W.E. B. Du Bois’s magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880, published in 1935, is one of the greatest scholarly studies of revolution and counterrevolution. It deserves a place on one’s bookshelf next to other modern classics, including Leon Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins, Georges Lefebvre’s The Coming of the French Revolution, and Karl Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Scholars of revolutions, unfortunately, have not usually considered the US Civil War to be one of the great social revolutions of the modern era, akin to the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions. Many readers, in fact, view Du Bois’s book much more narrowly, as a response to white-supremacist histories of the Reconstruction era (1865–1876) and, more particularly, a defense of the role of African-American politicians — and the black voters who elected them — in the Southern state governments of that time. Du Bois does present such a defense, but Black Reconstruction offers much, much more than this.
Black Reconstruction is not only a towering work of history but also a work firmly embedded in the Marxist tradition. Du Bois reinterprets the Civil War as a social and political revolution “from below” — a workers’ revolution — that brought about the overthrow of both slavery and the Confederate state, thereby opening a door to interracial democracy in the South. The book then reinterprets the subsequent overthrow of this democracy as a class-based counterrevolution that destroyed the possibility of freedom for half the Southern working class and imposed a “dictatorship of capital” that brought about “an exploitation of labor unparalleled in modern times.”
Share this article on
If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside’s daily summary.
(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)
Leave this field blank
But why should one read Black Reconstruction in the twenty-first century? In short, because Du Bois is writing about issues that remain of tremendous political importance, including the nature of racial oppression and the racism of white workers. Unlike most contemporary analysts of race, moreover, Du Bois approaches these issues from the perspective of political economy. He rejects an approach to racial oppression that starts with prejudice, discrimination, or culture, trying instead to dig beneath these and understand how they are rooted in the material interests of different classes. Instead of insisting on the separation of race from class, as so many liberals do, Du Bois insists on their intimate connection.
Black Reconstruction is rightly famous for stressing the collective agency of enslaved people in winning their own freedom and for its impassioned rebuttal of racist historiography. What has been less emphasized is the way in which Du Bois very explicitly rejects analyses of the Civil War and Reconstruction that emphasize race and racism as the primary drivers of historical events. Racism certainly played a hugely important role in that era, Du Bois argues, but it was a product of — and usually disguised — another, more powerful force: capitalism. More specifically, Du Bois argues in Black Reconstruction that two characteristic features of capitalism — capitalists’ competition for labor and workers’ competition for jobs — are the root cause of conflicts that seem to be driven by racism.
This perspective on Du Bois’s masterpiece runs counter to some influential interpretations of his work. Not surprisingly, there is resistance in some quarters to stating plainly that Black Reconstruction is a work of Marxism. Many people who come to Black Reconstruction for the first time are not expecting to read a Marxist text. They have most likely read Du Bois’s earlier collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, which precedes his turn to Marxism by three decades. While a number of authors do recognize Du Bois’s Marxism, many others deny that Black Reconstruction or his subsequent writings are Marxist. In 1983, for example, Cedric Robinson described Du Bois as a “sympathetic critic of Marxism.” Gerald Horne’s 1986 book examines in great detail Du Bois’s involvement in leftist (mainly Communist) causes after World War II, but he never offers an opinion as to whether Du Bois was a Marxist. (More recently, however, Horne has emphasized the Marxist character of Black Reconstruction.) And Manning Marable’s book on Du Bois, published just a few months later, portrays him as a “radical democrat” — although Marable later suggested that Du Bois might usefully be viewed as part of the “Western Marxist” tradition.
More recently, a group of “Du Boisian” sociologists recognizes that Du Bois integrates some elements of Marxist thinking into his worldview. But according to these writers, not only is Du Bois not a Marxist but his ideas clearly transcend Marx’s. Marx gave theoretical primacy to class, they say, whereas Du Bois grasped the “intersectionality” of class and race, emphasizing their connections while giving theoretical primacy, by implication, to neither. According to these writers, this theoretical move allowed Du Bois, unlike Marx and his followers, they claim, to understand colonialism, the ways in which race “fractures” class consciousness, and racial oppression generally.
In this essay, I argue that these “Du Boisians” and others who deny Du Bois’s Marxism are wrong. Du Bois actually does give theoretical primacy to capitalism. In both Black Reconstruction and his subsequent writings, Du Bois repeatedly emphasizes how racial oppression is a product of capitalism. Time and again, furthermore, Du Bois takes issue with what we would today call “race reductionism,” that is, attempts to explain historical events primarily in terms of race. His rejection of race reductionism only deepened in the years after Black Reconstruction’s publication.
After 1935, in short, “Du Boisianism” is Marxism. Du Bois’s failure lay not in the fact that he embraced a Marxist orientation but that he came to uncritically support Soviet authoritarianism. This was perhaps the greatest tragedy, in my view, of Du Bois’s long life. But the main point of this essay is to show that, despite all efforts to ignore or deny his Marxism, Black Reconstruction stands as a brilliant work of class analysis.
Black Reconstruction in America
Du Bois’s turn toward Marxism occurred rather late in his life, shortly before the publication of Black Reconstruction. His trip to the Soviet Union in 1926, months before Joseph Stalin’s consolidation of power, certainly pushed him in this direction. “Never before in life,” writes his biographer David Levering Lewis, “had he been as stirred as he would be by two months in Russia.” Du Bois traveled more than two thousand miles across the Soviet Union, “finding everywhere . . . signs of a new egalitarian social order that until then he had only dreamt might be possible.” “I may be partially deceived and half-informed,” Du Bois wrote at the time. “But if what I have seen with my own eyes and heard with my ears in Russia is Bolshevism, I am a Bolshevik.” (Du Bois would visit the Soviet Union again in 1936, 1949, and 1958.)
Du Bois later wrote that his trip to the Soviet Union led him to question “our American Negro belief that the right to vote would give us work and decent wage” or would abolish illiteracy or “decrease our sickness and crime.” Only a revolution, by implication, could attain these ends. Du Bois also now believed that “letting a few of our capitalists share with whites in the exploitation of our masses, would never be a solution of our problem.” Black liberation was impossible, in sum, so long as the United States remained a capitalist society, and “black capitalism” was a dead end.
Du Bois had been broadly familiar with Marxist ideas since his graduate student days at Harvard and in Berlin. But it was not until 1933, in the midst of the greatest crisis of capitalism in world history, that Du Bois began conscientiously to study Marx, Friedrich Engels, and Vladimir Lenin. He was then sixty-five years old. As Lewis writes, Du Bois fell hard for Marxist analysis:
Like so many intellectuals in the thirties who broadcast Marxism as a verifiable science of society, the Atlanta professor was mesmerized by dialectical materialism. Calling Marx the “greatest figure in the science of modern industry,” Du Bois seemed to rediscover with the avidity of a gifted graduate student the thinker who Frank Taussing, his Harvard economics professor, had smugly ignored. Marx made history make sense — or more sense, Du Bois came to believe, than all other analytical systems.
