W.E.B. Du Bois: “Socialism and the Negro Problem” Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Nearly fifty years after the conclusion of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, most African Americans were still living in oppression and poverty, and many black leaders were looking for answers. Racial segregation mandated by Jim Crow laws, sharecropping arrangements, and violence on the part of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan combined to keep many black Americans economically and socially repressed. One suggested panacea for the problems facing African Americans was socialism, an ideology and economic model that places a high value on equality for the working class. One of the most prominent early advocates of African American equality was W. E. B. Du Bois, a cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his essay “Socialism and the Negro Problem,” Du Bois addresses socialism as an ideology that had considerable support in the United States at the time and outlines how it cannot be truly successful in achieving its goals unless American socialists are willing to confront the unique challenges facing African Americans, which largely stemmed from racial discrimination.

Summary Overview

Nearly fifty years after the conclusion of the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, most African Americans were still living in oppression and poverty, and many black leaders were looking for answers. Racial segregation mandated by Jim Crow laws, sharecropping arrangements, and violence on the part of white supremacist organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan combined to keep many black Americans economically and socially repressed. One suggested panacea for the problems facing African Americans was socialism, an ideology and economic model that places a high value on equality for the working class. One of the most prominent early advocates of African American equality was W. E. B. Du Bois, a cofounder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In his essay “Socialism and the Negro Problem,” Du Bois addresses socialism as an ideology that had considerable support in the United States at the time and outlines how it cannot be truly successful in achieving its goals unless American socialists are willing to confront the unique challenges facing African Americans, which largely stemmed from racial discrimination.

Defining Moment

The decades following the American Civil War were extremely difficult for most African Americans, especially in the South. Beginning with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and extending through the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the three Reconstruction Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments), many African Americans had high hopes of a more just society coming out of the social and political tumult that followed the abolition of slavery. However, for the vast majority, life did not change as they had hoped. Even before the Reconstruction era came to an official end in 1877 with the withdrawal of the last federal troops from the South, white Southerners had reasserted their political, economic, and social dominance over black Americans, rolling back many of the economic, educational, and political advancements achieved by black Americans in the wake of the Civil War. Further, many white Southerners joined organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to enforce a hierarchical, white supremacist social order. Black Southerners, working under sharecrop agreements that kept them indebted to white landowners, had very few alternatives but to continue to farm cotton, just as their enslaved forebears had.

Radicalism in the United States has a long history, but possibly at no other point in time were working-class Americans more willing to experiment with new ideologies than during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, largely due to the monumental economic changes brought on by the Industrial Revolution. However, the majority of prominent socialist thinkers considered the plight of white working-class individuals to be separate from the problems facing African Americans. For one thing, most of the industrial unrest and socialist political organization was taking place in the Northern states, while most of the African American oppression was happening in the South, making it easier for white socialists to ignore the problems facing African Americans. Furthermore, many working-class whites in the North were reluctant to advocate for racial equality due to decades of rhetoric, which told them that if African Americans were to achieve equality, they would only be competition for the factory jobs on which white workers depended. Worse yet, African Americans could be (and often were) brought in by factory owners as scab labor in the event of a strike, further undermining the incentive for white and black workers to ally with one another in the fight for the socialist ideal of economic equality.

In the thirteen years prior to the publication of Du Bois’s essay, three large race riots had rocked the nation: in New Orleans in 1900, Atlanta in 1906, and even one in the Northern city of Springfield, Illinois, in 1908. During the Atlanta riot, the threat that African Americans posed as economic competition to white workers–in a city where one of the first nascent black middle classes had taken shape–drove many white Atlantans to violent retaliation. At about the same time, the Socialist Party of America, formed in 1901, became a significant force in US politics. By 1912, the Socialist Party boasted nearly 120,000 members and the party’s presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs, received about 6 percent of the vote in the presidential election of 1912. It was at the nexus of these two historical arcs–between the movements for economic equality and racial equality–that Du Bois wrote “Socialism and the Negro Problem.”

