W.E.B DUBOIS: SCHOLAR, SCIENTIST AND ACTIVISTS

NOTE: This essay was written in 1997. It was my effort to define W.E.B Du Bois as a central figure in the history of social science. But also to show how his social science breakthroughs were connected to activism and a search for the truth. I have since published many articles on Du Bois looking at his scholarship and scientific efforts in epistemic , social theoretic and philosophical terms. This essay first appeared on the website The W.E.B Du Bois Virtual University. It is widely cited in the African American and Social Science literature.

In the years 1892 to 1895, while completing research and studies which would eventually appear as his doctoral dissertation, W.E.B Du Bois boldly projected the possibility of subjecting to scientific scrutiny the problem of race in the modern world. He, contrary to other founders of academic sociology, would contend, more forcefully over succeeding years, that the central object of a truly scientific American sociology had to be the study of race. Science, in the post bellum United States was the new intellectual fad. In the progressive era it was being touted as the answer to all-human problems and weaknesses. Du Bois (1940:50) in speaking of his university education pointed out that at Fisk, Harvard and the University of Berlin, “The main result of my schooling had been to emphasize science and the scientific attitude.” While the natural sciences were well on their way into the twentieth century, in the social sciences, as Du Bois would insist, “Social thinkers were engaged in vague statements (1940:51).” In 1896 Herbert Spencer completed his ten volume Synthetic Philosophy.  For Du Bois, Spencer’s biological analogy, while striking for its bold generalizations, lacked any possibility of laying the basis for a scientific research program. However, a real situation presented itself for him, and he hoped (though he would be deeply disappointed) for the social sciences. He would, turn his “gaze from fruitless word-twisting and fac[e] the facts of my own social situation and racial world, I determined to put science into sociology through a study of the conditions and problems of my own group (ibid).” This, inevitably, placed Du Bois in an irreparable conflict with Spencer’s social Darwinism and the hereditarian research program which sought to verify it.[i] For Spencer biological evolution had produced superior and inferior races, with distinct moral, physical and intellectual capacities. For most white Americans these views expressed both common sense and what passed for science. Thus, for them science verified what passed for common sense and everyday life experience. Social Darwinism, eugenics and the hereditarian research program became the dominant ideological and research paradigms on race matters within Anglo- American social science and research of the time.[ii] Both actively capitulated to or apologized for racism; both vigorously supported class exploitation and inequality; each claimed that social structure and social behavior were the consequences of inherited genetic characteristics. As the official scientific explanation of their age, they dominated political and social discourse. Galton’s discoveries in statistics were used to verify this outlook, while at the same time giving it a scientific veneer.[iii]

McKee (1993: 28) points out that when sociology appeared as an academic discipline in the 1890’s, there was no rush to examine the race problem, although sociology tended to be, at this point, a study of social issues and problems. Even then, as Du Bois would show, race was the burning issue for the nation.[iv] “They wrote no books on the race problem and only a scattering of articles; a few brief comments on race appeared in some books such as those by Franklin H. Giddings, E.A. Ross, and Lester F. Ward (ibid).” Furthermore, little concerning race appeared in the first five volumes of the new sociological journal The American Journal of Sociology (McKee:29).  Ross (1991:95) points out that the earliest American social scientists, who viewed themselves as an intellectual gentry and were from upper class families, were concerned with the rise of working class struggles and the possibility of the rise of an American version of socialism. They saw these possibilities as reflective of a threat to the Gilded Age’s notion of American exceptionalism. This, not race, was viewed as the problem of the age. The great gulf between their consciousness and reality is recognized when one looks at the age objectively: the destruction of Black Reconstruction with the Hayes-Tilden Compromise of 1877, the Supreme Court’s overturning the Civil Rights Act of 1875 in its Slaughterhouse decision (1882) and eventually the Plessy v Ferguson decision, which finalized the second class status of Blacks.

What Du Bois understood was that sociology had to develop suitable methods so that social knowledge could be deemed scientific. He explored a wide and complex philosophical terrain. His Harvard and University of Berlin training had made him conversant in and acutely sensitive to the competing philosophical camps of his day (Lewis: 85—89, 130—146;Zamir:114—115;Gooding-Williams: 99—106). He had to constantly deal with the competing claims of pragmatism and European epistemology, especially Hegel’s notion of the dialectics of spirit. As I will show his sociological and historical studies appropriate several philosophical and methodological stances. He would, however, bring a unique philosophical attitude to the understanding of race; one which acknowledged the plebian and existential orientation of pragmatism as articulated by William James, the dialectics of Hegel and the historical materialist and political economic approaches of his German professors Adolph Wagner, Heinrich von Treitschke and Gustav von Schmoller.

