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Lincoln and Marx

The transatlantic convergence of two revolutionaries.

Abraham Lincoln, as president, chose to reply to an “Address” from the London-based International Workingmen’s Association. The “Address,” drafted by Karl Marx, congratulated Lincoln on his reelection for a second term. In some resonant and complex paragraphs, the “Address” heralded the world-historical significance of what had become a war against slavery. The “Address” declared that victory for the North would be a turning point for nineteenth-century politics, an affirmation of free labor, and a defeat for the most reactionary capitalists who depended on slavery and racial oppression.

Lincoln saw only a tiny selection of the avalanche of mail he was sent, employing several secretaries to deal with it. But the US Ambassador in London, Charles Francis Adams, decided to forward the “Address” to Washington. Encouraging every sign of support for the Union was central to Adams’s mission. The Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863 had made this task much easier, but there were still many sections of the British elite who sympathized with the Confederacy and some who favored awarding it diplomatic recognition if only public opinion could be brought to accept this.

The “Address” carried, beside that of Marx, the signatures of several prominent British trade unionists as well as French socialists and German social democrats. The Ambassador wrote to the IWA, explaining that the president had asked him to convey his response to their “Address.” He thanked them for their support and expressed his conviction that the defeat of the rebellion would indeed be a victory for the cause of humanity everywhere. He declared that his country would abstain from “unlawful intervention” but observed that “The United States regarded their cause in the present conflict with slavery-maintaining insurgents as the cause of human nature, and they derived new encouragement to persevere from the testimony of the working men of Europe.”

Lincoln would have wished to thank British workers, especially those who supported the North despite the distress caused by the Northern blockade and the resulting “cotton famine.” The appearance of the names of several German revolutionaries would not have surprised him; the defeat of the 1848 revolutions in Europe had swelled the flood of German migrants arriving in North America. At an earlier date — in 1843 — Marx himself had thought of immigrating to Texas, going so far as to apply to the mayor of Trier, his birthplace, for an immigration permit.

What path would world history have taken if Marx had become a Texan? We will never know. What we do know is that Marx remained in touch with many of the exiles. His famous essay on “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon” was first published in New York in German. Not all German émigrés were radicals, but many were. With their beer halls, patriotic songs, and kindergartens, they helped to broaden the distinctly Puritan culture of Republicanism. They had been educated to despise slaveholding, and eventually nearly two hundred thousand German Americans volunteered for the Union army.

There was an affinity between the German democratic nationalism of 1848 and the free labor doctrine of the newly-established US Republican Party, so it is not surprising that a number of Marx’s friends and comrades not only became staunch supporters of the Northern cause but received senior commissions. Joseph Weydemeyer and August Willich, both former members of the Communist League, were promoted first to the ranks of Colonel and then to General.

Lincoln may have recognized the name Karl Marx when he read the IWA “Address,” since Marx had been a prolific contributor to the New York Daily Tribune, the most influential Republican newspaper of the 1850s. Charles A. Dana, publisher of the Tribune, first met Marx in Cologne in 1848 at a time when he edited the widely read Neue Rheinische Zeitung. In 1852, Dana invited Marx to become a correspondent for the Tribune. Over the next decade he wrote — with some help from his friend Engels — over five hundred articles for the Tribune. Hundreds of these pieces were published under Marx’s name, but eighty-four appeared as unsigned editorials. He wrote on a global range of topics, sometimes occupying two or three pages of a sixteen-page newspaper.

Once the Civil War began, US newspapers lost interest in foreign coverage unless it directly related to the war. Marx wrote several pieces for European papers explaining what was at stake in the conflict and contesting the claim, widely heard in European capitals, that slavery had nothing to do with the conflict. Important sections of the British and French elites had strong commercial ties to the US South, buying huge quantities of slave-grown cotton. But some European liberals with no direct link to the slave economy argued that secession by the Southern states had to be accepted because of the principle of self-determination. They attacked the North’s option for war and its failure to repudiate slavery.

In Marx’s eyes, British observers who claimed to deplore slavery yet backed the Confederacy were simply humbugs. He attacked the visceral hostility to the North evident in the Economist and the Times (of London). These papers claimed that the real cause of the conflict was Northern protectionism against the free trade favored by the South. Marx rebutted their arguments in a series of brilliant articles for Die Presse, a Viennese publication, which caustically demolished their economic determinism, and instead sketched out an alternative account — subtle, structural, and political — of the origins of the war.

