I can think of few better ways to commemorate Black History Month, which we are doing all month long, than by studying W.E.B. DuBois’ Black Reconstruction. I say this because the book is part of the effort that Black History Month engages in each year that the people who fought to organize and commemorate Black History Month recognized as a fundamental issue in the U.S. – the attempts to erase, malign and falsify the lives and struggles of enslaved, formerly enslaved and immigrant Black people here in the U.S, from the very founding of this country on stolen land.
I’m pleased that we are studying this text, beginning in Black History Month – it will continue past Black History Month, of course – but I am happy we are doing this here and in several Workers World Party branches around the country.
To just give a brief overview of DuBois himself, he was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts in 1868. He studied at Fiske University, Humboldt University in Berlin, and at Harvard, where he was the first African American to earn a doctorate. He became a professor of history, sociology, and economics at Atlanta University in 1897.
In 1931, he began the research and writing of Black Reconstruction. The book really showcases a turn to Marxist analysis that DuBois had undergone by the time he got to Atlanta University in 1897.
In 1928 he visited the Soviet Union. He actually extended a trip that he was planning to Europe in order to go visit the Soviet Union. And, while he had some critiques, he was also impressed by the recognition being given to workers there at the time, and so he concluded that socialism may be a better path to racial equality than capitalism. It is really hard to describe just how great a leap this was for DuBois in this short talk but, suffice it to say, that this was a really monumental break from some of his previous analyses and previous modes of thought.
In writing Black Reconstruction, DuBois was responding to what he saw as two sets of urgencies. For one, he was correcting the historical record. Almost all, if not all, of the histories at the time – and historians – were reinforcing lies about the Civil War and Reconstruction. And these lies either negated the Black role in the Civil War and in Reconstruction either entirely – just somehow pretended that millions of Black people had nothing to do with these two events in history – or these histories defended the overthrow of Reconstruction as the result of the “problem” of Black folks along the lines of all the stereotypes we hear to this day – that they were “lazy,” “ignorant,” etc. – and that therefore Reconstruction failed because of them.
“No one reading the history of the United State during 1850 to 1860 can have the slightest doubt that Negro slavery was the cause of the Civil War. And yet during and since we learn that a great nation murdered thousands and destroyed millions on account of abstract doctrines concerning the nature of the federal union. The whole argument becomes an astonishing reductio ad absurdem, leaving us apparently with no cause for the Civil War, except statements which make the great public men on one side narrow hypocritical fanatics and liars, while the leaders on the other side were extraordinary and unexampled for their beauty, unselfishness and fairness.”
This statement, of course, calls our attention to the fact that we must not get into the trap of the “horrible” South – and that is not to say the South wasn’t horrible – versus the glorious democratic North. Rather, we must pay attention to the complicity of both sides and the events that led to the false promises and eventual destruction of democracy for workers in the U.S., as well as the resistance by Black and other workers to these events. And that was the first urgency, correcting the historical record.
The second urgency – as I mentioned he started writing this book in 1931. And this was a couple of years after the beginning of the Great Depression. So, he really wrote this thinking about what was going on at the current moment, and he wrote it as a plea for labor unity. As we will see, DuBois used a specifically Marxist analysis to tell a history that he wanted to serve as an admonition for the future. Toward the end of the book he writes,
“The rebuilding, whether it comes now or a century later, 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.”
He cites the indoctrination of white labor into racism and their inability to unite with their fellow Black workers as a primary reason for the counter-revolution that destroyed Black Reconstruction. And this was really a message to the current workers in 1931 to kind of say, you know, “get it together!”
Significantly, DuBois begins his book with a chapter entitled, The Black Worker. That is the first chapter in the book. With this title and with this placement in the book, DuBois is laying out the stakes. First of all, he wants his reader to know the importance of Black labor to the developing system of capitalism on a global scale.
On the second page of the chapter, he says,
“…in a rich and eager land, wealth and work … twisted new and intricate patterns around the earth. Slowly but mightily these Black workers were integrated into modern industry. On free and fertile land, Americans … began to grow a fiber that clothed the masses of a ragged world. Cotton grew so swiftly that the 9,000 bales of cotton … in 1791 became 79,000 in 1800; and with this increase, walked economic revolution in a dozen different lines. …
“Such facts, and others, coupled with the increase of the slaves, to which they were related as both cause and effect, meant a new world; and all the more so because with increase in American cotton and Negro slaves, came both by chance and by ingenuity new miracles for manufacturing, …
“…the Black workers of America bent at the bottom of a growing pyramid of commerce and industry; and they could not only not be spared, if this new economic organization was to expand, but rather they became the cause of new political demands and alignments, of new dreams of power and visions of empire. …”
“Black labor became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure but of northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a world-wide scale; new cities were built on the results of Black labor, and a new labor problem, involving all white labor, arose both in Europe and America.”
So, this is one of his most important contributions and, again, one of the points he wants to make the strongest, that Black labor is indispensable, and was foundational to the worldwide system of capitalism and