Bernard E. Harcourt | Abolition Democracy as a Philosophy of History

By Bernard E. Harcourt

“What we manage to do each time we win a victory is not so much to secure change once and for all, but rather to create new terrains for struggle.”

— Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy (2005).

The theory and the practice of abolition democracy offer a unique perspective on time and history. Abolition democracy, in effect, constitutes a philosophy of social change and of history, that is very different from more familiar philosophies of history, such as historical materialism.

As imagined by Angela Davis, abolition democracy consists of an iterative, unending process of historical change. It neither ignores the future as unknowable, nor claims authority over where we are headed, but instead conceives of history as working in steps and stages, however faulty these may be: Social change, even when it is fully successful, does not move society to a final utopic stage, but rather to another place in which new injustices can be seen and new challenges discerned. It bring about a new stage of history that itself will need to be transcended.

Du Bois had set the stage with the initial idea of abolition democracy: progress, movement forward, requires not only a backward-looking, negative moment of deconstruction (the abolition of slavery), but also a forward-looking, positive moment of reconstruction (abolition democracy). Progress can only be achieved by the combination of the two: it cannot happen by just punting to an empty, unknown future no matter how promising and new that future may be.

In this way, abolition democracy’s conception of history avoids two possible shoals. It avoids, on the one hand, overconfidence in the end of history. Along this line, it does not fall victim to an eschatology. It also avoids, on the other hand, punting when it comes to the future. Along this second line, a lot of critical theory celebrates new horizons, rings in a new era, and applauds the new women and men who will be born in revolution—but essentially says little about them. In many social movements today, it is often said that we live in such unjust times that we cannot even articulate or imagine yet what the future should hold. Both of these extremes, though, produce a somewhat stunted philosophy of history.

By contrast, Du Bois’s notion of abolition democracy requires imagining and constructing institutions as necessary to progress. There can be no deconstruction without reconstruction. Somewhat like the Invisible Committee, there can be no destitution without creativity.

Angela Davis captures this well in her interviews with Eduardo Mendieta, published under the title Abolition Democracy in 2005. Speaking about the Civil Rights Movement, Davis notes that “What the civil rights movement did, it seems to me, was to create a new terrain for asking new questions and moving in new directions.”[1] In order words, successful campaigns for change achieve a stage of justice, but one from which the movement actors can reassess and reevaluate, and chart new courses of action for progress. There is no sense of a fixed, utopic horizon. Each stage will open up new vistas for justice.

In that passage, Davis is discussing the fact that the civil rights movement achieved success in opening doors to persons of color. But the fact that those doors were opened and that African-Americans, such as Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell, were able to walk through them, did not break down institutional or systemic racism. Rather, it made us pose new questions and realize the need to reformulate our goals and strategies. “The civil rights movement demanded access,” Davis states, “and access has been granted to some.”[2] But in the process, it revealed the weakness of a civil rights approach, which “cannot by itself eliminate structural racism.”[3]

The process of struggle, success, and reevaluation is what moves history forward. It is what teaches us what next to ask for:

The challenge of the twenty-first century is not to demand equal opportunity to participate in the machinery of oppression. Rather, it is to identify and dismantle those structures in which racism continues to be embedded. This is the only way the promise of freedom can be extended to masses of people.[4]

So there is a need for sequential movement work, recognizing the fact that progress is an iterative and not unidirectional process. A stage of success requires reevaluation and reorientation. It may not turn out to have been the right path, even if successful. It requires a step-by-step, situated reassessment. It calls for new approaches that are specified and articulated in the face of new challenges.

It is not enough, for instance, in the post-civil rights movement era, to lament the reactionary retrenchment of the civil rights agenda, because that older agenda of, say, affirmative action, is no longer adequate as a model for change. Instead, Davis states, “we need a new age—with a new agenda—that directly addresses the structural racism that determines who goes to prison and who does not, who attends university and who does not, who has health insurance and who does not.”[5] And this requires attacking the structures within which structural racism is embedded.

“Past struggles cannot correct current injustices,” Davis declares. Davis formulates, instead, a new agenda, an integrated agenda of prison and death penalty abolition that weaves into the social movement economic transformation as well.

This is the copious vision of abolition democracy that Angela Davis spells out in her work (see especially pages 92-93). It constitutes a new way to think about time and social change. It offers an entirely new and unique philosophy of history. A philosophy of history that I, for one, am prepared to embrace.


[1] Davis, Abolition Democracy, 26.

[2] Davis, Abolition Democracy, 26.

[3] Davis, Abolition Democracy, 26.

[4] Davis, Abolition Democracy, 26.

[5] Davis, Abolition Democracy, 27.

Bernard Harcourt