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.1 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 (1865–76) 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.”2
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.3
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.