The Collapse of the West and the Struggle for Civilizational Unity

By Archishman Raju.

“The European–a catchall term, referring, really, to the dooms of Capital, Christianity, and Color–became White, and the African became Black–for commercial reasons”

James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen


From Slavery through Reconstruction, Aaron Douglas

We find ourselves in a bewildering world. The Western World, which has for so long dominated our world order, is in a civilizational crisis, and appears to lack the creative energy to rescue itself. The twin poles of liberal democracy and capitalism which were seen to be the future that humanity would take are both under question. Humanity refuses to be dragged along by force onto the precipice of this cliff that western (and western-trained) elites have dragged themselves on to and searches instead for alternatives. This moment requires some reflection. To be able to decide where we go from here, we have to take stock of how we got to where we did. 

The panic which surrounds our moment expresses itself in the shrill and meaningless cry that the spectre of fascism surrounds the world. It has been used to make a very unnatural grouping of leaders in various parts of Europe, America and Asia. Africa, interestingly, is missing from the discussion as is the concept of imperialism, and this fact may hold the clue to the shallowness of the discussion. In any case, it is worth remembering that the father of Pan-Africanism, W.E.B. Du Bois once said the greatest threat to democracy came not from Fascism but from imperial colonialism. I wish to follow the thought of W.E.B Du Bois because I believe, properly understood, his thinking provides us with a way out of the crisis that we find ourselves in. In doing so it is natural to take into account the rise of Asia, economically and politically, in the world and what it represents. 

The Indian sociologist Benoy Kumar Sarkar once wrote that if Asia were given a chance to tell its own story, as well as the story of the west, it would begin by declaring a bonfire on a considerable portion of European literature to be able to inaugurate a new era of enlightenment and progress. Today, we live in a historical moment when Asia is rising, and the level of technology permits the development of humanity into a true democracy. To understand the path our future can take, we would do well to pay heed to Sarkar’s advice and must both understand our history and search for truth. This search for truth requires a method which can be called science or as Du Bois once said, “art using the results of science”.

Du Bois always searched for a scientific understanding of the world. His was, however, a new kind of science which saw the rhythm of history and sought patterns and regularities from both written text and the “actual deeds of living men”. For the person who Du Bois called “the greatest of modern philosophers”, Karl Marx, history evolved through the conflict of forces finding unity in eventual synthesis. Whereas Hegel sought to see such conflict in the realm of ideas, Marx would see it instead in the economic base i.e. the mode of production. These were beautiful theories which, however, originated in a peculiar period where Europe was dominant and sought otherwise to rewrite the world’s history as a “hymn to white people”. To complete them, Du Bois hence reminded us that in this crisis of civilization, Africa had played a critical part, and it is this that would help us understand world history.

Hence, he says “Nothing which has happened to man in modern times has been more significant than the buying and selling of human beings out of Africa into America from 1441 to 1870.” The full consequences of this statement are yet to be brought out and revealed to the world, and it is the task of those who seek to change the world today to examine them and attempt to put them into practice.

On the method of Science and the theory of Time

“Lord, History is weary
of her unspeakable liaison with Time, 
for Time and History
have never seen eye to eye: 
Time laughs at History
and time and time and time again
Time traps History in a lie.”

James Baldwin, Staggerlee Wonders

Before delving into history and its relevance to our time, it is important to delve into the method of science for it carries many pitfalls that must be addressed. It has now been well established that the method of scientific inquiry depends upon the material in question. The theory of elementary particles is very different from that of fluids. One does not contain the other and yet each is valid in its own domain. Biology, and certainly sociology and history hence require a very different understanding of science. Great harm has been done to scientific inquiry by attempting to import the philosophy of a different domain. As the Indian historian D.D. Kosambi put it, “The material, when it is present in human society, has endless variations; the observer is himself part of the observed population, with which he interacts strongly and reciprocally.” Du Bois would make the same argument saying that “From the beginning, social scientists have envied the students of physical science and sought to imitate them in various ways…The social scientists…including the historians have to do with vital matters of which they are more or less a part. It can no longer find scientific refuge in detachment from its subject matter.” He would put it more eloquently “one could not be a calm, cool and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved”.

