Du Bois and Bourgeois Democracy: A History of the United States

DU BOIS STATES in Black Reconstruction, “The record of the Negro worker during Reconstruction presents an opportunity to study inductively the Marxian theory of the state (1992:381).” Charles Lemmert (2000:222) is right when he insists that Black Reconstruction “thinks race through in more enduringly substantial ways” than The Souls of Black Folk. It is, moreover, global in its scope and its intellectual and ideological implications. In thinking about Reconstruction, Du Bois was also thinking about the present and future of race, democracy, class conflict and the state. In Black Reconstruction he goes beyond themes that had appeared in his John Brown (1909): insurrectionary violence, the political and ideological agency of the slaves and state power. In Black Reconstruction Du Bois openly discusses the possibility of the dictatorship of the proletariat in several states of the former Confederacy, counterrevolutionary violence, the race-class dynamic and racialized democracy. He also looks at what we today would call racialized relationships of production. At the core of this set of production relationships is what he called “a wage for whiteness.” It is a work of theory and empirical research. Its point is to talk about the future. The paradigm it presents is revolutionary and transgressive. It establishes a framework for a larger revolutionary research project concerning US democracy, the racialized state and the relationship of class and class conflict to race and race conflict. It carries enormous predictive power. Which is to say, its categories of analysis provide a way to explain and indeed predict the modalities and regulatory principles of institutions, social structures and social classes and groups that make up American society.
At last, Black Reconstruction is successful as an act of ideological and theoretical displacement. It displaces liberal, social democratic and Marxist analysis of the state and democracy. In their place he proposes that race and racialized relationships of production are the organizing principles of American society. And that class taken outside of this historically constituted framework is theoretically impoverished. It is rare that so ambitious a project is so successful in realizing its intended goals, as is Black Reconstruction.
BLACK RECONSTRUCTION asserts that the twentieth century is a long century that begins with the overturn of Reconstruction; that out of this defeat comes the modern US state, modern class and race relations and so on. But more than this the book sums up the seventy-five-year historical period from 1860 to 1935, and on this basis establishes the ideological, philosophical and political framework for the struggles for civil rights and bourgeois democracy through the middle to end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century. The work insists upon the centrality of African Americans as the principal agency of progressive and revolutionary change. And points to the conservative and at times reactionary impulses that animate white working people’s consciousness.
Du Bois is the first to establish whiteness as a social category and as such a critical core dynamic in the American social structure. In the end Du Bois redefines what class analysis is. He takes it beyond class reductionism and dogmatism to recognition of the embeddedness of class in race and that classes in the US context are racialized. For black people, the class conflict and bourgeois democracy are shaped in the context of the struggle against white supremacy and for freedom. Black freedom and democracy, Black Reconstruction argues, is the beginning and end of class analysis.
AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BERLIN Du Bois had done considerable study in the methods of political economy. The German social science academy distinguished itself in that it sought to join historical and political economic studies with concrete empirical research. Du Bois’s research while in Berlin reflected this, especially his study of the small and large-scale agricultural production in the American South during slavery.( n14)
This line of research unfolded throughout his career, eventuating in his notion of a racialized system of production. Political economy as understood at the end of the nineteenth century meant exactly that, the joining of economic analysis to an analysis of the state and economic and social policies. From a reformist, indeed Fichtean and Fabian standpoints, this meant using the state as an instrument of advanced and progressive consciousness and policies.( n15) Hence, socialists imbued the state with programs and policies that reflected their scientific findings and progressive ideas, geared to improve the conditions of working people. There is no doubt that Du Bois throughout his career saw this as one way to advance the immediate and practical interests of the racially oppressed black people. A clear conclusion of his 1896 work, “The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America 1638-1870,” pertains to the failure of the state to enforce the 1808 treaty outlawing the international slave trade. The practical lesson that he drew from this. study was that the state has the power to move events in one or another direction, either towards the moral good or its opposite. Hence, it is clear that Du Bois as a young Ph.D. believed that knowledge linked to state power could alter race relationships. This represented his early commitment to positivism and a scientistic sensibility. This stance perhaps reflected practical necessity given that blacks were almost completely powerless and disenfranchised and living under what was virtually a fascist dictatorship in the southern states.
