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by STAN HISTER
Unhappy is the land that needs a hero – Bertolt Brecht
Abraham Lincoln is one of those touchstone historical figures who we seem to have to reinvent every generation. I’m not sure, though, if any of these inventions have served progressives well. I’m not questioning Lincoln’s greatness (the objections raised against him are mostly specious); rather I’m questioning how much inspiration we can draw from him for today’s political struggles. I think the legacy of the Great Emancipator poses a conundrum for progressives, I’m even tempted to say a trap. Maybe one of the problems of the American left is that it has lived too long in Lincoln’s shadow.
First a look at the latest Lincoln invention. It comes in an A-list Hollywood production with a no-frills title directed by Steven Spielberg and written by Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame. It’s an enjoyable movie to watch, the acting is excellent, the storyline has inspirational uplift – pretty much guaranteed with anything to do with Lincoln (or by Spielberg) – and it all looks and sounds authentic and convincing. The question is, why this Lincoln now?
The Civil War does not exactly lack for dramatic possibilities, yet the movie makes an odd choice, focusing on a legislative battle – Lincoln’s efforts to get a constitutional amendment through Congress to abolish slavery in January of 1865 – rather than on the war itself. This casts Lincoln primarily as a political strategist and manager: we see him maneuvering among the various factions, both inside his party and in Congress, making deals, compromising, cajoling, gathering support however he can, including with the lure of patronage. This is not the high school history figure of Father Abraham intoning the Gettysburg Address (though that speech does make an appearance). This is meant to be a more ‘realistic’ Lincoln, the portrait of a pragmatic politician, Lincoln as horse-trader.
Not that Spielberg and Kushner intend this in any negative sense. On the contrary, their idea is that horse-trading is itself a kind of heroism. And that’s where the tie-in to the present comes in. Talking on National Public Radio after the movie came out in November, Kushner said he found it was valuable for him in working on the script “to look at the Obama years through a Lincoln lens.” This is because “I think Obama is a great president and I feel that there is immense potential now for rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country after a great deal of damage has been done to it.” One of the obstacles in Obama’s way, however, is “an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people with the kind of compromising, the kind of horse-trading that is necessary.” Great politicians like Lincoln (and presumably Obama too) are good at deal-making “because that’s in fact what politics is. It’s not about purity, it’s about compromise and strategy and making things actually happen in real time on this earth as opposed to a metaphysical realm.” In the movie Lincoln exemplifies this getting-things-done pragmatism, while by way of contrast there is the Radical Republican congressman Thaddeus Stevens, a good person who has to learn to forgo his metaphysical purity to achieve a great purpose.
Which is all a bit puzzling. You would think, from what Kushner says, that the Obama years have been crowded with a lot of latter-day Thaddeus Stevenses, i.e. progressive ‘purists’ besieging the “great” man in the White House. If there are such people inside the administration or in Congress, they have done an awfully good job of hiding themselves for the last four years. It is true that outside the corridors of power there has been widespread disillusionment with Obama, and no doubt this is what Spielberg and Kushner had in mind. Many progressives thought they were voting for a new FDR in 2008, only to get Bill Clinton redux, and without even Clinton’s canniness. Obama’s idea of horse-trading often seems to be to give away the horse in exchange for a knuckle sandwich.
As for rebuilding a progressive democracy, it’s hard to see evidence for that when the gap between the haves and have-nots is wider than ever. Nor does the continuing operation of Gitmo or the holding of ‘kill list’ meetings in the White House every Tuesday exactly betoken a Lincolnian “new birth of freedom.” Most progressives voted for Obama a second time only because they felt that the other guy would have been worse, but this can hardly be taken as a sign of a thriving democracy. Meanwhile the country is more deeply divided politically than it’s been since the Civil War and the forces of reaction are becoming more extreme and vitriolic. You would think that at such a moment we have more need of Lincoln the visionary than Lincoln the horse-trader. But that’s just why a conservative like New York Times columnist David Brooks likes the Spielberg film – because it shifts attention away from what he calls “the Gettysburg phase” of Lincoln’s career. In that phase “a leader expresses grand ideas. This, frankly, is relatively easy. Lots of people embrace grand ideals or all-explaining ideologies. But satisfied with that they become morally infantile. They refuse to compromise, insult their opponents and isolate themselves on the perch of their own solipsism.”
