W. E. B. Du Bois and the Proletariat in Black Reconstruction - Ferruccio Gambino

WEB Du Bois.
WEB Du Bois.

Italian autonomist Ferruccio Gambino on sociologist and historian W. E. B. Du Bois and the working class in the Black Reconstruction, written following the Great Depression about the period immediately following the end of the American Civil War (1860-1880) where freed slaves made major social advances prior to the mass repression of Jim Crow.

Submitted by cansv on April 15, 2011

The conception and working out of W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880 belonged to the period of the Great Depression. In reflecting on the events of the early 1930s, Du Bois found the motivation to write his major work. While the Great Depression was pushing the working class toward urban unemployment and rural subsistence, Du Bois was moving in the same direction as the radicalization prevalent in the ghettoes. The years 1903-6, 1914-19, and 1932-36 were crucial in the crisis of the black intelligentsia because they reflected crucial class experiences of` blacks in the United States. The Great Depression exacerbated in black people the seismic tensions of the previous decades. At this point, Du Bois detached himself from all reform activity and paused to evaluate the meaning of another crisis, that Black Reconstruction which had preceded the New Deal by 60 years.

Until the beginning of 1933 not even white workers in the leading sectors of the U.S. economy appeared able to resist wage cuts, unemployment, and deterioration of living conditions in the main industrial centers. The unemployment that followed the Great Depression and the expulsion of blacks from the plantations combined their effects in hitting the blacks' living conditions. In the thirties the growth of industrial employment among blacks was only 45% of that among whites, and the blacks were generally concentrated in declining sectors, such as coal, lumber, and tobacco. In this situation the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was at least able to ensure a continuity of aid and publicization. But the ills were extreme. Before the Congress of Industrial Organizations imposed its bargaining power, the Great Depression seemed to deepen the class divisions along racist lines. The group that accepted the battleground imposed on black people by the caste exclusions reemerged in the ghettoes. In 1932 a laid-off Chevrolet worker in Detroit, Robert Poole, became Elijah Muhammad, went to Chicago, and established the Nation of Islam's headquarters there. The other line, that of alliances with progressives, appeared unworkable unless the terms of` the alliance were sharply redefined in the light of the total experience of black people in the United States.

The Reconstruction era constituted a central point in that experience. Revolutionary black activity and the white reaction, the blacks' attempt to seize the levers of power in the South and the resistance to it by northern and southern capital, looked as if magnetized in the brief span of time of Reconstruction. Thus Reconstruction had elements of deja vu vis-a-vis the Great Depression. The pattern of black people's attack and retreat had to be analyzed in depth in order not to repeat history. In 1934 Du Bois decided to go his own way; he returned to Atlanta University, leaving the NAACP and The Crisis. In 1933 he had started work on Black Reconstruction. Since for Du Bois the discovery of the black proletariat, which is central to Black Reconstruction, was not easy, a survey of his previous work seems to be necessary to evaluate the scope and meaning of Black Reconstruction.

Why was the discovery of the black proletariat not easy for Du Bois? He had been enticed in the opposite direction by the education and the intellectual milieu that recalled him to his youthful liberalism. William James at Harvard and even Gustav Schmoller at Berlin taught him the objectivity of the historical and psychological event. The wise passage by Du Bois from philosophy to sociology in the Harvard years occurred under the sign of "the empirical fact." "What we need," he wrote in his notes during his Harvard years, "is not a philosophy of history but such a gathering and ... placing physical and mental data so as to furnish material for a philosophy of man." Schmoller pointed him toward empirical sociological work after the historian Du Bois had selected a crucial "bit of history" and worked "hard and honestly" (2) when writing his doctoral dissertation on "The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America: 1638-1870," seventeen years before The Economic Interpretation of the American Constitution by Charles Beard.

The re-emergence of` the problem of control of urban concentrations after the defeat of` populism in 1896 and the consequent academic opening to the method of` "controlled experiment" and to the "moral welfare of society" in the form of sociology allowed Du Bois to carry out field research after his German years in 1894-96. Although the ghettoes did not seem worthy of` sociological study to the predominant Social Darwinists, ghetto life and the southern plantation were privileged fields of inquiry for Du Bois in the first decade of` the twentieth century. Thus he opened up new fronts to sociological observation. In such a process, those observed in the ghettoes and in the plantations forced Du Bois, the observer, toward a crisis.

Gunnar Myrdal wrote in An American Dilemma that if the sociological writings of Du Bois early in the twentieth century "sound much more modern than the writings of the whites," this "is a merely historical accident." Quite the contrary (4) -- with The Philadelphia Negro, (5) a systematic study of one of` the largest and oldest ghettoes in the United States, Du Bois proposed to lay down the basis of` a long work of analysis of the conditions of` blacks that he was able to carry on between 1897 and 1914 at Atlanta University with the publication of sixteen monographs. Sociological inquiry seemed to Du Bois the method suited to the objective conditions of` blacks, as against Social Darwinism that still considered them untouchable. But beyond sociological objectivity, the urgency of` reform was clearly manifested in The Philadelphia Negro. When Du Bois concluded that "the upper Negro class embodies the idea of the group," he was assigning the job of` leadership of the ghetto to the black professionals descended from the ex-slave urban artisans. In the proposal for a leadership of` professionals Du Bois concentrated the frustration and ambivalence of` the "Negro upper class." Excluded from industrial leadership, discriminated against in the professions, isolated from the black masses of the plantation South and of the ghettoes, the "Negro upper class" to which Du Bois referred was looking for an access to power in a social vacuum. On the Du Bois of The Philadelphia Negro, however, the daily contact with ghetto conditions was beginning to leave its mark, despite the uncertainties and doubts of the social stratum of` which he felt part. In Philadelphia in 1896 he established himself in the worst part of the Seventh Ward, and lived there one year in an atmosphere of` "dirt, alcoholism, poverty, and crime." He observed the destitution of` a ghetto where "the police was our government, and philanthropy showed up from time to time with its usual advice."