Du Bois was prodded to master Marxist theory by the rise of a group of so-called Young Turks within the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the civil rights organization he helped found. These young scholar-activists, including Abram Harris, Ralph Bunche, and E. Franklin Frazier (all members or soon-to-be members of the Howard University faculty) “were attempting to shift the Negro intelligentsia’s focus on race to an analysis of the economics of class.” All were convinced that a powerful interracial labor movement was necessary to smash racial oppression, and they were critical of the NAACP for its lack of an economic program. Members of this group would offer advice to Du Bois about which texts were essential for him to read. Harris’s book, The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement, coauthored with Sterling Spero, proved particularly influential; it was no coincidence that Du Bois titled the first chapter of Black Reconstruction “The Black Worker.” (I discuss the precise significance of this below.)
Although he would later grow close to the pro-Soviet Communist Party, Du Bois’s guides to Marxist theory in the early 1930s also included two anti-Stalinist leftists. One was Benjamin Stolberg, a journalist who later served on the Dewey Commission (officially the Commission of Inquiry Into the Charges Made Against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials), which was named after its chairman, the philosopher John Dewey. The other was a young leftist by the name of Will Herberg. Herberg was a Jewish Russian immigrant who flunked out of the City College of New York, joined the Communist Party, and was expelled along with others associated with Jay Lovestone for opposing Stalin’s foreign policy at the time. The Lovestonites, however, were ardent defenders of the Soviet Union. Herberg brought Marx’s writings on the Civil War to Du Bois’s attention, as well as Herberg’s own Marxist pamphlet on the Civil War and Reconstruction, “The Heritage of the Civil War,” which Du Bois would quote and cite in Black Reconstruction.
Du Bois takes up a great many issues in Black Reconstruction, but the book mainly attempts to answer three broad questions: First, how did the Civil War become a revolution that overthrew slavery and brought democracy to the South? Second, what were the nature and main achievements of the Reconstruction state governments in the South? Finally, how are we to understand the counterrevolution that overthrew democracy and brought about a kind of semislavery for Southern blacks?
The Civil War and the “General Strike”
The opening chapters of Black Reconstruction are not about Reconstruction at all. They deal with the antebellum period, workers (white and black), the nature of slavery, and the Civil War. These chapters make many important arguments and claims, none more important than the idea that enslaved people freed themselves during the Civil War through an extensive and prolonged “general strike.” This strike, like all strikes, was an instance of class struggle that involved the withholding of labor by one class of people, the workers or “direct producers,” from the owning or ruling class. As in other great revolutions, the opportunity for this class struggle from below was created by interelite conflicts that erupted into war.
Du Bois insists that “slave workers” (as he calls them) should be seen as an integral part of the interracial working class in America, not as a group set apart by separate and distinct interests. It was the tragic error of Northern workers and the Northern labor movement — and an error of subsequent analysts who are blind to class — not to comprehend this. Thus, Du Bois titles the first chapter of his book “The Black Worker,” not “The Black Slave” or “The Enslaved.” And the second chapter is called “The White Worker.” Of course, Du Bois is keenly aware of the difference between enslaved labor and free wage labor. “No matter how degraded the factory hand,” he writes, “he is not real estate.” But Du Bois wants to emphasize, in Marxian fashion, that these two groups of workers, despite their different circumstances and despite their racial difference, share the same basic material interests. This was true, moreover, both before and after the Civil War.
But white workers failed to see their common interests with slave workers. “White labor,” writes Du Bois, “while it attempted no denial but even expressed faint sympathy, saw in [the] fugitive slave and in the millions of slaves behind him, willing and eager to work for less than current wage, competition for their own jobs.” It was this competition for jobs that fueled white racism. However, “What [the white workers] failed to comprehend,” writes Du Bois, “was that the black man enslaved was an even more formidable and fatal competitor than the black man free.”
There thus arose, Du Bois relates, not one but two labor movements in antebellum America, one to free the slave workers of the South and the other to improve the wages and working conditions of the mainly immigrant working class in the North. The union of these two movements, Du Bois points out, would have been “irresistible.” But it was “almost impossible,” he writes, for white labor leaders to understand this:
They had their particularistic grievances and one of these was the competition of free Negro labor. Beyond this they could easily vision a new and tremendous competition of black workers after all the slaves became free. What they did not see nor understand was that this competition was present and would continue and would be emphasized if the Negro continued as a slave worker.
This explains why white workers kept their distance from the abolitionist movement, which, for its part, failed to “realize the plight of the white laborer, especially the semi-skilled and unskilled worker.” This division within the US working class, of course, weakened both labor movements.
The general strike during the Civil War took the form of slave workers fleeing the plantations for the front lines and encampments of the Union Army. Du Bois estimates that five hundred thousand of the South’s four million enslaved blacks fled the plantations. These families and individuals typically worked on behalf of the Union Army as long as the war lasted; eventually, some two hundred thousand were armed and fought for the Union against the Confederacy. The general strike was thus a double blow to the South: the withdrawal of labor disrupted and weakened the Southern economy and war effort — cotton production in particular declined precipitously — and the labor made available to the Union Army strengthened the North’s military might. “Without the military help of the black freedmen,” Du Bois argues, quoting no less an authority than Abraham Lincoln, “the war against the South could not have been won.”
Du Bois points out that this general strike “was followed by the disaffection of the poor whites,” who saw “with anger that the big slaveholders were escaping military service; that it was a ‘rich man’s war and the poor man’s fight.’” The exemption from military service of men who owned twenty or more slave workers was galling, “and the wholesale withdrawal of the slaveholding class from actual fighting which this rule made possible, gave rise to intense and growing dissatisfaction.” Du Bois also notes the poor whites’ “fear and jealousy of Negroes” in the advancing Northern army: “If the Negro was to be free where would the poor white be? Why should he fight against the blacks and his victorious friends? The poor white not only began to desert and run away; but thousands followed the Negro into the Northern camps.” In 1864 alone, according to Du Bois, one hundred thousand poor whites deserted the Confederate Army.
