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Whose Abolition?

Du Bois’s ‘Black Reconstruction’ is widely embraced by decarceral activists, but it celebrates state violence in a way few would now accept.

WEB Du Bois

In the years since George Floyd’s 2020 murder by Minneapolis police, abolition has enjoyed a mainstream popularity not seen since the Civil War. The abolition of police and prisons suddenly feels more possible than at any time in recent memory. This has coincided with a period during which abolition’s leading thinkers have sought to clarify where they locate the philosophy’s intellectual and historic roots. Nearly all have traced it through Black philosopher and social scientist W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963), and most particularly his landmark 1935 history of Reconstruction from the perspective of the enslaved themselves, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860–1880.

In the book, Du Bois posits that Reconstruction—the period of enforced southern political and economic restructuring which followed the Civil War—was an attempt to use the end of slavery to forge the United States into an “abolition democracy.” The effort tragically failed, but Du Bois’s unique insights into what went wrong have, for many, offered tools for thinking about where to go in our present moment.

However, it’s important to be clear that Du Bois’s vision of abolition democracy is fundamentally one of a strong state: Du Bois argues that Reconstruction failed precisely because it was not backed by adequate military force. For Du Bois, the power of the state to police is not a bad thing; rather, it is crucial to the obligation of the state to protect. In this respect, Du Bois’s view differs distinctly from most present-day visions of abolition, which explicitly reject the state’s monopoly on the use of violence. Black Reconstruction also celebrates a militaristic vision of masculinity which is out of tune with our present moment.

None of this is raised to challenge the monumental importance of Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction. Instead, it is a cautionary point about making sure that, in drawing inspiration from Du Bois, we don’t accidentally import into our movement spaces aspects of the work that are, in fact, incompatible with our present vision for a just society.

In what follows, I examine three particular aspects of Du Bois’s argument: first, his idea that a “dictatorship of the Black proletariat” would create a strong state; second, his insistence upon the need to create a proper leadership class for the newly emancipated; and, third, his valorization of the Black veteran as the central actor during Reconstruction.

To ground our discussion of my first point—on Du Bois’s idea of the “dictatorship of the Black proletariat”—it helps to consider some specific examples of how contemporary abolitionists place Du Bois within their thinking.

In a 2020 essay published soon after Floyd’s murder, Charmaine Chua writes, “For Du Bois, as for contemporary prison abolitionists like Angela Davis, abolitionism’s revolutionary promise is thus located not in an event, but through the participatory and radical reconfiguration of current arrangements of economic and social life towards meaningful freedom.” Chua was likely thinking of Davis’s Abolition Democracy (2011), in which Davis writes that Du Bois’s idea of abolition democracy is not simply the “negative process of tearing down, but it is also about building up, about creating new institutions.” She continues, “Du Bois pointed out that in order to fully abolish the oppressive conditions produced by slavery, new democratic institutions would have to be created.”

Ruth Wilson Gilmore cites Du Bois to emphasize the constructive parts of abolition: “abolition isn’t just absence; as W.E.B. Du Bois showed in Black Reconstruction in America abolition is a fleshly and material presence of social life lived differently.” In No More Police: A Case for Abolition (2022), Mariame Kaba and Andrea Ritchie cite Black Reconstruction as showing how activists can pragmatically engage with the state without being captured by it. And the four authors of the 2022 first volume of Abolition. Feminism. Now. (Davis joined by Gina Dent, Erica R. Meiners, and Beth E. Ritchie) write that they view Black Reconstruction as a “history of the present” that Du Bois used to explain his own Jim Crow era but which can be extrapolated to explain our present as well.

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To engage with these perspectives, it is beneficial to reflect on how exactly Du Bois himself understood the term abolition democracy. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois writes, “the abolition-democracy was the liberal movement among both laborers and small capitalists” whose “only real object of the Civil War in its eyes was the abolition of slavery, and it was convinced that this could be thoroughly accomplished only if the emancipated Negroes became free citizens and voters.” Here Du Bois, a committed Marxist, is describing “abolition democracy” in terms of a purely economic transformation. In classical Marxism, slavery is seen as a remnant of pre-capitalist societies. Du Bois contends that the governing Republican Party (along with white workers and business owners) in effect shared this Marxist belief: slavery stood in the way of the goal of transforming the United States into a fully industrialized, capitalist society. A successful Reconstruction, for these stakeholders, would have meant the newly emancipated becoming wage workers and, in gratitude, loyal Republican voters.

However, Du Bois is quick to add that the formerly enslaved had their own visions of what they wanted from their freedom, and it wasn’t just the right to work for a paycheck. This refusal—both of slavery and of white attempts to define their freedom—is what Du Bois places at the center of Black Reconstruction, and it is what abolitionists today rightly find so inspiring about the work.