The fourteen years that Du Bois spent at Atlanta University between 1897 and 1910 enabled him to understand the objective conditions of the blacks in the South. Their political leadership was in the hands of Booker T Washington and his Tuskegee Institute, founded in the heart of rural Alabama and financed by the new industrial barons of the North. Booker T. Washington staked his bets on a program of agricultural modernization in the South, with the black sharecroppers and tenant farmers as its natural protagonists. Preliminary to this process was his acceptance of` the power relations between black and whites that white terror had imposed after Reconstruction. Deserting the political terrain and accepting segregation as a form of defense against racist intimidation, Booker T. Washington had shaped the Tuskegee Institute into a training school for technicians who were to bring about the development of agriculture in the South. With these he tried to ally the thin stratum of black artisans, above all in the construction industry left over from the era of slavery. Together they were intended to form a nascent black middle class and to open up substantial breaches in the structure of power. Du Bois voiced his agreement with Booker T. Washington's work in 1895 but in Atlanta he slowly realized that Washington's line was at best inadequate to capitalist initiative in the South itself. In the North there was a progressive strengthening of a class of black professionals whose interests stemmed from the relationship between ghettoes and the rest of the cities and who rejected the defensive posture represented by Booker T. Washington.

Slow changes disturbed the quiet even in the Cotton South. "An outmigration of` black labor from the Cotton South ultimately did take place" and accelerated between the 188Os and the 1920s. The direction of the out-migration was clear. "Although the prospect of industrial employment must have seemed more uncertain, it was no coincidence that when blacks did leave the South it was primarily to northern cities, not to northern agriculture, that they went."' (6) In 1903 Du Bois was already moving away from the defensive tradition that most of the black intelligentsia of` the previous generation had accepted as a necessity imposed by anti-Reconstruction reaction. (7) Du Bois based the possibility of reforming U.S. society on the initiative of that stratum of intellectuals and professionals of the North who could use their secure positions to denounce the institutional equilibrium founded on plantation politicians. For Du Bois it was time to relaunch the alliance of the white radicals with the abolitionists through the Niagara Movement--the first nucleus of` the NAACP, founded five years later.

The Niagara Movement’s pilgrimage to Harper's Ferry was followed by Du Bois's biography John Brown. The book turned the spotlight on the interaction between a developing young abolitionist and the slaves who were catalyzing his development. They were the "living, organized, combatant group." Now Du Bois was outlining a historical arc on which his attention revolved. At one extremity Du Bois had placed his John Brown. He defined the other extremity in a first article confuting the reactionary historical approach to Reconstruction in 1910; "Reconstruction and Its Benefits" (9) was a first outline for analyzing the presence of slaves in their own liberation. Du Bois's viewpoint still owed much to the Brahminic tradition, but the interpretation of the Civil War broke the ground for the grand design of Black Reconstruction 25 years later. Meanwhile, with the approach of World War I a new wind in the black ghettoes helped change the direction of Du Bois's activity.

With the birth of NAACP as an affiliate of the Niagara Movement in 1910, Du Bois pushed its founders into stepping beyond mere legal defense of the blacks and the financial and moral support of white philanthropists. The result was the monthly The Crisis, which Du Bois was to edit until 1934 and which, within a decade, became a leading black newspaper. After leaving Atlanta University in 1910, he was able to concentrate his activity on the NAACP. These fruitful years for Du Bois were also the years of new impulse to the advancement of black people and of hard resistance by Jim Crow. With the accelerating black out-migration from the Cotton South during the Progressive Era, the black proletariat of the northern ghettoes was coming to the center of the class lineup in the United States. At last radical black intellectuals could reach out to a black proletariat stronger in number and readier to take opportunities from the growing demands of labor than at any time since the Civil War.

In terms of dimensions, mobilization, proliferation, and goals, the struggles waged by the working class during the Progressive Era led to an irreversible process of industrial unionism. This process must be judged not on the basis of the many defeats and the few victories during the Progressive era -or the 1920s--but on the basis of the definitive victories of` the 1930s when capital was forced to collective bargaining, which had to be established in abstract during the Progressive era. It was the strength and the dimension of working-class organization that was the main terrain of struggle in those years. It was a terrain that U.S. capital had not yet experienced in the late nineteenth century. It did not expect the millions of immigrants from eastern and southern Europe to be more than "the river of human flesh which separated, and had to keep separated, the Southern blacks from the Northern factories." (10) As the European immigrants were not quiet, U.S. capital could as well take on the black immigrants front the South. As both groups had been deprived of technical skills and of land, their egalitarianism and internationalism could find expression in the IWW to a larger extent than in any previous labor organization, and with an increasing opposition from craft unionism. The immense labor struggles in the years before World War I forced Du Bois to consider the importance of class divisions within the white world as no academic exercise could have done. Above all, the lynchings and racist brutality of the South fueled his intellectual motor as much as all the books he ever read. (11)

