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W.E.B. Du Bois exposed capitalist and colonialist roots of white supremacy

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In his extraordinary, if neglected, book The World and Africa, W.E.B. Du Bois details a history of Africa before European exploration, the enslavement of tens of millions, and the imposition of colonialism. In so doing, he assembles a compendium of the continent’s contributions to human development, its role in shaping the histories of Europe and Asia, as well as the diversity of its languages, cultures, and peoples.

Debunking false white supremacist notions of racial difference as eternal or natural, Du Bois explores the historical relationships between African nations and societies and other parts of the world. He shows that the migration of the world’s peoples across continents and their regular interactions defy modern claims that humans can be divided meaningfully into races and ethnic groups. Well ahead of its time, The World and Africa crafts a historical image of the continent freed from the racist constraints imposed on it by European thought. European thinkers had imagined Africa as a place without a history, as subjected solely to the will of nature and thus suitable for subjugation.

Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois and Dr. Shirley Graham Du Bois attending a parade celebrating the anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, Oct. 1, 1962. To their left are Chinese leaders Deng Xiaoping, Zhou Enlai, and Mao Zedong. Du Bois attached great importance to the anti-colonialist movement that swept the world in the postwar period and believed it heralded the possibility of building alternatives to imperialism and capitalism. | W.E.B. Du Bois Papers / University of Massachusetts Library

Du Bois enlists large amounts of historical evidence that undermined white supremacist theories of racial purity and of racial types. So-called “race science” had relied on absurd notions of purity, usually linked to wild claims about how shapes of skulls, colors of skin, and textures of hair proved the racial beauty and cultural and biological superiority of white people. Du Bois shows how these premises don’t match the evidence about the migration, interactions, and practices of humans for the vast majority of its history.

In addition to exposing the lies and contradictions in white supremacist race theory, Du Bois showed that white racism, European colonialism, and the logic of capitalism were the true causes of two World Wars and inevitable future conflict.

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Of singular importance is Du Bois’s discussion of the state of the world in 1947 (the year of the book’s publication) that inspired his investigations into this topic. World War II had just come to a close with the nuclear annihilation of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in Japan. Additionally, systematic atrocities in a racist European holocaust, merciless Japanese imperialism in China and Southeast Asia, and human-orchestrated famines across South Asia had seen tens of millions of people erased from existence.

The “collapse of Europe,” however, stood out above all else in Du Bois’s mind. Its colonialist, white supremacist, and capitalist systems made the disasters of the 20th century. The crisis of the first global war and the subsequent collapse of capitalism directly resulted from the rivalry for control of colonial territory.

Du Bois argues that the insurgency of the working class represented by the Russian Revolution shaped the political terrain in the interwar years. The capitalist class responded with its support for the wave of emergent fascist regimes in Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, and their spheres of influence. Initially, colonialist regimes in Britain and France appeased the fascists to maintain capitalism’s power and to construct a militarist front against the working-class revolution in the East.

In straightforward terms, Du Bois defined the West’s attempt to appease Hitler as the natural outcome of its demand for profit, need for cheap labor, and logic of surplus-value extraction. According to Du Bois, Hitler was allowed some expansion, but not “the balance of power” in Europe. Meanwhile, Britain, France, and the U.S. stood ready to fight to protect their control over their colonies and semi-colonies.

Because Hitler’s logic (identical with the logic of capitalism and imperialism) demanded that he seek more than what the West offered, war and conflict were inevitable. The West wanted Hitler to fight the communists rather than to claim Western colonial possessions or try to restore Germany’s economic power. But Hitler had to have more. “The real battle then began,” Du Bois argues. “[T]he battle of the Nazi-Fascist oligarchy against the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Hitler’s strategy: crush Russia, then take on Britain. In this equation, Japan sided with Hitler to stake its claims on European colonies in Asia.

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As the war came to a close, Western Europe refused to learn the lesson of this catastrophe as it sought to retain control over its colonial holdings and to exclude non-white countries from its Atlantic Charter. The French fought to keep Indo-China; the Dutch scrambled to maintain a foothold in the South Pacific, and the British set its power against Indian independence. Meanwhile, the U.S. fashioned indirect forms of domination through debt, financial instruments, and trade.

While the representatives of white-dominated countries would stand up in the newly formed U.N. and call for human rights and freedom, they clearly intended those rights to refer only to white people, to imperialist powers, or their majority white countries.

Also, at this intersection of systems of oppression and super-exploitation in the most recent modern period, Du Bois traces white supremacy to its capitalist and colonialist origins. Racialized slavery and the super-exploitation of colonized labor had allowed capitalists to create such terrible conditions for workers that degradation came to be regarded as a matter of morality and biology inherent in the genetic material of the Black and Brown colonized peoples.

To hide the atrocities, poverty, and violence of European colonies, European ideological and educational institutions buried the truth about the rich history, diversity, and complex cultural systems that had historically developed in what had since become the colonized world, producing a pattern of enforced ignorance. On top of this willing ignorance, European thinkers theorized the racial superiority of whites, twisting subjugation in the colonial world into a progressive improvement for the world’s non-white peoples.

Once having fought fascist militarism and imperialism, however, the people of Europe’s colonies would no longer tolerate subjugation, Du Bois shows. In a much longer tradition of resistance, the post-War era revealed a newly insurgent and united anti-colonial movement among Africa’s political movements. African movements sought not only a voice in and alliances on the world stage at the U.N., they demanded sovereignty over their cultural, economic, and political identities and activities.

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He regards this insurgent demand for Black freedom as linking the peoples of America, the Caribbean, and Africa. In his mind, this swelling of change had found a crucial ally in the Soviet Union and the world’s communist movements. These two streams of humanity provided Du Bois with a profound hope for human liberation and its next stages of moral, intellectual, economic, political, and cultural advancement, which he characterized as collectivist, rationally planned, devoid of racist bigotry and systems, free of colonial subjugation, and rewarded the dignity of labor through economic democracy.

In terms of Marxist theory, to which The World and Africa is clearly an important contribution, Du Bois critiques a “stages” concept of human development and a particular form of universalism. Marxists, then, tended to regard human development to that point in history to have universally fallen into four or five major modes of production: slavery or Asiatic, feudalist, capitalist, and a still emergent socialist/communist phase still emergent. Many Marxist theorists argued that all human societies must pass through these stages in order to arrive at the most developed and democratic form: communism.

W.E.B. Du Bois joined the Communist Party USA in October 1961. In this photo, he is welcomed into the party by CPUSA leader Gus Hall. | People’s World Archive

Du Bois, however, showed that contact with Europeans in the “Age of Discovery”—code words for imperialism, capitalist development, and systematic slavery—meant a disastrous detour from the unique paths of economic, cultural, and historical development that the diverse and complex peoples of Africa had already embarked upon. They had already built sophisticated economic systems, modes of production, social institutions, cultural practices, educational processes, and material cultures. Du Bois clearly recognized that the world did not have to turn out the way it did; the complex and diverse cultures and peoples of Africa could have led the world on a different path toward the fullest possible human development had not the brute force of European racism, colonialism, and capitalism ascended.

The World and Africa, alongside more recent histories of Africa, continues to deserve careful study. It offers a narrative of humanity that rejects Eurocentric notions of narrow universalism and inevitability that had seemed to justify the status quo in favor of pluralism. Du Bois’s research substantiates the complexities of human society and freedom while articulating a sophisticated criticism of the intersections of imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism as joined and allied forces and offering a still-relevant political agenda that could bring them to a deserved end.

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