Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Economic Philosophy of Marcus Garvey

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

The Economic Philosophy of Marcus Garvey

Article excerpt


Marcus Garvey directed the largest mass-based movement among African Americans in the history of the United States. His phenomenal success came at a time when African American confidence was low and unemployment was considered a way of life. Garvey harnessed these conditions to build momentum for his cause. While his worldwide accomplishments and controversies have been analyzed by numerous scholars (Rogoff and Trinkaus, 1998), this paper investigates the economic thoughts of Marcus Garvey. Specifically, it visits Garvey's capitalistic approach to the economic development of African Americans in the United States. It was suggested by W.E.B. DuBois (1940) that Garvey's business ventures failed because of incompetence and economic ineptitude. However, Marcus Garvey's plan for African American capitalism was an enormous contribution because his ill-fated business enterprises became the procedural and conceptual model for future achievements in African American economic development.

Economic Self-Sufficiency

On March 23, 1916, after corresponding with Booker T. Washington, Garvey arrived in the United States to connect his movement to Washington's movement in Tuskegee, Alabama (Stein, 1986). However, Washington died before Garvey arrived. Stein (1986) noted that Garvey came to the U.S. at a time when a new economic order was anchored to American prosperity. A sweeping increase in technological innovations of mass production techniques and new machinery increased American output 13 percent while consequently reducing the workforce 8 percent. Profits were soaring as a 29 percent increase in worker productivity was complemented by only a 4.5 percent increase in real wages. Organized African American unions were suffering as the power of the American capitalists increased.

Garvey had admired Washington's business ownership approach toward self-reliance. He agreed that other forms of advancement would follow economic development. However, he saw a flaw in Washington's approach. Specifically, he believed that focusing primarily on individual entrepreneurial advancement would fail to promote community development because individual profit motives would impede group advancement. In order to promote the collective interests of African Americans, Garvey sought to use collective decision making and group profit sharing. Thus, Garvey created a Nationalist version of Washington's economic program that resulted in mass organization supported by millions of African Americans (Allen, 1969).

Garvey believed that African Americans were universally oppressed and any program of emancipation would have to be built around the question of race. In his mind, African Americans would aspire to positions of influence if they had educational opportunities, and this would bring them into direct competition with the white power structure. However, he believed that within 100 years, such a position would lead to racial strife which would be disastrous for them (Sertima, 1988). Hence, his theory of racial separation was born. It was a stratagem to ensure self-reliance and equality for the downtrodden African race, but it did not stress racial superiority. Garvey stated, "The Negro is ignored today simply because he has kept himself backward; but if he were to try to raise himself to a higher state in the civilized cosmos, all the other races would be glad to meet him on the plane of equality and comradeship" (Martin, 1976). The urgency that he felt for racial independence and self-reliance existed because he believed African Americans suffered in the face of enormous economic superiority and power of the white world. He thought that they should strive to first build a solid industrial foundation and the consequential success would allow African Americans to shape their own destiny.

Within months of his arrival in the United States, Garvey began to research the economic position of African Americans. …

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