Another Side of W.E.B. Du Bois

Another Side of W.E.B. Du Bois

A conversation with Adom Getachew and Jennifer Pitts about Du Bois’s thinking on imperialism, transnational solidarity, and their recent collection, W.E.B. Du Bois: International Thought.


One of the most significant American political thinkers of the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois is perhaps best known for his books The Souls of Black Folk (1903) and Black Reconstruction in America (1935). The former is considered a classic sociological study of the Black experience in the United States, while the latter is a landmark history of the Reconstruction era. Du Bois was also one of the founders of the NAACP in 1909. As all this suggests, Du Bois is principally known for his domestic activism and his works addressing racial inequality in the United States. But his criticism of racial inequality at home was always rooted in the international realities of European and US economic imperialism. Indeed, a recent collection of Du Bois’s writings, edited by Adom Getachew and Jennifer Pitts, shows him to be an essential thinker of international relations. W.E.B. Du Bois: International Thought consists of 24 of his essays and speeches on international themes, spanning the years from 1900 to 1956. In them, readers will encounter Du Bois’s unique perspective on the relationship between empire and democracy, the development of his anti-imperial thought, and his vision for transnational solidarity. To further understand this side of Du Bois’s thinking, I interviewed Getachew and Pitts about their new book. This exchange has been edited for length and clarity.

—Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins

Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: Your new edited volume, W.E.B. Du Bois: International Thought, suggests that Du Bois’s domestic writings were inseparable from his thinking about international affairs. In what sense?

Adom Getachew and Jennifer Pitts: Du Bois understood white supremacy in the United States as one facet of a global phenomenon. He placed the African slave trade and European imperial expansion at the origins of the modern world order, arguing that the wealth generated by slavery fueled the development of capitalism in Europe. That unprecedented wealth, and its concentration in the hands of a few, eased social conflict within Europe and among the white population in the US: The capitalist class was reconciled to granting white workers voting rights and a cut of the imperial spoils, in exchange for the freedom to exploit racialized workers. He used the rich and paradoxical concept of “democratic despotism” to analyze this process of growing wealth and democratic inclusion among whites enabled by the increasingly worldwide exploitation of the land and labor of racialized people. When he described the democracy of imperial states as “strangely curbed,” he was referring to both the US and the European imperial metropoles, where, he believed, the white working class’s complicity in the domination of racialized workers ultimately served to disarm them in their struggle for their own self-determination.

It should be noted that even his quintessentially domestic texts and political projects contained a global vision. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois draws striking parallels between enslaved laborers in the United States and colonized workers around the world. Though he never elides the distinctive character of chattel slavery, he argues that the “great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry[,] shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of a decent living.” Moreover, he links the failure of Reconstruction to the new imperialism of the 19th century. The failure of Reconstruction portended a wider transformation of the universal and emancipatory project of abolition into the age marked by the racial violence and exploitation of Jim Crow and the new imperialism.

The NAACP was also global from the start. It evolved out of the National Negro Committee, whose 1909 platform had been framed in purely US terms. Du Bois pushed the following year for the organization to be renamed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People precisely in order to recognize the global nature of racial domination. In his first speech for the NAACP, in October 1910, Du Bois argued that African Americans’ struggle required an understanding of their situation within a global economic order organized around the color line. He saw the US as a key “strategic point” within this order, both because of its internal racial hierarchy and because US capital was being used to suppress the rights of “black and brown” workers in other countries.

DSJ: So have we lost something important in prioritizing the domestic over the international in Du Bois’s thought?

AG&JP: We don’t want to be dogmatic in insisting on an international perspective. Du Bois, as we try to show, is a political thinker ever attuned to the contexts and purposes of his critical interventions. Du Bois himself modulated his interventions, at times deploying an account of American exceptionalism as the great experiment in democracy, and at others seeking to provincialize American history in a wider story of imperialism.