Du Bois considered the transatlantic slave trade, from the 15th to the 19th century as the “greatest social event of modern history” as well as “the greatest controlled laboratory test of the science of human action in the world.” “This vast and poignant drama”, he said, “has been deliberately neglected, smeared with lies and elaborately forgotten by stupid and evil people”. A study of it reveals the nature of capitalism and democracy, and their operation and formation within a broader western world system, which is capable of change but always seeks to reproduce itself. 

Crucial to a scientific understanding of history is the nature of time and the unit of history. In his essay “The Conservation of Races”, Du Bois says “then the history of the world is the history, not of individuals, but of groups, not of nations, but of races”. By race he did not mean or imply a biological or physical criteria for race as had been used and justified by Europeans, but rather he meant race as civilization. Hence the history of the world was to be sought as the history of civilizations. In his words, the idea of the existence of such distinct civilizations,  “while they perhaps transcend scientific definition, nevertheless, are clearly defined to the eye of the Historian and Sociologist.” He would say that the African Americans were “a civilization in potentiality”. This idea of civilization as a unit of history is perhaps best known from the work of Arnold Toynbee but has fallen a little out of favour today. However the concept of civilization was a natural one for a variety of people including the likes of Ho Chi Minh, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Iqbal, Aime Cesaire, Paul Robeson, Martin Luther King Jr.,  D. D. Kosambi and many others. 

Romare Bearden, Bopping at Birdland (Stomp Time) – Photo by Gandalf’s Gallery

Moreover, there had been a debate in western sociology exemplified by the positions of Marx and Weber on the relative importance of material conditions and ideas in the evolution of society. The concept of civilization transcended these categories. Any attempt at seeing the change in society merely through the lens of economic change was to prove futile. As Kosambi was to write “Economic determinism will not do. It is not inevitable, nor even true, that a given amount of wealth will lead to a given type of development. The complete historical process through which the social form has been reached is also of prime importance…”. Du Bois would say that human beings lived in “a total environment” which conditioned their action both through the physical environment of production and the social environment of ideas.

Finally, the concept of civilization is not meant to evoke an ideal past or culture as represented by a tiny elite but rather as constantly changing, formed by the broad base of humankind. Hence a civilizational historicism seeks to both understand the mud and mire as well as the lily which grows out of it. As Du Bois was to argue in his novel, The Dark Princess, civilization cannot stand on its apex but must stand on a broad base. The ability for and contribution to culture lies not just with the elite but rather with the masses of people, who have given humanity some of its most beautiful music and intricate art which are its inheritance. 

The word civilization itself in English came from the idea of civilizing, making civil as opposed to criminal. It was opposed to the idea of barbarity and savageness. It is difficult to translate into other languages. The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, in searching for a word for civilization in an Indian language used the word dharma whose etymology is in dhri, that which binds people together. Thus the aim of dharma was to bind together and lead to the best possible welfare. This concept is found in both Hinduism and Buddhism. The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun used the word assabiyah, which expressed a similar unity. The first civilizational pillar of Islam is taken to be tawhid, the unity of God which can be taken to be the unity of humankind. Nasir Al Din Tusi was to say that societies should aim for a higher unity based on mahabbah or love. These concepts, in turn, have no philosophical equivalent in Europe but it is in this sense that we understand and use the word civilization. In the English language, these are best expressed philosophically through Martin Luther King Jr.’s concept of a single garment of destiny and a beloved community.

In dealing with the idea of civilization, one is immediately confronted with the idea of progress. This idea of progress and what is sometimes seen as a linear view of time has been central to Europe in the past few centuries. Its roots are to be found in Christian theology and influenced and affected figures ranging from Newton, Marx and Darwin. It carried in it a particular idea of the progress of societies from one stage to the other. It affected the science of biology where all sorts of superstitions were propagated to show that whites were at a higher stage of development than other races. Marx, in his Grundrisse, while comparing bourgeois society with its antecedents would use the analogy of a human to an ape. The theories of Darwin were inexorably tied to the concept of progress. 