The start of World War I induced Du Bois to examine the class situation at the international level; it also enabled him to outline his approach to the mass of unskilled workers and to glimpse the political novelty of which the IWW had already given proof. His essay "The African Roots of` War" (12) described the European democracies as "democratic despotism" resulting from a social pact concluded between capitalists and skilled workers, and he imputed the war more to the partition of Africa than to the partition of the Balkans. The war was a conflict between "national armed associations of capital and labor whose purpose is the exploitation of the world's wealth, above all outside the circle of` the European nations." (13)

In 1915 the volume The Negro pursued the discussion, analyzing the relationship between the "moral retrogression in social philosophy" in the Western countries and the development of imperialism. In Du Bois's view anti-egalitarianism and stratification according to color lines had been accepted by the craft unions. The AFL of Samuel Gompers gave the dearest example just because the contiguity of` the black and white labor markets in the United States summed up a less clear but equally real division at the international level. The dimensions of the problem were not reducible to the United States; they were worldwide, and the war would aggravate them.

It was necessary to trace the roots of the divisions between the white and the black proletariat. Du Bois may have felt at that time how close he had come to a full understanding of the process of division as early as 1894, when he wrote his dissertation on the suppression of the African slave trade. In the preface to the 1954 reprint of his dissertation, Du Bois complained three times that he had missed the point because of ignorance of "the philosophy of Karl Marx." (15) But in 1915 Du Bois could establish a fruitful historical sequence: "The Negro slave trade was the first step in modern world commerce, followed by the modern theory of colonial expansion.'' The modern working class arose out of the profits of the slave trade, and thus the white and the black proletariat had gone through different processes of` exploitation, even in the United States where they were closer than in any other part of the world. Modern colonialism was ready to treat darker workers more severely, and "the European and the white American working class were practically invited to share in this new exploitation." At the same time, in some African colonies the plantation economy was extending the system of forced labor; in the West Indies, the United States, and parts of` Africa black workers were held in peonage. He concluded:

The Pan-African movement when it comes will not however, be merely a narrow racial propaganda. Already the more far-seeing Negroes sense the coming unities: a unity of the working classes everywhere, a unity of the colored races, a new unity of men. The proposed economic solution of` the Negro problem in Africa and America has turned the thoughts of Negroes toward a realization of the fact that the modern white laborer of Europe and America has the key to the serfdom of black folk in his support of militarism and colonial expansion." (16)

Echoing Marx, he wrote: "He [the Negro] is beginning to say to these workingmen that, so long as black laborers are slaves, white laborers cannot be free." (17)

Thus Du Bois rejected the twofold formula: white working class/black people. For him, as for the young radical historians who followed in his wake in the 1960s, the problem was not the construction of an alliance between two sociologically defined forces but the identification of the prime mover of the struggle: "... in all that he wrote he tried to ascertain the direction of historical movement and where black people should look to find solutions to their real problems." (18) In The Negro the black worker began emerging as the motive force of` class antagonism in the United States, although Du Bois vaguely sensed the peculiar relationship between free labor and slavery that was to become the central theme of` Black Reconstruction.

With the United States' entry into the war, the wave of new outmigration from the South was taking on biblical proportions. Could it repeat the miracles of agitation and propaganda among the black people, North and South, that the runaways had worked in the decades preceding the Civil War! Was it possible to establish a relationship between black immigrants to the northern ghettoes and the rebellion of the "illiterate and repressed masses of the white workers"? Or was it better to give in to the Wilson administration's intimidations against The Crisis and Du Bois in particular, to retreat from the lines drawn by "The African Roots of` War" and The Negro and quietly help black workers get jobs in the expanding industries? Du Bois hesitated. With the postwar recession, the blacks, "the first to be fired," could not see much point in respecting the picket lines. When the picket lines at the Chicago steel strike in 1919 failed to hold off the pressure of the so-called black strikebreakers, the white workers saw how difficult it now was to make gains if the ghetto was left to one side. "Self-defense and survival," Du Bois wrote, could not be bargained against "signing up with a revolution which we now do not understand." (19)

The forces that Du Bois had to consider in assessing the chances of a new style of political work were extremely varied, reflecting a class situation exacerbated by the postwar depression. On the one hand, there were the unionized blacks "holed up" in jobs that paid low wages but were protected against troughs in the economic cycle. On the other hand, there were the recently urbanized black masses in whom Marcus Garvey's "back to Africa" movement and his Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) struck a responsive chord.

Du Bois glimpsed the new form of anticolonial resistance taking advantage of intra-imperial rivalries following World War I, but at home he was unable to draw political conclusions from the twenty or more ghetto revolts in the years 1917-21, with the two great epicenters In East St. Louis and Chicago. Yet the phenomena underlying the revolts could not escape him.

