Du Bois’ “A World Search for Democracy:” The Democratic Roots of Socialism
In February 1937, W.E.B. Du Bois sent a letter to Alfred Harcourt, informing him of Du Bois’ recent return from a trip “around the world.” Out of this trip, he reports, he had begun to write a book reporting primarily on the effort in various nations “to carry on government in accordance with the popular will.” His central thesis: governments must bring under public direction the regulation and even conduct of industry, to ensure an equitable distribution of goods and services to all, which in turn helps make possible the active participation of all members of the society in government. The book, he hoped, would take popular form, being the fictional correspondence of two professors from a Southern African-American College who exchanged observations and thoughts about democracy in the U.S. and abroad. He calls this book “A Search for Democracy,” but the most complete extant version is entitled “A World Search for Democracy.”1
The manuscript remains unpublished, and we cannot be certain about why. David Levering Lewis points out, “[u]nusual for [Du Bois’] correspondence, the record is blank as to why Du Bois was not offered a contract by the publishing house when he returned to the United States with more than a third of the manuscript written;”2 however, the subject matter of the book would no doubt have made it a difficult project for Harcourt. The work has been the subject of little commentary, and is (correctly) designated as “unfinished” in the Du Bois Papers. In fact, in his collection of Du Bois’ correspondence, Herbert Aptheker avers that it was never written.3 Nevertheless, it is very nearly complete, and offers an unusually comprehensive picture of Du Bois’ thoughts on the importance of democracy, as well as contemporary evidence of his struggles to reconcile his support for those (nominally) Marxist revolutions in Russia and China with the evidence of repression that appeared in Western sources. If some of the ideas (and even some lengthy passages of the text) can be found elsewhere in published writings,4 the charm of the text and its extensive reflections on colonialism, inequality, and ethics make it a valuable piece of the Du Bois oeuvre.
Du Bois had some hope that the book would be accessible to a large readership. In a March 10, 1937 letter he writes to Eva Evans that his book on democracy is not “very beautiful but it is very plain.”5 To this reader, much of the book is quite beautiful; if by “plain” he meant simple and accessible in its approach to complex ideas, it is a mixed bag. It is at points funny, and fun; the characters are as well (if briefly) drawn as any in Du Boisian fiction. And while some of the chapters become dry disquisitions on national economies, the conceit of the novel mandates some didacticism. Writing a novel through the voices of two fictional characters gives Du Bois the chance to play a bit with ideas that would have been tricky to present in his usual writing forms. He had just left the NAACP, possibly finding it among other things anti-democratic, and so lacked access to The Crisis, his voice for the last twenty-four years. The novel (like all of his novels) was an experiment. Live with these ideas for a while, and see how they fit, Du Bois seems to be saying. The characters are bright, well-read, and willing to read and think a great deal more. They are, importantly, full of good will toward all humanity; significantly, they are also both rather lonely, but mostly enjoy their solitude. As I will discuss below, the reader cannot avoid reading them as stand-ins for the author, although each differs from Du Bois in significant ways.
It seems apt in this extended moment, in which various academic communities recognize Du Bois’ sesquicentennial, to shed light on a volume produced in what was surely Du Bois’ “mature” period (as of March 1937 he had turned sixty-nine)—not quite at the point at which so many scholars have judged he had made a turn toward ideological “correctness”— in order to further complicate the narrative of Du Bois’ turn to socialism. Writers including Nahum D. Chandler6 and others have helpfully tracked his socialist leanings to early texts in order to combat the view that Du Bois’ radical leftism was a mere reaction to his increasing disillusionment with the white supremacy of the United States; A World Search for Democracy makes quite clear that Du Bois’ aversion to capitalism was not only long-standing, but directly premised on his commitment to egalitarianism. While time permits me in this paper little more than a meditation on an unpublished and little-noted work, “A World Search for Democracy,” despite its unconcern with theoretical depth, casts welcome light on Du Bois’ political and scholarly commitments in this extended moment in which the human world grappled, as it continues to do, with fundamental questions regarding the possibility of democracy when the question of governance was all-too-often answered for the benefit of wealth.
Given the confluence of these themes and the historical moments of 1936 and 2018, I intend with this essay not only to alert readers to the value of this manuscript, but also to attend to the very questions that drove Du Bois to return repeatedly to this year of travel in various writings.7 Du Bois had just finished Black Reconstruction, in which he explicated at length the crucial role of African-Americans in U.S. democracy, interweaving the political question with the issues of labor and capital; in World Search he expands on this question and connects it, if only briefly, to questions of the diaspora as well as the concerns of people of color globally. In a few years, he would publish Dusk of Dawn, in which the notion of the global color line was addressed at length, although in a different register. This is all to say that A World Search for Democracy is deeply revealing of Du Bois’ concerns regarding democracy, race, and economics in the U.S. and abroad just at the moment in which global powers were taking steps toward a “new” world order. Du Bois’ hopes for the future world, as expressed in this 1936 text, were betrayed in multiple ways in the events that followed. In our current moment, we might benefit from returning to Du Bois’ treatment of his concerns regarding democracy and the crucial role of the distribution of wealth and income to ensure its success. As I explain below, whatever Du Bois’ diagnosis of the role of various governments on the world stage in 1936, his predictions regarding the future of democracy given the triumph of wealth and white supremacy are useful still.
