A Quandary for Con Inc.: Karl Marx, the Civil-War Unionist

If there is one thing everybody in the conservative establishment seems to agree upon, it is that Karl Marx was wrong about everything and lies at the root of all our problems, from the Democratic Party’s socialist agenda to Vladimir Putin’s neo-Soviet imperialism. Marx was anti-family, we are told, as well as a bad economist, a terrorist, a totalitarian, a racist, and so on. His critique of capitalism was really bad, too, and embodies everything the conservative establishment rejects. 

Such extravagant opprobrium naturally invites a question that nobody in the establishment right is likely to appreciate hearing, much less answer: Do you agree with Karl Marx about the American Civil War? 

Even as we agree that Marx was a deeply flawed figure whose theories proved disastrous, we may note that the extensive anti-Marx literature put out by the conservative press consistently glosses over Marx’s career as a journalist for the New York Daily Tribune. We could pore over article after article from establishment-right outlets without ever learning that this most decidedly Northern of American publications hired Marx in 1852 to be its British correspondent. Or, for that matter, that the period of his employment coincided with the war between the states. 

Marx was a Union man, period. During the conflict, he passionately supported the North’s cause, authored articles attacking the Confederacy, and also critiqued the South’s numerous English sympathizers, who ranged from Charles Dickens to Lord Acton. For Marx, abolitionism and Unionism represented the cutting edge of revolution and political centralization, while notions of limited constitutional government, loyalty to one’s home state, and traditional agrarian civilization were all reactionary motivations unworthy of refutation. Like neoconservatives today, Marx would mock complaints about tariffs as self-evidently invalid, coming as they did from citizens living in a slave economy. 

Southern scholar Boyd Cathey has argued that the Tribune’s coverage propelled Lincoln to the 1860 Republican presidential nomination. Following Lincoln’s 1864 re-election, Marx went so far as to pen a congratulatory note on behalf of the International Workingmen’s Association, to

congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery. From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

In short, for Marx the key issue of interest in the war was slavery, and as they stood upon the right side of history, the Union forces were justified in employing any means necessary, Constitution or no. Such unambiguous, uncompromising judgments characterize the entire letter.

Lincoln’s ambassador in London was Charles Francis Adams, who declared that Marx’s effusive praises of the president were accepted “with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence.” Here it may be worth adding that Charles Dana—the Tribune editor who had hired Marx—was himself an avowed socialist, at one point sitting on the board of a utopian Fourierite commune. Dana left the Tribune in 1862 to become a special commissioner in the Lincoln administration’s War Department, as well as one of the foremost advocates on behalf of a rising U.S. Army officer named Ulysses S. Grant. 

The point here is not to damn Lincoln’s administration by association nor to deny that one can be both pro-Union and anti-communist. Unlike Marxists (and 21st-century GOP talking heads), the present writer accepts that history is a multifaceted, complicated, and often perplexing story, not a Marvel movie. What is to be insisted upon is that the conservative establishment stop hiding from episodes that glaringly jar with its simplistic narrative of “good” freedom-lovers and “bad” freedom-haters. If we relied upon, say, Fox News or National Review or The 1776 Report, we would never guess in a million years that Marx had supported Lincoln and condemned the South. Evidently establishment conservatives find such information too awkward to talk about.

But no good can come of such willful ignorance. How can anyone take seriously a movement which makes a bogeyman myth out of Marx at one moment, and in the next, echoes his judgments about what is arguably the most important episode in American history?

Image: Karl Marx (unknown author / via Wikimedia Commons, Public domain)

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