The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Saturday December 3rd

Column: Marx, Lincoln and the Republican Party

In 1864, Abraham Lincoln would receive a letter from an organization known as the International Workingmen’s Association. The letter congratulated Lincoln on his reelection and praised his making the abolition of slavery into the Union’s mission during the Civil War. 

The letter was signed by the Association’s Central Council, composed of a number of prominent European socialists and trade unionists, but one signature stands out among the others: that of Karl Marx. Queue thunderbolts in the background.

It’s quite likely that Lincoln already knew who Marx was; after all, he was the European correspondent and a frequent writer for the New York Daily Tribune, one of the most popular newspapers of the Republican Party, which Lincoln read regularly. 

While Marx’s writings mostly concerned the various affairs of European politics, after the outbreak of the Civil War he became an outspoken advocate of the Union cause. 

He diagnosed the fears of the Southern slaveholding aristocracy, who wanted to secure their continued economic and political dominance, as the war’s cause and advocated for the Union to abolish slavery.

Lincoln himself was not a socialist, and wage labor was not yet as widespread in the United States then as it is today, but he was nonetheless aware of the conflict between workers and capitalists, and supported the former. As he stated in his first annual address, “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.”

Even within his party, Lincoln was only a moderate. Some Radical Republicans were borderline anti-capitalists, a prominent example being Benjamin Wade, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate from 1867 to 1869, who was an early advocate for the right of workers to unionize and whose open criticism of capitalism earned him praise from Karl Marx in the preface of Das Kapital. 

Frederick Douglass, a former slave, member of the Republican Party and an important black activist of his time, actively expressed socialist sentiments. In a speech in 1883, he described wage labor as “only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.”

It is a shame that a party which once included anti-capitalist radicals and whose members were praised by Marx has become the wretched creature that it is today, but this is all the more reason that new anti-capitalist organizations are necessary to agitate for a better world for the working class.

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