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New Left Review 61, January-February 2010

robin blackburn


Marx and America’s Unfinished Revolution

Towards the close of the American Civil War Friedrich Engels wrote to Joseph Weydemeyer with the following prophecy: ‘Once slavery, the greatest shackle on the political and social development of the United States, has been broken, the country is bound to receive an impetus from which it will acquire quite a different position in world history within the shortest possible time, and a use will then soon be found for the army and navy with which the war is providing it.’ [1] Friedrich Engels to Joseph Weydemeyer, 24 November 1864. Northern capitalism did indeed receive great impetus from the War, after which it embarked on headlong continental expansion. For three decades this proved to be such an absorbing task that little was done to project us power outside its own borders. William Seward, Secretary of State under Lincoln and then Johnson, wanted Caribbean acquisitions but the Radical Republicans were not interested. Troops were sent to repress the resistance of the Sioux and Apache, Alaska bought, and steps taken to modernize the navy; but for a generation the terrible losses of the Civil War bequeathed a great distrust of military adventures. The main issues in contention were, instead, three intimately interlinked processes that were of supreme interest to Marx and Engels: the advance of capitalism in North America, the unfolding of an epic class struggle and the progress made towards building a genuine workers’ party. The outcome of this mighty contest was to determine the possibility, timing and character of any us bid for empire.

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Robin Blackburn, ‘State of the Union’, NLR 61: £3

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