The Abolitionist Legacy of the Civil War Belongs to the Left


How to remember the Civil War? For many liberals today, the story is one of the North winning the war but losing the peace, acquiescing in a sectional reconciliation that left white supremacy intact. Racism won out, pure and simple.

But that’s only part of the story. The precipitous decline of union membership, labor militancy in the workplace, and Marxist scholars have conspired to obscure what historian Matthew Stanley highlights in his recent book: that Civil War, for black and whites, was an enduring touchstone for grassroots struggles from Reconstruction to the New Deal, shaping class consciousness in the process.

Great Labor Army: Workers, Veterans and the Meaning of Civil War shows how industrial workers, farmers and radicals deployed an “anti-slavery vernacular” in their struggles against Golden Age and Progressive Era capitalism. They presented themselves as the natural torchbearers of the pre-war ideal of free labor, which they claimed aimed not only at slavery to goods, but at wage labor – heralding what Karl Marx envisioned as a “new era of labor emancipation”.

Stanley details the collective construction of a “Red Civil War,” built by radical workers in countless union halls, workshops, and third-party soapboxes. In this crimson-hued vision, John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln figured as paragons of abolitionism, the vanguard of WEB Du Bois’s “abolition-democracy.” And although the Union army crushed the landed aristocracy of Slave Power, capitalist expansion spawned new monetary interests and created new forms of corporate domination. This despotism called for a new generation of emancipators.

The Knights of Labor — a labor federation founded in 1869 that peaked at 800,000 members in the mid-1880s — was a prominent organization that used Civil War language to fight “wage slavery.” “War gave one type of master to another,” explained a Knight at a meeting of the Blue and Gray Association in 1886, “and the wealth once held by the masters of the South was transferred to the monopolies of the North and swelled to power, and now enslaves more than the war has liberated. The Knights advocated a class-based interracial alliance to wage this next stage of the emancipation war. They proved to be remarkably adept to organize black Southerners – and to convince their white counterparts of the need for it.

In the 1880s and 1890s, land reform parties such as the Greenbackers and Populists mobilized “producers” across sectoral and racial divides. Veterans were at the heart of these campaigns. But the “blue-gray” collaborations within the populist party evoked something quite different from the white nationalist meetings of the time which often bore the same bichromatic name; instead devoted to “unwon causes,” as Stanley argues, “veteran radical laborers and their comrades used the words and wounds of war to envision a leftist alternative” of the producing class liberated from the yoke of bondage economic.

Leader of the American Socialist Party Eugene V. Debs. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

Rightly so, while populists spoke in a neo-abolitionist dialect, their opponents were recycling old insults once hurled at their pre-war ancestors. Denounced as Jacobins, socialists and communists, many populists – at least for a time – reveled in bridging “wartime divides along class lines” as their antagonists waved bloodied shirts or wept over the cause lost. Populists harnessed the memory of the Civil War for a very different kind of commemoration, a “reconciliation based on mutual opposition to elites, to the conditions of industrial capitalism, or to the economic system as a whole”.

As the Populist movement died out in the mid-1890s, the anti-slavery vocabulary continued in other class-based projects. The American Socialist Party, founded in 1901, relied heavily on the anti-slavery vernacular. Socialists frequently spoke of the class struggle as an “irrepressible conflict” and an “imminent crisis.” Socialist leader Eugene V. Debs cultivated an image of himself as the Second Great Emancipator, a Midwestern radical vowing to “organize the slaves of capital to vote for their own emancipation.” He asked, “Who will be the John Brown of Wage-Slavery?” and answered elsewhere: “The Socialist Party”.

But as Stanley shows, the radical left’s appropriation of Civil War iconography has not gone unchallenged. The federal government’s repression of labor radicalism and left-wing politics during and after World War I elevated a “reformist” stream of Civil War memory above the revolutionary stream. The reformist narrative valued social order, legalism, and loyalty to the state—snatching Lincoln’s image from the reds and draping it in patriotic cloth.

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) played a leading role in reorienting Lincoln. Stanley writes that conservative AFL chairman Samuel Gompers “envisioned the Civil War not as an inclusive stage of the impending revolution of the proletariat, but as a nostalgic event of national trial, rejuvenation and harmony”. For Gompers, this meant not only a balance between labor and capital but, just as importantly, between white workers – with the emphasis on white – from all parts of the country. The craft unionism he espoused massively excluded black workers.

Gone is the Lincoln that challenged property rights on a massive scale with wartime confiscations without compensation; the AFL’s Lincoln was synonymous with conciliation, compromise and healing. The anti-slavery vernacular suffered a similar de-radicalization. “Emancipation” now signaled a break with partisanship and labor militancy, a gradual process of reform within capitalism guided by a conservative labor leadership. Perhaps most perversely, Lincoln was presented as the great emancipator of white workers, with anti-slavery rhetoric revamped to accommodate workplace segregation.

In short, the AFL’s politics of loyalty—economic, patriotic, and racial—equated organized labor with the American body politic in conservative terms.

A counter-memory of the radical Civil War has survived.

A photograph of abolitionist Frederick Douglass when he was about twenty-nine. (National Portrait Gallery / Wikimedia Commons)

In the 1930s, Civil War Red flourished in the Communist Party organization, especially with black Southerners, who were seen as understandably hostile to the white ruling class. “When black communists Hosea Hudson and Angelo Herndon likened their organizing efforts to a restored abolitionism that could ‘finish the job of negro liberation,’ white comrades agreed,” wrote Stanley. When James S. Allen, Marxist Reconstruction historian and editor of the Communist Party newspaper The southern laborer, wrote a defense of the Scottsboro Boys, he “represented to many southern whites a reconstituted carpetbagger threat.” Allen himself “saw the Communist Party as a means by which ‘to complete the unfinished tasks of revolutionary reconstruction'”.

The cold war finally decimated the working-class left and with it the revolutionary anti-capitalist and anti-racist example of the civil war. But Stanley’s in-depth and illuminating study reveals how enduring the cultural counterinsurgency of Civil War memory has been. As thousands of labor activists and organizers had long insisted, and as too many Americans have long since forgotten, the struggle of the 1860s was never just a national or racial struggle, but a for liberation from all forms of despotism. It was a blow to white supremacy that heralded broader emancipation – a more devastating blow to property rule.

For socialists today, the history of the American Civil War can again serve as an inspiration for shaping anti-capitalist, anti-racist politics and a radical vernacular for solidarity and revolutionary transformation. The “Red Civil War” is ours.


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