Expressing grand ideas is “relatively easy” – who knew? Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass, Tom Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King – is this a list of the “morally infantile”? Brooks is writing off the role of idealism in politics, and sadly the new Lincoln film gives him licence to do that. But there would never have been a 13th amendment had it not been for the idealism of the Abolitionists, metaphysical purists of the first order, who created a climate of opinion in which slavery came to be seen for the moral abomination that it was. Without that climate of opinion Lincoln would never have been elected, the Civil War wouldn’t have been fought (or it would have been lost) and the horse-traders in Congress would have been haggling over how much slavery, not how to abolish it.
Idealism isn’t some solipsistic exercise in feeling morally superior; rather it is an indispensable factor in shaping the direction of politics, especially at critical junctures of history. Historian Richard Hofstadter called the idealist – he was speaking of the great Abolitionist agitator Wendell Phillips – “a crisis thinker” because “he thinks in terms of the ultimate potentialities of social conflicts rather than the immediate compromises by which they are softened. His moral judgments are made from the standpoint of absolute values, with which the mass of men cannot comfortably live.” Relegated to the margins in normal times, the idealist turns from a pariah to a prophet in a social crisis when thinking “in terms of ultimate potentialities” suddenly seems to correspond to the way things really are and offers the only road out of the impasse brought about by the horse-traders of mainstream politics.
But rarely have progressives had less of a sense of “ultimate potentialities” than they do now. There is broad agreement about what we are against but almost none about what we are for. This gives the enemies of progress an immense advantage. “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity” goes a famous line by the poet Yeats, and it captures well the predicament of progressive politics in our time. Pragmatism we have had all too much of – what else were the Clinton years if not one long exercise in pragmatic politics? Horse-trading, lesser-evilism, triangulation – all the stock-in-trade of this kind of politics – abounded, and the upshot of it all was a steady shift to the right (e.g. “the end of welfare in our time”, bank deregulation that brought us subprime mortgages) which paved the way for the most reactionary regime in recent history, the Bush Administration. Obama is treading the same path, and it isn’t hard to see a similar outcome a few years down the road. The crying need now is not for more pragmatism but for more idealism, the very thing the new Lincoln film discounts.
All that being said, I’m not sure how useful any version of Lincoln would be to inspiring a new birth of idealism. As I said earlier, this isn’t about questioning his greatness; most who do resort to the anachronism of applying 21st century standards to a 19th century figure (especially in relation to his views on race), which is a myopic and useless way of looking at history. Of course in official American political culture Lincoln is a saint, but there is plenty of serious scholarship on Lincoln that isn’t hagiography (historians Eric Foner and James McPherson come to mind) and yet the portrayal of Lincoln in such accounts is actually more impressive than the schoolbook myths since these are credible and nuanced judgements, and yet they end up affirming Lincoln’s stature rather than diminishing it. Indeed my argument hinges on this point: I think Lincoln truly was a remarkable figure, but that doesn’t make him any less problematic as a role model for contemporary progressive politics.
Let me explain what I mean by comparing how a couple of Big Historical Events operate in our collective consciousness. The French Revolution happened seven decades before the American Civil War. When you think about the Revolution, probably the first thing that comes to mind is the storming of the Bastille. But when you think of the Civil War, probably the first thing that comes to mind is Lincoln. He dominates his slice of history to an unprecedented degree, far more than, say, Washington does the American Revolution. Even in the pantheon of American heroes he stands out. No other president comes close to the kind of adulation Lincoln receives, and you see this expressed in the various presidential memorials in Washington DC: Washington’s and Jefferson’s are monuments of respect but the Lincoln memorial elicits a catch-in-your-throat reverence. It is the highest shrine of the secular religion of Americanism.
In other words Lincoln’s legacy is a powerful narrative about a great man making history. Spielberg’s Lincoln adds yet more lustre to Lincoln’s halo. Indeed so tight is the film’s focus on the great man that virtually everyone else recedes into the background. The African-American characters in the film (as one history professor rightly complained on the op-ed pages of The New York Times) “do almost nothing but passively wait for white men to liberate them.” The millions of soldiers – white and black – who did the fighting and dying that made the abolition of slavery possible don’t get much better treatment. Though there have been other attempts to present a more balanced approach (best known, perhaps, is the Ken Burns PBS documentary series on the Civil War that relied heavily on soldiers’ letters), Lincoln is still the overwhelming image that looms over this history. The effort of a progressive historian like the late Howard Zinn to shove Lincoln off center-stage and make room for “the people” is ultimately not that convincing.