In the decade between the censuses of 1910 and 1920, the black population in the major cities had increased dramatically. As long as the three sectors receiving most of the migration--the food, steel, and auto industries--were pushed ahead by the needs of war, "the impossibility of obtaining competent white workers was the reason given in virtually all cases to explain the large number of Negroes employed as of`1914." (20) At the time of the revolt in the Chicago ghetto in 1919, 10,000 black unskilled workers had been laid off at a stroke. In 1921 the unemployment rate among blacks in Detroit was five times the rate for whites born in the United States and twice that of whites born abroad.(21) Among black immigrants in the large urban centers, the "back to Africa" movement grew to mass dimensions between the end of` the crisis of 1919-21 and the start of the economic upturn of. 1924. During this last three-year period approximately another half million blacks left the South. (22)

Caught between the unionized black minority on the one hand and the nonunionized majority (most of them recent immigrants) on the other hand, the NAACP's black intellectuals, and Du Bois to start with, dithered for some time over whether a rapprochement should be sought with the UNIA or whether it should be attacked with the press instruments they had available. The Gravest movement had taken Du Bois by surprise, since he had not made a careful assessment of the depth of the crisis that hit the industrial ghettoes of the North. For two years, in 1921 and 1922, he remained uncertain, evaluating the various aspects and ambiguities of Garveyism from the heights of The Crisis. (23) The solution to the dilemmas of both black unions and Garveyism turned out to be a compromise of` convenience. Du Bois attacked the UNIA when it was entering into crisis'" and failed to criticize the black group working within the AFL. The result was to reinforce the NAACP's defensive line and its link with The Crisis during the ebb tide of the 1920s.

In general, the black intelligentsia had not seen the implications of the "back to Africa" movement. But with or without the black intelligentsia, there was no attempt to salvage the UNIA's national organizational network when it entered into crisis in about 1925. Du Bois's effort to answer Garveyism with the pan-African congresses of the postwar period was not in line with the demands emerging from the black proletariat(25). The upshot was that the NAACP's relationship with the ghettoes in the grip of the Great Depression was virtually nil. This failure led Du Bois to consider the NAACP a blunted tool in the final crisis of their relations during 1931-33. But the first flaws between them dated back to the 1920s. Under the indirect impulse of the ghetto revolts and Garveyism, Du Bois had tried to defend the independence of the black ghetto against white philanthropy. This much he could do. But he had to leave much to others. The new black immigrants were now supplying the propagandists and organizers, who would have their biggest tests in the 1930s. However attentive he may have been, Du Bois followed the new agitation from a distance; he had more weight with the national leaders than the local ones, and was better known in the North than in the South.

The South was virtually impervious to Du Bois's national and international initiatives. But in at least one of the strongholds of segregationism, the black universities of the South, Du Bois helped inspire the first mass student strikes against white charity and its blackmailing of black students: in 1925 a strike at Fisk University, and in 1927 at Howard, Lincoln, and Hampton. His journey through the black universities of the South two years later confirmed his impression that the revolts had created a generation which could hardly be blackmailed by philanthropy--and had also prevented the relative deterioration of the black students' conditions. At the start of the 1930s four-fifths of the blacks were still in the South. With the agricultural programs of` the New Deal, the expulsion of blacks from the cotton plantations became a joint action of the landowner and the state. In the South the number of agricultural day laborers and sharecroppers fell by 650,000 units, equivalent to a third, between 1931 and 1940." (26) Only the war would enable them to enter the factory, at least for a few years.

The terrain of struggle of black people in the early 1930s appeared as a closed space. With that seclusion Du Bois identified. He could perceive how distant a proletarian perspective on the history of black people in the United States was from a liberal perspective. Charles Vann Woodward noted the black's inability to take a cold look at the Reconstruction era. (27) This may appear to be an implicit criticism of Du Bois. On the contrary, it should be taken as an appreciation of the political meaning of Black Reconstruction, which is not just a mere refutation of the then dominating antiradical historiography but intends to be the proof of the leading quality that the black people's struggle took on during the twenty years of` Reconstruction. The yardstick by which to judge Black Reconstruction is Du Bois's ability to find the motive forces of the struggles resulting in the Civil War and the trends in the slaves' attack against the slaveocracy, from an intensifying "mutiny" during the war through military victory down to a defensive posture as Reconstruction was coming to an end.

In Reconstruction Du Bois saw primarily the self-activity of the enslaves becoming a modern proletariat with arms and power in their hands--and also the "counter-revolution of property" and its postbellum state. He was able to capture the double motion of the self-activity of the ex-slaves trying to make the state malleable to their needs and of the acquisitive greed of` the new men of power in the South. The new men of power did not linearly inherit the state levers of power from the slaveholders; they had to conquer them with what Du Bois called "disruption," or the "counter-revolution of property." At a time when "the Marxists" usually portrayed the working class as an appendage to progressive capital, (28) the structure of Du Bois's book left no doubt about his class viewpoint: first comes "The Black Worker" (Chapter 1), then "The White Worker" (Chapter 2), and only then "The Planter" (Chapter 3). This was a new sequence unheard of in the 1930s. The exception was The Black Jacobins by C. L. R. James, another black man who was deeply involved in the anticolonial struggles of those years.'' (29) Even more than after the publication of` The Negro in 1915, after Black Reconstruction it has become proven nonsense for historians to talk about labor and black people: black people as working class, as the oldest and most experienced section of` the working class against the U.S. state--that was the lesson to he drawn from the Reconstruction years, when labor and blacks were still regularly conceived of` as two separate entities: "It was thus the black worker, as founding stone of a new economic system in the nineteenth century for the modern world, who brought civil war in America. He was its underlying cause, in spite of every effort to base the strife upon union and national power." (30)

