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Film review: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln
A revolutionary war against slavery
Patrick Ayers and Eljeer Hawkins, Socialist Alternative (CWI supporters in the USA)
The US release of Steven Spielberg's Lincoln was situated between important events and anniversaries. 6 November 2012 saw the re-election of the first black president, Barack Obama, to a second term and 1 January 2013 was the 150th anniversary of the final implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation. Abraham Lincoln issued the final Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure. It declared "all persons held as slaves" within the rebel states "are, and henceforward shall be free."
The film focuses on efforts to pass the 13th Amendment [to the US constitution which abolished slavery] toward the end of the 1861-65 Civil War. After winning re-election in 1864, Lincoln took the opportunity in the final days of the outgoing "lame duck" session of Congress to pass the amendment.
Passage was not guaranteed. Lincoln had to deal with opposition in his Cabinet, his party, and also win support from some Democrats (who had been the main party of the slave owners).
The film clearly intends to highlight Lincoln's skills as a political leader in a period of crisis. Undoubtedly, a film about Lincoln's character in the limited context of the battle for the 13th Amendment is meant to amplify Lincoln's role in events.
By almost entirely featuring debates in the halls of power in Washington, the film is not able to explore the role of the masses in the historical process. Without the slaves, small farmers, workers, and others who were radicalised by events leading up to the 1861 outbreak of war - and even more so after - Lincoln would not have had a platform from which to lead.
To fully understand the qualities of Lincoln's leadership, it is vital to place his role in the context of the broader historical process. But the choice by the filmmakers of Lincoln to provide a narrow focus, without providing a full historical context, serves to render history as being made by great people ordained by a power greater then themselves.
"The struggle has broken out because the two systems can no longer live peaceably side by side on the North American continent. It can only be ended by the victory of one system (chattel slavery) or the other (free labour)" wrote Karl Marx.
The Civil War ended in a revolutionary war against the slave-owning planters, who had dominated US politics for decades before the war. By abolishing slavery, the material basis of their economic and political power was rooted out.
This revolution was necessary because the first American Revolution - the war for independence from Britain - ended in a compromise between the capitalist ruling class in the North, and the slave-owning planters in the South.
With the invention of the cotton gin, and the development of the industrial revolution, demand for cotton lead to a rapid growth of slavery - and in a far more brutal form than before capitalism. This strengthened the slave-owning planters.
Due to the destructive effect of cotton plantations on the soil, planters were constantly in search of new land. This brought them into collision with the rapidly growing population of small farmers in the North who wanted new lands for small 'free soil' farms, not large slave plantations.
In 1854, small farmers and slave-owners fought a war in Kansas over whether the new state would be a slave state.
With the rapid growth of capitalism in the North, which had its own political agenda, the two systems - the chattel slave system and the free labour capitalist system - increasingly came into conflict. The refusal of the slave-owning planters to relinquish their power made a revolution absolutely necessary.
The industrialists were in a position to lead a historic movement against the slave owners, but they had to mobilise the masses to do it. The Republican Party was launched in 1854 out of a growing democratic movement against the "slave power".
Along with the small farmers and industrialists, the new party brought together abolitionists and workers' organisations that recognised an opportunity to build a powerful movement to crush the "slave power" and open the way for a radical transformation of society.
The Republican programme had a limited goal of stopping the spread of slave lands, but this was enough to herald a death sentence for the slave system.
Added to this opposition in the North, the slave owners constantly lived in fear of slave rebellions. With the growth of slavery to over four million human beings working in bondage, this fear became even greater.
The slave-owners were completely dependent upon racist ideology and a state apparatus that ruthlessly enforced its needs, including enforcing fugitive slave laws and repressing abolitionist agitation. Anti-democratic measures against abolitionists spread fears in the North that the "slave power" was a threat to democratic freedoms.
When Lincoln was elected president in 1860, the slave-owners had already decided that their only hope for defending their interests was an armed uprising against the North and secession.
This was the broad historical process leading up to Lincoln's election and the outbreak of war.
Lincoln's determination to abolish slavery before the end of the civil war was essential for the subsequent development of capitalism over the coming decades. This also led to the development of a powerful working class, the only class in history capable of establishing a society truly based on equality.
For these reasons, Karl Marx and his American allies supported Lincoln and the Union army during the war. "Labour in the white skin can never free itself as long as labour in the black skin is branded," wrote Marx in Capital.
Lincoln wasn't an abolitionist and did not set out to abolish slavery. He also held racist views.
Lincoln said in 1858: "I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been in favour of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not nor ever have been in favour of making voters or jurors of Negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people... I as much as any man am in favour of the superior position assigned to the white race."
But, Lincoln was a supporter of 'free labour' which was crucial for mobilising the northern small farmers, tradesmen and workers, who volunteered to fight in droves.
Lincoln's thinking and actions were pushed by the intensifying social conflict pressure from below which was decisive in forcing him to adopt new bold proposals. Slaves themselves put pressure on the Union leaders to abolish slavery as a war measure, as they increasingly fled to northern lines in the course of the war.
The Army represented some of the most radicalised sections of the northern workers and small farmers. It resembled nothing like the US Army today, which is built through a poverty draft. The Civil War was a political war, and the Union Army was politicised.
Although there was conscription, there were also thousands of willing volunteers, because they believed that crushing the "slave power" was important to the struggle for a better society. Members of labour unions, socialists and other radicals played an important role in joining and forming militias to become part of the Union army. Union soldiers overwhelmingly voted for Lincoln in the 1864 election.
Unfortunately, the black characters in Lincoln are used as caricatures lacking any real development, dialogue or influence on events. There's no mention or portrayal of important African American leaders. Yet, the struggle by the slaves for their own social liberation was a decisive driving force of events that propelled Lincoln to ultimately abolish slavery.
The film also gives the false impression that the 13th Amendment came from Lincoln when in fact the Radical Republicans and abolitionist movement introduced the amendment in January 1864.
Lincoln allows us to re-examine the 16th president of the United States in a critical manner. It provides a background for further exploring the horrendous conditions African-Americans and working people were to face in the future, and the speedy rise of the US as an imperial capitalist nation.
The massive social struggles around the civil war bring up important issues that are played out in the continuing battles today to end racial, class, sexual and gender exploitation under US and global capitalism. 150 years after abolition of slavery, the working class and poor are still the true agents of revolutionary change on the stage of world history.
See also - The end of the slave trade: Myth and reality by Hannah Sell in Socialism Today (April 2007)
America's Revolutionary Heritage: Marxist essays edited by George Novack
520 pages paperback. £19
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