It is a glaring omission in his otherwise remarkable discussion of the relationship between Karl Marx and Abraham Lincoln, An Unfinished Revolution, that Robin Blackburn neither discusses nor does he include the text of Lincoln’s First Annual Message to Congress (the equivalent of what we refer to today as the president’s State of the Union), of 3 December 1861.
Composed at least in part as an answer to Jefferson Davis’s President’s Message of 18 November, in which Davis decries the actions of a president turned despot and celebrates the slave South’s “unconquerable will to be free,” Lincoln responds as follows:
It continues to develop that the insurrection is largely, if not exclusively, a war upon the first principle of popular government–the rights of the people. Conclusive evidence of this is found in the most grave and maturely considered public documents, as well as in the general tone of the insurgents. In those documents we find the abridgment of the existing right of suffrage and the denial to the people of all right to participate in the selection of public officers except the legislative boldly advocated, with labored arguments to prove that large control of the people in government is the source of all political evil. Monarchy itself is sometimes hinted at as a possible refuge from the power of the people.
In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.
It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.
Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.
Labor is prior to and independent of capital. 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. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class–neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families–wives, sons, and daughters–work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.
Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.
Lincoln was, of course, no socialist—although Marx did believe the victory over slavery in the United States would help create the conditions for the general emancipation of the working-class. Thus, Marx composed a message from the International Working Men’s Association to Abraham Lincoln to congratulate him on his reelection in 1864.
For Stephen T. Ziliak, the fact that “capital despotism is on the rise again,” requires a fresh look at Lincoln’s idea that “labor is prior to and independent of capital.” For Ziliak,
The biggest problem of democracy is not the failure to fully extend political rights, however important. The promise of political and human rights is not perfectly fulfilled, true, though many gains have been made.
The bigger problem is economic in nature. The threat today is from a lack of economic democracy—a lack of ownership, of self-reliance, of autonomy, and of justice in the distribution of rewards and punishments at work—from the appropriation of company revenue to the lack of protection against pension raids and unfair taxes, capital despotism is rife.
The answer, Ziliak suggests, is the formation of worker-cooperatives and the expansion of the National Cooperative Bank so that it can supply funds to build and grown cooperative enterprises.
capital efficiency is not the definition of economic justice. Capital is a subtraction from labor, not the reverse. We mustn’t ever forget again what Lincoln told Congress not long after the start of the Civil War, when the capital relation was on many people’s minds: “The error,” Lincoln warned, the corruption, “is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation.”