Skip to main content

People's World - February 21, 2020

"The World and Africa, alongside more recent histories of Africa, continues to deserve careful study. It offers a narrative of humanity that rejects Eurocentric notions of narrow universalism and inevitability that had seemed to justify the status quo in favor of pluralism. Du Bois’s research substantiates the complexities of human society and freedom while articulating a sophisticated criticism of the intersections of imperialism, white supremacy, and capitalism as joined and allied forces and offering a still-relevant political agenda that could bring them to a deserved end."

In his extraordinary, if neglected, book The World and Africa, W.E.B. Du Bois details a history of Africa before European exploration, the enslavement of tens of millions, and the imposition of colonialism. In so doing, he assembles a compendium of the continent’s contributions to human development, its role in shaping the histories of Europe and Asia, as well as the diversity of its languages, cultures, and peoples.

Debunking false white supremacist notions of racial difference as eternal or natural, Du Bois explores the historical relationships between African nations and societies and other parts of the world. He shows that the migration of the world’s peoples across continents and their regular interactions defy modern claims that humans can be divided meaningfully into races and ethnic groups. Well ahead of its time, The World and Africa crafts a historical image of the continent freed from the racist constraints imposed on it by European thought. European thinkers had imagined Africa as a place without a history, as subjected solely to the will of nature and thus suitable for subjugation.

Du Bois enlists large amounts of historical evidence that undermined white supremacist theories of racial purity and of racial types. So-called “race science” had relied on absurd notions of purity, usually linked to wild claims about how shapes of skulls, colors of skin, and textures of hair proved the racial beauty and cultural and biological superiority of white people. Du Bois shows how these premises don’t match the evidence about the migration, interactions, and practices of humans for the vast majority of its history.

In addition to exposing the lies and contradictions in white supremacist race theory, Du Bois showed that white racism, European colonialism, and the logic of capitalism were the true causes of two World Wars and inevitable future conflict.

Of singular importance is Du Bois’s discussion of the state of the world in 1947 (the year of the book’s publication) that inspired his investigations into this topic. World War II had just come to a close with the nuclear annihilation of hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children in Japan. Additionally, systematic atrocities in a racist European holocaust, merciless Japanese imperialism in China and Southeast Asia, and human-orchestrated famines across South Asia had seen tens of millions of people erased from existence.

The “collapse of Europe,” however, stood out above all else in Du Bois’s mind. Its colonialist, white supremacist, and capitalist systems made the disasters of the 20th century. The crisis of the first global war and the subsequent collapse of capitalism directly resulted from the rivalry for control of colonial territory.

Du Bois argues that the insurgency of the working class represented by the Russian Revolution shaped the political terrain in the interwar years. The capitalist class responded with its support for the wave of emergent fascist regimes in Italy, Portugal, Germany, Spain, and their spheres of influence. Initially, colonialist regimes in Britain and France appeased the fascists to maintain capitalism’s power and to construct a militarist front against the working-class revolution in the East.

In straightforward terms, Du Bois defined the West’s attempt to appease Hitler as the natural outcome of its demand for profit, need for cheap labor, and logic of surplus-value extraction. According to Du Bois, Hitler was allowed some expansion, but not “the balance of power” in Europe. Meanwhile, Britain, France, and the U.S. stood ready to fight to protect their control over their colonies and semi-colonies.

Because Hitler’s logic (identical with the logic of capitalism and imperialism) demanded that he seek more than what the West offered, war and conflict were inevitable. The West wanted Hitler to fight the communists rather than to claim Western colonial possessions or try to restore Germany’s economic power. But Hitler had to have more. “The real battle then began,” Du Bois argues. “[T]he battle of the Nazi-Fascist oligarchy against the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Hitler’s strategy: crush Russia, then take on Britain. In this equation, Japan sided with Hitler to stake its claims on European colonies in Asia.

As the war came to a close, Western Europe refused to learn the lesson of this catastrophe as it sought to retain control over its colonial holdings and to exclude non-white countries from its Atlantic Charter. The French fought to keep Indo-China; the Dutch scrambled to maintain a foothold in the South Pacific, and the British set its power against Indian independence. Meanwhile, the U.S. fashioned indirect forms of domination through debt, financial instruments, and trade. ...
Read full commentary at People's World