Why We Read DuBois

By Avery Minnelli

It is impossible to understand class dynamics in the United States without a solid understanding of race. I believe the reverse also holds true. Black Reconstruction in America (1935) by W.E.B. DuBois is a history of the two of the most revolutionary events in U.S. history–the Civil War and Reconstruction. By understanding these two events, we can gain tremendous understanding of how race and class work today.

In an attempt to maintain slavery, eleven Southern slave states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederacy in 1861. In April of that year, Confederate forces attacked Fort Sumter in South Carolina, kickstarting a Civil War that lasted until 1865 and took the lives of about 750,000 Americans. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, officially freeing four million Black people from bondage. It was not Lincoln’s original intention to free the slaves, but he was forced to do so as a military measure, both to break the power of the slave-owners and to recruit newly freed Black men into the Union Army. The war was followed by the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) in which the Union maintained a military occupation in the South and formed new state governments. Reconstruction was the first time in United States history when Black people exercised any sort of formal political power.

The first chapter of Black Reconstruction is titled “The Black Worker.” Here DuBois asserts that Black slaves were in fact not just workers, but a critical section of the working class for 19th century U.S. (and global) capitalism. DuBois pushes this argument further with the fourth chapter, “The General Strike.” In framing slave rebellion as essentially a labor strike, DuBois is taking a stance that abolition was not achieved by Northern industry or even enlightened abolitionist intellectuals. It was ultimately decided by struggle of the slaves themselves. Not just any struggle, but a labor struggle.

By referring to Black slave labor in revolt as a working-class general strike, DuBois asserts that the destinies of working-class and Black emancipation are inseparable. This idea contradicts the arguments put forth by the white labor movement in the North (including its socialist contingent). Northern labor’s attitude towards abolitionism ranged from apathy to outright hostility. Black slave labor was seen as less exploitative than white wage labor because wage workers did not have the benefit of guaranteed food and shelter. The white labor movement also argued that emancipation would unfavorably increase competition among wage laborers.

DuBois places the narrative of white labor under a critical lens. He argues that slavery itself placed limitations not just on economic productivity but also on the labor movement and the battle for democracy. According to DuBois, “the anomaly of slavery plagued a nation which asserted the equality of all men.” It turned poor Southern whites into a police force, blocking potential working class solidarity. Slavery was also economically inefficient compared to large-scale industry in the North, in DuBois’s view.

DuBois sees Reconstruction as a radical experiment in furthering American democracy, what he calls ‘abolition-democracy.’ During the period of Reconstruction, following the Civil War, the Union military occupation in the South allowed new state governments to form in the former Confederacy. These governments, most strongly in South Carolina, featured wide participation of former slaves. Men who had been in chains only a few years prior were now leaders in government; 87 of the 127 members of the first South Carolina Reconstruction legislature were Black. The Freedmen’s Bureau, a government organization formed to rebuild the lives of former slaves, provided social programs and was used for mutual aid by self-organizing Black workers. This work included issuing “over twenty-one million rations to the hungry and unemployed” in the first four years of its existence, as well as providing legal aid to newly free Black people.

Much has changed since the time DuBois was writing. With the end of the military occupation of the South in 1877, white terror by organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan and new Jim Crow laws marked the end of Reconstruction. DuBois was writing amidst those Jim Crow laws and sharecropping. The Civil Rights Movement (which some have referred to as a ‘second Reconstruction’) ended the official legal oppression of Black people, but a racial regime of mass incarceration, police violence, and social control has been maintained since then. Even without these repressive institutions, staggering racial wealth disparities would likely persist simply due to the normal functioning of capitalism, because people who are born into poverty tend to stay poor.

Cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore have “Black faces in high places” alongside brutal racial domination. But far from a “post-racial society,” U.S. capitalism perpetuates racial oppression in many ways, from repressive institutions of social control such as prisons to wage and wealth differentials between Black and white workers. As DuBois argues, race is not separate from struggles around socio-economic class; class emancipation is impossible so long as white workers perceive more commonality with their white boss than their Black coworkers. DuBois reminds us that our demands are not utopian; rather, demands like reparations and stripping power from a slave-owning class once occupied center-stage in national political conversations. We must carry forward this tradition in making racialized issues such as police brutality and gentrification a cornerstone of socialist politics while combating racism in our own movements. A strategic perspective of abolitionism is essential to an imaginative socialist vision for the 21st century.

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