Where does racism fit into Du Bois’s analysis of slavery? His discussion of racism in the antebellum period is classically materialist: racism did not produce slavery; slavery produced, and continuously reproduced, racism. The planters’ need for cheap labor — and the extraordinary wealth it produced — was its root cause. Slaveowners could not increase the productivity of their plantations by giving more resources to slave workers, or educating them, or teaching them skills, as this would undermine the very institution. Due to competition with other planters, moreover, the slaveowner “was forced, unless willing to take lower profits, continually to beat down the cost of his slave labor.” In this context, racism was “found, invented and proved” in order to justify the horrors (and inefficiencies) of slavery. This is how Du Bois puts it:
If the leaders of the South, while keeping the consumer in mind, had turned more thoughtfully to the problem of the American producer, and had guided the production of cotton and food so as to take every advantage of new machinery and modern methods in agriculture, they might have moved forward with manufacture and been able to secure an approximately large amount of profit. . . . But in order to maintain its income without sacrifice or exertion, the South fell back on a doctrine of racial differences which it asserted made higher intelligence and increased efficiency impossible for Negro labor. Wishing such an excuse for lazy indulgence, the planter easily found, invented and proved it. His subservient religious leaders reverted to the “Curse of Canaan”; his pseudo-scientists gathered and supplemented all available doctrines of race inferiority; his scattered schools and pedantic periodicals repeated these legends, until for the average planter born after 1840 it was impossible not to believe that all valid laws in psychology, economics and politics stopped with the Negro race.
“The espousal of the doctrine of Negro inferiority by the South,” Du Bois concludes, “was primarily because of economic motives and the interconnected political urge necessary to support slave industry.” (Du Bois has more to say about the racism of white workers, which I examine below.)
Du Bois’s explanation of the Union’s victory in the Civil War also highlights the efforts of English workers to prevent their government from recognizing the Confederacy and entering the war against the Union. “Monster meetings” of workers in London and Manchester in 1863 had a real impact, in Du Bois’s estimation. “Karl Marx,” he writes, “testified that this meeting [in St. James’ Hall, London, in March 1863] . . . kept Lord Palmerston [the prime minister] from declaring war against the United States.” Du Bois quotes the text of a speech, written by Marx, which was read at a subsequent demonstration in London, a text addressed and sent to President Lincoln:
Sir: We who offer this address are Englishmen and workingmen. We prize as our dearest inheritance, bought for us by the blood of our fathers, the liberty we enjoy — the liberty of free labor on a free soil. . . . We rejoiced, sir, in your election to the Presidency, as a splendid proof that the principles of universal freedom and equality were rising to the ascendant. We regarded with abhorrence the conspiracy and rebellion by which it was sought at once to overthrow the supremacy of a government based upon the most popular suffrage in the world, and to perpetuate the hateful inequalities of race.
These English workers embraced just the type of interracial working-class solidarity that Du Bois would come to see, seventy years later, as essential for the eradication of racial oppression and for the liberation of workers of all colors.
The slave workers’ general strike destroyed slavery directly but also indirectly, by inducing Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. It also proved decisive for the Union defeat of the Confederacy. The result was thus a social as well as a political revolution. With the eradication of personal servitude, democracy became, for the first time, a real possibility in the South. Along with Du Bois, accordingly, we have every right to consider the Civil War truly epochal: “Its issue has vitally affected the course of human progress. To the student of history it ranks along with the conquests of Alexander; the incursions of the Barbarians; the Crusades; the discovery of America, and the American Revolution.” For Du Bois, “the emancipation of the laboring class in half the nation [is] a revolution comparable to the upheavals in France in the past, and in Russia, Spain, India and China today.”
Reconstruction: An “Extraordinary Marxist Experiment”
For a dozen years following the Civil War, the Union Army occupied the South, and African-American men could vote and run for political office. During these years, African Americans elected a large number of black and progressive white representatives to state governments across the South. Sixteen African Americans also served in the US Congress during these years, including two senators. For white elites, the Reconstruction era was a disaster. They would eventually create and distribute an image and historiography of Reconstruction that vilified both black representatives and black voters as ignorant, greedy, corrupt, and vengeful, truly unworthy of suffrage or indeed of any rights that whites were bound to respect.
The truth, as Du Bois shows in several chapters in Black Reconstruction, was quite different from this narrative. He believed that democracy, defended by federal troops, had allowed the working class to come to power in the South — fifty years before the Russian Revolution. Du Bois was tempted to describe this as a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” although he eventually decided to use the phrase “dictatorship of labor”:
Among Negroes, and particularly in the South, there was being put into force one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian revolution, had seen. That is, backed by the military power of the United States, a dictatorship of labor was to be attempted and those who were leading the Negro race in this vast experiment were emphasizing the necessity of the political power and organization backed by protective military power.
Several interlocutors dissuaded Du Bois from using the term “dictatorship of the proletariat.” As he explained at the start of a chapter titled “The Black Proletariat in South Carolina”:
I first called this chapter “The Dictatorship of the Black Proletariat in South Carolina,” but it has been brought to my attention that this would not be correct since universal suffrage does not lead to a real dictatorship until workers use their votes consciously to rid themselves of the dominion of private capital.
According to Du Bois, there were some indications of this intent among blacks in South Carolina, “but it was always coupled with the idea of that day, that the only real escape for a laborer was himself to own capital.” Indeed, most of the former slave workers wanted land of their own to work. Du Bois presumably used the phrase “dictatorship of labor” to signal that the Reconstruction governments were elected and supported by propertyless blacks and some poor whites — and that the officials so elected represented the interests of these workers.
Du Bois insists that Reconstruction cannot be understood in race-centered terms — that is, as a struggle between the black and white races, fueled by racism. Rather, Reconstruction was a conflict among classes that were struggling to find new ways of surviving after the demise of the slave economy. “Reconstruction,” as Du Bois puts it,
was not simply a fight between the white and black races in the South or between master and ex-slave. It was much more subtle; it involved more than this. There have been repeated and continued attempts to paint this era as an interlude of petty politics or nightmare of race hate instead of viewing it slowly and broadly as a tremendous series of efforts to earn a living in new and untried ways, to achieve economic security and to restore fatal losses of capital and investment.
For Du Bois, the key actors of the Reconstruction era were workers (still divided by race, as before the war, into separate movements) and capitalists (divided into two main fractions). Reconstruction encompassed, first of all,
a vast labor movement of ignorant, earnest, and bewildered black men whose faces had been ground in the mud by their three awful centuries of degradation and who now staggered forward blindly in blood and tears amid petty division, hate and hurt, and surrounded by every disaster of war and industrial upheaval.
Reconstruction was a vast labor movement of ignorant, muddled and bewildered white men who had been disinherited of land and labor and fought a long battle with sheer subsistence, hanging on the edge of poverty, eating clay and chasing slaves and now lurching up to manhood.