The truth is that the people played a supporting role in the great drama of the Civil War – not just in the history books or the movies but in reality. The Lincoln legend is an exaggeration but not a fabrication. It is true there was considerably more involvement of ordinary people, black and white, in the struggle against the Confederacy than a movie like Spielberg’s Lincoln portrays. But to make out that the Civil War was a grassroots struggle for freedom is not true. The only time the grassroots intervened independently was John Brown’s abortive uprising in 1859, and though his martyrdom galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North, that sentiment wasn’t channeled into mass action but into the election of Lincoln. From then on the history of the Civil War is far more about top-down military action than grassroots mobilization. Not that the grassroots vanish: they make their presence felt in some extraordinary ways, as with the 200,000 African-Americans, mostly ex-slaves, who enlist voluntarily in the Union Army after the Emancipation Proclamation, providing manpower that was essential to winning the war at a time when recruitment among whites was in serious decline. But even this inspiring example conforms to the basic pattern that the only way the people could impact events was through their support for the government and the Union army. Many historians have pointed out that the 1864 election was remarkable: Lincoln won it largely by getting a big majority of the soldier vote, even though his opponent, a popular ex-general, was for brokering a peace with the Confederates to end the war quickly. Lincoln was committed to defeating the South, which meant that by voting for him the Union soldiers were voting for months, maybe years, more of dying. This vote, as much as heroics on the battlefield, was an act of political courage by everyday people in support of freedom. But once the ballots were cast, the soldiers, as it were, exit stage left: though they go on living the war, it is Lincoln who goes back to running it. Indeed from that point on the Civil War saga is all Lincoln: the passage of the 13th amendment, the Second Inaugural Address, the final defeat of the Confederacy and the assassination.
There’s a certain irony to how all this turned out that Lincoln would probably have appreciated. He actually touches on the issue in his most famous speech, the Gettysburg Address. What most of us remember (from when we had to memorize it in school) are the stirring phrases – “a new birth of freedom” and that mantra of democracy, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” But Lincoln made another point which doesn’t get much attention: “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here” – the ‘they’ being the soldiers who died at Gettysburg. This is the sort of thing you would expect a political leader to say when dedicating a battlefield cemetery, but there’s no reason to doubt Lincoln’s sincerity, since he couldn’t have known how famous his speech would become. As it turned out, while the battle hasn’t been forgotten, it’s the speech that the world has taken much greater note of. “Four score and seven years ago” is instantly recognizable while Little Round Top or Pickett’s Charge don’t mean much to anyone who isn’t an American history buff. This might seem unfair – that mere words should count for more than the sacrifice of thousands of lives – but the speech deserves its fame: it articulates with eloquent simplicity the great political purpose for all that sacrifice. But this in turn only underscores how much it was Lincoln who shaped and defined, who made, this history. To be sure he made it in the name of the people, in the name of democracy, but he made it – and so it is his name that has come to dominate it.
It can be argued that history is always like this – the ‘greats’ make it and the rest of us endure it. But this is a glibly conservative view. Progressive change in our time depends on empowering masses of people. But an uncritical admiration for Lincoln feeds the dangerous illusion that we don’t need that empowerment, all we need is another great leader in the White House. Or a more seductive variation of the same idea – that the great leader will do the empowering. But freedom can’t be bestowed as a gift, it has to be won in struggle, wrenched out of oppression. The Great Emancipator abolished slavery but this only meant a marginal change in the lives of the vast majority of African-Americans: they went from the chains of bondage to the cage of Jim Crow segregation, which lasted for a century, until the rise of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
It also isn’t always true that great leaders make history. Sometimes the billing is reversed and it’s the people who take center stage. There are lots of examples – from the peasants of the Reformation to the proletarians of the 20th century – but probably the most relevant example by way of contrast to Lincoln is, again, the French Revolution. It was, according to the Marxist historian Daniel Guerin, “the first modern revolution to have involved the broad mass of the people in activity, to have roused them from their slumbers, and to have been largely carried out by them.” To be sure the Revolution had its great men – Marat, Robespierre, Danton – but none of them ever dominated events the way Lincoln did in the Civil War. Typically they appear as emanations of the popular will, brought to power by the actions of the Parisian masses, the famous sans-culottes, only to fall from power when the mass movement exhausted itself. When a great leader eventually does arrive on the scene, a military man from Corsica, he comes not to embrace the masses but to rein them in.
