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 (more…)