Abraham Lincoln, like most of the leading Republicans of his day had read Marx and Engels in the pages of the Horace Greeley's New York Herald Tribune (for which the two men wrote for many years as European correspondents). The sixteenth president spoke often about the superiority of labor to capital and was highly critical of concentrated wealth. Toward the end of the Civil War, the White House accepted the congratulations of Marx and his fellow London Communists after Lincoln's 1864 re-election.
Lincoln was no Marxist. But, like a good many of the initial leaders of the Republican Party, he had been exposed to the ideas of Marx and Engels in the Tribune. In fact, Lincoln chose as one of his closest White House aides (and eventually as his assistant secretary of war) Charles Dana, Marx's long-time editor. Famously, Dana once declared, "Everyone now is more or less a Socialist."
In fairness, that's not the case today.
There are still substantial numbers of Americans who do not view socialism positively, just as there are substantial numbers who do not view capitalism positively. But Americans are less inclined to be troubled by mentions of socialism, or by socialist and social democratic ideas today than in the past -- just as Americans are less inclined (according to a recent CNN poll) to be unsettled by the mention of libertarianism, or by libertarian and libertarian-lite ideas. This is healthy. A republic is best served by differing ideas and ideals with regard to economic and social arrangements.
There will always be reactionaries like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan who try to make ideas scary. But when one in four Republicans have a positive reaction to the word "socialism," it is pretty clear that the reactionaries are not doing any better in framing the economic and intellectual debate than they did on Election Day.
And, yes, that would have made Frank Zeidler, who was at once a great believer in socialism and a believer in the American experiment, a very happy man.
John Nichols is the author of The "S" Word:A Short History of an American Tradition" Socialism (Verso).
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