Marx on Ireland and the American Civil War: review of ‘Marx at the Margins’ Part III

Jenny and Karl Marx

Jenny and Karl Marx

By Belfast Plebian

After the publication of Capital volume I in 1867 Marx’s perspective on Ireland underwent a transformation. During these years the Fenian movement was gaining support in Ireland, in the United States and in England with the more political minded Irish migrant workers. Anderson explains that ‘From its beginning, the International seems to have had some links to the Fenians, although, given the fact that the latter were part of a movement that was illegal in the British Empire, these were not always made public.’

In 1867 the Irish struggle really came to a boil and in March troops crushed a Fenian led uprising by poorly armed Irish peasants. On September 11 in Manchester, the police caught and charged two leading Fenians, Thomas Kelly and Timothy Deasy. Then, on Sept 18, some Fenians ambushed the prison van escorting the arrested men and an English police sergeant died of his wounds.

These events transpired during the same week that Marx was visiting Engels in Manchester to confer about publicising Capital volume I. Kelly and Deasy managed to escape to America but the police swooped down on the Irish community of Manchester arresting dozens and putting five men on trial for murder. Three of them were hanged on November 23 as a drunken mob celebrated outside. Queen Victoria articulated the ruling class opinion of the time ‘These Irish are really shocking, abominable people-not like any other civilised nation.’

In the days before the executions the International launched a solidarity campaign on behalf of the condemned prisoners. Marx wrote a letter to Engels saying ‘I have sought by every means at my disposal to incite the English workers to demonstrate in favour of Fenianism.’ Marx prepared a speech on Ireland for the November 26 meeting of the General Council but did not speak it aloud and an English worker presented it on his behalf.

The speech begins ‘Since our last meeting the object of our discussion, Fenianism, has entered a new phase. It has been baptised in blood by the English Government. The Political Executions at Manchester remind us of the fate of John Brown at Harpers Ferry. They open a new period in the struggle between Ireland and England.’ There began a hectic period of solidarity work on behalf of the Fenian prisoners, with the daughters of Marx heavily involved.

Marx’s daughter Jenny then twenty five years of age sought to break the silence about the plight of Fenian prisoners in the European press.  In February through April 1870 she published an eight-part series of articles on Ireland in ‘La Marseillaise’, a left of centre Paris newspaper. The articles of concern for, and plight of, the prisoners was then picked up and distributed by popular newspapers across Europe and the United States. The international embarrassment caused by the articles sparked a debate in the British Parliament, resulting in a formal inquiry. Finally in December 1870 Gladstone released the prisoners on condition that they leave the country.  In their letters Marx and Engels expressed a considerable pride in Jenny’s role in the affair and Engels and Elizabeth Burns sent her a twig of shamrock on Saint Patrick’s Day.

Marx’s own engagement with Ireland came to a rise in the International when a battle with the followers of Bakunin’s group became public in January 1870, after publication of the General Council’s Confidential Communication, written by Marx in French and responding to the accusation of authoritarian leadership. What usually goes unmentioned in this disputation with the anarchists is the fact that the attack on Karl Marx was two-pronged, the second targeting Marx’s support for revolution in Ireland.  A pro- Bakunin newspaper published a strong attack on the General Council Resolution on Ireland in December 11 1886, characterising it as a diversion from true revolutionary politics. Marx drafted a response to criticism and about a quarter of his 12 page document dealt with Ireland.

Marx states that ‘Ireland is the bulwark of English landlordism. If it fell in Ireland it would fall in England too. In Ireland this is a hundred times easier because the economic struggle is concentrated exclusively on landed property, because this struggle is at the same time national and because the people are more revolutionary and angry than in England…In the second place, the English bourgeoisie has divided the proletariat into two hostile camps…The common English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers wages and the standard of life. He feels national and religious antipathies for him. He views him similarly to how the poor whites of the Southern states of America viewed black slaves…Thus the position of the International Association with regard to the Irish question is very clear. Its first concern is to advance the social revolution in England. To this end the great blow must be struck in Ireland.’    

This public statement had been prepared after a great deal of study of Irish history undertaken during October and November of 1869 and concentrating on the periods of the American and French revolutions up to the abolition of the Act of Union of 1801. Marx’s research notes comprise some 70 printed pages, following his usual method of taking excerpts from books he had been reading and then lacing them with his own comments.

Marx tracked the career and writings of John Curran, a radical Irish parliamentarian who became the defence attorney of the United Irishmen; he writes to Engels: ‘you must get hold of Currans’s speeches…I meant to give it to you when you were in London.  For the period of 1779-1800 it is of decisive importance, not only because of Curran’s speeches in court( I regard Curran as the sole great people’s advocate of the 18th century and the noblest personality, while Grattan was a parliamentary rogue) but because you find all the sources about the United Irishmen.  This period is of greatest interest, scientifically and dramatically. First the dirty infamies of the English in 1588-89 repeated perhaps even intensified in 1788-89. Second, class movement is easily shown in the Irish movement itself. Third the infamous policy of Pitt. Fourth which very much irks the English gentlemen, the proof that Ireland came to grief because in fact, from a revolutionary standpoint, the Irish were far too advanced for the English King and church mob, while English reaction in England as in Cromwell’s time has its roots in the subjugation of Ireland..’

