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.’footnote1 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.

In the post-Civil War era the recently reunited United States was the most dynamic and soon largest capitalist state in the world. No country illustrated Marx’s ideas with greater precision. Great railroads spanned the continent, vast factories sprouted up producing steel, agricultural machinery, sewing machines. The emancipation of nearly four million slaves, the demobilization of a million and a half soldiers, and the arrival of a stream of new immigrants swelled the size of the most diverse labouring class in the world. Marx predicted that capitalist conditions would generate class conflict as workers were brought into contact with one another and discovered their common condition. While they might at first follow their employers, workers’ attempts to acquire security and improved pay or conditions would repeatedly bring labour into conflict with them. This would teach the workers the need to organize and seek political representation. And since capitalism would create wealth at one pole and misery at another, and since it would be gripped by recurrent crises, the workers would be drawn to support increasingly radical measures.

‘After the Civil War phase the United States are only now really entering the revolutionary phase’, Marx wrote to Engels in April 1866.footnote2 The two men clearly expected more from the victory of the Union than the ending of slavery, momentous as that was. They also expected the producers to assert new political and social rights. If the freedmen moved simply from chattel slavery to wage slavery, if they were denied the right to vote, or organize, or receive education, then the term ‘emancipation’ would be a mockery. As it turned out, the era of Reconstruction did indeed bring a radical surge in both South and North, with the Republican Party seeking to keep abreast of events by adopting the ideas of radical abolitionists, black as well as white, and with pressure being exerted by a shifting coalition of labour unions, social reformers, African-American conventions, feminists and, last but not least, the multiplying American sections of the International Workingmen’s Association.

The post-Civil War radicalization in North America in some ways may be compared with the British experience of slave emancipation and political reform in the 1830s. In both countries abolitionism and the ‘free labour’ doctrine seemed at one moment to consecrate wage labour and its central role within capitalism, only to give rise to popular movements—Chartism in Britain, a wave of class struggles and popular radicalism in the us—which challenged the given form of the bourgeois order. While the banner of free labour expressed bourgeois hegemony at one moment, it furnished a means of mobilizing against it at another. In one register the ideal of free labour encouraged the aspiration of workers to become independent small producers, with their own workshop or farm. Hence the Republican slogan ‘free soil, free labour, free men’ and its embodiment in the Homestead Act of 1862.footnote3 But in the United States of the 1860s and 1870s, as in the Britain of the 1840s, there were increasing numbers of wage workers who did not want to become farmers and who looked to a collective improvement in the rights of working people.footnote4 Of course some workers did take up the offer of land, but many realized that this could prove a trap. Already by the late 1860s the farmers’ Grange movement was attacking exorbitant railroad freight rates and cut-throat competition from large producers.

The Gilded Age, with its robber-baron capitalists and titanic labour conflicts, served as a laboratory test for Marx’s ideas, and it vindicated many of them. But, despite several attempts, no broad-based working-class party emerged in the United States, and the country proved a laggard in developing a welfare state. In these respects much greater progress was made in Europe, especially in Marx’s native Germany, where the rise of a Social Democratic Party inspired by Marx’s ideas persuaded the German Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, to begin construction of a social security system. In what follows, I will look at the tremendous opportunities and challenges which Reconstruction, dubbed by Eric Foner ‘America’s unfinished revolution’, bequeathed to Marx and the supporters of the International in the United States.footnote5

Marx had observed that labour in the white skin would not be truly free so long as labour in the black skin was in chains. This should be understood as a complex sociological proposition as much as a simple moral statement. The Thirteenth Amendment (1865) abolishing slavery in the United States ended a formal legal status that was already crumbling because of massive slave desertions, the Emancipation Proclamation and deep, disruptive inroads by the Union armies. The greater part of the Confederate forces melted away, and the planter class reeled from its spectacular defeat. But paradoxically local white power emerged in some ways stronger in the post-bellum era than before. Alarmed at the sight of free black people, former Confederate officers and men formed militia and patrols designed to defend white families from luridly imagined threats, to deny land or hunting to the freedmen and to ensure that they were still available for work. The new President in Washington shared and condoned this Southern white reaction, issuing thousands of pardons to Confederate officials. On 15 July 1865 Engels wrote to Marx attacking President Johnson: ‘His hatred of Negroes comes out more and more violently . . . If things go on like this, in six months all the old villains of secession will be sitting in Congress at Washington. Without coloured suffrage nothing whatever can be done there.’footnote6

The Republican Radicals in Congress narrowly failed to impeach Lincoln’s successor but imposed much of their own vision of Reconstruction—including votes for the freedmen—on the former slave states, thanks to the presence of Union troops and to the emergence of Union Leagues drawing support from the freedmen and from Southern whites who resented the power of the planters. Nevertheless armed white vigilantes still lurked in the shadows and mounted attacks after dark.footnote7