Eugene Debs knew he had enormous shoes to fill — the type of expectations that could only be met with history and myth. As early as 1894, while head of the short-lived American Railway Union, admirers began to compare the embattled labor leader to another Midwesterner, Abraham Lincoln. Hearing Debs speak that summer, former abolitionist John Swinton saw in the Indiana native a “new western leader in the struggle for labor’s emancipation.” Like Lincoln, Debs was a “foe of slavery” who championed working people, and his Socialists represented the “logical sequence” in an emancipatory politics that began with the early Republican Party. A growing body of followers agreed, and the names “Lincoln” and “Debs” soon appeared side-by-side in the press as part of a new cultural memory within the labor left.
Debs leaned hard into the analogy. He and other Socialists consistently reached back to the previous century to frame socialism as a homegrown political tradition and draw lessons from the Civil War era — from John Brown, Wendell Phillips, and, perhaps especially, Lincoln. Leading a vigil at Lincoln’s Tomb in the fall of 1906, Debs proclaimed that as long as capitalist domination and the slavery of wages persisted, Lincoln’s work remained unfinished. “Slave power,” he declared from the mausoleum terrace, “which loathed and despised Lincoln, was no more heartless than the power of capitalism, which to-day holds the workingmen of the Nation in bondage.” Although most Gilded Age and Progressive Era Socialists agreed that the fight against “wage slavery” required a “new emancipator,” the original emancipator was never far from their minds.
Published four years later, first in the Chicago Daily Socialist and then in pamphlet form, party activist Burke McCarty’s Little Sermons in Socialism by Abraham Lincoln exemplified the leftist affinity for the sixteenth president. “We do not claim that Abraham Lincoln was a Socialist, for the word had not been coined in his day,” McCarty explained. “We do not claim that he would, if he had lived, been a Socialist today, for we do not know this.” What McCarty did claim is that Lincoln was a product of the laboring classes and that, for the entirety of his political career, his sympathies remained with working people. Although he was not a revolutionary per se, McCarty admitted, Lincoln nevertheless grasped the “central concept” of socialism: the primacy of labor over capital, and of liberty before property.
Lincoln the Working-Class Hero
Most Americans today spend little time thinking about Lincoln, but they do carry in their minds a constellation of ideas, symbols, images, and characterizations they associate with him. In his 1995 book, Lincoln in American Memory, historian Merrill Peterson identifies five primary and frequently overlapping Lincoln “types” within the US public’s collective memory: the Savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, the Man of the People, the Frontier American, and the Self-Made Man.
But Peterson overlooked a critical sixth type, one that’s as timeworn as the others: the workerist Lincoln. Seemingly from the moment of Lincoln’s martyrdom, the nascent labor movement presented him as a workingman, an ally of labor, and a symbol of the revolutionary proletariat to organize workers and envision a more democratic future. Freedpeople, black conventioneers, postwar labor federations, early Marxists, industrial unionists, and interracial farmer-labor radicals all portrayed the uncompensated destruction of chattel bondage as the pivotal first step in a wider emancipation of labor. In doing so they employed (often generous characterizations of) Lincoln’s prolabor speeches, such as his comments on the 1860 shoemakers strike in New England, the largest walkout to date.
These evocations of a prolabor Lincoln appealed to working-class Civil War veterans; attracted African Americans to organized labor’s cause; and cast immigrant workers with few cultural ties to the United States as part of a comprehensible domestic tradition led by that most American of Americans.
Above all, they sought to make good on the implied promise of emancipation: that labor should not only be legally free, but also possess enough power to ensure basic dignity if not full-on productive control. Their interpretation of Lincoln’s “free labor” ideal was not the compulsion to sell one’s labor on conditions largely determined by owners — the “freedom” to work or starve. Rather, it was worker power, secured through some degree of economic democracy.
The New Deal era witnessed an enhanced expression of that power — and of Lincoln memory. As historian Nina Silber argues, Americans broadened the Lincoln symbol during the 1930s beyond sectional reconciliation and liberal nationalism and toward anti-fascism and federal power in the service of common people.
For countless workers, President Franklin D. Roosevelt became a “new Lincoln” and his New Deal programs a “second Emancipation Proclamation.” As Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) official Len De Caux explained, “Our idea of a ‘new birth of freedom’ is an expansion of collective bargaining and industrial democracy.”
Marxists, Communists, and Lincoln
Marxists, in particular, fused this workerist Lincoln with racial justice themes. While scholars including James S. Allen, Herbert Aptheker, and W. E. B. Du Bois provided more nuanced assessments of the president — Du Bois famously admired him as a “growing man” —Communists in the 1930s adopted the “Great Emancipator” symbol and cast Lincoln as a latter-day foe of big business, Nazism, and Jim Crow.
Proclaiming “Communism Is Twentieth Century Americanism,” party leaders increasingly paired Lincoln with black abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, and Sojourner Truth. James W. Ford, the first African American to be nominated for vice president on a national party ticket, explained that the memories of Lincoln and John Brown were crucial to any interracial working-class movement because they best symbolized “the unity of Negro and white people.”
General Secretary Earl Browder put theory to practice in his speech entitled “Lincoln and the Communists,” delivered before an audience of coal miners in Springfield on Lincoln’s birthday 1936, where he called on workers to revive the “great tradition” of the abolitionists to counter the new threat of pro-property reaction. Although Browder acknowledged that Lincoln may not have understood the problems of the 1930s, he nevertheless opposed consolidated and arbitrary power and “foresaw the sharpening of the conflict between labor and capital.” Lincoln was not a revolutionist, Browder conceded, but revolution remained “the essence” of Lincoln memory.