It is hence important to note the critique offered by the biologist Stephen Jay Gould about the nature of progress in biology and the theory of evolution in particular. Gould would argue that it is possible to discern a directionality to time at short time scales in evolution in terms of how well organisms adapt to their environment, but that on longer time scales such directionality loses its meaning. He would thus propose that evolution proceeds on several tiers of time which have different dynamics. Moreover, he would argue that the trajectory that evolution took was strongly contingent and depended on chance events. The idea of determinism, which was seen to be supported by physics, also lost its certainty with the arrival of quantum mechanics, which also imposed a structure on time. In any case, these concepts were shown to be lacking for an understanding of history or sociology. Du Bois would argue that the study of society involves both “chance” and “law”. Here, the word chance can also be understood as spontaneity i.e. events which are not determined by the past but are not necessarily random. In his novel Dark Princess, Du Bois has a moving scene where the protagonist Matthew abandons his narrow political career and marriage of convenience for true love and a grander dream of freedom. The moral choice he makes is seen by some as fantastic and unpredictable. “Never had” human behaviour “acted with such incalculable and utter disregard for all rules”. The fundamental human possibility was hence the incalculable part of science.  History was seen to put constraints on the possibilities of the future but the structure of time was to give rise to different possibilities. Sociology, as defined by Du Bois, “is the science that seeks the limits of chance in human conduct”. This opened up the possibilities of societies being able to determine their own future and not being condemned to follow the trajectory of Western Europe. This was demonstrated convincingly by the Russian Revolution and the anti-colonial revolutions which were to follow. 

Finally, in the discussion of time, it is also important to study the idea of time as a circle and time as a straight line. The mythical “changelessness” of the East and the supposed Nihilism of Buddhism was attributed to a philosophical belief of time as a cycle as opposed to the western idea of time as progress. Here again, it is important to remember Gould’s insight about the tiers of time. A small part of a circle can look like a straight line, as every student of calculus knows. Moreover, circular notions of time may be more like helices i.e. not come back to themselves but rather return to a different point. Hence, the dichotomy of the circle and straight line must be abandoned in order to see the complexity of the structures of time. These must be taken into account for a scientific understanding of history. 

These philosophical discussions are important because they shape so much of the way history is understood. They require us to deeply understand that agency is possible, agency of the individual to make a moral choice, agency of people to fight for their freedom and for a civilization to search for independence. If an analysis of Europe and assumption of its “progress” can no longer provide enough basis for understanding how society should be organized and does not provide a model that others should seek to imitate, then we are forced to reckon with a longer history of humanity to discover the principles on which a future can be based. Both of these in turn relate to one’s understanding of time, which may appear as linear in one period but may be more like a helix when seen over a longer period. This requires that we appreciate the inherent complexities in history, rather than make generalizations based on a small portion of it. With this interlude we can now examine in brief the history that has led us to our present moment. 

Slave Trade and the “Discovery” of America and India

“History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read.  And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.  It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

James Baldwin, Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes

The epoch from the mid 15th century to the late 19th century that is most important to understand the problems of our day has been referred to by different names. The Indian historian K. M. Panikkar would refer to a time period roughly similar in length as the “Vasco De Gama epoch”. It is in this epoch that Europe, which was a peninsula of Asia quite marginal to the world trading system, rose to dominance and established a system based on the supremacy of western civilization. 

Aaron Douglas, The Negro in an African Setting

Before the advent of the slave trade, the Europeans had been engaged in the crusades against Islam. With the victory of Saladin, the military fate of the crusades was sealed. Thus, as K. M. Panikkar observes, the land route to Asia was blocked for Europe and they were forced to take to the seas. On one hand, the Europeans aimed to learn from the Muslims through the mass translations of Toledo, which served as the basis of the European renaissance “the new light with which Asia and Africa illumined the Dark Ages of Europe”. On the other hand, Europe decided to explore the naval route to Asia. The first slave trader Antao Goncalves was sent by Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugese descent to explore North Africa, and the first black man was traded by Europe in 1441. The impossibility of making further progress by land solidified by the fall of Constantinople in 1453 exposed the urgency of the Portugese naval expeditions to Africa, and a Papal Bull was issued by Pope Nicholas V in 1452 which gave permission 

“to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit.” (emph mine)

This was the holy participation of the Christian Church in the first expeditions which seeked to gain control of the spice trade and participated in the trade of human beings. It set the basis for the white world system that was to eventually develop. The Portugese were seeking a route to India, because the centre of the world trading system was in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean connected India to China through Malaysia, South East Asia and the South China Sea on one side and to Persia through the Persian Gulf and East Africa and Madagascar on the other side. 

