Academic journal article American Studies

W. E. B. Du Bois and the Dismal Science: Economic Theory and Social Justice

Academic journal article American Studies

W. E. B. Du Bois and the Dismal Science: Economic Theory and Social Justice

Article excerpt

In the midst of a whirling rush of economic development in the last twenty years, any student of economics knows that the South today is committing nearly every economic heresy [against] which the whole history of modern industrial devel- opment warns them forcibly, and even passionately.

W. E. B. Du Bois, "The Rural South"1

Economics is not only descriptive; it is not only evaluative; it is at the same time constructive-economists seek to fashion a world in the image of economic theory.

Stephen A. Marglin, The Dismal Science 2

In his autobiography Dusk of Dawn (1940), W. E. B. Du Bois remarked that the two years (1892-94) he spent studying for a doctoral degree in political economy at the University of Berlin, the premier university for study in the social sciences at the time, "modified profoundly [his] outlook on life."3 His classes and seminars with leaders of the German "Historical School of Economics," especially with his mentor Gustav von Schmoller, allowed him to see that the "Race Problem" in the United States was inextricably connected to racism suf- fered by peoples of color around the world and impelled him to begin to "unite [his] economics and [his] politics."4 Scholars of Du Bois's life and work have devoted considerable attention to the influence that his Berlin education had on his development as a social scientist, especially on his sociological and political theories, during the late 1890s and first decade of the twentieth century, the so- called Progressive Era in the United States.5 One of the first such studies, Francis L. Broderick's "German Influence on the Scholarship of W. E. B. Du Bois," begins with the assertion that Du Bois "went to Europe in 1892 an historian; he returned two years later a sociologist."6 However, Du Bois's Berlin education and experiences developed in him a deep and abiding interest not only in sociology (and history and political science) but also in what Thomas Carlyle called the "dismal science." Du Bois was in fact the leading African American economist during and after the Progressive Era; and, as Robert E. Prasch has shown, he also made several contributions to the discipline of economics as it was devel- oping during the early twentieth century, though his achievements were largely ignored or marginalized by white economists.7 In this essay I want to deepen and extend Prasch's work by examining in some depth Du Bois's determined attempts during the early twentieth century to convince such influential members of the American Economics Association (AEA) as Edwin R. A. Seligman, Frank Taussig, and Walter Willcox (all of whom served as presidents of the organization) that racial prejudice and not racial inferiority was responsible for blacks' poverty and supposed economic "inefficiency." In addition to his campaign to influence the fledgling discipline of economics during the Progressive Era, Du Bois also deployed New Historical economic principles in his two major creative works of the period, Souls of Black Folk (1903) and his first novel The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911). In the final section of this essay I will trace how Du Bois continued to unite his economics and politics for the rest of his life, including in his fictional trilogy The Black Flame (1957-61).

Applying German Economic Theory to the "Negro Problems"

In The Dismal Science: How Thinking like an Economist Undermines Com- munity, Stephen A. Marglin remarks that the modern "economist's individual is fixed and unchanging" and that economic theory too easily ignores "real hard- ships to real people."8 Marglin's criticism does not apply to Schmoller and the Berlin historicists, nor to the American economists they profoundly influenced. Richard Ely, Seligman, and other reform-minded social scientists were among the many American students who traveled to Germany during the 1870s and 1880s to learn the new social science theories and methodologies taught there. Schmoller and the German New Historical economists opposed the English laissez-faire economic system that proceeded deductively from supposedly fixed, universal economic principles, arguing instead that economic theories and methods were products of particular historical, political, and national contexts. …

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