The Thought of a Black Workers’ General Strike

Bryan Doniger studies political philosophy at the New School for Social Research.

When W.E.B. Du Bois speaks of a ‘general strike,’ he means that our mass refusal to work within a violent, corrosive social system can also demonstrate the possibility of a better world. In Black Reconstruction, Du Bois treats Black workers’ mass exodus from southern plantations during the civil war as an exemplary, triumphant general strike. He argues that the Black workers’ movement “was not merely the desire to stop work. It was a strike on a wide basis against the conditions of work.”1 Du Bois goes on to elaborate that the general strike not only ended slavery but also posited an entirely different economic and social order. Rather than continuing to work for the profit of slave owners, the strikers conducted “a fateful experiment in democracy.”2 They wanted a world where they owned land and cultivated this land on their own terms. This new social organization of work, founded on land ownership for all, would lead to a worker-centered economy where Black people could labor without having the fruits of their labor taken by bosses or owners. Thus, the general strike fundamentally challenged the conditions of work that ordinarily prevailed in the American slave system. Black workers fought for another, better social order — one where their fate was not defined by the domination of overseers, police, and property owners.  

In the past decade, there has been much renewed interest in Du Bois’s theory of the general strike; however, most recent studies of this topic begin from the questionable assumption that Du Bois’s theory was an extension of Marx’s own thinking on how strikes happen.3 According to a fairly widespread interpretation, Black Reconstruction is simply an inventive application of classical Marxism to a new context. Du Bois’s innovation was primarily his focus on enslaved Black workers, rather than waged industrial proletariats. For Marx, industrial workers strike because their social role as industrial workers leads them a) to suffer from their working conditions and b) to realize they have power to fight these conditions.4 Workers’ strikes are an example of ‘class consciousness’; in these strikes, workers develop a capacity for revolutionary thought and action because of their abject position within the current social system. Du Bois’s innovation is to adopt Marxist concepts like ‘class consciousness’ and ‘strike’ to a new context: the thoughts and actions of Black workers in America. Or so the story goes.  

David Roediger’s otherwise excellent Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All exemplifies the tendency among recent interpreters of “The General Strike” to define Du Bois’s theory as an inventive extension of Marxism.5 In Roediger’s introductory remarks on both his own method and Du Bois’s, he claims that “defending Du Bois’s proposition regarding the general strike of slaves positions [Roediger’s]… study as a Marxist one.”6 Here, Roediger implies that Du Bois’s understanding of the general strike is so close to Marx’s view that any study of this topic will have a Marxist orientation. To study the Black workers’ general strike is therefore to extend Marx’s framework to a new context. Roediger goes on to claim that Black Reconstruction is “the most fully realized work of Marxist history of the United States.”7 Seizing Freedom has been highly influential, and most of the studies of the Black workers’ general strike published in Roediger’s wake have retained some version of his claims.8 

Here, I’ll make a counter-argument: Du Bois doesn’t adopt Marx’s existing definitions of the strike and of class consciousness for new purposes so much as he develops a different and better method. More specifically, I think that Du Bois’s theory of the general strike gives us a better understanding of how the thoughts and actions of strikers a) maintain an antagonistic relationship with the social system that they are fighting, but b) are not wholly determined by this system.9  To support my reading, I will make two subclaims:

1. Black Reconstruction satisfactorily answers a question that confronts all theories of the general strike: if we accept, as Du Bois does, that our current social system is profoundly corrosive, wouldn’t this ensure that widespread, emancipatory political movements are almost impossible? Let’s phrase this question slightly differently. Marx and Du Bois agree that the American slave system was a social and economic order that profoundly damaged the Black workers who worked within it.10 Furthermore, Du Bois claims that the damage of this social order greatly impacted Black workers’ ability to resist the conditions of work: “nine-tenths of the four million Black slaves could neither read nor write, and… the vast majority were isolated on country plantations. Any mass movement under such circumstances must materialize slowly and painfully.”11 Wouldn’t the corrosive effects of this political order all but eviscerate the possibility of fighting for another one, especially for those who were most isolated and weakened? Du Bois does not think so, and I read Black Reconstruction partly as a devastating attack on those American historians and social scientists whose methods for studying history render the self-emancipation of Black workers an impossibility. I will make this argument in section one. 

