From Philanthropic Black Capitalism to Socialism: Cooperativism in Du Bois’ Economic Thought
W.E.B. Du Bois recognized that the advocacy of economic cooperation for black Americans was one of the most important projects of his life. His research, conditioned by his concern for social advancement, led him to pursue the proposition that economic self-sufficiency through cooperation is an important avenue for economic and social progress for blacks, as well as for all Americans.
In developing a notion of cooperativism, Du Bois hypothesized that black Americans faced a unifying dilemma of race prejudice that, when considered pragmatically, could be used to stimulate unique strategies and tactics toward self betterment. He suggested that these would be an outgrowth of historical circumstances faced by a population of negro descent that socially reproduced within the United States.1 He discerned cooperativism in earlier cooperative action - historical precedents in the lives of African descendants - of free people, the enslaved and then freed, albeit with certain shackles. Broad social cooperation could be directed into economic cooperation and could place black Americans at the forefront of new forms of industry guided by a vision of industrial and spiritual emancipation. Du Bois asserted further that this black population was better situated for such alternatives than any other population in America.
W.E.B. Du Bois did not always think this way. His early writings and actions responded to a race prejudice and the associated color line that he famously described as the problem of the 20th century. In these early years he did not place paramount importance on economic cooperation from within. Instead, he advocated empirical research and political action to tear down the walls of segregation.
Du Bois felt that the racial divide would disappear through political activism, on both sides of the color line. He supported this belief with scientific evidence that proved the irrationality and unsubstantiated nature of various doctrines of white superiority. Eventually, he became disenchanted with this reformist tactic, recognizing its impotence without an economic dimension. As such, he added to his agenda the researching and advocacy of cooperation. This added perspective would be used in formulating an understanding of the group condition and an economic policy, one first idealized as a broad-based philanthropic, black capitalism. As his understanding of class analysis grew, he came to recognize the weakness of these strategies. Pragmatically, he moved on to advocate black consumer cooperation and the Cooperative Commonwealth, following up with an understanding of socialism that included cooperativism.
Du Bois’ understanding of economic cooperation matured over the years and changed to fit the times. In the second half of the 20th century, he was discouraged by the sharp militaristic shift to the right in his own country while mesmerized by the social revolutions erupting across the planet. In this cauldron he shifted from consumer cooperation toward worker empowerment through socialist state intervention, a position that corresponded to his advocacy of the Pan Africanism that he first considered decades earlier. What remained constant in his expanding intellectual and global perspective was the notion of cooperativism rooted in societal norms of this negro group. Du Bois built upon this, reserving a portion of his tenacious intellectual and activist appetite to include an identification of societal cooperation and linking it to a policy of economic self-betterment and emancipation through cooperative economics.
From Empiricism to Economic Cooperation
W.E.B. Du Bois, the consummate social scientist, spent a lifetime corroborating his many thoughts about race and society with empirical evidence that revealed the social condition of black Americans in a segregated society. He began his pursuits with an immense idealism. He believed that if he could show the irrationalities of racial concepts, then political activists on both sides of the color line could use the information as a tool to eradicate segregation and racial prejudice. His early research, while a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1896-1897, reflected this motivation. His work challenged the major misconception that the poverty that besieged black American communities of the time resulted from the alleged racial inferiority of its inhabitants.
The Philadelphia Negro (1899) was the major outcome of this research and proved to be a pioneering sociological study of urban life. In this publication, Du Bois gathered evidence supporting his thesis that the sources of impoverishment in the Philadelphia slums were social, economic, and political. His conclusion was that the slum conditions--including crime and high death rates--were symptoms of the deficiencies of society not the biological inferiority of the inhabitants. This countered the view of many of his funders, who believed that the city was going to the dogs because of the Negro.2
Du Bois assumed that empirical evidence such as that compiled in The Philadelphia Negro, would justify the dissolution of racist views that blamed the victim for their condition. By the time of his first autobiography, Dusk of Dawn, in 1940, Du Bois reflected on these early years and confessed a flaw in his thought: his assumption that the structures of American society were sound and that the critical concern for blacks was one of admittance, once the irrationality of race prejudice was revealed and accepted. Du Bois came to acknowledge that such a concern came from an acute awareness of the need for social change and the assumption that his skills could best be used to bring the colored peoples of the world into democracy as understood in America. In his own words, the problem was: "how, into the inevitable and logical democracy which was spreading over the world, could black folk in America and particularly in the South be openly and effectively admitted; and the colored people of the world allowed their own self-government?" (Dusk of Dawn 29). Du Bois eventually came to recognize these views as being “blithely European and imperialist in outlook" (32).
