Marx, Engels, and the American Civil War – I

Given the reputation of America today as a bulwark of reaction and imperialism, it may surprise many to know that Marx and Engels were great supporters of the United States in their own day. For them, the United States was not a great power opposed to the interests of the various peoples worldwide as today, but it represented capitalism in its most pure and its most historically progressive form. America did not have any feudal history or any aristocratic remnants, and as such was the clearest and most energetic example of capitalism’s powers. Moreover, the colonization of the Americas in the first place was the genesis of the capitalist mode of production, by launching Europe beyond its feudal confines. As Engels put it in a lecture for the London German Workers’ Educational Society as early as 1847 (that is, before they became ‘Marxists’ proper):

Citizens! When Christopher Columbus discovered America 350 years ago, he certainly did not think that not only would the then existing society in Europe together with its institutions be done away with through his discovery, but that the foundation would be laid for the complete liberation of all nations; and yet, it becomes more and more clear that this is indeed the case. Through the discovery of America a new route by sea to the East Indies was found, whereby the European business traffic of the time was completely transformed; the consequence was that Italian and German commerce were totally ruined and other countries came to the fore; commerce came into the hands of the western countries, and England thus came to the fore of the movement. Before the discovery of America the countries even in Europe were still very much separated from one another and trade was on the whole slight. Only after the new route to the East Indies had been found and an extensive field had been opened in America for exploitation by the Europeans engaged in commerce, did. England begin more and more to concentrate trade and to take possession of it, whereby the other European countries were more and more compelled to join together. From all this, big commerce originated, and the so-called world market was opened. The enormous treasures which the Europeans brought from America, and the gains which trade in general yielded, had as a consequence the ruin of the old aristocracy, and so the bourgeoisie came into being. The discovery of America was connected with the advent of machinery, and with that the struggle became necessary which we are conducting today, the struggle of the propertyless against the property owners. (…) Thus, through the discovery of America all society has been divided into two classes, and without the rise of the world market this would not have happened. The workers of the whole world have everywhere the same interests; everywhere the different classes disappear and the different interests coincide. When, therefore, a revolution breaks out in one country it must necessarily affect the other countries, and only now can real liberation take place.

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