Du Bois and Democracy
The book begins with professor Abraham Lincoln Jones in the classroom, attempting to respond to the distracting tactics of a less-than-diligent student who has asked “What is Democracy?” Jones, about to give the textbook answer—a paraphrase of Lincoln’s formulation: a government of, by, and for the people—realizes he is dissatisfied with it. Once the student asks whether democracy exists in any nation on earth, Jones finds himself in serious trouble, trying to answer honestly, for a change, and distracted by a strong desire to travel abroad to find out the answer. His honesty and distraction (he even allows that there might be democracy, which surely has bypassed Georgia, “in Russia”) make their way back to the college president, and Jones finds himself on leave for a year (at least), without pay. With the help of his friend, Jane Kent, he commits to a year’s travel across Europe and Asia, at least, to see whether he might find democracy.
The manuscript of “A World Search for Democracy” thus includes brief reports on Du Bois’ (or, rather, Jones’s) observations from Germany, Russia, Japan, and China, among other nations, as well as meditations on the nature and necessity of democracy. As a theorist, I haven’t the expertise necessary to provide useful commentary on the historical value of these reports; however, without doubt Du Bois offers extensive reflections on democracy as “logically inescapable” as well as impossible in the absence of economic equality. Previous engagements with Du Bois’ political theory have certainly recognized his commitment to democracy: Balfour’s resourceful work in identifying key texts exemplifying his belief in participatory decision-making, and Marable’s recovery of Du Bois as a radical Black democrat are exemplary in this area.8 More recently, Nick Bromell argues (correctly, I think) that Du Bois was among the first to articulate a key premise of what we now call critical race theory: that race is constitutive of the principles and practice of democracy in the U.S., and also points out a rhetorical move characteristic of Du Bois’ early writing which itself takes seriously the value of democratic exchange.9 Du Bois’ work for democracy, in theoretical as well as activist forms, should be viewed in light of his own very real struggles, as a sometime citizen of the very Jim Crow state of Georgia. Despite its guarantee in the U.S. Constitution, Du Bois, along with most of the best and most dedicated people he knew, would have been able to vote only as the result of Herculean labors.
It is tempting think of Du Bois as personally anti-democratic: he is often viewed as an elitist, hardly likely to throw his lot in with the masses. What role would the dapper scholar-turned-activist twice over play in the dictatorship of the proletariat? Why then didn’t he, as so many Americans did, fear that a “Communist takeover” in the U.S. would mean a loss of freedom and a life of drudgery? Consider this: White citizens of the U.S. lacked the perspective to understand how people of color, many of whom were poor and a majority of whom have never owned their own homes10, might receive the news that workers would be freed from their chains. The freedoms that many Americans feared losing were those that seemed foreclosed to people of color, even hard-working, well-credentialed ones like W.E.B. Du Bois.
As Robin D. G. Kelley relates in Hammer and Hoe, Southern Black Americans had been shut out of skilled labor and thus were happy to organize simultaneously for economic and political power.11 What would have been a perilous overthrow of the established order for many would have been a welcome reversal to those relegated by race, gender, and class oppression to the precise drudgery and lack of freedom feared by middle class white Americans. Thus, most white Americans during the Cold War saw Communism and Democracy as diametrically opposed, but there is in fact no theoretical conflict between the two, as Du Bois repeatedly shows. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” would, after all, be the perfect instantiation of full civic participation.
Scholars have long noted Du Bois’ engagement with the revolution in Russia and its connection to his own rejection of capitalism. For Du Bois, not only the ideal of resource distribution, but also the Soviet “refusal to be white,” in Communists’ explicit rejection of the color line, was primary to his belief that in Lenin’s Russia, and even later, was a promise of justice.12 By the time he wrote A World Search for Democracy, Du Bois was clear that socialism was a necessary but not sufficient condition for democracy. Capitalism, especially the white supremacist capitalism that emerged from Europe’s brutal colonial turn, impoverished large swathes of the body politic, and thus made democracy impossible. Those whose lives are spent on the verge of starvation and vulnerable to exploitation and compulsion by their potential employers cannot meaningfully participate in governance. His belief by the 1930s that small, Black-run cooperatives were the best hope for African-American economic independence has been well documented,13 and is in evidence in this text (especially in chapter 15).
Du Bois’ conviction that economic resources are required for healthy democratic participation is not new; however, it has historically been utilized toward a different conclusion. In fact, this particular disjunction between poverty and political participation has historically been used in order to disfranchise the poor, and those who were landless. As such, it is indubitably anti-democratic thinking. Du Bois, however, has turned this logic around: where material circumstances make political participation difficult or impossible, we must change people’s material circumstances, not merely remove them from the body politic. Thus, his primary concern by the mid-1930s was to make democracy’s triumph possible through greater equality of material resources.