At the same time, we do think that the forms of internationalism Du Bois advanced during his long career as a scholar and activist have in fact waned in our time. We can attribute this to the institutionalization of the nation-state as the norm of global politics as well as the decline of universal ideologies such as Marxism and Pan-Africanism. We hope that by collecting and analyzing Du Bois’s international thought, we can show why and how international perspectives continue to be relevant today.

DSJ: What, then, are the essential features of Du Bois’s international thought?

AG&JP: Central to Du Bois’s thought is a critique of the idea that the international order is organized around equal and independent nation-states. For Du Bois, this is a deeply misleading picture. It disaggregates the domestic regime and constitution of the nation-state from international relations and portrays states as relating to one another with sovereign independence. Du Bois explored the centrality of empire and race as key institutional and ideological features of the international order. By doing so, he generated several important insights. First, he argued that racial domination and economic exploitation within societies is continuous with and causally connected to imperial and international domination and exploitation. Both are fundamentally a matter of controlling the labor of racialized bodies while commandeering land, wealth, and natural resources.

Second, he critiqued the myth of sovereign autonomy. The image of the independent, self-contained state hid from view the exploitation of imperial subjects and the global movement of capital. The sovereign European nation-state was in a crucial sense an illusion, its prosperity and political order inextricable from a global system of domination. Correspondingly, the sovereignty of the few independent states of Africa and the Caribbean was also deceptive. Using Liberia as an example, Du Bois argued that the ideal of a sovereign state elided from view the ways in which postcolonial states were produced out of imperial histories that continued to shape their political and economic trajectories. In Du Bois’s view, then, a state like Liberia was not “a self-steered craft, master of her own fate,” but “a canoe tossed on raging economic currents which eddied out of the slave trade of the eighteenth century into the swirl of the World War in the twentieth century.”

Third, he argued that true democracy could not be realized anywhere until democracy had become universal: “The habit of democracy must be made to encircle the earth.” What passed for democracy in Europe and the US—racially exclusive and dependent on the exploitation of colonial land and labor—was a stunted, corrupting, and combustible political compromise. As long as this remained the standard of democracy, workers—white workers included—would have no real self-determination, and world wars among rival powers would remain inevitable. The realization of democracy for all people, then, depended on the political mobilization of a global “union of color.”

DSJ: What do you find in his international thought that isn’t essential? I ask this because I was struck by the racial and imperialist assumptions of Du Bois’s early writings. For instance, in an essay from 1900, he said: “To be sure, the darker races are today the least advanced in culture, according to European standards.” Elsewhere in his early writings, he seemed to suggest that imperialism could provide the means of citizenship for colonial subjects. Doesn’t this sound like a justification for a kind of mandate system?

AG&JP: There are several ways we can think about Du Bois’s embrace of empire and his use of civilizational and developmental languages. First, like a number of his contemporaries, from Dadabhai Naoroji to Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire, Du Bois looked to empire as a possible site for enacting a form of equal and transnational citizenship. While we can no longer view empire as a site of political possibility, it remains important to think through why this political institution remained a resonant and viable model even for its sharpest critics.

Second, while his use of the Victorian-era language of civilizational difference feels especially jarring, Du Bois also developed a prescient and penetrating critique of what we could call “developmentalism,” criticizing the racialized premises of civilizational hierarchies and refusing a singular model of development in which Europe and the United States were positioned as the future of the rest of the world.

Third, Du Bois’s commitment to development often coincided with his conception of political leadership. He endorsed a politics of rule that empowered political and cultural elites—the “Talented Tenth”—to manage an unruly Black mass, as Robert Gooding-Williams argued in his seminal text In the Shadow of Du Bois. In many respects, this vision of political leadership and vanguardism carried into his international thought. Confronting the entrenched character of white supremacy and economic domination, Du Bois desperately searched for possible leaders of change who might be powerful enough to offer alternatives to the imperial states that dominated the global system. In addition to African American elites, these included at various times the United States, American capital, imperial Japan, and the Soviet Union.

