“Bottom rail on top this time”: the American Civil War and after

Submitted by AWL on 14 April, 2015 - 5:02 Author: Sacha Ismail

9 April was the 150th anniversary of the surrender of the South in the American Civil War. In this speech given at recent AWL public meetings, Sacha Ismail explains why that war and what came after are so important.


The American Civil War is not dry, dusty history. It is relevant to the inspiring protests against racism going on in the United States now. The US of today — a capitalist democracy, but one deeply racist and unequal even by the standards of capitalism — was created by revolution, but also the betrayal of that revolution.

Between 1861 and 1865, the US fought a bloody war in which over six hundred thousand of its citizens were killed. At the root of that war was the situation of black Americans, African Americans, the vast majority of whom were slaves.

When the war began, both sides said they would preserve slavery; the Northern side, led by Abraham Lincoln, said the outcome of the war would not change the situation of the slaves. But the slaves and their white allies insisted otherwise. Through their mass struggle they changed the course of the war and made it into a revolution.

This revolution resulted in the expropriation of four billion dollars of property, in 1860s prices, without compensation, and the liberation of four million human beings from being property. Its later betrayal should not make us forget that.

American society was founded by British colonists on the basis of unfree labour — indentured white servants and black chattel slaves kidnapped from Africa or descended from kidnapping victims. Gradually, for various reasons, indentured servitude declined and black slavery became more important.

In the 1770s and 80s most of the British colonies in North America freed themselves from British rule by revolution, and created the United States. In the Northern part of the US, this revolution undermined slavery. In the South, where the movement against Britain was led by slave-owning planters, it did the opposite. After independence, with the invention of industrial methods of cotton production, slavery flourished as never before. Anti-slavery movements, which had been strong at the time of the revolution, declined.

This began to change in the 1820s. As the US settled more and more of the Western lands it had stolen from the Native Americans as it committed genocide against them, there was growing conflict about who would settle them — free farmers oriented to Northern capitalism or slave plantations like in the South. Increasingly this conflict reshaped US politics.

Repeated slave revolts and non-stop slave resistance on a smaller scale, combined with the rise of a new anti-slavery movement, “abolitionism”, led by free black people and white radicals in the North, pushed the issue of slavery onto the agenda even when most Northern capitalists and politicians wanted to ignore it for the sake of order and profit.

In the 1850s, a proto-civil war broke out in the new Western settlement of Kansas. The old system of political parties collapsed and a new, moderately anti-slavery political party, the Republicans, swept across the North. The radical wing of this party was shaped by the kind of people who had revived the anti-slavery movement thirty years before.

The slaveowners became highly alarmed. They cracked down on all vestiges of democracy, even for white people, in the South. They fought hard to maintain their domination over the national government. As they were pushed back, they increasingly began to speak about leaving the US. When the Republicans’ Abraham Lincoln won the presidency in 1860s, eleven slave states left “seceded”.

The new slave-owners’ state, the Confederacy, existed to preserve slavery. The Northern government, on the other hand, insisted it would not touch slavery in the South, and that victory in the war would not change that. It promised to repress any slave revolts in areas it conquered, and most of its generals were racist conservatives who returned runaway slaves to their owners — even though those owners were the enemy!

Thousands of black men flooded the recruiting officers to volunteers as soldiers, but were told they could not fight. “This is a white man’s war”, was the slogan. And, indeed, US law made it illegal for black people to serve as soldiers.

US policy was shaped in part by capitalist logic about property rights, in part by racism and in part by concerns about keeping the loyalty of the slave-owners in the border states that had not seceded. Within two years, however, this situation had changed. Why?

The war did not go well for the North. It experienced a string of defeats. Its morale sagged. It seemed the British and French governments would recognise the Confederacy as an independent state and intervene to help it win independence.

Despite their treatment, more and more slaves ran away and came to the Northern army. It became what the historian WEB Du Bois called a slave “general strike”. Officers sympathetic to the anti-slavery movement welcomed runaways in and dared the government to do anything about it. Meanwhile anti-slavery activists and the radical wing of the Republicans, who were strong in Congress, denounced Lincoln’s policy and demanded a more radical one.

From mid-1862 the Radical Republican-dominated Congress overturned Lincoln’s policies. They forbid the return of runaways, legalised and called for the recruitment of slaves and free black men as soldiers, and moved towards the confiscation and liberation of rebels’ slaves. They also did things like cracking down on the illegal Atlantic slave trade and recognising the independent black republics of Liberia and Haiti.

