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Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln: A Curious Convergence*

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[Abstract Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln held very different views on the ‘social question’. This essay explores the way in which they converged in their estimation of slavery during the course of the Civil War; Marx was an ardent abolitionist, and Lincoln came to see this position as necessary. It is argued that the rôle of runaway slaves – called ‘contraband’ – and German-revolutionary ’48ers played a significant rôle in the radicalisation of Lincoln and the direction of the War., AbstractKarl Marx and Abraham Lincoln held very different views on the ‘social question’. This essay explores the way in which they converged in their estimation of slavery during the course of the Civil War; Marx was an ardent abolitionist, and Lincoln came to see this position as necessary. It is argued that the rôle of runaway slaves – called ‘contraband’ – and German-revolutionary ’48ers played a significant rôle in the radicalisation of Lincoln and the direction of the War.]

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52. FN0* This article is based on a lecture marking the bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth given as part of a series organised by the History Department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in October 2009. I would like to thank David Levine and his colleagues for the invitation and for many helpful comments (while naturally absolving them from responsibility for particular judgements or mistakes).
53. FN11. Marx 1961.
54. FN22. Marx 1985, p. 114.
55. FN33. Marx 1961, pp. 57–70.
56. FN44. Marx 1961, p. 68. Here I only briefly explain and evaluate Marx’s analysis of the origins of the Civil War, though the texts I have cited clearly enough reject economic reductionism. Marx’s stress on the centrality of political issues can be compared with that found in Moore 1966. For a recent account using many of Marx’s concepts, see Ashworth 2007.
57. FN55. Marx 1961, p. 68.
58. FN66. Marx 1961, p. 71.
59. FN77. Marx and Engels 1984, p. 50.
60. FN88. Foner 2010.
61. FN99. Marx and Engels 1961, p. 72.
62. FN1010. Engels 1961, p. 326.
63. FN1111. Anderson 1996.
64. FN1212. Potter 1976; Genovese 1967; Foner 1970; Ashworth 1995; Ashworth 2007.
65. FN1313. Crofts 2005, p. 197.
66. FN1414. Abraham Lincoln, speech in Peoria (Illinois) on 16 October 1854, responding to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The quote from the Declaration of Independence strikes a patriotic note, though some might conclude that the speech also invalidated the break of 1776, given the prominence of slavery in several North-American slave-colonies. No doubt Lincoln would have insisted that the objection was not available to George III and his governments, since they were massively implicated in slavery, and that at least the Founding Fathers were uneasy about the institution.
67. FN1515. The phrase ‘And the war came’, taken from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural, has been adopted for many valuable accounts, but its implicit denial of Northern agency fails to acknowledge the emergence of a new nationalism or to pinpoint the Union’s legitimacy-deficit in 1861–2 and hence a vital factor impelling the President to remedy it. See, for example, Stampp 1970; Crofts 2005; McPherson 2007, p. 17.
68. FN1616. Wilentz 2005, p. 783. Wilentz proceeds from these remarks to the conclusion: ‘the only just and legitimate way to settle the matter [i.e. the difference over slavery-extension], Lincoln insisted . . . was through a deliberate democratic decision made by the citizenry.’ (Wilentz 2005, p. 763.) A riposte to this is suggested by Louis Menand’s observation: ‘the Civil War was a vindication, as Lincoln had hoped it would be, of the American experiment. Except for one thing, which is that people who live in democratic societies are not supposed to settle their disagreements by killing one another.’ (Menand 2001, p. x.)
69. FN1717. Quoted in Bensel 1990, p. 18. For an account of Seward’s expansionist plans and their frustration by the larger processes set in motion by the Civil War, see LaFeber 1963, pp. 24–32.
70. FN1818. Levine 1992.
71. FN1919. The over-representation of British immigrants in the ranks of antislavery activists in the 1830s is brought out in Richards 1978.
