Robert Gooding-Williams | Democratic Despotism and The New Imperialism

By Robert Gooding-Williams

Note to Reader: I have excerpted the following remarks from a manuscript-in-progress on Du Bois’s Political Aesthetics.  They focus on Du Bois’s conception of democratic despotism. They bear on our forthcoming 13/13 discussion, because Du Bois understands democratic despotism to have been the world-historical successor to the shipwreck of abolition democracy.  In my remarks on Thursday, I will develop this last point a bit further and spell out my interpretation of Du Bois’s notion of abolition democracy.

Democratic Despotism and The New Imperialism

Quoting Pliny the Elder’s pronouncement that out of Africa there is always something new—“Semper novi quid ex Africa”—Du Bois opens “The African Roots of War” by remarking that “the Roman proconsul…voiced the verdict of forty centuries.” Published in the May 1915 issue of Atlantic Monthly, Du Bois’s essay makes the case that the cause of the then ongoing World War was to be sought in Africa—and, indeed, in the advent of something new in Africa.  While Pliny’s proclamation has been historically verified through any number of events, including, the essay argues, the first welding of iron and the emergence of Christianity as a world religion, Du Bois’s interest is the comparatively recent event of Europe’s colonial expansion into Africa, a “prime cause” of the World War and a world-historical catastrophe of “lying treaties, rivers of rum, murder, assassination, mutilation, rape, and torture [that] have marked the progress of Englishman, German, Frenchman, and Belgian on the dark continent.”   Like J.A. Hobson, with whom he attended the “First Universal Races Congress”
held at the University of London in 1911, Du Bois described this catastrophe as “the new imperialism.”[1]

Nine years earlier, in his book on the new imperialism, Hobson had argued that “the novelty of recent Imperialism regarded as a policy consists chiefly in its adoption by several nations.”  Hobson’s epitome of the “root idea of empire,” of the “conception of a single empire wielding political authority over the civilized world,” was the hegemony that Rome exercised over the entire “recognized world…under the so-called pax Romana.”  With the fall of Rome, he tells us, this conception “did not disappear,” but survived in the ambitions of Charlemagne, Rudolph of Hapsburg, and Charles V, as well as in “the policy of Peter the Great, Catherine, and Napoleon.”  In contrast to the initially Roman idea of empire, Hobson’s “essentially modern” notion is exemplified by the competitive “scramble” of several European nations (Britain, France, Germany) politically to absorb “tropical or sub-tropical lands in which white men will not settle with their families.”  The “new imperialism,” Hobson writes, is “driven more and more into the annexation and administration of tropical countries.”[2]

With his opening reference to Pliny, who, during the early years of the Roman Empire, seems to have spent part of his career as a procurator in Africa, Du Bois tacitly echoes Hobson in contrasting an older, Roman imperialism to “the new Imperialism;” that is, to the efforts of England, France, Germany and Portugal, in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian war, to seek “power and dominion away from Europe.” The upshot of these efforts, of the “scramble for Africa,” he argues, is that “a continent where Europe claimed but a tenth of the land in 1875, was in twenty-five more years practically absorbed.”  Du Bois reminds us that the scramble for Africa began with Stanley’s explorations of Central Africa and King Leopold’s establishment of the Congo Free State, whose murder, mutilation, and robbery of black Africans “differed only in degree and concentration from the tale of all Africa in this rape of a continent already furiously mangled by the slave trade.”  But while Stanley’s explorations were “the occasion” of European nations seeking dominion away from Europe, “the cause lay deeper.”  “Why was this?,” Du Bois  asks, “What was the new call for dominion?”[3]


“It is admitted by all business men,” Hobson writes, “that the growth of the powers of production in their country exceeds the growth in consumption, that more goods can be produced than can be sold at a profit, and that more capital exists than can find remunerative investment.”  It is “this economic condition of affairs,” he adds, “that forms the taproot of Imperialism.”  Owing to deficient demand—to underconsumption—among Europe’s domestic working classes, capitalists and financiers have a material, economic interest in opening up new markets for goods that can be sold at a profit.  In each of several nations, these potential beneficiaries of investment abroad press the nation, the state, to annex foreign territory for the purpose of satisfying that interest.   When this pressure succeeds, when, more exactly, the capitalists and financiers “secure the active co-operation of statesmen and political cliques,” persuading them to confound class-specific economic interests with the nation’s interests, the upshot is the nation’s acquiescence to imperialist foreign policies and a consequent “fight” among European nations “for foreign markets or foreign areas of investment.”  This dynamic could be halted, Hobson proposes, were each nation to follow the lead of the trade unionists and the socialists by resdistributing income to the working class, or to public expenditure, thus raising “the general standard of home consumption” and abating “the pressure for foreign markets.”[4]