2. In order to truly distinguish the thoughts and actions of general strikers from the coercive social system to which they are responding, Du Bois also distinguishes his account of the general strike from the classical Marxist notion that strikes happen via class consciousness. In other words, Du Bois does not think that Black workers’ thought and action in the general strike was determined in advance by their position within American slave society. While striking, the Black workers were not thinking and acting as slaves or as unwaged workers. To the contrary, the thesis of the general strike was the absolute rejection of the social positions of the slave system–the thought that slavery need not dictate who we are, and how we act. I will expand upon this argument in section two. 

I will conclude by placing Du Bois’s theory of the general strike in conversation with a recent challenge to classical Marxism posed by Sylvain Lazarus and Asad Haider.12 I see Du Bois, Lazarus, and Haider as surprising fellow travelers in the fight for a theory of emancipatory thought and action that breaks with past Marxist paradigms like ‘class consciousness’ or ‘the party.’ In particular, my sense is that there are deep resonances between Du Bois’s fight against the propaganda of history and Lazarus’s attack on what he calls ‘scientism.’

Section One: Against the Propaganda of History

The question of the relationship between Du Bois’s general strike and Marx’s is much more open than critics like Roediger make it seem. Although many chapters from Black Reconstruction explicitly apply Marxist class analysis, Du Bois’s chapter on “The General Strike” makes no references to Marx at all. The three chapters preceding Du Bois’s history of the general strike (“The Black Worker,” “The White Worker,” and “The Planter”) are all clear and explicit extensions of Marxist history to an American context.13 By contrast, Marx’s total absence in Du Bois’s reflections on the general strike is conspicuous. Even if this omission was not intentional on Du Bois’s part, it is at least fair to say that there is no passage in Black Reconstruction where Du Bois definitively settles the question of the relationship between his use of the term ‘general strike’ and Marx’s. And so, defining Du Bois’s methodology via its continuity with the classical Marxist framework is at least a contentious decision. For this reason, I think we should proceed differently from Roediger: we should first try to understand Du Bois’s general strike on its own terms before we identify points of continuity and rupture with other theories of how strikes occur. 

Du Bois himself offers extensive methodological notes on his decision to center the Black workers’ general strike; in “The Propaganda of History,” he warns that civil war historians who don’t account for the strike greatly damage their capacity for sound moral judgment of both historical events and the current social system. For example, Du Bois fiercely criticizes those historians who choose to explain both Black emancipation and post-civil war reconstruction via what he derisively calls “cosmic social and economic law.”14 If we study history as though it is always governed by a set of ‘laws of economy and society,’ then Du Bois fears that we are in danger of claiming that these laws somehow ‘cosmically’ necessitated both slavery and the renewed subjugation of Black workers during reconstruction. This tendency to study politics as if our actions are determined in advance by discoverable ‘laws’ was Du Bois’s problem with Charles and Mary Beard’s “Rise of American Civilization.” In the Beards’ account,

the difference of development, North and South, is explained as a sort of working out of cosmic social and economic law…. They clash, as winds and water strive, and the stronger forces develop the tremendous industrial machine that governs us so magnificently and selfishly today. Yet in this sweeping mechanistic interpretation, there is no room for the real plot of this story, for the clear mistake and guilt of rebuilding a new slavery of the working class in the midst of a fateful experiment in democracy; for the triumph of sheer moral courage and sacrifice in the abolition crusade; and for the hurt and struggle of degraded Black millions in the fight for freedom and their attempt to enter democracy.15

This passage doesn’t just criticize the Beards; it also clarifies at least two aspects of Du Bois’s method for studying the general strike: 

1. Du Bois intends to situate the general strike as a moment of moral triumph that helps us delineate the evil of American slavery and American reconstruction. He insists that both the ‘hurt and struggle of degraded Black millions’ during slavery and the ‘rebuilding of a new slavery’ during reconstruction were morally contemptible. More specifically, they were contemptible in comparison with the Black workers’ positing of a world where they owned their own land and worked it without the tyranny of bosses. The workers’ movement was a fateful experiment in democracy and a triumph of sheer moral courage and sacrifice. Studying the brilliance and strength this movement helps will help us see the evils of American slavery more clearly and evocatively.

