Max Weber and the Souls of Black Folk

In light of their fruitful meeting in St. Louis in 1904, how do we explain the short duration of Du Bois and Weber’s contact thereafter? One easy answer is that they had other immediate preoccupations: for Du Bois, it was political activity in the Niagara movement, a mobilization that aimed as much to contest North American racism as Booker T. Washington’s response to it; for Weber, it was interest in the Russian Revolution of 1905, for which he learned Russian in just three months. These are possible and plausible explanations of the brevity of their contact, but I do not think that they were the primary reasons. Rather, I believe that its roots can be traced to the works that both scholars produced at the time of the break and with which the other was familiar, either directly or indirectly. In Du Bois’s case, this was obviously The Souls of Black Folk and, to a lesser degree, his article “Die Negerfrage in den Vereinigten Staaten” (The Black Question in the United States); and in Weber’s, the two essays that he published in the Archiv für Sozialwissenschaft und Sozialpolitik in 1904 and 1905 (which he reworked in early 1920) that constitute The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Although, I cannot “prove” my argument by means of conventional evidence, what I propose as a substitute is to read these works as I imagine each man would have read the other’s. Despite the unavoidably hypothetical nature of this exercise, I believe it is one that sheds light on why their amiable contact was so short-lived.

If we assume that what most appealed to Weber about The Souls of Black Folk were those elements of it that he explored in his own work, it is not difficult to determine what they are. For one, it displays an intellectual versatility—drawing as much on history and sociology as on psychology and politics—that was in line with Weber’s own scholarly predilections. In the anthology, Du Bois sought to chronicle and analyze the “social revolution” that was the emancipation of enslaved black Americans and the response of white American society to black “freedom” in the four decades after the Civil War. In more general terms, Du Bois mapped the continuities and changes in social interaction between these two racial groups in this period by paying particular attention to the specific policies and practices that aimed to facilitate or hinder the recognition of blacks as free people. In this endeavor Weber undoubtedly recognized Du Bois’s adoption of what the former would later label the verstehen approach to social phenomena. By verstehen, or sympathetic understanding, Weber meant the need for the scholar to attempt to comprehend the world such as it was or is lived by the population in question by assuming that their attitudes and actions made or make sense to them, without judgment. Weber, like many other readers of The Souls of Black Folk, was probably unaware of Du Bois’s pioneering, verstehen-inspired sociological studies of the rural South and The Philadelphia Negro, in which he combined the study of primary and secondary documents, the distribution and collection of questionnaires and testimonies, and residence among and daily interaction with the black southerners whose lives he was investigating. Still, even if Weber was oblivious to the methodological innovations that Du Bois employed in these studies that preceded and provided the material for The Souls of Black Folk, we can well imagine that even someone like Weber who was knowledgeable about so much of the world both past and present learned a few things about human relations and political economy in Du Bois’s pages. Take, for example, the following passage on the economic plight of black sharecroppers in Dougherty County, Georgia.

The underlying causes of this situation are complicated but discernible. And one of the chief, outside the carelessness of the nation in letting the slave start with nothing, is the widespread opinion among the merchants and employers of the Black Belt that only by the slavery of debt can the Negro be kept at work. Without doubt, some pressure was necessary at the beginning of the free-labor sys- tem to keep the listless and lazy at work; and even to-day the mass of the Negro laborers need stricter guardianship than most Northern laborers. Behind this honest and widespread opinion dishonesty and cheating of the ignorant laborers have a good chance to take refuge. And to all this must be added the obvious fact that a slave ancestry and a system of unrequited toil has not improved the efficiency or temper of the mass of black laborers. Nor is this peculiar to Sambo; it has in history been just as true of John and Hans, of Jacques and Pat, of all ground-down peasantries. Such is the situation of the mass of the Negroes in the Black Belt today; and they are thinking about it.

A number of the components of this passage would have been familiar to Weber. First is the reference to the coercive measures that capitalists the world over have had to employ in order to transform peasants or former slaves into reliable wage workers. Weber himself would address this theme in a number of places, including The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Second is Du Bois’s related objective to demonstrate the general or universal principles at work in southern social phenomena independent of the racial membership of the actor(s) in question. Primary among these is that unrewarded and underrewarded labor of any kind does not make for inspired workers. And third is Du Bois’s recognition of the fact that an “objective” scholarly or even lay understanding of social relationships requires the adoption of the vantage points of the different parties whose interaction is under scrutiny. In this instance, Du Bois voiced simultaneously the plaints of capital and labor so as to present a balanced picture of the post–Civil War South. Here was impartiality and identification with the underdog.

