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W.E.B. DuBois's Abolition Democracy

By the time his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction, was published in 1935, W.E.B. Du Bois was already a rara avis—a prominent Black activist-intellectual in the midst of Jim Crow. Dapper and diminutive, and nattily clad in suit and tie, he was renowned throughout the country. The first African American to earn a Harvard doctorate, Du Bois cofounded the NAACP in 1909 and thereafter helped organize a pan-African movement that bedeviled European colonizers. But what distinguished his close study of slavery and Reconstruction (and does so even today) was its Marxism. Du Bois had been exposed to Marx’s penetrating analytical framework in the early 1890s in Berlin, then the site of what was probably the most advanced socialist movement in the world, and became a member of the Socialist Party in the United States about two decades later. But Black Reconstruction was his first extended effort to shine Marxism’s sweeping floodlight on the tortured history of his homeland. Infusing Marx’s materialism and class analysis with his own anti-racism, the book also offered a solid foundation for the emergence of like-minded scholars, from Eric Williams to Philip S. Foner and Walter Rodney. Black Reconstruction also revealed the shortcomings of the popular and scholarly consensus on the era, preparing the ground for subsequent revisionary texts that thoroughly rewrote this complex history. In the wake of Du Bois’s book, our view of Reconstruction would never be the same.

When Black Reconstruction was published, the ruling consensus on Reconstruction—the period immediately following the Civil War, from 1865 to 1876—was that it had been an outrageous failure, virtually justifying the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. Rather than a time during which the newly emancipated and their allies struggled to create a new democratic order in the South, Reconstruction was described as a tragic period of corruption and misrule, and only after it came to an end was the South able to be “redeemed.”

This view was memorialized in the 1915 cinematic defamation The Birth of a Nation and echoed in 1939 in that twin of Hollywood calumny Gone With the Wind. But it was the consensus among the country’s leading historians—especially those at Columbia University around the so-called Dunning School, which produced numerous books and dissertations that echoed Hollywood’s worst productions.

The popular and scholarly rendering of the Reconstruction era was more than just a matter of factual error. It also upheld a reactionary view of US history, in particular that of the South, and justified the region’s continuing inequalities. To “redeem” the South from the corruption and misrule of Reconstruction required reasserting the previous racial order, depriving Black folk of voting rights and undoing any chance they had to achieve economic independence.

For this reason, the effort to refute the longstanding consensus on Reconstruction was also a matter of politics. As early as 1910, Du Bois began to challenge this libel of one of the country’s more progressive eras. Befitting his eminence, his article “Reconstruction and Its Benefits” was published in The American Historical Review, the profession’s premier journal (at the time, Du Bois was one of the few Black scholars to grace its venerable pages). In that article and thereafter, Du Bois argued that Reconstruction had made a signal contribution not only to democracy but to a nascent social democracy, insofar as the federal government created agencies to deal with the housing and health needs of the emancipated and also “poor whites,” in addition to building some of the first public schools in Dixie and attending to the general welfare. The formerly enslaved were “consumed with desire for schools,” Du Bois wrote, which was “one of the most marvelous occurrences in the modern world, almost without parallel in the history of civilization.” The newly emancipated had also helped to save the republic itself, enlisting in the Union Army by the tens of thousands. This “decided the war,” Du Bois argued, marking “the turning point of the rebellion” and “the heaviest blow [the Confederate States] ever received.”

The enslaved had also dealt the rebels another blow by refusing to work—initiating a “general strike” without an overall coordinating body. Some have criticized Du Bois for overstating the nature of this labor action, but at a minimum it could be argued that the enslaved fleeing en masse from the plantations crippled the South and—friendly amendment—was the most successful “wildcat strike” in human history.

Read entire article at The Nation