Green and Driver (1980:39) argue that Du Bois has never received his due from white sociology. They point out,

Du Bois rightly deserves a place among the giants of sociology for his work during the years 1896—1910, when sociology was being established as an academic discipline. He established a department of sociology at Atlanta University, created a laboratory of sociology, instituted a program of systematic research, founded and conducted regular sociological conferences on research, founded two journals (Crisis and Phylon: A Journal of Race Relations), attempted to organize a sociological society in 1897, or eight years before the American Sociological Society developed out of the American Economic Association, and he established a record of valuable publications which has rarely been equaled by any sociologist.

In terms of the history of academic sociology, Du Bois’s department at Atlanta University was the second to be established. Albion Small set up the first at the University of Chicago in 1892. However Du Bois set up a sociological laboratory (see W.E.B Du Bois Reader: 165) and directed the Atlanta University Conferences—an annual meeting devoted to sociological research on the situation of African Americans.  That the research Du Bois headed was rigorous and based on the best scientific methods is beyond question. As he put it, “the Atlanta Conference seeks to apply to the study of the Negro problem the methods of sociological inquiry which the trained experience of the world has found most successful, and it seeks to interpret the results in the light of similar data obtained by students the world over (1985:70).  Stark (1994:27) points out that,”[f]rom 1896 through 1914 Du Bois published a book based on his sociological research every year and wrote many articles and gave many speeches as well.” But unlike other sociology departments Du Bois’s was centered upon Black people and a strong anti-eugenics and anit-herederitarian program.

In larger historical and political economic contexts, the period 1896 to 1914 (the period when Du Bois produced his main sociological research) was a glorious period for world imperialism and racism. Between 1859 (when Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species was published) and the Boer War of 1902, white Western men conquered, explored, fought over and partitioned among themselves all of Africa south of the Sahara desert. In 1895 when Du Bois became the first African American to receive a Harvard Ph.D., The Great Abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, died and The Great Accommodator,  Booker T. Washington, delivered his Atlanta Compromise speech.[v] In these years lynchings reached an all time high. In 1896 the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v Ferguson that separate was equal, thus legalizing racism and Jim Crow segregation.  Du Bois began his teaching and public careers at a time when the forces of reaction had achieved political, ideological and cultural supremacy in the US. It was under these circumstances that Du Bois began his long journey in pursuit of the truth. Scientific rigor and an unbending partisanship to the cause of African American equality defined the path he chose.  As Du Bois strode from Harvard to assume his place in the world, perhaps his motto would be that of a fellow alumnus of Berlin University, Karl Marx, “Until now philosophers have only explained the world, our task is to change it.”

In retrospect, Du Bois’s scientific effort has prevailed over Herbert Spencer’s and Francis Galton’s; that is, the research program of scientific racism. This in spite of the fact that scientific racism continues to rear its ugly head, as revealed in the publication of The Bell Curve.[vi] Du Bois’s emphasis upon race, class and social structure as the primary causal factors of social behavior, social action and social conflict, subsequently propelled a tradition in American social science that stretches from Franz Boas, to the Chicago School of Sociology and up till the present. Professor E. Digby Baltzell (1967:xxvi) argues that Franz Boas in The Mind of Primitive Man (1911), was echoing the findings of Du Bois when he wrote that “the traits of the American Negro are adequately explained on the basis of his history and his social status…without falling back upon the theory of hereditary inferiority.” Du Bois’s historical research, beginning with the Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1895), through Black Reconstruction (1935), Black Folk Then and Now (1939) and The World and Africa (1947) laid a materialist foundation in American and African historiography. His masterwork in philosophy The Souls of Black Folk (1903) remains a central achievement in moving American philosophy beyond the strictures of pragmatism and positivism.

In a profound sense American sociology still has not caught up to Du Bois. It is still a child of its Gilded Age beginnings and it reluctance to face head on the issue of race and of the complex interactions of race, class and social structure. Nor has it successfully challenged the strictures of pragmatism and positivism. Du Bois’ German education, especially Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and the political economic methods and theories of his German professors Scmoller and Wagner, along with his life long studies of the Black Belt South, gave him a strategic advantage over most sociologists of his time and even of ours.

DuBois’s literary production is massive.  Herbert Aptheker says it is on “a Dickensian scale”. DuBois published books and essays in magazines throughout the world. He edited or wrote for the following periodicals: The Nation, The Atlantic Monthly, The American Historical Review, The American Sociological Review, Fisk Herald, The Moon, The Horizon, The Crisis, and The Journal of Negro History and Phylon. As well he contributed weekly columns to newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier, and the Chicago Defender (see Aptheker, 1973).