2. But what specific dimensions of the guilt of slavery and of reconstruction does the general strike help us see that we would otherwise neglect? Notice that, when Du Bois describes the general strike, he emphasizes that it was a ‘fateful’ experiment. My sense is that Du Bois’s intent is to emphasize the general strike’s powerful, far-reaching consequences, and to draw a contrast with the aforementioned ‘cosmic laws.’16 The fatefulness of the general strike attests to the fact that neither the American slave order nor the rebuilding of a new slavery during reconstruction were inevitable phenomena. If the relations of the slave owners and the enslaved were always pre-determined by the laws of society and economy, then we could speak of the slave order as an inevitable evil, and therefore as no evil at all. However, the proof of the slave system’s non-inevitability is the fact that it was possible for the Black workers to make their own fate, to posit a fundamentally different social order. In turn, reconstruction’s evil stems from the fact that, thanks to the general strike, there was a true opportunity to overthrow “a slave economy and establish…upon it an industry primarily for the profit of workers.”17 This opportunity was lost, and this loss was a true failure, not a mere consequence of pre-determined social or economic laws. As Du Bois puts it, “it was this price [the establishment of a worker-centered economy] which in the end America refused to pay and today suffers for that refusal.”18   

In summary, Du Bois’s methodological worry is that historians who explain all historical actions via the dominant social and economic order will fail to leave any ‘room for the real plot of the story.’ They will fail to grapple with the new social possibilities posited by the triumphant general strike or to adequately condemn reconstruction. By contrast, Du Bois knew that American reconstruction was evil. It totally subordinated the real emancipatory energy that was palpable amidst the general strike. Rather than establishing a worker-centered economy, the post-Civil War era led to a new slavery: another violent, corrosive social order that protected the property of the white and the rich and that required ‘the hurt and struggle of degraded Black millions.’ One consequence of the Black workers’ general strike is that no honest reckoning with our current social order can use ‘sweeping mechanistic interpretation’ to justify the ongoing manifestations of reconstruction’s evils (police violence, enforced poverty for Black people, and so on) as necessary.  The general strike attests to the non-necessity of both the old slavery and the failures of reconstruction when it comes to emancipating Black workers.19 There was a radical ‘experiment in democracy’ that proved that things can be otherwise.

These remarks from “The Propaganda of History” clarify why Du Bois turned to the Black workers’ general strike, but they also raise a new problem for us. Black Reconstruction often does explain historical actions via ‘economic and social laws,’ so Du Bois should carefully delineate between his method of study and ‘the sweeping mechanistic interpretation’ he condemns. In fact, Du Bois begins Black Reconstruction by describing three social groups–the Black workers, the white workers, and the planters–whose actions and interactions are clearly determined by the slave system within which they live.20 To give one quick example, let’s turn to Du Bois’s description of the particularly virulent racism that white owners harbored for free Black workers: “As slavery grew into a system and the Cotten Kingdom began to expand into imperial white domination, a free Negro was a contradiction, a threat and a menace…. He more than threatened society. He contradicted and undermined it.”21 For Du Bois, slavery was a ‘social system’–an interconnected set of economic and social laws that work together to determine many aspects of our social reality. To operate effectively, the system of slavery relies upon specific social positions. For example, it required a class of unwaged, unfree Black workers. This explains why white imperialists regarded free Black workers as ‘a contradiction, a threat, and a menace.’ Thus, Black Reconstruction accounts for the white imperialist’s treatment of free Black people precisely by demonstrating how the imperialist’s actions were determined in advance by their participation in the economic and social order of slavery. And so, analysis of history via economic and social law clearly doesn’t fall by the wayside in Black Reconstruction. This leaves interpreters of Black Reconstruction with a serious and difficult problem: we must carefully delineate Du Bois’s own social analysis from historians like the Beards whom Du Bois derides for their ‘sweeping mechanistic interpretation.’     