Reconstruction was the turn of white Northern migration southward to new and sudden economic opportunity which followed the disaster and dislocation of war, and an attempt to organize capital and labor on a new pattern and build a new economy.
Du Bois is here referring to the Northern capitalists, both large and petty, who moved to the South in search of riches after the war — the “carpetbagger capitalists,” as he calls them. “Finally,” writes Du Bois,
Reconstruction was a desperate effort of a dislodged, maimed, impoverished and ruined oligarchy and monopoly to restore an anachronism in economic organization by force, fraud and slander, in defiance of law and order, and in the face of a great labor movement of white and black, and in bitter strife with a new capitalism and a new political framework.
This, of course, is the formerly slave-owning planter class. Du Bois attributes the turmoil, corruption, and violence of the Reconstruction era to the “fierce fight” among these classes and class fractions for control over the “capitalist state.”
What were the key achievements of the “dictatorships of labor” in the South while they lasted? The fact that African Americans enjoyed a modicum of civil and political rights during this era is of course tremendously important. For the first time in its history, universal manhood suffrage prevailed in the United States. For Du Bois, perhaps the most important achievements of Reconstruction were the public schools and black colleges that were founded in this era. (Du Bois himself attended one of these colleges, Fisk, a mere decade after Reconstruction.) He devotes an entire chapter (“Founding the Public School”) to this development, arguing that these schools were nothing less than “the salvation of the South and the Negro.”
For Du Bois, interestingly, these schools played an important moderating role. “Without them,” he writes, “there can be no doubt that the Negro would have rushed into revolt and vengeance and played into the hands of those determined to crush him.” Du Bois also praises the new schools (and the black church) for creating “a little group of trained leadership.” He credits these leaders, and their political moderation, with preventing the reestablishment of chattel slavery after Reconstruction:
Had it not been for the Negro school and college, the Negro would, to all intents and purposes, have been driven back to slavery. His economic foothold in land and capital was too slight in ten years of turmoil to effect any defense or stability. His reconstruction leadership had come from Negroes educated in the North, and white politicians, capitalists and philanthropic teachers. The counterrevolution of 1876 drove most of these, save the teachers, away. But already, through establishing public schools and private colleges, and by organizing the Negro church, the Negro had acquired enough leadership and knowledge to thwart the worst designs of the new slave drivers.
These leaders, Du Bois suggests, “avoided the mistake of trying to meet force by force.” He praises their resilience and patience in the face of violent provocation: “They bent to the storm of beating, lynching and murder, and kept their souls in spite of public and private insult of every description.”
Nevertheless, Du Bois emphasizes that the main economic demand of the freedmen was never attained during Reconstruction: the extensive redistribution of land, including the big plantations, to the formerly enslaved. The typical freedman, according to Du Bois, had “but one clear economic ideal and that was his demand for land, his demand that the great plantations be subdivided and given to him as his right.” Du Bois writes that this demand was “perfectly fair and natural” and “ought to have been an integral part of Emancipation.” He points out that French, German, and Russian serfs and peasants were, “on emancipation,” given “definite rights in the land.” “Only the American Negro slave was emancipated without such rights and in the end this spelled for him the continuation of slavery.” More specifically, the absence of land reform in the South opened the door to a counterrevolution that would transform the propertyless freedmen into semislaves — indebted sharecroppers, convict laborers, and the like.
Du Bois casts some blame for the absence of land reform upon the same black leaders whose moderation he otherwise praises. “The Negro’s own black leadership was naturally of many sorts,” according to Du Bois:
Some, like the whites, were petty bourgeois, seeking to climb to wealth; others were educated men, helping to develop a new nation without regard to mere race lines, while a third group were idealists, trying to uplift the Negro race and put them on a par with the whites. But how was this to be accomplished? In the minds of very few of them was there any clear and distinct plan for the development of a laboring class into a position of power and mastery over the modern industrial state. And in this lack of vision, they were not singular in America.
Du Bois seems to be suggesting here that the weakness of socialist ideology among black leaders and Americans generally is responsible for “this lack of vision.” That said, the petty-bourgeois background of so many black leaders raises serious doubts about Du Bois’s characterization of the Reconstruction governments as “dictatorships of labor.” In fact, as Eric Foner points out, most black politicians during Reconstruction were conservative or silent on the issue of land redistribution. On this particular issue, Du Bois’s analysis should have been more materialist than it was.
The Counterrevolution of Property
Du Bois was arguably even more concerned in Black Reconstruction with explaining the counterrevolution that overthrew Reconstruction than he was with celebrating its achievements. Hundreds of pages of the book discuss this issue, including two of the book’s final chapters, namely, “Counter-revolution of Property” (chapter 14) and “Back Toward Slavery” (chapter 16). One of the key themes of these chapters is that this counterrevolution was brought about by a class (the planters) for economic reasons, not by a race (whites) for reasons of racial animus or racial ideology. This was truly, Du Bois emphasizes, a counterrevolution of property.
Du Bois writes that “the overthrow of Reconstruction was in essence a revolution inspired by property, and not a race war.” Elsewhere he adds, “It was not, then, race and culture calling out of the South in 1876; it was property and privilege, shrieking to its kind, and privilege and property heard and recognized the voice of its own.” This was a bourgeois counterrevolution against the “dictatorships of labor.” This is how Du Bois summarizes this counterrevolution, otherwise known as the Compromise of 1876, which included the withdrawal of federal troops from the South:
The bargain of 1876 was essentially an understanding by which the Federal Government ceased to sustain the right to vote of half of the laboring population of the South, and left capital as represented by the old planter class, the new Northern capitalist, and the capitalist that began to rise out of the poor whites, with a control of labor greater than in any modern industrial state in civilized lands. Out of that there has arisen in the South an exploitation of labor unparalleled in modern times, with a government in which all pretense at party alignment or regard for universal suffrage is given up. The methods of government have gone uncriticized, and elections are by secret understanding and manipulation; the dictatorship of capital in the South is complete.
“The dictatorship of capital in the South is complete” — not a dictatorship of an undifferentiated white race. In fact, Du Bois argues,
The new dictatorship became a manipulation of the white labor vote which followed the lines of similar control in the North, while it proceeded to deprive the black voter by violence and force of any vote at all. The rivalry of these two classes of labor and their competition neutralized the labor vote in the South.