Yet, more than this, his contributions in many respects laid a scientific materialist foundation for sociology and historiography. His Ph.D. dissertation, “The Suppression of the Slave Trade to Africa”, is perhaps the most influential social science Ph.D. dissertation produced in an American university. Completed by the time he was twenty-four, it was later published as the first volume in the Harvard Historical Series. It pioneered the study of the international slave trade and its international and domestic legal consequences. The Philadelphia Negro (1899) is the masterwork in the field of urban sociology. Black Reconstruction (1935), considered by DuBois his magnum opus, ” revolutionized the historical profession in the United States.”[vii]

His most important works have that rare quality of being paradigmatic; that is, setting the broad philosophical and conceptual outlines of disciplinary research. In this respect, his work in both sociology and history establish an alternative research program to the dominant ones in the US academy. The DuBoisian paradigm is a consistent alternative to the social Darwinist and sociobiology paradigms, and the assimilationist and declining significance of race paradigms. His scholarships in history, sociology, social history, political economy and literature have that quality of taking on fundamental questions in a scientific and courageous manner. This gives a timeless quality to his most important work and many of his historical predictions.  Of this kind is Du Bois’s brilliant prediction at the beginning of this century that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line”. The lasting significance of this prediction is that in making it, DuBois did not absolutize the issue of race by suggesting that it is the only problem of this century, nor did he separate race from the manifold problems that emerged in the twentieth century.  What his scholarship and research did was to verify the interactive relationship between race, class and the multi-level configurations of the social structure of modern society. Furthermore, DuBois saw race in a global context; hence, he connected the problem of race to the colonial system and the world economic system.

The magnitude and significance of Du Bois’s scholarly and research legacies and his ultimate contribution to the emergence of an American sociology can be revealed in his major work. I will present The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896), The Philadelphia Negro (1899), The Souls of Black Folk (1903), John Brown (1909), and Black Reconstruction (1935) indicate the magnitude of his contribution. Indicated, as well, is the form and substance of a Du Boisian school of sociology. One, which is based upon social data, collected ethnographically and through government census and other official materials and is historical. The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1638-1870, according to Herbert Aptheker is ” the first full-length product of Afro-American scientific scholarship; as such it is the seed…” It, furthermore,” has not been supplanted”. The book was widely and favorably reviewed in among others the Nation, The American Historical Review, and the Atlantic Monthly. According to Aptheker, “One of the most discerning reviews…came from the pen of H.T. Kealing of Philadelphia, the editor of the A.M.E Church Review…” Kealing called the book “epochal” and drew attention to its emphasis upon the role of Toussaint, leader of the Haitian revolution. Kealing found its emphasis upon slave militancy and rebellion valuable. Kealing’s review contained the hope, with which most of Du Bois’s work was received by the African American public, that it would help bury “the almost antediluvian conceit of exclusive Caucasian scholarship”. In the Suppression Du Bois evinces an approach to history writing that does not exclude advocacy or partisanship. For instance, in the Suppression Du Bois commented upon Charles A and Mary R. Beard’s The Rise of American Civilization. In their work, he argued, the impression is left  ” that nothing right or wrong is involved”.  Their approach manifested a strict historical positivism, which Du Bois would flirt with, especially in The Philadelphia Negro, but would reject. DuBois in the Suppression, indicated that two antagonistic systems had developed in the North and South and “they clash, as winds and waters strive”. DuBois disputed the Beard’s “mechanistic” and ultimately positivist approach to history, which failed because human experience is not machine- like. The slave trade and slavery were not inevitable. It manifested actual political and economic interests. These interests , he would argue, were not solely regional, nor national, but international, connected to a world system of capital, slavery and commerce in cotton. Du Bois (1896:153) would insist, the “fatal rise of slave labor large-farming system, which before it was realized, had so intertwined itself with and braced itself upon the economic forces of the industrial age”. This system had, he (ibid) would insist in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, had changed from “a family institution to an industrial system.” And it would take a “vast and terrible civil war” to displace it. Du Bois, already in his dissertation indicates a point that he will more fully elaborate in Black reconstruction, that the slaves were in fact workers, whose conditions of work were in fact of an industrial type. This would lay the foundation for his concept of the class struggle as shaped by race and slavery. This view, as we will later show, represented a profound inversion of Eurocentrist Marxism. What is significant for what will become a Du Boisian explanation of US history and society is his concept of the centrality of race to the formation of class and class relationships in the US. This view will separate him from those of the founders of American sociology who would look “beyond” race to class , status and social structure.

