A Conversation with the Editors of a Collection of DuBois's Internationalist ThoughtHistorians in the News
tags: racism, socialism, intellectual history, internationalism, W.E.B. Dubois, radical history
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: 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.
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