72. FN2020. Levine 1992, p. 125. In later decades some German-Americans did indeed soft-pedal women’s rights when seeking to recruit Irish-American trade-unionists, but, while this should be duly noted, it is far from characterising all German-Americans, whether followers of Marx or not. For an interesting study, which sometimes veers towards caricature, see Messer-Kruse 1998. This author has a justifiable pride in the native American radical tradition and some valid criticisms of some of the positions adopted by German-American ‘Marxists’ but is so obsessed with pitting the two ethnic political cultures against one another that he fails to notice how effectively they often combined, especially in the years 1850–70. See Buhle 1991 for a more balanced assessment.
73. FN2121. Barkin 2008, p. 71.
74. FN2222. Gallagher 1998.
75. FN2323. Marx and Engels 1984, pp. 233–4.
76. FN2424. Marx and Engels 1961, pp. 202–6.
77. FN2525. Marx and Engels 1961, p. 258.
78. FN2626. Slave-resistance and black abolitionism played vital rôles in radicalising many Republicans and Union soldiers, a development that Marx and Engels anticipated but did not thereafter write much about. The thousands of fugitives of 1861 grew to as many as 400,000 by the end of the War, or a little over a tenth of the slave-population, with the remainder working to meet their own needs rather than for their owner. See Hahn 2009. The Emancipation Proclamation did not attempt the impossible task of discriminating between loyal and rebel owners inside the Confederacy, and, in practice, Union offices were often to accept refugees if they needed recruits or labourers, even if these refugees might have originated from the border-states.
79. FN2727. McPherson 2008, p. 33.
80. FN2828. For an account which seriously addresses the issue of Unionist nationalism, see Bensel 1990, pp. 18–47.
81. FN2929. Ross 2009, p. 346.
82. FN3030. Menand 2001, p. 45.
83. FN3131. Menand 2001, pp. 52–3.
84. FN3232. Lincoln’s long attachment to the colonisation-idea is documented in Foner 2008.
85. FN3333. Holzer (ed.) 1993, p. 189. This was not an off-hand remark, but forms part of a careful introduction to his speech.
86. FN3434. Marx and Engels 1961, p. 273.
87. FN3535. Marx and Engels 1961, pp. 260–1.
88. FN3636. Marx and Engels 1961, p. 281. The meanings of the address are rarely considered, which makes it the more regrettable when it is interpreted in a tendentious way, as is the case with Messer-Kruse 1998, pp. 54–6, in which he has Marx complaining at the ‘bother’ of having to write something of such little importance as the address and that he only consented to do so because: ‘In Marx’s view, slavery had to be destroyed in order to allow for the historical development of the white working class.’ (Messer-Kruse 1998, p. 54.)
89. FN3737. Marx and Engels 1961, pp. 262–3.
90. FN3838. Vincent 1976, p. 22.
91. FN3939. Oakes 2007.
92. FN4040. For Lincoln’s long attachment to colonisation, see Foner 2008. Sinha 2008 documents the African-American contribution to changing Lincoln’s mind on the question. Oakes 2008 argues that the ‘unrequited labour’ strand in Lincoln’s rejection of slavery became more marked in the late 1850s and the War years.
93. FN4141. Quoted in Fredrickson 2008, p. 126.
94. FN4242. In this text Marx, who again wrote it, heaps praise on Lincoln as ‘a man neither to be browbeaten by adversity, nor intoxicated by success, inflexibly pressing on to his great goal, never compromising it by blind haste, slowly maturing his steps, never retracing them, carried away by no surge of popular favour, disheartened by no slackening of the popular pulse; tempering stern acts by the gleam of a kind heart, illuminating scenes dark with passion by the smile of humour, doing his titanic work as humbly and homely as heaven-born rulers do little things with the grandiloquence of pomp and state. Such, indeed, was the modesty of this great and good man that the world only discovered him a hero after he had fallen a martyr.’ (Marx and Engels 1961, p. 358.)
95. FN4343. Marx and Engels 1961, pp. 276–7.
96. FN4444. Marx and Engels 1961, p. 277.
97. FN4545. The classic study of the free-labour doctrine is Foner 1970.
98. FN4646. Montgomery 1967.
99. FN4747. Fernbach 1974, p. 14.
100. FN4848. As Carol Johnson points out, this leaves little room for long-term reformism. See Johnson 1980.
101. FN4949. Draper 1986, p. 273.
102. FN5050. Dunayevskaya 1971, pp. 81–91.
103. FN5151. See Blackburn 2010, pp. 153–76.
104. FN5252. Quoted in Messer-Kruse 1998, p. 191.
105. FN5353. Draper 1986, p. 15.
106. FN5454. See Foner 1988 and Hahn 2003, pp. 103–5.
107. FN5555. See Blackburn 2010 and also Burbank 1978. For the rôle of African-Americans in the strike and later, see Jack 2007, especially pp. 142–50. See also Bruce 1959; Foner 1977; Green 2006.
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2011-01-01
2016-02-12

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