Du Bois made the issue involved in emancipation clear at the beginning with an underlying assumption: "If all labor, black as well as white, became free--were given schools and the right to vote--what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers?" Having set the protagonist at the center of the stage, Du Bois described the social position of` "the white workers," their social mobility, their opposition to slavery "not from moral as from the economic fear of being reduced by competition to the level of slaves." As to the planter, he was faced by slaves who "might be made to work continuously but no power could make them work well." The planter was squeezed between the daily struggle of the slaves and northern merchant capital. He resorted to the expansion of cotton production in the Cotton Belt, to the largest forced migration in the nineteenth century, and to the breakup of the slave families. The internal disruption to the social fabric that King Cotton brought about accounts for the planters' lot: " . . . they lost because of their internal weakness. Their whole labor class, black and white, went into economic revolt." The aftermath of the demise of American slavery was the substitution of industrial capital for merchant capital in the colonial world: "The abolition of American slavery started the transportation of capital from white to black countries where slavery prevailed, with the same tremendous and awful consequences upon the laboring classes of the world which we see about us today." (31)

In the first part of Black Reconstruction (Chapters 1 through 5), Du Bois focused on the black masses' ability to clash and win against the slaveholders in a crescendo of action culminating in what Du Bois called "The General Strike" and in the partial transformation of blacks "from laborers to soldiers fighting for their own freedom." Regularly the day-to-day struggle did not involve acts of desperation. It found its support in the slaves community and managed to undermine the slave society irreversibly. Flight, collective disappearance from the plantations with return conditional on certain improvements in the unwritten "collective contract," joint resistance to workloads, passivity toward the plantation and its fortunes, absenteeism during periods crucial to production, a relentless pressure to increase the cost of "treatment--these were forms of struggle that grew increasingly intense and paved the way for "The Coming of the Lord." In Black Reconstruction the accent falls not on impulsive, momentary action but on "this slow, stubborn mutiny of the Negro slave." This was not merely a matter of 200,000 black soldiers and perhaps 300,000 "other black laborers, servants, informers and helpers. Back of this half million stood 31/2 million more. Without their labor the South would starve. With arms in their hands, Negroes would form a fighting force which could replace every single Northern white soldier fighting listlessly and against his will with a black man fighting for freedom." (32)

The slaves were the prime movers in the disruption of the South. "This action of the slaves was followed by the disaffection of the whites." Du Bois saw the new balance of forces in its making: "This attitude of the poor whites had in it as much fear and jealousy of Negroes as disaffection with slave barons. ... 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." (33)

The beginning of the manipulation of the blacks' victories came with the whites' perception of the ex-slaves as a threat: "The guns at Sumter, the marching armies, the fugitive slaves, the fugitives as 'contrabands,' spies, servants and laborers; the Negro as soldier, as citizen, as voter--these steps came from 1861 to 1868 with regular beat that was almost rhythmic. It was the price of disaster of war, and it was a price that few Americans at first dreamed of paying or wanted to pay." (34) As Du Bois traced the process of manipulation of the blacks' achievements during the Civil War and Reconstruction, he saw black people as being "used," a key word in Black Reconstruction frequently suggesting a wide range of forms of exploitation. (35) Blacks were "used as much-needed laborers and servants by the Northern army," "used" as troops, and "repeatedly and deliberately used as shock troops, when there was little or no hope of success." Finally, ". .. most Americans used the Negro to defend their own economic interest and, refusing him adequate land and real education and even common justice, deserted him shamelessly as soon as their selfish interests were safe." (36)

Thus while the blacks were the diamond point in the fight for their freedom and for the general emancipation of the working class, when they were left alone in their struggle against the state, they succumbed. Du Bois indicated the trend of that struggle in the second part of Black Reconstruction (Chapters 7 through 13). Here he traced "the organization of free labor after the war," (37) when the black proletariat in the South came as close as no other section of the working class in the United States had come to making use of` the state for its needs. Black people, now emancipated, could not wipe out centuries of European and American racism, and therefore could not exert an irreversible attraction on white workers. What were the distinct elements preventing a combination of forces along class lines! Du Bois acutely suggested that they were a yet insufficient class differentiation between poor white laborers and planters and a sedimented separation between the ex-slaves and the labor movement. During Reconstruction, as in the case of slavery, there was a combination in which the poor whites seemed excluded; unless they made common cause with the blacks. This union of black and white labor never got a real start. First, because black leadership still tended toward the ideals of the petty bourgeois, and white leadership tended distinctly toward strengthening capitalism. The final move which rearranged all these combinations and led to the catastrophe of 1876, was a combination of planters and poor whites in defiance of their economic interests; and with the use of lawless murder and open intimidation.

Thus the centrality of black labor was not the founding stone of the official labor movement after the Civil War: "... the labor movement, with but few exceptions, never realized the situation. It never had the intelligence or knowledge, as a whole, to see in black slavery and Reconstruction, the kernel and the meaning of the labor movement in the United States." The key element in that defeat was thus stated: "When white laborers were convinced that the degradation of Negro labor was more fundamental than the uplift of white labor, the end was in sight." (38)

