Friday, June 21, 2013

Marx's letter to Lincoln: anti-bondage and the racism of emigrant settlers



That Marx's letter below, on behalf of the General Council of the International Workingmen's Association, to President Lincoln on his reelection in 1864 is right, in a certain decisive respect, and epochal - that it grasps the world-significance of the American Civil War, that slavery and racism are not on for the flourishing of workers and other human beings everywhere and why they must be fought to the death - is very powerful.

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But there is simultaneously a deep moral and political error in the letter.

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Marx offers two conflicting lines of thought. The first is the fiercely anti-racist position that the Slave Power must be swept away in the red sea of Civil War.

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The second begins from a simple contrast of the rule of the Slave Power in the West as against the settling of free emigrants. But this settling also involved ethnic cleansing of indigenous people. See here and here.

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By the same principle as his first point - an internationalist one - Marx should have seen an alliance against American expansion and "progress" with indigenous people as crucial (he should, at least, have reached for some sort of worked out, nonmurderous settlement with indigenous leaders, many of whom, given the overwhelming numbers and brutality of the US government/settlers, were often willing, with little luck, to work one out).

Marx's writing here - and the International Workingmen's Association's endorsement of Lincoln - does not even acknowledge the existence of indigenous people. Instead, it endorses the Founding Amnesia of a settler government (America is "the new world"; the US government can murder and displace all the people who live there and pretend, successfully even to the First International, that it just didn't happen; settlers can pretend that they are "Christians," forgetting their own rapaciousness).

In this respect, Marx identifies the cause of workers with that of an ethnic cleansing settler government. He thus makes a deep and terrible moral and political error,

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In chapter 10 of Capital, volume one, on "The Working Day" Marx was right that out of the death of slavery, a new life arose. This is his sentence about the Baltimore Congress of Labor endorsing the 8 hour day in 1866 and the great, 20 years struggle for shorter hours which culminated in the Haymarket massacre in Chicago. There on May 4, 1886, the police threw a bomb (probably - who set off the bomb has never been determined) and started shooting in the falling darkness. Many demonstrators were wounded, 7 officers were killed (many be "friendly fire").

Chicago then tried 8 of the speakers at the demonstration, mainly German immigrants and union leaders, and sentenced them to death. Judge Gary was nakedly prejudicial toward the defendants and the Chicago press was filled with bloodthirsty headlines. This is a stunning example of the miscarriage of justice and the rule of law, one of many toward radicals and immigrants (the rule of law is a frail thing, canceled by racism - lynch law, for example - in the American South toward blacks, and also weak to nonexistent toward immigrants and radicals; one might say that in a democracy, the rule of law exists, though sometimes fleetingly, for middle class people, and much more rarely, for poor people and immigrants...).

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August Spies and Charles Parsons, an anarchist was the husband of Lucy Parsons, a great black organizer who had come out of the fight for abolition, were among the condemned. Spies said defiantly at his hanging, "You may silence this voice, but my silence will be more terrible than speech."

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On June 26, 1893, Governor John Peter Altgeld, himself a German immigrant, in an act of decency and even nobility, pardoned 3 of those sentenced to death, calling them victims of "hysteria, packed juries, and a biased judge" and noting that the state "has never discovered who it was that threw the bomb which killed the policeman, and the evidence does not show any connection whatsoever between the defendants and the man who threw it."

This pardon cost him reelection, making him one of the few comparatively honorable people among American politicians. That there is something one will not do, and which one will fight even at the potential cost of one's job is, I think, the measure - unfortunately rare - of an honorable politician.

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On May 1, 1886, the American labor movement had held demonstrations for shorter hours of which the Haymarket protest, on May 4, was a part. The Second International of Socialist Parties was formed in 1890 and celebrated May Day, commemorating and making global the movement against slavery and for shorter hours, through demonstrations in each country where it had a following (Chile as well as Germany) on May 1, four years to the day from the American demonstrations.

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But the failure to stand with indigenous people against genocide and to build alliances has crippled the American radical movement. Some have seen the beginnings of, or suggested the need for such alliances (see, for example, Lerone Bennett, The Road not taken, here).

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Though Marx's unfinished Ethnographic Notebooks praise Louis H. Morgan's Ancient Society (1877) on Seneca Indians and study closely and admiringly - compared to commodity fetishism - the practices of indigenous people - see "A journey from the South" here - he never reexamined or criticized his earlier comments on the Civil War. There is some tendency in Marx's and Engels's views to pit an abstract economic determinist general conception based on European developments - economic forces, registered in the unfolding of capitalism, will make the currently few and isolated radicals strong (Engels wrote to Bebel, the leader of the German Social Democrats in 1875, that in the revolution of 1848, he and Marx were the only radicals on the European continent to favor trade unions...; see here; Engels had learned this in England; this was the mistake of whistling to keep one's spirits up when one is part of a still small political movement under life-threatening attack...) against a moral and political one.

Marx's idea, however, was to adapt to particular international situations and local circumstances. Influenced by Morgan, he wrote a letter to Vera Zasulich in the 1880s that the Russian mir, the peasant communes, might lead directly to communism without any intervening period of capitalism. See here. Such a contrast, focused on Marx's strategy for a proletarian revolution immediately following a democratic one in 1848 in Germany - then four-fifths composed of peasants - is also the theme of my Marx's Politics: Communists and Citizens.