Du Bois’ sociological studies while at the University of Pennsylvania had a profound impact on his way of thinking, and arguably played a major role in his research agenda while a professor of economics at Atlanta University, from 1897 through 1910.3 In Atlanta, Du Bois continued to develop an agenda of empirical research including formulating theoretical and empirical evidence supporting the need for black economic development as part of a broad policy of black enrichment. Notably, he came to see economic cooperation as a necessity and diametrically opposed to the economic individualism of the broader society.
He formulated this view with the recognition that, in the aftermath of the Civil War, post-slavery black Americans were at a crossroads: either economic cooperation or individualism would be the basis for economic reconstruction. Together with others, he laid out the consequences of the choice as early as 1907, in the resolution of the Atlanta University conference for that year. In Economic Co-operation Among Negro Americans, they asserted:
The conference regards the economic development of the Negro Americans at present as in a critical state. The crisis arises not so much because of idleness or even lack of skill as by reason of the fact that they unwittingly stand hesitating at the cross roads-one way leading to the old trodden ways of grasping fierce individualistic competition,...the other way leading to co-operation in capital and labor, the massing of small savings, the wide distribution of capital and a more general equality of wealth and comfort. This latter path of co-operative effort has already been entered by many.... Indeed from the fact that there is among Negroes, as yet, little of that great inequality of wealth distribution which marks modern life, nearly all their economic effort tends toward true economic co-operation. But danger lurks here. The race does not recognize the parting of the ways, they tend to think and are being taught to think that any method which leads to individual riches is the way of salvation (4).
Du Bois was adamant that cooperation already being practiced among blacks needed to be expounded upon. After the Atlanta years, he extended his influence beyond academia and as a founding member of the NAACP, and the editor of The Crisis magazine he continued his research with growing interests in polemics and propaganda.4 At his core he held with steadfast belief that an economic component would be significant if not central to any social progress of the race.
In Dusk of Dawn, he cataloged his post-WWI efforts toward social betterment into three broad categories which included the encouragement of art and literature, Pan-Africanism, and economic rehabilitation. Du Bois reflected that the last held the greatest promise. He stated:
My third effort after the war [WWI] was toward the economic stabilization and rehabilitation of the Negro, and was, as I see it now, more fundamental and prophetic than any of these three lines of endeavor. It started with an effort to establish consumer co-operation among Negroes....My trip to Europe, the disasters of the year 1919, my concentration of interest in Pan Africa and the depression left this, perhaps the most promising of my projected movements, without further encouragement. The whole movement needed more careful preliminary spade work... It must and will be revived. (Dusk of Dawn, 280-81)
In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Du Bois continued to contend that if blacks were to have economic security then the group as a whole must be active participants in their own industrial development. He asserted that if they did not, and waited to get their share of industry, racism would inhibit their contribution while keeping them in an unstable situation:
my growing conviction has been since the depression that the fundamental problem facing American Negroes is securing a place in American industrial life. I am certain that if they simply wait to get their share in any change of plan and reorganization of economic life in America the so-called race problem will show itself by making their entrance into this economy late and uncertain... For that reason I want Negroes to begin intelligent planning for themselves, not of course, for a separate economy but for the propose of seeing how far their own efforts can help them toward economic security. (Demarco 139n15)
This call for black participation in economic development continued until his death in 1963. It was part of a lifelong passion to respond to unequal wealth distribution and inequality based on race. His solutions ranged from early reformist ideas in black emancipation to a black radical internationalism and revolutionary solutions to inequity inspired by the study of Marx, socialism and Pan Africanism.5 Throughout, Du Bois consistently called for black emancipation, not as narrow black nationalism, but rather as part of a broad intellectual pursuit that included a policy of cooperation and democracy and its anticipated contribution to economic security.6 Du Bois forged a view formed over decades that cooperation would be a critical component of a multi-faceted approach to bringing down the walls of segregation and increasing economic opportunity for black Americans.
Group Identity and Social Conditions for Economic Cooperation
Throughout his lifetime, Du Bois maintained a core interpretation of the United States as a society divided by race manifesting in a double environment of an internal black group surrounded by a white world. Empirically he demonstrated that segregation was a real phenomenon denying access to the American mainstream. He continued to claim that segregation and race prejudice had to be fought on all fronts but he discovered while spending years showing the irrationality of ideas of inferiority and superiority based on racial bias such perceptions did not significantly change. With this as a backdrop, Du Bois came to recognize that the condition of the black American was not just a function of race prejudice or solely a matter of ignorance and an unwillingness to be just. In response, his concerns shifted from entrance into American society toward social change with blacks making their own unique contribution. Du Bois had come to recognize that without significant access to social integration, blacks would have to find their own ways toward economic security.
