Rising waters and enduring racial violence have livened sociological attention to the global environmental crisis and the influence of colonialism and racism on contemporary society. A rich debate amongst Marxists is afoot on both these themes. In one, theorists have sought to detail the relevance and insight of Marxism to characterize the contemporary ecological crises, popularizing the idea that capitalists are to blame. And in the other, an often vigorous, sometimes vociferous, debate is afoot to explain racism and to understand the role of non-class identities such as race in capitalism.

Part of these efforts have involved revisiting the canon of Marxist theory. For example, Kohei Saito’s new book Marx in the Anthropocene is a recent effort to popularize an ecological reading of Marx’s writings to characterize the relationship between society and nature. There has also been a resurging interest in the Black Marxist tradition, and the idea of racializing capitalism, one that depends on and creates racial divisions to justify the exploitation of workers. Amongst sociologists, the debate has centered around the canonization of W.E.B. Du Bois, in which recent arguments by Jeff Goodwin,  Michael Burawoy, Aaron Major, and José Itzigsohn have sought to clarify the place of Marxism in his work.

In a new paper, I show that for Du Bois, characterizing the relationship between society and nature, and explaining racism, were interrelated. Not only was Du Bois concerned with the impact of colonial capitalism on the ecological health of soils, rivers, and animals, he also detailed how struggles over environmental resources bolstered the adoption of racism, a process I call environmental racialization. My reading of environmental themes in Du Bois’s oeuvre aligns with other efforts to develop a Black Ecological Marxism from the works of Amílcar Cabral, Oliver Cromwell Cox, Angela Davis, Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Claudia Jones, Stuart Hall, Cedric Robinson, Walter Rodney, Thomas Sankara, and Eric Williams. Centering the exploitation of racialized labor and nature in colonies, Black Marxists expanded the materialist analysis of capitalist accumulation from industrial metropolises to environmental resources in the peripheries. They show that capitalist accumulation in the colonies was characterized by an expansive drive to accumulate territory and transform landscapes to extract natural resources in mines and plantations. Du Bois recognized this as a global process. He detailed exploitation in the plantations of the American South, and also in Africa, in the cocoa plantations of the Gold Coast, and rubber plantations of Liberia.

Du Bois’s theories stand out in this tradition that has focused on capitalist accumulation of wealth by extracting natural resources from colonies, and racialization of labor to justify slavery and violent exploitation by White elites. In Black Reconstruction (1935), Du Bois deploys a Marxist class analysis to understand the adoption of racism not only by capitalists but also among workers. Seeking an explanation for the historical puzzle of why mass labor action in the aftermath of the American Civil War did not lead to a worker democracy, Du Bois argues that it was not just competition over jobs between workers that stoked racial division, but also the environmental resource of land. Du Bois points to how differential state-backed opportunities to settle land, especially in the colonial frontier of the American West, shifted the material interests of White workers from shoring labor rights with their Black peers to aspiring to be land-owning planters. This aligned the interests of White workers with planters in cheapening Black labor. Alongside his account of the racialization of workers, Du Bois also detailed how capitalist planters blamed workers for the environmental consequences of extractive agriculture, racially stigmatizing them as careless and undeserving. In his analysis of how class struggles and the adoption of racism are shaped by the environment, Du Bois is unique amongst classical sociological theorists with his focus on how society-environmental relations shape the construction of racial difference.

Du Bois also brings a unique focus on the role of the state in structuring environmental harm and benefit. He argued that Reconstruction provided an opportunity to detail a “Marxian theory of the state” as it provided a brief political moment where workers mobilized the state to distribute land and resources to workers through initiatives such as the Freedman’s Bureau, a central pillar of what Du Bois called “abolition-democracy:” When beholden to capitalist and White interests, states bolster racial division, but in moments of worker control, states can be an instrument of emancipation. If inequality in environmental resources stoked racial division, it followed that an equal division by states could abolish racial exploitation.

Du Bois’s political writings built on this insight and emphasized land and natural resource distribution, for example, in his analyses of the New Deal. In one, he argued for state intervention in the aftermath of devastating floods: “We know that floods of these rivers could be held back by dams; could be restrained into reservoirs so as to furnish irrigation for the desert, water for power, cheap electricity for homes all over the land.” When Du Bois joined the Communist Party of the U.S.A in 1961 in the latter years of his life, he noted, first and foremost, that he would advocate for: “1. Public ownership of natural resources and of all capital”, as he did in the various Pan-African Congress manifestoes he helped chart. Du Bois provides a warrant for states to alleviate environmental harm, distribute environmental goods, and abolish racial division, a prescient guide in an age of demands for states to respond to the climate crisis.

For Du Bois, capitalism and racism do not only impose on the souls but also the soils of Black folk. In a century defined by the intersecting crises of capitalism, racist oppression, and global ecological degradation, Du Bois’s theories that detail their relation and offer a program to reimagine society as an abolition democracy, serve as a prescient guide.

Ankit Bhardwaj is a PhD Student in Sociology at New York University.

Image: Rice Culture on the Ogeechee via Harper’s Weekly (January 5, 1867)

To read more, see Ankit Bhardwaj. “The Soils of Black Folk: WEB Du Bois’s Theories of Environmental Racialization” in  Sociological Theory 2023.