The Suppression was out of print for some fifty years, although it was cited thousands of time. At the same time, relatively recent works like those of Staughton Lynd[viii] and Ronald Takaki[ix] which though covering the same terrain as Du Bois’s Suppression, and while not superseding it, totally ignore it. Its republication was in 1954 by Social Science Press headed by than doctoral student Eugene Genovese. In this edition DuBois included a “postlude”–“a short explanation of the omissions in the book”. Of these were what DuBois considered a certain naivete with respect to human psychology, “which reflected he felt, the pre-Freudian epoch of the book’s production”, and the other weakness which he gave greatest weight, “namely, that of the Marxian analysis”. DuBois acknowledged the existing economic emphasis in the book, but indicated the absence of the concept of class domination of the State, class struggle and class interest as basic to the historical process. In 1954 he evaluated the book as a good one, which represented a conscientious effort.

Following the tradition of black protest nationalism and the influence of one of his early mentors, Alexander Crummell, Du Bois would seek to explain race and to challenge the prevailing scientific racism of the 1890’s. This early effort would take the form of a paper titled “On the Conservation of Races” delivered to the American Negro Academy, headed by Crummell.  Race as used in the paper is a concept that differs from our modern notions of  biology, culture and socially constructed  definitions. Race as constructed in this paper is a type of supra-national community of people sharing similar culture and history. At the same time the paper shows the influence of Blumenbach’s and other early anthropological theories.[x] There were, he insisted, eight major races, among them the Africans or Negroes. However, in du Bois’s conceptualization races were both biologically constructed and culturally constructed. As such, the paper is conflicted between old biological (and in some ways racist) theories of race and the more contemporary culturally constructions of race. the object of the paper, however, was to assert the civilizational equality of the Negro “race”, with other great races. And to become the basis of scientific research and political agitation for civil and political rights for the former slaves. From the standpoint of the Du Boisian oeuvre this paper should be viewed as an initial approximation to a more general theory of race and race construction and conflict and not his final statement. It was, however, given the time, competitively plausible scientifically and generally progressive. Du Bois was attempting  in his late twenties to respond to the racist, and colonialist notions of world history.  In the “Conservation of Races” he would declare, “We believe that the Negro people as a race have a contribution to make to civilization and humanity, which no other race can make.” In Dusk of Dawn (1940:98)he would reflect upon his education and the general spirit of the time on race matters.

In the graduate school at Harvard and again in Germany, the emphasis again was altered, and race became a matter of culture and cultural history. The history of the world was paraded before the observation of students. Which was the superior race? Manifestly that which had a history, the white race; there was some mention of Asiatic culture, but no course in Chinese or Indian history or culture was offered at Harvard, and quite unanimously in America and Germany, Africa was left without culture and without history.

By the time of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) Du Bois’s stance would be  that races are essentially culturally and historically constructed. He would assert, as he defined African American raciality, “But the physical bond is least and the badge of color relatively unimportant save as  a badge; the real essence of this kinship is its social heritage of slavery; the discrimination and insult; and this heritage binds together  not simply the children of Africa, but extends through yellow Asia and into the south Seas. It is this unity that draws me to Africa (Dusk of Dawn, 117).”

During the time that he delivered his paper “The Conservation of Races” he was working on The Philadelphia Negro. The Philadelphia Negro (1899)is the first major work of American empirical and urban sociology and remains unsurpassed in its methodology, research design, conceptualization, scope and rigor. It should be viewed as the masterwork in the field.  Although basically ignored by most scholars in the field it is the preeminent model in urban sociology. With it Du Bois initiated the field. A survey of the urban sociology literature from the Chicago School in the 1920’s to the present indicates an enormous debt to DuBois.[xi] In an appendix to his famous study of the African American situation, An American Dilemma, Gunnar Mrydal in discussing the need for further research on the Black community stated, “We cannot close this description of what a study of the Negro community should be without calling attention to the study which best meets our requirements, a study which is now all but forgotten. We refer to W.E.B DuBois’ The Philadelphia Negro…”[xii] The Philadelphia Negro can be considered part of a larger scientific project, which included Du Bois’s Atlanta Studies. Following his fifteen-month work on The Philadelphia Negro DuBois was hired as a professor at historically African American Atlanta University. From 1896 to 1910 he headed a team of researchers who rigorously studied the race question in the US and the social and economic situation of African Americans. What links Du Bois’s sociological work between 1896 and 1910 (which includes the research on The Philadelphia Negro and the Atlanta Studies”) is his empirical orientation. Green and Driver (1980:37) say “He was firm in his commitment to the use of sociological measurement to describe and delimit social phenomena.” Moreover, “Implicit in this belief was a more general belief in the worth of quantitative, empirically based sociology which, if properly practiced, would form the foundation of social policy.” Here he continued his anti-hereditarian research agenda. As well he took charge of Atlanta University’s annual sociological conferences. Imminent scholars and researchers such as Max Weber and Franz Boas attended and presented papers at this annual conference.

