Recovering Lincoln

Whatever Spielberg says — there's no comparing an empty-suit like Obama to a radical like Lincoln.

I thought about writing a critique of Aaron Bady’s mostly very good review of Lincoln for a long time this morning. It was a tough call: I do have some enamel left on my teeth and I can think of nothing else that could threaten to grind it all down to dust than publicly saying anything — anything at all — that could be construed as a defense of either Steven Spielberg’s politics or Barack Obama.

So I don’t want to defend the movie, which I thought was fine for what it was. Actually, by the standards of Hollywood history flicks, I thought it was more than fine.

Bady’s right to call out Kushner and Spielberg as card-carrying Obamaphiles. And it’s more than clear, particularly through interviews, that Kushner and Spielberg want us to connect the dots they’ve carefully laid out between Abe and Barack. Obama himself has done everything possible to encourage the comparison—even being sworn into office on Lincoln’s very own bible.

In their shared liberal revisionism, the Thirteenth Amendment becomes ObamaCare. The Emancipation Proclamation becomes a return to the marginal tax rates of the Clinton era. Thaddeus Stevens morphs into a fantasy of Bernie Sanders “doing the right thing” and sitting down with the prez to cut healthcare for the poor and elderly.

It’s laughable. But instead of calling them out, too many leftists concede this characterization of Lincoln and the Republicans to the Obamaphiles. They seem to believe that the first crop of Republicans did little more than press an official rubber stamp on “history from below” which had already delivered its verdict across the land.

The argument seems to be: “Spielberg says Lincoln and Obama are rubber-stampers. They are. But he’s wrong when he says that such men are the true makers of history.” Then they go looking elsewhere for the real revolutionaries, who can’t possibly have anything to do with these mere stampers.

The question is why are we letting Spielberg, Kushner, and Obama get away with this?

Abraham Lincoln and the early Republicans (to say nothing of the Liberty Party or Free Soilers before them) shared a vision of a radically different society. Wiping out slavery — either through immediate abolition or through the “cordon of freedom” policy of the Republican Party — was hardly a technocratic reform.

And when it became clear that the only way to get there would be through revolutionary means, they took it without flinching: slaves were being emancipated as “contraband” by the summer of 1861, with the first Confiscation Act — written and debated in Congress explicitly as an emancipation act — signed into law that August, less than four months after the start of the war. The endgame of military emancipation had long been on the minds of antislavery politicians, all the way back to John Quincy Adams who first laid out such a scenario in 1836.

Which part of this sounds anything at all like Barack Obama — the man who dives for cover whenever Ben Nelson sneezes? When did Obama ever promise to place the private health insurance industry “where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction”?

Don’t let Spielberg, Kushner, and Obama make you forget that the Republican Party in 1860 was the culmination of a two-decade political project. To overlook this fact is to ignore a powerful lesson for today’s American radicals and to play into the hands of revisionists in both reactionary and ultra-leftist camps.

If we’re to find an antecedent for Obama and today’s Democrats, we’d have an easier time with a party like the Whigs and a president like William Henry Harrison — in whom some anti-slavery men and women had invested a good deal of misplaced hope. Try this: what does the Democratic party in 2012 stand for? Nobody knows. Nobody could tell you.  To say the same about the Republican Party of 1860 would be ludicrous.

To compare Lincoln to our current president would imply that there’s some heinous but powerful and entrenched system of injustice that animates Obama and the Democratic Party just as a lifelong hatred of slavery animated Lincoln and provided almost the sole political platform upon which he rose to the presidency.

What great “moral, social and political” wrong gets Obama out of bed in the morning? Even in the post-Occupy Wall Street world, our president can hardly be bothered to say a bad word about wealth inequality or the 1%, let alone capitalism. And yet, from the time Lincoln joined the Republicans in 1854, his public speeches are pretty much a single-issue affair: the evil of slavery and why it must be stamped out.

Obama himself has often used Lincoln to legitimize his own hostility towards the left, in one speech asking rhetorically  what a mid-19th century version of the Huffington Post would have said about all the exceptions in the Emancipation Proclamation. The implication is that they would have denounced Lincoln for such a compromised political document in the same manner that left-liberals repudiate Obama’s ineffectual approach to compromise today. Which, as Eric Foner pointed out, isn’t even correct:

That little exchange of Obama’s reveals a deep misunderstanding about what happened in the Civil War . . . well we know what the abolitionists said about the Emancipation Proclamation . . . they said “right on, Lincoln! This is fantastic, this is great!” They celebrated, and then they said ‘you’ve got to do more. You’ve got to go further . . . They didn’t denounce Lincoln as a compromiser.