Du Bois theorized that social conditions in America created an artificial group bound by a common blackness. This group maintained its existence through the commonality of African cultural roots, slavery, racial oppression, and poverty bolstered by an inability to integrate into the broader society. He asserted that this racial isolation transcended all other social differences, including those between the more cultured and those of the so-called lower classes.7 Appreciating this, he developed a model of group identity and suggested that within it historical and social precedents for economic cooperation could be found. Joseph Demarco’s The Social Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois brings to the forefront the importance of group identity and unity in Du Bois' theory on racial cooperation by directing readers’ attention to Du Bois’ autobiography, Dusk of Dawn:
One of the primary tasks of Dusk of Dawn was the formulation of a concept of race capable of uniting people with diverse cultural backgrounds. This attempt formed a key link in Du Bois' program of economic cooperation: the economy he proposed was to be, by and large, segregated and organized by a clear rational plan for self-improvement. The sort of plan Du Bois envisioned required the unity of all blacks, even though cultural groups within the larger group were often at large. Thus a uniting force was required; the force of persuasion Du Bois appealed to was race. He concluded that even though the establishment of united effort in economic cooperation would be difficult, there was a chance of success (150-51).
Du Bois asserted the importance of race as a unifying concern for black Americans and hypothesized that the corresponding social isolation established through segregation allowed for an internal group unity different than what was offered by the broader society. This was a significant contention because on the other side of the veil, in white America, Du Bois saw a competitive individualism reflecting a social Darwinism that was different than the norms of communal Africa, the population root of the American Negro. For Du Bois, what distinguished black America were the traits of African origin that survived through slavery, and were reinforced within the group through a segregation that also isolated blacks from the social Darwinism of broader society.
Du Bois maintained that identifying and acting upon these communal norms could be effective on the economic level. Through his observations of positive social responses of black Americans to the crimes of segregation and poverty, he theorized that these actions could be hypothesized as being linked to a communal African heritage.8 Du Bois states in his autobiography:
In the African communal group, ties of family and blood, of mother and child, of group relationship, made the group leadership strong, even if not always toward the highest culture. In the case of the more artificial group among American Negroes, there are sources of strength in common memories of suffering in the past; in present threats of degradation and extinction; in common ambitions and ideals; in emulation and the determination to prove ability and desert. Here in subtle but real ways the communalism of the African clan can be transferred to the Negro group. (Dusk of Dawn 219)
Du Bois saw strength in African communal relationships. He saw also strength in the new artificial group the Negro. He hypothesized that these together were apparent in this black internal group and needed to be called out.
This attempt to link cooperative and communal responses to social conditions was not an idle intellectual exercise. According to Du Bois, years of economic deprivation through slavery, sharecropping, and wage peonage reinforced a common condition through racial exploitation. Again in his autobiography:
Above all the Negro is poor: poor by heritage from two hundred forty-four years of chattel slavery, by emancipation without land or capital and by seventy-five years of additional wage exploitation and wage peonage... The Negro worker has been especially hard hit by the current depression. (Dusk of Dawn 181)
For the masses within the black community poverty was everyday life. Blacks recognized that race played a major role in this and that segregation afforded them no opportunity for escape. Du Bois saw it as a tragedy that threatened the very existence of the black American. Yet, he discerned a ray of hope:
We have an instinct of race and a bond of color, in place of a protective tariff for our infant industry. We have, as police power, social ostracism without; and behind, us, if we will survive, is Must, not May. ("Pan-Africa and New Racial Philosophy" 93)
Du Bois anguished that within these dire conditions the key to survival must be found. In looking, he observed black Americans respond to injurious conditions using a group spirit manifesting in acts of social cooperation on the individual and institutional levels. He worked to convince the black community that this spirit so evident in individual generosity, the churches, beneficial societies, and schools, could become the foundation for targeted self-sufficiency in economics. He used empirical evidence to mold and cultivate this notion of cooperation as an economic resource and asserted that if taken advantage of cooperation in economics could become a critical component in alleviating adverse social conditions evident in segregated society.9
From Philanthropic Black Capitalism to Socialism
Over time, Du Bois' thought went through many changes but race always remained a primary concern. In the first years of the 20th century he announced to the world in The Souls of Black Folk that the problem facing humanity was the color line. After several decades of inquiry, Du Bois, in the preface of the Jubilee edition of his classic, acknowledged the lack of depth of considering the color line by itself:
I still think today as yesterday that the color line is a great problem of this century. But today I see more clearly than yesterday that back of the problem of race and color, lies a greater problem which both obscures and implements it: and that is the fact that so many civilized persons are willing to live in comfort even if the price of this is poverty, ignorance and disease of the majority of their fellowmen. (The Souls of Black Folk Preface Jubilee Edition)
By this time, Du Bois had moved far from the view that racial oppression could be cured with social protest supported with rational, empirical scientific investigation. He also moved beyond the idea of an internal group organization based solely on race. He continued to recognize race but through a growing Marxian influence and associated understanding of class he notably increased his emphasis on social discrepancies conditioned through wealth accumulation and its unequal distribution.
