Du Bois, Douglass and Political Philosophy


W. E. B. Du Bois

by Robert Gooding-Williams

In  In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro Modern Political Thought in America, I argue that The Souls of Black Folk (1903) is W. E. B. Du Bois’s outstanding contribution to modern political philosophy—that it is his still influential answer to the question, “What kind of politics should African Americans conduct to counter white supremacy?”  Souls is historically rooted in the segregationist era of Jim Crow, but like most great works of political philosophy its authority reaches well beyond its origins, so much so that its compelling ideas and arguments continue to be taken up by contemporary theorists of black politics in post-segregation America, among them Eddie Glaude, Paul Gilroy, Joy James, Adolph Reed, Tommie Shelby, and Cornel West.

Souls belongs to the Afro-modern tradition of political thought, an impressively rich body of inquiry that is bound together by certain thematic preoccupations–e.g., the political and social organization of white supremacy, the nature and effects of racial ideology, and the possibilities of black emancipation—and that includes the writings of Ottabah Cugoano, Martin R. Delany, Frederick Douglass, C.L.R. James, Frantz Fanon, and others.  Souls stands out among these writings—or so I argue—as that tradition’s preeminent political theoretical response to the now defunct system of American racial apartheid.  

As I interpret Souls, it holds that a politics fit to respond to the Jim Crow version of racial apartheid must satisfy two conditions.  The first relates to Du Bois’s description of African Americans as “masses:” to wit, to his characterization of African Americans as an aggregate of uncultured, pre-modern slaves or former slaves.  The second relates to his description of African Americans as a “folk:” that is, to his characterization of African-Americans as a group united by a collectively shared ethos, or spirit.  For Du Bois, a politics suitable to counter Jim Crow had both to uplift the backwards black masses–to assimilate them to the constitutive norms of modernity–and to heed the ethos of the black folk.  In short, it had to be a politics of modernizing “self-realization” that expressed the spiritual identity of the folk–what in the book I term a politics of expressive self-realization.  Du Bois envisions black elites—the so-called “talented tenth”—as deploying the politics of expressive self-realization to rule and uplift the black masses.  Elite control of black politics can be authoritative and effective, he argues, only if it expresses a collective spirit that unites black people.

In addition to reconstructing and analyzing Du Bois’s arguments for a politics of expressive self-realization, In the Shadow of Du Bois also attempts to cast that politics in a critical light: first, by drawing on Frederick Douglass’s My Bondage and My Freedom to throw into relief a number of the limitations and blind spots in Du Bois’s understanding of black politics; and second, by bringing my readings of Du Bois and Douglass into conversation with contemporary, often Du Bois-echoing debates about the nature of African American politics, the relevance of black identity to black politics, and the plight of the black underclass. 

In contrast to Du Bois, Douglass depicts black politics not as elite rule geared to uplift, but, anticipating Ralph Ellison and with affinities to Hannah Arendt, as action-in-concert.  And whereas Du Bois’s political expressivism, reminiscent of both Herder and Hegel, roots the legitimacy and efficacy of black leadership in a charisma that manifests the demands of a black Volksgeist, Douglass’s race conscious politics, while resisting the attractions of political expressivism, spurs us to regard that politics as the interplay of conflicting purposes and conflicting interpretations of the condition of being black.  Douglass, finally, while typically taken to have promoted an assimilationist politics, is not an assimilationist of the sort that Du Bois is and that scholars often take him to be.  Rather he is a radical reconstructionist, avant la lettre, who interprets radical, political change as requiring the reestablishment of the Republic on the founding principles that his white contemporaries have repudiated.

In its final chapter, In the Shadow of Du Bois relates my discussions of Du Bois and Douglass to the recent work of political theorists who position themselves with respect to the authority still exercised by the political thought of the young Du Bois.  Although some theorists self-consciously rely on that thought, others, while taking issue with it, still resound it, inadvertently remaining committed to one or more of the propositions that fundamentally frame it.  Of particular interest, in this chapter, is its analysis of Paul Gilroy’s neo-expressivism and Tommie Shelby’s political foundationalism.  

