The Last Shall Be First, Part Two: The Color Line of Labor

"...Du Bois was by the first imperialist war already thinking in terms that today would be called Third Worldist. He appears to hold that the fundamental contradiction, that conditions even class struggle, is the contradiction of oppressor and oppressed nations."

The Last Shall Be First, Part Two: The Color Line of Labor


In an article on the political evolution of Shirley Graham Du Bois, Gerald Horne and Margaret Stevens describe her uncertain position during the Sino-Soviet Split. After her husband’s death, Graham Du Bois came increasingly to identify with the rising forces of the Third World: with Black Power in the US, with Nkrumah’s Pan-Africa in the homeland, with Beijing over Moscow on the world stage.

Naturally, this would alienate her from long-time comrades in the CPUSA, who had plugged their ears to the Black Power cries from their own backyard, and aligned with the Soviet Union as a matter of course.

The story doesn’t end well for anybody. In order to return to the land of her captivity, Graham Du Bois formally renounced her Communist Party ties, and started down the road of grudging support for the PRC during the China-US rapprochement (Want to Start a Revolution? 105-106, 109-110).

In this, she seemed almost to take the reverse course from that of her late husband, who had gone from race-man critic of the Communists in his youth and middle years, to nominal Party member, quite late in life; who had renounced his US citizenship to die in the arms of the old darkland – the “Kush” and “Soudan” of his pioneering histories. The paradox deepens when one considers the approving tone in which Du Bois described the (revisionist) Soviet Union in the Autobiography, one of his very last writings.

These facts make up no simple narrative curiosity, are no mere quirks of history, but are rather the result of a logical development of history, exemplified in the husband’s strange career as theorist and race leader.

The younger Du Bois, between the years 1896 and 1915, had lifted the veil from many of the harsh and beautiful facts of Black life, once hidden by American propaganda. He managed in his later years to expand, refine, and give systematic character to the results of his research. But in these early writings, as he was himself to later admit, he had shown these truths to an uncomprehending and uncaring world, too impressed with itself for criticism from below.

And as a petty-bourgeois leader of Afro-America, an underdeveloped “nation within a nation,” vastly outnumbered by hostile whites, Du Bois saw that his people desperately needed allies in the war on Jim Crow. But with the Black and most of the non-white world under direct colonial rule, he could not expect help from an outside liberating force. And experience repeatedly taught him the limits of moral suasion for a white public of doubtful morals.

Hence his episodic nationalism – pointed out by Harold Cruse, Cedric Robinson, Robert Allen, Sterling Stuckey, and several others, and argued most forcefully, to Walter White's chagrin, in Dusk of Dawn (1940). Maybe Black folk are all we’ve got in the US; the co-founder of the NAACP had seriously to consider that the integrationist fight he had so long advanced, could only be carried further through all-Black political organizations, supported by Black-owned consumer co-ops that would avoid the worst aspects of capitalist production (106).

Hence, too, his earlier experiments with socialist organization, which would ideally have addressed the class within the race issue. But here Du Bois caught on a snag. For while Marxism predicted the rational advance of world history toward industrial and political democracy, toward the real fraternity of foreign peoples, he worried that this promise was still-born in America, where the color line bisects the assembly line, breaking worker solidarity – to the bosses’ advantage, and not only theirs.

It seems to me that his theoretical output from this period is a poor fit with the orthodoxy then reigning in Moscow, that therefore reigned in the CPUSA. It seems better suited for the world to which Graham Du Bois addressed herself in the dusk of her own life. Yet the implications of his works from 1915 run continuously through his writings, even into his Communist phase. Let’s look at a sample from this earlier period, and come to a collective judgment.


Du Bois’s left-wing activism dates back to 1911, with his involvement in the Socialist Party of America. As David Levering Lewis explains in his classic Biography, Du Bois was drawn into the SPA by the influence of Mary Ovington and other white leftists in the NAACP (274-275). But like the great polymath Hubert Harrison, Du Bois soon grew weary of the Party’s color-blind policy, established by Eugene Debs and maintained by Norman Thomas, according to which no special consideration would be given to the Negro in the Party's platform. Instead, the SPA's leading men vaguely alluded to the idea that white racism was a capitalist strategy for dividing the working-class, against the interests of both Black and white labor.

Debs's reasoning was based not so much on personal prejudice as on opportunism. He knew that an important wing within the Party, represented by the arch-racist Victor Berger of Wisconsin, would balk at a policy that directly addressed the Negro question and that combated anti-black racism in the Party's ranks. He also likely knew that militantly confronting racism would hamstring the Party in the race for funds and votes. His position seemed to express a naive hope, that the rabid racism of the white majority was but a superficial slime that would melt off in the heat of revolution.

But dialectical thought can't leave collective attitudes and actions behind in the swarm of accident. It has to account for their necessity in existing social relations. And as editor of The Crisis, Du Bois had seen too many collective outrages by white labor against Black, in Atlanta and Springfield and other places, to be satisfied with the Debsian compromise. These experiences gave Du Bois an epistemic interest in drafting what became one of his earliest contributions to critical theory, to the body of radical thought that interrogates fundamental Marxist assumptions in light of their failure to explain new developments.

