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This chapter argues that the study of international politics in the fields of International Relations and International Law was long hampered by these fields’ neglect of historical research and reliance on schematic historical narratives featuring the rise and expansion of the European nation-state system. Beginning around the turn of the twenty-first century both fields have been reanimated by historical scholarship, much of which has attended to the modern history of empires and to patterned and persistent hierarchies. The chapter examines the longer lineage of this recent work, in earlier historical accounts that traced the emergence in the modern world of a hierarchical global order. These include W.E.B Du Bois’s account of the global color line as the product of a modern racial capitalism with roots in slavery and imperial commerce that had taken a distinctive democratic form in the late nineteenth century; and the first generation of “third world approaches to international law” written in the 1950s and 60s during decolonization. The chapter argues for historical work that resists IR’s misleading inclination to conceive of states (implicitly nation-states) as the chief or sole agents of international politics and legal scholarship’s tendency to obscure the role played by international law itself in the enforcement of coercive hierarchies.
In this address, which Du Bois delivered in London at the first Pan-African Conference in 1900, he uttered the famous phrase, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Co-signed by fellow organizers of the conference, the address makes clear the global nature of the color line and argues that human progress requires that the opportunities of modern civilization be made available to the “darker races.” Appealing specifically to Christian nations, the address calls on them to refuse to draw distinctions of color or race; to resist exploiting and repressing Africans for the sake of greed; to govern their African and West Indian colonies justly and give them, “as soon as practicable, the rights of responsible government”; to recognize the Congo Free State as an independent Negro State; and to respect the integrity of the independent states of Abyssinia, Liberia, and Haiti.
This essay appeared in the July 1943 issue of Foreign Affairs and was part of a series of reflections on what post-war reconstruction might mean for the colonized world. Du Bois argues that the transatlantic slave trade and the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 that legitimized European territorial claims in Africa were two nodes in a history of a persistently exploitative relationship between Africa and the modern world. He predicts that in the absence of a significant restructuring of international relations, post-war reconstruction in Europe will be paid for by deepening the exploitation of Africa.
This 1936 essay laments the lack of knowledge that African Americans and Indians have of one another, attributing the situation to poor journalistic standards and propaganda, which encourage false, frivolous, and sensationalist stories and suppress news of freedom struggles on both sides. Religious differences also hinder understanding. It calls for Indians and African Americans to understand their respective anti-imperialist and anti-racist struggles as facets of the same “world-wide clash of colour,” to stand together against exploitation by white races, and to commit to new and emancipatory forms of economic activity so that exploitation by whites is not replaced by that “of coloured races by coloured men.”
“Worlds of Color,” first published in Foreign Affairs in 1925, argues that the labor problem in Europe is only a facet of a much greater global labor problem, the “World Shadow” of colonial exploitation. It offers a comparative study of the Portuguese, Belgian, French, and British empires in Africa and their distinctive regimes of race relations, land ownership, and labor, paying particular attention to the fate of educated Africans in the various colonies. It scrutinizes the variety of colonial regimes and economic systems instituted by the British across Africa in their efforts to extract resources under different local conditions. The essay reflects on the proceedings of the 1923 Third Pan-African Congress and draws on impressions and information gained during Du Bois’s first visit to Africa. The essay was republished in Alain Locke’s landmark Harlem Renaissance anthology, The New Negro (1925).
This 1917 essay, which appeared in revised form in Du Bois’s 1920 book Darkwater, develops the argument of “The African Roots of War” that increasing political and economic equality among whites had been achieved through expanded exploitation of the “darker peoples.” That exploitation in turn was enabled by the culture of white supremacy, and by an international order in which European nations could abuse their colonial subjects with impunity and without scrutiny. The essay marks out the United States as particularly unsuited to play the role of peacemaker, given the country’s history of white supremacy and racial domination. The essay predicts that the violence perpetrated by whites in the rest of the world will be a prelude to revolution on the part of “these despised and raped peoples” unless Europe commits to “world democracy” and the equality of all races and rejects industry based on theft.