Section Two: The General Strike as a Fateful ‘Thesis of Emancipation’    

My thought is that Du Bois helps us resolve this problem by opposing the fateful actions of those who participate in the general strike with, let’s say, the ordinary, non-fateful actions that predominate in most historical circumstances. Du Bois thinks that economic and social laws are actually quite adequate for making sense of actions that fall into the later category. If we turn to Du Bois’s introduction to “The General Strike,” we can see the beginnings of this distinction between two different ways of ‘acting in history.’ After he asserts that “the Civil War meant emancipation and…the Black worker won the war by a general strike,” Du Bois launches into a description of the action of Edwin Ruffin, the confederate soldier who fired the war’s first bullet:

When Edwin Ruffin, white-haired and mad, fired the first gun at Fort Sumter, he freed the slaves. It was the last thing he meant to do but that was because he was so typically a Southern oligarch. He did not know the real world about him. He was provincial and lived apart on his plantation with his servants, his books and his thoughts. Outside of agriculture, he jumped at conclusions instead of testing them by careful research. He knew, for instance, that the North would not fight. He knew that Negroes would never revolt.22         

Clearly, the way that Ruffin’s act inadvertently contributes to the freedom of slaves is very different from the way the Black workers who led the general strike brought about their emancipation. Remember: Du Bois thinks the general strike was ‘courageous’ and fate-making, rather than being necessitated by ‘cosmic social and economic laws.’ By contrast, Ruffin’s actions are largely determined by his social position. This is implicit in Du Bois’s assertions that Ruffin was ‘provincial’ and ‘so typically a southern oligarch.’ Furthermore, when Du Bois contrasts Ruffin with those who test conclusions ‘by careful research,’ my sense is that this is a subtle allusion to the action of the workers in the general strike. Brian Kelly has pointed out that Du Bois places great emphasis on the careful, deliberate, and experimental nature of the striking workers’ actions.23 As Du Bois goes on to put it, “What the Negro did was to wait, look and listen. As soon as it became clear that the Union armies would not or could not return fugitive slaves, and that the masters with all their fume and fury were uncertain of victory, the slave entered upon a general strike.”24 Thus, the contrast between Ruffin and those who test their conclusions via ‘careful research’ is also a contrast between two modes of historical agency. Some of the men involved in the civil war acted precisely in accordance with their social position. By contrast, the Black workers in the general strike challenged their social position and, through careful and vigilant thought and action, posited a different social order. 

For Du Bois, the general strike was something like the methodical, irrefutable demonstration of a thesis. The thesis is that slavery is not necessary, and it was proven in a fateful movement when Black workers acted en masse against their ordinary social positioning. This way of defining the general strike implies that the circumstances where Black workers posited their ‘thesis of emancipation’ were singular, eventful circumstances. Du Bois argues that, outside of the strike, the social and economic order of slavery had profound and often devastating implications for the thought and action of slaves. For example, writing of the post-strike reconstruction era, Du Bois argues (perhaps problematically) that the leadership of Black labor was “dimmed by ignorance, inexperience, and uncertainty.”25 And yet, amidst their participation in the strike, workers thought and acted in a manner that wasn’t ordinarily possible. In his “Emancipation, Political and Real,” Asad Haider writes of those singular moments where a ‘thesis of emancipation’ can take hold. Haider argues that