Du Bois’s Philadelphia Negro, and the Atlanta Studies which followed it, demonstrate a mastery of research methods as varied as historiography, survey research, ethnography, urban mapping, urban ecology, geography, criminology, and demography.  The Philadelphia Negro emerges out of the social reform movement of the late 19th century. Du Bois’s scholarship became a central part of the movement of reform and against poverty and racism. The Settlement House and Social Gospel Movements in the US stimulated early empirical sociological research. Reform minded and activist women like Jane Addams, founder of Hull House, Vida Scudder, Ellen Gates Starr, Dr. Jane Robbins, Susan Wharton and Isabell Eaton were leaders of these early “uplift movements”. The University of Pennsylvania sponsored Du Bois’ research. Du Bois biographer David Levering Lewis contextualized the intellectual and social situation that Du Bois found himself in.

Du Bois knew his sponsors held a theory about the race to be studied. The city was ‘going to the dogs because of the crime and  venality of its Negro citizens.’ ‘Something is wrong with a race that is responsible for so much crime,’ the theory ran, and ‘strong remedies are called for.’ Another junior academic (and a minority scholar at that), given the chance to impress rich and pedigreed sponsors for future assignments and fellowships, might have been conscientious about fleshing out the data but neutral or even collusive about their implications. To believe Du Bois, however, he ‘neither knew nor cared’ about the agenda of the reformers. ‘The world was thinking wrong about race, because it did not know.’ He would teach it to think right. The task was ‘simple and clear-cut’ for someone with his cutting-edge training in sociology. He proposed  to ‘find out what was the matter with this area and why’ and he would ask ‘little advice as to procedure’. It was an opportunity—a mandate really—whose scientific and racial implications made the politics behind his appointment unimportant (188-89).

Du Bois worked out of St. Mary’s Settlement at 7th and Lombard in the heart of the African American community.

The Philadelphia Negro combines scientific rigor and advocacy.  As DuBois states, “The final design of the work is to lay before the public such a body of information as may be a safe guide for all efforts towards the solution of the many Negro problems of a great American city.”[xiii] Already in 1896 DuBois understood what many conservative and liberal sociologists have yet not digested, that ghettoization and poverty are not the creations of the poor, but are the result of processes controlled by economic and political forces far removed from the ghetto and the poor themselves. DuBois argued that poverty, ghettoization and crime were, finally, symptoms of institutional and structural racism. There are present in this work data and analysis, which counter the “culture of poverty”, and social pathology arguments which blame the poor for poverty and which have been reinvented in the 1980’s and 90’s to justify conservative social and economic policies. DuBois considered the situation of Black folk in Philadelphia “a disgrace to the city–a disgrace to Christianity, to its spirit of justice, to its common sense”.  Du Bois’s judgement remains valid. It must be acknowledged that behind the rigor and passion one finds in this work there is a profound anti-racist and anti-eugenics research program.  There is, as well, the elemental assumptions found in “Conservation”,  that the African Americans are part of the great Negro race based in Africa. And that African Americans exhibit cultural and behavioral patterns found  in Africa.  For instance, in the section of the Philadelphia Negro devoted to the Black Church he observes that in its organization it repeats the communal feature of African village life (201). In this work Du Bois’s concept of class is social and cultural rather than economic. Classes are defined on the basis of occupation, education, income, values and behavior. The top tenth were the educated elite, whom he felt were obligated to serve and lead. At the bottom were what he called the “submerged tenth”, who presented a danger to the rest of the Black community and whose behavior and values should not be emulated. This was a declasse stratum. However, all classes were shaped by and determined by race oppression and discrimination. All classes are then race-class categories, rather than the Marxist  economic class. However, one finds a sense of the dialectic of race and class as well. The race class phenomenon would repeatedly appear throughout his work. No scholar has so consistently explored this problem as Du Bois did. It would find its final resolution in Black Reconstruction.

In spite of his marvelous achievement (The Suppression and The Philadelphia Negro were finished by the time he was thirty) DuBois a generation later in a favorable review of Harris and Spero’s The Black Worker (1931) critiqued his Philadelphia Negro for a certain “provincialism” which tended to view the oppression of Black people “from the view of religion, humanity and sentiment”, rather than from the position of socio-economic realities and class alignments.

