06 December 2011

From Lincoln to Marx?

Ever since the "Popular Front" asserted in the 1930s the "Communism is 20th Century Americanism," and probably well before that, Marxists have tried to win Americans over by emphasizing a presumed affinity between Marx's analysis and the highest values in the American political tradition. The December 2011 Monthly Review reminds us of the continuing effort by noting two recent volumes, Robin Blackburn's An Unfinished Revolution and John Nichols's The "S" Word, that strive to draw closer intellectual connections between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln. Blackburn's book overstates its claim to have discovered correspondence between the two men, the actual letters being one to Lincoln and a reply on the President's behalf by an American diplomat presumably reflecting Lincoln's own vaguely favorable response. Nichols notes that the two men had, in Monthly Review's words, "a number of key acquaintances in common." The magazine quotes Nichols's determination that Lincoln "found truth in notions about the superiority of labor to capital," while noting quite correctly that Old Abe never became a Marxist.

In these writings, one senses a wishful thinking, a belief that, among the other tasks Lincoln might have accomplished had he not been killed, the Great Emancipator might have rallied the Republican party to  a stronger stand on behalf of the working class than the GOP took after the Civil War. It's tempting to believe that today's plutocratic Republicans have betrayed Lincoln's legacy (not to mention Teddy Roosevelt's), but my suspicion is that, at its core, the GOP still reflects Lincoln's attitudes toward labor, if not toward capital. Lincoln's definitive statement on the subject seems to be a speech he gave in Milwaukee on September 30, 1859. It was there that he made the oft-quoted comment that "labor is the superior -- greatly the superior -- of capital," a remark that continues to inspire American leftists.

Lincoln was defending the northern labor system as a whole against the charge made by southern slaveholders that "wage slavery" was no better than chattel slavery, and the insinuation that Northern "wage slaves" might actually be better off as chattel slaves of a master responsible for their health and security than as the dispensable hirelings of an indifferent employer.  Lincoln's vindication of labor is part of his defense of the Northern labor system. The quote above is meant to refute the slander Lincoln inferred from southern commentary that " all laborers are naturally either hired laborers or slaves." The slander follows from the idea that "nobody labors, unless somebody else owning capital, somehow, by the use of it, induces him to do it." If this view meant that capital was "prior" to labor, Lincoln's view was the reverse; labor was prior to capital, which could not exist without labor.

The issue between the slaveholders and free-labor Republicanism went beyond the "priority" of labor and capital, however. Lincoln wanted to refute above all the idea that slaveholders shared with Marxists: that there was a permanent working class -- Marx's proletariat, the slaveholders' "mud-sills." Lincoln saw it as the slaveholders' belief that "whoever is once a hired laborer, is fatally fixed in that condition for life; and thence again, that his condition is as bad as, or worse than, that of a slave" Lincoln's own belief was that the northern laborer's condition was better because it need not be permanent. They were not "wage slaves" because they needn't be employees for life. Here is another oft-quoted passage from the speech:

  [T]he opponents of the "mud-sill" theory insist that there is not, of necessity, any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. There is demonstration for saying this. Many independent men in this assembly doubtless a few years ago were hired laborers. And their case is almost, if not quite, the general rule. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor – the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all, gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all. 

If this sort of mobility were not possible, it would seem that Lincoln would have to concede the point about wage slavery. Instead, he sets the tone for Republicans to the present day by arguing that anyone in the North who ends up a wage laborer for life probably has only himself to blame. In his own words, "If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune." This is just about the opposite of the Marxist proposition that capitalism forces working people into the position of a permanent proletariat -- not to mention the idea that the industrial system of production that requires a proletariat was the predictable consequence of large historical trends.

Marxists still have a fair right to ask whether Lincoln would have refined his views after 1865. Even in the Milwaukee speech, after all, he notes a cultural shift of potential significance in the fact of a more highly educated workforce. In the past, Lincoln observes, educated people would not expect and would probably not need to do manual labor, but the spread of public education and the needs of the economy made that expectation untenable by Lincoln's time. Would he acknowledge other sociological changes, and would he admit that they threw his free-labor ideology into question?  It makes an intriguing "What If?" exercise, but I'm not sure of its usefulness to the 21st century left.

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