This difference is not a matter of personalities or nationalities. Rather it’s the difference between a revolution surging up from below as opposed to a civil war directed from above. It is true that the Civil War is often referred to as the Second American Revolution because it eventually became a war to expropriate what had been until then one of the country’s dominant social classes (indeed the dominant class in terms of wealth) – the planter aristocracy of the South. But unlike 1789 in France, or 1776 in America for that matter, this was a revolution that did everything it could to pretend it wasn’t. The North began the Civil War with the limited aim of preserving the Union, which meant preserving the status quo before the Confederacy’s secession, including slavery. It was only after two frustrating years, when it became clear that this aim was untenable without eradicating the power of the slave-owners, that the war shifted into its “Gettysburg phase”. Yet even then, if Lincoln can be called a revolutionary, he was an extremely reluctant one. After all, he wasn’t some upstart Jacobin firebrand but the duly elected and legally constituted President of the United States. When John Brown brought some of the flavor of Jacobinism to America with his raid on Harper’s Ferry, Lincoln did everything he could to dissociate himself and his party from Brown, even endorsing his execution. Which means that, as revolutions go, the Civil War was peculiar.
To state the glaringly obvious, there aren’t a lot of examples of a government making a revolution. As a rule, it’s the other way around – the revolution makes the government. That’s true of all the famous cases: the two 18th century revolutions in America and France, the Puritan Revolution in England a century earlier, and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in the early 20th century. And in all these cases, the revolutionaries make a big deal about it being a revolution: heads roll, especially of monarchs, prisons are razed, palaces and manor houses are pillaged, statues are toppled, old gods are dumped, there is a wholesale slaughter of names – towns, streets, schools, even months and years. Everything possible is done to proclaim an irrevocable rupture with the past and the dawn of a new life.
This ‘turning the world upside down’ is present in the Civil War (and its aftermath of Reconstruction) but it is hardly the prevailing spirit. If anything, the North made a big deal about how the war wasn’t a revolution, how it was rather the Confederate rebels who were trying to bring about a rupture with the past. (Of course Southerners leveled the same accusation against the North, accusing Lincoln of being a revolutionary tyrant bent on destroying their rights.) Much about Northern political life seemed to have a ‘business as usual’ quality. For example, the fact that the electoral cycle didn’t miss a beat – mid-term elections in 1862, a presidential election in 1864 – seems, in retrospect anyway, a little surreal given the cataclysm the country was enduring. Of course politically it was crucial to demonstrate the resilience of American democracy in the face of a mortal threat and to get the endorsement of the voters to sustain the war effort. But I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to see an element of denial also at work, a clinging to the normalcy of electoral politics to soften the edges of catastrophe, make it seem less monumental, less scary, and also less of a revolutionary situation. Certainly the Congress installed by these elections (and accurately portrayed in Spielberg’s Lincoln) is no gathering of revolutionaries. Though there are voices of passionate outrage like Thaddeus Stevens, mostly this is a conclave of political hacks and hucksters, open to selling their votes to the highest bidder (much like their modern-day counterparts). In the visitors’ gallery people listen quietly and respectfully to the debates, there are no crowds like those attending the sessions of the National Convention in revolutionary Paris – heckling, cheering, seething with impatience and anger. In Washington even the slaves sit politely in their seats as the votes are counted to decide their freedom.
A revolution that pretends not to be one is inevitably going to be a “halfway revolution”, to borrow historian Michael Kazin’s label for the Civil War. In France, where they had an all-the-way revolution, the politicians tended to settle their disputes with the guillotine rather than rhetoric. For all its brutality, this did have one advantage – it expressed in its violence the intensity of the entire revolutionary process. A Congressional vote has far less finality – as the eventual demise of Reconstruction would demonstrate. It’s intriguing to consider what would have happened if the North had administered some ‘revolutionary justice’ in the South and sent a few thousand slave-owners and Confederate leaders to their just deserts. Might this have meant that Reconstruction would have survived past the 1870s or that the festering of groups like the Ku Klux Klan (founded by Confederate Army veterans) would have been nipped in the bud and a century of suffering alleviated, at least to some extent? Surely the world would have been a better place if the likes of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a brilliant general but also a murderous racist guilty of war crimes, had not been allowed to live out his life after the war, which he devoted in part to leading the KKK. This kind of retribution never happened because Northern public opinion wouldn’t have tolerated it: you can’t have revolutionary justice if you’re in denial about making a revolution. But as a leading Jacobin, Saint-Just, once remarked: “Those who make revolution half way only dig their own graves.” In the case of the Civil War the graves were mostly those of defenseless African-Americans. The slave-owners and their allies, once they were back in power in the Southern states, had no qualms about using violence for their own ends and produced a steady crop of “strange fruit”, the hauntingly evocative phrase for lynchings made famous in a Billie Holiday song.
