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.
But Du Bois was not satisfied with just a short article, and so he began a much larger study that became Black Reconstruction. In it, his deployment of Marxist analysis and rhetoric was heightened, proving to be the hallmark of the work.
Du Bois begins the book with a depiction of the horrors of enslavement (thereby anticipating Eric Williams), which laid the foundation for capitalism itself. “Black labor,” he argued, “became the foundation stone not only of the Southern social structure but of Northern manufacture and commerce…of buying and selling on a world-wide scale.” In the slaveholders’ republic, the planters dominated the White House and, crucially, “the Army and Navy,” which contributed heavily to the South’s early victories during the Civil War.
In his chapters on the period before the war, Du Bois also investigated the “sexual chaos” that characterized slavery, outlining how the “deliberate commercial breeding” of the enslaved for “profit” was both a part of the country’s capitalist system and something that linked the United States to a global market. He examined as well how these practices affected the enslaved themselves—for example, the way the system forced “the concubinage of black women to white men [and] polyandry between black women and selected men.”
Du Bois also offered a skeptical view of abolitionism’s strength and supposed inevitability. “The Abolitionists,” he wrote, “never had a real majority of the people of the United States back of them”—though, more precisely, he should have added a critical qualifier here: “white people.” Further, the “persons who conceived of the Negroes as free and remaining in the United States were a small minority before 1861…. At the beginning of the war probably not one white American in a hundred believed that Negroes could become an integral part of American democracy.” Even after Lincoln’s assassination, “Irish organizations refused to march with Negroes, and the common council of New York City refused to allow Negroes in the…funeral procession.” In 1865 Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Connecticut rejected Negro suffrage. While the war had revolutionary consequences, Du Bois insisted that those ends could not have been achieved without the agency of the enslaved themselves, who rose up and engaged in a dramatic class struggle for freedom with arms in hand, along with adroitly wielding the most potent weapon of an exploited working class: the strike.
In the war’s aftermath, the question of what would happen to the newly emancipated also remained unresolved. The dawning of what Du Bois called “Abolition Democracy” was no more predetermined than the outcome of the war itself. In his account, Lincoln’s successor, the pathetic President Andrew Johnson, was the primary Washington villain and was amply aided by his secretary of state, William Seward of New York, while the heroes of Reconstruction—the Radical Republicans, the recently enfranchised, the “carpetbaggers” (sojourners from outside the South) and “scalawags” (the Southerners allied with them)—all sought to resist Johnson’s reactionary intentions.
Yet the villains ultimately won, and for Du Bois, this was not only due to their own efforts. Despite the heroism of people like Charles Sumner and Thaddeus Stevens, Du Bois argued, these Northern “abolitionists were not enemies of capital”; rather, they were, Du Bois noted (citing a quote from Will Herberg), “typical bourgeois-democratic revolutionists” unable to lead the promise of Reconstruction to its fulfillment in the face of formidable foes.
The “counter-revolution of 1876” that overthrew Reconstruction, Du Bois continued, “was in essence a revolution inspired by property and not a race war.” This insight may seem intuitively obvious, but even today many who see class struggle as the locomotive of history frequently ignore how this class struggle played out in the South.
For Du Bois, the failure of Reconstruction was in many respects not just a national tragedy but also an international one. Reconstruction had the potential to unleash an “economic revolution on a mighty scale,” one that would produce a “world-wide reverberation,” and it also served as “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian Revolution, had seen. That is, backed by the military power of the United States, a dictatorship of labor was to be attempted.”
This mass movement would have developed “political power and organization” under the umbrella of that “protective military power.” But “labor leaders” in the North blinked and wilted, becoming “increasingly petty bourgeois” to the point that they “turned their backs on black labor.” Meanwhile, farmers “organized the Grange, but not for black farm tenants and laborers, not for the struggling peasant proprietors among the freedmen.” When these farmers emerged as a political movement with the Populist Party’s rise in the 1890s, it was, Du Bois argued, too late: “The power which they had put in the hands of the employers in 1876 so dominated political life that free and honest expression of public will at the ballot-box was impossible in the South, even for white men,” because “it was not simply the Negro who had been disfranchised in 1876, it was the white laborer.” Thus, Du Bois concluded morosely, “labor suffered not only in the South but throughout the country and the world over.”
The defeat of Reconstruction and the twisted achievements of the “counter-revolution of 1876” directed the country away from “Abolition Democracy,” Du Bois observed. The United States “turned into a reactionary force. It became the cornerstone of that new imperialism” that was to afflict the hemisphere and the sprawling Asia-Pacific region from its earliest years. The underpinning was Dixie itself, which “had built an oligarchy similar to the colonial imperialism of today, erected on cheap colored labor and raising raw material for manufacture.”
This left African Americans with few options: “Shall they use the torch and dynamite?… Shall they go North?… Shall they leave the country? Are they Americans or foreigners?” For Du Bois, this trapped and cornered minority was uniquely imperiled; nowhere, he asserted, could you find “twelve million people in the midst of a modern cultured land who are so widely inhibited and mentally confined as the American Negro.”
