Steven Spielburg and Tony Kushner’s film Lincoln seems to have drawn a lot of attention, especially on the American left. Unsurprisingly it has polarized us like no film since Avatar. I would argue the Civil War is still pretty poorly understood by most on the left, though all of us will know the catchphrases like “second American revolution,” etc.
There have been many reviews of Lincoln from a revolutionary socialist perspective, leaving completely aside the broader left. Some of them are: one, two, three, four. This is not one of them, because frankly there are too many. Some have been pretty good, others have been awful, and I don’t want to add another that will cause interminable pointless arguments on the Facebooks.
So instead, since I’ve decided all these reviews are mistaken in some respect on the basis of my probably somewhat decent knowledge of the Civil War era, I’ll post my thoughts in the form of bullet points about leftist misconceptions of the film and let you all correct yourselves based on them. You’re welcome.
1. “Lincoln represents Obama.”
This is the least serious left-wing attitude toward the movie. True, Kushner and Spielberg may have thrown out comments here or there to this effect. They may even believe it themselves. But are we seriously comparing the most revolutionary event in US history, the death of slavery, with the half-assed attempt at healthcare “reform” that didn’t really reform anything? We are supposed to be materialists, not establishment liberals like the creators.
And secondly, has no one heard of the intentional fallacy? Look it up if you haven’t.
2. “It shows that the only way you get things done is electoral politics.”
For anyone who saw the movie but doesn’t know the history very well, assume it is more or less as it is shown. It is in the midst of the war. Lincoln and his cabinet believe that the South may fall before abolition of slavery can be cemented as the war’s purpose. Which may or may not have been the case, but the important thing is that they believed it could happen. Lincoln was originally a moderate, but became firmly convinced abolition was both necessary and inevitable over the course of the war. So he made the decision to stall peace negotiations to achieve it.
We see in the movie how the fate of slavery hangs in a delicate balance between the efforts of Lincoln and the Radical Republicans, the Copperhead Democrats opposing them, the conservative Republicans and moderate Democrats somewhere in the middle, all of which could be swayed by public opinion which was in favor of abolition but not yet of racial equality. Do electoral politics matter? Well, yes. They decide whether slavery will survive or not.
Of course, they were not the only thing that did matter, and we are right to emphasize black self-emancipation, abolitionism before the war, etc. But Lincoln’s wheeling and dealing on Capitol Hill in January 1865, was what made the difference. I don’t see how anyone can play down its significance.
3. “It reinforced the notion radicals should compromise to get things done.”
Also ignorant of the history – even in the brief glimpse we get in the movie, which I would really have hoped people would pay attention to. Thaddeus Stevens, around whose character the argument revolves, might be my favorite figure of the era. He was a genuine revolutionary, an American Jacobin. He sought, as he said in the movie, to crush the slaveocracy through brutal repression, confiscate their property and turn it over so that their former slaves could establish themselves as prosperous freeholders. This was the real promise of Reconstruction, which was defeated.
But Stevens was also very much a pragmatist. He knew where and when to make strategic compromises, which could and did include obscuring his firebrand views on racial equality. This is not just true of what we saw in the movie. Stevens was the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which if not the most powerful position in Congress is one of the two or three – not to mention his national stature as a leader of the Republican Party. He never would have achieved these roles, especially in the conservative climate at the beginning of the war, if he had not been willing to compromise.
The important thing, as Tommy Lee Jones’ Stevens says, is that this gets results. “There are very few things I will not say to end slavery,” he says. The man worked all his life for racial equality. He is a hero. Don’t equate him with piddling left-liberals like Kucinich who come running when Obama calls.
4. “There aren’t any black people.”
I will not take on the dishonest account of one review which says that blacks are completely absent. The film starts with Lincoln being lectured on racial equality by a black soldier, for Chrissakes. I am willing to concede, as one much more intelligent commentator wrote, that there could have been a more active black presence in the film without getting in the way of the main storyline – Robert Lincoln running into an abolitionist meeting led by his father’s black servants in the White House was one example that sticks out in my mind.
But I think, overall, this argument misses the point. True, there were no black soldiers, freed slaves or ordinary black men or women who have a constant active role over the course of the movie. But there are also no ordinary white people who have such a role – and white people also played an active role in ending slavery.
Recognizing this is not to create racist and unhistorical assumptions about white people like Lincoln freeing the slaves out of their own kindness and strength of character. Because I think blacks do have a very strong presence in the film, not individually, but collectively. This is made most clear in the opening of the session which passes the 13th amendment. As the debate is about to commence, several dozen blacks, presumably important personalities invited as guests, enter the mezzanine to observe the proceedings.
I thought this was a brilliant scene. When the important white men decide whether or not to legally free millions of slaves, black people sit above them, as if in judgment. The elites will be held responsible for what they do.
5. “It was only about the political elite.”
Yes. It was. But this is not a criticism of the quality or accuracy of Lincoln. It is an assertion than Spielberg and Kushner should have made a different movie.
Abraham Lincoln was a fascinating individual. At the time and place a man like him was needed to accomplish a revolution, he stepped into the role. It made a huge difference that he was in charge at that time and that place. If he had been unseated by McClellan in the 1864 election, just to use the most blatant example, the latter would have almost certainly conceded Southern independence, perpetuating slavery for decades or centuries longer. Progressive struggles are not won merely through a large number of bodies and having history on their side. They need individuals to perceive their goals and to lead them forward or backward in the correct manner. Lincoln was one such person.
It is legitimate to question why this movie was made and not others – one about Frederick Douglass, for example, one about black self-emancipation seen from their point of view, or one about black soldiers (in fact, an excellent movie about black Union soldiers, Glory, has been made). Of course, the reason for this is racism, and we all know it. Hollywood is and will probably remain uncomfortable with overly bold assertions of black agency in the Civil War, and will prefer to deal with it through a liberal, great-man-theory-of-history lens. We should challenge this and call for excellent movies to be made about those stories.
But this was not what Lincoln was. It is a positive sign that the left is skeptical of art describing only the point of view of the elite. But, as I have tried to show, what elites do matters. The Civil War was a heroic effort at the top as well as the bottom. It was the last time in history the American ruling class would play such a role. Lincoln was a hero as an individual who made an incredible difference. And this merits recognition.
In the current climate of historical revisionism about the Civil War, I find it amazing that Lincoln could be as progressive as it was. It did not show the South as equally heroic, did not carp about the struggle for “states’ rights,” did not weigh the aim of ending slavery against the suffering caused by war. We know all these notions are very prevalent in popular history, in common knowledge about the war, and in the fiction, drama and movies made about it. It would have been easy for Spielberg and Kushner to write a Lincoln along these lines.
But they didn’t. They showed Lincoln for the revolutionary he was. They showed the war as it was – a righteous and revolutionary struggle to eliminate the absolute evil of slavery from the country. And they did not apologize for this. And at a certain point, everything else is just detail.