Bernard E. Harcourt | Productive Tensions in Du Bois, Marx, and Proudhon

By Bernard E. Harcourt

The philosopher Amy Allen draws our attention, brilliantly, to a deep tension in the thought of both Marx and Du Bois, one that can be formulated as a question: If we equate wage labor to slavery, what goes missing in our contemporary analysis of racial injustice? What do we lose in our understanding of contemporary race relations?

In other words, the analogy of slavery and wage labor may be very productive in motivating revolutionary resistance to capitalism; and with formal de jure slavery mostly behind us (that is, with the glaring exception of the Thirteenth Amendment), there may be little lost in the struggle against chattel slavery by using the analogy; but what impact does the analogy have on our comprehension of race in America today given that present race relations are the legacy of the history with slavery?

At one point in her essay, Allen poignantly poses the challenge by inverting the opening paragraph of Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s 1840 book, What is Property? You will recall Proudhon opened on the analogy to slavery in this manner:

If I had to answer the question: “What is slavery?” and if I should simply respond, “It is murder,” my meaning would be understood at once. I would need no extended argument to show that the power to take from a man his thought, his will, his personality, is the power over life and death; and that to enslave a man is to kill him. Why, then, to this other question: “What is property?” may I not likewise answer, “It is theft,” without knowing that I will be misunderstood, despite the fact that this second proposition is nothing more than a transformation of the first?[i]

Flipping this on its head—flipping, that is, the ease with which one might analogize slavery to property—Allen remarks: “to cite Proudhon (perhaps against his intention), property may be theft, but slavery is murder.” Yes, surely there is a difference, so the question is, what does the metaphor elide? Or more constructively, as Allen asks: “How can the (Marxist) critique of property be expanded/transformed/incorporated into a broader abolitionist project that makes sense of this duality?”

Let me begin here to sketch some ideas as to how one might respond to this penetrating question. I will point to three areas—agency, scope, and transparency—where the confrontation between the abolitionist movements regarding slavery and property may prove productive. Three possible ways in which the tension might help us think more deeply about the struggle for racial justice today.

The Implications of Agency

As Amy Allen emphasizes in opening her post, and as we discussed at the last seminar, one of Du Bois’s key contributions in Black Reconstruction is to highlight the central role of enslaved persons in their emancipation, and thus to radically reorient the historiography of slavery and its end. Du Bois turns the Black women and men who were enslaved into the central motor of history.

Marx and Engels do the very same for the workers: like Du Bois, Marx and Engels do not just trace a history of capital (or slavery), they place the agency of the workers at the heart of their project. One of the strongest refrains in their writings is that the proletariat must and does make its own history. The proletariat is the motor of history—not bourgeois reformers, nor the state, nor even the communists. It is the proletariat itself that overthrows bourgeois supremacy and conquers political power. That cannot be done for the proletariat—and any attempts to “aid” the proletariat are doomed.

At every turn, Marx and Engels distinguish their communist project from the other socialist and bourgeois reformist projects on these grounds. To borrow from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, the revolution is “of the proletariat, by the proletariat, and for the proletariat.” As they write in the Manifesto, “the proletariat alone is a really revolutionary class.”[ii] The workers, and the workers alone, are the “grave-diggers” of the bourgeoisie.[iii] They propel history through their own agency. Even the communists, Marx and Engels emphasize, “have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole”[iv]; their single objective is to facilitate proletariat action.

This was, actually, one of Marx’s central points of disagreement with utopian socialists such as Charles Fourier and Robert Owen. Even if Fourier and Owen (by contrast to Proudhon) had something valuable to contribute to the enterprise, they failed to grasp that the proletariat alone would achieve revolution: “the proletariat, as yet in its infancy, offers to them the spectacle of a class without any historical initiative or any independent political movement.”[v] The problem with the utopian socialists is that they do not see the revolutionary agency of the proletariat, and as a result they “search after a new social science, after new social laws, that are to create these conditions.”[vi]

This is a consistent theme. Marx levels the same critique decades later in his Critique of the Gotha Program (1875), where he criticizes the various initiatives for state-sponsored worker cooperatives, arguing that only workshops created by workers have any value. Marx applauds the initial formations by the proletariat of worker coops, even on a national rather than international scale:

That the workers desire to establish the conditions for co-operative production on a social scale, and first of all on a national scale in their own country, only means that they are working to revolutionise the present conditions of production, and it has nothing in common with the foundation of co-operative societies with state aid.[vii]

These workshops are only useful, though, even as an incremental step forward toward communism, if they are a creation of the proletariat, not of the state, nor of the bourgeoisie. As Marx stresses in his critique: “as far as the present co-operative societies are concerned, they are of value only in so far as they are the independent creations of the workers and not protégés either of the government or of the bourgeois.”[viii]

