assert themselves; and then all bets are off when it comes to the third American revolution, the socialist revolution, which we are fighting for and expect to see in our lifetime.