Under growing pressure Lincoln issued an Emancipation Proclamation which freed the big majority of Southern slaves on 1 December 1863. The recruitment of black soldiers, mostly ex-slaves, began — you can read about it in a Workers' Liberty pamphlet, Revolution for black liberation — and the stream became a flood. By the end of the war almost 200,000 black soldiers and sailors took part in the war — one tenth of the Northern military in total and one fifth by the end.

As Karl Marx, who had been involved in the British workers’ protests against slavery and was a keen supporter of the North, said, the US had stopped trying to fight a strictly constitutional war against slavery, and at least started fighting a revolutionary one.

Black soldiers had to fight a political battle to get equal pay and equal rights even in the army.

Thousands of miles away in Britain, this change produced a tremendous mass movement by trade unionists and workers in protest against British government support for the slave-owners. There were meetings and demonstrations of many thousands, demonstrations widely credited with preventing Britain from intervening.

Despite growing mass revolt by its workforce, the Confederacy did not finally collapse until April 1865, four years after the start of the war. It was after that, in the period of about fifteen years after the war, known as Reconstruction, that the Second American Revolution really took off.

After the crushing of the Confederacy, the South was swept by a massive struggle by the ex-slaves for their rights. Black soldiers and ex-soldiers turned activists were a large part of what made this possible. Under the protection of the occupying Northern army and organised activist groups involving many former soldiers black men exercised the right to vote and won political office, sometimes high political office. All women were disenfranchised at this time, though many women played a vital role in the struggle, North and South.

Many of these black politicians had been free before the war, but some were former slaves. Civil War veterans were central. The most dramatic example was perhaps Robert Smalls, who escaped from slavery by daringly piloting a Confederate boat, full of guns and cannons, to the Northern fleet. His ship was then used to transport black troops to the South. Smalls became the captain, a South Carolina politician and then a Radical Republican member of Congress.

This was in some ways the most democratic period black Americans have ever known. As a former slave who found the group of Confderate prisoners he was guarding included his former owner, shouted out: “Hello massa. Bottom rail on top dis time!”

To give you a flavour of the period: in South Carolina, where black political influence was strongest, the state university enforced desegregation, abolished tuition fees and established a range of access courses.

It is important to understand this process as one of class struggle. The former slaves used Reconstruction to push for demands for state schools, access to public facilities and above all redistribution of the land they worked on. But the struggle for land was defeated, leading eventually to the betrayal and defeat of the whole revolution.

The most extreme Radical Republicans supported giving the land to the ex-slaves and poor whites in order to make democracy secure. But by the 1870s, the US capitalist class as a whole was moving to the right fast. It was alarmed by the agitation of black people in the South, particularly because this period also saw the rise of mass workers’ militancy and attempts to organise working-class political parties in the North. Remember that this was also the period of the growth of workers’ and socialist movements in Europe, including the Paris Commune in 1871. In addition, a lot of the Southern land was now owned by Northern capitalists and banks.

Racism among white workers and poor farmers had been shaken by the revolution. But in order to restore order and guarantee profits, the ruling class withdrew support from the Reconstruction governments in the South and helped the growth of a white supremacist counter-revolution. In 1877, the year the Northern working class exploded in mass strikes, it withdrew the last troops protecting the Reconstruction regimes and used them to smash the strike wave.

Under the new, counter-revolutionary order in the South, slavery was not restored, but most black Americans were denied political rights, legally segregated, murderous suppressed and subjected to a vicious system of super-exploitation. As Du Bois put it, they “moved back again towards slavery” — not into slavery, but towards it. The class struggle in America was thrown back massively, as was the struggle against racism and for black liberation.

The Southern white supremacist regimes would stay in place until they were challenged by a second Reconstruction, in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s. But by this time racism was deeply woven into the structure of American capitalism. Even when segregation was demolished, the poverty and exclusion of most black Americans remained — and got worse with the neo-liberal capitalist offensive of the 1980s and 90s.

It is this mass of poverty, racism and denial of rights which produces outrages like the state murders which American comrades are protesting against today. Movements against racism, against poverty and against capitalism today can learn a lot from the inspiring struggles of the American Civil War and the revolution it became.

We can pay homage to the heroes of that war, black and white, by fighting to demolish the capitalist system which makes fulfilment of their goals of freedom and equality impossible.