Like Hobson, Du Bois conceptualizes the nation as an agent of material, economic interests. On three critical points, however, Du Bois breaks with Hobson.  The first is Du Bois’s rejection of Hobson’s explanation of the genesis of the new imperialism.  The second is his rejection of Hobson’s analysis of the relationship between nations’ interests and the material interests that drive the new imperialism.  For example, Du Bois denies that European imperialism is driven by a false identification of the interests of the nation with the interests of capitalists and financiers.  The third is Du Bois’s rejection of Hobson’s view of the sort of remedy the dynamic of the new imperialism requires.  In Du Bois’s argument these three points belong together, for each of them stems from his effort in “The African Roots of War” clearly to formulate “the theory” of the “new democratic despotism.”[5]

Du Bois’s presents his formulation of that theory as the solution to a philosophical paradox.  “Most philosophers,” he writes, “see the ship of state launched on the broad, irresistible tide of democracy, with only delaying eddies here and there.”  “Others,” however, “looking closer, are more disturbed. Are we, they ask, reverting to aristocracy and despotism—the rule of might?”  The paradox is not simply conceptual, but observable in the world, for it has “reconciled the Imperialists and captains of industry to any amount of ‘Democracy’,” while allowing “in America the most rapid advance of democracy to go hand in hand…with increased aristocracy and hatred toward darker races.”  Du Bois’s solution is straigtforward: “The paradox is easily explained,” he writes, “the white workingman has been asked to share the spoil of exploiting ‘chinks and niggers.’”[6]

Du Bois sees democratic political movements as “efforts to increase the number of beneficiaries of the ruling [of men].”[7]  “In 18th century Europe,” he adds, “the effort became so broad and sweeping that an attempt was made at universal expression and the philosophy of the movement said that if All ruled they would rule for All and thus Universal Good was sought through Universal Suffrage.”[8]  As European democratic movements have advanced from the 18th through the 20th centuries, the effort to increase the numbers of those who benefit from government has meant “the dipping of more and grimier hands into the wealth bag of the nation, until to-day only the ultra stubborn fail to see that democracy in determining income is the next inevitable step to Democracy in political power.”[9]  In turn, increasing democracy in the determination of income has profoundly altered the structure of exploitation: it is no longer the “merchant prince” or the “aristocratic monopoly” or simply “the employing class” that dominates and exploits the world in order to reap “inordinate profits” and “dividends,” but “the nation; a new democratic nation composed of united capital and labor.”[10]  For Du Bois, the paradox of modern democracy is explained by the circumstance that democratic progress within Europe and America for white laborers has entailed the despotic exploitation in America and elsewhere of  “chinks’ and ‘niggers’.”   “The present world war,” he maintains, is “the result of jealousies engendered by the recent rise of armed national associations of labor and capital whose aim is the exploitation of the wealth of the world mainly outside the European circle of nations.”[11]


[1] For all the material quoted in this paragraph, see Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” 707-708.

[2] For all the material quoted in this paragraph, see J.A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (New York: James Pott & Co., 1902), 6-7, 11, 26, 42.

[3] For the material quoted in the paragraph, see Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” 708.  For evidence regarding Pliny’s career in Africa, see Ronald Syme, “Pliny the Procurator,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 73 (1969), 201-236.  For recent discussion of Pliny as a political theorist, and a defense of the thesis that his Natural History can be read as a defense of empire, see Thomas R. Laehn, Pliny’s Defense of Empire (New York: Routledge, 2013).  As for as I know, there is no evidence that Du Bois read Pliny in a similar light, but one wonders.  In the introduction to his magisterial 1991 volume, The Scramble for Africa: White Man’s Conquest of the Dark Continet form 1876-1912 (New York: Avon Books, 1991), the historian, Thomas Packenham wrote that there is still no “general explanation” of the scramble for Africa “acceptable to historians” (xxii).

[4] For the material quoted in this paragraph, see Hobson, Imperialism, 86, 224, 91, 96.

[5] Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” 709.

[6] For all the material quoted in this paragraph,, see Ibid.

[7] Du Bois, Darkwater, 105.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Du Bois, “The African Roots of War,” 709.

[10] Du Bois, “African Roots of War,” 709; Darkwater, 31.  Emphasis mine.

[11] Ibid., 711.

Bernard Harcourt