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Vol 7 No 1 Spring 2023

The Dilemma for “Du Boisian Sociology”

One of the more welcome developments within the sociology profession in the United States over the past two decades has been a largely successful effort to make the work of W. E. B. Du Bois part of the sociological canon and to recognize Du Bois himself as one of the founders of sociology alongside the traditional trinity of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim. The main impetus behind this effort is a widespread conviction that race, racism, and colonialism, which were central to Du Bois’s concerns and to the work of a great many contemporary sociologists, were essentially ignored by Marx, Weber, and Durkheim.

In 2015, moreover, Aldon Morris, a prominent sociologist at Northwestern University, published The Scholar Denied: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology, which showed that Du Bois founded, around the turn of the twentieth century, the first school of empirical sociology in the United States at Atlanta University, a historically black university, long before the celebrated Chicago School of Sociology was established at the University of Chicago.1 Morris shows, moreover, that Chicago School sociologists, among other white sociologists, denied the importance of Du Bois’s scholarship and actively strove to marginalize it, and him, within the profession.

Something disconcerting and quite ironic, however, has happened along the road to Du Bois’s canonization. Du Bois’s turn to Marxism during the Great Depression, long after his initial work in Atlanta, has been downplayed or even denied by many sociologists (and other scholars), including partisans of Du Bois like Morris.2 As a result, Du Bois’s later writings have been misconstrued and misinterpreted, if not simply ignored. Moreover, the entire tradition within Marxism of analyzing and combating racism and colonialism, including what some call “Black Marxism,” has also been largely disregarded by these sociologists.3 Hence, ironically, the admirable effort to raise the status of Du Bois within the sociology profession has entailed a bastardization of his later ideas — or a refusal to even entertain them — as well as the erasure of the intellectual and political achievements of a remarkable group of African, Afro-Caribbean, and African American Marxists, of whom Du Bois was one of the better-known figures.

How could this happen? The effort to canonize Du Bois no doubt required an exaggerated view of the uniqueness of his ideas among sociology’s founders. To recognize that Du Bois became a Marxist, or that the Marxist tradition has had an abiding interest in racism and colonialism, would undermine the assumption that Du Bois was uniquely concerned with racism and colonialism among the founders of the discipline. It would also force sociologists to recognize that half the discipline’s founders were Marxists, and that it was Marx himself who pioneered the critique of European colonial rule in the modern era. Such an acknowledgment would be difficult to come by in a discipline that has long been ambivalent about, when not openly hostile to, the Marxist tradition.4

Misunderstanding Marxism

The denial of Du Bois’s Marxism and the erasure of Black Marxism in general is central to the project of José Itzigsohn and Karida L. Brown’s The Sociology of W. E. B. Du Bois: Racialized Modernity and the Global Color Line.5 Itzigsohn and Brown (hereafter I&B) provide an overview of Du Bois’s scholarship, from his early study The Philadelphia Negro (1899) through his writings of the 1940s. I&B are also advocates of a particular version of “Du Boisian sociology,” one which “puts racism and colonialism at the center of the understanding of modernity.”6 This is a specious book, but it is worth examining at some length not only because it received rave reviews from sociologists upon its publication but also, and more importantly, because it is representative of how a great many sociologists and other scholars think about both Du Bois and Marxism today.

I&B misinterpret or simply ignore Du Bois’s ideas after his Marxist turn, and they say nothing at all about the Black Marxist tradition. They mention a few members of this tradition in passing, but they mislabel them, including Du Bois, as “radicals,” an ambiguous term that for them seemingly includes anyone actively opposed to racism. The “Du Boisian sociology” they advocate has been safely cleansed of any Marxist taint so that Du Bois might align more readily with their own liberal “intersectionalist” and “race-centered” perspective. Du Bois would be spinning in his grave.

Like most sociologists, I&B understand the Marxist tradition in a very narrow way. They view this tradition as a theoretical and political perspective concerned more or less exclusively with class and the capitalist economy. These concerns are all well and good, sociologists concede, but too simplistic; the world is more complicated than Marxists allow. In addition to class and capitalism, we should also be concerned with race, nationality, gender, sexuality, and much else besides. It follows, from this point of view, that we need to go beyond and outside Marxism in order to develop an “intersectionalist” understanding of class, race, nationalism, gender, and so on. This is a speech sociologists have all heard — or given — many times.

