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On the relationship between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln

By BO Staff Writer

Introduction

It must be said at the outset that Lincoln was no socialist. Neither was he a communist, nor a Marxist, However he and Marx were contemporaries – a nine years age difference between the two. They had many mutual friends, had read each other’s writings and, exchanged missives in 1865.

Socialist streak in formative years of Republican Party 

In his first State of the Union address in December 1861, President Abraham Lincoln said the following in closing, which was subtitled “Capital Versus Labor”, by the Chicago Tribune:

“Labor is prior to and independent of capital,” “Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Here is Lincoln, the first US Republican president, talking like Karl Marx. This shouldn’t be surprising because Lincoln was apparently painstakingly reading Karl Marx.

During his first term in Congress in the latter part of the 1840s, Lincoln, befriended Horace Greeley, the founder of the New York Tribune, which was the newspaper that spread the politics of the Republican Party in 1854.

The Republican Party’s message during its formative years was unapologetically socialist. It styled itself as being anti slavery and pro working class interests. The New York Tribune on its part generally agitated for the redistribution of land to the poor in the American West and the liberation of slaves. It saw the working class to constitute slaves of the South and the industrial laborers of the North.

Marx also connected the slaves with the workers. After “The Communist Manifesto” was published in 1848, a failed uprising in the German Confederation caused Marx to seek refuge in London. During this period thousands of radical Germans immigrated to the United States (US).

According to Robin Blackburn in “An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln”, Marx even entertained the idea of going to a Texas. He was very interested in the emancipation of the American slaves. In 1860 Marx pointed out to Engels the following two most important things happening internationally, namely:

i. the movement of the America slaves in the South initiated by the death of the slavery abolitionist, John Brown; and

ii. the movement of the Russian serfs.

According to Marx the slaveholders of the South were the same as the aristocrats of Europe. Moreover Marx firmly held that although ending slavery would not liquidate capitalism, it would nonetheless create conditions that were more conducive (by far) to organizing the workers irrespective of race.

Marx as British correspondent of New York Tribune

Marx also befriended, Charles A. Dana – the managing editor of the New York Tribune – who in 1852 hired Marx as the paper’s British correspondent.

By 1862 Marx wrote approximately 500 pieces for the New York Tribune, many of which were not signed by Marx and published on the newspaper’s front page as its official position. John Nichols, in “The ‘S’ Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism”, tells us that Marx subsequently used his unsigned published material in the New York Tribune for his book “Capital”.

Lincoln elected US President

In 1860 Lincoln was nominated to the Republican Party for presidency of the US. Two factors influenced his nomination, namely: D

i. the support of the German revolutionaries who immigrated earlier on to the US and were now key players within the Republican Party; and

ii. the support of the New York Tribune being party’s newspaper.

Lincoln, upon being elected President, deployed Dana, (who left the New York Tribune as its managing editor) in the War Department, to serve as his ‘eyes and ears’ there.

Greeley, the founder of the Tribune, systematically pushed Lincoln to abolish slavery. The Civil War he said must be 2 pronged ie preservation of the Union and abolition of slavery. Marx pushed the same in the Tribune.

Their efforts were not in vain as Lincoln decreed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863.

Marx’s letter to Lincoln and Lincoln’s response

Marx subsequently sent a letter to Lincoln in January 1865 on behalf of the First International specifically representing the International Workingmen’s Association, which was an association of communists, socialists, trade unions and anarchists – and congratulated him on his re-election and the American people for voting him into the office of the President.

Significantly, the letter read:

“When an oligarchy of 300,000 slaveholders dared to inscribe, for the first time in the annals of the world, “slavery” on the banner of Armed Revolt … then the working classes of Europe understood at once, … that the slaveholders’ rebellion was to sound the tocsin for a general holy crusade of property against labor, and that for the men of labor, with their hopes for the future, even their past conquests were at stake in that tremendous conflict on the other side of the Atlantic”.

Furthermore Marx pointed out that:

“[A]s the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so (too) the American Antislavery War (initiated a new era of ascendancy) for the working classes…”

A reply came after a few weeks, through “Charles Francis Adams — son of former president John Quincy Adams, grandson of former president John Adams and U.S. ambassador to Britain under Lincoln”.

He advised Marx that his message was “accepted by him (Lincoln) with a sincere and anxious desire that he may be able to prove himself not unworthy of the confidence which has been recently extended to him by his fellow citizens and by so many of the friends of humanity and progress throughout the world.”

Apparently, Adams communicated that Lincoln regarded Marx et al as “friends” and that the Union ‘derive(s) new encouragement to persevere from the testimony of the workingmen of Europe.’

Both letters were reportedly published in newspapers around the United States and Britain. On his part Marx was very excited. He told Friedrich Engels that it caused “such a sensation” that the “bourgeoisie” were “shaking their heads at it”, in private clubs.

Concluding remarks

On his part, Lincoln is said to have met the members of the Workingmen’s Association (New York chapter), in 1864, and restated more eloquently, “Marx’s famous rallying cry: “Workers of the world unite!”:

Although he viewed socialists as allies, Lincoln never developed a socialist perspective. He was for wage labor and believed it could be reformed within that system. Marx, as we know, regarded wage labour as a form of slavery.

Nichols points out with authority, “[i]t is indisputable that the Republican Party had at its founding a red streak.”

In this context, in February 1968, Martin Luther King Jr said the following at an event honoring the life of W.E.B. Du Bois:

“It is worth noting that Abraham Lincoln warmly welcomed the support of Karl Marx during the Civil War and corresponded with him freely. … Our irrational obsessive anti-communism has led us into too many quagmires to be retained as if it were a mode of scientific thinking.”

And in present times, while President Trump has cautioned that any vote for a Democrat in the following election will amount to a vote for ‘radical socialism’; and that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Republican, and other black congresswomen, are communists – President Lincoln, who Trump respects, had surrounded himself with socialists whose counsel he appreciated and took.

Sources

1. John Nichols, “The ‘S’ Word: A Short History of an American Tradition … Socialism.”

2. Robin Blackburn, “An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln”,

3. Gillian Brockell, “You know who was into Karl Marx? No, not AOC. Abraham Lincoln”.

4. ‘The Germans in America’ published on the European Reading Room website.

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