In 1861, when Marx wrote “The American Question in England”, the British establishment, under the spell of “chivalry” as a chaser to imperial power and money, was engaged in the shabby business of support the Confederates on – of course – a strictly moral basis. This support had two aspects: one was the class aspect, and one was financial. As a class, the bourgeoisie, by this time, had gone beyond the old fights with the landholders, the old philanthropic enthusiasm for banning the slave trade. At this point, beyond its function as a wealthmaking potential colony, the South’s whole plantation system had already begun to exert a romantic vacationer’s allure.
Marx, of course, brings the buzz saw to the pleasure dome. What makes this particular article relevant is the way it shows the peekaboo structure of the establishment journalist’s ethos. As they do today, journalists then were happy to live on the surface and stenograph the conventional wisdom of the powerful; however, sometimes they seemed to display flashes of impressive analysis, as though they had up and resolved to dig deep and confront the old mole of history itself, in one of its moleways. Of course, those flashes – nowadays we would call this “contrarianism” – always seem to end up at the same place that the stenography work gets us to: as a bulwark of greed, lust for power, and apology for the politics of an inbred and narcissistic governing class.
Marx’s analysis of the dynamic between the North and the South, and the way it is treated in 1861 by the liberal (as in classically liberal) British press is an amazing work of compression and analysis. As Marx observes, the objections to the North’s hypocrisy and illegitimacy by the British press hide the true intentions of the press under the cover of a Pecksniffish display of moral authenticity. The article is occasioned by a pamphlet addressed to the British on the part of the Union by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The pamphlet was tossed around and given the kind of contrarian treatment by the British press in much the way, say, that the NYT, the Washington Post, and Slate treat Michael Moore’s work: as both wrong wrong wrong and tediously filled with things that are right right right – but the latter being things that we all knew, after all. We all knew them so well that we just didn’t bother to report them. They were known by everybody who counted in D.C., that is. Like: we all knew that the WMDs were just an excuse to invade a country the White House had decided from the very beginning that it was going to invade.
This elitist trifling, this overt intellectual corruption to which the knowing smirk stands in the same relation as the does the buboe to the black plague, has a long and dishonorable history. Marx and Henry Adams were both encountering it, in their different ways, in 1861. Here’s a lengthy excerpt:
We come nearer to the pith of the question by the following remark of The Examiner:
“Mrs. Stowe says: ‘The Slave party, finding they could no longer use the Union for their purposes, resolved to destroy it.’ There is here an admission that up to that time the Slave party had used the Union for their purposes, and it would have been well if Mrs. Stowe could have distinctly shown where it was that the North began to make its stand against Slavery.”
One might suppose that The Examiner and the other oracles of public opinion in England had made themselves sufficiently familiar with the contemporaneous history to not need Mrs. Stowe’s information on such all-important points. The progressive abuse of the Union by the slave power, working through its alliance with the Northern Democratic party, is, so to say, the general formula of the United States history since the beginning of this century. The successive compromise measures mark the successive degrees of the encroachment by which the Union became more and more transformed into the slave of the slave-owner. Each of these compromises denotes a new encroachment of the South, a new concession of the North. At the same time none of the successive victories of the South was carried but after a hot contest with an antagonistic force in the North, appearing under different party names with different watchwords and under different colors. If the positive and final result of each single contest told in favor of the South, the attentive observer of history could not but see that every new advance of the slave power was a step forward to its ultimate defeat. Even at the times of the Missouri Compromise the contending forces were so evenly balanced that Jefferson, as we see from his memoirs, apprehended the Union to be in danger of splitting on that deadly antagonism. The encroachments of the slaveholding power reached their maximum point, when, by the Kansas-Nebraska bill, for the first time in the history of the United States, as Mr. Douglas himself confessed, every legal barrier to the diffusion of Slavery within the United States territories was broken down, when, afterward, a Northern candidate bought his Presidential nomination by pledging the Union to conquer or purchase in Cuba a new field of dominion for the slaveholder; when, later on, by the Dred Scott decision, diffusion of Slavery by the Federal power was proclaimed as the law of the American Constitution, and lastly, when the African slave-trade was de facto reopened on a larger scale than during the times of its legal existence. But, concurrently with this climax of Southern encroachments, carried by the connivance of the Northern Democratic party, there were unmistakable signs of Northern antagonistic agencies having gathered such strength as must soon turn the balance of power. The Kansas war, the formation of the Republican party, and the large vote cast for Mr. Frémont during the Presidential election of 1856, were so many palpable proofs that the North had accumulated sufficient energies to rectify the aberrations which United States history, under the slaveowners’ pressure, had undergone, for half a century, and to make it return to the true principles of its development. Apart from those political phenomena, there was one broad statistical and economical fact indicating that the abuse of the Federal Union by the slave interest had approached the point from which it would have to recede forcibly… That fact was the growth of the North-West, the immense strides its population had made from 1850 to 1860, and the new and reinvigorating influence it could not but bear on the destinies of the United States.
