Django, Lincoln, and the Most Revolutionary Idea

“The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves” – that's a phrase which will be familiar to most Marxists and originates in the Rules of the International Workingmen's Association which Marx drafted.

A century later, Max Shachtman wrote that “When speaking of socialism and socialist revolution we seek 'no condescending saviours' as our great battle hymn, the International, so ably says. We do not believe that well-wishing reforms – and there are well-wishing reformers – will solve the problems of society, let alone bring socialism. … We believe that task belongs to the proletariat, only the proletariat itself. That is a world-shattering idea. It overshadows all social thought. The most profound, important and lasting thought in Marxism, the most pregnant thought in Marxism is contained in Marx’s phrase that the emancipation of the proletariat is the task of the proletariat itself. It is clearly the most revolutionary idea ever conceived, if you understand it in all of its great implications.”

I thought of this “most revolutionary idea” the other day as I watched two recent acclaimed films on the same subject – Steven Spielberg's “Lincoln” and Quentin Tarantino's “Django Unchained”.

Tarantino and Spielberg have now made their films about American slavery, just as previously they both made films about the Nazi Holocaust – “Shindler's List” and “Inglourious Basterds”.

And those four films reflect two very different approaches to the issue of emancipation.

Spielberg's films – which are largely historically accurate, extremely well crafted, and well-intentioned – are accounts of how a gentile (Shindler) risked everything to save the Jews and how a white man (Lincoln) did the same for Black slaves.

Spielberg chose when taking on the giant subjects of slavery and the Holocaust to focus on those two men. He could have made different films, could have focussed his Holocaust film on, say, the Jewish fighters who battled the Wehrmacht in the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto. He could have chosen one of the many Black slave rebellions that preceded the American Civil War – for example, the story of Nat Turner who led an uprising 1831 that resulted in some 160 deaths.

Instead he chose to focus on brave white men (the abolitionists) and a brave gentile (Shindler).

Tarantino made a radically different choice when he decided to make films about Nazi Germany and the American South.

Tarantino's films are fantasies – and unlike Spielberg's are often hilariously funny, even if brutally violent.

Tarantino's “basterds” are American Jewish soldiers sent into Nazi-occupied Europe to kill – and scalp – as many German soldiers as they can. In the end, their efforts combine with those of a French Jewish women also seeking revenge on the Nazis.

Django too is a story not about good white men who come to free the slaves, but about a slave who frees himself. Even though Django is assisted by a white German (the magnificent Christoph Waltz, who played a terrifying Nazi in “Basterds”), it is he – and not Waltz – who deals the death blow to the slave-owners in the film.

One could make the argument that while Tarantino's take on slavery and the Third Reich may prove more satisfying, the reality is that it wasn't Black slaves who brought down slavery and it wasn't armed Jews who defeated Hitler. It was a mostly (though not entirely) white army led by a white man that brought an end to the Confederacy. And it was the allied armies – particularly the Red Army – that destroyed the German Reich.

So yes, Spielberg's view may be the more accurate one, but Tarantino's reflects an aspiration – the hope that the oppressed, slaves and others, can liberate themselves and indeed that only they can do so.

This is, as Shachtman wrote, “the most pregnant idea” in Marxism, and while one can be fairly certain that Quentin Tarantino has never heard of the great third camp socialist, it is his films – not Spielberg's – that most closely realize that idea.

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Comments

Self-emancipation

I'm interested by Eric Lee's idea that Quentin Tarantino's takes on Nazism and American slavery (Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained) promote the idea of self-emancipation, unlike Steven Spielberg's (Shindler's List and Lincoln).

But I don't agree that "the reality is that it wasn't Black slaves who brought down slavery" but "a mostly (though not entirely) white army led by a white man". Of course I am not denying the role of the US army in the US Civil War. Nonetheless, American slaves played a central role in their own emancipation.

Just before the Civil War, an excited Marx wrote:

"In my view, the most momentous thing happening in the world today is... the movement among the slaves in America... I have just seen in the Tribune that there was a new slave uprising in Missouri, naturally suppressed. But the signal has now been given."

When the war began, the Northern government insisted it would not touch slavery - and acted like it. Respecting constitutional niceties and avoiding social upheaval came above winning the war, let alone liberating slaves. Northern commanders were ordered to suppress slave uprisings and returned runaways to their owners. But the anti-slavery activists who supported the North because they believed the logic of the struggle would push the question of slavery to the fore were proved right.

As more and more slaves escaped their masters and pushed their way into Northern lines, they not only forced the US army to accept them, first as workers and then as soldiers. They helped fundamentally shift the debate on slavery and black rights in the North itself.

After Lincoln's January 1863 "Emancipation Proclamation" - which in fact emancipated nobody, but the slaves didn't care - this movement became a tumultuous social upheaval, a "general strike" (WEB DuBois), one which eventually helped sweep away the Southern Confederacy and any hope for maintaining slavery. Without the war, the slaves could not have freed themselves as they did. But without the slaves' action the North might well have lost, with enormous consequences for human progress and the working class all over the world.

After the war, the ex-slaves' movement for freedom and equality would eventually be defeated. But that should not blind us to the role they played in destroying slavery.

Sacha Ismail

Mark Osborn replies to Sacha Ismail

Sacha Ismail is wrong, I think, against Eric Lee. Sacha doesn’t like Eric’s basic point — that the US slaves were liberated “from above” by a white man, using a “white state”.

Of course liberation would have been better coming from the action of the slaves themselves, rising in armed revolt and winning their own freedom, arms in hand. Abolition won this way — and the self-confidence and self-organisation gained — would have made the racist counter-revolution of the 1870s onwards much harder to carry through.

But it didn’t happen that way. Slavery was abolished by Sherman’s army and Lincoln’s legislation. Black units fought bravely (eventually, when they were allowed, and under white officers).

Sacha notes that many slaves were able to run away. But they were able to do so because of the power of the Northern state, and the pressure of the Union armies. And running away from a master is not the same thing as a mass, armed slave rebellion.

Of course, it would have been better otherwise. But it didn’t happen that way.

A reply to Mark Osborn

Mark Osborn's reply is useful because it can help us to clarify the nuances and contradictions in how American slaves were liberated. It made me look back over my letter and mentally reword phrases which could have been clearer and more exact.

Mark's analysis also implies the answer to a question which Eric's article begs: that slaves can be liberated from their class exploitation, as slaves, and slavery even destroyed by an external force, whereas workers can only be liberated as a class and by their own action.

But Mark's letter is odd, because it appears to be replying to somebody else under my name.

Whether or not my wording could have been improved, I didn't claim that the slaves were entirely or mainly self-emancipated. I said they played "a central role in their own emancipation".

Mark does not really deal with my main point, that the action of the slaves and ex-slaves - as runaways, then as workers, then as soldiers - was an important factor tipping the balance in favour of the Radical Republicans and abolitionists, and pushing the US towards stronger and stronger emancipation policies. It also helped ensure the North won the war, which was not inevitable.

And while it's true that the white supremacist counter-revolution of the 1870s could not have triumphed as easily if slavery had been overthrown mainly "from below", it is also true that after the war, the ex-slaves did organise heroically for their rights.

To imply that "self-emancipation" was not a central part of this story blurs the reality.

Sacha Ismail