Which suggests that revolutions that don’t stop halfway are more humane in the long run than those that do. The French Revolution was certainly violent, but the Civil War was considerably more so. The Terror, the marquee event of Jacobin violence, took 17,000 lives in one year (1793-94), whereas at Gettysburg 8,000 died in three days and at Antietam 3,600 died in a single day, and such death tolls were the common in Civil War battles. (Casualty lists that include the injured are, of course, far higher for these battles.) In a ten year period the French Revolution and the various wars it brought about cost half a million lives, whereas in just four years the Civil War consumed (according to recent scholarship) about 750,000 lives – and this is just military deaths, as there are no estimates for civilian casualties. (Revolutionary France and Civil War America had roughly the same populations – in the range of 25-30 million.) Unless one is prepared to argue that revolutions and civil wars are always bad – and thus conveniently ignore the institutionalized violence of ‘peaceful’ oppression – then it would seem that the better way to go is to storm the Bastille rather than elect a savior to the White House.
My point here isn’t about the Civil War, which probably couldn’t have been won any other way than it was. For Lincoln it was never a matter of making a new revolution but rather of upholding the tradition of an earlier one, that of 1776. Ideologically that was essential to fighting and winning the war because a new revolution wasn’t what the vast majority of the Northern population wanted. What they wanted was a leader who could keep the country from falling apart. That they found that leader, and at exactly the right time, is a remarkable piece of good luck (luck being a far from inconsequential factor in history). The two presidents before Lincoln – Pierce and Buchanan – and the two after him – Andrew Johnson and US Grant – were among the worst presidents ever. There is no reason to suppose that if any of these men (or any of Lincoln’s rivals in the 1860 or 1864 elections) had been in power, that they would have shown anywhere near the same political astuteness and resolve as Lincoln. It has been said that what makes for a great leader is the meeting of character and catastrophe, and Lincoln is an obvious exemplar of that. It’s hard to imagine how the North could have won the war without him.
But my point is about Lincoln in our time, not in his. What made him an indispensable leader in the Civil War also makes him problematic as an inspiration for progressive politics today. It could be argued (in line with the revisionism of historians like Howard Zinn) that Lincoln is no longer much of an inspiration, but there’s lots of evidence that he remains a powerful political symbol. Certainly Obama has been eager to bask in Lincoln’s reflected glory and Spielberg’s film is only the latest in a steady stream of screen depictions of Civil War history, to say nothing of the vast output in print on the subject. It’s safe to assume that the audience for this material is mostly from the left of the political spectrum, whereas the right-wing has tried to appropriate 1776 via the Tea Party. Thus American history gets neatly sliced in two to serve contemporary politics, except that the halves don’t add up to a whole: they seem rather like shards of a shattered mythology. To be sure, Tea-Partyism is a flagrant misuse of the Revolution, but liberal accounts of Lincoln like Spielberg’s are also rewrites of history, albeit a good deal less crude in their distortions. On the radical left, the allure of Lincoln derives, oddly enough, from his status in the mainstream: he offers instant, if illusory, relief from the political marginalization the left has constantly had to endure. Evoking Lincoln allows radicals a quick and easy way to link up to the popular traditions of America, untainted by ‘alien’ ideas like socialism. But for that to be credible, Lincoln has to be refashioned: the historical record is cherry-picked, the half in halfway revolution tends to get blurred and instead Lincoln becomes an apotheosis of democracy, of emancipation from any and every form of oppression.