The dictatorship of capital, in sum, brought about the oppression and disenfranchisement of black workers, in part to win the support of white workers. But while white workers kept the right to vote, they had little more political power than blacks. The outcome of the counterrevolution of 1876 was thus the racial oppression of black workers; the destruction of democracy; a divided working class; and the “unparalleled” exploitation of labor, black and white. Indeed, capital in the South enjoyed, in Du Bois’s words, “a control of labor greater than in any modern industrial state in civilized lands.” Without civil and political rights, moreover, many black workers were eventually reduced to the status of semislaves, tied to planters by debt and violence. The planters would remain the politically dominant class in the South until their power was finally broken by the civil rights movement.
This brings us to the question of white working-class racism. Why did white workers support the dictatorship of capital and the oppression of black workers? Du Bois viewed such racism as extremely powerful and extensive, so much so that he sometimes doubted whether working-class solidarity and socialism were in any way realistic in the United States. In fact, Du Bois wrote Black Reconstruction during a period when he was unusually pessimistic about the possibility of interracial solidarity. The year before Black Reconstruction was published, Du Bois penned an infamous editorial in the Crisis, the magazine he long edited, which called for the voluntary self-segregation of African Americans.60 The editorial stirred up a firestorm of criticism within the strongly integrationist (and interracial) NAACP.
But self-segregation was never a principle or ultimate end for Du Bois. It was a tactic — and one he gradually abandoned during the 1940s. Similarly, Du Bois never concluded in Black Reconstruction, or in any of his subsequent writings, that interracial working-class solidarity was impossible. It was just, at specific times and for specific reasons, very difficult to achieve. For Du Bois, white working-class racism was above all a puzzle that needed to be solved, not a permanent state of affairs. It troubled him because he was convinced that neither capitalism nor the racial oppression it produced could be overthrown if racism prevented the unification of white and black workers. And Du Bois was clear in Black Reconstruction that his ultimate goal was to unify “slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat.” There was no other road, as he saw it, to either the emancipation of labor or the overthrow of racial oppression.
As it happened, white workers in the South generally supported the overthrow of Reconstruction and the oppression of blacks. They generally supported, that is, the bourgeois counterrevolution of property that established a dictatorship of capital. What explains this paradox? Why would a group of workers who would have been stronger had they united with another group of workers instead support their exploiters in the oppression of that other group? Throughout Black Reconstruction, Du Bois emphasizes that white working-class animosity toward blacks stems from competition over jobs. Capitalism everywhere pits workers against one another, such that workers view others as competitors, even enemies. Capitalism creates a kind of war of all against all as workers scramble to find jobs and keep them. Of course, this war allows capitalists to keep wages low. For Du Bois, white working-class racism evolved out of their fear that capitalists would replace them with black workers, including newly emancipated workers, who were willing to work for lower wages. It was this same fear of competition, Du Bois argued, that had led to the formation of two labor movements in the antebellum period.
The fear of unemployment, according to Du Bois, was particularly strong before the creation of the modern welfare state. And so white workers used what power they had to exclude blacks from the labor market. Hence white demands that blacks be banished from certain occupations or workplaces; hence the exclusion of blacks from craft unions; hence white violence against black coworkers and strikebreakers. Racism could be “found, invented and proved” in order to justify these practices, in the same way that slaveowners had earlier “found, invented and proved” racism to justify theirs. Here is Du Bois explaining the violence of whites against African Americans:
Total depravity, human hate and Schadenfreude, do not explain fully the mob spirit in America. Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake, is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. Of what? Of many things, but usually of losing their jobs, being declassed, degraded, or actually disgraced; of losing their hopes, their savings, their plans for their children; of the actual pangs of hunger, of dirt, of crime. And of all this, most ubiquitous in modern industrial society is that fear of unemployment.
White workers, in short, believed that it was better to be exploited than not to be exploited (i.e., unemployed). They feared unemployment, which meant no wages, more than they feared low wages. And so white workers sided with people who were offering jobs and looked like them instead of with darker people who shared their plight. This was an understandable decision but an error nonetheless. White workers as well as black suffered — and continue to suffer — from their lack of solidarity.
Du Bois also emphasizes that the planter class was ever prepared to encourage and aggravate the animosity between white and black workers. “They lied about the Negroes,” he writes, and “accused them of theft, crime, moral enormities and laughable grotesqueries.” The planters’ purpose was to forestall “the danger of a united Southern labor movement by appealing to the fear and hate of white labor and offering them alliance and leisure.” The planters, Du Bois writes, encouraged white workers “to ridicule Negroes and beat them, kill and burn their bodies” and “even gave the poor whites their daughters in marriage, and raised a new oligarchy on the tottering, depleted foundations of the old.”
Du Bois very briefly presents another explanation for white working-class racism — in the post-Reconstruction era — that has become the focus of much attention. His discussion of this spans only a few paragraphs, but it is sometimes discussed as if it were the very core of Black Reconstruction. And it is the source of the most popular catchphrase of the book — although Du Bois himself never used the phrase — namely, “the wages of whiteness.”
Du Bois suggests that white workers in the South — but not blacks — received “a sort of public and psychological wage” as a supplement to the low wages paid by their employers. Of what did this wage consist? Du Bois points out that white workers could enter public parks, send their children to “the best schools,” and apply for jobs in police departments. Blacks could do none of these things. White workers could also walk public streets without being accosted or assaulted; blacks could not. In addition, white workers had the right to vote, and while this did not result in any real political power, the courts treated them with leniency because they were dependent on white votes. Blacks could not vote, so the courts treated them harshly.
Du Bois is mainly alluding here to the civil and political rights of white workers, and to the exercise of those rights. Calling these rights a “psychological” wage, however, is confusing: these rights were real and enforceable; they did not just exist in the heads or minds of white workers. In any event, “the wages of whiteness” turn out to consist primarily of the civil and political rights enjoyed by white workers but denied to blacks following Reconstruction. White workers had certain rights in addition to low wages; black workers had no rights and even lower wages. This is a useful shorthand description of the Jim Crow era.
Du Bois also includes “public deference and titles of courtesy” in the extra “wage” that white workers but not black were given. White workers had a certain status (at least among other whites) that blacks did not. And Du Bois notes that newspapers flattered the poor whites while ignoring or ridiculing blacks. Here again, these things were not just in the minds of white workers, so calling them “psychological” is odd. “The wages of whiteness” refers to the rights and status enjoyed by white workers in addition to their low wages.
The question is: How do these “wages” explain racism? They describe a racist society, but how do they produce racial hatred or violence? Du Bois does not say much about this, but he implies that white workers felt compelled to resist any effort to extend to black workers the same rights and deference they received:
[White] laborers . . . would rather have low wages upon which they could eke out an existence than see colored labor with a decent wage. White labor saw in every advance of Negroes a threat to their racial prerogatives, so that in many districts Negroes were afraid to build decent homes or dress well, or own carriages, bicycles or automobiles, because of possible retaliation on the part of the whites. Thus every problem of labor advance in the South was skillfully turned by demagogues into a matter of inter-racial jealousy.