However, it is almost impossible for today’s readers to not see Du Bois through the rosy lens of 1960s counterculture, with its focus on radical visions of a fully egalitarian democracy. This risks misreading Du Bois, who published Black Reconstruction in 1935 against a backdrop of the rise of the USSR and the New Deal’s welfare state. For Du Bois, what was most radical about Reconstruction was not the revolt against slavery, but rather the conscious use of political power by Black people to try to create a better U.S. state, a political power that he saw as the “dictatorship of the Black proletariat.” In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois was ultimately interested in how a strong central state could have more successfully pulled off Reconstruction and resulted in an industrialized, multiracial social democracy along the lines of the early Soviet state-building project.

Du Bois particularly highlights the role of the U.S. military occupation of the South as the fundamental condition for any use of Black political power. A dictatorship of Black laborers could only succeed at its aims if it was “backed by the military power of the United States.” “Those who were leading the Negro race in this vast experiment,” he continues, recognized “the necessity of the political power and organization backed by protective military power.” Abolition democracy was only possible if democracy was paired with dictatorship as federal control: “freedom . . . could be insured against the natural resentment of the planters only by some sort of dictatorship.”

This radically departs from present visions of abolition aimed at abolishing police and military power. Few if any abolitionists today would accept police abolition at the price of the military occupation of major cities, but this is precisely what Du Bois wanted. For the first time, the United States had put force behind the idea of making the enslaved into citizens, and for Du Bois the only failing there was that the government hadn’t gone far enough: only more military occupation would have granted the necessary time to educate the newly freed. He argues that military rule over the southern oligarchs “must last long enough really to put the mass of workers in power . . . must endure until the proletariat or at least a leading united group, with clear objects and effective method, had education and experience and had taken firm control of the economic organization of the South.”

Turning to my second point, on Du Bois’s views about leadership among the newly freed, readers may well have detected the note of paternalism in Du Bois’s estimation of the time newly freed Black people would need to become organized and educated. Throughout Black Reconstruction, Du Bois is clear about both his admiration for how hard enslaved Blacks fought their enslavement and his view that the emancipated lacked a proper group of leaders. Even as Du Bois admired the resistance of ordinary Black people during the Civil War and Reconstruction, by his own definitions they were not educated yet to lead themselves.

As a younger thinker, Du Bois had argued that college education would raise up a “talented tenth” of Black men capable of being leaders in their communities. Many think of Du Bois’s turn to Marxism as a repudiation of this earlier elitism—but Black Reconstruction is replete with arguments about the necessity to create an educated Black leadership class. Du Bois’s radical vision of abolition democracy hinges partly, then, not on the emergence of the masses into politics, but on the development of a leadership for these masses. His critique of the liberal abolition democracy being pushed by the Republican Party was precisely that it failed to commit to creating a durable Black leadership class in the South.

Du Bois’s own discussion of democracy is built on the dichotomy of enlightened leadership and ignorant masses. The “eternal paradox” of democracy for Du Bois is that “the vast majority of men have been ignorant and poor” and so if they are given power “their success in the nature of things must be halting and spasmodic, if not absolutely nil.” Yet “if the poor, unlettered toilers are given no political power, and are kept by exploitation in poverty, they will remain submerged unless rescued by revolution; and a philosophy will prevail, teaching that the submergence of the mass is inevitable and is on the whole best, not only for them, but for the ruling classes.”

From our current vantage, it is difficult to interpret this as anything other than condescending. Moreover, in our age of state power run amok, Du Bois’s remark that “the real power must be in someone’s hands” reads as frankly ominous.

This reaches my third point, about the gendered implications of Black Reconstruction: the primary political actor Du Bois saw as carrying out a radical abolition democracy was the masculine Black veteran. As a figure of force, Du Bois’s exemplary political actor in the Reconstruction South was the armed Black man. Empowered by his service fighting for his own freedom in the Civil War, for Du Bois the armed Black man held the potential power to embolden a more radical abolition democracy.

We know, of course, what happened instead because we are still living through its repercussions: Du Bois’s salvific figure of the armed Black man became a figure of fear for the white South. Eventually mostly disarmed by so-called “Black codes” and Jim Crow, Black people did not start a race war but rather became the victims of one, where they were “set upon by white forces superior in numbers, armed and disciplined, and with little chance of self-defense.”

This disarmament targeted private Black gun ownership, as well as ownership by the Black militiamen briefly enshrined by southern states at the beginning of Reconstruction. For example, in an exemplary but not unusual 1865 law, Mississippi mandated:

No freedman, free Negro, or mulatto, not in the military service of the United States Government, and not licensed to do so by the board of police of his or her county, shall keep or carry firearms of any kind, or any ammunition, dirk, or bowie-knife; and on conviction thereof, in the county court, shall be punished by fine, not exceeding ten dollars, and pay the costs of such proceedings, and all such arms or ammunition shall be forfeited to the informer.