Marxism, of course, is not a theory of everything. But one rather large problem with this way of thinking about Marxism is that it forgets — or is simply unaware of — the rich traditions within Marxism of analyzing and theorizing racism, nationalism, gender oppression, and other forms of domination — not to mention culture, the state, a range of political regimes (such as absolutism, parliamentary democracy, and fascism), and the dynamics of pre- and noncapitalist economies. So Marxism has never been just about class and capitalism. Decades before intersectionalists came along, Marxists were discussing “the Negro question,” “the national question,” and “the woman question,” as well as ideas about “double” and “triple oppression.”7 They sought to grasp, that is, the causal connection between class oppression and exploitation on the one hand and other forms of oppression on the other. I&B seem completely unaware of this.

For present purposes, consider just those Marxists who have tried to understand — the better to destroy — racial oppression, including its colonial forms. I have in mind not only Du Bois but also Hubert Harrison, Cyril Briggs, Claude McKay, Max Shachtman, José Carlos Mariátegui, M. N. Roy, C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, Herbert Aptheker, Louise Thompson Patterson, Claudia Jones, Harry Haywood, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Aimé Césaire, Frantz Fanon, Jack O’Dell, Amílcar Cabral, Harold Wolpe, Martin Legassick, Neville Alexander, Walter Rodney, Stuart Hall, Manning Marable, A. Sivanandan, Theodore Allen, August Nimtz, Adolph Reed Jr, Barbara Fields — the list goes on and on. This is a remarkable group of thinkers, and this list does not include the many anti-colonial and anti-racist organizers and activists — from African revolutionaries to leaders of the Black Panther Party — who have been guided by Marxism even if they have not made theoretical contributions to it. And Marx himself, we know, had more than a passing interest in race, slavery, and colonialism.8 So the proper question to ask here is not why Marx and the Marxist tradition have allegedly ignored race and colonialism but whether there exists any other theoretical or political tradition that has produced as many brilliant analysts of racism and colonialism — and why so many sociologists concerned with racial oppression are either unaware of this tradition or choose to ignore it.

Marxist and Black Marxist analyses of racism and colonialism are too many and too varied to summarize succinctly. Suffice it to say that, in very general terms, Marxists are dissatisfied with accounts of racism that begin and end with cultural assumptions, prejudice, or discrimination. Marxists try to dig beneath these overt forms of racism to uncover how racial oppression is linked to class exploitation and to the material interests of specific social classes — especially, but not only, the dominant or ruling class. They view cultural racism as an ideology that justifies and legitimizes the political and social oppression of nonwhite workers, which in turn facilitates their economic exploitation and creates a class division that weakens all workers. Given the economic foundation of racial oppression, Marxists and Black Marxists also believe that it can only be eradicated by class struggles that weaken the power of capital and dramatically redistribute wealth and income toward the racially oppressed. Hence the importance for Marxists of interracial — or what the Black Panthers called “intercommunal” — working-class solidarity and coalitions. Fighting racism or colonialism without also fighting capitalism on a broad, multiracial front will not and cannot topple the oppression and exploitation of racially subordinate people, the vast majority of whom are working-class.

Like many sociologists, I&B seem totally unaware not only of Black Marxism but also of Marx’s and the larger Marxist tradition’s efforts to understand and annihilate racism and colonialism. Now, it is true that for many years Du Bois’s thought did not fall into the Marxist tradition. In his early Atlanta years, he was what Americans would today call a liberal and what Europeans would call a social democrat. The early Du Bois often wrote about the plight of black workers and about racial divisions and animosity within the US working class, but there is certainly no Marxism in his two best-known early writings, The Philadelphia Negro (1899) and his renowned collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk (1903). And during the quarter century in which Du Bois edited The Crisis (1910–1934), the journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the civil rights organization he helped found, Du Bois was often suspicious of Marxism and quite hostile to the American Communist Party, a rival of the NAACP.

