U.S. Intellectual History Blog

W. E. B. Du Bois’s “Black Reconstruction” and the New (Marxist) Historiography

Du Bois at the grave of Karl Marx, September 1958

What follows is the paper I gave this past weekend at the ninth annual meeting of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History in Dallas. I received excellent comments from our chair, Amy Wood, and from several audience members–comments that have made me rethink some of my argument. But I publish here without editing in the hopes that I receive more comments. 

To decipher Donald Trump’s election, several gobsmacked liberal journalists have been reading about Reconstruction. They seem to think the era of Reconstruction, when tangible racial progress was realized only to be wrecked by white revanchists, speaks to the present. MSNBC pundit Chris Hayes has declared that books about Reconstruction are “all of what I’m reading.” Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, to make sense of Trump’s racist and nativist appeals, has blogged his way through W. E. B. Du Bois’s 1935 magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America. This is not the first time that Black Reconstruction has been put to good use. It won’t be the last.

Black Reconstruction in America is the definitive revisionist text in African American history and, arguably, American history more broadly. Black Reconstruction revises history in several ways. Most obviously, the book overturned the notoriously racist Dunning School. In his effort to transform how people thought about the Civil War and Reconstruction—in telling his story “as though Negroes were ordinary human beings”—Du Bois ran headlong into a legion of white historians who worked in lockstep with Columbia University historian William Archibald Dunning and his followers, including Woodrow Wilson. The Dunning School argued that Reconstruction was the most calamitous and corrupt period in the nation’s history because imperialistic Radical Republicans empowered riotous, sub-human blacks to rule over the respectable white South. This racist interpretation, popularized by The Birth of a Nation, the 1915 silent film that rekindled the Ku Klux Klan, functioned as a rationale for stripping southern blacks of citizenship.

Black Reconstruction was revisionist not only for reversing the Dunning School premise that Reconstruction was ruinous—Du Bois believed it had advanced American democracy unlike anything else—but also in its assumption that blacks had agency. Du Bois argued that black slaves emancipated themselves during the Civil War by resisting work on Confederate plantations and by swamping approaching Union lines. This theory of black agency became the historical discipline’s conventional wisdom by the latter decades of the twentieth century, one more demonstration of the fact that Black Reconstruction casts an enormous shadow over American historiography.

Yet another equally important if less discussed aspect of Du Bois’s classic revisionist account is his Marxist exploration of the relationship between capitalism, slavery, and emancipation. In Black Reconstruction, which Du Bois wrote while running a Capital seminar for his graduate students, Du Bois contended that black emancipation was “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian Revolution, had seen.” Such a view was grounded in a Marxist theory of capitalism in relation to slavery. “Black labor,” Du Bois wrote, “became the foundation 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…” Du Bois was well versed in what Marx had written about slavery: “Without slavery there would be no cotton, without cotton there would be no modern industry. It is slavery which has given value to the colonies, it is the colonies which have created world trade, and world trade is the necessary condition for large-scale machine industry.”

When blacks freed themselves from this system of unfree labor they not only destroyed the American system of chattel slavery, they also revolted against global capitalism. Du Bois provocatively labeled black resistance during the Civil War a “general strike,” thus equating it to the militant labor actions making headlines during the time he was writing Black Reconstruction, such as the West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934. By rebelling against slavery and capitalism, black slaves had created a proletariat revolution within a bourgeois republic. In this, Du Bois added an important qualification to the standard Marxist theory of a revolutionary vanguard: as opposed to the white working class of the orthodox Marxist imagination, black slaves represented the proletariat.

Such Marxist terminology carried over into Du Bois’s analysis of Reconstruction, which he repeatedly referred to as a “dictatorship of the proletariat,” exemplified by the fact that black former slaves suddenly had real power over their white former enslavers. Du Bois pointed to instances of black judges deciding property disputes in favor of black claimants, sometimes against their former owners. A white lawyer in South Carolina summed up the situation nicely: “We have gone through one of the most remarkable changes in our relations to each other, that has been known, perhaps in the history of the world.”

Du Bois argued that the Civil War and Reconstruction had overturned class relations to such a radical degree that poor whites also began exercising their rights for the first time. He even claimed that Reconstruction had the potential to remake American class relations beyond the South. In this he also followed Marx, who wrote the following in Capital: “In the USA, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the republic. Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded. But out of the death of slavery a new life at once arose. The first fruit of the civil war was the eight hours agitation that ran with the seven-leagued boots of the locomotive from the Atlantic to the Pacific.”

