Bernard E. Harcourt | Epilogue on Abolition Democracy 2/13

By Bernard E. Harcourt

Our task at Abolition Democracy 2/13 was to critically engage the theoretical framework of “abolition democracy”—the framework coined by W.E.B. Du Bois in his magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, and reimagined by Angela Davis in her eponymous interviews with Eduardo Mendieta in 2005.

The notion of abolition democracy in Du Bois’s writings is at times ambiguous, seemingly referring on certain occasions to an ideal or ambition of racial justice and equality, but at other times remaining tethered to a more historical and interest-convergence analysis. On the one hand, abolition democracy is often described as an enlightened, righteous, just ambition, “based on freedom, intelligence and power for all men,” in Du Bois’s words;[i] on the other hand, it is portrayed in other passages as an economically motivated, self-interested project of the small capitalists and labor movement, who united in the myth of individualism.[ii]

Those kinds of tensions are often productive.

That’s certainly the case with Du Bois’s concept of abolition democracy.

For it is precisely this tension at the heart of Du Bois’s formidable 700+ page Black Reconstruction that makes his intervention so fecund: it allows later generations to embrace the ideal of abolition democracy as a framework for social justice, while reminding them of its demise after Reconstruction and thus of its fragility—of its dependence on economic considerations.

How do we hold on to an ideal that is so promising, while recognizing that the very ideal itself is so fragile and vulnerable to economic motivations?

The answer—which Du Bois as well as Davis prefigured—is that it is impossible to imagine abolition democracy in any narrow way that does not copiously include, (1) in addition to the (negative) abolition of institutions of domination, and (2) in addition to the (positive) creation of new social institutions, (3) the radical transformation of our political economy.

As Du Bois and Davis signal, the full ambition of abolition democracy requires reimagining the economy from the ground up. It entails rethinking economic relations, the profit motive, and the circulation of wealth. It is only through a transformation of political economy that the historical vulnerabilities can be overcome and that abolition democracy will achieve its promise.

And this is precisely why we turn, in later sessions of Abolition 13/13, to the question of property, of capital, of the environment, and of the nation state. It is why we will tackle not only the abolition of the prison, police, capital punishment, and the punitive society more generally, but also the pressing questions of the abolition of property (Abolition Democracy 5/13 on December 3, 2020), of the abolition of capital (Abolition Democracy 6/13 on December 17, 2020), of abolishing our dependence on oil and fossil fuels (Abolition Democracy 11/13 on March 11, 2021), and of opening our borders (Abolition Democracy 12/13 on April 1, 2021).

The full ambition of abolition democracy—and of this seminar series—now comes into focus.

A Most Productive Ambiguity

There are, in Du Bois’s text, two different and battling conceptions of abolition-democracy:

  1. One is more idealistic. It is a righteous and justice oriented vision: “Abolition-democracy demands for Negroes physical freedom, civil rights, economic opportunity and education and the right to vote, as a matter of sheer human justice and right.”[iii] This first vision believes in justice and right, not just economics. It retains faith in humanity.
  2. Then there is a more grounded economic interpretation of abolition-democracy, as the product of an alliance between laborers and small capitalists. This vision is wedded to Derrick Bell’s theory of “interest convergence.”

As Du Bois shows, the North had two very different visions of the future: “the one was abolition-democracy based on freedom, intelligence and power for all men; the other was industry for private profit directed by an autocracy determined at any price to amass wealth and power. The uncomprehending resistance of the South, and the pressure of black folk, made these two thoughts uneasy and temporary allies.”[iv]

The first vision is tied, at times, to Senator Charles Sumner’s inspiring speeches, in 1866, that, in Du Bois’s words, “laid down a Magna Charta of democracy in America.”[v] There was a moment of glory for this ideal of abolition-democracy during Reconstruction: “Here for the first time there was established between the white and black of this country a contact on terms of essential social equality and mutual respect… on the whole, the result was one of the most astonishing successes in new and sudden human contacts.”[vi]

The second vision is described in detail on pages 184-185 of Black Reconstruction. There, abolition democracy is understood as an alliance of smaller capitalists and workers, hoping to bring Blacks into the workforce and protect against a Southern backlash. “The abolition-democracy was the liberal movement among both laborers and small capitalists, who united in the American Assumption [myth of individualism and self-made man, see page 183], but saw the danger of slavery to both capital and labor,” Du Bois explains.[vii] Du Bois continues: “Thus abolition-democracy was pushed towards the conception of a dictatorship of labor, although few of its advocates wholly grasped the fact that this necessarily involved dictatorship by labor over capital and industry.”[viii]

This notion of a dictatorship of labor was key—and must be distinguished from the concept of “democratic despotism” that Bob Gooding-Williams analyzed. Abolition democracy took the position of “temporary dictatorship, endowed Negro education, legal civil rights, and eventually even votes for Negroes to offset the Southern threat of economic attack.”[ix] “The abolition-democracy,” Du Bois wrote, “advocated Federal control to guide and direct the rise of the Negro, but they desired this control to be civil rather than military.”[x]

In his presentation, Bob Gooding-Williams showed us two ways to disambiguate abolition democracy. He distinguished between the ideal of abolition democracy on the one hand and the movement for abolition democracy on the other. The first, he argued, the ideal, exceeded or outstripped the efforts of the advocates of abolition democracy, resulting in a conception that could then be redeployed outside of its historical context by thinkers such as Angela Davis. Gooding-Williams also distinguished between the ideal of abolition democracy and that of compensated democracy. The first was more akin to the ideal of universal democracy. It involved the extension of the right to rule to all people. It was reflected in the expression “the rule of men” that Du Bois developed in a chapter of Darkwater. The second, compensated democracy, involved people having a voice in the selection of government officials. It was more of the libertarian ideal. It reflected an exchange with the people to make possible capitalist profit.