However, the Europeans were backward technologically, and certainly did not know navigation, as was revealed by the tragic fate of Native Americans who they termed to be “Indians”. Columbus arrived in America in 1492 and Vasco De Gama reached India with the help of local navigators in 1498. The quaint term “discovery” that was applied to both these visits was captured in the Papal bull issued in 1493 which seeked “division of the undiscovered world between Spain and Portugal”.

These two papal bulls and these three voyages were the first steps in the expansion of the world wide system of European dominance that was to be built up. In the ports of India in Kozhikode and Gujarat, the Portugese found that Chinese, Arabs, North and East Africans and Indians were all to be found. Hence it is clear that these ports served as the basis of a flourishing trade relationship between India, Malaya (and South East Asia), China and Africa. These ports were the meeting ground of different civilizations in which the Portugese entered as marginal players.

Attempting to capture the whole of the trade, the Portugese attempted to attack the ruler of Kozhikode called the Samoothiri. It is revealing that the Samoothiri in turn called on Amir Hussain of Egypt who immediately sent ships to defend Kozhikode. The Egyptians and Indians together defeated the Portugese soundly, who, however, came back with reinforcements. An unfortunate local treachery helped the Portugese get the upper hand and the Egyptians withdrew after the battle drew into a stalemate. The Portugese were able to establish themselves as traders but any attempted intrusion into the land was met with heavy defeat. There were few exceptions, which only went to prove the rule, like the capture of Goa which was an island. On capturing Goa, the Portugese were to carry out an inquisition against the Moors. The Portugese were in fact surprised to find the Moors at several places in India. Though the term “Moors” sometimes referred to Arabs or Muslims, originally the Moors were known to be Black.

It should be noted that European ships were not superior to either Chinese or Indian ships of the period. In fact, the Portugese entry to build a trade port in China was rebuffed by the Ming emperor who considered them too arrogant to deal with. They were hence confined to the area of Macao which remained under the jurisdiction of the Chinese and dealing with subordinate officials in Guangzhou rather than the emperor. This has created the continuing myth of seeing China as “isolationist” and hostile to foreign influences. On the contrary, China was quite well embedded in the Afro-Asiatic economic system. Indian ships, however, seem not to have been built for war but rather for trade. Land conquests were not attempted in Asia because they were very easily repelled. Instead, the Europeans focussed on trade and were eagerly importing technology from Asia in this period. 

Goa Harbour, Francis Newton Souza (Credit: Grosvenor Gallery)

The discovery of America provided both the gold and silver with which to trade in Asia and Africa, as well as a “new and widening market”. The Spanish lay conquest to the “New World”. The Spaniard Las Casas described it as

“The cause for which the Christians have slain and destroyed so many and such infinite numbers of souls, has been simply to get, as their ultimate end, the Indians’ gold of them, and to stuff themselves with riches in a very few days, and to raise themselves to high estates  without proportion to their birth or breeding, it should be noted owing to the insatiable greed and ambition that they have had, which has been greater than any the world has ever seen before.”

Meanwhile, Portugal fell to Spain and the Reformation movement in Europe arose, and it led to the Dutch, British, and then French challenging the right of the Spanish and the Portugese over the colonies. The Portugese were the first to engage in the slave trade but others were to join onto this very profitable venture. The Dutch were to gain complete control over Indonesia. Their entry into Asia was followed very quickly by the British.