And yet, in 1933, at the ripe old age of sixty-five, having previously traveled to the Soviet Union and liking what he saw, Du Bois began to study Marxist texts in earnest, seeking advice from various quarters about which texts and commentaries he should read. I&B seem unaware of this, and they do not discuss Du Bois’s mentors in Marxism, including the young Ralph Bunche; Abram Harris, whose book The Black Worker: The Negro and the Labor Movement (1931) had a strong influence on Du Bois; and the dissident communist Will Herberg, who brought Marx’s writings on the Civil War to Du Bois’s attention.9 I&B also seem unaware of these writings by Marx and of attempts by other Marxists to understand slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction. In any event, most of Du Bois’s subsequent work was unmistakably Marxist in orientation, beginning with his 1935 magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880.10 After 1935, “Du Boisian sociology” is Marxism — or, more accurately, an attempt to understand racial oppression within the Marxist theoretical tradition.

As I detail below, I&B’s unwillingness to take Du Bois’s Marxism seriously leads them to misinterpret his later writings as well as his larger legacy. Obviously, this reluctance means they cannot discuss or assess Du Bois’s place within the Marxist or the Black Marxist traditions either. I&B do discuss what they euphemistically refer to as Du Bois’s “encounter” with Marxism, and they concede he was influenced by Marx, but they are at pains to distance Du Bois from that tradition. I&B repeatedly emphasize Du Bois’s alleged differences from, and theoretical superiority to, Marx — claims that Du Bois himself, tellingly, never made after his Marxist turn. Throughout their book, in fact, I&B seem to presume that Marxists do not or cannot think straight about racism and colonialism — one of the more tired claims among sociologists today.

On the very first page of their book, I&B repeat the speech sociologists have heard so often. They write, “Whereas Marx gave primacy to class . . . Du Bois regarded race, racism, and colonialism as central to the construction of the modern world.”11 This is in fact the theme of their book. On its very last page, I&B reiterate their call for a Du Boisian sociology that “puts racism and colonialism in all their forms at the center of sociological analysis.”12 Nowhere do they acknowledge that it was Marxists and Black Marxists who put these issues on the intellectual and political agenda of the twentieth century, from Rosa Luxemburg’s classic Accumulation of Capital (1913) and Vladimir Lenin’s Imperialism (1917) to the Comintern’s famous Sixth Congress in 1928 — which enshrined racial oppression as one of the core targets of Communist organizing — to the incredible explosion of scholarship by intellectuals from the Global South in the 1960s and ’70s, including Fanon, Cabral, and Rodney.

Now, in one sense, I&B are quite correct about the centrality of race for Du Bois. He was always centrally concerned during his long life with understanding (and fighting) racial oppression and the color line — although he would eventually claim to have abandoned his “provincial racialism” during the 1930s and to have “envisage[d] the broader problems of work and income as affecting all men regardless of color or nationality.”13 But I&B mean something different from this when they label Du Bois a race-centered theorist. They mean that Du Bois allegedly saw race as causally fundamental to the modern world. Race and racism, to be sure, may not be the only social forces of consequence, and Du Bois recognized several forms of oppression — hence I&B often refer to him as an “intersectionalist.” But race for Du Bois was presumably the most powerful social force. I&B write, “For Du Bois, the defining characteristic of modernity was the color line,” and Du Bois considered it “the central social structure of his time.”14 It follows from this that Du Bois did not just have a different perspective than Marx but a superior one: Marx erroneously claimed that class is the central social structure of the modern world, according to I&B, whereas Du Bois correctly understood that race is that structure.

This interpretation of Du Bois, however, simply cannot make sense of his later writings. I&B’s book will badly mislead those readers who are interested in understanding the trajectory of Du Bois’s thought and the ideas and positions he ultimately arrived at. For race played a different role in Du Bois’s explanatory framework before and after his Marxist turn, even though it remained the focus of his research. In his early work, he typically examined its consequences for the lives and psyches of black Americans. Here it was viewed as the cause of the phenomena he was examining. But his later work seeks to analyze why race and racism have assumed their distinctively modern forms and their institutional importance in America in particular. In it, race and racism are not treated as causes but as consequences, and Du Bois seeks to explain them by reference to other social forces. So race is still at the center of his analysis, but now as an effect of social conditions, not as an independent social force. In fact, he explicitly takes issue with those who view race as an independent force, freed from social and economic moorings. As I detail below, Du Bois came to view capitalism as the central social structure of the modern world and racism and the color line as products or effects of capitalism. Du Bois remained as committed as ever to destroying racial oppression after his Marxist turn, but he now understood that class struggle and the overthrow of capitalism were necessary means toward that end.