Lincoln became within Popular Front culture as an emblem of black civil rights that spoke to nonblack workers, as well as an avatar for the “common man” (often coded as white) that appealed to racially oppressed people. He was central to the flexible memory politics that pervaded Communist-influenced organizations, including the National Negro Congress and the Southern Negro Youth Conference, as party rolls jumped from roughly twenty-six thousand in 1934 to eighty-five thousand in 1939. While members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade battled fascists in Spain, Communists at home arranged Lincoln-Lenin Memorial Meetings. Popular Front art such Paul Robeson’s Ballad for Americans depicted the Illinoisan as a foe of both class and racial injustice, his conviction that “a man in white skin can never be free while his black brother is in slavery” echoing Marx’s famous adage.
Lincoln remained a powerful leftist symbol through the civil rights movement. Building off Robeson’s and Marian Anderson’s wildly successful use of Lincoln’s image, civil rights unionists A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin envisioned the Lincoln Memorial as the central site for both the 1941 March on Washington Movement and the 1957 Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom, the forerunners to the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which marked the one-hundredth anniversary of emancipation.
In recent decades, the Lincoln myth has lurched rightward, along with US politics as a whole. Today, we frequently get a neoliberal Lincoln more committed to “diversity” and “equality of opportunity” than racial or economic justice. At worst, we find reactionary Republicans constructing Lincoln in their own party image, with a straight line supposedly running from 1865 to Fox News.
These developments may have drained Lincoln of some of his allegorical power, even among leftists. But only some. Lincoln imagery has continued to suffuse emancipatory movements from Pride to Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter.
Why Lincoln Matters
But where does history end and mythology begin? Lincoln was neither an abolitionist nor a socialist, and scholars have long debated how and if he thought about class relations.
Marxist historians including Hermann Schlüter (1913), Anthony Bimba (1927), and Bernard Mandel (1955) insisted that although the early Republican coalition included countless abolitionists, socialists, and artisans who were drawn to the party’s concern for the sanctity of labor, the party’s was not a class-based movement. And although these historians acknowledged that Lincoln was, in Mandel’s words, “much more liberal in his attitude toward labor than were many employers and newspapers,” they also argued that he lacked a strong grasp of workingmen’s issues. The railroad attorney from Illinois saw himself as a member of the petite bourgeoisie, they claimed, and as a “free-labor” advocate, he denied the very existence of a permanent wage-earning class with its own particular set of interests. Eric Foner, too, posits that Lincoln, like the abolitionists, understood slavery not as a class relationship, but as primarily a form of illegitimate power exercised by one individual over another.
Would Lincoln’s sincere hatred of the Slave Power have translated after the war to a critique of the Money Power and other forms of wealth-based domination? Would Lincoln have expanded or attempted to restrain his party’s democratic impulses in non-wartime conditions?
For the vast majority of leftist memory-makers, such questions have been of secondary importance. To be sure, post–Civil War Republicans moved away from the “abolition-democracy” of Charles Sumner, Thaddeus Stevens, and Frederick Douglass, and increasingly aligned with capital by the 1870s and 1880s. But part of the Lincoln myth remained frozen in April 1865, ensconced within the party’s more egalitarian origins. As Karl Marx suggested in 1862, although Lincoln was not a revolutionary, this “single-minded son of the working class” was destined to become part of a radical tradition owing to his role in the “revolutionary” project of emancipation.
Put simply, Lincoln’s class position or unformed views on an undeveloped industrial capitalist system have typically been seen as less important than how his emancipationist heritage could be harnessed to animate contemporary struggles. Collective memory isn’t scientific. It is, to a great degree, usable — the past in the service of the present. Generations of leftists have therefore rightly celebrated Lincoln’s instrumental role in the emancipation of over four million enslaved people, which resulted in the largest liquidation of private property assets and the greatest relative redistribution of income in US history.
Of course, the influence of this workerist Lincoln is only as powerful as workers themselves. Because the stories we tell about the past are reflections of who wields authority in the present, the popularity of Lincoln as a working-class ally, a proto-socialist, or even a revolutionary has always been predicated on social power, ebbing and flowing in direct relation to drops and surges in labor militancy.
In a short essay published on the eve of the Civil War centennial in 1956, historian David Donald argued that every national politician has to, at some point, “get right with Lincoln.” By this Donald meant that it benefits any group who hopes to engage a broad swath of Americans to align their cause with an avatar of human freedom. Although he rejected a “Great Man” view of history, Eugene Debs understood the power of the Lincoln imaginary, including how Lincoln as a symbol — residing in the gray area between history and myth — might broaden the workers movement and strengthen the cause of labor.
In summoning Lincoln’s words and images to fuse labor and civil rights into a “new abolitionist” memory for interracial working-class democracy, the US left has been engaged in that process of “getting right” for well over a century. The praxis of popular memory is like walking a tightrope — between transformation and tradition, and between mass appeal and staying true to a socialist vision. But as long as the Civil War era remains, in the words of Eric Foner, an “unfinished revolution,” the Lincoln metaphor is sure to hold currency among workers. In that sense, Abraham Lincoln — or at least the associated legacies embraced by Marx, Debs, and King — must belong to the Left.