Now, was all this a secret chapter of history? Was “the admission” of Mrs. Beecher Stowe wanted to reveal to The Examiner and the other political illuminati of the London press the carefully hidden truth that “up to that time the Slave party had used the Union for their purposes?” Is it the fault of the American North that the English pressmen were taken quite unawares by the violent clash of the antagonistic forces, the friction of which was the moving power of its history for half a century? Is it the fault of the Americans that the English press mistake for the fanciful crotchet hatched in a single day what was in reality the matured result of long years of struggle? The very fact that the formation and the progress of the Republican party in America have hardly been noticed by the London press, speaks volumes as to the hollowness of its Anti-Slavery tirades. Take, for instance, the two antipodes of the London press, The London Times and Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper, the one the great organ of the respectable classes, and the other the only remaining organ of the working class. The former, not long before Mr. Buchanan’s career drew to an end, published an elaborate apology for his Administration and a defamatory libel against the Republican movement. Reynolds, on his part, was, during Mr. Buchanan’s stay at London, one of his minions, and since that time never missed an occasion to write him up and to write his adversaries down. How did it come to pass that the Republican party, whose platform was drawn up on the avowed antagonism to the encroachments of the Slaveocracy and the abuse of the Union by the slave interest, carried the day in the North? How, in the second instance, did it come to pass that the great bulk of the Northern Democratic party, flinging aside its old connexions with the leaders of Slaveocracy, setting at naught its traditions of half a century, sacrificing great commercial interests and greater political prejudices, rushed to the support of the present Republican Administration and offered it men and money with an unsparing hand?
Instead of answering these questions The Economist exclaims:
“Can we forget [...] that Abolitionists have habitually been as ferociously persecuted and maltreated in the North and West as in the South? Can it be denied that the testiness and half-heartedness, not to say insincerity, of the Government at Washington, have for years supplied the chief impediment which has thwarted our efforts for the effectual suppression of the slave trade on the coast of Africa; while a vast proportion of the clippers actually engaged in that trade have been built with Northern capital, owned by Northern merchants and manned by Northern seamen?”
This is, in fact, a masterly piece of logic. Anti-Slavery England cannot sympathize with the North breaking down the withering influence of slaveocracy, because she cannot forget that the North, while bound by that influence, supported the slave-trade, mobbed the Abolitionists, and had its Democratic institutions tainted by the slavedriver’s prejudices. She cannot sympathize with Mr. Lincoln’s Administration, because she had to find fault with Mr. Buchanan’s Administration. She must needs sullenly cavil at the present movement of the Northern resurrection, cheer up the Northern sympathizers with the slave-trade, branded in the Republican platform, and coquet with the Southern slaveocracy, setting up an empire of its own, because she cannot forget that the North of yesterday was not the North of to-day. The necessity of justifying its attitude by such pettifogging Old Bailey pleas proves more than anything else that the anti-Northern part of the English press is instigated by hidden motives, too mean and dastardly to be openly avowed.”
Pettifogging Old Bailey pleas have bloomed into a veritable system since Marx's day. We now have to put up with the apparatchiks of contrarianism, the misshaped avatars of inside information, working day after day to close off and erase any possibility of a serious discussion of the power elite, tirelessly in pursuit of the trivial, the apes of the Petro-Gun club. During elections is when you see these apes most at work...
B.. b… but LI was going to segue from this long Marx sequence into the Iowa caucuses. Huh, well, this post is long enough as it is.