Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bruce Levine: the class and economic basis of the the US Civil War

Currently I am reading Bruce Levine's book The Fall of the House of Dixie about the US Civil War and the revolution that transformed the country through the collapse of slavery, the  destruction of the old South and the reunification of the country that emerged from the Civil War.

At the same time, the online radical leftist magazine Jacobin has devoted its current edition to a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Union victory in the Civil War and the antislavery Emancipation Proclamation and an analysis of some contemporary implications. Bruce Levine has an article in that edition.

Levine writes that the Civil War was undeniably a class war. The southern political and economic elite exercised unprecedented financial and political power. They controlled the farms, banks, legislatures and Southern culture. The 50 leading Southern planters each owned more than 500 other human beings.

Levine shows how the war was primarily about preserving their wealth, power and privilege and protecting the economic and social and cultural systems built around slavery that created and sustained that wealth and power.

Levine writes that the Civil War was:
 ‘a rich man’s war’ . . . waged principally by poorer men and sustained by the privation of their families.’

 Levin writes how the Southern elite framed their message of white supremacy to appeal to mass audience. Levine argues that Southern secession advocates:

 “mobilized sections of the white South’s slaveless majority by presenting their cause less as a defense of slavery than as a defense of the South’s prerogatives, honor, mores, and right to govern itself.’’

Levine calls this transformation of the country through the abolition of slavery "the second American revolution." As he notes in the Jacobin article, the revolution however was notoriously incomplete:

It is true that during the 1870s and afterward, champions of white supremacy succeeded through a vicious terror campaign in denying former slaves and their descendants many of the rights that they had won in the war’s immediate aftermath. The brutally oppressive Jim Crow system that was then created remained in full force down past the middle of the twentieth century. 

 A reviewer of the book makes similar points:

Within a generation, the remnants of the Southern white aristocracy found common cause with their poor white brethren to subjugate the blacks once more through Jim Crow laws that thwarted the newly liberated. It would take the better part of another century of struggle to make fresh progress in redeeming Lincoln's original promise

Levine argues that slavery could well have lasted into the 20th century, and that it was, in fact, the Confederacy that hastened slavery's end. He suggests that while the South launched the war to preserve slavery, the Civil War in fact destroyed it more quickly than the natural course of events would have.

 "In taking what they assumed to be a defensive position in support of slavery the leaders of the Confederacy ... radically hastened its eradication."

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