Mark Lause is a veteran Marxist and author of a series of books on the history of the working class in the United States, especially in the 1800s and in relation to ‘the race question’. We talked to him about his new book which examines the interconnections between free and unfree labour, the US civil war and the emergence of a distinctly American working class.
Philip Ferguson: What interests you about this period of US history in particular? How did you come to write this book?
Mark Lause: This marked a very critical point in shaping the United States. Both Marxists and contemporary Lincoln Republicans and Unionists
– ie supporters of the union of the states, as opposed to the confederate separatists – described the conflict as a “Second American Revolution,” and it arguably marked far greater, more pervasive, and more rapid changes than the first one, marking American Independence from Britain.
War in general is under-studied by social and labor historians. I had a friend—another historian—who used to take great pride in never teaching about war in his history classes. I understood his point, of course, but history can’t be understood without studying the subject. To me, something like the Civil War represented a kind of Hadron Collider that smashed ordinary social relations and permits us to see what makes a society tick.
In the case of this particular conflict, we are discussing an essential period in the making of an American working class. In many respects, the conflict of 1861-1877 represented the most indispensable few years in that entire process.
Phil: I guess to most people in NZ, the American civil war was about the north wanting to end slavery and the south wanting to keep it. Could you elaborate on the wider issues?
Mark: It’s an accurate generalization, though there were many different kinds of Northerners with many different reasons for getting rid of slavery. From the 1830s, there existed a core of abolitionists who always opposed slavery, some of whom also challenged the ideology and practice of white supremacy. The best of these actively violated the Federal law mandating the return of fugitive slaves, an enterprise in which free blacks predominated but some whites participated. In 1848, the U.S. victory over Mexico resulted in the acquisitions of vast new lands that the Southern states—through their domination of the Democratic Party—sought to control. Their effort to set aside older compromises and open up this entire region to slavery created a massive political backlash in the North among many whites who would have otherwise been unconcerned with the issue. This became broader and deeper through the 1850s as the would-be expansionists of slavery demonstrated that they would use violence and manipulated ballot counts to dominate Kansas, and, through the Dred Scott decision, insist that no community in the country could fail to respect property in slaves. By the end of this process, you had open resistance to returning runaway slaves and vast numbers of Northern whites singing about John Brown, but not necessarily sharing his motives for opposing slavery.
And this whole process always remained in flux. Jim Lane, an antislavery politician in Kansas talked about the value of the Emancipation Proclamation in encouraging slaves to flee Missouri, Arkansas and Texas, which would free them up to work for next to nothing in the cornfields of Kansas. It would take a struggle not only to gain emancipation but to define what that was going to be.
When the Southern states seceded—and nobody at the time ultimately pretended that it was about anything other than slavery—it effectively removed the most reactionary elements of the U.S. government. Secession responded to the victory of what was a successful third party movement—four major tickets took the field in 1860, but two were actually Democratic. Republican victory brought to power forces that had always been marginalized in the American two-party system.
The ascendancy of these new forces opened the way for radical measures of all sorts, of which emancipation became the more important. You also had Federal homestead legislation opening the public lands for free settlement by the landless. Government took charge of the money supply. We had a graduated income tax to pay for the war. Lincoln arranged to take Yosemite out of the marketplace and maintain it as a natural site for future generations.
Left to its own devices, these achievements might have gone further. The Lincoln administration appointed special commissioners to investigate how to redefine relations with the native peoples. The individual sympathies of leading Republicans for woman suffrage was well-known in the movement. Lincoln’s emissary to the nations of the Mediterranean, George P. Marsh wrote a pioneering study of Man and Nature in which he warned about the impact of human civilization on the natural world and particularly warned against the power of corporations.
After the war was underway, the elites that had opposed the Republican insurgency embraced it in power and began to redefine and reshape it. Of course, once the Republicans had taken power, they became increasingly inundated with what Lincoln called “office-seekers,” but we should also consider them seekers after contracts, commissions, and connections.
Phil: The book is called Free Labor, but you are also addressing the important role that unfree labour played in the original development of American capitalism. How did this dialectic operate in specifically US circumstances – ie between free and unfree labour in terms of the making of US capitalism?
Mark: Frankly, I never understood the argument about whether slavery was precapitalist, or why people attached so much importance to it. If I may use the expression of W.E.B. Dubois to apply to this, the plantation South was always “bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh” of the international capitalist system. Cotton provided the foundation for the textile mills, the first state of the so-called “Industrial Revolution.”
