Beyond  /  Retrieval

Lincoln and Marx

The transatlantic convergence of two revolutionaries.
Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress

There was an affinity between the German democratic nationalism of 1848 and the free labor doctrine of the newly-established US Republican Party, so it is not surprising that a number of Marx’s friends and comrades not only became staunch supporters of the Northern cause but received senior commissions. Joseph Weydemeyer and August Willich, both former members of the Communist League, were promoted first to the ranks of Colonel and then to General.

Lincoln may have recognized the name Karl Marx when he read the IWA “Address,” since Marx had been a prolific contributor to the New York Daily Tribune, the most influential Republican newspaper of the 1850s. Charles A. Dana, publisher of the Tribune, first met Marx in Cologne in 1848 at a time when he edited the widely read Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In 1852, Dana invited Marx to become a correspondent for the Tribune. Over the next decade he wrote — with some help from his friend Engels — over five hundred articles for the Tribune. Hundreds of these pieces were published under Marx’s name, but eighty-four appeared as unsigned editorials. He wrote on a global range of topics, sometimes occupying two or three pages of a sixteen-page newspaper.

Once the Civil War began, US newspapers lost interest in foreign coverage unless it directly related to the war. Marx wrote several pieces for European papers explaining what was at stake in the conflict and contesting the claim, widely heard in European capitals, that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict. Important sections of the British and French elites had strong commercial ties to the US South, buying huge quantities of slave-grown cotton. But some European liberals with no direct link to the slave economy argued that secession by the Southern states had to be accepted because of the principle of self-determination. They attacked the North’s option for war and its failure to repudiate slavery.

In Marx’s eyes, British observers who claimed to deplore slavery yet backed the Confederacy were simply humbugs. He attacked the visceral hostility to the North evident in the Economist and the Times (of London). These papers claimed that the real cause of the conflict was Northern protectionism against the free trade favored by the South. Marx rebutted their arguments in a series of brilliant articles for Die Presse, a Viennese publication, which caustically demolished their economic determinism, and instead sketched out an alternative account — subtle, structural, and political — of the origins of the war.


The Surprisingly Socialist History of America

The 16th President, his pro-labor leanings, and Marx's admiration for his work to end slavery.