Due to racist disfranchisement and the multifaceted influence of money on the electoral system, democracy in Du Bois’ view had a quite brief tenure in the United States: only during the Reconstruction Era had there been meaningful participation by white and Black Americans in government. Perhaps it was putting the finishing touches on his epic Black Reconstruction that inspired him to use his trip to Germany (originally funded by the Oberlaender Trust to study industrial education)14 to observe the workings of democracy in several nations from England eastward to Japan. Indeed, his increasing attention to world affairs offered the undeniable evidence of extreme inequality between nations:
We see the astounding anomaly of naked blacks of Africa, digging diamonds, by hundreds of thousands, to deck the bodies of the idle rich. We see little Chinese children working ten hours a day for the cost of a good cigar, in order that sheets may be cheap and clean for the bodies of England. We see Poles sweating and starving in order that English laborers may have a Sunday suit. This is the price of English oligarchy. Is it worth it? English labor says, Yes. African and Indian labor say, No.15
Jane sketches out the shape of the investigation early on; she has been reading up on economics and politics, and has concluded that “if you want to know a country, know the distribution of its income. Income isn’t all, and doesn’t explain all, but without exact knowledge of it, little else can be explained.”16 It is not surprising that one (even a fictional one) might look at the world in the mid-1930’s and conclude that economics is connected to politics and thus necessary to understand a nation. Thus Jane lays out the key questions:
What does Democracy mean today? Does it mean voting and who votes? Or does it mean Power to direct Government? If it means Power, then inseparable from that power must go control of Wealth and Income. If economic power rules the world, in whose hands does it rest? For where it rests is the real power.17
Du Bois’ egalitarianism is not often emphasized in writings about him. Yes, he wanted Harvard and he got it, eventually; yes, he chose to deck himself out in top hat, cane, and Van Dyke and kept up appearances his whole life long. Yes, he talked about the Talented Tenth. As Manning Marable pointed out, however, the point of the Talented Tenth was not meant to alienate themselves from the Black masses, (which had to some extent already happened by the turn of the 20th century), but to “win democracy for all black Americans… Du Bois sought to inspire the Negro middle class to transcend its parochial interests for the common good.”18 And, in A World Search for Democracy, he insists (or Jane Kent does) that “real democracy is based on the widest recognition of human equality.”19 In fact, the only reason to limit democracy, she points out, “would be the recognition of the inequality of men and of the undesirability of having all interests recognized as equal,”20 neither of which are acceptable.
Given this truth, democracy must be distinguished from the rule of the majority, which “has the tendency to restrict democracy and equality, thus reverting to oligarchy or despotism, and class status based on income and privilege.”21 In American Civics classes, students may be taught that this is the point of the U.S. Constitution: the most basic rights of the individuals must be enshrined so that simple majority rule cannot dislodge them. As Du Bois had good reason to know, even the Constitution can be overlooked and defeated in the interests of power. Where all groups have access to roughly equal resources, however, the majority is substantially less likely to be able effectively to marginalize a smaller group such that they cannot regroup and state their case more effectively.
Fact and Fiction
As commentators on Du Bois’ fiction are wont to do, I am tempted to see A.L. Jones as a stand-in for Du Bois; however, Du Bois, I think, does not encourage such a comparison. To begin, it seems certain that Jones would not have undertaken such a trip without the encouragement (and potential financial backing) of his colleague, Jane Kent. Jones is, despite study in Germany, not the metropolitan gentleman that Du Bois was; neither was he on top of current politics. David Levering Lewis’s depiction of Du Bois’ trip in 1936-37 certainly makes Jones seem naïve in comparison. In the novel, Jones travels about with few preconceived notions or existing contacts in politically rather precarious nations. In contrast, Du Bois’ own trip was preceded by arrangements with local officials: vis-à-vis Russia, Du Bois’ visit was facilitated by Karl Radek, who had been recommended to Du Bois by an American acquaintance living in Moscow. That Radek had a complex relationship with the Communist leadership is an understatement, and his show trial and imprisonment is the subject of a brief chapter in the novel (although much is left implicit).22 Regarding Japan, Du Bois had in the 1930s consulted with a Japanese government operative assigned to encourage the relationship of Black Americans with nationalist Japan. Hikida Yasuichi’s actual role was unknown to Du Bois, who believed him to be a foreign student.23 All this is to say that Du Bois’ own trip provided the impetus and substance but little of the character of the fictional journey of A.L. Jones and (eventually) Jane Kent.
It seems unlikely that Du Bois wished to be more like Jones – naïve, pleasant, unimpressive: “the kind of colored man white people call ‘George’ and mistake for a porter.”24 However, Jones’s life as an academic meant that he was preoccupied primarily with ideas: he was well-travelled and well-read. Unlike Du Bois, he had neither wife nor child and none of the corresponding “duties.” At the outset of the novel, Jones could be described as “in the world but not of it.” On the other hand, Jones’s naïveté got him fired from his job, just as Du Bois’ engagement with the political world would tend to do over his lifetime. With more time (and a publishing contract), Du Bois might have better reconciled Jones’s various characteristics, but he is certainly more than a conduit for political theory.
Jane Kent is more richly drawn; if she seems initially reserved, she in fact has a sense of humor and fears neither swearing nor breaches of etiquette, where needs must. Those with some knowledge of Du Bois’ private life, especially as portrayed in the Lewis biography, will be tempted as well to see the character of Jane Kent as the idealization of various women who were not Nina Gomer Du Bois. Du Bois contained multitudes; he worked for women’s rights and seemed to have great respect for women’s intellectual talents, but there is no question that his marriage to Nina was often strained, and his approach to parenting Yolande Du Bois often puzzling. It would surprise no one if Du Bois longed for the freedom to carry on an unconstrained partnership of the mind with a woman who was similarly unconstrained, and he created such partnerships in several of his novels.
