The Impact of the Civil War on the Structure of Capital - Raya Dunayevskaya

Blue Cover with Marx and Lenin's writing son Hegel in background

The Impact of the Civil War on the Structure of Capital from Raya Dunayevskaya's 1978 pamphlet Marx’s Capital and Today’s Global Crisis.

Submitted by UseValueNotExc… on November 28, 2022



The decade of the 1860’s was decisive for the structure of Marx’s greatest theoretical work, CAPITAL. No one is more blind to the greatness of Marx's contributions than those who praise him to the skies for his genius as if that genius matured outside of the actual struggles of the historic period in which he lived. As if he gained the impulses from the sheer development of his own thoughts instead of from living workers changing living reality by their actions. We shall see in a moment that Marx’s Critique of Political Economy is proof of the limitations of a theoretical work when the workers themselves are not in motion. CAPITAL, on the other hand, is proof of the creative impact of masses in motion on theory. The historic circumstances in which this greatest theoretical work of Marxism takes final shape were not simply “background” for a genius who coincidentally “happened” to complete his theoretical studies of more than two decades. A glance at the objective events that made him, as he put it, “turn everything around,” will show us how he reconstructed his own work.

1) The Abolitionists, the Civil War, and the First International

On January 11, 1860, Marx wrote to Engels: “In my opinion, the biggest things that are happening in the world today are on the one hand the movement of the slaves in America started by the death of John Brown and, on the other, the movement of the serfs in Russia. . . . I have just seen in the Tribune that there has been a fresh rising of slaves in Missouri, naturally suppressed. But the signal has now been given.”

From now on he will not only keep his eyes glued to the mass movement; he will participate in it. The decade of the Civil War in the United States is also the decade of the Polish Insurrection, the strikes in France, and the mass demonstrations in England which culminate in the creation of the International Working Men’s Association headed by Marx.

The Civil War was the first modern war of mass armies and total involvement.1 It lasted four years and cost the lives of a million men. The cost in lives was so frightful and the duration so long because Lincoln sought to confine the conflict as a white man’s war. Though slavery was the root, and the creative energies of the runaway slaves the vital force, Lincoln’s main strategic concern was to conciliate the so-called “moderate” border slave states which remained in the Union. Consequently, he wanted neither to free the slaves nor to allow them to participate in the war as soldiers. As Marx put it in letters to Engels: “All Lincoln’s acts appear like the mean pettifogging conditions which one lawyer puts to his opposing lawyer. But this does not alter their historic content. . . . The events over there are a world upheaval. . . .”

Even from the narrowest military point of view, Marx knew that Lincoln would have to move towards emancipation of the slaves. “I do not think that all is up .... “ he wrote Engels. “A single Negro regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves. . . . A war of this kind must be conducted on revolutionary lines while the Yankees have thus far been trying to conduct it constitutionally.” Long before sheer military necessity forced Lincoln to bow to the inevitable and issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Marx recorded the views of the Abolitionists.2 In one of his columns for the Vienna Presse, at the very time that both the American and English press were attacking Wendell Phillips he summarized a speech by him. This is the introduction Marx gave his summary: “Together with Garrison and G. Smith, Wendell Phillips is the leader of the Abolitionists in New England. For thirty years he has without intermission and at the risk of his life proclaimed the emancipation of the slaves as his battle-cry, regardless alike of the persiflage of the press, the enraged howls of paid rowdies and the conciliatory representations of solicitous friends .... In the present state of affairs Wendell Phillips’ speech is of greater importance than a battle bulletin.”

The movement of the runaway slaves,3 who followed the North Star to freedom, brought on the Civil War. But Lincoln's generals fought to maintain slavery and therefore they fought in vain. “I do not say,” Marx quoted Wendell Phillips, “that McClellan is a traitor; but I say that if he were a traitor, he must have acted exactly as he has done. . .. The President has not put the Confiscation Act into operation. He may be honest, but what has his honesty to do with the matter? He has neither insight nor foresight .... I know Lincoln. I have taken his measure in Washington. He is a first-rate second-rate man.”4

Marx was watching the impact which the Civil War was having upon the European working class. As the foreign correspondent for the newspapers he represented–the New York Tribune and Die Vienna Presse–Marx reported the mammoth meeting of the English workers which prevented the government’s intervention on the side of the South. It was under the impact of the Civil War and the response of the European workers as well as the Polish insurrection, that the International Working Men’s Association, known as the First International, was born. In the name of the International Marx wrote to Lincoln: “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. . . . Everywhere they bore therefore patiently the hardships imposed upon them by the cotton crisis, opposed enthusiastically the pro-slavery intervention, importunities of their ‘betters,’ and from most parts of Europe contributed their quota of blood to the good cause.