Nevertheless, the 16th century saw the co-existence of the Songay empire in Africa, the Safavid in Persia, the Ottoman in Turkey, the Mughal in India and the Ming in China. These co-existed more or less as equals. However, all were to eventually decline and be replaced by a centre that shifted to the west, to Europe and eventually to North America. 

The slave trade to the United States began in the 17th century along with the increasing settlement of Europeans into the country. This was a very profitable way to obtain labor to first farm sugar and tobacco and then later cotton. 

The impact of the slave trade on Africa was not uniform since it was focussed on the west African coast. However, it was the basic factor in “The Rape of Africa” which immiserated the continent, destroyed cultural patterns and practically stopped population growth in the continent. The slave voyages themselves were brutal to the extreme, as has been documented extensively. The inexorable demands of Europe became, in the words of Du Bois, “A process of incredible ingenuity for supplying human wants became in its realization a series of brutal crimes”.

This transition from the sugar empire to the Cotton Kingdom set the basis for the wealth of European nations. Cotton had been first imported from India. Indian textiles were known all over the world and in high demand. India had predominance in the production of cotton as China had in the production of silk. Their import into England through the East India Company was seen as “injurious to the national interest”. 

Along with the production of textiles came the production of culture. The 15th century poet and saint Kabir, who came from a class of weavers, wrote poetry which was to represent some of the best of India’s civilization. He had among his admirers various kings, priests but became so widely accepted by the people that many can still quote his poems by memory today. He was one of many saints who were a symbol of an emerging struggle for the dignity of labor in India.

At the end of the 17th century, the British were no match militarily for Indians and a refusal to pay taxes led to a war with the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb which he won with ease, confiscating British trading outposts. India continued to be the leading cotton manufacturer with legendary quality of fabrics. The British seeked to learn techniques and outlaw the import of Indian cotton to try and develop their own manufacture. The 17th and 18th century thus were the years of trade, with the center of trade revolving around Asia and Africa but the Europeans slowly entering and setting the base for a Europe centred world system.

The Europeans thus entered the flourishing trade system in Asia and Africa, started a slave trade in West Africa and destroyed the indigenous populations of the Americas. Of these, the slave trade is of particular importance because in selling human flesh, they degraded the position of labor to a level that it had not sunk to before. Moreover, they organized this selling and buying into an elaborate world-wide system that would spiral out of the control of mere individuals into a slave mode of production. Du Bois was to say

“The using of men for the benefit of masters is no new invention of modern Europe. It is quite as old as the world. But Europe proposed to apply it on a scale and with an elaborateness of detail of which no former world ever dreamed. The imperial width of the thing,—the heaven-defying audacity—makes its modern newness.”

Indeed, there continues to be confusion about the use of the word slave, and it is asserted that all ancient empires had slaves or lower castes. However, such “slaves” of the past could turn into nobility as did Jamal ud-Din Yaqut and lower castes could turn into saints as did Ravidas. What made the European experiment unique was that humans and labor were converted into things or into commodities serving a world system. And so Du Bois says

“This then was the history of the slave trade, of that extraordinary movement which made investment in human flesh the first experiment in organized modern capitalism; which indeed made capitalism possible”

This history and mode of obtaining wealth colored the advent of the European enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries. This was the period of Descartes, of Locke, of Newton, Kant and Hume. This history led the great philosopher of the enlightenment, Immanuel Kant, to completely miss the irony when he simultaneously asked that we act as if our actions become a universal law and also categorized human races with the whites at the top and blacks and indigeneous Americans at the bottom.

Art of the Negro: Muses, Hale Woodruff

However, as is increasingly becoming clear, many of the scientific and philosophical advances in Europe merely built on work already done in Asia and Africa, though that contribution was never acknowledged for it came from pagan sources. Moreover, the actual translation of scientific ideas into technological superiority had to wait till the late 18th and early 19th century with the invention of the steam engine by James Watt (financed through the profits of the slave trade). Meanwhile, the battle of Plassey in 1757 was to herald the expansion of the British empire in India. 