A.L. Jones certainly treats Jane Kent as his equal, but is (unlike Jane) almost comically concerned with acting according to proper relations between “the sexes.” Perhaps most importantly, both are free to build a partnership together along the ethical lines they construct over the course of the book. At the end, they decide to give up their connections to academia, understanding that it will not allow them the freedom of thought or communication they see as necessary. With no clear path toward vocations that support equality and democracy worldwide, they plan to take menial work, meanwhile studying and teaching at the grassroots level. This pregnant moment, in which a heterosexual couple committed to social justice and “saving the world,” try to map out the right way to spend their days is played out in various of Du Bois’ published novels, including The Dark Princess and Worlds of Color. It is again difficult not to suspect Du Bois’ desire for a more “simple” life bleeding out from between such lines.
The World Search
If it seems odd that Du Bois would begin his world travel in 1936 in Nazi Germany, we must remember that Germany was where, as he wrote in his Autobiography, he “became more human.”25 He had believed strongly in German culture and civilization, and even if his visit in the 1920s had revealed widespread poverty,26 Du Bois had reason to feel, as so many did, that the culture of Beethoven would eventually prevail. He does suggest that the German desire for order, for certainty, may have smoothed the way for Hitler’s strong-arm tactics; his commentary on that process is chilling:
Germany today, from Rhine to Oder and from North Sea to Alps is a land of Law and Order. There is no loafing, little petty crime, the streets are safe for woman and children even late at night; in the alleys and sailor quarter of Hamburg, crime has almost disappeared and vagrancy reduced to a minimum; in fact to the visitor there is almost too much order: almost at times a whispered breathlessness, which is not reassuring. One remembers how ruthlessly, and with what defiance of conventional human freedom this has been accomplished by a military dictatorship, helped by secret police, spies and tale-bearing. However, the result was undoubtedly accomplished.27
Jones also reports that Hitler’s government is led by civil servants and engineers, backed by capitalists. The workers receive enough to keep them happy, but they are not empowered to political participation or even decision-making in the workplace; democracy has not survived in Germany. 28 Rather, Du Bois writes, the authority of government being used “for the benefit of the few and of the least worthy supporters of human culture.”29 Nevertheless, his observations (or rather, those of the fictional Jones, who also studied in Germany) are not as alarmed as we, in hindsight, think they should be.30 The difficulty of foreseeing political disaster, whether in one’s own country or another, is sobering, but if Du Bois maintained faith in the German culture and its leadership longer than he should have, he was certainly in impressive company. Further, Du Bois was quite rightly reluctant to criticize Nazi German in any context that would allow American readers, especially white ones, any sense of moral superiority; Du Bois’ experience as a “Negro” in the Jim Crow South would prevent him from finding the Nuremburg laws and the social and political ostracization of Jews in 1936 Germany very shocking, as chilling as it clearly was.31
Du Bois’ own plans to spend time observing democracy in Russia ran into difficulties that again did not alarm him as much as the reader in hindsight would like. Because Karl Radek had run afoul of the Soviet leadership, Du Bois’ perspective on 1936 Russia was limited to an approximate week aboard the Tran-Siberian railway. Nevertheless, the fictional Jones was able to report that, unlike Germany, Russia still had the makings of a fine democracy. In fact, he writes, “[I]f the underlying assumptions of democracy hold, Russia must succeed. Those who doubt Russia doubt democracy.”32 Like Du Bois, Jones believes that Russia, even after Lenin’s death, is attempting to put the working class in power. Of course, they have no class-consciousness, and thus must be educated—in order to think for themselves. If this appears to be overly credible on Jones’s part, similar critiques were made of all of Du Bois’ comments on Russia over the decades. It would profit us, I think, to step back not only from the historical facts as we now know them but also, for a moment, from the stance of evaluating whether or not Du Bois was sufficiently critical of Russian (as he insisted on calling them) leadership in 1936, and for a moment consider his claims in another light.
First, as to the insistence that supporters of democracy should support Russia, there is no doubt that, in the abstract, socialism and democracy are compatible.33 After all, socialism requires the participation of the many in making political decisions, including those regarding the production and distribution of goods and services. Much more than societies with capitalist economies, socialism allows the masses access to resources that not only support life but allow time in the day for political participation of various kinds. Add to this the concern that the worker under capitalism is vulnerable to retaliation for political activity disfavored by the employer, and the relationship between democracy and capitalism seems to look very tricky indeed. Most devastatingly, we should keep in mind that Du Bois and his fictional characters were likely de facto disfranchised by the state of Georgia even as he wrote this book.
Now, we may turn to Russia in 1936, and offer the observation that, whatever political repression was taking place there, we must compare it to the very real anti-democratic impact of economic and racial oppression in the United States. Du Bois, without access to obviously reliable news sources in either nation, but aware of the extreme anti-communist propaganda in the States, takes up the case of the struggling Socialist government. None of this is particularly unfamiliar to those who have followed the drama of Du Bois’ later career and his apparent bias in favor of the Soviet Union. What is perhaps more clear in this work than elsewhere is the democratic basis of this bias. Du Bois is well aware of the disaster for democracy represented not merely by capitalism but by the increasing intolerance of political dissent in the United States. His own experience with race-based oppression gave him a perspective on the bastion of freedom that many of his critics, I think, failed to credit sufficiently.
