Karl Marx on the Civil War, the Border States, and the Confederacy’s War of Conquest

Karl Marx is a well-known thinker to any casual student of history, philosophy, or social science. Some people deify him, while others probably imagine him drinking coffee with Satan. I’m not interested in making him either a sinner or a saint, but I do think we stand to benefit intellectually by trying to understand Marx within the context of his time, to see how the major events of his day shaped his thinking on politics, class, and freedom. One such event in Marx’s life was the American Civil War, a topic of great interest to him and one that inspired much writing from his pen. A collection of those writings can be found here.

The Confederacy claimed at the outset of the war that they had no intention of “conquering” any land from the North; they were engaged in a defensive fight, as President Jefferson Davis explained, “solely to preserve our own rights and promote our own welfare[.] [T]he separation of the Confederate States has been marked by no aggression upon others and followed by no domestic convulsion.” Marx questioned this line of thinking in an essay entitled “The Civil War in the United States” that was published in Die Presse in November 1861. What follows from that essay I find extremely perceptive and worth sharing at length with readers:

“Let him go, he is not worth thine ire!” Again and again English statesmanship cries–recently through the mouth of Lord John Russell–to the North of the United States this advice . . . If the North lets the South go, it then frees itself from any admixture of slavery, from its historical original sin, and creates the basis of a new and higher development.

In reality, if North and South formed two autonomous countries like England and Hanover, for instance, their separation would be no more difficult than was the separation of England and Hanover. “The South,” however, is neither geographically clearly separate from the North nor is it a moral entity. It is not a country at all, but a battle cry.

The advice of an amicable separation presupposes that the Southern Confederacy, although it took the offensive in the Civil War, is at least conducting it for defensive purposes. It presupposes that the slaveholders’ party is concerned only to unite the areas it has controlled up till now into an autonomous group of states, and to release them from the domination of the Union. Nothing could be more wrong. “The South needs its entire territory. It will and must have it.” This was the battle cry with which the secessionists fell upon Kentucky. By their “entire territory” they understand primarily all the so-called border states: Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, and Arkansas. Moreover, they claim the whole territory south of the line which runs from the northwest corner of Missouri to the Pacific Ocean. Thus what the slaveholders call “the South” covers more than three quarters of the present area of the Union. A large part of the territory which they claim is still in the possession of the Union and would first have to be conquered from it. But none of the so-called border states, including those in Confederate possession, was ever an actual slave state. The border states form, rather, that area of the United States where the system of slavery and the system of free labor exists side by side and struggle for mastery: the actual battleground between South and North, between slavery and freedom. The war waged by the Southern Confederacy is, therefore, not a war of defense but a war of conquest, aimed at extending and perpetuating slavery.


The attempts made by the Confederacy to annex Missouri and Kentucky, for example, expose the hollowness of the pretext that it is fighting for the rights of the individual states against the encroachment of the Union. To be sure, it acknowledges the right of the individual states which it counts as belonging to the “South” to break away from the Union, but by no means their right to remain in the Union.


It can be seen, then, that the war of the Southern Confederacy is, in the truest sense of the word, a war of conquest for the extension and perpetuation of slavery. The larger part of the border states and territories are still in the possession of the Union, whose side they have taken first by way of the ballot box and then with arms. But for the Confederacy they count as “the South,” and it is trying to conquer them from the Union. In the border states which the Confederacy has for the time being occupied it holds the relatively free highland areas in check by means of martial law. Within the actual slaves states themselves it is supplanting the democracy which existed hitherto by the unbridled oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders.

Food for thought.