And no slaveholder of any size anywhere in the South failed to depend systematically on wage labor or the products of wage labor. In a very real way, the plantation system required not only slave labor but wage labor.
For this very reason, Marx wrote that labor in the white skin would never be free to advance as long as black labor remained chattel. Yet, as E.P. Thompson emphasized, class as a something meaningful has to reflect workers’ understanding and labor’s participation in an emancipator war became essential to a new understanding of itself.
The book discusses a range of these important working class war heroes, but we must also note that the city fathers back home happily expropriated the legacy of their struggles.
Phil: The book’s subtitle is ‘the making of an American working class’. What role did the civil war and the issues behind it play in shaping the working class in the United States in that period?
Mark: Although the meaning of “free labor” remained in dispute before and after the war, the conflict transformed the several million African-American slaves to this new theoretical status, which they now shared with “whites.” The war became a major landmark in the integration of the first wave of immigrants into the U.S., particularly the Irish and the Germans. The nature of the conflict drew women into the work force in unprecedented numbers doing new kinds of labor, which overlapped greatly with that of male workers. The needs of the war created industries and workplaces that had thousands of employees, dong much to take that old notion of an “industrial revolution”” beyond textile mills into foundries, navy yards, railroad construction, etc.
And it provided all these different kinds of laborers with a common national experience centered on the value of the Federal Union, and bequeathed them a common language and approach to labor issues: the idea of the workplace as a social contract to be resolved through a republican, representative process.
Too, on one level, none of this could have happened without an unprecedented level of solidarity. This is not to romanticize or idealize that achievement. We need to be clear that the bar was set pretty low going into the Civil War. But common wartime experiences against a common enemy did encourage people to rethink their attitudes. One of the most striking things I encountered in researching this book were the letters of that Pennsylvania member of the printers’ union wounded at Gettysburg and convalescing alongside a camp of black soldiers, who he came to see as his comrades and fellow citizens.
Phil: How long was the impact of those issues and events crucial to the shaping of the American working class? For instance, today the US working class appears to be much more multi-racial or multi-ethnic.
Mark: One of the key arguments in the book is that it’s not just that the working class is more multi-racial or multi-ethnic, but that every component of the work force developed modes of struggle that grew out of its circumstances.
Some years back, I was in a discussion with a group of historians and one of them asked what the ten most important strike in American history were. I usually find such innately reductionist exercises pointless, but this time I raised the rolling general strike of slaves across the wartime South. Mostly, they just ignored the suggestion and, when pushed, essentially didn’t think it should count. They didn’t have dues cards, I suppose. Slaves found their own way of struggling to improve their lot, culminating in that general strike.
Women found all sorts of mechanisms to make their grievances felt and win acknowledgement for them. They engaged in some of the most disruptive strike support actions in places, waged militant strikes in their own industries, appealed to a sense of sisterhood among their middle class and elite female or to the paternalism of the men. Whatever they thought might work.
The immigrants engaged in controlled crowd actions—a nice academic way of what contemporary papers called rioting—to make their point.
Yet, the mode of struggle that grew out of the peculiar circumstances of the skilled white craftsmen prevailed.
Put another way, it’s often said that the emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s brought the vision of the old Industrial Workers of the World to fruition, but did it? I’d argue that—especially when you look at the disgraceful state of the American labor movement today—we’ve simply extended the passive business unionism of the old craft organizations into industry. It is almost as though organized labor in the U.S. doesn’t want to admit that some parts of the working class have become exploited in very distinctive ways and are kept there using very distinctive means. Yet, it has gotten much worse since the 1940s, and qualitatively worse again since the 1970s.
Until the old ideas of mass democratic unionism reemerges, I fear the labor movement will not begin to recover.
And until the labor movement embraces the mass general strike modeled by African Americans in the Civil War, it chooses not to acknowledge the most powerful weapon in our arsenal.
Phil: To what extent were white workers motivated to fight against the south by genuine feelings of solidarity with the slaves, or general anti-slavery feelings, and to what extent were they simply protecting their own interests – as (free) wage-labourers – against the slave system of production?
Mark: This goes back to the earlier question about antislavery politics. It’s most useful to start thinking of attitudes about these things as layers of an onion These things seemed to have changed continually.