Trained in philosophy by William James and George Santayana at Harvard, and in Hegel, especially the Phenomenology of Mind, by his professors at the University of Berlin, DuBois was fully aware of the epistemological crisis facing philosophy at the end of the nineteenth century. The Souls is a unique DuBoisian effort to philosophically address the problem of race and the failure of American pragmatism to provide a philosophical framework for a social science of race. In many respects Souls can be viewed as a narrative with Hegel, where Hegelian idealism is inverted. Rather than pure reflection, Du Bois’s narrative moves from pure reflection to action–manifested as a striving, or struggle to achieve a new stage in history. Du Bois, therefore, rejects both the naive optimism of American exceptionalism and the idealism of Hegelianism. ”The history of the American Negro,” he says, “is the history of this strife, –this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He would neither Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would not bleach his Negro soul in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world.” The painful realities of Black life in capitalist America is Du Bois’s starting point. Hence, he asserts, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.”  But Du Bois in Souls starts to come too terms with pragmatism. He would not (and did not ) countenance self-edifying individualism. He demanded a commitment to the oppressed Black masses. While American pragmatists and Hegelians avoid real history, DuBois confronts it head on, and seeks to construct a philosophy of real history, and of human action.

Du Bois rejects naive psychologism. His examination of the collective souls of Black folk is his way of historicizing psychology. He develops an historically contextualized and contingent notion of double consciousness and of Black strivings which suggests a social psychology which argues that Black folk emerge from a history of oppression and resistance. In the last chapter of Souls, entitled “The Sorrow Songs”, DuBois locates the Negro Spirituals within the context of the striving for freedom and justice, and the realization of a collective self–a peoplehood. He, however, defines the Sorrow Songs as the central historical narrative of Black folk. “They are,” he tells us, “the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.” Yet, “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope–a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins.” And then he asks, “Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?”

In the end, Souls should be looked upon as a prolegomena to a philosophy of a social science of race.  When combined with The Philadelphia Negro, we have the essential features of a scientific philosophy of race. In drawing upon Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind and adapting certain of its insights to the specificities of the US, Du Bois gives to  US social science the intellectual tools to understand the unique complexities of  race.

John Brown is an interpretative biography of the white abolitionist who led the armed raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859. It is  what  a leading Black fighter for full freedom in the twentieth century thought of the great Martyr–himself white–in the struggle for freedom in the nineteenth century. Herbert Aptheker contends, Du Bois’s  “interpretation emphasizes that John Brown’s uniqueness stemmed from the reality that he was a white man in nineteenth-century United States who had consciously burned racism out of himself.” In this sense it is part of Du Bois’s larger anti-racist research agenda. Brown, himself, becomes a metaphor for what was possible for white anti-racists, yet what was seldom realized.  In the preface to John Brown, Du Bois states,

John Brown worked not simply for Black Men–he worked with them; and he was a companion of their daily life, knew their faults and virtues, and felt as few white Americans have felt, the bitter tragedy of their lot. The story of John Brown, then, cannot be complete unless due emphasis is given this.

It was this identification which led him to make the supreme sacrifice. More than a record, the book is a tribute to the white man DuBois says, “has come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk”. In John Brown DuBois recognized a model for white Americans. He saw that quality that most African Americans seek out in their white fellow citizens. John Brown was also the product of profound historical forces and the example of the individual who fights to be on the correct side of history. Lastly, DuBois drew attention to the manner in which John Brown led his life. DuBois insisted,

He sought them [Black people] in home and church and out on the street, and hired them in his business. He came to them on the plane of perfect equality–they sat at his table and he at theirs.

DuBois in John Brown cites what became his life’s motto: “the cost of liberty was less than the price of repression”. DuBois praises John Brown’s guiding principles, “the Hebrew religion” and the French revolution. Moreover, according to Aptheker, Du Bois was in this volume thirty to forty years ahead of US historiography in demonstrating the insurrectionary and revolutionary spirit of the slaves, the significance of the slaves self initiative and organization and what would later appear in Black Reconstruction, the “deepest realities of slavery, the expansionism of the slave system and the nature of Reconstruction and its overthrow in 1876.”  Du Bois by examining the life of John Brown was exploring white consciousness and behavior on race. He would finally conclude that the majority of whites were not capable of such anti-racist heroism as John Brown. Du Bois’s John Brown was out of publication for over fifty years, until 1962. Aptheker indicates that the white commercial press generally ignored its republication, although the African American public warmly received it.

In Black Reconstruction, his “magnum opus”, DuBois theoretically develops and justifies the idea of the centrality of the struggle for African American equality to American democracy. Professor Stanley Aronowitz called DuBois the “greatest” of the 1930’s Marxist scholars and his Black Reconstruction a”path-breaking historical treatment” in “the tradition of Marxist historiography”.[xiv]

Aptheker traces the formation of the idea for a study of Reconstruction to themes DuBois was writing on at the close of the 19th century and the essay in Souls of Black Folk (1903) “The Freedmen’s Bureau”. As well, it was a response to the racist interpretation of Reconstruction as evidenced in the film “Birth of A Nation”. In this book one gets a sense of the ways DuBois conducted scholarship, of how ideas were germinated and nurtured over years and how he finally developed and presented them. We furthermore witness how Du Bois’s scholarship is connected to current social and political events. The radical tone of the work cannot be separated from the Great Depression and the radical politics of the time. In fact the last chapter is boldly titled “The Propaganda of History”, contending that history has been used to advance certain social and class positions over others. We glimpse Du Bois’s methods of inquiry and presentation. Indeed, we get a sense of his unique scientific method.  DuBois worked collectively, actively engaging colleagues from the Niagara and Pan African Movements, as well as, fellow academicians.