As well, A World Search for Democracy contains, I think, a rather clear criticism of Stalin’s conduct of the government following Lenin’s death. Following a chapter from Jones on the achievements of Russia in the not-quite-twenty years since the October Revolution, Jane Kent protests. She knew a man who knew Karl Radek, she writes, and Radek was a thinker and leader both rational and passionately supportive of the Soviet Government. She is “bitterly awakened and in reluctant doubt” at the news that Radek has been put on trial and in prison; she had thought Russia was muddling through finding a successor to Lenin, but then got news of the “wholesale murders and persecution of Russian thinkers,” certainly apparently inimical to democracy.34 She is willing to consider that harsh repression could be necessary, considering the opposition faced by the new Russian nation, but, she says, “the burden of proof rests upon Stalin.”35 The friends of Karl Radek will want an explanation. Ever fair, Jane goes on to admit that the United States is no paradise for those who dissent, or rebel; she only wants to make the case for dissent, for real rebellion in service of democracy.
To the question of the sufficiency of Du Bois’ condemnation of Stalin and all that followed, I have little to offer, not being a student of Soviet history, though I am certain that both nations have much to answer for and that neither has even begun to make sufficient amends to those unjustly wronged throughout the twentieth century alone. What seems to me missing from discussions about Du Bois’ naïveté vis-à-vis the Soviet Union is his real and ongoing struggle to find meaningful political as well as human options in a context that repeatedly punished the unorthodox.
Here, for example, is Jane Kent on democracy:
Real democracy… is based upon the widest recognition of human equality. It assumes that wisdom in government comes from the widest knowledge concerning the governed, a knowledge eventually so wide that it becomes in effect a pool of human experience to which all human beings contribute. Shut off one rill from this ocean of human life and it is incomplete. But when it is all there despite its waves and storms, the sheltered inlets and hidden rocks, it becomes for the guiding of men the voice of God.36
For all the poetry of this statement, it does not differ in substance from Jürgen Habermas’s late-twentieth century theory of Deliberative Democracy.37 The belief that a wide variety of perspectives is not only called for by justice but in fact beneficial to one’s project is now commonplace in the popular discourse concerning, for example, multiculturalism and diversity. If Du Bois himself was not widely known for encouraging others to differ with his own position, we might do well to remember that, for all of his relative success, he was still very much subject to the racist whims not only of his government but of the academic culture he had once so admired. Even the non-profit activist groups, including the NAACP, that he led or associated with often felt compelled to dissociate from Du Bois, given that they were scrambling to remain within the good graces of an increasingly repressive government and its rogue FBI.38
I will forego the opportunity to critique Du Bois’ stance vis-à-vis Stalin; comparing the terror of show trials and gulags in the Soviet Union to the racial terror and economic oppression of the U.S. is well outside my area of expertise.39 In any case, Du Bois certainly would have preferred to live in a nation in which these were not his options. To be clear, however, he did not believe that the U.S. in 1936 was a haven of freedom of speech. “A real arena of ideas hardly exists today in this land of direct costs and indirect penalties for the unpopular ideas.”40 Jane Kent, who takes on the project of studying democracy in the United States, points out that the radicals she had known as a student had, in various ways, paid for their ideals and had become embittered and poor. It is, she observes, not clear whether the quick and awful death of Soviet execution is worse than the slow starvation of unemployability in the U.S.
Beyond ideological repression, A World Search for Democracy also addresses the failure of U.S. democracy more directly: the vote, even when individuals are able to cast it, Du Bois reports through Kent, can be denied and distorted by the system of representation in Congress and the electoral college—a theme that might resonate with many readers today. Moreover, because committees do so much of the work of the nation, several factors beyond the votes of the majority affect the sorts of legislation that even makes it to the floor; a small minority can prevent major legislation from passing, and a minority of voters can even elect a president.41 The vagaries in the representational system, in which the West and particularly the South enjoy greater representation relative to population than do states in New England, make a strong case for abolishing the Electoral College.42
For Du Bois, these inconsistencies and machinations can be attributed to a distrust of popular democracy as much as to the desire for power in party politics. I would add that the current discourse regarding the demographics at work in the 2016 Presidential election also reveals such distrust, with various analyses of the sorts of voters responsible for Trump’s election competing with claims that voter fraud was responsible for Clinton receiving a majority of the popular vote.43 Du Bois identified a clear strain of skepticism about democracy as it plays out in American politics that seems only to have grown over time. In sum, however, the failure of democracy in the United States is, for Du Bois, unavoidable so long as economic inequality and white supremacy remain.
Average city-bred America believes in a society with low-paid mudsills. It wants equality among equals, and wants to decide who shall be equal. It wants democracy so long as democracy levels neither down nor up, but puts power where it ought to be, to rule over those who have no business with power.44
Democracy premised on inequality is no democracy at all, but it is, Du Bois seems to suggest, the only kind that the United States is willing to practice.
Nahum D. Chandler published and discussed two chapters from A World Search for Democracy in The New Centennial Review in 2012.45 In this special issue, Chandler organized several authors to consider
[i]n the wake of the centuries-long eventuality of European imperial and colonial subsumption of much of the globe from the fifteenth century to the early years of the twentieth, what role might Japan play in the ongoing possibility ( from one turn of the century to another) of a reorganization of local and indigenous forms of social practice on a world-wide scale, on the one hand, and global level systems of economy, governance, and moral conception, on the other, beyond what had been bequeathed to the planet under the different concatenations of Western-based hegemonies across the past half-millennium?