Erasing Du Bois’s Marxism

I&B’s distortions are most evident in their discussion of Du Bois’s most influential historical book, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), and of several of his subsequent publications, including Color and Democracy (1945) (his most extensive statement on colonialism) and The World and Africa (1947). Unsurprisingly, I&B do not discuss at all several important texts by Du Bois that he composed after his Marxist turn and that conflict sharply with their view of Du Bois as a non-Marxist, race-centered sociologist. These texts include his long essay “The Negro and Social Reconstruction” (1936), where he reiterates his Marxist standpoint; his sweeping book Black Folk, Then and Now (1939); his remarkable speech before the left-wing Southern Negro Youth Congress, “Behold the Land” (1946), which includes a powerful call for interracial working-
class solidarity15; his book manuscript Russia and America: An Interpretation (1950), which was deemed unpublishable by Harcourt Brace because of its author’s pro-communist sympathies; a book chapter, “The Negro and Socialism” (1958), which maintained that racial oppression would never completely disappear under capitalism; and his last major speech in the United States, “Socialism and the American Negro” (1960), which includes some critical reflections on the civil rights movement.

Moreover, I&B say virtually nothing of substance about Du Bois’s memoir, In Battle for Peace (1952), or his last major work, the four-hundred-page Autobiography of W. E. B. Du Bois (published posthumously in the United States in 1968), which closes with Du Bois’s promise to “work as long as I live” for “a world where the ideals of communism will triumph — to each according to his need, from each according to his ability.”16 Needless to say, I&B do not mention this promise. It is, quite frankly, baffling how anyone could read texts such as these and deny Du Bois’s Marxist perspective on racism and colonialism in particular.

I&B also obscure the depth of Du Bois’s commitment to communism after World War II, including his intellectual and political collaborations with communist and communist-leaning African Americans. It is unclear if they actually think this commitment was irrelevant to his thinking and writings, or if, as liberals, they are somehow embarrassed by it. I&B do note in passing Du Bois’s campaign for US Senate in 1950 on the American Labor Party ticket, but they do not discuss what the party stood for or its historic ties to the Socialist and Communist parties. Nor do they discuss or even note Du Bois’s opposition to the Marshall Plan, NATO, or the Korean War.

Du Bois’s second wife, Shirley Graham, whom he married in 1951, was a member of the Communist Party, and his circle of friends after the war — including Paul and Eslanda Goode Robeson, Doxey and Yolande Wilkerson, Herbert and Fay Aptheker, James and Esther Cooper Jackson, William and Louise Thompson Patterson, and Howard Fast — consisted mostly of party members and fellow travelers. (Fast’s 1944 novel about Reconstruction, Freedom Road, was strongly influenced by Black Reconstruction.) I&B do not mention any of these figures, other than a passing reference to Graham as a “Pan-African intellectual and activist.”17

I&B not only ignore Du Bois’s friendship with Paul Robeson but also disregard their joint work on the Council of African Affairs and on the journal Freedom (1950–55), which they cofounded. I&B also fail to examine Du Bois’s association with the Jefferson School of Social Science in Manhattan, a school established by the Communist Party to popularize Marxism and forge activists. “Du Bois’s pedagogical goal to teach his students Marxism,” notes one scholar, “fit perfectly with the Jefferson School’s mission to impart the communist message and gain membership.”18 I&B do note in passing Du Bois’s long relationship with the left-wing National Guardian, but they do not discuss any of his writings for that journal or his contributions to the People’s Voice, which was also close to the Communist Party.19 These associations would be strange indeed for an alleged critic of Marxism.

Readers unfamiliar with Du Bois will of course have no idea what I&B have hidden from them. I&B effectively erase a large swath of Du Bois’s most important later writings and political projects and, by extension, entirely disregard the Black Marxist tradition he both influenced and was influenced by. They somehow miss, for example, the influence of Eric Williams’s important study Capitalism and Slavery (1944) on Du Bois’s The World and Africa. Like Du Bois, Williams viewed racism as a consequence and rationalization, not a cause, of slavery.20

Reconstructing Black Reconstruction

Because Black Reconstruction is arguably Du Bois’s most important book, I&B’s treatment of it is especially important in any assessment of their work. Black Reconstruction is, in the most general terms, a study of how the Civil War unintentionally gave rise to a social revolution “from below” in the US South followed by a bourgeois counterrevolution. Du Bois argues that the historical importance of this revolutionary conflict — which he frames in Marxist terms — rivals that of the French and Russian revolutions. Yet I&B take no note of how Du Bois frames his study in this specific way.

