Central to the argument in this book is Marx’s famous comment in Capital, ‘Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is branded.’ This, Nimtz argues, underpinned Marx and Engels’ approach to the American Civil War (1861 to 1865). At stake was the development of the American working class – and indeed of the European working class – not only the fate of the black slaves. Thus Nimtz shows how important race was to Marx and Engels’ understanding of class – contrary to received wisdom.
Nimtz’s starting point is democracy. The most famous 19th century account of democracy in America was that of the French thinker De Tocqueville. Whatever the strengths in De Tocqueville’s pioneering work, Nimtz shows that the failure to confront slavery arose because the institution (which he opposed) raised critical questions about private property and class relationships.
If the lesson De Tocqueville learned from the struggle for democracy in the 1848 French Revolution was that it was better to compromise on democracy than on the existence of private property, Marx and Engels drew the opposite conclusion. Since the bourgeoisie could not be trusted to push the democratic revolution to its conclusion because they feared the class below much more than they did the class above, then it would have to be the working class that settled democratic accounts with reaction – and in the process strike out on a path of its own.
Nimtz’s argument is that it was this lesson Marx and Engels applied to the American Civil War. Slavery was a backward mode of production. History required its replacement by ‘free labour’ capitalist relations. But the Northern bourgeoisie, like its French counterparts in 1848, preferred temporising to confrontation. Even Lincoln would not decree the abolition of slavery until it became plain that war waged in defence of the union was insufficient to defeat the Confederate South.
For this to happen, Nimtz argues, two things were required: one, that there should be mobilisation from below to push forward the bourgeois democratic struggle to abolish slavery; and two, that there should be conscious political intervention by what today we would call a revolutionary party.
Hence, on the one hand, the First International, under Marx’s inspiration, marshalled support for Lincoln – in particular among (white) workers in Britain – and very successfully too. On the other hand, American communists, mostly German veterans of the 1848 revolutions, organised to win the ideological battle among workers to support black liberation.
In some of the most fascinating pages in this book Nimtz marshals evidence to show how revolutionary Marxist ideas directly shaped these interventions. It was mostly ex-German working class communities which rose to the task. Elsewhere – as with Irish workers in New York where revolutionary ideas had no presence – the fear of competition from an influx of freed blacks led to reactionary riots.
Communists did not just carry out ideological or agitational work. They even enrolled in the Union army. Willich, a close political friend of Marx’s and a veteran of 1848, became a major general, the only communist ever to achieve that rank in the US. As a communist general he pioneered a revolutionary approach to soldiering.
Nimtz’s argument is that Marx and Engels hoped that with the defeat of the slave-owners a new unity would emerge enabling the American working class as a whole to struggle for a new social order. In the event, their optimism proved unfounded. The victorious North was not prepared to carry through Reconstruction, preferring accommodation with the old slave-owning class. Working class unity was destroyed – setting back not just the interests of black but of white workers. It is this, Nimtz claims, more than any American exceptionalism, which explains why the US failed to develop mass socialist organisations.
Nimtz’s argument is not just for academics. His concluding chapter emphasises its relevance for today and he draws on his own experience to show how what he calls the Second Reconstruction (the civil rights movement of the 1960s) once again put the question of unity among black and white workers on the agenda.
Regrettably the book is littered with misspellings and bad punctuation. Nevertheless, and despite my disagreement with some of his judgements on contemporary issues, this is a splendid book which every activist should read and learn from.
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