Most white workers may well have always been inclined to dislike slavery, but to what extent? What were they willing to do about it?
At the beginning of this process, wage workers someplace like New York lived two weeks from the heart of slaveholding territory. That’s farther than American workers today live from Syria.
Some certainly concerned themselves with slavery for various reasons. Some religious groups had a deeper tradition on such things than others. Some of these wage workers had lived in slaveholding districts and been influenced by their experience there.
Two things moved them to take on the issue, most clearly in the emergence of Republican majorities in the North. First, the emergence of the land reform agitation, which both expressed a predisposition to see democratic standards as having an economic dimension and legitimated this idea by introducing it into politics. Central to the land reform agenda was the idea that there should be limits on how rich anyone should be allowed to get. When you go to the legislative records in the National Archives at Washington, it’s interesting that you can call up those antislavery petitions, which were quite impressive in terms of what they argued, but those demanding land reform were simply immense.
Secondly, the land reform idea, once part of the discussion recast the outcome of the Mexican War as a conflict over the future of the country. Free homesteads or slaveholding latifundia? The Democrats insisted on the latter and the Whigs had no interest in opposing it. When these led to open conflict both in the Kansas Territory and over the fate of runaway slaves, it created a radicalization that ended in the emergence of a new third party movement, the Republicans.
People may say that the Republicans were never really that radical, but some of them certainly were and the party generally was radical enough have led the country through the Second American Revolution. That the promise of that conflict remains unaddressed to this day is obvious.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine a truly radical emancipation of labor can ever be possible without a general understanding of that past conflict.
Phil: One of the things that mystifies leftists in the English-speaking world outside the United States is why there has never been a mass social-democratic party in the US (in fact, a similar question applies to Canada, where there has been one, but not anywhere on the scale of Europe, Australia and New Zealand). How do you explain this and does the explanation go right back to the mid-1800s?
Mark: There are many good explanations. One is that workers have gotten sufficient concessions and become sufficiently contented through the system that we have. If this has any truth at all, it is for very limited sectors of the work force. But the perception that they’ve won concessions has created the worst and most destructive dogma in recent American history . . . that the Democratic Party is better for workers than the Republicans. This In the last election, Trumka actually threatened trade union officials to get them to back Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders. This has less to do with a labor organization than some guild associated with a political machine.
In a larger sense, of course, the U.S. has a virtually unique two-party system that may well be the most undemocratic imaginable. Arguments between the two not only ignore matters of class—truth be told, there’s no difference between them on matters of class—but questions of policies. For a generation or so leading to the Civil War, we had the Democrats who favored slavery in the South with black disenfranchisement in the North, ethnic cleansing through Indian removal and imperial expansion in the interests of slavery. Or you could vote for Whigs who didn’t substantively oppose any of these things as a party.
Party identification has always had more to do with cultural identities than policies. In the wake of the Civil War, for example, Northern white Protestants almost always supported the Republicans and most Southern white Protestants tended to vote Democratic. Catholics and more recent immigrants tended to be Democrats. African-Americans, where they were voting, almost always voted Republican. In practical terms, sectional, religious or racial cohesiveness defined voter identification between parties that actually differed very little.
If we consider the last two elections, opposition to Barrack Obama always involved either a complete falsification of what his positions and policies were but also relied heavily on racist resentments of the first African-American president. Conversely, Obama’s supporters used his race to deflect any criticisms as racially motivated. They ignored his embrace of Bush’s foreign policies, his horrific record on the militarization of the domestic police forces in the U.S., the record-breaking immiseration of black America, and his establishment of a Nixonesque health care system in an effort to deflect a rational socialized system.
So if you’re in the majority of the country on something like health care preferences, you really have no way to express that with the ballot. The majority has no way to make its hostility to the knuckleheaded war policies of the government felt.
Of late, even this discussion has become a repetition of fictions. We are dealing with two candidates of the corporate parties regularly taking opposite sides of the position they earlier held on major issues. The decision between them is going to resemble a reality TV show more than a clash of policies.
Worse, of course, the media pundits and licensed intelligentsia repeatedly misrepresent what workers want as part of making their sales pitches. Trump is described as a “populist” expressing worker discontent. And Clinton is the voice of intelligence reform, by which she means staying the Obama-Bush-Clinton-Bush-Reagan course in every major respect.
For an earlier Redline interview with Mark, by Ben Stockwell on the movie Lincoln, see here.