The Reconstruction era that followed the Civil War was a brief period of interracial democracy in the South. Du Bois describes the labor-backed state governments of the Reconstruction era as “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian revolution, had seen.”21 Naturally, I&B do not mention this important claim. In the initial draft of Black Reconstruction, Du Bois called the Reconstruction governments “dictatorships of the proletariat,” the Marxist term that refers, rather confusingly, to the radically democratic rule of the working class. But Du Bois eventually decided to call these state governments “dictatorships of labor” instead. I&B mention this phrase in passing, but of course fail to note its Marxist provenance and meaning.22

Du Bois goes on to show how the interracial democracy of the Reconstruction era was overthrown by a “Counter-Revolution of Property” — the title of a crucial chapter in Black Reconstruction. I&B never mention the counterrevolution. This is more than remarkable. Discussing Black Reconstruction without mentioning the counterrevolution of property is like discussing the Titanic without mentioning the iceberg. It was this class-motivated bourgeois counterrevolution — and not, Du Bois emphasizes, race conflict — that destroyed democracy in the South for nearly a century. As Du Bois puts it, “the overthrow of Reconstruction was in essence a revolution inspired by property, and not a race war.”23 He concludes, “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.”24 I&B, of course, do not quote these passages, which argue against the type of race-centered analysis they claim Du Bois championed.

Du Bois proceeds to show how the counterrevolution of property in the South, supported by Northern capitalists, successfully established a “dictatorship of capital” characterized by “an exploitation of labor unparalleled in modern times.” He adds:

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.25

Under this dictatorship, black workers were denied the vote and civil liberties, physically segregated from whites, attacked and lynched with impunity, and excluded from better-paying jobs. They were politically and socially oppressed in ways that facilitated their economic exploitation. Du Bois avers that white workers were also economically exploited, and while they had some political influence at the local level, they had no more power than black workers in the state governments of the South or in the halls of Congress.26 All this was institutionalized by the dictatorship of capital that, for Du Bois, was the principal outcome of the revolutionary struggle unleashed by the Civil War. I&B say nothing of this capitalist dictatorship.

The fact that many white workers supported the counterrevolution of property — and refused to fight for democracy alongside black workers — brings us to the question of racism. How does Du Bois understand racism in Black Reconstruction? As noted earlier, he views it as a consequence of capitalism. Racism is an effect, more specifically, of two characteristic features of capitalism: competition among capitalists for profits and competition among workers for jobs. Competition among capitalists fuels their quest for cheap labor and provides them with a motive to politically oppress black workers — and all workers, whenever possible — the better to exploit them economically. Racism serves as an ideology to legitimize this oppression. Thus, the “espousal” of racism, Du Bois concludes, is “primarily because of economic motives.”27

I&B make no note of this key argument in Black Reconstruction — odd for a study centrally concerned with racism. Nor do they mention Du Bois’s claim that the competition for jobs that is also characteristic of capitalism motivates white workers to exclude black workers, violently if necessary, from better-paying jobs — what economists call opportunity hoarding. Throughout Black Reconstruction, Du Bois refers to white workers’ fears that they will lose their jobs to black workers who are willing to work for less pay. This motivates their opportunity hoarding, and racism legitimizes the exclusion and violence it requires. Du Bois also repeatedly points out in Black Reconstruction that capitalists intentionally foment racial animosities to prevent the kind of working-class solidarity that would threaten their class interests. Again, I&B say nothing of this.

Misunderstanding Black Reconstruction

In sum, I&B’s discussion of Black Reconstruction omits virtually all of that book’s key arguments — not surprisingly, since these contradict both their portrayal of Du Bois as a race-centered theorist and their depiction of Marxist theory as unconcerned with racism. So how exactly do I&B discuss Black Reconstruction? They initially introduce Du Bois’s study to their readers in their book’s introduction. Here they suggest, rather vaguely, that Black Reconstruction “showcases” Du Bois’s “encounter” with Marx’s ideas.28 Lest one read too much into this, I&B immediately add that Du Bois was also influenced by three other intellectual traditions — namely, the Black Radical Tradition, William James’s pragmatism, and Gustav von Schmoller’s inductive empiricism! But I&B never explain how exactly these three traditions influence the core arguments of Black Reconstruction.