Chandler here alludes to Du Bois’ tendency to see Japan as the likeliest candidate to defeat white supremacist imperialism, both in its rapacious Hoovering up of resources and its enforcement of its ideological commitments worldwide. In addition to the two chapters published there, a third chapter, nominally focused on China, remained (in draft condition) among unidentified fragments. Here, democracy is less on display within the nations of China and Japan, but for Jones (as for Du Bois), of tremendous concern is the defeat of European imperialism in Asia—for those unlucky enough to be native to such colonies, of course, are as deprived of democratic participation as anyone on Earth. Unfortunately, what Du Bois saw as the best alternative to European imperialism in Asia was Japanese imperialism.46
Of course, in 1936 and 1937, when Du Bois was traveling and then writing this manuscript, he lacked access to accounts of Japanese atrocities in China, and his analysis must be read in this light. Nevertheless, even as an alternative to European imperialism in China, Japanese imperialism could be seen as preferable only because of Du Bois’ overwhelming concern with white supremacy. If Japan was operating under its own assumption of racial supremacy, we can perhaps forgive Du Bois for failing to recognize such at the time.
A.L. Jones, with the openness and curiosity likely unavailable to Du Bois himself, presses his Chinese hosts to explain why they are not more welcoming of Japan’s efforts to claim territory in China and defend it from European encroachment. Three focal points become clear. First, the Chinese gentlemen insist, China by the mid-1930s was beginning to see daylight in its struggles against European imperialism, and thus did not appreciate Japan entering the field and once again threatening its territorial sovereignty. As Du Bois enjoys pointing out, as well, China’s civilization is thousands of years old, while Japan is a relative upstart; how should the Chinese people reconcile themselves to being invaded by their metaphorical child? And finally, the gentlemen argue against the Du Boisian sense that China should welcome invasion by a fellow Asian nation, that such actions imitate Western techniques. Japan should not reproduce the sort of exploitation for which Europe is famous, but rather seek out a partnership with China.
Unfortunately, perhaps, rather than take these quite legitimate objections at face value, Du Bois (through A.L. Jones) suggests that they owe more to European propaganda than to a fair evaluation of Japan’s actions. In hindsight, whatever the role of such propaganda,47 it is fair to say that Japan’s deeds were more than sufficient to evoke Chinese resentment, as well as horror. Du Bois clearly faced a conundrum regarding Japan’s imperial advances, given his general theory of a global color line. On the other hand, he correctly points out the white world’s hypocrisy in objecting to Japan’s moves. “Why, [Japan] logically asks, is Europe, gorged with the loot of centuries, become suddenly so solicitous over the rights of backward peoples?”48
What is perhaps most fascinating in this discussion (and not reproduced elsewhere, so far as I know) is A. L. Jones’s return to the theme of ethics in the socialist state. China, he argues, holds up age old virtues that, if learned by the West, might make socialism less likely to degenerate into corrupt bureaucracy. He argues that the West has missed the importance of goodness, truth, and honor. Of course, one is tempted to point out that Europe also had its philosophy of the good will in Immanuel Kant, but Du Bois is no doubt correct that the ethics of “goodness” affected Chinese culture in a more thoroughgoing way than Kantian ethics served the West, or even Kant himself.49
Conclusion: Not by Revolution or Violence
Du Bois had argued in Crisis pieces published in 1919 and 1921 that while he supported socialism and communism in the United States, he did not think that they could succeed if imposed suddenly and by violence.50 People need training, he argued, in order to understand how such systems would not only benefit them but would benefit the populace as a whole, and why this would be good for them. The social culture of the United States has not typically encouraged individuals to celebrate the good fortune of others. Neither has it been a welcoming culture to those uninterested in maximizing their income and share of “luxuries” which, naturally, would be one of the first “victims” of a changeover from capitalism to socialism. A similar but more complex concern shows up in A World Search for Democracy. Jane points out that as the socialist state invites increased participation, “ruthless men of ability, greedy for power” may step forward and attempt to take over the leadership, which she compares to the Thermidor stage of the French Revolution. If and only if, Jane argues, we manage to train and promote leaders who “are willing to have other men their equals,”51 and value equality and good will, can a socialist state survive. And the only way to find such leaders, A.L. Jones puts in, is to be such leaders.
In the final chapter, Jane argues that poverty must be ended; if it was once due to scarcity, “today it is due to monopoly founded on capitalistic exploitation.”52 We must break this “stranglehold,” she says, not by violence but by the ancient virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice—as well as the modern faith, hope, and love. By no means is Du Bois here arguing that the Revolution is a matter of self-transformation alone; the transformation of a society to a communist democracy will require, the ending implies, writing, teaching, and organizing the masses. But without the installation of individual virtues, the characters agree, the revolution is bound to fail, as greed and self-aggrandizement will tend to infect the facilitators of the society.
