A Brief Moment in the Sun: The Forgotten Revolutionary History of Black Reconstruction

The slave went free, stood a brief moment in the sun, then moved back again toward slavery. — W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction

W. E. B. Du Bois was a founder of the NAACP, the first Black man to receive a PhD from Harvard, and a scholar whose work is extremely important to the socialist tradition. Despite a recent surge of interest in his ideas (including a prize-winning book by DSA member Gary Dorrien), he remains best known (if known at all) in the public mind as the author of Souls of Black Folk (soon to be issued in graphic form by Rutgers University Press with a grant from the DSA Fund) Less well known, but crucial to socialist thinking in this era of the New Jim Crow and the Black Lives Matter protest movement is one of his later works, Black Reconstruction in America. New York City DSA’s political education committee recently hosted a reading group on this seminal text.

Reconstruction, the period immediately following the end of the Civil War, is an era of American history often forgotten, overlooked, or slandered, but Du Bois rightly characterizes it as a radical experiment in wielding the power of the state with the aim of political and social equality. Reconstruction was, in his words, “one of the most extraordinary experiments of Marxism that the world, before the Russian revolution, had seen.” Black Reconstruction is not just an essential contribution to U.S. scholarship due to centering the humanity and agency of the Black people whose lives and freedom were on the line; it is also an unapologetically socialist analysis of U.S. history with lessons for the socialist movement today.

Du Bois begins his book by documenting that the enslaved Black population, far from being passive onlookers whose fate was being decided by the warring North and South, were in fact the historical protagonists of abolition, as all workers, wherever they live, must be in their moment’s class struggle. 

For centuries, U.S. slaves had engaged in sporadic and brutally suppressed acts of resistance through desertion and armed revolt — no doubt encouraged by the success of the slave insurrection-turned-Haitian Revolution. But once the Civil War began, they fled the plantations en masse to support the Union Army, participating in what DuBois characterizes as “a general strike that involved directly in the end perhaps a half million people. They wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations.” 

These former slaves both withheld their labor to deprive the South of their economic engine and took up arms themselves, providing 200,000 troops necessary for military victory. Their involvement, Abraham Lincoln acknowledged, was what won the war for the North.

Reconstruction was not a socialist project — instead of a dictatorship of the proletariat, it was a “dictatorship of the army over property for the benefit of labor.” Nevertheless, it was a genuinely revolutionary period of history, the closest the United States ever came to delivering on the liberal democratic ideals promised at its founding. 

At last, Black men were granted legal rights and the right to vote (women were excluded for another five decades until the 19th amendment was ratified); millions of people, white and Black, were provided medical care, drastically lowering death rates; universal public schooling was established, thanks to a Black-led mass movement for education. These were true working-class governments, with freedmen and the propertyless constituting a meaningful proportion of governmental representatives. As radical scholar-activist Noel Ignatiev put it, “[w]as either the Paris Commune or the Petrograd Soviet of purer proletarian composition than the South Carolina Convention of 1867?”

However, Marxist ideas had not yet taken root in American working-class political consciousness, leaving a leadership vacuum in the fight for working-class democracy that was filled by the bourgeois Republican Party. 

Republican reluctance to radically restructure the Southern economy led to Reconstruction being dismantled by an alliance of Northern industrialists and Southern planters, Republicans and Democrats alike united in a “counter-revolution of property” that brought about a new age of monopoly capitalism. This ruling-class coalition used racism to ensure that white workers thought in terms of “exploitation of black folk by white, not of labor by capital,” thereby driving a wedge between the Black and white labor movements. 

The Constitution enabled the undemocratic Supreme Court to “assume powers which would at times threaten to stop the progress of the nation, almost without appeal.” Black militias that in some places were thousands strong were dismantled by timid Republican governments despite intensifying terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan, leaving the Black population unorganized and vulnerable. Finally, the Northern army pulled out after the corrupt Compromise of 1877, thus removing the military support on which Reconstruction depended. The result was a rollback of nearly all political and social rights; the subjection of Black people to increased incarceration by the state; and continued extrajudicial violence by white supremacists targeting Black communities and their elected representatives. 

Reading Black Reconstruction, it’s easy to see the past echoed in our present. Both Right and Left have mass movements wedded to parties of the capitalist class. In the case of the Left, the Democratic Party captures and placates radical energy while the white working-class population is too blinded by racial chauvinism to understand the power of interracial solidarity. Our undemocratic constitution remains intact, with the unelected Supreme Court continuing to force its unpopular reactionary agenda.

Reconstruction remains an unfinished project, as does abolition. The prison system that was born after emancipation, which even at the time was seen to be a new form of slavery, has been supercharged — millions of people are incarcerated in the United States today (the largest number and rate of incarcerated people in the world), a disproportionally high number of them Black. These prisoners are compelled to perform labor that major corporations profit from. In 48 states, incarcerated citizens are disenfranchised; in 11 states, the right to vote isn’t restored even after release, if the conviction was for a felony.

As socialists, we understand that we do not work in isolation. We must provide a principled socialist analysis and merge social, economic, and political struggles into one, all-encompassing struggle for working-class democracy and Black liberation the world over.