Robin Blackburn, The Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln (London: Verso, 2011).

Robin Blackburn, the British sociologist and veteran Marxist, underscores the promise and shortcomings of what contemporaries call “the Second American Revolution.” The Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln includes pieces by both men, as well as by Raya Dunaevskaya, Friedrich Engels, Lucy Parsons, T. Thomas Fortune, and Victoria Woodhull. They describe a Republican struggle to maintain the Union that inspired the pragmatic abolition of racial slavery, ideologically justified by an ethos of free labor, but falling short of equality for blacks or women, much less class emancipation. While none of this represents an original insight, Blackburn presents the case concisely, and his inclusion of these other figures rightly hints at complexities that can hardly be explored in a short book.

Blackburn’s book covers a massive amount of territory. Of nearly 260 pages of text, 100 are introductory, and 94 are writings by Marx, an interview with him, and a bit by Engels. Notwithstanding his coequal billing with Marx in the subtitle, Abraham Lincoln has only 17 pages. On one level, of course, the words of Lincoln are readily available in many venues and need not be replicated in a small book of limited space, though the same is true of Marx and Engels. In 1913, one of the early social democratic writers in this country, Hermann Schlüter wrote Lincoln, Labor and Slavery, inspiring a century of Marxist and Marxist-influenced commentary on these subjects, articulating a perspective that has essentially prevailed. With few exceptions, such as Eric Foner’s prize-winning book on Lincoln, this mass of material is acknowledged in Blackburn’s book. Unfinished Revolution conveys a sense that our understanding of that event remains more unfinished than is actually the case.

Any serious revolution represents the efforts of converging but often different and conflicting interests. The “republican” cause represented a living set of concerns, whose meaning shifted with the context. Lincoln used the same words reactionaries regularly employ in his 1838 speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, but what he meant by them carried him, step by step, to revolutionary conclusions. In revolutionary times, “liberty” or “republicanism” incorporate often contradictory impulses that reflect the nature of the revolutionary coalition, and provide the key to seeing how some parts of that coalition are going to be pursuing ultimately very different goals using the same vocabulary. Pragmatic policies carry some of the participants to where they might not have intended to go, sometimes pulling them to more radical conclusions and other times into convenient short-cuts with conservatizing logic. But the Republicans and Unionists of the 1860s did not charge into the cannon’s mouth to make corporations into “persons.”

Nevertheless, Blackburn understands the “free labor” for which Unionists struggled in a particularly narrow sense, as though participants agreed on what became its final, institutionalized embodiment. Yet, the leader of the largest strike in antebellum history—the 1860 walkout of 17,000 shoemakers—went on to recruit black volunteers, mostly runaway slaves who marched under General Alonzo G. Draper into the captured Confederate capital. Subsequent complaints by the secessionist elite and pro-business Federal military leaders indicated that their ideas of “free labor” extended beyond the mere elimination of slavery to matters like wages, the negotiation of contracts and labor relations. In fact, the activities and writings of Draper’s mentor in the army, William B. Greene, reflected an idea that the emancipation of labor for which they fought entailed nothing less than the abolition of capitalism. While Draper did not survive to return home, Greene did, participating in the International Workingmen’s Association.

While the American presence in the IWA provides an important part of Blackburn’s argument, its Republican and Unionist roots and connections merit attention. Among the first Americans to contact the IWA, John Commerford first turned up as a union organizer in Brooklyn in 1830 and, thirty years later, ran for Congress as a Republican on the Lower East Side. Section 9 of the IWA coalesced the remnants of the followers of George Henry Evans’s National Reform Association, which Marx and Engels had earlier embraced as American co-thinkers in the Communist Manifesto. The NRA’s former secretary, Alvan E. Bovay and other adherents in the upper Midwest organized the first popular meetings protesting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and Horace Greeley publicized Bovay’s name for the emerging coalition, the “Republican Party.”

Blackburn does mention Richard Josiah Hinton, the former Chartist in the IWA. Hinton went to Kansas, fought alongside John Brown, raised and led black troops in the war, and later helped to foster the emergence of a new Socialist Party at the turn of the century. Nevertheless, his career illustrates the long-standing ambiguities radicals felt about the Republican and Unionist cause. Indeed, even while publicly espousing socialism, Hinton remained an active Republican, ultimately serving as National Secretary of the GOP, and eventually buried, as a Civil War hero, in Arlington Cemetery. Radicals of all sorts remained bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of the Second American Revolution.

The myth of American exceptionalism has obscured much of this history, but so has the problem of explaining the 1872 purge of such radicalism from the IWA. With a remarkable and admirable balance, Blackburn emphasizes the importance of Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Clafflin in the American IWA and their 1872 effort to field “the Woman’s, Workingmen’s, and Negro’s ticket” for the presidency. Yet, Friedrich Albert Sorge, the violin master—who spoke with the authority of Marx and Engels—objected to this, along with the rest of the work of the English- and French-speaking sections, which he thought brought discredit on the IWA. As a result, he promulgated what was essentially an ethnic split. This coincided with the decision of Marx and Engels in London to dissolve the IWA rather than to see its politics misrepresented in the angry tide of anarchism responding to official repression after the Paris Commune. For these reasons, Marx and Engels consigned the international center to New York City and Sorge’s hands. Blackburn does not endorse Sorge’s blanket repudiation of half a century of American radicalism, but notes only the relatively minor objections to it raised by Timothy Messer-Kruse, and ignores a relevant body of scholarship including the work of Paul Buhle, Bruce Levine (on the Germans), and Michel Cordillot (on the French).

The inclusion of work by T. Thomas Fortune and Lucy Parsons merits greater clarification. Lucy Parsons and her husband Albert embarked on building a socialist party in the US, just as Sorge abandoned it. After the IWA purges, some of those excluded formed the Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party (1874) and subsequently the Workingmen’s Party of the US, which became the Socialist Labor Party in 1877-78. They made a further attempt to regroup all who saw the Civil War as an unfinished revolution into a broad Greenback-Labor party. They faced every major tactic of exclusion perfected by the capitalist two-party system over the last 130 years, driving many radicals, including the Parsons into the anarchist movement, where the couple became prominent in the Haymarket affair of 1886-87.

Fortune’s importance, in this work, lies particularly in his advocacy during the 1880s of the very land reform measures that Marx and Engels had embraced in the 1840s, and had been purged from the IWA in the 1870s. Fortune’s father had been an active leader in the attempt to reconstruct Florida and Fortune himself saw his critique of Reconstruction as an extension of that Republicanism, with its adoption not only of emancipation and constitutional guarantees of black equality but a homestead act, a graduated income tax, and other radical measures, by which contemporaries, black and white, female and male, defined the promise of the Second American Revolution as incomplete.

Blackburn’s The Unfinished Revolution should be appreciated as a useful and provocative introduction to those aspects of the American Civil War that remain contested. What made that revolution “unfinished” was the Federal decision to abandon an attempt at the Radical Reconstruction of the US. Against this backdrop though, came a “Marxist” decision to relocate what had been a fraternal radicalism to the outside. Explaining this requires acknowledging that Marx—like Lincoln—made pragmatic responses to immediate pressures. Blackburn’s work hopefully represents a step in that process.

Reviewed by Mark Lause
Department of History
University of Cincinnati


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