The advent of colonial imperialism

“The real and unanswerable disaster of that history that calls itself White is that, first of all, in the world in which we live, there is no other history. History is a hymn to White people, and all of us others have been discovered–by White people, who may or may not (they suppose) permit us to enter history. This history can, for example, be said to reach a kind of culmination in the unspeakable and indescribable combination of arrogance and mediocrity that marks those cousins, the English and the German, is contained in their extraordinary assumption that the key to civilization is in their hands.”

James Baldwin, The Evidence of Things Not Seen

As Du Bois details in his The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, “the main difference in motive between the restrictions which the planting and the farming colonies put on the African slave-trade lay in the fact that the former limited it mainly from fear of insurrection, the latter mainly because it did not pay”. These two motivations were the foundation of the eventual suppression of the trans-atlantic slave trade and its replacement by colonial imperialism. 

With the conquest of India in the late 18th century, the British got an immense treasure. With the American Revolution, the British sugar planters in the West Indies were losing their supremacy to French colonies because of the extraordinary bleeding of Haiti. Meanwhile, there were a constant series of slave revolts across the Americas. As Du Bois says

“The slave revolts were the beginnings of the revolutionary struggle for the uplift of the laboring masses in the modern world. They have been minimized in extent because of the propaganda in favor of slavery and the feeling that the knowledge of slave revolt would hurt the system”.

Of these the revolt in Haiti under the great Toussaint L’Ouverture was extremely important. The French were demanding equality at home but this was possible only because of the profits of the slave trade from Haiti. The French revolution, and subsequent counter-revolution, was profoundly influenced by the Haitian one. However, unlike France, the Haitian revolution was the first time that a mass of working people consciously revolted. The Haitian constitution of 1801 under Toussaint said “There shall exist no distinction other than those based on virtue and talent”. The counter-revolution in France meant that Napoleon tricked Toussaint and killed him. Napoleon’s subsequent expeditions in Haiti failed and he was forced to abandon Haiti and sell Louisiana to the United States. The Haitian constitution in 1805 under Dessalines said “the Haytians shall hence forward be known only by the generic appellation of Blacks”.

Jacob Lawrence, Forward

It was around this time that the nationalist demand in America against Spain rose as the Venezuelan Simon Bolivar sought unity in South America. He was exiled from his land and found refuge eventually in Haiti. The president of Haiti, Alexander Petion was to provide him Haitian soldiers and military aid. Bolivar said “Should I not let it be known to later generations that Alexander Petion is the true liberator of my country”. 

By the late 18th century the British started calling for the outlawing of the slave trade. They had realized that they could make far more profit from India and effectively destroy European competition to their empire through this measure. In India, the British started “The Rape of Bengal” where the region which was once known for its abundant crops and fine textiles was immiserated, de-industralized. People were forced to go back to agriculture and thus began a process of the drain of wealth from India. This drain of wealth is now calculated to be about $45 trillion and was used to finance the industrialization of Europe and Northern America. 

The outlawing of slavery was slower and the 19th century saw the rise of the Cotton Kingdom. Cotton Production in the United States increased dramatically in the 19th century, while the British shifted to India as the source of Cotton with coolies in conditions of semi-slavery serving in plantations of sugar, cotton, tea and opium. The Opium wars led to the final suppression of China and its division into spheres of influence. Opium was now being grown in India and supplied against China’s will to make addicts in China. The 19th century also saw mass famines in India and China which have been termed “Late Victorian Holocausts” with tens of millions of people killed. Bengal, which had been the center of trade and the land which could always provide food became instead the center of famine. Western powers rushed to colonize and partition the riches of Africa. This led to the death of 12 million in the Congo alone under King Leopold.

Bengal Famine, Chittaprosad (Photo by Riding the Elephant)

These acts of atrocities, however, were never one sided and never unresisted. The 1857 revolt in India stands out but also several other revolts on a smaller scale took place like the revolt of Birsa Munda in what was then Bengal. Samori Ture revolted against the French in West Africa. Menelik II defeated the Italians in Ethiopia. The whole of the darker world was unconsciously united by its oppression and poverty.

