Lincoln for the Left?

Dave Wagner interviews Paul Buhle about his new book Lincoln For Beginners, with comic art by Sharon Rudahl and a Preface by Eric Foner, which was published in January.

DW: How did you get interested in Lincoln?

PB: My first book that was not a comic book or a children’s book–like the little, illustrated Robin Hood volume that I so enjoyed–was titled something like the Pictorial History of the Civil War.” My parents must have bought it for me because of the stories my mother told of Ezra Fuller, my great-great-grandfather, a rank and file Abolitionist who moved from Maine to Missouri at the beginning of the 1850s, crossed the Big River ahead of a mob, or so it was said, and settled in Illinois. By 1864, he was marching with (or rather, feeding and watering the horses for) General Sherman in his march through Georgia, the campaign that made the continuation of slavery impossible. Sherman claimed that his troops sang “John Brown’s Body” in perfect key, which doesn’t seem likely, but is an inspiring thought. Like so many other kids, north or south, I followed the battles and the generals, mainly. But of course, it signaled, for me, the total war over slavery. Ezra Fuller, in his 80s, actually visited at my grandparents’ house in Aledo, Illinois from time to time, and my mother vividly remembered him, with his nephew, a Union Army drummer boy, usually on hand, recalling how they had fought (or “fit”)  “the Sesesh,” that is, the Secessionlsts.

DW: How did you and Sharon Rudahl come to this project?

PB: I came to For Beginners with the idea of doing a book, mainly for highschoolers and community college students, that was half prose and half comic art–not as an “illustration” of the prose but as a parallel work by the artist. I do not think this had been attempted before. Sabrina Jones and I had teamed up, around 2008, working on a comic titled FDR and the New Deal for Beginners. We were thinking that the first Obama election might prompt an upsurge of mass movements and thereby push the country (and the presidency) Leftward. It was a naïve expectation, to say the least. Sharon and I came up with the Lincoln project in a later, much bleaker moment–voting rights being taken away, mass incarceration  become “the new slavery,“ as Harry Belafonte called it, and a president headed anywhere but leftward on most issues.

Writing about Lincoln helped me come to terms with the totemic nineteenth century leader and his intriguing politics and personality, which are complicated, to say the least.

Because of his political aspirations, Lincoln kept secret the freethinking of his youthful days, a way of looking at the world distinctly non-Christian. He took up the slavery issue as the national crisis approached, but he had militantly resisted the Mexican-American War in 1848, the most noteworthy action in his earlier career. The Christian mission of conquest was definitely not for him.  Not long before 1860, he took to studying the Old Testament intensely, because he badly needed inspiration to understand and explain the “blood price” that would have to be paid for slavery, America’s single greatest sin. His views on Indians and Indian lands were vague at best, his lincolnbuhleadoption of hyper-capitalist plans for expansion, taken up as war measures, helped produce monsters, and there is lots more to discuss. But there are good reasons why we still thrill to the Emancipation Proclamation and to the Gettysburg Address, and why Martin Luther King, Jr., did as well.

Robin Blackburn’s An Unfinished Revolution: Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln wonderfully clarifies what socialists have discussed all the way back to the 1870s. If we don’t see this relationship, carried out in various ways, we will never understand Lincoln.

Through Lincoln, I came to see better than before I began working on the subject, that I was coming to terms with my own downstate Illinois background. Back in my childhood, the obligatory family visits to Lincoln-connected historic sites left more of an impression than I consciously grasped.  My study of American Marxism as well as the lifetime of political activity that began with the civil rights movement, carried me far from those impressions–but not as far as I thought. In my very first picket line, protesting employment discrimination at  a department store in Champaign in1960, the sign someone handed me read, “In the Land of Lincoln, Discrimination is Stinkin’.”

DW: Your most important work is a history of American Marxism. What have left-wing writers, over the generations, thought about Lincoln?

PB: Part of Marxism in the United States. was devoted to the question of how U.S. socialists, communists and new leftists have attempted to reconcile the complex problem of American capitalism’s great claims to progress and what they meant for ordinary Americans and others around the globe.

The first real Marxist history of the US, in English, happened to be titled Lincoln, Labor and Slavery, published in 1911. The author, Herman Schluter [umlaut over the u], also editor of the socialistic Brewery Workers Union’ newspaper, was a careful reader of sources and a sophisticated thinker who saw Lincoln’s contradictions clearly, especially in regards slavery and toward the working class.