Not too long ago I came across a graphic novel that had Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address to an anti-globalization rally; maybe we will soon have an updated version with Lincoln camping out with the Occupy movement. Left-wing paeans to Lincoln abound; indeed much of the official Lincoln legend was built up by talented left-wingers like the writer Carl Sandburg and the composer Aaron Copland during the New Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s. You get a good picture of left-wing worship of Lincoln in Philip Roth’s fine novel, I Married a Communist, set in the late 1940s. The lead character, the Communist of the title, goes around to union halls and high schools dressed up as Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural, followed by a re-cap of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Later, he becomes a celebrity on network radio (this is the age before television) in a show dramatizing inspiring episodes from American history. And there is a projected Broadway play presenting the main scenes of Lincoln’s life. “Wonderful stuff there for an actor,” the writer, also a Communist, says excitedly. “Three hours. No intermission. Leave them speechless in their seats. Leave them grieving for what America might be like today, for the Negro and the white man, if he’d served his second term and overseen Reconstruction.” Though this is fiction, it’s very close to the actual experiences of thousands of left-wing artists and intellectuals (soon to fall victim to McCarthyism). And Roth captures nicely their mindset: if only the great president hadn’t been killed, the world would have been so much better off. Nobody in those years would have had to spell out that the same if only also applied to a president only very recently deceased – Franklin Roosevelt.
Then there is the Lincoln Memorial, which has become a Mecca for anyone fighting oppression – notably union members, racial and sexual minorities, immigrants. The most famous such demonstration was the 1963 March on Washington where hundreds of thousands of civil rights protestors heard Martin Luther King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Memorial, while behind the Doric columns the august statue of Lincoln brooded like an immortal contemplating the sad spectacle of human affairs. Of course it made sense for the civil rights movement to evoke Lincoln’s abolition of slavery as a precursor to its own struggle, and the Left equally has a claim on that history in its fight against social inequality. But there are limits to how far that claim can be pushed. Renting Lincoln’s halo for a favored cause always runs the risk of buying into illusions about White House saviors. The symbolism of Lincoln works two ways: it’s about freedom but it’s also about working through the system to achieve it. The civil rights movement bought into the whole symbolical package and ended up, perhaps not coincidentally, with a halfway victory, at best.
The Left is certainly for ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’, but that isn’t all the Left is for or even the most important thing. There isn’t a straight line from Lincolnian home truths about democracy to fighting social inequality, which has emerged as the great radicalizing issue of our time, as slavery was in the Civil War. Democracy is supposed to bring us all together but social inequality is about what divides us, about the great unmentionable of American politics – class. With the rich becoming obscenely so while millions have lost their jobs and homes, with the middle classes struggling to keep their heads above water and the working class left with few alternatives to McJobs, with social mobility rapidly becoming a thing of the past – with all that, an image that comes to mind is of an emaciated body politic ravaged by a cancerous growth. And to heal that will require far more than the pragmatic maneuvers of mainstream politics; it will require serious social surgery.
What sort of democracy is capable of that? Richard Hofstadter once called traditional American democracy “a democracy in cupidity rather than a democracy of fraternity.” That phrase – a democracy in cupidity – is apt. It isn’t just that greed is rampant or that the functioning of American democracy is geared to promoting and enabling greed, as recent history amply demonstrates. Dig deeper and you find cupidity at the heart of the American Dream. The pursuit of happiness, foundational to America, is all about the pursuit of prosperity, in a land of limitless opportunity, by rugged individualists. This has been and remains even now a powerfully alluring dream which achieved its perfected form with the glittering utopia of consumerism. But in those bright lights it becomes hard to see the stark realities of exploitation and class division; hence the description of American workers as “prisoners of the American Dream” (by Marxist social historian Mike Davis). To anyone not enthralled by that dream it isn’t hard to see that ‘making it’ and democracy ultimately work at cross purposes: a system set up for ‘winners’ is also going to produce a vastly greater number of ‘losers’, and the more the gap between them grows, the more hollow democracy becomes. That a homeless person and a corporate executive each have one vote is a measure not of democracy’s vitality but of its irrelevance.
