Aaron Leonard, Review of Robin Blackburn's "An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln" (Verso, 2011)


One was the founder of communism, the other a pillar of American democracy. That, along with many other things, made them as different as night and day.  Yet they occupied the same historic period and profoundly affected their times.  They both opposed slavery, though perhaps not on the same moral grounds one would wish for by today’s standards.  They also both supported the principle of free labor—a concept that was essential to the emergent industrial economy that would soon transform the world.  The men were Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx.  They are not often thought of together, but as Robin Blackburn’s new book makes clear there are important ways in which they should be.

Slavery in the New World was but one leg of an elaborate production and trade system.  It went from the slave trading “business” in Africa, to the plantations of the New World, to the cotton mills of Manchester and Birmingham.  Slavery was foundational to this set up yet at the same time a barrier to its further expansion.  For once capitalism took hold it was labor power, untethered to land or master, that was needed to fuel the ascendent economy.  It was this force that emboldened and impelled the best of the generation living amid and under it, to take up the cause, even taking up arms, to throw it off.  It is this underlying political economy that is too often lost when discussing the American Civil War.  In this book of documents, with a generous introduction, Blackburn thus fills in a certain blind-spot in the historical record.

Lincoln and Marx never directly spoke—though they did exchange correspondence through intermediaries—yet what each did profoundly affected the other, and in turn reacted back on their contentious and crisis-ridden world.  Marx, of course was the radical who saw things in stark terms.  Writing in his article, “The North American Civil War,” he cast the conflict as, “Whether 20 million freemen in the North should be subordinating themselves any longer to an oligarchy of 300,000 slave holders.”  In such writing one gets a keen sense of the sheer scope of the discrepancy of the two systems.  This, as Blackburn explains, was why, “Marx's argument and belief was that the real confrontation was between two social regimes, one based on slavery and the other on free labor.”  He quotes Marx, “The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peaceably side by side on the North American continent.  It can only be ended by the victory of one system or the other."

Lincoln was more temperate.  He tried mightily to avert war, to compromise, to hold the Union together.  As Blackburn writes, “Unlike the Radicals, he did not fulminate against the ‘slave power.’”  Yet he “did attack exorbitant representation of Southern white men in the House of Representatives and electoral College.”  However, as events unfolded he would lead the U.S. in waging a Civil War to defend that Union.  He would eventually sign the Emancipation Proclamation that would allow former slaves to fight in the Union Army, an unimaginable position only a few years earlier, to say nothing of laying the basis for the abolition of all slavery and legal enfranchisement of freedmen (though not fully realized till a century later).

Blackburn’s introduction succinctly concentrates the political events leading up to and through the war and its aftermath.  Along the way he raises a number of issues, including the dearth of support for women’s rights, the role of German immigrants in radicalizing the political terms of the era, and the notion of Southern nationalism.  This later point was something Marx dismissed out of hand, writing that, “[The South] is not a country at all, but a battle slogan.”  Blackburn disagrees—In a follow up for this review he elaborated, “Marx was generally hostile to what he saw as the one-sidedness of even democratic nationalism and it is odd to read him writing of the 'moral unity' [talking of the U.S.] of what was still a capitalist (and slaveholding) society.  He may have been more influenced by nationalism than he thought.”  As he writes in the book, “Both nationalisms [North and South] had a markedly expansive character, but the Union's was purely continental at this stage whereas the Confederacy's looked toward South America (notably to Cuba) as well as to the west.  The clash was thus one of rival empires as well as competing nationalisms.”

Such provocative questions are not a matter of “what-if,” but go to the actual nature of historic development.  In that sense this book—with Marx’s newspaper articles, Lincoln’s key speeches, statements of the International Workingmen Association, letters between Marx, Fredrick Engels, Joseph Wedeymeyer and others—is a valuable contribution in untangling the past that has so forcefully stamped the present.


Robin Blackburn teaches at the New School in New York and the University of Essex in the UK. He is the author of many books, including The Making of New World Slavery, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, Age Shock, Banking on Death. Simultaneous with the release of Unfinished Revolution he released, “The American Crucible: Emancipation and Human Rights, which examines slavery in the Americas from 1492 to 1888, when Brazilian emancipation ended slavery in the New World.

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