The two sides of Abraham Lincoln

Submitted by Matthew on 6 March, 2013 - 12:06

The following article, by black socialist CLR James (writing as GF Eckstein), was first published in the US Trotskyist paper Militant, on 14 Feburary 1949.


One part of the 1948 election platform of the Socialist Workers Party [US] read as follows:

“In 1860 William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips. John Brown and Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and Thaddeus Stevens, personified the forces which waged merciless war against the slaveowners’ attempt to perpetuate their ‘outmoded system, halt the expansion of our economy and destroy the liberties of our people.”

But in 1948 the Republican Party, the Progressive Party of Wallace and the Stalinists and even President Truman, the Democrat, all to one degree or another sought to relate their policies back to Lincoln. They are trying to fool the workers. It was not so with us.

To the name of Abraham Lincoln we added Garrison, Phillips, John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Stevens. We hailed them for waging ‘merciless war’ against the reac-tionary south. It is obvious that when we talk of Lincoln we are poles apart from Dewey, Truman, and Wallace.

What is it that the working class must remember about Abraham Lincoln? He himself expressed it best in his second inaugural address when he said of the Civil War: “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’”.

Here was the recognition at last of what the Negroes had done for America, and of what America had done to the Negroes, the determination at whatever cost to break the power of the reactionary slaveholders.

All idle chatterers and fakers can be made to turn green and look another way, simply by asking them to explain these words of Lincoln as part, of what they call the “democratic process” and “the American way.”?

Abraham Lincoln was a genuine democrat. When in the Gettysburg address he said “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” he meant it. In those days monopoly-capital did not exist. A great percentage of the population in the North consisted of small farmers, mechanics and artisans. It seemed to many men that on the boundless acres that stretched beyond the Mississippi there was room and opportunity for everybody to acquire independence and exercise self-government from the town-meeting to the presidential elections.

But today, with a few giant corporations owning and dominating the economic life of the country and the lives of whole nations abroad; with tens of millions of workers beginning to punch the time-clock at the age of 18 with no other perspective for the rest of their lives until they are thrown out as infirm or incompetent; with press, radio and a vast government bureaucracy controlled by a few hundred people, to talk about government “of the people, by the people for the people” is a mockery and hypocrisy of the worst kind.

Lincoln and others used to say plainly that if the people were dissatisfied with the government it was their revolutionary right to overthrow it. If he had returned and said that on any platform in 1948, [US politicians] Dewey, Truman, Wallace and Norman Thomas would have united at once to denounce him.

The FBI would have tapped his telephone and investigated him. And unmitigated scoundrels ... would have had him up before some House Committee and tried to jail him for his “un-Americanism”.

Believer in democracy and in the people, determined enemy of slave-power, from these Lincoln drew the power which made him a great war-leader, a writer and speaker whose best efforts will last as long as the English language, a genuine na-tional hero.

Enemy of the slave-power, a believer in the people. That was one side of Lincoln. But there was another which was widely known and commented upon in his own day.

The viciousness of the slave-power, its cruelties and its crimes, its ambition to suppress liberty all over the United States in defense of its precious hordes of slaves, these things were brought and kept before the American people for thirty years by the constant rebellions among the slaves, by the Underground Railroad, and those elements in the North among the whites who supported these revolutionary actions.

Lincoln bitterly opposed all this. He was prepared even as President to use the power of the federal government to capture and return fugitive slaves.

One of the great chapters in American history is the abolition movement of Garrison, Phillips, Douglass and the others who, often hounded, stoned and beaten, called incessantly for an end to slavery, denouncing it as a crime against civilization and the American people.

Lincoln hated the Abolitionists as trouble-makers, and expressed his approval of their being beaten up.

The formation of the Republican Party was a triumph of the creative power and energy of the American people. Suddenly in 1854, all over the country, party units sprang into being and in 1860 it swept into victory.

Lincoln had nothing to do with this. Only when it was clear that the Whig Party was doomed, did he throw in his lot with the new party.

Not only was Lincoln driven to emancipate the slaves by force of circumstances. He was ready to consider the formation of a Negro republic in Texas. He would have sent all the slaves to Africa if he could have managed it.

Thus with all his virtues he shared to the full the reactionary capitalist prejudices of his day. And it was precisely these that blinded him to the truths which the escaping slaves and the abolitionists taught the American people for thirty years. In the end he had to follow the direction in which they pointed: civil war, arming of Negroes, total emancipation, crushing of the slave-power.

Lincoln could make these mistakes and still triumph as a leader because John Brown, Garrison, Douglass and the others had to limit themselves to carrying on a revolutionary propaganda and aiding escaping slaves.

Brown’s isolated attempt at a slave-insurrection was doomed to failure. The workers did not have the numbers, the organisation, the social power, the political experience to offer an independent road. The revolutionaries were right as against Lincoln but had no concrete programme to place before the country. Thus like Lincoln, when the Republican Party came [in 1856], they turned to it.

Today we live in an entirely different situation. The enemy is plain — monopoly-capitalism, the modern slave-holders. The class that is to be emancipated is the working class; the workers with the poor farmers and their allies, the great majority of the nation. The party that is to be formed is a great mass party of the proletariat, that will do for American society today what the Republican Party did in 1860-1865. The revolutionaries today are those who will carry on the traditions of Garrison, Douglass and John Brown — brutal state-ment of the facts, refusal to pretend that there is any way out except by the destruction of capitalism, struggle for the independent action of the masses, refusal to compromise on prin-ciples.

We can do this and do this better than they did, because we have before our eyes the mighty power of the American proletariat and behind us the great traditions and experiences of Bolshevism.

We take a Marxist view of Lincoln. We pay him the tribute due to him as a great historical figure, with a place in the struggle for human emancipation. But for us he is no model.

Rather, in the failures of his career and particularly in the men who were so consistently right against him, we find the points of departure to struggle for the unity, not only of North and South, but of all the nations of the world, for the emancipation not only of chattel-slaves but of the vast majority of the peoples of the world, the workers, farmers and all the exploited and oppressed.

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