Meanwhile, history was rewritten in the late 18th and 19th century to aid “the discovery of personal whiteness”. Everything that was black, yellow and brown was declared as inferior, and all goodness was assigned to the color white. As has now been documented, it was in this period that Hellenic Greece was seen as the predecessor of white race and Egypt was confined to an unimportant role and the Arabs as mere carriers of Greek knowledge. Thus rose a great economic, social and ideological system almost breathtaking in its totality which ruled the world from its centre in Europe and tied three continents into a bloody economic system.

America saw the twin development of its economy with free labor in the North and slave labor in the South. Emancipation in America finally set the basis of imperial colonialism. “Slavery and slave trade became transformed into anti-slavery and colonialism, and all with the same determination and demand to increase the profit of investment”

The study of America in the 19th century then represented in a microcosm the fate of the world. It is thus that in Black Reconstruction Du Bois sees the movement of history through a triad of “The Black Worker” (which could easily relate to the working classes around the colonized and semi-colonized world), “The White Worker” (which could be seen in the working classes of Europe and North America) and the “White Planter” (which could also be seen as the capitalist). History was to move through the logic of this triad, rather than the simple binary of the working class and the capitalist class. The White Workers were compromised by their attachment to whiteness and it was the black worker who represented the center of revolt, which Du Bois described as a general strike of black labor. It was thus black labor that represented the main force of progress and democracy in the world. And so the problem of the color line was also a problem of labor. As Du Bois said 

“Here is the real modern labor problem. Here is the Kernel of the problem of Religion and Democracy, of Humanity. Word and futile gestures avail nothing. Out of the exploitation of the dark proletariat came the Surplus Value filched from human beasts which, in cultured lands, the Machine and harnessed Power veil and conceal. The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown and black.”

Conclusion: Freedom and Civilizational Unity

“An old world is dying, and a new one, kicking in the belly of its mother, time, announces that it is ready to be born. This birth will not be easy, and many of us are doomed to discover that we are exceedingly clumsy midwives”

James Baldwin, No Name In The Street

What then is the conclusion of this history? First, it brings out the importance of the slave trade in setting up a world system of western domination which reproduced economic, political and ideological relations. Second, the economic system that rose in Europe in the 19th century after the industrial revolution cannot be understood without American wealth and markets, slave labor and the importation of Asian and African science and technology. Finally, it points to the centrality of the Haitian revolution, as the tradition on which revolutionary thought and action should be based around the world.

It shows that the crisis we face today has very deep roots — it is possibly a total crisis of a system and hence a civilizational crisis. Its roots are not to be found in an analysis of the elite, but can only be dealt with through the actual conditions of the masses of people. The roots are to be found in the system of selling human labor for profit, in the rise of the sugar empire and the Cotton Kingdom and in the system of colonial imperialism. It was assumed that colonialism ended with the political freedom of countries, but a flag or an anthem does not make a country free.

The true search is not just for political or even just for economic freedom, but civilizational freedom. As Du Bois said “Europe can never survive without Asia and Africa as free and interrelated civilizations in one world”. The epoch which Europe was to define is effectively over. The future of the world now rests with Asia and Africa and it is in their civilizational unity that the hope of humanity rests. As Du Bois said

“The stars of dark Andromeda belong up there in the great heaven that hangs above this tortured world. Despite the crude and cruel motives behind her shame and exposure, her degradation and enchaining, the fire and freedom of black Africa with the uncurbed might of her consort Asia, are indispensable to the fertilizing of the universal soil of mankind, which Europe alone never would nor could give this aching earth.”

Already, people are searching for the concept of the civilization state, a state and system of political and economic rule which is in harmony with the civilization or civilizations that exist within its sovereign control. There are those who see Africa and Asia and see only the ugly scars that colonialism has left of the vibrancy and contradiction of civilizations. The future belongs to those who will find from within those scars beauty, strength and possibility.

KCS Panicker, Blessed are the Peacemakers (Photo by M.D. Muthukumaraswamy)

Asia and Africa must seek to revive their historical connections, to seek peace and unity within and with each other. They must attempt to construct a trade order which is based on morality and respect for civilizations as equals. They must seek to study and learn from each other, the commonalities of the problems they face and the possibility of solutions. They must get out of the bind which western civilization seeks to force on them where they are defined only in their interaction with the west. All of these are possibilities that history has left open to us. Finally, one should pay heed to the testimony of Black America, and its examination of the true nature of the centre of western civilization today, the United States of America, for as Du Bois says through the character of Matthew in the Dark Princess

“Singularly enough, we black folk of America are the only ones of the darker world who see white folk and their civilization with level eyes and unquickened pulse. We know them.”

