Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln

Submitted by Matthew on 4 August, 2011 - 12:39

By Dan Katz
This book is available for a bit more than £8 on Amazon, which makes it a bargain.

The author — Robin Blackburn — is a former editor of New Left Review, and has previously written two good books on slavery (The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery and The Making of New World Slavery).

Unfinished Revolution is divided into two sections: a 100 page introduction, followed by 150 pages of documents. It is a long time since I bought a new book which includes a section of historical writings — in this case from Marx, Engels, Lincoln and others. It makes a good change to find a writer who thinks readers should study historical sources.

Blackburn’s introduction is interesting, but is an odd political shape. He starts by contrasting Lincoln with Marx — but can’t go too far because Lincoln is assassinated at the end of the civil war, in April 1865 (and the period of post-war Reconstruction does not end until 1877). The last section of Blackburn’s essay is a brief overview of the development of the working class movement in the wake of the American North’s victory.

Blackburn makes one claim which seems wrong, and — more important — fails to make one criticism of Marx which should be made. The two are connected.

The false claim is this:

“Marx and Engels were often uneasy about the narrow mindedness of their American followers, but they were themselves partly responsible for this, since they had not yet developed a conception of the different character of trade unions on the one hand and political parties on the other.” This seems, at the very least, a little harsh; by the late 1860s Marx and Engels had been discussing the question of trade unionism for more than 20 years.

Marx and Engels had been the first major figures in the socialist movement “to adopt a position of support to trade unions and trade unions on principle” (Draper, Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution, Vol. 2), waging a war on sectarians in the movement. And, on the other hand, recognising the limitations of trade unions, Marx urged the unions towards politics. As early as 1853 Draper quotes Marx from the New York Tribune expecting unions to carry their work over into political action.

I think Robin Blackburn is right to criticise Marx and blame him, to some degree, for the narrowness of his US supporters — but not for the lack of a clear idea of the difference between trade union and political action (as Blackburn notes, this was not true in Germany or France, where Marx discussed the question, with clarity, at length).

Rather, the criticism should be different. Right the way through his writings on the US civil war Marx failed to clearly differentiate his supporters, and the workers, from Lincoln’s camp. And the clearest evidence for this is the open letters Marx wrote for the First International to Lincoln in January 1865 and to his successor, Andrew Johnson, in May 1865 (both printed in this book).

The letter to Lincoln — a cautious war leader against slavery and an enthusiastic advocate of capitalism — begins, “We congratulate the American people on your re-election”, and continues, describing Lincoln as the “single-minded son of the working class” who had led his country through a “matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race.” At this time that Lincoln was battling radicals in his own party over the rights former slaves should expect in Reconstructed southern states.

There is not much sense in Marx’s writings of the need for differentiation inside the Northern camp. The reason appears to be this idea, at the end of Marx’s letter to Lincoln: “the American war of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American anti-slavery war will do for the working classes.”

Marx appears to be saying: first the war over slavery, then the workers. He would have done better to remember his own conclusions following the revolutions of 1848: for working class independence.


Submitted by Matthew on Sat, 06/08/2011 - 09:30

Of course Marx "would have done better to remember his own conclusions following the revolutions of 1848: for working class independence" but I think the question is how much of a grip he had on the situation in the US.

Mass communication and media now let us see what is happening anywhere in the world instantly. Marx had the bourgeois press and letters from his supporters in the US, mainly German emigres in the North. How much did he know about the split in the Northern bourgeoisie between Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, the state of the American labour movement etc?

Trotsky discussing with his US supporters in Mexico in the late 30's asked them whether black people in the American South spoke English. They were from New York and the Midwest and said they thought so but weren't sure.

Submitted by Mark on Mon, 08/08/2011 - 21:57

I'm sure he knew exactly what Lincoln represented politically. The evidence is in his correspondence with Engels. They had a very detailed picture. Lack of knowledge is not the reason. (And how much knowledge do you need to write: 'The workers need their own class organisations to fight for their own distinct interests'?)

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