To be emancipated is to be set free from a power. This statement, despite being etymologically valid, does not in my view qualify as a definition. It is rather a “thesis of existence” – it says that there is emancipation, that being set free from a power can be conceived. We can conceive of it because it is real, not in the sense that a free state exists or could be constructed in the mind, but in the sense that the demand for freedom has been and remains a matter of irrepressible fact. In my manner of proceeding these facts cannot be reduced to secondary, merely empirical manifestations of a category which has already been defined.26

When I borrow the phrase ‘thesis of emancipation’ from Haider to describe Du Bois’s general strike, I have in mind the way that Du Bois uses the language of scientific testing to describe the actions of the general strikers. For him, the strike was akin to experimentation or research. The workers’ actions were something like an extended demonstration or experiment. This is also why Du Bois believed that studying the general strike was so crucial for properly clarifying the ‘guilt’ of slavery. The workers’ movement was the invention of a new thought–namely the thought of an entirely transformed labour force who dictate the terms of their own work. Thus, the Black workers’ general strike was not just the ‘empirical manifestation’ of an already-defined idea. It was instead the event through which the thought of emancipation became thinkable as ‘a matter of irrepressible fact.’  

I want to close this section by trying to address one important objection to Du Bois’s methodology. There is a worry that, when Du Bois distinguishes the fate-making agency of the general strikers from ordinary actions, which are mostly dictated by the dominant social order, he denies the importance of many instances Black resistance before and after the general strike. For example, his theory would seem to conflict with Angela Davis’ work on Black women’s everyday resistance amidst slavery and Errol Henderson’s research on earlier American slave revolts.27 Henderson’s study is explicitly critical of Du Bois: “WEB Du Bois argued that Black participation in the US Civil War was ‘the largest and most successful slave revolt,’ but he did not link the causative agents of Black participation in the war to those that motivated other major slave revolts in the antebellum USA.”28 There is some truth to this objection. Du Bois centers the general strike far more than any other major slave revolt. The earlier revolts and acts of resistance that Henderson and Davis center are undeniably at the periphery of Black Reconstruction, if they are present at all.29

However, I think that Du Bois would still push back against Henderson’s implicit claim that the main aim of Black Reconstruction is to identify the “causative agents” that led to general strike. Sure, Du Bois thinks that many social developments contributed in some respect to the general strike (most importantly, the civil war). But he does not think that the relationship between the social order where the general strike occurred and the strike itself is a relationship of ‘determination’ or ‘cause and effect.’ To the contrary, I have argued that the general strike’s relation to the social order is partly one of causation but, more importantly, one of challenge or contestation. As Du Bois puts it, “the Negros were willing to work and did work, but they wanted land to work, and they wanted to see and own the results of their toil…. He was a chance to establish an agrarian democracy in the South.”30 That is, the general strikers’ actions were not continuous with the longer history of the American slave order; their movement was an opportunity to end this social arrangement. The strike was what Du Bois calls an “unbroken swell”–a triumphant sequence of mass resistance that stood in fundamental opposition to the ordinary happenings of history.31 Indeed, in my conclusion, I will argue that Du Bois’s understanding of the singularity of the general strike relative to other moments in history is precisely what leads him to adopt a very different concept of the strike than the one found in Marx. 

Conclusion: Du Bois After Classism

In Anthropology of the Name, worker’s anthropologist Sylvain Lazarus raises a serious worry about classical Marxism. For Lazarus, Marx’s theory of how workers strike makes it sound like the thinking and action of strikers is fundamentally rooted in the social order that already exists. Lazarus uses the term ‘determination’ to describe Marx’s mistake when it came to conceptualizing the agency of political revolutionaries. This mistake begins “with the Communist Manifesto, published in 1848.”32 In the Manifesto and throughout Capital, Marx famously argues that revolutionary consciousness is directly determined by people’s social positioning.33 As Lazarus puts it, Marx maintains that “the totality is the means for a nomination of the subjective.”34 To rephrase this, Marx attributes the thinking of working people to objective conditions outside of their own subjectivity (for instance, the conditions of their subjugation and exploitation within factories). Workers are revolutionary because of their social class: “The central operator” that determines their consciousness “is clearly class.”35 However, if we accept that class positioning necessarily determines workers’ capacity for thought, then we will not be able to meaningfully come to grips with moments when workers refute their class positioning. If class subjugation is necessary for revolutionary thinking, then how can workers problematize their subjugation without undermining the determinate condition that enables their own thinking? Furthermore, we cannot deny that workers often contest the extant reality that dominates them. This contestation doesn’t undermine workers–in fact, it can lead to empowering sequences of sustained political action. Thus, Marx’s deterministic view of class consciousness will not even suffice for conceptualizing the revolutionary agency of the industrial workers whose political aims he intends to bolster.

