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It must have enraged the historians who signed Sean Wilentz’s open
letter to the New York Times and their World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)
allies to see Abraham Lincoln knocked off his pedestal. How insolent for
Nikole Hannah-Jones to write in her introductory essay for Project 1619
that “Anti-black racism runs in the very DNA of this country, as does
the belief, so well articulated by Lincoln, that black people are the
obstacle to national unity.” Lincoln was not only an iconic figure for
the average American. Karl Marx admired him as well for his war on
slavery. Since the primary goal of the critics of Project 1619 was to
prioritize class over “identity”, naturally Karl Marx was just the
authority to help make their case against the bourgeois New York Times
intent on dividing the working-class.
Since the WSWS sets itself up as a Marxist gate-keeper par excellence,
we can assume that the historians also had the Karl Marx-Abraham Lincoln
in mind when they hooked up with the Trotskyist sect. James McPherson is
probably the closest to WSWS ideologically, having granted them
interviews over the years. When they asked him if he read Karl Marx’s
writings on the Civil War, the historian replied, “Well, I think they
have a lot of very good insight into what was going on in the American
Civil War. Marx certainly saw the abolition of slavery as a kind of
bourgeois revolution that paved the way for the proletarian revolution
that he hoped would come in another generation or so. It was a crucial
step on the way to the eventual proletarian revolution, as Marx
In this article, I will look critically at what Karl Marx and Friedrich
Engels wrote about these questions. Although I have been a Marxist for
52 years, I have little patience with those who put him (or Lenin and
Trotsky) on a pedestal. I believe that Nikole Hannah-Jones had good
reasons to question his sanctity. More to the point, I will argue that
Marx and Engels lacked the political foresight to see how black
Americans would be short-changed after the Civil War. Keeping in mind
that the first socialist international was located in the United States,
we must examine its relationship to the newly emancipated black
population. Based on my reading of Timothy Messer-Kruse’s “The Yankee
International,” my conclusion is that it fell short.
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