Author Biography

Born on February 23, 1868 in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, W. E. B. Du Bois grew up to be a scholar and a civil rights leader. In 1895, Du Bois became the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard University. He published numerous books, including Black Reconstruction in America (1935), which is still in print and widely studied. In 1905, Du Bois was among the founders of the Niagara Movement, a civil rights group made up of scholars dedicated to ensuring equality between the races in the United States. Four years later, Du Bois helped to found the NAACP and served as the editor of the group’s monthly periodical, The Crisis. He was a member of the Socialist Party from 1910 until 1912, and although he harshly criticized the racism of many prominent socialist thinkers of the time, his belief in socialism’s model for a just society never wavered. Late in his life, in 1961, he joined the Communist Party and left the United States for Ghana, where he passed away two years later, on August 27, 1963.

Document Analysis

In this essay, aimed squarely at American socialists, W. E. B. Du Bois bluntly points out the utter hypocrisy inherent in a movement that, although based on the ideal of economic equality for all, had done, up to that point, almost nothing to address or even acknowledge the inherent inequality under which African Americans lived. Written at a point when the Socialist Party’s influence in American society had never been greater, Du Bois points out that the main tenet of socialism “is that there shall be no excluded or exploited classes in the Socialistic state; that there shall be no man or woman so poor, ignorant or black as not to count one.” He paints the choice facing socialists in stark terms: to live up to their rhetoric and a fight for the economic equality of all Americans, including African Americans, or to seek greater acceptance among white voters and betray their ideals.

In his argument, Du Bois contrasts what he characterizes as the ninety million white Americans, for whom the socialists had shown great concern, with the ten million African Americans, who were mostly members of the working class, yet whom American socialists had largely ignored. Du Bois accuses socialists of having shown no concern for these ten million workers, going so far as to accuse white, working-class socialists of working for improved economic opportunities for themselves while ignoring the plight of the black minority. He lampoons their justification that once equality is gained for the white majority, white Americans would then voluntarily share society’s abundance with the black minority. Du Bois responds to this by contending that this is not the way that social movements have operated in the history of the world and that the truest test of a social reform movement is how it treats those who have been historically excluded from society’s bounty. He criticizes the “fatalistic attitude” held by many white socialists that “assumes the whole battle of Socialism is coming by a kind of evolution in which active individual effort on their part is hardly necessary.”

Finally, Du Bois asserts that, in the long run, socialists are undermining their goal of achieving economic equality by excluding African Americans from their efforts. The ongoing tension between the intertwined issues of race and class left socialists in the American South in a peculiar quandary. They could choose the more expedient path of achieving economic equality for white workers by appealing to Southern whites and excluding African Americans from their political and social agenda, or they could choose the more difficult strategy but the one more likely to succeed: addressing African Americans as equals from the start.

Essential Themes

The challenge that Du Bois posed to American socialists presented them with a difficult choice; but in the short term, it ended up being a choice they did not have to make. The year 1912 proved to be the high point for the American socialist movement, with Debs’s presidential run. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the Socialist Party split over whether to support US involvement in the war. The patriotic fervor generated by the war effort led to an increase in nationalism among white and black Americans that made radical ideologies less appealing. Following the violent Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, American socialists were seen as a significant threat to national security and became targets of the First Red Scare of 1919 and 1920. Labor unions, where socialism once appeared earlier as a plausible means of attaining economic justice for workers, were singled out by both government officials and factory owners for scrutiny and harassment. Because of this and the generally booming economy of the 1920s, socialism and many other radical ideologies lost a large portion of their supporters and ultimately faded into the background of American politics.

Despite the declining influence of the Socialist Party of America in the years immediately following the publication of “Socialism and the Negro Problem,” Du Bois’s essay touches on a larger theme of the tension between race and class that continues to be explored by modern scholars. Later socialist thinkers, including the civil rights leader Malcolm X, have argued that there is in inextricable link between capitalism and racism, in which racism is used to divide and control the working class. This line of thought posits that racism prevents workers of various races from recognizing their commonality of interest and joining together in the fight for improved economic opportunities for the poor and the working class, thereby benefiting the interests of the ruling class.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Bell, Daniel. Marxian Socialism in the United States. Rev. ed. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995. Print.
  • Hays, Samuel P. The Response to Industrialism: 1885–1914. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1995. Print.
  • McPherson, James M. The Abolitionist Legacy: From Reconstruction to the NAACP. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1975. Print.
  • Synnestvedt, Sig. The White Response to Black Emancipation. New York: Macmillan, 1972. Print.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow. New York: Oxford UP, 1955. Print.
Categories: History Content