How were white laborers "convinced"! Du Bois did not consider the process of "conviction" as an ideological dispute or as a mere deed of devilish propaganda. The defeat of the black proletariat in the South was a direct result of industrial capital's conquest of the state through the Civil War and its aftermath. It was achieved with sheer and wild violence, organized fraud, and the "dull compulsion" of imported and native labor. To crush the resistance of the blacks and set an example for the poor whites, the state had necessarily to reject the "40 acres and a mule" demand and to drive 40,000 black people off the Sea Islands and adjoining lands that they had occupied and cultivated as freedmen. However, this was not enough. The new men of power in the South seized a rising industry coal and iron--and denied landownership to black people, thus moving rapidly to throw the black proletariat from a position of attack to a position of defense. On the plantations the mobility of ex-slaves was violently limited. In the rising urban ghettoes seclusion was the rule. The counterrevolution needed an ideology. Racism provided an easy one. Racism had been deeply ingrained in Western society, but now it took on a key importance. It did to the white population in terms of social consensus what the material chains of slavery had done before to control the black people. As Du Bois had written in The Souls of Black Folks, "the Negro suffrage ended a civil war by beginning a race feud." (39) Yet some of the black people's accomplishments during Reconstruction were irreversible: the right to geographic mobility in some areas of the South, the founding of a public school system throughout the South from scratch, the ferment produced in the northern working class by the fugitive slaves and their political heirs, especially among coal miners--all these new activities could not be stopped by armed property.

How to draw the white section of the working class into the terrain of struggle that the ex-slaves had kept open for more than a decade? How to divide that section from the state in all of its manifestations! If it had been a problem of the 1860s and 1870s, it remained a problem in the 1930s for Du Bois. At least for a short time the majority of the people in the United States had accepted political rights for black people, and southern poor whites had looked for a black leadership. The scenario Du Bois described in his suggestive asides in Black Reconstruction help reveal his political motivations in writing this work:

Suppose, for instance, there had been in the South in 1863 a small but determined and clear-thinking group of men who said: "The Negro is free and to make his freedom real, he must have land and education . . .

Suppose a Southern leader had appeared at that time and had said frankly: "We propose to make the Negro actually free in his right to work, his legal status, and his personal safety . . .
How this interaction of former land monopolists, white peasants and Negro peasants, would have worked itself out if uncomplicated by other interests, is a question. But it seems almost inevitable that division would have had to take place along economic rather than racial lines . . .


For Du Bois the black masses in the South had been, momentarily, a centripetal force to the rest of society. Du Bois came close to calling this phenomenon "the dictatorship of the proletariat, perhaps without taking proper account of the conditioning constantly exercised by the industrial North and its army. Radical historians have thus been able to pour a stream of easy criticism on a shortcoming of the book - the split between Du Bois's semiadoption of the idea of "the dictatorship of the proletariat" during Reconstruction and the effective relations of power in those years. (41) At the same time they have been able to point to the decisive role played by the state in enlarging the space for maneuver created for the capitalist initiative of the Redeemers, who were hemmed in by the defeat of the slaveholders, on the one hand, and the victory of slaves, on the other. But there is virtually never any reference to the reasons for this perspective, which should be ascribed to the special pleading of Du Bois, the politician, rather than the alleged schematism of Du Bois, the historian: the search for a moment, not so much of command by the ex-slaves over all U.S. capitalist growth as of leadership for the proletariat of North America. This determination to retrace a U.S. class movement that went beyond the use the bourgeoisie could make of it for its own reconsolidation induced him to voice a positive judgment on the Union and its moves in the first phase of Reconstruction: not because he failed to notice the relations of force between an armed Union and a now disarmed proletariat but, rather, because he judged those relations of force to be favorable to the blacks' exertion of some power of attraction on the white proletariat.

Since for Du Bois slavery and Reconstruction were "the kernel and the meaning of the labor movement in the United States," the centrality of the black proletariat's experience was maintained throughout the work against reactionary and radical historiography. With respect to the latter, which has tended to reduce the struggle of the blacks to a battle for formal democracy, Du Bois's allegiance went to the political trajectories of the ex-slaves. (42) In the first place, if the slave was capable of dragging the South and the North into war, it was democracy in America that should be measured against the struggle of the slaves rather than vice versa. If the black masses had been used, if "most Americans used the Negro," the times when black people refused to be used were also times of` crisis of democracy. Second, for Du Bois, unlike the radical historians, the forces the black rebellion in the United States had unleashed were to be measured internationally. The centrality of the experience of the black masses in the United States therefore had to be reiterated with reference to the passage from what Marx had called absolute exploitation to relative exploitation, not only at the level of the United States but also at the world level." (43)

At the close of the crucial chapter of the third part of Black Reconstruction (Chapters 14 through 17), "Counter-revolution of Property," Du Bois wrote: "And the rebuilding, whether it comes now or a century later, will and must go back to the basic principles of Reconstruction. ..." To Du Bois that rebuilding did not seem to be on the agenda of the 1930s. "The South, after the war, presented the greatest opportunity for a real national labor movement which the nation ever saw or is likely to see for many decades." (44) His pessimism was excessive. As the developments in the black community would prove a few years later, the black movement in the late 1930s was ready to prevent capital from using the black people's demands for its ulterior aims, and when the differentiation from white politics came sharply - as during the March on Washington Movement - being a safe distance form the power structure did pay.
And it paid in terms of industrial wages, at long last. In a sense one can agree with Robert S. Starobin: " . . . even if slavery is theoretically and practically incompatible in the long run with full industrialization, the point at which this inconsistency would manifest itself had, apparently, not yet reached between 1770 and 1861." (45) Capital and slavery, capital and wagelessness, could not coexist, if not indefinitely, certainly for a long time, if it were not for the resistance and attack of the slaves against their masters. It took the black people slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, peonage, ghettoization, and urban revolts in this century to put the two words "capital" and "wages" irreversibly together, and to open a new stage in the struggle of the wageless against the state as collective capitalist.