This tension was already plain to see a decade after the end of the Civil War, when the new birth of freedom promised at Gettysburg became the new birth of robber-baron capitalism, the era of Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Vanderbilt etc. Economically speaking, these were the real victors of the Civil War. Theirs was certainly freedom of a sort, the freedom of some individuals to enrich themselves fabulously by impoverishing millions of others – democracy of, by and for ‘winners’ – aka plutocracy. It is true that important social movements rose up to oppose the plutocrats – the Progressives of the early years of the 20th century, industrial unionism in the Dirty Thirties and the radicalization of the Sixties – and while these movements were often able to curb the worst excesses of capitalism, they never got far in changing the system. Indeed, if they weren’t contained or repressed, these movements were co-opted to one extent or another and often ended up helping to refurbish the system they had originally set out to undermine. Meanwhile the underlying problems were never dealt with and only grew worse over time, so that today’s ‘winner-take-all democracy’ threatens to take us back to levels of inequality not seen since the robber-baron era.
Only a different kind of democracy can get us out of this, what Hofstadter called a democracy of fraternity, a social democracy. The greater good of the community would now trump the ‘freedom’ of the current robber-barons, which is just another way of saying that the ‘freedom’ to exploit others would give way to freedom from exploitation. And that can only happen if democracy is extended to the economy itself, if the robbed take over from the robbers. This would turn democracy from the mostly empty shell it is now into the most powerful force in social life. It would stop society from being eaten alive by the profit motive and rescue the pursuit of happiness from the degrading zero-sum game of winners and losers it has become. Wall Street wouldn’t just be occupied, it would be written out of the picture. There is no way a political creature of the two-party system sitting in the White House is ever going to make that happen. But that’s just why Lincoln’s legacy isn’t much help when it comes to fighting for this kind of democracy: it is less a flaming torch of inspiration than a flickering light. We are now more in need of a break with tradition than a celebration of it.
In this respect the Abolitionists still provide a useful example. Leading Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison took to burning copies of the American Constitution as a highlight of his speeches, condemning it as “a Covenant with Death, an Agreement with Hell” for its legitimizing of slavery. The most famous speech Frederick Douglass ever gave was a denunciation of the hypocrisy of the Fourth of July, which builds to this astonishing passage: “What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals to him more than all other days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mock; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation of the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States at this very hour.” These words still have the power to take us aback. It’s rare even now (at least in America) to hear such an unbridled attack on the claims to democracy that are the heart and soul of Americanism.
Of course it can be argued that slavery was a special case, unmatched in its inhumanity and brutality, and this explains the vehemence of Abolitionist rhetoric. Besides, their objective wasn’t to destroy American democracy but to purge it of its worst hypocrisy. But the Abolitionist experience also shows that they achieved their objective not by accommodating themselves to the political mainstream but rather by a furious and sustained assault on it. In the end it was the mainstream that had to accommodate itself to Abolitionism. We are deluding ourselves if we think that overcoming social inequality will require any less passionate and determined an assault on the encrusted political monopoly of the two-party system or any less sharp a break with the tradition of Americanism.
If there is one phrase that sums up Americanism, it is “the promise of America”, and no figure exemplifies that promise more than Lincoln. He does so through his life story – born in a log cabin, almost entirely self-educated, and yet rising to become President – as well as through his political role in bringing about emancipation. Democracy, liberty, opportunity – this is “the promise of America”. Which helps explain why the American flag so often gets hoisted on picket lines or in mass demonstrations, far more often than, say, the Union Jack or the tricolore gets paraded by demonstrators in Britain or France. To raise the American flag is in effect to demand that “the promise of America” be fulfilled, the promise of freedom and happiness. This has less to do with the quasi-mystical ‘national spirit’ that most brands of patriotism trade in, and is closer, oddly enough, to socialism. Indeed, it’s about as close to socialism as you can get and still not be socialism. The missing ingredient is class consciousness: “the promise of America” isn’t about a collective emancipation from wage-slavery but rather an individual emancipation from the working class. But in our time that promise is becoming an empty one: if you are born in a log cabin, more than likely a log cabin is where you will stay. We need a different kind of emancipation – not from the working class but by it.
It’s been said of a much earlier (and finer) Lincoln movie, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, that “it is more a lament for what the world might almost have been, if there had been no need for a Lincoln to save it.” This is nearer to what we need than Spielberg’s ‘Lincoln for Obama times’. But Ford’s film was in a nostalgic key: it looked back to a world that might have been. I think we are historically far enough along to shift the key from might have been to might be, from a lament to an aspiration. We need to imagine a world no longer in need of being saved by heroes like Lincoln, a world no longer in his shadow.
Stan Hister is a socialist, writer and photographer. He will be speaking at the Left Forum in New York on June 9 on the subject of Lincoln, revolution and the radical left.