But class struggle went both ways. Building on his interpretation of the Civil War, Du Bois showed that Reconstruction was “America’s unfinished revolution,” as Eric Foner later termed it. Reconstruction failed to fulfill its promise because northern capitalists realized that it had gone too far. If some of the policies forwarded by free blacks and Radical Republicans had been implemented, especially those regarding land and wealth redistribution, what was to stop working-class northerners from making similar demands? Moreover, there remained the problem of labor in the South, which had been one of the key engines of American capitalism. Northern capitalists had an interest in ensuring that former slaves returned to work the land on the cheap. In short, a national elite killed Reconstruction because it needed a chastened labor force. The revolution was smashed when black labor once again came under planter control, which happened in relatively quick fashion after the northern army of liberation deserted the South in 1877.

Related to this historical analysis of Reconstruction, Du Bois argued that the capitalist elite turned the white working class against blacks. This had the mutually reinforcing effect of dividing the working class while also enabling a new black serfdom which emerged in the forms of sharecropping and Jim Crow. As opposed to class solidarity, white workers acted on what Du Bois termed the “psychological wages of whiteness,” yet another innovation that was far ahead of its time. “Karl Marx,” Du Bois wrote, “had not yet published Das Kapital to prove to men that economic power underlies politics.” White workers “did not know that when they let the dictatorship of labor be overthrown in the South they surrendered the hope of democracy in America for all men.” The failure of Reconstruction reverberated across the land. But did Du Bois’s masterpiece resonate?

Harcourt, Brace, which published Black Reconstruction at a time when it was rare for a well-respected trade press to publish black scholars, sent out hundreds of review copies. Indeed, the book achieved wide review in the popular, black, and left-wing presses. (Some scholarly journals reviewed Black Reconstruction, but the American Historical Review ignored it and has yet to review it.) The NAACP helped promote the book by giving it free advertising in Crisis and by sending tens of thousands of flyers to its members. Despite all this effort, Black Reconstruction only sold 2000 copies in its first three years. There were many reasons for such poor sales: the depression; it was a relatively expensive book; illiteracy persisted among black Americans; and, of course, most white Americans were indifferent. The last factor was the weightiest and was magnified by the fact that Black Reconstruction was “an angry book” as John Hope Franklin later described it. Du Bois admitted the book was not designed to be a best-seller. But he also said that “in the long run, it can never be ignored,” a sentiment to which reviewers surprisingly agreed.

Most reviews of Black Reconstruction were positive, especially in the mainstream and black presses. The book was hailed as original and as a necessary correction to the Dunning School interpretation, which one reviewer dismissed as mere “legend.” The Pittsburgh Gazette recommended Black Reconstruction to the Pulitzer Prize judges, describing it as “one of the most important books of our age.” There was some mild criticism of the book here and there but the harshest criticism emerged from the left-wing press, which took issue with Du Bois’s renegade Marxism. Writing for the New Republic, Marxist labor historian Abram L. Harris criticized Du Bois’s general strike idea as “fantastic.” Such apostasy was also panned in the Nation and New Masses. For most 1930s Marxists, slavery might have played an important role in pre-capitalist developments—what Marx termed “primitive accumulation”—but capitalism proper was about industrial production. Class was a relation between factory owners and factory workers which positioned the latter as the eventual revolutionary vanguard. In this orthodox Marxist view, slavery was a vestige of feudalism, not part and parcel of capitalism. No matter how unjust their situation—no matter how dehumanizing slavery was—slaves were not revolutionaries. The Civil War and Reconstruction era was not a revolutionary moment but rather a period of capitalist consolidation.

Despite such left-wing criticism, Du Bois felt good about the many favorable reviews. But such positive reception, in the long run, was bittersweet since soon after publication Du Bois’s masterpiece was largely forgotten as too many scholars and other readers remained trapped in the Dunning mindset. In fact, during World War II, the book’s printing plates were destroyed for scrap. It was not until the 1950s and 1960s, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement—the Second Reconstruction—that historians finally reckoned with history “as though Negroes were ordinary human beings.” It was then that Black Reconstruction experienced a second life. Ever since, Du Bois’s tome has grown in stature. It is now widely recognized as a landmark of American historiography.

The second life of Black Reconstruction emerged in fits and starts. Whereas a few of Du Bois’s crucial revisions were assimilated into conventional historical scholarship as early as the 1960s, other aspects of the book only gained acceptance later. The major early revisionist historians of Reconstruction in the 1950s and 1960s, namely Kenneth Stampp and John Hope Franklin, who were sympathetic to the idea that blacks helped create the outlines of a multiracial democracy in the postwar South, respectfully acknowledged the importance of Black Reconstruction. But they also tended to reject its Marxist biases, which Franklin called “unfortunate” and Stampp referred to as “disappointing” and “naïve.”