Weber undoubtedly found Du Bois’s fair-mindedness and his passion for social justice without bias in presentation not only praiseworthy but also in conformity with his own prescription of “value-neutral” scholarship. On perhaps no other methodological point did Weber insist as much as he did on this one. In his view, the place for partisan pronouncements is at political rallies and churches, in editorials and clubs, not in lecture halls or academic publications. Weber must have been struck, then, by Du Bois’s implicit adherence to this prescription in his evenhanded treatment of even the people and institutions he held dear in The Souls of Black Folk. One of these was the Freedmen’s Bureau, about whose shortcomings Du Bois had this to say:

The most perplexing and least successful part of the Bureau’s work lay in the exercise of its judicial functions. The regular Bureau court consisted of one representative of the employer, one of the Negro, and one of the Bureau. If the Bureau could have maintained a perfectly judicial attitude, this arrangement would have been ideal, and must in time have gained confidence; but the nature of its other activities and the character of its personnel prejudiced the Bureau in favor of the black litigants, and led without doubt to much injustice and annoyance Bureau courts tended to become centres simply for punishing whites, while the regular civil courts tended to become solely institutions for perpetuating the slavery of blacks. Almost every law and method ingenuity could devise was employed by the legislatures to reduce the Negroes to serfdom,—to make them the slaves of the State, if not of individual owners; while the Bureau officials too often were found striving to put the “bottom rail on top,” and give the freedmen a power and independence which they could not yet use (30).

There may not be a better example of Du Bois’s scholarly impartiality in The Souls of Black Folk. Here he demonstrates his ability to be as critical of an institution that he otherwise commended as he is willing to defend the interests of those who, some would contend, had forfeited their rights to cry injustice. As Weber would well have understood, it would have been all too easy for Du Bois to justify the Freedmen’s Bureau courts’ treatment of former Confederates and slaveholders as restitution for past crimes. But this type of reasoning was contrary to Du Bois’s conviction that injustice cannot be rectified through vengeance. If anything, acts of vengeance only provoke counterresponses that serve to exacerbate, not transform, already volatile social relations. More to the point, vengeance would not move members of either racial group to rid themselves of the stultifying personality traits cultivated in the slave regime: delusions of racial superiority in one, discouragement of ambition in the other. Throughout The Souls of Black Folk Du Bois never tires of exhorting both racial camps to make changes, as he does here:

It is not enough for the Negroes to declare that color prejudice is the sole cause of their social condition, nor for the white South to reply that their social condition is the main cause of prejudice. They both act as reciprocal cause and effect, and a change in neither alone will bring the desired effect. Both must change, or neither can improve to any great extent (136).

There were dangers, however, to such a presentation of the facts, the dangers of which Weber was well aware, as we know from his political writings. Above all, it minimized the differences in power, in this instance, between blacks and whites in Jim Crow America. In equalizing the responsibility for the struggles of black Americans, Du Bois rendered equal, in effect, their ability to change their collective lot and the desire of their white counterparts to no longer discriminate against them. However, in light of the fact that black Americans had the law only partially on their side but certainly not law enforcement, to speak of equal responsibility for the relatively poorer performance of blacks was to deny the discrepancies in power between themselves and white Americans. Or it was to speak like a classic liberal in an illiberal society where two of liberalism’s central tenets—equality before the law and equality of opportunity—were not guaranteed. For by the logic he ex- pressed in this passage, Du Bois revealed his expectation of his fellow black Americans to collectively will themselves to socioeconomic success despite the political and economic constraints of Jim Crow America. In light of his own emphasis on power relations between social actors, we can imagine Weber musing that Du Bois had perhaps erred too much on the side of the antiblack South. Yet as a liberal (in the nineteenth-century meaning of the term), we can also imagine Weber’s agreement with Du Bois on the primacy of individual actions and obligations, however extraordinary the particular sociopolitical circumstances.