Du Bois’s argument in “The African Roots of War” (1915) is that the Western world’s blindness to its disastrous bond with the world of color is the cause of its crisis in civilization, its hidden source of world war (Du Bois: A Reader, 642). The leading statesmen and technicians of the West cannot resolve the paradox that their industrial democracies – supposedly the freest, the most cultured and economically advanced societies in history – now stand poised on the brink of mutual destruction, rather than liberal peace, or international working-class unity. The riddle, says Du Bois, can only be solved by first re-examining the suppressed roles played by Africa and Asia in world history.

And especially the disastrous record of their relationship to the West, whose wealth is really the alienated wealth of dark humanity; whose competition for bigger markets and sites for capital investment, drives imperial warfare irresistibly forth. Drawing on JA Hobson, Du Bois argues that the real impetus to modern war is the crass economic interest of finance capitalists, who increasingly dominate the political classes of their respective nations, and use this influence to press governments into wars of re-partition for control of the underdeveloped world.

But Du Bois’s pattern of explanation does not remain in the economic substructure: for racial ideology grows up alongside imperial profits, to justify and to expand them. The social esteem of whiteness, and a pacifying higher wage, together help enlist the working classes of white nations to the side of imperialists, against their long-term class interest in revolution. This factor tends to undermine the workers’ movement for industrial democracy, and creates an interest for white workers in the expansion of their nation’s share of the colonial market, the dumping-ground of their surplus goods (644-645). Here we reach a tangle in the world dialectic of capital and labor.

The only answer to endless warfare is thus the extension of the democratic idea to the world’s darker peoples – a development that will come through moral coercion by the peace movement in the imperial centers; or else through brutal wars of national liberation, waged by the colonized masses (649-650).

In this article, which appeared one year before Lenin’s Imperialism, and that shares some influences and ideas with that more famous text, Du Bois touches on several of his lifelong themes. These are understandably absent from Lenin’s outline, but they have real consequences for social theory in the imperialist age.

His re-centering of Africa in world history, in this case as the prime cause of world war, previews his later thesis, in The World and Africa (1946), that Europe's recent “descent” into fascism is only her revisitation by the long-standing fascism in her colonies.

As in the later text, Du Bois here protracts his account of history, so as to recover the dignity and grandeur of Black people; unfurling a saga of Africa's development that predates, and interpenetrates, the rise of the West:

Twenty centuries before the Christ a great cloud swept over sea and settled on Africa, darkening and well-nigh blotting out the culture of the land of Egypt. For half a thousand years it rested until a black woman, Queen Nefertari, 'the most venerated figure in Egyptian history,' rose to the throne of the Pharaohs and redeemed the world and her people. Twenty centuries after Christ, black Africa, prostrate, raped, and shamed, lies at the feet of the conquering Philistines of Europe. Beyond the awful sea a black woman is weeping and waiting with her sons on her breast. What shall the end be? The world-old and fearful things, War and Wealth, Murder and Luxury? Or shall it be a new thing--a new peace and new democracy of all races: a great humanity of equal men? 'Semper novi quid ex Africa!'"(650-651)

In smashing the colonial propaganda of history, Du Bois thus reconnects the Black world in an epic struggle that is not immanent to the logic of European capitalism, and that will presumably survive it, against all immediate proof of Europe’s victory. He also indirectly reminds us that Africa’s role in world history is not even raised as a problem for classical Marxist thought. (But that’s a discussion for another time.)

Here, too, he describes the methods of colonial subjection that subtend and explain these lies: the slave trade, that removed one hundred millions from Africa; the resulting instability, that made possible the ten-million-person butchery of the “Belgian” Congo; the establishment of settler rule on the Continent, and many more hard lessons from our teachers in civilization (643-644). Before Fanon, before Cabral, Du Bois understood that the memory of conquest was burned into the brains of the so-called “backward” people, and that it was reinforced by our ongoing racial humiliation; whereas citizens of the conquering nation had the privilege to forget the collective crime, and an economic and subjective interest in justifying what couldn’t be forgotten.

Finally, and crucially for my point, Du Bois calls the mother countries ‘armed national associations of labor and capital,’ showing the cross-class nature of the colonial project and of the violence through which it is achieved (647). Though he still believes in the possibility of international workers’ unity, as evidenced by the concluding chapter of The Negro (1915), Du Bois is less sanguine than most of his contemporaries about its chances in America and Western Europe, whose classes are united in common hatred of nonwhite peoples (“Roots,” 647).

And this is not a sporadic concern for him; rather it deepens across the timeline of his works. Du Bois renders the fascist mindset of white workers in the bloody poetry of Darkwater. He bases it as well in depth psychology as in political economy in Black Reconstruction and Dusk of Dawn. It’s still stubbornly there, like a crusty counterpoint from Beckett, in his verdict on Western Europe in the Autobiography.

