A critical response to Aaron Bady’s Lincoln review in Jacobin
Abraham Lincoln will take no step backward. His word has gone out over the country and the world, giving joy and gladness to the friends of freedom and progress wherever those words are read, and he will stand by them, and carry them out to the letter.
— Frederick Douglass, “Emancipation Proclaimed” (October 1862)
We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.
From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world.
— Karl Marx, “Letter to Abraham Lincoln” (1865)
Marx did not, of course, consider Abraham Lincoln a communist; this did not, however, prevent Marx from entertaining the deepest sympathy for the struggle that Lincoln headed. The First International sent the Civil War president a message of greeting, and Lincoln in his answer greatly appreciated this moral support.
— Leon Trotskii, “Mexico and Imperialism” (1938)
Aaron Bady, a student at UC Berkeley, recently contributed a review of the Spielberg-Kushner blockbuster Lincoln to Jacobin‘s online blog. One of the sad consequences of hanging around people who work extensively on the history of the antebellum US, as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction periods, and the Marxist historiography thereof (the various accounts given it by Marx, Lenin, and the young Genovese, to name a few), is that I can’t help but roll my eyes at the pseudo-radicalism evinced by reviews like this.
They either distort facts about the history or rely on lazy New Left tropes about how it’s all just a plot to aggrandize whitey and reassert the gratitude of the oppressed to their former oppressors, who awoke one morning and beneficently decided to liberate them. It ultimately boils down to this dreary, cloying, and by now insufferable Alltagsgeschichte point about the need to write history “from below” as opposed to history “from above” — a false dichotomy if ever there was one. Even then, the article requires extremely tendentious readings of more serious historians like Eric Foner or Robin Blackburn to sustain it.
Despite the not insignificant role of newly-freed blacks serving in the Union military, as well as by slaves taking it upon themselves to cast off the yoke of their masters, general emancipation certainly would not have come about were it not for the bloody, protracted, armed struggle of Northern armies against the forces of the South. The collapse of the plantation system of slavery in the South was hardly inevitable; it cannot be chalked up to the struggle of the enthralled on the basis of any sort of “inherent” freedom or dignity that they had hitherto been denied. Bady does not deny wholesale the historical importance of such acts as the Emancipation Proclamation, but he does seem to suggest that their importance was purely rhetorical or symbolic (i.e., not political). When a Frenchman of Engels’ acquaintance sought to dismiss Lincoln’s address on these grounds, Marx’s reply was brief but devastating:
The fury with which the Southerners are greeting Lincoln’s acts is proof of the importance of these measures. Lincoln’s acts all have the appearance of inflexible, clause-ridden conditions communicated by a lawyer to his opposite number. This does not, however, impair their historical import and does, in actual fact, amuse me when, on the other hand, I consider the drapery in which your Frenchman enwraps the merest trifle.
New Leftism dies hard.
Critics like Bady would like to see a more “representative” sample set, which in the end amounts to nothing more than superficial pandering to ideas about political correctness that may be even more shallow, all accomplished through nauseatingly ostentatious displays of “diversity.” It’s the most disgusting, condescending tokenism dressed up as somehow vaguely radical. In reality, of course, it’s just the old, preening liberal commonplace about the way minorities are underrepresented in Hollywood.
If nothing else, this review provides still more proof that a movie (or work of art, or piece of music, or whatever) can be bad/boring and yet the reviews criticizing it can outdo it in their utter banality.
But there’s a deeper political subtext at work in Brady’s review. It comes through in lines like these:
[G]etting the radicals in line is important in the political arena because it allows moderates like Lincoln or Obama to operate through consensus.
As Chris Cutrone has pointed out, Obama’s not a compromiser. Obama doesn’t even have principles to compromise. Nor is he a “moderate,” whatever that might mean today. To contrast:
1. Obama’s a right-wing politician who has to this point failed to implement his right-wing political agenda.
2. Lincoln was a moderate Abolitionist who succeeded in abolishing slavery.
Yes, Reconstruction failed, and blacks in America were by no means in the clear. But Lincoln built his career in the aftermath of the Dred Scott decision, and was a firm abolitionist throughout. He was often a reluctant actor, and his hand was forced by History itself, but Marx and the First International in general (both socialists and anarchists) were absolutely right to celebrate him.
In terms of “getting the radicals in line,” who does Obama have to “get in line” who’s a radical? Nancy Pelosi? You think he gives a damn about the DSA or the other lite-lefty groups that groveled in support of him around the election? Lincoln had Thaddeus Stevens running the House of Representatives to deal with. Stevens’ radicalism and outright bellicosity would have scared even the most leftish Obamaites of today into reaction. The same goes with Frederick Douglass, who while not a member of government was a public intellectual figure whose standing far exceeds that of any US leftist of recent memory. And that’s to say nothing of Robert Gould Shaw, who led the black regiment portrayed in the film Glory in the charge on Battery Wagner (in which he perished), who was a fanatical supporter of Lincoln. There’s nothing even remotely equivalent for Obama.
Ultimately, viewing Obama as a “compromiser” who has to “get radicals in line” strikes me as the opinion of someone who actually thinks that Obama and the Dems are salvageable. The person who wrote this is simply vying for a place within the Democratic Party — i.e., as one of the so-called “radicals.” If Spielberg and Kushner (neither of whom I exactly like, for the record) wanted to make a misguided comparison of Obama to Lincoln, then the author of this review tacitly accepted this comparison — and tried to elevate himself to the rank of a “radical” opposition member within the President’s party. In other words: someone whose position carries real political weight, whose opinions Obama might actually have to take into consideration before starting his next war.