Given the liberal tenor of the country in the 1930’s, the book received a positive reception and an enthusiastic response from Afro-American periodicals and journals. Du Bois’s long associate in Pan African efforts, the immanent historian Rayford Logan, said that Black Reconstruction revealed DuBois “as both the merciless critic and constructive historian.” “The real value of this epoch making book” according to Logan, is that it is “the first Marxian interpretation of this crucial period.”  Historian Charles Wesley portrayed DuBois as a “lyric historian, the literary knight with the plumed pen.”  Henry Mussey saw the work as solid history, an “economic treatise, a philosophical discussion, and impassioned argument for the thesis so ably and eloquently maintained by its author over a generation, a poem, a work of art, all rolled into one.”  Abraham Harris and Henry Lee Moon critiqued the book from a position to the left of DuBois, challenging his concept of Radical Reconstruction and his idea of the proletarian dictatorship

Aptheker makes the following observation:

In this book, Du Bois emphasizes the momentous impact upon the nature of American society, and therefore upon world history, of the failure to democratize the South, which is what the defeat of Reconstruction, meant for DuBois.

DuBois also sought to make clear that Reconstruction was an episode in the entire, worldwide struggle of the rich against the poor. Property and property relationships shape his thesis in the book. He emphasized not only the specifics of the land question in the South but the entire matter of property rights; indeed, he called one of the most pregnant chapters in this book “Counter-Revolution of Property”. DuBois understood the question of property to be central to the State and democracy. “In this sense”, Aptheker says, “DuBois saw the story both of Emancipation and Reconstruction as an essential feature of the story of labor…in the generic sense of those who had to work to make ends meet.”  But chattel slavery turns Blacks as human beings into property, not just their labor power. What this produces is a situation where the race struggle inevitably shapes the class struggle. Aptheker raises in this context important theoretical questions that are present in Du Bois’s effort. For instance, Du Bois’s notion of Radical Reconstruction included the possibility of a proletarian dictatorship. He later backed away from such a notion contending that the “the state of South Carolina] and country was not ready for that dictatorship of the proletariat which might have come in a later development and in other surroundings.” Herein rest the important question of the relationship of the struggles for democracy to that for socialism. It might even be suggested that DuBois conceived of Reconstruction as a continuation of John Brown’s armed activity in 1855 and raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859; thus, erroneously assuming a generally proletarian revolutionary situation issuing out of the Civil War. Perhaps  the theoretically most innovative chapter in the book is Chapter Four , “The general Strike”. Here Du Bois affirms a revolutionary agency for Blacks, who in chapter one defines as workers.

What must, however, be acknowledged is that DuBois was applying his massive genius to understanding Reconstruction as part of a scientific effort to discover the foundations of institutional and legal racism in the United States. The race and class dialectic and their interpenetration in the formation of the struggles for radical democracy are a primary focus of the work. His scientific accomplishment, therefore, should be placed in the context of his effort to define the logic of democratic transformation. Hence, this book seems to signal the full maturity of DuBois as a theoretician of social change.

Dr. James Jackson states, “W.E.B Du Bois, the scholar and scientist, was equally a man of action”. He “chose to keep the banners and goals of full equal rights flying from the halyard of principle, no matter the difficulties and hardships…”[xv] In summarizing Du Bois’s “lasting testament”, Jackson argues, “…his last historic deed was to dramatize his firm conviction that `capitalist society is altogether evil’ that is like an old house in a state of collapse from the roof to the basement. He concluded that to finally solve the problem of racism, to really solve the problem of poverty and to secure peace to the worlds peoples, mankind must, sooner than later, come to the conclusion that this old structure is beyond effective reform…” Lastly, with exceptional insight Jackson states,” W.E.B DuBois was a great fighter for the people, a true scientist, thinker and humanist. He held aloft a bright torch of poetic inspiration that lightens the way and illuminates the path of all that struggle for freedom. The questions that DuBois posed and dealt with along the way of a long and arduous life of unceasing service and dedication to the cause of the peoples progress will find resolution on the path that he chose, the route of the great humanists and social scientists…”[xvi]


