From the Secret Files of American History

A response to Black Reconstruction in America (1935) by W.E.B Du Bois

There are significant parallels between the events following the American Civil War and our current political situation. Does this mean that history is repeating itself in some momentous way or is it just a case of the same old shit happening all along? If we are to follow the helpfully detailed presentation by W.E.B Dubois in the first few chapters of Black Reconstruction in America, then it is the case of the latter. Interspersed throughout his comparative profiling of the black worker, the white worker, and the planter in the first few chapters of the book are situationers on education and the political economy of the agricultural industries of Confederate States of the time. I found the statistical record of the “deliberate commercial breeding and sale of human labor for profit,” particularly disturbing (67). Du Bois also discusses disputes over related laws and institutions to foreground the first key concept of the “General Strike” which takes on a Marxist revolutionary outlook in tune with the Reconstruction. When the book was written in 1935, Reconstruction was, almost exclusively, seen by historians as a failure due to the dominant ideas of the Dunning School. As a consequence, more than the Civil War itself, that period is often forgotten or remembered with shame. The “negro slave,” who had been depicted as a scalawag and a carpetbagger after being granted his freedom, was to blame for its failures. (311, 740) Even a cursory critique, though, would raise the question: How can the “negro slave” fail the Reconstruction when they were marginalized in every turn of the Civil War and Reconstruction efforts? It is in this contradiction of previous historiography of the Reconstruction era that Du Bois submits his revision. 

If we are to believe Ernest Renan, the need to unify and forge a nation out of the ashes of war ultimately necessitated an amnesia and historical error. Up until today, the Confederacy is viewed with such nostalgia for genitily and its heroes enshrined in bronze monuments, while the Union Army is often imagined as a merry band of liberators. Du Bois makes a solid case to the contrary. He argues that the history of the United States of America cannot be framed neatly as a novel of war and peace. Against the narrative of the “Birth of the Nation,” it wasn’t the brutality of the Northern and Southern army against each other that had to be suppressed, for even this fact does not entirely endanger the nationhood of the United States. Rather, what needs to be repressed is the memory of 400 years of slavery, which exists as the historical shadow of the Civil War. The bone of contention was the slave’s relationship to and embodiment of capital; it is this reality that shaped the events of the Civil War and Reconstruction. 

Du Bois offers a corollary refinement to Renan with respect to the United States: it was the brutality against the nation of slaves that was forgotten. The economic contribution of slavery, the enormous contribution of the negro soldier to the Union, as well as nearly a century of systemic terror against the black body—all of these had to be erased. 

To this end, Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, opens the wounds of the Civil War and the Reconstruction and presents a radical understanding of history, one which can only be framed in terms of Marxist views of labor and class struggle. 

Because of this Du Bois did not see the emancipated slaves forming a nation that would mythologize its own genesis but he envisioned a struggle that would be fought on the basis of working class solidarity, with the race issue at the forefront of galvanizing allegiances: “The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy.” (73) He also sees the question of race as “the kernel and meaning of the labor movement in the United States.” (748). Indeed, he forwards the notion that it was the slave’s “withdrawal and bestowal” of labor that decided the outcome of the war. (165) This is buttressed by the Marxist analysis that the civil war was the pinnacle of an unsustainable capitalistic system that relied heavily on the force of four million slaves. (131) In true Marxist form, Du Bois evokes the decay of the capitalistic order based on the institution of slavery. (169)

The “general strike” of slaves in the Civil War was a direct action that involved millions of small and large acts of defiance by slaves. These actions pushed President Lincoln from hesitation to full on military action. DuBois calls their emancipation as “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian revolution, had seen” (358). This can be seen as a reaction to the continued marginalization and omission of the role of the Black slave in the dominant historiography of the Civil War.  Du Bois argues: “The slave went free; stood a brief moment in the sun; then moved back again toward slavery.” (108) Later in the book, Du Bois wrote: “Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; […] shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?” 

The United States is held together by the glue of its collective amnesia which resists to recognize that slavery continues today. African-Americans, while still a minority, constitute the largest population of prisoners in the United States that provides free labor for various manufacturing and service industries. In the same manner, their histories are still concealed and relegated to the periphery of the American Empire. Chattel slavery and the violence, repression, endless injustices and humiliations of its own people is the great national sin that has sustained racial hierarchies since emancipation.  

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