“While the workingmen, the true political power 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.”5

We can see from the very contents of CAPITAL that this was by no means sheer “diplomacy.” Marx separated himself from the self-styled American Marxists who evaded the whole issue of the Civil War by saying they were opposed to “all slavery, wage and chattel.”6 His analysis of the struggle for the shortening of the working day comes to a climax, as we shall see later, when he writes of the relationship of the end of slavery to the struggle for the eight hour day: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the Civil War was the eight hours’ agitation, that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California. The General Congress of Labor at Baltimore (August 16, 1866) declared: ‘The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalistic slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working-day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained.’”7

The impact of the Civil War on the European revolution (the Paris Commune) is stated succinctly enough right at the start of CAPITAL. Its preface states: “As 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 sounded it for the European working class.” We now turn to the impact it had on the structure of CAPITAL.

2) The Relationship of History to Theory
In contrast to the actions of the European masses, the arrogant insensitivity of European intellectuals to the Civil War in the United States is best exemplified by Lassalle. Where Marx turned his attention to the world-shaking event, Lassalle dismissed it. In a letter to Engels, dated July 30, 1862, Marx reports Lasalle’s views: “The Yankees have no ‘ideas.’ ‘Individual liberty’ is merely a 'negative idea,' etc., and more of this old, decayed, speculative rubbish.”8

Under the impact of the Civil War, Marx, on the other hand, gave an entirely new structure to his theoretical work. He had long since dismissed Lassalle's pretense of being a dialectician: “He will learn to his cost,” Marx wrote on February 1, 1858, “that to bring a science by criticism to the point where it can be dialectically presented is an altogether different thing from applying an abstract ready-made system of logic to mere inklings of such a system.” The result of Marx’s own study, at that time, was called A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.”9 a) Critique of Political Economy: The Limits of an Intellectual Work

Marx begins with that everyday thing, the commodity, and immediately points to the duality of this thing which is a use-value and an exchange-value all at once. Hence, it is not just a thing, not just a utility, but a value. It could not have this two-fold nature as a product of labor if the labor itself did not have that character. The commodity in embryo contains all the contradictions of capitalism precisely because of the contradictory nature of labor. That is the key to all contradiction. That, Marx will point out again in CAPITAL, is his original contribution to political economy. Without that, it is impossible to comprehend political economy.

Exchange value, Marx continues, only appears to be a quantitative relation, that is, a given proportion of time embodied in wheat being exchanged for a given proportion of time embodied in linen. But the question is: what kind of labor creates value? It cannot be concrete labor: “Tailoring, e.g., in its material manifestation as a distinct productive activity produces a coat, but not the exchange value of a coat. The latter is produced not by the labor of the tailor as such but by abstract universal labor that belongs to a certain organization of society which has not been brought about by the tailor.”10

This organization of society, which has not been brought about by the tailor, is the capitalistic organization where all labor, no matter what its concrete nature, is timed according to what is socially necessary. It becomes one mass of abstract labor precisely because the laborer himself is paid at value, that is, the necessities of life needed to sustain him. “Thus relative value measured by labor time is fatally the formula of modern slavery of the worker instead of being, as M. Proudhon would have it, the revolutionary formula of the emancipation of the proletariat.”

The very duality of the labor, the very duality within the commodity, is what has made it necessary for one single commodity, money, to act as the value measure of the commodity. For his commodity, the capitalist wants to buy not another use-value, but money, which buys “all things.” The division of commodities and money makes that possible. Money, like any other commodity, is equal to the labor time that it took to produce, to mine it and mint it; but unlike any other commodity, it is universally recognized to be just that and hence acts as a “natural” measure. But that measure is natural to it only because it is the recognized representative of labor in its abstract form. In other words, like labor, it is not a thing, but a social relationship.

The very fact that Proudhon wants it to be “no more than” a circulating medium, which is precisely its function, shows that even he recognizes that it hides an exploitative production relationship. Only he thinks not to break up that production relationship which is the cause of it, but only to alter its appearance in money. Under capitalism, money can no more be made available to everyone than classes can be abolished by fiat-from Proudhon or from the government.