Importantly, however, his international engagements also led him to imagine genuinely democratic forms of anti-imperialism. For instance, in the example of Gandhian nonviolence, he found a novel form of mass mobilization which reinforced his sense that self-rule was a universal habit that could be cultivated by all people. Here, too, Du Bois reversed his view of African American vanguardism and presciently argued that nonviolence in India would become a model of political action in the United States.

DSJ: Can you speak a bit about the relationship between democracy and development as it pertains to Du Bois’s famous notion of the color line? In what sense, for instance, did this involve a program of not only economic advancement, but also moral and spiritual renewal? Martin Luther King, under the influence of Gandhi, also spoke of such renewal. Is this something that you think the left has lost today?

AG&JP: Du Bois maintained that democracy, properly understood, necessarily included democratic authority over industry and the conditions of labor. He always believed that individual ethical transformation would be essential to economic advancement, though his framing of this argument changed. In early writings, he charged African Americans with a failure to strive for excellence and a willingness to tolerate crime—an elitism and politics of respectability for which he has been much criticized.

In the 1930s, when Du Bois was writing Black Reconstruction, his argument about spiritual renewal took on a new inflection: He argued that African Americans’ position in the capitalist order freed them to pioneer alternative forms of economic activity based not on profit but on “service” and community advancement. Central to his program of advancement was cooperative economics, which he thought could serve as a means for Black communities to exercise economic power even when they were politically disenfranchised. This project had international sources in Gandhi as well as the Japanese writer and activist Kagawa Toyohiko. Du Bois used The Crisis [the NAACP’s official magazine, which he cofounded] to call on African American communities to build local consumer cooperatives; on Black lawyers to provide legal defense, funded through Black churches; and on Black doctors to provide “socialized medicine.” He saw this as a project to rescue democracy from the “dictatorship of industry.”

DSJ: The invocation of Gandhi also raises questions about Du Bois’s thinking about caste. In what sense did he view racial inequality in the US through the prism of a kind of international caste system? There has been a revival of caste analysis regarding contemporary US race inequalities, perhaps most notably in Isabel Wilkerson’s recent Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Is Du Bois’s thinking relevant to these discussions?

AG&JP: Du Bois certainly wrote of racial and economic hierarchies in the US in terms of caste, writing in 1910, for instance, that “millions of people black and white…are today treated as beasts of burden, stunted by caste restrictions and denied opportunity.” As these words suggest, one feature of racial domination, in Du Bois’s analysis, is the way it entrenches itself through a differentiated hierarchy rather than a simple dichotomy of oppressor and oppressed. B.R. Ambedkar, analyzing caste in India, called this phenomenon “graded inequality.” Both Du Bois and Ambedkar stressed that graded inequality operates to thwart solidarity among the various dominated and less powerful groups and to preserve the power of the dominant minority by co-opting those who suffer disadvantage but also struggle to preserve a place in the hierarchy above the most oppressed.

In 1946, Ambedkar wrote to Du Bois identifying himself as belonging to the “Untouchables of India” and seeking further information about a petition that the National Negro Congress had put together and submitted to the newly formed United Nations. In his response, Du Bois expressed sympathy and solidarity with the cause of the Dalits in India. The following year, he led the NAACP’s effort to present a new petition, titled “An Appeal to the World,” to the UN. In the opening sentence of the introduction to the petition, Du Bois described African Americans as “forming largely a segregated caste, with restricted legal rights, and many illegal disabilities.” The color caste system, Du Bois argued, was not only destructive to those who lived with the barriers of segregation but had also caused “the greatest modern attempt at democratic government to deny its political ideals, to falsify its philanthropic assertions and to make its religion to a great extent hypocritical.” Du Bois’s overriding concern with the interactions between democracy and caste resonates in important ways with Ambedkar’s political thought. Both view democracy as more than a set of political and constitutional arrangements and emphasize its social and ethical dimensions.