Two letters, one to Engels and the other to  Kugelmann dated November 29, 1869 and December 10 spelled out his mature position on Ireland, which became the basis of a refutation of his critics in the International a year later: ‘For a long time I believed it would be possible to overthrow the Irish regime by English working class ascendancy. I always took this viewpoint in the New York Tribune. Deeper study has now convinced me of the opposite.  The English working class will never accomplish anything before it has got rid of Ireland.  The lever must be applied in Ireland.  This is why the Irish question is so important for the social movement in general.’

The life of the International coincided with the revolutionary war against slavery in America. It is a travesty of historical understanding that the great conflict between capitalist-slavery and free labour in America has featured so little in the making of ‘historic Marxism’, for the historical record shows that Marx regarded it as the most important political drama in his own time.

In several key places in Capital, Marx addressed the Civil War, the relationship between capital, labour and race; the first in the very preface where he refers implicitly to the impact the Civil War made on the very founding of the First International: ‘Just as the in the eighteenth century the American War of Independence sounded the tocsin for the European middle class, so in the nineteenth century the American Civil War did the same for the European working class.’

Marx takes up the story in a chapter called ‘The Working Day’. In comparing the finished book to the draft version, Dunayevskaya had argued that the Civil War and its impact on European labour was so great that the first edition was drafted to fit around it, rearranging his composition to remove the theoretical criticism of the economists and relegating that material to a fourth volume. She held that Marx’s activity in the International alongside the workers who had championed the Union cause was crucial to his decision to add the chapter on the working day: ‘He is breaking with the whole concept of theory as something intellectual, a dispute between theoreticians. Instead of keeping up a running argument with theorists, he goes directly into the labour process and thence to the Working Day…It wasn’t he; however who decided that the Civil War in the United States was A HOLY WAR OF LABOUR. It was the working class of England, the very ones who suffered the most, who decided that.’ (1958)

The above reference to the working class of England is to the fact that they sacrificed jobs and income and fought their own national ruling class to side with the Union Cause.  The context was explained by Marx ‘Direct slavery is as much the pivot upon which our present day industrialism turns as are machinery, credit.  Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry.  It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry…Slavery is therefore an economic category of paramount importance.’

Marx wrote many articles charting the unfolding of events in America and intervening in the common struggle in England, it might well be argued that his theoretical proposition that the working class is the only universal emancipating class was vindicated by this single struggle.  Anderson quotes the historian Padover:  ‘The beginning of the conflict found British opinion divided. On the pro-Confederacy side were the aristocracy, which sympathised with the southern plantation owners, and commercial interests which hoped for cheaper raw materials , particularly cotton, from an independent South. On the pro-Northern side were British liberal who saw in the civil war a struggle to preserve democracy and the working class which felt that the fate of free labour was at stake. Much of the London press spearheaded by the influential Times, which Marx read assiduously was pro-South. The British government led by Lord Palmerston as Prime Minister and Lord John Russell as Foreign Minister, leaned toward the Confederacy.’ Marx’s first Tribune article The American Question in England published on October 11 1861 dealt with this political battle on the home front.

I will not try to cover the entire story, there is way too much of it to summarise. In fact Anderson’s account of it is a vital part of his study. When the Civil War started, Lancashire was the workshop of the world; the cotton industry employed at least 440,000 workers in 2,400 factories. The main source of raw material came by way of the Confederate states, over a billion tons a year.  Disaster struck when the Union side imposed a naval blockade on the South, mills in Lancashire were closed or put on reduced working hours, half of the cotton workers went without wages, became unemployed and were evicted from their factory build homes.

The shipping and factory owners openly sided with the Confederacy; they called for the British navy to be used to break the Union blockade. The cotton workers response was to organise a campaign of public meetings to maintain the blockade and stand firm with the Union. The most remarkable testimony of the social setting has come down to us in the words of one Henry Hotze a Southern agitator for the Confederacy in England: ‘The Lancashire operatives are the only class which as a class continues actively inimical to us. With them the unreasoning aversion to our institutions is as firmly rooted as in any part of New England.’  In the year of 1863 English workers held at least 50 pro-union public meetings.

The Karl Marx archive gives us the drama of the story on both sides of the Atlantic, the differences of opinion over strategy, plus the role of the International.  Marx said that it was ‘the English working class that saved the West of Europe from plunging headlong into an infamous crusade for the perpetuation and propagation of slavery on the other side of the Atlantic.’

Anderson offers us a short political history of the assessment made by various threads of ‘historic Marxism’ and how Marx has been often criticised for not being critical enough of the Union cause and of Lincoln’s role in particular. Finally he shows how Marx analysed its overall impact and quotes a passage from the section of Capital on the working day:  ‘In the United States of America, every independent workers’ movement was paralysed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labour in a white skin cannot emancipate itself where it is branded in a black skin. However a new life immediately arose from the death of slavery. The first fruit of the American Civil War was the eight hours agitation, which ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California with the seven-league boots of a locomotive. The General Congress of Labour held at Baltimore in August 1866 declared “ THE FIRST AND GREAT NECESSITY OF THE PRESENT, TO FREE THE LABOUR OF THIS COUNTRY FROM CAPITALIST SLAVERY, IS THE PASSING OF A LAW BY WHICH EIGHT HOURS SHALL BE THE NORMAL WORKING DAY IN ALL THE STATES OF THE AMERICAN UNION. WE ARE RESOLVED TO PUT FORTH ALL OUR STRENGTH UNTIL THIS GLORIOUS RESULT IS ATTAINEDTH.”

to be contined

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