If blacks enjoyed the same rights and social esteem as white workers, Du Bois seems to say, white workers could no longer claim to be superior to them or to anyone else in society — and that, by implication, was presumably intolerable to whites, even if it meant “eking out an existence.”
Du Bois thus presents two explanations for the racism of white workers: white workers become racists to justify their efforts to prevent black workers from replacing them at work, and they become racists to justify their efforts to prevent blacks from enjoying the same rights and status they enjoy. There is undoubtedly some truth to both these arguments. But it is also obvious to Du Bois that neither adequately explains why white workers could not or would not come to see that a united front with black workers against capitalists would result in higher wages, greater rights, and a higher status for themselves as well as for black workers. This failure of vision, Du Bois understood, is not inevitable.
In fact, Du Bois clearly did not believe that his two explanations worked in all times and places. As noted earlier, Du Bois held out hope in Black Reconstruction for the emancipation of “slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat.” As we shall see, he would later praise certain trade unions for building interracial solidarity, and he would advise radical black youth that the liberation of both blacks and whites depended upon their mutual cooperation and friendship. Du Bois never developed a simple formula or technique for bringing about working-class solidarity. Of course, no such formula or technique exists. But Black Reconstruction reminds us why workers’ solidarity is so important, and Du Bois would preach the gospel of interracial solidarity for the rest of his days. He later wrote that Black Reconstruction marks a break with his earlier “provincial racialism” and was an attempt “to envisage the broader problems of work and income as affecting all men regardless of color or nationality.”
After Black Reconstruction
Du Bois would remain a committed socialist and Marxist until his death in 1963. Black Reconstruction, in other words, was just one part — the most extraordinary part, no doubt — of a larger body of Marxist work written by Du Bois. Unfortunately, Du Bois also became a Stalinist, and he would articulate a view of socialism that was deeply problematic. A brief review of some of Du Bois’s key writings after 1935 demonstrates that Black Reconstruction was by no means a unique or unusual foray into Marxist theory.
In 1940, Du Bois published an autobiography, Dusk of Dawn. He was then seventy-two years old. (A second autobiography was published posthumously in the United States in 1968.) Near the end of this volume, Du Bois presents a “Basic American Negro Creed” that he originally wrote in 1936, as an appendix to an essay in which, among other things, he declared his belief in Marxism. “We believe,” the creed states, “in the ultimate triumph of some form of Socialism the world over; that is, common ownership and control of the means of production and equality of income.” Toward this end, the creed advocates that “Negro workers should join the labor movement and affiliate with such trade unions as welcome them and treat them fairly. We believe that workers’ Councils organized by Negroes for interracial understanding should strive to fight race prejudice in the working class.” And the creed calls “for vesting the ultimate power of the state in the hands of the workers.” Working-class solidarity, interracial unionism, the fight against racism, common ownership of the means of production, and workers’ control of the state — this is Du Bois’s program for black workers and, indeed, for working people around the globe.
Several years later, during World War II, Du Bois would become preoccupied, and not for the first time, with the question of colonialism. A longtime advocate of pan-Africanism, Du Bois rightly worried that colonialism would endure long after World War II, despite the high-minded phrases and promises of European leaders during the war. Shortly after presiding at the Fifth Pan-African Conference in Manchester, England, Du Bois summarized his views about the capitalist basis of colonialism and the color line in his book Color and Democracy. “Not until we face the fact,” writes Du Bois, “that colonies are a method of investment yielding unusual [i.e., large] returns, or expected to do so, will we realize that the colonial system is part of the battle between capital and labor in the modern economy.”
Du Bois goes on to criticize the race-centered view of imperialism when he presents his own alternative perspective:
It happens, not for biological or historical reasons, that most of the inhabitants of colonies today have colored skins. This does not make them one group or race or even allied biological groups or races. In fact these colored people vary vastly in physique, history, and cultural experience. The one thing that unites them today in the world’s thought is their poverty, ignorance, and disease, which renders them all, in different degrees, unresisting victims of modern capitalistic exploitation. On this foundation the modern “Color Line” has been built, with all its superstitions and pseudo-science. And it is this complex today which more than anything else excuses the suppression of democracy, not only in Asia and Africa, but in Europe and the Americas. Hitler seized on “negroid” characteristics to accuse the French of inferiority. Britain points to miscegenation with colored races to prove democracy impossible in South America. But it is left to the greatest modern democracy, the United States, to defend human slavery and caste, and even defeat democratic government in its own boundaries, ostensibly because of an inferior race, but really in order to make profits out of cheap labor, both black and white.
Racism, in other words, is the “ostensible” motivation behind — and a justification for — slavery, caste, and colonialism. But this is a fig leaf — or “camouflage,” as Du Bois wrote in Black Reconstruction. The actual motivation is the accumulation of profits by means of cheap labor. Herein, for Du Bois, is the secret of “white supremacy”: the capitalist imperative to exploit labor is achieved by creating a color line that oppresses workers of color and deceives white workers into believing they are superior to them, thereby dividing and cheapening all labor.
Following World War II, Du Bois entered into the orbit of the pro-Soviet Communist Party of the United States, a group from which he had long kept his distance for a variety of reasons, despite his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union. In October 1946, Du Bois was invited to speak in Columbia, South Carolina, to delegates of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a group founded by the Communist Party. (Paul Robeson and the novelist Howard Fast spoke to the group the night before Du Bois’s speech.) In his address, “Behold the Land,” Du Bois advises the delegates:
Slowly but surely the working people of the South, white and black, must come to remember that their emancipation depends upon their mutual cooperation; upon their acquaintanceship with each other; upon their friendship; upon their social intermingling. Unless this happens each is going to be made the football to break the heads and hearts of the other.
Du Bois goes on to say:
The oil and sulphur; the coal and iron; the cotton and corn; the lumber and cattle belong to you the workers, black and white, and not to the thieves who hold them and use them to enslave you. They can be rescued and restored to the people if you have the guts to strive for the real right to vote, the right to real education, the right to happiness and health and the total abolition of the father of these scourges of mankind, poverty.