Taken to its logical conclusion, nevertheless, the celebration of the individual, particularly by gifted men, lends itself to the cultivation of elitism, in many respects the opposite of liberalism. Common to both Weber and Du Bois was the belief that only a select few can lead the masses to new levels of consciousness and courses of action. To these “elect” Du Bois would give the name “Talented Tenth,” whereas Weber, believing them to be even smaller in number, called them charismatic or prophetic leaders. That Weber and Du Bois included themselves in this select group we have ample reason to suspect. For such reasons, Weber could have only nodded in approval with Du Bois’s criticisms of the colleges and universities founded for black people in the aftermath of the Civil War.

But these builders did make a mistake in . . . lowering the standard of knowing, until they had scattered haphazard through the South some dozen poorly equipped high schools and miscalled them universities. They forgot, too, just as their successors are forgetting, the rule of inequality: —that of the million black youth, some were fitted to know and some to dig; that some had talent and capacity of university men, and some the talent and capacity of blacksmiths; and that true training meant neither that all should be college men nor all artisans, but that the one should be made a missionary of culture to an untaught people, and the other a free workman among serfs. And to seek to make the blacksmith a scholar is almost as silly as the more modern scheme of making the scholar a blacksmith; almost, but not quite (65).

A more forthright expression of liberal elitism one is hard pressed to find in The Souls of Black Folk, and Du Bois provides many examples from which to choose. Throughout the work Du Bois laments the “ignorance” (of “life itself,” he claims at one point) of former slaves and their descendants.

On this point, we have evidence that Weber shared Du Bois’s opinions but with a pointed racial edge. During the southern portion of his nearly three-month sojourn in the United States in 1904, Weber wrote a letter home in which he contrasted the, we assume, fairer-skinned and better-dressed students of Tuskegee Institute to the “semi-apes one encounters on the plantations and in the Negro huts of the ‘Cotton Belt.’” On some matters, Weber could be an unremarkably ordinary man of his time, contrary to what some of his boosters would have us believe. However, in fairness to him we should recognize that some of Du Bois’s remarks would only have fueled, not tempered, Weber’s characterization of poor, rural blacks. In my study The Spirit vs. the Souls I address the degree to which beliefs such as these shaped Weber’s treatment of matters bearing directly or indirectly on people of African descent in the modern world.

Finally, I cannot end this hypothetical Weberian reading of The Souls of Black Folk without mentioning Du Bois’s brief portrait of the religion of black America. In fact, apart from addressing one of Weber’s primary intellectual pursuits, Du Bois, like his German counterpart, recognized religion’s integral relationship to virtually all other social and psychological phenomena. Weber probably also recognized in Du Bois’s treatment of black American religion one of his own strengths: the ability to condense complex historical developments into manageable and sensible reconstructions.

First, there is Du Bois’s description of the anthropological and sociohistorical transformation of the African’s religious experience through the processes of captivity and enslavement. Du Bois says,

His religion was nature-worship, with profound belief in invisible surrounding influences, good and bad, and his worship was through incantation and sacrifice. The first rude change in this life was the slave ship and the West Indian sugar-fields. The plantation organization replaced the clan and the tribe, and the white master replaced the chief with far greater and more despotic powers (141).

Yet, despite the “terrific social revolution” that this wrenching experience necessarily was,

Some traces were retained of the former group life, and the chief remaining institution was the Chief or Medicine-man. He early appeared on the plantation and found his function as the healer of the sick, the interpreter of the Unknown, the comforter of the sorrowing, the supernatural avenger of wrong, and the one who rudely but picturesquely expressed the longing, disappointment, and resentment of a stolen and oppressed people. Thus . . . within the narrow limits allowed by the slave system, rose the Negro preacher, and under him the first Afro-American institution, the Negro church (141–42).

With the passage of a few generations, the spiritual eclecticism of the enslaved themselves, combined with the deliberate actions taken by masters and missionaries, facilitated Christianity’s eventual assimilation of African-derived beliefs and practices, particularly in its Baptist form.

In this synopsis of the development of black American religion, Du Bois illustrated the dynamic nature of spiritual belief. In agreement with Weber, he recognized that religious outlook, like other social phenomena, not only has its own independent power strong enough to shape social action, but is itself subject to change through the workings of variables such as time, context, and intention. In another passage, Du Bois took this point a step further and suggested that the social regimes under which black Americans live shape their religious orientations and, in turn, their different political stances.