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During the first International, Marx shifted his views on the racism toward Irish immigrants which divided the English working class. Only the liberation of Ireland and directly combatting racism would lead to serious radical movements. Mere reliance on economic forces, as some misinterpreted Marx's theory, would lead to reaction.

Marx's change on Ireland - see his 1870 letter to Meyer and Vogt here - identifies with the most oppressed. Through his leadership in the International Workingmen's Association and the cooperation of British unions, he organized big demonstrations in support of Ireland and to vanquish prejudice toward Irish workers.

More deeply, Lenin's adoption of a sweeping approval of anti-colonial revolt makes this possibility clear in many cases.

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But on indigenous people in the United States, Marx's imagination failed him. Perhaps he identified with settler emigrants like his friend Joseph Weydemeyer who became an officer in the Union army. After the defeat of the democratic revolution in 1848, many Germans went to settle in the United States, and Marx may, as an alternative to emigrating to London, have considered this.

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Marx's achilles heel on indigenous people - his endorsement of settler colonialism in his letter to Lincoln - is a mistake which scarred both in vision and in program much of the later socialist and communist movement.

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The International Workingmen's Association 1864

Address of the International Working Men's Association to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America

Presented to U.S. Ambassador Charles Francis Adams
January 28, 1865 [A]

Written: by Marx between November 22 & 29, 1864
First Published: The Bee-Hive Newspaper, No. 169, November 7, 1865

Sir:

We 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?

When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, "slavery" on the banner of Armed Revolt, when on the very spots where hardly a century ago the idea of one great Democratic Republic had first sprung up, whence the first Declaration of the Rights of Man was issued, and the first impulse given to the European revolution of the eighteenth century; when on those very spots counterrevolution, with systematic thoroughness, gloried in rescinding "the ideas entertained at the time of the formation of the old constitution", and maintained slavery to be "a beneficent institution", indeed, the old solution of the great problem of "the relation of capital to labor", and cynically proclaimed property in man "the cornerstone of the new edifice" — then the working classes of Europe understood at once, even before the fanatic partisanship of the upper classes for the Confederate gentry had given its dismal warning, that the slaveholders' rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic. Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the proslavery intervention of their betters — and, from most parts of Europe, contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.

While the workingmen, the true political powers of the North, allowed slavery to defile their own republic, while before the Negro, mastered and sold without his concurrence, they boasted it the highest prerogative of the white-skinned laborer to sell himself and choose his own master, they were unable to attain the true freedom of labor, or to support their European brethren in their struggle for emancipation; but this barrier to progress has been swept off by the red sea of civil war.

The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. [B]

Signed on behalf of the International Workingmen's Association, the Central Council:

Longmaid, Worley, Whitlock, Fox, Blackmore, Hartwell, Pidgeon, Lucraft, Weston, Dell, Nieass, Shaw, Lake, Buckley, Osbourne, Howell, Carter, Wheeler, Stainsby, Morgan, Grossmith, Dick, Denoual, Jourdain, Morrissot, Leroux, Bordage, Bocquet, Talandier, Dupont, L.Wolff, Aldovrandi, Lama, Solustri, Nusperli, Eccarius, Wolff, Lessner, Pfander, Lochner, Kaub, Bolleter, Rybczinski, Hansen, Schantzenbach, Smales, Cornelius, Petersen, Otto, Bagnagatti, Setacci;

George Odger, President of the Council; P.V. Lubez, Corresponding Secretary for France; Karl Marx, Corresponding Secretary for Germany; G.P. Fontana, Corresponding Secretary for Italy; J.E. Holtorp, Corresponding Secretary for Poland; H.F. Jung, Corresponding Secretary for Switzerland; William R. Cremer, Honorary General Secretary.

18 Greek Street, Soho.

[A] From the minutes of the Central (General) Council of the International — November 19, 1864:

"Dr. Marx then brought up the report of the subcommittee, also a draft of the address which had been drawn up for presentation to the people of America congratulating them on their having re-elected Abraham Lincoln as President. The address is as follows and was unanimously agreed to."

[B] The minutes of the meeting continue:

"A long discussion then took place as to the mode of presenting the address and the propriety of having a M.P. with the deputation; this was strongly opposed by many members, who said workingmen should rely on themselves and not seek for extraneous aid.... It was then proposed... and carried unanimously. The secretary correspond with the United States Minister asking to appoint a time for receiving the deputation, such deputation to consist of the members of the Central Council."

Ambassador Adams Replies

Legation of the United States
London, 28th January, 1865

Sir:

I am directed to inform you that the address of the Central Council of your Association, which was duly transmitted through this Legation to the President of the United [States], has been received by him.

So far as the sentiments expressed by it are personal, they are accepted by him with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.

The Government of the United States has a clear consciousness that its policy neither is nor could be reactionary, but at the same time it adheres to the course which it adopted at the beginning, of abstaining everywhere from propagandism and unlawful intervention. It strives to do equal and exact justice to all states and to all men and it relies upon the beneficial results of that effort for support at home and for respect and good will throughout the world.

Nations do not exist for themselves alone, but to promote the welfare and happiness of mankind by benevolent intercourse and example. It is in this relation that the United States regard their cause in the present conflict with slavery, maintaining insurgence as the cause of human nature, and they derive new encouragements to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe that the national attitude is favored with their enlightened approval and earnest sympathies.

I have the honor to be, sir, your obedient servant,

Charles Francis Adams

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