In the primary source “Ownership of Materials and Men in the Darker World,” W. E. Du Bois, the brilliant civil rights activist and sociologist, considers how the concept of democracy is subverted and perverted by white supremacy. Du Bois wrote the document in 1915, and was considering the unparalleled destruction of the First World War as a consequence of imperialism. He begins by exploring how the paradox of the “new democratic despotism” formed by European imperial powers, which ruled over a democratic society at home but ruled their colonies with an iron fist (p. 73). He notes that over time democracy emerged as lower economic classes demanded “a part of [their] share” and began to receive it.
However, Du Bois contends that democracy is hollow because it stands on imperialism. He says that the white laborer has been convinced to ally with white imperialists and managers by being “asked to share in the spoils of exploiting the [nonwhites]” (p. 74). Through the power of the nation-state, which is strengthened by the bonds of democracy, powerful nations such as France, Great Britain, and the United States obtained “increased wealth, power, and luxury for all classes on a scale the world never saw before.” However, these spoils are gained through the oppression of nonwhite people, languishing without democratic rights, freedoms, or even basic self-determination, all around the world.
Du Bois says that the fact that the great powers believe there is much to be gained from imperialism is a major cause of the wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This is because imperialism makes war appear worthwhile: “What do nations care about the cost of war, if by spending a few hundred millions in steel and gunpowder they can gain a thousand millions in diamonds and cocoa?” (p. 75). In order to pursue global peace, therefore, he argues that it is necessary to pursue liberation for the oppressed nonwhite peoples of the world. Only self determination for these peoples will the incentive of war borne of imperialism and white supremacy be undone.
“The theory of the new democratic despotism has not been clearly formulated. Most philosophers see the ship of state launched on the broad, irresistible tide of democracy, with only delaying eddies here and there; others, looking closer, are more disturbed. Are we, they ask, reverting to aristocracy and despotism—the rule of might? They cry out and then rub their eyes, for surely they cannot fail to see strengthening democracy all about them?
It is this paradox which has confounded philanthropists, curiously betrayed the Socialists, and reconciled the Imperialists and captains of industry to any amount of ‘Democracy.’ It is this paradox which allows in America the most rapid advance of democracy to go hand in hand in its very centres with increased aristocracy and hatred toward darker races, and which excuses and defends an inhumanity that does not shrink from the public burning of human beings.”
W. E. B., Du Bois. “Ownership of Materials and Men in the Darker World.” In American Empire at the Turn at the Twentieth Century: A Brief History with Documents, 1st Edition. Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2016.