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Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln: An Ordinary Man in Extraordinary Times
I have no purpose, directly or indirectly,
to the institution of slavery where it exists.
I believe I have no lawful right to do so,
and I have no inclination to do so.
First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861
Lincoln, the latest production from Steven Spielberg, was released on Friday, November 16. The screenplay was written by Tony Kushner of Angels in America fame. The movie focuses on the struggle for the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution that abolished slavery after the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863, so right away the audience is taken into the thick of the political wrangling in Congress at the tail end of the Civil War.
Tony Kushner should be applauded for letting Lincoln’s words largely speak for themselves. The speeches are very eloquent, and though we’ve heard them many times before, it’s always a pleasure to hear them again. Daniel Day Lewis is astonishing as Abraham Lincoln. Really, he’s the spitting image of “the Great Emancipator” and brings just the right amount of gravitas to the role. One really feels that Lincoln has the weight of the world on his shoulders. Interestingly enough, Lewis gives his Lincoln a high-pitched voice that detracts not a bit from the austerity of the time. In addition, Lincoln could quote Shakespeare from memory, and those quotes were very uplifting.
Mary Todd Lincoln, played by Sally Field, is exquisite as Lincoln’s conscience. Field brings out all the power that Mrs. Lincoln possessed as an equal to a truly good man. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens also deserves mention as an arrogant politico.
The Thirteenth Amendment was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, by the House on January 31, 1865, and adopted on December 6, 1865. The movie narrows its focus to the final period in the ratification of the amendment. The political horse-trading and log-rolling, which the middle class intelligentsia takes to be the acme of political struggle, is captured with a deft hand. The tension and suspense, as Lincoln tries to win over some wary Democrats up to the final hour, is palpable and makes for great entertainment.
What is most striking about Lincoln is not what takes place but what doesn’t. The masses are entirely absent from the whole production. The politics of the Civil War, in Lincoln, largely takes place in the ministerial antechambers, where Lincoln buttonholes allies and wins over foes. The masses, in the form of soldiers serve as a breathtaking backdrop, corpses on the battlefield, while the “ones who know” get on with the business of politics.
The losses from the Civil War were horrendous. In total, 625,000 people died and 412,200 were wounded. It need not have happened like that.
The Communist Manifesto was issued in 1848 on the eve of the European revolutions of that year, that is, twelve years before Lincoln and the Republicans won the presidency in 1860, mainly on their opposition to the spread of slavery. It is unclear whether or not Lincoln had a chance to look at that outstanding document before he achieved the presidency. It is well known that he was personally opposed to slavery, but that was for personal consumption, not applicable to practical politics. Here is what Lincoln wrote to Horace Greeley as late as 1862, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union” [Letter to Horace Greeley, August 22, 1862]. Lincoln’s allegiance was to the Union first and foremost and the ending of slavery came secondarily. It’s not necessary to have fully assimilated the materialist conception of history to understand that when the Slaveocracy rose in rebellion, it was a fight between two incompatible social systems. Hostilities began April 12, 1861 when the Confederacy fired on Fort Sumter. Lincoln chose to take his stand on a chimera like the union of capitalism and slavery and not on the destruction of a clearly reactionary system. For did not the Declaration of Independence announce, “All men are created equal?”
Ironically, because of his fixation on saving the Union, Lincoln was forced into decreeing the Emancipation Proclamation. His troops were suffering setbacks, and victory looked uncertain. But Black soldiers were proving to be tenacious fighters on the battlefield. By issuing the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln was able to open the gates to many more such fighters who were eager to join the struggle, given that their own freedom would accompany victory. These soldiers then played a decisive role in the victory of the North. Lincoln did not emancipate the slaves, as we are often told. They emancipated themselves, and unfortunately this element was overlooked by Kushner’s Lincoln.
Long ago Leon Trotsky wrote that a political struggle is essentially a contest of interests and forces and only secondarily ideas (The Revolution Betrayed). And we would add ideas battled over in an unwieldy Congress. As soon as the Confederates fired the first shot, Lincoln could have made an appeal over the heads of the recalcitrant northern politicians to the black and white workers for a struggle to the death to destroy the slave-owning oligarchy. He could have issued an appeal to the slaves of the south to rise up, thus decisively crippling the southern economy. To the northern capitalists that remained unconvinced, he could have offered a share in the southern wealth confiscated as booty. Capitalists, let it be known, are quite adept at calculating, and they would have been only too happy to pitch in had they found it profitable. The slave-owning apparatus would have been suspended in mid-air. One good blow by the northern army would have pulverized it, and the war would have been won in a year or less with negligible loss of life to the northern forces. As Teddy Roosevelt put it, the presidency is a “bully pulpit” where one can rally the forces outside Congress to wage a struggle at decisive turning points in history. Lincoln did not do this because he was too preoccupied with palliating the South and trying to “keep” the frontier states from joining the South. He mainly thought of the politicians and wasn’t sufficiently focused on the people below these politicians. He really believed that capitalist American politicians alone were the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” when, as it has always been, the people were more radical than their representatives.
Lincoln delivers an exciting view of the struggle for the parliamentary mystery of majority and minority. For the middle class intelligentsia, who fear the titanic rumble of the class struggle, politicos twisting each other’s arms, pulling off wigs and hitting each other with canes is the absolute apex of politics. The masses, aside from cannon fodder, figure very little into their calculations. This obvious weakness aside, Lincoln is a good movie and his speeches are spine tingling. It is just too bad that he wasted so much time defending a political mechanism when the destruction of slavery was a far more secure means of defending the Union. Lincoln was an eloquent speaker, of that there is no doubt. However, as everyone knows, even President Obama can make a pretty rousing speech on occasion. That doesn’t stop him from being a typical capitalist politician and turning his back on the masses of working people.