This essay, given as a public address in St. Thomas in 1952, proposes that the West Indies represent “in microcosm the problem of our time.” Long exploited by the European powers as a “deliberate laboratory” of modern production techniques, the subjugation of labor, and the capitalist system, the West Indies now face the “world problem”: the urgent challenge of preserving capitalism’s increased power of production while using the wealth it generates to promote the health, well-being, and democratic voice of all people. Political and economic discipline can make the West Indies a haven not only for the wealthy but for all their residents: a paradise of the “higher and simpler life in which the human spirit blooms and unfolds.”
This 1937 essay was written after Du Bois’s 1936 voyage around the world, when he visited both Japan and Japanese-occupied Manchuria, hosted in both places by Japanese officials. The essay considers Japan’s success in having “copied” European capitalist society and developed its education, industry, and technology. Just as Japan “saved the world from slavery to Europe” in the nineteenth century, it is called in the twentieth to save the world from “slavery to capital” by joining forces with the other non-European nations to resist European domination. Japan seized Manchuria knowing that if it did not European states soon would, but the British have fomented resistance to Japan in China. Shut out of other European alliances, Japan allied with fascist Germany and Japan; this alliance cements her enmity with Russia. Japan’s danger is that of simply becoming another capitalist stronghold; its hope lies in its history of leading resistance to European imperialism.
This 1915 essay, portions of which appeared in revised form in Du Bois’s 1920 book Darkwater, identifies imperial rivalry as the root cause of the First World War. It asks why democracies had embraced imperial expansion and elaborates a new concept, the paradoxical “democratic despotism.” The new age of imperialism was distinctive in that the democratic nation, rather than the merchant or monopoly company, had become the agent of imperialism. The expansion of European empires throughout Africa had in fact been essential to the development of democracy in nineteenth century Europe, easing class conflict between workers and capitalists through the sharing of imperial spoils, wealth acquired through the subjection of “the darker nations of the world.” This global color line was incomplete, because Japan and China showed signs of independence from white hegemony. But pacifists and humanitarians must recognize that until the democratic ideal was extended to non-white peoples, not only would the majority of humanity suffer injustice but also war would continually threaten Europe and the world.
This speech, delivered to the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C., in December 1899, occasioned one of Du Bois’s earliest expressions of the idea of a global color line. The speech analyzes the American “Negro problem” as a facet of a global racial hierarchy and traces various manifestations of this hierarchy across the contemporary world and through its modern history. It compares the color line, as a nineteenth- and twentieth-century phenomenon, to the distinctive problems of prior centuries, such as political rights for the masses, and regards African Americans as “pioneers” on the success of whose struggle hangs the fate of the twentieth century.
This essay was published in October 1935, the same month Italy invaded independent Ethiopia and met little resistance from other members of the League of Nations. It reviews the conjoined evolution of racism and imperialism from the beginning of the modern era, until the First World War brought about a “revolution of thought in regard to race relations,” and “a new distribution of world power” appeared likely. The invasion of Ethiopia by Mussolini’s Italy will likely succeed despite weak efforts at mediation by the League of Nations. The invasion demonstrates the ongoing dangers for world peace of European imperial rivalry and portends similar expansion by Hitler’s Germany. The essay predicts that the “whole colored world,” seeing that neither Christianity nor international institutions restrain European states in their imperial exploitation, will soon come to the realization that their only hope lies in their solidarity against “race hate” and their willingness to resort to force to resist European exploitation. The gains achieved by Gandhi’s remarkable nonviolent resistance were modest; Italy’s success would destroy Indians’ tenuous faith in “the justice of white Europe.” Italy’s actions confirm that “Economic exploitation based on the excuse of race prejudice is the program of the white world.”
In this open letter to the World Peace Council’s 1953 meeting in Budapest, which Du Bois was unable to attend because the US government had revoked his passport, he laments the absence of any representation from his country and offers his insights as a “hereditary outcast.” While Du Bois describes the longstanding American strain of individualism that transformed that nation into a “money-mad people” and set the stage for imperial expansion, he argues that the enmity of the Cold War was a contingent historical development of the Truman era. For Du Bois, the gravest consequence of the county’s embrace of an existential struggle with the Soviet Union is a new “Reign of Terror” within the United States, which threatens to erode the foundations of American democracy. Despite the bleak state of affairs, Du Bois insists that appeal to conscience of America is still possible and that the Cold War can be transcended by marrying together Soviet and American ideals.