Du Bois then speaks of the white workers, the “poor whites,” of the South. He has become much less pessimistic about the possibility of interracial solidarity than he was a decade earlier:
It may seem like a failing fight when the newspapers ignore you; when every effort is made by white people in the South to count you out of citizenship and to act as though you did not exist as human beings while all the time they are profiting by your labor, gleaning wealth from your sacrifices and trying to build a nation and a civilization upon your degradation. You must remember that despite all this, you have allies, and allies even in the white South. First and greatest of these possible allies are the white working classes about you, the poor whites whom you have been taught to despise and who in turn have learned to fear and hate you. This must not deter you from efforts to make them understand, because in the past, in their ignorance and suffering, they have been led foolishly to look upon you as the cause of most of their distress.
This attitude, Du Bois suggests, “has been deliberately cultivated ever since emancipation.” He insists that the color line between black and white workers must be broken, a division deliberately fostered by capitalists and their political servants. This was an idea to which Du Bois returned again and again during his final decades, an idea that goes back at least to his 1920 essay “On Work and Wealth.”
As we have seen, Du Bois encouraged black workers to join trade unions in his 1936 “creed.” In the following years, Du Bois continued to see trade unions, especially the industrial unions of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), as the best hope for creating interracial working-class solidarity in the United States. In a 1948 essay, Du Bois writes, “Probably the greatest and most effective effort toward interracial understanding among the working masses has come about through the trade unions.” The CIO’s efforts had brought about “an astonishing spread of interracial tolerance and understanding. Probably no movement in the last 30 years,” he wrote, “has been so successful in softening race prejudice among the masses.”
In this same 1948 text, Du Bois reiterates his belief that racism and imperialism — and wars of liberation — are primarily generated by capitalists and their pursuit of profits:
[T]he American Negro is part of a world situation. Negroes are in a quasi-colonial status. They belong to the lower classes of the world. These classes are, have been, and are going to be for a long time exploited by the more powerful groups and nations in the world for the benefit of those groups. The real problem before the United States is whether we are really beginning to reason about this world-wide feeling of class dominance with its resultant wars: wars for rivalry for the sharing of the spoils of exploitation, and wars against exploitation.
It is telling that Du Bois describes imperialism and colonialism here in terms of exploitation and class dominance and not in terms of national or racial oppression. Of course, Du Bois fully understands that colonialism entails national and racial oppression, but its primary cause is the capitalist’s search for cheap labor.
At the height of McCarthyism in the United States, in 1950, Du Bois drafted a book-length manuscript called “Russia and America: An Interpretation.” His publisher refused to print it because it was too pro-Soviet and too critical of the United States. Incredibly, it has still not been published. One important section of this book — the whole of which is too long to adequately summarize here — argues that the Soviet Union is more democratic than the United States because Soviet citizens are able to discuss, debate, and decide “matters of vital interest to the people, that is, work and wage and living conditions — matters not simply of interest, but of personal knowledge and experience.” For Du Bois, clearly, this is the core meaning of socialist democracy:
Everybody wants to talk about these matters; everyone attends meetings twice or three times a week; they discuss the local industries; the water supply, the schools and the man or woman best fitted to represent their thought and decision in the county meetings. If the delegate selected does not act and vote as they wish, they recall him and substitute another.
“It is a mistake,” Du Bois concludes, “to think democracy has been throttled in the Soviet Republics.” He likens local soviets to New England town meetings, a venue in which ordinary people “come together to talk, propose, argue, and to decide; to elect a delegate to a higher Soviet which in turn elects to one still higher and so on to the Supreme Soviet. Here is pure and effective democracy,” Du Bois suggests, “such as has almost disappeared from the United States.” In the United States, in fact, “our election of the president, appointment of judges, representation in the Senate and inequality of electoral districts show the legal restraints on democracy; while extralegally but by common consent are disfranchisement of Negroes and the poor, the use of money in elections, and the well-paid lobbyists of Big Business in our legislatures, not to mention the press and periodical monopoly.” Du Bois concludes,
It is with the greatest difficulty that the American electorate gets a chance to express its mind or receive the truth upon which to make up its mind; or secure sanctions by which it may make its legislators carry out the popular will. In both Great Britain and France, and in pre-war Germany and Italy, and certainly in the United States, the will of the people has long been thwarted by wealth, privilege, and ignorance.
In 1952, Du Bois began teaching at the interracial Jefferson School of Social Science in Manhattan, which was devoted to workers’ education. The school was established by the Communist Party to educate working-class people and to train class-conscious militants. Du Bois taught courses on imperialism, the slave trade, Africa, pan-Africanism, and Reconstruction. (The writer Lorraine Hansberry was in his first class.) The course on Reconstruction argued that the socialist revolution requires interracial solidarity against capitalists. Du Bois taught at the Jefferson School until 1956, when it was forced to close.
Du Bois’s politics were never closer to the Communist Party’s during these years, and, as we have seen, his enthusiasm for the Soviet Union continued unabated. In 1953, Du Bois penned a paean to Stalin — with the obligatory insults to Trotsky — following the death of the Soviet leader. Du Bois justified the Soviet dictatorship as necessary until such time as Soviet workers were “more intelligent, more experienced and in less danger from interference from without.” It was just such alleged interference, moreover, that led Du Bois to support the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956. Not surprisingly, he vehemently denied that socialism must be democratic, although that was certainly his ideal.
Du Bois’s vision of socialism is problematic, to say the least. It was based in part on his long-standing belief that smarter and better educated people — the “talented tenth,” as he called them — had a responsibility to lead “ignorant” and uneducated people, who were not capable of governing themselves. Du Bois saw Stalin (and later Mao Zedong) as educated and experienced leaders who were selflessly pulling — or perhaps dragging — masses of ignorant peasants into the twentieth century. Their noble ends allegedly justified their often-brutal methods. This kind of elitism erupts, incidentally, in a little-noted passage in Black Reconstruction in which Du Bois states that it would have been “best” (even if politically impractical) if there had been a property qualification for voting after the Civil War and only a “gradual enfranchisement” of black workers, pending the establishment of public schools throughout the South.
Du Bois drafted a second autobiography in 1958–59 and slightly revised it in 1960. The Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois was edited by his friend Herbert Aptheker, a longtime Communist Party activist whom Du Bois had befriended after the war and whom he would appoint as his literary executor. Shortened versions of the Autobiography were published in the Soviet Union in 1962 and shortly later, posthumously, in China and East Germany. It was finally published in the United States in 1968. In this text, Du Bois again expresses his Marxist beliefs and distances himself from his earlier “racialism” or race-centered views. “I believe in the dictum of Karl Marx,” he writes, “that the economic foundation of a nation is widely decisive for its politics, its art and its culture.” Du Bois adds that as a young man, “What I wanted was the same economic opportunities that white Americans had. Beyond this I was not thinking”:
I . . . did not realize what wretched exploitation white Americans and white workers of all sorts faced and had faced in the past, and would face in years to come. Although a student of social progress, I did not know the labor development in the United States. I was bitter at lynching, but not moved by the treatment of white miners in Colorado or Montana. I never sang the songs of Joe Hill, and the terrible strike at Lawrence, Massachusetts, did not stir me, because I knew that factory strikers like these would not let a Negro work beside them or live in the same town. It was hard for me to outgrow this mental isolation, and to see that the plight of the white workers was fundamentally the same as that of the black, even if the white worker helped enslave the black.
