Greg Grandin reviews Robin Blackburn’s latest books for the Guardian. Grandin describes Blackburn’s The American Crucible not as “the capstone of an influential career” but rather as “a catching of breath and a continuation of arguments initially made by the great original theorists of the Atlantic World system.” In this monumental new book, Blackburn explores some of the historical conceptions and misconceptions of the complex system which sustained slavery and its economy in the Americas, with a new focus on the Haitian revolution:
The centrepiece of The American Crucible is Blackburn's measured reconstruction of the chronology of the Haitian revolution and its influence on freedom movements in the United States, Spanish America and Brazil, a persuasive rebuttal of scholarly assessments that the revolution was exceptionally bloody or that its leaders instituted a new form of anti-European racism.
Grandin also praises An Unfinished Revolution, Blackburn’s presentation of the correspondence between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Blackburn’s extensive introduction brings to life the relationship of the two men who occupied very different worlds and held contrary views, yet who coincided on an issue of historic importance, bringing those worlds into fleeting contact with one another. He urges that the Civil War and Reconstruction – “America’s unfinished revolution” – was of larger influence on Marx than often understood – and likewise suggests that the ideas of Marx and Engels had a greater impact on the United States – a country notoriously hostile to socialism – than is usually allowed.
In addition to a range of writings and speeches by Lincoln and Marx, such as the Gettysburg Address and Marx’s journalism, An Unfinished Revolution includes Raya Dunaevskaya’s assessment of the impact of the Civil War on Marx’s theory and a survey by Frederick Engels of the progress of US labour in the 1880s.
What would have happened, Blackburn asks, had Marx – who in Europe supported both union and party building – relocated to New York or Chicago? His answer is necessarily wistful: just as Marx "saw the importance of slavery at the start of the civil war, so he would surely have focused on 'winning the battle of democracy'" by urging his comrades towards a more flexible, potentially successful strategy to secure both political liberty and social equality, which Blackburn, like Marx, understands to be indivisible.
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Greg Grandin is the author of Who Is Rigoberta Menchú?