These prohibitions sought, in effect, to roll back emancipation, since one of the key rights of Black citizenship was the right to self-defense. Du Bois comments: “It was the silent verdict of all America that Negroes must not be allowed to fight for themselves. They were, therefore, dissuaded from every attempt at self-protection or aggression by their friends as well as their enemies.” This even after so many Black men shed their blood for the North and contributed decisively to Union victory.

Du Bois’s privileging of the armed veteran is enlivened by this context; it is, in effect, an embrace of coercion as a critical tool for revolutionary change. He writes, “power cannot be expected to yield save to superior power.” This reveals the extent to which Du Bois’s conception of abolition democracy was not in itself a rejection of state violence, but a different articulation of the state’s relationship between coercion and consent, one where state power could be used to empower the powerless:

If that part of the white South which had a vision of democracy and was willing to grant equality to Negroes of equal standing had been sustained long enough by a standing Federal police, democracy could have been established in the South. But brute force was allowed to use its unchecked power in the actions of the whites to destroy the possibility of democracy in the South, and thereby make the transition from democracy to plutocracy all the easier and more inevitable.

In Du Bois’s vision, policing does not exist to enforce a hierarchy of citizenship privileges—as most present-day abolitionists hold—but rather serves as a central part of the state’s obligations to protect. Du Bois was not naïve, and had every reason to be skeptical of U.S. policing: he possessed a keen understanding of how criminalization, and the specter of the Black criminal, had been used to justify the assault on Black lives and political rights. Nonetheless, the recurrent theme of Du Bois’s abolition democracy is not a simple rejection of state coercion, but instead an attempt to advocate for a different vision of state modernization that would also transform the United States into a multiracial democracy, enforced by the coercive power of the state if necessary.

In contrast with Du Bois’s strong endorsement of coercive state power, contemporary abolitionists take a much more cautious approach, focusing on either pragmatic engagement with, or outright rejection of, the state.

In a section of No More Police about the relationship between abolition and the state, Kaba and Ritchie note the wide spectrum. Some activists take a Black anarchist approach that any state is carceral and cannot be brought into line with abolitionist goals. Other abolitionists do view strategic engagement with the state as possible, and often they cite Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction as an example of how it can be done.

For their part, Kaba and Ritchie ask: “Rather than be immobilized by these contradictions, . . . what additional possibilities emerge if we move beyond the dichotomy of capturing or dismantling the modern Western state”? And a follow-up question: “What if our goal is not to seize the carceral state in an effort to transform it, but to seize power and resources from the police state to create conditions under which new economic systems and forms of governance can emerge?”

On this point, Kaba and Ritchie, alongside other activists today, reflect what political scientist Deva Woodly calls a radical Black feminist pragmatism toward questions of politics, an approach which begins from where people are and works toward what would produce their safety while leaving no one behind. This radical Black feminist pragmatism highlights the importance of experimentation to all abolitionist efforts today. Some may seek a grounding or usable past for this experimentation in Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, yet I argue that constantly turning to Black Reconstruction may actually hinder such experimentation. Kaba and Ritchie sketch out a vision of abolition that is nearly the polar opposite of Du Bois’s:

Our abolitionist story is one of collective power rather than coercive power. We want a world where we exercise power together, with each other. We are declaring what must be: a world of abundance and care, without domination and control. We are still writing the stories of what forms our collective power will take, exploring what forms of governance, what economic systems will best hold these abolition dreams.

Abolitionists need to think carefully about what stories we tell about abolition, and we derive no benefit from ignoring that Du Bois’s abolition story is clearly one of coercion and control, not to mention male chauvinism. As radically egalitarian as his political and economic vision was, he still could only imagine such visions in the confine of a coercive state with a well-defined male leadership guiding the masses of workers.

Black women rarely appear in Du Bois’s discussion of abolition, whereas their leadership is crucial to abolition today—as we know, for that matter, it was in Du Bois’s own time. Gilmore even notes that Du Bois interviewed an elderly Harriet Tubman for her insights on abolitionist struggle. What changes if our touchstone for abolition democracy is not Du Bois but rather Mothers Reclaiming Our Children, a grassroots organization of Los Angeles mothers who challenged California’s carceral state? Or the young women Saidiya Hartman documents in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (2019), who rejected the boxes of “worker” and even “citizen” to live on their own terms, in the pursuit of their own desires?

The abolitionist past is as radically open as our collective abolitionist futures. To follow new paths, it may be time to leave behind Du Bois’s version of “abolition democracy” as our only origin story.

Image: Library of Congress