How the Socialism of W. E. B. Du Bois Still Matters: Black Socialism in the Quest of the Silver Fleece-And Beyond

Article excerpt

One prominent trend in African American and African diaspora studies involves the search for a more thoroughly egalitarian black politics, especially by reopening the question of race and economic equality. The radicalism of W. E. B. Du Bois figures prominently in much of this work, including recent books by Joy James, Kate Baldwin, Alys Eve Weinbaum, and Nikhil Pal Singh. We share this interest in Du Bois's radical social democracy, while at the same time offering an alternative genealogy of its origin and development. In the readings of all the recent critics named above and a number of earlier critics, too, the significant phase of Du Bois's radicalism dates from his contact with Third International socialism, whether initiated by his visit to the Soviet Union in 1926 (at the earliest) or his immersion in Marxism in the early 1930s (the consensus view). (1) What we find is a much earlier emergence of radicalism: in the socialism that Du Bois formulated in the 1910s, with his characteristic emphasis on cooperative black economics developing by his 1911 novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, and his analysis of imperialism and capitalist exploitation in evidence by his 1915 monograph, The Negro.

The following essay both describes the early development of Du Bois's socialism and analyzes the significance of that development. We find three ramifications especially for interpretations of Du Bois and, by extension, for an understanding of African American socialism. First, an early date prevents Du Bois's radical social democracy from being dismissed as an idiosyncracy of his elder years: instead of being the product of his marginalization by the civil rights establishment, Du Bois's socialism was cultivated and maintained during the period when he was the most visible and influential of black Americans, and it was articulated in the pages of the Crisis whereby it reached tens of thousands of NAACP members. An earlier emergence of Du Bois's socialism thus places social democracy closer to the center of African American politics than has usually been supposed. Second, an early date for Du Bois's socialism counteracts the impression that it was unduly influenced by models ill-suited to black America, particularly the supposedly "color-blind" socialism of the Second Internationale. Therefore, although American socialists of this period were seldom able to recognize fully the theoretical contributions being made by Du Bois and other black socialists, those contributions stand, in retrospect, as vital and original developments in American socialism. Moreover, our understanding of Du Boisian socialism has a third important implication, for it helps disentangle Du Bois's socialism from the influence of the Comintern, thereby facilitating a proper emphasis not only on the independence of Du Boisian black socialism but also on Du Bois's commitment to democratic and nonviolent means to achieve social democratic ends.

"The battle is scarcely even begun": The Quest of the Silver Fleece and Black Socialism Before the NAACP

In speaking of socialism during the Progressive Era, we agree with Adolph Reed, Jr., that the central term in question must be clearly specified. After all, "socialism" enjoyed such wide cultural currency that it was "identified variously with support of trusts, public ownership of utilities, corporate regulation, municipal reform, trade unionism, industrial unionism, or any of a myriad of other social and economic policies" (Reed 83). And indeed, the earliest references to socialism to be found in Du Bois's writings do not indicate commitment to any particular political program. They do, however, begin to set Du Bois apart from the more conservative exponents of collectivist ideas, insofar as he saw collectivism as a means to a more equal distribution of wealth as opposed to merely an efficient method for organizing an unruly public. (2) So, for example, in a 1904 letter to Isaac Rubinow, a Socialist party member, Du Bois indicated that he did not call himself a socialist but that he did share the fundamental convictions of the Social Democrats he had met in Germany, convictions about the equitable distribution of wealth and public ownership of industry (letter to Rubinow). …