Feeling that his rights and dearest ideals are being trampled upon, that the public conscience is ever more deaf to his righteous appeal, and that all the reactionary forces of prejudice, greed, and revenge are daily gaining new strength and fresh allies, the Negro faces no enviable dilemma. Conscious of his impotence, and pessimistic, he often becomes bitter and vindictive; and his religion, instead of worship, is a complaint and a curse, a wail rather than a hope, a sneer rather than a faith. On the other hand, another type of mind, shrewder and keener and more tortuous too, sees in the very strength of the anti-Negro movement its patent weaknesses, and with Jesuitic casuistry is deterred by no ethical considerations in the endeavor to turn this weakness to the black man’s strength. Thus we have two great and hardly reconcilable strivings; the danger of the one lies in anarchy, that of the other in hypocrisy. The one type of Negro stands almost ready to curse God and die, and the other is too often found a traitor to right and a coward before force (146–47).

Du Bois goes on to add that the first personality type is representative of the northern black, who “tend[s] toward radicalism,” whereas the second is typical of her southern counterpart, who tends toward “hypocritical compromise” (147).

In this socioreligious explanation of the roots of the ideological divide that separated northern and southern blacks, Du Bois hardly disguises who he thought were the archetypal figures of both categories: himself or William Monroe Trotter and Booker T. Washington. Even if these references were initially lost on Weber, he would certainly have applauded Du Bois’s demonstration of the interplay of social status, religion, and psychology in the lives of black Americans.

Yet, as much as Weber found The Souls of Black Folk worthy of praise and even a German translation, he must have found certain aspects of it questionable, if not displeasing. From what we know of his personality, few intellects earned his unqualified praise. In light of his scholarly explorations before, during, and after the time when he presumably read Du Bois’s work, Weber probably found objectionable three of the black American scholar’s contentions: his claim that the “problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,”  despite Weber’s professed agreement with Du Bois’s contention; his notion of double consciousness and the veil; and his list of specifically black contributions to American society.

In the opening of the second chapter of The Souls of Black Folk, titled “Of the Dawn of Freedom,” Du Bois provided a complete explanation of what he meant by his now-famous slogan: “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea” (16). However, it should be fairly obvious that Du Bois did not intend to limit his remark to the twentieth century; after all, that century had only just begun when the work was published. Rather, his prediction was based on events and processes that began in the early sixteenth century, namely, the European colonization of the Americas and the institutionalization of racial enslavement. From other references in the work, it is also clear that Du Bois had in mind a number of specifically mid- to late nineteenth-century developments: the legacy of slavery in the emancipation era, Otto von Bismarck’s coordination of the “scramble for Africa” at the Berlin Conference of 1884, and the formal entry of the United States into overseas imperialism in the Spanish-American War. With great but perhaps not extraordinary foresight, Du Bois reasoned that it would not be long before colonized people would demand fundamental changes in the colonial relationship. History would prove him right.

For his part, Weber surely thought that Du Bois’s “problem of the twentieth century” was too centered on black Americans, despite his claim to the contrary; it was the application to world events of experiences drawn from, at most, a secondary if not tertiary part of it. Far more important to him were the effects of what Europeans were imparting to the rest of the world: rational calculation. In place of superstition, tradition, and constraining religious mandates, the West was spreading the gospel of technical efficiency, market response, and cost-benefit analysis. That this process entailed grave social losses, particularly in the way that people thought and how they defined themselves and others, Weber was acutely aware and lamented them in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and elsewhere. However, these concerns did not stop him from being a staunch advocate of German overseas imperialism. Moreover, Weber must have realized on some level that, part and parcel of the European imperial project in Africa and Asia, the objectives of nineteenth-century imperialism were the extension of the color line and, of necessity, the belief in European racial superiority over non-Europeans. In fact, he said as much in his remark to Du Bois about the color line fast becoming the “paramount problem” worldwide without admitting how his very position on German imperialism contributed to it. Nor was Weber able to foresee how Germany’s imperial pursuits could rekindle imperial rivalries (dormant for almost a century) similar to those that plagued Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries—only this time on a far deadlier scale. Nor would he have been able to imagine that a regime in his own country would one day seek to impose an imperial and racial order on Europe based on beliefs similar to those that guided European actions in their overseas colonies.

