Amy Allen | Slavery, Work, and Property: DuBois’s Black Marxism

By Amy Allen

E. B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction revolutionized the historiography of the Civil War. DuBois’s reading challenged then dominant modes of interpretation by giving agency to the slaves, making the case that they freed themselves by abandoning Southern plantations and fighting on behalf of the Union. The withdrawal of their labor from the Confederacy—the famed “general strike”—combined with the simultaneous and desperately needed reinforcement of Northern troops not only tipped the scales in the Union’s favor, it also forced Abraham Lincoln’s hand, compelling him to pursue a policy of emancipation. Once they paid the ultimate sacrifice on the battlefield, how could the Union deny slaves their freedom? Indeed, ironically enough, fighting for the Union army was the one thing that the slave could do to be treated as a human being; his labor, his loyalty, his pleading for his humanity was not enough. “But,” DuBois notes, “when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and a brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible in the United States. Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro soldier as a fighter.”[1] Although widely derided by historians at the time DuBois wrote, the claim that the slaves freed themselves through their own agency has since become a mainstream view in the discipline. In that sense, as the historian Guy Emerson Mount has argued, “DuBois won.”[2]

This way of reading the Civil War not only positions black emancipation as a successful slave rebellion that echoes the Haitian Revolution’s echo of the French Revolution. It also, and perhaps somewhat less noticeably, renders the emancipation of slaves as the first successful workers’ revolution, prefiguring the Bolshevik revolution by more than 50 years. This claim follows directly from the argumentative backbone of DuBois’s text whereby the slave becomes the black worker, the slave rebellion a general strike, the Reconstruction Era the dictatorship of the proletariat in the states of the former Confederacy, and the subsequent dismantling of Reconstruction as a counterrevolution of property.

This reading has myriad implications, not the least of which is that it wreaks havoc with traditional Marxist philosophy of history. Indeed, Black Reconstruction presents a deep challenge to Marx’s progressive and Eurocentric reading of the history of capitalist development.[3] But note that the point here is not just about Marx’s much discussed Eurocentrism—the way that DuBois positions slavery in the Americas as absolutely central to the emergence and growth of European capitalism, a point that Marx recognizes, to be sure, but doesn’t exactly make central to his analysis—but also about his progressivism—for how could capitalism be understood as an ambivalent, destructive, and incomplete but also essentially progressive force in the world, if it rests on slavery?[4] As Cedric Robinson has argued, the force of this challenge leads DuBois to a radical (though largely implicit) critique of traditional Marxism. DuBois, Robinson writes, “committed himself to the development of a theory of history, which by its emphasis on mass action was both a critique of the ideologies of American socialist movements and a revision of Marx’s theory of revolution and class struggle.”[5] Not only that, the DuBois of Black Reconstruction seems to have lost his earlier faith in modernity as a civilizing force, and thus tempered the much-discussed elitism of his earlier work.[6] Note that toward the end of Black Reconstruction, DuBois issues a call to arms that is utterly distinct from his earlier call for members of the Black elite to contribute to the education and uplift of their race. The Black man, he writes, “will enter modern civilization here in America as a black man on terms of perfect and unlimited equality with any white man, or he will enter not at all. Either extermination root and branch, or absolute equality. There can be no compromise. This is the last great battle of the West.”[7] No more waiting room of history.[8]

DuBois’s reading also subtly shifts the Marxist account of slavery. Although it is true that Marx followed the events of the American Civil War with great interest and that he was an outspoken critic of slavery and proponent of emancipation,[9] slavery remains an undertheorized category in his work. It often appears, as it does several times in the Communist Manifesto, as an analogy designed to illuminate the drudgery and misery of wage slavery. Workers are not only “slaves of the bourgeois class, and of the bourgeois State; they are daily and hourly enslaved by the machine, by the over-looker, and, above all, by the individual bourgeois manufacturer himself.”[10] Similarly, the bourgeoisie “is unfit to rule because it is incompetent to assure an existence to its slave within his slavery.”[11] This miserable situation cannot be addressed through the raising of wages as, Marx famously insists, higher wages would be merely “better payment for the slave,” when the problem is his status as a (wage) slave.[12] Later, in volume 1 of Capital, slavery itself famously appears as a central and bloody component of the process of primitive accumulation, and thus as a precondition for the development of capitalism. Marx writes: “The discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the indigenous population of that continent, the beginnings of the conquest and plunder of India, and the conversion of Africa into a preserve for the commercial hunting of blackskins, are all things which characterize the dawn of the era of capitalist production. These idyllic proceedings are the chief moments of primitive accumulation.”[13] The colonies not only provided the raw materials for emerging English industrial capitalism, they also served as a market for European goods. Through this cyclical process, “the treasures captured outside Europe by undisguised looting, enslavement and murder flowed back to the mother-country and were turned into capital there.”[14]

DuBois pushes the analysis of the relationship between slavery and capitalism much further, figuring the slave as a worker, just as the members of the white proletariat in the industrializing North were workers, though they were subject to very different conditions. (Interestingly, according to DuBois, these conditions were not necessarily more brutal or violent, since especially after the international slave trade was banned in the United States in 1808, slave owners had an economic interest in treating their slaves well in order to protect their investment.)