I&B are particularly vague about the “Black Radical Tradition” and how it relates to Marxism. They never explain, moreover, which individuals within this tradition actually influenced Du Bois or how they did so. I&B do list some of the individuals who they say “constitute” this tradition (“among others”) — namely, “C. L. R. James, Lorraine Hansberry, Frantz Fanon, and Amie Cesairé [sic].”29 But these figures could not have influenced Black Reconstruction for the simple reason that they all wrote after 1935. James’s famous book, The Black Jacobins, was not published until 1938. Césaire was just entering the École Normale Supérieure in 1935, and Fanon and Hansberry were children. (Hansberry was a student of Du Bois’s in the Jefferson School of Social Science during the 1950s.) All of these writers, moreover, were Marxists or, in Hansberry’s case, apparently very interested in Marxism and a supporter of the Communist Party.30 In truth, these individuals, like Du Bois, were part of the Black Marxist tradition. Calling them “radicals” just obscures this, but of course I&B’s project requires this obfuscation.

Following this bizarre introduction to Black Reconstruction, I&B then present their thumbnail summary of the book:

In Black Reconstruction, [Du Bois] developed an analysis of the intersection of class and race in the American social structure in the nineteenth century, and he argued that the enslaved Black people, rather than the North or the abolitionists, were the actors of their own emancipation. Furthermore, Du Bois presents a theory of the racial state that views the end of Reconstruction as a result of a convergence of class and racial interests between the northern bourgeoisie and the southern white elites and poor that reconstituted the white ruling bloc.31

Now, it is certainly true that Du Bois argued that “slave workers,” as he called them, emancipated themselves through a prolonged “general strike” against the slaveholders, a phrase that emphasizes the class character of the slave workers’ collective action — their withdrawal of labor from the Southern plantations. Otherwise, this summary is thoroughly misleading. Here and elsewhere, I&B squeeze Du Bois’s ideas into contemporary academic jargon that distorts his thought. Readers unfamiliar with Du Bois might imagine that he actually used this jargon himself.

To begin with, Du Bois never speaks of the “intersection” of race and class in Black Reconstruction — or in any of his other writings. As we have seen, what he claims is that capitalism, which entails a class division based on the exploitation of labor, produced a racial division in the working class. Race and class, accordingly, are not independent forces that “intersect,” whatever that might mean. Rather, like Marxists generally, Du Bois explains racism in terms of the material interests of specific social classes — above all, the interests of capitalists in cheap labor, and of workers in holding on to better-paying jobs. But even as racial oppression directly cheapens black labor, it cheapens white labor as well by institutionalizing a social division that makes working-class solidarity extraordinarily difficult. And racist ideology legitimizes this oppression and this division. Throughout Black Reconstruction, in sum, Du Bois argues that race and racism are mainly produced and reproduced by capitalists and, secondarily, by white workers — hence, racism is generated by economic forces and cannot be an independent social force uncoupled from capitalism.

What are we to make, then, of I&B’s claim that Du Bois developed a theory of the “racial state” in Black Reconstruction to explain how a “white ruling bloc” of rich and poor took power in the South? Once again, these are concepts that Du Bois never used in Black Reconstruction or in any of his other writings. Instead, he spoke quite frequently of the capitalist state and, as we have seen, argued that a “dictatorship of capital” replaced the Reconstruction state governments. He firmly maintained that this dictatorship excluded white as well as black workers from political power at the state and national levels. Du Bois certainly did not think that poor workers “ruled” the South as part of any alliance or bloc with rich whites! He argues, on the contrary, that the vote of white workers was manipulated by the ruling class and “neutralized” by their separation from black workers. So Du Bois would have balked at the idea of a “racial state” — just as he explicitly balked at the idea that the counterrevolution that overthrew Reconstruction was a “race war.” These terms elide the class character of the counterrevolution and the dictatorship it produced.