Abolitionists and Republicans, at heart, shared essentially the same principles and  the same political project. With Obama, there are no core principles and  no coherent political project to speak of. There’s only the guiding hand of a narcissistic left-neoliberalism occasionally stroking the levers of state power in order to ensure our continuing domination by an all-powerful ruling class.

Many of his liberal supporters (and their reactionary opponents) claim that inside Obama’s heart lies a “secret” progressive agenda waiting for the day when the Supreme Court finally turns, a Democratic congressional supermajority is restored, and the mean old people in the south finally die off. This implicitly suggests that Obama and the Democratic Party can be redeemed.

What was Lincoln’s “secret” agenda? In September of 1861, it was abolition: “the powder in this bombshell will keep dry and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them touch it off themselves.” In November of 2012, we know Obama’s “secret” agenda: a brutal fiscal austerity aimed primarily at social spending — a regression in the class project begun in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras.

Adolph Reed, no fan of Obama, said it best, pointing out Obama’s “bizarre version of Lincoln that never manages to include the fucking Civil War, not even in relation to the Emancipation Proclamation [ . . . ] Lincoln’s penchant for compromise was only with members of his own party; the Dems, after all, were at war against him.”

This isn’t to say that Lincoln and the Republicans were “great men of history,” Obama is not a “great man,” and therefore the lesson is that we must find new “great men” to elect. Instead, we should acknowledge the radicalism of these politicians and inquire instead into the rumbling  movements  that allowed  them to get their hands on state power in the first place.

To accept that the Republican party and Abraham Lincoln were the political agents of this revolution is not to discount the hundreds of thousands of slaves who did, in fact, liberate themselves by escaping to Union lines and, eventually, taking up arms against the masterclass.

But in his essay, Bady ends up painting a misleading portrait of an all-but-defeated slave society that both downplays slavery’s strength and resistance throughout the war and the enormity of the task of obliterating it — and thus the crucial role played by both the Union Army — including nearly 200,000 black soldiers — and, yes, Republican politicians.

Bady writes:

. . . that slavery was already all but dead by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist, far less because the North gave slaves their legal freedom than because they had already effectively taken it, because it had become the new status quo that would have required force to dislodge. At the end of the Civil War, with the South defeated, the choice for the north was not to end slavery or leave it; the choice was to ratify the fact that it was already dead or to re-impose it by military force.

But slavery was not dead “by the time Lincoln got around to declaring himself an abolitionist.” The vast majority of slaves were unable to escape, and  by the war’s end, less than 15% of the country’s 4 million slaves had been emancipated. Du Bois’s “General Strike” was no doubt of extreme importance, but it did not deliver the deathblow to slavery.

As James Oakes’s forthcoming study of emancipation makes abundantly clear, “most slaves never left their farms and plantations, and in that sense most were never legally emancipated.” In fact, had General Sherman failed to capture Atlanta in the summer of 1864, it is more than possible that Democrat General George B. McClellan — a man extremely hostile to emancipation — would have defeated Lincoln’s re-election bid and overseen a Confederate defeat and a reconstruction that allowed southern states to re-enter the union with slavery intact.

It’s not out of misplaced paranoia that Lincoln spent the spring of 1864 worrying about recently emancipated men and women being returned into slavery by a court decision or two. At a moment when he was all  but certain that he’d lose re-election, Lincoln invited Frederick Douglass to the White House for a new, desperate scheme:

Lincoln’s main purpose in initiating this meeting, however, was to seek Douglass’s advice on how to increase the number of blacks who, in the event that he lost the election, could not be returned to bondage. Slaves, Lincoln said, were not coming into Union Lines as quickly as he hoped. He asked Douglass to devise a plan to send black ‘scouts’ behind Confederate lines to spread news of the Emancipation Proclamation and encourage slaves to escape — a kind of official institutionalization of the prewar Underground Railroad. A few days after their meeting, Douglass forwarded to Lincoln a proposal for putting into effect the president’s remarkable idea.

In other words, it mattered a great deal that those who had their hands on the levers of state power were who they were — the culmination of political project at least two-decades in the making. This was not the path of least resistance for these men.

The vulgar Marxist reading of the Civil War is wrong: slavery could have survived indefinitely, just as it had originally flourished in the market revolution. It took not only a political victory but a military victory to ensure the slaves’ liberation — a victory which 180,000 black men won by the bayonet, decisively turning the tide of the war.

Why should we let Obamaphiles claim Lincoln as their spirit germ when to claim him is to claim the leader of an idealistic third-party that helped drive the country to, in Seth Ackerman’s words, “a radical, indeed violent, social revolution [ . . . ] one that expropriated, without compensation, almost one quarter of the productive wealth in the country.” This is the revolutionary project that was the Civil War, emancipation, and Reconstruction.

I share Bady’s distaste for American presidents, “white saviors,” and the US military. But disenchantment about the present shouldn’t lead to excessive cynicism about the past.