Marxism and the U.S. Civil War

February 11, 2011

From the Writings of Raya Dunayevskaya

Editor’s note: 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the start of the U.S. Civil War. The piece excerpted here, originally titled “Marxism and Freedom: From the Industrial Revolution to Automation–An Outline of a Book in Preparation,” shows the profound impact of the war on Marx’s thought. It can be found in the Supplement to the Raya Dunayevskaya Collection, #11786.


The todayness of Marx’s thinking is seen in this: Not only are the problems he posed one hundred years ago battled out today as concrete problems in the factory in this stage of automation, but also as fundamental questions in society on a world scale. “Can human power bring freedom to man out of totalitarianism and under threat of H-bomb rule?” is asked by everyone from the man on the street to the philosopher in his ivory tower.

What is little known of the development of Marx’s thinking is the impact the Civil War in the United States had on the structure of his greatest theoretical work, Capital. It was not a mere exchange of letters between President Lincoln and Marx as the general secretary of the First International.[1] What Marx stated in the introduction to Capital is well-known: that just as the American Revolution sounded the tocsin for the French Revolution, so the Civil War sounded the tocsin for the Paris Commune. What is not known is that under the impact of the Civil War Marx scrapped entirely his first draft of Capital and re-wrote it entirely. Not only did he thus develop the new structure for his work–which we now have–but his correspondence shows that he was collecting data from America which would do for Volumes II and III what the English and American struggles for the shortening of the working day did for Volume I.

Marx’s fundamental critique of political economy is the basis for his answer to the various tendencies in political economy. Unlike the representatives of these other tendencies, he saw that capitalist crises arose, not accidentally and not because of a deficiency of effective demand, but out of the very vitals of the economic system–the contradiction between the productive forces and the production relations. He held that the mode of labor under capitalism was the underlying cause of crises because:

1) It was not merely the product the laborer produced that was alienated from him. “In the alienation of the object of labor is only crystallized the alienation, the renunciation in the activity of labor itself.”

2) The domination of the capitalist over the worker was in reality “the mastery of dead over living labor.”

3) Hence, the ultimate development of capital accumulation in any given society “in the hands of one single capitalist or…one single corporation,” or the statification of production, would not abolish the capitalist antagonism but only drive it to the extreme.

However, the alienation of the laborer creates a striving for universality on his part. Under capitalist production man is degraded by the accumulation of the productive forces. At the same time, faced “with the intellectual potencies of the material process of production as the property of another and as a ruling power,” man feels the need of appropriating the mass of accumulated labor for his own development. Marx saw that such an achievement of universality on the part of the laborer, the chief productive force in society, would become an economic necessity. The only solution to capitalist crises lay in the abolition of the alien mode of labor.

Until the development of the totalitarian State, this philosophical foundation of Marx was not fully understood even by Marxists. It is only today that it is possible fully to comprehend that Marx’s analysis of alienated labor was not a nineteenth-century humanitarian adjunct to his scientific theory. Far from being a vulgar materialist, Marx based his perspectives of the inevitable collapse of capitalism and its transformation into socialism on a realization that labor would seek universality and completeness in its actual material life as a producer.

Marx foresaw the present trend toward state capitalism, not because he was a prophet, but because of his dialectical method of tracing through all trends of economic development to their end. It is impossible to understand Marx’s major theoretical work if one begins by thinking that the particular method, Hegelian dialectics, is an absurdity. The absurdity would be if the method were the proof. The proof can only be in practice, in the development of society itself.


Dialectics and the New Humanism

Marxism is wrongly considered to be a “new political economy.” In truth, it is a critique of the very foundations of political economy, which Marx considered to be the bourgeois mode of thought corresponding to the bourgeois mode of production.

Marx was concerned with the freedom of humanity and the inevitable waste of human life, which is “the absolute general law” of the constant growth of machinery and the constant degradation of the laborer.

Marx saw capitalism as an historical social order, the negation of a previous social order, feudal society. The modern society consists of two opposites, capital and labor. Marx set himself the task of laying bare the law of motion of this modern society. To discern this law, he applied dialectics, which he considered to be “the science of the general laws of motion both of the external world and of human thought,” to the material development of capitalist society. “In the method of treatment,” he wrote Friedrich Engels [Jan. 16, 1858], “the fact that by mere accident I have glanced through Hegel’s Logic has been of great service to me….” And again: “Hegel’s dialectic is the basic form of all dialectic, but only after it has been stripped of its mystical form and it is precisely this which distinguishes my method.” [Marx to Kugelman, Mar. 6, 1868.]

He accused the Young Hegelians of dehumanizing the Idea as if ideas were not the thoughts of human beings. Human freedom is the principle towards which he worked. His whole philosophy, which he called dialectical materialism,[2] is a new humanism.

