When Karl Marx Made the Case for Capitalism

In barely a century, capitalism led to more productivity "than have all preceding generations together," Marx and Friedrich Engels argued.


In November 1864, Karl Marx wrote a letter congratulating President Abraham Lincoln on his reelection to the White House. "From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of England felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class," Marx declared. He was therefore thrilled by the news that Lincoln would continue "to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world."

That reconstructed social world did not just involve a Union victory in the Civil War. What Marx had in mind was the triumph of the North's free labor system and the accompanying spread of Northern capitalism throughout the would-be Confederate States of America.

If the idea of Marx welcoming the spread of capitalism comes as a surprise, that's because you don't know Marx. The free market economist Joseph Schumpeter famously likened capitalism to a "gale of creative destruction." But Marx actually said something similar in The Communist Manifesto, co-written with Friedrich Engels in 1848.

In barely a century, they wrote, capitalism "has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together." It has "rescued a considerable part of the population from the idiocy of rural life" and "wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal" arrangements. "All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions are swept away," and "all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air."

According to Marx, history unfolded in a grand series of stages, each defined by its dominant mode of economic production and each specifically arising to replace the one that preceded it. "In broad outlines," he wrote in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, "ancient, feudal, and modern bourgeois modes of production can be designated as progressive epochs in the economic formation of society." Capitalism, in other words, was a historically necessary step in human progress.

The great revolutionary forces unleashed by capitalism, Marx thought, would in turn form and shape a self-aware proletariat class that would ultimately lead humanity into a glorious communist future. But that would happen only after capitalism had worked its magic. "No social order ever perishes," Marx maintained, "before all the productive forces for which there is room in it have developed."

That is why Marx cheered for Lincoln and the Union. He saw the slaveholding South as a feudalistic, pre-capitalist society in serious need of creative destruction. Ironically, that Marxist interpretation of the Civil War proved to be too much to swallow for one of the most influential Marxist historians of the 20th century.

'Unfettered Expansion'

Eugene Genovese was practically born into the American left. His father, a Brooklyn dockworker, "hated the bosses," as the son put it, and cheered the New Deal. At the age of 15, Genovese joined the American Communist Party. In 1965, at a Vietnam War teach-in at Rutgers University, Genovese, then a professor in the history department, shocked friend and foe alike by announcing that he "welcomed" a Viet Cong victory.

In 1972, Genovese published the book that made his name. Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made won the prestigious Bancroft Prize and earned rave reviews in both scholarly and popular outlets. It remains widely read on college campuses and continues to influence the field of American history. In the summer of 2020, The New York Times listed Roll, Jordan, Roll as one of the handful of books that everybody should read to better understand "the recent wave of countrywide protests" against racism and police brutality. "With roots in Marxist theory," the Times noted, Roll, Jordan, Roll "was among the first to look at enslaved people as agents—not as mere 'slaves,' but as human beings with their own ideas, culture, and, above all, strategies of resistance." The newspaper added: "Even now, few books can provide a comparable level of insight and moral clarity into the centuries of American slavery."

What the Times writer did not tell his readers was that Genovese ultimately rejected Marx in the 1980s and became a sort of right-wing anti-capitalist. Genovese devoted the final decades of his scholarly career to writing sympathetically, even admiringly, about the slaveholders and their "pre-bourgeois" ideology. "The northern victory in 1865," Genovese wrote in The Southern Tradition: The Achievements and Limitations of an American Conservatism (1994), "sanctified northern institutions and intentions, which included the unfettered expansion of a bourgeois world view and the suppression of alternate visions of social order." Put differently, Genovese came to lament the loss of the Old South's illiberal social order, a loss that was both brought about and hastened (just as Marx wanted) by the spread of capitalism.

It was here where Genovese broke with Marx. "In the Old South," Genovese wrote, approvingly, in The Southern Tradition, "outstanding political and intellectual figures denounced capitalism ('the free-labor system') as a brutal, immoral, irresponsible wage-slavery in which the masters of capital exploited and impoverished their workers without assuming responsibility for them."

The slaveholders, Genovese wrote in The World the Slaveholders Made (1969), believed "that exploitation and class stratification were inevitable and that slavery, with its principle of responsibility of one man for another, led to less hardship and despair than capitalism, with its principle of every man for himself, for at least the [enslaved] had a community to appeal to other than one based on a cash nexus."

Many slaveholders did make such arguments. Speaking on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1850, for example, Jefferson Davis (D–Miss.) praised slavery's "domestic character and strictly patriarchal relations," scoffing at "that cruelty which is made the great charge against it by those who know nothing of it, and which, I will passingly say, probably exists to a smaller extent [in slavery] than in any other relation of labor to capital."

"Your whole class of manual laborers," Sen. James Hammond (D–S.C.) told his northern colleagues in 1858, "are slaves. The difference between us is, that our slaves are hired for life and well compensated; there is no starvation, no begging, no want of employment among our people." By contrast, Hammond asserted, "yours are hired by the day, not cared for, and scantily compensated, which may be proved in the most deplorable manner, at any hour, in any street in any of your large towns."

Likewise, the Virginia secessionist Edmund Ruffin, in his 1857 book The Political Economy of Slavery, declared that "extreme want and destitution, the competition for sustenance, class-slavery of labor to capital, and lastly pauper slavery, are all the incidents and necessary results of free society, and 'free labor.'" Ruffin added: "So far as their facts and their reasoning go, and in their main doctrines, the socialists are right."

Genovese, an ex-socialist who always remained deeply hostile to capitalism, apparently found himself drawn to such arguments. The "happy dream" of the "free marketeers," Genovese would say, "constitutes my own private nightmare." In effect, Genovese concluded that Marx was too soft on the capitalists; far more to Genovese's taste was the cold-eyed anti-capitalism of "the master class."

'Equal Freedom'

On November 9, 1882, a distinguished group of scholars, politicians, business leaders, and journalists gathered in the celebrated New York City restaurant Delmonico's to honor the English political philosopher and evolutionary theorist Herbert Spencer, who was concluding his first grand tour of the United States. The attendees included Spencer himself, future New York Mayor Abram Hewitt, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and Yale paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, the discoverer of numerous fossilized dinosaurs. Among the featured speakers was former Missouri senator and U.S. interior secretary Carl Schurz, who began by recalling "some pleasant memories" from his service as a Union general during the Civil War.

"Nineteen years ago, after the battle of Missionary Ridge," Schurz told the audience, he was camped out with his command near Chattanooga, Tennessee, with only a handful of supplies to protect him from the winter cold. "But I had Herbert Spencer's 'Social Statics' with me," Schurz declared, which "I read by the light of a tallow-candle."

Published in 1851, Social Statics was Spencer's second book and first big hit. In it, he laid out what he called his law of equal freedom, a sweepingly libertarian credo: "Every man has freedom to do all that he wills, provided that he infringes not the equal freedom of any other man." As Schurz told the assembled worthies at Delmonico's that night, "If the people of the South had well studied and thoroughly digested that book, there would never have been any war for the preservation of slavery."

Had Marx been present at Delmonico's, he might have nodded right along with that praise for the work of his otherwise intellectual adversary. Like Spencer, Marx not only welcomed capitalism's creative destruction of feudalism and slavery; he recognized and even championed capitalism's essential role in human advancement. With free labor on the march, Marx argued in his 1861 essay "The North American Civil War," the peculiar institution faced ultimate extinction "according to economic law."

That's one Marxist teaching the anti-capitalists of the left and right would do well to take to heart.