DU BOIS’S PROFESSIONAL CAREER started in the period of the Nadir, when blacks had been completely deprived of civil and human rights. The justification for this denial was that blacks were less than human, without history, and had no standing as equal citizens within society. As a political text Du Bois’s 1897 speech before the American Negro Academy “The Conservation of Races” is a defense of the rights of citizenship for blacks based on their being part of human history and civilization. Likewise, the political and ideological meaning of The Souls of Black Folk should be read as a passionate defense of the civil and human rights of black folk within the context of bourgeois democracy. The argument made in Souls and “The Conservation of Races” is that blacks had made fundamental contributions to US culture and the shaping of its democracy, were in fact at once the most consistent democratic force in the nation, but ironically were themselves without full legal and human rights. He insists this was attested to by their collective strivings; making black folk the best defenders of the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.
Du Bois argues that the current situation of blacks was occasioned by the overturn of Reconstruction and the return, as he says, of blacks back toward a new form of slavery. The courts, he points out, had become the universal device for the reenslavement of blacks. Du Bois’s intellectual work is overarchingly political and confronts him not just with the color line, but the racialization of society’s hegemonic political and social institution, the state.
DU BOIS UNDERSTOOD that the modern US state was both liberal and racialized, which meant that he had observed the contradiction between expanding democratic rights for whites and the equally significant fact that the state operated as an instrument of racial subordination. This feature could be found in European states as well. The difference was that European powers primarily exercised the racialized dimension of state power in their colonies and in wars of national conquest and suppression (see Du Bois’s “African Roots of the War”). The uniqueness of the American situation is that both features were exercised within the national boundaries of the US nation-state. The liberal view is that the state constitutes a neutral player standing apart from, or above race and class, as the legal arbiter of societal relationships. The proto-fascist, authoritarian view is that the state is an open instrument of the interest of a race-class in its struggle for liberty, national consolidation and progress. These views coexist and are mutually supportive. The liberal view is almost solely associated with social contract theory and with the liberal view of the state advanced by John Rawls (1971).( n16) The proto-fascist or authoritarian view is as American as Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Lincoln.( n17)
Moreover, while present throughout Du Bois’s early works, including The Souls of Black Folk, is a clear predisposition to support the insurrectionary path to changing the racialized American state; this aspect becomes more pronounced in his writing after 1920, reaching its peak in Black Reconstruction. His view would supersede several extant socialist and communist constructions. On the one hand, his view would supersede the Fabian idea that the state plays a technical function and organizes the intellectual resources of society for the purpose of advancing the technical and social relationships of society.( n18) It would also go beyond the classical Marxist-Leninist position, that the state is the concentrated expression of the repressive power of the dominant class. In superseding these views Du Bois would insist that the Western state was racialized and thus constituted the concentrated power of the white race and hence defended existing race relationships within their national boundaries and internationally through colonialism and imperialism.
THERE EMERGES from the analytic dimension of his work the paramount role of African American political and moral agency in the context of the American republic. The slave rebellions and insurrections, the role of the Haitian Revolution and its leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture contributed to Du Bois’s conclusion that the role of the white masses in the history of resistance to repression was exaggerated by historians and had not measured up to the maroon and slave resistance. Du Bois’s startling view that the slaves refusal to work after 1862 constituted a general strike represented a revolutionary approach to American history writing. From this the sense that the crisis of slavery from 1860 to 1880 constituted a revolutionary situation and that black folk were the principal agents of revolutionary change lead logically to the hypothesis that in several southern states a “dictatorship of the proletariat” to use his language, could have possibly emerged. It is as important to examine how these ideas worked themselves out in strategy, tactics, organization and politics. The bulk of his work addressing the pressing need for blacks to achieve bourgeois democratic rights and liberties as a part of the struggle for full liberation, would require practical day-to-day organization, education and agitation.
Du Bois’s organizational work speaks above all else to his attempt to implement his ideas. In every stage of his career he was in some organization, or organizing and editing some political or scholarly journal. However, it is apparent that he fully understood that the path of bourgeois democracy for blacks would not proceed as it had in Europe or for that matter as it had for whites in the United States. It would be, in the end, a struggle for bourgeois democratic rights without the leadership of an existing or aspiring bourgeoisie. It would be as he conceptualized it in Souls a struggle for these rights by a people. The texture of this struggle was similar to what became the national liberation struggles of the mid twentieth century. At the start of the twentieth century rather than a revolutionary path to achieve these rights the reform path was the only available option available to blacks.( n19)

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 Political and Ideological Issues, US capitalism, empire and race, W.E.B DU BOIS AND HUMAN SCIENCE. Bookmark the permalink.

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