Django, Lincoln and the Most Revolutionary Idea

This article appears today in Solidarity.

“The emancipation of the working class must be the act of the workers themselves” – that’s a phrase which will be familiar to most Marxists and originates in the Rules of the International Workingmen’s Association which Marx drafted.

A century later, Max Shachtman wrote that “When speaking of socialism and socialist revolution we seek ‘no condescending saviours’ as our great battle hymn, the International, so ably says. We do not believe that well-wishing reforms – and there are well-wishing reformers – will solve the problems of society, let alone bring socialism. … We believe that task belongs to the proletariat, only the proletariat itself. That is a world-shattering idea. It overshadows all social thought. The most profound, important and lasting thought in Marxism, the most pregnant thought in Marxism is contained in Marx’s phrase that the emancipation of the proletariat is the task of the proletariat itself. It is clearly the most revolutionary idea ever conceived, if you understand it in all of its great implications.”

I thought of this “most revolutionary idea” the other day as I watched two recent acclaimed films on the same subject – Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained”.

Tarantino and Spielberg have now made their films about American slavery, just as previously they both made films about the Nazi Holocaust – “Shindler’s List” and “Inglourious Basterds”.

And those four films reflect two very different approaches to the issue of emancipation.

Spielberg’s films – which are largely historically accurate, extremely well crafted, and well-intentioned – are accounts of how a gentile (Shindler) risked everything to save the Jews and how a white man (Lincoln) did the same for Black slaves.

Spielberg chose when taking on the giant subjects of slavery and the Holocaust to focus on those two men. He could have made different films, could have focussed his Holocaust film on, say, the Jewish fighters who battled the Wehrmacht in the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto. He could have chosen one of the many Black slave rebellions that preceded the American Civil War – for example, the story of Nat Turner who led an uprising 1831 that resulted in some 160 deaths.

Instead he chose to focus on brave white men (the abolitionists) and a brave gentile (Shindler).

Tarantino made a radically different choice when he decided to make films about Nazi Germany and the American South.

Tarantino’s films are fantasies – and unlike Spielberg’s are often hilariously funny, even if brutally violent.

Tarantino’s “basterds” are American Jewish soldiers sent into Nazi-occupied Europe to kill – and scalp – as many German soldiers as they can. In the end, their efforts combine with those of a French Jewish woman also seeking revenge on the Nazis.

Django too is a story not about good white men who come to free the slaves, but about a slave who frees himself. Even though Django is assisted by a white German (the magnificent Christoph Waltz, who played a terrifying Nazi in “Basterds”), it is he – and not Waltz – who deals the death blow to the slave-owners in the film.

One could make the argument that while Tarantino’s take on slavery and the Third Reich may prove more satisfying, the reality is that it wasn’t Black slaves who brought down slavery and it wasn’t armed Jews who defeated Hitler. It was a mostly (though not entirely) white army led by a white man that brought an end to the Confederacy. And it was the allied armies – particularly the Red Army – that destroyed the German Reich.

So yes, Spielberg’s view may be the more accurate one, but Tarantino’s reflects an aspiration – the hope that the oppressed, slaves and others, can liberate themselves and indeed that only they can do so.

This is, as Shachtman wrote, “the most pregnant idea” in Marxism, and while one can be fairly certain that Quentin Tarantino has never heard of the great third camp socialist, it is his films – not Spielberg’s – that most closely realize that idea.