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Racial (In)Justice and Counter-Finality

By William Paris

As I have begun teaching W.E.B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction for my graduate seminar I have found myself wondering how to present what I take to be the philosophical elements or insights of a text that challenges traditional genre norms of what expect from philosophy or history. Du Bois’s re-narration of the end of slavery and the eventual collapse of reconstruction in the United States seems to me to important lessons for how we might think about struggles for racial justice in the present. What struck me throughout the first four chapters of the book that detail the beginnings of the civil war is how Du Bois presents these events as tragic drama where agents act without understanding the deeper meaning their actions will acquire once the war breaks out.

Two examples struck me. First, when Du Bois describes the planter class of the south as clinging to slavery because they realized that it upon slavery that their power was based he goes onto note that their slavish dependence on this form of life is what ends up destroying them (“With the Civil War, the planters died as a class. We still talk as though the dominant social class in the South persisted after the war. But it did not. It disappeared” [Du Bois 1998: 54]). Second, says of the beginning of the civil war that “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 knew, for instance, that the North would not fight. He knew that Negroes would never revolt” (Du Bois 1998: 55). Here we find the planters as a class and Ruffin as an individual engaging in actions whose consequences were the exact opposite of what they had intended. More to the point, in their defense of racial injustice their deeds help constitute the movement toward racial justice or “Abolition-democracy” (Du Bois 1998: 83) as Du Bois phrases it.

As controversial as this may sound I think it makes sense if we see Du Bois as offering a tragic concept of agency that is akin to what Sartre describes as “counter-finality” (2004: 193) in the Critique of Dialectical Reason. Sartre use the example of air pollution caused by the owners of factories during the Industrial Revolution. The owners of the factories were engaging in actions that aimed at increasing their own wealth and securing their own survival and yet doing so meant undercutting the very conditions that would guarantee their health (Sartre 2004: 193-195). Sartre describes how an agent’s (or a class of agents’) action in the world returns to them in a form that precisely undercuts the aims they set out to accomplish. Terry Pinkard persuasively argues that Sartre has more than unintended consequences in mind here. Instead counter-finality describes “humans discovering they have brought on themselves by their own free actions as a result of ends that have set for themselves and as ends for which they are driven to assume responsibility” (Pinkard 2022: 32-33). What is key for Sartre is that the counter-finality is not a mere accident, but it meaningfully expresses the structure of the action undertaken (the story of Oedipus Rex is the archetype of what Sartre intends to capture with this concept).

When Du Bois narrates the planter class and Edwin Ruffin as destroying themselves and freeing the enslaved, respectively, he is surely troping Marx and Engels’s The Communist Manifesto where they declare that the bourgeoisie produces their own grave-diggers (1998: 65). But the analogy is not perfect. What Du Bois actually tells us that Ruffin and the planter class were their own grave-diggers. Ruffin and the planter class engaged their actions from within the violent form of life of slavery and so their actions could not but draw upon the existing social forces and norms that comprised slavery as form of life. So what I think Du Bois means to show is that their actions did not passively reproduce slavery as a form of life, but laid bare its instability. What they thought they were doing was conserving their form of life (and necessarily so), but what the end that actually helped constitute was its destruction.

Does this mean Du Bois leaves no place for the agency of blacks in the civil war and abolition of slavery? Quite the opposite. Throughout the course of the opening chapters of Black Reconstruction agency takes on complex guises insofar as we have individuals who are radically circumscribe in what they can do, and yet they act. We also have agents that act and do not know what they are doing. There are also agents who act and cannot foresee the chain of events they are setting off. Finally, we have agents who (unknowingly) act in concert with one another. These are quite distinct agential capacities, with different effects, and, more to the point, they concept of agency that will vary in their usefulness for theories of political practice that need to emphasize our capacity to transfigure our form of life. If one wants to propagandize that we ought to overthrow the social relations of capitalism, they probably will not want to foreground a conception of agency that emphasizes how we do not often know what the consequences of our actions will be. But is this a reasonable hypothesis? Does it touch the social reality of agency from within the constraints of social forces? Or perhaps we can grant that it is possible for agents to become fully transparent to themselves and others, but does this answer the question of whether the agents are truly free to effect the social transformation they would like to see?

All of this is to say that I think there are multiple concepts of agency at work in Black Reconstruction and we risk losing the complexity of Du Bois’s theoretical practice if we read the work as simply Du Bois substituting the agency of blacks/race for the agency of the working class in the transformation of the social conditions of capitalism. One reason that we might be suspicious of the idea that this was DB’s aim is the empirical fact that the transformation from capitalism to the realm of freedom did not happen. So to criticize DB for thinking that blacks on their own, organized on the basis of race, could challenge the social forces of capitalist exploitation and oppression imputes to him a position he cannot reasonably be said to hold (for examples of these criticisms see Saman [2020]). Later in the text he will describe reconstruction as a “splendid failure” (Du Bois 1998: 708). We should understand why the reconstruction of the US nation failed and to do so we will have to reconfigure our concepts of agency and social structure (Johnson Fall 2003). Part of this reconfiguration will require that we come to understand history as conflicting and contradictory modes of agency that takes place not only between social groups, or between social groups and the inertia of social forces, but will also take place within one and the same individual.