By the late 1960s a younger generation of historians embraced some of the radical elements of Black Reconstruction, such as the notion that blacks emancipated themselves during the Civil War, an argument forcefully made by Ira Berlin. Others, most notably Thomas Holt, worked through Du Bois’s ideas about black rule in the Reconstruction South. And Eric Foner definitively showed that the black desire for autonomy set the agenda for Reconstruction in his award-winning 1988 book, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. In short, by the end of the twentieth century, many of Du Bois’s revisions had become nearly indisputable: Reconstruction was a valiant effort at creating a multiracial democracy; black agency was crucial to shaping the Civil War and Reconstruction; violent southern reactionaries, with northern elite complicity, destroyed Reconstruction, setting American democracy back almost a century.

Some of this new conventional wisdom had mildly Marxist implications to be sure, but for the most part one could read the trend-setting literature on the Civil War and Reconstruction at the turn of the century and not have to think much about Marx. This is hardly surprising with regards to the early phase of Black Reconstruction’s second life, since Cold War liberals like Stampp set the agenda. But even after 1960s campus radicalism had reshaped scholarly sensibilities, Marx did not weigh as heavily on the brains of historians as he did on Du Bois in the 1930s. To be sure, when the American left reemerged in the 1960s as a surprisingly vital force, Marx was among its symbols of rebellion. But drawing upon Marx was counterintuitive at a time when, against the grain of Marx’s expectations about the immiseration of the proletariat, the American working class had never been wealthier. Marx’s analysis of how capitalism exploits labor in ruthless fashion no longer resonated with a working class that increasingly identified as “middle class.” In general, radicals thought more about the problem of the liberal state than they did about capitalism, at least, the brutal form of capitalism that shaped the ideas of first Marx and then Du Bois. Indeed, Eugene Genovese, the most explicitly Marxist historian of slavery in the late twentieth century, analyzed slavery almost as if capitalism did not exist. More to the point, Genovese argued that the slave system was closed off from the capitalism of the North and thus engendered non-capitalist, paternalistic forms of exploitation and class relations in the South. In this he echoed the 1930s Marxist critics of Black Reconstruction.

A full accounting of Black Reconstruction’s Marxism is a recent phenomenon that we might link to new scholarship that places slavery in a larger capitalist system. Books such as Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom lay waste to the idea that slavery and capitalism were at odds by showing that the American slave system was a dynamic piece of a larger transatlantic capitalist system. Edward Baptist goes one step further in his book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism. Baptist convincingly argues that American capitalism was predicated on the rise of King Cotton, which entrepreneurial enslavers made into an extraordinarily profitable industry precisely because they found increasingly ruthless ways to exploit black labor, including innovative torture techniques such as what Baptist terms the “whipping machine.” In this, Baptist (perhaps unwittingly) combines two interrelated features of Black Reconstruction. First, he sees the tight connection between capitalism and slavery. Second, Baptist narrates the black experience of slavery in direct relation to its capitalistic qualities. The worse black slaves had it, the more money enslavers made. Perhaps because he is studying slavery and not Reconstruction, Baptist’s book is less optimistic about black agency than Black Reconstruction. But working “as though Negroes were ordinary human beings” has humanized Baptist’s eclectic Marxism, making it a very Du Boisian study. As scholars look to connect these two threads—capitalism and black agency—Black Reconstruction will persist as arguably the most important model.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I’m very glad to see this here, especially since I unexpectedly had to miss your paper at the conference. It’s a fascinating read. What stands out to me is the point you make at the end — it seems as though Du Bois’ optimism about the class struggle is almost unique in American historiography. We’re treated to endless Marxist-inspired volumes about how everything anybody did between the Civil War and World War II was ultimately futile, and even the partial exceptions (Denning’s Cultural Front comes to mind) outline only liminal movements which could influence but not control large sectors of American society. In some ways Du Bois’ approach sounds more like that of liberal scholars such as Lawrence Goodwyn and Sean Wilentz in describing the “democratic promise” of American social movements. Why, I wonder, is Du Bois so hopeful when so many Marxists are not?

    • Good question, Jeremy. I wouldn’t exactly describe Du Bois as optimistic in a general sense. The death of Reconstruction, for him, foreclosed on perhaps the only genuine moment in which interracial democracy was not only possible but was being achieved. But I take your point. Whereas many scholars have focused on Reconstruction as ultimately a failure–and whereas most Marxists have focused on the ways in which class solidarity has failed to come together in US history–Du Bois did indeed seem sanguine about a particular moment. I think it speaks to how far former black slaves had come in such a short period of time and how he interpreted that through the lens of worldwide class struggle and how that interpretive framework made the Civil War and Reconstruction that much more remarkable to him.