The sophistication of Schluter’s views marked him off from the iconoclasts, including most famously the “Mark Twain of American Socialism,” Oscar Ameringer,” whose short satirical history of the US, The Life and Deeds of Uncle Sam, reputedly sold half a million copies. Ameringer treated the Civil War, like the American Revolution, as a mechanism for capitalism’s advance and not much more. Ameringer himself was far from “Lincoln’s Boys,” aging veterans of the war who became followers of Eugene Debs and members of the Socialist Party. But iconoclasm, a natural response to the hypocrisy of the Lincoln worship by politicians and the business class of the 1910s, remained strong in the socialist movement and its counterpart, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The First World War understandably confirmed, for many, a cynicism toward American wars, including the Civil War.

Such critical views of Lincoln and the Civil War practically disappeared into the Popular Front narrative of the 1930s-50s, in which criticisms of the “Great Emancipator” essentially vanished. Only Carl Sandburg, whose best-selling, multi-volume biography of Lincoln cast the president as the ultimate American hero, could be more definitive. Sandburg’s volumes began appearing in the1920s, but the New Deal and the war against fascism set the background for the sentiment at large on the Left. Lincoln became a sort of pre-mature anti-fascist, premature by almost a century! The Abraham Lincoln Battalion in the Spanish Civil War proved the point. By the way, no historical perspective within American Left, outside English language sources, could be more effusive than Yiddish-language publications. For these militant atheists, by the middle 1930s, Lincoln was a god named Abraham.

I happened to go to graduate school in Madison, Wisconsin, where the iconoclastic view still held remarkably strong during the 1960s and was advanced further by the great historian of empire, William Appleman Williams.  For Williams, Lincoln in power was a “railroad lawyer” working for the advancement of industrial-agricultural capitalism and empire. We radical students were easily convinced of this, perhaps because Williams’ arch-enemy, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., made every triumph of American democracy into one more beneficial step toward U.S. control of the planet, always ultimately benevolent, always necessary for progress. African American struggles from below did not concern either Williams or Schlesinger, and John Brown was practically nobody’s hero in those 1950s-60s accounts. W.E.B. DuBois’ massive and brilliantly written Black Reconstruction was practically ignored if not banned outright by the mainstream of the US history profession until the 1970s. Black Reconstruction naturally became a key influence for our generation. DuBois’ treatment of the Civil War, his insistence upon the decisive importance of slaves fleeing the plantations at the first opportunity was echoed in C.L.R. James’ totemic Black Jacobins, the story of the successful slave revolt in Haiti, almost three generations earlier. James was my idol, we published his writings steadily in my new left journal, Radical America, and in turn, I became his authorized biographer during the last years of his life.

There is more to say about the advances of radical scholarship since 1970, too much for mention here, but arguably, Eric Foner represents the highest point of my own generation’s work on Lincoln. I would, however, put Foner’s essentially political history and Pulitzer Prize-winning volume, The Fiery Trial, alongside a keen economic history, Clash of Extremes: The Economic Origins of the Civil War, by Marc Egnal. Neither of these writers makes particular claims to Marxism, yet both carry out a sophisticated understanding of Lincoln’s rise, and what it means in the broadest terms.

DW: Sharon Rudahl’s depiction of Mary Todd Lincoln is much more pointedly sympathetic than other contemporary treatments, such as Spielberg’s biopic with Sally Field. How deliberate was that choice?

PB: Rudahl’s art, run in tandem with my text, provides a different angle of vision, as art can and must. Her treatment of Mary Todd Lincoln actually makes Lincoln somewhat less of an enigma than does my prose. I suspect, however, that in different ways, we are both descendants of Schluter, Sandburg, and also the Popular Front novelist Howard Fast, credited by Eric Foner with having first inspired him to study American history. (Fast actually wrote the preface for an earlier volume of mine, Images of the American Radicalism.) We seem, then, not to have abandoned Left traditions of treating Lincoln so much, after all.

Dave Wagner is a former political editor of the Arizona Republic, and before that, journalist and strike leader in Wisconsin.

Paul Buhle edited twelve earlier comic art volumes and has a comic-art biography of Pan Africanist giant C.L.R. James, in collaboration with artist Milton Knight, underway.