These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people. —Abraham Lincoln, from his first speech as an Illinois state legislator, 1837
Everyone now is more or less a Socialist. —Charles Dana, managing editor of the New York Tribune, and Lincoln’s assistant secretary of war, 1848
The workingmen of Europe feel sure that, as the American War of Independence initiated a new era of ascendancy for the middle class, so the American Antislavery War will do for the working classes. They consider it an earnest of the epoch to come that it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world. —Karl Marx and the First International Workingmen’s Association to Lincoln, 1864
These quotations begin a chapter in John Nichols new book, The “S” Word: A Short History of an American Tradition—Socialism. He wrote The “S” Word in response to Newt Gingrich’s comment, in 2010, that “the socialist infiltration of American government and media is even more disturbing than the threats from foreign terrorists.”
Although both Republicans and Democrats pretend that socialism is a foreign idea antithetical to the “American Way,” Nichols argues that socialism has a long, proud history in America. He writes about Tom Paine who admired early socialists, Horace Greeley who employed Karl Marx as a correspondent for the New York Tribune, and Helen Keller who was an avowed socialist. But one fascinating chapter, reprinted in full at the International Socialist Review, reveals that Republican president Abraham Lincoln had not only immersed himself in the ideas of European Utopian Socialists, and German Communists, but spoke about them publicly.
Lincoln was an avid reader of newspapers, especially of the New York Tribune, which was the great Republican paper of the day. It took a strong stand against slavery in the south. But it also had forceful opinions on the relationship between Labor and Capital, arguing that “Labor needs not to combat but to command Capital.” Greeley wanted to “expose the crimes whereby wealth is amassed and luxury enjoyed.” Nichols writes:
Greeley welcomed the disapproval of those who championed free markets over the interests of the working class, a class he recognized as including both the oppressed slaves of the south and the degraded industrial laborers of the north.
Greeley and Lincoln would hardly recognize the Republican Party of today whose policies are set by free market, trickle down economists and corporate CEOs.
In Lincoln’s first State of the Union address given before Congress, December 3, 1861, he focused on the grave dangers of the Civil War, a conflict which was tearing the union apart. According to Nichols, he saw the war as an attack on democracy itself, that is, on rule by the majority of the people rather than by an oligarchy. He quotes Lincoln:
It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government—the rights of the people. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.
Nichols writes that after Lincoln addressed the challenges of the war, he also spoke of another, perhaps deeper, division. He wanted to speak about the danger of government favoring the interests of capital over labor. In doing so he presented the radical analysis of Marx and others of his time.
It is not needed, nor fitting here [in discussing the Civil War] that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions; but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effect to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor, in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them, and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded thus far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.
Now, there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.
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. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights.
It goes without saying that we have the same problems today that we had in Lincoln’s day. The difference is that Capital, (i.e. corporations/banks and investment firms) is far more powerful today than it was 150 years ago. The news media presents the main conflict in the United States as a partisan one, between the Democratic and Republican parties. But as the Occupy movement has correctly identified, the real conflict is between Wall Street and Main Street, between the 1% and the 99%, and between a corrupt government system and those of us it should be serving. What Lincoln, a Republican, can teach us is not to shy away from socialist analysis or naming class warfare as the single most important issue in the United States today—because it is.