How Karl Marx Influenced Abraham Lincoln and His Position on Slavery & Labor

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.

In 1864, Karl Marx and his Inter­na­tion­al Work­ing Men’s Asso­ci­a­tion (the “First Inter­na­tion­al”) sent an address to Abra­ham Lin­coln, con­grat­u­lat­ing “the Amer­i­can peo­ple upon your re-elec­tion by a large major­i­ty.” As his­to­ri­an Robin Black­burn writes, “The US ambas­sador in Lon­don con­veyed a friend­ly but brief response from the pres­i­dent. How­ev­er, the antecedents and impli­ca­tions of this lit­tle exchange are rarely con­sid­ered.” It was not the first time Marx and Lin­coln had encoun­tered each oth­er. They nev­er met per­son­al­ly, but their affini­ties led to what Black­burn calls an “unfin­ished rev­o­lu­tion” — not a com­mu­nist rev­o­lu­tion in the U.S.; but a poten­tial rev­o­lu­tion for democ­ra­cy.

Lin­coln and Marx became mutu­al admir­ers in the ear­ly 1860s due to the lat­ter’s work as a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent for The New York Dai­ly Tri­bune. From 1852 until the start of the Civ­il War, Marx, some­times with Engels, wrote “over five hun­dred arti­cles for the Tri­bune,” Black­burn notes. Fierce­ly anti-slav­ery, Marx com­pared South­ern planters to the Euro­pean aris­toc­ra­cy, “an oli­garchy of 300,000 slave­hold­ers.” Ear­ly in the war, he cham­pi­oned the Union cause, even before Lin­coln decid­ed on eman­ci­pa­tion as a course of action. Marx believed, writes Black­burn, that end­ing slav­ery “would not destroy cap­i­tal­ism, but it would cre­ate con­di­tions far more favor­able to orga­niz­ing and ele­vat­ing labor, whether white or black.”

“Marx was intense­ly inter­est­ed in the plight of Amer­i­can slaves,” Gillian Brock­ell writes at The Wash­ing­ton Post. “In Jan­u­ary 1860, he told Engels that the two biggest things hap­pen­ing in the world were ‘on the one hand the move­ment of the slaves in Amer­i­ca start­ed by the death of John Brown, and on the oth­er the move­ment of serfs in Rus­sia.’ ” Lin­coln was an “avid read­er” of the Tri­bune and Marx’s arti­cles. The paper’s man­ag­ing edi­tor, Charles A. Dana, an Amer­i­can social­ist flu­ent in Ger­man who met Marx in 1848, would go on to become “Lin­col­n’s ‘eyes and ears’ as a spe­cial com­mis­sion­er in the War Depart­ment” and lat­er the Depart­men­t’s Assis­tant Sec­re­tary.

Lin­coln was not, of course, a Com­mu­nist. And yet some of the ideas he absorbed from Marx’s Tri­bune writ­ings — many of which would lat­er be adapt­ed for the first vol­ume of Cap­i­tal – made their way into the Repub­li­can Par­ty of the 1850s and 60s. That par­ty, writes Brock­ell, was “anti-slav­ery, pro-work­er and some­times overt­ly social­ist,” cham­pi­oning, for exam­ple, the redis­tri­b­u­tion of land in the West. (Marx even con­sid­ered emi­grat­ing to Texas him­self at one time.) And at times, Lin­coln could sound like a Marx­ist, as in the clos­ing words of his first annu­al mes­sage (lat­er the State of the Union ) in 1861.

“Labor is pri­or to and inde­pen­dent of cap­i­tal,” the country’s 16th pres­i­dent con­clud­ed in the first speech since his inau­gu­ra­tion. “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.” That full, 7,000 word address appeared in news­pa­pers around the coun­try, includ­ing the Con­fed­er­ate South. The Chica­go Tri­bune sub­ti­tled its clos­ing argu­ments “Cap­i­tal vs. Labor.”

Lin­col­n’s own posi­tion on abo­li­tion evolved through­out his pres­i­den­cy, as did his views on the posi­tion of the for­mer­ly enslaved with­in the coun­try. For Marx, how­ev­er, the ques­tions of total abo­li­tion and full enfran­chise­ment were set­tled long before the coun­try entered the Civ­il War. The demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tion that might have begun under Lin­coln end­ed with his assas­si­na­tion. In the sum­mer after the pres­i­den­t’s death, Marx received a let­ter from his friend Engels about the new pres­i­dent, Andrew John­son: “His hatred of Negroes comes out more and more vio­lent­ly… If things go on like this, in six months all the old vil­lains of seces­sion will be sit­ting in Con­gress at Wash­ing­ton. With­out col­ored suf­frage, noth­ing what­ev­er can be done there.” Hear the address Marx draft­ed to Lin­coln for his 1865 re-elec­tion read aloud at the top of the post, and read it your­self here.

For more on this sub­ject, you can read Black­burn’s book, An Unfin­ished Rev­o­lu­tion: Karl Marx and Abra­ham Lin­coln.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Short Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion to Karl Marx

5 Free Online Cours­es on Marx’s Cap­i­tal from Prof. David Har­vey

The Poet­ry of Abra­ham Lin­coln

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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