Was Abraham Lincoln a Marxist?
No. No he wasn’t.
Yet Marx certainly adored Lincoln, and there was an abnormally high Marxist presence around Lincoln, the Republican Party and the Union Army. These shocking facts are recounted in a fascinating new book, Lincoln’s Marxists, by Al Benson and Walter Donald Kennedy. Neither writer was very familiar to me prior to reading this, though I remember an appearance by Kennedy on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect some time ago.
The book has two main thrusts:
1. An examination of the socialist/communist support for Lincoln, his war against the South and the reasons for this support.
2. Exploring the role played by socialist/Marxist veterans of the 1848 revolutions in Europe in the founding of the Republican Party, supporting Fremont and Lincoln, and the War Between the States itself.
Socialist and Communist Support for Lincoln and the War
The fact that Marx was vigorously supportive of the Union is not a new revelation. I’ve mentioned this before. The reason is simple. Marx sought the creation of a single, powerful and indivisible state to replace the multiple sovereign states that existed in Germany, the United States and elsewhere as a preliminary for the Communist revolution. As he wrote to his colleague Joseph Weydemeyer in the London Communist League (a future brigadier general in the Union Army!) about the situation in Germany in 1853:
“The preliminaries of the proletarian revolution, the measures that prepare the battleground and clear the way for us, such as a single and indivisible republic, etc., things that we had to champion against the people whose natural, normal job it should have been to achieve or, at least, to demand them – all that is now convenu [taken for granted]”.
What is amazing in Marx’s writings on the War Between the States is his sheer ignorance of the situation. He frequently makes major mistakes in some of the most basic facts, claiming “the South embraces more than three-quarters of the territory hitherto comprised by the Union”. He writes easily spotted falsehoods about the Confederate Constitution, the Confederate war effort and American history in general. I couldn’t help being reminded of the communist propaganda and hyperbole directed against their current obsession, Israel, today. But that’s for another post.
Interestingly, Marx was hired by in the 1850’s to write for the New York Tribune by its managing editor Charles A. Dana. Dana had become a personal friend of Marx and Engels while reporting on Europe in 1848. Dana was an associate of the famous socialist and abolitionist Horace Greeley, and was sympathetic to many communist movements. He later became assistant secretary of war under Lincoln, the first communist, or at least communist sympathiser, to hold such a position.
Communism and socialism (the terms were more interchangeable in the 19th Century) had a significant presence in the United States in the antebellum years. Numerous attempts at Utopian communistic communities sprang up, almost entirely in the North. These ranged from the religious-based, such as the Shakers and the Oneida Community, to more secular Owenite and Fourierist communal systems. These always failed, and within a short period (though the Shakers might have lasted much longer if they hadn’t banned marriage and sex). The ideologues within tended to be fanatically anti-Southern. The famous Brook Farm produced two notable officers to the Union Army: General Francis Channing Barlow and Colonel George Duncan Wells. Ralph Waldo Emerson, a well-known member of the Transcendental Club/Brook Farm group once stated: “If it cost ten years, and ten to recover the general prosperity, the destruction of the South is worth so much”.
The reasons for this hostility were complex, and probably best illustrated by the economist and polymath Murray Rothbard in his fantastic talk on Just War:
“The North, in particular the North’s driving force, the “Yankees” – that ethnocultural group who either lived in New England or migrated from there to upstate New York, northern and eastern Ohio, northern Indiana, and northern Illinois – had been swept by a new form of Protestantism. This was a fanatical and emotional neo-Puritanism driven by a fervent “postmillenialism” which held that as a precondition for the Second Advent of Jesus Christ, man must set up a thousand-year Kingdom of God on Earth.
The Kingdom is to be a perfect society. In order to be perfect, of course, this Kingdom must be free of sin; sin, therefore, must be stamped out, and as quickly as possible. Moreover, if you didn’t try your darndest to stamp out sin by force you yourself would not be saved. It was very clear to these neo-Puritans that in order to stamp out sin, government, in the service of the saints, is the essential coercive instrument to perform this purgative task. As historians have summed up the views of all the most prominent of these millennialists, “government is God’s major instrument of salvation”…
…If anti-slavery, prohibitionism, and anti-Catholicism were grounded in fanatical post-millennial Protestantism, the paternalistic big government required for this social program on the state and local levels led logically to a big government paternalism in national economic affairs. Whereas the Democratic Party in the 19th century was known as the “party of personal liberty,” of states’ rights, of minimal government, of free markets and free trade, the Republican Party was known as the “party of great moral ideas,” which amounted to the stamping-out of sin. On the economic level, the Republicans adopted the Whig program of statism and big government: protective tariffs, subsidies to big business, strong central government, large-scale public works, and cheap credit spurred by government.
The Northern war against slavery partook of fanatical millennialist fervor, of a cheerful willingness to uproot institutions, to commit mayhem and mass murder, to plunder and loot and destroy, all in the name of high moral principle and the birth of a perfect world. The Yankee fanatics were veritable Patersonian humanitarians with the guillotine: the Anabaptists, the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks of their era. This fanatical spirit of Northern aggression for an allegedly redeeming cause is summed up in the pseudo-Biblical and truly blasphemous verses of that quintessential Yankee Julia Ward Howe, in her so-called “Battle Hymn of the Republic”.”
