In 1906 W.E.B. Du Bois published an article in the French language Revue International Economique entitled “L’Ouvrier Nègre en Amerique.” (now available in English as “The Negro Worker in America”). As with much of Du Bois’s work, “The Negro Worker” is rich with historical detail, original empirical data, and nuanced insight. Reading it in full reveals a sociological mind that most in the discipline today would covet.
Its core argument is this: After emancipation and the failure of Reconstruction, Black workers were thrown into the open labor market without any of the legal protections that White labor enjoyed. In addition, limitations on enslaved Black workers’ ability to acquire skills and education in the antebellum period meant that they were poorly positioned to move into new, more technologically sophisticated and lucrative fields of employment that emerged from the Civil War and the industrial boom that followed it. These structural disadvantages, coupled with existing race prejudice, forced Black workers to work for lower wages because it was the only means that they could secure employment. White fears of Black competition were heightened and they used the fact that Black workers were selling their labor for less than prevailing rates to exclude them from the growing trade union movement. This, in turn, denied Black workers access to apprenticeships and training which only reinforced their disadvantaged position and fed into White prejudice. In short, Du Bois shows how White working-class racism—what he called “race prejudice”–was fueled by Whites’ fear of Black competition and sustained by Black labor’s structural disadvantage in the labor market.
In a recent essay I argue that this text, along with two others that he published around the same time, show that Du Bois had a theory of racialized capitalism that anticipated the arguments that he would develop some thirty years later in his seminal Black Reconstruction in America. As Jeff Goodwin has convincingly shown in a recent article, that book lies squarely within the Marxist tradition. As Goodwin notes, scholars of Du Bois have been hesitant to place him within the Marxist camp because they want to insist that Du Bois had a theory of race that was independent from a theory of capitalism. Giving “The Negro Worker in America” its rightful place as landmark work in Du Bois’s scholarly oeuvre makes that position untenable. Where I think Goodwin is mistaken is his argument that Du Bois only made class and capitalism central to his theory of race and racism after he embraced Marxism later in his life. “The Negro Worker” also shows that this periodization of the early, scientific Du Bois who focused on the problem of the color line and the later, radical Du Bois focused on class and capitalism is also untenable. Does this mean that Du Bois was a Marxist all along?
In my view, the answer is “no.” Insisting on the centrality of class relations and capitalist dynamics in an account of racial oppression only makes one a Marxist in the context of the current shape of left politics and academic theorizing. If we want to understand Du Bois’s scholarship in relation to the landscape of the political questions that he was grappling with and the struggles that he was involved in, then we need to restore Marxism to its appropriate historical context. This is something that Goodwin does very well in his analysis of Black Reconstructions’ Marxism. He connects Du Bois’s shifting political stance to broader changes in the U.S. and world socialist movement and to Du Bois’s own evolving sphere of political and intellectual interlocutors.
But at the turn of the twentieth century Marxism held a very different position within the U.S. radical left. Marxist ideas were known and were influential, having been brought to the U.S. by German exiles from the Revolution of 1848 who joined the abolition movement and solidified by the relocation of the headquarters of the International Workingman’s Association (the “First International”) from London to New York in 1872. But Marxism was not the dominant tendency in the radical left at the turn of the twentieth century. It reached its peak influence in the 1890s under Daniel De Leon’s leadership of the Socialist Labor Party (an outgrowth of the International Workingmen’s Association), but it never really expanded beyond its core of German-American immigrants.
Marxism was not the only radical left tendency that articulated a critique of capitalist exploitation, and the dynamics of concentration, centralization and crisis. Analyses that we now take as hallmarks of Marxist theory were common to the other, more influential tendencies in the radical left. They were at the core of the utopian Owenite, Fourierist and Bellamyist communities cropping up across the country, were the foundation of the Knights of Labor’s call to replace capitalism with an integrated system of producer and consumer cooperatives, informed agrarian populist critiques of finance capital and their demand for cheap silver, and defined the platform of Debs’ Socialist Party of America to which many former SLP Marxists had gravitated. There were, of course, important differences of theory and doctrine that distinguished these tendencies from each other (and divided them from within), but what really distinguished them from turn of the century Marxism was strategy and tactics. Utopian “colonizers” and cooperativists tried to build the post-capitalist world from within. Reformers like the SPA tried to take incremental steps on the path to socialism by engaging in the political system. To be a Marxist meant to be an advocate for the revolutionary seizure of state power by the industrial proletariat.
There is nothing to suggest in Du Bois’s early writings or in the biographies of his life that, at this stage, he saw the Marxist strategy as a viable or even desirable one. This is surprising given the Marxist groups and parties’ relatively minor place in the wider radical left at this time, but it is also worth noting that the Marxist political strategy was premised on the expansion of labor’s political rights. Not only had Black labor been denied these rights after the Compromise of 1877 but Du Bois certainly would have been skeptical of the possibility of a labor movement divided across the color line having the necessary revolutionary impact.
That’s not to say that he did not believe that a united, integrated labor movement was a necessary condition for the full liberation of Black labor, even as he understood that the possibility of such a movement was circumscribed by a set of class, racial, and geographical factors. In “The Negro Worker in America” Du Bois lauds the efforts of the Knights of Labor to build a nationwide, unified, integrated labor movement and he recognizes that, in his first years leading the American Federation of Labor, Samuel Gompers urged his locals to bring Black labor into the labor movement. But he also saw how White leaders of these national organizations (and here he would include Debs’s leadership of the Socialist Party) were ultimately unwilling or unable to press their members to overcome their race prejudice. And so, while Du Bois remained hopeful that Black and White labor would come together in solidarity, he knew that White labor was not just refusing to advocate for black political and economic equality, but was actively working against it. “It is curious to see that in Europe,” Du Bois writes in the conclusion of “The Negro Worker in America,” “Trade-Unions were created in the interest of democracy and of lifting up the masses, while in democratic America they repress and reduce the man of color to servitude.”
At this point the appropriate question is why does it matter if Du Bois was a Marxist, or Fabian, or Radical Democrat, or socialist sympathizer or any of the other political movements that scholars have tried to place him within? I think a large part of Du Bois’s draw, a large part of the reason why his life and scholarship have finally been given the widespread attention that they deserve, is the example he provides of how to connect rigorous, systematic, social scientific inquiry to the shifting politics of race and class at each historical juncture that he found himself in. A prevailing theme that has found its way in much the scholarship on Du Bois is that his life can be separated into an early (pre-NAACP) scientific phase and a later political phase. I think that this characterization is wrong. Not that his scholarship and political commitments were fixed, but that his scholarship was always informed by his engagement with politics and his politics was always informed by his sharp, sociological mind.
Aaron Major is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University at Albany—SUNY.
This article is based on Aaron Major, “Race, Labor and Postbellum Capitalism in Du Bois’s ‘The Negro Worker in America’.” Critical Sociology, published online November 4, 2022, https://doi.org/10.1177/08969205221135
Image: Delegate Frank J. Ferrell introducing Grand Master Workman Terence V. Powderly at the 1886 Knights of Labor convention in Richmond, Virginia.