Because Du Bois was so prolific and long-lived, many of his ideas here found themselves into other works. Nevertheless, Du Bois was able in this not-quite-dialogical format to explore and integrate connected thoughts about systems of government and economics in ways that revealed his critiques not only of capitalism, but of events in Fascist Germany and Communist (Socialist, really) Russia. There are real weaknesses in the manuscript, which assuredly would have been subject to at least one more of Du Bois’ famous last-minute revisions before publication.53 A chapter that more or less covers the Southern Hemisphere, minus Africa, repeats the mistake Du Bois once made about the African continent and should have learned not to repeat: to let his ignorance of ancient and even contemporary civilizations and cultures indicate that they did not exist. Nevertheless, in principle, he understood that real democracy was as necessary to humanity as good science:
[white liberals and philanthropists] continued to regard the ‘heathen’ as a human liability for whom they were sorry. They could not dream the mass of humanity as a source of power, ability, genius, and infinite source of enlightening experience. The vast possibility of a pool of human knowledge as wide as the living world never arrested their attention.54
We still lack the insight to encourage the full sharing of this vast pool of human knowledge; A World Search for Democracy is an excellent vehicle with which to contemplate such a project. It should offer evidence, for those who need it, that Du Bois’ turn toward socialism was neither a late-life quirk nor a reactionary move. Rather, he strongly and quite reasonably believed that socialism offered more potential for democratic government than the white supremacist capitalism of the U.S. and Europe in 1936. Du Bois’ commitment to inclusive and equitable democracy should provide inspiration to readers in 2018 to continue to work toward his vision in a time no more hopeless or repressive than his.
1Many thanks to Dr. Whitney Battle-Baptiste and others at the Du Bois Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst for granting the Du Bois Fellowship which made possible my “summer among the archives”; as well, I thank all of the 2018-19 Fellows for their support and good humor in those intense weeks of residency. Gratitude especially to Phillip Luke Sinitiere for being such a reliable discussant for our adventures, and to him, Edward Carson, and Gerald Horne for making this special issue of Socialism and Democracy possible. As always, thanks to Vance Ricks for his unflagging support and good humor.
W. E. B. Du Bois (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963. A World Search for Democracy, ca. 1937. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries. The most complete version of the manuscript, apparently meant for the publisher, has handwritten numbers I will use in identifying quotations. Fragmentary sections of the manuscript—most likely earlier drafts—found elsewhere among Du Bois’ papers will be identified by their box number for easier reference.
2 David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: The Fight for Equality and the American Century, 1919-1963 (NY: Henry Holt, 2000), 389.
3 Herbert Aptheker, ed., The Correspondence of W.E.B. Du Bois, Volume II, Selections, 1934-1944 (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1976), 137.
4 Including Black Folk Then and Now (NY: Kraus Thomson, 1939) and the Autobiography (NY: International Publishers, 1968).
5 W. E. B. Du Bois (William Edward Burghardt), 1868-1963. Letter from W. E. B. Du Bois to Eva Knox Evans, March 10, 1937. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.
6 Nahum Dimitri Chandler, “Introduction” to Du Bois, The Problem of the Color Line at the Turn of the Twentieth Century: The Essential Early Essays (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015). Indeed, Chandler notes here that the greater part of Du Bois’ agenda is already present in essays published before the appearance of The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. See also Bill V. Mullen, Un-American: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015). Mullen’s account of Du Bois’ political and intellectual trajectory is particularly well-constructed.
7 In addition to the texts noted above, dispatches from Du Bois’ time abroad were published in a series of columns in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1936; insights and questions from this trip appear as well in The World and Africa (1947) and the unpublished Russia and America: An Interpretation (1950), on which see Bill V. Mullen, Un-American, 85-95.
8 Manning Marable, W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat (New York: Routledge, 2004).
9 Nick Bromell, A Political Companion to W.E.B. Du Bois (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2018); see also Charles Mills, “W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Liberal”, ibid, 19.
10 Census data shows at homeownership is at a 30-year low, down from a high near 50% in 2004. [http://www.nareb.com/african-american-homeownership-falls-50-year-low/] (accessed 13 August 2018.)
11 Robin D. G. Kelley, Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990).
12 See Kate Baldwin, Beyond the Iron Curtain and the Color Line: Reading Encounters between Black and Red, 1922-1963 (Durham: Duke University Press, 2002), 149 and passim. See also Bill V. Mullen’s W.E.B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line (London: Pluto Press, 2016). Mullen writes that Du Bois had returned from his earlier trip to the Soviet Union, in 1928, with “new ideas about alternatives to capitalism”, 73.
13 Jessica Gordon Nembhard, Collective Courage: A History of African American Cooperative Economic Thought and Practice (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), 76-77 and passim.
14 Grant for travel awarded in June 1935; Lewis, The Fight for Equality, 388.
15 MS 15.
16 MS 6.
17 MS 7.
18 Marable, W.E.B. Du Bois: Black Radical Democrat, 51.
19 MS 17.
20 MS 16.
21 MS 16-17.
22 As mentioned below, Du Bois’ 1936 trip to Russia was abridged due to Radek’s falling out of favor with the authorities of the USSR, and Du Bois’ resultant failure to apply in advance for a visa. Lewis, The Fight for Equality, 405-406.
23 Lewis, The Fight for Equality, 390-91.
24 MS 3.
25 W. E. B. Du Bois, Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century (New York: International Publishers: 1968), 160.
26 Levering Lewis, The Fight for Equality, 199-200.
27 MS fragment (box 226).
28 MS fragment (box 225).
29 MS 19.
30 In a fragment not included in the final manuscript, Jane Kent wants Jones to “give Hitler a kiss; I hear he hates kisses!”
