The Civil War: 150 Years and Still With Us
The bloodiest war in the history of America was fought some 150 years ago on its own soil. Our past and our history are inextricably intertwined with our present, and consequently our future. In some ways the Civil War is still being fought.
What was the Civil War all about? Today the fundamental issues that gave rise to the Civil War are in many ways still shaping the debate and the struggle that is developing over what shall finally be the resolution of what kind of America we shall become. One might say it is the battle for the completion of the American revolution. The War of Independence set forth a vision and a cause that could not be completed, which made necessary the Civil War to continue that struggle. Today the battle lines are shaping up to attain the vision and cause that links the history of the American people from its origin to now.
The Georgia state Senate has passed a resolution which calls for a Constitutional Convention, whose primary purpose would be to set aside and/or amend the current U.S. Constitution, in order to reassert the power of the states over the federal government. In other words, replace the Union with a confederacy of states. The resolution has also already been passed in Virginia and Alabama, as well as Indiana and Wisconsin. The “Southernization” of America is no myth.
It is an indication of how, in this time, the corporations are merging with the State and are preparing to abandon even bourgeois democracy, in order to defend private property at all costs. Their path to that end is to go back, and to dredge up and rely upon the worst aspects of our history, in order to reorganize the State to impose their rule. We cannot forget that the Southern solution to the aftermath of the Civil War was the defeat of Reconstruction and the formation of the world’s first fascist State, the Black Belt South.
There is also, however, a movement that is arising, an expression of a developing polarization antagonistic to the retrograde motion described here. Marching under the banner “forward together, not one step back,” we see a powerful new movement rising to confront the State, and in so doing, relying upon history to frame and define its direction and goals. It sees itself as a kind of Reconstruction movement, whose aim is to complete the process turned back with the defeat of the first Reconstruction. This time it is about a class that is systematically denied and cut off from access to the basis necessities of life, including food and shelter, but also health care, education and even a government of, by, and for the people.
A Southern Country
The Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th century from Rousseau to John Locke spoke of equality and the universal Rights of Man. Thus the bourgeoisie could put itself forward not as the representative of one class but of all of suffering humanity. So workers, farmers, slaves, and toilers of every stripe, with their own ideas of freedom and equality, enlisted to fight for a country founded on the principles of freedom and justice for all. But the outcome was a bourgeois democratic republic, and in America, because of the peculiarities of its economic foundation, it was an agrarian bourgeois republic.
The leader of the American Revolution, George Washington, was at the same time the richest man and the largest slaveholder in America. From the beginnings of the republic until the outbreak of the Civil War, America was essentially a Southern country. Washington was the first of a series of slaveholding presidents, and Southerners dominated the Supreme Court and the Congress. It is this unresolved fundamental contradiction at the very core of the American experiment that made the Civil War necessary. The cause was independence, but its vision was “all men are created equal.”
While its means of production was bonded labor, the hoe, and the plow, the Southern economy operated within a capitalist market, with cotton its main commodity. With the introduction of the steam engine into production, and the transition from manufacture and production with hand tools to industry with machines, the domination of capital was complete. The North, which up until this time existed primarily to service the agrarian Southern economy, began to develop its economy on the basis of a maturing industrial capitalism. Now Southern agrarianism and the slavery that defined its mode of production came to be seen as a fetter to development.
The Erie Canal, completed in 1825, opened up trade and commerce from New York to the Great Lakes, in direct competition with the South. These states became a hotbed of anti-slavery sentiment. The battle over free states or slave produced a “bleeding Kansas,” and the Border Wars were a harbinger of the coming Civil War, as North and South bitterly fought out the question over whether the new states being admitted to the Union would enter on the side of free (wage-labor) or slave labor. The strife produced both a John Brown and an Abraham Lincoln.
The slaves themselves became a key factor in the developing struggle. Not only were there slave rebellions and other kinds of resistance, the Underground Railway became a force in the anti-slavery battle. As a counter, the Southern-dominated Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act, and the Supreme Court published the Dred Scott decision, which ruled that slaves could not sue for freedom, because as private property they had no rights.
The abolition of slavery arose to become the central idea upon which the ensuing conflict was to be fought out. William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator fanned the flames of abolitionism, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman arose as outstanding speakers for the cause of freedom. The resolution of the course forward was decided by John Brown’s attack at Harper’s Ferry; it made the Civil War inevitable.
The aim of the Southern slaveocracy was to establish an empire based on slave labor; the aim of the North was to establish a bourgeois democratic republic without slavery. Out of this irrepressible conflict arose a third political party, the Republican Party, and in 1860, it was able to split the vote and elect Abraham Lincoln. With that, the South knew the deal was up. They immediately began the process of secession and the formation of the Confederacy. In 1860 the war began with the South’s attack on Fort Sumter.
Lincoln had to navigate a treacherous and difficult path to steer the nation through the war and to accomplish its aims. He knew that he could not come out early on with the call to abolish slavery. The Union needed the slaveowning border states to win the war. A Southern-dominated Congress and Supreme Court would have impeached him. The Emancipation Proclamation, issued in 1862, was a military action. Emancipation was a blow to the Confederacy, and the tide of slaves and freedmen who came to fight for their freedom on the side of the North was the indispensable factor required to assure Northern victory. The war became revolutionary, leading to the overthrow of the ruling elite and the reorganization of society without chattel slavery.
At Gettysburg in 1863, Lincoln gave voice to the “unfinished work” of America, that “cause” that the nation shall have a ”new birth of freedom.”
The war was won, its cause attained. Slavery was abolished; $4 billion in private property was expropriated. After an intense struggle the abolitionists within Congress, the Radical Republicans, were able to establish a period of Reconstruction in the South; for a time Black and white poor Southerners were able to vote and pass progressive legislation that was in their interest. The breaking up of the plantations and the redistribution of the land to the former slaves was on the agenda, but the industrial capitalists of the North could brook no more abolition of private property. They had already accomplished their aim: to make the Southern ruling class subservient to finance capital. Former slaves and poor whites were driven back into a condition of near-slavery – the sharecropping system and Jim Crow.
So now it is about us. History repeats itself, but on a higher and higher level, a kind of spiral development where the cause and vision of one stage gives rise to another, where the battle is continued under different conditions. Our history is connected even as it advances.
Our Cause, Our Vision
So what is our cause, our vision today? We stand once again at a nodal line, a time of epochal change, where humanity is preparing to take a leap forward to a whole new stage of human history. We are in the midst of a revolutionary process that is of world-historical proportions. Something has happened that the world has never seen before. The tools of production have achieved a level of technology where human labor is no longer necessary: from slave labor to wage labor to production without labor. How can a capitalist system based upon the exploitation of human labor power survive in the face of this new automated electronic technology? It cannot.
A consequence of this development is that a whole new class of workers, now excluded from their very right to exist as human beings, stand in stark antagonism to a ruling class that defends private property at all costs, even abandoning bourgeois democracy in order to continue their class supremacy.
But we know nothing comes from nothing. Our revolution will be an American one, and it is integrally connected with, and is a continuation of, American revolutionary history. In that sense, we are still fighting the Civil War, but it is really about the vision and the cause that lies at the core of the American trajectory.
An integral aspect of our history has been the toiling and oppressed masses of workers who have struggled to have their fundamental needs as human beings achieved. We have fought for freedom, yes, and for equality, yes, but the content of that freedom and equality has always been about the pursuit of life, a life that shares equally in the abundance that society produces. Now, and perhaps for the first time, we are in a position to finally settle the question. Our vision: a communal, cooperative communist society. Our cause: the abolition of private property.
This article originated in Rally, Comrades!
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011