1. The book was first published by Harcourt, Brace and Co. (New York, 1935). Here I shall refer to the first Meridian reprinting by the World Publishing Co. (Cleveland, 19964)
2. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States 1638-1870 (New York 1969), "Apologia" (1954), p.XXXI

3. Du Bois's dissertation was published as the first volume in the Harvard Historical Studies in 1896

4. As pointed out by Willam Gorman, "W.E.B. du Bois and His Work, Fourth International (May-June 1950), pp. 80-86

5. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study (Philadelphia, 1899)

6. Robert L. Ransom and Richard Sutch, One Kind of Freedom: The Economic Consequences of Emancipation (Cambridge and New York, 1977), p. 195

7. Du Bois's attack against Booker T. Washington is in his essy "Of Mr Booker T. Washington and Others," in The Souls of Black Folks (Chicago, 1903), pp. 43-69

8. W.E.B. Du Bois, John Brown (Philadelphia, 1909)

9. W.E.B. Du Bois, "Reconstruction and Its Benefits," American Historical Review 15 (1910): 78-99

10. Sergio Bologna, "Class Composition and the Theory of the Party at the Origin of the Workers-Council Movement," TELOS 14 (1072): 21

11. Paul Richards, "W.E.B. Du Bois and American Social History" The Evolution of a Marxist," Radical America 4 (1970): 62

12. W.E.B. DU Bois, "The African Roots of War," Atlantic Monthly 115 (1915): 707--14

13. Ibid.

14. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Negro (New York, 1915).

15. Du Bois, Suppression of the African Slave Trade, p XXXII: "There are some approaches, some allusions, but no complete realization of the application of the philosophy of Karl Marx to my subject. That concept came much later, when I began intensive study of the facts of society, culminating in my Black Reconstruction."

16. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Negro, pp. 233, 245, 242.

17. Ibid.

18. Richards, "Du Bois," p. 53

19. The Crisis (July 1021), p. 104

20. Chicago Commission on Race Relations, The Negro in Chicago (Chicago, 1922), p. 363

21. These figures are presented by H.M. Baron, "The Demand for Black Labor: Historical Notes on the Political Economy of Racism." Radical America 5 (1971): 1-46

22. On the exodus from the South to northern cities, see .V. Kennedy, The Negro Peasant Moves Cityward (New York, 1930), esp. pp. 35-36

23. The major articles that Du Bois devoted to Garvey and the UNIA are: "Marcus Garvey, Part 1," The Crisis (Dec., 1920), pp. 58-60, and "Marcus Garvey: Part II," The Crisis (January 1921), pp. 112-14

24. W.E.B. Du Bois, "Back to Africa," Century 105 (1923): 542

25. The four pan-African congresses promoted by Du Bois were held in Paris (1919, 1921, 1923) and New York (1927).

26. See Baron, "Demand for Black Labor," p. 26

27. See his essay, "The Political Legacy of Reconstruction," in The Burden of Southern History (Baton Rouge, La., 1960).

28. The book by James S. Allen, Reconstruction: The Battle for Democracy (New York, 1937), opened the series as a semiofficial reply from the viewpoints of the Communist Party and the popular fronts. Allen regarded the Civil War and Reconstruction as a bourgeois democratic revolution. Once this thesis was asserted, all the elements of the interpretation were made to fit, as Noel Ignatin notes in his excellent comparison of Du Bois's Black Reconstruction and Allen's Reconstruction, in "Study Guide to Reconstruction," Urgent Tasks 3 (1978): 27-28. For a discussion of the state of the studies on Reconstruction at the end of the 1930s, see H.K. Deale, "On Rewriting Reconstruction History," American Historical Review 45 1940): 807-29. Deal recognized the novelty of viewpoint and seriousness of analysis in Du Bois's' book, thought he criticized the little attention paid by the author to the "middle classes" and in general, to the elements of power transmitted without break from the antebellum slaveholders to the Redeemers of power in the late 1870s.

29. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Overture and the San Domingo Revolution was first published in 1938.

30. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, p. 15

31. Ibid., pp. 13, 17, 18, 40, 47

32. Ibid., pp. 84, 80

33. Ibid., pp. 80, 81

34. Ibid., p. 83

35. The negative connotation often given by Du Bois to the concept of "use" was in contrast with the idea of utility as adopted by functionalism in the same years, when functionalism was arising as the new ideology of "acquisitive man" against the social upheavals of the 1930s.

36. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 63, 53, 378

37. Ibid., p. 84. Part of the organization of "free labor after the war" was - as Du Bois noted - "the frantic efforts, before and after emancipation, of Negroes hunting for their relatives throughout the united States" (p. 44). On family ties in the black community after emancipation, see Herbert G. Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom 1750-1925 (New York, 1976), pt, II, pp. 360-475.

38. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 352, 381

39. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folks (New York, 1961), p.

40. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 165, 367, 274, 609.

41. See in particular the summary judgment passed by K.M Stampp, The Era of Reconstruction, 1865-1877 (New York, 1965), p. 21L "Although rich in empirical data, the book offers a Marxist interpretation of Southern reconstruction a proletarian movement which is at best naïve."