[i] [i]Social Darwinism is a perverse effort to apply Charles Darwin’s biological model to social behavior. Its chief claim is that race, class and gender inequalities are the consequences of inherited and immutable biological factors. These theorists argue that the social structure of capitalist society emerges from biologically determined variables. Thus, according to this theory, capitalist society is natural and immutable. Herbert Spencer is the founder of this school of thought. Francis Galton pioneered the hereditarian research program. Galton attempted to statistically prove the main thesis of social Darwinism and Spencer’s outlook. In the main it sought to demonstrate that human intelligence and potential were genetically inherited. Galton’s discoveries in statistics, which contributed to associating statistics as a branch of mathematics, gave a veneer of science to this research program. In the end, and in large measure due to the discoveries of DuBois, social Darwinism and the hereditarian research program have been found to be pseudo-scientific with no basis of scientific verification.

[ii]. Presently a minority of social scientists are found in the camp of social Darwinism. Sociobiology is the latest expression of this trend. Although there are differing research agendas within Sociobiology its main thesis questions and finally minimizes the role of social structure, class and race in shaping human personality, intellect, potential etc. Although most in this trend askew any identification with open racism there is an active and robust racist trend within this research program. Lately there has appeared a renewed interest in the hereditarian research program. This takes the form of research, which suggests that criminality, intelligence, delinquency and so on are genetically passed on from parents to children. The Bell Curve is the most recent effort in this direction.

[iii] Francis Galton, a friend of Herbert Spencer, argued that instead of looking to history, philosophy and the humanities for an explanation of human and racial inequality, attention should focus on the relationships between  abilities, social position and hereditary data. Hannaford (1996:279) says, “In Hereditary Genius (1869) Galton proposed that a science of society based on the breeding of heritable characters might bring greater benefit to mankind than all the antics of the residents of Westminster.”

[iv] In the chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, titled “Of Booker T. Washington and Others” Du Bois argues that Washington emerged as the most skillful national politician of his time precisely because he removed “the Negro problem” from national politics. The compromise he brought about was based upon the agreement that in return for an end to anti-lynching and civil rights agitation the white ruling class would fund  “separate” development and institutions for Blacks.

[v]. These events symbolize the passage of African American leadership from the revolutionary democrat Douglass to Booker T. Washington whose program was based upon a comprehensive capitulation to racism. Interestingly,  Washington’s 1895 Atlanta Compromise  speech anticipated the Supreme Court’s decision a year later in Plessy v Ferguson. In this speech  Washington declared that in all things social and economic the races were separate. DuBois said of Douglass, “in his old age, (he) still bravely stood for the ideals of his early manhood,–ultimate assimilation through self-assertion, and on no other terms.” Of Booker T. Washington DuBois declared, “Mr. Washington represents in Negro thought the old attitude of adjustment and submission.” And his program “practically accepts the alleged inferiority of the Negro races.”

[vi] Barkan (1992:24) suggests that race theories reflect race conflict in societies and that the high point of British racism was also the high point of British imperialism. In this sense, The Bell Curve possibly herald’s the new era of race relationships and race conflict in US society.

[vii]. ibid. p.556.

[viii]. Class Conflict, Slavery, and the United States Constitution, (1967)

[ix]. Pro-Slavery Crusade (1971)

[x] A significant debate among philosophers over the meaning and significance of this paper has recently been conducted. Most important to this debate are Lucius Outlaw (1996: chapter 6) and Anthony Appiah (1992: 28—46).

[xi]. Significant works in urban sociology that draw upon Du Bois’s methodology and approach are, W.I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s  The Polish Peasant in Europe and America 1918–1921,(1918), St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton’s Black Metropolis, (1946), Kenneth Clark’s Dark Ghetto,(1964), David Katzman’s  Before the Ghetto: Detroit in the 19th Century, (1973), Kenneth Kusmer The Ghetto Takes Shape: Black Cleveland 1870–1930, (1976) and William Julius Wilson’s Truly Disadvantaged (1987).

[xii]. quoted by E. Digby Baltzell in his “Introduction” to Du Bois’s  The Philadelphia Negro, p.ix.

[xiii]. W.E.B DuBois, The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study, p.1, New York ( Schocken, 1967)

[xiv].The Crisis in Historical Materialism: Class, Politics and Culture in Marxist Theory,  p.ix,  Praeger, New York, 1981.

[xv].”W.E.B DuBois: Light for the Path”, Political Affairs,  July , 1989, p.4.

[xvi].ibid. p.5

About Anthony Monteiro

I am a activist and scholar who is a professor in the Department of African American Studies at Temple University.
This entry was posted in Black Intellectual, Political and Ideological Issues, W.E.B DU BOIS AND HUMAN SCIENCE. Bookmark the permalink.

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