Cooperativism had many renditions. For many years Du Bois considered that self-sufficiency based on service to an internal group would be enough to build an economy. He built this hypothesis on the observation that segregation denied the descendants of slaves significant access to mainstream institutions of capital and labor. This critical lack rendered economic integration nonviable.
What internal cooperation actually meant to Du Bois changed over time but what remained consistent was the idea of a unique cooperative internal group dynamic capable of being an economic resource. In the early years of his advocacy of economic cooperation, Du Bois was also familiar with radicalism and socialism, yet he rejected these. In The Souls of Black Folk (1903) his vision of the future was clear when he spoke of Negro education and the Black contribution to civilization:
[The Negro college] must develop men. Above our modern socialism, and out of the worship of the mass, must persist and evolve that higher individualism which centers of culture protect; there must come a loftier respect for the sovereign human soul that seeks to know itself and the world about it; that seeks a freedom for expansion and self-development; that will love and hate and labor in its own way, untrammeled alike by old and new… Herein the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience, the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view and making their loving, living, and doing precious to all human hearts. (The Souls of Black Folk 87)
In these first years of the 20th century, he saw contemporary socialism as a “worship of the masses” that would stifle the role of lofty individualism and self-realization, and make obscure the contribution of the black man. As an alternative, he posited a talented tenth as the salvation of the black community.10 He felt that because of race pride and group loyalty, business interests and the talented tenth would help create a large class of well-to-do citizens through philanthropy and other support and as a consequence would better the condition of all within the internal black group. Economic cooperation here was understood as several people organized to produce goods for the black community or hire black workers. Capitalist firms--both corporate and partnerships--were considered cooperative organizations designed to make profits for blacks and to serve the black community. The success of these would come in spite of race prejudice and the limited access to capital and gainful employment beyond the confines of segregated society.
In this view Du Bois saw black businessmen incorporating into their search for profits an ethic of philanthropy and a commitment to serve the black community. He argued that wealth must have social ends and if blacks were to have access to private ownership of property then they must also have a sense of public conscience.
Du Bois pressed for this method of cooperation in the face of those who were advocating the amassing of capital through traditional means of individualistic competition and at the expense of the general wellbeing. He argued that economic cooperation was already part of the fabric of the internal black group and that there was a danger in giving this up for individual riches and salvation. In later years, while still advocating the unique condition and potential of black America, the importance of economic class structure loomed more prominent in Du Bois’ economic thought.
Du Bois continued to posit unity based on a racial pride, but he found that without an opportunity to enter the mainstream and live the American dream, a new class structure within the black community was developing not with a growing cultural solidarity, but with a growing divisiveness. Many of the well-to-do, those with greater educational, cultural, and financial advantages tended to resent having to stay within a segregated group. They wanted an American dream for themselves even if behind the wall of segregation. In this, Du Bois maintained that the distinctions were minimal compared to white America in that a substantial capitalist class was not created. A consequence was that the internal black group did not parallel the extreme class divisions of broader society even though a black middle class did amplify cultural differences among blacks. For Du Bois, this was destructive particularly as a small black capitalist class, behind the veil, was not necessarily inclined to give back based on race solidarity. He realized his mistake in assuming that common social conditions based on race would subsume class and other divisions and that the growth of a middle-income group would eliminate poverty among the black poor. Such miscalculation weighed heavily on his thought as he moved away from the notion of a talented tenth and philanthropic black capitalism as the key to black salvation.
In his "Apologia" in the 1954 reprint of The Suppression of the African Slave Trade, he apologized for the omission of the concept of class interest and struggle as basic in understanding the process of history (Aptheker 10). Despite this admission, in the first decades of the 20th century, Du Bois was not completely oblivious to class; he was struggling with the apparently contentious policies of creating a well-to-do middle-income class and working-class solidarity proposed by the Socialist Party. Significantly, Du Bois saw the socialist version as having no room for the unique contribution of the black American and as stifling of individual contributions. Still, a year after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, some of his lectures did consider its merits as a tool to battle racism (Aptheker 69). In 1907 he published the article The Negro and Socialism. In his 1911 novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece, he made reference to class and race, and the need for unity of all workers (392-398). In the same year, Du Bois joined the Socialist Party. He did not remain long because of political expediency and because of white socialists’ insensitivity to the uniqueness of the black condition.11
Du Bois experimented with socialist concepts throughout his life. As mentioned, in his early years he dismissed them as stifling individuality and distracting from black American contributions. However, he also declared that the individualistic and profit-motivated capitalism evident in the broader society would also play little role in bettering the black condition. His alternative became one of a broad distribution of capital and land allowing for the creation of a well-to-do class that would help uplift the masses. Du Bois maintained this view as he developed his interest in socialism. He was clear that racism and segregation was more deeply rooted and perverse than just mere irrational ideas and beliefs to be destroyed with the power of truth. He was also clear that the dominant ideology of individualism enticed the black elite away from its cooperative roots and he also kept his distance from the socialist and communist advocacy of mass labor movements at the expensive of the minority. He was formulating his own vision of race, class and cooperation.