A group of workers who would have been empowered by uniting with another group of workers instead helped to oppress that other group. This is the tragedy — and the puzzle — of the American labor movement of Du Bois’s time. But Du Bois’s earlier racialism, he implies, not only blinded him to the exploitation of workers of all races but thereby prevented him from understanding the true nature of the racial oppression of blacks.
Du Bois also speaks in the Autobiography about the type of society he desires: “I believe in communism,” he writes. “I mean by communism, a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part.” Du Bois adds that “all men should be employed according to their ability and that wealth and services should be distributed according to need. Once I thought that these ends could be attained under capitalism,” Du Bois notes, but “After earnest observation I now believe that private ownership of capital and free enterprise are leading the world to disaster.” Du Bois adds that democratic government in the United States “has almost ceased to function,” noting that one-quarter of adults are disenfranchised and half do not vote. “We are ruled by those who control wealth and who by that power buy or coerce public opinion.”
Du Bois settled in Ghana in 1961 to work on a projected multivolume Encyclopedia Africana. He died there in 1963 at the age of ninety-five. Before he left the United States, Du Bois applied for membership in the Communist Party of the United States, to which he had been close since World War II. Du Bois’s last major speech in the United States addressed, not surprisingly, the topic of “Socialism and the American Negro.” It was delivered in May 1960 at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Folkways Records produced a vinyl recording of the speech that same year.
In this speech, Du Bois reiterated his belief that “there is no doubt that the world of the twenty-first century will be overwhelmingly communistic.” He also offered some interesting critical reflections, from a Marxist perspective, on the civil rights movement, which was by then in full swing. (The student sit-in movement began in February 1960 and spread across the South in a matter of weeks.) Du Bois’s thoughts are worth quoting at length:
The legal fight led by the NAACP has been an astonishing success. But its very success shows the limitations of law, and law enforcement, unless it has an economic program; unless the mass of Negro people have not simply legal rights, but have such rights to work and wage that enable them to live decently. Here in the United States we have had a stirring, in the Negro population, which emphasized these facts. . . . The experience in Montgomery, the extraordinary uprising of students, all over the south and beginning in the north, shows an awareness of our situation which is most encouraging. But it still does not reach the center of the problem. And that center is not simply the right of Americans to spend their money as they wish and according to law, but the chance for American Negroes to have money to spend, because of employment in which they can make a decent wage. What then is the next step? It is for American Negroes in increasing numbers, and more and more widely, to insist upon the legal rights which are already theirs, and to add to that increasingly a socialistic form of government, an insistence upon the welfare state, which denies the further carrying out of industry for the profit of those corporations which monopolize wealth and power.
Martin Luther King Jr — who also became a socialist, like Du Bois — would say much the same thing about the necessity of decent wages for blacks just a few years later, demanding, among other things, a guaranteed income for all. And like Du Bois, King became a strong advocate of multiracial trade unionism and working-class solidarity as the best means to end poverty and racism.
Du Bois’s turn to socialism and Marxism did not entail any lessening of his interest in or disgust with racism and the color line. Du Bois was committed to destroying racial oppression before he became a Marxist, and he remained just as committed to destroying racial oppression after he became a Marxist. Du Bois became an unapologetic Marxist and a committed socialist, in fact, not in spite of his hatred of racial oppression, but precisely because of that hatred. He was driven and attracted to Marxism and socialism by his quest to understand racial oppression and the best strategy to destroy it. Of course, his understanding of both racism and how we might subvert it changed radically once he became a Marxist and a socialist. This change is missed by scholars who assume that Du Bois’s ideas were essentially fixed around the time he wrote The Souls of Black Folk.
Du Bois came to believe that the exploitation of the labor of black, brown, and “yellow” workers was the main foundation of and motivation for racial oppression around the globe and that the liberation of people of color, accordingly — all people of color, and not just workers — required the elimination of this exploitation, that is, socialism. Du Bois also looked at the “color line” differently after he became a Marxist. For the socialist Du Bois, the color line was problematic because it divided workers as well as races and thereby rendered working-class solidarity and socialist revolution — and the eradication of racial oppression as he now understood it — more difficult.
Du Bois deserves to be remembered as an eloquent critic of capitalism and its ineluctable consequences: racial oppression, colonialism, imperialism, war, poverty, and gross inequality, political as well as economic. Du Bois saw a clear relationship between capitalism and racial oppression, namely, cause and effect. He ranks among the most astute Marxists who have addressed the question of racial oppression, an incredibly rich tradition that includes such luminaries as Hubert Harrison, Claude McKay, José Carlos Mariátegui, Max Shachtman, C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, Harry Haywood, Herbert Aptheker, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Claudia Jones, Frantz Fanon, Walter Rodney, Harold Wolpe, Neville Alexander, Angela Davis, Manning Marable, Stuart Hall, Adolph Reed, and Barbara Fields, among many others. We need to recognize and credit not only the Marxist Du Bois but this entire pantheon of Marxist theorists of race. Du Bois did not transcend this tradition, as some have implied. He was at the heart of it.
At his best, Du Bois could also be an eloquent advocate for democratic socialism — for multiracial working-class solidarity, for workers’ control of the state and economy, and for an economy based on human needs. It is true that Du Bois’s elitist vision of socialism was deeply flawed, and his apologetics for Stalin’s dictatorship and authoritarian socialism are indefensible and detract from his legacy. Yet many of his contemporary acolytes deny the Marxist Du Bois, portraying him as a race-centered theorist or an “intersectionalist.” He was neither. Black Reconstruction in America, I have shown, is a brilliant Marxist study that explains racial oppression and racism as products of capitalism. Denying Du Bois’s Marxism results in a distorted view of Du Bois’s life and ideas, including, ironically, his analysis of racial oppression and how we might destroy it.
Jeff Goodwin teaches sociology at New York University.
Jacobin is a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture. The print magazine is released quarterly and reaches 75,000 subscribers, in addition to a web audience of over 3,000,000 a month.
This content was originally published here.