Du Bois obviously does not wish to deny that white workers were better off than black ones. White workers not only monopolized better-paying jobs but also had civil and political rights (although many were effectively disenfranchised), and they had some small measure of power at the local level. Du Bois famously suggested that these rights, and the social status attached to them, acted as a kind of psychological compensation for the poverty of white workers — a “psychological wage” denied to black workers. But he nowhere suggests that this raised poor whites to the level of a ruling class or somehow gave them control of state power. On the contrary, the fateful division of black and white workers, Du Bois repeatedly suggests, not only disempowered blacks but whites as well. And it not only harmed white workers in the South but also white workers in the North. As Du Bois later wrote:

The disfranchisement of the black half of the labor vote in the South keeps Negroes poor, sick, and ignorant. But it also hurts white labor by making democratic government unworkable so long as the South has from three to ten times the voting power of the North and West.32

I&B return to Black Reconstruction in a subsection of their book titled “Intersectionalities,” where they repeat their claim that Du Bois was a kind of intersectionalist avant la lettre. Oddly, however, this discussion summarizes only the first two chapters of Black Reconstruction — which span just 30 of the book’s 729 pages — and concludes with I&B’s brief reflections on Du Bois’s understanding of class. I&B’s main claim here is that Du Bois has an understanding of class different from, and superior to, that of Marx. But this claim is totally unwarranted. Du Bois never attempted to develop a non-Marxist concept of class. I&B’s only textual evidence for this is a passage in Black Reconstruction in which Du Bois suggests that working-class solidarity is far from automatic. Du Bois argues, in the passage I&B quote, that “the theory of race [espoused by the ruling class] was supplemented by a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently.”33

I&B have actually cut off this passage. After the word “persistently,” Du Bois continues, “and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.” In other words, Southern capitalists worked long and carefully to divide white and black workers and to obscure their common class interests through physical segregation and an ideology of racial difference — the better to exploit both groups. This is a stratagem that a great many Marxists, starting with Marx himself, are well aware of. More to the point, it in no way suggests that Du Bois has a different understanding of class — or class consciousness — than Marx. Du Bois is just one in a long line of Marxists — and Black Marxists in particular — who have tried to understand the barriers, including the racial, ethnic, and national barriers, to working-class solidarity that have been erected by capitalism and capitalists.

It is especially shocking that I&B conclude their discussion of Black Reconstruction with the implication that Du Bois thought black and white working-class unity impossible — and that this is what distinguished him from Marx! In fact, Du Bois states in Black Reconstruction that any future reconstruction of America “will and must go back to the basic principles of Reconstruction in the United States during 1867–1876 — Land, Light, and Leading for slaves black, brown, yellow and white, under a dictatorship of the proletariat.”34 For obvious reasons, I&B do not mention this rather striking prediction. Yet anyone familiar with Marxism will understand this as a call for a multiracial socialist democracy. In his last decades, Du Bois repeated many times his conviction that the coming of such a socialist society was necessary and inevitable. I&B, though they present themselves as “Du Boisians,” evince no trace of this conviction. They display no grasp of Du Bois’s Marxist sensibilities, which may explain why they go to such lengths to deny them.

After Black Reconstruction

Let us turn now to what I&B say about Du Bois’s Color and Democracy (1945), his most extensive rumination on colonialism. I&B quote Du Bois’s central contention that “colonies are today areas for the investment of capital in which the investor can make a rate of profit far beyond that which comes to him from domestic ventures.” A clearer statement of the main motivation behind colonialism would be hard to find. Surprisingly, I&B then add that “Du Bois argues that the racial categories and differences that organize our world are the product of the global colonial system of organizing labor.” And they note that “Du Bois argues that racism and race are the product of the European need to legitimize the system of colonial exploitation and displacement.”35

All this is in fact an accurate summary of Color and Democracy. Put differently, Du Bois is saying that the drive for profit, propelled by market competition, including the search for cheap labor and resources, is the primary source of colonialism and racism. Du Bois is even more explicit about this in this passage from Color and Democracy that I&B do not quote:

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.36

In short, capitalist exploitation is the “foundation,” according to Du Bois, of racism and the global color line. Racism is the “ostensible” motivation behind — and a justification for — slavery, caste, and colonialism, but the real motivation is of course the accumulation of profits by means of cheap labor, black and white.