Regarding unions, Du Bois was an advocate of political action and was aware of the importance of unionized labor. However, he felt that political action was futile without deep economic change. As a stimulant, he proposed that blacks join the ranks of organized labor. However, he cautioned about the difficulties that stood in the way of blacks entering unions. In many ways he felt that the cleavage between white and black workers was more pronounced than between capitalist and worker. Du Bois did not dismiss the potential of black workers in unions and labor associations because the vast majority of black Americans were workers. But he also recognized that these predominantly white organizations were not equipped to handle the peculiar facet of race in American life. He often wrote in The Crisis in support of industrial unionism through organizations such as the Knights of Labor and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) including an important caveat that the role of race in labor relations not be overlooked.
More broadly, while considering the merits of socialism, Du Bois remained consistent in his thought that the arrangement of industries and services within the so-called Negro group tended to be a closed economic circle, one largely independent of the surrounding white world. He continued to argue that such conditions set a precedent for black economic cooperation different than socialism, and mainstream capitalism. He posited that many businesses already catered to an almost exclusively black trade and that group loyalty, an absence of extreme economic-class differentiation, and the closed doors for unity between black and white workers, all made economic cooperation a possibility, even a necessity.12
Du Bois still maintained that racism continued to be a barrier to black and white unity and that there was a need for economic cooperation organized around a race consciousness. Yet, increasingly aware of uneven wealth accumulation and its impact on the black community, and with an enhanced understanding of capitalism and segregation, Du Bois offered a view of cooperation much different than the charitable black corporation and stressed the potential of creating revolutionary change different than philanthropic capitalism or workers rising up against the capitalists. He introduced consumer cooperation and the Cooperative Commonwealth as an alternative.
Consumer Cooperation and the Coopertive Commonwealth
In his search for a solution to the plight of the black American Du Bois was notably influenced by consumer cooperative theory as espoused by James Warbasse, the founder of the Cooperative League.13 Historical circumstance and theoretical development led him to see the weakness of philanthropic black capitalism even though he was not yet ready to embrace socialist worker solidarity. Impressed with Warbasse's theory and method of cooperation, and unwilling or unable to grasp its internal contradictions, Du Bois linked the consumer cooperative with his understandings of race.14
Du Bois first mentioned Warbasse’s concept in The Crisis in 1917. In 1919 he gave Warbasse space for an article. Enticed by his writings, Du Bois became sympathetic towards consumer cooperation and its advocacy of service as an alternative to the individualistic pursuit of profit. Du Bois was impressed yet he felt that if the analysis was to be effective, important unique historical experiences within the United States must be considered. He molded consumer cooperative theory to his own understanding of race and segregation. He continued to assert that a black internal group was developing within U.S. society with its own norms. What was new was his acknowledgment that race alone was not a strong enough bond to maintain solidarity between a growing black middle-income class and the black poor. As such, Du Bois moved from advocating philanthropic black capitalism and postulated instead a business sector completely formulated based on service – consumer cooperation. The significance of appending consumer cooperation to his theoretical framework was that cooperation in the face of racial oppression and segregation could now find a new outlet through the unifying black cooperative group. With a new interpretation, Du Bois came to view blacks as being, by and large, consumers without consistent access to productive capital. The commonality of having to confront segregation and racism and being consumers became the critical links in a path toward economic self-sufficiency. He used the combined concepts to advance the idea that consumer cooperation was an appropriate model of democratic and participatory economics that could lead to black emancipation.
Du Bois recognized that a dilemma advanced by his earlier economic agenda was the perpetuation of a mass/class distinction that did not benefit the so-called lower group. Further, he came to understand that the creation of a black middle-income group would not necessarily better the condition of all. Pushing this new narrative, Du Bois stressed that the conditions for the cooperative enterprise already existed in the black community, the result of a common identification from an extensive history of oppressive racism.