These analytic distinctions help clarify the term abolition democracy and explain how, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak suggested, Angela Davis could transform, in her work, the more grounded historical concept of abolition democracy into an ideal for prison abolition. Spivak emphasized, however, the political economic and always grounded nature of Du Bois’s writings. In Du Bois’s work, Spivak argued, the role of political economy was central—one can only understand the shifting alliances and possibilities through the lens of capitalist profit, or through, I would say, Derrick Bell’s notion of interest convergence.

The inclusion of white workers into democratic governance was only achieved, on Du Bois’s reading, through the exploitation of persons of color. Democratic participation and domination over non-whites was offered to the white workers as an olive branch to appease them and bring them into the project of capitalism, which would necessarily benefit the captains of industry. Democratic participation was the upside of the coin, domination the hidden (less attractive) downside of the coin, but they went together as one. And the result was a form of democratic despotism that triumphed over the ideal.

Du Bois stressed in these writings that the North was never truly abolitionist, but only embraced abolition for instrumental reasons. “The North was not Abolitionist,” Du Bois wrote. He added:

“It was overwhelmingly in favor of Negro slavery, so long as this did not interfere with Northern moneymaking. But, on the other hand, there was a minority of the North who hated slavery with perfect hatred; who wanted no union with slaveholders; who fought for freedom and treated Negroes as men. As the Abolition-democracy gained in prestige and in power, they appeared as prophets, and led by statesmen, they began to guide the nation out of the morass into which it had fallen. They and their black friends and the new freedmen became gradually the leaders of a Reconstruction of Democracy in the United States, while marching millions sang the noblest war-song of the ages to the tune of ‘John Brown’s Body.’”[xi]

The Emancipation Proclamation did not free slaves in Northern-allied states and territories.[xii] As Du Bois emphasized, “Emancipation had thus two ulterior objects. It was designed to make easier the replacement of unwilling Northern white soldiers with black soldiers; and it sought to put behind the war a new push toward Northern victory by the mighty impact of a great moral ideal, both in the North and in Europe.”[xiii]

The question this raises is how abolition democracy could ever work as an ideal, given all the economic interests at play. Is it just rosy-eyed to think that abolition democracy actually ever existed, for even a moment, as an ideal, as an ambition, really? Could it be that it never even existed, but was just a mirage—benevolent talk, but underneath just another project of exploitation (say, to create better factory workers, or discipline, or the docile body?)[xiv]

But let us not forget how violently the ambition of abolition democracy was thwarted by White resistance and terror—by a reign of White terrorism, especially in the South. It is crucial to recognize that reign of terror. After the Civil War, the South looked backwards: reread Du Bois on the Black Codes[xv] and the Klan.[xvi] Reread what it took to establish, in the words of Carl Schutz, that “new form of servitude.”[xvii] “The black codes looked backward toward slavery,” Du Bois demonstrated.[xviii] Mississippi, for instance, “simply reenacted her slave code and made it operative so far as punishments were concerned.”[xix] The period after the war was truly a reign of terror. Former slaves were held back by brute force, terrorized, killed, and dispossessed.[xx] As Du Bois wrote, “war may go on more secretly, more spasmodically, and yet as truly as before the peace. This was the case in the South after Lee’s surrender.”[xxi](670)

Recall how much terror it took to repress abolition democracy.

That is stunning. It is telling. It is important.

And it is reflected over and over in history—to the present. How much terror is required to maintain racial hierarchy?—as we will see at Abolition Democracy 3/13 on police abolition today.

The lessons of history, then, are multifold.

First, the fragility of abolition democracy, as an ideal, underscores that there can be no way to achieve or even advance the ambition unless we transform economic relations. We cannot advance the goal of abolition regarding the prison and police without fundamentally rethinking and enacting new relations of production, consumption, and circulation.

Second, the resilience of abolition democracy, again as an ideal, is reflected in the amount of terror that is needed to crush it. This alone reveals its true strength.

In the end, the resilience and the fragility—that paradoxical combination—must make us aware of the stakes of the struggle and of the central role of political economy in the ambition of abolition democracy.

Gooding-Williams reminds us of what ultimately emerged in American history: rather than abolition democracy, we got democratic despotism and new imperialism. Du Bois stated this unambiguously.[xxii] “[Northern industry] began in 1876 an exploitation which was built on much the same sort of slavery which it helped to overthrow in 1863. It murdered democracy in the United State so completely that the world does not recognize its corpse. It established as dominant in industry a monarchical system which killed the idea of democracy.”[xxiii]

It is that fate that we must avoid today.