We can see why Lazarus takes issue with Marx’s theory of resistance if we turn to Marx’s remarks from “The Documents of the First International” on why workers should strike for an eight hour working day. The purpose of the eight-hour legal limit, Marx writes, is to restore “health,” “physical energies,” and “the possibility of intellectual development, social intercourse…and political action” to workers.36 Marx thinks that capitalism (or, at least, the capitalist social order of his own historical period) sows the seeds for its own destruction by concentrating hundreds of thousands of disgruntled laborers in industrial cities that can serve as centers for strategy and resistance. However, when the law enables a normal working day of 15, 12, or even 10 hours, the working class lacks the time and health to fully organize. Each reduction in the length of the working day is therefore hugely beneficial. In his “Inaugural Address” to the International Workers, Marx writes in praise of the 10 hour work limit enacted by the Factory Bill of 1847. This bill was the product of “30 years’ struggle” by workers in England. In the decade after its passing, English workers saw “immense physical, moral, and intellectual benefits.”37 By fighting for legal reforms like the Factory Bill, workers’ associations can shorten working days, which in turn will bring about a smarter, stronger, and more organized working class. And yet, for Lazarus, Marx’s problematic claim is that worker’s strength and capacity for revolution is directly tied to their social circumstances. 

Lazarus’s name for methodologies like the one Marx uses to study the history of strikes (or, indeed, like Henderson’s search for the “causative agents” of the general strike) is ‘scientism.’ When social scientists study a strike, they try to define the requisites or ‘objective conditions’ that supposedly determine this moment of political contestation. Lazarus, who wrote Anthropology of the Name to an audience of French communists in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, argues that historicism thrives in moments when resistance to capitalism is lethargic and depressed. In such moments, the ruling order’s dominion over thinking begins to seem inevitable, and so the conclusion of social scientism (namely, that thought is merely a byproduct of extant social reality) starts to sound like common sense.  This is what Lazarus means when he claims, for example, that “the prevailing explanations for the collapse of socialism have commanded the establishment of a revivified and purged historicism.”38

By contrast, Lazarus uses the term inquiry to describe his own research itinerary, which a) revisits those historical sequences where the possibility of emancipation was an irrepressible fact, and b) refutes the historicist/scientific paradigm of research. For Lazarus, emancipatory thinking is doubly endangered. First, it is endangered by politicians, bosses, and state authorities  (i.e., the union commanders who tried to dictate the fate of the striking Black workers). Then, it is challenged again by social historians and scientists (i.e. historical projects like the Beards’ that reduce emancipatory thinking to cosmic law). Keeping these dangers in mind, Lazarus’s inquirer returns to the site where political contestation took place and asks, “what does thought think when it thinks?”39 The inquirer’s task is to resuscitate enthusiasm for the possibility of another, better social order — identifying our past, present, and future capacity to refute the necessity of what already is