What gives Black Reconstruction added relevance today is that Du Bois does not analyze US history teleologically but rather by scrutinizing the forces on the battlefield. There was “Northern capital,” which “divided labor into exploiting and exploited groups of skilled and highly paid craftsmen who might and did become capitalists, and a mass of ignorant, disfranchised imported foreign slaves.” There was the “white laborer,” who “joined the white landholder and capitalist and beat the black laborer into subjection through secret organization and the rise of a new doctrine of race hatred,” as well as a poverty-stricken subset of “white labor” that opposed “the movement…to attract black labor with economic concession” with “bitter fear.” And there were also the “merchants, the former slave overseers and managers, men who proposed to join the planters as exploiters of labor.”
Irking certain US radicals who have long insisted mechanically on the persistence of class unity across racial lines, Du Bois asserted that “poor whites were determined to keep the blacks from access to the richer and better land.” He also did not exculpate Christianity: The “powerful propaganda of a religion which taught meekness, sacrifice and humility,” he argued, was at odds with the militant fortitude that the times demanded. And he was critical of the Black leaders in thrall to this theology, whom he slammed as “petty bourgeois” and “idealists.”
Du Bois’s scalding dissection of the country’s fetishized “worship of the Constitution” is also relevant today. A document that “did not forbid” secession, he noted, in a rebuke to liberals and conservatives alike, was being heralded as the nation’s savior: “No more idiotic program could be laid down than to require a people to follow a written rule of government 90 years old.” As if anticipating the current battles over critical race theory, Du Bois scorned those who would compel us to “forget that George Washington was a slave owner or that Thomas Jefferson had mulatto children.” He also rejected those historiographical trends that saw the nation as headed inexorably toward abolition with the rise of the Republican Party in the 1850s, or even with the ratification of the now-sacred Constitution decades earlier. For Du Bois, US history during this conflicted period was defined by contingency and the utter absence of inevitability.
Du Bois did not spare himself in doling out criticism. “If I had had time and money and opportunity to go back to the original sources in all cases,” he acknowledged in the pages of Black Reconstruction, “there can be no doubt that the weight of this work would have been vastly strengthened.” But there are some glaring omissions in the book that Du Bois could not chalk up to a lack of funds or access. He does not confront the Indigenous question: Like so many before him and since—including those who still invoke the hallowed “40 acres and a mule”—Du Bois ignores the unavoidable point that this land was illicitly seized in the first place; it was the fruit of a poisonous tree, and passing it on to the formerly enslaved would not sanitize that theft. Uncharacteristically oblivious, Du Bois argued that in the post–Civil War years “there was need of from 25 to 50 million acres more if the Negroes were to be installed as peasant farmers”—seemingly unaware that Indigenes maintained legitimate claims to this land. It is little solace that other thinkers since Du Bois have also failed to grasp this nettle.
There is also the aching contradiction —again ignored by Du Bois and subsequent analysts—of Black troops routing Indigenes in West Texas, even as Black folk were being routed by the Klan and its minions in East Texas. Part of this dilemma was fueled by the aforementioned weaknesses of Black leadership that Du Bois critiqued, but there was little excuse for him not to have engaged with this vexed subject in one way or another.
That Du Bois didn’t marks a missed opportunity: He could have performed an immense service if he had looked at Reconstruction through the lens of settler colonialism, as opposed to grouping the republic with the French Revolution or (perish the thought) the transformative Haitian Revolution. Sadly, Du Bois was not in the vanguard of reimagining the United States as a prison house of nations quashing self-determination for all but the settler class.
There are lesser flaws in Black Reconstruction as well. The lengthy quotations from secondary sources will bring out the inner editor in many readers as they mentally delete entire paragraphs. Du Bois refers to the Black Texas leader Norris Wright Cuney as “incorruptible and intelligent,” but only the diligent reader will uncover that he was accused of bilking his constituents; was apparently tied to gamblers; was accused of consorting with the Democratic Party, Jim Crow’s shock troops—and happened to be the father of Maud Cuney, to whom Du Bois was once affianced.
Nonetheless, whatever flaws Black Reconstruction possesses are far outweighed by its importance. Du Bois’s attention to slavery’s “sexual chaos” continues to demand attention; so too does his focus on the global context as a driving force during the Civil War that offered powerful aid to the enslaved. That the war itself was not clearly impelled toward emancipation underscores the value of Du Bois’s invocation of contingency and reminds us—even the teleologists—that it is folly to describe the United States as an inherently progressive project.
This insight into US history existed before Black Reconstruction, but it was only confirmed by the world that emerged in its wake. For even as Du Bois accelerated his campaign against colonialism worldwide, he was persecuted by the federal government at home, forcing him to eventually expatriate to Ghana, where he died in 1963, just as the March on Washington inaugurated a new stage in the freedom struggle. By that point, Du Bois had become convinced that a Black Reconstruction in the South would no longer be enough. What was needed was a World Reconstruction—an ambitious goal that remains unfulfilled.