And we will only avoid it by transforming our political economy.

Two final points to conclude these reflections.

1/ Justice and Education. Justice-in-Education

Situated at Columbia University, an educational institution, it could not be more important to stress, with Du Bois, the centrality of the public school and education, and their relation to justice—as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and Kendall Thomas did in their interventions at Abolition Democracy 2/13.

Christopher Wolfe, who has been working in the field of justice-in-education for several years now and who teaches writing workshops at Rikers Island in New York, opened the session with a reading of his personal essay, “The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World.”

Chris Wolfe’s essay captured, in such a remarkable and profound way, the connection between the promise of abolition democracy and our current punitive society. Through his work, through his teaching at Rikers, in accompanying the men and women who are incarcerated there, Chris Wolfe is building something that our government does not provide, that our society does not sufficiently value, but that was part—a very keystone—of the ambition of abolition democracy: the positive side of abolition.

Chris Wolfe’s essay reveals how the criminal law and its enforcement became the tool, the key, the lynchpin of how the white power structure returned this country to a caste, apartheid society after the Civil War, how it pushed us, using Du Bois’s words, “to look backward,” “back toward slavery.”

The need for educational institutions, and for Justice-in-Education now could not be greater, as both Democratic and Republican administrations got rid of Pell Grants for those on the inside.

But Chris Wolfe also suggests the need for more than just education—he talked about the need for a new way to think about education, about who is being educated. I heard the sound of Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed in the way Chris Wolfe spoke about going back “inside the jail, not to educate you but to be educated by you.” And I hear the omnipresence, or repetition, or crystalline structure of racial injustice, of racial oppression, in the layering on top of our domestic injustices, the injustices meted out to Iraqi citizens—layer upon layer of white supremacy.

“Now that the white power structure appears to be listening”: yes, indeed, it seems to have taken another round of terrorism, of police killings—another round, I am thinking of Reconstruction, or of the Memphis massacre of 1866, or of the lynchings that EJI has been documenting, or the last round of terror, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Grey, Philando Castile … “Now that the white power structure appears to be listening”: This is indeed the time to return to Du Bois’s idea of abolition democracy.

2/ Columbia University’s Legacy

Let me conclude in the same way I opened Abolition Democracy 2/13. We cannot do justice to W.E.B. Du Bois here at Columbia University without both giving him the last word and without recognizing our own institutional history. So, to remind you, I close with the stunning and moving final words of Du Bois in Black Reconstruction:

The most magnificent drama in the last thousand years of human history is the transportation of ten million human beings out of the dark beauty of their mother continent into the new-found Eldorado of the West. They descended into Hell; and in the third century they arose from the dead, in the finest effort to achieve democracy for the working millions which this world had ever seen. It was a tragedy that beggared the Greek; it was an upheaval of humanity like the Reformation and the French Revolution. Yet we are blind and led by the blind. We discern in it no part of our labor movement; no part of our industrial triumph; no part of our religious experience. Before the dumb eyes of ten generations of ten million children, it is made mockery of and spit upon; a degradation of the eternal mother; a sneer at human effort; with aspiration and art deliberately and elaborately distorted. And why? Because in a day when the human mind aspired to a science of human action, a history and psychology of the mighty effort of the mightiest century, we fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.[xxiv]

A brilliant passage. A sharp indictment.

As Du Bois emphasized, Columbia University was at the center of that “blindness”—worse, of that deliberate animus—and was chiefly responsible for the revisionist history of the Reconstruction, of the “propaganda of history” as Du Bois writes, with the White Supremacist school of historians led by William Archibald Dunning and John William Burgess, who founded political science here at Columbia. As Du Bois notes, “The real frontal attack on Reconstruction … came from the universities and particularly from Columbia and Johns Hopkins. The movement began with Columbia University and with the advent of John W. Burgess of Tennessee and William A. Dunning of New Jersey as professors of political science and history.”[xxv]

Professor Eric Foner explains that “the fundamental flaw in the Dunning School was the authors’ deep racism, which shaped not only their interpretations of history but their research methods and use of historical evidence.”

So, it is only fitting that we close this second seminar as we opened it, under the sign of reparation, and that, even in this small way, we acknowledge the collective harm and our role in it as an institution. This entire project, Abolition Democracy 13/13, can be understood as one small step forward in that respect.

Please join me next for 3/13 “Abolish the Police” on October 29, 2020.


[i] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 182.

[ii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 184.

[iii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 325 (emphasis added).

[iv] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 182.

[v] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 193.

[vi] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 190.

[vii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 184.

[viii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 185.

[ix] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 185.

[x] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 186.

[xi] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 83.

[xii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 85-87.

[xiii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 84.

[xiv] Foucault, Discipline and Punish.

[xv] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 173; 179.

[xvi] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 131.

[xvii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 136.

[xviii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 179.

[xix] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 177.

[xx] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 670-672.

[xxi] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 671.

[xxii] See esp. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 634.

[xxiii] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 187.

[xxiv] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 727.

[xxv] Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 718.

Bernard Harcourt