A forthcoming book by the political theorist Hari Ramesh draws on these broad insights to reconsider overlooked dimensions of the caste school of race relations and to examine the traffic of ideas between India and the United States in the mid-20th century. At the same time, as Ramesh has argued elsewhere, it is important that the race/caste analogy not be overextended and overgeneralized. While we should take seriously moments when the mobilization of a language of caste has been theoretically and politically generative for a range of actors, we should also take seriously the ways in which race and caste oppression are born out of specific historical trajectories and political experiences.

DSJ: It is common now to think of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund as neocolonial institutions. They impose policies—such as structural adjustment “reforms” and austerity measures—on client states that deepen inequality in the Global South, which in turn benefits the powerful countries of the Global North. In what sense did Du Bois’s own thinking about imperialism prefigure this critique?

AG&JP: Du Bois understood the global color line as a protean and flexible system of economic exploitation, structured by racism, that operated not only through war and conquest but also through the control of technology, investment capital, and the markets for colonial goods. He viewed formal political power as just one means of imperial exploitation, and he recognized debt burdens as an especially potent tool of political control. From his earliest writings, he placed particular emphasis on the forms of domination exerted over independent Black states: Haiti, whose 20-year occupation by the United States was followed by the “chains” of a crushing debt burden; Liberia, whose land and labor was likewise controlled through debt; and Ethiopia, a member of the League of Nations whose 1936 invasion by Italy was tolerated by the other league members. These states were harbingers of the future after formal decolonization for other parts of Africa.

At the founding of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions, Du Bois criticized their failure to address the fact that their most powerful members were imperial states ruling hundreds of millions of voiceless subjects, and for failing to acknowledge the major role that cheap colonial labor and materials were certain to play in postwar economic reconstruction. Yet even as he recognized the UN’s profound shortcomings in addressing what he believed were the true causes of global conflict—colonial rivalry and the collective commitment in white societies to the exploitation of darker labor—he remained a committed internationalist. In efforts like the NAACP petition to the UN, he sought to use available institutional and ideological openings within the UN to advance the cause of racial justice and transform international institutions.

As for the role of inequality within the Global South, imperial capitalism’s co-optation of local elites became more visible to Du Bois during the Cold War, when he argued that economic imperialism required the participation of the colonial bourgeoisie. He had earlier been inclined to look to local elites in colonized countries as indispensable leaders of colonial resistance and to overlook their participation in structures of exploitation. So, for instance, in the 1920s, he was less attuned to the ways in which the Americo-Liberian settler elites dominated Indigenous peoples in Liberia. Though he acknowledged the wealth attained by Liberian political leaders in the course of American capital’s exploitation of the country’s land and labor, he did not dwell on the complicity of such elites.

DSJ: In 1946, Du Bois made the following claim: “There was no Nazi atrocity of concentration camps…which the Christian civilization of Europe had not long been practicing against colored folk in all parts of the world in the name of a Superior Race.” Might you say more about Du Bois’s conception of fascism and how it emerged out of a longer history of settler colonialism?

AG&JP: Du Bois was a critic of the self-conceit of Western powers that they are reliable defenders of liberal democracy in the face of utterly alien autocratic powers. He stressed Europeans’ and white Americans’ habituation to domination and violence in the colonies and their indifference to the exploitation and death of racialized subjects. And he argued that those powers had pioneered the racial violence that they saw as a sui generis phenomenon in Nazi Germany. He also understood politics within Europe as parasitic on the dynamics of imperial capitalism, and both the First and Second World Wars as driven by rivalry over the domination of the non-European world. He saw German aggression in both wars as due in part to Germans’ belief that they could only survive as an industrial society if they followed France and Britain in pursuing a colonial empire.