  2. Andrew, this is a really excellent and helpful essay, with a nice overview of historiography and, I think, an intriguing argument.

    I don’t mean to call forth the anti-Genovese agitators, but I guess I’ve always been a little puzzled that Genovese took pains to treat slavery as an institution different/apart from capitalism, and I still don’t altogether understand what doing that accomplished for or from a “Marxist” outlook. Please to explain.

    • I’m not Andrew, but: if you see Marxism as a simple stage theory, then feudalism (characterized by bound labor) precedes capitalism (characterized by wage labor) precedes socialism (proletariat to collectively own means of production, etc.). In that case, slavery by definition can’t be capitalism because it isn’t wage labor. Then you also adopt the mid-20th century common perspective that stages of development occur at different rates in different places rather than as a worldwide system, and voila, the American South is a bastion of pre-capitalism. (Taking this perspective will also, incidentally, cause you to ignore or diminish unpaid care work and household labor under capitalism.)

      • LD: Yes to SW’s explanation. Many early- to mid-20C Marxists–not all as Du Bois demonstrates–were invested in venerating the industrial working class as the vanguard of revolution because their political and historical sensibilities were grounded in the radical labor movements from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression. So they accentuated the Marxist stage theory as SW points to, while ignoring other elements of Marx’s writings that pointed in different directions. But that said, Genovese was a great historian and I found plenty of convincing evidence to make his case. But I would argue Du Bois and Baptist, et all, are more convincing. That both sides of this debate make solid arguments points to the complexity of historiography–as if you needed convincing of that point!

  3. There was a long comment-thread discussion/debate here of the capitalism/slavery issue a while ago in connection with J. Livingston’s critique of W. Johnson, as I recall. I also noticed more recently a paywalled review-essay on Johnson, Beckert, and Baptist in Vol.1 No.1 of ‘Catalyst’.

    Of those three books (Johnson, Beckert, Baptist), the only one I’ve dipped into (and superficially at that) is Beckert (Empire of Cotton). Rather unwisely bought it, in pb., as I’m unlikely ever to read the entire thing and it’s mostly just taking up shelf space. Impressive research, needless to say, and in glancing at the opening pp. I was interested, for personal reasons not worth going into, to learn about the place of W. Bengal, and notably Dhaka, in the early-modern cotton trade. This kind of book, requiring years of archival research all over the world and a small army of research assistants, is only possible with a lot of funding and institutional support, as Beckert points out in the bk’s acknowledgments.

    • Thanks, Louis. As I was writing this essay I remembered Livingston’s critique of Johnson here at the blog but never found time to go back and revisit it. I will do so now–or soon!

  4. What exactly do you find convincing about Baptist’s argument that “that American capitalism was predicated on the rise of King Cotton, which entrepreneurial enslavers made into an extraordinarily profitable industry precisely because they found increasingly ruthless ways to exploit black labor, including innovative torture techniques such as what Baptist terms the “whipping machine”? Although his estimate that slavery accounted for half of GDP has been widely cited, he made up the numbers that he used to create that estimate. Even if he had done some research rather than making up the numbers, he double counted things and threw in asset prices, which are not counted in GDP. Does he provide any direct evidence that productivity was caused by increases in levels of physical coercion? Picking books and whips were available early in the nineteenth century. Was there evidence of other innovations in coercion? You can’t use the “whipping machine” because even Baptist admits that it is more likely that it was a metaphor than an actual contraption. Does he provide any evidence that enslaved people developed improved techniques for picking that could be passed on from one generation to the next. I don’t recall any evidence of this sort in his book. Like the numbers he uses, some of his qualitative “evidence” is simply made up. He claimed that enslaved people used the phrase the pushing system but provides no references to support the claim. Other people have looked but been unable to find support for the claim. He claimed that he was basing his story on what enslaved people had said, but instead he ignored what they said and put his own words in their mouths.

  5. Andrew: Really a great paper–the last paragraph, especially!

    Picking up on a point made at an HES panel this year, do regional variations within the South (of violence, economic development, styles of political repression, etc.) matter to the Marxist interpretation? For instance, do the divergent experiences of rural sharecroppers and a “real” black proletariat in Birmingham steel mills pose a difficulty in a unified theory of Reconstruction? What about varying degrees of political clout or cooperation between the races in different cities or states?

  6. Two items–one an extended article, the other a short contribution to a roundtable on BR–that might be of interest. Incidentally, my recollection is that Genovese argued that antebellum slavery was something of a hybrid–that (as Marx argued) it was the cotton South’s relationship to the world market which gave it a capitalist character. I find that broadly convincing.



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