Pente on Kulikoff, 'Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx in Dialogue'

Allan Kulikoff
Graeme Pente

Allan Kulikoff. Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx in Dialogue. New York: Oxford University Press, 2018. 150 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-084464-6; $18.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-19-021080-9

Reviewed by Graeme Pente (University of Colorado Boulder) Published on H-Socialisms (May, 2020) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version:

Lincoln and Marx

In a new installment of Oxford University Press’s Dialogues in History series, historian Allan Kulikoff offers carefully curated primary documents to place Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx in conversation for an undergraduate audience. The documents—not only speeches and letters but journal articles, maps, political cartoons, illustrations, and excerpts from Capital (1867)—cover a range of subjects pertaining to mid-nineteenth-century political economy. Lincoln and Marx address access to land, agricultural and industrial labor, and, of course, slavery. Their writings also argue the purpose and progress of the US Civil War, with Marx astutely penetrating to the heart of the conflict from the outset despite the official prevarications of the politician and lawyer Lincoln.

Kulikoff contrasts the two men’s views throughout the book. He emphasizes that both advocated the supremacy of labor. Lincoln, however, remained within the Jeffersonian limit of providing land to every white male citizen as a precondition of his competency. Conversely, Marx saw the destruction of more blatantly coercive forms of labor as a necessary prerequisite to the emancipation of workers everywhere, which explains why he and Friedrich Engels followed developments in the US war so closely. Kulikoff also shows the bind in which Lincoln found himself, waging a “constitutional war” before the Emancipation Proclamation finally made it a revolutionary one. Typically, Marx recognized the central role of labor regimes in the struggle. In October 1861, the foreign correspondent for the New York Tribune explained to readers that though “the North professed to fight for the Union, the South gloried in rebellion for the supremacy of Slavery” (p. 55). Placing Lincoln and Marx in conversation is not simply a useful conceit of Kulikoff’s invention. Marx did write to Lincoln directly on behalf of the recently founded International Workingmen’s Association at the end of 1864 to congratulate the president on his reelection (the American ambassador Charles Francis Adams issued the official reply in January 1865). This remarkable exchange barely merits treatment in the numerous recent biographies of Marx around the bicentennial of his birth. Yet it adds a further historical connection to the worthwhile comparison Kulikoff draws between these two important figures.

In emphasizing how closely observers abroad—and Marx, in particular—monitored the US Civil War, Kulikoff consciously follows the efforts of Robin Blackburn in Marx and Lincoln (2011) and Don H. Doyle in his excellent treatment of the competition between the United States and the Confederacy for support from European powers in The Cause of All Nations (2015). Kulikoff offers a briefer account with a greater variety of documents than Blackburn, who appends the full text of a few speeches and articles of Lincoln and Marx to his lengthy introduction. As a collection aimed at undergraduate students, Kulikoff’s book can serve as a starting point for discussion of the international context of the Civil War. It reminds us that the 1860s were a decade of state building, with internationalism, republicanism, and radicalism circulating in transatlantic discourses. Veterans of the revolutions of 1848 populated both sides of the North Atlantic; Lajos Kossuth and Giuseppe Garibaldi became celebrity revolutionaries; and Italians, Germans, and Poles waged war or revolted in attempts to establish nation-states. Kulikoff’s book helps bring the US Civil War back into this broader context.

Another striking element of Kulikoff’s collection is the prescience of much of Marx’s analysis of American conditions. His insights point the way to an impressive number of recent directions in the historiography of slavery and capitalism. In an October 1861 attack on the British press for refusing to support the North in the US Civil War, Marx invoked “the Southern slaveocracy, setting up an empire of its own” (p. 57) and he explained to his Vienna readers in another article that “the Union was still of value to the South only so far as it handed over Federal power to it [the South] as a means of carrying out the slave policy” (p. 61). This analysis encapsulates the core argument of Matthew Karp’s This Vast Southern Empire (2016). Marx’s emphasis on New York City as “actively engaged in the slave trade until recently, [and] the seat of the American money market and full of holders of mortgages on Southern plantations” (p. 88) calls to mind the variegated work of the scholars in Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman’s edited collection, Slavery’s Capitalism (2016). Marx’s 1846 observation that “without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry” (p. 34) similarly sums up the central claim of Beckert’s Empire of Cotton (2014)—though Kulikoff believes Marx overstated the case (p. 42). Finally, in 1862, Marx wrote to Engels of the North’s need to “at last, wage the war in earnest, have recourse to revolutionary methods and overthrow the supremacy of the border slave statesmen. One single [black] regiment would have a remarkable effect on Southern nerves” (p. 73), presaging Bruce Levine’s characterization of the war as a social revolution in The Fall of the House of Dixie (2013).

Although Lincoln and Marx are the focus of Kulikoff’s book, theirs are not the only voices in the collection. Kulikoff includes critics of Lincoln’s policy choices, from Frederick Douglass to Thomas Nast, to suggest the wider range of views on slavery, emancipation, and racial equality. Kulikoff provides a few lines of context for each document and clarifies any jargon. This formatting decision, whether Kulikoff’s or that of the press, proves less effective than footnotes in the text, as the reader gets the definition before encountering the technical term in its context in the document. For scholars, the document excerpts are maddeningly brief, but for students they together offer a window into the thought of these critical nineteenth-century figures. After all, undergraduates are the intended audience. The collection would prove a useful teaching tool for introducing students to liberal and radical perspectives on what nineteenth-century commenters commonly referred to as “the social question.” It can also highlight for students the international dimensions of the US Civil War, a conflict widely followed at the time and now too often considered in an exclusively American context. This collection effectively highlights the transatlantic discourses of republicanism, democracy, and the emancipation of labor at a seminal moment in the nineteenth century.

Citation: Graeme Pente. Review of Kulikoff, Allan, Abraham Lincoln and Karl Marx in Dialogue. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. May, 2020. URL:

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