My argument here is that Du Bois’s fight against the propaganda of history leads him to adopt a method for studying the general strike that is much less like Marxist historiography, and much more like Lazarus’s ‘inquiry.’ Du Bois makes it clear that the Black workers’ strike became a general strike precisely at the moment when the strikers’ thought and action oriented itself toward ending the slave system. The Black workers “wanted to stop the economy of the plantation system, and to do that they left the plantations. At first, the commanders [of the Union soldiers] were disposed to drive them away, or to give them quasi-freedom…. This did not work.”40 The union commanders who attempted to drive away the Black workers expected that the strikers would be so weak that the union army could dictate their movements and actions. The phrase ‘give them quasi-freedom’ implies that these commanders still viewed the strikers as unfree, such that their freedom had to be given. Put differently, the commanders continued to associate the strikers with their defined position in the dominant social order as slaves. As Du Bois curtly puts it, ‘this did not work.’ There was an undeniable power to the worker’s challenge, such that union commanders could not subordinate it to their own aims. This is implicit in Du Bois’ description of the strike as an oceanic swell: “this whole movement was not dramatic or hysterical, rather it was like the great unbroken swell of the ocean before it dashes on the reef.”41 The analogy between the workers’ movement and a great tide emphasizes the slow, methodical nature of the workers’ actions, and the way these actions culminated in a moment where those who participated in the great, unbroken swell were no longer ruled by extant social circumstances. Here, we see deep resonances with Lazarus’ own description of the singularity and power of those rare political sequences where the rule of bosses and owners is fundamentally challenged.    

My proposal, in conclusion, is that we should position Du Bois and Lazarus as fellow travellers with a shared enemy (scientism). This will both a) help us understand Du Bois’ methodology far more accurately, and b) help us clarify the sheer scope and danger of ‘scientism’ as a methodology. Inquirers like Lazarus and Du Bois reverse the social scientist’s description of the relationship between thought and the real. The general strike takes place at a specific place and time. However, the historical site where the Black workers’ general strike took place didn’t determine these workers. Once a site becomes a site of political contestation, we can no longer make sense of people’s intellectuality by studying their social position. The Black workers begin to insist, through their fight against slavery and for egalitarian land ownership, that the overseer does not determine me, for another subjectivation is possible.  