One lesson to be learnt from the above history is the terrible cost of the degradation of labour and the inevitability of the resistance of those who are oppressed and degraded. This history has made this degradation most painful and acute in Asia and Africa. Socialistic experiments have been tried around the world. They were tried in southern states at the conclusion of the civil war in America, and they were tried in various colonies on the advent of freedom. Perhaps the most complete experiment was done in Russia. This experiment has been demonified through constant propaganda which relies on a clever trick: any discussion of economic democracy is diverted to a discussion of political democracy. But the political democracy imagined by elites is meant only to guarantee their safety and their ownership of the world. Instead, people around the world and the people of Africa and Asia in particular must honestly continue to study the experience of socialism in the 20th century without regard for western propaganda and form their own truthful impression of it. 

What then of the west? It should listen to those who it has seeked to dominate and suppress for so long. As Du Bois said

“Here in America we must learn to be proud of the things of which we are ashamed, and ashamed of things of which we are proud. America should be proud of the fact that she is a nation with increasing democracy composed of the most unlikely peoples and groups on earth; that out of criminals, papers and slaves she has built this land of promise. We should be ashamed that despite this known historical fact, we are trying to build up class and race differences and refusing to carry out the democratic methods which we profess”

Hence it is only in the revolutionary transformation of western civilization, which completely breaks from the epoch which created it in its modern form, that its hope lies. This is the basis for a program of human action which will seek out the uplift of labor into a true democracy, and the uplift of culture into peace and inter-civilizational unity.

Further Reading

All of W.E.B Du Bois’ work forms a vast and important literature to study. The following texts have been particularly useful.

Books by W.E.B Du Bois:

  • The World and Africa (On the Importance of Africa to World History, and a long history of the world from the point of view of Africa)
  • Dark Princess (On the vision of Pan-African Pan-Asian unity)
  • Black Reconstruction in America (On the examination of the history of America through a triad of the black worker, white worker and white planter)
  • Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (On the nature of colonial imperialism and the riddle of Russia)
  • The Suppression of the African Slave Trade (On the causes of the eventual suppression of the African slave trade)
  • Dusk of Dawn (on the concept of race and Du Bois’ phenomenology)

Essays by W.E.B Du Bois:

  • “My Evolving Program for Negro Freedom” (Has the concept of a “civilization in potentiality”)
  • “Sociology Hesitant” (Has the importance of considering both Law and Chance in sociology)
  • “Conservation of Races” (Sets the basis of race and civilization as a unit of study)
  • “Negro in the French Revolution” (Talks about the importance of the Haitian revolution to the world and gives its history)
  • “The Souls of White Folk” (Talks about the difference in the white world system from earlier forms of exploitation)
  • “Marxism and the Negro Problem” (Talks about Du Bois’ relationship to Marxism)


  • The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin
  • “Staggerlee Wonders”, James Baldwin
  • The Culture and Civilisation of Ancient India in historical outline, D. D. Kosambi
  • Asia and Western Domination, K. M. Panikkar
  • The Futurism of Young Asia, Benoy Kumar Sarkar
  • “Time, Space and Race: On Clarence J. Munford’s “Race and Civilization””, Anthony Monteiro
  • Race and Civilization: Rebirth of Black Centrality, Clarence J Munford
  • The Eleven Pictures of Time, C. K. Raju
  • The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Stephen Jay Gould
  • Re-Orient: Global Economy in the Asian Age, Andre Gunder Frank
  • Black Athena: The AfroAsiatic roots of Classical Civilization, Martin Bernal
  • Late Victorian Holocausts: El Niño Famines and the Making of the Third World, Mike Davis
  • A Theory of Imperialism, Utsa Patnaik and Prabhat Patnaik

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