31 That Hitler and his accomplices were guided by elements of U.S. eugenics programs and segregation laws has long been known; more recent scholarly works explore the extent to which the Third Reich’s “Final Solution” was inspired by the U.S. history of genocide and white supremacy. See Stefan Kuhl, The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Ira Katznelson, “What America Taught the Nazis”, Atlantic Monthly Vol. 320 No. 4 (Nov 2017) 42-44, discussing the recent book by James Q. Whitman, Hitler’s American Model (Princeton: Princeton University Press: 2017. See also Bradley W. Hart, Hitler’s American Friends (NY: Thomas Dunn/St. Martin’s, 2018).
32 MS fragment (box 225).
33 In this paper I am using “socialism” to encompass any socio-political system in which, as Du Bois suggests, government is fully participatory and includes decisions about production and distribution of goods and services. Both socialism and communism have their technical definitions; “Communism” is also used generally to refer to regimes in the USSR and China, as well as different parts of Southeast Asia, from midcentury to the present; because of its broad usage, “C/communism” is too vague to be useful here, although in the manuscript at hand Du Bois uses it primarily as a form of government to be contrasted with Fascism.
34 At the time Du Bois wrote A World Search for Democracy, Radek had been an author of the 1936 Constitution, but was soon denounced as a traitor and confessed during a show trial. He was apparently in a labor camp until his death in 1939, most likely carried out by an agent of the NKVD. Warren Lerner, Karl Radek: The Last Internationalist (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1970). Radek was cleared of treason charges and rehabilitated by the Soviet Supreme Court, along with Kamenev and Zinoviev, in 1988. Moreover, they were declared to have been “honest revolutionaries.” [https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.guilford.edu/docview/292862899] (accessed 27 August 2018). Online.
35 MS fragment (box 225).
36 MS 17.
37 See, e.g., Jürgen Habermas, Between Facts and Norms (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1996).
38 See Carol Anderson, Eyes Off the Prize: The United Nations and the African American Struggle for Human Rights (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
39 Of course, a 1937 manuscript cannot be much faulted for failing to contain a nuanced discussion of Stalin. For a discussion of Du Bois’ relationship to Stalinism, see Bill V. Mullen, Un-American, 9-12.
40 MS 69.
41 MS 70.
42 Du Bois offers a similar but updated discussion of these issues in Chapter 4 of Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (1945).
43 On Trump voters, see, e.g., Bowman, K. “Who Were Trump’s Voters? Now We Know” [https://www.forbes.com/sites/bowmanmarsico/2017/06/23/who-were-donald-tr... (accessed August 28, 2018)], online; Carnes and Lupu, “It’s Time to Bust the Myth: Trump Voters Were Not Working Class”, [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2017/06/05/its-time-t... (accessed August 28, 2018)], online. On Clinton voter fraud, see, e.g., “Clinton Could Have Received 800,000 Votes from Non-Citizens” [https://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/jan/26/hillary-clinton-receive... accessed August 28, 2018)], Online; Parks, “Fact Check: Trump Repeats Voter Fraud Claim about California,” [https://www.npr.org/2018/04/05/599868312/fact-check-trump-repeats-voter-fraud-claim-about-california (accessed August 28, 2018)], online.
44 MS 56.
45 The New Centennial Review, Vol. 12, No. 1.
46 Du Bois was evidently not the only one. See Gerald Horne, Facing the Rising Sun: African Americans, Japan, and the Rise of Afro-Asian Solidarity (New York: New York University Press, 2018).
47 Du Bois discussed the concept of propaganda more than once, including in “Science or Propaganda,” Phylon, Vol. 5, No. 1 (1944); here, he notes that attempts by subordinated groups to bring to light empirical data in support of those groups is likely to be called “propaganda,” but that such claims are not applied when members of dominant groups study those same dominant groups. My thanks to Phillip Luke Sinitiere for making this connection.
48 MS 91. This is, of course, a fair question, but several writers have noted that Du Bois was himself overly credulous about Japan’s claims regarding motivation. See, e.g., Yuichiro Onishi, Transpacific Antiracism: Afro-Asian Solidarity in 20th-Century Black America, Japan, and Okinawa (New York: New York University Press, 2014), 79. “Du Bois’ … articulation of the unity of darker nations and people, repeated throughout his sojourn across the Japanese empire, could not dislodge itself from imperialist Japan’s racial propaganda. Ultimately, Du Bois was unable to emphasize the impossibility of guaranteeing a just social order through such a theoretical abstraction.”
49 Emmanuel Eze and Charles Mills have made clear Kant’s own racism. See Eze, Race and the Enlightenment: A Reader (New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 1997); Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).
50 Lewis, The Fight for Equality, 4; Du Bois, “Opinion”, The Crisis (June 1919), “The Class Struggle”, The Crisis (June 1921).
51 MS 125.
52 MS 122.
53 In a letter to his editor, Du Bois asks forgiveness for the large number of changes to the proof pages for Black Reconstruction. “My method of writing is a method of ‘after-thoughts.’ I mean that after all the details of commas, periods, spelling and commas, there comes the final to me the most important work of polishing and resetting and even re-stating. This is the crowning achievement of my creative process.” Herbert Aptheker, The Literary Legacy of W.E.B. Du Bois (White Plains: Kraus International Publishers, 1989), 224; see also David Levering Lewis, The Fight for Equality, 364.
54 MS 25.