Gilroy (The Black Atlantic) and Shelby (We Who Are Dark) alike ask how a black politics that effectively fights racism and white supremacy is possible given the class, educational, gender, and generational differences that traverse the black Atlantic diaspora no less than African America.  I argue that Gilroy’s political expressivist answer to this question–through a politics of transfiguration that produces, preserves, and expresses a collective, pan-diasporic black identity—bodes rather poorly for the prospects of a diaspora-based anti-anti-essentialist politics, for Gilroy fails to show that the black diaspora’s socio-cultural practices have succeeded or can succeed in producing, preserving, and expressing such an identity.  Add to my argument Shelby’s cogent case for the thesis that the cultivation for political purposes of a shared black collective identity is likely to be counterproductive—even more so in a transnational, diasporic context, I suggest–and we have even greater cause to doubt the viability of Gilroy’s position.  In addition, I argue that Shelby’s answer to our question fairs no better than Gilroy’s, for there is good reason to doubt Shelby’s claim that black Americans can overcome the increasing differentiation of African American experience and achieve a robust and effective black political solidarity by identifying a set of foundational political principles that all blacks, qua black, can reasonably be expected to endorse.

Shelby breaks with Du Bois’s political expressivism without embracing Gilroy’s neo-expressivism.  But what he shares with Du Bois and Gilroy, and with collective identity theory generally, is the sense that black political efficacy in fighting racism and white supremacy requires black solidarity.  To put the point differently, Shelby and the collective identity theorist—-whether he is Du Bois, Gilroy, or some other thinker–represent effective black politics as requiring a robust, broadly encompassing black political unity, yet disagree as to whether that unity should be sought in collectively endorsed principles or in the cultivation of a collective identity.  Shelby’s foundationalist turn reflects his post-segregation era skepticism regarding the latter alternative.

In opposition to both Gilroy and Shelby, In the Shadow of Du Bois defends a no-foundations approach to black politics that, while allowing for the possibility of black political unity, argues that political unity must be forged through collective action, debate, and deliberation.  From a no foundations point of view, black political action need not aspire to conform to the dictates of an “implicit ‘Black Constitution’,” putatively comprised of antecedently identifiable, unifying principles, as it should for Shelby.  Yet such action could well express black political actors’ aspirations to persuade other black political actors to accept one and the same interpretation of the condition of being black, including an account of the common interests that condition putatively entails.  And indeed, some such interpretation could emerge from mobilizations and debate through which these actors tested and risked the rebuke of each other’s controversial political judgments assessing the directions available to black politics in light of the histories, self-understandings, and social conditions that shape it. 

Contrary, then, to the suggestion of some of my most thoughtful critics (e.g., Cristina Beltrán, George Shulman, and Linda Zerilli), the no-foundations approach need not disregard the racial and other histories within which black politics is embedded, or envision black politics as proceeding without any assumptions as to the existence or content of antecedently formed racial and cultural self-understandings.  In fact, my position is just the opposite of the one that these critics attribute to me: namely, that we should regard the practice of politics generally, and of black politics in particular, as always entailing an ongoing, never ending contestation of received and newly proposed views as to what histories we inhabit, what identities we should embrace, and what forms of oppression constrain us.

About the Author:

Robert Gooding-Williams is Ralph and Mary Otis Isham Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago. He is also a Faculty Associate of the Chicago Center for Contemporary Theory and an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture. His areas of interest include Nietzsche, Du Bois, Critical Race Theory, African-American Political Thought, 19th Century Continental Philosophy, Existentialism, and Aesthetics (especially Philosophy and Literature). Gooding-Williams is the author of Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism (Stanford, 2001), Look, A Negro!: Philosophical Essays on Race, Culture, and Politics (Routledge, 2005), and In The Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (Harvard 2009).