This move is at the heart of DuBois’s radical historical and theoretical innovation. And it enables DuBois to go much further than Marx himself in revealing the utter centrality of slavery to the emergence of capitalism, thus enabling us to understand the utter and ongoing economic devastation wrought by the abrupt end of the Reconstruction Era. But does it make sense theoretically?

To be a slave is to be the object of property.[15] What does this mean? And is it equivalent to being a worker who enters into the “free” labor contract? Although he frequently drew an analogy between slavery and wage slavery, perhaps to shame those members of the English bourgeoisie who prided themselves on condemning slavery while they ruthlessly exploited their own workers, Marx himself thought not. As he notes in Wage Labor and Capital: “Labour-power was not always a commodity. Labour was not always wage-labour, that is, free labour. The slave did not sell his labour-power to the slave-owner, any more than the ox sells his labour to the farmer. The slave, together with his labour-power, was sold to his owner once for all. He is a commodity which can pass from the hand of one owner to that of another. He is himself a commodity, but his labour-power is not his commodity.”[16]

Proudhon defines property as theft, in the sense that involves the theft of land, raw materials, and other resources to which all have an equal right (or to which no one has an individual right to the exclusion of all the others), and which therefore should rightfully be held in common. And as Stephanie Jones-Rogers reminds us, slavery too rested on a series of thefts: “Yes, the theft of people, their liberty, and their labor. But also the theft of African-descended people’s right to love and experience pleasure. It was sustained by the theft of African-descended people’s families, spouses, and friends. Critically, it thrived on the theft of enslaved people’s sexual autonomy. More painfully, it involved the theft of enslaved mothers’ ability to nurse their infants and care for them.”[17] But, of course, as Frank Wilderson has argued, slavery was also something more and something altogether different from theft: at its core, slavery is about black death. Thus, if slavery is central to the emergence and functioning of capitalism, this means that the condition of possibility of capitalist civil society is not black work but black death. Work, for Wilderson, “is a white category. The fact that millions upon millions of black people work misses the point. The point is we were never meant to be workers; in other words, capital/white supremacy’s dream did not envision us as being incorporated or incorporative. From the very beginning, we were meant to be accumulated and die.”[18] Or, to cite Proudhon (perhaps against his intention), property may be theft, but slavery is murder.[19]

It is tempting to read DuBois as an intersectionality theorist avant la lettre, given his trailblazing critique of what Robinson will later dub racial capitalism. Still, when push comes to shove, he gives us the classic Marxist line: the dismantling of Reconstruction was not about race but about class; it was a counterrevolution of property, not a restoration of white supremacy. Here is DuBois: “the overthrow of Reconstruction was in essence a revolution inspired by property, and not a race war”; “It was not…race and culture calling out of the South in 1876; it was property and privilege, shrieking to its kind, and privilege and property heard and recognized the voice of its own.”[20] But wasn’t it both? How can the (Marxist) critique of property be expanded/transformed/incorporated into a broader abolitionist project that makes sense of this duality? An abolitionism that illuminates not only how slaves figured into property relations in the emergence of capitalism, not only how the refusal to acknowledge the property rights of the newly emancipated slaves after the war has hobbled black progress for 150 years, but also what it means to be the object of property, and how this experience is interwoven with economic injustice in the long afterlife of slavery.


[1] W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 104.

[2] Guy Emerson Mount, “When Slaves Go On Strike: W.E.B. DuBois’s Black Reconstruction Eighty Years Later,” Black Perspectives, December 28, 2015,

[3] See Bernard Harcourt, “Abolition Democracy as a Philosophy of History.”

[4] On this point, see Asad Haider, “The Shadow of the Plantation,” Viewpoint Magazine, Feb. 12, 2017,

[5] Cedric Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 196.

[6] For excellent discussion of DuBois’s Afro-modernism, see Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of DuBois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009). For a contrasting reading of DuBois’s early work that greatly complicates his understanding of progress (though without reference to Black Reconstruction), see Joseph Winters, Hope Draped in Black: Race, Melancholy, and the Agony of Progress (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).

[7] DuBois, Black Reconstruction, 703.

[8] Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000), 8.

[9] See Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Civil War in the United States, ed. Andrew Zimmerman (New York: International Publishers, 2016).

[10] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 2nd edition, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 479.

[11] Ibid., 483.

[12] Karl Marx, “The Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 80.

[13] Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, volume 1, trans. Ben Fowkes (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 915.

[14] Ibid., 918.

[15] See Patricia Williams, “On Being the Object of Property,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14: 1 (Autumn 1998): 5-24.

[16] Karl Marx, “Wage Labour and Capital,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, 205.

[17] Stephanie Jones-Rogers, “Slavery’s Abolition: Dark and Bittersweet.”

[18] Frank Wilderson, “Gramsci’s Black Marx: Whither the Slave in Civil Society?” Social Identities 9: 2 (2003): 225-240; 238

[19] Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?, ed. and trans. Donald R. Kelley and Bonnie G. Smith (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 13.

[20] DuBois, Black Reconstruction, 622, 630.

Bernard Harcourt