Du Bois saw consumer cooperation as having a mass appeal that could respond to this commonality and provide an opportunity for enterprise development with a democratic foundation and an organizational soundness that could be effective in retail markets. Drawing from Warbasse’s model, Du Bois hypothesized that consumer cooperatives could be started in black communities through retail businesses. He argued that with the right leadership these cooperatives could be established in cities with black populations of 10,000 or more. Further:
As the number of local consumer societies increased, and thus their total sales, the point would come when these could unite to form a wholesale society and eliminate some dependence on white economic power. (Demarco)
This notion of consumer societies expanding into wholesaling was also a derivative of the ideas espoused by Warbasse.15 The significant difference between Du Bois and Warbasse was the former’s recognition of the role of race and segregation. Du Bois felt that it would be difficult for black consumers to integrate into white consumer societies because white members were susceptible to the same racial practices and prejudices as the rest of America. Du Bois recognized that an important step towards black self-sufficiency would be the purchase of certain necessary goods from white wholesalers. However, black consumers would eventually have to network among themselves and reduce their dependency on the white business community because of anticipated racist business practices. Building on the notion of using segregation to destroy segregation Du Bois maintained that selling stock to black consumer members would raise the capital necessary to sustain the cooperatives. These members would be shareholders receiving a fixed dividend derived from their purchases. Each shareholder would have only one vote.
Du Bois saw the advancement of consumer cooperatives as a means to an end – the expansion of the democratic power of the consumer into production. According to Demarco's reading of Du Bois:
Once local consumer cooperatives had joined together into wholesale societies and the essential leadership had been established, then the cooperative could expand from the consumption sector to the production sector. (Demarco, pp 137)
Du Bois asserted that the labor essential for maintaining the productive sector would come from black workers who had already acquired specialized skills working for others. Accordingly, the only thing necessary would be "a simple transfer of Negro workers, with only such additional skills as can easily be learned in a few months ..." (Dusk of Dawn) Through networking these workers would learn both the productive and distributive skills necessary for the cooperative society.
Towards governance, Du Bois like Warbasse was conscious of the problems of centralization and pushed for a leadership sensitive to the democratic control of the black consumer. This leadership would use education to teach the principles and methods of cooperation creating a condition where the masses could use their votes knowingly.16
Du Bois’ vision of consumer cooperation culminated in the concept of a Cooperative Commonwealth among the Negro group. This Commonwealth would not only advance the interests of black Americans but Americans as a whole:
The Negro group in the United States can establish, for a large proportion of its members, a co-operative commonwealth, finding its authority in the consensus of the group and its intelligent choice of inner leadership. It can see to it that not only no action of this inner group is opposed to the real interest of the nation, but that it works for and in conjunction with the best interests of the nation....Its great advantage will be that it is no longer as now attempting to march face forward into walls of prejudice. If the wall moves, we can move with it; and if it does not move it cannot, save in extreme cases, hinder us. (Dusk of Dawn 216)
Du Bois’ vision of economic cooperation was grand. He saw locally controlled cooperatives eliminating unemployment and providing "modest yet sufficient salaries." He saw a cooperation that once established in the economic base could be expanded to include schools, colleges, hospital systems, and professional services including a supportive banking and insurance industry (Dusk of Dawn 213-14). Importantly, he felt avoiding a head-on confrontation with segregation could bring about this dream. This was not because he did rejected agitation but because he felt that without economic power, agitation was not enough to destroy the race barrier. As he continued to advocate non-violence he argued that black consumer cooperation could be that special chance for a democratic response among a people who have been the worst victims of violence (Dusk of Dawn 218).
Du Bois' first concrete proposal for the implementation of cooperatives came in 1918 – in an attempt to apply consumer cooperation as advocated in a series of editorials in The Crisis. Du Bois, with twelve other black men, from seven different states, established the Negro Co-operative Guild. Initially many of the projects of the Guild were successful as several co-operative stores were established.17 The most ambitious was the Citizens Co-operative Stores in Memphis Tennessee, where five stores were opened. These eventually failed, as the cooperative vision could not be sustained, and the manager converted the entity into a stock company. Another success was instituted by the Colored State School at Bluefield, West Virginia. A cooperative store was opened for the purpose of teaching basic theories in cooperation. The state of West Virginia eventually closed the experiment down.
Du Bois was not necessarily discouraged by these failures as he continued to advocate organizing around internal group cooperativism and the common condition of being a consumer. He continued to envision black consumer cooperation leading to black industrial control that could work its way through general society. Despite the failures, Du Bois continued to look toward economic self-sufficiency as a partial response to the plight of the black American. He argued that cooperative theory was a path that needed more "preliminary spade work" (Dusk of Dawn 281). Du Bois’ support for cooperatives reached its height during the Great Depression when he visualized the imminent collapse of the capitalist system and continued well into the 1940s.18 After that, Du Bois spent the last years of his life charmed with the new model of government intervention based on the socialist planning methods of major socialist states.19 By 1958 he saw socialism as the only means for the emancipation for blacks: “American Negroes must study socialism, its rise in Europe and Asia, and its peculiar suitability for the emancipation of Africa. They must realize that no system of reform offers the American Negro such real emancipation as socialism” ("The Negro and Socialism" 179-91).
