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Capitalism, Democracy, and Du Bois’s Two Proletariats

What could emerge from an understanding of the struggle between the two proletariats and its connection to US democracy and institutions is a more powerful and forward-looking narrative of class and race than either a utopian universalist liberalism or a narrow-minded working class incapable of advancing democracy.


As an ideal, liberal democracy has great appeal. What can be more radical or liberating than freedom and justice for all, and the cultivation of every person’s full human capacity? Utopia, however, is not the terrain where the concepts of class and race best operate. “Class” helps explain how those benefiting the most from capitalism actually go about handling capitalism’s fundamental political problems. “Race,” as Du Bois argued, similarly undergirds capitalism on this terrain. His reconstruction of Reconstruction, with color-class politics made foundational to capitalism, is an inspiration to rethink subsequent periods of political and economic reform, and the future, in similar ways.

Capitalism, of course, has formidable political challenges: How can workers be induced to sacrifice life and limb to provide enforcement (police, army) for capitalism, where they are the ones who profit least? How can capitalism be legitimated in a democracy, where the vast majority of voters are workers? In addressing such fundamental political problems, the intersection of the concepts of class and race is central.

Class and race are also useful concepts for advocates of workers and people of color on the bottom, but here there are different questions. How can workers realize (come closer to) the ideals of liberal democracy? How do workers make maximum use of their majority numbers (voting) to influence government, e.g., what divides them and what internal capacities do they lack? How can workers change capitalism to place their happiness at the center of the economic value system.

W. E. B. Du Bois’s analysis of US capitalism, especially his book Black Reconstruction in America, suggested a different paradigm for thinking about capitalism than the class structures put forward by both Marx and Weber. Du Bois argued that capitalism created two proletariats:

[the] black proletariat is not part of the white proletariat. . . while Negro labor in America suffers because of the fundamental inequities of the whole capitalist system, the lowest and most fatal degree of its suffering comes not from the capitalists but from fellow white laborers. It is white labor that deprives the Negro of his right to vote, denies him education, denies him affiliation with trade unions, expels him from decent houses and neighborhoods, and heaps upon him the public insults of open color discrimination.

Moreover, capitalism (beginning with slavery) offered white workers, the second proletariat, a policing role in relation to the first proletariat:

The system of slavery demanded a special police force and such a force was made possible and unusually effective by the presence of the poor whites. . . . Considering the economic rivalry of the black and white worker in the North, it would have seemed natural that the poor white would have refused to police slaves. But two considerations led him in the opposite direction. First of all, it gave him work and some authority as overseer, slave driver, and member of the patrol system. But above and beyond this, it fed his vanity because it associated him with the masters.

Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction that the double proletariat structure was global:

The upward moving of white labor was betrayed into wars for profit based on color caste. […] Indeed, the plight of the white working class throughout the world today is directly traceable to Negro slavery in America, on which modern commerce and industry was founded, and which persisted to threaten free labor until it was partially overthrown in 1863. The resulting color caste founded and retained by capitalism was adopted, forwarded and approved by white labor, and resulted in subordination of colored labor to white profits the world over. Thus the majority of the world’s laborers, by the insistence of white labor, became the basis of a system of industry which ruined democracy and showed its perfect fruit in World War and Depression.

Unlike Marx, Du Bois made both race and the state constitutive of capitalism. Black Reconstruction presented a two-sided view of the state. The United States and Europe constituted a global (viciously repressive) white supremacy. Yet democracy—which poor whites had fought for—was real; it provided white workers with choices and responsibilities toward their own group and colored workers.

In Du Bois’s account, the supremacy of capitalism had as much or more to do with the political orientation and actions of white workers as with the bourgeoisie. Putting equal or greater responsibility for capitalist oppression on workers (the political majority) themselves—as one must in a democracy—is a major shift in orientation from blaming the bulk of the ills of society on “the ruling class.” It may run the risk of excusing wealthy elites for their misdeeds, but it more importantly highlights labor and grassroots politics, and it demystifies how the ruling class rules.

In Black Reconstruction, for example, Du Bois showed that not all whites went in the direction of racial division and capitalist hierarchy following the Civil War. Radical Republicans like Wendell Phillips and Thaddeus Stevens fought hard to move the country in a different direction; other whites could have joined them and chose not to. Black Reconstruction similarly disclosed a missed opportunity for further democratizing the state and capitalism: a stronger Freedmen’s Bureau, enactment of land redistribution to former slaves, widespread public education (including higher education), and freedom of voting could have been cornerstones of building an entirely different Republic.

Du Bois did not downplay the difficulties of working class solidarity across racial lines, not hesitating to note that most white workers could not conceive of blacks as fellow human beings—much less imagine solidarity with them. It would have taken more struggle and likely bloody conflict to protect and expand democratic gains after the Civil War. Yet, it was still a missed opportunity. From the standpoint of Du Bois’s critique of capitalist structure, there was no path, whether for socialism or “abolitionist-democracy,” other than confronting and overcoming the differences between the two proletariats.