We should read Du Bois as part of a Black intellectual tradition of theorizing fascism in relation to colonialism and racism. In his 2020 essay for Boston Review, Alberto Toscano draws on elements of this intellectual tradition to rethink the various contemporary analogies between Trumpism and fascism. One of the central features of this tradition’s account of fascism is its scalar imagination. That is, it examines the dynamics of what George Padmore would call “colonial fascism” at the levels of the international, national, social, and psychological. This mode of analysis is already visible in Du Bois’s essay “The Souls of White Folk.” First written in 1909 and appearing in its final form in the 1920 collection Darkwater: Voices Within the Veil, the essay tracked how the “discovery of personal whiteness” worked through the geopolitics of the new imperialism, shaped the norms and expectations of social life, and manifested in everyday interactions.

Whether we explain the current crisis of democracy in terms of fascism or not, this attunement to the various scales of analysis—and in particular the effort to consider the interlocking dynamics of structure, social practice, and moral psychology—should constitute a central element of our analytical approach.

DSJ: Your volume proposes that Du Bois offers a distinctive approach to problems of international relations, and that this approach is of continued importance to our current global context. Can you say more about the ways in which Du Bois might help us approach contemporary political crises like, say, the war in Ukraine?

AG&JP: We want to be clear that we don’t think of Du Bois’s international thought as a ready manual that can guide us in navigating contemporary political crises. We are very attuned, in the introduction and throughout the volume, to the specific historical contexts and crises to which Du Bois was responding. We are also attentive to the various blind spots of his international thought, such as his defense of Japanese imperialism or his later elision of the authoritarian and imperial dimensions of the Soviet Union.

We also think there are broad insights and lines of thinking Du Bois developed that continue to resonate in the present. In the case of Ukraine, for instance, a number of commentators and scholars have described the war as a colonial war and have deployed the language of decolonization and postcolonialism to think through Ukraine’s political future. However, as Volodymyr Ishchenko has recently argued in the pages of New Left Review, the vision of Ukraine’s decolonization as currently articulated has become overly narrow, emphasizing “symbols and identity” and saying little about “social transformation.” Du Bois died as the project of postwar decolonization was underway, but he believed that the end of empires required more than the transfer of power and the sanctity of national borders. Indeed, if we might identify Du Bois’s anti-imperialism with one overriding political and ethical commitment, it would be the view that democracy (understood expansively) must be made to encircle the globe. He would have diverse accounts of what this entailed throughout his career, but it remained a central aspiration of his international thought.

Still, Du Bois also offers us two distinct insights which resonate with wider currents in anti-imperial thought. First, he always trained his critical attention toward the precursors, precedents, and wide historical contexts of war. Writing in 1915 about World War I, he looked to the “desperate flames of war that have shot up in Africa in the last quarter of a century” to explain the conflict ravaging Europe. To contextualize and historicize was not a strategy of deflection designed to resist the assigning of responsibility to contemporary actors. Rather, it was an effort to understand the present as a product of particular histories and political trajectories. Especially in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, such calls for historicization have at times appeared as obfuscation, especially when they take the form of one-sided assignment of blame (e.g., NATO expansion is the real cause of the war). But without a careful account of the political, economic, and ideological dynamics that have produced war, we are left with very few insights into and strategies for building a lasting peace.

Second, as early as 1904, Du Bois was broadly committed to pacifism. He declares his allegiance to the “Prince of Peace” that year, and one of his last books, the autobiographical In Battle for Peace, returns to this commitment. To be sure, Du Bois’s pacifism did not mean he always rejected violent means. He celebrated Haitian revolutionaries and Black soldiers of the American Civil War as agents of self-emancipation, and by the 1930s he came to view military defense and consolidation as necessary in the context of an obstinate imperialism. Yet his commitment to peace cautions against practices that entrench and escalate conflict and war. In the case of the current war, for instance, as Stephen Milder has recently argued, a decades-long prohibition against militarization in Europe and especially in Germany has been quickly scrapped to accommodate calls for defensive readiness.

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