To be sure, as noted in an earlier post, both Du Bois and Marx share the idea of “self-abolition”—the notion that the system of slavery or capitalism brings about its own demise. Marx and Engels argued that overproduction was creating a crisis of capitalism and that the bourgeoisie was destroying itself due to its own forces: “The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.” But the true agents who would bring this about are the working men and women: “not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death to itself; it has called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons—the modern working class—the proletarians.”[ix]

The artist, Dread Scott, stressed the relevance of all this to the current movement for Black lives at our last seminar (video at 2:32:33): it centers the lived experiences, praxis, and critical thought of those who are most directly impacted by the forms of injustice they are resisting. Centering the critical voices and praxis of those who have been most deeply harmed—that is a critical piece of resistance today. It is the outgrowth, at the critical theoretical level, of discourse analysis: of analyzing the ways in which certain discourses are heard and other never even enter the public forum, or in which certain positions are legible, and others illegible, by focusing on the gaps and ambiguities of meaning.[x]

We all, or mostly all, agree on this. It animates Abolition Democracy 13/13.

But with his insistence, Marx pushes this point further: it is not just that we need to privilege the voices and experiences of the most impacted in our struggles for racial justice. More than that, the struggles do not advance history unless they are the product of those who are most affected—“only in so far as they are the independent creations” of the men and women who were formerly incarcerated or targets of policing violence or affected most directly by these injustices.

This raises a question: What role for the critical thinkers and allies? What role for the intellectual vanguard who, as Marx and Engels wrote, “have raised themselves to the level of comprehending theoretically the historical movement as a whole”?[xi]

But that question may be unimportant.

Marx is advancing, after all, a revolutionary theory that, if applied to the struggle for racial equality, is more likely to translate into the Black Panthers, at their most militant period, than to #BlackLivesMatter today. Marx is advocating civil war, open revolution. He is tracing a history that leads from a period of what he calls “more or less veiled civil war, raging within existing society,” to the next phase of history, revolution: “the point where that war breaks out into open revolution, and where the violent overthrow of the bourgeoisie lays the foundation for the sway of the proletariat.”[xii]

When Marx talks about the inevitable fall of the bourgeoisie and victory of its grave-diggers, the proletariat, it should be clear that, by analogy, we don’t need to be focusing on the question of allies or those who have passed into the ranks as ideologues, intellectuals, or other. On Marx’s view, it is only revolutionary action by those most directly affected that will bring about victory. The question is, how far are we willing to follow Marx, or Du Bois, here?

The Level of Abstraction or Scope

Marx skewered fellow travelers for being sloppy and for repeating what he called “children’s primers”[xiii] rather than engaging in the kind of rigorous economic analysis that led him to write his four-volume treatise, Capital.

Marx notoriously attacked Proudhon for his ahistoricism and anarchism. This reflects their two very different ideas of the abolition of property. Let me focus on the question of history here.

Whereas Proudhon spoke in more general terms about the abolition of property and conceived of property in more abstract terms, Marx targeted more specifically the capitalists’ ownership of the modes of production. For Marx, the general term “property” was not sufficiently analytically precise; Marx needed to historicize and specify what he meant by bourgeois property. He and Engels did so by defining “private property” historically as the ownership of the economic means of production. Almost as if writing ad hominem against Proudhon, Marx and Engels declare in the Manifesto:

The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer.

They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes. […]

All property relations in the past have continually been subject to historical change consequent upon the change in historical conditions.

The French Revolution, for example, abolished feudal property in favor of bourgeois property.

The distinguishing feature of Communism is not the abolition of property generally, but the abolition of bourgeois property. […]

In this sense, the theory of the Communists may be summed up in the single sentence: Abolition of private property.[xiv]

Marx’s critique of Proudhon was that he attacked property in general, without an understanding of the historical progression of property or of the need to attack instead a historically specific form of property.

This presents a question as to the level of generality or historical specificity of the abolitionist target, and may have implications for abolitionism more generally.

The abolition of chattel slavery as a form of property, as we noted at the outset, failed to prevent the replication of slavery through convict leasing—although, to be fair, it reduced the scope of the atrocity.[xv] It represented the abolition of one specific, historical, form of property, not property in general. It is conceivable that a broader abolition of slave-owner property (or permanent confiscation of such property) would have avoided the reproduction of slave-like conditions such as convict leasing. It’s difficult to assess a counter-factual, naturally. But the puzzle is whether a narrower historical target more easily allows for the reproduction of relations of domination.

In a similar vein, how do we ensure the non-reproduction of economic or racial injustice or systems of oppression today? Do we target the historically specific forms of, say, hypermilitarized policing or lethal injection or, at a more abstract level, the punitive society? I’m not entirely sure that this is the correct analogy, but it relates to the level of specificity or abstraction of the object of abolition. This is another area that is enriched by the confrontation of property and slavery abolition.


A third area involves, perhaps more strategically, the question whether to be entirely honest about one’s program or to be more careful—and whether, following Leo Strauss, it is ever possible to be fully transparent about one’s political project.