Marx took the bare laws of the dialectic: 1) the transformation of quantity into quality; 2) the interpenetration of opposites; and 3) the negation of the negation. With the help of these laws he tried to penetrate the mechanism of the capitalist mode of production and show the “new passions and forces” for a new social order.

Marx begins with the discovery of classical political economy that labor, or the activity of man, is the source of all value. He states, however, that it is insufficient to reduce wealth to labor in general. You must see the contradictory form in which labor appears in capitalist society: 1) abstract labor which creates value, and 2) concrete labor which creates use-values. Marx considers this his original contribution and the pivot upon which all political economy turns. The use-value and value of a commodity contain, in germ, all the contradictions of capitalist society precisely because this dual nature of commodities arises from the dual character of labor.

The growth of capital is seen to be not merely a quantitative but a qualitative relationship. Along with the concentration and centralization of capital, there is the socialization of labor. Along with the degradation of the worker to “an appendage of a machine,” there is the discipline and growing revolt prepared by the very mechanism of production. The contradictions are seen to rend the system apart and make it impossible for it to continue. The negation of the negation is seen to contain a new affirmation: the socialization of labor and the development, instead of alienation, of the activity of man as the basis of the new society. Marxism thus incorporates into the science of economics the subjective element, the laborer, the gravedigger of bourgeois society.

Marx’s application of the laws of the dialectic to economic development revolutionized the whole study of economics. This had dealt with economic categories, such as wages, profits, money, as if they were things, instead of expressions of production relations. For Marx, all economic categories are social categories. The relations between persons in a commodity-producing society, he said, are of course attached to things and appear as things. But this appearance belies, instead of manifests, the underlying essence: the relationship between capital and 1abor. This relationship dominates the whole of capitalist society and hence the whole of Capital, including Theories of Surplus Value:

In Volume I, it appears as the relationship between constant and variable capital (c/v).

In Volume II, it appears as the relationship between the two main departments of social production: that of means of production and means of consumption (mp/mc).

In Volume III, it appears as the relationship between surplus value and total capital (s/c+v).

In Theories of Surplus Value, it is analyzed in the various theories as they appeared historically and reflected partial or distorted aspects of reality. The reality that Marx described, beginning with the struggle for the shortening of the working day, brought with it a new philosophy: “In place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man,’ comes the modest Magna Carta of a legally limited working day which shall make clear ‘when the time which the worker sells is ended and when his own begins.’ Quantum mutatus ab illo!” [Capital, ch. 10.]

From then on Marx’s concept of freedom was always solidly based on “the fundamental prerequisite: The shortening of the working day.”


The Impact of the American Civil War and the Paris Commune on Marx’s Greatest Work

Marx had begun the study of political economy at the time of his break with the bourgeois world and with the Young Hegelians (1843). At the end of 16 years, he published his Critique of Political Economy. It was no sooner out than he decided not to continue with that structure. The quietude that had descended upon the working-class movement after the defeat of the 1848 revolutions put a limitation to Marx’s own creativity. He returned to his theoretical studies, including the rereading of Hegel’s Science of Logic, of which he wrote:

“I have thrown over the whole doctrine of profit as it has existed up to now. In the method of treatment the fact that by mere accident I have again glanced through Hegel’s Logic has been of great service to me.”

Nevertheless, the logic of a theoretical work and the logic of the actual class struggle were pulling at him in different directions. Once the revolutionary movement came to life again, he broke with the concept of theory as a matter of debate between theoreticians. Where his Critique of Political Economy, in 1859, was a mere application of dialectics to political economy, his Capital, in 1867, created a new dialectic out of the struggles of living people.

Marx wrote enthusiastically to his friend and collaborator, Engels, that a new era of European as well as American history had opened with John Brown’s revolt. As he was to put it in the preface to his first edition of Capital,

“As in the 18th century, the American war of independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle-class, so in the 19th century, the American civil war sounded it for the European working-class.”

Under the impact of the Civil War in the United States, the mass of economic material, on which Marx had worked for nearly a quarter of a century, finally assumed shape in the form in which we know it. There has been no appreciation of that fact in America just as the European scholars have failed to see the direct impact of the Paris Commune on the French edition of Capital (1873). The French edition was the first to contain the famous passage about the concentration of capital in any given society in the hands of “a single capitalist corporation,” or “a single capitalist,” which was later to be developed into the theory of state capitalism.

It was only in 1943, when the Russian Communists proposed a revision in the Marxian theory of value and a break with the dialectical structure of Capital, that it first became clear that Marx’s most abstract concepts had come to life and that the Russian theoreticians could no longer associate with Marx and hold to their revisions. One or the other had to go.



1. The letter to Lincoln from the Central Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, Nov. 29, 1864, was written by Marx and signed, Corresponding Secretary for Germany.–Ed.

2. In Philosophy and Revolution Dunayevskaya notes that it was Plekhanov, not Marx, who invented the term “dialectical materialism.” See p. 302, n. 106.–Ed.

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