Strangely, I&B do not seem to notice that this account of racism and colonialism, with which they seemingly agree, contradicts the main thesis of their book, which, again, is that Du Bois gives independent causal primacy to racism and colonialism in his writings. But here again, as in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois is actually warning against a race-centered view of history. It would obviously be a mistake, he thinks, to view racism as the main driver of colonialism in particular.37 As in Black Reconstruction, Du Bois gives causal primacy in Color and Democracy to capitalism, emphasizing capitalists’ insatiable drive for cheap labor, and he views racism as an ideology that legitimizes the oppression this drive produces.

Du Bois’s arguments also contradict I&B’s bizarre contention that he believed “the European working classes were the backbone of colonialism.”38 Du Bois, needless to say, never made this claim. For him and other Black Marxists, colonialism was obviously a project first and foremost of the capitalist class and its political servants. I&B seem to make this claim on the basis of a paragraph in Color and Democracy in which Du Bois predicts that European welfare states will be financed after World War II by the profits from increased colonial investments. As a result of these investments, Du Bois suggests,

the disposition of parties on the left, liberal parties, and philanthropy to press for colonial improvements will tend to be silenced by the bribe of vastly increased help by government to better conditions [for workers]. The working people of the civilized world may thus be largely induced to put their political power behind imperialism, and democracy in Europe and America will continue to impede and nullify democracy in Asia and Africa.39

Some readers will immediately recognize Du Bois’s argument as a version of the “labor aristocracy” thesis developed by a number of Marxists. It is, in fact, similar to the version of the thesis developed by Lenin, who argued that the profits from the export of capital to colonial and semicolonial countries had produced a new labor aristocracy in Europe — that is, reformist workers who eschewed revolutionary socialism.40 According to Lenin, with the superprofits extracted from these countries, it became possible for capitalists to “bribe” — Du Bois and Lenin use the same word — a layer of the European working class, including labor leaders, to reject socialism and support imperialism. I&G fail to recognize that Du Bois is making a Marxist argument here — just as they cannot acknowledge that Color and Democracy as a whole develops a Marxist account of colonialism. In fact, they understand Du Bois to be claiming that, for European workers, “racism and coloniality trumped class interest.”41 But this is the precise opposite of what Du Bois is saying. His (and Lenin’s) point is that the material interests of European workers trumped their “disposition” to support colonial improvements, including decolonization. Whether he is right or wrong on this score, Du Bois is not making a race-centered argument but a Leninist one.


Itzigsohn and Brown have written a tendentious book that will confuse and mislead readers who are interested in Du Bois’s work and legacy. But what is much more troubling is that the book clearly reflects what a great many sociologists mistakenly believe or assume to be true about Du Bois, “Du Boisian sociology,” and Marxism. The praise heaped on the book by sociologists certainly suggests as much. Clearly, too many sociologists are either unaware of Du Bois’s Marxism or would like to ignore or deny it for ideological reasons. Too many sociologists, furthermore, assume that Marx and the Marxist tradition had and have little to no interest in racism and colonialism, not to mention other forms of domination. In truth, the Marxist tradition has produced more probing analyses of racial and colonial oppression than any other theoretical or political tradition. And too many sociologists are unaware of Black Marxism in particular and the many brilliant thinkers, including sociologists like Du Bois, Cox, and Hall, who are part of this tradition. The ambivalence and occasional hostility toward Marxism on the part of so many sociologists and other academics — including scholars interested in racism — lies at the root of this ignorance. The result of all this is ironic indeed: the recent canonization of Du Bois within sociology has entailed a severe distortion of his ideas and an erasure of the black intellectual and political tradition to which he contributed so much.

The good news is that many scholars — including sociologists like Michael Burawoy and Zine Magubane — do in fact honor Du Bois’s Marxism and the broader Black Marxist tradition.42 I would recommend their work to anyone interested in Du Bois’s actual ideas and intellectual legacy. And then there is the work of Du Bois himself, beginning with the magisterial Black Reconstruction in America. For those grappling intellectually and politically with racism, colonialism, and other forms of oppression, there is simply no substitute for reading for oneself Du Bois’s actual words, without ideological blinders. Du Bois’s scholarship is far from perfect, but a fair appraisal of it, and of the larger Black Marxist tradition, must begin with an honest depiction of what he actually said.

About the Author

Jeff Goodwin teaches sociology at New York University.

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