In many of his writings, Marx envisaged the communist endpoint as a step function. Marx wrote of earlier and later stages of communism. In his Critique of the Gotha Program, for example, Marx wrote of the differences between a communist society at its inception, “still stamped with the birth marks of the old society form whose womb it emerges,”[xvi] versus later or what he called a “higher phase” of a communist society.[xvii]

Marx envisaged the transformation of institutions and judged them according to the phase of progress of the communist society. Marx tolerated, for instance, bourgeois notions of “equal rights” in an early phase of communism, though he believed that such simplistic notions of equality and measurability would be replaced, in a higher phase, by a more fulsome conception of solidarity captured by the motto: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs?”[xviii]

Marx looked favorably upon worker cooperatives at an early stage of communism, and only then, because they retained on his view bourgeois notions of group interest. He argued that, as communist society evolved, worker cooperatives would be left behind in favor of fully proletariat organized modes of production. Worker cooperatives, Marx wrote in Capital Volume III, “should be viewed as transition forms from the capitalist mode of production to the associated one […] in a positive way.”[xix] Marx elaborated:

The cooperative factories run by workers themselves are, within the old form, the first examples of the emergence of a new form, even though they naturally reproduce in all cases, in their present organization, all the defects of the existing system, and must reproduce them.[xx]

These cooperatives were an important step toward a mature communist society—one to be overcome certainly, but not bypassed.

In this sense, Marx clearly recognized incremental change—or what might even be called today “reform”—but nevertheless spelled out, explicitly, the full, terminal, revolutionary vision of communism. He and Engels listed, in numbered bullet points, radical demands in their Manifesto: abolition of property in land, abolition of inheritance, centralization of credit and all means of communication and transport—and full confiscation of all capital from the bourgeoisie.[xxi] Theirs was a radical, revolutionary program, spelled out in detail for all to see and hear. Enough to scare any bourgeois away.

But Marx was adamant about not deceiving anyone or hiding his agenda. “The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims,” Marx and Engels wrote. They openly aimed to overthrow the bourgeoisie through revolution, striking fear in their opponents. “Let the ruling class tremble at a Communist revolution,” Marx and Engels declared.[xxii] In fact, they engage forthrightly in a hypothetical discussion with the bourgeoisie, and show all their cards:

In a word, you reproach us with intending to do away with your property. Precisely so; that is just what we intend.[xxiii]

This raises strategic questions about how best to achieve radical ambitions. Is Marx’s style of confrontation, openness, and instilling fear the best way to proceed? Or, if there is indeed a step function to progress, would it be better to simply advocate for the incremental change—the movement to worker cooperatives for instance?

In the struggle for racial justice, in the shadow and legacy of slavery, should activists be fully honest about their ultimate ambitions or should they be content to move in a stepwise direction? Is equality of opportunity, for instance, a good enough place to start—or should the goal be far more open, ambitious, and threatening?

In the struggle to abolish the police, should activists call for defunding or abolition? Should those combatting mass incarceration seek a 50% reduction in prison populations, as does Cut50, or total prison abolition?

Similarly, in the struggle for economic justice, should militants be fully honest about their ultimate goals? If, for instance, they militate for more coöperation—for a political-economic system that favors mutuals and worker cooperatives—as a step in the direction of the common, would they be better off arguing simply for more cooperatives or advocating revolution?

Agency, abstraction, transparency: these are three problematics that are productively enriched—or provoked—by the difficult metaphor of wage labor as slavery. There must be more…


[i] Proudhon, Qu’est-ce que la propriété? (1840) available here’est_ce_que_la_propriété_%3F/Chapitre_1 (my translation); Cambridge edition p. 13.

[ii] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 19.

[iii] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 21.

[iv] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 22.

[v] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 40.

[vi] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 40.

[vii] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Tucker 2d edition, 536.

[viii] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Tucker 2d edition, 536.

[ix] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 15.

[x] This explains why Michel Foucault, who contributed importantly to the development of discourse analysis, transformed his own abolitionist praxis into a vehicle to allow the voices of prisoners to be heard. For a development of this in the context of the Groupe d’information sur les prisons, see Harcourt, Critique & Praxis, 439-444.

[xi] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 19.

[xii] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 20, 20-21.

[xiii] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Tucker 2d edition, 525.

[xiv] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 23 (my emphasis).

[xv] Although the numbers remain uncertain, some estimates suggest that about 800,000 persons were victims of convict leasing when the system of convict leasing was in place. See Ashley Mott, “Fact Check,” USA Today, July 7, 2020, available at By contrast, at the time of emancipation, there were almost four million persons enslaved. This is not to minimize the harm associated with convict leasing, but speaks only to the scope of the harm.

[xvi] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Tucker 2d edition, 529.

[xvii] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Tucker 2d edition, 531.

[xviii] Marx, Critique of the Gotha Program, Tucker 2d edition, 531.

[xix] Marx, Capital Volume III, Chapter 27, 572.

[xx] Marx, Capital Volume III, Chapter 27, 571.

[xxi] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 30.

[xxii] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 44.

[xxiii] Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto, 25.

Bernard Harcourt