Marx insisted that secession had been prompted by the Southern elite’s political fears. They knew that power within the Union was shifting against them. The South was losing its tight grip on federal institutions because of the dynamism of the Northwest, a destination for many new immigrants. As the Northwest Territory matured into free states, the South found itself outnumbered; the North was loath to recognize any new slave states. The slaveholders had alienated Northerners by requiring them to arrest and return fugitive slaves, yet they knew they needed the wholehearted support of their fellow citizens if they were to defend their “peculiar institution.” Lincoln’s election was seen as a deadly threat because he owed Southerners nothing and had promised to oppose any expansion of slavery.

Marx gave full support to the Union cause, even though Lincoln initially refused to make emancipation a war goal. Marx was confident that the clash of rival social regimes, based on opposing systems of labor, would sooner or later surface as the real issue. While consistently supporting the North, he wrote that the Union would only triumph if it adopted the revolutionary anti-slavery measures advocated by Wendell Phillips and other radical abolitionists. He was particularly impressed by Phillips’s speeches in 1862 calling to strike down all compromises with slavery. He approvingly quoted Phillips’s dictum that “God had placed the thunderbolt of emancipation” in Northern hands and they should use it.

Marx continued to correspond with Dana and sent him his articles (Dana was fluent in German). By this time Dana had left the world of journalism to become Lincoln’s “eyes and ears” as a special commissioner in the War Department, touring the fronts and reporting to the White House that Ulysses Grant was the man to back. Marx argued in Die Presse in March 1862 that the Union armies should abandon their encirclement strategy and seek to cut the Confederacy in two. Dana may have noticed that Grant had reached the same conclusion by instinct and experience. In 1863, Dana became Assistant Secretary of the War Department.

Marx was delighted when Lincoln — emboldened by the abolitionist campaign and a radicalization of Northern opinion — announced his intention to issue an Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. The Proclamation would make it difficult for the British or French governments to award diplomatic recognition to the Confederacy. It also allowed for the enrollment of freedmen in the Union army.

Marx and Lincoln had very divergent opinions on business corporations and wage labor, but from today’s perspective they shared something important: they both loathed exploitation and regarded labor as the ultimate source of value. In his first message to Congress in December 1861, Lincoln criticized the “effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government.” Instead, he insisted, “labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor . . . Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Lincoln believed that in America the wage laborer was free to rise by his own efforts and could become a professional, or even an employer. Marx held that this picture of social mobility was a mirage, and that only a handful could succeed in acquiring economic independence.

For Marx, the wage worker was only partly free since he had to sell his labor to another so that he and his family might live. But, since he was not a slave, the free worker could organize and agitate for, say, a shorter working day and free education. Weydemeyer had launched an American Labor Federation in 1853 which backed these objectives and which declared its ranks open to all “regardless of occupation, language, color, or sex.” These themes became central to the politics of Marx’s followers in America.

Lincoln’s assassination led Marx to write a new “Address” from the IWA to his successor, with a fulsome tribute to the slain president. In this text, Marx described 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 . . . 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.” However, the tragic loss could not prevent Northern victory opening the way to a “new era of the emancipation of labor.”

Marx and Engels were both soon troubled by the actions of Andrew Johnson, the new president. On 15 July 1865, Engels wrote to his friend attacking Johnson: “His hatred of Negroes comes out more and more violently . . . If things go on like this, in six months all the old villains of secession will be sitting in Congress at Washington. Without colored suffrage, nothing whatever can be done there.” Radical Republicans soon came to the same conclusion.

In the immediate aftermath of the war, and thanks in part to the publication of the IWA addresses, the International attracted much interest and support in the United States.

Marx was putting the finishing touches on Capital: Volume I in 1866–67, and included a new section at this late stage on the determinants of the length of the working day. The call for an eight-hour day had emerged as a key demand in several US states. In 1867, the IWA welcomed the appearance of a National Labor Union in the US, formed to spread the demand as a unifying goal.