The Impact of 1848
And now we come to the refugees of 1848. In the left-wing historian Theodore Draper’s book, The Roots of American Communism, the first Marxist socialists in the United States are said to be the exiled revolutionaries who arrived in the wake of the famous failed revolts of that year. When these radical socialists settled in America, they quickly resumed their old habits. Though their numbers were not large, historians such as Arnold Whitridge have written that “the influence of these few thousand refugees was out of all proportion to their numbers”. They would see the newly-founded Republican Party and the war against the South as a continuation of their revolution. Many became prominent in the German language press, founding or editing newspapers to recruit Germans to their cause. These men contrasted greatly with the peaceful and pious farmers that were the older generation of Germans.
The socialists championed Lincoln as a working class hero, despite the fact he was a wealthy corporate lawyer, and were just as enthusiastic for John Fremont’s campaign in 1856. They had reason to admire the Republican Party. After all, Republican Senator John Sherman (brother of General Sherman) had stated the United States should “nationalize as much as possible [and thereby] make men love their country before their states”. During the War Between the States, it was Gen. Fremont’s camp that became a magnet for the radical socialists. Indeed, his chief of staff was a former Hungarian socialist revolutionary, Alexander Asboth.
Other notable ‘Forty-Eighters’ in the Union Army include General August Willich, Louis Blenker, Gen. Weydemeyer (mentioned earlier) and Franz Sigel.
Karl Marx described his friend Willich as a “communist with a heart”. He was a member of the Central Committe of the Communist League and referred to as the “Reddest of the Red”. Willich gave a speech in 1859 urging Northeners to “whet their sabers with the blood” of Southerners.
Brigadier General Louis Blenker has the distinction of creating a new word that came into common usage during the war. This Forty-Eighter, due to having inadequate supplies from Union command, led his 10,000 man division to forage and loot from all over Virginia in the spring of 1862. The term “Blenkered” was applied to the unfortunate souls who had been victims of his German-American troops. Blenker became notorious for allegations of corruption in his camp and the lavish lifestyle he lived during the war (off the back of many stolen goods, of course).
Gen. Joseph Weydemeyer was a close friend of Karl Marx, and a fellow member of the London Communist League. Marx assisted Wedemeyer in meeting Charles A. Dana, the communist sympathiser and future assistant secretary of war in Abraham Lincoln’s administration. Dana assisted him in producing various communist journals in the United States, as well as the first American edition of the Communist Manifesto. Weydemeyer was active in the Republican Party as well as both the Fremont and Lincoln Presidential campaigns.
Franz Sigel had led a failed socialist uprising in Baden, Germany in 1848. His career in the Union Army was mixed. He is probably most known for the rout he took at the Battle of New Market. There, teenage cadets of the Virginia Military Institute (the oldest being barely 19) led a fateful charge that broke the Union line.
Gen. Carl Shurz (pictured above) was an active participant in the unsuccessful socialist revolution of 1848 in Germany. Like thousands of others he sought asylum in America. Shurz obtained the rank of Major General in the Union Army. After the war, he served a s a Senator from Missouri and Secretary of the Interior in the Hayes administration. He became notorious for his treatment and neglect of the Indians in the Reservations system (which he helped fashion into effective Gulags). A Native American delegation were once so impressed by the size of his eyes and named him Mah-hah-Ich-hon, meaning ‘Big Eyes’. They wondered how a man with such large eyes was unable to see the needs of their people. His wife pioneered the kindergarten system.
I have focused mostly on the Forty-Eighters of German extraction, perhaps unfairly. Hungary produced many of note, and one of the most interesting might just be Albin Francisco Schoepf. Schoepf was appointed to the rank of Brigadier General at the beginning of the war with the assistance of contacts in the War Department. Wounded at the Battle of Perryville, Kentucky, in 1862, he resigned his command yet surfaced six months later as the commander of Fort Delaware. Fort Delaware was one of the worst POW camps of the conflict. As one historian put it: “Schoepf allowed his subordinates unrestrained control inside the compound, and it eventually evolved into the most brutal POW institution in America”. Torture such as ‘thumb-hangings’ were a daily occurrence, and beatings were inflicted on prisoners to compel them into forced labour.
So, these were the men who came to shoot at the grandsons of Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry to teach them how to be good Americans.
Commenator William Grigg said it best: “Lincoln’s war didn’t preserve or restore the Union; it destroyed it and supplanted it with a new polity based on radically different premises. Just as Marxists of his era gravitated naturally toward Lincoln and vibrated like tuning forks when he spoke the language of raw power and ruthless centralization, Marxist academicians of our era understand the true nature of what Lincoln accomplished”.
The Forty-Eighters did not dominate Lincoln’s Party, but they were a very strong element within it. They recognized that the Union cause was a step in their desired direction. Now its time for our generation to see that too. Which is why a book like Lincoln’s Marxists is so important.