February 2019History

W.E.B. DuBois: " [T]oday in America we can abolish poverty by reason and the intelligent use of the ballot"

This week of his birthday anniversary is a fitting moment to remember Dr. W.E. Burghardt Du Bois (23 Feb. 1868 – 27 Aug. 1963).  Published from the 1890s through 1960s, his writings shed light on crucial issues of those years- and our own time.   Du Bois is most widely known as organizer or founder of the Niagara Movement, the NAACP and a series of Pan African Congresses.  Surely the most famous line he wrote is: “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line,” The Souls of Black Folk, 1903.  But let us remind the world that Du Bois joined the Socialist Party in 1911 and thereafter considered himself a Socialist, an advocate for a communal system. In 1961 he joined the Communist Party and redefined that key problem as the “class-caste-color line.” He became a citizen of Ghana in the year of his death at the age of 95.

His thoughts evolved, yet his words seem prophetic for the 21st century. What would Du Bois say today about how to connect peoples divided by color, class or country?  or how humanity can meet its global crises?  Here from his works are some extracts bearing on socialism and communism, democracy and freedom. (His contemporaneous respectful terms for gender and race groups are retained in these quotations.)

The Souls of Black Folk, 1903: “The bright ideals of the past [physical freedom, education and the ballot for self-defense] must be melted and welded into one. …We still seek the freedom of life and limb, the freedom to work and think, the freedom to love and aspire. …All these we need together…all striving toward that vaster ideal…of human brotherhood.”

The Crisis, 1912: (Many black voters were still loyal to Lincoln’s Party, the Republican, and women’s suffrage was yet but a movement) “The three great political parties [Republican, Progressive and Democratic] have…been appealing to the colored vote for support… In none of these cases is the invitation satisfactory. Nevertheless, because the Socialists, with their manly stand for human rights irrespective of color, are at present out of the calculation, the Negro voter must choose between these three parties… We sincerely believe that…it is better to elect Woodrow Wilson President of the United States and prove once for all if the Democratic Party dares to be Democratic when it comes to black men. It was proven that it can be in many Northern States and cities. Can it be in the nation?  We hope so and we are willing to risk a trial.”

The Crisis, 1919: “In this fight for Justice to Labor the Negro looms large. In Africa and the South Seas, in all the Americas … he is a mighty worker… But of all laborers cheated of their just wage from the world’s dawn to today, he is the poorest and bloodiest. … [W]hite laborers who are fighting [the battle of Industrial Democracy] are not sure whether they want their black fellow-laborer as ally or slave…. Can they bring themselves inside the Union to regard him a man—a fellow-voter, a brother?  No—not yet.  And there lies the most stupendous labor problem of the twentieth century-- transcending the problem of Labor and Capital, of Democracy, of the Equality of Women—for it is the problem of the Equality of Humanity in the world as against white domination of black and brown and yellow.”

The Crisis, 1922: “Candidate Woodrow Wilson promised the Negro ‘Justice, and not mere grudging Justice.’ He was elected, and did as near nothing to help the Negro as he possibly could.  Some concessions came by sheer compulsion and war necessity but the net result was that the Democratic Party said: We do not want Negro votes. …[W]e are being compelled to …support some third party which represents character, decency and ideals.”

The Crisis, 1927: (On tenth anniversary of USSR) “[T]hose who believe in the industrial methods of America and Western Europe are spreading misinformation concerning the Russian experiment. The central thing that has happened in Russia is this:  the rotten, …brutal and silly tyranny of the Czar has been definitely and finally overthrown. … [W]hen in desperation Russia rose in 1905 to …establish modern democracy, Western Europe poured its treasure into the hands of the Czar to beat the Revolutionists back. Now, finally, …the Russian people have…tried to establish a new government that frankly faces the economic problem which the world fears to face, there is scarcely a newspaper in America that will give this experiment even decent hearing.”

The Crisis, 1931: “The challenge to [capitalism] is more and more tremendous because of the present depression.  If Socialism as a form of industry and government is on trial in Russia, capitalism as a form of industry and government is just as surely on trial throughout the world….”

“Basic American Negro Creed,” a statement “worked out with a number of the younger Negro scholars,” 1936, reprinted in Dusk of Dawn, 1940:

“Not by the development of upper classes anxious to exploit the workers, nor by the escape of individual genius into the white world, can we effect the salvation of our group in America. And [its salvation] carries with it the emancipation not only of the darker races of men who make the vast majority of mankind, but of all men of all races.

“We believe that, if carefully and intelligently planned, a co-operative Negro industrial system in America can be established in the midst of … the surrounding national industrial organization and in [accord with the] reconstruction of the economic basis of the nation which must sooner or later be accomplished.

“We believe in the ultimate triumph of some form of Socialism the world over; that is, common ownership and control of the means of production and equality of income.

“Whatever may have been true in other times and places, we believe that today in America we can abolish poverty by reason and the intelligent use of the ballot, and…by that dynamic discipline of soul and sacrifice of comfort which…must ever be the only real path to economic justice and world peace.

“We believe in the use of our vote for equalizing wealth through taxation, for vesting the ultimate power of the state in the hands of the workers; and as an integral part of the working class, we demand our proportionate share in administration and public expenditure… [To this racial program, goal, and vision] we welcome all men of all colors so long as their subscription to this basic creed is sincere and is proven by their deeds.”

The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois, written 1960, published posthumously 1968.  “I have studied socialism and communism long and carefully in lands where they are practiced and in conversation with their adherents, and with wide reading. … I believe in communism, I mean by [it] a planned way of life in the production of wealth and work designed for building a state whose object is the highest welfare of its people and not merely the profit of a part. I believe that all men should be employed according to their ability and that wealth and services should be distributed according to need….[P]rivate ownership of capital and free enterprise are leading the world to disaster. …Democratic government in the United States has almost ceased to function. A fourth of the adults are disfranchised, half of the legal voters do not go to the polls. We are ruled by those who control wealth and who by that power buy or coerce public opinion. ...I know well that the triumph of communism will be a slow and difficult task, involving mistakes of every sort. It will call for a progressive change in human nature… I believe this possible.”

– compiled by Lucy Duff

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