[Marxism] The disservice done by Lincoln

Louis Proyect 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" 
[2]) 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 [3]), 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 
was dead.

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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     [1] http://socialistworker.org/department/Readers%27-Views
     [2] http://socialistworker.org/2012/11/29/the-great-uncompromiser
     [4] http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0

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