In this work, Marx limits himself to the question of exchange. He does no more than point to the fact that behind the exchange of things there is a relationship of production. Only comparatively recently, (1939), have we seen the publication of his immense intellectual labors and writings for the year 1857-1858.11 They show a tremendous dialectical and original economic development. Marx himself allowed only the first chapters to be published as the Critique. In the preface to that he states why he omits “a general introduction which I had prepared as on second thought any anticipation of results that are still to be proven seemed to be objectionable, and the reader who wishes to follow me at all must make up his mind to pass from the special to the general.” The truth is that the work, both in its special and in its general aspects, lacks a structure, a shape that can come only out of the developing class itself. That is why Marx started “all over” in CAPITAL.

It is not that labor had not been central to Marx. But in the period of the 1850’s, following the defeat of the 1848 Revolutions, the workers were quiescent. What happens to a theoretician, to any theoretician, even to a Marx, when the proletarian revolutions are crushed, is that he must watch the laws of economic development of the old social order without being able to see the specific form of revolt with which the workers mean to meet the new stage of production.

The Critique turned out to be an intellectual, that is, a remote work; a theoretical answer to an actual problem. Or, to put it differently, it was an application of dialectics to political economy, instead of the creation of the dialectic that would arise out of the workers’ struggles themselves.

Marx had no sooner finished the work than he became dissatisfied with it. Although his Critique was by no means mere “inklings of a system” but the whole of classical political economy subjected to a profound criticism, Marx decided not to continue with it. The great historic events of the 1860’s wrought basic changes in society, in politics, in thinking. As the proletariat began to move positively towards its own emancipation, they illuminated all the studies Marx had undertaken in the previous period, and gave new insights into the development of capitalist production.

b) The Working Day and the Break with the Concept of Theory

Between 1861 and 1867 the manuscript of the Critique, now became CAPITAL, underwent two fundamental changes, one in 1863, and the other in 1866. We can trace the changes both by comparing CAPITAL to the state the manuscripts were left in, which Engels describes in the Preface to Volume II of CAPITAL, as well as from Marx's own letters. As he puts it in the letter to Engels on August 15, 1863, he has had “to turn everything around”: “... when I look at this compilation (the manuscripts of the Critique, which he is now re-working under the title of CAPITAL) and see how I have had to turn everything around and how I had to make even the historical part out of material of which some was quite unknown, then he (Lassalle) does seem funny with ‘his’ economy already in his pocket. . . .” By the time, three years later, that he has finally prepared everything for the printer, he informs Engels about yet a new addition: “Historically I developed a part about the working day which did not enter into my first plan.” (February 10, 1866)

It sounds fantastic to say that until 1866 Marx had not worked out the seventy pages on the Working Day. Yet so inherent in theory itself is its own limitation that even when Marx turned the monographs for the Critique entirely around, and wrote the first draft of his new work, CAPITAL, even this work at first had no section on the Working Day. That Ricardo didn’t concern himself with the working day is understandable because he evaded the whole problem of the origin of surplus value. That socialists, from the utopians through Proudhon to Lassalle, were not weighted down by this problem is explained easily enough since they were too busy with their plans ever to study the real workers’ movement. But for Marx, who had never once taken his eyes off the proletarian movement, not to have had a section on the Working Day in his major theoretical work seems incomprehensible.

It seems even more incomprehensible when we realize that Marx had already written the “Primitive Accumulation” of CAPITAL, which describes the “Bloody Legislation against the Expropriated,” in which he dealt with laws that made the lengthening of the working day compulsory. The concept of the theory of surplus value includes the division of the working day into paid and unpaid labor. But that still leaves the exact analysis of the working day, for the most part, undetermined. As he was to put it later about his adversary, Dühring: “One thing in his account has struck me very much. Namely, so long as the determination of value by working time is itself left ‘undetermined,’ as it is by Ricardo, it does not make people shaky. But as soon as it is brought into exact connection with the working day and its variations, a very unpleasant light dawns upon them."12

“The establishment of a normal working day,” he wrote, “is the result of centuries of struggle between capitalist and laborer.”13 Marx’s method of analysis was revolutionized thereby. Where, in his Critique, history and theory are separated, with a historical explanation attached to each theoretical chapter; in CAPITAL, history and theory are inseparable. Where, in Critique, history is the history of theory; in CAPITAL, history is the history of the class struggle.

He who glorifies theory and genius but fails to recognize the limits of a theoretical work, fails likewise to recognize the indispensability of the theoretician. All of history is the history of the struggle for freedom. If, as a theoretician, one’s ears are attuned to the new impulses from the workers, new “categories” will be created, a new way of thinking, a step forward in philosophic cognition.