There is not a single, coincident agent (individual or group) that we can recover from Black Reconstruction and I think it is debatable whether this was even Du Bois’s primary project. This is not a romance whereby there is a happy ending awaiting us at the end of this theoretical project. For instance, the second to last chapter of the book is “Back to Slavery” which gives the sense that this is not a history of progress, but the cruel spiral of history. There is not an homogenous and heroic agency that Du Bois rescues from the ashes of history that will resolve the impasses of the present. Black Reconstruction is a work of theory that expresses itself in the register of the tragic. And here I do not mean that the drama ends badly (though it no doubt does). What I mean is closer to the Greek sense of tragedy that demonstrates the complex overdetermination of action and agency by fate or the gods.

Of course, fate here would be the inertias and social forces of capitalism cum white supremacy reconstructing itself in the face of a severe challenge and crisis brought upon exogenous transformations in the world economy and endogenous actions of the enslaved (black workers), poor whites, and planters. Now the way I just expressed that idea might make it seem as if capitalism/white supremacy is either a force of nature or an inhuman agent, but that is not necessarily what I mean: agents and the shape that their actions take are still doing this to one another, however what I think emerges in Black Reconstruction is that these actions tend to congeal and become like a “nightmare on the brain of the living.” (Marx 2017: 15). Du Bois plays the role of the chorus who comments on the action of this drama, explicates it even as fate remains unbeknownst to the actors involved, and this should force us to reflect on our own present drama.

What does this tragic conception of agency/agencies do to our contemporary theorization of racial justice? I think that we will have to reconstruct concepts of agency and social structure in the past and present so that we might have deeper self-knowledge of what will be possible in the future. My point here is that Du Bois was involved in a similar process of reconstruction when he displaced the notion of slave with “Black worker.” Needless to say, that this provocative reconstruction is not merely descriptive, but rearranges the categories through which we perceive and make sense of history. It raises to our consciousness the multiple agencies that work in tandem and at cross purposes that produced and exacerbated the crisis of slavery. Nevertheless, these black workers are not self-possessed, they are not absolutely aware of what they will bring about and they are not in absolute control over the eventual direction of their actions. The material forces of slavery, race, and dispossession constrain these workers and turn their actions back against them (the movement toward freedom tended to encourage the discourse of abolition, but also exacerbate racial anxieties). Du Bois challenges us to rethink the presumed concept of agency that can bring about a complete reconstruction of social and political life.

That being said, this tragic conception of agency opens new vistas for us to understand how collective action may form. Du Bois’s description of the “general strike” is a case in point. The argument against Du Bois’s use of this concept is that it is exceedingly unlikely that these (perhaps) half a million black agents self-consciously coordinated their desertion of southern plantations in order to bring the southern economy founded on slavery into a crisis (1988: 67). But does this agency of the general strike require as a necessary condition self-conscious coordination? I think what Du Bois actually shows is that these individuals acted, without a necessary awareness, of what other individuals were doing or the scale at which they were doing it and their actions, unbeknownst to them, congealed into a phenomena that had the effect of a strike. Within this drama on the beginnings of reconstruction I think Du Bois wants to indicate for his audience that the actions of these black workers were decisive and yet their ends were obtained due to actions of other agents and the inertia of social forces they could not directly control. Depending on one’s stance this will either be sobering or exhilarating.

All of this is a long way of saying that I am agnostic about whether we can finally and definitively exit the spiral of counter-finality in the struggle for racial justice (I imagine this is part of the reason why Sartre, rather infamously, gave up on completing his Critique). But when one looks at how much of the discourse of “racial justice” has been bent away from radically challenging the social and economic forces of our form of life that immiserate so much of the globe it is hard not to feel that something tragic has occurred (Táíwò 2020). It is more than reasonable to lay the blame for this at the feet of well-positioned groups who cynically want to defend their interests in the status quo. But could we not also imagine that the ends of well-meaning people have been returned to them as a nightmare of empty platitudes from one’s “allies” and vicious attacks on public education curricula from one’s political opponents? If there is something to the tragic structure of agency as I have found it in Du Bois and Sartre, I do not think this concludes in quietism. Instead, I think it pushes us to understand struggles for racial justice as never being absolutely disconnected from the forms of life they wish to change; in fact, these wrong forms of life will meaningfully structure all our actions in the name of justice.

Works Cited

Du Bois. 1988. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. Introduction by

David Levering Lewis. New York: The Free Press.

Johnson, Walter. Fall 2003. “On Agency.” In Journal of Social History 37(1):


Marx, Karl. 2017. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. New York:

International Publishers.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. 1998. The Communist Manifesto. New York:

Signet Classics.

Pinkard, Terry. 2022. Practice, Power, and Forms of Life: Sartre's

Appropriation of Hegel and Marx. Chicago: The University of Chicago


Saman, Michael J. 2020. “Du Bois and Marx, Du Bois and Marxism.” In Du Bois

Review 17(1): 33-54.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 2004. Critique of Dialectical Reason: Volume I. Translated

by Alan Sheridan-Smith. Foreword by Frederic Jameson. New York: Verso.

Táíwò, Olúfemi. 2020. “Identity Politics and Elite Capture.”


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