2 Literature Review— Du Boisian Sociology and Political Consciousness as a Process

The relationship between individual emotions and their larger, structurally-oriented causes is something written extensively about by many sociologists, perhaps most famously by C. Wright Mills. What he described as the “sociological imagination” is essentially the insight offered to people by better understanding the relationship between their own, lived experiences and broader society through sociology as a field. This perspective allows people to situate their own, personal lives within the larger context of overarching social themes and political institutions. Just as importantly, the sociological imagination provides a more nuanced range of viewpoints when it comes to their lives, and the lives of others around them (5). Mills was certainly not unique in realizing the incredibly valuable potential sociology had to help people; Stephanie Coontz employed it as an example of how to resolve intergenerational conflicts, and situate them within the larger contexts of changing American economies and the relationship of younger children with the public space. While some of the examples Coontz uses are very interpersonal and can tend to seem like they lack the gravity that other issues may hold, this choice is intentional, as the point of her piece is to ultimately illustrate how crucial it is to highlight the larger, underlying causes of these problems.

Keeping this in mind, we can apply this concept of the sociological imagination to some of the most prominent leaders in terms of theory on race and class. In doing so, a more nuanced and rewarding understanding of the relationship between revolutionary consciousness and lived experience can be gained. A prime example of this is W.E.B. Du Bois. A man whose scholarly work and activism fit together so seamlessly it was impossible to distinguish the two, Du Bois radically challenged and changed the field of sociology as a whole. (Itzigsohn and Brown 3) His work in identifying and critiquing the “color line”, or the division and segregation of people and communities through race, is one of the foundations for his theories on modernity and subjectivity (Itzigsohn and Brown 19). This was rooted in his experience growing up in an overwhelmingly white community in the North, as well as later attending college in the South, specifically in Tennessee. One of his most groundbreaking ideas was the concept of “double consciousness”, something most famously published in his 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. Double consciousness was something founded in traditional theories of self-understanding and subjectivity, but it specifically analyzed and explored how the color line disrupted and harmed communication and interactions within social spaces. (Du Bois 3-13) Of course, what’s also remarkable about Du Bois’ intellectual journey is the varied stages it took. Though he would later establish himself as a staunch critic of modernity, as well as a vanguard thinker in terms of decolonialism, Pan-Africanism, and the Black Radical Tradition, Du Bois started out working within far more moderate, integration-based contexts. (Itzigsohn and Brown 19) It wasn’t until after years of frustration, working, and change within different progressive movements that Du Bois started to become more and more radical.

This is one thing that I want to emphasize throughout this paper— in examining this political or “revolutionary” consciousness, we need to understand it as something that is not only drawn from lived experiences (and thereafter organized by the sociological imagination), but also something that is constantly being drawn from living experiences. It’s all a continuously recurring, ongoing process. As said by Huey P. Newton in In Search of Common Ground: Conversations with Erik H. Erikson and Huey P. Newton: “Young people generally feel that the role of the revolutionary is to define a set of actions…that are easy to identify and are absolute. But what I was trying to explain to them was the process: revolution, basically, is a contradiction between the old and the new in the process of development. Anything can be revolutionary at a particular point in time.” (Erikson and Newton 103)

This idea of revolution being a product of its settings is quite relevant in Marie-Luisa Frick’s “Revolution and Human Rights Thought in the Political Philosophy of Catharine Macaulay, Mary Wollstonecraft and Anna Laetitia Barbauld”. Though Frick’s analysis focuses more on a comparative angle between the three thinkers, and where they aligned and differed on various political topics during their time, this paper uses specific sections devoted to Wollstonecraft’s own philosophies and writings to illustrate its own point. Wollstonecraft’s childhood was made notably more difficult by her family’s economic and social decline, as well as her father’s alcoholism and abuse. As such, her own endeavors to establish herself as a writer and philosopher on her own merits—without the help or constraints of family or husband alike—placed her within a very unique position, one in which she understood society from a perspective almost akin to an outsider’s. (Frick 247-266) This in no small part was responsible for her more radical ideals, which propelled her to a wider audience. Both A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and her public critiques of Edmund Burke are examples of this. However, the subsequent violence during the Reign of Terror resulted in the French Revolution’s former supporter’s decision to distance herself from the Revolution, and even went as far to hesitate in her previously-upheld assertions of the people’s sovereignty. (258) We see a few parallels between Wollstonecraft and Du Bois’ stories— they both had their own intellectual journeys heavily influenced by not only the ideological backdrops they were placed in, but also the specific contexts in which they grew up. What is perhaps even more important to note, however, is that both while both of them experienced marginalization as minorities—Du Bois as a Black person, and Wollstonecraft as a woman—the idea of an ‘outsider’ looking in is another dimension present in their early lives, and something that resurfaces later in their flourishings as thinkers. For Du Bois, it was the contention of growing up in an overwhelmingly white community, before being educated in the Deep South; for Wollstonecraft, it was the contention of working to support and educate herself on her own, followed by the support and doorway into elite intellectual circles provided by publisher Joseph Johnson.

Wollstonecraft, however, also differs from Du Bois’ path. While Du Bois continued to grow further and further left throughout his career, Wollstonecraft’s ideological shifts were not so directional. This is a vital aspect of the paper, and possibly the most valuable takeaway Wollstonecraft’s story offers within the analysis. Marginalization, by itself, does not guarantee radicalization or revolutionary consciousness. Billions are marginalized and oppressed by the establishments of conventional society, and yet billions of people are not practicing a revolutionary consciousness. Though the later sections examine how people are turned away from revolutionary consciousness by dominant institutions of power, it is important to note now that this paper makes no claims to know why certain individuals go down a revolutionary path while others do not. At the risk of sounding repetitive, this work occupies an explorative role rather than a declarative one— but that does not diminish the relevance of Wollstonecraft’s story. This specific example provides evidence for two of the three key tenets of this examination: the idea of constant occurrence, and the idea of lived experience. Wollstonecraft’s dynamism highlights not only the role of her own experiences on her work, but also the larger impact of prevalent political events and trends. In other words, these changes—even if they aren’t as directionally aligned as others—show us that not only are ideological understandings of the world derived from lived experiences, but also that this process is continuously playing out, taking changes that occur within people’s social interactions and generating new knowledge from there.

This idea of constantly synthesizing development is also key within Marx’ work. In his collaboration with Friedrich Engels on The Communist Manifesto, the idea of developmental cycles is core. Not only does it frame history as a series of class conflicts, driven by constantly-revolutionized means of production, but it argues that these methods of reorganization will eventually result in a more organized, unified working class, which inevitably ends with the proletariat overthrowing the bourgeoisie. The second section also deals with the idea of consciousness, something central to this paper. Here, too, Marx and Engels reiterate what we’ve seen demonstrated with Du Bois and Wollstonecraft— that the political consciousness of someone “changes with every change in the conditions of his material existence, in his social relations and in his social life” (25). What this ultimately means, then, is that we have to understand the idea of a “revolutionary” consciousness as not a condition to be found or achieved, but rather an unending exercise, constantly informed and broadened by the contexts of everyday life.


Power: Origins, Instances, and Protest Copyright © by Candy Lucero-Sanchez; Leah Rivera; Leslie Paz; and Liam Madigan. All Rights Reserved.

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