Saturday, April 05, 2014

During The 150th Anniversary Commemoration Of The American Civil War –In Honor Of The Union Side The Third Hard Year Of War-Wilhelm Sorge’s War-Take Two


From The Pen Of Frank Jackman

I would not expect any average American citizen today to be familiar with the positions of the communist intellectuals and international working-class party organizers (First International) Karl Mark and Friedrich Engels on the events of the American Civil War. There is only so much one can expect of people to know off the tip of the tongue what for several generations now has been ancient history.  I am, however, always amazed when I run into some younger leftists and socialists, or even older radicals who may have not read much Marx and Engels, and find that they are surprised, very surprised to see that Marx and Engels were avid partisans of the Abraham Lincoln-led Union side in the American Civil War. I, in the past, have placed a number of the Marx-Engels newspaper articles from the period in this space to show the avidity of their interest and partisanship in order to refresh some memoires and enlighten others. As is my wont I like to supplement such efforts with little sketches to illustrate points that I try to make and do so below.   

Given that Marx and Engels have always been identified with a strong anti-capitalist bias for the unknowing it may seem counter-intuitive that the two men would have such a positive position on events that had as one of its outcomes an expanding unified American capitalist state. A unified capitalist state which ultimately led the vanguard actions against the followers of Marx and Engels in the 20th century in such places as Russia, China, Cuba and Vietnam. The pair were however driven in their views on revolutionary politics by a theory of historical materialism which placed support of any particular actions in the context of whether they drove the class struggle toward human emancipation forward. So while the task of a unified capitalist state was supportable on historical grounds in the United States of the 1860s alone (as was their qualified support German unification later in the decade) the key to their support was the overthrow of the more backward slave labor system in one part of the country (aided by those who thrived on the results of that system like the Cotton Whigs in the North) in order to allow the new then progressive capitalist system to thrive.       

In the age of advanced imperialist society today, of which the United States is currently the prime example, and villain, we find that we are, unlike Marx and Engels, almost always negative about capitalism’s role in world politics. And we are always harping on the need to overthrow the system in order to bring forth a new socialist reconstruction of society. Thus one could be excused for forgetting that at earlier points in history capitalism played a progressive role. A role that Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and other leading Marxists, if not applauded, then at least understood represented human progress. Of course, one does not expect everyone to be a historical materialist and therefore know that in the Marxist scheme of things both the struggle to bring America under a unitary state that would create a national capitalist market by virtue of a Union victory and the historically more important struggle to abolish slavery that turned out to a necessary outcome of that Union struggle were progressive in the eyes of our forebears, and our eyes.

Furthermore few know about the fact that the small number of Marxist supporters in the United States during that Civil period, and the greater German immigrant communities here that where spawned when radicals were force to flee Europe with the failure of the German revolutions of 1848 were mostly fervent supporters of the Union side in the conflict. Some of them called the “Red Republicans” and “Red 48ers” formed an early experienced military cadre in the then forming Union armies. Below is a short sketch drawn on the effect that these hardened foreign –born abolitionists had on some of the raw recruits who showed up in their regiments and brigades during those hard four years of fighting, the third year of which we are commemorating this month of April.      

Wilhelm Sorge, as he looked around his town, looked as he saw the dirty dusty streets of Boston clogged and in some disrepair after all the endless regiments raised helped create this condition after almost a year of war, the Brothers’ war, the war against the departed brethren down south who had gone on to form their own nation, was growing pensive. He thought back to how his father, Friedrich, the owner of small print shop on Milk Street, a former barricade fighter in his native Cologne back in ’48 (as his father would say), a known “high abolitionist” around town had played his part in raising that dust before him with his endless tirades about the necessity of creating regiments in preparation for the civil war that he knew in his bones was coming. They had, father and son, argued constantly for a time about Wilhelm’s enlisting in the fight, in Massa Lincoln’s fight Wilhelm called it. That argument had died down if it had not been extinguished when both men had seen that the other’s arguments held no sway. Wilhelm flat out saw no reason to fight, saw benefits to his career such as it was by keeping out of the fight and decidedly did not want to lift a finger to free the sweaty turgid slaves. Wilhelm was by no measure his father’s son on that score.      


As Wilhelm thought about the present political situation think amid the dust clouds being raised as he walked along Tremont Street he said to himself that no, he had decidedly not changed his mind over that time, over the year since he and his father had first quarreled, and subsequently, every time, every damn time his father, the “high abolitionist” Friedrich Sorge held forth on his favorite subject-freeing the “nigras.” Or rather his favorite subject of having his eldest son, one Wilhelm Sorge, him, put on the blue uniform of the Union side and go down south, south somewhere and fill in a spot in the depleting armies of the North. There were plenty of farm boys and mill hands eager to lay down their heads for that cause.


No, as well, he had not changed his mind one bit about how his employers had been “robbed” since the military actions had started the previous year and the flow of cotton had been so diminished that he was only working his clerks’ job at the Sanborne and Sons warehouses three days a week. The damn blockade and the wimpy position of the British ahd wreaked havoc on supplies coming through. He was supplementing that meager wage working for Jim Smith, the former neighborhood blacksmith now turned small arms manufacturer, who was always in need of a smart clerk who also had a strong pair of hands and back to work on the artillery carriages that he produced on order from Massachusetts Legislature for the Army of the Potomac. And, no, one thousand times no he had not changed his mind about the nigra stinks that had bothered him when they had worked at the Sanborne warehouses in the days before secession when those locations were filled with beautiful southern cotton that needed to be hauled on or off waiting ships dockside.


What was making Wilhelm pensive though, making him think every once in a while a vagrant thought about joining up in the war effort was that all his friends, his old Klimt school friends and Goethe Club friends had enlisted in one of the waves of the various deployments of Massachusetts-raised regiments. Those friends had baited him about his manhood even as he offered to take them on one by one or collectively if they so desired to see who the real man was. Moreover he grew pensive, and somewhat sheepish, every time he passed by the German graveyard on Milk Street where he could see fresh flowers sticking out of urns in front of newly buried soldier boys. Soldier boys like Werther Schmidt, his school friend, whose mother was daily prostrate before his fresh-flowered grave. He would cross the street when he spied her all in black coming up the other way for he could not stand the look she would give him when she passed. Gave him like he, not some Johnny Reb or more likely some disease, had been the cause of poor Werther’s death.


But who was he kidding. Lately Wilhelm Sorge had not become pensive as a result of pressure from his father and friends, nor about his reduced circumstances, nor about Negro stinks but about what Miss Lucinda Mason thought of him. Miss Lucinda Mason whose father, like his, was a “high abolitionist” and was instrumental in assisting in forming the newly authorized regiments in Massachusetts. And while her father was mildly tolerate of Wilhelm’s slackness about serving his country Lucinda, while smitten by her German young man met at a dance to raise funds for the Union efforts of all places, continually harped on the need for him to “enter service” as she called it. And of course if the rosy-cheeked, wasp-waisted Miss Lucinda Mason harped on an issue then that indeed would make a man pensive. Yes, it was like that with young Wilhelm about Miss Lucinda Mason.

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