At its first conference the NLU declared: “The National Labor Union knows no north, no south, no east, no west, neither color nor sex, on the question of the rights of labor.” Within the space of a year, eight different Northern states adopted the eight-hour day for public employees.

The regions of the United States offered very different possibilities for political action. Only the presence of Union troops in the South prevented white vigilantes, many of them Confederate veterans, from terrorizing the freedmen. In Tennessee, South Carolina, and Louisiana, there were black congresses that drew up a “Declaration of Rights and Wrongs,” insisting that freedom would be a mockery if it did not entail equal access to buses, trains, and hotels, schools and universities.

In the North and West, the boldest radicals organized sections of the International; by the late 1860s there were about fifty sections and a membership of perhaps five thousand. In December 1871 the IWA in New York organized a seventy-thousand-strong demonstration of sympathy with the victims slaughtered in the suppression of the Paris Commune. The throng prominently featured a black militia called the Skidmore Guards; many trade unionists with their banners; Victoria Woodhull and the feminist leaders of Section 12; an Irish band; and a contingent marching behind the Cuban flag. Many of the unions founded at this time included the word “International” in their name.

But by the early 1870s Northern support for Reconstruction, with its expensive occupation of the South and its bold affronts to racial prejudice, was beginning to ebb. A wave of corruption scandals sapped Republican morale. The real problem, however, was that the Republican program had come apart at the seams. Lincoln had hoped to build a strong and authoritative federal government in Washington, and thus obtain respect for the rule of law throughout the restored Union. In Marx’s eyes, Lincoln would have built the sort of “bourgeois democratic republic” that would have allowed for the emergence of a labor party dedicated to free education, progressive taxation, and an eight-hour work day.

These hopes were dashed. Lincoln’s assassination, the chaos and reaction of the Johnson presidency, and the failure of Ulysses Grant, his successor, to impose moral leadership all undermined or compromised the promise of an authoritative, undivided federal government. Marx was not surprised by the emergence of “robber baron” capitalists, nor by the bitter class strife they unleashed. He had expected — indeed predicted — as much.

But the failure of the federal state to impose its authority on the South was another matter, as was the Northern bosses’ ability to crush strikes by deploying thousands of special constables and Pinkerton men.

The end of slavery certainly validated the momentary alignment of Lincoln and Marx. During Reconstruction (roughly 1868–1876), freedmen could vote, their children could go to school, and there were many black elected officials. In the North, there were gains for the eight-hour movement and the first attempts to regulate the railroad corporations.

But something of the conservative spirit of the antebellum republic, with its aversion to federal taxation, lingered on in the weakness of the federal power. In an ominous development, the Supreme Court declared that the progressive income tax, introduced by the Lincoln administration in 1862, was unconstitutional. Without the income tax, paying for the war would be much harder and future redistribution impossible.

Another retrograde step was a Supreme Court ruling that construed the promise of equal treatment of “all persons” in the Fourteenth Amendment of 1868 — a measure introduced to protect the freedmen — as offering protection to the new corporations, since they were also deemed to enjoy the status of “persons.” The direct result of this decision was to make it far more difficult for federal or local authorities to regulate corporations (the ruling is still in force).

Reconstruction ended with a deal between Republicans and Democrats that resolved the deadlocked Electoral College of 1876 by confirming the fractured authority of the state. This deal allowed the candidate with fewer votes to enter the White House while requiring the withdrawal of all federal troops from the South. This gave free reign to the lynch mobs.

Within a few months, Grant himself complained, the federal troops that had been prevented from tackling the Ku Klux Klan were sent against the railworkers during the Great Strike of 1877, suppressing it at the cost of a hundred lives. American workers fought back tenaciously, but often on a regional or state-by-state basis.

To many, syndicalism made more sense than the labor party that Marx and Engels advocated, though Marx’s penetrating analysis of capitalism still had an impact on people as diverse as Samuel Gompers (founder of the AFL), Lucy Parsons (syndicalist, feminist, founder of the IWW), and Eugene Debs (Socialist).

The defeat of Lincoln’s vision of a unified, democratic, and authoritative republic was a defeat for the socialists too. Not for the last time, the genius of the US Constitution, with its multiple checks and balances, was to frustrate the plans of progressives.