Debating slavery: Marx's discussion

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Fri Oct 20 11:48:26 MDT 2000

In this discussion of the economic nature of the slave system, Marx argues that
slavery had to have constantly expanding territory. Therefore , the Republican's
platform position that slavery could remain where it was already, but could not
expand, and Lincoln's election was a death knell for slavery, as much as a position to
abolish it where it was already. Thus, the South started the war as a
counterrevolution ( in Aptheker's analysis).



Karl Marx
The North American Civil War


Written: October 1861
Source: Marx/Engels Collected Works, Volume 19
Publisher: Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1964
First Published: Die Presse No. 293, October 25, 1861


The vitally important point in this platform was that not a foot of fresh terrain was
conceded to slavery; rather it was to remain once and for all confined with the
boundaries of the states where it already legally existed. Slavery was thus to be
formally interned; but continual expansion of territory and continual spread of
slavery beyond its old limits is a law of life for the slave states of the Union.

The cultivation of the southern export articles, cotton, tobacco, sugar , etc.,
carried on by slaves, is only remunerative as long as it is conducted with large gangs
of slaves, on a mass scale and on wide expanses of a naturally fertile soil, which
requires only simple labour. Intensive cultivation, which depends less on fertility of
the soil than on investment of capital, intelligence and energy of labour, is contrary
to the nature of slavery. Hence the rapid transformation of states like Maryland and
Virginia, which formerly employed slaves on the production of export articles, into
states which raise slaves to export them into the deep South. Even in South Carolina,
where the slaves form four-sevenths of the population, the cultivation of cotton has
been almost completely stationary for years due to the exhaustion of the soil. Indeed,
by force of circumstances South Carolina has already been transformed in part into a
slave-raising state, since it already sells slaves to t!
he sum of four million dollars yearly to the states of the extreme South and
South-west. As soon as this point is reached, the acquisition of new Territories
becomes necessary, so that one section of the slaveholders with their slaves may
occupy new fertile lands and that a new market for slave-raising, therefore for the
sale of slaves, may be created for the remaining section. It is, for example,
indubitable that without the acquisition of Louisiana, Missouri and Arkansas by the
United States, slavery in Virginia and Maryland would have been wiped out long ago. In
the Secessionist Congress at Montgomery, Senator Toombs, one of the spokesmen of the
South, strikingly formulated the economic law that commands the constant expansion of
the territory of slavery. "In fifteen years," said he, "without a great increase in
slave territory, either the slaves must be permitted to flee from the whites, or the
whites must flee from the slaves."

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