Theorising Europe from the Margins: A Reappraisal of W.E.B. Du Bois’ Critical Thought

Joshua M. Makalintal |

What can critical and postcolonial European Studies scholars learn from W.E.B. Du Bois’ sociological thought? And how can this contribute to the agenda of  ‘decolonising’ Europe? A UACES Microgrant report on the 53rd Annual European Studies Conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

A UACES Microgrant report by Joshua M. Makalintal.



Critical European Studies has gained some ground, particularly at the recent UACES Annual Conference that took place at Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland earlier this month. Uniting 11 panels and over 30 contributions under the themed track entitled ‘(En)countering Europe as Global, Othered and Transperipheral Voices’ (EUROGLOT), this year’s event enabled a space to elevate pressing issues and critical works that have mostly been and are still usually marginalised within the field. The contributions under this themed track engaged in questions of how to approach Europe and its various historical legacies as well as its encounters with the broader social world.

For the EUROGLOT panel on ‘Theorising Europe, Otherwise’, I took the opportunity to present my working paper reassessing W.E.B. Du Bois’ immanent critique of Europe and empire. This paper forms part of a more comprehensive theoretical research project of mine that aims to reconstruct his ideology-critical and anti-disciplinary sociological work. My contribution in this context foregrounded an attempt to intervene in critical and postcolonial European Studies.

W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) was an Afro-American historian, sociologist, and a leading figure of the US civil rights and pan-African movements. While substantial debates within the social sciences have erupted intensively in recent years regarding Du Bois’ place in the classical canon, his disruptive scholarship has yet to be acknowledged in other disciplines. Indeed, Du Bois’ critique of European imperialism remains undervalued in both mainstream and critical European Studies; however, as I have argued in Belfast, his anti-imperial thought may offer us a vast array of crucial resources in problematising the myths that persist within contemporary imaginaries of the European project’s history and modern trajectory. This would consequently pave an alternative pathway towards more radical and reflexive understandings of modern Europe struggling to account for its colonial pasts.

For instance, I highlighted a key concept coined by Du Bois — the notion of the colour line, which depicted the global racialised structure of his era that had governed societal relations and practices, thus producing multiple patterns of subjugation, and in turn, various forms of resistance. Using the colour line as an analytical anchor and ideological resource, Du Bois reiterated an immanent critique of European subjugation — a domination “through political power built on the economic control of labour, income and ideas”, as he wrote in 1946. Excavating the inherent contradictions within such domineering practices, Du Bois underlined how these dynamic antagonisms would stimulate the critical consciousness necessary to trigger practical opportunities for resistance and social transformation.

Du Bois has long been one of the social sciences’ marginalised voices, and rectifying this epistemic neglect entails proactively recuperating his subversive scholarship. Reclaiming and re-applying his critical thought and practice in this sense would no doubt contribute to the project of ‘decolonising’ Europe by innovatively enabling us to uncover patterns of domination and forms of injustices that are otherwise unobtrusive. By further enriching critical European Studies scholarship through various transdisciplinary (and anti-disciplinary) perspectives, coupled with the aim of subverting the epistemic hegemonies that persist within the field, we as scholars would undoubtedly be better equipped to assess the current European societal conjuncture — prone to failures, crises, and various antagonisms. This entails confronting these contradictions, compelling us to understand their immanent inevitability and consequently prevail over them, thus further stretching the space for effective interventions in the broader social world.

I was able to share these insights at the 53rd Annual European Studies Conference in part thanks to the UACES Microgrant. I am grateful for the fact that there are academic associations that are determined to financially support students and scholars of all levels in their research pursuits. My participation in this conference provided me not only with valuable feedback, but also inspiration from the other panels that would certainly further broaden my knowledge in the rich interdisciplinary field of European Studies scholarship. I am also grateful to my fellow panellists as well as to the impressively attentive audience for the insightful discussions. It was great to be part of an important and long-overdue conversation on studying, theorising, and critiquing Europe otherwise, especially in such a compelling academic setting.