[Marxism] The disservice done by Lincoln
lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Jan 8 06:11:10 MST 2013
The disservice done by Lincoln
January 8, 2013
ALAN MAASS' review of Spielberg's Lincoln ("The great uncompromiser"
) has added some complexity to the discussion of this excellent
film--but profoundly flawed account of history.
Maass is absolutely correct that Lincoln, neither in the film nor in
history, was a "great compromiser." The parallels with Obama, despite
screenwriter Tony Kushner's desires (see his revealing interview with
Bill Moyers ), are not accurate. As recent biographies, in particular
James McPherson's Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and
Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,
demonstrate, once Lincoln had come to a political position, he never
However, we should be clear that Lincoln was, in McPherson's words, a
"reluctant revolutionary." Lincoln was a pragmatist. He responded to
"facts on the ground"--in particular, the mass flight of slaves during
war (what W.E.B. DuBois called the "general strike") and the resulting
collapse of slavery.
It is precisely Lincoln's "reluctance" to lead a thoroughgoing
revolution in the South during the Civil War--and the decisive role of
the mass flight of slaves from the plantations--that is missing from
Spielberg and Kushner's hagiographic portrayal.
It is simply not enough to argue "Lincoln isn't about everything that
happened during the Civil War." Spielberg and Kushner's decision to
focus solely on the parliamentary machinations surrounding the
Thirteenth Amendment, while making for a magnificent film, produces a
vision of emancipation that is profoundly flawed.
First, Lincoln is presented as a consistent advocate of the
uncompensated, immediate and permanent abolition of slavery--a position
he had only come to embrace in mid-1862. Before his decision to issue
the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln promoted, unsuccessfully, various
schemes for graduate emancipation, with the compensation of masters
(especially those in the "border" states) and the colonization of
African Americans to Central America, the Caribbean or Africa.
Second, the film greatly exaggerates the impact of the Thirteenth
Amendment. Much of the historical research of the past 20 years has
shown that by late 1864, slavery as the basis of production in the South
While some Confederate political leaders may have believed that the
"peculiar institution" could be revived, the former slaves
themselves--through joining the Union army as spies, laborers and
soldiers and the self-organization of proto-trade unions, seizure of
abandoned plantations and the like--had destroyed slavery. (According to
Kevin Anderson, the author of Marx at the Margins, Marx adopted the
notion of "self-emancipation" from the struggle of the slaves during the
U.S. Civil War.) Put simply, the Thirteenth Amendment legally recognized
the reality of the class struggle in the South.
Imagine how we on the left, especially those of us in the tradition of
"socialism from below," would have reacted to a film on the organization
of industrial unions in the 1930s that looked only at the deliberations
of the U.S. Supreme Court in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones &
Laughlin Steel Corporation, the 1937 case that upheld the
constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935?
Rather than depicting the self-activity and self-organization of
industrial workers who launched city-wide general strikes in
Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco in 1934, the waves of strikes in
basic industry in 1935 and 1936, and the sit-down strikes of 1936-37, we
would be treated to lengthy discussions between the Supreme Court
justices debating whether or not the inter-state commerce clause of the
U.S. Constitution applied to unions.
I would be surprised if anyone in our political tradition would argue
that such a film was "not about everything that happened in the 1930s,"
rather than condemning its fetishizing the at the expense of mass
working class struggles.
Charlie Post, New York City
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