Neither Luxemburg nor Lenin, the other great theorists of imperialism in that generation, had considered that racial ideology could be so durable, could exercise such arresting power on the forward march of history. There are revolutionary theorists who did; but they came much later – too late, or entirely too early.


“African Roots of War” shows Du Bois disillusioned with the Socialist Party: with its rigid and class-reductive social theory; with its opportunist evasions on the white worker’s racism, and corresponding silence on the Negro question; with its indifference to the effects of all this on historical progress.

It shows that Du Bois was already by the first imperialist war thinking in terms that today would be called Third Worldist. He appears to hold that the fundamental contradiction, that conditions even class struggle, is the contradiction of oppressor and oppressed nations. He includes Afro-America in the camp of the oppressed – victims of the same class that reaps super-profits throughout the African world; that shifts wage slavery from their own working classes onto Black labor at home and abroad, ensuring the domestic peace needed for global plunder.

This racial division of labor, as he develops it in “Marxism and the Negro Problem” (1933) and Black Reconstruction (1935), provides a wage level and occupational mobility that together stifle the white worker’s proletarian consciousness, while condemning the Black worker to the lowest rung of the production process, where they are admitted at all. If labor militancy gets too hot for the bosses, they can always bring in a few desperate Black workers to do the same work for less. So that if the matter isn't settled at the bargaining table, the capitalists get their way at the picket line – where in the meantime the “proletariat” can discharge some of their class feeling on Black heads and limbs.

As Black folk found themselves locked out of booming industries, as European immigrants clambered into whiteness, and still higher into the echelons of secure, skilled labor, white America soon developed an ideal of individual merit and corresponding reward that Du Bois would call the American Assumption. Those who couldn't cut it in America were not the casualties of class war, but really deserved their lot in this new Jerusalem, where with enough grit any man could rise quickly from stevedore to shop owner. The Black worker's laziness, sensuality, and lack of thrift grew up as supportive myths around this Assumption. The failure of some whites to make good on its promise could then be blamed on their Negro-like traits that it's better to scrub off in private shame, than it is to challenge the very illogic of the labor market.

In his studies of the white worker, as in his treatment of the African world, Du Bois sees the efficacy of what nearly all contemporary Marxists would have considered epiphenomenal (non-causal) forces of culture and group psychology, for advancing or hindering the objective possibility of class consciousness.

Theories of this sort, that look to the cultural hegemony of the capitalist class over the industrial workers, and for weak points in that stranglehold among the non-proletarian strata, would not come into their own until nearly a generation later, with the early efforts of the Frankfurt School under the guidance of Max Horkheimer.

Du Bois was already working on these ideas as a contemporary with Plekhanov, Lenin, and other Second and Third International figures, who themselves influenced later theorists like Georg Lukacs, Karl Korsch, and Antonio Gramsci – making Du Bois probably one of the very first "Western Marxists," in Perry Anderson's sense. Though one notably lacking in the global pessimism that typifies Western Marxists; for Du Bois was always, however reluctantly, a man of action as well as ideas, and a leader of a people that were always on the move.

This matters for another, final reason. Because he denounced political violence in the US, Du Bois is rightly seen as a non-revolutionary, as essentially a reformist. But that is because he rightly felt that a white majority responsible for the atrocities in Springfield, East St. Louis, and Chicago couldn't be trusted with Black lives in a combined assault on American capital. And also because he felt that a Black revolution against them would come to the same bloody end. Since Du Bois knew the terrible weight of oppression on continental Africans; since he believed that the decisive victory of the US proletariat could easily lead to a pogrom against Afro-Americans, he was greatly exercised by the problem of connecting radical theory to revolutionary practice on the American scene.

But as “The African Roots of War” shows in its warnings about the coming anti-colonial wars, Du Bois did not believe that revolutionary violence that could really succeed was inherently illegitimate. David L. Lewis even recounts in his Biography, that Du Bois once showed a rare lapse of historical honesty, by falsifying an account of armed Black resistance in the East St. Louis riots. Perhaps this myth half-consciously expressed his own "optimism of the will," that vastly outnumbered Blacks will always fight back against racist murderers in the US, even when they can't win.

We also have this very suggestive passage from one of Du Bois’s lesser-known articles, “Black Africa Tomorrow” (1938), that paints a very different picture from the pacifistic Du Bois we've come to know:

"There is not a European colony in Africa that could stand for a moment against the armed force of its black inhabitants. Who can be certain that the white rulers in Kenya, the Union of South Africa, and the Belgian Congo may not some day face the mass of their black subjects in arms – arms supplied by European rivals, or by black America, or even by brown and yellow Asia?"

If Du Bois's underlying reasoning remains in place with the recent demographic changes in the US; if the same man saw a shrinking, and increasingly fascistic, white majority in this 21st century, turning violently upon the children of Africa, Asia, and Latin America, that now crowd the imperial core; if he were to maintain his lifelong proposition, that Africa's liberation is linked to our fight here, in the nerve center of global imperialism – what then might his response be?

Keep in mind that gentle Du Bois, the chronicler of race riots, always kept a gun on him.