How the Socialism of W. E. B. Du Bois Still Matters: Black Socialism in The Quest of the Silver Fleece-and Beyond
The following essay both describes the early development of Du Bois's socialism and analyzes the significance of that development. We find three ramifications especially for interpretations of Du Bois and, by extension, for an understanding of African American socialism. First, an early date prevents Du Bois's radical social democracy from being dismissed as an idiosyncracy of his elder years: instead of being the product of his marginalization by the civil rights establishment, Du Bois's socialism was cultivated and maintained during the period when he was the most visible and influential of black Americans, and it was articulated in the pages of the Crisis whereby it reached tens of thousands of NAACP members. An earlier emergence of Du Bois's socialism thus places social democracy closer to the center of African American politics than has usually been supposed. Second, an early date for Du Bois's socialism counteracts the impression that it was unduly influenced by models ill-suited to black America, particularly the supposedly "color-blind" socialism of the Second Internationale. Therefore, although American socialists of this period were seldom able to recognize fully the theoretical contributions being made by Du Bois and other black socialists, those contributions stand, in retrospect, as vital and original developments in American socialism. Moreover, our understanding of Du Boisian socialism has a third important implication, for it helps disentangle Du Bois's socialism from the influence of the Comintern, thereby facilitating a proper emphasis not only on the independence of Du Boisian black socialism but also on Du Bois's commitment to democratic and nonviolent means to achieve social democratic ends.
The battle is scarcely even begun": The Quest of the Silver Fleece and Black Socialism Before the NAACP
In speaking of socialism during the Progressive Era, we agree with Adolph Reed, Jr., that the central term in question must be clearly specified. After all, "socialism" enjoyed such wide cultural currency that it was "identified variously with support of trusts, public ownership of utilities, corporate regulation, municipal reform, trade unionism, industrial unionism, or any of a myriad of other social and economic policies" (Reed 83). And indeed, the earliest references to socialism to be found in Du Bois's writings do not indicate commitment to any particular political program. They do, however, begin to set Du Bois apart from the more conservative exponents of collectivist ideas, insofar as he saw collectivism as a means to a more equal distribution of wealth as opposed to merely an efficient method for organizing an unruly public.2 So, for example, in a 1904 letter to Isaac Rubinow, a Socialist party member, Du Bois indicated that he did not call himself a socialist but that he did share the fundamental convictions of the Social Democrats he had met in Germany, convictions about the equitable distribution of wealth and public ownership of industry (letter to Rubinow).3 By 1908, Du Bois's reasons for endorsing William Jennings Bryan show not only an interest in egalitarian and anticapitalist ideals but also an analysis of those ideals in terms of their impact on black America. Whereas the Republicans offered political patronage, Du Bois argued in the Horizon, the Democrats under Bryan were anti-imperialists, opponents of corporate wealth that held in its "crushing grasp" "no group of Americans . . . more than Negroes," and implacable foes of the southern Bourbons by virtue of their "radical socialistic Democracy"
(Writings in Periodicals 63, 70).
The fullest expression of Du Bois's early socialism comes, however, not in his nonfiction prose but in his first novel, his 1911 romance the Quest of the Silver Fleece, which offers both a specifically socialist critique of US economics and an alternative economic model originating in cooperative, southern black folkways. Without this novel, we might be inclined to concur with Reed that Du Bois's socialism around 1910 amounts to little more than a specimen of a broadly collectivist Zeitgeist, not distinguishable in any significant way from the conservative, technocratic socialism of soon-to-be fellow NAACP board members Mary White Ovington, Charles Edward Russell, or William English Walling (83).
Given the prominence that these socialists have in various accounts of Du Bois's socialism, not only the novel's portrayal of socialism grounded in African American folk culture but also its completion prior to Du Bois's arrival at the NAACP are critical. For Rampersad, Marable, Moses, and Reed, the white socialists on the NAACP board are seen as significant influences on Du Bois's decision to join the Socialist party and on Du Bois's understanding of the movement.4 Yet the Qwesf of the Silver Fleece, while published the year Du Bois moved to New York City and began his tenure as Crisis editor, was completed before Du Bois came North: drafted by 1905, revised shortly after the publication of Du Bois's 1909 biography of John Brown, and sent to the printer prior to Du Bois's assumption of the Crisis editorship (Lewis, Biography 444).
The claim that a fictional text might be used as historical evidence of a socialist commitment might appear surprising, but both Du Bois's choice of genre and his consistent blurring of the lines between fiction and nonfiction, fantasy and polemic, amply support this method. A multi-plot novel in the American muck-raking tradition, Qwesf of the Silver Fleece joins a fiction subgenre in which virtually all of the novels are written with a definite polemical purpose: most espousing a collectivist political philosophy; many, including Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, also prescribing socialist politics as the path to cooperative economics. As such, it was a subgenre well suited to Du Bois's political-artistic aims. At the height of the Harlem Renaissance, he once proclaimed: "I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda" ("Criteria").
Though one might imagine fictional art to be merely a provisional trying out of alternative realities, Quest of the Silver Fleece constitutes a definite, socialist remedy for socioeconomic ills, coming from the pen of a writer whose fiction like the rest of his writing was meant to be politically purposive.
Within the anticapitalist muck-raking tradition, Du Bois's Quest extends the range of the subgenre from the usual topics-industrial exploitation, white slavery, northern metropolitan politics-to a white-on-black and southern nexus, including such topics as the exploitation of black sharecroppers and poor whites in the South, the combination of northern finance and the southern plantocracy, and the corruption of patronage politics in Washington, DC. In the economically resurgent South, Du Bois insists, a critique of capitalism must also be a critique of racism, for the new North-South economic collaboration purposely divides white mill workers from black farm laborers, while black sharecroppers are kept down perpetually by a narrowing, near-monopoly control over the cotton market. The collaboration is symbolized in the novel through a double romance intertwining two families: the southern Cresswells, who provide land, pedigree, and moral degeneration; the northern Taylors, who provide capital, self-serving philanthropy, New England scruples in small matters and Wall Street ruthlessness in large ones.
While the white, upper-class...