The disservice done by Lincoln

January 8, 2013

ALAN MAASS' review of Spielberg's Lincoln ("The great uncompromiser") has added some complexity to the discussion of this excellent film--but profoundly flawed account of history.

Maass is absolutely correct that Lincoln, neither in the film nor in history, was a "great compromiser." The parallels with Obama, despite screenwriter Tony Kushner's desires (see his revealing interview with Bill Moyers), are not accurate. As recent biographies, in particular James McPherson's Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution and Eric Foner's The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, demonstrate, once Lincoln had come to a political position, he never wavered.

However, we should be clear that Lincoln was, in McPherson's words, a "reluctant revolutionary." Lincoln was a pragmatist. He responded to "facts on the ground"--in particular, the mass flight of slaves during war (what W.E.B. DuBois called the "general strike") and the resulting collapse of slavery.

It is precisely Lincoln's "reluctance" to lead a thoroughgoing revolution in the South during the Civil War--and the decisive role of the mass flight of slaves from the plantations--that is missing from Spielberg and Kushner's hagiographic portrayal.

It is simply not enough to argue "Lincoln isn't about everything that happened during the Civil War." Spielberg and Kushner's decision to focus solely on the parliamentary machinations surrounding the Thirteenth Amendment, while making for a magnificent film, produces a vision of emancipation that is profoundly flawed.

First, Lincoln is presented as a consistent advocate of the uncompensated, immediate and permanent abolition of slavery--a position he had only come to embrace in mid-1862. Before his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln promoted, unsuccessfully, various schemes for graduate emancipation, with the compensation of masters (especially those in the "border" states) and the colonization of African Americans to Central America, the Caribbean or Africa.

Second, the film greatly exaggerates the impact of the Thirteenth Amendment. Much of the historical research of the past 20 years has shown that by late 1864, slavery as the basis of production in the South was dead.

While some Confederate political leaders may have believed that the "peculiar institution" could be revived, the former slaves themselves--through joining the Union army as spies, laborers and soldiers and the self-organization of proto-trade unions, seizure of abandoned plantations and the like--had destroyed slavery. (According to Kevin Anderson, the author of Marx at the Margins, Marx adopted the notion of "self-emancipation" from the struggle of the slaves during the U.S. Civil War.) Put simply, the Thirteenth Amendment legally recognized the reality of the class struggle in the South.

Imagine how we on the left, especially those of us in the tradition of "socialism from below," would have reacted to a film on the organization of industrial unions in the 1930s that looked only at the deliberations of the U.S. Supreme Court in National Labor Relations Board v. Jones & Laughlin Steel Corporation, the 1937 case that upheld the constitutionality of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935?

Rather than depicting the self-activity and self-organization of industrial workers who launched city-wide general strikes in Minneapolis, Toledo and San Francisco in 1934, the waves of strikes in basic industry in 1935 and 1936, and the sit-down strikes of 1936-37, we would be treated to lengthy discussions between the Supreme Court justices debating whether or not the inter-state commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution applied to unions.

I would be surprised if anyone in our political tradition would argue that such a film was "not about everything that happened in the 1930s," rather than condemning its fetishizing the at the expense of mass working class struggles.
Charlie Post, New York City

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