The last 120 years of black struggle against racist attitudes, physical segregation, repressive policing, denial of basic goods like quality education and decent income (needed for effective political participation), and lack of voter protection are best understood, in my view, as movements for uniting the two proletariats—by breaking down the structures that divide them. If there are indeed two proletariats, such anti-racist movements should be seen as exhibiting a higher degree of “class consciousness” or universalism than labor unions and “critical Marxisms” that downplay or ignore racist structures. This is certainly how Martin L. King, A. Philip Randolph, Ella Baker, and the Black Panthers understood their own advocacy. Yet outside parts of Southern history and black studies circles, black struggles have long been misunderstood in the academy as limited to procedural civil rights (like the right to vote), or black “particularity,” or pursuit of a utopian “dream” rather than attempts to win over white workers to a common cause.

The white labor-Left has had similar difficulty understanding the proletariats—both white and colored. White workers did not embrace the universal class solidarity Marx promised. Those workers most disposed to revolutionary consciousness have been black, from Union Leagues in the 1870s to the Black Lives Matter movement today. Yet, the labor-Left did not consider black radical movements part of “their” labor movement, leading the latter to lose confidence in “the” working class.

It is true that black movements did not often embrace the cause of labor unions or speak in the language of universal class solidarity. But how could they? The (anti-capitalist) struggle against slavery started long before trade unions existed. White unions, once established, rarely wanted black members. When blacks were finally included in unions, mostly through lawsuits in the 1970s, they were marginalized. Meanwhile, dominant class rhetoric continues to marginalize the importance of blacks and other coloreds in capitalism. That the black proletariat developed its own identity and radical language (as did other coloreds), and its own critiques of class (sometimes nationalistic), does not make black movements any less about labor or capitalism than the historical white labor movement or self-proclaimed socialist radicals. Social action, including revolutionary action, does not depend on actors having Enlightened European reasons for acting. Du Bois argued in Black Reconstruction that it was their religious beliefs—not a studied calculation of interests—that motivated slaves to rebel.

Another dispiriting consequence of not recognizing the two-proletariat structure is a consequent blindness to revolutionary white liberalism. There are many white leaders (Wendall Phillips, Viola Liuzzo, Henry Foner, even Hubert Humphrey—a long list) and movements largely of whites (abolitionist, anti-apartheid, Central American sanctuaries) that grasped the logic of the two proletariats and dedicated themselves to fighting the structures dividing the two classes—in order to create a non-racist democracy. These individuals and movements are not often seen as part of labor history or as anti-capitalist. But, as revolutionary anti-racist liberalism (along with revolutionary black nationalism), they posed more consistent political challenges to capital than socialist movements or labor unions in the United States.

Across the globe, it is still true that workers of color live hard lives, often in misery, compared to Western white workers. The latter often enthusiastically supported capital in militarily repressing workers of color. Nonetheless, the US white proletariat is now moving to oppose “globalization”—the drawing in of more and more workers of color into highly exploitative labor relations. Their opposition is for the “wrong” reasons: to keep good “American” jobs as opposed to working in solidarity with colored workers—but it is opposition nonetheless. Meanwhile, the global spread of capitalism, and rising importance of colored elites abroad for US capitalism, along with the rising importance of colored workers in domestic politics, creates opportunities for black political elites (like Barack Obama). The latter could leverage their political power to construct a real (non-petty) black bourgeoisie, or they could alternatively play a leadership role in organizing the colored proletariat to transition away from capitalism—asserting different economic values and goals

Much of what they can do depends on the black proletariat. The black proletariat has tended to be more radical and anti-capitalist than the white historically, but often more deferential and trusting of black elites than white workers of their leaders. A key question is whether a distinct black proletarian leadership will emerge in this time of widespread black economic deterioration (and increasing white xenophobia) to put a check on black elites. A challenge for emerging colored proletarian leaders is how to envision forms of economic cooperation that reverse historic racial divisions.

New forms of economic cooperation will require institutions to rework global planning—whether to coordinate supply chains, steer investment where most needed, or to control unneeded growth and carbon emissions, or to promote health, or deal with labor migrations. Fortunately, in the nearly a century since publication of Black Reconstruction, there have been (and are) many “Freedom Bureau” type political-economy experiments at different levels of government, in a variety of banking and business organizations, and in “community Open Source” ventures—in the United States and globally. Much can be learned from study of these experiments to think beyond capitalism.

To my mind, what could emerge from an understanding of the struggle between the two proletariats and its connection to US democracy and institutions is a more powerful and forward-looking metanarrative of class and race than either a utopian universalist liberalism stripped of a beating heart, or a narrow-minded working class interested only in its next meal and incapable of advancing democracy.

J. Phillip Thompson is an urban planner and political scientist. He is an associate professor of urban planning at MIT. Thompson is a frequent advisor to trade unions in their efforts to work with immigrant and community groups across the United States. Thompson is the author of Double Trouble: Black Mayors, Black Communities, and the Struggle for Deep Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2006).