Even though Du Bois moved towards a conceptual and even personal alliance with socialism and orthodox communism, it is assumed here that these actions were just final moves in a pragmatic life filled with the searching for tools to better the condition of people of African descent. Towards this end Du Bois attached himself to the social revolutions of the day.20 But he never gave up on cooperation and consumer cooperation in particular. In a 1960 lecture Du Bois, 90 years old, linked cooperativism to his brand of socialism stating:
To me the obvious approach to socialism seemed consumer cooperation. I tried to plan an organization among Negroes as consumers which would furnish employment help savings and bring unity of action…without the power of government it would fail and with the power of government it was socialism.21
Throughout his lifetime, Du Bois’ advocacies took many twists and turns, and to a certain extent led to growing isolation as the country moved right and he moved left. But if his 1960 lecture is treated as a “capstone” of his thought then we assert that he never gave up linking a broad social cooperativism and its potential to be harnessed as a means toward industrial and spiritual emancipation and economic self-sufficiency for black America. If supported by government, it would be socialism; if not, it would fail.22
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---. Dusk of Dawn. Kraus-Thomson, 1975.
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---. Efforts for Social Betterment Among Negro Americans. Atlanta University Press, 1909.
---. "Letter of Resignation as Editor." The Crisis. August, 1934, XLI, p. 245.
---. [ed.] The Negro American Artisan. Atlanta University Press, 1912.
---. "A Negro Nation Within A Nation." Current History, xlii, 1935.
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1See Hogan for a pioneering political economy of this black population that advances Du Bois’ theorization. See also Haynes and Gordon Nembhard for an extended contemporary perspective of this internal group as a sub-altern population.
2 Many of Du Bois' contemporaries developed theories to prove the biological inferiority of the African American; see Aptheker 29, 35
3 In 1897, Atlanta University became the academic home for Du Bois with his participation with the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory. Here he formulated an ambitious 100-year research agenda designed in 10-year increments. According to Aldon Morris, the data and analysis that came out under Du Bois’ leadership systematically challenged the prevailing views of the biological inferiority of black people and provided practical policy. Racism and white supremacy marginalized this research. An example of which according to Earl Wright was the lack of mainstream recognition of the Atlanta Laboratory as a predecessor of the Chicago School and therefore the first school of collective sociological research based on scientific inquiry.
4 In 1910, Du Bois resigned from the Atlanta Sociological Laboratory and then founded and became editor and a major writer for The Crisis, a monthly magazine of the NAACP.
5 Mullen alludes to this change in his W. E. B. Du Bois: Revolutionary Across the Color Line (2016) and Un-American: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Century of World Revolution (2015).
6 Throughout his lifetime Du Bois advocated economic cooperation, revival of art and literature, political action, education, and organization. (Demarco pp. 145)
7Du Bois often interpreted those with more and better education as more cultured and of a better class. This thinking added to an inconsistency in his class analysis.
8In one of his early Atlanta University studies, Economic Co-operation among Negro Americans, (1907) Du Bois posited that even though much of it was not democratic, there was extensive economic cooperation in Africa. This communal root was eventually minimized as Africans went through an extensive re-enculturation first in the West Indies then in the Americas.
9 In the early years of his work with the NAACP and The Crisis magazine, Du Bois found the notion of the talented tenth and political agitation appealing. With a growing recognition of labor exploitation and the need for an economic agenda, he developed a new take on Booker T. Washington and Marcus Garvey. Regarding Washington, he came to see their differences as insignificant “compared to what they did not comprehend and that neither understood the nature of capitalistic exploitation of labor...” and observing Washington’s donor support, Du Bois recognized the issue as power more than ideology (Robinson 193). Further, though critical of Garvey the man, he was sensitive to the UNIA agenda without its bombastic wrappings. Du Bois regarded the notion of a separate black economy as “not so easily dismissed.” In 1934 these ideas came to a head with his dispute with Walter White the executive secretary of the NAACP. This was personal but also included Du Bois’ “advocacy of a Black co-operative commonwealth that the leadership of the NAACP opposed.” Du Bois was being accused of back sliding into a black nationalism. Robinson says this was “clearly not the case in that Du Bois was consciously basing his plan on the presumption of the “collapse of capitalism.” Du Bois resigned from The Crisis and the NAACP Board (Robinson 381 n63).