42. An excellent discussion of the political problems buried under Du Bois's concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is Lauso Zagato, Du Bois e la Black Reconstruction (Rome, 1975), pp. 80-100

43. The care with which Marx reconsidered the question of the workday for the first volume of Capital in about 1866 (letter to Engels dated 10 November, 1866) should also be linked to the experience of the American civil War.

44. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, pp. 635, 353.

45. Robert S. Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South (New York, 1970), p. 189

46. Robert S Starobin, Industrial Slavery in the Old South (New York, 1979), p. 189

From American Labor and Immigration History 1976. This article was translated by Julian Bees.



8 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by spacious on October 16, 2015

Thanks for posting this.
The intro to this text reads "the Black Reconstruction following the Great Depression" but that is confusing, the Black Reconstruction happened after the formal abolition of slavery, from 1860-1880 as the title of the book has it. Du Bois DID write his book after the Great Depression of the 1930s - it was published in 1935 - so that was the context in which his writing was done.


8 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by jahbread on October 16, 2015

' "The Negro slave trade was the first step in modern world commerce, followed by the modern theory of colonial expansion.'' The modern working class arose out of the profits of the slave trade, and thus the white and the black proletariat had gone through different processes of` exploitation, even in the United States where they were closer than in any other part of the world.'

This is no criticism of Du Bois or the article above, which is completely meaningless to my ignorant mind but I found out today that it was the Irish that were first transported as slaves to the Carribean by the English merchants. I assume the trade in African slaves began only when the Irish supply was exhausted.

This helped my understanding a little:

After three short chapters profiling the black worker, the white worker, and the planter, Du Bois argues in the fourth chapter that the decision gradually taken by slaves on the southern plantations to stop working during the war was an example of a potential general strike force of four million slaves the Southern elite had not reckoned with. The Institution of slavery simply had to soften: "In a certain sense, after the first few months everybody knew that slavery was done with; that no matter who won, the condition of the slave could never be the same after this disaster of war."

[Taken from Wikipedia, entry on 'Black Reconstruction']


8 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Pennoid on October 16, 2015

Exhausted? If ONLY! Then I wouldn't be ON this miserable rock!

Red Marriott

8 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on October 16, 2015


I found out today that it was the Irish that were first transported as slaves to the Carribean by the English merchants.

That seems to be considered as a myth by historians; as explained by this Irish academic;

It was with a heavy heart and no small amount of anger that I decided it was necessary to write a public refutation of the insidious myth that the Irish were once chattel slaves in the British colonies. The subject of this myth is not an issue in academic circles, for there is unanimous agreement, based on overwhelming evidence, that the Irish were never subjected to perpetual, hereditary slavery in the colonies, based on notions of ‘race’. Unfortunately this is not the case in the public domain and the ‘Irish slaves’ myth has been shared so frequently online that it has gone viral.

The tale of the Irish slaves is rooted in a false conflation of indentured servitude and chattel slavery. These are not the same. Indentured servitude was a form of bonded labour, whereby a migrant agreed to work for a set period of time (between two and seven years) and in return the cost of the voyage across the Atlantic was covered. Indentured servitude was a colonial innovation that enabled many to emigrate to the New World while providing a cheap and white labour force for planters and merchants to exploit. Those who completed their term of service were awarded ‘freedom dues’ and were free. The vast majority of labourers who agreed to this system did so voluntarily, but there were many who were forcibly transplanted from the British Isles to the colonies and sold into indentured service against their will. While these forced deportees would have included political prisoners and serious felons, it is believed that the majority came from the poor and vulnerable. This forced labour was in essence an extension of the English Poor Laws, e.g. in 1697 John Locke recommended the whipping of those who ‘refused to work’ and the herding of beggars into workhouses. Indeed this criminalisation of the poor continues into the 21st century. In any case, all bar the serious felons were freed once the term of their contract expired. https://www.opendemocracy.net/beyondslavery/liam-hogan/%E2%80%98irish-slaves%E2%80%99-convenient-myth


8 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by jahbread on October 23, 2015

Thanks Mr Marriott, I shouldn't be surprised; I found out the same day that Arnie was dead, but I figured that wrong for myself. Still, we have established between ourselves that Irish indentured labour was 'carried beyond its borders, not by free will but by force...' [Count Ossie, Mystic Revelation of Rastafari].

I might reserve criticism for this academic's contention that 'perpetual, hereditary slavery in the colonies' was 'based on the notion of "race".' Race was just an ideological front for base economics. If the Irish working class were taken as chattel slaves then the British bourgeoisie would have created a whole new science to demonstrate that the Irish were innately inferior.

James MacBryde

8 years 6 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by James MacBryde on January 10, 2016

On Britain's white slaves:

According to the Egerton manuscript, British Museum, the enactment of 1652: it may be lawful for two or more justices of peace within any county, citty or towne, corporate belonging to the commonwealth to from tyme to tyme by warrant cause to be apprehended, seized on and detained all and every person or persons that shall be found begging and vagrant.. in any towne, parish or place to be conveyed into the Port of London, or unto any other port from where such person or persons may be shipped into a forraign collonie or plantation.

The judges of Edinburgh Scotland during the years 1662-1665 ordered the enslavement and shipment to the colonies a large number of rogues and others who made life unpleasant for the British upper class. (Register for the Privy Council of Scotland, third series, vol. 1, p 181, vol. 2, p 101).

Red Marriott:

The tale of the Irish slaves is rooted in a false conflation of indentured servitude and chattel slavery.