In the case of Du Bois’s formulation that black Americans live behind the veil of their blackness and gain from it a “second sight” or “double consciousness”—“this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others” (8)—the metaphor might well have reminded Weber of Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic. In this story chained captives in the depths of a cave are positioned to face a curtain or veil onto which are projected, by the light of a fire behind the veil, the shadows of people and objects moving in front of the entrance of the cave above and opposite them. One of Plato’s objectives in the parable is to suggest that, like the prisoners, we often mistake the projection for the real; or, to use Plato’s characters, what the prisoners see on the screen is, at best, an inaccurate representation of the actual movements (even less the intentions) of those who are moving past the entrance of the cave. In Du Bois’s substitution of Plato’s screen with the veil of double consciousness, black, not white, Americans are the ones who are both moving past the entrance of the cave and the prisoners who have been able to free themselves from their chains, ascend the cave’s entrance, grow accustomed to sunlight, and then reenter the cave to share with their white counterparts what they have seen. Thus, in his use of the veil metaphor, Du Bois suggests that, despite the obvious disadvantages that come with living behind it, the American racial system ironically offers blacks another optic through which to view the social world that it discourages whites from either using or imagining. In this domain, then, if not in others, the very subordination of the black American allows her to enjoy a perceptual superiority over her white counterparts.

It is hard to imagine that Weber would have agreed with Du Bois on this point. Not, of course, because he could not follow Du Bois’s argument but rather because Du Bois’s assertion suggests that black Americans or any supposedly subordinate population can perceive more of the social world than white Americans or any supposedly superior population. For according to this logic, German Poles, who occupied arguably the lowest rung of the Prussian social hierarchy at the end of the nineteenth century and whose very presence aroused Weber’s ire, had a broader understanding of the German social context than other Germans, in particular, broader than privileged German Protestants like himself. I believe that this would have been too great a stretch for Weber. After all, as noted earlier, despite calling into question both the biology of race and its use as an explanatory variable in social investigation, Weber continued to subscribe to biological understandings of racial identity. All this is to say that if Weber expressed doubts about blacks’ psychological stability, we cannot imagine that his assessment of their intellectual capacities (Du Bois excepted, of course) would have been any better than and certainly not equal to those of the majority of whites.

Similar sentiments would arguably have moved Weber to reject Du Bois’s list of contributions that Blacks have made to American society in particular and, by extension, to Western civilization in general. If reject is too strong, then we can be sure that, at the very least, Weber would have thought that Du Bois’s contentions were in need of serious qualification. Take, for example, Du Bois’s early claim in The Souls of Black Folk that “there is no true American music but the wild sweet melodies of the Negro slave” (14). If in 1904 Weber already held the opinions on music that he would express at the end of his life, then he would have included even black Americans in his remark that the “musical ear of other peoples has probably been even more sensitively developed than our own, certainly not less so.” However, he would have been quick to add that the only true American music must be European derived on the grounds that the United States is primarily an offshoot of European civilization, the only one to have produced “rational harmonious music.”

Du Bois’s closing remarks in The Souls of Black Folk would have elicited an even stronger negative response from Weber. It reads in part:

Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song—soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit . . . Would America have been America without her Negro people? (189)

“Yes,” Weber would have undoubtedly responded to this last question, and he would have gone on to add that the economic impact of enslaved black and wage-earning labor was largely regional and modest and that if any “spirit” shaped American culture it was the Protestant spirit and not some derivative of it refashioned in the slave quarters. As harsh and even unfair as this may read, these imagined reactions on Weber’s part are consistent with the assertions he made in a number of his writings, including The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. In short, despite his enthusiastic letter to Du Bois on The Souls of Black Folk, Weber fundamentally disagreed with Du Bois on a number of essential points.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This excerpt comes from the book The Spirit vs. the Souls: Max Weber, W. E. B. Du Bois, and the Politics of Scholarship (chapter 1, pages 11-23). It is part of an ongoing collaboration with the University of Notre Dame Press. You can read our excerpts from this collaboration here.

Featured Image: Addison N. Scurlock, W.E.B. Du Bois Portrait,1911; Source: Wikimedia Commins, PD.


Christopher McAuley

Christopher McAuley is associate professor in the Department of Black Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is the author of The Mind of Oliver C. Cox and The Spirit vs. the Souls.

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