Marx’s shift from the history of theory to the history of production relations gives flesh and blood to the generalization that Marxism is the theoretical expression of the instinctive strivings of the proletariat for liberation. More than that. He says that ultimately the fundamental abolition of inequality lies in the shortening of the working day. In 1866, he made this the historical framework of capitalism itself. The struggles of the workers over the working day develop capitalist production. The ultimate creation of freedom rests upon the shortening of the working day. The philosophy of the shortening of the working day, which arose out of the actual struggles, embraces all concepts inside and outside of it. Thus, the thinking of the theoretician is constantly filled with more and more content, filled by workers’ struggles and workers’ thoughts.

Beginning in 1866, Marx had been developing the section on the Working Day. By the time CAPITAL is published in 1867, we read this tribute to the workers’ own thinking: “In place of the pompous catalogue of the ‘inalienable rights of man’ comes the modest Magna Charta of a legally limited working day which shall make clear when the time which the worker sells is ended, and when his own begins. Quantum mutatus ab illo.14

The real movement of the proletariat, at this specific stage of capitalist development, revealed not only the negative aspects in the fight for the working day–the struggle against unlimited capitalist exploitation–but the positive aspects–a road to freedom. This then, was a new philosophy, the philosophy of labor, arrived at naturally out of its own concrete struggles. We see why Marx had “to turn everything around.” Now let us look at how he did it. Engels tells us the original manuscripts consisted of 1472 pages, as follows:15

(1) Pages one to 220 and again pages 1159 to 1472 are the first draft of Volume I, beginning with transformation of money into capital and continuing to the end of the volume. Note that this does not account for pages 220 to 1159. The skipped pages turn out to have dealt with the question of the history of theory and the decline in the rate of profit, thus:

(2) Pages 978 to 1158 comprise the first draft of the subject material of capital, profit and rate of profit. Ultimately that formed the subject matter of Volume III. Originally, however, he intended to include, as part of Volume I, the subject matter dealt with on these pages. This type of procedure was later castigated by Marx: “We shall show in Book III that the rate of profit is no mystery so soon as we know the laws of surplus value. If we reverse the process we cannot comprehend either the one or the other.”16

(3) Now then, pages 220 to 972 constitute what Marx later considered to be Book IV of CAPITAL, and entitled “History of Theory.”17 In this first draft, however, these 750 pages would have followed directly after the buying and selling of labor power. A look at the published Critique will reveal what this first plan meant in the actual structure. After each chapter of the Critique–Commodities; Money–there follows an excursus on the history of the theory of the same subject, somewhat on the order of Hegel’s “Observations” in the Logic. Marx meant to follow that same procedure for the rest of the work. That is to say, as soon as he would state his theory on any subject he would have followed it up with arguments against other theorists. Somewhere he says that this is the natural procedure as one works something out for himself. It is an ordinary procedure for an intellectual to study the history of other theories and to separate himself from them on their ground. It is the method which Marx discarded when he decided “to turn everything around.”

Once he decides to do this, he separates the material dealing with the phenomena of profit and rate of profit, or “forms of the process of production as a whole,” from the process of production itself. At the same time, he takes out the voluminous material on the “History of Theory,” and relegates it to the very end of all three volumes, as Book IV. 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 labor process itself, and thence to the Working Day. He no sooner relegated the history of theory to the end of the whole work, and began to look at the history of production relations, than he of necessity created a new dialectic instead of applying one. Or, more precisely, a new dialectic flowed out of the labor process. This new dialectic led him to meet, theoretically, the workers’ resistance inside the factory and outside of it. The result is the new section in CAPITAL, "The Working Day."

Marx, the theoretician, created new categories out of the impulses from the workers. It wasn't he, however, who decided that the Civil War in the United States was a holy war of labor. It was the working class of England, the very ones who suffered most, who decided that.

From start to finish, Marx is concerned with the revolutionary actions of the proletariat. The concept of theory now is something unified with action. Or, more correctly, theory is not something the intellectual works out alone. Rather, the actions of the proletariat create the possibility for the intellectual to work out theory. Here then, we have the really fundamental break with Hegel. It is in this that CAPITAL is distinguished from the Logic and yet contains it, for CAPITAL is the dialectic of bourgeois society, its development and downfall. As Lenin was to put it in 1915: “If Marx did not leave a Logic (with a capital letter), he left the logic of CAPITAL. . . . In CAPITAL the logic, dialectic and theory of knowledge of materialism (three words are not necessary: they are one and the same) are applied to one science, taking all of value in Hegel and moving this value forward.”18