10 Du Bois popularized the term talented tenth in a 1903 essay. The concept was considered to be a response to Booker T. Washington and the Atlanta Compromise emphasizing industrial and vocational education over college. Du Bois claimed the need for an intellectual leadership class from among the most able 10% of black Americans that would, because of race pride help uplift the masses.
11Du Bois felt that blacks should vote as a block for Woodrow Wilson. He resigned from the Socialist Party because he did not want to be hampered by organizational loyalty, among other things. (Aptheker 69)
12 According to Gordon Nembhard however, “In some ways, the history of African American cooperative developments is more about the African American promotion of cooperatives and efforts toward cooperative economic education than about the creation and success of cooperative businesses” (111).
13 Warbasse founded the Cooperative League either in 1916 (Sekerak and Danforth) or 1919 (Knapp). The League became the standard bearer of "true Rochdale cooperation."
14 Consumer Cooperative theory was built on the actions, in 1844, of 24 jobless weavers in Rochdale, England, who formed the Society of Equitable Pioneers, later known as the Rochdale pioneers. According to Adams and Hansen, this group set the guidelines embodied in eight key principles to be used by future cooperatives:
1. There would be democratic control, every member would have one vote.
2. A person could join or quit or rejoin the cooperative without prejudice.
3. The Society would pay limited interest on capital.
4. Any profits, or surplus, would be distributed among members according to the value of their purchases over a year.
5. All sales would be for cash.
6. The products sold were to be pure and measured in full.
7. Funds would be set aside from any surplus for membership education.
8. Any person, regardless of religious faith or political belief could belong, but the cooperative would remain politically neutral (13-14).
15 In Co-operative Democracy, first edition, 1923, Warbasse discusses expansion from consumption into wholesaling.
16Gordon Nembhard (2014) acknowledges the role of study groups in many cooperative formations. She recognized these groups were not able to generate the economies of scale as for example the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation in the Basque lands of Spain, with 80,000 worker owners in 2018. The Basque who founded and perpetuated the growth of the Mondragon cooperatives used representative democracy, research and development, investment banking and systematic formal education in the Mondragon brand of cooperativism to build their successful business model. (Haynes and Gordon Nembhard)
17Marable stated that at the time of the formation of the Negro Cooperative Guild DuBois was at the height of his own career. With significant national and international influence through the growth of the NAACP, and his editorship of The Crisis, Du Bois “of his own admission” did not put enough effort into it.
18 Du Bois’s last public call for consumer cooperation came in The Crisis in July, 1946.
19 Speaking on the Negro problem in a 1954 lecture, Du Bois alluded to the fundamental changes spreading across the whole world. These included calls for popular education and universal suffrage. But more important than these was the economic organization of the world and the way human labor was organized to satisfy human needs. For Du Bois, this second concern was so fundamental that all other questions of power and human happiness depended upon it. Regarding philanthropy, socialism, and the attempt to realize socialism through communism, his position was “It is immaterial whether or not you like or accept socialism or communism … you may not like these but facing the problem that they try to solve is inescapable.”
20 Du Bois isolated in his later years, earned the criticism of orthodox communists for his insistence on employing Marxist theory in a highly race-conscious way. The NAACP did not defend him from McCarthyism and the reactionary side of the US government charged him with subversion. A victim of anticommunism, Du Bois stood against the tide. In understanding the war machine of capitalism, its impact on the colored people of the world, and the reactionary response to the New Deal, he appeared to overlook the "the brutality and failures and tyranny central to Stalinism and Maoism” (Porter).
21 In a 1960 speech to the Wisconsin Socialist Club, “Socialism and the American Negro,” Du Bois recognized that the American Negro was not socialist. What was wanted was education, opportunity, decent wages and a decent standard of life. But racism created a handicap and segregation a divide, that American capitalism did not respond to. Instead he suggested socialism, not a compulsory socialism, but rather a socialism that maintained culture and got rid of poverty. I suspect he envisioned an FDR style of government intervention that included sponsorship of consumer cooperation with direct support in urban and rural black communities.
22 As early as 1950, Du Bois voice was coming to be ignored. The alienation started in 1950 with his electoral loss on the American Labor Party ticket. It worsened in 1951 with a highly public trial in which he was accused of being a "foreign agent". In 1959 he visited the Soviet Union and China and was impressed with the communist attempt to deal with race. As he leaned left, the nation in which he resided shifted sharply to the right. Du Bois found himself increasingly isolated. The Communists and Kwame Nkrumah the Pan Africanist stood by his side. In 1960, as President Nkrumah’s guest, W.E.B. Du Bois and his wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois, found their eventual home in Accra, Ghana. In 1961 while in Ghana, and as a final act of defiance, Du Bois joined the Communist Party (Horne 1986, 2010).