1 W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (New York: The Free Press, 1992), 67.
2 Ibid, 715.
3 See David Roediger, “Introduction: Plotting Jubilee,” Seizing Freedom: Slave Emancipation and Liberty for All (New York: Verso, 2014). See also James Oakes, “Du Bois’s ‘General Strike,’” Nonsite 28 (May 2019); Guy Emerson Mont, “When Slaves Go On Strike: W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction 80 Years Later,” African American Intellectual History Society (December 2015),; Alys Eve Weinbaum, “Gendering the General Strike: W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction and Black Feminism’s ‘Propaganda of History,’” South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 3 (July 2013), 441. 
4 For a succinct summary of the importance of class consciousness in Marx’s theory of the general strike, see Gayatri Spivak’s “General Strike.” As Spivak puts it, “Marx wanted to bring about an epistemological change in workers so they would know that they were, together, ‘the agent of production,’ and that if they stopped, then production stopped.” Gayatri Spivak, “General Strike,” Rethinking Marxism 26, no. 1 (2014), 9.
5 For more on how Roediger’s book led to renewed interest in Du Bois’s general strike, see Charles Gallagher, “Bringing the ‘General Strike’ Back In: Du Bois, Slavery, and Emancipation,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 39, no. 3 (January 2016): 342-346.
6 Roediger, Seizing Freedom, 8.
7 Ibid.
8 Take, for example, Guy Emerson Mount’s argument that Du Bois applies “classical Marxist analysis to a population so often overlooked by its orthodoxies.” In this account, Du Bois doesn’t change classical Marxist analysis so much as he uses it differently than it was used before. James Oakes also draws an immediate connection between Du Bois’s general strike and Marxism: “‘The General Strike’…can seem jarringly anachronistic even to the most sympathetic readers.  It conjured up industrial capitalism far more than plantation slavery…. DuBois undertook his first serious study of Marx’s writings, shortly before he began writing Black Reconstruction.” See Guy Mount, “When Slaves Go On Strike”; James Oakes, “Du Bois’s ‘General Strike.’”
9 I should make note of two other interpreters of Du Bois whose projects are somewhat similar to my own: Gayatri Spivak and Cedric Robinson. In his “Critique of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction,” Robinson interprets Black Reconstruction by asking the question of its similarities and differences from orthodix Marxist-Leninism: “DuBois possessed no obligations to Marxist- Leninist dogma, nor to the vagaries of historical analysis and interpretation which characterized American Communist thought.” One key difference between Robinson and me is that, whereas Robinson tries to position Du Bois’s understanding of reconstruction relative to what he views as a ‘Marxist-Leninist’ interpretation of history, I try to distinguish Du Bois’s view from the classical Marxist theory of the general strike. Spivak, in turn, claims that “Du Bois was…rethinking Marxism to see if collective subaltern agency bringing about the necessary change in the mode of production could also be theorized into a general strike.” I agree with Spivak, but her brief remarks on the general strike aren’t intended to give a fully fleshed-out account of whether Du Bois’s ‘rethinking’ of Marx fundamentally alters Marx’s methodology. See, Spivak “General Strike,” 13. See also, Cedric Robinson, “A Critique of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction,” The Black Scholar 8, no. 7 (May 1977): 44-50.
10 For an account of Marx’s thoughts on the American slave system and the possibility of fighting it, see Roediger, Seizing Freedom, 8.
11 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 57.
12 I borrow the phrase ‘another possible subjectivation’ from Lazarus: “If people think, then another subjectivation is possible.” See Sylvain Lazarus, “Can Politics Be Thought in Interiority,” trans. Tyler Harper, Cosmos and History 12, no. 1 (2016): 119,
13 See, for example, W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America: 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1998), 19 and 21-25. 
14 Ibid, 714.
15 Ibid, 714-715.
16 Here, fateful does not mean “Bringing fate or death; deadly” so much as it means “Fraught with destiny, bearing with it or involving momentous consequences; decisive, important.” Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “fateful,” accessed May 19, 2020,
17 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 325.
18 Ibid.
19 For Du Bois’s account of how, during reconstruction, the American state did not sustain the radical experiment begun by Black workers, see the chapters on “A Poor White” and “The Price of Disaster.” 
20 Ibid, 3-54.
21 Ibid, 7.
22 Ibid, 55.
23 Brian Kelly, “W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Agency, and the Slaves’ Civil War,” International Socialist Review 100.
24 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 57.
25 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 381.
26 Asad Haider, “Emancipation, Political and Real,” Lecture, New School Department of Philosophy Speaker Series, New York, NY, February 13th, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
27 See Angela Davis, “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” The Massachusetts Review 13, no. 1/2 (1972): 81-100. See also Errol Henderson, “Slave Religion, Slave Hiring, and the Incipient Proletarianization of Enslaved Black Labor: Developing Du Bois’s Thesis on Black Participation in the Civil War as a Revolution,” Journal of African American Studies 19, no. 2 (2015): 192-213. 
28 Henderson, “Slave Religion,” 192.
29 It’s worth noting that recent attempts to emphasize the role of Black women in the general strike like Alys Eve Weinbaum’s “Gendering the General Strike” don’t really answer Henderson’s objection. In Henderson’s view, the big advantage of studies like his and Davis’ is that they demonstrate a continuous arc of Black resistance to the American slave system. 
30 Ibid, 67.
31 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 67.
32 Lazarus, “Can Politics Be Thought in Interiority,” 119.
33 “From the standpoint of an investigation of forms of thought, the dialectic of the objective and the subjective is a direct mapping of intellectuality onto an exterior reality.” Sylvain Lazarus,  Anthropology of the Name, trans. Gila Walker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 78.
34 Ibid, 93.
35 Ibid, 80.
36 Karl Marx, “Documents of the First International,” in The First International and After, ed. David Fernbach, trans. Joris de Bres and David Fernbach, (New York: Verso, 1993). 
37 Ibid, 78-79.
38 Lazarus, Anthropology of the Name, 175.
39 Ibid, x.
40 Du Bois, Black Reconstruction, 67. 
41 Ibid.

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