  • 1Despite the mountain of books on the Civil War, its full history is yet to be written. In the opinion of this author there exists only one serious work, for example, on the much maligned period of the Reconstruction — W. E. B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction. Of necessity I limit myself here to the impact of the War on the workingmen's movement in Europe and on Marx's works.
  • 2Of this great movement too, there is no definitive work. Some of the best works of the Abolitionists remain in obscure pamphlets, the most remarkable of which was the one written in 1829 by David Walker. So extraordinary a sensation was caused by the appearance of his pamphlet entitled, “Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the United States,” that legislatures in the South were called into special session to enact laws against free Negroes as against slaves for reading it. They put a price of $10,000 on the head of the author. 50,000 copies of this 76-page pamphlet were sold and circulated from hand to hand. Those who could not read had others read to them. The academic historians have yet to bring Walker out of obscurity. The antebellum South trembled at the simple words of this obscure Negro who told them prophetically that race prejudice would yet “root some of you out of the very face of the earth.”
  • 3Consult the autobiography of Frederick Douglass. The Communists hope to ride to glory on the fact that they are publicizing the writings and works of the great Negro Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, and others. The Communists will not succeed. The proof lies in the spontaneity of today’s Negro struggles which completely ignore them. See American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard (News & Letters, Detroit, 1963).
  • 4The text of Phillips’ speech, entitled, “The Cabinet,” can be found in Wendell Phillips, Speeches, Lectures and Letters, first published in Boston, 1864, and difficult to obtain. Fortunately, many of these will soon appear in a book by Oscar Sherwin, Prophet of Liberty; The Life and Times of Wendell Phillips.
  • 5The Civil War in the United States, by Karl Marx, pp. 279-80.
  • 6Interestingly enough a non-Marxist Hegelian group came to the support of the North. It was the famous “St. Louis group” of intellectuals who, having become critical of the philosophies of Emerson and Thoreau, organized themselves for the study of Hegel’s works. Led by the New Englander, W. T. Harris and the German emigrant, Brokmeyer, they made the first English translation of Hegel’s Science of Logic; by 1867 they founded the first definitely philosophical periodical in this country, “The Journal of Speculative Philosophy.” (See A History of American Philosophy by Herbert W. Schneider, Columbia University Press, 1946). Brockmeyer, incidentally, later became Lieutenant-Governor of Missouri.
    News & Letters has since published Then and Now: On the 100th Anniversary of the First General Strike in the U.S. (Detroit, 1977) which takes up the St. Louis Hegelians and the two decades, 1857-1877.
  • 7CAPITAL, Vol. I, p. 329. All references to this work are to the standard Charles H. Kerr edition. Capital, Vol. I, Pelican Marx Library (Penguin Books, London, 1976), p. 415.
  • 8Marx and Engels: The Civil War in the United States, p. 252.
  • 9More popularly known as the Critique of Political Economy.
  • 10Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, pp. 33-34.
  • 11Grundrisse der Kritik der Politischen Otkonomie, 1857-1858. Available only in German. Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute, Moscow, 1939. It is a sad commentary on rne state of contemporary Marxist scholarship that these have yet to be analyzed. The Grundrisse has recently been published in English in a Pelican Marx Library edition (Penguin Books, London, 1973). See also Philosophy and Revolution, Chapter 2, Section B, “The 1850s: The Grundrisse, Then and Now.”
  • 12Letter from Marx To Engels, January 8, 1868.
  • 13CAPITAL, Vol. I, p. 297. Pelican, p. 382.
  • 14"What a distance we have traveled.” CAPITAL, Vol. I, p. 330. Pelican, p. 416.
  • 15See Engels' Preface to CAPITAL, Volume II.
  • 16CAPITAL. Vol. I, p. 239, ftn. 2. Pelican, p. 324, ftn. 3.
  • 17This material has never been published in the exact form in which Marx left it. In 1905, Karl Kautsky, to whom Engels entrusted the manuscript, took some liberties with the structure and published it under the title The Theories of Surplus Value. To this day, except for one volume published in the United States under the title, A History of Economic Doctrine, the work is unavailable in English. For the past decade, the Russian Communists, who now own the manuscript, have been promising to publish it in its original form, but they have not done so Theories of Surplus Value has since been published (1969) by Progress Publishers, Moscow.
  • 18See Appendix B. The reference is to the first edition of Marxism and Freedom. which included as Appendix B my translation of Lenin's “Abstract of Hegel’s Science of Logic,” which has since been published in Vol. 38 of Lenin’s Collected Works (Foreign Languages, Moscow, 1961).